Monday, December 30, 2013

I Don’t Want to Be Choosy

Some of the men's part of the deodorant
aisle in my local supermarket.
My husband asked me to get him some deodorant at the grocery store. He said he liked the kind he had.

But when I got to the store – and to the entire aisle devoted to deodorant – I couldn’t find that kind.

I texted him, “So, what do you want in a deodorant?”

And since that seemed kind of nutty, I texted him a picture of the ridiculous wall of choices I was facing.

Did he want it to be a deodorant, an antiperspirant or both? A solid, a gel, a roll-on? Did he want to smell sporty or “shower fresh” or like a spring rain or like Old Spice? Did he want to go cheap or expensive?

I don’t want to think this hard about every item I throw in my shopping cart.

Nor do I want to contemplate all the little cryptic symbols on my camera when I take a picture. The camera came with not one, but two, books and also a “quick start” guide, just to explain those symbols. Guess what? I don’t use any of them.

That used to be the beauty of Apple products and also of a little video camera, the Flip, I bought for my kids several years ago. Someone (else) thought about what you might actually use and provided just that. The Flip has one big red button on it to push when you want to record.

I once interviewed a retailing expert about wine. Would you rather go online, he said, where you can get any wine ever made, and try to find your way, or would you rather go to a wine shop, where the selection has been “curated” for you?

The expert said the pendulum was swinging back, to less choice but more thoughtful choice.

OK by me.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cave Versus Museum

Image from the Houston Museum of Natural Science
Recently, I saw “The Cave Paintings of Lascaux,” an exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

I was struck by the difference between how curators experience the world and how artists, including these ancient ones, do.

The docent said, “You can see a horse's head in the body of this bison. We do not know why they painted the bison over the horse.”
Maybe, simply, because they didn’t like how the horse was coming out?

The exhibit had videos of how these Cro-Magnon people made their arrowheads and bone needles. But the videos depicted someone someplace warm and dry, with clean hands and fingernails, with his implements arrayed in front of him in the golden light of some idealized fire, quietly doing his work.

But Cro-Magnon people most likely lived outside, wrapped in animal skins against the winter cold, huddled near a smoky fire, living together in a noisy, dirty, chaotic group.

Every mark made in Lascaux has been pondered. According to Wikipedia, “Applying the iconographic method of analysis to the Lascaux paintings (studying position, direction and size of the figures; organization of the composition; painting technique; distribution of the color planes; research of the image center), Thérèse Guiot-Houdart attempted to comprehend the symbolic function of the animals, to identify the theme of each image and finally to reconstitute the canvas of the myth illustrated on the rock walls ….”

But ancient painters often had to crawl on their bellies through narrow tunnels to get to their caves and the first time the Lascaux paintings were seen with full lighting was when they were photographed in 1947. The artists themselves only saw them by the flickering flames they held in their hands.

Artists are the ones who crawl down into the dark. It’s people with a totally different mindset who shine a light on what’s been done.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Getting Taken

A guy selling magazines caught me out in my yard.

He was, clearly, part of a magazine crew – which, as this New York Times article reports, are bad outfits, particularly to the young people who work for them.

My guy was very much like this guy (who these people brilliantly managed to film). (How were they so quick with the camera?)

My guy also talked at triple speed. He also was black and spewed stereotypes: that he likes fried chicken, that he drinks Kool-Aid (I didn’t even know that was one), that he grew up in “the hood.”

What’s up with that? I guess it’s meant to make me, the white “Jones” (as we marks are called), so uncomfortable that I will give him money.
This guy told me so much in a few minutes, all of it, I’m assuming, lies. He told me he grew up in Chicago (he even named the neighborhood, which I didn’t quite catch). He told me he now lived in Utah, flashing a driver’s license at me. He said he was going to college (didn’t quite catch the name of that either), where he was majoring in “public speaking.” He told me he had, at age 20, a three-year-old daughter.

I gave him money.


Short answer: I’m an idiot.

Longer answer: It’s Christmas, I’ve been giving people gifts and money for weeks. I felt bad for him, even as he was playing me for a fool. I didn’t want a confrontation; I wanted him gone.

At least I knew not to buy anything from him. I gave him money, which he seamlessly said he wasn’t taking – couldn’t take –  for himself, that it would go for magazines for “needy children.” (Again, I didn’t catch the particulars.)

Makes me feel crappy.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Here's Our Christmas Tree

Such as it is.

So, Christmas has not been working out quite as planned.

We should be in Connecticut, with family, but two days before we were due to leave, two of us came down with the flu, and we had to cancel.

Then, by the time we got it together to get a tree here, there were none for sale.

What’s up with that? No Christmas trees available on December 23rd? I distinctly remember, when I was growing up, that some families did not put their tree up until Christmas Eve . . .

So, here’s the little fake tree we had in the closet.

Maybe I am still feverish, but I think it's kind of sweet, actually.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Pocketbook Paintings

© Diane Ursin
Though Mom's not usually a glitter person,
she did this for an ACEO contest
with the theme "All that Glitters."
When you think “art collector,” what springs to mind?

Someone vastly wealthy?

But it is possible to collect original works of art the way a kid collects trading cards.

As explained in this book, artists have long made miniature examples of their works. Back before images could be reproduced by technology, they would make small pictures to give potential buyers, sort of like a business card, or to trade with each other, so they could study each other’s styles. Buyers liked these “pocketbook paintings” so much, they began requesting ones of their families and friends so they could carry them with them, much the same as people used to carry snapshots in their wallets.

In 1997, a Swiss artist named M. Vanci Stirnemann made 1,200 card-sized pieces of art for a show – and at the end of it, invited people to make their own and trade with him. Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) were born. The idea behind these cards, which are the same size as kids’ trading cards (2 ½” by 3 ½”), is that their creators trade them amongst themselves – trade, not sell – preferably in person.

In 2004, an artist named Lisa Luree established a new kind of art card on eBay, one that could be sold. She called these Artists Cards Editions and Originals (ACEOs) to keep the difference between them and ATCs clear.

Now, not only are there thousands of ACEOs for sale on eBay (full disclosure: my mom, Diane Ursin, does ACEO cards as well as other artwork), but artist groups, such as the Nibblefest Art Contest (NFAC), stage regular contests, for ACEOs and other-sized artwork. A theme is declared – “All that Glitters,” “Sweet as Sugar” or “Giraffes” – and the artists get to work on their entries, submitting them by putting the cards for sale on eBay (starting price: 99 cents).

Saturday, December 21, 2013

An F for Flirting

It is painful to watch teenagers flirt.

It’s painful to watch them interact, period. I’m not sure how teachers stand it. When I am with a group of kids, there are always at least a couple of them spouting the most painful and embarrassing lines of bullshit you can possibly imagine. I am nice and pleasant, I nod, smile and encourage – they are children, after all – but inside my head I am screaming, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! For the love of God, stop talking!”

And the worst is when they are trying to flirt with each other.

They often insult each other without realizing it. Even when they are trying to tease, they lack the finesse to keep the teasing playful. Sometimes, they go way too far. Sometimes, they take offense when none was meant. Everything comes to a screeching halt.

They can’t decide whether they like each other or not. In fact, if they think the other one likes them back, they may very well decide they don’t like that person after all.

They just consider each other trophies. Girls in particular want a boyfriend to show that they have been “chosen.” One of my daughter’s friends started dating a boy but was dismayed to discover that he wanted to talk. (Eww.)

They don’t ask each other out on dates. They don’t go to movies or hang out at each other’s houses. Some only see each other at school; others only know each other online.

They are inordinately concerned with what their friends think of who they like – even though their friends are clearly just as insecure, competitive and squirrelly as they are.

It’s a wonder the human race reproduces.

Were we as bad as this?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Art of Growing Up

Pablo Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

He also said, interestingly, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.

Interesting because of the theories and observations (summed up nicely here) about why children draw the way they do.

Around 18 months, toddlers love to scribble. They don’t have good control of the crayons they are clutching in their fat little fists, but they will sometimes discover, with great pleasure, that the scribble they just made looks like something.

When they start intentionally drawing, around ages 2 to 4, one of the first things kids will draw are people, except the people won’t have torsos. A person will just be a big round head with arms and legs sticking out, which is sometimes referred to as a “tadpole figure.” Some theorize that it’s not that young children don’t see how a body really looks but that they draw only the parts most important to them: the head and face, which are oversized, also, all ten fingers and the belly button.

Between 5 and 8, kids begin to draw objects according to “schema.” Basically, they develop one way to draw a house, for example, and that’s the way they draw it in every picture.

Things start getting sad around age 9. Kids, who start trying to draw realistically around this age, will, at the same time, become very critical of their own drawings. They start worrying what others think and that their drawings don’t “measure up.” Most people stop drawing at this point.

Picasso also said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Monday, December 16, 2013

On Not Aging Gracefully

This is not me.
Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut
I really hadn’t given that much thought to aging, until a kid waiting on me in a store the other day
asked if the candy I was buying was for my grandchildren.

I almost grabbed him by the throat.

When I told one of my New York friends, he archly asked, “Would it be really bad if I said that's because you're in Texas and he just meant you look 24?”

He has a point. Aging has changed.

People used to reach a certain age – and it was young, 30 or 40 – and they’d make the switch to “being old.” Their clothes, their haircuts, their glasses would all scream, “Old.” Just take a look at old family photos.

As I write this, at the age of 48, I am wearing sneakers, jeans, a hoody and a Sex Pistols t-shirt.

And people did become grandparents at younger ages, since they became parents at younger ages. Having my daughter at 30 (admittedly in Manhattan) made me one of the younger moms in her class. And even in my son’s class (had him when I was 34), I was merely average.

Also, people are much more likely now to dye their gray hair. By the age of 50, it is common for half of a person’s hair to be grayif they’re not dyeing it. But now, you don’t see it.

On the other hand, almost 70% of all adult Americans are overweight or obese. That makes people look – and move – as if they're older.

This would all be very confusing – if I thought about it. But I’d rather not. I’d rather just go by the age in my head (11) and I’d thank people, like the kid in the store, not to set me straight.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Party Games Suck

Image courtesy of Ambro
Here, for example, are some of the worst ideas ever:

This website suggests that for a fun Christmas party game, you wrap people in toilet paper and pretend they are snowmen.

And this blog suggests mixing a bunch of safety pins into a bowl of rice and making blindfolded guests see how many pins they can pick out in 30 seconds. (Hey, I know! Make it even more fun by opening the safety pins and letting them stick themselves.) The author enthuses, “This game is sure to get competitive as each player tries to outdo the others!”

Either that or they fight to get out the door the quickest.

And could someone please explain to me how 1,000 Blank White Cards is even a game?

I have been to parties where guests are forced to play games like these. I’ve even been to parties where the hosts insisted guests play but refused to play themselves. Wow. Just wow.

I suppose, though, that party games can serve a purpose. They might be useful at parties, like company parties, where people don’t know each other. If you really think your guests are going to be clods and just stare at each other, it might be good to come up with things they can interact over. I like the idea of letting people write down their guesses about the number of candies in a jar, with the winner getting the jar. I have also been to fun parties where guests trimmed the Christmas tree.

If you have to have a party game, I think the keys are not to force people to play, not to make the game embarrassing and not to make it something that demands everyone’s full attention.

Better yet, though, don’t do party games at all.

Monday, December 9, 2013


Image courtesy of photostock
Perhaps I am just being perverse, but I like being secretive. 

Some secrets are toxic and bad and unhealthy, of course. The ones that you are forced to keep. A gay person who’s in the closet out of fear, for example.

On the other hand, when you’re choosing, there are some real advantages to having secrets.

That’s why it’s a recurring motif in super-hero stories. They all lead double lives: the everyday one and the one being … well … Superman.

Not everybody has to know everything all the time.

What are the advantages?

Writers often say that you should never talk about what you are writing because that telling – that off-the-cuff, ephemeral telling -- becomes the telling and you never get around to writing it. Every time you tell a version of a story, it loses power.

I have two friends. When Friend A decides to try something new, she tells everyone all about it. In fact, I think she expends so much energy in the telling, there’s none left for the doing. Because more often than not, she doesn’t get around to the doing. For instance, if she wanted to learn tae kwon do, she’d tell everyone, then never get herself to a lesson. Friend B never says a word about what she’s planning. If she decided to do tae kwon do, the first you would hear of it would be when she mentioned off-handedly that she’s a triple black belt. See the difference?

Of course, when you don’t continually trumpet your existence to the world, you might end up being like the kid who runs off and hides and no one comes looking for him.

Since I like hiding, I’ll take the risk.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Conversant Are You?

That we can use spoken language, the sounds of which are so close to one another and come at us so fast – I read somewhere that the difference between a “t” and a “d” sound is about 1/40,000 of a second – is a miracle all by itself.

And when we use that spoken language in a conversation, our brains are also paying attention to body language, facial expression, tone of voice, social mores and etiquette.  And we're both listening and formulating our own thoughts (both ones we express and ones we don’t) at the same time. There is a lot involved.

No wonder we fuck it up so often.

According to this article, humans have been writing about how to be a good conversationalist for thousands of years – and the tips from Cicero in 44 BC aren’t different from the tips in a how-to book written today.

That’s because it isn’t hard to know what you’re supposed to do. It’s just exceedingly difficult to do it.

You have to be quick.

You have to be confident to let the conversation go the way it will, something the author of this list of “conversation starters” clearly doesn’t get.

And you have to be confident enough to be more interested in the other person than in yourself. Many people simply boast. This is so common, there’s actually a term for it: “conversational narcissim.” I often talk to people who, even though you’re trying to ask them questions to let them talk about themselves, are so busy tooting their own horns, they mishear what you asked. And since their boasts are often of the “you suck, I’m great” variety, it’s really not fun, anyway.

Sad, really, because even the most boastful person is looking for the connection with another that conversation brings.