The Ugly American

Serendipity led me to Jean Burman’s site the other day.  She had a post about a TV show (which I have to admit I’m not familiar with) about two artists who set off from opposite coasts of the U. S. with only one buck in their pocket and their art supplies.  They have to work their way across the country by selling their art for their sustenance.

A tall order, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that this challenge takes place in the U.S. instead of someplace else.  We don’t value art here.  It isn’t part of our day to day lives.  Look at how much ugliness surrounds us, which doesn’t even phase us.

John Q. Middle American wakes up in a house that looks just like his neighbor’s, done in a color palette approved by his homeowner’s association.  (Don’t want any “individuality” creeping in or our property values will plummet even more!)

He goes to work in a low-slung brick and smoked-glass office building that could be mistaken for a government holding cell.  Inside his putty-grey cubicle he only has a few pictures in cheap frames of his family.  It’s really all that is allowed, except for perhaps a certificate of modest recognition for attending corporate training of some sort.

Where is there room for art or self-expression?  If Van Gogh himself walked up to him and offered to sell him “Starry Night” for 10 bucks he probably wouldn’t recognize it.  “What the hell am I gonna do with it?” he’d ask.  “Can I sell it on Ebay?”

Unlike Europe and other places, our workaholic, utilitarian society has culled out all the beautiful, non-revenue generating things in life.  I would say we treat art like toxic waste, but we spend billions to store our toxic waste, and we cut billions from the places that store our art.

The American has his cubicle, his vending-machine energy drink to get him through the afternoon, and a full inbox he has to respond to before he can go home.   The Frenchman has some of the world’s finest art and architecture, wine with his lunch, and his mistress at 3:00.

And we have the gall to make fun of the French!



It’s Good To Be Old

Living in a youth-obsessed culture as we do,  it is easy for people to feel bad about growing old.  But I’m glad I’m old!

I think old people just don’t like to admit the good parts, or take advantage of them.  Some of them are:

1.  I’m still here.  A lot of people who started down this trail the same time I did – or after – aren’t around anymore.  They never got to do a lot of the things I have been lucky enough to do, and still look forward to doing.  Survivorship is it’s own reward.

2.  You don’t have to compare and compete anymore.  When we are young, we are always trying to measure up to some standard someone else has set, and to compete for things that are in the end meaningless.  In the Horse Race of Life, we think we are all at the same starting gate.  But after a few races are run, you realize that the rider next to you is on a thoroughbred, and you are on a mule.  But that doesn’t matter as much when you realize the guy a few gates down is putting a saddle on a cat.  It’s all relative.

3.  You have experience as a filter for new information.  When something new comes down the pike, you have a background to evaluate it against based on just being around for a while.  I think this is what causes younger people to say old people don’t “get it”.  We get it, we just don’t give a shit.

There are other advantages, but I don’t want to get too lengthy.  Sure, there are some things I can’t do as well anymore, but mostly those aren’t very important or can be accommodated for.

Spot me some bifocals and an escalator and I’m any man’s equal.


Digital Dusting

One of the aphorisms I’m fond of quoting is “given the freedom to do whatever they want, most people will choose to do what everybody else is doing.”  I don’t know who came up with it, but it is true.  And I’m probably as guilty as anyone.

It is natural for us to learn by watching and copying.  It is the way we learn everything from multiplication tables to driving a car.  But at some point, we need to put our own spin on things if we want to feel fulfilled.  As another of my favorite Eccentrics, George Ohr, the Mad Potter of Biloxi was fond of saying – “I am the Apostle Of Individuality!”

When I started blogging, and reading and commenting on others blogs, I noticed two things:
1. A lot of people who do other things for a living write really well.
2. A lot of people who write really well don’t write things that are very interesting.

I don’t say this to belittle anyone, but even when you get past the Mommy bloggers, the recipe bloggers, and others that are all kind of cut from same template, even a lot of creative people don’t put much of themselves into things.  And way too many are trying too hard to sell, sell, sell.  Or establish themselves as some kind of “thought leader”.

And I find myself falling into the same trap.  Sometimes when I get an idea from another blog, I find myself rehashing that idea without really adding much.  Kind of like picking something up, dusting it and cleaning it up a little and putting it on a new shelf.  You haven’t really created anything.

So I’m kind of at a crossroads.  Like any blogger, I’d like to see more subscribers and comments.  Writing for an audience that actually writes back is the thing I enjoy most.  But just copying the things that others are doing to kind of spruce things up is not the answer either.

It’s one of those times in which we know we need to make some changes but aren’t sure just which of the 10,000 directions we could go is the right one.  Maybe you’ve been there.

If you have, any wisdom you’d care to send my way is welcome!

Support Your Local Eccentric

As a society, I’m afraid we are running low on Eccentric people.  Oh sure, there are plenty of dangerous, and just plain strange people around, but I mean true Eccentrics, with a capital “E”.  People who express their uniqueness in positive, creative ways we don’t always appreciate right away because it’s just too far out there.

My own hero of Eccentricity is Ed Leedskalnin, who created Coral Castle.  I used to live not far from there, and visited the place several times, puzzled by just how he accomplished what he did.  Especially in South Florida, where you break a sweat just changing stations on your car radio.

To this day, nobody knows how he did it.  Huge, monolithic slabs of stone placed as accurately as building blocks.  A 9-ton gate so perfectly balanced that a child could push it open.  And all without any special tools or heavy equipment.

Ed was one weird dude, no doubt about it.  But we need people like this around.  As the hammer of convention works our society into dull uniformity, we need a few dings and high spots to give us that handcrafted look.

It’s kind of a goal of mine to be an Eccentric.  Despite being handicapped with a very average background, over the years I’ve managed to progress to Different, then Kinda Weird, on to my present level of Freakin’ Oddball.  In a few years, I’m hopeful of attaining Batshit Crazy on my way to the pinnacle, true Eccentricity.

Statistics tells us that if you plot the characteristics of a normal distribution, you’ll end up with the infamous Bell Curve.  In the big hump in the middle of it, everybody is kind of the same.

That’s why I am shooting for the far tails of the curve.  It’s less crowded and the people are more interesting!

Thanks, Architects of Old!

This weekend in the Twin Cities area it’s Art-a-Whirl.  To me, the neatest thing about this event is not only the art on display, but the unique buildings it is displayed in.  It takes place in an area called the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District – which is an old, industrial area of town now evolving into an artist’s and designers neighborhood.

Basically, these old Industrial Age buildings were built to last.  And here in the Upper Midwest they are all over.  Re-purposing these buildings, which started life as casket factories, breweries, and flour mills into cheap lofts and studio space has been one of the more creative re-habs I’ve seen.  It’s working, drawing investment and people to an area that would otherwise be decaying.

The thing I love most about these old buildings is that you can feel their soul.  People worked in these places for generations, and even though these places are built of stone and materials that any medieval fortress builder would have used, when restored they have more human scale and warmth somehow, especially compared to our modern glass and aluminum cubicle barns.

The old Pillsbury Mill A

The building above is an old Pillsbury flour mill on the east bank of the Mississippi River.  In it’s day, it was the largest flour mill in the world!  Your grandmother probably baked bread with flour ground in this mill.   (That’s kind of a neat idea!)

I hope this trend of rescuing, and not tearing down continues.  The one advantage these types of buildings have is that they are as structurally sound as the day they were built, being made mostly of granite.  So even though an interior renovation is no small expense, there isn’t any REALLY expensive foundation or structural work to bring things up to code like there can be with other older buildings made of less robust material.

I wonder if these long-gone architects and builders knew their work would be around over a century since they broke ground.  And that people from places and circumstances they couldn’t even imagine back then would be working and creating in them, doing things totally different from the original specific use.

It’s a nice legacy to leave us, intended or not.

Stand Up, Fix Up

Been meaning to comment on a book I finished a while back, Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class As Soulcraft”.   It’s a pretty well-written examination of what work means and how contrary to our natures most modern jobs are.

It shares some insights with Daniel Pink’s “Drive” and his talk on what motivates us.  One of those ideas it shares is the idea of people needing a feeling of autonomy in order to be happy.  But it brings up another point which I think a lot of people miss.

Keep in mind we’re not talking about fine-arts woodworkers, or anything like that.  Crawford stays pretty centered on what we’d call the “trades”.  And he brings up an interesting point about the lack of objective standards to which most people can be held in their work.

In trades work, things are either done correctly, or they are not.  The wall is either plumb, or it is crooked.  The joint leaks, or it doesn’t.   The weld is done well, or it is weak.  And if something is done especially skillfully, you can see that too.

Compare that to how most of us work these days.  We don’t really have a way of measuring what we do to give us the bare satisfaction of knowing it is at least “right” to some extent.  Employees are measured against metrics they didn’t have any input in.  Bosses come and go, and most of how we are rewarded and punished is pretty arbitrary.

Even “ideas” people face this. We can launch a marketing campaign, but who knows if it will work?  You paint a beautiful picture, but will it connect with a buyer?  You can write a blog post or a book, but will anyone respond to your ideas?

This is why I think it feels so good when we stop and do something  as simple as fixing something around the house or cleaning and painting something up.  We have improved our environment in a way that is immediately noticeable.  We’ve put a little order back into a world that tends to the chaotic.

And in our abstract symbolic existence, it feels good to interact with things that don’t depend on our interpretation of them.  The garage door you fix or the jalopy you restore will probably do you more good in the long run than all your Facebook friends and Twitter followers combined.

Paths Not Chosen

I’ve been trying to clear out some clutter lately, minimalist-style.   It has been kind of cathartic to re-handle all this crap, and think about the things I didn’t use, and the various “kicks” I was on when some of this came into my life in the first place.

My library, especially, looks like the Museum Of Short-Lived Enthusiasms.  Then there are the Spanish language CD’s when I was going to really learn Spanish, this time!  Various software books for apps I was going to be expert on.  And about a dozen or so other interests that for some reason seemed so appealing when I was originally considering them, but have abandoned after a few half-hearted attempts.

Why do we do this?  What would life be like for us if we actually followed through on ALL of this stuff?  What if we became that guitar-playing, Spanish-speaking, Excel-expert gourmet cook that we apparently wanted to be at one time?  And why didn’t we?

I think the answer is just Life.  For at the same time we are trying to pick our way through Life’s maze and discovering all this amazing stuff, there’s another turn ahead and we need to have to put things down and worry about something more pressing.   You were doing fine learning a new hobby or interest and then there was that week you had to put in some extra hours at work, and you just never went back to it.

Or things progressed until an even further commitment of time or money was needed, which you couldn’t make.  Or a million other reasons that are forgotten to you now.

Going back and seeing all this stuff just before you haul it off is like visiting a snapshot of the past.  You remember where and when you picked it up, and what life was like for you then.  Waves of nostalgia are triggered.  This is why most people never get rid of their crap!

I find the cure for this is being brutally “present”, as our Zen friends might put it.  Life is right NOW, and if you don’t want to do it now, you are probably not going to do it ever.  Life flows past you and you can grab for what you can, but you can never get it all.  And even the brief exposure you may have had taught you something.

So let it go.  It really does feel good to empty and then see what fills you next.