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The Transcendence of Tiny Folk
December 11, 2004: Borrowers are tiny people who live beneath floors and behind walls in the houses of human beings. They "borrow" odds and ends such as sewing needles and thimbles to fashion into tools and furniture. Borrowers also help themselves to food, in amounts too small to be missed. To a borrower, a shrimp is a leg of lamb, a grape is a cantaloupe. The borrowers tap into water pipes, gas lines and flues and cook on stoves made from bits of hardware. In their secret world, they live much like human beings-- in miniature homes made of cigar boxes and cardboard.

In the 1950's, human author Mary Norton chronicled the life of a borrower family in a series of classic children's books. Norton opened up unseen worlds for her readers and transformed everyday objects by presenting them through borrower eyes. She also presented a compelling social picture of borrower existence. Borrowers live by a self reliant, "making do" ethos. When left to themselves, most lead a rather genteel, middle class life. Yet their living arrangements are precarious; the threat of displacement a constant. Just when all seems secure, humans can discover the borrowers' existence. And call in a rat catcher. Thinking borrowers are some sort of rodents in clothes. Others try to bag borrowers with exploitation in mind. Hoping to collect them, or make them into tourist exhibits. Borrowers must repeatedly flee, sometimes with nothing more than what they can carry. At one point the borrower family Norton chronicles is forced to live in a discarded boot outdoors, where they come close to dying from starvation and exposure. Thankfully, a woodland borrower boy with survivalist savvy comes to the rescue.

Norton's borrower family is small: a husband, wife and teenage daughter. The husband (Pod) and wife (Homily) are cautious and conservative. Both are adept at indoor borrower survival skills and feel it best to live a shadowy existence between walls and under floors. Their daughter, Arriety, longs for the outdoors and adventure. Arriety's restlessness leads her to do the forbidden: talk to human beings. Her chats with "giants" lead to disaster. Though not all humans are malign.

In Norton's final volume (The Borrowers Aloft) Arriety befriends a kindly human spinster. A free spirit who tends a miniature outdoor village built by a man whose hobby is model railroads. She offers the borrowers a safe life in the village, with everything built to scale and all needs provided. Arriety is sure this is the answer to her parents' housing problems. Yet Pod and Homily refuse the offer. Sensing a cage built with the best intentions is still a cage. Believing their independence and privacy would ultimately be violated by the arrangement. Saying: "you can pay too high for a bit of soft living". The series closes with them emigrating yet again. Setting out for a home in a grain mill. While Arriety's future lies with the woodland borrower boy.

A more urban set of tiny folk are the Homies: little plastic Hip Hop figures who can be found hanging in gum machines near the front doors of supermarkets. 50 cents puts one in your palm. Trying to collect the entire crew can cost a mint, given their numbers and the law of diminishing gum machine returns-- as a collection increases, so does the chance of getting duplicates. Collection abuse counselors call this "the tragic cost of being hooked on Homies". Homies are beautifully styled, though detractors say they encourage stereotypes. The Homies have spawned a spin-off, by way of the Sopranos. Named the Palermos, the wee mafiosi are everything the Italian American Anti Defamation League decries. Palermo dispensers are scarcer than Homie ones, so Palermos will probably become hot collectibles. Speculators in tiny folk may already be dreaming of the E Bay day when billionaire Palermo collectors make offers that can't be refused. It's just this sort of degrading fate borrowers seek to avoid.

The perfect tiny town for the Palermos would be one fashioned by Francis Glessner Lee. During the 1940's, Mrs. Lee built the "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death". Nineteen doll house size crime scenes with every detail in place. Right down to cans in cupboard, lipstick smeared pillowcases, bullet riddled walls and itsy bitsy corpses. Like a borrower, Francis Glessner Lee turned human sized household objects into tools for tiny folk. Such as straight pins into knitting needles. Mrs. Lee was the first woman member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. She created the Nutshell Studies as a classroom tool for police recruits. The Studies are still used for teaching purposes by the office of the Maryland State Medical Examiner in Baltimore. A book about Lee and her mini murder scenes was recently published by Monacelli Press. With photos and text by Corinne May Botz. Francis Glessner Lee was inspired in her work by the words of a detective: "Convict the guilty, clear the innocent and find the truth in a nutshell".

Though characters are physically full size in Bart Plantenga's "spermatogonia: the isle of man" (Autonomedia, 2004) their lives are less so. The book's narrator makes his living finding sources for TV canned laughter. In search of gutbusters and chortles, he haunts fairgrounds, parties and even accident scenes. Not the lethal variety of the latter-- but ones with banana peel aspects. Laugh Man is always among crowds but never of them. Meanwhile, back at his creative workplace, non-union yuppies competitively boast about being overworked and worship the great god "Luck". Since Luck seems to smile on Laugh Man by allowing him to be out of the office all day, his co workers hate him. Plantenga captures the petty chill of hip sweatshops as skillfully as his character captures laughter. Plantenga's style is free form. Sometimes he loves language too well and lays on the images too thick and sometimes he loves culture too well and lays on references likewise. But these are mere bagatelles. Poetry jumps from his prose. Like when Laugh Man gets stuck in traffic and eats a candy bar: "I held the wrapper in my hands while keeping a loose grip on the steering wheel so that the brown wrapper held up to the light pouring through the windshield looked exactly like the air hunched over Manhattan".

Along the triple x route to the enlightened implosion of Laugh Man "spermatogonia" takes fascinating side trips. Including explorations of the nature of laughter and the use by intelligence agencies of sound as a torture technique. "spermatogonia" is illustrated with Dave Lombard's b&w photos, which evoke the album art of No New York and the furtive alien autopsy shots of Fox Muldaur. Author Bart Plantenga is a DJ at Radio Patapoe in the Netherlands. He specializes in lush uneasy listening. In his former life stateside, Bart dee jayed at WFMU in New Jersey, a legendary mecca for all things avant aural. Bart has published a number of works ranging from poetry collections to fiction to dissertations on his musical obsessions. Last year, Routledge published his seminal work on yodeling "Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World". It turned out to be a surprise hit. Proving that obsessions, like laughs, can be shared by many.

Speaking of both, 1999 was Barbie's 40th birthday. To mark the occasion Simon & Schuster published a collection of essays "The Barbie Chronicles" edited by Yona Zeldis McDonough. Though a few of the essays step out of the injection mold, the majority depict Barbie as the ultimate bitch goddess of all things fiendishly feminine. The corrupting influence on young girls of Barbie's "perfect breasts" are invoked and denounced so many times it's obvious a single ayatollah wrote most of the essays under a slew of pseudonyms. In one essay, he lauds the work of an artist who defaces Barbies. The artist isn't the ayatollah's Crayola toting 5 year old, or some infant Ted Bundy, but an adult woman whose masterwork is a Barbie studded with nails. According to the ayatollah, this artist felt really upset when she hammered nails into Barbie's eyes and Barbie kept on smiling. The artist would probably have felt even more upset if she knew why Barbie kept smiling. Barbie's identity, like that of Spartacus, transcends her individual self. As the Barbie hating artist hammered those nails, dolls all over the world were declaring "I am Barbie!" It may happen sooner and it may happen later, but eventually that artist will hear the tapping of millions of tiny high heels in her hallway. Talk about a nutshell of unexplained death...

PEEP 6: The Main Body, containing Magic by Mail Art, will appear for the holidays. Featuring work by Henning Mittendorf, Paula Jesgarz, Captain Biology, King Pinky from the Island of Rec, Giovanni Strada, Christian Hildbrandt, V2, C.Z. Lovecraft, Claudio Romeo, Isao Yoshi, ex posto facto and many more.

Holly Jolly!

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

"Chief Epiradus Dhoi Lewa has a strange tale to tell. Sitting in his wooden home at the foot of an active volcano on the remote Indonesian island of Flores, he recalls how people from his village (Boawae) were able to capture a tiny woman with long, pendulous breasts three weeks ago. ""They said she was very little and very pretty,"" he says...The chief adds that the mysterious little woman in Boawae somehow 'escaped' her captors..."

Hobbits? We've Got a Cave Full, Deborah Smith, Science Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 12/06/04

"Small world, isn't it?"

Small World, Gypsy, Music: Julie Styne, Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim, 1959

"spermatogonia: the isle of man" by Bart Plantenga can be ordered at

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Copyright (c) 2004 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.

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