Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Morning ’66: Stony vs. Joe

I’ve written about how absolutely riveting it was when the Sears Catalogue…the Christmas Book…arrived at our house. My sister and I would fight like cats and dogs over it ‘til my mom would remind us that “Santa Claus is watching you.” Never during the years that I believed in the fat man was anything more effective at getting my a_s to settle down.
I'm sitting this morning...Christmas morning 2012, propped against the headboard of my twin bed, in the same bedroom and twin bed that hosted me from my fourth year of life till I split for college. The Wild West light cover on the ceiling is the same one that I stared up at during all those years…but a separate story manifests there and I’ll write it later this week while I’m home and inspired. But for now, let’s talk Stony and Joe.
Like every boy in my neighborhood during the mid to late sixties and into the early seventies, I vacillated between make believe games of mostly playing army or Wild West. I think I mentioned in my story about childhood toys that by 1970-ish as Vietnam was in full-swing, some of my best memories are of my mom taking me to Mangum’s Army-Navy Store on Dargan street and allowing me, with maybe five to ten bucks that I’d saved, to buy army surplus stuff for next to nothing. Ten bucks went a long way when you were buying helmet liners, ammo belts, ponchos, trenching tools and the like for a buck fifty to three bucks per go. Nirvana.
Maybe today’s kids will be able to recollect thirty-plus years from now the same level of absolute endorphin flush and giddy excitement about their activities. Certainly they’ll relish memories of emoticon peppered texting, right? As opposed to my 1968 Walkie-Talkie set that during the twenty minutes when the batteries actually worked; you could hide in the azalea bushes and bark out army orders cryptically and statically to your best buddy. But only if he was within two feet of your azalea camouflaged lair. Nirvana again…till one of the azalea frequenting bumble bees stung the dooky out of you for setting up your command post in their neck of the woods or your mama caught you in her prized azaleas.
I’m sure that kids today will as adults, share equally joyous memories of sitting inside all-day affixed to the toggles of a game console or the absolute majesty of an X-Box whatever. But something tells me that the mud and grime encrusted army surplus trenching tool I bought with my allowance offered me and my imagination, something that kids today can’t and don’t care to fathom. I also suspect that we burned a few more calories. Ok, this started out as an effort to share my Stony vs. GI Joe memory and I’ve now manifested a five hundred and sixty seven word digression. Sorry. Shut up.
So Christmas morning 1966-ish saw me in awe of Santa’s ability to know exactly what I wanted, even after I changed my mind a hundred times. And mostly I wanted Army stuff. I can’t remember the circumstances around my desire for the action figure, Stony but I can assure you that once I saw him and his collateral kit propped up on the sofa, the rest of my loot was irrelevant.
I’d been playing with little plastic army men for the previous few years since I’d gotten old enough to quell my mom’s worry that I’d eat ‘em. But this Stony figure took the whole playing army thang to another level. Even though he was in one sense, just a bigger version of a plastic army man—his fatigues with bulging pockets were nothing more than an extruded plastic version of my little green plastic troops—but he was cooler. Mainly because he was bigger but also because he was mildly articulated—you could bend his arms at the elbows. That’s where his pose-ability ended but to me it was a pretty cool little option as opposed to my variously posed, frozen in time and action, little plastic army men.
And the icing on my Stony cake was all the gear that came with him. Various headwear and weaponry and a couple of other little gadgets—all made from the same extruded green plastic that Stony—with the exception of his slightly more detailed head and hands—had been created.
The climate on Christmas mornings in Florence, South Carolina is generally mild so I was ready to hit the back yard and create the perfect environment for Stony to manifest, courtesy of my imagination, his combat-esque damn self. There was Miller’s ditch or the crawl space under our house that had already served as the trench warfare setting for my little plastic army men and those were just two immediate options that came to mind. A couple of phone calls…maybe to S.S., R.R., M.W. or J.F. and if they’d gotten a Stony too, Lord only knows that we’d have contrived by lunchtime. But alas, it was not to be.
“Don’t get dirty and as a matter of fact, don’t go outside. We are headed to Charlotte as soon as I get you and your sister fed.” Perhaps in other circumstances, this admonishment/logistics update from my mom would have devastated a little boy amidst his new toys on Christmas morning. But I was cool with it. Charlotte was Charlotte, North Carolina and that meant we were headed to visit one of my mom’s six sisters for a few days. And her son, my two-years-older cousin Gary, was my idol. When you aren't too many years out of training pants, two years difference in age is an eternity. But my cool cousin Gary was nice to me and played with me and always had different toys and did stuff that was just mildly more advanced than what I was used to doing and I loved all that and him.
The Steele Creek and Shopton Road area of Charlotte back then was really rural and my Aunt Eula and Uncle Frank weren't part of the Myers Park crowd. They lived out in the country. I understand now that like a lot of Charlotte, their neck of the woods has long since been paved over amidst Charlotte’s quest to strip any semblance of its former self from today’s strata. But when I was a kid, my visits to cousin Gary’s house was full-on rural fun. There were still a few small working farms around and we’d sneak over to this big hay barn and crawl through tunnels that Gary and his friends had made by shimmying bales out of the stacks in strategic places. Of course it was a death trap. And it was other worldly exciting. Mainly because I was temporary wing-man to my cousin Gary and because it was, literally at a hundred and ten-ish miles from my house, another world.
Gary always had cooler army surplus stuff than I did and he was the inspiration for me going back home one time and painting army medic white circles on my surplus helmet liner helmet. My older sister, in a rare moment when she didn’t want to kill me, then painted with our mom’s fingernail polish, the red crosses within the circles. I’d a mimicked any and everything that Gary did. He was my idol. (For those of you who don’t understand “helmet liner helmet” let me explain. WWII and Vietnam era army helmets were made of heavy steel. Underneath the steel helmet was a removable particle fibered liner with canvas mesh webbing on the inside that was the actual contact point for your head. When removed from the steel helmet, the liner looked identical to the helmet including the dark olive drab color and it weighed a fraction of the actual helmet. We would buy the helmet liners for two dollars at the Army-Navy store and bam! We were in helmet business.)
Predictably, my mom told me and my sister to pick one thing from Santa stuff that we’d like to take with us to Aunt Eula and Uncle Frank’s. I of course, took Stony and his gear. The two and a half hour trip to Charlotte I’m thinking, was probably devoid of our usual brother-sister fighting in the back of my mom’s Vista Cruiser station wagon for I’m sure that Stony and I were war gaming it all the way there. And who gives a sh_t what my sister was doing? I mean, really. But if she was playing Barbie, surely that hot little number from Mattel woulda been checking Stony’s junk.
So we roll in on my aunt’s house and after the typical hugs and kisses—my people are huggers and kissers—I made a beeline for my cousin Gary’s bedroom and what would be a palpable, sugar-to-shit moment. Sugar-to-shit? You bet. Probably my first. You see, I was about to experience the same rapid plunge into a flat-affect reality that I was to feel years later when pulling up in my MG Midget and seeing for the first time, a Triumph GT-6.
 All the cool things about my MG became bland and boxy and uninspiring compared to the cool lines of the Triumph. I'd learn within an hour or so that my dad was gonna offer me the GT-6 but until then, I felt kinda...jealous.
It happened again years later in New Orleans as I was driving down Metairie Road one afternoon with the top down on my then weekend car; a perfectly sublime for its moment, sans everything but well edited basics, Mazda Miata.
The all new BMW Z-3 passed by me and from that moment on, my Miata was a Janis Ian, At Seventeen, ugly duckling, surely not to be selected “when choosing sides for basketball.” And I’m not proud to report, but I must do so for karmic reasons, the fact that in my much earlier dating years, the sugar-to-shit thing happened with women—a lot.
I couldn’t get Stony out of the box fast enough to show Gary what Santa had so presciently awarded me. Then Gary showed me his fresh off the Sleigh, action figure…his fighting man. And he extricated it from a footlocker that was cooler than the Marx company cardboard container that my Stony came in. And what was with the tray on top with all the cool gear?
I didn’t puke and I didn’t cry but I wanted to. In tandem. I was raised better than that and anyway, my mama woulda surely beat me for jealously crying over someone else’s Santa loot. And my people aren’t pukers. But how? How could Jesus on his birthday in concert with the fat man from the North Pole, do this to me? What the f*#%k was a G.I. Joe and how did I miss this incredible thing since it had been out for about a year and a half already? How did I  not lock in on GI Joe when memorizing the Sears Christmas catalogue? None of my buddies had one and for reasons inexplicable to this day, I’d been unaware of GI Joe. Come on. You have to see the difference...the absurdly obvious dichotomy between my Stony and Gary's GI Joe. Yep, this was the first of my many sugar-to-shit moments.
Stony with his now laughable degree of elbows-only articulation and his hideously molded into his…his damn self…uniform; standing stiltedly beside this incredibly kitted out and downright contortionally moveable—situate-able G.I. Joe, just looked—impertinent. But Gary didn’t notice my suicidal dismay or at least he didn’t seize upon it and gloat, even if he did sense my anguish.
I was precocious back then but I wasn’t a spoiled brat.  My disgust with Stony and my absolute holy-shit awe of GI Joe wasn’t grounded in just simple infantile jealousy. It was fact based. GI Joe was hand-sewn-real-uniforms and cool-as-shit-accessories-genius to Stony’s suddenly green-plastic-for every-damn-thing-but-head-and-hands-stiltedness. I kid you not; the remainder of our two-day visit is erased from my mind. I only remember the defining moment when Gary and I proudly compared our fighting men and Stony fell from grace at warp speed.
Indulge me please for some additional evidence to support my position that Stony on his best day had no bank, no game, no nothing compared to GI Joe. The Hassenfeld family of Pawtucket bet the bank, literally on the launch of GI Joe and once they committed to him, they were all-in. “A doll for boys?” was a huge concern during the early moments of GI Joe’s ideation. “Action Figure” was soon the standard jargon and it stuck…problem solved. 
And Don Levine, the Hasbro guy most credited with creating the final commercial product, got the inspiration for GI Joe’s incredible articulation courtesy of seeing an artist’s wooden model in a hobby shop store window.
Granted, Joe is an odd looking chap in the buff but it’s the only way for you non-GI Joe-ers to fully appreciate my… Why Stony was a dud: Exhibit-A.  GI Joe not only bent...he twisted—in virtually every direction. There wasn’t much of a position that you couldn’t get the chap in and prepare him for whatever martial endeavor you desired.
GI Joe…crouched unaware in a foxhole. About to be the recipient of a Black Cat firecracker or an M-80 scud bought by somebody’s daddy at the fireworks stand from South of the Border? No problem. Yet what could Stony do if caught in the same situation? Crouch? Nope. Crawl? Nah. Stand there stoically? Yep.
GI Joe…crouched on a mound of dirt, Carbine in one hand, grenade in another, pondering his next GI Joe move? Got it. I bet there ain’t a Twister-esque move requested in the Kama Sutra the old Joe couldn’t accommodate. Come to think of it, seems like I recall a naked GI Joe and one of my sister’s buff Barbies getting’ jiggy in Joe’s camo sleeping bag one time. Seems like I also recall a huge a_s whipping as a result. 
Oh, and GI Joe had a scar on his face. Man oh man...he'd seen hand-to-hand combat with a Kraut or a raucous night with Roxanne Burgess and his cheek badge showed it. Kinda made Stony's blankly monochromatic face look...blank-er. 
The best Stony could do...who now by the way, looked to me like he was in a body cast, was just freaking stand there. Or lie face-down or up in a foxhole, appearing to be catatonic or rigor mortis-ed. Oh, but he could move those damned elbows…up or down. Here, have a hat. And I'll toot the bugle. Nice.
Exhibit B…as if another one was needed—GI Joe’s accessories. Good god, man! The stuff was accurate and to-scale and made of different tensiles of plastic with various colors and textures.
And the uniforms? Cloth…I mean what else should a uniform be made of? Were they a bitch to get on and off? You bet. No pain. No gain.
“But Stony had accessories?” Yep. He sure did. Think Tupperware. Butcept monochromatic olive green. And in comparatively scant quantity and imagination. Suddenly Stony's gear was some of the clunkiest, ham-fisted stuff  I'd ever seen. Nice.
Let me wrap up this Christmas tragedy with the proverbial rest of the story. I knew better than to wail and complain about my, till laying eyes on GI Joe, best gift ever, Stony. But I reckon I didn’t have to. I think my perceptive mother sussed out the situation rather quickly and my birthday was only three weeks away. All’s well that ends well and my birthday was made sublime by the arrival of what would be the first of my many GI Joes.
I’ve said before that of all the toys I had growing up, GI Joe and the collateral stuff that accompanied him, was my hands down bar none favorite. I’d say that there was probably a four year stretch when all I wanted was “GI Joe stuff” for every gift receiving occasion. I still have a few Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars from my childhood but that’s about it. All of my Joe junk is gone. When you have a brother who comes along almost ten years later, chances are that your cache of GI Joe stuff in the attic will go to him. And there’s an equal chance that he will destroy all of it and your mother will then throw it away. It happened to me.

Years later…many years later…after constantly and playfully giving my brother shit about destroying my GI Joe stuff, my office phone in New Jersey rings and my now twenty something year old brother tells me that he has the Christmas gift that’s gonna knock my socks off. And that’s all he was willing to allow. Keep in mind, by the time I’m in my early thirties, there isn’t much that anyone in my family can afford to  gift me that’s sock knocking off caliber. So I’m clueless. Till I get home on Christmas Eve and open the gift from my brother. Ebullient is an understatement.
I rarely shine like this anymore. And if this photo had audio, you'd hear about a dozen people laughing and regaling with me. I think I burned a zillion calories laughing and redundantly saying "oh man!" and hugging and kissing my little brother for giving me these talismans of what to this day; I define as an idyllic, safe, playful and imaginative childhood. And my mother and sister were equally amused. There’s no disagreement or ambiguity in my clan regarding just how robustly and in-full I lived my early years.
Courtesy of www.shorpy.com/node/3723
So Merry Christmas. Literally this morning, from my childhood bedroom where many years ago, I billeted GI Joe and his cohorts after court-martialling Stony for inarticulate, monochromatically extruded plastic-esque conduct. Unbecoming.

Onward. Pee Dee Style.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Better Days: Tom Wolfe on Richard Merkin—1992

It’s no secret that I love Tom Wolfe and loved Richard Merkin. Well, actually, I still love Richard Merkin. There’s enough of Richard on my walls and in my sartorial literature files for me to consider him still here.
I love Tom Wolfe’s dandified cocksurety – his Southern lilted verbal aplomb when gracefully responding to such charges as his novels aren't really novels and indictments that cry "for God’s sake man, get a better f_cking editor." I won’t characterize Wolfe’s posture and conversation as self-deprecating because it isn't  Here’s my take—Wolfe has an ivory, tight-twist gabardine swathed, steely, courteous elegance. With a scant lisp.
And then we have Wolfe’s  great personal friend, Merkin. If I was ever limited to one depiction of Merkin, it would be Alan Flusser’s take on the multifaceted flâneur…and I paraphrase loosely here because I’m too lazy to walk across the room and pull the reference. But Alan said that “coming upon Merkin on the street is like walking through a Bazaar in Marrakesh. You don’t know what to look at first!” Bam. I mean really. Merkin was Brooklyn and Coney Island to Wolfe’s Richmond and Yes Ma’am No Ma’am.
Both may be assigned to the Sartorial Dandy Pantheon but their nomination dossiers, while equal in content, would be thematically opposite. The case for Wolfe’s membership would be firmly affixed to an unwavering, off-white, monochromatic gaggle of forensics. 
Merkin’s on the other hand, wouldn’t be firmly affixed to a damn thing – At least not one singularly thematic thing. His bipolar variance in color, texture, epoch and melody made my fuzzy-ass closet look like a storage rack of  identical burgundy choir robes. I’d reckon that Merkin’s folder would surely contain his own words when he posited that his sartorial style was “somewhere between the Duke of Windsor and the Duke of Ellington.”  
Photo from Rose Callahan's Dandy Portraits
And I just think it’s cool as hell to have friends—true friends—those anything but Facebook defined friends—you know—the ones who would come get you at three in the morning. Well that was Merkin and Wolfe. I borrowed from Rose Callahan, this photo of Merkin, Wolfe and their other great friend, lawyer Eddie Hayes.
I’m always on the lookout for Merkin ephemera...having all of his GQ columns that he wrote over twenty years ago and of course, the treasures that his widow, Heather, sent me after Merkin died. And recently I came across a few  exhibition catalogues from Merkin's gallery shows back in the early 1990’s. And much to my delight, Tom Wolfe wrote the introduction to the Helander Galleries’ 1992 Merkin show, Better Days. Unlike you high-minded, copy editors-in-another-life, critics of Wolfe’s words,I, the verbose lexiconical rambler my-damn-self, would read Wolfe’s grocery lists if they were availed to me. So reading his Helander-Merkin treatise was great fun. Shut the ___ up. 
 So this morning, with reverence but without permission from Bruce Helander or others who might have copy rights and prefer that I not transcribe Wolfe’s essay, I typed from the exhibition catalogue, one friend’s erudite commentary on contemporary art in general, in tandem with his more specific efforts to convey and characterize the other friend’s art.  For those who, like me, love art and Wolfe and Merkin, I hope you enjoy reading it.
 “The paintings and pastels of Richard Merkin are part of a strain of Modernism that is well established in England, the home of his natural brethren, R.B. Kitaj, FrancisBacon, Peter Blake Lucien Freud, Ronald Searle, Henry Lamb, Michael Andrews, StanleySpencer, and David Hockney. They are what might be called the Modernist Wits. This creates a problem – even for Bacon – since within the art world, and especially the American art world, Modernism and Wit are a contradiction in terms.
Merkin like his confreres, uses various stylistic devices of Modernism; in his case, two-dimensional pictures, solid blocks of color, abstracted shapes, conventional contours, unshaded forms, and so-called all-over design, in which no part of a picture has any greater weight than any other, All that is on the credit side of the ledger up in Art Heaven, of course. But Merkin, like the other wits, presents subject matter that violates one Modernist taboo after another. As tout le monde, or tout lemonade d’art, knows, a picture is not supposed to tell a little story, suggest an anecdote, be funny, make you cry or get angry, tune up the sentimental side of your nature, illustrate the world around you, dwell upon historical details for their journalistic or historic value, or present likenesses for their own sake. Alas, these are sins that Wits wallow in.
The art world will allow exceptions from time to time, the most notable being Picasso’s large cartoon comment on the Spanish Civil War, Guernica, painting at a moment when anti-Fascist feeling and Left sentiment had reached their apogee among European and American intellectuals. Guernica was expressly designed to make the viewer weep and get angry over Francisco Franco’s bombing of civilians(and will probably be viewed by art students in the 21st century, with their damnable detachments from the problems of our epoch, as a howler, one of the most ludicrous pictures ever taken seriously by well-educated people). It is worth noting that Picasso never attempted such pictorial comment again, returning forever after to the safe and fashionable imagery of classical mythology.
Pop Art wasn’t even an exception. The Pop artists never illustrated the world around them or even created their own images from it. Pop was a studio game played within a tight set of Modernist rules, eventually codified by the Pop Apollinaire, Lawrence Alloway. The Pop artists took their images not from life but from art created by anonymous graphic artists and industrial designers including flags and numbers and letters found in commercial printing fonts. Some, such as Warhol, never did anything other than lift images directly from existing commercial art or photographs, altering only the size and coloring, if that much. Others did near-copies. The game, said Alloway, consisted of producing pictures that were neither abstract nor realistic but rather had to do with “sign systems.” There is not a single painting within the canon of Pop in which an artist attempts his own depiction of life in the extraordinary decade in which Pop grew up, the 1960’s.
Underlying the Modernist stance, whether one is talking about style, content or theory, is the belief that the great artist is a holy beast , a natural who receives flashes, known as inspiration, straight from the godhead which is known as Creativity. A holy beast is not a rational, calculating, analytical, and intellectually detached person. In fact, in the Modernist view, rationality, calculation, analysis, and detachment are detritus, impediments to creativity. The Modernist artist is supposed to be like the Gnostic Christian, who sought to get rid of the detritus of civilization in order to reveal the light of God that exists at the apex of every human soul. Draftsmanship, true rendering, perspective, and shading are all analytical undertakings. So are wit, satire and commentary. In the Modern view these are all pieces of age-old junk that must be thrown out.
In England the art world – which consists of about five hundred dealers, curators, professors, critics and artists in London, Oxford and Cambridge who determine all matters of taste – has never been completely dominated by orthodox Modernism. There has remained some room in which the mavericks such as Kitaj and Bacon could cut up. But in the American art world, which consists of about 300 similar souls (some 300 of whom do not live in the New York City area) orthodoxy is a far more solemn business.
Merkin’s very picture titles, Van Lingle Mungo’s Havana, Our First Detective of the Broken Heart are a gob of spit in the face of Modernist taste, since they actually describe the pictures, which are loaded with specific historic references, and are shamelessly entertaining. Stylistically, Merkin has been as Modern as any of the Wits. Particularly in his Van Lingle Mungo period, the mid-1970’s, his work was rigorously two-dimensional, his contours were highly conventionalized, his canvases were covered edge to edge and corner to corner, with solid color shapes of equal density, field and figure were given equal emphasis, no matter how amusing the figures – and the figures tended, like Mungo, a one-time pitcher for theBrooklyn Dodgers, to be long gone down Funny Street. The typical Merkin picture takes legendary American images – from baseball, the movies, fashion, Society, tabloid crime and scandal – and mixes them with his own autobiography, often with dream-style juxtapositions. Merkin himself is always recognizable as the toff with the Cold Stream Guards mustache, popping up amid the romp.
In the past he has been as much a colorist and all over designer as,  say, Matisse or, to bring the matter closer to home, Malcolm Morley, an Australian now living in the United States (who could perhaps be included in the ranks of Modernist Wits). In his most recent work, however, Merkin has begun to violate even the stylistic taboos. In 1990, in paintings such as Re: Joe Stern #2, he began to use a draftsmanship more sophisticated, more in the vein of 1920s European satirical art, than anything allowed in the Modernist canon. In the current show, he gives us graphic focal points such as the white figure in pith helmet against a swath of black in Our First Detective of the Broken Heart. The focus is re-emphasized by the use of lines of perspective in the roof above. This is not the Modernist way.
The truth may well be the Merkin is impossible to characterize even with a grouping such as the Modernist Wits. The fascinating thing, in the last analysis, is not that he is in some way like Kitaj or Bacon or Searle or Spencer of Hockney or that the whole crowd has swum upstream – but, rather that he, like them, his kinfolk, has managed in an age of High Orthodoxy to become that rarest of creatures, the artist who is sui generis.”