Tag Archives: rant

Hyphens and Help

So, I was an editor, but I was not the editor. There were editors over me – way too many of them. The company I worked for published several magazines and each one had an editor. I worked on all the publications and for all the editors. Sometimes I felt like I was a bone, with a pack of dogs fighting over me.

Then there was the executive editor, nominally in charge of all the other editors and a really great boss. He was a pleasure to work for.

There were other employees that I had to please as well – art directors, production managers, the Big Boss, and any number of others. It was a balancing act, or more likely, a juggling act. But I thought I had mastered it.

One day, one of the publication editors decided to take a completely new approach to the hyphenation of adjectives. She was a little old lady, well known for sending in manuscripts hand-written on cash register receipts and soap wrappers. Still, she was the founding editor of that particular magazine and she knew the content, the authors, and the industry better than anyone alive.

But there was the hyphenation. It was idiosyncratic and defied all rules of grammar and punctuation that I knew. Nor was it the first time that this editor had gone off on a stylistic tangent. I had memories of the times she had insisted that her odd notions of punctuation and grammar be adhered to.

The first person I saw after the hyphenation edict came down was the production manager. I ranted. I explained exactly how weird her system of hyphenation was. I told him what was wrong with it and why the way we had been doing it was perfectly fine.

“Well, you’ve got to consider that she’s 100 years old,” he said. (She wasn’t quite, but close.) “She’s set in her ways. She’s used to being in charge.” With every word, he expressed how unreasonable it was for me to be upset and how I ought to give in to her notions of proper punctuation. “Let her have her way,” he advised.

I left his desk deeply unsatisfied. Then I went to the executive editor. I went through the same spiel – the magazine editor, the “novel” method of hyphenation, what a hassle it would be, and how ridiculous it would look.

“Tch, tch,” he said.  “Isn’t that awful?” He said it without a trace of irony or condescension. I truly felt that he had heard me and sympathized.

And that was all I really wanted. I didn’t need explanations of why the batty editor had come up with this idea. I didn’t need ways to cope with her insane notions. I didn’t need to learn how to acquiesce gracefully to her punctuation regime.

What I needed was someone to understand.

It’s like that sometimes. There are times when you need advice and there are times when you just need to vent. It is the wise boss – or friend or spouse – who can recognize which time is which.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise,” and that’s the truth. Sometimes advice is unwanted; sometimes it’s unneeded; sometimes it’s intrusive.

I’ve noticed that men often have an immediate response that when something is complained about, it needs to be fixed, so they offer advice. (This is not always true. The executive boss who listened to my rant was male and he never proffered a single suggestion. But my husband, who has a “fix-it” complex, took time to learn this lesson.)

So did I, when it comes right down to it. I have friends who have lots of problems (and who doesn’t). Many times I tried to give advice to one of them or offer solutions to her problems, but they always met with stubborn explanations of why they couldn’t possibly work. Now I simply offer sympathy and a willing ear and I think we are both more content. She has a sounding board and I don’t sound like a know-it-all.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, especially for those of us raised on Ann Landers and Dear Abby. Sometimes advice is not what’s needed. Sometimes it’s just a little understanding.

 

 

Don’t Harsh My Buzz

We all have things we love. We all have things we hate. Where the trouble comes in is when we love something that others hate and they feel compelled to tell us we’re wrong. I’m not talking here about huge social or religious dilemmas or political differences. I mean the stuff that shouldn’t matter, but people get all exercised about.

Like pineapple on pizza. There are those who love it and those who hate it. But for some reason, the haters attack the lovers as though they’ve committed a mortal sin by allowing fruit to touch their Italian dish, which we all love. (Technically, tomato is a fruit too and nobody minds having tomato sauce on pizza. Don’t ask me what that kiwi’s doing there in the photo. I have no strong opinions about kiwi. But I digress.)

Now I admit to liking Hawaiian-style pizza on occasion, the kind that comes with (for some unknown, peculiar, multicultural reason) Canadian bacon and pineapple. It isn’t my very favorite – that’s pepperoni and extra mushrooms. But once in a while, I order pineapple.

This hurts no one. So don’t harsh my buzz. Be like John. I invited John over once and served him pizza. It had pineapple on it. Without making a fuss, John picked the chunks of pineapple off his slices, ate the pizza, then ate the pineapple separately, as a sort of dessert, I suppose. That is what I call a mature, polite approach to pineapple pizza. That’s how I would approach a pizza with kiwi, if I tried it (I would) and didn’t like it. Hell, I even tried anchovies once, just to see.

I find that some people like to harsh other people’s buzzes over a variety of topics. Once, when I posted something about Star Trek, a new Facebook friend replied, “You do know you’re too old for this.” Well, phooey on that. I loved Star Trek when it first came out and I still do.

Yet it seems that loving Star Trek is not enough for some people. I need to love the right kind of Star Trek. These days, Star Trek: The Next Generation gets beat up a lot for its storytelling, plot lines – everything except Patrick Stewart, who everyone admits is pretty great, except when he says, “Engage!” or “Make it so!”

But damnit, I like NextGen (as it’s called, when it’s not called ST:TNG). In some ways, I like it better than the original series (ST:TOS). Don’t ask me to defend why I like it. I shouldn’t have to.

Or take Cats (the movie). Okay, it wasn’t great cinematic art for the ages and it didn’t have much of a plot – which is understandable if you know that the source material is a series of poems. But it had fine singing, incredible dancing, and amazing costumes. It had cats and T.S. Eliot. Why wouldn’t I love it? Even my husband said it was “astonishing.”

Country music is another area that I love that people are determined to knock. It all sounds the same, or it’s the music of racists, or everyone sings through their nose, or some other objection. Or I should spend my time listening to something good (however that’s defined).

This really harshes my buzz. I grew up with country music and, despite it being my parents’ favorite music, I never disowned it, not even when I was in my teens and the Beatles hit it big. I enjoyed both Willie Nelson and Elton John. I even enjoyed John Denver. (There, I said it!)

I don’t know. Maybe it would have been different if I had lived in Texas, but in suburban Ohio at the time, I met with only scorn among my peers. And, I’m sorry to say, that scorn continues to this day. And I can see how easy it is for that scorn to develop. I never listen to modern country music. I’m still stuck at the Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Emmylou Harris stage. (And don’t harsh my buzz about Kris Kristofferson movies, either. I still like them, except the one he made with Sylvester Stallone, whose movies I’ve taken a vow never to see. But if you like him, fine. I won’t hassle you about it.)

I’m hoping that now that Ken Burns has turned his documentary lens on it, country music will regain its status as something that it’s okay to like. In fact, I may listen to Waylon Jennings while eating pineapple pizza, and then relax with a little NextGen.

It’s my choice. Don’t harsh my buzz.

Writing Is Art, Too

You know all those posts you see this time of year about how important it is to support artists and local artisans?

I have no quarrel with that. Artists and artisans need and deserve our support. Most of them contribute to the local economy and many are barely squeaking by.

But let’s also give some love and support to the writers. Writing, after all, is an art, too.

Let’s take painting as an example of an art. How, you ask, is writing like painting?

First of all, writing, like painting, takes practice, at least if you want to get better at it. Painters create works that they know they can never – don’t even want to – sell, especially when they are just starting. One thing they can do with these beginning pieces, though, is analyze them. What could I have done better? That section of the painting is muddy? What could I do to adjust the colors next time? That hand doesn’t look realistic. I need to work on painting people’s hands. I can’t just hide them in every painting.

Painters are often influenced by famous painters whose works they admire. They study these paintings. Some even try to paint in the same style or using the same color palette or the same type of subject matter. They may experiment with cubism, pointillism, art nouveau, impressionism, photorealism, or all of the above. They may imitate the style of Monet, Hopper, Cassatt, or O’Keefe. They’re not being copycats or attempted art forgers. They are acknowledging the greats and learning from those who came before them.

Writers, too, must study and practice, if they are to improve, and especially if they want to produce work that is saleable. Most writers have favorite authors and analyze what it is about those authors they admire. Does one a novelist write elegant description? Does a mystery writer use tight plots and exciting dialogue? Does a short story writer pack a wallop in a small space? These are qualities that can be learned and practiced. One writer of my acquaintance pores through her favorite authors’ works and highlights dialogue tags, for example, or sensory descriptions, or foreshadowing.

The next step for many writers is also to imitate the greats. A mystery writer may try to emulate Sue Grafton. An aspiring fantasy writer may study George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien. A neophyte poet may be drawn to confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton or to sonneteers like Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

When it comes to supporting local artists, you can often find their work at local art festivals and craft fairs. Some conventions, such as science fiction conventions have art rooms with paintings and drawings for sale or auction and general merchandise rooms that feature handmade jewelry, glass blowing, and other arts and crafts.

But where do you find the work of local writers? It’s not like anyone’s selling poems door-to-door. Well, just as there are local art fairs, there are also local or regional book fairs, where writers rent tables and try to entice passersby with their works. Frequently, when you buy directly from the author at one of these events, most of the money is likely to go to the author and not to a far-off publishing company.

Readings at bookstores and even libraries are other places to meet local or regional authors and get a sense of their work before you purchase. If you like the writer’s books, but are unable to purchase one, call your local libraries and ask them to stock that title. An author is thrilled to make a sale to a public library and by encouraging that, you are helping that writer.

There are other things you can do to support writers as well. Leaving a review on Amazon – even a two word “Liked it” – is import to writers. Amazon really cares about the number of reviews a book gets. Goodreads is another excellent place to write reviews.

Most of all, show love for your local authors by talking about them. Word-of-mouth sales are still important, even in this digital age. It’s the same with local painters and other artists. The more you spread the word about how good they are, the more you are helping talented community members make a living so they can keep doing what they do best – making art.

Who’s the Bully Here?

You know why kids bully? Because adults bully. But no one wants to have that conversation.  — Lauryn Mummah McGaster

I saw this pass-along on Facebook the other day and decided that I did want to have the conversation. When we think about bullies, we usually think about kids bullying other kids – classically, stealing their lunch money or more recently, tormenting them for being perceived as gay, or any kind of different, really.

And what do we say when that happens? Kids can be mean. Kids can be cruel. Kids have no respect. In other words, the problem arises in the kids themselves. They shape the victimization of others, presumably out of thin air.

But stop a minute. We know that kids learn what they see adults do. They learn to talk and walk. They learn to swear and belittle. The walking and talking may be hardwired into humans, but the rest is clearly learning by imitation.

But adults aren’t bullies, really. They don’t go around stealing lunch money and certainly not in front of their kids.

You might be surprised, but adult bullying happens a lot at work.  Belittling and humiliation seem to go with business just as much as board meetings and yearly reviews. Not all workplaces are toxic, of course, but almost every one contains a group of gossips or a clique that excludes others just like children do in the cafeteria. They yell at underlings. They sexually harass others. They steal credit for others’ accomplishments and boast about it.

But wait, you say, children seldom if ever come to where their parents work and see them behave this way. How can they be learning bullying from them?

Bullying behavior starts with an attitude, a sentiment that there are winners and losers in life and the winners have the right (or even the duty) to lord it over the losers. Think about how many people were influenced by the “look out for #1” philosophy.

Adults carry these attitudes home with them. Children pick up on them. Think about what adults do and say in front of their kids, even – or maybe especially – when they don’t know the kids are within earshot. They bitch about their neighbors and their bosses. They use words like “bitch” and “bastard” and worse. They talk about their day and how “stupid” some co-worker was or how they “felt like smacking” the customer service representative.

And think about what adults say when their children are being bullied. Often the response is, “If he hits you, hit him right back. Show him you’re the boss.” This perpetuates the “winners and losers” scenario and sometimes leaves the “loser” with a desire to victimize someone even “lesser.”

Worst of all, think about how often adults bully children. There are too many children who are badly abused, hit and kicked and belittled by their parents. These cases sometimes get reported to Children’s Services.

Those are the extreme cases, however. Seldom does a single slap or two get reported. Telling a child that he or she is “no good” or “stupid” or even “a big disappointment” never gets reported at all. Some adults use humiliation, name-calling, and fear, all in the name of discipline and good behavior. Some pit one child against another, praising the “good” child and condemning the other. Some blame and shame ruthlessly.

They may think they are raising obedient children, but they are showing them through actions, words, and even tone of voice what it is to be a bully or a victim and how often bullying succeeds. The essence of bullying is that one person has actual or perceived power over another and uses that power in toxic ways. Think about how much power adults have over children and how seldom they consider how to use that power wisely.

This is certainly not to say that all adults abuse their power or their children. But when you look at children’s behavior, it’s hard not to see a reflection of the environment in which they were raised.

Bullies don’t just happen. They learn.

Halloween? Bah, Humbug!

I hate Halloween.

Mind you, I have no problem with the pagan event (Samhain) overtaking the religious one (the eve of All Saints Day).

I have no problem with skeleton cookies and other trappings of Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos).

I have no problem with children dressing up as witches, vampires, devils, or anything else they want to be, whether it smacks of evil or not. (I do hate the “sexy” trend in adult costumes. Sexy crayon. Sexy Mr. Rogers. (No, really.) Whoever thinks these up has too much time on their hands and too much weird on their brains.)

What I hate is the trick-or-treating. (It should really be called treat-or-vandalism.)

When I was doing the trick-or-treating, it was different, of course. There were still difficulties. I wear glasses, and back in the days of plastic dime-store masks, my choices were to wear the glasses but have the mask slip around and make me functionally blind or to wear the mask without glasses and be functionally blind.

Later on, I put together my own costumes out of old clothing and other things around the house. That was fun, though occasionally baffling. I think most people guessed “gypsy” from the bandana and necklace of gold coins, but what they made of the pink flowered dress and tan plush toy snake I just don’t know. Even I don’t remember what that was supposed to be. (The g*psy outfit came long before we all learned about cultural appropriation and ethnic slurs. But I digress.)

Around that time, the first round of tainted candy scares went through, when children took their goodie bags to the ER to be x-rayed for razor blades and had to throw out apples, Rice Krispie treats, and homemade fudge. That took a certain something out of the playfulness. Halloween parties became a trend, where treats could be supervised and stupid party games involving cold spaghetti and peeled grapes could be played. I think those parties have now taken over from door-to-door begging.

My mother loved the trick-or-treating. She would ooh and aah over the cute little kids and their costumes. What she didn’t like were the teenage boys who went around with pillowcases and didn’t even bother to dress as anything. They didn’t even smear on charcoal beards and pretend to be hobos. (Mom always kept a special bowl of last year’s left-over bubblegum just for them. It was unpleasant, but not actually poisonous.)

I think I started hating trick-or-treating when my Mom got older and couldn’t pop up and down to answer the door, so I had to do the popping and dispensing of candy and old bubblegum and describing of the costumes. But I did it for her.

Later, when I was on my own, I lived in upstairs apartments and other locales that didn’t see a lot of costumed traffic, so I had time to think it over and discover how much I disliked the custom.

Over the years, I’ve grown more and more antisocial, nearly to the point of waving my cane at youngsters and calling them “whippersnappers.” We live in a cul-de-sac at the very back of the neighborhood, so we don’t get many visitors anyway. My husband always buys too much candy and we eat our favorites both before and after the fact. (I have to remind him not to get Butterfingers. I hate Butterfingers.)

Actually, buying too much candy is a defense mechanism for him. One year we didn’t have enough, and he didn’t even have enough loose change for everyone. As the kids were departing in sorrow, he yelled out the door in desperation, “Does anyone want some Coke?” He meant the soft drink, but the shocked look on their faces was priceless.

Now I simply refuse to participate, curmudgeon that I am. I stay in the back of the house and turn off the porchlight, the universal signal for “Don’t stop here. Keep moving.” (Though I don’t know why we bother with porchlights, as trick-or-treating is now always done during daylight hours to cut down on car accidents and candy-muggings.)

These days I’m the one with knees that don’t like popping up and down or creaking up and down, really. I get depressed when I see how many little girls have bought into the pink princess-y thing. Opening the door makes me tense, as we have a cat who is a door-darter. Every other year my husband says, “I did it last year; now it’s your turn.” Sorry, not falling for that one. If you like it, fine. If you don’t do it, I’ll just read a nice zombie novel like Feed to mark the occasion.

This year there is a slightly encouraging lately – having a teal-colored pumpkin outside your door if you will be giving out non-food treats, such as small toys, colored pencils, glow sticks, and the like. It will cut down on food-allergy-related deaths, but it will also result in a lot of stomped-on teal pumpkins. The older kids already have made a sport of stomping pumpkins and running. Imagine their annoyance at receiving a pinwheel or a Koosh ball.

The start of the pumpkin-stomping craze was when I stopped decorating too. You can save Christmas ornaments from year to year, but last year’s pumpkins are just sad. I suppose I could find some nice cobwebs in the basement, but getting them intact to the windows upstairs would be difficult.

Honestly, I could just skip Halloween and be perfectly happy. In fact, I do and I am. Call me a spoil-sport or a party-pooper if you will, but spoiling sports and pooping parties are how I celebrate.

 

 

What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Crankier

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There are certain sayings I hate. Many of them are affirmations. Others are platitudes. Some are just nonsense.

Affirmations, for example. The one in the picture, for example, is provably untrue. There’s a lot in my average day that I don’t choose – whether I oversleep, whether that package from Amazon arrives when I need it to, whether I’ll trip over my cat and break my arm. There are some who say that I can choose how I feel about any of that, but I don’t believe it. Human beings are wired to feel annoyed when they trip over the cat and in pain when they break their arm. Right after that, they may choose to forgive the cat or feel lucky that they didn’t break both arms, but feelings, at the moment they happen, are not chosen. We may be able to choose how we react afterward and what we do about it, but even that is iffy.

Or take the expression “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” There are lots of things that don’t kill me: ice cream, paintings, spatulas. None of them will make me stronger.

And if you tell me (as I’m sure you will) that the saying really means that adverse events that don’t kill me will make me stronger, I have to disagree. Think about someone who is fortunate enough to survive a train wreck. Is he stronger? No. More likely he is considerably weaker, owing to assorted broken bones and ruptured internal organs.

Ah, you say, but he is spiritually stronger, thankful that he survived. Maybe not. Not all people with catastrophic injuries are content with their fate. Some are even bitter and resentful. But we don’t like to think about those cases, so we say something that makes us feel better, even if it bears absolutely no relation to what the person it happened to actually feels.

I feel the same way about “Everything happens for a reason.” One day I heard about a news helicopter that crashed, killing everyone on board. Someone contended that it happened for a reason. “Sure,” I said. “The mechanic failed to tighten the thingamabob on the rotor. Or the pilot had the shakes. Or the passenger distracted the pilot. Of course, there was a reason.”

“That’s not what I meant,” my friend replied. I knew what she did mean – that there was a reason unknown to us and ultimately unknowable. That the passenger was secretly a child molester and now would never molest another child. That the pilot’s wife was about to poison him and this death saved him from a worse one. That if the helicopter hadn’t crashed when and where it did, an innocent child on the ground would have been squashed by it. Something like that. Cosmic justice prevailed.

In all these excuses, blame is never involved. Neither is chance. (The part on the rotor just failed. No one is to blame.) It’s too frightening to think that the actions of another person, our own actions, or the randomness of the universe is “responsible” for a tragedy. So we say there must be a reason, but we can’t – or aren’t able to – know it.

This is a lot like what is meant when someone says, “It was all part of God’s plan.” If you can’t pin the blame on a single person and you’re not willing to admit it “just happened that way,” there’s always God. If I were God (and thank God I’m not), I would be more than a little miffed at being held responsible for all these accidents, not to mention the plagues and disasters that are considered “acts of God.” (Did God send the tornado that destroyed my house because I’m sinful? We’re all sinners, but not all of us get tornados.)

To me, the worst saying is, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” To begin with, it pins the blame on God for all the things that go wrong in our lives. And ultimately, it simply isn’t true. Plenty of people can’t handle the things that happen in their lives. Those with serious mental illness, for example, sometimes can handle it, but sometimes they can’t – for example, a woman who drowns her children obviously can’t handle post-partum depression. The mass shooter can’t handle the stress, hatred, fear, or disappointment in his life. (Not to mention that I don’t believe God hands out these trials.)

That’s when talk of God’s plan gives way to the workings of Satan, or abstract Evil in general. We call people who do things that seem inexplicable to us “monsters.” This is another easy saying that simply isn’t so. Whatever motivated such heinous acts, the people who committed them are still human beings. Making them “The Other” – a monster, a minion of Satan, an animal – is more comfortable, because it negates the fact that human people (and that includes all of us) have the potential to do cruel things. That most of us don’t doesn’t negate the fact that we share a species with those who do.

And then there’s death. I won’t argue with the saying “At least he’s in a better place,” because my father’s death was excruciatingly painful and long, and release from that surely was better than continuing in it. But then there’s “It was his time.” Again, this assumes that God has a plan that’s so detailed that He has appointed a time for each of us to die. Or Fate has, if you prefer. Someone or something, anyway, that controls the minutiae of our lives so completely that every instant of it is out of our hands.

If any of those ideas bring you comfort, good. But they make me more than a little uncomfortable.

Battles Not To Fight

There are some battles you shouldn’t fight because you have no hope of winning them. Others you shouldn’t fight because you have no chance of losing them. And there are some you shouldn’t fight because hey, who cares who wins them anyway?

I’ve recently become aware of a practice called “Sealioning.” (No, I don’t know how it got that name.) Evidently, it’s used by online trolls when they see a meme they don’t like. They challenge the poster to prove it – every statistic, every quote, every comma. One meme I passed along recently said, “If the free market works so well…why do corporations need $93 billion in annual government subsidies?”

Apparently, that provoked a friend of mine. “IF the statement is true, it may be a decent question,” he replied. “Without the meme providing a citing as its source, it’s difficult to evaluate the actual accuracy of what this meme is saying.”

When I replied that memes aren’t news articles and he could go look up the statistics if he wanted to, he informed me, “The burden of proof resides with the one originating the post, who’s attempting to assert or deny something.”

We went a few more rounds and then I went to bed. It wasn’t a fight I could win. There would always be another “if” or “prove it” or other quibble. The argument is futile, unwinnable. No use wasting brain cells on it.

The thing is, I probably shouldn’t respond. But I don’t block him because he is a friend who loves to debate. I love to debate too and don’t mind spending a few minutes engaging in it with a friend. After I’ve reached my limit for the day, I retreat to bed, neither of us having swayed the other.

(I still post political and social memes occasionally. I don’t post them to try to convert the sealions, but to let other people know where I stand.)

However, there are battles that I almost always win, because I’m on solid ground. Battles to do with language, usually. Back in the day, I was known as the “Punctuation Czar” (this was during the time when the government had a czar for every department). I cringed at split infinitives, corrected those who mispronounced words, and generally acted snobbish toward anyone who broke the rules. I would even offer to bet paychecks on points of grammar. No one ever took me up on it.

Those were fights I shouldn’t have gotten into, because as an English major, editor, writer, and proofreader, I would likely always win them. Winning them, however, was rude and unworthy. I found myself liking my role as the “Grammar Police” less and less. And there were some rules, such as the one about split infinitives, that I’ve given up because they make no logical sense. These days I only correct people when they ask (or pay) me to. (Except for my husband. I feel he’s fair game and I will not rest until I can get him to stop saying “foilage” when he reads his seed catalogs.)

Most of the time, though, disagreements with my husband fall into the category of arguments that aren’t worth starting, much less winning. Little things annoy everyone, but there’s just no percentage in pursuing them.

Dan, for example, when he needs to wash a single dish or pan, routinely squirts it with enough soap to wash a whole sinkful or two of dishes, plates, glasses, pans, and silverware. It wastes soap, of course, but is it really worth picking a fight over? I can avoid bad feelings simply by buying more dish soap.

(Another time we avoided a fight simply by postponing it until it was no longer an issue. You can read about it here, if you want: https://wp.me/p4e9wS-ct. But I digress.)

The world is full of arguments just waiting to happen. But I don’t have to be part of them if I don’t want to. I’ll save my energy for just the right battle, and when it comes along, I’ll fight to win!

Straight From the Art

“I don’t know art, but I know what I like” is an old saying that expresses what many people really feel about art. Unfortunately, what they like is seldom art. More like dreck or kitsch. Maybe not sad puppies, but over-the-sofa mass-produced art. “Art” that doesn’t evoke thoughts or feelings: wonder, awe, challenge, mystery, inspiration, anger, sexuality, tenderness, memory, questions, fascination, laughter, pity. “Art” that doesn’t take you outside of yourself or into yourself.

I did learn a little about art in school – mostly the Impressionists (and a little about the Fauvists) because I was studying French at the time. Later on I learned a bit about cubism, pointillism, and a few other -isms. Still, most of the art hanging in my house is simply what I like.

Oh, I had a Van Gogh Sunflowers poster in my college dorm room and was thrilled beyond words to see the original (or one of the originals) in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Seeing the almost sculptural aspects of the brushwork made me unable to be satisfied with a flat poster ever again.

But gradually, the artwork surrounding me has become more … idiosyncratic.

This was brought home to me recently when, after a natural disaster, most of the many artworks that graced our home were assumed lost. We never knew just how much our artworks meant to us until they were gone. They had become such a fixture in our house that we didn’t really appreciate them as we did when we first acquired them. And that was a shame, because losing them left a distinct hole in our lives.

The rental house that we moved into was entirely devoid of decoration. There were flat, neutral walls; flat, neutral carpeting; flat, neutral furniture. I know they have to make rental houses this way to appeal to renters with various kinds of furniture and taste, but we had nothing to take the edge off all those neutrals. Nothing relieved the eye.

Our “art collection” was nothing elaborate or expensive, but it had meant a lot to us. A large part of my contributions to the household decorations consisted of paintings by Peggy McCarty, a talented friend of mine. These included self-portraits, paintings of food, and a couple of paintings of me or one of our cats, as well as a tiny landscape refrigerator magnet.

Dan collected many posters and prints, some of them signed and numbered, at the science fiction conventions we went to. These featured moody or majestic planet-scapes; cacti bursting off the ground like prickly green rockets on pillars of flame; wizards, changelings, and such; and a carved head of Einstein. Not all of them were to my taste, but, as the saying says, he knew what he liked. And some of them I found stirred my heart as well.

Not that my contributions to our household artwork were all formal and highbrow. One framed poster that Dan got for me was the theatrical poster from the Puss in Boots movie, which had a prominent place on our bedroom wall. The bright orange and yellow background demanded you notice it and, well, I’ve always had a thing for anthropomorphic cats.

Not long ago, we discovered that a number of our beloved artworks had survived the tornado. Some of the unframed, unmatted ones had sustained damage and others still haven’t shown up. But I was so happy to see the ones that did, I almost cried.

Naturally, we went right out and bought a bunch of Command Hooks (“Do. No Harm”) and started alleviating all the neutral walls with things that remind us of our old home while we wait for it to be rebuilt.

My study (actually the small bedroom) walls are graced by four small works: one of apples painted on a board by my artist friend Peggy; a print of a metal tiger from the Chinese Soldiers exhibit at the local art museum; a colorful Debbie Ohi sketch with a Neil Gaiman quote that I won in a raffle; and a framed, round, black-and-white drawing of a cat on a branch with stars in the background.

We each selected one work for special placement in the living room. Dan chose a framed poster of “To Everything There Is a Season” that used to hang in his office. I chose Peggy’s painting of Dan’s first cat, which I had commissioned her to paint for him for his birthday one year.

We haven’t settled on what goes in the master bedroom yet, though there is an evocative blue and white framed print that has a good chance of making the cut. So does Puss in Boots, though it will clash terribly.

But I know what I like.

Who’s Useless?

I saw a meme the other day that defined the laundry cycle as wash, 45 min.; dry, 60 minutes; fold and put away, 7-10 business days. That would be optimistic for me and my husband. We are useless people.

We started calling ourselves that when we were so exhausted at the end of the day that we were physically and emotionally unable to cook. So we turned to what we called “Useless People Meals” – ones that come in a box or bag or tray and only need to be microwaved. We eat them in the trays they come in or share them out of a single bowl since we are also too useless to wash many dishes. Paper towels are our napkins, and I’m sorry to report that we have been known on occasion to use paper plates and plastic cutlery. At least the plates are biodegradable.

We took another step towards uselessness when we found the perfect furniture for us – a coffee table that magically rises upward to become a dining table and an end table that swings out over the sofa to make a tray. With these in place, we can happily watch TV while we eat. (We still have meaningful conversations, mostly over who will be the next chef to be Chopped. But I digress.)

As noted above, laundry is another place to practice uselessness. All our clothing is wash-and-wear. We don’t even own an iron (or if we do, I have no idea where it’s gotten itself off to). If we ever do find the iron and would actually need to iron something, we’d have to lay it on the coffee table, which would also magically transform into an ironing board. Much easier just to toss a garment in the dryer with a dryer sheet or a damp washcloth.

I admit we’re useless. We want to skate through life doing as little physical labor as possible. And there are a lot of products designed to make life easier for people like us. The meal kits that are so popular nowadays are not for completely useless people. Some of them require actual chopping and cooking. The most recent one we tried, though, had ready-prepped meals that were microwaveable. And since we didn’t know what any of the delivery meals would taste like when we ordered them, there was something to be said for not spending much time preparing them.

But there are those who mock and deride what they see as completely useless practices, gizmos, and packaging.

They are wrong. My husband and I may be slackers, but some inventions actually make life easier for people with disabilities, who are not useless but merely incapacitated in some way. Imagine a person with rheumatoid arthritis trying to shell an egg or peel an orange and suddenly those egg-cooking gizmos and individually wrapped, already-peeled oranges in vending machines make sense. It is ableist privilege that makes people view such innovations as useless.

Even some of what my husband and I think of as for the useless would actually be great for people who are handicapped. Our “useless people coffee table” makes perfect sense if you think of someone who uses a wheelchair. And our “useless people” heat-and-eat meals are dandy for people who do not have the physical stamina to stand at a counter or a stove, chopping, mixing, stirring, straining, and all the other steps that are needed for a simple plate of spaghetti.

So we’re right to call ourselves useless people, but wrong to call our time- and step-saving practices and devices useless. The tools themselves are immensely useful and many people who use them, unlike us, are not useless at all. More and more, as the Baby Boomers age and we face illness and mobility issues, we will need to use those sock-puller-uppers and canes that stand by themselves and grippers to reach the stuff on the high shelves or on the ground. Whatever the need, it seems some clever soul has come up with a fix or a work-around.

I guess what I mean is that my husband and I are useless because we take advantage of these helpful tools just because we don’t want to do the work. There are those who use them because they need to and we will likely join them someday. At least we’ll have the tools already in place.

State of the Arts

It bothers me that the two trends in art that are gaining the most ground nowadays are prettiness and functionality.

Prettiness and functionality have their place in art, of course. Who doesn’t love a Monet landscape? And Soviet Realism, while hardly pretty, performed its function of representing the worker as hero and inspiring comrades to greater effort.

But prettiness is not beauty. If you look beyond the prettiness of a Monet, you see the sheer talent that it took to break the boundaries of then-current art standards and paint in a way that revealed a different way of looking at the world. And that was beauty.

No one would call Picasso’s Guernica either pretty or beautiful. Its clashing shapes and tortured figures do not inspire “awwws.” They aren’t meant to. The painting is a condemnation of the horrors of war, and it performs that function exceedingly well.

Now, I don’t have anything against art that is pretty or functional. I just think that there is a lot more to art than just those qualities.

But art today – or at least what passes for art – is solely about prettiness and functionality. The National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency, was established to “fund, promote, and strengthen the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.” Now the organization’s existence is in great doubt. The federal budget eliminates it completely (though it hasn’t passed yet).

Why the neglect of the NEA? It isn’t pretty enough. It isn’t functional enough. It supports and promotes a variety of types of art, some of which are challenging, unappreciated, and even shocking. At least that’s what the budgeteers focus on. The NEA, however, also provides grants for projects like arts education in communities and schools, including “the growth of arts activity in areas of the nation that were previously underserved or not served at all, especially in rural and inner-city communities.”

Why, the NEA even collaborates in a program with “more than 2,000 museums in all 50 states that offers free admission to active-duty military personnel and their families during the summer.” But you (and apparently Congress) never hear about things like that.

Arts education in the schools is languishing too. Along with music, it’s been relegated to the heap of the “unnecessary” or watered down to become “art (or music) appreciation,” with little or no thought given to allowing children to create their own art as well as studying “the masters.” It’s like art is now an extracurricular, though not as well-funded a one as sports.

STEM is the current bastion of functionality in school curricula. And admittedly, the U.S. needs more citizens educated in technical fields such as medicine, aeronautics, robotics, engineering, architecture, and so on. Art occasionally sneaks in there, so the programs reluctantly become STEAM, but the focus is still on turning out people who perform what most people consider vital functions in our society – those associated with products, and industry, and money.

But art, even when it’s disturbing, does have a function. It can make us think, love, cry, wonder, or remember. Imagine a world without art. No music, no dancing, no paintings, no sculptures – not even any graphic design. (That would mean no political campaign posters.) Life would be very different and much duller. Even if you don’t believe it, the arts touch you in some way every day of your life.

The arts are far from being a waste of time and money, as some seem to think. Winston Churchill had it right: “The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”