There’s no place like Home


Karl Slover, one of the last surviving munchkins from the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz died a couple of days ago.1 One of the weirdnesses of moving to the eastern suburbs of Syracuse was discovering that the munchkins were regular visitors to nearby Chittenango; when I first came to locate a place to live they were having a parade featuring them for Oz-Stravaganza.2 I had always thought that the Wizard of Oz took place in Kansas. It was downright weird. Turns out that Chittenango was the birthplace of L. Frank Baum.

Birthplace of L. Frank Baum

I drove over there yesterday, because I was curious about just what sort of place Baum might call home. There’s no trace of it, really. The address on Falls Blvd. is in the shadow of a hill and it seems logical that someone would build there. The Baum’s only lived there for two years, so it seems unlikely that this is the place that Frank would have called home. But fittingly, in The Wizard of Oz the kingdom of the East is the kingdom of the munchkins.

Judy Garland Museum, click through for full photo set

I’d actually never read the Wizard of Oz before coming here. Like most people I suppose, most of what I know came from the movies. Krista, though, is a huge fan-girl of the movie. In 2007, we drove to the birthplace of Judy Garland— Grand Rapids, Minnesota— where they turned her childhood home into a museum. There’s more to see than just a tract-style home. Reading the book this week, I was somewhat shocked to find that there are no ruby slippers.3 In the book, it is sliver slippers and the magic phrase is “Take me home to Auntie Em!”— dashing my hope for a clever hook into musing that “there’s no place like home.”

Home is—more frequently than not— transformed beyond our recognition or memory in the blink of an eye. I had forgotten that The Wizard of Oz begins with just that sort of transformation. Dorothy’s home in Kansas is ripped from the ground and transported to a new place, landing on top of the wicked witch of the east. Having lived for a significant time in the West, South, North, and East now it makes for a really interesting read. Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to the centennial edition, sets up an opposition between Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz as touchstones of light and dark world views:

Choosing Alice, are you then a cynic, a skeptic, or just a disillusioned drop-out?

Choosing Dorothy, are you an impossible optimist, the happy warrior, the convivial far-traveler who runs his own lost-and-found to always be found?


I don’t claim that we can judge readers by such choices. There must be travelers, like myself, who can go a-journeying through both countries, dark and light, and come forth intrigued, insightful, and happy. Wonderland may be fog and drizzle, but Alice stands as a beacon in its midst, stays sane, comments, and survives 4 (xiv).

I suppose I’ve been living on the dark side for most of my travels, but as I get older I am more open to coming into the light of the Emerald City. Writing snarky comments is a lot easier than trying to write something that is both intelligent and optimistic. Cynicism has always come more naturally to me. That is perhaps why I have not really felt compelled to write that much the last few years— I’ve actually been quite happy living here in New York, although when I read the hyperbole painting Syracuse as the Emerald City it’s hard not to choke-up with laughter and wonder what these people have been smoking.

Roselawn: Boyhood home of L. Frank Baum
Site of Roselawn, boyhood home of L. Frank Baum— “Watch us change,” indeed.

Roselawn, Baum’s boyhood home was located on Brewerton (a.k.a. “Plank”) Road north of Syracuse. Naturally, the good witch lives in the north. Every other direction was the domain of the wicked.5 Interestingly, the plank road was the first toll road in the U.S. (opened in 1846). Some speculate that the road composed of hickory planks (yellowish wood) might have inspired the “yellow brick road,” but that really seems unlikely to me. I mean, after at least 20-30 years of wagon traffic one doubts that there was any yellow left under the mud. I’ve not been able to find out much about exactly where the 16.5 mile stretch of planks was originally, or when it might have rotted away. I suspect that since it isn’t visible in the 1878 book of views of Syracuse I’ve got, it was gone by Baum’s boyhood. That’s the nature of change, really. While it’s logical to assume that Syracuse had some impact on Baum’s writing, it just doesn’t follow that one might map his fictional work on this all too actual space.

1. As far as I know, Margaret Pellegrini is still alive. Looking around the net, I find it interesting that she denies that the munchkins were hard partiers: “I was only 15 when the movie was filmed. There were a few of them who liked to drink, but it wasn’t what they said it was. A lot of those stories were false,” . The really interesting thing I turned up was that Toto the dog got paid more than the munchkins:

OzzyChangingHands02-20-2010.jpeg2. I suppose they had to call it Oz-stravaganza because Ozzfest was taken. Though if the rumors of hard-partying munchkins were true then it might be appropriate. In completely unrelated news, it seems that Black Sabbath announced on 11/11/11 that they were getting together for their first studio album in 33 years in 2012. As a big fan of the dark side, I find this to be good news.

Judy Garland Museum
3. There are no ruby slippers at the museum either. They were stolen just before we visited the place, and have not been recovered as far as I know. It’s a shame, really. The idea of some shoe fetishist somewhere privately adoring his big score is a bit frightful.

4. Coincidentally, my western home, Bakersfield, was renowned for its fog and drizzle. I once got lost in a parking lot down by the Kern River for three hours because the fog was so dense. I drove around with the car door open watching the curb for breaks that might signal the exit. Besides that though, I wouldn’t say that Bakersfield had much in common with Wonderland.

Chittenango5. While it seems unlikely that Baum held any animosity towards his birthplace in the east, his mother-in-law lived most of her life in Fayetteville, another eastern suburb. Wikipedia notes that Baum’s relationship to his mother-in-law was wrongly portrayed as antagonistic and any identification with the wicked witch of the west seems wrong on multiple levels.

In the edges

I’ve always been drawn to folk music, to roots music. I stop at Barry Manilow. From a very early age when I was a kid listening to Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five – you know, that’s very crude music in the one sense but it’s very sophisticated and advanced and harmonically interesting but its surfaces are crude. I suppose I fell in love with that sound when I was quite young and its something I’ve always looked for: sophisticated but crude.

. . .

They wanted me to transcend something and sometimes if it’s rough and has a rough quality it transcends. If you repeat music too often . . . if you rub the edges off music you take away the music itself. The music is in the edges, its in the rough bits. If you smooth it over there’s really nothing left. You’ve got lots of notes left but there’s no music, so its always a striving to keep it alive as something fresh that really has vitality to it.

[Richard Thompson]

I’ve been always after something like a deeper truth, an ecstatic truth. I’ve been after balance, after something like justice within pictures. Very strange to explain it and I’ve hardly ever seen a film that has complete balance within it. There are exceptions like Rashomon by Kurosawa where I’m sitting in awe and wondering how did he do that. How for god’s sake can I get somewhat close to this. Of course I never will but trying it anyway is okay and it gives some sort of meaning to my life and in a certain way going for the essential right straight without detour where is it . . . it’s the essential I’m looking for what is the deepest essential that defines us as human beings.

[Werner Herzog]

“In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Session” bonus feature on the Grizzly Man DVD

I have problems of different sorts with both Richard Thompson and Werner Herzog. One seems completely foreign, the other all too familiar. Richard Thompson has always been a bit weird for me because he is always “in character” in all his songs. There is virtually no sense of who or what he really is as a human being. Even watching/listening to something like A Thousand Years of Popular Music gives you little insight into what or who he is through his consumptive choices. It’s a bit like the split between the Romantic poets and the Victorians like Tennyson or Browning— with Blake or Wordsworth, you never fail to recognize who is speaking. Victorians are tricky role-playing creatures, impossible to take at face value. I tend to think of Thompson as a bit of a Victorian, and this extra bit is uncharacteristically revealing of his preferences.

At the onset of this featurette, Herzog declares that film and music are closely related, more so than film and literature. The discrepancy between container metaphors between these two collaborators is striking. For Thompson, the music is found at the edges. For Herzog, he wants to seek out the heart, the essence inside the human condition. “Straight without detour” hardly describes the arc of most of his films. He seems to want to play the trickster, dancing around the fire until the heat is unbearable. And always, the focus is on him and his feelings about the fire.

Grizzly Man is probably my favorite Herzog film so far (I haven’t seen that many) because of a profound affinity between the lunatic filmaker in charge and the lunatic filmaker under scrutiny. One sees nature as friendly and welcoming to kindred spirits, the other sees nature as hostile and unforgiving. The tension is in the dialog between the two. Because Treadwell is dead, though, he really can’t correct the crazy German. At least it’s easy to believe that although they disagree, these two guys would probably like each other.

However, the whole idea of the artist as a crazy egotist is just tired and rubbed in the ground. That’s why even after just a few forays into Herzog’s films it seems tiresomely familiar. The artist makes his statement, reality be damned. Herzog is often guilty of shaving off the edges, but less so here than in the other films I’ve seen.

Werner Herzog on Documentary

If I were only fact based the book of books in literature would be the Manhattan phone directory. Four million entries, everything correct. But it dusts[?] out of my ears and I do not know do they dream at night? Does Mr. Jonathan Smith cry in his pillow at night? We do not know anything when we check all the correct entries in the phone directory. I’m not this kind of a filmmaker. I’m not this kind of a filmmaker(4:33-5:10)

The great Mammal story

Beluga Whale at the Atlanta Aquarium

I was horribly disappointed by the Atlanta aquarium and it took me a long time to figure out why. There are many animals there that you don’t usually see, particularly whale sharks and beluga whales. They do a big business with their dolphin show, but after watching The Cove I wasn’t really interested in helping to fund that. I rode the long escalator to watch the two token dolphins swimming circles and walked away really sad.

The vibe of the place was just different from any other aquarium I have visited. Forking over my $28 and passing through an airport-style security gauntlet, rewards you with a view of huge banners for corporate sponsors. Where most aquariums have tanks, Atlanta places video screens with virtual footage of fish. Not many plants or corals, just fish. There was little hint of interdependent ecosystems except to point out how necessary and rewarding man’s (read corporate) interventions into wild habitats are. It was like stepping into an Exxon commercial. It was paid corporate propaganda of the sleaziest sort, and the spectators were asked to pay just as much as the sponsors. I refused to pay $16 to visit the Coke museum across the street.


No thanks. The whole experience just seemed fishy (and not in a good way). Unlike Monterey, or even the Duluth Great Lakes aquarium that promote the preservation of unique and diverse environments, the Georgia Aquarium sells you the “great mammal’ view of history. The otter, for instance, is trumpeted as “the protector of the kelp forest” while man helps contribute to longer whale lifespans by trapping them and putting them in big glass tanks emblazoned with advertising. I felt like I needed a shower afterward and deserved a tip. Instead, tourists are encouraged to pay for the privilege of being told how important big mammals are.

The Late Barbara Billingsley


“It ain’t a privilege to be on TV
and it ain’t a duty either.
The only good thing about TV
is shows like ‘Leave it to Beaver.'”

“‘Shows with love and affection’,
like mama used to say.
A little Mayberry living
could go a long way.”

from Greendale by Neil Young

I was celebrating having located the limited edition audiophile LP set of Greendale when Barbara Billingsley died. I used this clip from Airplane for years to teach the problems of bridging discourse communities (in Tech Writing classes). Tech writers just never get any respect either. Now that I basically live in Mayberry, the loss (and humor) seems even more poignant.

Cold Souls


I really enjoyed Cold Souls, though I notice that a lot of people don’t find it that funny. Perhaps it’s the lack of an ending, or mapping the appearance of Giametti’s soul onto a chick pea that grates. Personally, it seemed a bit fitting that the soul would be equated with a seed. I think Plato thought along those lines as well.

On an In Our Time BBC podcast. Mary Beard suggested that the best way to understand ancient Greek myth is that it provides “a convenient way of thinking about life.” No matter how much we try to rid ourselves of myth, it always seems to creep back in because it provides  sort of “testing ground” for moral concepts that can be contingent on  context. There can be no “accurate” myth because good concepts survive best when they can be deformed to fit the circumstances of a continually renewed audience.

Perhaps the modern soul is indeed cold, hard, and beige. But soul’s transformation into an object is the real trick. Like myth, soul makes no sense as an object. It makes a great deal of sense as a practice.*

*See also What is Soul by Funkadelic.


A Matter of Style

Watching My Generation, a documentary which compares the 1969, 1994 and 1999 Woodstock concerts the narrow telescope of history lights up to roast the ants. The biggest victim, I think, is the view presented of the 1969 festival. Don’t get me wrong, the film is relatively fair in presenting the facts— such as the Who demanding their money, cash in advance, before they would take the stage— but the view of the 90s interviewees when looking back at the previous festival shows a media-driven response to the hype of what Woodstock was in 1969.

Moby, for example, expressed his feeling that the youth culture of the sixties had not yet been co-opted by big business and that the spirit of sixties youth, although naive, was somehow more coherent. Another young girl suggested that the sixties was unified by fighting the Vietnam War, and the present generation has no war to fight against. It seems to me that this has changed since the release of this movie, but I can’t see that contributing much coherence to the present age.

I was eleven years old when the first festival happened, but growing up in the 1970s the hype had already begun to snowball about the “summer of love” and all that. I thought it was nice how the filmmaker chose to display a pissed-off Pete Townsend smashing a guitar while the interviews spouted the peace and love thing. Interviews with the middle-aged attendees of course were quick to point out how much more violent and nihilistic the 90s generation was. Of course being somehow “smarter” and more aware of the futility of political action— that there wasn’t any point in caring because the 60s really changed nothing— made the younger generation somehow “better” than the kids in the sixties, at least if you listen to them.

Every speaker clearly serviced their own rhetorical need to feel above the excesses of the generation opposed to them. It’s all such utter crap. The situation at each of the festivals was unique. I suspect that the “peace and love” vibe sold by members of the crowd at all the festival’s incarnations was primarily marketing. As for the generational differences in attitude, I think old-timer Todd Rundgren put it best, loosely paraphrased:

In the sixties, the in style was to act like you cared. In the nineties, it’s more hip not to care.

I sincerely believe that there is probably very little quantitative difference in the involvement of either generation. It’s largely a matter of fashion, of style. The punk fashion (sold by the media, not manifest in reality) which emerged in the intervening years was one of apathy. A quick survey of most of the music which emerged in the whole DIY aesthetic would fill books with its involvement in resisting corporate culture, not through violent means, but by the creation of a new culture. The short-circuited hooligans of the last Woodstock are victims of not just one, but two media stereotypes— that the present generation is powerless against big business, and that punk is entirely about “fucking shit up.” It’s a pity, really.

To forge a culture, people come together. If there’s a Budweiser sign hanging in the corner, then it should be suspect. The lack of corporate sponsorship in the sixties does not make the people of the sixties any smarter— I suspect that if big business had been involved in the original festival, the vast majority of the attendees would have done much the same thing as the later shows. No generation has a monopoly on being young and stupid, and as for the apathy, well— most of the people I knew in the seventies who talked of the sixties counterculture didn’t talk about political action, peace, love, or any of that crap. Like any group of young people, they talked about partying and getting laid. It’s amazing how the lens of history can forge coherence that never really existed.