Monthly Archives: July 2011

Marginalia, no.216

A wonderful thing in their nature: they cannot abide oil in any wise, but water they love well; insomuch , as if they be cut off, or fallen from the place where they grew, they wind and creep thereinto.

~ Pliny, Natural History (Philemon Holland trans.)

He’s referring to cucumbers. I thought I would test the claim and so removed a cucumber from the fridge and set it overnight by a saucer of water to see if it would, in fact, “wind and creep thereinto.” What a disappointment. The next evening, however, a couple slices of the uncooperative vegetable did manage, by a mysterious locomotion, to find their way to my gin and tonic.

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“The Zucchini Brothers Circus Air Force: no match for modern artillery.”

Detail of illustration by Dusan Petricic for a Serbian children’s book.

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Marginalia, no.215

Cosmus Medices, that rich citizen of Florence, ingenuously confessed to a near friend of his, that would know of him why he built so many public and magnificent palaces, and bestowed so liberally on scholars, not that he loved learning more than others, ‘but to eternize his own name, to be immortal by the benefit of scholars…’

~ Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

Among those set to the task was Marsilio Ficino, appointed by Cosimo de Medici to head the Florentine Academy. Late in life Ficino was accused of being a wizard astrologer. In the choice phrasing of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Ficino finally “succeeded in purging himself.” Of the charges, one hopes. We read in Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions (in a story lifted from Hermippus Redivivus), that de Medici himself as a young man had consulted an astrologer and been guaranteed immortal fame with a seat alongside Augustus Caesar and Co. Why all the exertion then? The lesson seems to be: hedge your bets with mortar and mortarboards.

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“Like a storm-tossed sea of drowning sailors, your hair…”

Engraving by Albin Brunovsky (1935-1997).

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Marginalia, no.214

The devil is a citizen of every country, but only in our own are we in constant peril of an introduction to him. That is democracy.

~ Ambrose Bierce, Disintroductions

According to Bierce, we can blame the Declaration of Independence when we fall into casual acquaintance with persons we’d prefer not to know. For example, I once shook hands with the Angel of Death in a hospital elevator in Boise, Idaho. I was fifteen at the time but I recall that he was well-mannered and looked something like you might expect: ancient and bony, with a firm, cold grip. He was often at the hospital, he said, visiting friends. Bierce suggests a practice of disintroductions to remedy unfortunate meetings like this. If it could be arranged, I suppose a disintroduction to Death or the devil might be worth something. So long as we could be sure to stay strangers.

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Marginalia, no.213

Time is for dragonflies and angels. The former live too little and the latter live too long.

~ James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks

Paul Giamatti confessed in an interview that he’s always had a “middle-aged soul.” It was a great relief when he finally turned forty. Some persons (according to the cliche) are wise beyond their years: these are old souls. Others dwell in perpetual unreflecting adolescence. I suspect, however, that a majority of us have middle-aged souls, if we would admit it. We inhabit a zone of comfortable ripeness tending slightly toward decay. We panic an hour at midnight once each week while we trim our aspirations. We bank our spiritual flabbiness like the earned interest of experience.

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Marginalia, no.212

Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers

A trick of alliteration will prevent forgetting: if the bark comes off in puzzle pieces, it’s a ponderosa pine. We camped all week in a grove of ponderosas and incense cedars, and when it wasn’t trees and mountains that distracted, it was birds: ravens, Steller’s jays, red-breasted sapsuckers, western tanagers, and black-headed grosbeaks. I’d spent an hour worrying which books to bring and settled on a Wodehouse collection, some Flann O’Brien, and Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness for the kids. The Jansson we serialized at bedtime, but I only managed half a Wodehouse story and a mere two paragraphs of O’Brien. No complaints, however. The best holidays are perfect failures.

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On Being a Dummy

Summer makes me stupid. Come July, the bombardment of my skull by cascading waves of solar radiation is enough to seriously muddle my intellectual faculties.Thought moves like a bee through Elmer’s glue.

This by way of apology for the meager posting recently, and to come. In fact, I’m making a dash for the mountains next week. Solar radiation is only more intense at higher elevations, but I’m going for total idiocy this year.

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No End of Charlie Johnsons

According to Erik Larsen in The Devil in the White City, visitors to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair were able to drop their children at an official daycare and retrieve them by claim check in the evening. The only child never reclaimed by his parents that summer was a boy named Charlie Johnson. Armed with Larsen’s single mention, I spent all of five minutes researching the story – just long enough to learn nothing solid and yet develop a fanciful hypothesis I’m loath to spoil by looking into it any deeper.

I would very much like to believe that the orphaned Charlie Johnson mentioned by Larsen was the illegitimate namesake son of a famous Mormon photographer and an unknown vaudeville actress.

Charles Ellis Johnson was known for his stereographs of Utah landmarks like the Saltair Pavilion and the freshly dedicated Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. He also had a sideline making boudoir portraits of burlesque dancers and actress. One of his subjects was the poet, spiritualist and sometime-actress Ella Wheeler Wilcox, whom I can’t help mentioning. Advised by Johnson that one of his coreligionists found a photograph of her distasteful, Wilcox replied: “Tell the gentleman that I am sorry he should object to a little bit of neck. He probably had a surfeit of necks in his plural wives, and it gave him a sort of physical indigestion. You see what a terrible thing polygamy is sometimes, when it unfits a man for appreciating a pretty shoulder.”

I do not suggest that Wilcox was our Charlie’s mother. Johnson photographed innumerable young women who might have been more susceptible to smooth talk and promises of free publicity: nameless dance hall lovelies wrapped in white tulle to simulate nudity, some cradling kittens to their erupting bosoms, others half-undressed and having all kinds of trouble with their stockings. One of these unknowns, by my theory, was our young Charlie’s mother. I do not know her name.

As I imagine it, she’d given birth to Charlie in 1890 or ‘91 and named the boy for his absent father, believing still that Johnson would leave his wife (a later daughter of Brigham Young) and run off with her instead. Of course he didn’t. He may have sent money from time to time, but never enough, and his erstwhile mistress and their child spent bleak winter nights eating beans and oatmeal in a cold Denver hovel, perhaps, or in Reno. Little Charlie’s mother threatened to write the Salt Lake papers and expose her former lover, but she failed to stir him.

One way or another she learned that Johnson would attend the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in company with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. (It is a fact that he did so.) She used the near-last of her funds for a ticket to Chicago. Johnson had never seen his son in the flesh; perhaps, she thought, his heart would soften when he did. Underfed and without proper accommodation, the toddler and young mother loitered near the fairground entrance at Jackson Park for several days until, by sheer luck, they found themselves face to face with the whiskered photographer.

In my fantasy, Johnson gave a shutter click of recognition when he saw her, a give-away blink. He liked to say that he never forgot a subject. Then he looked down at the ragged boy, nodded once, and strode off into the swirling crowd without a single word. His heart had not softened. Charlie’s mother used the last of her money to buy tickets to the Exposition and a piece of taffy for Charles Jr. They wandered through the White City for an hour or two, holding hands, before she dropped him at the daycare, giving his name in exchange for a claim check. This, I suggest, she ate. Then she vanished too.

What became of the boy? Perhaps the Charlie Johnson abandoned at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 is the same Charley Johnson adopted by George Brown of Charlotte County, Florida some time later. There’s a photograph of him in the county archives – at ten or twelve years old – wearing a tan bowler and pinstripe suit of second quality with the sleeves cut short. Maybe, by some miracle, this Charley Johnson is also the same Charlie Johnson (born in 1891, supposedly in Philadelphia) who went on to become a well-known jazz pianist and band leader of the Paradise Ten from 1925 to 1938.

There are other options, of course. The name is by no means uncommon, and neither, unfortunately, is ophanhood. There is no end of Charlie Johnsons.

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