63. On Useless Projects And Elaborate Pranks

63. On Useless Projects and Elaborate Pranks

Among the people who received copies of the disk "A Day At Creed's" (see Reminiscence no. 57) were my son Nicholas, his wife Kay Cashman, and their five girls (Fiona, the twins Abigail and Maggie, Nora and Phoebe), all of whom reportedly enjoyed it greatly. One of them asked: "But why did they do this?"—wondering, quite understandably, why two busy undergrads with lots of other demands on their time and creative energies should spend so much of it composing such a work, which we thought of as quite local and temporal in its appeal (we didn't dream of a kind of revival sixty years later!). And why the two authors, along with two friends who were just as busy, should learn their parts (not easy to sing) and perform it for limited local audiences. We had no expectation, when we composed it and performed it in the living room of our rented house, of a radio broadcast or a recording—making a recording of an opera wasn't so easy in 1949.

The answer to that, why we did it, isn't easy; the one that comes immediately to mind, "Because we could," is too much like Sir Edmund Hillary's answer to the question of why he climbed Everest: "Because it was there." Dramatic and true, in an ideal and abstract way, but not very enlightening. Thinking about that question and trying to come up with a better answer, I ran through in my mind a number of projects of a similar kind that I conceived and carried out in those early years and for a time afterwards—but not in recent decades, unless these website jottings constitute an elaborate project of similarly unclear purpose. So, let me run over some of them before returning to the question.

A. The Celestial Revenge Publishing Company. For an account of this, see the last paragraph of Reminiscence no. 57, "A Night At the Opera, A Day At Creed's." This was mostly Gordon Cyr's project rather than mine.

B. A Classical Japanese Poem About Oyako Donburi

In the late 1940s when I was studying, among other things, classical Japanese at U. C. Berkeley, the first Japanese restaurant in Berkeley opened—if I remember right, just south of Dwight Way on Telegraph Avenue. There had been a Korean restaurant in Berkeley earlier, and Chinese, and two Japanese restaurants in S.F., but none in Berkeley. Part of the pleasure of going there was in talking Japanese with the charming young Japanese waitress. On one visit, maybe not my first, I asked her why oyako donburi, "parent-and-child donburi," was called that. (A donburi—actually pronounced domburi--is a simple lunch dish made by cooking something, such as chicken or beef or eel, with a sauce and putting it on top of a bowl of rice, so that the juices seep down into the rice. The character for donburi is a made-up Japanese graph, not found in China, simply the Chinese graph for well—the water kind—which is like a tic-tac-toe diagram, four crossing strokes, with a single stroke, a dot, in the center. Japanese will tell you, when you ask how the character originated, that it represents dropping a stone into a well, and the sound it makes—DOM-buri! A lovely folk-etymology, not likely to be true. Anyway:) She explained that it was called parent-and-child because it was made with chicken and egg. While eating it and pondering the implications of the name, I composed a tanka—a five-line classical Japanese verse form (5-7-5-7-7 syllables) that we were then studying, in examples from the Heian Period—about oyako donburi, which I inscribed on my chopsticks wrapper and left for her. It went: Ono-ga-ko wo/ Mamori-ezareba/ Donburi ni/ Shitagaete iku/ Niwatori no haha. Or, freely rendered: The poor mother chicken, who/ Unable to protect her child/ Follows it into the donburi.

This is a single example from quite a number of language plays I did during my study of Chinese and Japanese. More or less idle in Tokyo for several months in 1945 while waiting for an assignment as a language officer, I used some of the time making a complete translation of Lewis Carroll's verse "The Walrus and the Carpenter" into rhyming Japanese in the original meter. For example, the second stanza reads "The Walrus and the Carpenter/ Were walking close at hand;/ They wept like anything to see/ Such quantities of sand./" If this were only swept away,"/ They said, "it would be grand!" (From memory, maybe not quite right.) This became, in Japanese: "Kaizô to Daiku, futari de,/ Sampo shite ita./Kaizô wa, "Kono hama ga/ Suna-darake da!/ Sôji shitara, donna ni/ Kirei deshô ka na!"

B. The Train Scroll. See Reminiscence no. 53 above for this one. An elaborate prank carried out by the Ann Arbor artist (U. Mich. professor)  Bill Lewis and myself in the early 1950s when I was working as a grad student with Max Loehr there; it was done as a birthday gift for Max. It used a lot of Bill's time and mine, and also involved a number of other people who wrote learned colophons (inscriptions) for the handscroll. It survives, kept now by the Art History Department at the University of Michigan. A younger colleague tells me that he plans to publish a learned article on it (somewhat tongue-in-cheek? Another scholarly diversion?). I look forward to reading it.

C. The Armchair Archeologist's Kit. Another gift prepared for Max Loehr's birthday, maybe the one after the Train Scroll one. This consisted of a deep, square box, the kind that might hold precious ceramic pieces. It was filled with sand, and separated into layers by squares of cardboard, on which were inscribed period designations: Early Modern, Late Modern, Recent (or something like that—memory fails.) And in the sand, in each layer, were buried small artifacts belonging to those periods, assembled from junk piles, picked up from the ground, whatever—real flint arrowheads, pieces of glass bottles, old coins, Coke bottle caps, and so forth. The kit included also the archaeologist's tools: a plastic scoop, a kitchen strainer, sheets for entering archaeological data; a pamphlet of instructions. I have no idea what became of this, and have only a hazy memory of it myself, as is clear from the foregoing description.

D. A Backyard Whaling Ship.

While I was living in Washington D.C. in the early 1960s, we had a big old house in Cleveland Park with a big backyard. My son Nicholas, at that time in his life, was going through passionate phases, each lasting for weeks, in which he was, successively, an undersea diver (after watching a popular TV program); a mermaid (yes, maid, with a green cloth tail wrapping his legs—he scarcely would appear without it) after reading about one in Father Bear Comes Home; and Queequeg the harpooner, from a children's Moby Dick. For this last, I constructed in our backyard, for him and Sarah (two years younger), a whaling ship, made from materials pulled from our basement: old doors and pieces of lumber nailed together to make the basic body, two tall poles as masts, window shades for sails, a fruit basket on boxes as a crow's nest (secured by ropes) into which they could climb, a deck on which they could stand and harpoon whales as they passed. It was all painted white. They both enjoyed this, with their friends, for several months. but then it became rickety, and one day when they were both away it disappeared—sank, I told them, in a storm. Pieces of white-painted lumber etc. appeared mysteriously in our basement.

E. Jack Pumpkinhead Comes To Life

Among the books we read to Nick and Sarah when they were young were some of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum—not much admired today by children's book specialists, but popular and much enjoyed then. The second in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz, begins with the story of how a boy named Tip, who lives with a witch named Mowgli, and makes a full-size pumpkinhead figure to set up in the road to frighten her; she brings it to life, and Jack Pumpkinhead becomes one of the characters in the story. One year I made for Sarah and Nick, for Halloween, a life-size Jack Pumpkinhead, with a wood framework and stuffing inside an old shirt and trousers of mine, with gloves and shoes, and the carved pumpkinhead on top. It sat on the broad shelf beside the steps up to our porch, where it greeted trick-or-treaters and entertained passers-by. The next year we rigged it with a strong string tied to its right hand and passing through a loop above, which could be pulled from inside to make it wave at people. And the year after—or maybe both these were in the same year, my memory isn't clear—we put a small speaker inside the head, connecting it to a microphone inside, so that it could also talk to those who came by. It became a real attraction, with people spreading the word and cars stopping to see it and holding up traffic; the Washington Post featured a front-page photo of it, with brief article, showing Sarah standing beside it, and even more people came.

When Halloween approached in the following year I was confronted with the problem of how to cap those successes. The obvious answer was: by bringing Jack Pumpkinhead to life. And that is what I did. We had a post-Halloween party for friends of Nick and Sarah some days after Halloween, and I had announced beforehand what would happen, so the children came with expectations. After dinner they were herded onto the far end of the porch, away from the steps and the Pumpkinhead; the porch light had been replaced by a dim blue bulb. Jack still sat in the same posture. I pulled the string to make his arm wave, then sprinkled him with the Powder of Life from a vial, and chanted the incantation that would bring him to life. Moving slowly, he lumbered to his feet and started off down the walk toward the street. The children were screaming, trying to break free and follow, held back by Dorothy (my then-wife) and myself. Jack Pumpkinhead crossed the street (narrowly missing being hit by a car, unable to see very well), climbed the fence into the extensive grounds of the Anglican Cathedral, and disappeared into the darkness.

Some readers will guess how this was done: the father of two of the girls at the party, who was tall and lanky, had come over during the dinner, taken the Pumpkinhead apart, put on its clothes and shoes and gloves, tied the string to his hand, cut the bottom out of the pumpkin and fitted it over his head, and was sitting in the same posture when we came out, ready to come to life when the Powder of Life was sprinkled on him and the incantation chanted. The remains of the pumpkin head were found the next morning on the Cathedral grounds by the children; our story was that he had gone back to Oz, leaving behind the somewhat spoiled head, ready for a new one.

A few days later, Nick's school teacher was having the students tell their Halloween stories, and when Nick told his she said, "That's a good story, Nick—now tell us what really happened." But Nick's story was backed up by another boy in the class who had been there. The teacher later told me, "I wish you had let me know when you did this—I was trying to get the children to distinguish between truth and fantasy, and this didn't help." Nick must have guessed before long what had really happened, Sarah and the two girls (Pumpkinhead's daughters) also—they reportedly felt their father's hair when they got home and found it damp. But it was a great success all the same.

I should add that a full-size Human Skeleton—actually more than life size—made from such old things as bent clothes-hangers with paper pasted over them (for ribs), spools strung together (for spine), old-fashioned clothespins for teeth (the knobby end as a molar, the two sharper ends as incisors), and paper-maché constructions for skull  (movable jaw) and hips, etc., all hinged together—this construction, made for Nick and Sarah and with their participation, still survives—I think Sarah has it.

Back to the opening question: why did we undertake such projects? Because they were lots of fun, and were enjoyable exercises of our creative faculties. And they made for pleasant memories, of the kind that inspired this Reminiscence. I'm sure readers of this have similar stories, and that similar projects are being carried out still by inventive parents for their children, and devoted students for their professors. If this account inspires anybody to conceive and carry out such a project, it will have had an added benefit, besides simple entertainment.


As so often happens, I read the above paragraph this morning (2/1/09) and find it not quite adequate. The pleasures of the pranks and projects were more than a matter of fun, or exercising creative faculties, although those were of course important elements in the rewards they brought.

Looking for something else in a slide drawer I came across an old slide that I used to use in lectures, but haven't for many years, since I've been retired. It was taken at the top of Huangshan, the spectacular mountain range in Anhui province that was the subject of a seminar and an exhibition with a catalog that I did with my students (Shadows of Mt. Huang, 1981.) In 1984. after the first international symposium on Chinese painting in China, held at Hefei and devoted to the Anhui (or Huangshan) school of painting (for the paper I gave then, see CLP 88 & 89), some of us were taken off to climb Mt. Huang (second time for me.) And somewhere near the top (i.e. the lodge at the north end where one stays overnight after making the initial climb) we were passed by three local boys in their late teens? carrying up a large rock, needed for some construction, slung from a frame of poles held on their shoulders. We groaned with admiration for their energy and strength, finding it hard enough to carry even ourselves upward  on this steep climb. They were, moreover, singing an intricate, polyphonic song lustily as they climbed, and when we met them again at the top we asked them, through an interpreter, what the song was, where they had learned it. "We didn't learn it," they replied, "we made it up." The slide shows them standing, framed by green tree foliage, in a relaxed and companionable pose, two at the sides leaning their arms on the shoulders of the tallest in the center, wearing their blue Mao jackets. one holding a hat, looking into the camera and smiling in a pleased way, clearly enjoying the attention they were getting.

I used to put on this slide at the beginning of a class while giving a short talk on the importance of inherited tradition and established conventions in any kind of creativity. The boys had no musical training, and couldn't have made up a song of such seeming complexity and sophistication unless they had absorbed a traditional practice of song-making in their childhood and were depending on it, even if unconsciously. Artists, I would point out, even amateur artists, create within a structure of inherited tradition, even when they try to deny it and claim total independence and innovation. (An exchange that comes to mind: at a Shanghai symposium in 1987? C. C. Wang and another artist asking me, through an interpreter—Mayching Kao—why I am always writing about them as painting within constraints of time and place, i.e. within a "period style," when in fact they painted with perfect freedom, doing whatever they pleased, whatever came into their heads at that moment. My reply: It is your job as artists to work always as if that were true; it is my job as art historian to prove, as often as necessary, that it isn't true at all. I was defining, in other lectures of that time, the stylistic coordinates to be seen in works by overseas Chinese artists, a pattern within which C. C. Wang's works fitted.)

An artist can feel constrained, then, by the inherited tradition and conventions and try to break out of them (never with complete success). Or else can enjoy them, play on them, quote them ironically, seem to subvert them while really re-affirming them. The pleasures of doing that are felt even by amateurs like myself. All the playful, non-scholarly writings in CYCTIE (which I hope many of you have browsed), with the Gilbert & Sullivan takeoffs in Dan Destry's Dilemma, the Shakespeare & Marlowe echoes in Hamlet at Wittenberg (CYCTIE from p. 66), as well as all the "useless projects and elaborate pranks" described above (to get back to those, at last), were carried out as plays within or against the rich store of literary and musical and artistic patterns in my head, installed there by a lifetime of reading and listening and looking; and they assume similar patterns in the minds of readers and listeners, the recipients of the intricately funny gifts, the audience of the comic chamber opera. The pleasure of positioning oneself within the traditions, of playing against them and their conventions, of arousing in the reader's and audience's minds the small twinges of recognition, make up a large part of the rewards that those creative activities bring. Putting all the abstruse references to Chinese painting history into the Train Scroll, calling up memories of Moby Dick and the Oz books with the projects for Nicholas and Sarah, allowed me to imagine myself, for a time, somehow within the great company of truly creative people who built up the legacy I was drawing on and alluding to in all I did. That may have been the greatest pleasure of all.

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