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The Republican Convention of 1880

In ages past, national political conventions lay at the heart of how American political parties selected candidates.  This made for strange and fascinating stories, such as the tale of the Republican convention of 1880 when the delegates met in gilded age Chicago and cast their ballots 36 times before finally settling on a presidential candidate, James Garfield, who wasn’t even running for the presidency!  Yet, during the progressive era, the right to select candidates was wrestled out of the hands of shadowy party grandees and handed over to rank-and-file party voters.  In turn, the political conventions stopped being real political contests and became vast kabuki-style infomercials (albeit meaningful ones, where the parties try out new messages and launch the careers of aspirant national leaders).  For viewers at home, the net result of all of this was dreadful tv!  All of the political conventions I watched during the eighties, nineties, aughts, and teens were turgid set-pieces with lots of talking heads shouting soundbites to enormous halls filled with screaming followers.  It makes my head hurt to just think about these things, and I am sure if you start reminiscing about Joe Paterno, “swiftboating,” Gary Hart, Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, the Astros being thrown out of their own stadium (snicker),  Governor Ann Richards, etc…etc…ad nauseum, you too will start to be overcome by despair at the benighted human condition.

This year, however, the Covid-19 global pandemic has forced some much needed changes on America’s worn-out political conventions!  What I have seen so far from the Republican convention has not been encouraging (unless you are a cannibal lizard person or a devout believer in the same), but last week’s Democratic convention had a wholesome charm which was a tonic in this fragmented and frightened era.  Structural differences in the two parties generally do not favor the Democratic convention.  Because of their big tent , it is easy for endless smaller issues to drag the event in too many directions to easily comprehend a larger theme. This year though, all individual grievances were subsumed into an overarching theme of grief and of how the nation can overcome and allay the disasters and follies of the past few years.  This involved hearing from more actual workaday Americans than in any convention I can recall.   There were small farmers talking about losing their livelihoods, children mourning their plague-stricken parents, and victims of gun violence. George Floyd’s brother spoke with steady eloquence about his dead brother’s gentle spirit.

There were also pointless celebrities like the annoying Julia Louis-Dreyfus Hall, but there is no need to dwell on them.  Celebrities have ruined enough things in America.  If we can drive them away from politics, it will be a huge relief (although I doubt it will happen).

The best part of the convention, unexpectedly, was the role call of delegates pledging their votes to the candidates.  This involved little clips of lots of local figures and local, um, locations, and it was a delight to see so much of the country and its inhabitants for a change (as opposed to the red, white, & blue bunting, confetti, makeup and lies which are the fabric of most conventions).

Among the 2020 delegates, Khizr Khan was back–older and with one drooping eye–but with the same fierce pride in the United States of America, and radiating the same righteous anger at those who would threaten or abuse our beloved Constitution.

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Also compelling was the Rhode Island delegation.  There was a standard leader of some sort pledging his support to Biden, but next to him was a masked calamari chef!  The culinary ninja just stood there silently with a huge glistening tray of fried squid. His physical presence radiated power, and his golden brown seafood banquet certainly won my heart (did you know Rhode island was famous for squid?) Ferrebeekeeper has fantasized about mollusks being the highlight of a political convention, but I never thought it would really happen…

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I am not sure if the convention was satisfying to hardcore political junkies. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and the Obamas all made fine presentations (Bernie talked to us from the woodshed where he maybe wants to take some obtuse Americans), however none of these speeches were really about the granular details of policy or political competition.  That is fine with me.  I think the Democrats were wise to try to make emotional inroads into the unsettled hearts of Americans who are seeking a better life for themselves and their family.  We already know that Biden and his allies have ample experience of public policy and legislating.  We need to see that they care about the whole nation (as opposed to one particular group).

At the end of the event, Joe Biden gave his best speech so far: a homespun but competent and compelling oration which made him seem like what he is: a lifelong public servant who cares about Americans of all sorts.  He said he was willing to work with opponents to get things done for the nation as a whole. I believed him.  There was no balloon drop, but even the awkward final moment of the convention had a certain earnest charm: Biden and Harris clearly wanted to hug each other, but were constrained by social distancing guidelines. Instead of embracing and mingling with their families, they put on masks and stood there awkwardly before heading out into the parking lot to watch some fireworks.   We all know exactly how they feel.

All of which is to say, I liked the Democratic Convention more than any convention I have seen so far.  Although it did not address lots of points of policy with exacting detail, it did not need to.  There is time for such things during the campaign, and anyway, let’s face it, the fact that Joe Biden will not flout the law or sell out our national interest to Vladimir Putin or some murderous Saudi Prince has already won my vote (although I believe there are many actual policy choices which Biden pursues which will be beneficial to all Americans). Plus he will actually show up and do the job!  Although there were plenty of less-than-polished moments in terms of the new format, the convention radiated decency, competence, and compassion.  Obviously we will talk more about the election this autumn, but the Democratic Convention has already surpassed my expectations. It made me feel better.  When was the last time you could say that about a political event?

Let’s talk about the most difficult lesson I encountered in class in grade school. To be honest, I feel like I never really mastered it…or perhaps the lesson is still ongoing.  It might not just be me…

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“These are the times that try men’s souls…”

Although I had no natural affection for numbers, I was always successful at middle school because I read everything insatiably and yet still wanted to know more about existence.  School isn’t really set up to sate this desire (except for the IB program, which is amazing and would solve all of America’s problems in a generation if only it were adopted everywhere).  Sadly, success at school generally involves the same sort of things which bring workplace success: showing up on time, giving people the answers which they want to hear, and completing tedious busy-work tasks.   But, back then, I was competent enough at doing those things, because I knew it was mission critical to getting into a good college–which was the ultimate culmination of existence.

All of that is backstory for explaining the most difficult lesson I ever had in grade school. It is one which I still struggle with, because it involves some paradoxes at the heart of knowledge, meaning, and success.  It also bears on life’s true lessons (the fact that I was a bookish twerp lacking popular esteem was probably the true lesson of middle school, but it was extracurricular, whereas this particular failure was enshrined in a report card). Back in the 1980s I had a blithesome free-spirited art teacher.  She was a good art teacher and I still recall the assignments she gave (copying a bird exactly by means of a grid; making a random squiggle and then expanding it to be a drawing; watercolor on a wet paper; exactly copying a piece of money).  Her opinion was also valuable to me, as I am sure any good student (or 15-year-old boy with a pretty teacher) will understand.

Now I worked harder in art class than at any class because I loved it, but a lot of students regarded it as a sort of free period where they could chat, flirt, and maybe doodle a bit if they felt like it. Back in those days I was still smart and hard-working. At the end of the semester, it was time for grades, and the teacher gave us a last strange assignment: give yourself the grade which you feel is appropriate.  Now I was a 15 year old lad, but I had read enough fables to recognize a trap. “This must be a lesson in how to behave with modest decorum!” I gave myself a B plus, because, although I tried extremely hard (much harder than the louts who spent every class socializing), and although my drawings were better than most everyone else’s, I had never succeeded at the level which I wanted.  I could see every feather out of place on the sea eagle I drew (and the overworked beak with an unsatisfactory little hook).  I can still see that sea eagle, damnit.

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The oafs (who didn’t even complete the art assignments!) naturally gave themselves perfect marks.  I assumed that the degree to which I had tried (which was substantial) and my abilities as compared to my classmates (also substantial) would be recognized by the teacher who would correct everything into a familiar bell curve.  This was an unwarranted assumption.

The final report card revealed that the teacher gave us all the same grade we had given ourselves.  The teacher said: “art is about what you think of yourself!” My horrifying B+ became a finalized part of my permanent record! The oafs all got A pluses which they are probably still savoring (in workcamp, prison, General Electric, or the White House) to this very day.

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Anyway, I survived that 9th grade “B” in art class.  Thanks to my parents’ profound generosity and to my love for reading and writing (which was probably also a gift from my parents), I ultimately got out of school with a “golden ticket,” a degree with general honors from the University of Chicago!  Of course, instead of becoming a crooked hedge fund manager and basking in the world’s envy, I ripped up my ticket and I live as an insolvent artist.

“Art is what you think about yourself.” It is a terrible definition of art.  Yet it somehow passes muster in New York’s contemporary art scene which is more self-involved than a Kanye West song.  I have tried to master that sort of pure self-involvement (just look at this essay), yet I still can’t think of art as merely a solipsistic musing on self-identity (nor as a badge of hierarchical status).

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Success in America is defined as making a huge amount of money.  It is humorous how often people cite this completely inaccurate definition to explain things: “Oh it was my job” or “We made a great deal of money” as though this has anything to do with wisdom or knowledge or what is useful or right.  Society is having a great deal of trouble comprehending what is wise, useful, and right. I blame our education system (though perhaps I should instead blame artists…or myself).

tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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Electric blue is one of my favorite blues.  The hue is named for the color of an electrical discharge through the atmosphere (which is to say the fluorescent ion glow of nitrogen).  The name is older than you might imagine:  according to “A Dictionary of Color,” the first use of the name was in 1845.  The blue note of electrical sparks is readily apparent in photos of sparks and discharges—but somewhat less so in the real world where electrical discharges are bright, swift, and unpredictable. A lot of Victorians must have stared at wacky apparatuses for this to become codified as a standard blue.

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Nineteenth century scientists realized that there was some connection between electricity and the human nervous system, but they could not quite put it all together.  Electric blue therefore became a favorite color for indicating supernatural phenomena.  The color became immensely popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was used in all sorts of garments, sales brochures, and products.  It was a fad color which lasted a long time (since fads spread more slowly in those days).

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The color has faded from popularity somewhat, but in our era of glowing screens, glowing blue is never entirely irrelevant (plus, as noted, it has a basis in the physics of electricity and the composition of the atmosphere).

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Well that went fast—in no time we have counted down to the second most popular Ferrebeekeeper post ever. The subject happens to both completely adorable yet also strangely unfamiliar—it is the magnificent bulldozer of the marsupial world, the lovable wombat (Family Vombatidae)!

An adult  wombat in the wild

An adult wombat in the wild

The wombat was the highlight of “furry herbivore mammal week,” a festival of five magnificent fuzzy grazers from around the world (the other equally endearing mammals were the pica, the hyrax, the groundhog, and the rabbit). The post was enlivened by magnificent photos of wombats from unknown sources (sorry, anonymous wombat photographers—I wanted to credit you properly!) and by an illustrated poem from Victorian artist/aesthete/oddball Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

"I like drawing wombats and skinny porcelain-colored women who look like they are from the middle ages!"

“I like drawing wombats and skinny porcelain-colored women who look like they are from the middle ages!”

I have not found out any additional information about wombats or the wombatiforms (for there were numerous giant extinct species of wombat, which are now sadly extinct), however I have found new footage! As a special treat, here is a photo of a fortunate hipster cuddling with a friendly baby wombat. You should watch to the end when the delighted wombat scrunches up against the bearded Austrian and then rolls on his back in delight. It is really worth seeing and will restore your sense of joy and wonder!

 

Fiery number 6

Way back in October of 2010, Ferrebeekeeper featured a powerful series of posts about the children of Echidna, the ancient Greek “mother of monsters” who birthed so many of the scariest beasts of classical mythology. Among the hellish siblings born to her, there were all sorts of heterogeneous creatures—a lion, a dragon, a sow, a hydra, a sphinx, a giant eagle, and a mish-mash chimera (family dinners must have been extremely colorful)—but pride of place goes always to Cerberus, the three headed hell hound who guards the entrance to the underworld. Cerberus has fascinated artists, poets, and everyone else for thousands of years, and he still continues to do so. Despite the fact that the internet is filled with pictures, essays, and posts about the great monster dog of the underworld, he still garners attention. People really love the horrifying three-headed monster which forever prevented damned spirits from escaping the miserable realm of death: that is why the hellbeast Cerberus is the number 6 all-time most popular post on Ferrebeekeeper!

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The original post mentioned the main Greco-Roman myths which featured Cerberus and then showed a gallery of paintings, drawings, prints, and digital images of the big dog. In order to celebrate, here are yet more artworks of Cerberus.

The Story of Orpheus: Cerberus (Edward Burne-Jones, 1875)

The Story of Orpheus: Cerberus (Edward Burne-Jones, 1875)

Cerberus (Martin Boucher? late eighteenth century)

Cerberus (Martin Bouche? late eighteenth century, line engraving)

12th Labor of Hercules-Cerberus (Pierre Salsiccia, 2013, pencil drawing)

12th Labor of Hercules-Cerberus (Pierre Salsiccia, 2013, pencil drawing)

Hercules and Cerberus (Hans Sebald Beham, 1545, engraving)

Hercules and Cerberus (Hans Sebald Beham, 1545, engraving)

Juno Defies Cerberus and Enters Hades (Johann Wilhelm Baur German, c. 1639, etching)

Juno Defies Cerberus and Enters Hades (Johann Wilhelm Baur
German, c. 1639, etching)

Hercules and Cerberus (Antonio Tempesta, 1608, Print)

Hercules and Cerberus (Antonio Tempesta, 1608, Print)

Wow, there is a reason the great three-headed dog remains popular even as Ixon, the Hekatonkheires, and Nix are all forgotten!  Cerberus is an amazing subject for visual art (as well as being a dog, and all good-hearted people love dogs–even feisty problem pooches).

 

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Ah the magnificent platypus! I told you the other day that there were other mammals on the list of Ferrebeekeeper top ten blog posts and here is one right now…barely. With its duck-like beak, beaver-like physique (& fur), and egg-based reproduction, the lovable monotreme platypus has been capturing hearts and provoking perplexity ever since it was first discovered by European natural scientists.

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we concentrated on one of the platypus’ lesser known weird attributes—his scary venomous spur! (I say “he” not to encourage gender stereotypes, but because only the male platypus has venom glands). Of course platypuses are remarkable in so many other ways. Genetic evidence suggests that monotreme lineage dates back to the dawn of the Mesozoic era! These adorable furry egg-laying rapscallions split from early mammalian ancestors back before the ascendancy of the dinosaurs.

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Of course it isn’t just zoologists and paleontologists who are fascinated by platypuses, In my former life as a toymaker, I noticed that all sorts of toys and toy retailer names involved platypuses. Not only was there was “The Purple Platypus” a stylish independent toy store, there were also multitudinous platypus plush creatures. A platypus is the hero of the popular animated show “Phineas and Ferb” (ostensibly a lovable family pet, Perry the platypus is actually “Agent P.”, an international special operative working for OWCA—the Organization Without a Cool Acronym). There was even a platypus figure in the extremely rare “Deluxemorphs” toy set of the now defunct Zoomorphs.

Perry the Platypus AKA "Agent P"

Perry the Platypus AKA “Agent P”

So that our top ten list does not become a stale list of links to old (albeit extremely popular) posts, here is a galley of platypus mascots and adorable platypus cartoons.

Some sort of Business Platypus?

Some sort of Business Platypus?

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A Platypus was one of the mascots of the Australian Olympics!

A Platypus was one of the mascots of the Australian Olympics!

Look at all of the adorable beaks and flippers! It’s amazing that all mascots aren’t platypuses…

Hey! That's not a mascot--it's original Aboriginal art!

Hey! That’s not a mascot–it’s original Aboriginal art!

 

 

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For Christmas of 2011, celebrity chef and international gadabout Anthony Bourdain hired me to make child murder puppets!

Argh! Anthony Bourdain!

Argh! Anthony Bourdain!

Well, maybe I’m overstating it a bit. Actually a film-maker friend who works for Anthony Bourdain commissioned me to make two naughty children puppets and a walking Santa figurine for a stop-motion animated segment which was supposed to air on Bourdain’s Christmas special. I didn’t even make any eyes or mouths—as these were animated in post-production.

The real hero of the piece was the Alpine winter demon Krampus—an ancient horned god who rips disobedient and willful children into pieces (in stark opposition to Santa, who anonymously (?) gives good children toys and treats). Not only is Krampus a wicked psychopath, he is also all furry, pointy, and gross-looking. Yet evidently the wicked monster strikes a chord with people, because our December 8th 2011 post about Krampus was the eighth most popular post ever. I guess the celebrity tie-in might have helped out. Plus you can still watch the chilling animation of my puppets being murdered by Krampus on Youtube (even if studio heads cut the disturbing segment from the final TV show).

Argh! Krampus!

Argh! Krampus!

I counted Krampus as one of the “Deities of the Underworld” since he is an immortal god of darkness, cold, and murder. However he is not at all the last dark chthonic entity on the top ten list of Ferrebeekeeper posts! People really love evil gods! What is a bit sad is that Santa Claus did not come anywhere near the top ten list–even though I wrote a series of posts about his bizarre seventeen hundred year journey from obscure dead bishop to the third (or maybe fourth) most popular deity in the Christian faith. Plus Santa is compassionate and generous—although he wasn’t always that way. Anyway—if you have followed the story carefully you will note that I actually made a Santa puppet not a creepy Krampus.

Santa, with horsewhip toasting a multi-billion dollar corporation...

Santa, with horsewhip toasting a multi-billion dollar corporation…

Also a note to Anthony Bourdain (or anyone else with money): I am still available to make puppets and sculptures to demand.

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In some horrible irony, if I spend hours crafting an elaborate thesis and supporting it with fascinating points then nobody reads it. If instead I just slap down a cheetah cub in a bucket or a cute grinning snake everyone loves it. The amount of attention a post receives is inversely proportional to the amount of effort it takes. Argh!

I reveal this hard truth in order to introduce Ferrebeekeeper’s ninth and tenth most popular posts of all time!

The tenth most popular post was about the visually appealing but otherwise unremarkable green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) of the Indian subcontinent. This inoffensive reptile spends its life pretending to be a vine! Apparently people love it though, because all sorts of visitors came to look at the two beautiful photos of the snake which I found on the internet.

Green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) Photo by National Geographic

Green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) Photo by National Geographic

Ninth most popular was a post about adorable baby cheetahs playing in and around hats. Of course the post was really about more than how cute cheetahs are (and they are very cute indeed) but how they survive in a habitat which has moved away from their blazing fast skill set.  I love cheetahs, so this was a special post to me too.

I said Cheetah with a hat not cheetah in a hat...oh, just go look at the post

I said Cheetah with a hat not cheetah in a hat…oh, just go look at the post

So far, of the top ten posts on Ferrebeekeeper, the tenth most popular was about serpents– which is the best that serpents have managed to do thus far. The ninth most popular is about mammals, but (spoiler) there are more mammals as we get farther up the list. People really love those furry rascals (and ARE those furry rascals)!

Ashes of Roses

Ashes of Roses

As paint manufacturers know, there is poetry to the names of colors which influences the way that people respond to said colors. Sadly, the newer names invented by sundry marketers, “taste-makers”, business people, and other such scallywags are often not as euphonic to my ear as the old classic names (although the people at Crayola are pretty good at coming up with jaunty color names which have a whisper of classic beauty). Of course this renaming/rebranding convention has been ongoing ever since the dawn of language. Some of the renaming debacles from past eras are as egregious as the most laughable names from the decorator paint samples at the hardware store. For example, during the Victorian era, an extremely popular color was a dusky shade of pink known as “ashes of roses” (I have included examples of the color at the top and bottom of this post). As the Edwardian era dawned, someone evidently thought that the name was too long and lugubrious—so the color was rechristened with the vastly less evocative name “old rose.” What a fall from grace! Everyone knows that Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But I feel that sometimes the names of things do indeed diminish them. Would ashes of rose be as pretty if it were called “old rose” like someone talking in hushed tones about their spinster great-aunt?

"Old Rose"

“Old Rose”

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