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Halley’s Comet only comes into the inner solar system about every 76 years. The last pass at its perihelion was in 1986 and I got a glimpse of it. The next one should be in 2016 and I won’t be around for that visit.

But Earth intersects Comet Halley’s orbit twice each year. Around now, we can see bits of this comet as the annual Eta Aquariid meteor shower. Then, in October, Earth’s orbit again intersects the orbital path of Comet Halley and the broken pieces from Halley’s Comet burn up in Earth’s atmosphere as the annual Orionid meteor shower.

The comet itself is a mountain of ice, dust and gas, but each pass near the sun breaks it up more and it sheds that trail of debris. Astronomers say it lost about 1/1,000th of its mass during its last flyby in 1986.

It is truly awesome (we tend to forget what awe really means) that Comet Halley has circled the sun innumerable times over countless millennia. I am doing my 65th circle this year and I surely have lost a lot over those orbits (though not mass).

A meteor shower can be from fragments (meteoroids) the size of grains of sand or gravel smashing into Earth’s upper atmosphere. This creates those vaporized fiery streaks (meteors) across our sky. I suppose we have our birthday candles

Right now, Comet Halley is outside the orbit of Neptune at almost its most distant point from us (aphelion).

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A rather strange and fascinating collection of pre-1900 books on alchemy, astrology, magic, and other occult subjects has been digitized. The digitization of these rare texts is being done under an  education project called “Hermetically Open.”

The project also received a generous donation from author Dan Brown, who certainly has an interest in these things and has used texts like these in his novels. Who knows – maybe his next novel will come from these texts.

Amsterdam’s Ritman Library has made the first 1,617 books from the project available in their online reading room at embassyofthefreemind.com. It is still a work in progress, but you will have full access to hundreds of rare occult texts.

Be aware that these books are written in several different European languages. My Latin is quite elementary and that was the scholarly language of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods so there are plenty of Latin texts. I have to say that my first browsings have been more to look at the illustrations, front pieces and the visual aspects.

Some books are in German, Dutch, and French, so us language poor monolingual English speakers are at a reading disadvantage.

I do love the idea of digitizing texts that would otherwise be lost or not available to the masses. Now we need some kind of tech babel fish who can read and speak all these books to us.

Steve Jobs was never a teacher in the classroom. He only did a year of college himself. But he was surrounded in his workplaces with talented people. most of whom had college degrees, many who had advanced degrees. He seems to have taken on a teaching role is many of his interactions.

Walter Isaacson has written about several geniuses and innovators, and his book, Steve Jobs, portrayed the Apple co-founder and CEO as a visionary and a difficult and sometimes cruel person to have as a boss.

Jobs didn’t take to college. He attended Reed College in 1972 and dropped out that same year. He wandered a bit aimlessly, then after two years he traveled through India seeking enlightenment and studying Zen Buddhism like a good mid-70s late-to-the-party hippie.

What kind of professor would he have been?

He would have been a tough grader. He would not hold back on his criticism.For example, he obviously did not like his early competitor, Microsoft, and called Windows “the worst development environment that’s ever been invented.”

Jobs was not a real geeky, tech guru. It was really Steve Wozniak who made the first Apple computer and Jobs partnered with him as the sales guys for Wozniak’s Apple I personal computer. His tech side was more of the outside, and he was famous for his demands for sleek and simple designs. He was a good salesman.

I came across a series of videos of a Jobs “teaching” at MIT in 1992, when he was 37. At that point he was  and running his company NeXT, founded in 1985 after he was originally forced out of Apple.

A few years after this, he would be launching a little computer graphics division that would later become Pixar. And the technology and designs that he implemented at NeXT would end up revolutionizing Apple when it bought NeXT in 1997.

But before he would take back Apple in a pretty ruthless fashion, he was in this MIT classroom. I would call this lecturing and not teaching. (I know a lot of you had lectures that passed for teaching in college but…)

With his turtleneck tucked into his jeans uniform and pacing back and forth, he talked about tough topics. (These video clips were on YouTube, but disappeared this past week – perhaps they will return; perhaps the Jobs estate had them taken down.) He spoke about why Windows NT was lousy and how he stole people from Microsoft and why the Apple III and Lisa computers failed.

When asked what he learned by being fired by his own Apple company, he took a very long pause before answering. (This clip was posted by another source and hopefully it will still be there when you read this.)

 

If Steve Jobs was an adjunct professor at my university, I wouldn’t be sure where to place him. Should he teach in the school of management, computer science, or communications? Would students like him as a teacher beyond admiring him for what he had done?

I think the answers would vary greatly depending on what Steve you had in the classroom: the young Apple founder, the just dismissed from Apple boss, the NeXT/Pixar visionary, the tough, calculating CEO of the new Apple, or the late year Steve who knew his time remaining was limited. Any of them would have been an interesting semester.


Steve Job’s gave a commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 that is often quoted (text version). The three stories he tells are three lessons he might have used in the classroom if he was teaching at that point in his life.

VVG

Young Vincent

I finally saw the beautifully animated film, Loving Vincent.  It is an Academy Award and Golden Globe Nominee for Best Animated Motion Picture. It tells a part of the life and also investigates the controversial death of Vincent Van Gogh.

It is told by his paintings and by the characters that inhabit them. It takes place one year after Vincent van Gogh’s death. A postman who knew Vincent asks his son Armand to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Armand goes to the town not even knowing that Vincent is dead and interviews people who knew Vincent in an attempt to deliver that letter.

He finds the circumstances of the death suspicious. Only weeks before, Vincent had said in letters he was in a good mood, calm and working and in need of new canvasses.

What makes the film unique is that each of the film’s 65,000 frames is essentially an oil painting on canvas. A team of 125 painters using the same technique as Van Gogh created the images which often flow one into another as the paint swirls.

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

Vincent Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters. Most of them were to his brother Theo who often supported him and his painting and served as his “art dealer” – not a very good one, since only one of his paintings sold in Vincent’s lifetime. He signed many of the letters “Your Loving Vincent.”  He also wrote to other family members and fellow artists including Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard.

His prose is very detailed, especially about his work. Some are illustrated with sketches and some of the collections put the letters beside the paintings he is describing.


Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity
of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people.

The film was inspiring. It inspired me to borrow a few books to read more about Vincent and particularly to read his letters:  Letters of VincentVan Gogh’s Letters: The Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings, and Words, 1875-1890, Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh and Van Gogh: The Life

The film and books also inspired me to take out my paints and brushes. I am the most-amateur of painters, but I have been setting things down in watercolors since I was in college, though very sporadically.

You have to let your creativity out. Usually, I do that with poetry. Visually, I am far more likely to take a photograph than paint. That is also a creative outlet but, for me, one done more from laziness.

self-portrait

Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat

What am I in the eyes of most people?
A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man,
somebody who has no position in society and never will have.
Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work
what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody.

Vincent was educated mainly in what he called “the free course at the great university of poverty.” He wanted to find purpose in his life after what knew was a long period of searching without purpose.

One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea
arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing,
incapable of filling any position, any role,
finds one in the end, and, active and capable of action,
shows himself entirely differently from what he had seemed at first sight.

self portrait

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Vincent suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions. He often neglected his physical health, not eating and drinking too much wine.

His friendship with Gauguin ended after a confrontation with a razor, which resulted in him severing part of his own left ear. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals, including a period at Saint-Rémy.

In the film, they cover some of the time he spent after he discharged himself from a hospital. He moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. There he befriended a homoeopathic doctor, Paul Gachet.

There are two versions of his death. One is that as his depression deepened, on 27 July 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. That is a very odd way to commit suicide.

Another version is that he was shot, probably by a man from the village who had harassed Vincent during his time there. The position of the wound suggests this version makes more sense.

In either version, he dies in the seemingly non-existent care from Gauchet two days later.

 

Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime. He is considered to be a genius, a madman and a failure. His fame came after his death. I doubt that he would be happy that he is often seen as a misunderstood genius or that it took until the early 20th century for him to be recognized as a great painter.

Van Gogh gave his 1889 Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey to Dr Rey. The physician was not fond of the painting and used it to repair a chicken coop, and later gave it away. In 2016, the portrait was housed at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and estimated to be worth over $50 million.

Vincent and Theo's graves at Auvers-sur-Oise

Vincent and Theo’s graves at Auvers-sur-Oise

Jean Shepherd is best known to his devoted fans as a radio raconteur. I listened to him for about two decades on WOR-AM in New York City. Often I was listening on a transistor radio that was by my bed pillow before I went to sleep. I lived in New Jersey, and Jersey often figured in Shep’s stories, usually as the home of “slob art.”

His nighttime program was a hard-to-define blend of stories, commentary, and occasional oddities of “music” that seemed to go in ten attention-deficit directions until the program’s closing when it all seemed to somehow pull together. Though I learned via interviews and books that it was unscripted, Shep often walked into the studio with an article, letter or general theme for where the show was going to or at least where it would start.

Flick succumbs to a double dog dare to put his tongue
on the frozen pole. Don’t try this at home, kids.

To younger people or those outside of the NY/NJ metro area, he is probably best known for writing the 1983 hit film A Christmas Story. The film is now a perennial Christmas classic that is run and rerun in the way that It’s a Wonderful Life was and sometimes still is run on TV in December. Though I think of It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday classic, it is also almost film noir and gets quite dark in its second half. But A Christmas Story is pure nostalgia.

The film was based on a half-dozen stories, mostly from his 1966 collection, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash which is my favorite of his books. Those stories, some of which had run in magazines as standalone tales, are connected by the protagonist, Ralphie and his brother and parents and based on Shep’s childhood in Indiana. Though the film has become known as a family or even children’s story, I always viewed the book as more of a coming-of-age book. The stories are tied together by their time and place and connected by a much older Ralphie going back to Indiana.  Jean’s alter-ego character is Ralphie Parker (Shep’s birth name is  Jean Parker Shepherd), a kid growing up in 1930’s Indiana.

I sat down this weekend to write this because I saw that A Christmas Story Live, a stage version of the movie, is on FOX tonight, December 17, at 7 pm ET. It has run on Broadway and across the country. I avoided seeing it because I feared it would ruin the film and book for me. But, it’s free on TV and I can always turn it off and not be upset that I lost a few hundred bucks on a trip to Broadway, soI will watch the show.

This live version has Matthew Broderick playing grownup Ralphie (the narrator). (He was played by Jean Shepherd and ralphie’s old man was played by Darren McGavin in the original movie version.) Maya Rudolph is the mom. (Melinda Dillon played her in the movie.) There is a nice little synchronicity in the casting because Matthews’s father, James Broderick, played Ralphie’s father (billed as “the old man” not Mr. Parker) when Shep did several PBS adaptations of his Indiana stories.

Some years at Christmastime, Jean would read a version of the original short story that became the basis for the movie on his WOR-AM radio show (see video below). The main short story for the film appeared in Playboy as  “Duel In The Snow, Or, Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” and was reprinted as a chapter in Shepherd’s 1966 book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.

Shep narrates the film and has a brief cameo as an adult also in the line to see Santa at a department store who tells Ralphie to get in the back of the line.

On the air before his NYC radio days.

Jean Shepherd the writer published many magazine stories in Mad magazine and The National Lampoon, The New York Times, Playboy, Mademoiselle, Car and Driver, and Omni. He was one of the early columnists for The Village Voice newspaper in New York City. I believe you can find almost all of the stories collected in his four book collections (see below).

In the 70’s and 80’s he became more interested in TV and film and less interested in radio. He did several pieces for PBS from small bits to television movies including The Phantom of the Open Hearth.

In 1975, he did a popular non-fiction PBS television series titled Jean Shepherd’s America and another series for the New Jersey PBS station entitled Shepherd’s Pie.

Jean Shepherd was born in Chicago, in 1925 and the majority of his written stories and films were set in his childhood years. From his adult life, the most we heard about was from his Army days in the Signal Corps.

The stories he told on-air were always improvised, but he later wrote some of the childhood ones down and he published them in collections like In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters.

Much of Jean Shepherd’s real life is unknown. He made the line between fact and fiction very blurry. Sometimes he said things had happened that others have found did not happen. He rarely talked about his adult life. He was married three times but didn’t talk about his wives. Did he have children? Where did he live?

I had heard that he is the basis for the Jason Robards character in the play and film, A Thousand Clowns, which was written by Shep’s friend, Herb Gardner. I didn’t know that when I saw that film (which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) but I liked that guy, so some Shep must have come through.

He is supposed to be the inspiration for the Shel Silverstein song made famous by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.” Having the gender neutral name “Jean” wasn’t easy as a kid, and in later life he was often confused with a female country singer with the same name, though Shep has certainly eclipsed her in fame by now.

The Jack Nicholson late-night radio talker in New Jersey in The King of Marvin Gardens seems like he might have been somewhat inspired by Shep.

In the film Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky who was another in Shep’s circle, the main character is a television newscaster who tells his viewers to open their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” To a Jean Shepherd listener, that has got to have some basis in Shep’s frequent habit of “hurling an invective.” I remember him telling all of us to yell out the window at the same time, and another time having all of us jump up in the air at the same moment to see if we could knock the Earth a bit off its axis.

Shep once pulled off a publishing hoax by promoting a non-existent book called I, Libertine  by a non-existent author, Frederick R. Ewing. Shep was not happy with the way the best-seller lists were compiled and wanted to prove it was a rigged joke.

He told his listeners to go out and buy the book and they did try. The requests got bookstores asking their distributors for copies and that got at least one publisher (Ballantine Books) interested in creating the title. Ballantine had Shep work up an outline of the story and hired a ghostwriter, Theodore Sturgeon, who was known for science-fictions stories. It was written, published and due to the demand it actually made the best-seller list. Copies of the original paperback are now quite collectible.

Jean also did live shows. I guess it was standup comedy but not in the way that we think of that today. He appeared at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, and I saw him a half-dozen times at colleges, high schools and other venues. He wasn’t Jerry Seinfeld. He wasn’t obscene like Lenny Bruce or political like Mort Sahl. He was closer to Mark Twain and James Thurber if they had done an hour on stage. Humor and comedy are not the same animal.

In the late 1990s, Shepherd was working on new film projects, but his health was failing. I lost touch with him because he stayed out of  the public eye, and his personal life had always been a mystery in a Bob Dylan way with lots of misinformation and outright lies perpetrated by him.

We do know that his longtime companion, collaborator, and third wife of 21 years, was Leigh Brown. “Little Leigh” always seemed to be in the WOR studio with him and sometimes was referenced in his comments on air. She died in 1998 and Jean died the following year in a hospital near his Sanibel Island, Florida home. I have read that he had no survivors, so his intellectual property is owned by an entertainment group.

I have discovered a good number of Shep fans over the years, from people my age who lived in the tri-state area of WOR and listened, to young people who discovered him through the film and traced their way back in his career, to other humorists influenced by him like Harry Shearer.

A good free collection of Shepherd radio show audio online is The Shep Archives. All you have to do is register and you can listen and download mp3 files of old WOR shows, interviews, and audio from some of the television shows.

There are other sites too because many devoted fans back in the day recorded the show on their reel-to-reel or cassette recorders. I’m glad they did because the radio station certainly didn’t care enough to archive shows. The Brass Figlagee podcast has 300 show files and some are on also available free at archive.org.

Bob Kaye’s Jean Shepherd Page is a nice site, and Jim Clavin has a good fan site called Flick Lives! that includes links to places where you can hear some of Shep’s old broadcasts.

“Flick Lives” is a reference to a character in many Shepherd tales from his Indiana days. Flick is the kid who gets his tongue frozen to a pole in A Christmas Story.  Fans used to write “FLICK LIVES” as graffiti in the way that soldiers once wrote “Kilroy was here.”  We marked our turf and showed that we followed Shep with those two words.  And yes, people used to often join the L and I in Flick to create a totally different message to the world.

Books


Christmas Eve 1974 – Shepherd reads the story on air at WOR-AM in NY
that would later become the movie, A Christmas Story.

 

 “Beer” from Jean Shepherd’s America

 

Opening from an episode of Shepherds’s Pie (not great audio/video quality)

Right off, I am a big fan of the Seinfeld TV show.  I have heard  many times the description of it as “a show about nothing.” The show’s original premise was that it was a show about  how Jerry Seinfeld, a standup comic, uses the everyday things in his life as material for his comedy. It opens with a bit of standup and for some episodes that bit ties into the episode.

Most episodes have at least three intertwining plots. For example, in episode 51, “The Contest,” George confesses that “My mother caught me.” They never say  “masturbating” in the episode, but its clear.  George says he’ll never do “that” again. The gang is skeptical and Jerry, Kramer and George make a $100 bet to see who can abstain the longest. Elaine wants in on the contest, but has to put in $150, because the guys claim that it easier for women to abstain.

We switch to Kramer’s infatuation with a woman in the apartment across the street who walks around in her apartment naked with the curtains open. He watches her, goes back to his place and returns to slap down his $100. “I’m out. I’m out of the contest.”

Switch to George visiting his mother because she was hospitalized after catching George in the act with her Glamour magazine earlier. His new attraction is watching the shadowy silhouettes of his mom’s attractive roommate getting a sponge bath from an attractive nurse.

Switch to Elaine at her gym when she finds out that John F. Kennedy, Jr. also uses the gym. She plots to meet up with him.

Jerry is frustrated because the woman he’s dating won’t have sex with him since she wants to remain a virgin.

All of them are unable to sleep – except for Kramer.

Elaine arranges to meet Kennedy outside Jerry’s apartment later. The thought of them hooking up is more than she can handle and she is the second person out of the contest.

Jerry’s virgin is finally ready for sex, but Jerry makes the mistake of mentioning the contest and she leaves in disgust. Elaine arrives believing Kennedy stood her up, but George tells her that Kennedy did come, but missed her and went with the virgin. They then see Kramer with the naked woman across the street.

So, who won the contest? Jerry or George?  Not revealed here. In the fifth-season episode “The Puffy Shirt”, George mentions that he “won a contest” in a conversation about masturbation, but in the series finale, he confesses that he cheated.

That’s a lot of nothing.

In Seinfeld‘s 43rd episode, things get meta. Jerry and George pitch a sitcom to television executives and George says (mostly because they have no real ideas to pitch) that it will be a show where “nothing happens.” It gets picked up and the show that they develop is what we know as Seinfeld, with a George, Elaine, Kramer and Jerry as himself.

A book about the series, Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, has a lot to say about that nothing concept. People often point to the episode “The Chinese Restaurant” in season two.  The episode is about Jerry, Elaine and George (no Kramer) waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant. That’s it. Yes, George tries to use the pay phone (pre-mobile phones) and Jerry can’t place a woman that he is sure he has met before, but really they just wait and talk.

The episode is set in real time, without scene-breaks. NBC execs were not thrilled with it because it had no real storyline. C-creator/writer Larry David threatened to quit if the network forced major changes to the script. NBC gave in to production, but postponed broadcast to the near end of the season.

But if you really want to take a deep dive on Seinfeld nothingness, the video above by Evan Puschak (Nerdwriter) connects the show and its nothingness to 19th-century novelist Gustave Flaubert.

Apparently, in an 1852 letter, Flaubert wrote about his his ambition to write “a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style.”  It may not have achieved all of that, but the novel was Madame Bovary.

If you really want to view Seinfeld as a show about nothing more literally, watch the video below which is an edit of moments from the series when nothing happens. Turn off the sound for a Zen of Seinfeld experience.

 

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