Saturday, July 31, 2010

Novelty and Its Perils

In 2002, on the first of the road trips that would become the basis for Baseball Byways, we were still pretty highbrow, scheduling stops at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal and MassMOCA, on an itinerary that included games in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Syracuse, Montreal, Burlington, and Wappingers Falls, New York. But the nonbaseball attraction on that trip that seems to have increasingly set the tone in ensuing years was the inimitable Petrified Creatures Museum in Richfield Springs, New York, a mere 15 miles or so north-northwest of Cooperstown. The PCM is a museum in the same way that Cool Whip is whipping cream—it's a product of fakery that nonetheless not only satisfies in some of the ways that the real deal does but also provides something that the real deal cannot. And yet, in the end, it's also sort of gross.
While we cannot vouch for the PCM's current state, at the time it was a two-part attraction: (1) a "museum" of possibly real fossils and other dinosaur detritus, displayed in wooden cases constructed probably in the 1950s; and (2) a collection of huge neon-hued plaster or papier-mâché models in the woods behind the museum itself.
Each of these lovelies was accompanied by a mailbox of a matching color, in which was secreted a cassette player with a brief rundown of the behemoth's history, diet, likes, and dislikes.

I don't recall any explanation of why the brontosaurus was baby blue or why the triceratops looked like a lemon with horns, but any reason would have been beside the point—which was, namely, that you could walk up and snap a picture of these suckers and even climb around on them. Try that at the Museum of Natural History, or with any real dinosaur. The museum was for sale then, and it was for sale in 2008, but I don't know how you can put a price on touching a magenta-colored piece of evolutionary history.

It take a certain kind of mentality to create and run a place like the PCM, and in the pursuit of novelty and inspiration we've sought out the products of similar minds on subsequent trips. But we've been sliding increasingly toward one end of the spectrum of that mentality, which runs from charming to arguably certifiable, and this time out we went about as far into certifiable as we're going to go. I do wonder if our inclination in this direction has something to do with our personal changes of circumstances (we were then both married to women broadly in the culture industries; now we're not) or with a sort of introspection inspired (if that's the right word) by driving around America's smaller cities and less-populated regions year after year.

We took a real leap forward (backward? sideways? banana pudding?) in 2007 with a stop at the Ave Maria Grotto, en route from the Huntsville Stars to the Birmingham Barons. The grotto is a shrine to the Virgin Mary that is built into a hillside dotted with fantastically detailed models of Rome and Jerusalem, and it's the product of a single monk's lifetime obsession.

On that same trip, Rob sweet-talked us into one of the true shrines of the outsider art world: Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens compound, in far northwestern Georgia. The site is now open regular hours and is with any luck being restored by a foundation set up for that purpose, but at the time we needed Finster's daughter's approval to get in. She had us sign liability waivers and then left us to the swampy, snake-ridden property and its feral cats.

Many tedious things have been said in debating whether outsider art is, well, art or something more like an affliction, an expression of mental disability, or a product of religious mania. Rob and I have never discussed it in great depth, but I think we both don't care what the answer is. Show me any decent art that is not the product of mania or of a mind that cycles at a frequency outside most social norms.

And yet, there is a point where creativity and a questioning spirit give way to self-absorbed lunacy, and the "outsider" becomes a mental case. Standing athwart that tipping point is our new friend Nick Pahys, the guiding "intelligence" behind the One and Only Presidential Museum in Williamsfield, Ohio.

We arrived at Nick's dusty, remote, and uncrowded doorstep after a morning spent mopping up our sites of interest in Cleveland (a decayed mural, an interesting sign), though we did not make it to the grave of the only baseball player killed by a pitch, on account of intermittently torrential rain. We had a late breakfast in handsome little Chagrin Falls, mostly on account of the name, then drove east through Amish country, passing through the town of Novelty on the way.

Nick sees his museum not as a novelty or a work of art but as a venue—perhaps the only venue—of the truth about American history. The ostensible centerpiece of his campaign is the claim that the eight leaders of Congress during the period after the signing of the Articles of Confederation (1781) and before the adoption of the Constitution (1788) ought to be considered presidents of the United States—and that therefore the Father of Our Country is not George Washington but a fellow by the name of John Hanson.

This is nonsense, of course, but what's really sad is that it doesn't carry any weight. If, say, it is someday conclusively shown that the conventional understanding of the events of September 11, 2001, is seriously flawed or that Pearl Harbor never happened, those kinds of revelation will have considerable political and historical reverberations. But even if Nick Pahys is absolutely correct in his interpretation of colonial political history, the biggest impact popular acceptance of the idea will ever have will be on the employment rate among corrective stone carvers, which will shoot up as all the presidential monuments get renumbered.

Paul Revere and the Raiders

But the truth is that Nick's museum is not so much about John Hanson and the Forgotten Eight Presidents as it is about his perception of his own genius. To hear him tell it, he has been feted by Congress, the Nobel Prize Committee, top universities, kings and queens. He has received honors the world 'round and is America's most decorated historian, as well as a practitioner of constitutional law and one of our great religious scholars. Presidents and Congressmen fear him and have tried to silence him because of the wealth of his knowledge about their secrets. Michael Bloomberg refuses to open mail from him. And one of our presidents—our fiftieth, in his counting—has even called Nick to find out about himself.

While Nick can be intermittently charming—and I am by no means blind to the appeals of contrarianism—he is a victim of his own grandiloquent self-delusion. If he ever knew that some if not all of his lofty credentials are transparently faked, overstated, or trivial, he seems not to know it now. If he ever had as incomparable a wealth of knowledge about the presidents as he claimed ("I could lecture on any of them for three or four hours, easily!"), he no longer does. He asked me if I knew how four Ohio-born presidents had died in office, and I came up with three of them. When I asked him who the fourth one was and how he had died, he didn't know. For that matter, when I asked him to tell us more about the great John Hanson, he replied, "Who?" Rob has hypothesized in the past that one could pretend to be an outsider artist without actually being an artist, with the only risk being that you might actually create some art. But as Nick has shown, pretending to be a crank eventually turns you into the genuine article—unless, of course, he was always this way.

For me, at least, Nick is a cautionary tale of the brave and radical truth teller—it's one thing to live your life in a marshy compound in Georgia, pursuing a religious vision, as Finster did; it's another to claim worldly insight that only a child would think you possess. How you would ever be able to tell the difference from the inside, I don't know, and meeting Nick does give me pause about some of my own contrarian obsessions.

After about an hour and a half of Nick's verbiage, we hustled down to the Mahoning Valley Scrappers tilt with the State College Spikes, in a stadium built on the back end of a mall in Niles, Ohio. It was Christmas in July again, as the Indians used the promotional theme throughout their system in the time we were in Ohio. The game was a speedy affair, clocking in at 2:11, which the Spikes took 1–0 while using three pitchers for three innings apiece. Is that visionary or nuts?

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