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Monday, June 28, 2010


The previous Wig & Pen entry touching on Nikita Khrushchev evoked the childhood reminiscence below.

That’s not Mr.Yetvin in the above photo, but my grandfather, Abraham Isaac Sandman. Like Yetvin and Nikita Khrushchev, he spoke fluent Russian, was built close to the ground, and exuded a peasant’s unstuffiness. Unlike Yetvin, Zadie saw the glass as half full. For him, an indispensible recreation was swimming (perhaps natating is a better word) stark naked at the YMCA with his ageing mates. (Watching them launch from the diving board was breathtaking.)

Another passion was grocery shopping on behalf of the two women in his life, his wife (my grandmother) and his daughter (my mother). A savvy arbitrageur, he would travel the seven hills of Worcester, Massachusetts with his portfolio of coupons in search of the slightest price advantage. His accomplice was always his light blue 1952 Mercury, dubbed the Speedmobile by the kids on my street. “Luyis, into the machine; times a- wastin’,” he'd exhort.  My friends would ride their bikes or run alongside the Speedmobile, keeping pace and often passing us.

Mr. Yetvin was decidedly bald. His suspenders and khaki pants secured shirts with large checks that resembled Kansas from the air. To my friends and me, Yetvin and Khrushchev might  have been separated at birth. It was 1961—the year of the Bay of Pigs. We were deeply fearful of Russian missiles and Russian spies. Yetvin’s disposition exuded subversiveness. He would snarl at any children who got too close to the embankment-lawn that buffered his brick cottage. Some of the kids would respond with cat calls, even flipping him the bird. Little Howie Rubin once rode his bike half way up Yetvin’s pitched driveway. Yetvin followed him down the driveway with an edger.

In the late spring of 1962, the Yetvin Affair took a foreboding turn. Our neighbor stopped mowing his lawn. By July it was nearly waist high. More than once we watched Yetvin—sometimes smirking, sometimes snarling—take a sickle to what looked increasingly like a wheat field. “A sickle—like in the Soviet flag,” remarked my next door neighbor, Adam Weinstein.

Then one day in late July, Jamie Rubin—Howie’s older brother—rang my doorbell. “Get down to Yetvin’s—now,” he gasped. “The lawn is burning. The old fart set his lawn on fire.” The embankment and several yards of lawn behind it were ablaze. My fear was Pavlovan and primal. The crackling flames, the heat, the smell, and the prospect of a dangerous elemental force out of control in a middle class Worcester neighborhood—What could be more unsettling to an 11-year old?

Back in the early 1960s, everybody burned paper and brush in outdoor metal incinerators. Smoke and its
byproducts were regular ingredients in the evening air. But Yetvin’s inferno was an affront to the neighborhood, to the order of things—and worse still, to the sanctity of the American lawn. For weeks, the jet-black scorched earth that once was lawn festered as a badge of his subversiveness. “Stay away from Yetvin and his yard,” my father demanded. “He’s unstable.”

Ten years later as a student of anthropology, I had an epiphany while reading Smolensk under Soviet Rule, a book about agricultural practices, land distribution, and politics in a Belarussian city and district during the 1920s and 1930s. Russians, it turned out, burned their fields to enrich their fertility ( a variant on the widespread practice of slash-and-burn agriculture.) That brought back memories of Yetvin. Suddenly he seemed a tad less loony—although no less subversive or mysterious.  If you have inside information about Mr. Yetvin, please contact this blog.  What became of  him? And more to the point, what actually was his game?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On Invisible Gorillas, Khrushchev’s Shoe, and Photoshop

Take two and call your lobotomist in the morning. In a classic psych experiment, about half of a subject group charged with counting a basketball team’s passes in the half court failed to notice the accomplice in the gorilla suit who briefly strode onto the court. A presumably honest Hillary Clinton remembered sniper fire overhead when touching down in her 1996 visit to Tuzla in war-torn Bosnia. Reporters recalled a different story: a peaceful landing and welcoming ceremony graced by a child reading a poem.

These and much more are grist for Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ new book, The Invisible Gorilla, an exploration of the distortions and outright illusions that accompany our individual and collective perceptions and memories. Don’t be fooled, note the authors: our brains are not cameras—they construct and reconstruct memories and perceptions with creative aplomb—sometimes they addeth; other times they taketh away.

If the shoe won’t fit . . . Reading the New York Times’ thumbs-up review of the book several Sundays ago ignited my own memory of perhaps the greatest collective illusion of the Cold War era. Remember footage or photos of Khrushchev banging his shoe during his 1960 speech at the United Nations? Nikita with shoe is one of the iconic images of the era. But according to former Washington Post journalist Peter Carlson in his entertaining K Blows Top, there was no video and no photo of the “act.” Alas, we’ve inherited just one photo of the shoe—a loafer, which sits inertly on the desk in front of K.

Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, who has lived in the United States since 1991, notes Carlson, regularly asks audiences if they recall images of his father banging the shoe. “I say, please raise your hand if you saw it, and many people raise their hands. They really think they saw it,” he remarks in Carlson’s book. Try your own version of the question at your next party. Some of your friends will bet the house that they saw K’s shoe in action. Their certainty will reflect  the viral potency and reinforcement of the human herd's collective memories.

Two weeks ago, I became excessively agitated upon discovering the Web photo (above right) of Khrushchev in the act—so agitated that  I emailed Khrushchev’s biographer, William Taubman, at Amherst College. The professor’s response was decisive:

I'm certain it's been photoshopped. Because even if he did bang his shoe (which I doubt), he is alleged to have done so while seated at a desk rather than standing at the lectern. But after interviewing a lot of people about the whole episode (many of them after my K bio came out), I believe K only brandished his shoe but did not bang it.

Learn how Professor Taubman arrived at his conclusions in his sparkling, meticulous opinion essay in the July 26-27 issue of the International Herald Tribune here.

A Note to Self-Important Photoshoppers. Be advised that Photoshopping a loafer into K’s hand and launching the photo into cyberspace may reflect your affinity for a consummate Stalinist tradition. Prominent party members among Stalin's millions of purged victims regularly got the air brush in official photographs. Consider the before-and-after frames below of Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB), who was purged in 1939 and executed in 1940. The photos are highlights in the Newseum’s intriguing Web exhibit, The Commissar Vanishes. Visit it here.

And take it from Chabris and Simons—getting a handle on perception and memory can be a tall order unto itself. Additional “noise” is not required. Please hold the Photoshop!

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Wig & Pen Remembers “Diaperman” Gary Shider

Wig & Pen grieves in reporting the passing of Gary Shider, a.k.a. Diaperman, a.k.a. Starchild, a mainstay in George Clinton’s wondrous troupe, Parliament Funkadelic (a.k.a. P-Funk). Mr. Shider, a vocalist and guitarist, earned his moniker by performing for decades in just a diaper. I got to see him for the first and last time in February, when my son dragged me to Funkadelic’s standing-room-only concert at the House of Blues in Boston.

In spite of my middle-brow musical apprehensions, the musically and comedically sumptuous show quickly won me over. Because the concert came on the heels of my annual visit to my urologist--Dr. Phillip Kick--watching Mr. Shider evoked both wonderment and envy. Here was an artist and a man, I thought, who in his golden years had earned the protected luxury of having a beer or two on stage—with full urological impunity. Sadly,  he never reached his golden years, departing for the eternal funkathon on June 16th at age 56.

Gary Shider died of cancer. The Sweet Relief Musicians Fund is coordinating a benefit concert and fund on behalf of Gary and his family. Learn more here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Question for Vladimir Morales and Wig & Pen's Readers

On June 7th , Amherst’s Select Board voted unanimously to adopt a resolution that prohibits the town from selling or buying goods or services to or from Arizona. The resolution also encourages Amherst’s residents and businesses to do the same. Thus, the town has responded to Arizona’s notorious “immigration” law, which gives police extraordinary powers to demand proof of identification by birth certificate or visa from anyone whom they suspect might be an illegal immigrant. Wig & Pen considers the Arizona law to be despicable. This blog is ambivalent about Amherst’s response.

NOW, on behalf of Wig & Pen’s readers, this blog seeks clarification involving a specific incident from Vladimir Morales, the Amherst Town Meeting member who played a pivotal role in the Amherst resolution’s adoption.

To cut to the chase: On Wednesday evening, while walking through town, I passed by La Veracruzana, one of Amherst’s culinary and cultural jewels. Owned by community-minded Martin Carrera and operated (predominantly) by Latinos, the restaurant recently installed a flat-screen wall TV to air every game of the current World Cup tournament. So far; so good.

It must have been after 8 p.m.--after World Cup coverage—but right in the middle of the Red Sox-Arizona Diamondbacks game, whose progress was clearly evident on the restaurant’s wall screen TV. When I got home, after voicing my customary skepticism toward interleague play, I asked my 18-year-old son whether he viewed La Veracruzana’s airing of the game as a breach of the Town’s resolution. His characteristically upbeat response: The Red Sox whipped their asses. Didn't they? So it must have been a good thing.

So Vlad, was it a good thing, a bad thing, or some shade of grey?

Please elucidate  below or via

Thank You!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Massachusetts Embraces Faustian Economics

With a trifecta of casinos in the offing for Massachusetts, will the state’s wager on casino gambling prove to be an investment in Faustian economics? Without question, the state’s balance sheet and several local communities will benefit. But there will be collateral damage. If you or your loved ones are among the body count, be sure to tell your nearest chapter of Gamblers Anonymous that Wig & Pen sent you.   You can drop in unannounced on regularly scheduled meetings throughout the state. And if you’re in Latvia, there are Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday night gatherings in Riga.

But when all is said and done, nothing prevents a tumble from grace more swimmingly than prevention. In yeoperson work for the Indiana Prevention Resource Center, a public health professional and a library science maven have tackled gateway gambling issues that plague Indiana teens. On page 22 of their study, they depict decks of Jack O Lantern and Candy Corn playing cards, a toy roulette wheel, and a Monopoly board under the heading, Gateway Gambling?

One state over in Champaign, Illinois, the YMCA is offering a youth camping experience that the Indiana duo would no doubt abhor. There’s probably still time for you to enroll the underage members of your family.

The Blood Is the Life. While on the topic of Gamblers’ Anonymous, isn’t the vampire a splendid candidate for 12-step intervention? I'm talking intervention via affinity groups that pay more than lip service to Romanian language skills, the non-kitchen uses of garlic and oregano, and so forth. The vampire’s subversive appeal, after all, is that—like a well-adjusted Victorian—you can relate to the generic compulsion that accompanies addictiveness, while the addiction itself remains at an unreachable distance from your own—be it sex, drugs, or philately. (Lamentably, I recently learned that my 12-step proposal was not the first: Vampires Anonymous, a camp flic released in 2000, explores the phenomenon, but not apparently with much success. The Internet Movie Data Base panned it with a rating of 4.9 out of 10.)

Just like any addiction worth its cred, the vampire’s has its own gateway dynamics. To that end, Wig & Pen leaves you with a photo of the the hapless accolyte Renfield  from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Over the course of the movie, Renfield, played by the hyperbolic Dwight Frye,  works his way up the food chain from flies to spiders to rats. Before his untimely death at the hands of his master, he's just begun to explore humans, but with the experimental tentativeness of  a protopubescent.

Substitute M&Ms, petits fours, and, Crispy Creams:  Don't Renfield's rantings have universal, cautionary bite?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stations of the Cloth

Ten years ago over my morning coffee at Rao’s in Amherst, I looked up to see my friend Bruce Teague flipping through what appeared to be a Lands End catalog. That seemed a tad out of place for Bruce, who usually dressed with Franciscan abandon. I should mention that Father Bruce was at the time head priest at St. Brigid’s, Amherst’s largest Catholic Church.

At Bruce’s table, much more came to light. The catalog had a four-color Lands End look—but instead sported liturgical vestments—chasubles and copes, stoles, funeral sets, dalmatics, and—of course—albs. These were the good works of the Holy Rood Guild, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trappist monastery, St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The elegance, craftsmanship, and sticker price of Holy Rood’s offerings (most embellished dalmatics begin at $1K) made one conclusion inescapable—these Trappists have transcended the business purgatory of jellies and jams.

“I know many of the models; that’s Father Timothy; that’s Father Anthony,” confessed Father Teague, while treating me to a tour of the catalog. You too can view it first hand, through the Holy Rood Guild’s inspiring Web site at this link.

I also recommend Brother Emanuel Morinelli’s discussion of the Guild and its business model here.

And for whimsical inspiration, take a look below at the Ecclesiatical Fashion Show—the one saving grace in Federico Fellini’s otherwise tedious movie, Fellini Roma.