On August 9, 1974 Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency. Nixon was a man who, despite his obvious brilliance, never truly understood the difference between right and wrong. Into his shoes stepped Gerald Ford, a decent but unexceptional man who never aspired to the presidency and was ill-suited for it.
But into that job he suddenly stepped, and later that day, after receiving the oath of office from Supreme Court chief justice Warren Burger, Ford uttered words that were true on August 9, 1974 and ring even truer today, on November 7, 2020:
My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.
Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.
Somehow, we survived Nixon.
In some respects, only barely.
And now, more than forty-five years later, again only barely.
This time we survived a Man Who Would Be King, who it could be said had no regard for that constitution, which would be only partially true because his ignorance of that constitution is so great that it would be unfair to say he knowingly disregarded it.
We survived a cult of personality that values power more than people, that willingly acquiesced to virtually every venal act the cult leader could muster. They eagerly put party over country, knowing full well what they were doing, what they were supporting, what they were enabling, and knowing that what they were so willing to turn their backs to was wrong – very wrong, terribly wrong, unquestionably wrong. That’s what power does to some people. They did more, in fact, than turn a blind eye to four long years of wrong after wrong after wrong after wrong: they aided it, they abetted it, they encouraged it, they fed it, acting less like people in positions of public trust and more like an unscrupulous bartender pouring drink after drink after drink after drink for someone already clearly drunk, actively and enthusiastically promoting further inebriation, the consequences be damned.
If they had any integrity at all they’d resign from office. Alas, most of them have scarcely a passing familiarity with the concept of integrity so there will be no mass resignations.
No scattered resignations.
No resignations at all.
Because they know no shame.
But in the end, as Gerald Ford observed, “Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.”
Not even of men (and yes, women, too) who actively plotted ways to thwart the will of the people. The well-being of the people. The needs of the people. The very health of the people.
Not even of men who would attempt to undermine and even subvert that constitution, which is what we have been witness to for the past four years.
All that’s left now is to suggest that every single American who voted for Donald Trump four years ago voluntarily surrender his or her right to vote for the next ten as penance for their sheer stupidity. Also, to reflect, with sadness, with disappointment, and yes, with anger, too, on the nearly one-half of our fellow Americans who did not see this, did not understand this, and were willing to embrace another four years of this defective specimen of a human being whose performance, whose ideas, whose attitudes, and whose beliefs have been so very profoundly and so very clearly un-American.
* * *
That’s all for now. The Curmudgeon plans to return some time in January. The site will have a new look (probably) and not this one, which was an accident; it also will probably have a new web address, because The Curmudgeon wants to spare his readers advertisements and when you pay WordPress not to post ads on your blog they throw in a new web address. As much as he felt he wanted to resume his curmudgeonly ways a few months ago, he knew in his heart he couldn’t do that without this election’s outcome because ultimately he is only a curmudgeon, not a chronic and embittered complainer, and with another four years of you-know-who he would have been nothing but another tiresome, chronic, and bitter complainer and he had no intention of becoming that.
The very last song on the very last album of new music Johnny Cash released before his death in 2003 was the 1939 classic “We’ll Meet Again.”
We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day
The Curmudgeon doesn’t think this was a coincidence. Cash was dying: he knew it and his fans knew it, and The Curmudgeon thought this was his way of saying good-bye. Cash had already taken the poignant, soul-baring route once before, on what The Curmudgeon believes is the single greatest music video ever, of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt,” that dramatized aspects of his life, his pain, and his regrets, and he seemed to be doing it again with this decision. “Hurt” brought a tear to The Curmudgeon’s eye and his first listening to “We’ll Meet Again” did so as well.
Well, readers, while The Curmudgeon is in almost alarmingly good health for a boy of 61 who has survived disco, cancer, marrying into a family with a dog (!), and Donald Trump (so far), this is the end of the line for The Four-Eyed Curmudgeon. The blog ends today, and to explain and say his farewells he will begin by stepping out of character and addressing you in the first person.
Hi, I’m Joe.
(You: “Hi, Joe.”)
I’ve been writing this blog for seven years, minus about four months during which I declared I was finished because I wanted to get back to writing short fiction. When I returned I said I would blog (yes! a verbification!) less often, to leave myself more time to devote to writing fiction. And that worked, too.
For maybe a month or two.
But there’s too much to write about, too many things to say, too many strange doings to comment upon. If I could retire tomorrow I think I could comfortably write three to five pieces a day five days a week and never even momentarily think I had run out of things to write about or say. That’s why you’ve seen two posts a day for the past two months: because I decided to empty – well, not quite empty – my folder of blog ideas and go out with keyboard a-blazin’.
And write I have: according to data provided by WordPress, host of this site, this is my 2181st post and I’ve written a shade under 1.2 million words.
Which is an awful lot of words.
And it’s been great fun. I’ve never had an opportunity to write in this voice, and I’m pretty sure this is the voice I was born to write in.
But the fiction still calls. Just two feet from my left elbow as I write this is a stack of about a dozen short stories I’ve started since launching this blog but never got around to finishing because there was never time. I figure it’ll take at least a year, and possibly two, just to finish them.
I have three or four novel ideas, which I’m not going to share because someone might steal them. If I had my druthers, I’d druther say the things I plan to say in these novels through short stories instead because short stories are a lot more fun to write and writing novels can be pretty laborious, but try as I might, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do that, at least not for these particular ideas and at least not yet. There’s time, though: maybe it’ll come to me. The novel Taking Care of Business, which I posted in serial form on this site, started as a short story idea that I couldn’t contain and grew into a novel instead. When I realized I couldn’t write it as a short story I spent three months thinking about whether I was willing to get involved in writing another novel, and the reason I ultimately did so was that, at least in my mind, the story idea was too juicy to let go. (Reader response to Taking Care of Business suggests I should have let it go.) Novel-writing is hard work; the ratio of fun to nose-to-the-grindstone effort is far more favorable with short stories. The first serious attempt I made to write a novel was in the early 1980s and I totally crashed and burned, but about 20 years later I said everything I had hoped to say in that novel in a short story I posted on this site a year ago that remains one of my favorites among all the things I’ve ever written.
So there’s hope.
I write pretty quickly, so this blog has never been a burden. To the contrary, it’s been a joy: I’ve never had so much fun writing and believe me, I write a LOT. I write all day for my job, which is for a small health care consulting company, and just a minor part of that job is writing not one and not two but three different blogs, where snark is absolutely not permitted.
Still, it weighs on you at times. That’s why I gave up the news quiz a few years ago: because it became all-consuming and could take as much time to write as any ten regular posts. Each news quiz featured ten questions but I always tried to write 20 and then whittle them down to the best ten. Each multiple choice question had four possible answers and I wanted the three incorrect choices to be funny. That’s 20 questions and 60 funny answers.
Okay, maybe 40 of the 60 were actually funny.
Okay, maybe 30.
I keep a book on my phone – who would believe that the guy who wrote a few years ago that he’s not a technophobe when he really was one at the time would now be reading books on his phone? – to have for idle times when I’m not at home near a real book or Kindle. I’ve only been doing this for about a year and so far I’ve just kept collections of humorous essays on my phone – by James Thurber, Calvin Trillin, and David Sedaris; they’re all things you can put aside for a month and then start reading and find you haven’t missed a beat. I read them when I’m sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, idling in my mother’s living room on a weekend afternoon while she takes a nap, waiting because the Chinese restaurant people lie like dogs about how long it’ll be before your take-out moo shu will be ready, times like that. The current book on my phone is Sick in the Head, by the movie writer and producer Judd Apatow. Apatow has been seriously interested in comedy since he was about 10 years old and when he was 15 he had a show on his high school’s radio station on which he interviewed comedians. (Side note: Apatow grew up on Long Island. We sure as hell didn’t have a high school radio station at Lincoln High in Philadelphia.) The first interview 15-year-old Apatow did, amazingly, was with Jerry Seinfeld. The book consists of more than 40 interviews and conversations with comedians, writers, and comic actors, and while Sick in the Head is ostensibly about comedy it’s really about creativity, which interests me a great deal. I heartily recommend it.
I mention this now because just a few weeks ago I was on a train to New York to see Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird – an anniversary weekend for Mr. and Mrs. Curmudgeon and a play we enthusiastically recommend – reading Apatow’s interview of Jon Stewart. In the interview they discuss how hard it is to do stand-up comedy, with Stewart explaining that
With stand-up, you’re never done. You always feel like you’ve got to keep that notebook by the bed. And you stop experiencing anything. You just exist purely as an observer, constantly trying to figure out if I’m going to be able to work a bit out of this. It’s a different way of approaching life. It’s exhausting.
I feel his pain. It’s become increasingly challenging to read, see, or experience anything anymore without looking for possible content for this space. Stewart has a notebook by the bed; I have notebooks by my bed, in my office, in my car, in the family room, and of course on my phone.
Which is a lot of notebooks.
Newspapers, web sites, books, the car radio – every place I consume information these days has become a potential source of material for this site. I receive about 50 emails with general news and health care industry-specific headlines every day for work, so some of the stories you’ve read here have originated in one form or another from McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, Becker’s Hospital Review, the Tampa Bay Business Journal, the Altoona Mirror, the Central Penn Business Journal, and other such unlikely sources. You become like a wild animal in the forest, constantly foraging for food and seldom just sitting back and thinking “Damn, this forest is pretty spectacular.” As Jon Stewart suggested, it weighs on you after a while: you stop reading the paper just to read the paper, stop listening to the news just to learn what’s going on, stop reading a book for the sheer enjoyment the book offers.
People occasionally ask me how the blog “is doing,” and by that they mean do I have readers. The truth is that there are damn few of you (which I suspect is why my stepson seems to take particular pleasure in asking that question), but that’s never bothered me. Oh, sure, once in a while I write a piece that I think is really special and it’s a slow day and there are only a few readers and no comments and I wonder why the hell I’m doing this but that feeling always passes quickly because instead of thinking about the piece that passed unnoticed I’m already focused on another piece I’m having a lot of fun writing.
I first started thinking about bringing this chapter of my writing life to a close in early August, while on vacation at the beach. The number of readers was inexplicably high that month even though that’s historically been a slow time, so I canceled my plan to take off for the month and decided that if people were going to come to my table I damn well better feed them. The numbers continued strong into September, when I told my wife (say hello to the lovely Catherine, please, the love of my life) that I thought I’d stop doing the blog at the end of the year. Within a week the numbers plummeted to their lowest level since the second year I was doing this and stayed that way for about a month. The past two months, though, have been absolutely boffo, with my daily numbers at an all-time high and running two to three times my average numbers at any time since I started doing this in November of 2011. I still don’t know why, but I suspect it’s some kind of glitch by the folks who do the counting.
Alas, it really doesn’t matter. While it might be nice to be able to do this for a living, that was never my expectation. So ultimately, the question persists: why do this? Why write?
The answer is that I do this – I’ve done this – for me. That may seem selfish, but I do this for me, not for you, and that’s why I kept doing it when damn near no one was reading and that’s why I’m stopping now: because there’s another kind of writing that’s calling my name. It’s been calling my name now for seven years and that call has finally gotten louder than the call to keep writing the blog.
A number of years ago, before I launched this blog, I was attending one of those outdoor summer arts fairs you can find in suburbs throughout the region where I live, and possibly where you live, too. Ironically, this particular one was in the town where I now live, but this was years before I met Catherine. As I walked past the various exhibits I wondered how it felt to be sitting in one of those booths, your work on display, and have people walk by without even looking in, or stop, take a quick look, and resume walking, or even stop, take a quick look, make a face, and resume walking. That must be hard on the artists, I thought.
And from that thought came the inspiration for a short story, which you’ll find below as my final offering to you. It’s about why one woman paints even though she knows she’s never going to be the next Picasso and, implicitly, why I write even though I know I’m never going to be the next Philip Roth.
So as I sign off, and before you get to that story, let me just say this:
Thank you for spending a few minutes with me a few days a week for a few years, thank you for letting me know when you saw something you liked and even when you saw something you didn’t, thank you for giving me the idea that this tree wasn’t falling in an empty forest and therefore WAS making a sound, thank you for encouraging me to believe that if I write it, they will come.
So perhaps, eventually,
We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day
I will miss doing this and I will miss, yet always treasure, the idea that I’ve perhaps amused, entertained, or enlightened. I will miss writing this blog. I will miss the Four-Eyed Curmudgeon.
But I will still be curmudgeonly. Some things you just can’t give up.
And now, the story: about why some people create even when they know damn near no one is interested in their creations.
So long, farewell, and amen.
“For My Soul”
Every time Lisa Bloom sold one of her paintings, a little piece of her died.
But at this particular moment, she suspected that the death of yet another small piece was not imminent.
The sun beat down hard on a hot, humid Saturday afternoon as she sat in her booth at the annual fine arts and crafts festival in Media, Pennsylvania – a festival virtually indistinguishable from similar events in other Philadelphia suburbs of Ambler, Narberth, Haverford, and Doylestown, in the nearby towns of Medford, Haddonfield, and Collingswood just across the Delaware River in New Jersey, and within Philadelphia itself in Manayunk, on Rittenhouse Square, and in the Mt. Airy community that Lisa herself called home. Every year these communities sought to attract residents from throughout the region to their quaint downtowns and main streets to show off their trendy shops and even trendier restaurants, and the lure was arts and crafts. For $250 a day, artists and craftspeople rented booths and exhibited and sold their creations.
Lisa Bloom was a painter – a good painter, not a great one. For public consumption she painted mostly in impressionistic and post-impressionistic styles – landscapes, mountains, ocean and beach scenes, fruit, flowers, and portraits. She was no Renoir, though, and she suffered no illusions that one day someone would “discover” her work and mention her name in the same breath.
She was safe from one of those little deaths at this particular moment because the couple in her booth earnestly debating the purchase of one of her paintings almost certainly, Lisa concluded, would walk away empty-handed. While she sat no more than three feet from them, they discussed hanging the object of their attention in their dining room, over their sideboard. They both clearly liked the painting but did not agree on its suitability for the space in question. Lisa felt an argument coming on and stepped out of her booth and onto the sidewalk to free the couple from the awkwardness of arguing about the painting in front of its painter.
“It’s perfect,” she overheard the husband say. “It’s a beautiful scene and the space over the sideboard is just crying out for something like this.” Lisa could not make out the wife’s entire reply, but she did manage to catch one phrase – “wrong shade of green” – and knew immediately that the couple would leave without the painting. Moments later, their departure proved her correct.
Lisa returned to her seat inside the booth and out of the oppressive sun to one of the least palatable aspects of these events: smiling dumbly at the passersby. Thousands of people would stroll past her booth in the course of a typical two-day event. Most would glance in, barely slowing, and then quickly pass; a few might even sneer, unhappy with what they glimpsed. Hundreds would step in and examine a painting or two, albeit only cursorily. A few might spend more time, examine the work closely, ask about prints, seek to engage her in some way, perhaps even take a business card with the address of her web site. Finally, about three or four people a day would purchase a painting that typically ranged in price from $200 to $500.
Lisa did not count on selling her paintings for her livelihood. Unlike most of the artists who traveled this circuit and who counted on their sales to put a roof over their heads and food on their tables, Lisa had a “regular” job. Also unlike most of the other artists, Lisa did not attend all of these summer events herself – or the similar fall, winter, and spring events held in high school gymnasiums, church auditoriums, and the occasional catering or union hall. She could tolerate only so much indifference – far worse than rejection in her eyes – from people who could not tell the difference between the lines of a third-grader and a Rothko.
Lisa had not always been in a position to be so indifferent to whether her talent would enable her to pay her bills. She had studied art in college, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree, and while she had never seriously considered attempting to subsist solely by selling her paintings, she knew there were many ways an artist could earn a living using her special talents. She did that for three years, working as a graphic artist, an advertising art director, and a fashion illustrator. She liked none of those jobs: her vision inevitably conflicted with those of her employers and she constantly found herself compromising in her work or sacrificing what she considered quality for the sake of expedience or economy. Worse, after ten-hour days of such labored and exasperating endeavors, she frequently found herself too frustrated and mentally exhausted to come home and give expression to her own, uncompromised vision.
After three years of such struggles Lisa made a life-altering decision: she would find another way to earn a living and paint for the sheer joy of painting. So decided, she took a job laying out catalogues for a supplier of medical equipment and did that for two years while at night she returned to college to earn a degree in secondary education so she could become a high school math teacher. Lisa loved math – she had minored in it as an undergraduate simply because she liked studying it – and thought she would enjoy teaching. More important, she would have evenings and weekends and, most of all, entire summers to paint. And that was exactly what happened: as soon as she earned her degree, Lisa took a job teaching at the public high school closest to her home in Philadelphia.
After a few minutes of nothing more than casual browsers, a man in his mid-fifties entered Lisa’s booth and spent a good deal of time examining her paintings.
“Very nice,” he said.
“Very commercial, too.”
Lisa saw that this was not intended as a compliment.
“Check the book,” she said, pointing to a table bearing a loose-leaf binder containing photographs of some of her other paintings. “And the two paintings over there,” she added, pointing to the far corner of her booth.
The man slowly examined the two paintings and then turned his attention to the book, looking up at her periodically as he thumbed through it.
“Artistic schizophrenia?” he asked, smiling.
She smiled back.
“Too much sugar isn’t good for a girl,” she replied.
“So which is you?”
“Both. I don’t paint anything I don’t want to paint and don’t enjoy painting. Everything you see hanging is a labor of love and a part of me.”
“But I have other things on my mind, too, and I express them with equal passion but in very different ways. But they’re not for this crowd.”
“And what crowd are they for?”
“They’re for me.”
“So you don’t do this for a living?”
“And for a living?”
“High school math.”
“You’re kidding. Where?”
“Philadelphia. Germantown High.”
“But a great job.”
He reached into his shirt pocket, withdrew his business card, and handed it to her.
“Young lady, I have my own small advertising agency in Philadelphia and you clearly have more talent than anyone on my staff, and I pay them all at least twice what you’re making. If you ever want to talk about doing some interesting work and making some real money, give me a call.”
“So, twice a teacher’s salary is the going rate for souls these days?” Lisa asked as she stepped over to the table and picked up one of her own business cards from a holder sitting near the loose-leaf binder. She handed it to him.
“And if you’d like to buy some real art and not just the pretty stuff, take a look at my web site for what else I’ve done.”
He extended his hand, shook hers, and departed.
Lisa shook her head; this kind of thing happened to her all the time. She had so many friends who hated their jobs or kicked around from job to job in search of something they could tolerate, let alone enjoy, but people were constantly approaching her, unsolicited, with offers of employment.
While a few new visitors strolled purposelessly through her booth, Lisa stepped outside it again and pulled her cell phone out of her pocket.
“Hey Amy, how are you?”
“You want to make a few bucks tomorrow?”
Again a pause.
“Okay, the stuff’ll be in the garage, but feel free to go into the basement and if you see anything you think might sell, you can take it. I’m going back as soon as I drop everything off.”
At that moment Lisa could not face the prospect of another day of this – no amount of money was worth it, especially when she did not exactly need the money – so she did what she often did when she felt this way: she called one of three younger cousins who filled in for her occasionally at these events in exchange for twenty-five percent of whatever they sold. Yes, there were arts fairs in Media and Ambler and Narberth and Haverford and Doylestown and Collingswood and Medford and Haddonfield and Manayunk and Rittenhouse Square and Mt. Airy every summer, but Lisa could not bring herself to participate on every day in which every one of them was held, and fortunately, her cousins were young enough to appreciate an opportunity to earn a few extra dollars while also being mature enough to represent her responsibly. Beyond the indifference of her would-be customers to what they were viewing, beyond the complaints about spending $200 for a painting, as if that were a lot of money for an original work of art, and beyond the absurdity of discussions like the one she had just overheard regarding whether a painting had the right shade of green to meet the prospective buyers’ home furnishing needs, what Lisa found most difficult about these festivals was what should have been her most triumphant moments: when someone complimented her work, praised her talent, and conveyed that support in the most tangible way possible – by purchasing one of her paintings. As much as she appreciated both the affirmation and the money, she dreaded those moments. Her paintings were a part of her, conceived in her imagination and executed by her skilled eyes, hands, and heart, and it pained her to part with them – even the canvases she knew she had painted primarily to sell. Every sale was like giving away a little piece of her, and every time someone walked away with a smile on their face and a painting under one arm, Lisa felt as if a little piece of her had just died.
Four hours later Lisa was in her car, driving up the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to her getaway and true artistic home: a one-room cabin in Pennsylvania’s Pocono mountains. Lisa had purchased the small home ten years ago, at the age of twenty-eight, with $75,000 she had inherited from her grandmother. Her family had been appalled: Lisa was still living in an apartment at the time and they wanted her to buy a first home before buying a second. Lisa had insisted, though, maintaining that she already planned to buy a house in the city and should spend this unexpected money on something she almost certainly would never have been able to afford otherwise.
Most of the money Lisa earned from painting – anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 a year, depending on whether she received any commissions during a given year or did any freelance commercial work – went to maintain the mountain home and buy art supplies. Unless she was dating she spent roughly every other weekend there, and most of the summer except for days like this when she returned to the city to make some additional money.
The cabin was the perfect artist’s retreat. It was just one large room – a combination kitchen/bedroom/living room/studio with a fireplace. The back of the house overlooked a lake and had sliding glass doors that opened onto a large deck. In the winter she set up her easel just inside the glass door; in the warm weather months she painted outdoors, often rising with the sun, and cooked her meals outdoors on a gas grill, interrupting her work two or three times a day for a long, vigorous swim. Occasionally she would get her dinner from the lake as well, hanging her fishing rod over the side of the deck until she caught enough trout for a meal.
Lisa did not mind painting with an eye toward sales; people liked buying pretty paintings and she enjoyed creating beauty and appreciated the extra money this work brought her. For Lisa, though, painting was about more than making money. Unlike most of the other artists on the circuit, Lisa did not sell prints or lithographs – only original oils and watercolors. The others needed to maximize their income, and selling ten to twenty matted prints every day helped with car and mortgage payments and medical insurance. Lisa respected that but felt that with a regular, full-time job, she had only so much time to devote to her painting, so she chose to spend that time painting rather than working with the print shops and crafts people who turned original works into prints. Consequently, she constantly heard complaints from potential customers that the other artists offered $25 prints while she exhibited nothing for less than $200.
While she enjoyed creating works that gave people pleasure, Lisa lived for her “other” work. What Lisa painted for Lisa was far less beautiful and far less accessible. For these works she used darker colors and bolder, even angrier strokes to speak her heart about things that mattered to her. She always made a point of bringing at least two or three of those paintings to the various arts festivals she attended, but in nearly a dozen years of such festivals she had sold only a few at those events. She did not care, either: she derived enormous pleasure from observing the confusion and consternation of the passersby as their eyes shifted from the bright and pretty to the dark and angry. That, she felt, was what art was all about: provoking thought, stirring emotions, evoking passions.
As much as Lisa loved her time in the mountains, she feared that spending too much time there would, over time, take the edge off the paintings that mattered most to her. Her time in the city fed her creativity: life was more real in the city, more immediate, more vital than the idyllic surroundings of her second home. She needed galleries and museums showcasing the works of other artists, to walk among crowds of different kinds of people, to listen to live music that would never be considered good enough to play on the radio, to watch the kinds of movies that theater chains would never show. She needed big-city newspapers and, more important, big-city alternative newspapers. These and other aspects of city life provided much of the fuel that inspired her work.
Lisa painted primarily for Lisa when she was at her cabin. She generally painted her occasional commissions – mostly portraits, primarily of children – at home. When she was younger she used to paint gifts at home as well – birthday and anniversary presents, Christmas gifts, water colors, even murals for the bedrooms of newborn babies and young children. That practice had ended abruptly, though, about five years ago when she had dinner with friends and discovered a small playground scene she had painted for them a few years earlier hanging in the family’s guest bathroom. At first she was shocked and then angered and had smoldered for several minutes behind the closed bathroom door before regaining her composure sufficiently to rejoin her hosts. About a half-hour later she sat with the family in their living room, playing Chinese jump rope with her friend’s eight-year-old daughter, when she casually asked, “Isn’t that my merry-go-round watercolor in the bathroom?”
“Yes,” her friend responded enthusiastically. “It goes great in there, don’t you think? The pastels in the painting go perfectly with the curtains, and the frame really complements the vanity.”
After seeing her work hanging over a toilet, Lisa never again gave one of her paintings as a gift.
About a week after the Media event, Lisa was still at her cabin when she received an email through her web site.
I was introduced to your work by Jeremy Nelson of Nelson Advertising, who said he met you at a recent street fair in Media. I own a gallery in Philadelphia. I’m interested in your work and would like to talk to you about exhibiting. Please call at your convenience.
Lisa reacted neither positively nor negatively. She had received such messages before; some had been serious, some not. She was familiar with the Speckman Gallery, but not enough to have a definitive opinion about it, the art it exhibited, or its owner. She chose not to respond immediately, deciding instead to check out the proprietor before doing so. She sent emails to a few artist friends and called others, asking about the gallery and its owner. She also spent some time examining the gallery’s web site. A few days later, satisfied that the inquiry was serious, she responded by email that she would call in a few weeks, after school resumed.
Two weeks later Lisa returned to Philadelphia – three days prior to the start of the new school year. About a week after school began she felt sufficiently settled into her new routine and called Shelly Speckman. They agreed to meet at the gallery and talk over lunch the following Saturday.
At the appointed hour Lisa arrived at the gallery and looked around briefly before introducing herself to Speckman, whom she recognized from a photo on the gallery’s web site. Speckman gave her a tour and they exchanged small talk. Speckman also described a few of her upcoming exhibits. They then walked to a nearby restaurant.
After they ordered, Lisa decided to allow Speckman to lead this conversation. After an awkward moment of silence, the gallery owner finally spoke.
“Part of me is pretty surprised you’re even here,” the woman said.
“Usually, when I contact artists about the possibility of an exhibition, they fall all over themselves to get back to me. You waited nearly a week to reply to my email and then put me off for nearly a month.”
“And somehow,” Lisa replied, “your gallery is still standing and I’m still painting and the earth continues to rotate on its axis.”
“So I take it you’re not enthusiastic about the possibility of an exhibit?”
“’Enthusiastic’ isn’t the right word. I’d say ‘intrigued.’”
Their waiter arrived with beverages.
“You’ve been burned?”
“No. It’s just that I’ve had more than a few of these meetings and have come to learn that they don’t necessarily lead to an exhibit. Waiting an extra week or two has no bearing on the outcome, and besides, I’ve been out of town.”
“Yet you’re here now.”
“You have a good reputation, so I’m willing to listen.”
“Fair enough. As I mentioned in my email, Jeremy Nelson got in my ear about you. He said he met you in Media and liked you and your work. I think he especially liked how you blew him off when he tried to hire you.”
“I already have a job, and my job’s better than his job.”
“If you say so. But I suspect you haven’t heard the last of him.”
“I never thought I had. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’ll never, ever do anything with him, but it definitely won’t be on his payroll.”
“You do commercial work?”
“Occasionally. A lot of people know me, and if they check out and the money’s good and the work looks interesting, I’ll sit down and talk to them. If I’m not interested, well, I have a job, so saying no doesn’t mean I can’t put gas in my car.”
“You’ve been on my site, so you know when and where I’ve exhibited. I’m not a star, but I’m not unknown, either.”
“Yes. But it’s pretty conspicuous that you’ve never had your own exhibit right here in Philadelphia.”
“I haven’t found anyone whose plans satisfied me.”
The waiter returned and set down plates in front of them.
“I’ve been to your gallery before, you know. More than once, actually.”
“Yet we’ve never met.”
“Actually, we have, but only in passing. You meet people who live for being shown. That’s not at the top of my agenda, so I don’t have to schmooze gallery owners.”
Speckman picked at her salad.
“So you say you haven’t liked anyone’s plans. What’re you looking for?”
“Tell me what you have in mind,” she countered.
“Do you sell a lot of your work?” Speckman asked.
“A lot, no. But some, definitely.”
“You’re awfully independent for someone who’s not really selling.”
“Sales aren’t a priority for me. I love to paint but I paint for me. If I produce one painting a month for the rest of my life and never sell even one of them, I’ll be perfectly content as long as those twelve paintings a year satisfy me.
“So, your ideas?”
Speckman finished chewing the food in her mouth.
“Right now, no specific plans. First, I need to see your stuff in person. I like what I saw on your web site and found two pieces in local galleries that I liked very much, but I need to see paintings in person to get a better sense of the size and scope and breadth and color.”
“And if you like what you see?”
“I launch one major new exhibit a month and one minor one. It’s September, and I’ve made commitments through next March.”
Lisa quietly continued eating, so Speckman realized she was expected to say more.
“I do publicity within the local and regional arts community and a little outreach into New York City. I have some regular customers there who’ll come down if I tell them I’m showing something that might interest them.”
“So when you visited my site, you saw that my work falls into two pretty distinct types.”
“Yes. Jeremy had warned me.”
“And, obviously, the conventional stuff is much more marketable. I think it would do really well with my clientele and probably give you some great new customers who would keep coming back for more even after the exhibit ends. I get a percentage of each sale during the month and a percentage of any sales with repeat customers for the next year. If you’re interested, I’d also be willing to discuss broader representation, which I’ve done for many of my artists with great success.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Then what else can I tell you?”
“About those two distinctive types of work: are you interested in exhibiting both?”
“Like I said, I need to see your work in person first. I would say, though, that there’s much more of a market for your more accessible work and probably not much of a market for your more contemporary paintings.”
“Not exactly what I want to hear.”
“What do you want to hear?”
“A sense of commitment to the artist.”
“I haven’t seen your art in person.”
“But assuming you want it.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Okay, let me lay it out for you.
“If you’re only interested in the pretty stuff, I’m not interested in an exhibit. If all you’re really after is a piece or two my work because you think you can sell it, I’ll be glad to give you something and we can certainly discuss terms for doing that.
“But if you’re really serious about a full-blown exhibit, it has to be representative of all of my work or we can’t do business.
“You need to understand something: I was serious a few minutes ago when I said I don’t care if I never sell another painting again. I paint for me – not for gallery owners, not for critics, and not for the public. But if I’m going to put myself on display for the world to see, if there’s going to be a forum through which I declare ‘I’m Lisa Bloom and this is me and my work,’ it’s going to have to be all of me, not just the pretty stuff that we already know people will like. That means the contemporary work would need to have a meaningful representation in the exhibit. I understand that you need to make a living and I respect that, and I’m not asking you to show only that work. But I think a meaningful representation – somewhere around a quarter of what you exhibit – is fair and reasonable. As you saw on my web site, I’ve exhibited elsewhere in the past, and this has always been how we’ve done it, so it’s not like I’m asking for something that can’t be done.”
Speckman chewed thoughtfully for a minute.
“How much of the contemporary work do you sell?” she asked.
“How much is ‘very little’?”
“Maybe one or two a year.”
“What do you get for them?”
“And how many of those paintings do you produce every year?”
“I’d say two major works and three or four minor ones.”
“If I can ask, why do you continue to paint them when it’s clear there’s minimal interest in them?”
Lisa paused. She felt she had already answered this question, but she saw now that she would need to elaborate on what she thought she had made very clear.
“Let me start answering your question by asking a question of my own: do you paint, Shelly?”
“When I was a kid, but I wasn’t very good, so I stopped. I still loved art, though, so that’s why I got into this business.”
“That may explain it,” Lisa began.
“I’ve never said I’m any good, either. I do sell paintings, though, and I sell enough to believe that if I took a more business-like approach to my work, I could probably make a living at it.
“But being good and being able to make a living from it are irrelevant to me. I have ideas, I have thoughts, I have emotions, and my paintings are how I express them. They’re my outlet, my passion, my joy, and if I never sell a single painting again for the rest of my life, I’ll go on painting until I no longer have anything I want to say – a day I’m pretty sure will never come.
“What distinguishes me from a lot of other artists is that after years and years of painting, the most important part for me is the self-expression. That’s the special freedom I gain from having my ‘day job,’ as so many of the other artists I encounter sarcastically refer to my teaching career. Unlike them, I’m not doing this for a living; I’m doing it for me, and failing to sell my work doesn’t mean I’ll go hungry. I’m driven to paint, driven to express certain things, but I don’t feel the overwhelming desire that many others do to share my thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world. Even if you exhibit me how I’d like to be exhibited, I have hundreds of paintings that you and the world will probably never see. I don’t care if the world never sees my work, never stops to ponder what I’m trying to say. I create for me, I see it with my own eyes and feel it with my own heart, and that’s what matters to me.
“Now I realize that in a way, this seems to contradict my desire for all facets of my work to be represented at an exhibition and not just the pretty stuff. The thing is, if I’m going to be public with my work, I’m not prepared to imply to the world that ‘this is me’ and only show the pretty stuff. When I go public, I want a reasonable representation of my work to go on display, and if I can’t have that, I’d rather not do it at all.”
The gallery owner sat there, listening. She was not sure whether she should be enthralled or appalled. Finally, she spoke.
“So what you’re saying is that in the end, you’re really just painting for yourself, right?”
The New York Times Sunday book section does a weekly feature called “by the book” in which the Times poses a series of questions to writers about their reading and writing habits. For the real writers – as opposed to the occasional celebrity who has used his or her fame to get an undeserved book contract to produce a piece of garbage that will outsell the collected works of dozens of real writers – the questions are pretty uniform. Typical questions include:
What books are on your nightstand?
What’s your favorite book of all time?
What kinds of stories are you drawn to? And what do you steer clear of?
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
Who is your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer?
What kind of reader were you as a child?
What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Also included in the “interview” – The Curmudgeon suspects these exchanges are conducted entirely by email – has been, since well before the current nimrod loaded up his truck and moved to Washington, D.C. ,
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
You would be amazed, readers – amazed, The Curmudgeon tells you! – at how many of the writers respond rather simply that they cannot envision Donald Trump actually sitting down and reading any book under any circumstances.
Recently, though, mystery writer John Sandford replied that
I don’t know, but I suspect it’d have to come with a massive amount of Chapstick.
It’s a sad state of affairs to think that the occupant of the White House wouldn’t be caught dead reading an actual book. Even George W. Bush, not exactly regarded as an intellectual heavyweight, was known to consume mass quantities of books.
But not our current president. From what we’ve been told, any information that can’t be boiled down to a few words written in big print on index cards, accompanied by photos, is unlikely to work its way through that helmet of hair he wears on his head and penetrate his brain.
The Curmudgeon likes shopping on Amazon.com: he likes the selection, he likes the prices, he likes the convenience, he likes how easy it is to do business with Amazon even when you’re not happy with a product you purchased. He’s aware that Amazon is reputed to pay and treat its employees poorly and sometimes questions his repeated patronage but, just like shopping at Walmart, he generally feels that he can’t fight every fight and this is one he’s choosing not to fight. (The Curmudgeon will revisit his willingness to support the low-wage, ill-treated employees of Amazon and Walmart when they grow spines, stand up for themselves, and at least try to unionize.)
Amazon is known for its data and how well it uses it to its own business advantage, which is certainly the company’s right, but he’s also heard about how it can use that data to the disadvantage of its customers and recently experienced that first-hand.
So The Curmudgeon thought he’d share.
The Curmudgeon does not have the best digestive system in the world and there are three products he uses that he orders from Amazon several times a year. One of them he’s never found in a traditional retail store – and The Curmudgeon lives in a virtual retail heaven – and the other two cost about half of what they’d cost in a traditional retail store. Together, it means Amazon is the best place for him to buy these things, and buy them he does – generally, every two to four months, depending on how much he buys at once and how quickly he uses them.
Yes, he buys them regularly – and the folks at Amazon, with all of that data they amass, understand this.
So almost every time The Curmudgeon goes to buy more, the price is higher than it was the previous time.
And we’re not just talking about ordinary, modest price increases; after all, the price of most products rises over time. No, he’s talking about meaningful increases in prices almost every time he buys them.
When he first noticed this it happened when, instead of doing a fresh search for the product he wanted, he went back into his past orders, found the item, and ordered it again. After a few times doing this he found that the re-order was always – always – more expensive than the order he placed just a few months earlier.
Wise to this maneuver, he started doing fresh searches instead and found that the price then was still higher – higher than the previous order but not as high as when he clicked the “order this again” link.
So he was onto something. In not one way but two, Amazon was taking advantage of its awareness that this is something The Curmudgeon buys regularly to try to sell it to him for an inflated price.
For a few months and reorders The Curmudgeon tolerated this, but then he had an idea:
“What if I check out a product on another computer – my work computer – on which I’m not logged in and Amazon has no way of knowing it’s me doing the search?”
And the first time The Curmudgeon did this the results were clear – and startling: the product was much less than it had been the last three or four times he bought it.
“J’Accuse, mon petite fromage! (With bonus points for those who know where the non-French-speaking Curmudgeon got this phrase.)
Now much wiser, The Curmudgeon copied the URL of the lower-priced product from his work computer, emailed it from his work email account to his home account, hit the link, and made his purchase for much less than what Amazon insisted it was.
So the moral of the story is this: use Amazon if you wish, like Amazon if you wish, love Amazon if you wish, but don’t trust Amazon for a minute because if you let them they will be happy to fleece you without a hint of hesitation or remorse.
They must think The Curmudgeon is one scary dude in parts of Texas, where the Greenville Avenue Church of Christ, located outside Dallas, set out last summer to warn its congregants and community about the dangerous people all around them.
The Associated Press explains:
A Dallas-area church recently distributed flyers advertising a series of weekly seminars it plans to host condemning “dangerous isms” like Judaism, Islamism and liberalism.
Greenville Avenue Church of Christ in Richardson says in the flyers that the Wednesday seminars, being held through August, will “provide a proper response for the Christian.”
Hey, The Curmudgeon is a two-fer: Jewish and liberal. That must be pretty rare in the Dallas area.
And there’s more:
The flyers prompted a social media backlash but Gibbs [note: pulpit minister Shelton Gibbs III] said the predominantly African-American church doesn’t mean to condemn others.
“We’re not here to criticize or be antagonistic toward people and to beat them down,” he told the newspaper. “There’s no threat. The people in the community should not feel a threat.”
Wait: they’re calling Jews, liberals, and others “dangerous” but it’s neither a warning nor a criticism?
And those of us on the hate list shouldn’t feel at all threatened to be singled out for this warning?
Could’ve fooled The Curmudgeon – and anyone else with half a brain who received the flyer.
The Associated Press also tells us that
Atheism, alcoholism and “emotionalism” are some of the other seminar topics. Gibbs said topics such as racism or sexism won’t be discussed because “there are only so many Wednesdays in a summer.”
Well, there’ll certainly be plenty of time for some serious race-baiting and women-hating next summer!
The Philadelphia Inquirer recently informed its readers that
Groceries price comparison finds that Whole Foods, Acme are the most expensive in Philly area
Surely we didn’t need someone to do any research to tell us this.
There’s a reason Whole Foods is nicknamed “Whole Paycheck,” and it remains that way today. You have to question the intelligence of the “Consumers’ Checkbook” organization when its executive director told an Inquirer reporter that
When Amazon purchased Whole Foods last year, many consumers were excited by the prospect of paying Amazon-like prices for Whole Foods-quality products.
Surely he jests: either the consumers who conveyed that excitement to him were foolishly naive or the guy just made it up to get his name in the paper. Did ANYONE seriously think Whole Foods’ prices were suddenly going to become “Amazon-like”?
Didn’t think so.
The other major finding – that Acme is a very expensive supermarket – is equally unsurprising. The Curmudgeon lives within walking distance of an Acme and wouldn’t dream of doing his primary grocery shopping there. It’s a nasty little store, but even when Acme has great big clean, nice stores, it’s hard to take them seriously because they’re so grotesquely overpriced. Because it’s so convenient The Curmudgeon will occasionally walk over to pick up one or two things he forgot on his weekly supermarket shopping trip elsewhere or that he suddenly decides he needs for a spur-of-the-moment dinner idea, but he’s continually amazed at how virtually everything he buys at Acme, whether it’s a cucumber or a quart of milk or a loaf of bread or a couple of apples, almost routinely costs 50 cents to a dollar more than it does elsewhere. Every time he goes into an Acme he asks himself how it can be that those people are still in business.
Just like the folks at 7-Eleven, when you think about it.
Well, maybe it’s good for you. Apparently, there are people out there who are now intent on redefining “healthy” to mean “not bad for you.”
According to the Associated Press,
Pizza bagels, chewing gum and bottled water want to play a starring new role in our diets: Foods that can be called healthy.
With the Food and Drug Administration considering what should be worthy of the label “healthy,”
Frozen food-makers are seeking special rules for “mini meals,” citing little pizza bagels and dumplings as examples that might qualify. Chewing gum and bottled water companies say they should no longer be shut out from using the term just because their products don’t provide nutrients.
Imagine: the folks who make these products – can we really call chewing gum “food?” – believe they deserve the label “healthy” even though “their products don’t provide nutrients.”
The government’s standards, which are constantly evolving, call for giving credit when foods include things that are considered desirable, like protein and fiber, and not rewarding foods that are high in fats, high in cholesterol, and high in sugar. Companies that sell food and what The Curmudgeon will call food-like products are clearly shooting at a moving target.
But they want to move that target a little closer to improve their chances of hitting it.
And of course industry shills are coming out of the woodwork, like this one tool from the International Chewing Gum Association – there really is such an organization – who says his product should qualify because
It doesn’t have fat. It doesn’t have sugar. It has virtually no calories,
Yeah – but it’s…chewing gum!
And another mouthpiece, this one hiding behind academic credentials, who disingenuously explains, according to the AP, that
The problem is that healthy is relative… Subsisting on broccoli alone, for instance, wouldn’t be healthy.
Yes, egghead, we really, really needed someone to explain that to us.
At the risk of seeming to overly politicize this issue, Republican administrations in general don’t want the government involved in such matters and would rather give their friends in industry as much leeway as possible to represent their products however they wish without regard to accuracy, fairness, or things like, you know, what’s good and bad for people. In their world, it’s our responsibility to figure out that pork rinds and Cheez Whiz are no good for us and if we don’t, and if we get sick as a result, well, it’s our own damn fault.
So sometime in the not-so-distant future, don’t be surprised if you’re walking down the frozen food aisle of your local supermarket and notice the word “Healthy” scrawled over the front of a box of Hot Pockets.
Or Ben & Jerry’s.
Or frozen chicken pot pie. (If you’ve never looked at the nutrition label on a frozen pot pie, take The Curmudgeon’s word and don’t: you’ll never, ever eat one again.)
The Curmudgeon is quick to make fun of some of the things people write, whether it’s verbifications, strange headlines, or other such nonsense, but he’s generally reluctant to criticize things people say. We don’t talk the same way we write, we don’t have the chance to edit what we’ve said after we’ve said it, and our standards and expectations for the spoken word are very different from those we have for the written word. Also, anyone who works on television or in politics or in public affairs is inevitably going to speak extemporaneously a lot and is just as inevitably going to say something he or she wishes she had said differently. In general, The Curmudgeon doesn’t like to jump all over such people for minor oral miscues.
But sometimes the target is just too tempting.
One of those targets jumped off the computer screen and practically hit The Curmudgeon over the head recently when he was reading an article in a trade publication about the merger of CVS and Aetna – a merger, by the way, that is sure to benefit absolutely no one other than people who own stock in CVS and Aetna and the people who helped broker the deal. It cannot possibly help consumers.
Anyhow, the CEO of CVS was trying to explain how owning a health insurance company might change what customers find when they enter a CVS store and explained that he hoped his company would become more of a “health care destination” for people.
A destination? Like…Mount Rushmore?
He continued talking about how the company would experiment in a few of its stores, offering the kinds of services we’re not accustomed to encountering at our neighborhood drug store. He called them “concept stores” and said the company hoped to learn new things from them.
Oh, if only he had said the company hoped to learn new things from them.
But no, he had to try to make it sound more complicated than that and ended up saying
I’m sure we’ll get some tremendous learnings from those first stores.
Yes he did: he said he hoped they’d get “some tremendous learnings from those first stores.”
In high school, The Curmudgeon recalls, health class was taught by gym teachers – you know, the kind of guys you suspect had to be told to go home and change when they showed up at their own weddings wearing a great tux, new, shiny black shoes – and white socks. Most of those gym teachers made it pretty clear that they were uncomfortable teaching a sit-down class no matter what the subject and were especially uncomfortable talking about anything involving sex.
So maybe that’s why a teacher in the Wallingford-Swarthmore school district, a very high-tone suburb of Philadelphia, invited an outside group to help him teach his students about the birds and the bees.
And since The Curmudgeon is writing about this, you surely sense that it did not go well.
The group the teacher recruited to come to his rescue is called the Amnion Pregnancy Center, and all you need to do is take a quick look at its web site to see that the Amnion folks are not the right people to help teach sex ed to high schoolers.
The Philadelphia Inquirer tells the story.
A 17-year-old jolted the Wallingford-Swarthmore School Districtlast month when she told the school board that a nearby faith-based crisis pregnancy center had been invited to her health class, saying that it offered medically inaccurate information, exaggerated the dangers of sex, and offered a Bible to a girl who stayed after class.
School board members “were horrified – none of them had any idea that this was going on,” said McElroy, who showed up at their July meeting with a poster board copied from Amnion’s presentation, titled “The Steep Slope of Arousal.”
The poster showed two stick figures holding hands at the edge of cliff – part of Amnion’s RealEd “relationship education” program that contends that even hand-holding, hugging, and kissing can cause teens to fall into the abyss and crash on the rocks of sexual activity.
McElroy told the school board the presentation had encouraged abstinence not just from sex but any touching in order to conserve oxytocin, a hormone that is released during sex and activities like cuddling. The claim that too much youthful activity depletes oxytocin and thus makes it harder for a person to eventually bond with a future spouse has been challenged by scientists, who say it’s based on research with prairie voles, not humans.
Ah, yes, that ever-dangerous oxytocin.
Amnion executive director Melanie Parks said the RealEd program is not faith-based. She said that it encourages young people to think critically about sex and relationship choices, that the discussion of oxytocin was taken out of context by the student, and that the information in the program “was presented accurately.” She denied that a student was given a Bible.
The controversy over the role of Amnion – which quotes the Bible on its website, accepts grant money from the socially conservative Christian Focus on the Familyand has a stated goal of ending abortion in the Philadelphia suburbs – highlights the ongoing ambiguity over how sex education is taught in Pennsylvania public schools.
And there’s this:
Another element of the center’s presentation, according to students who attended, was a piece of sticky tape; the teens were told that “if you have sex with too many people it becomes less sticky — and you can’t make healthy relationships,” McElroy said.
The school board, of course, was outraged – outraged! – and said it knew nothing about the presentation or the presenters. It also said it would investigate. Meanwhile, the student who brought the issue to the school district’s attention is a senior and said the group has actually been in the school for several years and that when she complained about the presentation after she heard it during her sophomore year she was assured that group would not be back.
The school officials lied.
So the parents of high school kids in the Wallingford-Swarthmore school district probably shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for their school board to address this because school officials swept this matter under the rug once and there’s no reason not to suspect they won’t do it again.