Upgrade Vortex

abstract black-and-white vortex

upgrade vortex, n. The hidden temporal, cognitive, and/or financial costs of getting a new electronic device (tablet, smart phone, computer, etc.).

We need a term to describe the experience of obtaining a new technological item, and then the (guaranteed but never mentioned) troubleshooting and cost that inevitably follows. I propose “upgrade vortex” — upgrade both because this is the catalyst that precipitates the condition (“I need to upgrade my smartphone”) and because spending time in this vortex is an inevitable part of getting the upgrade. I use the word vortex because the problems and tasks whirl around you, threaten to engulf you, but you can ultimately escape them. For example, with the latest iteration of your smart phone, you now need to buy a (more expensive) new plan. Or, you cannot simply transfer your old data and apps to the new tablet because first the new tablet’s system must itself be updated; so, set it up as a new tablet, install the update, and then move your old tablet’s information over. Or the set-up instructions turn out not to work, and so you end up troubleshooting its problems yourself, either via help discussion forums, or the company’s help line.  Or you realize you’ve been sent a dud, and need to return it and try again.*  And, quite possibly, all of the above. But, eventually, you leave the vortex and enjoy your new piece of technology. Hooray!

Until it’s time to upgrade again.  Then,… you re-enter the upgrade vortex.


* If anyone loved Logitech’s ultra-thin keyboard for the iPad (as I did), let me warn you against getting a Logitech ultra-thin keyboard for the iPad 2 Air… because it doesn’t work.

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Songs to Learn and Sing: Five Great Tunes for Small People

Tony Schwartz, Millions of MusiciansI think music is everything. Without music, I don’t think there’d be life; there would be no world left, then. Everybody’d be downhearted. Don’t you think so?

— unidentified plumber, on opening track of Tony Schwartz’s Millions of Musicians (1956)

Whether you have young people in your life or simply like light-hearted music, here are five songs to learn and sing. For each, I’m providing lyrics, chords, a video of me performing the song, and audio of an artist with actual musical talent performing the song. (The chords and lyrics are my transcriptions. Lower-case letter indicates minor; upper-case indicates major.) With apologies for my manifest deficiencies as a performer (yes, yes, I do plan to keep my day job), here are five fun songs, starting with the easiest to play & ending with the most challenging.

Wee Hairy Beasties, Animal Crackers (2006)1. “A Newt Called Tiny.” Not only does this song use a mere three chords (E, B, and A), but it’s also only about 17 seconds in length. Also, since this is simply a I-IV-V chord sequence, it’s easy to change keys (try it with F, C, B-flat, say). I love the song because it’s silly and is based on a pun. It sticks in your head, is easy to remember, and (perhaps, in part, because of its brevity) never gets annoying.  Well, not to me.

The lyrics: The chords:
Oh, I’ve got a newt called Tiny. E
I call him Tiny because he’s my newt. E                             B
I haven’t had him long. B
I found him in the pond, B
Breathing through exterior fronds. E
Oh, I’ve got a newt called Tiny. A                             E
I call him Tiny because he’s my newt. B                             E

Here’s the tune as performed in 2006 by the Wee Hairy Beasties, who are — or were, since I don’t know if they’re still active — Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford and Sally Timms (both of the Mekons), and Devil In A Woodpile.  They also wrote the song.

Moon Mullican, The Very Best of Moon Mullican2. “Make Friends.” Another three-chord song! Just to jazz it up a bit, I play a brief intro. & outro (modeled on Moon Mullican’s rendition), but you really only need the three chords.  Also, though I always think of this as a Moon Mullican song, its writer is Ed McGraw. You can find the tune on The Very Best of Moon Mullican.

It’s a fun song and excellent advice!

The lyrics: The chords:
Make friends with the rich, G
And make friends with the poor. C                            G
Make friends with the high, G
And make friends with the low. D
Even the little child, G
You ought to greet him with a smile. C                            G
While traveling through this world, G                            D
Try to make friends. D                            G
Make friends, make friends, G
Make friends, try to make friends. C                            G
While traveling through this world, G
Try to make friends. G                            D
Wear a smile, not a frown. G
And don’t you put your neighbor down. C                            G
While traveling through this world, G                            D
Try to make friends. D                            G
Sometimes you may be weak, G
And sometimes you may be strong. C                            G
Sometimes talked about, G
And sometimes treated wrong. D
But you just can’t miss G
If you just remember this: C                            G
While traveling through this world, G                            D
Try to make friends. D                            G
[Repeat CHORUS]
While traveling through this world, G                            D
Try to make friends. D                            G

I then play a brief outro and conclude on a G7 chord.

You’ll notice that, when I sing the song, I change “greet him with a smile” to “greet her with a smile.” I make the change because I like to sing this song to my niece.  One other thing: When the “make friends” lands on the D chord, I’ll add a D sus chord as a little “country” flourish.

To hear the song sung properly, here’s Moon Mullican’s recording (1963):

The Hoosier Hot Shots: promotional photo3. “From the Indies to the Andes in His Undies” is the first of two songs by the Hoosier Hot Shots. If you’ve never heard of them, well, perhaps you know Spike Jones and His City Slickers? The Hoosier Hot Shots were cutting novelty records before Spike Jones, and were a big influence on him and his City Slickers. The Hot Shots continued making records into the 1950s, but are (sadly) not as well remembered. In their heyday (the 1930s), however, they were popular. “Are you ready, Hezzie?” — spoken by Ken Trietsch to his brother Paul “Hezzie” Trietsch at the beginning of many a recording — even became a national catchphrase.

A bit more “advanced” than the previous two tunes, this one uses six chords. The song was written by Larry Royal, Billy Faber, and Ernie Burnett. Burnett also wrote the music for “My Melancholy Baby,” but I don’t know anything about Royal or Faber.

The lyrics: The chords:
From the Indies to the Andes in his undies, G               C
And he never took a shave except on Mondays. G               C
He didn’t eat a thing but chocolate Sundays. Bb              d
’Twas a very, very daring thing to do! G               C
And he carried for a charm a kippered herring G               C
To protect him when the tropic sun was glaring. G               C
Whoever met him thought he needed airing. Bb              d
’Twas a very, very daring thing to do! G               C
Otto Zilch, F
He’s the hero of the ages. C
Otto Zilch, D9
He will surely enter his-try’s pages. d                G
From the Indes to the Andes — what a mission! G               C
Stopping only now and then to do some fishin’. G               C
And he went without a copyright permission. Bb              d
’Twas a very, very daring thing to do! G               C
Otto Zilch, F
He’s the idol of the nation. C
He’ll be called D9
To the Senate for inves-ti-gation. d                G
And he carried for a spare a pair of panties, G               C
But they didn’t fit him well — they were his aunties’ G               C
In his undies from the Indes to the Andes — Bb              d
’Twas a very, very daring thing to do! G               C
’Twas a very, very daring thing to do! G               C

I play the final G and C at the 10th & 8th frets, respectively — using the 5th string as the tonic for the G, and the 6th string for the C.

Here’s the Hoosier Hot Shots’ recording (1939):

The Hoosier Hot Shots, The Definitive Hoosier Hot Shots Collection4. “I Like Bananas (Because They Have No Bones)” is another novelty tune from the Hoosier Hot Shots. Both of these songs have the distinction of being purely silly, and happily unimpeded by the racist or sexist “humor” that one sometimes encounters in songs of the period. The songwriter, Chris Yacich, is known primarily for this song.

We’ve more chords here, in part, because the song changes key after the introductory verse.

The lyrics: The music:
[Notes for intro:]
D F# G A F# E
D→E, D→E, D C# A
A A B F# E D
I don’t like to whistle D
Can’t blow saxophones E
I like bananas A
Because they have no bones. A                    D
Instrumental bridge:
||: C  a7  e7 G :||
I stood by the fruit store on the corner, C                     G7                   C
Just to watch a funny-looking man. C                     G7                   A7
And this is what he said. D9
I heard every word. D9
And I’ll tell you so you’ll understand. D9                    G
I don’t like your peaches. C
They are full of stones. D9
I like bananas G7
Because they have no bones. G7                    C
Don’t give me tomatoes. C
Can’t stand ice cream cones. D9
I like bananas G7
Because they have no bones. G7                    C
No matter where I go, C7→F
With Susie, Mae, or Anna. F                       C
I want the world to know: D9
I must have my banana. D9                    G7
Cabbages and onions C
Hurt my singing tones. D9
I like bananas G7
Because they have no bones. G7                    C

When I sing this song to my niece, I substitute “Emily” (her name) for “Susie, Mae” in the “With Susie, Mae, or Anna” line. So, please feel free to make substitutions for your audience.

Setting the standard for silliness, here’s the Hoosier Hot Shots’ recording (1935):

Fats Waller, The Middle Years, Part 2: 1938-19405. “You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams” is one of my all-time favorite songs. It was written by Al Hoffman, Al Goodhart, and Manny Kurtz — not famous songwriters. (Of the group, Al Hoffman might be the best known: he co-wrote “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “On the Bumpy Road to Love.”) The first recording of “You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams” that I know of is by Fats Waller, though my own rendition owes more to Peter Mulvey’s cover. The song’s music and lyrics have a Tin-Pan-Alley whimsy that I find endearing. (Wack-a-nack-sack!)

The lyrics: The music:
I’ve met some very nice people,  G (w/D, 2nd string)
Some very very very nice people.  G (w/D, 2nd string)
But you meet the nicest people in your dreams.  G7               C     D
It’s funny, but it’s true.  C       e       D
That’s where I first met you.  B       gb     e
And you’re the nicest, paradise-est thing I ever knew.  A7     D7
I’ve searched this universe over G (w/D, 2nd string)
From Wack-a-nack-sack to Dover. G (w/D, 2nd string)
And now that we have met, how sweet it seems. G       G7     C
I love you more, the more I know you C       c  <– {barre chords}
Which only goes to show you G       E7
That you meet the nicest people in your dreams. A       D       G
. [bridge] G, e, a, D
[solo, accompanied by chords of first verse]
I’ve searched the universe over G (w/D, 2nd string)
From Wack-a-nack-sack to Dover. G (w/D, 2nd string)
Now that we have met, how sweet it seems. G       G7     C
I love you more, the more I know you C       c  <– {barre chords}
Which only goes to show you G       E7
That you meet the nicest people, A       D
The very, very finest people. B       E7
Oh, you meet the nicest people in your dreams. A       D       G
. Slide D (top three strings only) up to G (seventh fret, top three strings only)

N.B.: Except for bridge, e is played at fifth fret, top three strings (4 [B] – 5 [E] – 3 [D]).  Also, gb is played at seventh fret, same configuration.

Here’s Fats Waller’s version (1939), which is a delight:

That’s all. I hope you’ve enjoyed the music and, more importantly, I hope you’re inspired to try playing these songs yourself. Look at this way: if a middling amateur like me can play these, then surely you can! As I’m sure you’ve noticed, my performances all include missed notes or a similar lyrical flub. Don’t worry about getting everything perfect. Just have fun!

And, if you don’t play an instrument, then just sing along. If you’re pursuing the sing-along option, the recordings to seek are those by the Wee Hairy Beasties, Moon Mullican, the Hoosier Hot Shots, and Fats Waller (or Peter Mulvey).

P.S. I stole (er, borrowed) the title of this blog post from Echo & The Bunnymen’s hits collection, Songs to Learn and Sing (1985).

P.P.S. Try the bananas. They have no bones in them whatsoever.

P.P.P.S. I dedicate this post to my niece, Emily, who has long known the truth about bananas.

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Created Equal: The Planned Integrated Community of Village Creek, Conn.

Village Creek: Shelley Shaw and Ellen Dewhirst, 1960For America’s Independence Day, here’s a little-known chapter in the history of American anti-racism. Following the Second World War, progressives founded a dozen planned integrated communities across the country. While working on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, I learned about one of those communities — a section of Norwalk Connecticut directly adjacent to where Johnson and Krauss lived, and where they both had several friends. Its name is Village Creek.  It was and is a fully integrated community. Here’s how it began.

In 1948, city planner Roger Willcox was looking for a home within commuting distance from New York.  He and about thirty other people, most of whom were veterans and sailors, wanted waterfront property where they could raise their families and go sailing. As Willcox recalled, when discussing the kind of community they would like to have, they decided that “one of the basic principles” was that there should be “no discrimination because of race, creed or color. The world is made of all colors, creeds, and if we’re going to build a community that we want families to grow up in, and have it recognized in the world, it ought to represent the kinds of people who live in the world.”1 In July of 1949, when they bought the land just across the creek — Village Creek — that would become the Village Creek cooperative neighborhood, they drew up a covenant prohibiting discrimination “on account of race, color, religious creed, age, sex, national origin, ancestry or physical disability.”2

Village Creek: map of lots, 1952

To ensure that it would remain an interracial community, the rules of the Village Creek Home Owners Association specified that Village Creek had to be one third black-owned and two-thirds white owned. To keep the ratio intact, anyone wishing to sell their property had to sell it back to the community. When one of the former residents told me about this ratio, I thought, “Ahh, they’re keeping it two thirds white to placate the whites in the surrounding community.” He said, no, “if we didn’t have this covenant, then if anybody wanted to sell, the real estate agents would immediately go to a black family and say you can move in here because there’s a lot of black people living here. And, of course, then it would start to become a black community. The whites would move out.” And the whole point was to keep it integrated.3

Village Creek: children playing, 1953 or 1954

At the time, integrated communities such as Village Creek were virtually unheard-of: this was the first in Connecticut, and, at the same time it was founded, across the United States veterans with similar goals were creating eleven other co-operative communities — some integrated, some simply co-operatives. Although Johnson and Krauss approved of Village Creek (and likely would have bought there if it existed when they moved to Connecticut), many Norwalk residents were suspicious. Detractors called it “Commie Creek” and claimed that the houses’ roofs were designed to guide Soviet bombers to New York City.4 But Village Creekers united against such adversity. When local banks refused to underwrite mortgages on Village Creek homes, Village Creek property owners either built their houses themselves or sought mortgages from New York City banks. When real estate agents would not show Village Creek houses to white families, Village Creekers helped sell houses by word of mouth.5

Although it was not “Commie Creek,” Village Creek did attract many progressive residents. Philip Oppenheimer, one of Village Creek’s founding members, met other founding members through their mutual support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign.6  Some other early residents included Doxey Wilkerson, African-American professor of Education and Daily Worker columnist; Frank Donner, civil liberties attorney, AFL-CIO lawyer, and active critic of Anti-Communist witch hunts; and Antonio Frasconi and Leona Pierce, artists who (along with their two children, Pablo and Miguel) would become friends of Johnson’s and Krauss’s.

Village Creek: Leona Pierce, Antonio Frasconi, Yolanda and Doxey Wilkerson, 1987

When Village Creek parents wanted to set up a cooperative nursery school for their children, they asked Norma Simon to help her do it. Norma — whose students inspired Krauss’s A Very Special House — and her husband Ed had moved up to the area in 1952. She had attended the Bank Street School, and by 1952 was teaching at the Thomas School in Rowayton. Norma Simon, with the help of her husband and Village Creek parents, transformed the basement of Martin and Sylvia Garment into the Community Cooperative Nursery School — which would become another place where Ruth Krauss would visit, talk with children, listen to children, make notes, and transform their ideas into children’s books. Founded on Bank Street principles, the Community Cooperative Nursery School was a progressive nursery school; enrolling the children of Village Creek, it had black children, white children, and children of many nationalities. Suspicious of its liberal founders, detractors dubbed it “the Little Red Schoolhouse.”7

In a way, this was hardly surprising, since such detractors also thought that all Village Creekers must be Communists, and even went so far as to say that the modern architecture of Village Creek houses were in fact signals to enemy planes. Norma, whose first children’s book (The Wet World) was published in 1954, soon discovered that her association with “the Little Red Schoolhouse” led to an unofficial blacklist: a PTA would invite her to speak, discover that she was director of the school, and, instead of accusing her directly, would then phone up to say, sorry, but the meeting had been cancelled, no need to come.8

That’s a bit of Village Creek’s early history, most of which had to be cut from my biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012). To the best of my knowledge, no one has written about these post-war utopian experiments. Here’s hoping someone reads this post and writes a full history, or a children’s book. 65 years after its founding, Village Creek is still going strong.


  1. Roger Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  2. Roger Willcox, “President’s Report: Welcome to our 50th Anniversary Celebration.” Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 1.
  3. Martin Garment, telephone interview with the author, 24 Sept. 2002.
  4. Philip Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000. p. 13.
  5. Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  6. Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 13.
  7. Norma Simon. Telephone interview with the author. 20 June 2002; Martin Garment, telephone interview, 24 Sept. 2002.
  8. Simon, telephone interview, 20 June 2002.

Further Reading

Source for photographs

Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000

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Five reasons to get One Word from Sophia

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015) was published this month. Here are for reasons you should get (buy, borrow, barter) the book for the young people in your life — or for yourself. (Grown-ups can read children’s books, too, you know.)

  1. It’s funny. Sophia wants a giraffe for her birthday. So, of course, the four adults in her life — Mother, Father, Uncle Conrad, and Grand-mamá — need to be convinced. A clever child, Sophia crafts four pleas, each tailored to the specific adult. To her mother, a judge, Sophia offers some legal arguments, including “In the last fifty years, no giraffes have been recalled for defective parts, and new models have a particularly strong safety record.” To her father, a businessman, she explains that giraffes “are a good source of manure, which can be sold at a profit to garden centers and activists. In short, people will pay me for poop.” Yasmeen Ismail’s exuberant watercolor-and-colored-pencil illustrations show both Sophia’s sincerity and the absurdity of her aspirations — but never mock her big dreams.

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015): "In short, people will pay me for poop."

  1. The book loves language. A running joke — spoiler alert — is each adult’s claim that Sophia’s argument goes on too long. Averbeck has each character deliver this verdict with a different word (“verbose,” “effusive,” “loquacious”), which the book defines in the main text and in a little glossary on the inside back cover. Also, Averbeck subtly adjusts the language so that it echoes that of the formal proposal (for Sophia) and of the specific career (for the adult). For Uncle Conrad, a politician, “Sophia polled the other members of the household” — actually her stuffed animals, Mr. Bun, Tiger Eye, Pony Boy, Snakey Poo, and Ted — so that she can report that “Four out of five respondents are in favor of giraffes.” Her mother (the judge) renders “her decision” by saying “I will have to rule against a giraffe at this time.” Juxtaposed with Ismail’s expressive characters in a bright domestic setting, the workplace language is gently amusing.

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015): "The four problems were . . ."

  1. Incidental diversity. There are far too few books like Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day — or, what I like to call “incidental diversity.” What I mean by this is that the character’s race is incidental to the story. One Word from Sophia is a great example of incidental diversity. Indeed, as my friend Michelle Martin pointed out to me, the family could either be mixed-race or a black family with a range of skin tones. This ambiguity is an additional strength (how many picture books show mixed-race families?). In an interview with Jules Danielson, Averbeck described his response to seeing Ismail’s art for the first time: “I was surprised by the multi-racial cast, because it wasn’t evident in the line sketches. But I was also completely delighted, since I actually believe that #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Plus, the multi-racial family in the book reflects my own family, to whom I’ve dedicated One Word from Sophia. I wondered how Yasmeen knew that.”
  1. Sophia is smart and determined. This — in addition to the aforementioned three reasons — is why One Word from Sophia will soon be in Emily’s Library. I want my niece to have plenty of books featuring smart, ambitious, admirable female characters. The fact that the book has a sense of humor is also welcome — since Emily has a sense of humor, too.
  1. It has already been endorsed by three of the Niblings! For all I know, Betsy, Minh, and Mitali may also like it. I haven’t asked them. But both Travis and Jules have written about it: Travis lists it first in his “Ten to Note” for the Summer of 2015. Jules both interviewed the book’s creators and posted some of Ismail’s art and sketches on her blog. And now,… I’ve devoted a blog post to the book as well. It’s one of my favorites for 2015. (Another favorite is Rowboat Watkins’ Rude Cakes, to which I’ve devoted a separate post.)
A generous tip of the hat to Michelle Martin for introducing me to this book.

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Charleston, Family History, & White Responsibility

In response to concerns expressed by some members of my family, I have removed this blog post. This marks the first time that I’ve removed or changed something for reasons other than finding an error or a typo.

This post will not reappear here.  But nor will it completely disappear.  I plan to revise and expand it, with the aim of publishing it somewhere else in the future. If I can initiate a dialogue with family members, I want also to incorporate their critique into a new and better essay.  As I said in the original piece, I refuse to deny the truths about racism’s legacy.  But I also want to do a better job at expressing those truths.

As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time (1963), white people “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (8).

[The links that accompanied the original post remain.]


Essays on the 2015 Charleston Massacre


Related posts (on this blog)

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Emmylou Listens to “Emmylou”

Emmylou Harris, receiving the Polar Music Prize. Behind her, at right of picture: Klara & Johanna Söderberg (of First Aid Kit)

Emmylou Harris has that catch in her voice. When she sings, the lyrics seem poised perfectly, uneasily, between her beautiful, glistening tone and a deep well of intense emotion — often, pain or longing. Her voice says: the world is broken, we are broken, but this music will keep us afloat… for now.

When First Aid Kit sings their song “Emmylou” to Emmylou Harris, the catch in her voice appears on her face.

It’s a lovely song. And it’s unaccountably moving to listen to the song while Emmylou Harris is also moved by the song. Perhaps the affective experiences amplify one another: Emmylou Harris’s voice is moving, the song “Emmylou” is also moving, and so watching the subject of the song be moved by the song is that much more powerful.  I think, also, that her presence in the room makes the lyrics suddenly more poignant. Of the four people named in the chorus (all of whom were friends of hers), only Emmylou Harris is alive. Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, and June Carter Cash have shuffled off this mortal coil. As she listens, I imagine she is thinking of them. That in turn brings to mind my own absent friends, which engenders empathy.

The song “Emmylou” yearns for a love that may or may not revive. First Aid Kit’s performance makes love’s absence more palpable.

I first started seriously listening to Emmylou Harris twenty years ago, when Wrecking Ball (1995) came out. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it had a scruffier production, with nice touches of ambient noise — reminiscent of his collaborations with Brian Eno on U2’s albums. So, I’ll conclude this brief post with my two favorite songs from Wrecking Ball: “Where Will I Be?” (written by Lanois) and “Deeper Well” (written by Lanois, Harris, and David Olney).

Photo credit: “Emmylou Harris Awarded Polar Music Prize,” 3NewsNZ, 11 June 2015. (First Aid Kit was performing for Harris as part of this award ceremony.)

Not a photo credit: Instead, thanks to Cecelia Tichi, who — back in 1995 — gave me a cassette with Wrecking Ball on one side and Cowgirl’s Prayer on the other. I soon went out and bought copies of both on CD.

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Maurice Sendak’s Will

Maurice Sendak, Northeast cover (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, 19 Dec. 1993)

Wills offer unique insights into people’s lives — what they value most, how they see themselves, how they hope to be remembered. Ruth Krauss left most of her estate to homeless children, a fact which floored Maurice Sendak, when I told him: she died the same year that We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, Sendak’s book about homeless children, was published. Today, on what would have been Maurice Sendak’s 87th birthday, here is his will (click for a pdf).

And here is my inevitably subjective interpretation of what this 22-page document tells us about Maurice Sendak. If the named items in his collection of manuscripts, letters, toys, and ephemera tell us which literary and cultural figures were dearest to him, then those figures are:

  • Beatrix Potter
  • Mickey Mouse
  • Herman Melville
  • Henry James
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  • James Marshall

Maurice Sendak, cover for Herman Melville's Pierre (1995)But especially Herman Melville, who is named three times. To the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Sendak gives all of his “rare edition books, including, without limitation, books written by Herman Melville and Henry James” (2), and his “collection of letters and manuscripts written by persons other than [him], including, without limitation, letters written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (also known as the Brothers Grimm) and Herman Melville; and the publishing contract for ‘Pierre’ between Herman Melville and Harper and Brothers Publisher” (3). His affection for all of these figures is well known. In 1995, he even did an illustrated edition of Pierre, dedicating the pictures “in remembrance of” his brother Jack, who died earlier that same year. What fascinates me is that he so loved the novel that he obtained a copy of Melville’s contract with Harper and Brothers.

Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "Youth is hot, and temptation strong" Sendak, Melville's Pierre: [untitled] Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "The secret is still a Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "Pierre and Isabel stood locked"

Sendak’s love for Mickey Mouse is also no secret. He named the protagonist Maurice Sendak's earliest extant drawing: Mickey Mouse (1934)of In the Night Kitchen “Mickey” after the mouse (and because “M” is Sendak’s own first initial), and painted that book’s “Mickey Oven” in the red of Mickey’s shorts and yellow of Mickey’s shoes. (Originally, he’d wanted to use an image of Mickey, but Disney refused to grant permission.) Sendak’s earliest surviving drawing (from 1934, the year he turned 6) is of Mickey Mouse. So, Mickey’s appearance in the will is more confirmation than revelation. Still, though, it is the first item he lists among those going to the Rosenbach: “Such articles of my Mickey Mouse collection as my executors, in their sole and absolute discretion shall select” (2). He then directs that “the remaining balance of [his] Mickey Mouse collection” go to the Maurice Sendak Foundation, Inc.

Maurice Sendak, detail from Mickey Oven, In the Night Kitchen (1970)

Suggesting that he wanted to help scholars study the works of those he collected, Sendak also took care to locate like materials together. When I interviewed him back in June 2001, he fretted over whether work related to his collaborations with Ruth Krauss should go with the rest of his materials or to the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where her papers are. In that conversation, he concluded that the Krauss work should go to Storrs. The will James Marshall and Maurice Sendak, Swine Lake (1999)indicates either that he changed his mind or forgot this earlier decision, but he does remember to send “all of [his] collections of books and related papers, drawings, works of art and letters created by James Marshall” to Storrs. He also gives his “two (2) walking sticks that previously belonged to Beatrix Potter and William Heelis” to the Beatrix Potter Society in London.

There’s something about these physical objects that captures the imagination — Maurice Sendak with Beatrix Potter’s walking sticks! Maurice Sendak with original letters from Mozart, Melville, and the Brothers Grimm! Maurice Sendak with vintage Mickey Mouse toys! What we collect reflects who we are. The books on the shelves, the art on the wall, and the saved childhood memorabilia all offer a glimpse into a person’s interior life. When I think of these things that were dear to him, I imagine him at home, contemplating his collection. I also wish I’d taken him up on the invitation to visit, but I was then too shy, too intimidated by the idea. (Visit the great Maurice Sendak? At his home? Me? Uh….).

Maurice Sendak's will (2011)His will suggests that, if we are to catch sight of Sendak’s inner life, we will have to glean it from his works and from the works of those he collected. The second item on the will’s first page orders the destruction of his personal papers: “I direct my executors to destroy, immediately following my death, all of my personal letters, journals and diaries” (1). As a biographer, I feel a pang of loss at this sentence — what insights these materials would have offered! But I am not writing Sendak’s biography. And whoever does will have plenty to work with. In addition to being a public figure (many interviews!), Sendak collected his non-fiction in Caldecott & Co. (1988), worked with Selma Lanes on The Art of Maurice Sendak (1980) and with Tony Kushner on The Art of Maurice Sendak Since 1980 (2003). All three of these works are partly biographical. Adding to that record, next year will mark the appearance of Peter Kunze’s Conversations with Maurice Sendak, which includes — for the first time — my 2001 interview.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)I remember Sendak once saying, somewhat ruefully, that Where the Wild Things Are would be in the first line of his obituary. He was proud of the book, but he did so much more, and hoped people would recognize his larger body of work. As if to aid in that recognition, Sendak leaves his original works in libraries where others can study them. He gives his “designs of sets and costumes for operas, plays and ballets” to the Pierpont Morgan Library (2). To the Maurice Sendak Foundation, he bequeaths “All the works of art created by me for my books and all materials related thereto, including, without limitation, manuscripts, dummies, sketches of and for my books, changes to and proof sheets for my books, and all related ephemera” (5). Indicating that Sendak wants scholars to have access, he asks that the Maurice Sendak Foundation “make arrangements with the Rosenbach Museum and Library for the display” of these items. Indeed, he specifically asks the Maurice Sendak Foundation to use his house “as a museum or similar facility, to be used by scholars, students, artists, illustrators and writers, and to be opened to the general public” (4-5).

Rolling Stone, 30. Dec. 1976: cover by Maurice SendakAs you probably already know, the question of which materials go where is the subject of a lawsuit. (The Rosenbach Museum is suing the Sendak Foundation.) I won’t speculate on that dispute here, but I will say that authors’ and artists’ legal legacies are intriguing. Since wills and lawsuits are a matter of public record, they’re also available for our consideration. Indeed, though I don’t have the time to pursue this, someone should edit an essay collection titled In the Event of My Death: The Legal and Literary Afterlives of the Great Children’s Writers. In addition to authors’ and artists’ wills, there are other notable legal battles, such as those between A.A. Milne’s heirs and the Walt Disney Company, or Dr. Seuss Enterprises vs. Penguin Books (1997).

Posthumous lawsuits tell us as much about the artist’s friends and advisors as they do about the artist. But the will displays what and who was most important to the late artist. In this brief, speculative essay, I’ve focused more on the what than the who, but — as you’ll see, if you read the will — the who for Maurice Sendak is clear. It’s Lynn Caponera, Sendak’s caretaker and friend and, today, one of the executors of his estate. What’s so wonderful about Sendak’s will is that he remembers not just the friends and family who were dear to him, but all of us who care about art. So, on his birthday, I’ll add my thanks to a great artist not just for leaving a rich legacy, but for envisioning a future in which his own legacy can be appreciated and studied.

Further reading on Maurice Sendak (mostly on this blog):

Image credits: Maurice Sendak, “Northeast cover” (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, 19 Dec. 1993) from Sendak in Asia: Exhibition and Sale of Original Artwork (1996); Sendak, cover and four illustrations from Herman Melville’s Pierre or the Ambiguities (The Kraken Edition, 1995); Sendak’s earliest extant drawing (Mickey Mouse, 1934) from Selma G. Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak (1980); Sendak Sendak, detail from Mickey Oven, In the Night Kitchen (1970); James Marshall and Maurice Sendak, Swine Lake (1999); first page of Maurice Sendak’s will (2011), courtesy of probate court in Bethel, Connecticut; Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963); Sendak, cover for Rolling Stone (30. Dec. 1976).

Thanks to Sara & David Austin for sending the will, and of course to the probate court in Bethel, Connecticut, for providing access to it.

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The Cyclops Who Mistook His Cake for a Hat

Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)The best picture-book debut of 2015 is Rowboat WatkinsRude Cakes. Yes, I know it’s only May 7th. And I don’t claim to have read every picture book published thus far. But it’s going to be hard to top this one.

(Spoiler alert! There are spoilers below! Lots of them!)

The notion of an ill-mannered, sentient cake is funny on its own. But Watkins goes further. In the first half of the book, the titular character — a pink, bratty cake — refuses to listen to its parents or to wait in line, bullies a cupcake and a Cake in bathtub. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)marshmallow on a playground, and glowers in the sudsy water of the bathtub before reluctantly going to bed. So far, it’s a comic didactic tale. Then, enter a Giant Cyclops. Really. The cake is jumping up and down on the bed, playing with the little stuffed toy blue Cyclops that it stole from the cupcake, when — through the open window — a giant blue Cyclops hand enters, plucking the cake from its bedroom, lifting it up towards its toothy open mouth… only to wear the cake on its head. As Watkins narrator explains, giant Cyclopses “LOVE to wear jaunty little hats.” And this Cyclops thinks that the cake is a hat.

Rude cake jumps on bed. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)Watkins’ doodley, expressive line and soft watercolors provide his cakes and Cyclopes with the necessary solidity and silliness. Think of James Marshall’s hippo duo, George and Martha. Or of Laurie Keller’s misunderstood pastry, Arnie the Donut. As in any book by Marshall or Keller, Watkins’ characters have a real presence, and joy. Lots of joy. When I read the book, it feels like Rowboat Watkins is standing just behind the illustrations (where I can’t see him), and he’s smiling happily to himself. Or maybe he’s smiling at the fact that I am also smiling while I read his book.

He has imagined an oddly coherent universe populated by polite Giant Cyclopses, one rude cake, two beleaguered playmates (the cupcake and the marshmallow), and the rude cake’s exasperated parents (also cakes). In other words, Watkins understands Dr. Seuss’s principle of “logical nonsense”: as Seuss put it, “If I start with a two-headed animal I must never waver from that concept. There must be two hats in the closet, two toothbrushes in the bathroom and two sets of spectacles on the night table. Then my readers will accept the poor fellow without hesitation and so will I.” So, for instance, the Cyclops seems to come out of nowhere until you remember that the chocolate cupcake had a toy Cyclops, and the rude cake had a Cyclops poster over its bed. Later in the book, the child characters (rude cake, cupcake, marshmallow) frolic with Cyclopean balloons — each balloon has a giant eye. Theirs is a world in which Giant Cyclopses not only exist, but also are — in toy form — a cherished part of childhood. And why not? After all, we live in a world where we’d think twice about cuddling real live bears, but quite happily give children teddy bears to cuddle. In Watkins’ world, Giant Cyclopses are similar.

Rude cakes never say thank you. From Rude cake jumps on bed. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)

By the book’s end, our bratty cake learns some manners. But, as in Marshall’s George and Martha or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, Rude Cakes sublimates its didactic impulse, expressing its lesson via the pleasures of story. Watkins’ book has a moral, but what makes Rude Cakes work is its playful, loopy storytelling. In his baked goods and Cyclopses, Watkins offers an unusual but perfect metaphor for how larger forces can shake an obnoxious child out of its selfish egoism, revealing the kinder, gentle person within.

Rowboat Watkins is an original, singular talent. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

P.S. If you’ve not read Jules Danielson’s magnificent interview with Rowboat Watkins, then get on over to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and read it now. Then, read it again. Mr. Watkins has thought very carefully about picture books. You could learn a lot from him.

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Laurie Anderson & Lou Reed’s Rules to Live By

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

I collect quotations — the epigrammatic, the wise, the thoughtful. Sometimes, I post these in my “Commonplace Book” entries. Here’s another for the commonplace book, offered by Laurie Anderson on the occasion of Lou Reed‘s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on Saturday, April 18, 2015. It’s “rules to live by,” co-written by Reed and Anderson, who were life partners for 21 years (and who married in 2008):

I’m reminded also of the three rules we came up with, rules to live by. And I’m just going to tell you what they are because they come in really handy. Because things happen so fast, it’s always good to have a few, like, watchwords to fall back on.

And the first one is: One. Don’t be afraid of anyone. Now, can you imagine living your life afraid of no one? Two. Get a really good bullshit detector. And three. Three is be really, really tender. And with those three things, you don’t need anything else.

Here’s the video of the entire speech, recorded by a member of the audience (so, the audio’s not great). This “rules to live by” portion runs from 8:55 to 9:46.

There’s also an imperfect transcript of Anderson’s speech in Rolling Stone. I hope a more precise transcription (or, perhaps, the full text of her speech) is forthcoming.

Because you should hear their music, too, here’s a recording of “In Our Sleep,” co-written by Anderson and Reed, and performed by them both. This remix is from the CD single. The original version appears on Anderson’s Bright Red (1994).

Photo of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.  I found it on this site (which seems to be defunct). So, for further information, try Mr. Greenfield-Sanders’ website.

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Reading the Penderwicks

Since you’re reading this blog post, you may have already read one or more of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks books — the fourth of which, The Penderwicks in Spring, was published last month. In case you haven’t, here’s why you should.

Jeanne Birdsall, The PenderwicksJeanne Birdsall understands the emotional intelligence of children. She knows that they feel love, guilt, joy, loss, anger, excitement, jealousy, and sadness just as acutely as adults do. In fact, they often feel them more acutely than adults do, because children lack the full range of language and experience that allows us grown-ups (well, some of us grown-ups) to manage intense emotions. Evincing an acute awareness of children’s vulnerabilities and strengths, Birdsall’s four Penderwick sisters — and honorary Penderwick Jeffrey Tifton, Ben (who arrives in book two), Lydia (book four) — are also resilient, thoughtful, funny, fully realized characters. They and the adults in their lives feel like real people. Even though you meet them for the first time in these novels, you recognize them instantly.

Like Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters, Lynn Johnston’s Patterson children, and the protagonists of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick sisters feel so real because we get to watch them grow up. Especially Batty, my favorite character. She’s just four years old in the first novel. Her best friend and confidante is Hound, the family dog. She’s shy, and far more perceptive than the either the adults or older Penderwick sisters give her credit for. This may be one reason why The Penderwicks in Spring is my favorite: it focuses the most on Batty, now ten years old, exploring her joy in discovering her musical talent and her misplaced guilt over — well, I don’t want to give that away. (Read the book!)

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks in SpringThe Penderwicks in Spring is also my favorite because each Penderwicks novel is better than the previous one. Given that the National-Book-Award-winning The Penderwicks (2005) is already great, I’ve often marveled at her ability to make each successive novel is even stronger than the previous one. How does she do it? First, I think that — like the late Terry Pratchett — hers is a talent that just keeps getting better. Second, the most recent three Penderwicks books are not sequels. They’re each stories unto themselves. They’re windows into the lives of these characters, offering insights into different facets of their developing selves. Each book focuses more on a different Penderwick or group of Penderwicks, but somehow manages to advance the stories of all family members. Third, Birdsall is great at free indirect discourse — third-person narration, closely aligned with one particular character. This gift allows her to shift perspectives seamlessly, from Rosalind (the eldest), to Jane, to Skye, to Batty, to Ben, to Lydia, letting us know what they understand and what they don’t. Fourth, she understands how inadequate the word “children” is to describe a group of people who differ in ages, interests, genders, experiences, and their capacity for relating to others. This understanding makes her characters feel more like actual people. And it makes me care about them, and want to spend time with them.

Hers are fun and funny family stories, novels about how to love even those family members who may try your patience. They’re books with great animal characters (Hound! Duchess!), and human characters who understand the joy and beauty of music. They are novels you’ll want to read and re-read. If you’ve read her work, you already know this. If not, then you’ll just have to trust me on this one.

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street Jeanne Birdsall, Penderwicks at Point Mouette Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks in Spring

There are four books in all, each subsequent one taking place at a later moment in time. Begin on a summer holiday with The Penderwicks. Return to the family’s lives in The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (2008). Join them for another summer vacation (a year after the first book) in The Penderwicks at Point Mouette (2011).  Come back home, five years later, for The Penderwicks in Spring.  (She’s currently writing the fifth and final Penderwicks novel.)

If you’ll be at or near Kansas State University on April 23rd (tomorrow), she’ll be speaking at 4pm in the Student Union, room 226. Free and open to the public! Come on by.

I wrote the above to introduce Jeanne Birdsall’s talk. Since it’s far more than I can use in an intro., I’ve posted the full text here. (Tomorrow, I’ll speak just a fraction of the above.)

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