WELCOME - Let's Look At Life and Rant About It!!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Today In My Obit ...

Yes, my obituary. No, I'm not sick or making some kind of creepy statement. I was just remembering a journalism class from my graduate school days where we had to practice ordering facts and researching follow-up information by crafting fictitious obituaries. And not just the short name-rank-and-serial-number type ... we had to create obits that , in reality, would cost a fortune to ever have printed. I also remember the final project in that class was an obituary for a famous person and like four people chose Michael Jackson. Weird, huh?

Anyway, even though I basically write and research things all day at work, I thought I might start doing some simple exercises in the evenings ... when I felt like it ... to strengthen my "voice." And since it was always such an eerie but kind of trippy thing to do, I'm gonna write my OWN obituary.

To suit
the mood, I'm gonna make my death mysterious ... found by family in bed, no signs or foul play, and no history of drug use or serious health issues. I'm also going to have been much more involved in my community, sitting on the volunteer boards of several charities and serving as a "big brother" to more than a dozen disadvantaged youths over the years. And besides my international travel fetish and my love of all things Native American, there's going to be a section devoted to the important people I've influenced and maybe a quote from one or two of the more famous individuals I had met on my short trip down the highway of like.

The last part of my self-imposed assignment made me chuckle to myself, but it also got me to thinking ... had I ever met anyone who was actually famous? Not a mayor or a broadcaster from the six and eleven o'clock news kind of famous ... hell, I run into them all the time at Denny's packing away waffles and sucking down coffee like it was air. No, people that if you told someone you'd met them, they'd go "Damn ... them's some famous folk!!"

I must be more Irish than I've been led to believe because I actually have met a handful of bonafide famous people. First off, I've met the late 40th President of the United States and Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan. Well, I shook his hand twice. When I was in high school, I was into choir. I had a pretty decent voice and I liked to sing. And if anybody knows from watching "GLEE," no choir director in his or her right mind turns down a willing male participant. So I sang ... and I danced in something called "Show Choir" ... and during the summer before my junior year, my choir director ... a funny gentleman named Mr. Francis ... got me to apply to be in the "All-Ohio State Fair Youth Choir." This group of fresh-faced high school vocalists from all over the state resided at the state fair during its entirety and provided daily performances for the public and special interest groups. It sounds geeky, but it was really a wonderful experience.

During the first week of the fair, the group was ushered downtown to a fancy hotel to sing three numbers for a Republican Party support initiative. This was no easy task because there were like 120 of us. I clearly remember being told to be quiet as we moved down these corridors created by the spaces between partition walls. And every few yards, there was a beefy security guard standing just out of our way. Then the line broke out into the light and we were led onto risers. Being a fairly tall tenor, I was placed a few rows back just right of center. We sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" ... I still remember my part ... and then stood there as a stately, well-groomed gentleman asked us to remain while he introduced someone who was making a few special remarks before our other two selections.

So there in the hot banquet hall in out white shirts and crisp navy slacks we stood as former President Reagan was helped to the podium. He would have been around 86 at the time ... he was the oldest person to date to be elected to the U.S. presidency at age 69, after all ... and was clearly in declining health. We were told later that the man known for his "war on drugs" and "trickle down" economic policies was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease just a few years earlier, but he still worked hard to support his political beliefs. His remarks at the event were brief but well received. But what was the best part for me was the fact that when he both entered and left the stage, he shook the hands of all of us "kids" around him. I actually shook the hand of a one-time world leader. I'm getting goosebumps just writing about it.

It was close to four year later when I had my next brush with fame. I was away at college when a good friend, Andy, called me and wanted to know if I might be coming home that weekend. Andy got a job right out of high school at a big printing plant, but he and I made a real effort to stay close. I told him that, yes, I was coming home and started to describe how much laundry I had amassed when he interrupted me. "Dude," he said, "a guy at work bought tickets for him and his wife to go to a comedy special at Ashland University, but something came up and they can't go. He gave me the tickets ... for FREE!!"

"Who's performing?" I asked, caught up in Andy's obvious excitement.

"Jerry Seinfeld!"

Andy was a huge fan of "Seinfeld," the quirky NBC comedy "about nothing" that ran for nine seasons from 1989 to 1998. For me, the show was a hit or miss thing, but I though Seinfeld himself was a truly humorous guy. The Friday night show was packed with students and fans like us. The Ashland University show was part of the comedian's "getting back to my roots" campaign, which included shows on dozens of college campuses and at small venues. Jerry was on fire that night ... and he did some of his really old bits, like the "single sock in the dryer" shtick. I laughed like a fool.

It was fairly late when the show got out, and then we had to navigate through congested parking and regular Friday night traffic to get to the highway. I asked Andy if we could stop and get coffee and he said there was a place right beside the exit ... he actually wanted a milkshake. Well, great minds must think alike because about 20 minutes later while we were working our way through a coffee, a milkshake, and a huge shared plate of chili-cheese fries, the door to the diner opened and in walked Jerry Seinfeld with two other gentlemen. They took a seat and I don't think the server knew who he was. But most of the scant patrons did, and a middle-aged woman approached his table and proclaimed her "biggest fan" status. And I'm not ashamed to admit that, once the "borders" were breached, Andy and I were the next two at the star's table. We kept it brief ... after all, Jerry and his associates were just stopping to get a quick pie and coffee fix ... but Andy did run out to the car to retrieve his program and got a wonderful comment and autograph. I bet if I called him right now, he would know exactly where that program is stored.

Later on in my college career, I was accepted into a writer's symposium and one of the final guest lecturers was Ray Bradbury, the award-winning author of dozens of sci-fi and fantasy novels ... such as "The Martian Chronicles" and "Fahrenheit 451" ... as well as a collaborator on several film and televisions adaptations of his work. The symposium organizers had a cocktail party for Bradbury and I weaseled my way on to the prep committee so I could go. The author was 82 at the time and in a wheelchair, but the man was so robust and full of wisdom and charm that you forgot any of his physical limitations. I learned more about storytelling in 30 minutes from just loitering near Ray then I had during the entire symposium. When he asked those around him for questions, I was too intimidated to speak up. One of my life's little regrets, I guess.

Pop music has always been a love of mine ... simple, emotional, and built to stay on the tongue of the masses. A few years ago, I ran into a sister of a friend who happened to be dating a mid-level manager at one of Columbus' hottest radio stations. Anyway, she remembered how much I loved Cyndi Lauper and invited me to a concert she was performing at a smaller club near the Short North. I was thrilled. She gave me some details and said that her sister was going and that the four of us could sit together.

I wasn't familiar with that trendy area of the city or its small supper clubs. Parking was almost non-existent, but finally I found a spot and met my friend Wendy outside the club. She had our passes ... not tickets, but passes. The club was definitely small, dominated by a stage, a piano, and a few musical instruments. We found Wendy's sister, Traci, and her boyfriend, Hobie, easily, and sat to enjoy an opening act of a local jazz/swing fusion group. The place was dark and moody and I felt like I'd leaped back in time to the 1940s. And that feeling continued when I sat with rapt attention as the bleached nightingale named Cyndi Lauper did a short set of her velvet classics "Time After Time," "True Colors," and "All Through The Night," as well as a few bawdier melodies and covers.

The lights came up and the more than 70 guests applauded wildly. Amidst scuffing chair legs and murmurs of adoration for the performances, I started for the door when Hobie gently grabbed my arm. "Hey, man ... don't you wanna meet Cyndi?" he asked. I grew suddenly concerned ... surely I was having some type of brain malfunction that affected my hearing. Meet her ... meet HER ... Meet Cyndi Lauper!

She was sitting backstage on a small sofa surrounded by a small group of people ... the club owner, her assistants, a few fans, and other people from the radio station. She looked fragile, a bit winded from giving so much of herself to the audience. But once she caught her breath, the light of her personality hit us all like crashing surf. She joked, told stories, and talked in that thick Brooklyn accent she affects so well. She was like the "crazy aunt" you never want to leave when she visits from out of town ... you know, the one who is so much fun that you wonder if anyone would notice if you threw her clothes away and hid in her suitcase. It was a surreal moment when Cyndi took my hand and called me "a tall drink of tap water."
Earlier in this post I said I had experienced a "handful" of intersections with the famous. Well. Reagan was my "thumb" encounter ... strong and upbeat even when things grew dark. Seinfeld was my crazy "pinkie" run-in ... all mirth and frivolity. My "index finger" moment was Bradbury ... pointing out the crazy workings of the literary world. Any Cyndi was my "ring finger" meeting ... where sheshown like a dazzling diamond.

My "middle finger" moment is dedicated to actor Billy Bob Thornton. He's an intense actor and plays a surprisingly diverse range of roles. But a few years ago, I "met" Thornton at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. And by "met" I mean he was so drunk he ran into me and nearly knocked me on my ass without a "Sorry, man" leaving his inebriated lips.

POINT OF RANT: Manners are
truly dead, and Billy Bob Thornton was their assassin!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Today At My Friend's House ...

I know I've blogged about shopping for toys before, but yesterday I had the experience of being schooled by a child about the wonder of playing with them, so I wanted to write about it.

I've mentioned my friend Stacey and her daughter Taryn before. Well, Taryn has a four-year-old sister named Calista (where they got these names I have no idea) ... Cali for short. I stopped by to see Stacey about a mutual friend, Mike, who had been in a minor car accident but needed some help getting to and from physical therapy for a leg injury. Mike was getting around pretty well, but he just couldn't bend and shift very well to drive a car. As Stacey and I sat sipping coffee ... very bad coffee ... and making plans to help Mike with his transportation woes, Cali emerged from her room with a colorful box. She marched over to her mother and uttered a suggestion with truly childish abandon ... "Let's play Hippo!!"

"Not right now, Cali ... Mommy's talking."

Like only a little kid can, Cali tapped into a her "indignant gene" and emphatically stomped her foot. "I wanna play Hippo now!"

I could see that Stacey was a little embarrassed by her daughter's outburst as she rose from her seat and started scooting Cali back to her bedroom. "Honey," she cooed, "you need to play by yourself for a little bit longer. I'm almost finished talking, and once I get dinner started you and I can play Hippo ... okay?" Cali's response was to wrap her free arm around Stacey's leg, arresting her progress toward the little girl's room. She also stiffened her body to become an instant dead weight. I'd seen this technique used by bored children in banks, department stores, and in line at the grocery. Hell, I can remember using the "limp fish maneuver" as a little kid to frustrate both my parents.

I really didn't want to witness an escalation in hostilities between mother and daughter, so I offered to sit and play with Cali at the dining room table ... Stacey could get her "water boiling" and "stuff chopped" while we discussed helping out our recuperating buddy.

The game that Cali opened and quickly set up was "Hungry Hungry Hippos." The premise is pretty simple and bears a striking resemblance to the name on the box. The game is a little plastic arena, but instead of virile gladiators you have four brightly colored hippopotamus heads. Beside each head is a lever ... pulling it extends the neck and opens the jaws of your "player" which allows them to attempt to gobble up white marbles that have been dropped onto the playing surface. "Eating" the most marbles means you win because YOU have the hungriest hippo!

These smiling "river horses" attached to the game looked very happy ... not dangerous at all like real hippos. Hippos are the third largest land animal on the planet. And they are extremely aggressive. I'd seen an episode or two of National Geographic before ... these puppies are used to fending off crocodiles and lions. And they routinely attacked humans for no apparent reason. And I also distinctly remembered that hippos mark their territory by simultaneously crapping and spinning their tails, flinging their "hip-poo" to cover the largest area possible. Smiling or not, I wasn't sure I wanted to be positioned behind one in a child's game.

But Cali looked so cute and competitive, sitting on her knees in a dining chair with her shoulders all hunched and fingers tensed. This was big stakes to her, so I put my own game face on and prepared to rumble.

"You gotta count to fwee," she explained, "then we go."

"Fwee?" I asked.

"Fwee ... one, two, and fwee."

Nodding my understanding, I counted down slowly and then our two hippos began munching on the rolling little marble morsels. Cali and I were pretty even after just a few seconds, but then I slowed down and let her hippo eat the lion's share. "Come on ... you gotta try!" she encouraged. The little tyke wanted her victory to be an honest one. So for the next 20 minutes, we played like eight rounds of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Cali was a true competitor ... she would set her jaw as she concentrated on getting to the marbles first. Her non-levering hand would smack the table when she grew frustrated. She even tried to tilt the board a couple of times when she thought I wouldn't see so that the marbles would roll closer to her herbivore's gaping maw. And like a true focused gamesperson, she completely ignored me when I tried to "wow" her with the fact that hippos were sort of descended from whales like at Sea World, and that their bodies produced natural sunscreen oils like Mommies put on little kids to keep them from getting scorched outside.

After suffering a series of withering looks for my efforts to make game time educational, we continued to play a ninth round with Stacey announcing that it was the "last one" before Cali had to go clean up her room. I had won two games, Cali six ... but we both had genuinely had a food time.

Cali took game 9 and went off to do her chores as promised. I joined Stacey in the kitchen, declining another cup of her foul java. While my good friend mentioned a number of ways we might assist Mike other than just getting him to his last few physical therapy appointments, I kept going back to my recent stint as a fighting hippo. Now I own a Wii and an XBox, and one shelf in my coat closet has technological versions of Yahtzee and Trivial Pursuit. My desk drawer at work is littered with hand-held poker, blackjack, and slot machine games. And every time I boot up my computer at the office or here at home, there beckons the icons for solitaire, hearts, and "Bejeweled." But do any of these really compare to some of the wonderful toys I explored as I child?, I thought to myself as Stacey stirred more oregano into her marinara sauce.

Other than my parents, grandparents, and my siblings (my oldest brother for the most part),
my first two loves in life were Milton Bradley's iconic "Candy Land" and "Chutes and Ladders." The first belonged to my sister but I loved the little characters ... I always had to be Lord Licorice or I would cry ... and the idea of cool places made of candy. My little brain always thought that Gumdrop Mountain and the other sugary regions of the board were far away tourist destinations that I could visit when I was older, like the North Pole. C 'n' L was just cool, and I never cared about winning ... I just wanted my game piece to slide down as many slides as possible.

Then came "Mr. Potato Head," the dude who sat on my dresser at night and watched over me like a starchy guardian angel. Introduced by Hasbro in 1952, this toy was basically a plastic potato with a variety of limbs, facial features, and accessories that could be plugged into little potato "eyes" to create different looks and moods. Mine had a ball cap ... he never got "uppity" with the little top hat or derby. Mr. Potato Head has been one of the most robust toys ever created. Over the years, he acquired a wife ... Mrs. Potato Head. Then came the children ... sweet daughter Yam and spunky son Spud. He became available in several occupational themes ... police man, firefighter, construction worker, and more. There have even been versions available depicting every major sports franchise and novelty creations like Santa Claus and a Star Wars-inspired "Darth Tater." I have an Iron Man-styled iteration on my desk at work ... it's known as "Tony Starch."

When I was maybe five, I hit a major artistic phase in my life. I went through crayons and markers like crazy. My parents started buying rolls of butcher's paper from a deli in town so I'd always have a surface for my creativity. That Christmas, Santa rewarded me for good deeds I apparently didn't clearly remember doing ... I received both a "Play-Doh Fun Factory" and a Kenner "Spirograph" set. Play-Doh was actually invented in Cincinnati ... yeah Buckeye ingenuity ... in the 1950s as a wallpaper cleaner; it was by accident that the family who created it found a use as an impromptu toy in a nursery school. The "factory" came with a few cans of "dough" and a press with several punched-out nozzles to alter the shape of the extruding clay-like substance. My mother spent that first week after the holiday picking colored dough in varied shapes and sizes out of every nook and cranny in our home ... under the couch cushions, in coffee table drawers, embedded in throw rugs, and even mashed into silverware that I used to give my colorful creations some extra panache. My parents appreciated the toy's appeal ... non-toxic, non-staining, and reusable ... but they both grew tired of acting amazed ... and fake "hungry" ... when I kept presenting them with platters of puffy hamburgers and sauceless spaghetti and meatballs.

But the whole family loved the Spirograph. Not only did they all enjoy making the crazy geometry-inspired shapes by manipulating the templates and plastic "gears," but it was a toy that needed minimal supervision ... there were some pins involved, but apparently that wasn't a concern ... and it could keep me busy and quiet for hours. I had drawings taped everywhere. I was very proud of each masterpiece.

But trouble was brewing on the horizon. Around age 7 my father came home one evening with a gift for the family ... the game "Sorry." The whole family loved racing around the game board, sometimes sliding ahead with their smooth little futuristic game pieces ... like a little hat from the "Jetsons" ... and sometimes sending players back to "start" ... always accompanied by the whiny and sarcastic group chanting of "soooooorrrrryyyyyy!!!!" just like on the TV commercials promoting the popular game.

Someone speaking suddenly caught my attention. "I'm glad this is almost over," Stacey said with a little puff of exaggerated air. I think I actually jumped a little on my bar stool as the sound of my friend's voice brought my mind out of its youthful wanderings.

"What's over?" I asked.

"Having to drive mike around ... weren't you listening?"

Maybe all of the zest and youthful zeal I felt while playing those games and creating fun things with those toys hadn't been beaten out of me with adulthood. Maybe playing with Cali reminded me that life wasn't always about the gas bill or getting to work on time or not letting the milk in the frig go sour. Because right then and there, I so wanted to tell Stacey "soooooorrrrryyyyyy!!!!" just like a feisty seven year old!

POINT OF RANT: Everyone needs to listen to their inner child every once in a while!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Today On The Birthday List ...

Ray Douglas Bradbury ... aka Ray ... was born today in 1920 during the Depression in Waukegan, Illinois. He grew up with a strong work ethic derived from his Swedish immigrant mother and utility lineman father. From a very young age, Bradbury haunted his local library, devouring all types of fiction. Two of his paternal relatives were noted newspaper publishers, so maybe my theories on genetics and creativity are truly valid.

Anyway, the Bradbury family moved about following employment opportunities, but finally settled in Los Angeles. Ray never attended college, claiming that "libraries raised me!" Bradbury published his first professional story, "Hollerbochen's Dilemma," in 1938 in Imagination!. His first paid piece, "pendulum," was published in Super Science Stories in 1941 and earned him $15 ... today a decent dinner and beer at Applebee's. Over the years, Ray Bradbury has published dozens of books and short stories, and has been involved in more than 20 film dramatizations of his work. I remember him most from his television work as seen on shows like "Night Gallery," "Twilight Zone," and "The Ray Bradbury Theater."

Bradbury is probably best known for his novels "Fahrenheit 451" ... if you haven't read it, do!! .. and "The Illustrated Man," and his works that became the acclaimed "The Martian Chronicles" ... did you see the TV movie version with Rock Hudson? ... wicked cool! But I'd say that Bradbury's most notable achievement was how he successfully criss-crossed the lines between fantasy, mystery, horror, science fiction, and social commentary, setting the bar incredibly high for current and future authors.

He might not agree, though, since his mantle is pretty crowded with a Emmy, a World Fantasy Award, an honorary doctorate from Woodbury University, the National Medal of Arts, and more. And he has a "star" on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an asteroid ... yes, a space rock ... named in his honor. What he doesn't have ... which I find funny and delightful ... is a valid driver's license. Ray Bradbury has never learned to drive in 90 years.

I celebrate Ray Bradbury's birthday because I enjoy his work and attention to detail when creating fantasy worlds peopled with sometimes-alien-but-all-too-human characters. I also celebrate because I had the privilege of meeting the man very briefly. During one summer in my undergraduate college years, I applied for and was accepted to a young writers symposium/workshop. It was held at a university campus and attended by around 85 other aspiring writer juniors and seniors ... even a few sophomores for good measure. The work was grueling and competitive, but the guest lecturers were fantastic. During the last week, there was a cocktail party held for a special visiting author ... none other than Ray Bradbury. I weaseled my way onto the planning committee which made me one of a dozen attendees who got the opportunity to attend the cocktail event and listen to the man comment on life and his work. I remember he was very wise and gentle, and knew how to put away a drink or three.

I was almost 22 at the time, and the opportunity to meet someone like that and actually get to ask him a question or two was thrilling. The bar we were in had a small upstairs for music ... mostly jazz ... and the college had rented it for the party. There was cheese cubes and finger foods circulating amidst a collection of overstuffed chairs and sofas ... imagine those comfy seats at Barnes & Noble. And the booze was flowing like a very active volcano! I imagined "this" was what all the artists and musicians and poets and novelists did in the '60s and '70s ... lounged around and discussed literature and world events. I've rarely felt so heady with coolness.

I got very, very drunk!

POINT OF RANT: Happy 90th, Ray Bradbury ... and many more!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Today In A High Chair ...

This clip never fails to lighten my day! If a baby could be kept at this age and brightness of spirit, I'd consider adopting a whole brood of them. Angelina Jolie has met her match!!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Today At The Fair ...

Last night was the first night of our county fair. I've been doing extra sit-ups and leg work to build up my stamina for the event. Fairs mean lots of walking, moving like a ninja to avoid the elderly on electric carts and all the animal droppings placed like land mines in the parking areas. Fair also means gravity-defying rides that look so repaired and piecemealed that there should be an insurance agent sitting beside the ticket booth to offer you additional coverage as you buy your chit for the "Zipper" or the "Tornado." The arrival of the county fair also represents a week of almost anything you can imagine deep-fried or skewered on a stick. Pickles ... cheese ... ice cream ... bananas ... oreos ... onion rings on a scale with the planet Saturn. Literally Heaven, well, on a stick!

But all this pales in comparison to the fascination my mind receives from a full week of watching the continual parade of incest and inbreeding and youthful disobedience and revolting displays of PDA that is County Fair Week!!

I'm out and about in my community fairly frequently, but why is it that fair week seems to unearth people of dubious genetics and, undoubtedly, extra toes. Honestly, I'm a mellow guy who rolls with most punches, but when I go to the fair I run into more unwashed, slack-jawed, loud and aggressive individuals then I normally would in a five-year period. It's more than just the outrageous piercings and the ludicrous amounts of tattoos ... both of which I think are cool in moderation ... but it's the confrontational attitudes and the cutting in lines and the being downright disrespectful to other fair-goers that renew my strong beliefs in birth control and abortion. I actually watched a pack of "motorcycle" chicks call out a family with two small children ... one in a stroller ... because they didn't feel they needed to wait their turn for fresh-squeezed lemonade! Do these cantankerous coots come in on buses? Is Jerry Springer taping shows again nearby? Does the fair board offer a discount for the downtrodden that I've never heard about?

And I mentioned PDAs ... public displays of affection. The retort "Get A Room!" was undoubtedly created at a county fair when someone with above-average morals asked a pair of recent high school graduates to quit having face sex on the midway. Or maybe it was when a feisty older lady, seeing one of the carny couples "rounding third and heading for home" between the livestock buildings, had just had enough.

I'm not a prude ... I have a serious porn collection, after all ... but I really don't want to see Olympics-level tonsil hockey between people I assume are brother and sister, nor do I get a thrill out of witnessing a middle-aged attraction worker promise a high school girl "the big pink pony" ... God, I hope he meant the stuffed animal ... if he can peek at her perky, underage breasts. Not now ... not ever!!

When I was a teenager, I loved the fair ... started mowing lawns as soon as spring hit so I'd have plenty of money to blow on rides and treats and games of chance. I also begged all my "rural" friends to let me stay a night in the animal barns with them because I heard they stayed up all night talking and telling scary stories. Now, I look at the teenaged fair goers and wonder what kind of alcohol I smell on them as they walk by. At yesterday's opening night, I watched two wasted girls claw at each other because one said something "bitchy" on Facebook. About 20 minutes later, I saw a mob of about 20 laughing young people encircled around a skinny boy of maybe 15 as he projectile vomited his alcohol-filled guts out. Of course, they all had their cell phones out taking pics and vid footage. "I'm sending this to everyone," one gawking girl proclaimed. Another teen said he was gonna try and be the first to get it posted on YouTube. At that moment, I felt so good about not having any children of my own.

POINT OF RANT: Maybe I should avoid "Tractor Pull Night" ... the crowds at the demolition derby might be more my cup of tea!!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Today At A Framing Shop ...

My friend Stacey took a photo in my new neighborhood and presented it as a housewarming gift. She had it matted and framed, but ... without sounding like a douche ... it's really not my taste. And, although I love my new place, the neighborhood isn't going to be awarded anything by the mayor anytime soon. But a gift from a friend is a gift from a friend, so I decided to see if a different frame might be an easy fix.

I know framing can be expensive, but I decided to look at a local frame shop with a clear price "ceiling" in mind. I didn't get much further than the front of the store. See, there was this box of large prints marked "Great Art, Bargain Prices." And the only visible clerk seemed to be busy with another customer, so I thought I'd just work through the box to see what was considered "great" and a "bargain" in this place.

I knew it was mine the minute I pulled it out of the box and looked at it full on in all its cellophane-wrapped glory. Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent van Gogh ... painted the year of his death. It had been a favorite of mine since a barely-passed college art history course. The blues and golds of the painting seemed to vibrate ... both on the slide in that long-ago class and on the print in my hand. The work was also part of a series that was supposed to be views from van Gogh's cell in an asylum ... the guy was supposedly a serious nutjob!

I got the attention of another clerk who I hadn't first noticed ... an older woman who was really well-dressed, like out-on-the-town groomed. I was white knuckling the print, so I think she knew I really liked the piece ... or was hyped up on Red Bull. And so she told me a few things about the artist that I did not know.

The story of Vincent Willem van Gogh is not that of a typical world art icon. Born to Dutch parents in 1853, van Gogh was described as a serious, quiet, and moody child. Through a combination of Catholic education, home schooling, and boarding school (he was sent away from home at age 11), van Gogh eventually became employed by an art dealing firm and found success in both London and Paris. He was around 20.

van Gogh had always been accomplished at sketching ... a family "trait" accredited to a famous great uncle who was a renown 18th century sculptor ... so his love of art was genuine. He did, however, become jaded by the art world. His family was concerned with his brooding nature and odd bouts of depression, but supported his endeavors as best they could. At age 24, he left the art scene ... many say he was fired ... and flitted from a variety of menial labor positions and attempts at teaching. At around 27, he turned to his second love and another family focus ... ministry. van Gogh's father was a pastor, and van Gogh found a fulfilling job as a minister's assistant. Eventually he trained and tested to become a full pastor, but failed the attempt.

Not completely deterred, van Gogh became a missionary in a mining region in Belgium. To help pass the time and collect his thoughts, he began sketching people he saw in the community. It was at this time that he produced The Potato Eaters, his first notable work, at around the age of 32. He was also overheard during "fits of raving and screaming" and asked to resign from his mission work.

Disheartened, van Gogh returned to his family but within a year had moved on to Paris where he discovered the French Impressionist movement. He soon adopted many of their signature concepts such as the beauty of ordinary subject matter, brighter colors, very pronounced brush strokes, and the attempt to capture movement and light. These techniques became a cornerstone of the van Gogh we know today.

Over the course of the next few years, van Gogh moved about France (and much of Europe) and fretted with his art. He developed strong tendencies for drinking and smoking. And his battle with obvious mental illness continued at a frantic pace. At the age of 37, Vincent Willem van Gogh died from a self-inflicted gunshot would. He was largely unknown as an artist, with nearly 2,000 artworks to his name. Many were completed during the last two or three years of his life ... these would become some of his best known pieces and would secure him a position as one of history's greatest painters.

My print would be ready ... matted and framed ... in about three weeks. It was gonna run me about $260. The photo from Stacey went back home unaltered.

POINT OF RANT: Great art has no "ceiling" ... and I'm a pushover destined to live in debt.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Today At The Pet Superstore ...

I had a close friend named Gail. We met when she was hired by my employer and, because we had similar backgrounds and shared a dry sense of humor, we became lunch buddies and fast friends. Then tragedy struck ... Gail gave me a cat.

It was a complete surprise ... I was not in the market for a pet and I'm pretty sure I hadn't mentioned a burning need for feline companionship to Gail during sandwiches at Applebee's or one of our too-frequent work breaks. But what do you do? "Thanks, but no thanks ... please return this living, breathing thing to whence you found it."

So after leaving work early to purchase food (dry and wet), cat litter, litter pan and scoop, special "deodorized" litter disposal bags, and two or three amusing (a.k.a. stupid) pet toys, Gail met me at my newly-acquired apartment and transferred custody of a five-month old female Calico she insisted be called "Fluff." I was thinking that since she didn't fork over a dime for the $50 plus in bring-a-baby-home supplies, she had little say in the name. In fact, within a few days, Fluff became "Sweet Pickle" because while she ignored the brightly-colored cat toys, she thoroughly enjoyed batting at and rolling around a small jar of gherkins I had sitting on an open shelf. Sometimes it's "SP" for short.

Our cohabitation started out okay. Sweet Pickle took to the litter box like a pro and we developed a quick understanding of her food preferences ... "paws up" for salmon- and tuna-flavored food and "paws down" to chicken, this point often made with a dash of kitty upchuck. She even developed a cute little romance with my laptop, purring at it lovingly while she scratched her chin on the edges of the screen and nuzzled the side vent that emitted warm air. Hey, maybe this pet thing would be okay. We'd develop a system of being buds. Maybe I'd even arrange a playdate for SP and the "Surprised Kitty." (See March 17 posting.)

Then the "bad things" happened. The first was a chewed up pair of Ipod earbuds. Then the bathroom blinds were attacked in what I think was a racially-motivated hate crime, but there were no witnesses. Then my new cushions for my dining room chairs developed mysterious "slits" in them, allowing the foam padding to playfully peek out at guests. The list of damages continues to grow.

And now I'm faced with another dilemma ... I may have to change Sweet Pickle's name to "Mr. Clean" because she's obviously going bald. Where is all this fur coming from?! Over the past four days, I have collected enough loose fur to build another cat. I kid you not ... I can barely touch her and the hairs literally fly from her body at supersonic speeds to adhere to my clothes, furniture, curtains, air molecules, everything.

I know that humans, especially us males, are cursed with hair loss trends that stem from a combination of heredity, nutrition, and environment. And science blames our "follicle abandonment" on a sex hormone called DHT which increases as we age. DHT causes the width of hair shafts to diminish, so that, over time, hair become fine and wispy or jumps ship altogether.

Like most animals, cats have developed thick coats of fur to protect them from the elements. Once or twice a year, major seasonal changes should cause a cat's coat to thin (or shed). Domesticated cats (like indoor pets), however, are somewhat confused ... their natural link to the seasons and light/dark cycles is out of whack. It's like their brains are saying "time to shed" and "time to grow" all the time.

Because of SP's lack of natural balance, I met Kim, an extremely perky sales associate at my local "pet supermarket." "You need to groom her more consistently and thoroughly," Kim suggests. That's cool, I think, because I love to pet Sweet Pickle ... she purrs like an old vacuum whose bag should have been changed like two weeks prior. So smiling Kim takes me to the grooming aisle where there are more choices than I would have guessed. There are combs and brushes that look like, well, combs and brushes. And then there are combs and brushes that look kind of like ice scrapers with bent wire bristles that "gently" pull and collect loose fur. All they really look is painful, and can imagine my cat turning one of them on me in the dead of night as payback ... no sale. I spot some devices that look like lint rollers with bad complexions. Kim assures me they would be an effective option, but I don't see how it would be aggressive enough.

Then, spotlighted in a dusty sunbeam that SP would love to play in, I spy the "Grooming Glove," a red silicone-like mitt with nubs that massage your pet while pulling away loose fur. Kim grabs one from the hanging rack and walks me over to a bin of yelping kittens for sale. She opens the box, dons the glove, and drops to a crouch to apply the tool to a small gray feline. It seems to like the thing and there is a good amount of fur that Kim easily grabs and discards. I'm sold.

Sweet Pickle, however, is not. SP hates the glove, or "Mitten of Doom" as I'm sure she thinks of it. She hisses when I put it on and runs to hide. The few times I've trapped her and actually used it, she growls in a strange lower register and her claws and I become "intimate." Lately, when I even think of getting the glove from the kitchen cupboard where it's stored, there is an audible displacement air ... POOF!! ... and the cat is gone to ground.

So I've given up my campaign against fur for a bit. And while Sweet Pickle flourishes, the friendship between Gail and I continues to dwindle. She clearly feels guilty about her pushy gift giving. At first, she would almost hound me for "pet updates," but my stories often contained the details of what the cat had damaged, ruined, or outright destroyed. Now Gail and I are reduced to basic pleasantries and an occasional wave in the parking lot ... lunch dates have not occurred in some time. Oh well ... life goes on.

POINT OF RANT: At my house, fur is always in fashion!