Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Down the Shore with...Lord Whimsy

I debated for quite some time about to introduce Lord Whimsy. I interviewed him when his book, The Affected Provincial’s Companion, was first published, and I've been delighed by his wit ever since. So instead of trying to put that in my words, I'll let the man do it himself.

1. What do you consider 'your' shore town?"
I have a complicated relationship with the shore, a lot of mixed feelings. I grew up in Somers Point, but the Great Egg Harbor Bay area in general—Ocean City, Longport, Strathmere--is the area that was home, at least until the bay was ringed by condos that obscured the view for anyone who wasn’t paying for it. Over the past twenty years the area towns all became Cherry Hill-by-the-sea. All of the wonderful character and texture has been stripped away: the bait shops and little houses abutting the fisherman and clammer’s docks, all gone. It’s heartbreaking to see what has happened, because even though the people could be small-minded and mean, I loved that little bay town with all of my heart—the seafood restaurant kitsch, the boats, the history, the sights and sounds, the wooded lots, the living things, all of it. You’d have to be a millionaire there now to live like we did when we were kids. We would spend entire months outdoors, sleeping in the backyard. Woods, marshes, bay, beach—it was a Huck Finn existence, and I absolutely lived for the summertime, when I could go crabbing, fishing, beachcombing for shells, collecting bugs and butterflies, building tree forts--all for which I’m paying now in close calls with skin cancer, but I wouldn’t trade a moment of those memories.

The presence of the ocean was something vaguely mystical, because it was an absolute but nebulous part of the landscape—the horizon said "here, and no further". I remember taking my surfboard or inflatable raft way out past the breakers in the evenings, and look back at the Ocean City boardwalk, which looked like this slender string of color, noise and light suspended in glistening, black void. I would visit the old bait shops that were stuffed with photos of bizarre animals the old men had yanked out of the deep waters out off the lip of the continental shelf. They were like astronauts to me. I would sit on the rickety docks and listen to the boats pull their lashings through the rusty pulleys as they bobbed in the slips, which gave off an eerie singsong ambiance all along the bay. They’re all gone now. I’ll never hear that sound again.

Barring a couple exceptions, most of the things I loved about Somers Point have either been paved over or torn down. Even the huge fallow field that I used to spend entire summers rooting about for lizards and strange insects became victim to a particularly cruel irony: it’s now a garden center.

2. Tell us about the work you did for the casinos?
I worked for an ad agency that worked almost exclusively for casinos. I was fresh out of Stockton, and it was an opportunity—in fact my only opportunity—to learn the trade. The casinos at the time were in a fifteen-year time lag behind the culture at large. Blondes in red dresses and high heels emerging from Ferraris were the epitome of sophistication, as far as the marketing departments were concerned, which were manned by local “talent”. Working for them was like living in 1981 for ten hours each day; I went home thinking that I would see PM Magazine if I flicked on the television. I was miserable most days because the exuberant non-design I was forced to make was even more confining than if I was doing bleak, clinical ads for pharmaceuticals: the type treatments were always clunky, shrieking pink and purple on everything, and die cuts and foils were on every surface. Thanks to my art director Jay, I did learn a lot about production; I did everything from doll designs to swizzle sticks. However, unless Rip Taylor started a design studio, I couldn’t use any of it in my portfolio; I’d get laughed out of every studio or agency north of Hammonton. So I worked late at night on my own projects—some freelance, some made up. I designed Apogee, a typeface that was included in a major design exhibition at The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. I couldn’t eat for three days before the opening. Like a true South Jersey rube I had a hard time finding the museum, finally got there only to stand around looking overwhelmed and completely out of my depth, went home—and got up the next day to paste up bus ads for Trump Taj Mahal. Later on though, that little feather in my cap came in handy, along with my side projects. It helped me move on to better things, as did all my pathetic stumbles in those early years. Took a couple false starts over seven years, but I finally got loose.

3. And how did that influence what you do now?
I suppose living near the sleaze that was Atlantic City in the 80’s really set me against that kind of empty, garish frivolity for a long time. I’ve always loved kitsch—the shore is full of it—but there’s kitsch that’s so bad it’s good (Lucy the Elephant, doo wop architecture), and there’s the other kind that’s just tawdry and plain awful from every angle (casinos). That said, I love the goofy overstatement and showmanship of cabaret and camp, and I can now look back and laugh about the godawful projects I used to work on. Sequined billboards! Where else would they go to that level of excess? In that sense, I was strangely fortunate.

4. Most readers might not 'get' what it is that you do. Care to share?
I’m a writer, illustrator and designer who’s turned his tools on himself. I’ve written a book called The Affected Provincial’s Companion, which is loosely based on the life I’ve lived in New Egypt for twelve years with my wife. We rented a drafty old four-room army barracks that we crammed full of art, plants, books, and a Victorian highwheel bicycle leaning against the wall. We were young and poor, and wanted to start a small illustration and design studio, which we did. The cheap lifestyle and vegetable garden helped a great deal. We couldn’t have done it if we had to pay the kind of rent our friends in New York were paying. They were happy years.

The book is a collection of fragments, a kind of tongue-in-cheek “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” There are satirical charts, nonsensical poems, and essays on inconsequential things. I wrote, edited, typeset, designed and illustrated the entire book myself. The book had to be a physical expression of the ideas inside, which center around how to live beautifully, and the joy of appreciating living things. The cover is leaf-green and silver, and the inside endpapers are a hot pink—it’s meant to suggest the mouth of a Venus Flytrap. It’s a strange book. The book is very funny, but it is also a critique of our current age, which to my mind has become harried and toxic. It offers another way by saying “These things still matter.” I like to think it offers some degree of hope; after all, any twit can whine about the current state
of affairs.

The other news is that Johnny Depp’s production company has bought the rights to the book, a director and screenwriter have visited us over the summer, and a first rough draft of the film script has been finished. The film and book allowed us to finally buy a small house. We now have plenty of room for our terrariums, bog garden, and odd

You can see more here: www.lordwhimsy.com

5. Why do you think people either assume that you're British or gay? Or both?

Hah. Probably because they don’t know any British or gay people, but mostly because I don’t dress in sweatpants, which has become a kind of uniform these days. Want to confuse people? Dress up. People think they’re being “authentic” by dressing like slobs when all they’re doing is being lazy—and an eyesore at that. It isn’t a matter of cost, either—sweatpants can cost more than a perfectly nice pair of trousers. Grown men shouldn’t dress like five year-olds, with space sneakers and baseball caps. It’s juvenile, and gives our part of the state a bad reputation--like we’re all a bunch of fat mall-waddling mouth breathers. Are we really all so special that we don’t see the need to put any effort in our appearance? Think of the poor guy that has to look at you at the supermarket! I’m not saying everyone has to dress like me—not everyone wants to risk a bloody nose when they step out of their door--but a little effort would be nice. It’s not snobbery—it’s civic consideration.

6. What should people visiting the shore know about terrapins?
They should do what they can to help diamondback terrapins, especially in early summer. People should volunteer at the Wetlands Institute outside of Stone Harbor. They are extremely vulnerable animals; all they want is to get across the road to lay their eggs and perpetuate their kind, which is far more important than someone getting to the beach.

Snapping turtles are an incredibly old species; they’ve been around since the Triassic, and eighty percent of all turtle species living today are descended from them. I pulled a sixty-pound snapping turtle out of the road this summer down in Cape May; she must have been fifty years old. Did it all in my best linen summer suit. I had to be careful--things can take off your fingers, but I’ve been handling them my whole life. You have to pick them up by the base of their tail, with the plastron (belly) towards you. Their jaws are much less likely to reach you that way. Keep the turtle far from your body, as they are fast and mean. Set them down gently on the other side of the road they were heading, otherwise, they’ll just try to cross again. Do this, and you can take pride in having done a selfless, kind, and decent thing.

7. And what do you think most people don't know about the shore environment, but should know?
That it is a very rare environment. Very few healthy temperate marshlands remain in North America, and the Pine Barrens is even more of a natural treasure, rich in history and folklore. There are some species of frogs or plants in the pines that are more rare than emeralds, and infinitely more precious. They should be regarded with love and respect. It is these things that make this region truly unique, not our boardwalks and casinos. They can put that stuff anywhere.

Oh yes: Mary Treat, the amateur naturalist from Vineland who helped Darwin in his research on insectivorous plants should be known by every child in South Jersey over the age of twelve. She’s a more admirable historical figure than that so-called “hero” Emilio Carranza, who used to strafe Mexican Indians in his airplane--and yet he’s the one with the monument on the Batona Trail!

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