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I want to go out in the countryside
Oh sit by the clear, cool, crystal water
Get my spirit, way back to the feeling
Deep in my soul, I want to feel
Oh so close to the One, close to the One
Close to the One, close to the One
And that’s why, I keep on singing baby
My hymns to the silence, hymns to the silence

Van Morrison, Hymns to the Silence

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Let’s take it easy this Sunday morning. You don’t need to hear my rants and most likely want to find a bit of normalcy and respite from the constant stream of what seems to only bad news. I’ve been trying to find new ways at looking at this whole thing, trying to find some little bits of good among the bad.

For instance, one upside to this whole thing is that we will be spared the anguish of the school shootings that most certainly would have occurred had this stoppage not taken place. It’s a shame that they could only be halted by a different horrific crisis but it is good to not have to face another senseless tragedy taking place in our schools.

Another good thing: less traffic. Fewer cars on the roads means fewer accidents and traffic deaths. That’s a good thing. Plus it’s less pollution and it’s certainly quieter on the whole.

That’s the one thing– the silence that has taken hold in many of our cities– to which that I have seen a lot of people comment on social media. For some, it’s creepy and scary. Too apocalyptic, I guess.

But to some, it’s been a revelation, a reintroduction to that now alien world of quiet. I have read people commenting on being able to clearly hear the sound of the birds and the wind moving through the trees and buildings, all without the cacophony and buzz of the modern mechanized world that has become our constant companion.

When I go out at night, the sound from the nearby road that was usually busy and producing a steady rumble of background sound is now absolutely quiet for long stretches of time.

It’s glorious and calming, even knowing the reason for it being this way.

So, for all the bad things we’re facing, try to find something good to latch onto and hold tight. For a start, there’s always music. Let’s listen to a bit of Van Morrison and his song Hymns to the Silence.

Have the best Sunday possible. And be careful out there.

 

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The painting at the top is titled The Questioning, a 30″ by 30″ canvas that is currently at the West End Gallery.

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“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence… In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”

Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong

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For those of you too young to have been around back then, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong was a book from Dr. Laurence J. Peter that came out in 1969 and was a huge bestseller. It was one of those books and ideas that became ubiquitous in their time. It seemed like everywhere I looked back then, that book cover was staring out at me from book racks in every grocery store, card shop and bus station.

Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something, even then.

In the book, a blend of practical business management principle and mild satire, Peter described every organization as a pyramidal hierarchy in which each member was eventually promoted up the pyramid to a position where they would be proven to be incompetent. The real work of the organization was always done by those within the pyramid who had not yet risen to their own personal level of incompetence.

Those not yet proven to be incompetent were like the mortar that strengthened and bonded the blocks of the pyramid.

It was one of those ideas that seemed so simple that it was hard to believe that nobody had voiced it in that way before. And just looking around at almost any organization, private or public, seemed to offer ample proof of its validity.

Why am I talking about this? I think anybody who has been closely following the US government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis could easily see it as the principle in action.

It is one of the first things that jumps to mind when watching the daily press briefings lately. They are maddeningly difficult to watch with their evasions, lack of information, blame placement, contradictions, empty promises and self-congratulatory puffery often along a raft of outright lies.

Not a shred of reassurance anywhere to be found. For me, it almost always brings on an unpleasant mix of disgust and rage combined with dread.

The dread can be explained by another line from Peter’s book: “Any government, whether it is a democracy, a dictatorship, a communistic or free enterprise bureaucracy, will fall when its hierarchy reaches an intolerable state of maturity.” 

That maturity is the point when most of the level of the hierarchy have been filled with incompetents and this administration has spent much of the last three-plus years removing apolitical professionals who had been competently handling many important positions within the pyramid. These are the people who had yet to reach their own level of incompetence, people were doing the real work that kept the governmental pyramid standing. In their place, they inserted political lackeys, people ill-equipped to handle even the most mundane requirements of their posts let alone a global crisis that requires the ultimate in competence from every level of the pyramid.

Watching closely as I have, it sure feels to me like every position in that pyramid is so packed with incompetence that there is little, if any, room left for the still competent to do the dirty, real work required to keep the pyramid standing.

Thus, the dread.

Here are a couple of other little snips from The Peter Principle that one might think were written solely for the here and now:

“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

“Incompetence plus incompetence equals incompetence.”

“If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three.”

I know that writing this doesn’t accomplish anything. But it’s something I have to do once in awhile if only to try to organize what I am seeing in a way that I can comprehend so I can figure out how to look to the future.

And I do still look to the future, even with a little hope. But that hope is my own and owes nothing to the efforts of these incompetents who sit atop the crumbling pyramid.

Hey, have a great day! And be careful out there.

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Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

― Robert Frost, West-Running Brook

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The painting at the top is called Socially Distant. It’s a 20″ tall by 60″ wide canvas (much larger than it appears on the screen) that is part of my annual solo show, Social Distancing, scheduled to open June 5 at the Principle Gallery. Of course, I say scheduled because of the uncertainty for anything in the near future given our current situation.

The series of cityscapes I am doing in recent months was began just as Covid-19 was just taking hold in Asia. Not many here were following it closely or, at least, closely enough. I can say with all certainty that when I started painting these pieces they were not intended to be a commentary on this situation. I saw them as being both about its constructed form– its shapes, colors and contrasts– and the feeling of anonymity and separateness that the crowded streets and looming structures that a city offers.

But sometimes the work and the times converge. As the crisis has unfolded these paintings seem more and more prescient with their empty streets and vacant windows. The anonymity that I initially saw transformed into the social distancing required to combat the spread of this virus.

Even the colors seemed to point to this crisis. The reddish skies suggest the the warmth and fetid fertility of the hot zones that have often spawned outbreaks.

This particular painting has one differing feature from the others in the series –a lone figure standing in a second story window, just to the right of center. I wasn’t sure about this and left the figure out of the painting for weeks as I mulled it over. But as the current situation unfolded and grew, the figure loomed larger in my mind and I finally relented.

In a way, its inclusion makes the vacant city seem even emptier.

To accompany this piece, I’ve included a Robert Frost poem that I have liked for a long time, Acquainted With the Night. In this context, I especially like the last four lines of the poem and their convergence with the empty clock face high atop a tower in the center of the painting that serves as a false moon and creates a strong diagonal in the picture plane between it, the moon and the lone figure.

Take care today and have as good a day as possible.

 

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It’s a time for great swings of emotion that have me off balance much of the time. Waves of bewilderment that sometimes lead into anger followed by fear then anxiety. In between are interspersed moments of peaceful calm and even a full blown laugh that bring the whole shebang back into a more workable balance.

Then, once in a great while, there are moments that feel like a bit of grace being extended. The balance suddenly seems manageable and perhaps there is even hope.

That was just yesterday.

I was up early to head out to our local Wegmans supermarket, to be there at opening which had been advertised as being 6 AM. We needed a few items and I thought getting there early would beat the potentially infectious larger crowds and also give me a chance at finding my needed items on the freshly stocked shelves.

I pulled into the parking lot around 6:20 and I couldn’t believe my good fortune. There were only a handful of cars, outside of the employees vehicles parked further out in the large parking lot. I would be able to get in and out without running into many folks at all. I was out of the car with my shopping bags in hand when the window of a car near me rolled down. The guy inside spoke, telling me that the opening time had changed, that it was now 7 AM.

Oof. I slumped a bit and got back in the car to wait it out. By 7, there were quite a few cars but it wasn’t crazy busy as we shuffled in, everyone doing a pretty fair job in trying to keep their distance. Inside the store, with my gloves still on, I maneuvered my cart through the store and was kind of knocked out by the number of empty shelves that were there at opening time. The produce was sparse but I found the couple of items that we needed.

In the section that held canned beans and the like, there were 3 single cans of vegetarian beans. One had a pretty large dent on the edge of its lid, so I grabbed the other two. The pasta and rice sections were also picked pretty clean except for sporadic spots that held what appeared to be a case or two of a single item that would no doubt soon be gone.

All in all, I found most of the items I needed– there is never a shortage of Count Chocula cereal. Just kidding. We will just do without those other things that I couldn’t obtain.

I was able to keep a good distance from other shoppers but checking out was a bit unnerving to suddenly be a little closer. I tried to keep as far back as possible from the frail looking lady who was checking me out. I felt so bad for her and the cashiers who were constantly within a foot or two of a constant stream of different shoppers without knowing where those people had been or how seriously they took their responsibility to maintain distance or wash their hands. They would be there all day exposed to who knows what.

If you must go to a shop, bear this in mind. Keep your distance for their safety and yours as well. And be extra kind to these people who most likely have no choice in whether they can be there.

There are going to be shortages for the near future. It’s understandable. Along with the panic buying of regular shoppers, there is a whole group of people who are suddenly forced into the stores, putting further strain on the food chain. These are the people who used to get most of their meals at restaurants. You might say that’s ridiculous but even when I worked at the Perkins Family Restaurant twenty-some years ago, there was a remarkable number of people, even whole families, who would get two and sometimes three meals a day there.

According to stats, that trend hasn’t lessened in recent decades as more and more people eat out for many of their meals. Suddenly, these people are forced to either make their food or order the allowed takeout. And since many are also now under some sort of financial stress, perhaps laid off with no way of knowing when and if they will get back to work, they must begin shopping for food in a supermarket, trying to save a little money where they can. Throwing these people into the mix makes for even more shortages.

It will be that way until we get some sort of reassurance that the food supply will be stable and that we will be able to have access to the foods we need. And that reassurance is definitely lacking from the leaders at the top who seem woefully unprepared to handle a situation of this magnitude. Their inability to be forthcoming, accountable and honest has created a lack of credibility that now makes us distrust every word they utter, every move they make. Average people are beginning to realize that they must fend for themselves and that creates a frenzy in a population that hasn’t experienced this sort of potentially existential crisis in their lifetimes.

Will that reassurance come? I don’t know but my opinion that this administration is incapable of doing so., given their lack of empathy and their constant desire to assign responsibility or blame for anything to anyone but themselves. A great leader doesn’t keep saying that he is doing a great job. He doesn’t need to– his actions speak louder than hollow self praise.

Okay, let’s call that the anger part of my day. Like I said, this was how my day went yesterday. Up and down. Bewildered at the supermarket. Angered and made anxious by the news. Worried about the near future and our personal situation. Talking nonsense to my studio cat, Hobie, then laughing like an idiot at a sitcom that I had put on the tube for some sort of relief, even though I had seen it a hundred times before.

I was all over the place.

The new normal. Or is it the new abnormal?

Wait, I mentioned there was a moment of what seemed like grace, didn’t I?

Well, in the midst of this day, when I riding a ridge of anxiety down to its lowest point, I received an email. It was from a local man, a doctor, who asked about buying a large painting for very specific site in his home. I had only one painting that fit his need and it was one that has been dominating my space lately, both in the studio and in my mind. I turned and looked at the painting. I look at it a lot these days.

I read the email a couple more times and asked myself if this was a real inquiry? Who would be looking for a large painting right now? Are they pulling my leg and if so, how cruel would that be?

But after a minute or so of consideration, I thought it must be real. I actually teared up a little in that moment because it was just what I needed in this new abnormal day.

It felt like a small bit of grace. I don’t know if that’s right but I can tell what it was.

It was reassurance.

The reassurance that I, like so many others, was lacking. The reassurance that, even in a time of dire crisis, what I do has some meaning, that I exist and count for something.

Reassurance that I will be able to persevere and weather the storm.

I don’t know that this person was just looking for a painting at this particular time or if he decided to do this now because his action would be greatly helping out a local artist and small business at a time when it was truly needed. Whatever his reason, it moved me.

I sent him the image, writing a bit about the painting, and it looks like it may be moving to a new home very soon. I have often said that, in my mind, every time a person chooses to buy my work is a small miracle of some sort. I don’t know if that is absolutely true but I know that this sale will linger with me and have meaning for a long time to come.

We all need reassurance now. Each of us has the ability to give others some measure of reassurance.

Be kind. Be generous, even if you only afford to do so in spirit.

It goes a long way.

Sorry for the length of this post. If you got this far, thanks for sticking it out. There was a lot to say, I guess.

Have a good day and be careful.

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The painting at the top, Life Pop, is at the West End Gallery in Corning. Their doors are closed currently but they are still operating normal hours via phone and online, as well as with private appointments.

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I am going to be hopeful this morning. But first, let me make share one short analogy about the current situation. After looking at the charts that show the projected curves for this pandemic, I see that most show us not reaching our peak infection rate until sometime in June or July.

That means we are still in the opening phase of this whole episode. It’s unfolding, not like 9/11 where within hours our world was shocked and forever altered, but in slow motion. We are left to wait and for those among us who are young and feel healthy, or just feel young and healthy, the idea of having to put these lives on hold seems ludicrous in the face of what seems a like crawling threat. Why shouldn’t we go out to the bars and restaurants? Why should we do anything differently?

Here’s the analogy: It’s like the hours before a tsunami, when the ocean waters begin to recede to gather further off shore. Those on shore who recognize the danger that’s ahead react. They begin to move away from the shore toward higher ground. But those who are sitting in the oceanside cafes sipping drinks with umbrellas and chunks of pineapple in them, seem not to notice.

They see the waters pulling back and they think that the sea is simply calm today. They can’t understand why those people are running away from the shore. They ask their waiter, who is heading out the door himself to run inland, what the problem is, why is everyone reacting this way? The waiter says that the tsunami is coming and they should move.

Some will move. Others, will after a bit grudgingly and slowly move inland. But others will say that this is ridiculous. The water is fine, the sun is shining bright, my drink is tasty, and I am young and healthy. What could possibly happen? You others are just crazy.

But the waters are coming back. Lots of water. It’s not a matter of if but when and how many of us get swept away. Maybe it won’t be as large a tsunami as we fear. Maybe. But to stand on the shore in ignorant defiance simply because you can’t yet see its approach is a fool’s gambit.

Alright. That was a little longer analogy than planned but hey, what else do I have to do?

here’s the hopeful part. Ten or twelve or fourteen days ago, I was putting out some sunflowers seeds for the birds that feed outside our house. I tossed a handful and realized I had almost pelted a small goldfinch that was standing on the ground only a few feet away. This was unusual as most birds retreat to the surrounding trees until I am done. But his little guy, its drab yellowish coat telling me it was a female though it could be a nonbreeding male, just stood its ground. I spoke to her for a moment and she stayed put, pecking at the seed that surrounded her. Looking closer, I could see that something was amiss with one of her wings.

We watched her from the window for quite a while and she couldn’t fly. She hopped well and kept feeding throughout the day, staying in place even though all the other goldfinches had flown away for the day. The next morning I located her in the woods just behind the feeder resting in a small dip in the snow. I went towards her and she stayed in place, not trying to fly away so I left a little seed just a foot or so from her.

I thought that she surely couldn’t last long sitting in the snow with a broken wing. But we decided to give her a little time. Late that day she was back around the feeder hopping a bit and pecking at seed. Still no sign of being able to fly at all.

The next day she was gone. We kept looking and couldn’t locate her. Perhaps she had been swooped up by a hawk or owl or some other nocturnal predator. A fox? We just hoped that she was safe.

But  a few days passed and as I was putting out seed one morning, I almost threw seed on a goldfinch in another feeding spot across the yard. But his finch lifted up and haltingly flew away, bobbing up and down as its injured wing tried furiously to lift it. I went inside and we watched  her for a while. It was our goldfinch. She was able to fly just enough to get up into the trees and onto the feeder where she would sit for hours at a time., eating seed every so often and basking in the sun.

She’s here every day now. Her flight is still limited but it’s better and he moves with confidence. She stays on a nearby limb when we are putting out seed. I smiled like a fool the other day when she retreated from me and flew awkwardly  but competently high up into the white pines, some 50 or 60 foot above me. I think she knows she’s safe and has a pretty good gig even with her little wing.

That’s my little bit of hopefulness. Here’s Jimi Hendrix and his classic Little Wing. It’s surprisingly hard to find an original version online so if the Amazon Music box doesn’t appear I have included a version from Sting that I also like. It ain’t Jimi but there times when you have to make do with what you have, right?

Have a good day and be hopeful. And be careful.

https://music.amazon.com/albums/B003BG4KHE?trackAsin=B003BG2JZ4&ref=dm_sh_5e5d-9800-dmcp-c176-c13ea&musicTerritory=US&marketplaceId=ATVPDKIKX0DER

 

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“I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Ah, the words of a true leader. The most beautiful words.

Another entry for the next Profiles in Courage.

While Harry Truman kept a sign on his desk with The Buck Stops Here, our great leader, the Hon. Horatio Q. Buckpasser ( the Q. stands for Quisling), most likely has business cards with his credo — “I don’t take responsibility at all”– emblazoned in a psychopathic scrawl across it in Sharpie.

This is just another great moral lesson from the great leader that we can pass on to the kids. If they follow his lead, there’s nothing to worry about for the future, right?

Who would have thought that a guy with all the moral fiber and intellect of a used car dealer with a lot filled with rusty Yugos would not be up to the task of steering a large nation through what might end up being the largest pandemic in modern history?

But, as my father, who suffers from dementia and is in a nursing facility that is now in lockdown with no visitation allowed, always said: We’re the most gullible people on the face of the Earth. Even now, in his current state of confusion, he makes more sense than the idiot charged with the responsibility of reacting to this crisis.

And the idiot’s response: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Hmmm…

That’s not a thoughtful Hmmm.

It’s a growl.

Sorry for not being more uplifting this morning but I’m angry.

Check back tomorrow. I’ll try to be more hopeful then. Promise.

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It seems a little silly to write about my work while what is happening in the outer world beyond my studio goes on. I would prefer to give air to my anger at the gross incompetence and irresponsibility displayed by our government in its handling of the current crisis. Or to voice my anxiety for the health of my family and friends, as well as my own. Or my fears about the almost certain loss of the better part of my livelihood for at least the near future. And maybe well beyond.

Who knows how this ultimately shakes out?

So, writing about painting seems grossly insignificant, even trivial, at the moment.

But it’s what I do.

I am painting diligently now with the hopes that soon there will be a return to normalcy.

It’s what I do.

It also keeps me from thinking too much about the current situation, keeps me as sane as I can be. Now, where that falls on the sane to insane spectrum, I can’t tell you. But while it provides me with an escape route, the outer world often finds its way in.

Take the piece at the top, a new painting on paper that’s 18″ by 24″. It’s a real throwback to my earlier work with transparent color washes with hard edges and a sparseness of detail. Painting it was a joy, like meeting an old best friend once more and recognizing all those things that made that person important to you at one time. There was an inherent comfort in it for me, one that allowed me to forge ahead, finding focus even though my mind was still partially distracted.

The sky in these works always seem to dominate whatever element I choose to serve as the central character in the composition, here the house and the adjacent Red Tree. This domination provides evidence for me of our frailty, our relative smallness in the greater scheme of things in this world, in this universe. But at the same time it provides affirmation of my own existence, standing alone under the dome of the sky.

It just felt good. Feels good. The image above is not perfect, needs a little tweaking as I just noticed a shadow on the foreground. But for the moment, it’s good enough. But even though it, for the most part, takes me away from the now, the current situation always seems to creep back in. When I was finishing this piece the idea of social distancing as a way of mitigating exposure to the virus was on my mind. This piece, like much of my work, has a sense of isolation.

I decided to call it Keep Your Distance, the title taken from a Richard Thompson song from one of my favorite albums, Rumor and Sigh.

Here’s the song. Give a listen and keep your distance, okay?

 

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