Melting ice cream dreams

I feel bad for the old ice cream truck fella, an icon of hearty Americana who once, back in “Leave it to Beaver” times, was known as the Good Humor Man, and who now is definitely not in a good humor.

Yet here he is, making the rounds at 3:30 each afternoon without fail, rumbling through the neighborhood, tinny tunes jangling from a rusted rooftop megaphone, the Pied Piper of Popsicles. Are those tear stains on his cheeks?  

These are mournful times and, unsurprisingly, the traveling ice cream business is way down, what with parks closed, or only slowly reopening, and the pandemic pandemonium roiling unabated. I hear the music and look out to see two or three tykes clamoring at the truck window instead of the bevy that used to get all Wonka-Bar crazy for the latest frozen thingamajig. 

It’s almost painful watching the face-masked driver handing out melty treats to the wan crowd. What once took a frantic 15 minutes or more is now a few-moments pause, a hiccup with the motor running. (Melting? Maybe my heart.)

Better days for the ice cream man.

What I also notice is how the truck’s musical tootling has changed over the summer. Going from upbeat circusy music, this might be the only ice cream truck whose jingle is by Beethoven, namely “Für Elise,” a strangely moody tune to play from a Day-Glo magnet for giddy children.

I suspect our fraught racial climes have affected the ice cream man’s tune. He used to play the hokey folk song “Turkey in the Straw,” which goes like this. Some argue that the song, which confectionary vehicles nationwide blare as a Pavlovian call to calories, is actually a 100-year-old minstrel ditty that’s grossly racist. Revisionists refute that. 

Not Wu-Tang’s badass RZA, who’s updating “Turkey in the Straw” with a hip-hop twist. CNN reports: “RZA came up with a new ice cream truck jingle because the old one was used in minstrel shows.” Last month, Good Humor even ordered all ice cream truck drivers to stop playing the outmoded number because of its sullied history. 

As if the nameless driver doesn’t have enough woes without the cursed and forever corny “Turkey in the Straw.” The children disperse wearing ice cream lipstick, scampering back to homebound quarantines or kicking balls in the street. I picture our quiet hero despondent, driving off with his forehead resting on the steering wheel, enduring the same few bars of Beethoven’s old melody played over and over on something between a strangled street organ and a broken music box, with that creepy carnivalesque tang.

The music echoes down the block and through the trees, an earworm for the dwindling masses, calling out: eat me

Cutting to the core of creativity

I’m reading two books right now: “Kudos,” the mesmerizing new novel by Rachel Cusk, and the non-fiction treatise “The Creative Habit” by celebrated dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp.

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The former is a whole-cloth original, narrative-defying, discursive and brainy, like the two previous books in Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, “Outline” and “Transit,” of which “Kudos” is the ravishing finale. Challenging and unorthodox, the seemingly autobiographical novels crack open your mind in a furiously fresh manner. They evoke Karl Ove Knausgaard’s rambling “My Struggle” series but are more rigorous, compressed, and chewier.

Catching my breath, I’m really here to dwell on Tharp’s self-described “practical guide,” whose full title is “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.” I’m a sucker for eloquent lessons on creativity and the artist’s way, including, yes, “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, “The Sound on the Page” by Ben Yagoda, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott and “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. These books possess transformative powers, tweaking your creative habits just so, massaging your brain to look at the blank page or canvas with a kind of nervous optimism instead of paralyzing dread or clogging trepidation. They are weighted with wisdom.

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Tharp, a paragon of her art form, knows of what she speaks, and she speaks it plainly and persuasively, with little decorative dressing but plenty of panache. She’s a beneficent, caring lecturer, and the book, breezy and empathetic, bulges with sticky, pragmatic advice. Quick: “In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.” Or: “There are no ‘natural’ geniuses.” That’s in the first nine pages, and somehow I find these statements awfully encouraging. 

She digs much deeper, with infectious enthusiasm. Using hard-earned lessons from her own work methods and creative processes in ballet and presenting instructive anecdotes about artistic challenge and triumph among such underachievers as Mozart, Beethoven Richard Avedon, Balanchine and Maurice Sendak, Tharp casts a wide net showing how happy accidents, preparation and luck (those are Siamese twins), ritual, archiving and mineable memory are critical components of productive creativity. (She also includes some loopy exercises that I didn’t have much use for. One required a bunch of eggs.)

Flipping through this clean, handsome, none-too-big book I plucked a few quotables:

“The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty, I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple thumping away in my head: ‘You need an idea.'”

“Another trap is the belief that everything has to be perfect before you can take the next step. You won’t move on to that second chapter until the first is written, rewritten, honed, tweaked, examined under a microscope, and buffed to a bright mahogany sheen. You won’t dip a brush in the paint until you’ve assembled all the colors you can possibly imagine using in the course of the project. I know it’s important to be prepared, but at the start of the process this type of perfectionism is more like procrastination. You’ve got to get in there and do.”

“The best writers are well-read people. They have the richest appreciation of words, the biggest vocabularies, the keenest ear for language. They also know their grammar. Words and language are their tools, and they have learned how to use them.”

“There is no one ideal condition for creativity. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming.”

“Jerome Robbins liked to say that you do your best work after your biggest disasters. For one thing, it’s so painful it almost guarantees that you won’t make those mistakes again. A fiasco compels you to change dramatically. The golfer Buddy Jones said, ‘I never learned anything from a match I won.’ He respected defeat and he profited from it.”

“These mistakes — relying too much on others, waiting for the perfect setup, overthinking structure, feeling obligated to finish what you’ve started, and working with the wrong materials — are deadly. Any one of them will undermine your best efforts.”

“Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources … Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse. I’ve been on enough big-budget film sets to appreciate the malignant influence of abundance and bloat.”

“You might not struggle for spine. You might be content to receive any random thought floating through the ether that happens to settle on you that day. You might think you don’t need a supporting mechanism for the art you’re constructing, a controlling image, a collateral idea to guide you. You might think getting lost is a big part of the adventure. You may think that, but you’d be wrong.”