MODERN ART$

When I was very young I sometimes thought about becoming an artist in case my major dream of cowboyhood didn’t work out. But after my frightening, violent exit off a bouncing pony and my failing finger painting grades in kindergarten, I began to think of more reachable goals like plumber’s helper and crossing guard.

Years later I experienced a life-changing moment at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. I went at the suggestion of my wife who has a more liberal and forgiving view of modern artists than me. My growing suspicion that day as I toured the galleries was that somehow my failing finger paintings had been found at the town dump and were being used in tutorials for modern artists. Or could Miss Grumble, my kindergarten teacher, have anticipated this weird trend and stashed away the worst efforts of her students, hoping some day to cash in?

While grimacing at the expensively framed blotches, drips and random lines besmirching the walls of a large display room, a realistic metallic sculpture caught my eye, but there was no title or artist’s name indicated. I said to a gallery attendant, “This is the very best hanging in the room. Why isn’t there a title and who is the gifted sculptor?”

“Sir,” he replied, “that isn’t part of the exhibit. That’s a fire extinguisher. There’s one in every gallery room to protect these priceless art works.”

Priceless? I did some research later. One of Mark Rothko’s two-color paintings sold for $87 million. Jackson Pollock and Picasso paintings went for well over $100 million each and someone paid $300 million for an “abstract landscape” by Willem de Kooning. I realized then there was room in the art world for me. I took a few online lessons and started painting.

It became apparent on the very first day that I was a fast learner of this genre’s techniques. In just one hour I was turning out dripping paintings very similar (and perhaps superior) to Jackson Pollock’s. Around that time my wife came down and spread a tarp on the floor of my “studio” opposite our furnace and across from the sump pump.

By noon I’d created two exact Rothko copies. One was just solid dark red. The other, a slightly complicated work, was half mushy orange and half mushy yellow. I had to keep in mind which color was at the top. Of course, if I made a mistake, I could rotate the canvas.

After lunch I began my version of a de Kooning painting, based on the salient features of several of his works. It was more difficult and took me almost an hour. I entitled it “Interior View of an Explosion at a Furniture Factory”. Shattered armoire remnants and splintered settee sections were the main ingredients.

My Picasso copies weren’t that difficult. Working on the portraits I just had to remember to paint both eyes on either the left or the right side of the nose depending on the emotional or intellectual message I was trying to convey.

I hope the Stone Age artists, creators of those wonderful, understandable 20,000-year old cave paintings, don’t see what’s going on today.

view of an on

MISS MOLLY? YES, I DO

Instead of watching TV reruns and reading boring novels during this Pandemic Lockdown, I wish I could spend a few delightful hours again interacting with Miss Molly, my late, lamented Shih-Tzu dog.

I like to think we were good friends. At least Molly tolerated me. We didn’t actually converse, but there was a communication of sorts and occasionally a miscommunication.

Sometimes Molly would sit staring at me for five unblinking minutes with no tail wagging and no responses to my questions. Dog specialists say staring is a dog’s attempt to make an emotional connection with its owner. Perhaps, but I noticed the stare was even more piercing when I was holding a baloney sandwich.

During one of these prolonged staring sessions, with no cold cuts involved, I’d say, “You have to go out, right, Molly?” I’d hold up her leash and she’d walk to the door. I assumed then I’d broken the canine code. She needed to go for a walk. But thinking back now, perhaps not. Maybe when Molly saw the leash, she thought, “Oh rats, I have to take the old guy out again.”

This is likely closer to the truth because Molly was always in charge of our walks, deciding when and where we made our turns and stops, which trees and hydrants to sniff for DNA samples, when to detour around large dogs and stop to touch noses with the smaller ones. Molly made all the navigational decisions as we cruised around the neighborhood.

As First Mate, I always told Captain Molly I would not tolerate a dry run. But she could be stubborn and pull rank. Molly was able to exhibit her mind over bladder ability and we often returned to port with a full ballast. And we eventually had to have our living room rug professionally cleaned.

But what do dogs, including Molly, think? Canine head shrinkers say dogs experience almost all of our human emotions – joy, fear, anger, disgust, excitement, contentment, distress and love, but not guilt, pride or shame. Lucky dogs. They just do their thing and they never look back.

Molly helped me interpret tail-wagging messages which are not necessarily friendly greetings. That furry antenna sends signals and warnings to other dogs who know the difference between “Howdy!” ( a slight short wag at medium height) and “Back off Buster!” (vertical, high speed wag.)

High pitched barking, according to Molly, is usually friendly, and low pitched is the opposite. A low, slow, continous bark, she demonstrated , is a danger signal. I distinctly heard that warning bark when a town council candidate rang our doorbell. His promised reforms sounded very encouraging, but I decided to yield to Molly’s message. I assume other town dogs sent out similar warnings, because that candidate and his running mates were soundly defeated, Who knows? Doggy treats might have won the election for them.

Molly barked infrequently, maybe once a month when we accidentally locked her out on the back porch. Mostly she grunted as Shih-Tzus are known to do. Sometimes it seems she was muttering actual words. When I scratched her belly I thought I heard, “Oh that’s good!” But I remember her mostly and lovingly as loyal and considerate, always close at hand and sometimes under foot. It’s her companionship I miss most. For instance, she made sure that I never ate alone. What a great dog!

MY SUMMER AFLOAT

As a young boy I enjoyed reading the exciting seagoing tales of Jack London, Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. All three had been to sea as youngsters and I could tell they knew what they were writing about. I felt the sea was calling me too, but alas, I’d been stricken with sea sickness on two very short voyages. Actually, both took place on the same day.

I’d sailed on the 42nd Street ferry from Edgewater, across the Hudson River to Manhattan one morning and returned reluctantly in late afternoon, fully aware I would be nauseous again before we reached the Jersey ferry slip even though the Hudson was only a bit choppy that day. I found out back then what the old sea shanty “Heave ho, my lads, heave ho” really meant.

It was a painful thing, abandoning my dream, but I soon found a compromise, an opportunity to work with a small fleet of passenger craft on very calm waters. I heard about an opening at Palisades Amusement Park’s motorboats ride. I ran all the way from home to apply. I got the job, bought a yachting cap and began thinking about a semi-permanent anchor tattoo.

It was an exciting summer workplace for a boy, much better than packing groceries in a supermarket or mowing neighbors’ lawns. Our motorboats chugged around a serpentine channel course at about two knots. Besides boarding passengers, including pretty young girls, our crew occasionally revived dead inboard engines and acted as pilots, helping confused little kids to stay on course and reach home port.

These rescue missions involved athletic leaps across 15-foot channels, landing first on the bow of a passing boat in mid-crossing. This took practice. I plunged into the shallow channel more than once to the raucous delight of passengers and mates.

We boat sailors had occasional brief shore leaves when we’d run down the midway and beg rides on the Cyclone rollercoaster or see the big-name bands and daredevil acts at the free shows. We also had trade-offs with the refreshment stand girls – free boat rides for frozen custards, hot dogs and French fries. Life was good!

Now and then we’d have a taste of a Jack London type adventure. One busy Sunday, four young bucks sauntered up the gangplank entrance, full of beans and probably a little beer. We could spot trouble. They jumped into four boats and we knew they weren’t going to cruise around like gentlemen.

Eventually we spotted them on a far channel, deliberately ramming each other until their flotilla blocked other boats. I made the necessary cross-channel leaps and asked them to behave. They replied profanely, so I dipped my boat hook into the water and tried to cool them off with a small sprinkle. It had the opposite effect. They debarked angrily and I was tackled.

My crewmates rushed over and a real donnybrook took place, but nothing like a John Wayne movie brawl with flying fists and knockouts. It was more like an out of control tag team wrestling match with head locks, half-nelsons and shoving. Swearing was optional.

When the cops arrived four combatants were still grappling in waist deep water. It was quite exciting and the passengers in the blocked boats seemed to be enjoying the spectacle.

But Joe Rinaldi, the park manager, was quite upset. “Everyone will testify against these hooligans in court tomorrow,” he shouted. I quietly suggested that I shouldn’t appear. “Why not?” he demanded.

“Joe, they’ll probably lie and say I started the fight.” He agreed that I should recuse myself. I’m not sure if that’s what Jack, Herman or Joseph would have done, but I remembered what happend to Billy Budd.

SUFFERING ON A SMALL SCALE

After years of disappointing results trying many deblubbering programs, I decided to use the most modern tool available, the talking scale. The popular model I bought can be programmed to provide a working relationship between both parties by having the weighee install his personal preferences.

First, I chose an authoritative American male voice for the instrument and was amazed to hear one that closely resembled that of Master Sergeant McGlumphy, my top kick in the Air Force. I needed firm guidance and, believe me, you couldn’t get firmer than Sgt McGlumphy.

Okay, I wasn’t looking for sympathy, I was looking for results. I certainly didn’t want a sultry voiced female guide telling me, “It’s okay Pudgy, don’t cry. You can do better next time.” whenever I added a few pounds.

Failures and excuses were unaccceptable with McGlumphy. I was given due notice at my first weigh-in. “I’ve downloaded your age and physical measurments, Newman,” he barked. “Two hundred and twenty pounds are unacceptable unless you are able to somehow gain six inches in height.”

Reacting instinctively, I dropped and gave him 20. Well, I attempted 20 pushups, but managed only four and a half. As I lay panting on the bathroom floor, he shouted, “Report back in one week!”

I should have switched over to Miss Sultry right then, but I thought I needed a firmer hand. What I got was more like a fist. The following week McGlumphy announced, “Two hundred eighteen pounds” and I waited for an encouraging compliment, but instead I heard. “Newman, stand at attention. I can tell you’re leaning on the sink! That’s better. Two hundred twenty three pounds. Not good. Drop and give me 20 and this time I mean 20!”

And so it went. The tattle tale scale sensors could detect all my acrobatic attempts to get lower numbers and reported everything to McGlumphy who started to get sarcastic. “One at a time, please” he’d shout when I stepped on the scale.

Two can play at this game I thought and switched the pounds setting to kilograms, decreasing my numbers by more than half, but he saw through this right away. So then I changed the language from English to Croatian. I’m completely unfluent in Croation, but McGlumphy’s angry tone came through. I went to Google for translations, but most of his histrionics were denied me as “too profane”. I did learn that “predebela” means “too fat” in Croatia. But then one day I heard him growl “Haagen-Daz mint chocolate chip”. How did McGlumphy know about that? Has my new smart freezer been talking to my new smart scale?

THE TALE OF A BAD SALE

While perusing history websites recently, I became convinced that certain New York Metro Area residents, past and present, may have a legal claim to almost 15,000 acres of extremely valuable real estate.

There have always been doubts about the authenticity of the 1626 purchase of Manhattan by Peter Minuit from the Lenni Lenape Indians for “$24 worth of trinkets” the traditionally quoted sale price. Minuit was the Director General of New Netherlands which included the present “Big Apple” and parts of Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware.

There are no legal documents to record the “purchase”, no deed or title papers, only a mention of it in a 1626 letter by a merchant to his Dutch West Indies employers. He reported a sale price of “60 guilders worth of trade goods” which would come to about $1,200 in 2021.

It’s quite likely neither party was completely aware of all the actual transaction details. The Lenapes did not believe tracts of land and bodies of water were saleable commodities and may have accepted the trinkets as a good will gesture of the Dutch for their agreeing to share the island. Language differences would also cloud the details. Lenape remarks would be limited mostly to “okay” and “thank you” which translate to “yuh” and “wanishi”. They called the property “manahatta” or “hilly island”.

The main fault of the “sale” is that the sellers didn’t own or even live in Manhattan. They were the Canarsees, a Lenape tribe that lived in present day Brooklyn. It’s as if your house-sitting brother-in-law sold your place while you were out of town. The Kapsee Lenape people lived at the lower tip of Manhattan, Peter Minuit’s neighborhood, and were not mentioned as participants.

So what kind of settlement would be appropriate for the present day Lenapes to rectify the the unfairness of this multi-flawed sale? Complete invalidation would involve tremendous complications and is out of the question. But reasonable reparations are possible.

Most of the Lenape tribe (AKA Delawares) now live in Oklahoma where they were exiled by our government with other tribes in the 19th century. Some descendants still live in the Garden State. These peaceable Indians, called “The Grandfathers” by neighboring warlike tribes, were the rightful owners of Manhattan by reason of centuries of occcupancy and were deprived of their land by conniving cousins who insinuated themselves at the closing, as questionable as that closing was.

It’s not too late, even four centuries later, to make some amends. In the interest of fair play, the Lenapes should be awarded title to at least some patch of land on the island. Central Park would be appropriate for these outdoor people and a casino license would enrich the tribe enough to buy tons of trinkets.

I believe it’s necessary that I explain I do not have one drop of Lenape blood in my veins and would not benefit from the reparations. My DNA report shows I’m almost 100 percent Irish with just a dash of Neanderthal.


CASUALLY COOL and a PAIN IN THE NECK GIFT

Back in my working days we didn’t have morale-boosting dress down Fridays. They would have been welcome, not only for the right to wear casual clothes, but to be able to strip down to survival wear in our unairconditioned work places.

I worked in one office where our manager, a kindly enough old man, but physically coldblooded, tried to convince us our one open window was a real benefit in July and August. When Mr. Coldblood left for lunch, we guys took off our jackets and posted a sentry at the door.

Finally, after a couple of clerks collapsed from heat exhaustion, we got a big office fan. It must have been war surplus, probably used to test fighter plane propeller designs. It had two buttons, “Off” and “Cyclone”. We loved it but we had to use horseshoes as paper weights.

And so we survived, but so did one ancient mensware torture item that continues to make formal affairs uncomfortable experiences for many of us. When militant women decided to burn their bras, we guys should have joined them and thrown our neckties into the blaze.

We can blame a 17th century Croation regiment for this sartorial nuisance. They paraded into Paris one day and part of their uniforms, colorful knotted neckerchiefs, caught the eye of Louis IV and other fashion conscious Frenchmen. Cravats were soon the rage in France. As the years passed this throat-threatening ornament went through many variations as stocks, scarves, bandanas, bolos and ascots. The ancestor of the modern necktie was born during the 18th century Industrial Revolution when a safer, easy to tie item was needed for machinery workers.

Easy to tie? That’s debatable. I have a grammar school class photo of me showing what looks like a dark tangled rope around my neck with a knot the size of a golf ball situated near my left shoulder. I struggled for years to master a half Windsor knot.

Cambridge University researchers found there are 85 possible knots for the standard necktie. First of all, who pays for these ridiculous research projects? No wonder college tuition is so high. Secondly, I passed the 85 different knots mark before I got out of high school.

The necktie has many enemies. One critic called it “Pointless and uncomfortable and despised by all but the most inveterate masochists.” The necktie was denounced in Iran as a symbol of Western oppression and British hospitals have banned them for staff members, calling them infection sources. Ikea forbids neckties in its work places.

One reason the necktie lives on is that it’s an easy gift. Women think every man can use at least one more necktie and Christmas shopping can be that much worry-free for the female shopper, not having to fret about spinning reel models and graphite-shafted putter designs. So we smile and say, “Oh, good! A fancy necktie!” But down deep we hope one of the other unwrapped presents contains a turtleneck sweater to hide the monstrosity.

IN SANTA’S BOOTS

“Who, me?” I protested. “Santa Claus? No way! Not a chance!”

“You forgot ‘Humbug,'” my wife replied.

“Don’t try to make me out as Scrooge, Barbara. I’d need a little notice for something like this. Just home from work with a report to finish before Christmas and you want me to drive downtown and play Santa Claus for goodness sake!”

“Yes, for goodness sake, Dear. old Mr. Duffy came down with the flu and if Santa isn’t at the tree lighting, it will break a wonderful tradition. Please reconsider.”

“I’ll have to think it over,” I said, and opening the closet door to hang up my coat, I spotted a bright red garment. “You took me for granted,” I shouted.

“I took your Christmas spirit for granted, you big softee. You should be flattered.”

Ten minutes later I was being hustled out the front door strutting in Mr. Duffy’s Santa boots and trying to adjust my new beard. “How do I look? The suit looks quite well doesn’t it?”

“It certainly does. Poor Mr. Duffy must have been uncomfortable all those years. He had to use a pillow.”

I drove to the town hall arriving in time for the tree lighting. I ad libbed a few ho, ho, hos, had my picture taken with the mayor and the choir and was intercepted on my way back to my car by one of the greediest little boys who ever recited his Christmas list to Santa. It took five minutes and sounded like the complete inventory of F.A.O. Schwarz. I told him if he was a good boy, said his prayers, studied hard in school and voted straight Republican, he would eventually get everything he wanted. He bought that.

I was the last to leave. I got in my car and turned the key. Nothing! Dead battery! My wallet and cell phone were in my other suit, the one without the white fur trim.

Muttering Christmas carols I trudged over to Main Street just in time to see the last store lights blink out and the first snowflakes sideslip past the street lamps. Pulling my fur-trimmed red cap down over my ears, I headed for home. It was very cold, but I didn’t notice because I was steaming.

A young man approached unsteadily on the snowy sidewalk and I thought I might avoid a two-mile walk. “Excuse me, buddy, can you……”

“Santa!, he shouted. “You remembered my name! Look, Santa, I meant to go straight home from work, but the boys insisted on stopping for a few holiday drinks at Murphy’s.”

“Buddy, I need your help. Can you give me a lift?”

“I’d love to, Santa, but I don’t know where I parked my car or even if I own one, ha ha! Anyway , I shouldn’t be driving tonight. But Santa, where are your reindeer?”

“They’ve been recalled, Buddy. Something about faulty antlers. Go home to your family now and have a merry Christmas.”

“Wait’ll the kids hear about this, Santa……Faulty antlers?”

Buddy was only a voice in the swirling snow as I walked on, beginning to marvel at the credibility and authority that went with my loud red coat and knickers.

Further on I overtook an old grandma huddled in a man’s overcoat. She was pulling a sled carrying a little girl and a bundle of laundry. “Susie, look who’s here,” she cried. Susie was about 4 years old with blue saucers for eyes. I leaned over the sled and smiled at her. “Susie, you’ve been a good girl and I’m going to bring you something special on Christmas. (I caught Grandma’s signal). It’s a pretty baby doll for you to take care of.” Susie laughed and reached up to touch my beard.

I pulled the sled toward a laundromat shining through the snowfall down the stree. “It’s a beautiful doll,” Grandma whispered. Just like the one you brought me when I was her age. Remember?

I told her I did and helped her in with the laundry not realizing what the effect would be as Santa entered with a bag slung over his shoulder. A young couple stopped loading a machine and watched me expectantly. A teenaged girl jumped back a step with a hand to her mouth and an old man stared at me with a puzzled look. I recognized him as a nodding acquaintance from the neighborhood, recently widowed and reportedly taking it hard.

“Merry Christmas everyone,” I called. “I have to be going now. It’s my busiest time of the year.” They laughed and wished me the same. I spoke softly to the old man. “Take comfort in the real meaning and promise of the season, Michael,” I said.

“I’ll try, Santa and thanks for stopping by.”

The snow was deepening, but I had only a short way to go and I made it almost without incident. Barbara handed me a steaming mug of her excellent chicken soup as I walked in the door and I sank into the sofa, exhausted.

“Aren’t you going to change your clothes, Santa?”

“Not now. I just want to sip this soup and gaze at the tree for a while.”

“What about that report?”

“The elves will take care of it. Come and sit beside me.”

We sat in the glow of the tree for a few minutes and then Barbara said, “Santa. do you know there’s a big tear in the seat of your pants?”

“Yes, I ran into a bit of trouble. I began jogging to keep warm and I was attacked by a shepherd.”

“A shepherd? Santa was attacked just before Christmas by a shepherd?”

“Yes, a German Shepherd.”





INCURABLY RETRO

Rip van Winkle, Washington Irving’s 18th century carefree Catskills character, had to deal with the results of his 20-year snooze. Rip had a whole lot of catching up to do after two decades of being out of the loop. I’ve had a similar experience. I wasn’t asleep for 20 years, I just wasn’t paying enough attention.

I was almost as befuddled as Rip who’d dozed off as a British subject and woke up as an American citizen. In my case I conked out mentally sometime before the 21st century and “woke up” late last Tuesday. Well, you know how annoying those TV ads can be and how easy it is to mute them. I wasn’t keeping up with all the advances in gadgetry. There was a lot of such talk among my cyber-oriented kids and grandkids, but I didn’t pay much attention or ask questions.

It’s the same with modern fashions. I’m still wearing 25-year old outfits that are a little tighter now but good enough for me and other like-minded geezers. We’ve been accused unfairly of having questionable taste, but we’ll have our revenge. We’re quite sure bell bottoms, nehru jackets and spats will make a comeback soon.

The technology advances have been the most difficult to grasp. I remember fearing we were in the grip of an ear infection epidemic because so many people were walking around holding one side of their heads. They seemed to be in such pain that they were talking to themselves.

Eventually, I decided I had to get to the bottom of this and, while shopping in a mall one day, I spotted one of the head-grasping afflicted, a younger man wearing a T-shirt with a peculiar slogan: “I’m so cool, I’m hot!”. I approached him cautiously. “Excuse me,” I said, “Is that a transistor radio you’re holding?”

“Are you kidding, mister?” He replied. “This is an iPhone.”

“Well, if it’s an eye phone, why do you press it against your ear?”

“You’re putting me on, right? An iPhone is a touchscreen smart phone capable of video calls. It might have a telephoto camera and can browse the Web. Some models have even more features. This one is equipped with gesture recognition and I hear they’re working on body sweat recognition.”

I didn’t understand much of that, but to be polite, I wanted to say something complimentary. “Wow, that sounds a lot better than my Walkman, but can it play audio tapes?”

He had a frightened look and I think he was punching in 9-1-1 on that thingamajig to report an escaped lunatic so I left in a hurry and decided to call my wife to tell her I might be in trouble. But wait a minute! What happened to all the phone booths?

SCARY NEWS FROM MARS

No need to panic yet, but there have been signs in recent years of an impending chocolate shortage. As far back as 2015, the Mars Candy Company, an $18 billion bonbon giant, reported they might eventually run out of chocolate’s essential ingredient, cocoa, if a disquieting trend continues. Ironically, the problem has been a growing worldwide appetite for chocolate and the demand could posssibly outpace supply.

The most current data shows the Swiss as the leading chocolate-eating population with each citizen downing over 19 pounds a year. Germans, Austrians and Irishmen each consume over 17 pounds per annum. In America, the annual per person chocolate consumption is much lower, at under 10 pounds, in spite of the fact that chocolate is essentialy a vegetable product, with added milk, and not on the taboo list of moderate vegans.

There has been, for years, a general feeling of unease in the industry about a possible unmanageable increase in chocolate’s populatiry. In India, for instance, the annual chocolate consumption per person has been about a pound and a half. In China it’s just over two pounds. But suppose most of the inhabitants of these hugely populated countries became chocolate chewers and semi-addicts like many of us?

The pandemic has temporarily added other problems for Mars and their competitors with airports and hotels having reduced product demand and the West African cocoa farmers being hampered by Covid-19 safety rules.

It would be premature to liken this to the recently invented “toilet paper crisis”. Chocolate hoarding would not be a good idea. If you’re like me, you’ll devour your six-month stash in a few weeks. After all, we chocohaulics are only flesh and blood and unfortunately, blubber.

If the worst happens we should unite and oppose as we did, the so-called oil shortages and high prices of OPEC. We will have to learn how to get by on fewer Milkyways per mile and to join candybar pools. We might also campaign for more product availability by encouraging the construction of a chocolate syrup pipeline from Hershey, Pennsylvania. I would gladly sign an easement allowing the line to cross my backyard and possibly, my basement.