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Living in isolation has never been a great challenge for me in normal times. I thought I was a distant island that only needed a visitor every once in a while for those few things I couldn’t provide for myself. But these are not normal times and the impingement from the outer world pushes hard into my space now, disrupting the solitude that I thought was impenetrable.

Listening to the words that the great leader*** spoke yesterday, where he basically admitted that he wanted the states’ governors to bend the knee before him and had instructed the VP to not call and offer assistance to those that didn’t, made me realize that we are all islanders now.

50+ sovereign states, all fending for themselves, with a hope that exceeds reality that the unified power of the central government will offer much needed aid, will somehow favor them above the others in their time of need. We are in trouble and call out for aid to those who have a sworn duty to serve us.

Much as Puerto Rico did not so long ago in the aftermath of the historic hurricanes that ravaged that island.

We are all Puerto Rico now.

We probably should have taken the treatment Puerto Rico received, a few rolls of paper towel dismissively thrown at them along with conditioned promises of aid that were never fully realized, as an omen. We all are about to receive that same treatment and the storm that approaches this time is even larger and deadlier.

Anyway, I came across a post written for a 2013 show at the West End Gallery that featured the above painting, Islander, as its title piece. I thought the words were pertinent to this time. Its a painting that really resonates deeply with me on a personal level and one that, inexplicably at least for me, has never found a home. It still resides at the Just Looking Gallery in California, waiting patiently for someone to see what I see in it.

Along with the post below, I have included a version of Simon and Garfunkel‘s classic I Am a Rock. This video features the lyrics which is a way I have been listening to a lot of music lately. Times of crisis make me look harder for connecting threads of meaning. Whether they are there is another thing.

Give a look and have a good day on your little islands.

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I am an islander.

But I don’t live on an island. Never have and probably never will.

No, my island is a metaphorical place, one that exists in the creative ether of my mind. An island that is completely apart from and immune to the outer world that exists across the deep surrounding waters. Self-sustaining and self-ruled, a blank slate on which I can create my own reality.

It’s a place free from the ire and pettiness of others. Free of strife and injustice. and filled with the quiet of solitude. Filled with color, warmth and emotion.

An island of creation and peace.

But there is a paradox in being an islander. While trying to remain separate, it becomes abundantly clear that we can never really exist as totally independent from the outer world. Actually, to the islander those bonds to the outside world become even more apparent and important. The isolation only serves to heighten our recognition of our inclusion and connection to the world. You begin to recognize them as lifelines, bringing those things to the island that you cannot create in yourself.

Try as one might, one can never live in isolation from their own humanity. I think the best you can do is to create an island that you can visit periodically to revitalize yourself. And that’s what I believe I see in the work for this show– paintings that take me away for a short while from the outer world and place me on that peaceful island.

For that short time, I am truly an islander.

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No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

–John Donne, Meditation XVII, 1624

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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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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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One of the memories that I carry from the 2016 election season that haunts me is that of a forum with delegates that was broadcast from the Democratic Convention at the end of its first night. One of the delegates, a Bernie Sanders supporter, said that if Hillary Clinton was the party’s nominee she would never, under any circumstance, vote for her.

She went on to say that if that caused the GOP candidate ( you know how I’m talking about– don’t make me use his name) to win the presidency, so be it. They would simply come back four years later and get what they wanted then. Simple as that.

The sheer naivete and shortsightedness of her words made me quake. The GOP candidate’s agenda was already revealing itself to anyone who really looked hard. Those who did look could see that his election would mean an unraveling of many of the progressive strides made by this country. The nation under this person would head back toward a time without environmental protections or the regulation of financial institutions. You could even then see that he would try to persecute his rivals and would stack the courts with judges with the most radically right views possible. His implicit racism would curb any steps for social justice or equal footing for people of color that had been put in progress and his views on immigration were xenophobic and downright frightening.

To believe that we could allow this type of governance for four years then simply push him out in the next election and go right back to where we were was irresponsible madness.

In less than four years, he has stripped away many protections for our land, our air, our water and our people. He has attempted to make the Department of Justice his personal attack dog. How many children has he caged at our borders? Does anyone really know how many of them are still imprisoned there and for how long? He has weakened our longstanding alliances around the world, instead opting to cozy up to despots and totalitarian regimes who he fawns over. He has blown up our national debt, even without a crisis like a war or a pandemic, which is going to add even more. He has dismantled many of the gears of good government, including sacking the Pandemic Response office in  2018 for no reason at all.

This is just an off the cuff recall of his time in office and doesn’t even go into the damage he has done to our press freedoms or his incessant lying or the openly corrupt manner in which he stuffs his pockets and those of his friends and family from the public trough. If you give me a few more minutes, I am sure I could fill several more pages with all the ways in which he is negatively affecting this country.

So, to think that we would just let him be and then calmly take him out in 2020 was ridiculous.

Everything changes and does so quickly.

If, by the grace of some god somewhere, we do elect him out of office, we are not looking at the same country that we saw four years ago. There is a lot to be cleaned up and a lot more that we must rebuild once again to even get close to where we were before the 2016.

And if we somehow allow him four more years, all bets are off on where will be in 2024. We may be looking at a country that is totally unrecognizable to most of us. We will have elected an unfettered monster who unleash all his wrath on anyone who has wronged him or speaks out against him.

I do not believe I am speaking in hyperbole here.

I like Bernie and would love to see some of his ideas come to fruition. But I also know that unless we steady this ship, all is lost. This is not the time for the absolutism of many of his followers, like that delegate four years ago. The problem with all or nothing strategies is that you often end up with nothing.

No, this is a time of pragmatism. Would I like Joe Biden to be even further left? Sure. But I also know that he is, by virtue of the progressive changes that have taken place over the past thirty or forty years, further left than most Dem presidential candidates in that same time frame.

Joe Biden is not a perfect candidate. He is flawed and has made mistakes. He will make more. In the words of a rabbi that I recently read online, he is an imperfect mensch.

A mensch, for those who don’t know, is the Yiddish word for a person of honor. A good and caring soul. A real human being. A Holocaust survivor that I knew once called me a mensch and of the few accolades I’ve garnered in this world, that might be the one that I hold closest to my heart.

Biden is not perfect and won’t take the Bernie Bros all the way to where they want to be. But he will get them closer, setting our course in the right direction. Maybe even building a bridge in that direction that they can someday cross.

I trust him to try to do the right things. To be steady. I believe he will listen to the experts, will trust scientists, and will seek advice from the best minds. I believe he will not willfully hurt this country or its people and will try repair the damage done to our house and maybe build something better, even if it’s only incrementally better.

To continue this house analogy, Joe Biden might just be the firestop that keeps the whole house from burning to the ground.

That kind of pragmatism might not be exciting. Might not be the stuff of legend.

But it’s what we need in this moment.

And sometimes doing what is needed rather than what you want is, in itself, heroic.

To my Bernie Bro friends, think about that, please.

 

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Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind
They lie through their teeth
With their head up their behind

You open up their hearts
And here’s what you’ll find
Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind

John Prine, Some Humans Ain’t Human

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Maybe it’s just being tired from wrestling with a foot of fallen snow or maybe it’s just being sick of being sick about the state of affairs taking place here in this country. I can’t say for sure but whatever the case, it has made me a little misanthropic as of late.

It bothers me and it’s not something I embrace lightly. I’ve always resolved to follow the Will Rogers maxim of I never met a man I didn’t like, believing that I could always find common ground with anyone I came across, could find something that we could agree on. And that was generally the case for the better part of my life.

But the last three or so years have put that resolution to the test as so many of my fellow citizens have been suddenly liberated to openly express their prejudices, their hatreds, their conspiracy based beliefs, their petty spitefulness and a whole litany of stupid behaviors that would crush my spirit completely if I were forced to list them all.

This morning, I just want to give up and embrace my angry misanthropy. Maybe walk to the end of my driveway and give the finger to the first passing car.

That’ll teach ’em, won’t it?

Oh, I know. That won’t happen. I will still try to find good in people, try to find things we have in common.

But be warned: my patience ain’t what it used to be.

So, for this Sunday morning music I have selected what I consider a fitting choice for this mood. It’s Some Humans Ain’t Human from John Prine. He wrote it in 2005 as political commentary on George W. Bush‘s decision to put into the war with Iraq, that one we still can’t seem to shake free from. He said he didn’t want to die with people not being sure where he stood on Bush.

Give a listen and if you want to sing along, go to this link for the lyrics. Then have yourself a good day. No, I really mean it. I want you to have a good day. So steer clear of me, okay?

 

 

 

 

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The worst of it is that we live in a spoiled moral environment. We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another. We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other, to worry only about ourselves. The concepts of love, friendship, mercy, humility or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension, and for many of us they represent only some sort of psychological curiosity or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway times, somewhat ludicrous in the era of computers and space ships. . . .

If I speak about a spoiled moral atmosphere I don’t refer only to our masters. . . I’m speaking about all of us. For all of us have grown used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an immutable fact, and thereby actually helped keep it going. None of us are only its victims; we are all also responsible for it.

Vaclav Havel, New Year’s Day Address, 1990

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I came across the line, We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another, in a tweet last night from former CIA Director John McLaughlin who said it ran through his mind several times yesterday as he watched the display of moral bankruptcy from the GOP senators taking place before our very eyes.

The onetime Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel spoke those words in his New Year’s Day address to the Czech people after becoming the first democratically elected President of that nation in the post-communist era just weeks before. To that point, Havel had lived his entire life under an authoritarian regime. His plays were banned in his own land and he was imprisoned as a political prisoner multiple times, over four years during the longest incarceration, for attempting to bring light into a society where truth was what the regime claimed it to be. Many citizens were under almost constant surveillance and show trials were the norm.

Shows trials are those, particularly in Soviet nations of the Cold War Era, that have a predetermined outcome and don’t rely on witnesses or real evidence. As with truth, the evidence was what the regime claimed it to be. It was an expedient manner to remove political opponent with the appearance of justice taking place.

Sound familiar?

After reading Havel’s address and watching the events of the last few days, knowing already what the outcome will be as in any show trial, I could see real parallels in the moral illness that Havel described in his address and the behavior of our Republican senators. How can these people who speak one thing while thinking another believe that this will not corrupt our whole society, that which they have been entrusted to protect?

Their corruption will beget more corruption and that corruption more yet. Our Great Leader’s thousands upon thousands of lies will become accepted truths and his skewed amorality becomes the moral compass of our nation. Unless we reject these new norms, we will remain in this spiral that will soon bring us to a form of totalitarianism complete with more show trials and deeper surveillance for those who dare to stand against those in power.

We still have a chance to avoid this end. As Havel said: None of us are only its victims; we are all also responsible for it.

You can’t stand on the sidelines now. You can’t let others do the heavy lifting alone. Too many of us have done that for too long.

We are all responsible for it.

 

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I myself incline to drift, to accept a lesser situation rather than strive for a greater, and yet, I know that character in life and art is only made by an effort that is quite beyond one’s ordinary everyday acceptance of things as they are. 

–Lawren Harris, Letter to Catherine Whyte

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Came across this quote from one of my favorites, the painter Lawren Harris, and it really stood out for me on a couple of fronts.

Personally, it was a reminder that an artist’s character is developed by continuing to push beyond what they know they can do. To become more and not settle for the situation as it is. It’s easy to do what you know is possible but trying to do what you are not sure is within your grasp builds confidence, builds character. That is what moves the needle.

That’s an important thing for any artist to have in mind. I know I have to kick myself on a regular basis to not lull myself to sleep by doing what I know I can do and not attempting to do that new thing that seems too much for me to handle.

But on a larger scale, Harris’ words speak to where we are as a nation at this very moment, We are in a crucial moment and what happens in the coming days and weeks will determine both where we are headed as a nation and what makes up our collective character. Do we take the easy way that just accepts things as they are? Or do we pull from deep within our character and do that which is right even though it might require true effort and perhaps even sacrifice?

I wish I could say which way it will go but I don’t know. I believe that there is so much more that will be soon uncovered that to maintain the status quo will be untenable and there will be big change.

That the character we aspire to as a nation will finally come forward.

But that’s just my belief. Like all beliefs, without effort, it’s not worth much.

I thought the painting at the top, Light House at Father Point, was a great symbol for this post. The light house is a warning device, one that alerts sailors that they are approaching an area where they must proceed with caution.

We are at such a point as well. If we don’t pay attention we could end up on the rocks.

Let’s heed the warning from our own light house and not just take what is at hand as being the way things should be.

Let’s make an effort.

Let’s be more.

Let that define our character.

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