My Life in Nine Obituaries by Ann Levin

1 –
Philip Pearlstein, Whose Realist Nudes Revived Portraiture, Dies at 98

The other day, I found the New York Times obituary for Philip Pearlstein in a folder with the extremely unhelpful file name “Miscellaneous.” It was jammed in next to an article titled “Five Easy Exercises to Strengthen Your Abs.” Why I put it there, I don’t know. In the moment, I think I’ll never forget these things, but five minutes later, I do. 

I’ve always read obituaries in the morning with my coffee, after dividing up the paper and giving the front section to my husband, Stan. He gets to be the grown-up in the marriage, catching up on all the latest wars, political scandals, and devastating effects of climate change, while I read the arts coverage and these perfect little stories about life and death. Sometimes I even clip them and store them in the folder in my file cabinet where they seem to belong. Other times, I save them on my laptop. Some just wind up in the stack of papers headed to the recycling bin.

It wasn’t anything in particular that made me cut out the Philip Pearlstein obituary—it was everything. But mainly, that he was so Jewish. I loved the fact that his dad sold chickens and eggs for a living—such an old-school, ghetto thing for those first waves of Jewish immigrants to do. And also that he was born and raised in Pittsburgh, forty miles from the little town where I grew up.

Then there was the old photo the Times dug up of him sitting in front of a building at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon, with his classmate and future wife Dorothy Cantor and Andy Warhol, who was sprawled out on the grass in front of them. Yes, Andy Warhol, back when he looked normal, before the black Ray-Bans and platinum fright wigs. He even had on the same style of shirt as Pearlstein—pale green, with short sleeves, perfectly suited for the Eisenhower era. 

As for Pearlstein? He looked just like my dad did circa 1948, the year before he married my mom in the rabbi’s study at Rodef Shalom synagogue in the Jewish section of Pittsburgh—pudgy face (from too much chicken schmaltz?), horn-rim glasses, curly hair. 

The funny thing was, I hated Philip Pearlstein’s paintings when I first saw them at the Metropolitan Museum. The Times described them as “coolly observed nudes that reclaimed the naked human body for painting.” I just thought he made everyone look ugly. I wanted bodies by Degas, bodies by Manet, a little blurry and smudged around the edges. Not ones that “lolled and slouched, faces slack with boredom or fatigue.” I had enough of that just from looking in the mirror. 

Eventually, though, they grew on me. I came to admire their lack of sentimentality and narrative—just bodies being bodies—and also the artistic journey he took to get there. He started out, like so many other midcentury painters, doing abstraction. Then, in the late fifties, he joined a group of artists devoted to figure drawing. At the same time, he was trying to teach his students at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn how to master perspective. “Suddenly,” he said, “it seemed like the most complicated, sophisticated, interesting thing to do, to try to be realist.”

The irony was that his nudes—harshly lit, ruthlessly cropped—were exactly the opposite of another picture the Times ran of him, this one in his Manhattan studio in 2002, standing in front of his easel. It was beautiful, all saturated color and warm light. He looked tanned and happy, with a receding hairline, slightly buck teeth, a half day’s worth of stubble, and his tortoise shell reading glasses perched at the top of his prominent nose. 

He reminded me of all the Jewish men in Pittsburgh that my parents used to play tennis with: Jules, who sold insurance. Bernie, an optometrist. Norman, a sales rep for a clothing manufacturer. Each of them had what Dad would have called a yiddishe punim. He also looked like a regular guy—someone who might have designed plumbing catalogs for a living, which in fact he did after he and Warhol graduated from Carnegie Tech and moved to New York, where they were briefly roommates. 

Several years ago, I joined a watercolors class, which met in the teacher’s apartment across the street from the onion domes of a Russian Orthodox church, which we sometimes had to sketch. Most of the time, though, we’d paint still lifes of fruit and flowers on her dining room table while she flitted from student to student, correcting our errors in composition and perspective. 

It soon became clear that I had no artistic talent, but I stayed anyway because Susan was a character and I loved her—an eccentric, church-going, Fox News-watching woman who did ballroom dancing into her eighties. Reading Philip Pearlstein’s obituary at breakfast while Stan caught up on all the mayhem unfolding across the globe suddenly made me want to sign up for another watercolors class. 

2 –
Burt Bacharach, Composer Who Added a High Gloss to the ’60s, Dies at 94

The Times has an authoritative way of writing that is not everybody’s cup of tea. Some people find it self-important, even stuffy. I get that. The paper of record takes itself seriously. But I happen to love it, especially the way the obituaries manage to artfully boil down the essence of a person’s life.

Because let’s face it, unless you’re a dead president or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist whose discovery changed the world, the writers have to sum up your life in 1,500 words—2,000 max. So, they need the sweeping lede, they need to tell us why we should care about this person in the first place, followed by the basic chronological outline of their life, from birth to death, enlivened by one or two striking anecdotes and telling quotes.

The team that put together the obituary for Burt Bacharach really outdid themselves. The headline declared that he “added a high gloss to the ’60s.” The sub-head proclaimed that his “collaborations with the lyricist Hal David … evoked a sleek era of airy romance.” The caption underneath the picture of him at the top of the page said that his songs, including “The Look of Love,” “Walk On By,” and “Alfie,” “defined sophisticated hedonism for a generation of young people amid the tumult of the 1960s.”

Wow, I thought, did they really do all of that? Upon further consideration, I decided they did. Because that’s exactly what it was like to live with my parents in our big white house at the top of a hill in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s, Frank Sinatra on the hi-fi, “The French Chef” on TV, martinis shaken not stirred. 

As for the picture of him in a natty seersucker jacket sporting an LA tan, as soon as I saw it, I knew that like Philip Pearlstein, Burt Bacharach was a landsman. But one of the ones, especially in that generation, who didn’t want anyone to know. “I already had enough problems without having to also admit I was Jewish,” he said in his autobiography. But we all knew, all us members of the tribe. 

And then there was Alfie. Not the song but the movie. I remembered when our parents took us to see it at the Manor Theatre in Greensburg, which showed all the foreign films that never made it to Mount Pleasant. It had such a different look—a young Michael Caine, talking directly to the camera, speaking in an almost incomprehensible Cockney accent, glamorizing his life as an incorrigible womanizer and cad. 

Did that confuse my parents? I remember it confused me. I was twelve. Back then, I couldn’t distinguish between real life and the movies and so, when I saw a film about a cheeky sort of man who treated women terribly, it was just scary. How could this guy be an up-and-coming young movie star and play such an appalling human being? Did I even understand what an abortion was? No one explained it to me. Why should they? Did parents even do that back then? As for the song “Alfie,” I thought it was unbearably sad. I still think it’s unbearably sad.

Of course, for my parents, it was thrilling. They would have raced to Greensburg to see it as soon as it came out because they would have read the glowing review in the Times, which was mailed to our house from New York every day, seven days a week, always arriving a few days late. 

That was back when their movie reviews told you where exactly the film was playing in Manhattan—the Coronet, the Embassy 46th Street—information that wasn’t relevant to a family in western Pennsylvania, except when my parents went to New York on a business trip to buy things for our store. I remembered that, too—every now and then I’d go with them—how we used to stand on the sidewalk outside the theaters that got all the first-run movies, especially the one on Third Avenue near Bloomingdale’s, the lines sometimes snaking around the corner.

Seeing a new movie right after it opened in Manhattan. Being in the know. Having something to talk about at cocktail parties. Especially a film from Great Britain, or better yet, one with subtitles, so different from shoot-em-up westerns and the usual Hollywood fare. Now, that was glamour.

3 –
David Crosby, Folk-Rock Voice of the 1960s Whose Influence Spanned Decades, Dies at 81

Here’s the thing about David Crosby, I was never really a fan. All through high school and college I pretty much despised Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and all the various configurations of their bands. My connection to David Crosby came decades later, in a wry, ironic, sixties kind of way. His liver troubles, to be exact. He got a liver transplant in 1994 from all his drinking and drugging, which led to him contracting hepatitis C. I had hep C too. Not bad enough to need a new liver, just a couple years of the worst drugs I’ve ever taken, even worse than the ones for cancer.

So, I read the Crosby obituary with a kind of morbid fascination, amazed that he’d even made it to 81, given what the Times politely described as his “troubled personal life,” which included a couple stints in prison. That was when I discovered that he was a founding member of the Byrds. And that reminded me of their debut hit single, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” 

I was eleven when the song came out, on the cusp of puberty. I hadn’t even gotten my period yet, just the first queasy feelings that everything was about to change. I remember rushing down to Brown’s Record Store on Main Street to buy it, bringing it home and adding it to our precious stack of 45s. We used to listen to them in the room with the record player, which we called the New Room because my parents added it on to the house. The song made me feel uneasy, the way I did before a test.

I looked up from the paper and stared into the kitchen beyond Stan, who was absorbed in the front page, slowly eating his oatmeal. Really, I thought? “Mr. Tambourine Man”? Uneasy? Why on earth would I think that?  So, after breakfast, I went online and found it. And sure enough, as if no time at all had passed, it sent chills down my spine and made me feel like I did in 1965—off-kilter and unmoored. 

You have to understand. Up until then, I’d been listening to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Dave Clark Five—bright, cheerful pop with not a trace of sorrow, nothing like the otherworldly woe of David Crosby’s reedy voice. Just to make sure, I compared it to Bob Dylan’s version and his didn’t make me feel the same way, even though he wrote it. Maybe because he recited each line so clearly, as if he were declaiming a poem, as if he already knew that one day he’d win the Nobel Prize in literature. Or maybe it was his irritatingly abrasive voice. 

No, it was the Byrds’ moodier, proto-psychedelic version, with all those layers of echo and jangly guitars, that made my stomach do a flip-flop and delivered to me my first dose of pure, unadulterated, adult-strength dread.

4 –
Herbert Deutsch, Co-Creator of the Moog Synthesizer, Dies at 90

Before 1968, everything in my life was more or less innocent. Everything that came after was more or less a mess. 1968 was the year I went away to boarding school and never felt completely connected to my parents again. That’s why I was so struck by the obituary for Herbert Deutsch, a musician and composer who co-invented the first electronic synthesizer to be widely used in popular music. 

For better or worse—probably better, unless you love the sound of “Deutsch synthesizer”— the instrument was named for his collaborator, the engineer Robert Moog. And in 1968, that fateful year, Wendy Carlos used it to record “Switched-On Bach.” That was another thing I hadn’t thought about in years. But as I was reading the obituary, it occurred to me that that album was one of the last cultural artifacts that brought the three of us—Ma, Dad, and me—together. We all loved “Switched-On Bach.”

If I remember correctly, everyone loved “Switched-On Bach.” It was exciting! It was thrilling! It felt like the future but to the familiar, decorous, churchly strains of this immortal composer. Carlos was using technology with revolutionary but—and this seems so important today—benign potential, rendering classical music in a youthful, happening sort of way. We probably jumped in the car and drove to the shiny new Greengate Mall to buy it at the bigger record store. Then went back for another copy and another because we would wear it out, but also to shower on family and friends.

I can still picture the charming, hilarious album cover: A guy dressed up like good old J.S. Bach, in breeches, a turquoise brocade frock coat, frilly lace at his neck, and a long, curly, powdered wig, standing in front of a Moog synthesizer, holding a pair of earphones. 

I glanced up from the paper. “You have to read this obit for the guy who invented the Moog synthesizer,” I said to Stan, because he always liked the sounds of synth more than I did. Before we moved in together, he used to drive his roommate crazy by playing Brian Eno’s ambient music at such a low volume that Phil thought he was going mad. 

I was right. He looked up, paused his eating of oatmeal, and started to reminisce about early adopters of synthesizers. First, Genesis, with a short digression on Phil Collins. Then Yes, with a longer digression on Rick Wakeman. Then brief mentions of David Bowie, Devo, Kraftwerk, and New Order. 

But I wasn’t really listening. I was off in my own reverie, remembering my first year in prep school, when I stopped eating because I couldn’t swallow, stopped getting my period, and reality started to fray around the edges. I remembered one evening at dusk, standing on a lush green lacrosse field with a tall, tousled, handsome boy named Nick. I saw particles of light around the edges of his body, as if he were dissolving into air. He was asking me why I was crying.

There was one other thing about that obituary: Herb Deutsch’s parents raised chickens at their home in Hempstead, Long Island, even though they both had other jobs. Like Philip Pearlstein’s dad. Like all those villagers in Marc Chagall’s joyous paintings of roosters and hens. I don’t know what it is about my people. We just really love chickens.

5 –
Alice K. Ladas, Whose Book Popularized the G-Spot, Dies at 102

So many things about the obituary for psychotherapist Alice Ladas delighted me: that she died at home at age 102, that she saw patients at her home office the day before, and that two nights before, she went to see the summer blockbuster Oppenheimer with a friend. Her daughter told the Times it was “not history to her” because “that was what she lived.”

But one thing about the obituary really disturbed me: that she was a follower of Wilhelm Reich, whose name after more than fifty years still summoned up a mixture of embarrassment and rage.

Don’t get me wrong—I had no beef with Ladas. In fact, she reminded me a lot of my mother. They both went to Smith College. They both admired Eleanor Roosevelt. They both believed in the health-bestowing properties of breastfeeding. And they both were followers of Adelle Davis, the midcentury nutrition guru. 

My mother had all of Adelle Davis’s books, which she lined up on a shelf within arm’s reach of the kitchen. Adelle Davis was the reason my mother made her own baby food; switched to raw sugar and unbleached flour as early as the fifties; stocked our fridge with wheat germ and our cupboards with brewer’s yeast; and never let me or my siblings eat anything fun. 

Besides all her other interests and passions, Ladas became famous for her research on the female orgasm. The book she wrote about it, The G Spot: And Other Recent Discoveries About Human Sexuality, was hailed as revolutionary when it came out in 1982. Which, frankly, seemed a little late to me.

I, too, went to Smith, from 1972 to 1976, when the idea that women didn’t need men for sexual pleasure, if only they spent a little time with a mirror between their legs, was basic. Feminism 101. As the popular bumper sticker of that era put it, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” But evidently, it was news to a lot of the country because the book sold more than a million copies. Whatever. Better late than never. 

Actually, I didn’t have a problem with Wilhelm Reich either. I thought he was brilliant. Early in his life, when he was studying psychoanalysis in Vienna with Sigmund Freud, Freud referred to him as der beste Kopfe, his best pupil. Wikipedia says he coined the term “the sexual revolution.” He believed in women’s liberation. He wrote a book called The Mass Psychology of Fascism. He didn’t go off the deep end until he emigrated to this country right before World War II.

The person I had the beef with was one of his acolytes, who I’m not going to name. I suppose you could say he was the Charles Manson of our family—does every family have one? —except as far as I know he didn’t kill anyone. He just espoused some of Reich’s more crackpot theories, like that sitting in a wooden box the size of a phone booth—an orgone accumulator—could cure cancer. For that, the FDA went after Reich and he ended up dying in a federal prison in eastern Pennsylvania. 

As for Charles Manson Lite, nothing bad ever happened to him. He was just one of your garden-variety sociopaths masquerading as a mystic, espousing a mishmash of Reich, Hermann Hesse, George Gurdjieff, and George Ohsawa. Someone who went around telling everyone, including me, that we were all “sanpaku,” which meant that the whites of our eyes were visible around the iris, and that because of this, we would meet a tragic end. 

6 –
William Friedkin, Director of ‘French Connection’ and ‘Exorcist,’ Dies at 87

The other night I watched The French Connection for the millionth time. William Friedkin had just died, and TCM was commemorating his life by showing his greatest films. To me, it’s always been The French Connection simply because I can’t bear to see The Exorcist. I couldn’t even look at the movie still that the Times ran with the obituary: Linda Blair’s head turned completely around, her maniacally grinning face smeared with blood. 

The French Connection is a different story. Even before Friedkin died, TCM continually played it in reruns, and I watched bits and pieces of it almost every time. Not all of it, just enough to fill me with fortitude, instill me with courage, and lift my mood, the way old Jewish people in my family used to drink a nice glass of schnapps. 

I don’t even understand why the movie makes me feel this way. It is gritty, violent, and often confusing. It shows corrupt cops, pointless shakedowns, desperate hustlers, a sinister Frenchman, an endless montage of mechanics taking apart a car to look for drugs, a broken city on the edge of despair. Then there is Gene Hackman. Gene Hackman, with his doughy face, ski jump nose, and perpetual sneer. Roy Scheider’s not bad either. But Gene Hackman, oh my God, Gene Hackman! The ugliest man I ever fell for!

Throughout the whole movie he wears that ridiculous pork pie hat. He’s a hardcore alcoholic. In one scene where Scheider, his police partner, comes to his door to rouse him for work, Hackman can’t get up to answer because he’s handcuffed to the bed, the aftermath of whatever kinky sex he had the night before with the naked woman who is shown modestly scampering off to the bathroom. Yeah, the whole thing is a sexist, misogynistic mess in terms of its politics. But as a movie, as a story, as a cinematic vessel for an unnecessary but thrilling car chase—Hackman in a classic Pontiac Lemans racing against a hijacked elevated train through the streets of Brooklyn—I find it irresistible.

I didn’t, though, when it came out in 1971. I didn’t like it then because it was too tawdry, too macho, too depressing, too ugly. Eventually, I came to appreciate it as another cultural artifact, a landmark in cinema, of a time within my own memory when the streets of Manhattan were a sea of yellow taxi cabs, women wore babushkas, and there were phone booths and a cigarette machine in the rough bar where Popeye Doyle, played by Hackman, goes to meet his informant, who tells him that the word on the street is that a shipment is coming in and “everyone is going to get well.”

The other thing about this obituary? Billy Friedkin—that’s what the Times said his friends called him—started out in the mailroom of a local TV station in Chicago, directing hundreds of shows and documentaries before he became a star. And despite all the fame he achieved, he remained modest about his accomplishments. “I don’t see myself as a pioneer,” he said in an interview in 2012. “I see myself as a working guy and that’s all, and that is enough.” 

When I read that, I folded up the paper, put it on our heap, and felt an immense sense of contentment.

7 –
Issey Miyake, Who Opened a Door for Japanese Fashion, Dies at 84

This obituary took me back to the eighties, when I met Stan. He loved his sisters, and his sisters loved Japanese designers. So, for the first time in my life, after not caring about western, eastern, or any kind of fashion, I felt the need to learn a little bit about one of their favorites, Issey Miyake.

For the record, Stan and I, who are former journalists, are partial to the same kind of clothing. If you’ve seen the movie Spotlight, then you know what it is. Newsroom frump—basic khakis or cords and button-down shirts. Back then, it was Lands’ End and L.L. Bean. 

Sometimes I even wear Stan’s cast-offs. This works out great for me because I hate to shop for clothes, except for novelty socks, especially ones with William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and other literary figures. I buy them in bulk in bookstores for me and everyone I know—but not Stan’s sisters. They would never wear them.

The Japanese designers they liked, including Yohji Yamamoto, Kansai Yamamoto (no relation), and Rei Kawakubo, who designed for Commes des Garcons—“like the boys” in French—made clothing that was voluminous, asymmetrical, largely monochromatic. Layers of loose scarves, pants, tunics, and capes. Often ripped, unraveled, and full of holes, and typically worn with enormous chunky black shoes.

Not long after I met them, one of them gave me an Issey Miyake top made of indigo blue cotton with faint bands of white. It was cut from a single piece of cloth, with a shallow boatneck collar that stretched from shoulder to shoulder, making it impossible to wear a bra without the straps showing.

Nonetheless, I wore it all the time because it was lovely and it was from them. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that Issey Miyake was not meant for “dumpy Jewish women,” the term my mother’s best friend Adele once used to describe herself, but which also applied, at various times, to both my mother and me. Of course, that didn’t stop a lot of dumpy people, Jewish or otherwise, from loving Issey.

Over time, I came to appreciate Japanese fashion too, but only in a cerebral, intellectual sort of way. I even bought a book called New Japan Fashion by Leonard Koren, who wrote about how contemporary Japanese clothing was inspired by centuries of court fashion with layers upon layers of undergarments that effectively concealed the human body. As someone who has struggled my whole life with an eating disorder, I was all for the body disappearing. 

I also appreciated what Yohji Yamamoto once said. “For me the body is nothing. The body is change. Every moment it gets older so you cannot count on it. You cannot control time. I can’t believe in the human body. I do not think the human body is beautiful.”

Issey Miyake was seven when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the city where he was born. “When I close my eyes, I still see things no one should ever experience: a bright red light, the black cloud soon after, people running in every direction trying desperately to escape,” he wrote. 

Despite all of that, he didn’t become bitter. He said he preferred to think about things that can be created, not destroyed. He also rejected the label of fashion designer. “I don’t make fashion,” he said. “I make clothes.” 

8 –
Kim Chernin, Who Wrote About Women, Weight and Identity, Dies at 80

What I found incredible about the obituary for Kim Chernin was that I didn’t even know her name even though she wrote countless books about the subject that has obsessed me all my life. The fancy word is female body dysmorphia. In my case, an eating disorder, compulsive overeating, a lifetime of agonizing not about important stuff, but what I put into my body. What kind of food, and how much? How many calories? How much fat? How long until it’s “burned off” so I can eat again? It was endless. It was exhausting. I imagine it was bizarre to live with, but Stan never said a word. I’m not even sure he saw it because there’s not a lot to see unless you’re already part of that world. 

I never got a moment’s relief from it until 1999, when, at the age of 45, I found my way to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting in a gorgeous old Gothic Revival church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, in that scruffy basement, after years of humiliation and shame, I came to realize that every single person in the room had what I had, and worse. 

More than twenty years later, I still remember O.’s vivid, disturbing shares. She was English and lived downtown. I never understood why she came so far uptown to a meeting. But week after week, she’d show up at the designated time, carrying a small orange paper shopping bag from Hermes. I don’t know why because I never asked. I never even had the nerve to talk to her—she was so beautiful. But I had a theory—that she’d set up some kind of reward system, some unbreakable routine. Like, if I walk the four miles to this meeting, then I’ll treat myself to a new lipstick from Hermes, which was on the way. I knew a thing or two about unbreakable routines.

O. used to talk about her bulimia as a young office worker, wandering the streets of London at midday, bingeing on her lunch break, then having to find a public bathroom to throw up in before she went back to work. How necessary it was. How driven she was. It was overwhelming to see her courage in the face of such suffering.

Then there was J., who had a sparkling white porcelain smile because the enamel surface of her own teeth was worn away by exposure to stomach acid from years of self-induced vomiting. She was a fanatic about calling in her food to her sponsor every morning and doing service, the twelfth step of Alcoholics Anonymous: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. To this day, I often wipe down the sink area of a public bathroom because J. said that was a great way to do service.

But my favorite person was A., who had the rhythm and timing of a Borscht Belt comedian, even in the space of a three-minute share. I used to tell her, when we’d meet for coffee at a Greek diner near the church, that she should do stand-up for a living. She was funnier than Jon Stewart. But she was more than content, more than grateful, for her abstinent life and her job in the Diamond District, eating two small baked potatoes for dinner every night. 

As I read the Kim Chernin obituary, I realized that she had spent much of her life exploring why all of us were starving ourselves or stuffing ourselves or exercising compulsively. Back in 1980, when I was a grad student at the University of Texas at Austin and considered the day a total loss if I didn’t log at least a mile in one of the university’s Olympic-size pools, she published her groundbreaking book, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness

The Times quoted a long passage from it: “Many of life’s emotions—from loneliness to rage, from a love of life to a first falling in love—can be felt as appetite. That night, for example, standing in front of the refrigerator, I realized that my hunger was for larger things, for identity, for creativity, for power, for a meaningful place in society. The hunger most women feel, which drives them to eat more than they need, is fed by the evolution and expression of self.”

There it was, my whole life. Her obituary was the only one I saved on my laptop in the Obituaries folder with a different kind of file name. It says, “Kim Chernin-important.” 

9 –
Joseph Pedott, 91, Dies; Made Chia Pets an ‘As Seen On TV’ Sensation

Of course, I clipped the obituary for the guy who made a fortune selling Chia Pets, because he reminded me of my older brother Howard, who died a long time ago. Howard would have loved Joseph Pedott, the ad man who discovered the odd-looking novelty item at a trade show in Chicago in the late 1970s. The story goes that when Pedott asked the head of sales at a big drugstore chain what his bestselling product around the holidays was, the man said, “There’s this stupid item called the Chia Pet. I don’t know why anybody buys it.” 

Pedott’s genius was to see that millions of people would shell out good money for a not particularly attractive terracotta figure coated in chia seeds that sprouted wavy green hair after being watered for a week or so—if only it had the right ad campaign. So, he secured the rights and proceeded to market the hell out of it with a catchy jingle that went “Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia.” In the four decades since, more than 25 million have sold.

His next big idea was the Clapper, a sound-activated electrical switch (and precursor to Siri) that let you turn the lights on and off by clapping your hands. As the TV slogan had it, “Clap on! Clap off! The Clapper!” The stated purpose was to make turning lights on easy and fun. Easy, I could see, especially if you had trouble reaching a light switch. But fun? Why would anyone think that turning on a light should be fun? 

Howard would have understood immediately and declared both things to be “genius.” Not in the Albert Einstein sense of the word. Rather, in the Joseph Pedott sense of the word.

Genius for Howard could mean a lot of different things. It depended on context, but often it referred to anything that my parents would have found vulgar, insipid, or in bad taste. Howard took this childlike delight in profoundly dumb stuff—not just Chia Pets and Clappers, but also Groucho glasses, rubber chickens, baseball caps with antlers, and Big Mouth Billy Bass, an animatronic mounted fish that danced and sang “Take Me to the River.” Also, anything to do with poop or farts. 

In his tastes and pleasures, his likes and dislikes, he was exactly the opposite of me, at least for the first fourteen years of my life. For whatever reason, even though we grew up in the same house, I expected life to be as decorous and beautiful as Masterpiece Theatre. From the moment Howard was born, he understood that it was more like a season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

But after I went away to prep school and fell apart, he showed me by example, not precept, that it was a fool’s game to disapprove of the stupid, wasteful, inane ways of consumer capitalism. To turn up your nose at the strip malls and big-box stores proliferating across the land. To disdain the likes of McDonald’s, Long John Silver’s, and Chuck E. Cheese. In other words, he helped me come to terms with modern American life, to see it as one giant smorgasbord of weird, and to find my pleasures where I could. Take the cannolis, leave the gun. 

It turns out that his and Pedott’s instincts were right. Both the Chia Pet and the Clapper have been enshrined in the Smithsonian, though I haven’t seen them. I did see the California Raisins, which I stumbled upon once when Stan and I were in DC. I remember peering into the glass case and gawking at those wrinkled little guys, sporting sunglasses and flashy clothes, and dancing their hearts out to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” 

I couldn’t help but think about Howard, though I think about him all the time. He died so unexpectedly, on July 28, 1993, of a massive heart attack at age forty, that the local paper, the Mount Pleasant Journal, was caught off guard, misspelling the key adverb “unexpectantly.” The plain, sans serif headline said, “Levin’s owner dies suddenly,” a reference to the store on Main Street that he inherited from my father, who inherited it from my grandfather. It was accompanied by a terrible picture, Howard’s face half in shadow, his eyes squinting or closed, probably the best snapshot my distraught mother could come up with on such short notice. The information was basic after the lede: birth, occupation, education, survivors, funeral services, suggested memorial donations (to a local ballfield, to be named for him.)

It was nothing like the obituaries in the New York Times.


Ann Levin is a writer, book reviewer, and former editor at The Associated Press. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Sensitive Skin, Southeast Review, The Inquisitive Eater, Hunger Mountain, Breakwater Review, Bloom, and many other literary magazines. She has also performed onstage with the New York-based writers group Writers Read.