The Old's Cool Podcast
"Of Elephants and Hierophants."
We're going to shake things up a bit over here, starting with the name of our weekly newsletter, which has gone through many incarnations: The Upshot, MO' Better, and O' News to name a few. It's now going to be called Wiseacreage.
Over the past few years we've also written monographs, handbooks, and even a collection of essays, Oedipus Wrecks, but today we'd like to introduce the newest addition to our content family: The Official "Old's Cool" podcast. This weekly half-hour show-and-tell will explore traditional (and non-traditional) lifestyles and crafts, history, art, music, and the great books.
We'll be picking the brains of the many (and mostly local) artists, disrupters, iconoclasts and recalcitrants and kings who are full of wisdom and spit, and sharing the spoils and laughter with you.
While trying to look classy, sound wicked smart, and have a cool hoot the whole time of course.
Our inaugural broadcast features one of our West Point classmates, Mike Lerario, who fills in the backstory to the slogan "Patton Was Right," which was about us fighting the wrong enemy during WWII. And we discuss why the General hit the nail on the head back then, and is now vindicated by the way the world has been hammered into submissiveness over our folly ever since.
Where we discuss the importance of style and good design and the honed, discerning artistic eye in our everyday lives. Or we try to – the digressions and sidebar salads elbow their way in. Jibes and asides take up most of the rest of the civilized part of the discussion. Socratic irony fills in the remaining blanks.
As promised, something just as abstract and practical as last week: we spoke with local artist Rupert Nesbit about modern art, and how imagination and feelings/ intent unfortunately trumps skill and craft and just about everything else these days – "Modern art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text."
The Third and Elm Press, owned and operated by my friend Ilse Nesbitt, had an “Open” sign hanging in the window when I walked by later that afternoon to go to Battery Park to watch the sunset, so I popped in. The shop is so old school and intact you’d think you stepped over the threshold back into 1960. The motto is a quote from Goethe:
“Whoever works joyfully and enjoys what has been done is fortunate.”
She was framing a wood block print and I asked her if her ears were ringing the other day. I was talking about her because an America woman, Anne, I met at a party had been born in Sapporo. I asked her why? Most Americans born after the war in Japan were either born in Tokyo or Yokohama, since that’s where the military and the diplomats lived. Her father was a businessman in Sapporo.
Ilse was German, and lived in The Land of the Rising Sun during the war because her father was a chemist working for a company in Minami, about halfway between Tokyo and Yokohama. She has told me so many fascinating stories about living in there during the war, some of which I’ve recounted in other monographs. She was telling me today that when the American guards outside of town would see the Japanese children coming up to them to ask for chocolate or cigarettes, they would say “hana moshi” which means “nose housecleaning” since they always had runny noses. The kids would run away.
I was leaning against “a great clattering rig of iron,” the 1897 Golding Platen Press that dominates her studio, and it’s a perfect example of the industrial revolution’s optimism and muscularity. I couldn’t help but notice it. She went into a story about Gutenberg and his Bible, and how it was not only revolutionary in concept, it’s absolutely perfect in execution. She said that he created a stunning masterpiece on this very first try, and no one has ever printed anything better.
She and her family were eventually shipped back by the Americans and she remembered her mother telling her that when she got to Germany she’d at least be able to read the street and shop signs. Japanese signs are sometimes written vertically, sometimes horizontally, sometimes read right to left, other times left to right, so she’d always been confused. At least when she got back home she wouldn’t have that problem her mother assured her.
Ilse also mentioned that her father could read and write Japanese fluently, since he was an engineer after all, and had learned it in school as a teenager. But when he started working in the factory, he couldn’t really speak it since he never had had any practice, so he communicated with his colleagues using a notebook and pen. He would write everything out, and they would write their answers back to him like he was deaf and mute.
The ship sailed into Bremerhaven late one night, and then they took a train to a small town outside of Frankfurt where the refugee camp was located. The compound was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and the front gate was flanked by two guard towers. The American sentries had machine guns. The entrance had a barbed wire barrier about 20 feet in front of it with a sign on it that said:
IF YOU CROSS THIS LINE YOU WILL BE SHOT.
Welcome home! Luckily she did cross the line and luckily she wasn’t shot.
Just then her cat came slowly down the stairs and scuffled around my feet. I forgot the name, but Ilse said she was 21 years old. The old feline threw up nonchalantly at my feet, and then sat down and looked at me. Ilse apologized and I told her not to worry. I grabbed a paper towel and bent down to pick it up. Ilse thanked me again and said she couldn't bend down because she didn't have any legs. As matter-of-fact as that.
I said "What? You don't have any legs?" She said she had lost them in a tram accident in some city in Germany after she had started university, or right around that time. I finished picking up the puke and threw the paper towel in the trash.
On my way home I was thinking that I'd probably known Ilse for almost three years, and she had never mentioned this before. Not a peep. I've met many, many people who will tell you that they're lactose intolerant or allergic to peanut butter, or are vegans or vegetarians or alcoholic or suffer from diverticulitis or some fashionable psychological condition within five minutes of meeting them. And then use whatever one or some of these in some weird intersectionality to virtue signal justification for their own shortcomings, bad behavior, failures, as well as the same for their spouses, children, oily same-party politicians, or anyone else who subscribes or will listen, forever. Ad nauseum.
I don't know Ilse that well, but I can imagine she not only never used the fact that she was a double amputee as an excuse for anything, ever. In fact I'm willing to bet she never even thought of doing so because she didn't think of herself as in any way crippled or entitled to any kind of special treatment. I'm sure the idea would be anathema to her.
The gas-lit sconces flanking the front door of the John Stevens house popped on and flickered as I headed home, and I just caught the sensational sunset over the Newport Bridge, like an iron salamander chasing the amazing day away from me.
Scrimshanders is a scrimshaw boutique on Bowen's Wharf in Newport, Rhode Island, owned and operated by master artist and carver Brian Kiracofe. The slugline of his studio is: “200 Years Behind The Times” and that was the starting point of our interesting discussion about whales and bicycles and victory gardens.
The pendulum is swinging in the dark, people.
Backwards and upwards!
James Langston is a self-described Newporter, who is an artist, builder, and sailor among many other occupations and talents. He also has a honed designer's eye, a strong sense of community, passion for beauty and aesthetics, and is philosophical about the responsibilities and potential, for both good and evil, of wealth, the powerful, and ourselves.
Peirce Law, an old's cool friend from way back (we met him in high school) talks about the philosophy of Epicurus, and how his "garden" was just a variation on Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum, and a model for our own Academy–a place for like-minded people to be able to engage in the passionate exchange of ideas, removed from politics and exigencies of the world. However, we're not just talking theoretical, ivory-tower stuff–if the situation requires or the country demands, we are ready and willing to heed the call of duty.
Peirce and I had just finished filming our podcast on Epicurus and were sitting down to a couple of Wally's weiners when my buddy Mark Luzio popped his head in and asked if we had five bucks–he wanted to buy a derby at the vintage place down the street and the guy wouldn't come down on the price.
He asked us what we were doing and we told him–he then asked if we talked about Lucretious. We hadn't, so I'll mention him here: he was a Roman philopher and poet (99–55 BC) who wrote a philosophical poem called De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), that outlined the main tenets of Epicureanism, and also proposed the "Big Bang" theory of the universe, thus exploding the Catholic's Creation fable, which is why it was intentionally "lost" to to history until a forgotten copy was discovered in some storage room in a monastery in Germany in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini.
Mark dashed back to the shop to buy his derby, and we finished our kraut dogs. He came back, bowlered, and sat down with us–and the conversation ranged all over the place. He's a jointer by trade, and showed us pictures of some of the work he's done, and it's astonishing: inlayed writing desks, double-helix spiral staircases first designed by DaVinci and also known as "chateau" stairs, with intricate French "Versailles" parquet floor landings, laid at a 45° that needed to be accurate to within 1/64th of an inch or they were impossible to assemble.
He then showed a picture of a table he had made with a rounded-off rectangualr top he said had "Sally Hemmings corners." We asked him what did that mean, and he said he first saw those type of corners on a workroom table at the Montecello Estate. Thomas Jefferson had brought over a famous Scottish jointer to finish all of the interior surfaces and furniture since there weren't any Americans who were trained to do that caliber of work at the time. We talked about Hemmings, and how she accompanied Jefferson to Paris, and was considered a free woman there, but chose to return to America with him.
Mark then found a photo of a desk-top box he had made out of Philippine mahogany with contrasting holly sides, which were as white as ivory. He told us that holly (and boxwood) had to be harvested at just the right time in their lives, and the right time of year or they would yellow and lose their brilliance.
The box had a sliding top, with a thumb hole, and inside the thumbhole was a 1902 "Barber" half dollar (designed by Charles E. Barber, chief mint engraver from 1892-1916), with the famous 13 stars and the Roman Head of Liberty, which replaced the "Seated Liberty" design, and was eventually replaced by the famous "Walking Liberty.".
The head is adorned with a phrygian cap, which is like a red "smurf" hat, and it's also known as the "cap of freedom" and dates back to Roman times, where it was called the "pileus." The Romans would put it on a pike, aka the staff of vindication, servo ad pileum vocare, "to call the servants to the hat" which, when touched upon their enslaved heads, automatically made them free men.
The Jacobeans wore the phrygian cap during the French Revolution.
Such an interesting conversation with a well-read jointer, a well-read polyglot, and a well-read non-joiner.
After our fantastic conversation with Mark last week, we decided to invite him on the podcast to continue to explore some of the themes we had already talked about: hands, craft, Lucretius, and the value of hard work and eternal learning, i.e. how to get a lot of fun and fulfillment out of life.
He came this morning with a bunch of props and stories, and we had so much fun, man.