Friday, February 17, 2012

The Story of Jiko Giman, an Artist who Was Not Similar in Every Way to Everyday People.

An acquaintance asked me whether I had ever been to Mainz, Germany.  I replied that I had, but that was almost forty years ago.

The Cathedral of Mainz,
photographed with a 110-format
pocket camera in 1978.
"So you probably haven't heard of the famous Painter of Mainz?" he said. "You'll enjoy this."

And he proceeded to tell me about a moderately talented and promising young artist from the 2000-year-old German city who, in his earnest desire to paint the world as he saw it, began his career by placing over his head a large cardboard box.

On the inside walls of this big box the young painter created images of everything he could think of, and made them as he believed they appeared in real life. The problem, as you may have anticipated, was that he spent so much time inside his box painting that he rarely took the time to see much of life.

It even became his habit to go walking around the city of Mainz with his painting box over his head, so that he could find new subjects to paint. But unknown to him was a young lady, also of artistic interests, who had been watching him for some time and was fascinated by this rather unusual young man. One day during one of his forays into the streets of Mainz, she decided to try to meet him. She placed herself in his path and waited.

The painter stumbled forward on his habitual round and stopped when he became aware of someone standing in his way.

"Oh - who are you?" he said.

"I'm - I'm Lisl, I'm an art critic," stammered the nervous girl. "What's your name?"

"I'm Jiko Giman," replied the artist. An art critic, huh? I'll paint you." The painter then made an image of the stranger on the inside of his box using his brushes and paints. He gave her red eyes, black leathery skin, lots of bristly whiskers, claws for hands, hooves for feet, a spiky tail, and even added some green, gnarled horns to complete his picture, of which he was really quite pleased and proud when it was finished.

"Can I see it?" queried the girl.

"Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" said Jiko sarcastically. "Not on your life."

Lisl, who did not have horns or hooves at all, and only a few whiskers to speak of, and was actually quite attractive by teutonic standards, ran far from the cruel artist so that he would not hear her sobs of disappointment. Who knows - they might have had a friendship, or maybe even more, if he had only seen the person she really was.

But the artist blithely walked on, painting the inner walls of his box according to his assumptions and judgements of the people and things he encountered. At one place, he discovered there was a crowd of people on the footpath, all apparently waiting for something.

"This is a poor part of the city," he thought to himself. "It's probably a bunch of bums waiting for a handout from a soup kitchen." He then began painting an image of disshevelled, shabby people crowding against the side of the building, some holding bundles of rags, some pushing old shopping carts.

"Hey, you're that artist," said one of them. "Would you like to paint my portrait?"

Jiko did not bother to hide his disgust in his reply, "Get a job, you filthy bum!" He then turned his footsteps elsewhere.

The "filthy bum" raised his immaculately groomed eyebrows, adjusted his tophat, polished his diamond cuff links and patted the theatre tickets in the breast pocket of his tuxedo before glancing at his solid gold watch. "What a pity," he added. "I would someday like to become the patron of an aspiring young artist. I suppose I'll have to find someone else to give my money to."

The young painter, determined still to paint the world as he saw it, continued on his walk, and came to a quiet, peaceful place. He immediately judged it to be a park of beautiful trees, expanses of manicured lawn, and beds of wildly colorful flowers.

"What a perfect scene to paint," he exclaimed. But as he moved forward to find the best vantage point, as he supposed it, he stumbled and fell headlong into the municipal dump.

Lying there among the rotting banana peels and broken microwave ovens, injured but by some fluke still wearing his box, he heard some movement nearby. "My rescuers!" he said. "Over here! I'm injured, come and help me!"

But the rescuers were really a pack of wild dogs that lived at the dump, and they ate him.

Needless to say, Jiko Giman's career as an artist went into a steep decline at this point. There is really not much more to say about him.

So this is the end of the story.

To discover how self-deception could lead to YOUR downfall and subsequent consumption by wild dogs, I recommend that you read this before it's too late:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Horrid Thing To Say

"That is a horrid thing to say, and you had no right to say it.  You don't know what it's like to lose a child!"

That's what the woman would have said if she had not been giving me "The Silent Treatment."

Girls, I'm going to let you in on a little secret:  IT DOESN'T WORK!

The "Silent Treatment" amuses and confuses, but it never has the intended effect, which presumably is to punish a man into recognition that whatever he did was wrong.  See, we're not actually all that put out when you ladies don't talk to us, and it is a decidedly ineffective means of giving us any new information or insights.

In this case, the woman who was not speaking to me (well, one of them) was a work acquaintance whom I barely know.  The conversation was about a friend of hers who had recently lost two children, one of whom went into a river and never came out again, and the other, her unborn baby, miscarried when the mother was confronted with the surprising and unexpected mortality of her first son.

Yes, it's a terrible, tragic event.  Yes, we all feel sadness at that mother's loss.  My mistake was not joining the pity-party, as I was expected to do, and taking a little piece of the pain into my own life.  As though that would help matters.

Instead, what I did which I shouldn't have done was to say:

"It's possible this could be the greatest thing to ever happen to her."

-     -      - 

Now, I recognize it was wrong for me to say this.  It was wrong for me to make a suggestion that the listener was not at all prepared to hear.  Is this what is meant by the somewhat unfortunate parable, "Cast not thy pearls before swine?"  Unfortunate because I would in no way wish to associate this essentially decent person with "swine." But the meaning is fairly clear.  Don't give people things, even precious things, that might do them more harm than good.

Of course I had no sure way of knowing beforehand what level this individual's state of personal growth and awareness would be.  I know now.

Was she correct in thinking the things she didn't say?  Was that a "horrid" thing to say and am I devoid of human empathy?  My assertion is, "No" and my reasons are twofold.

First of all, empathy.  I feel real compassion for the mother whom I don't know from a bar of soap.  As a matter of fact I do know what it's like to lose a child.  My own son was taken from me without good cause, legally, against my wishes and in spite of my every assertion and exertion.  I was forced to say goodbye to a child I would never see again, in the sense that he would be inches taller and a person I would not know anything about the next time I saw him.

I see my son about once a year for a couple of weeks.  That means I have basically no relationship with him at all, because he does not phone or write me.  His mother has neatly excised me out of his life, and I grieve my loss as much as any parent who loses a child.

Not only that, but I go through that grieving, months and months of soul-wrenching agony, all over again every time I say goodbye to him.  I will never see that child at that age and stage of development again.  Ever.  I will have no hand in raising him, helping him, enjoying his life with him, facing problems with him, or anything with him.  In another year I will be awkwardly introduced to a completely different young man who knows as little about me as I do of him, and with whom I have no connection.

Do I know what it might feel like to lose a child?  You're welcome to disagree, but I think I do know a thing or two about it.

Secondly, I have some reason for predicting a possible Divine outcome from this mother's experience.  We can run and we can sometimes hide from ordinary everyday setbacks, we can even take them in stride.  But something of this magnitude forces a person to ask some serious questions about life.  While I would never want anyone to suffer as I have, it is after all pretty much inevitable that many people will.  But suffering doesn't have to be in vain.  If the mother is an intelligent person as I assume she is, she will quickly recognize three things.

That this is way more than she ever thought she could handle.

That this amount of grief can't be ignored or just swept aside.  You don't just "get over it."

That barring something miraculous, she is about to serve a life sentence of grief and pain.

When someone realizes this, faces reality, does not run from life, run into drugs or alcohol, or escape through some other means, then that is the opportunity that a few lucky, blessed people have in life. This is their chance, because no other option is left, to look for that elusive door to the next level.

And when they have found that door, to open it.

And when the door is open, if she has the courage, she may even go through it.

She will enter a plane beyond sorrow, suffering, grief, conflict or pain.  A realm of light and knowledge, a place of pure understanding.  Just for a visit, you know.  Because the search for that door is one we can never be entirely finished with.

Some teachers explain this event as "dying before you die," and is one of the keys to really living.

When I heard that a mother experienced an inescapably tragic event, I felt a little rejoicing in my heart on her behalf.  My reflex reaction to the terrible news was one of hope for her.  This just might be the blessing that propels her to discover the door to her own personal End of Suffering.

As for the children, well, their problems are clearly over.  I like to imagine that they would gladly have given their lives for their mother to gain something that is worth far, far more than mere flesh and bone, mere matter and form. Infinitely more, and infinitely longer lasting besides.

Dear reader, if anything I wrote here offends you, feel free to give me all the silence you can muster. I think I can take it.  And if you broke a tooth on any of these pearls, I am sorry about that.  Really.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

See The Real Australia

Most people only know about Australia through movies such as "Crocodile Dundee," "Quigly Down Under," or, for some reason, "Australia."  Do you really think you can understand an entire nation/continent from a few crappy fictional Hollywood movies?

Well, if you do, you're right.  It is an excellent way to learn about Australia, but those aren't the right movies to do the job properly.

If you really want to understand Australia and, like me, you are extremely lazy and like to sit on your fat sofa for hours at a time, then movies are the way to go.  And, you have come to the right place, because I have assembled a veritable compendium of the most important Australian movies that accurately portray life in Australia.

What about reading a book, you ask?  I tried that once.  I got about a quarter of the way through The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding before falling into a coma.  Sooo . . . boring . . . !  But on the other hand, an excellent cure for insomnia, which I used to have but don't anymore.  So definitely get this book, by all means.

All "hip" educators understand that everything is easier to learn when it's in the form of a story.  That's just how human brains are wired.  Furthermore, I feel that anything that isn't making me laugh is just wasting my valuable time on this planet.   Therefore I propose the following movies as your best window into the real Australia:

Kenny  Follow the epic tale of a blue-collar hero who through dedication and hard work rises to international prominence in his decidedly humble profession.  He also overcomes personal setbacks in his relationship to his son and finally meets the woman of his dreams.  Specifically, a live woman who will speak to him a second time.  Australians all have the ambition to 1) become the best in the world at something and then 2) act as though they don't care.  The irony of this movie is on many levels, so see if you can absorb the overarching "meta-irony" of this multi-award-winning film.  Best line:  "There's a smell in here that will outlast Religion."

The Castle  Set in a typical suburban family home, a typical middle-class suburban family fights the defining battle of their lives.  This is an absolute must-see and includes a brilliant and award-winning acting performance by legendary Aussie actor Michael Caton who plays the leading role of Darryl Kerrigan.  Though fictional, I would rank Kerrigan as one of the pre-eminent Australian philosophers, who gives us such wisdom as "(high voltage transmission towers) are a Monument to Man's ability to generate electricity."  There's a great deal of authentic detail in this movie relating to suburban life, middle-class culture, home handyman skills, and the legal system.  So watch carefully!

Another tidbit that should interest you:  this film grossed over AU$10,000,000 while costing only AU$19,000 to produce.  That's a rate of return of 50,000%.

The Dish  The plot of this movie, based on actual events, centers around Australia's involvement in the Apollo program in 1968.  In America, a movie like this (think Apollo 13) would be a patriotic, serious and heart-warming movie involving patriotic, serious and heart-warming actors such as Tom Hanks.  But in Australia, that schmaltzy, maudlin stuff just doesn't fly.  Instead, The Dish is a satirical laugh riot.  For me the defining moment comes when the Vice President of the United States visits the country town of Forbes, the closest outpost of civilization (such as it is) to the remote radio telescope which is preparing to receive the first ever live images from the surface of the moon.  To honor the most important person by far (such as he is) to ever set foot in Forbes, the house band of the town's pub plays what they sincerely believe to be the National Anthem of the United States.  I'll say no more.  SEE IT!

Rabbit-Proof Fence   I only laughed a little at this uncompromisingly serious film, but I recommend it nonetheless.  The main theme is Australia's condescending treatment of its aboriginal peoples, not dissimilar to the way the North American Indians were (and are) treated in the United States and Canada.  The between-the-lines theme is Government Incompetence, evidenced by attempts to make a fence several thousand miles long to keep destructive rabbits (introduced to Australia by Europeans) out of Western Australia.  And their incompetence at managing aboriginal peoples' lives for them.  It failed, of course. It turns out, rabbits can actually dig!  And small girls can run away from boarding school, ingeniously and courageously making the thousand-mile journey home on foot, using only the you-know-what as a guide.  Now THAT's irony only Government can provide.

The Craic  Have you noticed that the titles of all good Australian films are just two words long beginning with "The?"  Me neither. This film offers you the chance to see Australia from an outsider's perspective as one Fergus Montague from Belfast (played by Jimeoin McKeown) seeks refuge in Australia, the last place he expects to encounter his old enemies and make new ones.  Of course, both happen.  It wouldn't be much of a film otherwise, now would it.  Though not critically acclaimed, this film passes the only test that matters.  It made me laugh.  Watch for the scene in the world's only topless bar where patrons actually try to persuade the barmaid to put a shirt on, or something, for god's sake.

Malcolm  Any trip to Australia should include Melbourne, in my opinion the one really civilized city down here.  This movie, set in this scenic city, follows the adventures of Malcolm, an autistic, socially-incompetent genius who finally meets the sort of caring and non-judgmental people who appreciate his special talents.  Petty criminals.

As you may have guessed, Australians are not particularly "nice" (meaning delicate) about their humor.  Anything is a suitable target, including tragic disabilities such as autism.  Americans take such things (and themselves) extremely seriously and are likely to be offended at Australian humor.  Example:  A well-known Australian comedian says on TV: "knock-knock jokes, not really funny, are they.  Be honest.  But telling knock-knock jokes to homeless people - now THAT'S funny!"

My advice: get over it.  Learn to laugh at everything, then nothing will be a tragedy to you.  Far from being mean-spirited, it is actually the kinder and more enlightened way to deal with life's setbacks and unpleasant realities.

Douglas Adams praises Australians as having the most finely tuned sense of irony in the world, and any movie that does not expose you to the Australian sense of humor is doing you a disservice.  Their subtlety of satire is often such that the target does not even know that he is a target.  You must pay close attention to get most of the jokes.

These movies also expose you to the rich lexicon of the Australian language, which again, you might miss if you're not paying attention.

Is Australia really like these movies?  Do Australians really talk and act like this?  They say no,  but I say yes.  Yes, they do, in the same way that an editorial cartoon sketch often tells us infinitely more about a politician than their official press-release photograph does.  After living this last decade or so in Australia, I have to say that these movies accurately portray these people and this place in a way that nothing else comes close to doing.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

In The Beginning . . .

... God made the earth flat because Man would have great difficulty comprehending it otherwise.  And as we knoweth, everything is designed either so Man can comprehend it easily, or so that he cannot know it at all.   Thus, if thou findest something is hard, then stop trying to figure it out.  Bury thou thy talent deep in the earth lest God be displeased with his servant and smite thee.

2.  And it came to pass that He placed the earth at the center of the universe, which at that time was a large glass sphere about sixty and six score cubits off the ground at the highest point, and was ordained with numerous tiny light bulbs that came on at night for decoration.

3.  This dideth He lest by any means Man might be scared shitless by the vast, enormous, humongous expanse of empty, violent Space in which the earth, yea the whole earth on which thou standest, is but a microscopic, infinitesimally tiny speck of dust.

4.  And it came to pass that Pharaoh and the Egyptians came and sent Eratosthenes to check out this "flat earth" thing and Lo! They discovered that the earth was actually round like unto a ball that was three thousand and seven hundred and four leagues in girth.

5.  And this displeased God mightily, who in his wrath caused Egypt to become a dodgy third-world country in modern times.

6.  And it came to pass that there arose a man named Johannes Kepler, and he did study the heavenly lightbulbs lo, for many nights studied he them.  And there came other men, named Nicolaus of Copernica and Galileo of Florence saying that the data prove the earth was not at the center of anything, and this glass sphere of God's was an illusion that didn't exist.

7.  And God saith, "Fine, have it your way."  Because it was three against one, anyway, and their data was pretty darn convincing.

8.  And on the 3.62004328966 x 10^12 day, God invented an astonishingly complex system of chemistry based on the Carbon atom which was capable of not only replicating molecules but adapting to conditions on the earth.

9.  And it came to pass that Moses came, seeking background material for a book he was working on which he called "Genesis," but it wasn't anything to do with the band.

10.  And God said, "See thou, Moses, my greatest work is a bio-programmable self-adapting system of biochemistry utilizing a code created from pairs of Guanine, Cytosine, Adenine and Thymine.  Behold!"

11.  And Moses said, "WTF are you talking about?"

12.  And God said, "(SIGH!)  Ok, the simplified version it is.  Basically, I created the plants and herbs of the field, and the fish and fowl of the waters, and all the barnyard animals male and female created I."

13.  And Moses said, "Can I quote you on that?"

Thanks, Kathy, for giving me the idea for this.  I learned something really valuable from writing this post.  Scripture is actually really easy to write.  Because if someone says, "hey, God didn't say that," then you just say, "prove it!" and that's the end of the argument.