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Dogs and Cats Living Together Since 1968

Year: 2013 (page 1 of 3)

Vincent van Gogh’s Struggle

I’ve been reading Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith seemingly forever, taking breaks now and then to read other books. It’s a tome but I’ve enjoyed getting to know Vincent, which is possible because we have a treasure trove of letters between him, his siblings, his parents and others. Has any other great artist left behind such a complete inventory of his or her thoughts? And short of reading all those letters, it’s hard to imagine a better way to get to know Vincent than reading this exhaustive biography. Naifeh and Smith have read the letters for us.

I’m not done with the book so I don’t what happens to Vincent in the last seven years of his life (except that the art he created in those last seven years changed the world). I’m in 1883 when, at age 30, after bouts with mental illness, a string of failed relationships and broken friendships, a life of failed endeavors despite extensive work painting & drawing, and no success whatsoever, Vincent is forced to move back in with his parents because he has nowhere else to go.

As a former girlfriend of mine (who says a lot of smart things like this) pointed out to me, we know far too little about the struggles of artists prior to their success. That is what we should be teaching in schools, the struggle to become a creator. Instead all we talk about are the creations. I wish as a young wannabe writer I had known more about the struggle. It’s not that I thought becoming a writer would be easy. I just did not fully realize how hard it would be. It’s easier to climb a mountain when you know you setting out to climb a mountain.

After Vincent moves home, he spends a lot of time arguing with his father Dorus, who is a minister in the Dutch village of Nuenen. In this excerpt (p. 373-5 of the paperback version of the bio) you get a good feel for Vincent van Gogh’s struggle during the first thirty years of his life, not so much the particulars but his state of mind:

Their clashes sometimes lasted three or four hours, according to one witness. Even when they ended–when Vincent stormed out–they didn’t end. Every shouting match was followed by long stretches of silence in the parsonage, a darkness of recrimination far more threatening than the fireworks of temper. Just as he had in Etten two years earlier, Vincent spent days pretending to be “invisible”–enacting the very judgment that he protested against. Rather than speak to his parents, he wrote them notes. At meals, he pulled his chair to the corner of the room, placed his plate on his lap, and sat in utter silence. He ate with one hand, using the other to shield his face, as if hiding. When his behavior attracted reproving stares, he accused his parents of treating him like “a big, rough dog” that “runs into the room with wet paws,” barks too loud, and “gets in everybody’s way.” Possessed by this conceit, he spun it into a long, bitter indictment that hints at an even more bizarre playing-out of the judgments against him.

He is a foul beast. All right–but the beast has a human history, and though only a dog, he has a human soul, and even a very sensitive one, that makes him feel what people think of him . . . The dog feels that if they keep him, it will only mean putting up with him and tolerating him, “in this house” so he will try to find another kennel. The dog is in fact Father’s son, and has been left rather too much in the streets, where he could not but become rougher and rougher . . . The dog might bite, he might become rabid, and the constable would have to come to shoot him. . . . The dog is only sorry that he did not stay away, for it was less lonely on the heath than in this house, notwithstanding all the kindness. . . . I have found myself–I am that dog. [Vincent’s quote, italics in original]

Trapped in this cycle of abuse and escalating outrages, Dorus and Anna van Gogh coped in the only ways they knew how. They offered the universal panaceas of new clothes and earnest prayers. They offered to lend Vincent money to pay off his debts. They complimented his drawings (“He is doing several that we think are beautiful,” Dorus reported to Theo.) They made hopeful excuses. “When he looks back and recalls how he has broken with all former relations,” Dorus explained, “it must be very painful to him.” Whenever possible, they surrendered to the storm of his moods. When he demanded a studio–like Rappard’s [a gentleman painter friend who Vincent aspired to be]–they set aside their objections and cleared a room in the parsonage that had been used for a laundry, spending precious funds to install a stove and a wooden floor “to make it nice and warm and dry.” They offered to put in a window for more light.

In perhaps the hardest concession of all, they capitulated to the immutability of their son’s strangeness. “We are undertaking the experiment with real confidence,” they wrote Theo soon after Vincent’s arrival, “and we intend to leave him perfectly free in his peculiarities of dress, etc. . . . There is simply no changing the fact that he is eccentric.”

But Vincent could not be satisfied. Every attempt at appeasement was met with greater and greater provocation as he focused the anger of a lifetime on his captive captors. He saw only criticism in their gifts (“my clothes were not good enough”) and condescending indulgence in their courtesies. “Their cordial reception grieves me,” he complained. “Their indulgence without acknowledging their error is, for me, perhaps worse than the error itself.” He referred to the laundry room dismissively as an “apology of a studio” and almost immediately began demanding a better one. He answered every offer of accommodation with more rigid demands and fiercer rhetoric. “I cannot stand the least appearance of being in agreement with [Father],” he wrote two weeks after arriving. “I am dead against him, absolutely in opposition to him.” When his parents expressed doubts about him remaining in Nuenen, Vincent resolved to stay; when they reaffirmed their welcome, he threatened to leave. The gift of the laundry room studio triggered walls of martyrdom (“you people do not understand me, and I fear you never will”) and the melodramatic vows to make himself scarce. “I must try to find a way not to ‘bother’ you or Father any longer,” he wrote Theo. “Let me go on my own way.”

Vincent, who ended up staying two years, sounds like a typical teenager and he acted like a teenager for many of the same reasons a teenager does. I think he hated being dependent on his brother and most frequent correspondent Theo (who had supported him and his parents for years) and hated being forced to live with his parents as a dependent. He yearned to be a successful, respected painter and pillar of the art world. Ironically his uncle and Theo were pillars of the art world. They were successful merchants of popular art prints. (One of several career paths Vincent had tried unsuccessfully.)

By 1883, Vincent had been painting and drawing diligently–obsessively–for years. It no doubt developed his artistic skills. The problem was, he had mostly been painting and drawing, for him, the wrong things (human models) in the wrong mediums (he was determined to succeed in black and white) in the wrong style (he seemed to favor realism over impressionism). He was about to start painting, for him, the right things (landscapes and scenes) in the right medium (oil) in the right style (his own).

The Parking Ticket Cowpie

I hate parking tickets. Who doesn’t? Sometimes you take a risk and get a ticket. You deserve that ticket. Other times you think you did everything right but get a ticket anyway. These blindsiding tickets are my focus here.

When I was little and my family celebrated every 4th of July in the mountains, my friend Annie and I used to put firecrackers in cowpies. We lit them and ran like hell. Getting a blindside parking ticket is like walking into an exploding cowpie. It is the opposite of paying it forward. It is a cowpie splattering across your day courtesy of your local government.

A few weeks ago, I parked in a one hour parking zone while I lunched on pizza. As I walked back to my car, I made eye contact with the parking guy and he quickly scuttled away. As he departed, I saw the yellow envelope of a parking ticket tucked into my car door. Cowpied! I was annoyed and confused. I had been gone for less than an hour. I inspected the ticket. The only clue was, “License plate 54-62,” so I knew something was wrong with my plates, but what? I looked at my front plate. It was leaning forward slightly. Still visible to anyone in front of me but leaning forward. I assumed that was the problem and was dumbfounded.

The City of Denver has cowpied me many times. Usually, they get me with street sweeping. It would be the second Wednesday of the month and I would forget. When you hear street-sweepers in the distance, my friends, it is already too late. Street swept once, shame on me, street swept twice — more shame on me. I was dumb to not learn my lesson. But let me tell you about the ticket that really pissed me off. I went to the hospital for a clinic appointment and parked at a meter. When I came out, I got splattered by the yellow cowpie. I was irate. I knew I had paid the meter. A closer look at the meter verified this. I checked the ticket. Swept again! I walked a few cars up and sure enough, there was the street sweeping sign. I bet they rake it in at those meters with the street sweeping. Pretty low, even for them. Because nobody goes to the hospital for fun. Most are patients or are visiting patients and they have more on their minds than parking.

Back to my pizza lunch ticket. I looked up Denver City Ordinance 54-62, which says, “It shall be unlawful for any person to drive, stop, park…any vehicle that has been assigned a license plate or plates, pursuant to Colorado law, unless the license plate or plates assigned to the vehicle for the current registration year is properly attached to and displayed on the vehicle….” An internet search revealed that most people with this type of ticket were not displaying one of their plates properly, such as putting one plate in a back window.

But I had both plates on. What was up? After staring at my back plate for a while, I realized my problem. My car registration renews in December of each year. Are you one step ahead of me? So when I renewed my registration, I accidentally put my new year sticker (“13”) over my month sticker (“12”) instead of my old year sticker (“12”). But was I in violation of the ordinance? My plates did in fact display my “registration year” — just not my month.

I filed a protest and my ticket was reduced from $75 to $25. Did they see my argument or do they offer a reduced fee to everyone who bothers to protest? I paid because it was worth $25 to put the matter behind me. The larger question is, do we want our local governments dropping cowpies on us? We have made the choice to allow this. Government claims they seek only to promote public safety. The street sweeping tickets, they say, are about keeping debris off the streets. Okay, let’s call their bluff. How about an ordinance saying they can only issue street sweeping tickets when there is actual street sweeping? The streets are not swept on every street sweeping day but tickets sure are handed out on every street sweeping day.

The truth is no city government wants to admit they are using parking tickets to raise revenue. Here in Colorado, such a practice might in fact be illegal. So they claim it is all about safety. Like my registration year sticker being over my month sticker? In Denver, parking management has said there are only more tickets because there are more parking officers. So all these new parking officers magically appeared on the streets one morning? Someone decided to hire more parking officers — to get more revenue.

Every company cultivates goodwill. With blindsiding tickets the city spreads ill will. The city cowpies its citizens and ruins our days. Is the added revenue worth the damage to our view of our government?

What can you do? Complain to your mayor, city manager, city council and so forth. They can change policy and the ordinances. Or, when you contribute to their political campaigns, deduct the cost of your most frustrating parking tickets and tell them you are doing so. This will make you feel better and, if enough people do it, it will get their attention.

I’m branching out to get more views so a cross-posting of this commentary will be available on my new Yahoo! Contributor Network page.

What the Zombie Apocalypse Can Teach Us About Education

In case of a zombie apocalypse, your #1 goal: get away from the zombies. Create a safe zone, a home base. Short-term survival. Once you collect all the survivors you must assess your new society’s resources. What skills do the people in your group bring to the table? Do you have a doctor? A general? A builder? Do you have supplies? Do you have access to more supplies? How long can you hold out? Then you worry about long-term survival because you cannot hold off the zombie horde forever.

You need a cure, a way to stop the zombie infection so no more zombies are created and eventually all the zombies can be eliminated. So if you have any surviving scientists you get them to work on a vaccine. What if you don’t have any scientists? Or the scientists you have fail? Or, more likely, the scientists you have take steps toward a vaccine but don’t find one. Then what?

You look to the next generation. You create scientists. You get all the children together in your safe zone and educate them. If you knew which kid was going to find the cure, you could focus your resources on educating him or her. But you do not. So you must educate ALL the children. Because you never know which brain is going to find the cure, or take the key step toward the cure. In your post-apocalyptic society you cannot afford to waste any resources.

In our pre-apocalyptic society, we cannot afford to waste any resources either. Because you never know which brain is going to cure cancer, or provide the critical breakthrough that leads to a cure. For that matter, nobody knows which brain will be the next Willa Cather or Raphael or Mozart — or King, Patton or Lincoln.

Every society rests on the blood, sweat and tears — and brains — of millions of its ancestors. Nobody knows which brains will provide the crucial innovations in a thousand fields. So if we don’t make it a priority to educate all children, we are wasting our country’s greatest resource, our brains. Not only that but uneducated brains are far more dangerous than zombies.

It would be terrific if every parent made the education of their children their top priority. That would be the most efficient way to run education. But not every parent does, so the rest of us must. This is why it is not enough to worry only about educating your kids. It is in the best interests of YOUR kids to educate ALL kids. And this is why education is not just an issue for parents. Education is an issue for everyone who lives in this society. We will all benefit from the cures, breakthroughs, great works of art and courageous acts of leadership, or we can spend our lives dodging the zombie-minds we chose to create.

I’m branching out to get more views so a cross-posting of this commentary will be available on my new Yahoo! Contributor Network page.

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