"Miss Direction," April 23rd, 2016, Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn, running time: 01:09:33.
Matt Freedman: Before we start, I just want to mention that we lost a friend of our community yesterday. Nade Haley died. A beautiful,generous, curious, elegant person. She had a sense of humor too, I hope. A friend of hers posted a--I never get her glasses right—note by her Buddhist nun teacher Pema Chödrön, who wrote, “We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.” This is either an old Jewish saying or a version of the American Duct Tape Company’s slogan: ‘Since all solutions are temporary, use duct tape.” It's also the second night of Passover, so thanks for coming out.
Last month we were up against Easter, which didn't seem to have had as big effect as the second night of Passover on everybody, but that's why we have our thematized drinks. The Manischewitz Spritzer. I hope you all have one. I can say the blessing. Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam borei p’ri hagafen. .Spritzer. So now you're all either Jewish or Catholic. Anybody want this? You can drink this Tim. I’ve got to stay straight. It's not a Drunken Pharaoh or the Eight Days, but there's apparently a whole genre of cocktail is based on Manischewitz. Yeah. Right. I've been trying to be more concise, to tighten up the show, but especially in the project today, which is about the problem of concision and the problem of edges and things that are real and not real. I’m thinking about that quote from Chödrön-- and the fact that we're in a Kate Teale’s beautiful exhibition. In the corner, you can see if I can do this, here is a trompe l’oeil rendering of a house room that seems to be coming at you occupying space that's not really there, is as a part of our subject today as in fact, Passover itself. I like the contrarian position that many archeologists have recently presented that Passover didn't really happen as we celebrate it and that Seders as an exodus from slavery get the history wrong. There's seems to be very little evidence that there were actually Jews in Egypt as slaves. In fact, the pyramid workers seem to have spent a lot of time eating lots of beef in the worker's quarters. The explanation for why this story of flight and conquest came down is because there's been a kind of inversion in the rules of legitimacy of occupancy of territory. Today we think that if you were here first, you get to stay; it's yours, but at the time that these stories were being concocted you won the right of legitimacy by armed conflict. Oh yeah, I forgot. You’ve got to play the drums. We've reached that point… I know these are good stories, but you were going to introduce them. Yeah, well, we were trying to say something about Nade and then we forgot to have our regular start. So, what I was saying was instead of being in Palestine first, the Jews preferred to believe they were there by power of arms. And so the story of the Passover Exodus was that God himself saw to the Jews’ passage from Egypt into this new territory and their conquest of the local tribes was not simply because they had gotten there first, but because they were stronger and endowed by some divine legitimacy, which is kind a nice I guess. But, back to this problem of trompe l’oeil and painting, Trompe l’oeil has been around ever since art was considered a craft. There is a famous story by Pliny; Zeuxis ---I always get the emphasis on the wrong syllable—and Parrhasius, the two great painters of their time, held a competition to see who has a greater painter. Zeuxis painted a bunch of succulent grapes that were so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them. When it was Parrhasius’ turn he presented Zeuxis with a canvas cloaked in a curtain. And Zeuxis actually reached out to part the curtain only to discover that the painting of the curtain was the painting. And so Parrhasius was considered the winner, because Zeuxis had only fooled the birds while Parrhasius had fooled Zeuxis. Zeuxis was also famous for creating the idea of the composite beautiful figure. He was supposed to paint a picture of Helen of Troy, but since no woman was beautiful enough to have launched a thousand ships, he had five models, each with a different ideal characteristic, pose for him and he then put them all together, and the idea of art as a window into perfection took root. During the Baroque scientific explanations for perception began to become popular, after the discoveries of the Renaissance, that art provided an Albertian Window into reality, had in turn set aside the notion that somehow pictures could show a reality beyond the real into vast areas of space and conceptual time. They had opened up these ecclesiastical spaces by virtue of the skills of the practitioner- I'm trying to make a little angel floating in the middle of some kind of apse here, but if you're only 10 foot up, you see forever and ever by the 19th century, Trompe l’oeil become kind of a kitsch form. William Hartnett paintings of violins so realistic that people would reach out to touch them became kind of the norm. These paintings were heavily hyped in the newspapers of the time, almost to the point of a non-credibility. There were stories about, well, there's one famous story that takes involves a panoramic painting. Those are 360-degree paintings, that were the high-tech movie spectaculars of their time. You'd walk inside and you'd be surrounded by a full-scale image of usually a battle of some kind that was so realistic that you would feel like you were transported to that place, a kind of early virtual reality. In 1901, there was a story in the paper about an old veteran of the Confederate Army who went to see a panoramic painting, I believe of the Battle of Fredericksburg, showing General Sedgwick leading his Union forces. The old man had what we would now call a post-traumatic stress reaction. He pulled out his gun and began firing at the panorama. He had to be wrestled to the ground. He claimed that a combination of the imagery and the “heat” in his head caused him to believe he was back in the battle again. This was widely publicized. I think once they patched up the holes in the panorama the story did wonders for the gate at subsequent exhibitions. I believe that my early interest in the misdirection inherent in drawing was actually a fascination with the way an evolving drawing synthesized technical questions of representation with idea of magic. I never had the temperament to learn how to do magic or anything that involved delayed gratification, but I did like how-to drawing manuals. You remember those books of deconstructed drawings? This is a diagram showing how to draw a magician with his mustachios and his killer stare. When you turn it upside down, the magician becomes a rabbit. See, a rabbit being pulled out of a hat? I thought that was pretty cool. And then, more recently--I need to put this on--my friend Scott, a magician who calls himself The Magic Depressive, told me about some magic props that require almost no skill. Let me see if I can perform this. These are now called Magic Coloring Books, but their classic name is a Blow Book. You say, “This book is blank, please blow on it. Just blow. Thank you.” It's hard with the thumb. Okay, there we go. Look at that! Don't humor me. And then you blow on it again. I'll say, “Let's fill it in with color.” Tada! And now, Boom! It's gone.
Those books apparently go back hundreds and hundreds of years. There was a scientist, a polymath named Gerolamo Cardano, who made early contributions to all kinds of number theory; negative numbers and oddly enough, imaginary numbers. but he also wrote a book in which he describes these
blow books because he was interested--this is in the 16th century--in the fact that things that seemed anomalous, that seemed to be contrary to our senses, were not the work of supernatural forces, but of human ingenuity. This book was an attempt at demystifying the world. Other books followed closely thereafter. The Art of Juggling or Legerdemaine-- juggling was another term for magic--- by Samuel Rid; Hocus Pocus, Junior; The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by a man named, I think, Reginald Scott. He wrote this book because he was particularly interested in proving that witches didn’t exist. He was a member of a sect called the Familia Caritatis, which translates into English as the Family of Love. It
was a group of intellectuals and artists who didn't believe in the dogmatic rules of the Catholic Church, although they were believers. They were sort of the hipsters of their time. Pieter Bruegel may have been one and for some reason it's known that the Lion Keeper at the Tower of London was a member of the sect---I don't know why that appeals to me. It's one of those little facts which may or may not be true that comes down through history.
Shakespeare-today is the 400th birthday of his death-by the way, used these books to get the information he needed for the witches in Macbeth, so we have them to thank for that. “Hocus pocus,” much like Baruch ata Adonai, are magic words. They come either from the name of a magician of the time or Dog Latin. Hocus pocus means, “this is my body,” just as Abracadabra, I think, is from the Arabic for “from my words, I create reality.” They was first found on an amulet; Abra ca dabra. You drop off a word and till you comes down to “a”, and you wear this around your neck to ward off the plague. All right, so we're picking up with the show game and three card Monte. My friend Paul, who's here, has an interesting connection to that game. His father who we all agree, had an uncanny resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield. Literally to the point that he was mistaken for Rodney Dangerfield, am I right? And in fact signed autographs as Rodney Dangerfield and I believe once was the Grand Marshall of a parade in a small town as Rodney Dangerfield. I made that up? I don't know. The instability of truth is another one of our themes, and the vagaries of memory. Anyway, I do remember that he was was the boxing heavyweight boxing champion of the naval fleet, was it a fleet or an army or what was it? The boxing thing? College? Ok, he was a college boxing champion, except when Paul looked it up, there was no record of his dad being the collegiate champion of anything. Paul asked him to explain, and he said, “Oh, right. Well, what happened was at the end of the fight, which I won, the referee inadvertently raised the wrong man’s hand and he was instantly put into the record book. But that wasn't the way it ended.”
So he was a character. One of the things that he did with his unassuming looks was work as a shill for Three Card Monte hustlers on Canal Street. He would be the guy who would point out the right card to the rubes in the crowd. Once they saw that he could beat the system, then they would try to win as
well. But of course, they would lose. He was actually a very good card player. One of my favorite stories that Paul tells us is that for a long time they lived in Westport, Connecticut and his father took a commuter train in the morning to New York, playing and winning high stakes or low stakes poker games on the train. But at some point, Paul's father and mother divorced and his father moved back into the city, but he'd get up early in the morning and take a train out to Westport so he could commute back with all the bad card players in the morning and support himself. Paul also tells a interesting story about a ocean liner trip acrossthe Atlantic. I guess Paul's father didn't like flying and so they were taking a ship to Europe for some job and he amused himself by hustling Ping Pong games in the boat’s recreational area. He not only looked like Rodney Dangerfield, but he was enormous, a 300-pound man. And so all these guys would come in and they’d play a ping pong game or two with him and he
would lure them in by playing badly, but then eventually beat the pants off them. His specialty was setting up beer bottles, which I guess they'd all been consuming, on the ping pong table
in order to handicap himself, but then bouncing the balls cleverly off of the bottles to win the game.
He was making good money on the boat, except fortunately or unfortunately for him also on the boat going over was Dizzy Gillespie and his band, who are playing in whatever nightclub they had on board. Every night after they were through playing, Paul's father would play poker with Dizzy Gillespie's band who collectively took him for all he was worth because it's hard to beat the band. Once he got to Europe he had to figure out a way to recoup those losses. That image of the ping pong table covered with bottles came back to me recently when I was looking at a book by Ricky Jay about anomalies, sideshow freaks and all sorts of other sharpers, and I came across an image of a man called Mateus, or Matthew, Buchinger, who lived in Germany in the 18th century. He was renowned for a number of skills, one of which was that he could roll a ball across a field with such skill that he could hit a bottle on which a wineglass was balanced so cleanly that the glass would settle neatly onto the grass without spillinga drop.
Buchinger was also an expert marksman. He could hit a playing card edgewise, I believe, with a pistol, and the pistols they had back then weren't very accurate. He could do all the kind of proto Three Card Monte ball and cup tricks that we've been talking about with some skill. He could play numerous musical instruments. He had 14 children by four different wives and was supposed to have had about 70 different mistresses. And he was a master of micro calligraphy. There's a self-portrait he made in which he is wearing one of the big wigs of the time and his name or-- I guess it's the Lord's Prayer or various psalms—is written in this microscopic script to represent the individual hairs on the wig. A show of his work that Ricky Jay had collected just came down at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You were given a magnifying glass so you could inspect the wig and see the tiny words Now, this is all interesting. What was most compelling about all this is that Mathias Buchinger was 29 inches tall and was born without any legs or arms, or at least he had just teeny little flippers of some sort. He was billed as The Little Man of Nuremberg, which is where he came from. He would travel around Europe and England, displaying himself and performing these amazing skills. My friend Scott went to see the show. I didn't go and that bothered me until I asked Scott what it was like, and he said the thing that I suspected, sort of, which was that while it was all pretty amazing, you were left a little at sea. “You were looking at everything,” he said, “and you're thinking, ’he did it with his flippers’ and you know, maybe that it was about it.” The appeal of Buchinger’s achievements seemed to be something, at least in my mind, inseparably linked to their freakishness and strangeness. The idea that these things could be done at all was more compelling than what was there to see. And I feel maybe that's why I didn't go, because I preferred to imagine that it was just as incredible as it was promoted to be, and not risk disappointment. It's similar to the way that 19th century exhibitions of trompe l’oeil paintings were
enthusiastically discussed in newspaper stories, creating excitement about something which may or may not have actually lived up to the excitement itself. We want things to be beautiful and perfect, even if they're not and are simply strange. Buchinger was part of a tradition of exhibitors of that time. People would go see these strange fellows who are born with challenges that they had overcome. He was a remarkable character in that he lived this very full life despite his unusual circumstances.
Buchinger connects to a book that Tim gave me written by a detective who was called the Sherlock Holmes of Chicago. This guy’s specialty was uncovering all kinds of scams and hustles and bamboozlements in the underworld in Chicago. He published this book, a collection of interesting stories about card sharps and dice hustlers. The chapter that has the most vitriol in it concerns the scams against shut-ins, cripples and invalids. The idea is that the other hustlers were potentially honorable, because they were risking their skin out there in the world. They were confronting their victims, risking being beaten up or thrown into jail or worse. But an invalid victim was a different matter. The writer noted, “Honest men and manly rogues look down on these. These are like the most nefarious snake-like creatures because they prey on cripples, and unwed mothers and all the people who can't fend for themselves.” The most famous scam that they would perpetuate was the
handwriting scam. They would send letters to shut-ins--I don't know how they would identify shut-ins, but somehow, they did. I don't know how they knew where the shut-ins were. Anyway, they would send them a letter from a fake firm saying they needed people to handwrite copies of letters--which they
would provide to the letter writer-- because it was much more effective to get a handwritten letter at that time I guess than a typewritten letter. This was early in the 20th century and apparently a handwritten note was more compelling than a typed one. What the scammers required their marks to do was take the stationary and the pens and the ink they would supply along with the cover letter, that they were then asked to copy over. The proposition doesn't sound very attractive by our standards. For 2000 letters they would pay $20. You could write fewer letters at the same rate. So that's like one cent a copy, I think. You could also write as many as you wanted. The “firm” just had to make sure that you weren't conning them, so they asked you to send them a dollar to cover the cost of the paper. Specifically, I guess, your dollar was their supposed assurance that you weren't just a disinterested bystander. But that was the whole con; that dollar that they got up front. As the book describes it, the victims often had to go up and down their blocks to scrape together the coins to get their dollar. Sometimes they had to go without eating. Once they had their dollar, the scammers sent their dupes the paper and the pen and the cover letter. Then they invested a great deal of energy in keeping their dollar. The whole point of the con was to keep from having to give back any part of that dollar. When they received the cover letters back from the copyists they would always find misspellings or bad punctuation or bad scalligraphy, which meant they didn’t have to pay for the copy.
They insured this would happen by creating cover letters that were full of hard to spell words. I still don't quite understand how that would work as a con, but as we all know that once you've got the money, that's 90% --that’s 100%--of the game.
What's interesting here is that, unlike most cons, which depend on getting more and more money out of the victim, this one seemed to run the other way. They got their dollar and then they fought like hell to keep that dollar. I've been scammed a few times. Probably most of us have been the first time we go to a train station and they meet somebody who needs some money to go home to see their sick parent. Once you're locked in with somebody, it's very hard to escape. The most elaborate scam that I fell for happened when we were living in Williamsburg in oneof those Artists In Residence buildings where we had to rent our own dumpster. One day our friend Judy, who had a studio in the front, came back to our space and said that somebody from the dumpster company had rung the bell and wanted to talk to the person who was responsible for the dumpster. He wanted to talk to me because I was a person who paid the dumpster company bills and collected the money from the other tenants. And so this guy comes in and started very assuredly talking to me. Apparently he’s the person who handles our building’s account that I've been communicating with ever since we’ve rented our first dumpster. And he seems to know Judy quite well-at least he knows, or recognizes her name--because he's been around the building before in his professional capacity. And then he says, “What we're trying to do now is innovate our dumpster collection business by adding a recycling system. There'll be a bin on the side and every week, instead of putting all the garbage in, you just put the cardboard on the side. The cardboard is worth something to us so we're going to reduce the amount of money that you have to pay to the dumpster company by 20 or 30 bucks a month.” And then he sort of laughs and says, “Of course, you don't have to tell anybody else about this change. You can keep the money.” I said, “Oh, I’d never do that.” And he says, “Of course you wouldn't do that. I'd never do that.” He spent another half hour in the studio playing with our dogs, telling me how to train the dogs properly. Finally, he said, “Well, I've got go.” And he says that now, because the dumpster company has to have access to the cardboard bins, they need to replace the chain and lock that we have on the dumpster with a special lock of their own. “We have a master key for our lock,” he says, “So we can get into all the dumpsters. You can either go get this lock- it's available at certain hardware stores-or I can just sell it to you for half the price.” I said, ”Oh, all right.” I mean, by this time I'd been invested so much time in the project that I couldn’t back out. I say, “I don't have the money. I think Jude does.” And I walked into the back of the studio where Jude was working and I said, “I need--I'd like to say it was $10---It was $30--how much was it? Do you remember? All right; I said, ‘I need $30 to buy a padlock for our dumpster. This is not a scam.’”
I did say that. I believe that as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I realized this is probably a scam, but I was in this elaborate social situation. I had promised to pay this man who had helped me train our dog. I had to give him the money. And besides it was Jude’s money, right, technically? So, I go back and I say, “Okay, here's the $30.” And he says, “What about the chain? You need the chain, don't you want to replace the chain?” At least I said no to the chain. The lock was fine, but the chain began to increase my suspicions. He said, “Okay, I'll go and get the padlock.” As soon as he walked out the door, I knew exactly what had happened, but he wasn't there anymore. I called the dumpster company, which I should have done the first place and asked them, “Are you recycling cardboard? The woman at the other end of the line said, “No, absolutely not.” About a year later, we had another tenant in that space and the rings again--- So everything that the man had said, beginning with Judy’s own name, that had reassured me, I realized was part of the classic con form--I’d told it to him first. He hadn’t actually said “Judy told me to talk to you.” He’d said, “Your friend said to talk to you.” And I’d said, “you mean Judy?” and he’d said, “Yes! Judy!” and I thought that meant he knew Judy, even that he and Judy were old friends. He acted from the moment that I came out to talk to him that we'd been in touch and I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t recall talking to him. And when I said, I said, how'd you know it? It was very embarrassing. Anyway, a year later, another man rings the doorbell and asked Marc, another tenant in the building, to direct him to the person in charge of the dumpster. So the new man comes into my studio and says, “I'm from the dumpster company and we have a cardboard recycling project…” I'm not a confrontational person, so. now I'm in a different kind of bind. He's talking and he's talking and he's spinning out the same story and I'm nodding and my friend Marc is there and the guy finally gets to the end of his spiel. I said, “Well, this is all very interesting, but…” I go off on the benefits of the program. I don’t know if I tortured him enough, but eventually I said, “I need to see your I.D. from the dumpster company.” He said, “Well, it's in the car and it's kind of a hassle to go get. It’s a block away.” I said, “No, I really need to see this. I'm sorry, I'm sorry. There's been things that happened.” And he blows his top. He says, “What's the world coming to? Nobody trusts anybody anymore.” I said, “I'm sorry, but I got to see the I.D.” He starts stomping his feet and he's slamming things around and he goes out the door and slams it behind him.
Marc our tenant says, “What was that”? I explained the whole history. He was sort of amazed. He gave me credit for knowing what I was doing, but I didn't really know what I was doing. In fact, the both situation were equally uncomfortable. I couldn’t tell where the cons began and where they ended. In fact, it seemed like the first guy had really enjoyed being there and just sort of tinkering, toying with me. Later someone explained to me that long slow manipulation was actually what con artists like to do; that appeal to the vanity or the penury or whatever is the weakness of their mark. And so first the earlier con artist had tried money on me and then he tried being my friend. When the second guy realized I was on to him, I couldn't tell whether he just wanted to get out of the place and he didn't want to give me the satisfaction of admitting that it was a con or, as Tim thinks, it was the last moment of the dying con and he thought there was still a chance hurt feelings were my weakness and that I might say, “oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to distrust you”, and I’d give him the money. But least he got out of the situation with his dignity. As I was trying to remember these details, I remembered another story that occurred years ago near a studio that I rented from my friend John in a scuzzy neighborhood of Chicago. One day we were driving to the studio from another part of town. We were pulling off the highway on a ramp from the Dan Ryan Expressway with a stop sign about a block from the studio. A man approached the car carrying a five-gallon gas can. He says, “I'm sorry, I hate to bother you, but I'm from Joliet downstate and I got to town last weekend and I'm out of gas and I need $5 to buy some gas so I can get home. Here's my address. Or just give me your address. I'll make good on this. It's really embarrassing because I'm an upstanding citizen.” John in the driver's seat, is looking at this guy and when he finally pauses, he says, “Hi Bill.” And the guy looks up. He's been in his own little con trance, just telling this story. Suddenly he realizes that he and John are next door neighbors. He just backs up, saying. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.” I don't know how much of this registered on John at the moment. Later I said, “Did you know that he was coming down to this corner and running this con?” John says, “No. I had no idea.” That made me worried. I can imagine that for the rest of his life, this guy is going to be known in the neighborhood for running this weird con about being an out-of-towner.
But the thing that really bothers me about the story is that I'm actually not entirely sure if I was there or not. It's one of those things where I can't remember if John told me the story and it was so appealing that I've put myself into the car with him in my imagination. I think I would remember a few more details if I had been there. Maybe John just told me this story and every time I saw Bill I had such a strong association with the elegant little catastrophe that eventually I didn't even know if I had been there or not myself. I don’t know if I saw Bill. You certainly can con yourself. I really wanted to be there because I wanted to be part of this cool story. I think it's a genetic trait. My father was the master at-- not putting himself into stories-- but at seeing what he wanted to see. He was a very smart man. That was part of his problem. He was a psychiatrist, which might've also been another part of the problem. He believed he understood people in a way that they didn't understand themselves, but he also romanticized them.
We've talked a little bit about the summer my family spent in a field years ago camping out until we were booted away by people who were spying on us pooping in the field. The reason we were in that field in those tents in the first place is that my father –my mother is here and we've been discussing this for the last two days, and I acknowledge that these are these are unstable memories, but we'll do the best we can--my father had, the summer before, walked around this island with a legendary house builder, one of these flinty old New England types who spoken monosyllables and didn't stand on ceremony. The builder had certain kinds of rules about socializing and business that charmed my father. He never brought a bill when he “came calling.” He and my father had looked at houses he had built around the township and had shaken hands and agreed that he would build a house on our empty land. My father told us, “this is how things are done in New England. We shake hands and he builds us a house and then you have a house and you pay him for it. This is how men operate.” And so, we drive out to our land the next spring and the field is empty because, as the builder told my father later, “you didn't tell me what kind of building to build and you didn't give me any money.” It is kind of inconceivable in retrospect that we could have thought that there would have been a house in this field. So we bought some tents and we're living in the tents. There's a little pond nearby and the one thing we decided we want to do was build a little dock we could jump off. My oldest brother was 13 that June. I was 12. My next brother was 10. I had a nine-year-old sister and a five-year-old brother, with various birthdays occurring throughout the summer. My big brother was a big newspaper reader and he saw in the local paper that a local hotel was selling off its old diving rafts and some other stuff because they were renovating. He tells my father and my father goes to see the owner because he's interested in the raft. My father comes back from this meeting with an elaborate story of this rapscallion who has charmed him by telling him tales of how he conned people in highway construction business for years. But he is willing to sell us these rafts for a good price and is prepared to throw in his entire motel worth of used sinks and windows and doors and tables and chairs so we can build our house ourselves. My Dad has a bad back and can't do much heavy lifting. That leaves these little boys and girl and my mom as the construction crew. He shows up, Mr. Woods, with two big trucks piled high with the rafts and tons of junk. It turns out that the trucks are too heavy to drive to the water’s edge and launch the rafts, so they dumped them in the middle of the field. And then all the other stuff was dumped in another part of the field. Then he charges my father some huge amount of money that they hadn’t fully negotiated, but that my dad was too embarrassed now not to pay. Mr. Woods drove away, and the junk stayed there all summer. The rafts are still there as a matter of fact. They've been grown over by weeds and bushes. In order to get to the pond now we have to walk around this ancient mound. Mr. Woods haunts us 50 years later. He won't go away.
Some years later my mother decided to go to space. I don't know if that decision is entirely disconnected from the raft buying activity-meaning it was part of my family’s history of dubious decision making. When I say my mother decided to go to space, I literally mean it. She applied to the Teacher in Space promotion that NASA was running at the time. The application required a lot of work, paperwork. You had to fill out forms, you had to get recommendations and so on. The story, I recall, was that she was walking to the mailbox with her application, feeling like she has done something important, feeling good. She doesn't expect to be the Teacher in Space, but still, to put your hat in the ring to be an astronaut is a pretty big deal, especially when you're teaching second grade. Wait, mom, were you teaching kindergarten then? Second grade? Second grade teacher in space. Pretty cool. But she gets mugged before she reaches the mailbox, and somebody steals her application. And then, as I recall, she had to a brother of mine to try to intercede to get the application back on track because the deadline is the next day and she's going to miss the opportunity to be a Teacher in Space. She had to call NASA up and say, “I've been mugged on the way to the postbox and I need a special dispensation to get another application.”
I’ve run out of ink here.
Apparently, that's not quite what happened, but she was mugged on the way to the post office box and she did have to call whoever was in Springfield at the State Capitol or at NASA to get special consideration. They had to send the form back out again. Then sometime later for some reason--this is I guess the true story---Time Magazine was writing a story on student scams; how students get out of homework and things like that. At the end of the story, as a sort of “Man Bites Dog” twist-a- roo, they say, “Of course, it's not always the students who do this. There was a teacher who was applying to the Teacher in Space program who wanted extra time because she claimed to have been mugged on the way to the post office box.” And so, I mean, we're very happy that in the end mom did get her application in, but that she was not selected to be the teacher on the poor Challenger that went up in smoke.
Sometimes these misleading stories become true simply through sheer force of will. I'm going to try and tell this story somewhat quickly. There was a Chilean diver named Chris Lee, who participated in the 1976 Olympics in platform diving and finished well down in the ranks in the order of finish. But in 1976, in Montreal-- the Canadian Games-- the Canadians in their infinite wisdom decided that just having three prizes for the top three winners was not fair. So they created what they called the Participation Medal, which was cast in aluminum. I have a copy here. It says on the front, “Tout de Meme;” “Everybody is the Same,” and it has children as the personifications of the different continents. And on the back is the moon. And it says “Montreal, 1976.” I think the moon is there to show that we have transcended nationalistic world barriers. Anyway, their plan was to hand out Participation Medals to all the non-winners, starting with Platform Diving, the first event of the 1976 Games. Avery Brundage, the reactionary, Nazi sympathizing head of the IOC, was so offended by this that he literally rushed to the stage and confiscated all of the Participation Medals they had given to the losing platform divers and had them melted down at the foundry before they could sully the Olympic Spirit. But Chris Lee made off with a medal and eventually became a performance artist and long after that made this medal available to Cabinet Magazine, a wonderful arts ad literature magazine that we all know and love, for its issue on losers. We made a copy of it and for a small fee you were able to purchase your own Participation Medal. Of course, that whole story is false. It's not true. Is it a scam? I provided it for your entertainment. There was never was a diver named---well, I couldn't say never--Chris Lee. There was never a Participation Medal But, I don't know, I provided an untruth for your entertainment.
I had a student, John, who was legitimately an Olympic athlete. He'd been the stroke-that’s the main person at the back of a rowing shell, in the 1992 Olympic Games. His USA boat was supposed to win the gold medal, but instead they came in fourth, which is the worst place to come in. You’re just out of the medals. You could have won, maybe you should have won, but you didn't win. For the launch of a Cabinet Magazine issue on Losers, we convinced John to call his mother and have her send him all his Olympic paraphernalia, and we got dressed up in his boater hat and his coats and everything. And then we played the Star-Spangled Banner and we awarded him a Participation Medal for the 1992 Games. He had invited all his friends from the Olympic movement. I don't know if they were on his boat, but all these jocks showed up and they could not understand what was going on. They probably sympathized with Avery Brundage. We gave John flowers and a Participation Medal, so in effect the con came true, I think. John was a rower and I was intrigued because I had rowed in college too. It was not really where I should have been. Everybody on the crew had names like Saltonstall or Hathaway or the names of oil companies. They were nice enough people, but I never quite fit in. I did become friends though, with a family of similarly situated people, the Webbs. Once I visited this family’s weekend house and there were these pictures of the family men who had rowed for Harvard, these huge handsome men. I remember asking when the pictures were taken because you couldn't tell the era from ant visual evidence. One was the father, one was the grandfather, one was a brother. It's like for 150 years, these men looked almost exactly the same because rowing uniforms haven't changed since about 1850.
I guess I'd have to say I felt as if I was in a completely different world when I was with the Webbs than the one I belonged in. Not only with the father’s side of the family, with all the manly rowers, but also with the mother’s. I met the grandfather, a man named Royce as in--in my imagination--Rolls Royce, who was a hawk-like figure. He had an amazing life that he wanted somebody to a record. As soon as he met me, he began telling me his story. As a young man he had been a fighter pilot in World War I. He flew Spads, and then in World War II he'd been a commando. He had parachuted onto a Greek island, maybe it was Crete, and he led commando raids and all sorts of insurgencies during the German occupation. He told some very strange stories about how they would be up in the hills hiding in the trees and the German infantry would walk up the hills hooting and hollering and making as much noise as they could because the idea is that neither side really wanting to fight each other. It was sort of like when you go into grizzly bear territory you wear a bell and you make lots of noise because the last thing you want to do is surprise your enemy and have to have a fight. I never wrote the story of Royce, but I stayed friends with the family over the years. Later I heard that long after he had died the phone had rung in his daughter's house and a man said to her, “My name is Joe Silverstein and I'm Royce's cousin and I'm writing a family history and I just want to fix some details” She told him that he had the wrong number, but he persisted, and it turns out he was right; Royce was a Silverstein, The fact that nobody could ever find any record of a fighter pilot named Royce was because the fighter pilot was named Silverstein. Sometime between World War One and World War Two, Jewish Silverstein turned himself into WASPy Royce, stopped seeing his old relatives and continued to lead a very interesting life, the one he wanted me or somebody else to write about, but he was never revealed to anybody, except presumably his own wife, that he was passing himself off as a WASP par excellence.
His daughter felt bad because she felt she had been misled by her own father. The grandchildren from my generation just thought it was amusing. His great grandson, who became a journalist, and I think will up writing the story himself, apparently felt kind of bad because he said, “all my life, I've been the only smart WASPy kid among all my Jewish friends and now I'm just another Jew.” The story about the non-shooting in Crete, was interesting because if you remember Sedgwick, the general from early on who was in the panorama that caused the old rebel to freak out and fire his gun, was himself a character worth noting, mostly because of his last moments. The picture of him in that you see posted by his online biography is interesting because it's a pretty conventional photograph of a Civil War general, except he seems to--if you looked at his eyes--there seems to be a twinkle in his eyes. He seems to be smiling, though may just be because he has enormous mustaches that curve up. But it turns out he really was a kind of a friendly fellow and he was knownfor joking around.
At the Battle of Spotsylvania, he was setting up his men on a ridge about a thousand yards away from the enemy. Every so often a speculative shot would come from the rebel ranks. The men would hear a whining sound to the air and they would throw themselves to the ground. Sedgwick, this man had been in the army for 30 years, kept pulling them up, saying, “You're embarrassing yourself! You cannot dive away from a bullet.” And the man he was berating would say he couldn’t help himself. At some point Sedgwick said, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn't hit an elephant from here.” And those were his last words because at that moment he got shot. As this story was told by his lieutenant, he described Sedgwick rallying the troops and repeating this line over and over again, “They can't hit an elephant!” in the midst of the whining sounds of flying bullets and people diving and him turning and then finally this last one, this whining sound of the bullet. And then the lieutenant looks at Sedgewick and Sedgwick turns to him and the lieutenant sees this terrible wound under Sedgwick’s eye and he falls into his aide’s arms and he's dead. There's a statue of Sedgwick at West Point. Apparently he's wearing a spurs with little rowels, those little spikes on them. If you get dressed in your full cadet uniform at midnight and you go down there and you spin the rowels and you run home before his ghost can catch you, you'll pass the exam you have the next day. If his ghost catches you, you'll fail the exam, which seems to sort of like an anticlimax. That moment, that long moment of the bullet rushing towards Sedgwick, reminded me a Borges story, The Secret Miracle. Borges is interesting because he's a writer who employs the techniques of tromp l’oeil, the illusion of time, compression of time and space into impossible spaces in a way that's credible, but this story is particularly interesting. It's about a man who is a writer, I believe in Prague in 1939. The Nazis invade and he's arrested for prior work and condemned to death by firing squad in 10 days. He spends those days in this sort of state of suspended animation. He considers himself immortal for this period, but also dead at the same time. His main regret, Borges writes, is that he has not finished this elaborate play in verse that he's composed about a nobleman who is bothered by all these people seeking his attention, particularly by a man, once the suitor of the nobleman’s fiancée, who has lost his mind and now believes that he is the nobleman.
As the play is supposed to unfold, time begins to repeat itself, back and forth and the noblemen begins to realize that he is in fact the figment of the madman’s imagination, so he's a man who has imagined himself. It’ one of those Borgesian triple flip stories. Borges actually starts making fun of the hero of the story for his work, but he says he's clear about the earnestness of the writer wanting to complete the play. The night before he is supposed to be executed, he has a dream that he is able to ask God for a year of time to complete the play. That's all he wants to do. The next morning he's taken out to be executed at nine in the morning and he gets to the yard at a quarter to nine and, being good Germans, they have to wait 15 minutes to shoot him. He sits on a pile of wood and they gave him a cigarette to smoke. And he smokes the cigarette and then it becomes time. And they put him up against the wall and they aim their guns at him. As they are about to say, “Fire“, time stops. Stagecraft. He realizes that he's been granted this year to work during the interval between the bullets leaving the guns and hitting him. He goes through the entire play word by word and he makes all corrections he needs. Finally, he is at the last word. He is trying to decide the last thing that his character will say. He begins to cry out the word, but then time begins again, and the bullets hit him, and he falls down dead That story is eerily similar to an Ambrose Bierce story that we talked about before; An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, in which a man is in the Civil War is being executed by hanging for some minor trespass by being pushed off a bridge with a rope around his neck. The rope snaps and he is able to escape and race to his family to see his wife and children. And just as he reaches them, his head snaps back and he dies, because all this transpired in the moment between the drop from the bridge and his death.
Sedgwick. Sedgwick. You might recognize the name. I told you I have a lot to cover--I have to try and get through this fast. Sedgewick was a great great uncle, or at least a distant relative, of Edie Sedgwick, the Warhol It Girl, but he also gave his name to an obscure but curious man named Ernst Sedgwick Hanfstaengl, whose mother was a Sedgwick, but whose father was a Austrian art publisher. And he grew up between these two worlds. Half European Aryan American half WASP. He went to Harvard and was known as a friendly fellow who wrote fight songs for the Harvard football team. He graduated in 1909 and moved to New York. His whole life he was a bit of a Zelig character, a kind of WASP Zelig. He knew Teddy Roosevelt and he knew Franklin Roosevelt. And most strangely, he moved the art scene and he and Djuna Barnes were going to be married and he in fact broke Djuna Barnes’ heart by telling her that he needed to marry a good German woman. So she had to go write Nightwood and to be Djuna Barnes. He moves to Europe, to Austria, and maybe then Germany. He’s contacted in the 1920s, I believe, by a Harvard friend who's working in the American embassy to use his knowledge of all things German to see what's going on with this rabble rouser Adolph Hitler, who's causing trouble with speeches around the city. But he becomes completely besotted with Hitler and they become friends. Hitler even becomes godfather to his son.
Apparently, his wife at the time convinced Hitler not to commit suicide when the beer hall putsch failed. Eventually there is a falling out between him and the people around Hitler’s inner circle, specifically with Goebbels and the Mitford sisters. Then he gets Hitler himself mad at him when he questions the fighting spirit of the German soldiers at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Hanfstaengl receives a call from one of Goebbels’ assistants who tells him he's going to have to complete a secret mission for Hitler. He's going to have to get into a plane and fly from Berlin to Spain and parachute into Spain to make contact with Franco’s Nationalist forces to coordinate some activity. He doesn't want to do this. He's not a fighter, but he has his fancy uniforms. They put him in the plane and they fly him from Germany to Spain. And then the pilots turns around and says, “I'm sorry, the plans have changed. You have to parachute here into the Republican side.“ This means certain death. Hanfstaengl freaks out and he makes the pilot land the plane and he runs away. It turns out this is Adolf Hitler's idea of a prank. The plane has actually been flying over Berlin the whole time. Hitler wanted to teach him a lesson about fighting spirit, I think, but Hanfstaengl runs away. He goes to Switzerland and he spills his guts. Eventually he tells them everything he knows about Hitler. He goes on to live a long, not entirely admirable life. The last thing he does, I believe, is attend 65th reunion of his class at Harvard and he teaches the marching band all the fight songs he wrote. The odd thing is that those fight songs that he wrote for the Harvard football team he then translated into marching songs for the Brown Shirts and Hitler Youth. And the “Sieg Heil” chant, according to him, was a version of the Harvard football cheer. But none of that came up in the discussions at the 65th reunion the graduation. He died a year later.
You might've seen the obituary of Frederick Mayer who died at 94 just recently. He a Jewish refugee from Germany who did parachute into Innsbruck, landed on a glacier, and was instrumental in coordinating resistance to the Nazis and then went on to live a perfectly normal life as a power plant inspector before dying at 94 last week. He lived without apparently what friends called a “fear gene.” So I'm just saying, it is possible to parachute behind enemy lines. More to Hitler's taste was a man named Otto Skorzeny, a dashing scar faced commando in the SS who was an engineer by training, but who was most famous during the war for overseeing the rescue of Mussolini after he had been captured by partisans and flown into a mountaintop area. Skorzeny engineered a daring rescue by glider that earned him Hitler's admiration, but after the war put him on numerous deaths lists. He managed to escape, perhaps with the aid of American agents or other SS members who dressed up in American uniforms who got him out of prison. He went to Spain where Franco was still in power and he lived in a pretty nice life. Married the daughter of the finance director of the Nazi party, wrote a book about his adventures that became a bestseller. He was probably the model for Ernst Blofeld when Ian Fleming wrote the Bond books. Fleming’s original Blofeld character, unlike bald Donald Pleasence’s scar faced movie version, looked almost exactly like Skorzeny and was involved in all sorts of international operations to try to rescue Nazis. When Mike Myers created Dr Evil based on the Pleasence Blofield version of Skorzeny, that was a sort of secondary imitation. Skorzeny, as I said, was living in a villa in Spai, with his wife, and they were in a nightclub when these two attractive young Germans come in soaking wet from the rain, their car having been totaled in a wreck outside. They sit down with the older couple and they begin talking and drinking and becoming more and more friendly. Finally, Skorzeny and his wife invite the couple back to their house and, just as things are getting a little bit kinky, he pulls out a gun and he says, “I know who you are, but I have to drop on you. You’re from the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. You're here to assassinate me, but I'm too clever for you. And they said, “Well, we are from the Mossad, but if we wanted to assassinate you, we would have already assassinated you. We actually are here to turn you. We want you to become a secret agent for Israel because you know all the German scientists who didn't go to the United States or Russia and who are now in Egypt making rockets to be shot into Israel and we can give you a lot of money.” Skorzeny says, “I don't want money. I want to be off of the Simon Wiesenthal list of people who are to be executed as ex-Nazi war criminals.” They say, “No problem,” though they had no right to say that. They actually made up a letter that they signed with Wiesenthal’s name saying Skorzeny was not going to be assassinated, which Wiesenthal didn't agree to. Skorzeny then spent the rest of his life as a good Israeli spy. I guess whoever he worked for, he did a good job. He gave them a list of the ex-Nazi scientists and he actually killed a few of them too, to show his bona fides and he lived out his life and died of cancer in about 1975, although there was a rumor that he faked his death and had his scar removed and lived for another 30 years before dying about 10 years ago at the age of one hundred. My grandfather was born in Russia in the town called Dokszyce, pronounced “dog shitsy”. He never liked to hear anyone say, “Merry Christmas.” I remember being in his house once on Christmas when somebody said, “Merry Christmas.” He got up from his chair, very upset. He said, “How can you say Merry Christmas? Thousands of Jews were murdered on Christmas!” That was the experience of the Freedmans in the Russian-Polish Pale, and all of the family that had remained behind in Dokszyce were murdered in the Holocaust.
My father, the child of this history, did not adopt the religious feelings of his pragmatic father or his rabbinical grandfather, but became a scientist I think for the same kind of religious absolutist reasons, translated into a kind of romanticism. He said he wanted to understand evil and he spent his lifetime studying extreme personalities.
I remember as a very young boy looking with my father at a World Book, a series created by the Encyclopedia Britannica for childr. When we came to a picture of Hitler for some reason my father stopped turning the pages and said, “you want to see what a real bastard looks like?” and he pointed to the picture. I was completely traumatized because, A) I didn't know what a bastard was and B) I wasn’t quite sure who Hitler was and C) I'd never seen my father upset like that and I couldn’t quite put all of this together. But the idea of a bastard--whatever that was, it must be bad--the idea of an insult like that attached to somebody who I didn't know instantly created a vision of an unstable world that I did not understand. I didn't know who this was. I didn't know why somebody who I had no contact with would be worthy of this clearly terrible insult, a curse of existential proportions. But back to the fields with the piles of junk. Now the only memory that we all to agree on is that at some point in the course of the summer four enormous posts were put into the ground and were turned into a clothesline. It was just about the only functional thing in the field. My mother wanted the line to have someplace to dry things out. When my father saw that we were not going to be able to build a house ourselves from the junk, he became very upset. He was still holding onto his vision that we would make use of all the stuff that he had bought. By the time the summer ended, he had added to the pile by buying a store window-full of wicker furniture at a very cheap price that now had be protected as well.
He conceived of a plan to turn these four posts of the` clothesline into a house, or at least a shelter for all the stuff that we had accumulated over the course of the summer. He said, “we’ll go to the lumberyard and buy wood.” What now? My younger brother Josh was a very analytical kid, even at the age of 11. “Okay,” he said, “How much do we need?” He measured the distances between the posts, then figured out how much plywood we would need to fill in the gaps in between them. My father said, “No, that's not how you do this. You just get the wood and you begin attaching the pieces to each other until you get from one post to another.” My experience of seeing my father angry was nothing compared to my brother at the age of 11 having the scarring experience of seeing his father fail to properly solve a problem he himself- josh-had figured out. At the age of 11 he was forced to realize that he was more rational than his father. But we bought the wood. This is where all of our memories diverge. My memory is that we hammered one piece of wood into one post and immediately realized there was no way we would be able to accomplish our goal of building a warehouse and we stopped working right then.
But everybody else agrees that we were a little bit more accomplished, in that we took the four by eight sheets and hammered them together. This is a crew of a 13-year old boy, a 12 year old boy, and an 11 year old boy and a nine year old and our mother. Six-year old Tom and our father, with his bad back, sat on the sidelines and supervised. So perhaps we built a box with these panels. One may have been nailed in place on the ground and then another maybe was attached to another post. And perhaps there was another wall? No one agrees. At some point I think the work stopped prematurely, but certain brothers believe that we actually achieved a cube-like construction in the middle of the field into which all of the motel junk was placed. There is also some doubt about what happened to the roof, whether there was a tarp or not. My brother Josh, who seems to have the most precise memories, claims that we built a huge square of plywood and my mother, the would-be astronaut, in a feat of superhuman strength actually pushed this eight by eight sheet of plywood up onto the roof and that somehow we nailed it all into place. Whatever happened, it was not functional. By the next summer it had all fallen apart and everything inside was a waterlogged wreck.
But the last moments of this experience we all can agree on. We had paused, either in failure or in fatigue, in the middle of this field with our construction. My father said, “I have a book to read.” And we sat down and he took out his copy of Moby Dick. And as the sun set, honest to God, he read us Moby Dick. He was a beautiful reader. That was one thing he could do well Thank you.