Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ragdale Revisited: Day Eleven Part 2

Isn’t that just like me to promise to disappear only to reappear once more but I wanted to share with you the success of my “Reading” this eveing. All of the other artists were assembled in the Arts and Crafts Shaw House, the fire place blazing, glasses of wine in hand. I talked about the progress I have made at Ragdale in the thinking of how I wanted to assemble my writings. I read my “Introduction to Collecting” followed by an Observation, A Quotation, Poetry, and finally a Memoir. Through the readings they attended, laughed, commented, agreed, and cried. I barely got through the end of the Memoir myself, getting choked up a few times. Even applause at the end and admiration. As I have so often pretended to do on stage at the Lyric Opera, I bowed my head and put my hand over my heart and offered it to them in gesture. Here are those writings. Please keep them confidential until you see them in my nonfiction book:-)

In the book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994) Leonard Koren explains that the three important lessons of Wabi-sabi are: 1) All things are impermanent, 2) All things are imperfect, and 3) All things are incomplete. Wabi-sabi’s essence for me is in the statement that “Things are either devolving toward or evolving from nothingness … the universe is in constant motion toward or away from potential.

So goes my life, so goes Michael’s Museum. If I had to sum up why the museum is so important to me, I would say that it is a way of preserving my youth and possibly re-parenting myself. By re-parenting I mean re-creating my childhood in a way that gives me control over my memories and experiences. It allows me to remove the pain of growing up, the confusion of childhood, the frustration of becoming and to glorify and preserve my positive memories.

I guess I have been “collecting” for my entire life. I remember as a little boy filling my pockets with various treasures. None of them were alive, like frogs or such, but rather small bits and pieces of things that caught my fancy. 

I remember sitting on the stairs in the hallway outside of a school friend’s second floor apartment. We were maybe 6 or 7 years old. He had a cigar box filled with “sparkly” things that his mother had given him. There were bits of broken jewelry: loose sequins, rhinestones, pearls, and silver and gold chain. I remember thinking that this was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen. To this day I can close my eyes and see (feel) the experience.

We lived in Chicago near the corner of Anslie and Broadway until I was nine years old. Yarnell Chevrolet was just around the corner. I used to set up a lemonade stand and sell drinks to the mechanics who worked there. The stand consisted of an upturned, tablecloth covered, wooden slatted orange crate. (Oranges really came in wooden boxes during those years.) I must have charged 5 cents a cup.

On one of my dime store adventures, I bought some “First Place Award Pins.” They consisted of concentric circles of red, white, and blue celluloid plastic with two ribbons dangling down. There must have been a dozen of them attached to a cardboard and sealed in a cellophane bag. One day, instead of setting up my lemonade stand as usual, I did a “Museum Installation” on Broadway Avenue. I used the orange crate and the tablecloth and pinned the award pins around the parameter of the tablecloth. Then I set out a display of my favorite things, sat on a stool behind the display, and presided as people walked by.

When we moved to our new house on Kedzie Avenue, I had my own bedroom. I decorated my bulletin board by suspending rulers from string attached with tacks and then arranging my treasures neatly in a row on each ruler. I also displayed my metal cars on the windowsill along with to scale traffic signs: STOP, YIELD, and ONE WAY.

To this day I love “Dime Stores,” although their number is almost extinct. I remember when they were called The Five and Dime, Woolworth’s, Kreskes, Neisners. My parents used to call them “Gimme Shops.” As young children, whenever my sister and I would go into a dime store, we would see things we wanted to have. We would ask (or beg,) “Give me (Gimmie) this.” “Give me that, pleeeeeease!” Sometimes my mom and dad would “Gimmie.” Most times they would not. Now that I am a “grown-up” I can “Gimmie” whenever I want.

I am always on the lookout for small, magical, interesting, romantic, and/or unique items where ever I shop; in neighborhood stores, at antique shops, or on my travels around the world. I know exactly what I have in my various collections and this helps me as I scour the world for things to add to my treasures. Most often the larger the shop, the smaller the item I can find.

My Small Book Collection has been featured in the Learner Life Newspapers and has been on loan to the Glenview Public Schools, the Glenview Public Library, and the Evanston Public Library. My North American Indian Arts and Crafts collection was part of a show at the Mitchell Indian Museum in Evanston. Towards the end of its life, I appeared on the Bozo Show for three different five minute segments to discuss “Collecting for Kids.” I would bring in a number of my collections and Bozo and I would talk about them and the importance of collecting. Once I spontaneously, on the air, gave Bozo a metal Pirate Treasure Chest. He mentioned that it was like one belonging to his brother and that as a child he really wanted one. He was quite pleased with the gift. It was nice to make Bozo the Clown happy, considering he had made so many other people happy.

When I visit a museum, I am especially drawn to the small things that represent cultures of the past. These small items are as significant in representing the achievements, beliefs, and day to day living as the true to life size objects are. Perhaps the small objects were carried around in a pocket or perhaps they were used as a toy meant to instruct a child. Either way I am overwhelmed with joy when I visit these wonderful museum collections. The only problem is that I WANT THE OBJECTS! I obviously cannot afford to collect such rare museum quality masterpieces, but I try to recreate some of that magic and romance in my museum. And I do have a very few precious, rare items on display.

My current collection of collections began in earnest thirty years ago. Michael’s Museum was created 5 years ago at its current location. In our previous house the collection was approximately two thirds the size and scattered throughout. When we moved into the loft building, the third floor guest room was devoted to housing my collections and became “Michael’s Museum.” Individual glass cases were hung on the walls. Shelves and bookcases were added along with the “curators desk” and we were “open for business.” 

My museum consists of magical, unique items that are small in scale. Many of them are reminiscent of the “olden days” of my childhood as well as items from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. I call them “Discoverings” or “Small Things” or “Treasures.” Please do NOT call them miniatures. I find the term “miniatures” to be pjorative.  They are much more than miniatures as you can see. 

Michael’s Museum as a collection of collections is so much more than its individual pieces. Might one call it the museum "A Folk Art Piece" or "An Historical Overview," or " A Surrealist Collection," or “Worthy of the Smithsonian?”

A few important features of collections to remember: 1) A collection consists of two or more items. 2) Some collections have hundreds of pieces and some only a few. 3) If you find duplicates of items you collect, collect them too! 4) There is magic in repetition. 5) Display of collections is important. 6) Just keeping a collection in a box in your drawer is important. 7) Boxes filled with “stuff” are wonderful. 8) Carrying stuff with you in a pocket is fun. 9) Giving an item to a friend now and then is fun too. 10) Always be on the look out for interesting stuff to collect. 11) … and stop counting.

I adore items that begin to loose their features. A small statue of a man whose face is almost inarticulate gets me excited. A worn out Buddha or child’s toy block does so as well. 

Countless friends, friends of friends, neighbors, and family have visited the museum. There is always some collection or item that evokes memories of the past for the visitors. Perhaps the memories are of their childhood, or of an item a parent or grandparent once displayed with love. Sometimes the items are still buried away in a drawer or box and a promise to unearth them and put them out for display and admiration and remembrance is promised.

In the museum there is a large box disguised as a book with the title Treasure Island. This box contains the “gift shop” for the museum. After a new visitor has spent some time visiting the museum, they may select a small item from the box. Some of the items are duplicates from the collection, some are rejects from deaccessioned collections, and some have been purchased specifically for the “gift shop.” It is fun to watch the excitement that glitters in the eyes of the visitor as they go through the box to find the perfect memento to take home. The hardest part is that they can only have ONE item! The adults usually take longer to pick the ONE item than the kids do. The museum seems to bring out the “kid” in the adult.

Michael’s Museum, as a collection of collections, is so much more than its individual pieces. One of my dreams is to donate Michael’s Museum, in its entirety, to an established museum. This way more people can share and enjoy the “wonder” which I have created. It is part of my philosophy that “Life is meant to be lived big!”

I also dream of finding a benefactor who will endow the collection which in turn will enable an established museum to afford its installation and upkeep.

I fantasize about a free standing three quarter size building for the museum: 1) a three quarter size lobby, 2) a three quarter size gallery for Michael’s Museum, 3) a three quarter size special exhibit room, 4), a three quarter size gift shop, 5) a three quarter size docent/curator office, and 6) a three quarter size café serving milk and three quarter size cupcakes from “Swirlz Cupcakes” on Beldon off Lincoln in Chicago.

Ladies, Gentlemen and Children of All Ages. Step Right Up. Come visit Michael’s Museum. Be amused. Be amazed. Be astounded. 

This morning, as I was sitting there, I realized that there is something wonderful about a fresh new roll of toilet paper, just installed. No really! Think about it. A new beginning. A fresh start. A rebirth? Clean, crisp, full. White. 1,000 sheets. Preferably wrapped in an individual paper wrapper. Pristine. Pure. White. Useful and ready to go. Dispensing up and over the roll so as to be more sanitary for the next person, especially if you are the next person. The sound it makes as you roll off those first few sheets. The fullness of the roll reassuring you that you will not want. It doesn’t matter that the sheets may or may not tear at the perforations. It doesn’t matter whether you fold, fan, or bunch. What matters is the satisfaction of knowing that your needs will be met.

In Mexico, outside of a public toilet at the beach, a little old lady, and I mean wrinkled and little and old ancient lady sits at a table with little piles of newspaper, cut into four inch squares, for sale ... 1 peso a pile. Just think what she could do with a fresh roll of toilet paper.

In Chicago, in a booth you are occupying at the department store, just think how reassuring it would be to have a fresh, personal roll of toilet paper, wrapped or unwrapped, when on finishing up you realize that there is an empty dispenser on the wall to your right.

In Italy, squatting over a hole in the floor at the train station (hearing the train’s whistle approach from a distance) think how delighted you would be to have a roll of the soft, silky white stuff in your backpack rather than having to use the greenish, sandpaper like roll of stuff sitting on the floor next to the wall on which you are bracing yourself so as not fall into the toilet hole.

See what I mean. There IS something wonderful about a fresh new roll of toilet paper, just installed.

As a Jewish woman at Kaufman’s Bagel Bakery was overheard to say while requesting two slices of lox, “Is it fresh?” To which the deli-man replied, “Yes, Mam!” To which the woman replied, “How fresh?”

(Sorry for the final paragraph mom, you always told me not to mix eating with being on the pot!)

To share dreams is to risk being taken as a dreamer.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.  
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.  
But risks must be taken.
The greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing does nothing.
He has nothing and is nothing.
She may avoid suffering and sorrow
But he cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love, live.
Chained by their certitudes they are slaves.
They have no risks

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out for another is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place ideas before a crowd is to risk their freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.

As I lie in bed tossing and turning
The ideas of the day, 
The moon floods my pillow,
And sleep evades me.  

Largest of the year and full,
The cheese man smiles,
On his bronco, the cowboy bucks,
A young girl’s hair flows.

In my Ragdale bedroom,
A round window hole is punched through the wall.
Barnhouse red on the outside,
Playhouse blue inside.

The circle of thermopane inserted
Is slightly cracked, although not broken,
And even with its center gently misted,
The window to my world is not clouded.

The walls and floors pulse with the creativity,
Of the artists who have worked here before,
And the Spirits and Family of the Past
Take delight in what we now do.

I process the day and its events unfolded,
Set goals and desires for tomorrow.
I wonder at the wonder of being here,
And turn over to avoid Moon Burn.


My father has always kept a secret place for treasures and memories. The top left drawer of his bedroom dresser was its address. All of my life I can remember being aware of his secret place. It was a magical place to visit.
Now and then we would visit the drawer together. He would offer me a wallet, still in its original gift box. Once he gave me a miniature harmonica. We would look at the marbles he found while digging a garden.

He would show me a picture of his mother and father and tell me stories of his father’s shoe repair shop, the five brothers and sisters all  sleeping in one bed because of the limited space behind the shop, the victory garden where Max and Sarah grew, among other things, onions. He would show me his picture in Navy uniform taken in one of those “four for a quarter” photo machines. He showed me his “dog tags” from World War Two and his medals. 

He had a talent for finding lost coins on the sidewalk, in the parking lot, in the grass. He had a box which at the time seemed very heavy, at times filled with over fifty dollars in found money. Since his death, it seems that he has been communicating with us by leaving pennies around in the most unexpected places…and you could swear that the penny wasn’t there a moment ago!

He would take out the “Jews Harp” or was it a “Juice Harp?” The harp was a metal object, round on one end, tapered into parallel lines at the other, with a spring of metal down the middle. It was placed in one’s mouth and used for making rhythms and sounds based on tongue placement and breathing. He always warned me about being careful not to knock out a tooth while playing the harp. 

Now and then I would visit his dresser drawer alone, most likely when I was the only one at home. I would marvel at his memory items and covet the treasures. There were travel clocks, watches, tie tacks, more harmonicas, rings, screws, nuts and bolts, miniature toys, marbles, flashlights, transistor radiors, a “Little Bill” pin from the electric company, cars, and more. 

Most amazing of all, I discovered his stash of condoms. Rubbers. Sealed like little treasures in round, golden, foil containers. As a teenager, I remember stealing one from his dresser drawer to keep in my wallet. I did try to imagine what sex between my father and mother was like. To this day, I cannot! Can anyone imagine this of their parents?

As my father aged and during the last months of his life as he became more ill, I thought a lot about that dresser drawer. I thought about the “dad” I would never know. I was not yet born to experience his growing up, his life as a teenager or a young man. His trying to imagine his folks having sex. What was it like when his younger sister, Frieda, died on his birthday? What were his hopes, dreams, fears, disappointments, sorrows, joys. His sense of loss when his mom and dad died. His fear as one by one, over the years, all his brothers and sisters died. He was the baby of the family. His mother’s favorite.

I would never really know how he felt marrying my mom, seeing his daughter born, holding me in his arms, in 1945 just home on furlough, in his sailor’s uniform, in the picture I keep in my dresser drawer. I thought about all the conversations we never had, all the questions never asked, all the sharing that we just couldn’t or just wouldn’t do.

When my father was close to death the dresser drawer became even more symbolic. I knew that I would go through that drawer by my self once more at the end. I would absorb as many memories from his life as I could after he was gone. It would be my way of saying goodbye to my dad. Of saying I love you dad. Of saying I am so sorry for all the missed opportunities of getting to really know each other.

I know you loved me and I know you know I loved you. I wish I could have told you so at the end. I wish I could have held your hand and kissed your forehead. I wish when I told you I loved you a few weeks before you died, you could have said you loved me too instead of just – “OK.”

Before you left, I wish I could have told you again that I was grateful for everything you did for me growing up, for helping me become who I am, sometimes despite or in opposition to whom you wanted me to be. You did the best you could for me and I accept that with unqualified love. And I did the best I could for you.

There was a gold ring in that dresser drawer of yours that had a ruby stone in the center. I think it may have been your mothers. The back of the band was worn thin. I had always dreamed of having that ring. I looked for it last night while I was saying goodbye to you and your dresser drawer. It wasn’t there. Maybe it hasn’t been there for quite awhile. Maybe it was there only in my mind. What ever happened to it? Now you are there only in my mind. What ever happened to you? Come let me know, will you, and then be on your way.

Good Night. 

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