Monday, March 30, 2009

Different Dances

Then there are the books that shock you. Really shock you. There's a book like this for me, a book by Shel Silverstein. It wouldn't shock me as an adult, and especially not now that I myself am a writer: I understand the desire to make sometimes drastic departures from your best-known material. (Plus, sometimes your best-known material doesn't even represent your best self, though I'm not saying one way or the other with respect to Silverstein.) We all have many facets to our personalities, many wells to draw from in our quest for creative expression. Today, I'm sure I'd love this large-format, coffee table book of drawings—or if not love it, then at least really appreciate it—and I hope my parents still have it in their personal library. I'm guessing that they do. But when I saw this book for the first time, I wasn't an adult. I was around ten or eleven years old, and the book in question, despite Silverstein's huge contributions to the world of children's literature, is decidedly not for kids. It's titled Different Dances, and the "dances" are certainly that: different from anything you'd expect if all you'd ever read was Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Missing Piece. The moment that I saw, and then leafed through, Different Dances is a moment that's definitely seared in memory. The book was originally published the year that we moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, 1979. (It was reissued in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition in 2004.) We made the move due to my father's promotion within the management circles of Playboy Enterprises, and it turns out that Silverstein had a history of contributions to Playboy, though I didn't know it at the time. On the face of it, knowing each man's most recognized legacy, it seems a very odd pair: Shel Silverstein and Hugh Hefner. The only way most people would ever think to link them would be if they happened to know that both were originally from Chicago. My first experiences with Silverstein (and with Playboy, for that matter) were in the Windy City. I remember that in the first grade, the two "big sisters" and one "big brother" for my class (the school program paired high school seniors with the little kids) read Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back to us, and I loved it. Not long after, Where the Sidewalk Ends became one of my all-time favorite books. (It still is; when I read "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout" to my son, we both crack up.) Because Silverstein was a contributor to Playboy, my father had the occasion to meet him; in fact, he'd taken my copy of WTSE in to the office to see if he could get him to sign it for me, which eventually he did. (He kept the book for a long time, then felt guilty about not having returned it promptly. To compensate, his signature is actually a poem he wrote about how hard it is to find rhymes for the name Allison!) And perhaps because of Playboy, my dad ended up bringing home Different Dances. Or maybe he just purchased it independently of the work connection. Anyway, it was in our family room at one point, and I remember thinking, Oh, Shel Silverstein, great! Don't get me wrong, the book is great, I'm sure, but as I've pointed out, it's great for adults. Different Dances is a book that tackles adult relationships, adult lust, and, in some drawings, a very grown-up despair. It's a wordless commentary on social taboos and on self-destructive patterns of behavior; it also sheds light on some of the misguided ways in which adults attempt to combat feelings of isolation by essentially abusing others. Some drawings I remember come from a pretty dark place, and many are startling in their depiction of human anatomy. You might think that for someone who was used to seeing copies of Playboy around the house (though mostly at that age I was just interested in finding the hidden bunny logo on each new cover), seeing sexually explicit drawings wouldn't be any big deal. I suppose it was a bigger deal than usual, though (I'd say an ordeal, really), because while I just took the magazine at face value, the mixup of graphic sexual content with an innocent childhood image of Silverstein took me by complete surprise and was more disturbing for its unexpectedness. It was definitely a loss of innocence moment, flipping the pages and seeing a series of pictures in which a man uses his exaggerated penis as a kind of lasso/harpoon against a doughy looking woman. This was drawn by the same hand that penned The Giving Tree? It makes sense now—the way the man, who used to be the boy, lays waste to the selfless tree to serve his own needs; a good example of deplorable adult behavior, a kind of rape of nature—but at the time, it seemed impossible and unspeakably wrong. This was the advocate for childhood dreams and imagination ("If you are a dreamer, come in.")? I remember staring at that one particular series of drawings for a long time, then slamming shut the book's cover and wishing desperately that I had not discovered the contents. I was actually pretty angry about it. Even so, every so often, I'd tiptoe up to the book, open it, take in a little more. It seems funny now, that I wouldn't have thought anything of opening up one of the Playboy magazines in front of my parents, but I only ever approached Different Dances in secret, when they were out of the house. Now of course I forgive Silverstein his adult material, applaud him for it (and wish he were still alive and practicing his craft to surprise me in yet other ways). At the time, though, upon seeing Different Dances, all my ten-year-old self wanted to do was to take a ride in a flying shoe: "Hooray!" "What fun!" "It's time we flew!" said Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too.

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