by Karl Young

Anna Young's Christmas Book

8 x 10 1/2; 16 pp; 1974

One of the main players in the story of producing a Christmas Book for my grandmother in 1974 was simply having a printing press available to me, and using it regularly as part of a cottage industry and a literary orientation.

The problem it addressed is an old one which never gets adequately resolved, though I'd like to think this book was more successful than many available to a young man without much money or other resources. My parents and I lived in the house that my father's parents had purchased when they moved to Kenosha about a century ago. My parents and I lived in the house until my teens, and my grandmother played a key role in taking care of me as a child. This encouraged a particularly strong bond between us. My parents moved her into a nursing home at about the time I left to go to university. I got a car during my second year in Milwaukee and visited her virtually every weekend I was in Milwaukee until she slipped into the coma that lead to her death in 1980.

She had a fierce work ethic, and during her first years at the home, she not only crocheted and knitted, but also showed other residents how to do these and similar crafts. The home sometimes had her share a room with more difficult residents because she set a good example for them and sometimes acted as everything from a councilor to a social worker. An incident that stands out in my mind involves a room-mate cussing out a Puerto Rican woman who scrubbed the floor. This included ethnic slurs. My grandmother ceased to speak to the room-mate until she apologized. But as her health declined, it became more difficult for her to keep herself busy in the nursing home. Even keeping herself entertained was a chore. Her diabetes limited what she could eat and slowly decreased her ability to see. This made even television less useful as a diversion.

One of the things that made her happy was writing Christmas cards every November. It didn't take my largest creative leap of the imagination to combine this with the books I printed. Instead of sending out commercially printed cards with notes written in them, she could send out books showing her own history and, I had hoped, her family at the present time. If she felt like it, she could write her notes on the last page of the book or and/or the insides of the covers. Or she could write them on separate sheets of paper and place them inside the books. Whatever the case, the books would give her more to work with in writing her letters. On an even greater scale, she would probably receive much longer and more detailed replies after Christmas. Some of these might lead to extended correspondences and telephone conversations. Social spin-offs I couldn't imagine might also ensue during the dreary winter months and perhaps beyond. In addition to the books she sent out, she could keep some by her bed and show or give them to visitors who hadn't received them at Christmas. I believe I had some inklings of something like printing a card for her to send while she was writing her cards for 1973, and the move from card to book came about during that Christmas season.

Initially, I had thought of doing the book as something like a current extended family portrait. I wrote to the nuclear families descended from her asking for current black and white photos to include in the book, and for any comments or anecdotes that wouldn't take up more than a page of large type. Virtually none complied. The reasons probably included the sense that since I printed the book, Grandmother would see the book as specifically a gift from me instead of from the family, even if it was primarily made up of photos and text they had supplied. A couple said that they had color film in their cameras and that it was too inconvenient to use black and white film. As time has gone on, I have seen more unpleasant sides of family jealousies and rivalries. Even my father's lobbying for the project didn't help. Given his position as a model of virtue and my black sheep status, this suggested early on that I shouldn't expect much from anyone else, and ironically enough, this did in fact make the book much more a present from me than from the family in general. Two younger family members, however, did write poems to be used in the book. I had intended to use older photos as a prologue and perhaps as illustrations for anecdotes or memories. The lack of material gave me two distinct advantages. The first is that I would have had a great deal of difficulty affording the larger book I envisioned. On a brighter side, it meant that the book was specifically her story, concluding with a group shot of a large family Christmas celebration over which she presided in 1953. I reproduced a fair number of the photos in the web memorial I created for my father in 2007. (http://carlyoungmemorial.net/ )

Producing the book was more gratifying than virtually any of the others I printed in my home shop, perhaps suggesting how much an activity whose ideology was so deeply rooted in the counterculture was in turn deeply rooted in the cottage industries that formed the basis of production of virtually everything other than agriculture, hunting, and animal husbandry since time immemorial. The project gave me a couple breaks with people I worked with, who in turn seem to have gotten a lift out of the project. I did not have a process camera, a central component in offset printing at this time. I farmed out the camera work to several shops in the area. One of them offered such good deals that, after I discussed their prices with Dick Higgins and introduced them to the crew, he had them do his camera work for Printed Editions done by them for years, despite his familiarity with such businesses throughout the U.S. The camera work for this book, however, was done by a shop that used scrap film during periods when their schedule was not as hectic as usual, thus giving me steep discounts. For this book, they just charged me for an estimate of what the scrap film would cost, and did the labor in exchange for the opportunity to phone my grandmother after Christmas, sing her some carols, and extend their own holiday. The saddle stitching and trimming was done by a bindery, some of whose workers sent my grandmother a card. They also placed a copy of the book in the display area of their office — probably the only book that received such treatment from them because of the nature of the book rather than the quality of the printing and bindery work.

My grandmother continued getting comments on the book for the rest of her life. I don't have any way of evaluating how important to her this book was in relation to other gifts she had received during her life. I assume, and even hope, some were more important, particularly those given to her by her husband, were more important. Some may have involved more intricate circumstances and a play of values and the stuff that gets people through hard times. In this regard, I was at one time puzzled, and later became humbled, by an incident from the Great Depression which she never told in detail, but mentioned often enough to suggest its significance for her. When a friend died in the 1930s, she had sold the clothing for which she could get money, including the dress she had reserved to wear to church. My grandmother still had her own wedding dress, and in preparing her friend for burial, dressed her in it so she wouldn't have to be seen during the funeral in something as plain and worn as those she had left. This story takes on a bit of extra significance by the austerity of dress of Swedish Baptists. Wherever my book ranks, though, I can feel that it was probably the most useful over time of the gifts she had received — and given — during her life.

The role of art as gift can't be overstated, however much it may be modified, qualified, and examined. Perhaps the enduring sales of Lewis Hyde's The Giftmay suggest one dimension of this. In conversations with veteran mail artists, the sense of mail art in its classic phase as hand made and personalized gift, suggests another dimension altogether. This leads into an area of discourse much too complex for this note. The point I want to suggest, however inadequately, in this note is the extreme and durable practicality of art as gift in difficult times. The degree to which realizing the depth of the problem of aging disturbed the Buddha in the story of his most crucial turning point is simply another suggestion of how insoluble are the problems of personal deterioration through a basic natural process.

Musical Memories:
The Universe Has Music for Those Who Listen
The Memories of John-David Anello, Sr.
Edited by Catherine McGarry Miller

6 x 9; 136 pp; Milwaukee, 1993

Designing and acting as production manager for the memoirs of John-David Anello presents a completely different set of circumstances and conditions from those involved in my grandmother's Christmas book. During the 20 years between my grandmother's book and Anello's book, I had produced a number of other personal gift books similar to my grandmother's, and some more traditional memoirs. Anello's book, however, suggests a different role and significance to books by and for the elderly.

This book came as a commission, plain and simple. Limitations brought on by costs were not particularly important, since Anello and his family had money, and this was emphatically not a book produced by a counterculturist using relatively simple equipment in his own home on a tight budget. It was, in fact, supposed to be almost sumptuous, but without crossing into ostentation. This was an attractive feature of this particular job. I didn't have to worry about production costs (as distinct from pay for my labor), and, unlike most of the books I produced for artists and literati, I had no complaints about my preference for generous margins, and part of the emphasis of the book was on graphics, which provided all sorts of challenges in page lay-out and organization.

Since by 1993 I was in what had come to seem like exile from Milwaukee, which remained, as it still remains, my home, whether I get to live there or not, a value-added feature was a type of civic pride. John-David Anello was the founder of the Milwaukee Symphony and the Florentine Opera, two of the institutions of the city in clear distinction from the avant-garde arts scene from whence most of my local work came. Anello had also originated all sorts of out-reach programs, from concerts for children to programs in unusual, often out-door, venues that kept mainstream music in Milwaukee vital and important. I'd heard few concerts conducted by Anello himself, but during the time I lived in Milwaukee, it retained relatively high status in the world of symphonic music. I wasn't greatly impressed by Anello's taste in music, but those who followed him as music directors and conductors of the Milwaukee Symphony provided good programming and admirable performances.

Cate Miller, the book's editor and manager for all things not immediately related to production was usually easy to work with and extremely good at her job. I include the qualification because we did run into some problems introduced by external factors and probably enhanced by the onset of diabetes which had her hospitalized and generally shaky for a crucial period in the production process. Most of the book's background story is for other members of the Anello family to tell if it chooses to do so and, if they haven't produced a good writer, can find someone like Cate to help them with it.

But aspect of the immediate background seems particularly relevant here. That is the significance of the book not only for Anello but for his wife, Joesphine. Working on the book kept the maestro's spirits up during a trying time on many fronts. One of these was his wife's increasing illness. But as that illness progressed, she herself put more effort into the book and in supporting and organizing her husband's efforts. She plays a key role in the book, and she may have felt that her story was being told as part of his, but her organizational and motivational skills, and her abilities in keeping on track and the tempers of anybody involved at any given moment were consummate, and suggest a large role in her husband's career than either of them wanted presented in the foreground of the book. Although I can't be completely certain, it seems her efforts on the book just may have prolonged her life, and gave it meaning and focus in its last project. Books by elders can provide a tool to fight boredom, fear, pain, and hopelessness. In this instance, the book seemed a "twofer" for the couple.

The book's ambiance, social backdrop, and narrative line could have gone in a number of different directions, and some of the material Anello had to work with could still produce other books. The way Anello went with it was to do a brief sketch of his life and to follow that primarily with anecdotes about celebrities with whom he had worked. He refers to or quotes from a voluminous list of sources. Many were not used for copyright reasons.

The story he touched on, but did not pursue in depth, was the role of art in Italian-American life and assimilation. One of the main jobs Anello took on for his community was to show that Italian-Americans were not inferior, but the bearers of a long and prestigious cultural heritage. That this should have been necessary seemed strange to me, yet it is a basic American story, repeated over and over with different groups of immigrants. An example of the specific and peculiar strangeness of the Italian-American version of the story repeated itself to me this year during the Christmas holidays. A large cast of actors discussed the portrayal of Italian-Americans as gangsters in movies, objecting to the stereotype to greater and lesser degrees. The timing of the broadcast was crucial, and seemed comic. The Pope was, as usual, on the air a good deal of the time through the holiday period. Although the current Pontiff may be German, most of his predecessors have been Italian, and like the majority of them, he resides in a tiny state surrounded by Italy. He certainly got more screen-time than all Hollywood gangsters put together during the holiday season. So did the "extras" in the Vatican and other venues where the Pope spoke or conducted other highly ritualized activities that acted as models for North Atlantic theater and other performance arts for more than a millennium and a half. In fact, I often use the Roman Catholic Mass as an example of the antiquity and a high point in what later was given the avant-garde term "multi-media." More important than that, the timing, nature, and imagery of Christmas are largely Italian in origin. Early Christianity was able to spread rapidly because its founders were part of the Roman Empire. After the first centuries, the Empire itself spread the religion aggressively, forcefully, and imaginatively, incorporating local customs into its spread. Deciding on celebrating Christmas just past the winter solstice first took the place of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. As it spread to the provinces, this conjunction of timing was a tool of evangelism and a means of assimilation. In the great flowering of art we call the Renaissance, artists formed the basic images and iconography not only of the nativity but of Jesus himself. The faces we see at this time of year, and even their clothing and houses, are not those of the Middle East in the Year 1, but primarily of Renaissance Italy. This imagery, of course, is recapitulated in film portrayals of the birth and life of Jesus. Not only did an Italian Empire spread Christianity in the first place, and made the first of many grafts of solstice celebration into an evangelical tool, but the movie and later television programs broadcast at the time of year which that move created are largely a recapitulation of Italian art. Italian-American actors complaining that their portrayal on television is limited to gangsters? This is ridiculous.

The big problem here is not the Italian part of the equation, but the American part that comes after the hyphen. I don't have any illusions about the nature or the ugliness of prejudice during Anello's youth, or even its continuity in some places now. The problem for Anello as a young man was to demonstrate that Italian-Americans were indeed not a bunch of hoodlums, but the descendents of people who had created the Roman Empire, some of the greatest examples of European visual art and of science a millennium after the Empire's so-called fall, and the inventors and propagators of high points in European music and theater from the largely forgotten theater of mimes in the Roman Empire's hey day and the Gregorian chant which still finds its way into Christmas carols, to their combination in Opera after that. The verbal notation that accompanies the scoring of European music is Italian, bearing witness to the origins of the classical forms of music even as they developed in other parts of Europe. The thing that's the most profound testament to the power of art, and to this essay, is that the imagery of Christianity has become so pervasive and so deeply imbedded in the imagery of North Atlantic churches that the majority of Americans don't know it's there. Even the majority of Protestants, including those who dislike Catholics, don't seem to realize that the place where the Pope lives is the place and the culture from which their conceptions of their own religious images and even their calendar originate. In a supreme irony, even the tiny minority of Italian-Americans who actually became gangsters themselves wanted to use art as a means of validating their intelligence and sophistication, in escaping the stereotypes and restrictions they felt around them. To what extent other members of the community in which Anello grew up felt uneasy about Italian culture itself, I don't know. But whatever the case, the biggest part of the problem in the equation has little to do with either its Italian or American component, but the sense of the hyphen between them felt acutely by those with part of their identity on one side of the equation, part of it on the other, and insecurity and vulnerability coming from the advantages and seeming conflicts between the two. As an Italian-American success story, I would have liked to see Anello concentrate more on this aspect of his career. It may be appropriate from his point of view that he down-played it.

It is interesting for me in the present context to compare Musical Memories with Anna Young's Christmas Book. The book I did was modest, produced with extremely limited resources in a cottage industry environment for what seemed a single family, though it may have been more of a gift from me to my grandmother in spite of the rest of the family. Josephine and John-David Anello were working as a team. Their financial and even archival resources were not severely limited. But whether they were thinking in these terms or not, it seems they were still representing a community rather than a single family — and in what seems a bit of serendipity as well as something they had earned, that community extended out of the Italian-American community into which they were born to the City of Milwaukee. As to the personal therapeutic values of the book for my grandmother and the book for the Anellos, I can only assume they provided roughly equal benefits. In this regard, the measure of success has little to do with size of edition or lavishness of production, but of how much relief they provided and how much self-esteem they generated or confirmed over how much time.

As part of my current polemic regarding the unacknowledged values of art in difficult times, it seems particularly important to note the value of a simple gift from the arty milieu of the counter-culture of the 1970s had for one elderly woman, and a job done for an affluent and admired public figure.

In the latter instance, it seems essential to realize how important art was for an immigrant community seeking acceptance. However much the arts may seem a frill or extravagance that could easily be dismissed in time of economic crisis, they certainly played a key role in validating one immigrant community. This particular community's heritage in the arts has become so thoroughly engrained in American life, from iconography to science, that its artistic origins have become invisible as well as indispensable. So much so that if some magic force could eliminate all Italian and Italian-American art, North Atlantic culture would crumble.

Looking back at the 20th Century, the American Century, the world as we know it would be inconceivable without the immense African-American contributions. Just to isolate music, John-David Anello's field, Jazz, a classical art; gospel and blues, folk arts; and rock, a popular art form without a precise precedent have become fused with cultures around the world in ways that include parallels to the unacknowledged role of Italian iconography in religion. Despite skin color and even the political and social geography of Africa itself, African-American contributions to Western civilization may be significant in conflicts between the rest of the world and those parts that cling to the Islamic fundamentalism and superstition of previous historical epochs. The role of African-American music in religious evangelism may be dwarfed by its role in commercial and political proselytizing. I can't provide a precise neurological explanation nor can I quantify the following, but I doubt that what we might call the world's Electronic Cultures would perceive time as they do without the influence of African-American music.

How and if we find solutions to problems among the elderly as they consciously face the end of their time may evolve more from making use of the capacities art brings than anything else.


Click here to return to Some Volumes of Poetry, Part 4