Walk Through An Art Show

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I saw my show, “Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People”, for the first time last Thursday.  My wife and daughter came to the opening that night, and I mostly interacted with faculty, a man named Tony, and two high school art teachers who happened to be on campus at the time.  I gave a lecture about my work to the folks listed above and a class forced to attend.  But the somewhat listless students listened and didn’t lapse into smart phone drifts of attention too often.  I got a few questions at the end that helped me to explain things a bit further.

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Judy helped me to refine my speech, and we agreed that the underlying theme in a lot of my work is humor.  So I opened and closed my presentation with jokes.  One featured hump back whales, and the other told a story about swimming lessons involving trips to the middle of Lake Erie, a tough father, and being tied up in a bag.

My work was treated with respect, and the reception felt warm and friendly.  I recommend Daytona State College and the curator, Viktoryia McGrath, to any artist interested in exhibiting their work in a college setting.

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My daughter, Annie, spent the weekend with us and brought along Shakespeare and Sedgewick, her two dogs. She left early Easter Sunday afternoon, and Judy and I both felt a bit sad now that the flurry of activity had ended and the house was a lot quieter. We decided that we will be moving next door to a child once they settle down in a permanent location.

Now I’m looking forward to making new paintings under less stressful conditions, finishing out my semester, and starting summer projects.

Napping Out of Control

Ed woke up from a nap, yawned and stretched, sat up straight on the sofa.  He asked me, “What time is it?”  I said, “Three,” and he replied, “That late?!  I’ve been napping out of control!”

Judy described Pine, Colorado, the little town near her brother’s house in the Rocky Mountain foothills.  She said, “There’s the Bucksnort Tavern, and there’s a drive by library.”  My eyes widened, and then we laughed.  I pantomimed a murderous librarian idling along a curb while slinging hard backs at cringing pedestrians.  Judy went on to explain that the library was a box on the side of a building.  Books could be borrowed or returned according to whim.

When my daughter Annie was a toddler she suffered from food allergies, and we had to carefully monitor her diet.  One thing she could have was granola.  When snack time came midafternoon, we sometimes said, “You can have half a granola bar.”  When we asked her one day what she wanted (peaches were another option), she called out, “Half!”

One day I sat writing bills, grumbling as I balanced the check book.  My water bill was high.  The city of Casselberry had taken over our service a two decades before, and still charged our neighborhood an exorbitant rate.  Annie (now a twenty year old) asked me what I was doing.  I said, “Just writing a check for the Castle of Shitzelberry.”

I recently read a feature about how airline attendants punish surly flights of passengers.  Changes in altitude apparently cause an intestinal upwelling of gas, and our friends in the sky walk up and down the aisle near the end of a flight to “dust the crops”.

Jack worked in the kitchen at a pizza restaurant with me, and when he wanted to go home early he would begin to sing loudly enough for the diners to hear.  He chose Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” one night, but substituted his own version of the lyrics.  The song became, “Another one bites the crust, another one bites the crust.  Hey, it’s gonna get to you!  Another one bites the crust!”  That got Zukavecki the night manager to come running.  Zukavecki told Jack to keep it down and that he had to finish his shift.  Jack waited until the manager left the kitchen, and then belted out another Queen song:  “Bohemian Rhapsody”.   He focused on the “let me go” section singing, “Zukavecki let me go, Let me go, Zukavecki let me go, He will not let me go,  Let me go go gooooo.  Bee–ell–zuh–bub’s got a devil for a son in me, in ME.”  Zukavecki let him go.

Sometimes when I’ve completed a job I announce, “It is Swedished.”  My kids know better than to ask me what I mean by that.  If they do I say, “Why should the Finns get all the credit?”

A Sense of Humor Helps

There are many ways to judge whether a relationship might work. Sharing or at least tolerating each other’s sense of humor is one. When my wife and I dated I sometimes cooked a meal for us, and one night Judy held up her plate with a pathetic orphan look on her face and said, “Please, sir, may I have more?” My eyes popped wide as I recognized a speech from Oliver Twist. My previous girlfriend had thought that Steven King novels were the height of literature, and Judy quoted Dickens. My heart leapt with joy.

I had first studied biology in college, and Judy was in the process of earning her Ph.D. in plant physiology when we met and married. On our honeymoon in Maine we climbed to the top of a mountain in Acadia National Forest. A cold breeze blew as we stood on a rocky plateau at the top, and a thick fog surrounded us on all sides. She pulled a sweatshirt out of her backpack, and her head got stuck inside as she attempted to push her arms through the sleeves. She stood with her arms waving over what appeared to be a headless torso and I said, “My wife, the hydra.” She started laughing, and it took her a bit longer to emerge.

When Judy got pregnant with our first child we went to an OB/GYN group in State College. We saw four doctors on a round robin basis, and some could be gruff and rude. Judy appreciated it when I nicknamed a sixty year old man, a former army doctor, who kept advising Judy to watch her weight. His name was Wengrovitz, but we privately referred to him as Vinegar Tits. Dr. Mebbane gave us stern lectures at odd moments, and we hoped that he wouldn’t be on call when it came time for the delivery. We held up our arms in crosses as if warding off a vampire when we discussed him and called out, “Med Bane” in hopes of repelling him.

I rewrite lyrics to pop songs, and sometimes sing my version of Joe Cocker’s, “You Are So Beautiful, To Me” in the morning while making breakfast.  Original version:  “You are so beautiful, to me.  You’re everything I’ve ever hoped for.  You’re everything I need.  You are so beautiful, to me.”  My version: “You look available, to me. You are everything I’d ever settle for. You’re the only woman I see. You look available…to me.” Judy doesn’t take offense but comments on how romantic I’ve become over our years together.

We got new flip phones a few months ago. Sometimes my phone emits rapid bursts of beeps when I walk with it in a pants pocket, and it woke me up one night with a beep and flash of light as it rested on my bureau. Judy took it from me when it sounded off during a meal and searched through the menu. I asked her to look for a “random bullshit” button that she could turn off. She went through a bunch of applications, but didn’t find anything that might help. She handed it back and drily said, “Sorry, they don’t list ‘random bullshit’ anywhere.”

 

Despairing for Joy

Today I saw a woman standing at a bus stop.  She held up a blown out umbrella in a vain attempt to take shelter from the rain.  A sudden squall lashed at her, but twenty yards down the road the pavement remained absolutely dry.

So life sucks.   We can agree on that, can’t we?  There’s no need to defend this proposition.  But if some of you suspect that I’m being overly negative, just think back to a few moments from childhood that came as rude shock.  Extrapolate from there (review similar episodes from various stages in your life) and come to the aforementioned, obvious conclusion.  Don’t listen to Pollyannas who try to obscure the clarity of your dark vision when they babble on about newborn babies, flowers and sunshine.  The positive-thinking upbeats are just part of the evil.  Their one cruel purpose in life is to make you feel bad about your negativity.

As you sink deeper into depression reflect on the Buddhist teaching that all life is suffering.  Think, “Thanks a lot, Buddha.  That sure helps,” and feel even more justified in holding onto your black funk.

When you hit rock bottom find some satisfaction that you can’t sink any further, and then consider the additional afflictions that could arrive at any moment.  Marvel that the possibilities for personal misery are nearly infinite, and smile when you realize that God is magnificent in His Elaborate Creativity.

Find satisfaction in the fact that by wallowing in despair you are actually coming closer to the hidden foundations of All That Is.  A star doesn’t want to explode in a super nova, and galaxies fear the black holes swallowing them.   The seas shudder as they crash against the unyielding shore, and mountains despise the storms that gnaw at the magnificence of their height.  A microbe dreads the touch of an ameba as much as an antelope abhors the rake of a lion’s claws.

By embracing the pervasive Cosmic Despair you enter into the Great Ennui and become one with the true nature All That Is.  Unimaginable relief floods your soul as you realize that your futile struggle for happiness has finally ended.

“Thank God that’s over,” you’ll pray as your heart fills with sweet resignation, which is, after all, the purest form of joy.

Dysfunction: One Thing Leads to Another

A few months ago I drew a charcoal drawing entitled, “She Spurned His Advances”.  It showed an gawky looking monster hovering near a woman who was not thrilled by his amorous attention.  I used a Surrealist technique to develop the suitor, and based his lady on a 19th century daguerreotype.

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After I finished this piece I got the idea to show a couple responding to a man’s unfortunate tendency to spontaneously eject his internal organs at inappropriate moments.  (I know what you’re thinking:  when is there an appropriate moment for involuntary self-evisceration?)  This idea evolved into “Eruptile Dysfunction”, an oil painting of a man responding to his wife’s sexual overtures by suffering a volcanic eruption to explode out of the top of his head.

dsc_0015  Eruptile Dysfunction, Oil on Canvas

I decided to satirize the erectile dysfunction pharmaceutical ad campaign (the commercials annoy me), and I played around with puns.  I first came up with “T-Rextile Dysfunction.”  I envisioned a T-Rex couple in bed having unsatisfactory relations, but this idea seemed too cartoonish.  I found some illustrations of T-Rex running, and one of them showed a dinosaur looking back over one shoulder.  I wondered what could possibly make a giant predator look behind itself with apprehension, and I remembered a documentary about aviation disasters.  Judy and I watched an old report about airliners losing tail sections and wings in mid flight when their metal under structures failed from repeated stress. I got the idea that the T-Rex’s tail, elevated off the ground as the monster ran, might break off.

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I’m brewing up a few ideas for more paintings in this series.  “Electile Dysfunction” could feature a prominent player in our current presidential race.  An angry couple could break up in a vivid way in “Rejectile Dysfunction”.  “Ejectile Dysfunction” could illustrate a faulty ejection seat in a jet fighter.  An architect might stand by the collapsed ruins of an unfinished building in “Erectile Dysfunction”.

I’m not sure if I will actually make these paintings, but it amuses me to think about them.

“Funny” is Cruelty in Disguise

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Humor is often based on pain and discomfort.  How many good jokes have you ever heard about sunshine, picnics and flowers?  Bad jokes, of course, are based on silly word play, puns, but the ones that really get me laughing hit on a deep level of hurt.

I heard one of my favorite jokes when I was a teenager and was dealing with daddy issues.  It goes something like this:  “My father, he was tough, really tough.  One day he rowed me out to the middle of Lake Erie to teach me how to swim.  He threw me overboard and told me to swim to shore.  But that wasn’t the hard part.  The hard part was getting out of the bag.”

I could relate to that.  My Dad forced me to teach myself how to swim by dunking me every time we went swimming.  It became a ritual of dread until I finally learned to dog paddle in the shallows when I was about ten or eleven.  Then he and my sister threw me into water over my head. They knew that I didn’t know how to tread water and thought that it was funny when they had to grab and shove me toward shore as I flailed around and choked on muddy lake water.

Pops didn’t really have any homicidal intentions, but there were times when I doubted whether he was truly happy to have me around as another burden costing him money to house and feed.  And he was tough, really tough.

The bag joke exaggerated my own situation to the point where it became ridiculous.  It defused an emotional bomb that was ticking in my head and let me know that other people had had similar doubts.  The joke had power in its truthful, if negative, take on the relationship between fathers and sons.

Some comedic writers such as Richard Russo have a keen sense of human folly, and their best work is based on the interaction of their characters as they stumble through the mishaps of their lives.  Anne Tyler’s early work often mixed shrewd observation of human behavior with comic moments that revealed flaws in her characters.  In “Celestial Navigation” she wrote a chapter from the viewpoint of an abrasive, domineering woman.  The words that this harpy uses to criticize her brother and sister end up exposing her harshness, self-righteousness and blindness to the needs of others.  She becomes a comic figure in that she unwittingly indicts herself.  Both writers were merciless and unsparing at moments while still showing some compassion and acceptance.

In his weaker, later novels Russo eases up on his protagonists and allows them to mule around, to wallow in their flaws.  He doesn’t skewer them, doesn’t deliver adequate comeuppances, and the work seems a bit flabby and sentimental.  Tyler’s work shows a similar laxness in her last five or six novels.  It seems that the two writers allowed their critical, sometimes cruel observation of human nature to soften into passive resignation. Their claws have been filed down to the nub, and the humorous elements of their work have been caged and tamed.

South Park and Family Guy will probably never lose their cruel streaks, but are often difficult to watch.  These shows keep trying to find new levels of meanness, new ways to outrage and shock their viewers.  But their humor often lacks realistic observation.  It’s often an abrasive attack on their viewers’ sense of decency, a never ending quest to violate another taboo.  Testicular cancer, grave robbing grandma’s corpse, and a father doing a lap dance for his daughter at her bachelorette party all become subjects of fun.  The two shows are like sharks that can never stop swimming as they search for new victims to tear apart.

But in the end their humor has little power;  it shocks but does little else.  It no longer connects to realistic observation of the human condition.  There are few moments of revelation, and the gratuitous cruelty becomes a pointless, soul deadening experience.