Lauren and Russ muse on siblings, privilege, pancakes, and the state of being as cuddly as a cactus.
CW —grief, death of a parent.
Episode 3: For Sale, Pancake?, Hug O' War – Shel We Read a Poem?
British Voice: Shel We Read a Poem?
Russ: Hello everybody and welcome to Shel We Read a Poem. I’m Russ.
Lauren: And I’m Lauren.
Russ: Lauren Shel we read a poem?
Lauren: Yes, we shall. And at this point, we will read two poems because there are a lot of poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends and if we don’t start reading multiple poems at once, we will never get through this.
Russ: Two poems. It’s like a terrible Batman sequel where they needed more than one villain.
Lauren: Yeah, I mean, I think the villain… There’s pretty much just one villain for these poems today and it’s younger siblings.
Russ: Alright. “For Sale” by Shel Silverstein.
One sister for sale!
One sister for sale!
One crying and spying young sister for sale!
I’m really not kidding,
So who’ll start the bidding?
Do I hear the dollar?
Oh, isn’t there, isn’t there, isn’t there any
One kid that will buy this old sister for sale,
This crying and spying young sister for sale?
Lauren: So we both… well, you chose this poem because we both hate it. It freaked us out a lot as kids and for me a big part of that was the drawing and I think we should describe the drawing.
Russ: The drawing is aggressive. One could only assume this is an older sibling that has started the auction.
Lauren: Yes, it looks like a masculine older sibling. His mouth is just absolutely enormous. And he’s got a potbelly. And for some reason, a comb in his back pocket.
Russ: I’m digging the cuffed pants as well.
Lauren: I am, too. Those are definitely hand me downs from somebody.
Russ: Or maybe he’s just or maybe he’s just fashion-forward.
Lauren: No, those are his dad’s pants.
Russ: So he is clearly bellowing to the heavens, and pointing a lot at a very small, very bebowed sister at the end of this sort of auction block.
Lauren: She’s so pathetic. She’s just tiny. And she’s all hair.
Russ: It’s very cousin It, isn’t it?
Lauren: Yeah, and she’s also crying. And that made me really sad too. Because if she was like, “nananananana,” while he was doing it, I wouldn’t have been as freaked out by this poem when I was a kid.
Russ: Oof. It’s aggressive.
Lauren: It’s very aggressive. So my sister and I are two years apart. I’m the older one. And we fought a lot as kids. And there were times when we didn’t like each other, but we always loved each other. And I was horrified by this poem, because as mad as I was at my sister sometimes, I would never ever want to do this to her. The idea of her being harmed in any sort of way was very upsetting to me. And I know, it’s like nobody could actually really sell their sister, but I wouldn’t even want to joke about that. I definitely was never the sort of elder sisters, like, “I’d wish the goblins would come and take her away.” Like I found Labyrinth really upsetting for that reason, too.
Russ: So it was harm in general? Like whether it was you visiting harm or someone else visiting harm, all harm was upsetting.
Lauren: Well, I mean, I hit her.
Russ: Laughs. So you are the exception to this harm. Only I can hurt my sister. Jareth, David Bowie, you’re not going to hurt my sister.
Lauren: Well, I mean, I also was two years older, and so I wasn’t really able to conduct a lot of harm on her. And it was… I mean, we both beat each other up quite a bit.
Russ: I, too, am the older sibling, my sister is three years younger. And I don’t recall any really big drag out fights. I know we hit each other. But as far as something like super nasty happening, I don’t really recall anything. We definitely get along better as adults. I think what I found most distressing about this poem wasn’t the idea of the sister being sold, it was the manner in which the sister was being sold. And more than anything, the drawing definitely upset me.
Lauren: Right? There’s no adult coming out to like yell at the older brother, or put and end to this. And I think this sort of idea of the older sibling trying to get rid of the younger sibling is common, but usually something interrupts it.
Russ: And as far as slights, real or imagined, we only get one hint and it’s crying and spying.
Lauren: Right. But she’s not actively spying. She’s just crying.
Russ: I think, in my mind, the spying, whatever that was, was the catalyst for the sister auction.
Lauren: Right? I assume so, too. One line that I think in this poem that’s important is “one kid.” “Isn’t there? Oh, isn’t there? Isn’t there? Isn’t there any one kid who will buy this old sister for sale?” and I think they need to add that Shel needed to add that in there because otherwise it might be an adult and that gets real messed up.
Russ: This is problematic. In the illustration, this auctioneer… Are we certain this is an older brother?
Lauren: I mean, I made the assumption.
Russ: With Shel it’s hard to tell sometimes. But either way, it’s rendered all the more fearful because this is an adult sibling.
Lauren: Except he was… I mean, I don’t think he’s an adult.
Russ: Really? Maybe it’s the potbelly that’s doing it in for me.
Lauren: No, I mean, I think he is a caricature of a nasty older brother. I think he’s a kid. He’s probably… She’s probably like, what, four? And he’s probably like, ten.
Russ: Really? Huh. Because I read that as four and clearly 18.
Lauren: Interesting. Oh, man, that makes it way more sinister.
Russ: Laughs. I thought so.
Lauren: Oh, wow.
Russ: Cuz that doesn’t look like a 10 year old to me. I’ve not known a 10 year old with a gut.
Lauren: I mean, sure, a lot of children do have bellies. Yeah, I don’t think you’re supposed to think that this is an adult selling his kid sister.
Russ: Either way, it’s fearful.
Lauren: Yeah, it is. It is upsetting. I also like… I’m looking at “For Sale” and I’m wondering if we can avoid talking about slavery. Because as two white people, we cannot… Like, there’s no such thing as white slavery. And the people in the drawing appear white and someone’s selling their sister. But the way you… If you’re auctioning off someone, you are inviting the comparison to slavery. You’re selling a person. But we are two white people. And, you know, it’s it’s like not really ours to talk about, other than to try to amplify other voices on this topic. And so I’m not really sure what to say.
Russ: It’s curious that you mentioned that. And, like, as you say, you can’t sell a person without raising the specter of slavery. And presented through a childlike lens, it’s interesting to see how many institutional injustices are reflected in what might be considered childhood play. So it’s like, you have the boys with their clubhouse and the sign on the outside that says “no girls allowed.” And then you have country clubs where it’s no girls allowed. “For Sale” is a darker poem than we gave it credit for.
Lauren: No, I mean, I did think about it coming in as like, “Wow, this looks a whole lot like an auction block for people coming through who were sold.” The term “sold up the up the river” where they are taken away from their families, and became property of someone else to be worked to death or whatever. And that’s a… It’s hard. It’s difficult to talk about not because I should shy away from speaking, it’s just that I’m not the right voice as a white person to talk about it. Alright, so, “Pancake?”
Who wants a pancake,
Sweet and piping hot?
Good little Grace looks up and says,
“I’ll take the one on the top.”
Who else wants a pancake,
Fresh off the griddle?
Terrible Teresa smiles and says,
“I’ll take the one in the middle.”
Russ: I remember digging this poem when I was a wee.
Lauren: Yeah, this one’s not fearful at all.
Russ: Now the picture is vintage Shel Silverstein: innocuous big tower of pancakes.
Lauren: There aren’t even any people in it.
Russ: Nope, just pancakes.
Lauren: Just pancakes. When I was a kid, I ate so many pancakes. I could eat so many pancakes. I could eat way more pancakes and I can at this large size. When I was six years old, I would eat so many pancakes.
Russ: I was never a fan of pancakes.
Lauren: Really? How dare you?
Russ: I appreciate them in the abstract. But I think I’m good for like one. Laughs.
Lauren: What’s wrong with you, Russ?
Russ: If only facial expressions could translate through podcasts.
Lauren: Well, you want to tell people what I look like?
Russ: It looks like I just kicked a something rotten her away.
Lauren: Laughs. Well, pancakes are delightful. And you are not, then.
Russ: So there were two instances when I was a wee, when pancakes were kind of thing. And one was when I was really small. And one when I was a bit older. The first pancakes I ever had were from McDonald’s. I think they call them “hot cakes” or they used to, and I ate those pancakes the same way my dad did. You would take a pancake and tear it into bits with your hands and then dip it in the syrup and eat it like that.
Lauren: Yeah, that is strange.
Russ:Then there were the IHOP pancakes and I found that just overwhelming, because this was too much bread at one go, and then here comes the syrup. And this just seems not okay and I’ve never had a big appetite and nowadays if ever I find myself in an IHOP, I always substitute the pancakes for something else.
Lauren: I don’t find myself in IHOPs. Russ laughs. My mother, Mary, who’s from Canada, when she joined our family, she would put salt and pepper and sometimes Worcestershire sauce on top of her pancakes and she blamed it on being Canadian, but I have yet to meet another Canadian who does this abomination.
Russ: Here I am living in the country and I’ve never seen such a thing.
Lauren: No, she’s from eastern Canada, though. Maybe something happens out there.
Russ: Nova Scotia? Prince Edward Island?
Lauren: Yeah, maybe they get real weird. She’s actually from Ottawa.
Russ: Ottawa. Well, that’s barely eastern Canada. That’s, that’s, that’s Centralia, that is. So you heard it here, folks, that if you ever find yourself in Ottawa, the way to eat your pancakes is with Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper. Because apparently Satan himself lives in Ottawa.
Lauren: She put Worcestershire sauce on a lot of things. And I think it was just that she really liked Worcestershire sauce. And maybe her dad did it or something. But gosh, ugh. I love pancakes and I couldn’t stand to see them treated that way.
Russ: Yeah, that’s just a foul preparation.
Lauren: Right. She doesn’t do it anymore. I think my sister and I shamed her out of it.
Russ: Well done. But “Pancake” dovetailing with “For sale…” Usually you see pancakes in kind of a familial setting.
Lauren: Right. One of us was Grace. And one of us was Teresa.
Russ: Do you care to name names?
Lauren: Oh, I was definitely Grace. And my sister was definitely, Teresa. Maybe she feels the opposite way.
Russ: Describing last week, it sounded like y’all shared quite a bit of the Teresa blame. What with your recollections on chores, and all that.
Lauren: Right. So the difference between my sister and I, is that I could often play the good girl while my sister took risks. Russ laughs. Okay, so yeah, this is a lot about me. But my maternal grandmother and aunt used to call me the instigator, because when trouble happened, I usually somehow convinced my sister to do it. So if I wanted ice cream, for example, but I thought that the requests wouldn’t get a good reception, I would then whisper to my younger sister, “Wouldn’t ice cream be good?”
Russ: Off she goes to get in trouble.
Lauren: Yep. And then she goes, and she’s the demanding one.
Russ: I see. So yeah, you might have been Grace, but you would definitely be whispering to Teresa to take the one in the middle.
Lauren: Well, I mean, it depended if I really wanted the one in the middle. If that was the one I actually thought was good. I’d be like, “You know, the ones in the middle are just kind of bigger, aren’t they? Yeah, they are they? Oh, I bet they’re better.” And then if my sister actually convinced them to open up the stack of pancakes and get the ones in the middle, then I’d be like, “Oh, actually, those look really good. Could I have one in the middle too?” And that’s how sometimes I got ice cream and I never got yelled at for it.
Russ: There you go. I think what’s most troubling to me in this poem, is that soft rhyme in the first stanza is “hot” and “top.” I don’t… That bothers me.
Lauren: It doesn’t bother me because there isn’t a direct rhyme until later: griddle and middle. So if we were just going on the vowels, the vowel sounds, then, I think I would be okay with hot and top. But then when we get an actual rhyme, then it makes the approximate rhyme just using vowel sounds seem cheap.
Russ: Indeed. How could we fix this?
Russ: Let’s write to Shel. Most of my rhymes are rhyming “top” with “top” and that’s probably a no.
Lauren: I know. It’s something like that. See, I’m coming up with words like glop and that’s not gonna work, at all.
Russ: Who wants a pancake sweet and piping hot? Good little Grace looks up and says the first one. Thanks a lot.
Lauren: Oh, yeah. And she’s, and she’s also very polite when she’s saying thank you.
Russ: Shel, we fixed your poem.
Lauren: Yeah, there you go. Russ laughs. Shel died in 1999.
Russ: Yes, he did.
Lauren: At age sixty-something. I think 63.
Russ: I’ll take 63 Shel years versus 100 of mine.
Lauren: He banged a lot of women.
Russ: Laughs. I did not know that.
Lauren: He liked bragging about how many women he had banged.
Russ: Let’s talk about this.
Lauren: Well, I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about it because I actually have only read a Wikipedia article. I don’t actually know that much about it. I think at some point, I’m going to start reading a Shel Silverstein biography while we’re doing this podcast.
Russ: Let’s talk about privilege.
Lauren: Okay, sure.
Russ: You and I have talked, not on the podcast, about how “Karen,” such as it is, might be a problematic term.
Lauren: And maybe I’ll just go out and say what I think how “Karen” should or shouldn’t be used, which is that I don’t think that white people should use the term, “Karen,” especially not white men. I think yeah, it can be a slur when used by white people. People of color, it’s a term that they have been using to talk about white women using their white supremacy to get what they and their families want. And so there, yes, I believe that usage is well… I don’t have to give permission to people of color to use the term “Karen.” That’s their term.
Russ: What, do you have a replacement term?
Lauren: For white people? I mean, describe what they did.
Lauren: Oh, well, yeah, sure. In this case, Teresa is demanding other people collapse the structure of a pancake stack in order for her to have what she wants.
Russ: And in reading “Pancake” and hearing you read it, there is a term that in my mind, I’m applying to Theresa right now. And I think it’s the smile right beforehand. “Terrible Teresa smiles and says…”
Lauren: What do you think the smile is? Do you think the smile is knowing? When I read it, she knows she’s causing a collapse. But if I would think of somebody who was demanding and entitled, they wouldn’t necessarily have that self awareness.
Russ: And I think there’s both. Every time I see someone, you know, without a mask or, you know, causing troubles on a plane, I figure it’s a solid 50/50. You’ve got people who are completely aware of what they’re doing and just doing it, because they can get away with it. I’m looking at, you know, you capital seizers, and then you have people that are just straight up ignorant.
Lauren: I don’t think entitlement and ignorance are the same thing.
Russ: Sure, but they often go hand in hand. And so in in Teresa’s case, I read her as a knowing sort of entitlement.
Lauren: Yeah, just gonna Jenga the whole flapjack stack.
Russ: Is that our new catchphrase on this show?
Lauren: Jenga the whole flapjack stack!
Russ: It’s no more “Eat the rich.” It’s “Jenga the flapjack stack.” Laughs.
Lauren: I don’t understand what this has to do with rich people, though. Like, are rich people the people on top or are they the pancakes on the bottom?
Russ: No, no, Teresa is just the K word.
Lauren: Ok. You don’t have to say “K word.” You can say Karen even though…
Russ: I’m a white guy.
Lauren: I know but don’t say “the K word.” Because saying the word “Karen” even if you’re a white guy does not have the same weight and severity and importance to it as saying something like an “N word.” Like that’s just not the same.
Russ: Golly, privilege, pancakes, selling your sister. The deep dark world of Shel Silverstein.
Lauren: Maybe we can do a palate cleanser with “Hug O’ War.”
Russ: Alright, so after all that talk about privilege and and selling your sister and Karens, we present to you a special, extra delightful, warm and fuzzy…
Lauren: “Hug O’ War.”
Russ: “Hug O’ War” by Shel Silverstein.
I will not play at tug o’ war.
I’d rather play at hug o’ war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.
Lauren: So I don’t love touching people, in general. But I do like touching people that I trust. So as long as everything’s quite consensual, I do like the idea of hug a war.
Russ: Oh, it’s gonna be great when we can hug people again, isn’t it?
Lauren: And I mean, don’t get me wrong. I totally enjoy not shaking people’s hands and not having people think that hugging me is great, because I only like hugging a few people. But I’m looking forward to being able to hug those people again. I’m just, I’m cuddly like a cactus, in general. But for the people that I trust, I do like touching them.
Russ: Who am I most missing hugging? Probably my grandma.
Russ: She just got her first shot.
Lauren: That’s good. So the last time I saw my dad, I didn’t touch him. Because I saw him in, I think it was June. But I went back east very briefly to help my sister through a health issue. And for me, it was like “I will see you on the deck.” For my father, I was like, “I’ll see you on the deck and I’m not touching you.” And of course the promise was that, you know, if I was safe and did the socially distant thing, I would get to see him and actually touch him when we all got vaccinated. And so the last time I touched my father was Christmas last year, and I’ll never get to do it again. In the past, when I left my father, to go back to the West Coast, we do this very long hand holding thing. And so I’d give him a hug and then we’d clasp hands. And I would have a moment to be like, “Okay, this might be the last time.” And so it’s particularly terrible that I didn’t get to do that the last time I saw him. I didn’t get to hold his hand and think to myself, this might be the last time. And not being able to touch him the last time I saw him was a really big… it is a really big deal. I’m glad we’re doing this podcast in a lot of ways cuz it’s gonna be a lot of therapy for me going through grief. Like, the nice thing about Shel Silverstein is I don’t think my dad ever read any Shel Silverstein to me. So Shel Silverstein is powerfully attached to my childhood, but not to my father. So when we read the poems, I’m thinking about my childhood and not specifically about him, so I get to dance around topics until I feel like it’s appropriate to say them.
Russ: Interestingly enough, I share the same thing where it’s more associated with school for me.
Lauren: Yeah, school and babysitters.
Russ: Babysitters. Hmm, interesting. But I don’t have any specific memory tied to it. I know I read the books in school, and would get them from the library. But as far as like a memory of a teacher or a particular lesson that went along with one of them, I got none of that.
Lauren: I did have one particular babysitter it’s attached to, but not not really her. It’s attached to her house because she had either a record or a tape of, I think it was it was either Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic. And we played it over and over and over again. And so I have this memory of her basement and Shel Silverstein’s poems.
Russ: I’d be curious to know who it was that was doing the audio book.
[Note: It was most likely recorded with Shel Silverstein himself.]
Lauren: I can’t remember. Of course, I wouldn’t remember I was like five.
Russ: I’m sure. But it’s one of those like, imagine if it was someone like super famous at the times like Peter O’Toole reads Shel Silverstein or something.
Lauren: No idea.
Russ: It’s like kids who might have heard the Harry Potter audio books growing up and didn’t know who Stephen Fry was.
Lauren: Hmm. But he’s still alive.
Russ: Yeah, he’s still alive, but I mean, like when they get to be our age, maybe he’s not.
Lauren: Right. That’s true. I still haven’t read or seen any Harry Potter.
Russ: Well, it’s more problematic these days.
Lauren: Now that it’s problematic, a number of my friends are reading it now. Because they’re no longer intimidated by the fandom. And I don’t mean like the fandom is bad, or like, or that the fandoms… It’s just that they don’t feel any pressure about it anymore. And they want to know what’s going on the cultural zeitgeist, but they don’t have to talk to anybody about it. And and so now I’m actually tempted to do it, because the fandom’s gone.
Russ: I’d recommend it.
Lauren: Yeah. I want to know what the cultural zeitgeist was about. But I also like, don’t want to make a big thing about it.
Russ: Yeah. But then I’m the biggest nerd that you’ll ever meet.
Lauren: I’ve met bigger nerds.
Russ: It’s true. I think I’m more just well adjusted.
Russ: No. Well, I think if there’s a message we can take away from this, it is whoever you have out there that you haven’t said a kind word to in a minute, now might be that minute.
Lauren: Yeah. I mean, I have a lot to say about that. But I don’t really want to keep going into it.
Russ: I should say only if you want to, not if it’s someone toxic that you just… that someone is obligating you to say hello to. We can ignore them.
Lauren: Isn’t there a lot to say? Both laugh. And I don’t want to say any of it right now. I can’t wait till we get to touch people consensually again.
Russ: It’ll be cool. I think we’re closer to there than we were to the start of this.
Lauren: Yeah. Thanks for listening to Shel We Read a Poem. I’m glad you’re still alive out there because if you’re listening, you must be alive.