Mind Games, From Texas to Brooklyn

On a recent visit to the Brooklyn Museum, I checked my backpack. When I retrieved it several hours later, I noticed a piece of paper tucked into its outside webbing. The page had been torn from a museum map and said this on it:

I caught you staring at me from across the room but you didn’t come right over. Were you being coy, well it worked. Maybe you felt the need to see the others, knowing that I would seize your full attention. You held your hands behind your back, resisting your desire to touch me. I longed for you to come close but we had to keep our distance under the watchful eye of another. You slowed, staying long enough to see all sides of me. You quietly traced my contours with your looking. I am wondering how I appeared in your eyes. I don’t know if I am projecting but you seemed to be trying to uncover something, as if I held a secret for you. So did you get what you wanted from me? Course I am left with the lingering feeling of our encounter.

Bklyn Museum-edit

That’s all. No address, no name, no closure. After my pulse returned to normal, I wet a finger and ran it across a word to see if this was, in fact, an actual written note and not a pre-printed piece of performance art that some transgressive artist had photocopied and stuck into my backpack as performance art.

The black letter smeared slightly. The writing was real.

I thought about this mind game of a note, which did not match any reality that occurred that evening at the museum, where I strolled with my girlfriend the whole time. The only time a note could have been slipped into my backpack was when it was in the check room. Not even a Mossad super-agent could have done the drop in the seconds between the time I got the backpack and when I noticed the note.

I’m left with a mystery of identity and intent that cannot be solved.

This comes about 40 years after other mysterious notes blossomed in my locker in high school. The similarity in anonymous, teasing targeting is remarkable. Somebody knows how to get inside my head, first in 1975 when I was a teen, then 40 years later when I’m past middle age and relentlessly approaching senior citizen status. Times change, but the mysteries of human contact linger on.

I still have the notes from the years of high school confidential. They bore the initials “M.R.” The apogee came with the piece shown below. I thought I had saved them, but I can’t find them. Somehow I expressed my curiosity to M.R. and she responded with loopy adolescent female notes that eventually make references to her buck teeth. I’ve turned over every file and yearbook I have but can’t find anything but the piece de resistance, a piece of heavy mat card, colored on one side in a stylized “W” and written on the other.

MR front-2507_001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The back of the card said, “Someone lost something, all yours, FINDERS KEEPERS. This is a suviner from an admirer ‘M.R.'”

MR back-2510_001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never heard anything else. I doubt M.R. used her actual initials. It could be one person, it could have been a group project from kids who wanted to see how I’d react. I imagine I reacted exactly the way they wanted me to.

Forty years later, the note in the Brooklyn Museum sent my musings backward to M.R. For all I know M.R. and I are connected on Facebook, or I’ll see her (and never know) at my fortieth high school reunion next summer in the pulsing humid heat of Hidalgo County, Texas. Maybe she’ll read this and come clean, if she even remembers.

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging and the other digital toys, I wonder if the art of the handwritten anonymous mash note has been lost, dissolved and made beyond quaint in the waves of the Web. The Brooklyn writer must at least be in her 40s to have the wit and drive to actually write an anonymous note. I can’t see somebody raised on iPhones doing that. Writing a note and sticking it in a book bag or in a locker — that’s basic training in the emotional arena of mind games. The impulses must play out online, but I just don’t know. I can safely guess, however, that nobody is going to hang on to a tweet or IM for 40 years.

A Matter of the Heart

Last Sunday I worked with a community group at Westport’s new YMCA at an all-day Hands-Only CPR training event. I did the training as well, developed by the American Heart Association and I highly recommend it as essential knowledge for everybody. Besides hands-on CPR, attendees learned how to operated a type of simplified automated external defibrillator (AED).

I visited a table set up at the gym by a group called the Michael Vincent Sage Dragonheart Foundation of Hamden, Connecticut. The foundation honors Michael Sage. The website tells his story and its connection to the event:

 Michael was only 29 years old when he suffered a fatal sudden cardiac arrhythmia (SCA).  He was active in sports for most of his life and never exhibited any of the warning signs associated with SCA, such as episodes of dizziness, fainting, or seizures.  He arrived at work on a beautiful February morning, got a cup of coffee with his colleagues, collapsed and died.  People on the scene attempted to revive Michael using CPR, but there was no AED available, and by the time the paramedics arrived, Michael could not be saved. In a matter of moments, Michael was gone.

The foundation was formed to educate the public on AEDs and collect funds to support research and donate AEDs to places where they can be available to save lives, like schools and sports facilities. It has donated AEDs to groups throughout Connecticut, and outside of the state. More information about its finances can be found at the Charity Navigator site.

Michael’s mother was working at the table and graciously shared information about the group. I instantly liked her and the simple focus of the Dragonheart Foundation. Educate, donate, save lives. Nothing about it was flashy or overdone, just one group with one goal, based on the loss of one son, husband and friend.

If your group could benefit from an on-site AED, consider filling out the nomination form to get a donated AED. The nomination form can be found on the site. It’s better to be prepared than not. Knowing CPR and having access to an AED are things you never need . . . until the desperate seconds when you need them more than anything.

30 Days Without a Day-Timer

April wasn’t the cruelest month, but it was the first month I’ve arranged my life without the trusty Day-Timer organizer I have used faithfully since the 1980s. How did I survive without my scribbled-in sidekick, my companion since the later Reagan years?

Well enough. This marked a lifestyle change I never thought I would make, since I started using Day-Timers after I began a job as East Coast Editor of Video Store Magazine in 1987. I latched on to using the monthly version and just kept ordering it, decade after decade. I slipped monthly inserts into a leather holder of great sentimental value with my name embossed on it, where I also stored business cards (including that of the lawyer who did my will . . .  just in case), my Metro Card for subway journeys and inspirational items, like a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Like clockwork, the Day-Timer people alerted me each April to renew and each April I did. While worn and held together in one place with tape, the leather carrier dutifully carried the Day-Timer insert with me around the world, surviving moves among a half-dozen Lands’ End shoulder bags and now backpacks.

Daytimer 1

Over the decades I scribbled dates, reporting notes, lurches of inspiration, song lyrics, phone call records, books to read and movies to see in the pages. Some pages became reminders of fateful occasions, and I saved those for September 11, 2001 and June 13, 2003, the latter the day I got divorced at the courthouse in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Even as friends ditched Day-Timers and Day Runners, inertia and a lack of alternatives tied me to my favorite organizer.

And then I finally, reluctantly, got a smart phone in October 2014.

I was way late to that digital revolution, having stuck with my LG Chocolate “dumb phone” for four years while everybody else snapped up iPhones. But ever the techno-Luddite, I stayed with what I had.

I stayed with it until I finally realized that lack of access to email and limited IM were causing me social problems. After loads of research, I settled on a Samsung S5 and entered the brave new world of smartphones.

When I leaped into the smartphone lifestyle, I still had eight months of Day-Timers left, and I kept using them, but I noticed what I used them for. To be honest with myself, note-taking took up more space than actual date keeping, given my simple lifestyle. My social calendar takes little upkeep.

When March came around, I downloaded a Google Calendar and then the Evernote app and bravely decided to ditch the Day-Timer.

I expected a blizzard of mail and even phone calls from the Day-Timer marketing team, alarmed that I had not renewed. After all, I had always heard that client retention drives businesses, that once you have a client, fight hard to keep him. I’d had that experience with the American Civil Liberties Union, which I joined for a year after losing a Facebook bet that the ACLU would support a particular party in a free-speech issue (I thought the ACLU wouldn’t support a group; it did, but it did, so I ponied up for a membership). I let my membership lapse after a year and have had the ACLU regularly sending renewals for years. The Forward newspaper, to which I’ve subscribed since its English-language edition debuted in 1991, always expresses alarm when I fail to promptly renew, although I finally do, but I delay just to see how hard the paper will work to keep me as a subscriber.

So what would Day-Timer do after over a quarter century of clockwork renewals?

Nothing.

No calls, no emails, no price reductions, no expressions of concern at the onrushing loss of an annuity stream of income, nothing to indicate I counted for anything more than a few easily ignored digital blips in the Client Relationship Management (CRM) database. How hard will Day-Timer need to work on new client acquisition to replace an old-timer who probably could have been won over with a price reduction, just for old time’s sake?

The silence says everything I need to know. At least the ACLU and the Forward tried, and the Forward always wins, I just like to make the paper work for my capitalist shekels.  My Galaxy S5 apps are keeping me on top of my schedule, and I have a yearly page-a-day diary at work as backup in case I need to supplement the phone with something scribbled down.

Despite the month without a Day-Timer, I still carry the insert around in the beloved leather holder. I’m realizing the concept and the holder (a memorable gift) satisfy some deep psycho-social need, far beyond practicality. Call it an office version of a security blanket. Forsaking the monthly inserts, I may try to find the notepad inserts at Staples and use those, for the moments when my reporter instinct kicks in and I have to start jotting notes.

Old habits may not ever die, they just transmogrify themselves to another plane of existence.

Daytimer2

 

Diving into My Box of Books

My version of Black Friday comes every summer when the Westport, Redding and Pequot libraries in Connecticut hold their gigantic tent sales. Over the years I’ve made some great finds, especially in foreign language books with emotional or historical interest — an 1862 Hebrew-German prayer book from Stuttgart, Germany, a 1938 volume of Yiddish poetry by Peretz Markish, who was executed in Stalin’s Russia in 1952.

This summer, I stormed the tents but saved my big purchase for the last day of the Redding sale, when I could get a box of books for $5. At that price, I could scoop up books I ordinarily wouldn’t even notice, just because I could. Here’s the haul of my awesome Box of Books, with notes on what I’ve read, what I thought of them, and what comes next:

The O’Hara Generation, John O’Hara. I’d heard of O’Hara but after watching the film treatment of his novel Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor, I wanted to get a taste of him. I’m now reading this book of short stories written over 30 years, and they are grabbing me with their ability to evoke a time and place, with his knack for capturing speech patterns. The stories can be haunting in their depictions of middle- and upper-class bleakness.

The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation and WWII, Howard Blum: This was a great book that filled in my knowledge of the Jewish experience during and after World War II, when Jewish execution squads hunted down SS and Gestapo members. Blum is a meticulous reporter and a vibrant writer. The book will stay in my library as a resource for blog posts and other writing projects.

Good in Bed, Jennifer Weiner: I’ve always read about Weiner, Princeton ’91, and decided to take a read of her breakthrough first novel. As rom com it worked, with all the requisite highs and lows and satisfying ending.

Mexican High, Liza Monroy. This was a huge surprise. Based on the author’s experiences as a student at an international school, Mexican High is set at a time when I had actually been in Mexico City on vacation in December 1993. Well-written, surprising and gripping, it gave me some insights into the lifestyles of the upper upper classes in Mexico. It worked a lot better than other books I’ve read or tried to read set in Mexico, like Under the Volcano, which bog down in their attempts to capture and comprehend the sun-bleached mysteries of Mexico.

Nature Girl, Carl Hiaasen: I greatly enjoyed Hiaasen’s two other comic crime novels set in South Florida, Bad Monkey and Skinny Dip. He had me chortling with laughter with his snappy prose and outrageous situations. Nature Girl, however, seemed more labored, without the strong crime angle and with too many characters bumping into one another. Maybe a little Carl Hiaasen goes a long way; I’ll try some of his other works.

Alex Cross, James Patterson: I wanted to read something by the renowned crime writer, so I scooped this up. An easy read, a familiar setting (Washington, DC) and an intriguing bad guy made this worthwhile, although I don’t feel a burning desire to read more in the Cross series. Espionage novels are more my game.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffengegger: I like time travel books but this one didn’t grab me at all. I took a break then started up again, mostly skimming through the hundreds of pages of rather inert prose that bogs down a story that could have moved faster. The book picked up some momentum near the end and I’d look at the sequel if it ever appears.

Still in the box:

Bangkok Haunts, John Burdett (I enjoyed his novel Bangkok 8)

Bullett Park, John Cheever (suburban lives)

The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly
The Reversal, Michael Connelly
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers
Body Surfing, Anita Shreve (always horny, angst-ridden baby boomers. I can relate)
My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult
Joy in the Morning, Betty Smith (I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)
Next up: Skeleton Crew, Stephen King

A New Year’s Resolution Starts Early

I always vote, but otherwise I’ve rarely engaged in governance matters. Sure, I go to pro-Israel marches and community events, such as after the Sandy Hook killings. Officials, however, rarely hear from me directly. I’m more of a wordsmith In the digital age, spouting off on Facebook mostly. That creates an ersatz sense of action, but I know I’m just honing my pithy writing skills and having zero impact on public affairs.

So my New Year’s resolutions started two weeks early for 2015. I contacted my district members of Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) and I signed up for mailings from my U.S. Representative, Jim Himes, and U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. I’m already on the mailing lists of my Connecticut state legislators, Representative Jonathan Steinburg and Senator Toni Boucher.

The outreach came after the fateful November elections, which didn’t see any political upheavals in blue-as-ice Connecticut but will still create political pressures on state and federal legislators from the Nutmeg State. Given the wretched state of journalism, I can’t glean much about what’s going on from the local free weekly, so I decided to become an informed citizen and connect with my legislators in Hartford and Washington, as well as Westport Town Hall.

I’m already engaging. Early Sunday morning, I sent an email to my three RTM district members outlining my interests:

  • Transportation: I commute to NYC on Metro-North, and am a fan of all kinds of public transit
  • Economic development
  • Planning and zoning matters as an economic impediment

I had an RTM response back within an hour, and the member and I traded some emails as he provided sources to keep me informed on issues in Westport. That made me feel more a part of the community and I’ll build from there.

On the national level, I completed an online poll offered by Rep. Himes on immigration issues. I indicated which of about 10 options appealed to me, and I shared my own view on how to respond to the immigration crisis. Let’s say I offered a creative approach to ensuring that people with visas leave the country when they are supposed to leave (hint: RFID chips).

The website of Sen. Blumenthal provoked the most visceral reaction. I had never warmed up to Blumenthal, even when he was Connecticut’s Attorney General. He had a certain over-eager, jump-on-the-bandwagon tonality that rubbed me the wrong way. His website merely confirmed those feelings with its rotating banner headlines:

  • The SPORTS (Sustained Promotion of Responsibility in Team Sports) Act aims to hold major sports leagues accountable for their response to major events within their leagues: from domestic violence to traumatic brain injuries.
  • The Death in Custody Reporting Act “requires states and federal law enforcement agencies to report to the Attorney General basic information regarding deaths occurring in law enforcement custody or during an arrest. It also requires the Attorney General to study this information and provide suggestions to reduce the number of such deaths.” (Don’t resist arrest or point a weapon at police could help, but I can’t imagine those being among the suggestions.)
  • College Sexual Assault Bill of Rights. “Senator Blumenthal released a college sexual assault report and bill of rights to help increase safety and accountability on college campuses.”

I may not agree these issues are the best use of a senator’s time, but he’s showing me some of his priorities, so I’ll give him credit for that. And I’ll let him know my priorities.

Now that I’m connected to the lawmakers, I expect I’ll share my views with them. For instance, if asked about issues that matter, I’ll indicate freedom of speech and defense of liberty. Nobody comes right and talks about these issues, which I see as under assault daily on college campuses and in general discourse – the high-tech lynch mobs are at the ready to quash opinions that go against the correct mainstream thinking. That may be a quaint concern to voice to my legislators, but somebody needs to say that in Connecticut, and that might as well be me.

I don’t know where this will lead. I may attend RTM subcommittee meetings to get a better handle on what happens at the most granular level of democracy. I may get involved in more local matters that intertwine with town zoning matters, such as the Westport Cinema Initiative, an attempt to bring an art-house movie space to downtown. When I moved to town in 1991, we had five screens; the last closed at least 15 years ago. Westport seems like a perfect place for an art-house cinema, given the population, and I can see this happening and thriving. Sen. Steinberg supports this effort, so I am beginning to connect the dots between public officials and topics that interest me. Anything involving Westport planning and zoning, in my experience, dissolves into decades of discussion, litigation and despair, but adding my voice to the effort could make a difference, and make me a part of the civil discourse.

You know, I think I’ve found my cause.

The Madonna and Mr. Klinghoffer

I recently visited the New Museum in New York, which has a multi-floor exhibit called “Chris Ofili: Night and Day” with the colorful and at times massive paintings of the British artist, who has strong African influences. One of the works looked very familiar to me, something I had seen or heard about, if not viewed up close and personal. The piece must have had some significance, since it had its own jocular security guard standing next to it.

After I read a caption for the painting, I remembered the painting. I was in the presence of the notorious 1996 work titled “The Holy Virgin Mary.” It had caused massive controversy when displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, when Rudy Giuliani was the Mayor of New York and part-time art critic. One description of the the piece states,

The central Black Madonna is surrounded by many collaged images that resemble butterflies at first sight, but on closer inspection are photographs of female genitalia; an ironic reference to the putti that appear in traditional religious art. A lump of dried, varnished elephant dung forms one bared breast, and the painting is displayed leaning against the gallery wall, supported by two other lumps of elephant dung, decorated with coloured pins: the pins on the left are arranged to spell out “Virgin” and the one on the right “Mary.”

The art-critic/mayor went bats over the “sick” painting. He tried to withdraw the City’s $7 million grant to the museum and kick it out of its venerable building on Eastern Parkway. He raged against the elephant poop angle and insults against the Virgin. Others took up the case and the painting was defaced with white paint during the exhibit. The Brooklyn Museum fought back and kept its site and the exhibit.

Fast-forward 15 years. Giuliani has long since moved to the private sector but retains his distinctive aesthetic sense. He gave his views another airing this fall when the Metropolitan Opera performed “The Death of Klinghoffer.” First performed in 1991, the opera still makes waves with protests, impassioned letters and all the social media required to launch a high-profile controversial event in New York. I haven’t it or heard the music, so I’ll withhold jOfili-Madonna-smallerudgment on its artistic merits.

Giuliani, opera buff, wrote a piece in the Daily Beast, “Why I Protested ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,'” that took a different tone from what he did as mayor. He made clear the Met Opera had the First Amendment right to perform Klinghoffer, just as protesters had a right to speak out. He even appeared at public demonstrations against it. His analysis of the opera balanced the positive and the negative:

As an opera fan of some 57 years, I find the opera and view the music as a significant achievement. I own a CD, have heard it, and have read the libretto three or four times.

As an opera, the music and choruses are quite excellent. John Adams is one of America’s greatest composers, and I admire and enjoy his music.

However, as a story attempting to recount the appalling terrorist murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a man who was thrown into the Mediterranean Sea simply because he was Jewish, the opera is factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging to an appropriate description of the problems in Israel and Palestine, and of terrorism in general.

Giuliani’s tone and thoughtfulness won the praise of Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Forward newspaper. Through gritted teeth, she wrote an editorial piece titled, “How Rudy Giuliani Got ‘Klinghoffer’ Right.” Both his writing and his style of civil protest worked for her, showing that the lion really can lie down with the lamb under the right circumstances.

Giuliani’s changed approach–from the mayoral menace against Madonna to the reasonable First Amendment views on Klinghoffer–showed a welcome evolution. Unable to pull the levers of mayoral power, Giuliani opted for an approach I like. Let the public speak out, weigh the situation, and decide. If only he had taken that stance with The Holy Virgin Mary,  I might have never heard of or remembered Ofili’s work..

But remember I did, and when I finally stood face to face with The Holy Virgin Mary, I liked it, along with Ofili’s other works. He has a great stylistic range, from the small to the huge. A fan of more representational art like me can appreciate his work. Not being Catholic, I lacked the visceral anger that Giuliani and others felt. Still, I’m sensitive to issues of faith and I didn’t see the work as disrespectful, but coming from a specific cultural context. Not every Madonna need resemble 15th century Italian paintings. It hung there as one more large of piece of art in a major retrospective, with nobody bent out of shape about the style or message..

I did feel some surprise that some feminists didn’t protest the art. Besides the Madonna and a clump of dung (which Ofili uses in many other of his works), the piece has dozens of cut-outs from photos of female genitalia (think Kim Kardashian without the inhibitions) floating like fleshy butterflies on the canvas. In today’s superheated atmosphere of microaggressions, that aspect of the painting must count as off-putting. But I never found any complaints.

People and their perceptions can change. Giuliani grew from the Scourge of Eastern Parkway to the Champion of the First Amendment. The Holy Virgin Mary went from transgressive to acceptable (to most people, anyway). Apart from the security guard, it hangs peacefully and unobtrusively in the New Museum. Perhaps those so upset in 1999 have moved on to other issues, or they came to understand what Ofili was aiming for, or they just didn’t want to raise a ruckus.

Will Klinghoffer ever reach that status? I doubt the opera will have an impact one way or another on anti-semitism or sympathy for Klinghoffer’s killers. With time, however, the protests in New York may move more in the Holy Virgin Mary direction. If I were the team behind the opera, however, I would never want the pot to completely stop bubbling — a little rage goes a long way toward putting fannies in the theater seats. After writing about the opera, I may even try to get my hands on a recording and see what all the fuss is about.

 

A Retro-New Look for the Rocketman

All the distracting uproar over the colorful beach shirt worn by Matt Taylor, the Rosetta project scientist for the European Space Agency’s successful effort to put a probe on a comet, sent me to my bookshelves, pawing for a paperback my father gave me 40 years ago as I (or rather, he) planned my post-college corporate life: “Dress for Success“, by John T. Molloy.

I couldn’t find it, but from reading the Amazon comments on the book I could recall its advice on suits, shirts, shoes and how clothes should fit. It served me well in the years when I had jobs that required wearing a more corporate look. When I started in the firmwide communications department at blue-chip accounting firm Price Waterhouse in 1996, everybody wore suits, with a casual Friday. Then that morphed into casual summer and by the the time I left in 1999, casual 24/7. And so the code remains with even more looseness in the corporate circles I’ve encountered. I thought, too bad that Taylor didn’t read it before he appeared in all his tattooed slacker glory on the world media scene. His haircut and beard trim looked quite presentable, at least. Somebody cleaned him up a bit.

Molloy’s ideas continue to influence how I dress. Every business shirt in my closet is a button-down, either blue or yellow or pink. My ties are silky with deep rich colors (my favorites are my Jerry Garcia ties). My suits, some still hanging around from the late 90s, are dark blue or charcoal and either plain or slightly pinstriped. My fashion-forward late-80s Hugo Boss suit, shimmering grey with the chunky shoulders, hit the racks at Goodwill years ago. On the spectrum of male work clothes, I’m far more Malloy than nerdy-techy, in theory if not practice.

Taylor’s shirt makes me wonder not so much about the latest social-media rage spiral, but the space agency’s media relations department and Taylor’s own common sense. Having worked as the back-up press spokesman for a New York law firm, I know you want to think about every contingency before an interview, especially one for TV. Media trainers should have spent serious time with Taylor drilling him on what he was going to say and also the impression he would make after the landing.

The uproar doesn’t reflect poorly on Taylor, who probably lives on an intellectual-technological level far beyond the dreary concerns of dress codes. Instead, the fault lies with the people who put him in front of a camera, like a lamb before the wolves. Somebody in PR was asleep or on heavy medication. Taylor may not have much in the way of a corporate sartorial sense, but the communications pros at the European Space Agency should.

If Taylor and the European Space Agency wanted to fire up enthusiasm for intergalactic exploration, might I suggest a retro-modern look? Take the conservative sensibility of John Molloy and cross-pollinate it with the practical, authentic, cool-in-the-clutch look so common at Mission Control during the space race of the 1960s and visible in “The Right Stuff.” Short bristly hair, black plastic glasses, pocket protectors — they all screamed “competence” in a way that can’t be duplicated so easily with the unkept look. With some long sleeves and sensible haircuts, the Taylors of the world world would look a bit more presentable. And, I might venture, warm feelings based on the great era of space exploration could come back and public interest in space might blossom (and that translates enthusiasm for increased funding, if you want to be a cold-blooeded realist about the impact).

The only risk is that the rage spiral would then focus on regressive exclusionist male privilege styles–you know how that drill goes. Still, the European Space Agency should boldly go where fashion had gone before. Think of it as “Mad Men in Space.”

 

 

Art for Art’s Sake

Everybody’s agog at the Christie’s auction this week where Andy Warhol’s “Triple Elvis (Ferus Type)” sold for $81.9 million and his “Four Marlons” brought in $69.6 million. Impressive numbers, but the art didn’t do much for me. What has impressed me lately, however, was art from two creators who had no interest in selling their art or even displaying it.

The Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective of pieces by Judith Scott, “Bound and Unbound,” runs through March 29. The Rye (New York) Arts Center just extended its densely packed exhibit “Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind at Play.” Both exhibits show art created purely for art’s sake, expressions of personal passion unconcerned with commercial success. I highly recommend both exhibits.

This marks the second time I’ve seen an exhibit of Scott’s work. She takes the concept of “outsider art” to the level of the platonic ideal. Scott was born with Down’s syndrome, and lost her hearing as a child. The museum’s description of the exhibit says,

Scott was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1943 with Down Syndrome. In 1987, after many years of living in isolation within an institutional setting, Scott was introduced to Creative Growth—a visionary studio art program founded thirty-five years ago in Oakland, California, to foster and serve a community of artists with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities. For the last eighteen years of her life, Scott created extraordinary and idiosyncratic objects—fastidiously assembled, fragile structures of found and scavenged materials that radically challenge and resist our attempts to define or rationalize them as sculpture.

The description is exactly right about Scott’s works. They defy explanation and, to me, exist in a space beyond understanding. Something clicked in her–think Helen Keller holding her hand under a water pump–and she created sculptures in her own style. Where did the style come from, what does it mean? Does it mean anything? Scott left no notes,no interviews, no artist’s statements, no insights into what influenced her, no instructions on how her works should be displayed. They are more mysterious than 30,000 year old cave drawings, or art delivered by a UFO. Instead of coming from “outer space,” they come from Scott’s inner space.

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A blog post can’t do justice to Scott’s art or life; she was a twin, and her sister Joyce became her legal guardian when they were in their 40s to move her from an institution to a more humane and creative environment. Joyce’s website gives a wonderful overview of their relationship and Judith’s career, including family photos. Joyce nurtured her sister’s artistic talents and they reconnected with the loving relationship they had as children. Judith Scott died in 2005, but her legacy continues through books, videos and major art exhibits.

P1190506-editIrving Harper, meanwhile, didn’t quite use scavenged materials in his artwork, but simple materials that could be found in any grade-school art class — paper, cutters, glue, string. He began creating complex paper sculptures in the 1950s as a diversion from his work at a designer in New York. Tinkering in his spare moments, he did sculptures in a huge range of styles and influences. The exhibit at the Rye Arts Center, his first, shows influences by African masks, Picasso and even, to my eye, the beloved 1960s drawing toy, the Spirograph. Taylor, now 98 years old and retired, never wanted to exhibit his works, but he finally agreed and the public is all the richer for that. The pieces are as amazing in their own way as Judith Scott’s. The exhibit website says,

This solo retrospective debuts the private works of design genius Irving Harper at The Rye Arts Center. Known professionally for his iconic contributions to the George Nelson Office, including the 1949 Ball Clock, Herman Miller logo and the 1956 Marshmallow sofa, Harper’s personal creations have never before been shared publicly.

Harper’s works, which he houses in a barn and the top level of his home, are complex and yet use materials anybody can relate to. They’re so effortless, playful and unassuming, I could instantly connect to them as both art and artful constructions.

Coming from very different life circumstances, Scott and Harper showed the unquenchable human drive for self-expression. Some inner force compelled them to create with no interest in being seen or sold. Art was an itch they had to scratch. They did it for their own reasons and the world finally had a chance to enjoy their visions. I’d like to think Judith Scott and Irving Harper would greatly enjoy each other’s art as kindred spirits.

What Would Uncle Miltie Say?

I’m having a serious flashback to my days as an undergrad economics major at Princeton University in the late 1970s. Two data points came together in recent weeks to make me to think about the concept of the “Multiplier Effect,” part of the academic baggage that I put behind me as soon as I graduated in 1980 as the most mediocre economics major in Princeton’s long history.

First, I read a profile of Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow in the September issue of Finance & Development magazine, published by the International Monetary Fund. Writer Janet Stotsky, formerly with the IMF and now a consultant on fiscal, women and development, and microeconomic topics, outlined Arrow’s contributions to economic thinking. She wrote of Arrow’s 1972 prize,

The Nobel committee cited the work of Arrow and British economist John Hicks in two areas: general equilibrium theory, which seeks to explain how prices are set across an economy, and welfare theory, which analyzed the optimal allocation of goods and services in an economy.

Back in my undergrad days, I took courses that discussed these issues in depth, along with 70s-era concerns like stagflation and the Phillips Curve, a term that’s been antique for decades. And, of course, I learned about the Multiplier Effect, something that remains implicitly ingrained in U.S. economic policy.

A day or two after I read the profile, I attended a live performance by the host Kai Ryssdal, reporters and guests of the public radio program Marketplace at the 92nd Street Y in New York, as part of the show’s 25th anniversary. The program was titled, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Numbers.” Each segment featured some type of numeric aspect. What especially interested me, as an econ major, was wealth and poverty correspondent Chrissy Clark’s report on the life cycle of food stamp payments. They are digitally downloaded on to EBT cards, which sparks a rush of spending at retailers like Walmart, with billions of dollars pumped back into the economy from the government to food stamp recipients to (mostly) major retailers. Then the retailers use the payments to plump up their sales volume, which they talk about on calls with stock analysts; if the payments get cut, then cue the sad music as earnings decline. Nobody reveals how much money is passed to big retailers this way, but the dollars are huge.

Then: flashback time. Where have I heard this before? Government spends; dollars go to businesses and individuals; businesses and individuals spend, then others get the dollars in a cascade of economic impact. And that’s the Multiplier Effect.

I mused on my economics courses. Not that Clark used the term, but she outlined the theory behind the Multiplier Effect, a key rationale for Keynesian economic policy, where government spending helps the economy grow.

Or does it? In my Princeton days, we learned about the theories of John Maynard Keynes, but we also had big exposure to the thinking of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who was a great advocate of free markets and an approach called monetarism. I think we read Friedman’s 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom. He was skeptical of Keynesian economics and advocated controls on the money supply to influence economic activity. If you go with what Wikipedia says, Friedman

thought that Keynes’s political bequest was harmful for two reasons. First, he thought whatever the economic analysis, benevolent dictatorship is likely sooner or later to lead to a totalitarian society. Second, he thought Keynes’s economic theories appealed to a group far broader than economists primarily because of their link to his political approach.

Friedman won his Nobel Prize in 1976 and died in 2006 at the age of 94. I wondered what he’d think of Clark’s report and its connect to the Keynesian multiplier effect. Would Uncle Miltie have raised the point of how billions in food stamp spending crowd out private investment, shifting tax money to consumption? Am I remembering monetarism correctly? What would Friedman say about the blowout Keynesianism that’s led to endless government deficits? Nothing positive, I suspect.

To be fair, Clark interviewed Walmart executives and others for her story about low wages at major retailers, which featured a Walmart employee on food stamps. Still, I wonder what a staunch Friedmanite would have said to her.

Friedman still excites debate decades after his major writings. Paul Krugman, another Nobel Prize winner, analyzed him in 2007 in the New York Review of Books (you can imagine the perspective there), with this kick-off statement:

Milton Friedman played three roles in the intellectual life of the twentieth century. There was Friedman the economist’s economist, who wrote technical, more or less apolitical analyses of consumer behavior and inflation. There was Friedman the policy entrepreneur, who spent decades campaigning on behalf of the policy known as monetarism—finally seeing the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England adopt his doctrine at the end of the 1970s, only to abandon it as unworkable a few years later. Finally, there was Friedman the ideologue, the great popularizer of free-market doctrine.

Friedman’s influence continues to this day, even among people who question his ideas, like this post, “My Milton Friedman Problem,” that winds through all kinds of economic theorizing beyond my ability to follow.

That people still argue with Uncle Miltie testifies to his impact; my meandering path back to him, via memories of Princeton economics inspired by Stotsky’s article on Arrow and the Marketplace celebration of the Keynesian multiplier effect, makes me think that something useful–an elegant analytical paradigm that enabled me to coolly assess the assumptions of Keynesian mainstream macroeconomic policy, perhaps?–sank in to my brain in those economics lectures and precepts at Old Nassau almost 40 years ago after all.

A Farewell to Camo

I couldn’t sign in to Gmail. I couldn’t check street directions. My cell phone photos were lame. I couldn’t IM on the run.

In short, I had a very old cell phone that worked well for calls and texts and not much else. While my LG Chocolate had served me loyally since early 2010 (early Jurassic period in cell phone years), I felt increasing pressure to trade up (way up) to a new-fangled smart phone. Every time I looked at the Verizon Wireless site, I promptly got emails and even calls enticing me to get something fresh and new.

Finally, something clicked, or snapped, and last weekend I became the proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy S5 from Costco.

new phone 100-edit

The oddest part of the change involved not the phone, but the cell phone holder. While the Galaxy is my fifth cell phone since 2001, I have had the same cell phone belt holder since 2003. It’s been a faithful companion, literally by my side for 11 years through untold tens of thousands of miles of train commuting plus trips to Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Cuba, the Czech Republic and Germany. Cell phones came and went, but that cell phone holder remained.

I can still remember when and where I bought it during a visit to my brother in Houston May 2003. We visited a Fry’s Electronics store to take care of my digital lifestyle needs. I walked out of the store with two epochal purchases. First, I got a Vivitar Vivicam, a one-pixel (!) camera that marked my entry into digital photography (and not a bad little webcam, either). My 20-year old Canon AE-1, purchased at infamous 47th Street Photo in New York in November 1981, immediately became an antique.

And I got what struck me as a funky and anti-East Coast accessory for my cell phone, a camo pouch with a Velcro flap that came down to keep the phone in place. I liked it and it liked me back. The holder held my phone well, back in the era when cell phones were not multimedia slabs the size of roof tiles. The camo especially appealed to me, redolent of the huntin’ and fishin’ culture I grew up with in Mission, Texas, on the Mexican border. With my camo, I felt a tiny bit like a real Texas bad-ass when it hung off my belt, an incongruous sight on the 7:17 a.m. train from Fairfield County, Connecticut to Grand Central Station. TSA airport security guys especially eyed it. Fortunately, they never got nervous and Tased me as a suspicious character—but I learned to calm them down by taking the holder off at security screenings, along with my college ring, wallet, shoes, keys and any other items they wanted to finger.

When I got the Galaxy, I knew it was far too bulky to fit in the camo holder. Could I at least maintain this odd-ball style element? I looked around online for suitable camo or western-style holders, but nothing looked sturdy enough. Meanwhile, I heard sensible advice from smartphone veterans that I should skip the outdoorsy fashionista posing to get a sturdy case that covered the delicate glass corners of my smart phone. Some day, they said, I’ll drop the phone and I’ll want its delicate innards and outtards protected.

That made sense. I nosed around online and got a feel for what I needed. Then I went to Staples in New York and got the biggest, baddest, blackest holder I could find, a rugged Otter Box that swaths my sensitive Galaxy in rigid plastic that looks like it could withstand a direct hit from a sledgehammer. When I snap it on my belt, I feel like RoboCop.

So, farewell my camo companion. We had a great run all over the world, lots of memorable calls and texts came my way from those buzzing little flip phones you so ably cradled. But I’ve got a new techno fetish object hanging off my belt now.