Today is Black Friday. It has for a long time been the start of the Holiday shopping season, and, went the thinking, if retailers could get shoppers into stores today – the day after our Thanksgiving holiday – they had a reasonable chance of getting “in the black,” that is, having a profitable season.
Black Friday was supposed to be a kind of litmus test that would indicate whether consumers were willing to spend enough in the remaining days of the holiday season to bring up retailer profits (or whether there would be any profits at all).
Well, that’s obviously all gone out the window because now some stores are opening on Thanksgiving. In a seemingly continuous non-stop race to the bottom, Thanksgiving, which had a certain magic about it because it was non-religious and non-gifting (i.e., not linked to shopping), is now removed from that privileged place of non-consumption. Instead, it’s more and more a day like any other: Go forth and shop.
As one 18-year old Thanksgiving shopper put it while standing online with a pal at a suburban Chicago mall, “Thanksgiving dinner is over… And there’s nothing else to do.” (source) I seriously expected her to say, “Thanksgiving dinner is so over,” that is: we’re not doing that anymore.
Which brings me to another pet peeve: the so-called politically correct crowd that gets its kicks from pointing out that white settlers screwed the indigenous population, that this happened at “the original” Thanksgiving, and that therefore all Thanksgiving festivities are a sham if not outright a white man’s plot to keep injustice alive.
I have news for you, dear Leftie comrades of mine: you are the latter-day stirrup holders of the bourgeoisie, except now you’re holding the stirrups for the oligarchic disrupter class. Your corrosive criticism of Thanksgiving as a “white man’s” holiday that somehow represents the oppression of Native populations is the hand that reaches across an ever-diminishing Thanksgiving gathering table to shake the hand of today’s ultra-capitalism.
Hey, if Thanksgiving is just a sham, if Thanksgiving isn’t actually the nice holiday we were told it was, then why not turn it into a day like any other? And so the capitalist disrupter smiles, sits down to his fully-larded table, while the rest of us are harried into ever-greater sacrifices …for the effing economy!
Excuse me while my head explodes.
To whit: yesterday I read an article in one of my favorite news sources that claimed it was ok to shop on Thanksgiving because the economy needs it. (source) Who is this “economy” and why does it need my blood? Ok, that’s a silly rhetorical question because of course I know why it needs my and your blood. But really? This is the best case the writer can make? It was also interesting to me, an immigrant twice over (first to Canada, then to the U.S.) to see the author, who was born in the U.S. but is of Indian extraction, born to immigrant parents, bolster her case this way:
Some countries actually embrace the US system of more work, less pay. Multinationals especially deal with large variances in different countries’ holiday calendars. Their solution often is to offer a more liberal number of personal days so employees can pick and choose the holidays of importance to them. In countries such as India—which, like the United States, has a polyglot of faiths and cultures across its workforce—some state governments have been trying to limit the number of official holidays. [emphasis added]
Well, if you don’t celebrate any religious holiday, I’m fine with that. But Thanksgiving was never an expressly religious holiday – it has nothing to do with “polyglot[s] of faiths and cultures.” It was simply a holiday: a day to stop, cook a good meal, sit down together, break bread, be peaceful (just for a bit), and give thanks. That’s all.
But now, here we are: in all, Thanksgiving has been “exposed” by my Leftie friends as a vile white man’s holiday whose origins lie in the oppression of Native populations; youthful “innovators” tell us that the economy needs us to go shopping; and “disrupters” of all stripes tell us that we live in an age of extreme personalization, whether it’s in the Quantified Self movement or our social media personae, so why shouldn’t I pick and choose the holidays, too? I mean, isn’t social media all about creating my tribe, man, that ultra-personal self-expression of mine that’s just about the effing same as everybody else’s, except I can spend personalized money on mine? If I’ve got my tribe, why should I bother with something as corny (and destructive to our holier-than-thou 1%-enriching economy) as a non-gifting, non-shopping, boring old dinner-based holiday? (And by the way: if everybody is off in their personal and personalized tribe, there will be no more unions, and without unionized bargaining power, there will be more oppression of people, irrespective of whether their skin color is white or brown or black or anything in between. Continue to splinter into tribes, children, and The Man will eat your effing lunch.)
As for the argument that shopping shopping shopping consumption consumption consumption is absolutely necessary to keep the economy going, ask yourself what kind of economy we’re enabling. Heck, back in the day that swine Henry Ford at least made sure his workers made enough money to buy a family car. Today’s equivalent industry moguls? Not so much. (see this) We’re all in love with the Creepy Crawleys of Downton Abbey, worshiping their wealth and “glamor.” But even they took better care of “their” workers than the Waltons of Wal-Mart do.
Was tun? you may ask. Well, there is Buy Nothing Day, although I have to admit it always sat the wrong way with me (not sure why). And there’s the buy local movement (see Katrina Scotto di Carlo’s excellent talk at Portland Oregon’s Creative Mornings).
Beyond that, it’s up to government and law makers to create protections for workers. Not sure however that there’s much to be done about the sheeple who take advantage of all the glorious opportunities to buy ever more junk no one (not even they themselves) need.
On October 5, the painter Jim Falck died. From Fargo ND, he spent many years in Boston and eventually moved to Beverly on the North Shore. From 1991 till 2002, my family and I lived in the house across the street from his. We became friends over that time, and when we moved away to Victoria BC in 2002, Jim made sure we stayed in touch. In 2012, we moved back to Beverly, to the same neighborhood in fact, albeit this time not right across the street from our friend. It was such a gift to reconnect “irl” with Jim after ten years of letters, postcards, and finally emails – he was a very uniquely gifted individual who enriched the lives of those around him.
Although I’ve stopped posting to my blog over the past year or more, it seemed appropriate to publish my thoughts about Jim, his ability to cultivate friendships and gardens, and his painting here, since it was the home of my more thought-felt writing.
In memoriam: Jim Falck, artist
Jim and I met sometime in the months after my husband and I moved into the house across from his. It was September 1991, we had a 5-month old son, and by the time the new year rolled around I was on my first real teaching job at MIT. The semester went by in a blur, and by the summer of 1992 whatever garden had come with the house had disappeared under crabgrass and behind overgrown rhododendrons, which entirely obscured the house’s wraparound porch. Sleep-deprived and shell-shocked from a full teaching load, I can’t recall much of anything, and I’m not sure I interacted with Jim at all, except for a wave or casual hello.
But we must have become friendly, somehow, and eventually (was it still 1992 or was it now 1993 already?) it was my awful rhododendrons that brought us together. Whether it was after I decided to put a proper garden into the front patch of our property, or before, I can’t remember, but Jim just couldn’t bear the sight of those overgrown shrubs any longer. He asked whether I’d mind if he pruned them, and of course I said yes. Across the street he marched, armed with alarmingly gigantic loppers.
Here the word snicker-snack comes to mind, but that wouldn’t do Jim’s pruning justice. It was more a light-sabre job: immensely skilled, fast, and laser-precise. Intense. Almost scary. Surgical. Artistic. The formerly dumpy, lumpy rhodies were now “floribunda”: tree-shaped, elegant, looking like a million bucks. I began to eye this neighbor with a mixture of awe and curiosity. What else could he do?
I didn’t yet know much about him. Seen from my house, Jim’s front garden looked unassuming. A small strip of lawn, a few shrubs, a Dogwood tree he planted; on one side a shared driveway, on the other a small patio, mostly unadorned (the profusion of potted flowers and sculptural reliefs came later, bit by bit). I couldn’t see behind the house – but that was where all the action was.
Jim was intensely private, and unless you were invited in, you could easily miss the amazing magic he wrought. He didn’t keep people out, there were no fences around his house. But unless you had a reason to wander back there, you didn’t see the gorgeous garden hidden in plain sight.
I finally got to see it after he pruned my rhodies and I was falling all over myself about the terrific job he’d done.
No matter where in the growing season we were, Jim’s garden had something going on. He was quirky about it, though, not fussy. He thought nothing of pushing plants around, moving them quickly to where he thought they’d look better. If a plant wasn’t earning its keep, out it went. If, on the other hand, it was flamboyantly showing off, it got the star billing it deserved – for the duration, because of course the garden was changing all the time. What was constant was its beauty, vitality, and vibrant color.
Other gardeners incorporate utility, opting for vegetables or drought-resistant plants or some such useful aspect. As far as I could tell, Jim didn’t concern himself with that. Sure, he had some tomatoes in pots, and if a drought-resistant plant was beautiful, it was welcome in his garden. But the first consideration was always aesthetic, artistic. The garden had to perform as an aesthetic entity.
That garden was in many ways also a metaphor.
After Jim was diagnosed at the end of August, and as he lay dying while friends were calling or visiting from all over the world, I thought about just how immense his garden was, …still is. Just as the plants in his backyard were oblivious of one another, but assembled in an artistic display that spoke to the vigor of the gardener, so his friends often knew nothing of one another, even as together we make quite the tableau.
Because Jim was intensely private, he never boasted about his many accomplishments, his experiences, his many friends. But of course he had them – the accomplishments, experiences, and friends.
And as in a garden where plants are unaware of one another but connected in an ecosystem, taking turns at blooming, showing off, and giving pleasure, his friends contributed to the richness of his life. He appreciated each of us for what we could bring into the mix.
Although he was so very private, there was simultaneously a great intensity and energy to Jim, which I already alluded to in describing how he pruned my rhododendrons. Jim was nothing if not vigorous. He attacked his garden, he attacked the work of pruning shrubs, weeding, and moving plants around. There was nothing halfway about the man. It’s not that he bullied his plants – or his friends. Ever. But he didn’t treat them with kid gloves, either. Never one to hold back, he’d freely give his opinions on the current criminals in power, just as he was willing to rip out an overgrown garden denizen. Likewise, he held strong opinions of people close to him, sometimes changing his mind about how well he liked someone – always based on how he perceived what they did and expressed.
I think this ability to attack, to do battle, was essential to his art. Because Jim was an artist, his nature wasn’t to destroy anything, but attack it he did.
The French talk about “la lutte d’amour,” the battle of love. The idea has given rise to some great art. It’s a very fraught topic, but it used to be a given that men couldn’t understand women and that there is always a battle between the sexes.
It’s also a given that most of Jim’s work is about sex.
Is it about battles, too?
Well, yes, if by “battle” we mean the willingness to engage, to go direct. To go face to face with the object of desire. To engage wholly, holding nothing back. To expose oneself in the heat of battle, to expose oneself to the other, and to render thereby what amounts to a self-portrait of the artist as a lover.
Take a look at Jim’s vibrant output and notice the battle, the engagement, that’s taking place in almost every painting. Jim worked in the great tradition of modernism started by the French Impressionists, pushed forward by Cézanne and Picasso, then continued by an Abstract Expressionism that’s distinctly American. While an art historian can look at his work and see those influences and more, there’s nothing second-rate about Jim’s output. I think that’s because, unlike many younger artists, he wasn’t embarrassed about the tradition. Yes, it was “expressionistic,” and we’ve had it drummed into us that expressionistic work isn’t “cool,” but Jim knew different.
For him to have painted otherwise would be like a gardener wanting flowers that can only bloom on cue, or only in muted shades of pastel, or only if the sky is perfectly cloud-free. And only if the gardener controlled the entire spectacle with a remote control from the safety of his computer.
Not Jim. He got dirty. In his garden he got his hands dirty, and he didn’t shy away from a “dirty” expressive painting, either. He attacked his canvas, engaged with the medium and its limitations, and the figures he painted reflect the battle as they struggle to emerge from his often vehement, always vigorous brushstroke, emerge from the paint that binds them into the flat of the canvas. It was always the “unflat” bits – the naughty bits, if you will: breasts, penises, vaginas – which, being naturally protruding or suggestive of holes and openings, become the focal points. He’d line up the bodies, just as Cézanne did, in pairs or sometimes threesomes or more, with the lines of arms and legs making a nice flat pattern from one edge of the canvas to the other. And then the unflat bits, the voluptuous parts, would bust loose, throwing the two-dimensional logic of the demure canvas to the wind. In his best work – and there’s a lot of it – the tension is palpable, the heat of battle gets into your nostrils.
Hardly anyone gets that elemental anymore.
Here’s hoping that Jim, who was such a great gardener and terrific artist, planted many seeds.
Link to a gallery of some of his paintings
A 2012 video of Jim painting, at Montserrat College of Art, Beverly
(part of a group show of temporary wall paintings)
Prodding myself to start writing again, but unwilling to write here, I started a Tumblr. It’s photos, and short stuff. But I just posted something slightly longer about Happiness. Damn that trip hop music.
From my breakfast perch, I can see a beautiful heritage house across the street. The lovely owner runs a home-based daycare.
This morning I watched parents in various makes of cars hurl themselves to the curb, gently and with apparent attention shepherd their children inside, …then run back nearly headless to the cars that would take them to their minutely scheduled lives:
To catch the train to work in Boston?
To take the highway to work in suburban office parks?
To go to a local job?
Where were they all off to, in such a great hurry?
Of course I remembered that I used to do this myself, before I (sort of kind of involuntarily) opted out of that rat race.
Last month I had one of those very blue periods where what should be a broad horizon shrinks down to a tiny speck that feels like a dark, dark hole in the ground.
I’m happy to report that my brain managed to adjust itself and I don’t feel entirely rotten at present. But these things do come and go, as many of you know. One of my sisters calls it having “das arme Tier” (except she’ll say it not in high German, but in an exaggerated Rhineland dialect, “dat aahme Dier”): that poor dear.
You can have that damn poor dear, you see. And when you do, she’s going to make sure you feel that it’s like that. Exactly like that.
(Note for monolinguists: Tier means animal, here meant as creature. Dier is dialect: in the Rhineland, hard sounds tend to soften: t becomes d, ich becomes ish. In Berlin, on the other hand, pronunciation is harder: ich becomes the famous – infamous? – ick.)
I think it’s ironic that, just as “the poor dear” sticks with me (and to me, sometimes), I also have a special memory of another concept: the Lebenskünstler or life artist. He or she is a person who escapes constricting social norms and manages to live life on her own terms.
In a super-ramped up consumerist world, we may be forgiven if we conflate Lebenskunst (the art of living) with lifestyle and therefore as something we ought to be able to buy.
Money sure is useful (and a validation of oneself, if one is paid for what one does), but Lebenskunst is not just a lifestyle thing.
It’s mostly an attitude, a perspective, and a question of creativity.
In one sense, it’s about being able to count one’s blessings – although, again using my memories as an example, counting blessings or having an attitude of gratitude is something my tribe made fun of, often. Really often. Gratitude, schmatitude. Gratitude was for weaklings, and for optimistic fools who ended up being happy to tend their own gardens – instead of going out there and Doing Something Important. So we made fun. I’m not sure we really understood the corrosive effect on ourselves of our sarcasm. But I think we did it because we assumed that some things were basic social and human rights, and that it was ridiculous to be grateful for anything-and-everything. (People have argued about this for centuries.) I suspect, too, that sarcasm and gallows humor was also a shield – and perhaps a lance – against the poor dear. Today I’m more inclined to conclude that tending one’s own garden isn’t the worst of all possible worlds – provided you have your little plot, that is.
The Lebenskünstler is creative about gratitude, and uses it to build. She’s no hapless naif, or poor dear. He has a sense of style – and therefore a lifestyle – but isn’t a slave to consumption. She builds (creates) with what she’s given, and sometimes that’s the short end of the stick. No matter. It’s a matter of philosophy, and consolation. Most of all, Lebenskunst is about creativity and using what you’ve got.
Give her half a chance, and my poor dear tells me I’ve got nothing. I have to tell her to shut her uncreative trap. My poor dear makes fun of the Lebenskünstler swanning about, the one who’s busy making plans and creating (largely imaginary) worlds.
The poor dear doesn’t want anyone actually to create anything. At this point I have to show my poor dear the door, although she’s feisty and incredibly difficult to shove away. But push I must, because my poor dear does nothing to help me get anywhere, or even help me get started.
She is the worst rat race in the whole universe because she makes me compete against her, which is no contest at all because she’ll triumph.
The Lebenskünstler must learn to subtract. Ask any sculptor and she’ll tell you that subtraction is as valuable a creative technique as addition. It’s time once again to give the poor dear a Lebenskunst make-over.