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Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

Banned Books

November 17, 2014 | by

Once Upon a Potty

An illustration from Once Upon a Potty.

Once Upon a Potty was written in 1975 by the Israeli author and illustrator Alona Frankel to help her son toilet train. (Its Hebrew title is Sir Ha-Sirim, literally “Potty of Potties.”) Since it was translated into English in 1980, it’s never gone out of print, and now it’s regarded as a picture-book classic, a helpful resource for the parents of young children. 

It was banned in my house. My mother disliked the use of euphemisms she deemed babyish—wee-wee, potty, “a hole to woo-woo from”—and illustrations she found “creepy” and “disgusting.” I can still recall first hearing what would become one of her most oft-repeated phrases: “I don't care for that at all.” She sniffed at households that owned the book and curled her lip when we saw it on store shelves. 

As a result, Once Upon a Potty took on the luster of the taboo. Like a nineteenth-century schoolboy with a French postcard, I would read it—or, anyway, look at it—furtively whenever I was unobserved: at other toddlers’ houses, in the children’s room of the library, at the local Y where I did tumbling. Particularly shocking to me was the final illustration: the triumphant coil of tempera feces in a puddle of yellow urine. And the accompanying text! Exuberantly babyish, frankly scatological, my mother's nightmare incarnate. “Bye-bye wee-wee,” it reads as the excrement disappears down the toilet. “Bye-bye woo-woo.” Read More »

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Homesick for Sadness

November 8, 2014 | by

A childhood in incompletion.

Berlin, Loch in Mauer am Reichstag

The Berlin Wall in 1990.

What was I doing the night the Wall fell?

I spent the evening with friends just a few blocks from the spot where history was being made, and then: I went to bed. I slept right through it. And while I slept the pot wasn’t just stirred, it was knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning, I was told we wouldn’t need pots anymore.

There was a lot of talk of freedom, but I didn’t know what to do with this concept, which was suddenly drifting about in all sorts of different sentences. The freedom to travel. (But what if you couldn’t afford to?) Or the freedom of expression. (What if no one was interested in my opinion?) The freedom to shop. (But what comes after the shopping trip?) Freedom wasn’t just a gift, it was something you paid for, and the price of freedom turned out to have been my entire life up till then. Everyday life was no longer everyday life: it was an adventure that had been survived. Our customs were now a sideshow attraction. Everything that had been self-evident forfeited its self-evidence within the span of a few weeks. A door that opened only once every hundred years was now standing ajar, but the hundred years were gone forever. From this point on, my childhood became a museum exhibit.

My life was accompanied by the Socialist life of Leipziger Strasse, which today leads to Potsdamer Platz but at the time came to an end at the Wall. Today I know that a hundred years ago, Leipziger Strasse was a narrow, popular, and highly populated commercial street filled with tobacco shops, horse-drawn streetcars, sandstone curlicues on the buildings, and women with fancy hats. There were still Jewish-owned textile mills in the neighborhood at the beginning of the thirties. But when I was a child, none of this remained, and I didn’t know there was something, or someone, missing. Today I also know that the tall buildings, like the one I lived in, were constructed with propagandistic intentions as a response to the Springer Publishing headquarters on the West side of the Wall, but as a child, I simply enjoyed all the lights we could see on the other side from the terrace above the twenty-third floor. We read the time for our Socialist recess from an illuminated display in the city’s Western half, visible from our side of the Wall. That the building to which this display was attached also bore the illuminated letters B.Z., advertising a newspaper we’d never heard of, was of no interest to us. For our Sunday walks, my parents would bring me to the end of Leipziger Strasse, to the area right in front of the Wall, where it was as quiet as in a village. There was smooth prewar asphalt perfect for roller-skating, and the final stop on the bus line, no through traffic beyond. This was where the world came to an end. For a child, what could be better than growing up at the end of the world? Read More »

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Disturbing Innocence

October 31, 2014 | by

Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Kirsten, Star, 1997.

Croak_Dirt Baby

James Croak, Dirt Baby, 1986.

Peter Drake, Siege of Syosset, 2007.

Jake & Dinos Chapman, Doggy, 1997.

James Casebere, Landscape with Houses (Dutchess County) #9, 2011.

David Levinthal, Untitled (Woman with arms raised from behind), 1989.

Edith And Big Bad Bill: Little Bear To The Rescue

Dare Wright, Edith And Big Bad Bill: Little Bear To The Rescue, 1968.

Beecroft_Blonde Figure Lying_detail

Vanessa Beecroft, Blonde Figure Lying, 2008

The artist Eric Fischl has curated “Disturbing Innocence,” a group show on display at the FLAG Art Foundation through January 31, 2015. More than fifty artists, historical and contemporary, are represented in the exhibition, which features work with a focus on surrogates—mannequins, dolls, robots, toys—and “presents a subversive and escapist world at odds with the values and pretensions of polite society.”

Fischl says in a preface to the catalogue:

Curiously, “toy,” “robot,” “mannequin,” and “doll” are all nouns with negative connotations embedded in their definitions, including phrases like “something of little value,” “non-important,” “subservient,” “a non-entity,” “without original thought,” “controlled by others,” “a pretty girl of little intelligence,” and “disposable.” The very thought of this goes against the profound experiential impact these supposedly trivial attachments have had on our imaginations and within our emotional development as children. It flies in the face of what we know from our own essential experience with our toys. The difference between children playing with their toys and adult artists using toys and other surrogates for their art, the way that male and female artists use these surrogates differently, are the crux of this exhibition.

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Admiration

September 24, 2014 | by

Louisa_May_Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

We had typed our stories in the computer lab, and I remember thinking that mine looked professional. I was also pretty sure it was excellent. Fiction writing was not my strong suit—I would never have ranked myself up there with Travis, whose stories were universally regarded as hilarious, or Vanessa, whose imagination gave birth to miraculous plots of which I was in awe. But this one (which, despite its modern setting, bore the strong stamp of Louisa May Alcott’s influence) was better than my usual offerings, I had worked harder on it, and I was eager to see the teacher’s glowing comments.

But here is what she wrote: “This sentence does not make sense. This is not what ‘admire’ means. Find another word in the thesaurus.”

Here is what I had written: “She’d admire to have you.” I knew it was accurate because Louisa May Alcott used this exact construction in An Old-Fashioned Girl, in the course of a house-party invitation. In my story, someone was being invited to a sleepover. I was indignant. I went home, spent a long time finding the passage in question, and then brought the book into class. But then the teacher was sick, and out for a few days, and I forgot to make my point.

If you enter that particular construction into a search engine now, you will find much vindicating evidence. Read More »

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Story Time

September 11, 2014 | by

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From the cover of a “Fun with Music” disc.

Ann Rachlin, storyteller, MBE, and pioneer of music appreciation, has been working for years—she’s now eighty—but she really came to prominence in the mideighties, when she started teaching little Prince William. I wonder if that’s when my mom bought her records. Whatever the reason, her “Fun with Music” series was in heavy rotation at our house, and the distinctive, lilting rhythms of her idiosyncratic narratives was the sound track of our childhoods. I think if you’d asked me between the ages of four and six which celebrity I would have most liked to meet, the answer would have been Ann Rachlin. (Well, Ann Rachlin and Jeff the mannequin from Today’s Special.)

The records (and later tapes, for playing in the car) featured narration over classical music pieces. Sometimes, as in the case of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, or the deeply distressing Swan Lake, Rachlin based her tale on a preexisting story. Others were wholly original, and often unabashedly bizarre. (I am thinking especially of Lost Coin in a Fountain, set to Respighi.) To call Rachlin’s style “expressive” is a vast understatement: her voice rises and falls dramatically, she takes on all characters with gusto, she evokes laughter and tears and bafflement. She is so wholly uninhibited that it’s shocking even to a child. Maybe especially to a child. And while her tales are all designed to capture a child’s imagination, she does not shy away from sadness and even, occasionally, tragedy. (See: Swan Lake.) Read More »

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Dovlatov’s Way

September 4, 2014 | by

This weekend, an intersection in Queens will be renamed Sergei Dovlatov Way.

dovlatov-granish1

Sergei Dovlatov

Sergei Dovlatov gave me a pistol when I was a child. It was just an air gun, it turned out, but my mother couldn’t tell the difference, and she was justifiably horrified to see me running around with a semiautomatic. It did not have a red plastic tip and it was nicely chromed, from somewhere in Eastern Europe. With enough pressure pumped into it, its little steel pellets could really hurt someone. Dovlatov found this very funny. Now we New Yorkers are naming a street after him.

And I’m thrilled. That street in Forest Hills, Queens, is the same one where his widow lives; it’s where his daughter, who recently translated Dovlatov’s great novel Pushkin Hills, grew up; and it’s where I grew up, too. At least eighteen thousand people share in my enthusiasm—that’s the number of petitioners it took to make this happen. That it’s such a formidable number should come as no surprise. Even if Joseph Brodsky was the greatest member of the so-called Third Wave of Russian immigrants—he won the Nobel and married an Italian woman—it’s Dovlatov whom readers love viscerally, unconditionally. How can we help it? When Matt Taibbi showed up to inaugurate Katherine Dovlatov’s translation a few months ago, I asked why he came: it was because Dovlatov was the one Russian author who made him laugh out loud. And suddenly we understood one another. Dovlatov made me laugh out loud, too, first in person, and then when I grew up, through his literature.

During the height of his fame, Dovlatov’s works were read universally. Solzhenitsyn, a dour man in his Vermont stronghold who wished to have nothing to do with the Third Wave “sausage immigrants,” read his entire three-volume collected works. The pieces translate easily because of their inherent humanity, and their humor, remarkably, translates as well. In Russia, where his work was retyped at night for samizdat, his secret readership grew, making many a fan. Half of Russia sat in jail, the other half stuck around to be with the first, and Dovlatov had been in both positions—and wrote about it, and still made it funny. The KGB, of course, was not a fan; they even destroyed typeset plates that had been prepared for publication. Dovlatov took the dissident-lite approach of simply not taking the Soviet Union seriously, and for this he was beloved. Read More »

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