Let Us Give Thanks

Kudos to my friend, Docey Lewis, for sending me this poem. I plan to read it at our Thanksgiving table. It is doubly appropriate since I will be celebrating with a gentleman farmer.


Let us give thanks for a bounty of people

For children who are our second planting

and though they grow like weeds

and the wind too soon blows them away,

May they forgive us our cultivation

and remember fondly where their roots are.

Let us give thanks:

For generous friends, with hearts as big as hubbards

and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers,

keep reminding us we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb

and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants

and as elegant as a row of corn,

and the others, as plain as potatoes and so good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts

and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes,

and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers

and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages,

as subtle as summer squash,

as persistent as parsley,

as delightful as dill,

as endless as zucchini,

and who, like parsnips,

can be counted on to see you throughout the winter;

For old friends,

nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time

and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils

and hold us, despite our blights, wilts, and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone,

like gardens past that have been harvested,

but who fed us in their times

that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.

            — Max Coots

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Theater Dread: The Talk Back

The other night, I got stuck. Fourth row center at a performance of Ian Ruskin’s one-person show, To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine.

I was excited to see this show, presented by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. I have been a huge Thomas Paine fan ever since the fourth grade, when I read a juvenile biography of the man who used the pen, rather than the sword, to achieve independence. For over fifty years, whenever asked who my hero was, the answer has always been: Thomas Paine. I’ve written about him in this blog (Common Sense and On January 6: The Wisdom of Thomas Paine). A few years ago I felt an even closer connection to my hero when I discovered Edward G. Gray’s book, Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge: Building a United States. The guy was not only a persuasive writer, he was also an enlightened architect/engineer!

The play was excellent history, if not exactly compelling theater. Mr. Ruskin moved between three set pieces, representing England, the United States, and France: the three place Thomas Paine lived through his long and chaotic life. As an Enlightenment idealist with little formal education and no interest or ability to make a buck, Thomas Paine enjoyed universal fame, huge sales (for which he abandoned copyright according to his principles), scandal, and imprisonment. He was feted for bringing the intellectual underpinnings of the America Revolution to the average man in the colonies, and later doing the same for the peasant in the French Revolution. Yet, in each case, he was later denounced by the government that took hold, as well as the one that was overthrown. He died penniless and unknown. To this day, the location of his remains is a mystery.

After a satisfying 75 minutes of history brought to life, Mr. Ruskin stood aside while the lights dimmed. Then stood forward as they came back up, and asked for questions.

I looked about, trapped. As much as I love theater, I detest Q&A’s, and talkbacks are even worse. The way I see it, Mr. Ruskin researched his subject, wrote the play, and performed it admirably. He had 75 minutes to tell us what he wanted to say, in the manner he chose. What can possibly be improved upon by following his stirring close with the mutterings of audience members who either missed points because they weren’t paying attention; or worse, introduce queries spouted wide of the mark.

In previous experience, performances that will include a talkback note that on the program. When that’s the case, I sit on the aisle to facilitate a speedy exit. Even then, custom dictates a five-minute break between the play and the Q&A, to allow those of us who wish to exit. BPL did neither of these. Thus, I was stuck, fourth row center, to listen to forty-five minutes of audience members pontificating what they knew about Thomas Paine, before offering poor Mr. Ruskin some stale question.

I don’t know who invented the talkback. I imagine it was someone’s engaging notion of participatory theater. I don’t mind if they occur, so long as I am forewarned and can escape. Hopefully, with the power of the playwright’s words and the actor’s revelations still resonating in my head.

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The Step Ladder of a Free and Open Society

Why do people care so much—to the point of hatred, even violence—what other people do? Even when it has little direct bearing on their lives? Why do people hate gay people, transgender people, people of color, and people who get abortions? It makes no logical sense: exerting so much energy hating someone whose actions barely impinge on yours.

That fact that I am gay is completely independent of whatever moral or religious perspective you choose. Although I have no personal experience or insight into what motivates a person to be transgender, I can understand that it’s a momentous decision; and so I must respect any fellow human being who makes that change with care and deliberation. There is no more objective reason to disdain a person with dark skin than there is to favor a person with fair hair, beyond millennia of human history that bolster both of those prejudices. And whether I decide to bring a child into this world (if, alas, I could) has nothing whatsoever to do with your moral perspective. By all means, live by the moral code of your choice. But why put it on me?

I am, of course, being flip here. We all know why people care so much about what other people do. Fear. We are all so fricking insecure that we need others to be like us, to think like us, to act like us.

I can imagine how this fear might be internally generated, perhaps as consequence of bad experiences. But for most of us, most of the time, this fear is externally applied by a culture awash in advertising; alternative facts; dubious economics; and tried-and-true political ploys. For over two thousand years, Julius Caesar’s dictum—divide and conquer—has proven to be infallible advice.

Sometimes, we can trace our hate of the ‘other’ as an actual hindrance in our lives. I don’t like vaccine-deniers, smokers, and morbidly obese adults who pump up my health insurance premiums by their slack behavior. Yet I hold my tongue because I realize their impact on me is at best, a second order effect (just like the pablum that immigrants will steal your job or gays will convert your children). More importantly, I have to acknowledge that my monkish behavior is not a viable universal model. We need to grant each other some grace, even celebrate the fact that we are quirky in our own ways.

When we stop considering others as evils to be controlled, or even annihilated, we can begin to ascend what I call the step ladder to a free and open society. The dominant feature of any autocratic society is that it establishes hierarchies that pit people against each other. That is how the rulers stay on top. Meanwhile, the dominant feature of any open society is that it acknowledges all as equal participants. To be sure, there has never been a society on earth that truly meets this definition of a free and open society. Some, like the United States, aspire to that ideal in theory while falling far short in fact. Others, like Iran, make no such pretense.

So where are we, the United States of America, on this step ladder of openness today? I give us a middle rung spot. We tolerate differences: just barely. And we’re quick to use them as political and economic lightning rods. And there’s ample evidence (see Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) that our position on the tolerance rung is shaky.

Yesterday, the US endured the mid-term election. It appears, the houses of Congress will be split. To me, this signifies two more years of rancorous non-doing. Perhaps we will hold on to some modicum of tolerance. Yet we are far from moving up to a rung of accepting others however they wish to live. Because let’s face it, the ladder of treating all humans with mutual respect is a precarious one. The higher up one climbs towards embracing all, the more difficult it is to keep it steady.

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HGTV Eco-Extreme: Precious Edition

Gracious Producers,

HGTV has thrived for over twenty-five years with programs based upon the simplistic premise that every house in the US of A demands to be gutted, open-flowed, and subsequently trimmed out with rustic mantels, pickled floors, and media centers. Not to mention granite. Madagascar-size islands of granite. Your formula is genius: product placement that scratches the itch that every one of us still slumming in the doldrums of 2019’s Color of the Year. What was Metropolitan, really? At best: timid taupe. In reality: drab grey. Three years on, it’s so boring everyone in America pines to repaint. But I digress.

What HGTV needs is a fresh formula. A rebuttal to those astronomically profitable shows rutted in the identical plotline: churn our yearn for excitement into a crave for interior glitz that leads (inevitably) to demolition to create space, space, space for a bunch of new stuff, stuff, stuff so when the reveal unfolds, the wife cry tears of joy. Everything—except her blotchy face—looks fabulous as the camera pans.

HGTV should consider diversifying into that miniscule market niche of non-consumers. The contra-demographic. The sustainability audience aching for a net-zero dream.

Everything about Eco-Extreme flips the successful HGTV formula on its head. Start with the hosts. Forget another burly builder-type with a massive beard with his petite, bubbly designer wife. The hosts of Eco-Extreme will be Luis and Maria, the Fix-it gurus from Sesame Street. They may not be as young and photogenic as during their forty-four years on public television. And Luis is, in fact, dead. But resilience is all about bringing new purpose to life. The pair will recycle beautifully.

Every property Maria and the ghost of Luis renovate will reuse 100% of the materials already in place. What few fresh materials are required will be so locally sourced, a child can deliver them with a little red wagon, carefully protected by a biodegradable container. Nothing plastic will ever taint Eco-Extreme.

Eco-Extreme will also break new ground for HGTV by abandoning the climatic demolition scene currently embedded in each half hour. We will rekindle that ancient and treasured totem: the room. No more bowling alley wannabe’s where last night’s dirty dishes are in full view of the sofa and the Barcalounger and the dining table. Gone is the acoustical tug-of-war between the kitchen appliances and the television—every function will have its place, it won’t ooze into other spaces.

I realize that the demolition scene is an essential and dramatic moment in every HGTV renovation show. Eco-Extreme tackles demolition at a completely different scale. One that demands more subtle, nuanced camera work. No more action shots of hirsute guys yielding crowbars and axes. Instead, steady hands burnish 200 count sand paper over yellowed lacquer on natural ash woodwork. Imagine the television audiences’ gasp as the natural luster returns. Even more thrilling will be deleading an ornamental mantle with a dental pic. Bringing ancestral hardwood that has been encased in lead for over a hundred years back to life will make the audience swoon, despite the high-ventilation fans whirling to make this dangerous work safe to the white-suit encased artisans.

Eco-Extreme: Precious Edition embraces the notion that when a family purchases a heritage colonial, or a turreted Victorian, or an Arts & Crafts bungalow, that’s actually the style they want. They seek a delight that unfolds, room by room instead of blowing everything on a grand first impression that takes in front door to back yard in one grand sweep, leaving the occupants to wonder, the moment the cameras leave, whether Peggy Lee was right after all. Is That All There Is?

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Bringing the World to Me

Next week, we’re having dinner with an organic farmer from Australia. Last week, a nurse from the Philippines shared the antics of that country’s infamous ruling family Marcos. Last month, a Russian geology student, nearing the end of the H-1 visa he received just before the Ukraine War erupted, was anxious to avoid what he referred to as, “the situation,” upon returning home. Over the summer, a lovely couple from the Czech Republic offered us a glimpse young people untarnished from ever living under Soviet influence. Another weekend, a Brazilian museum curator marveled us with the beauty of Belo Horizonte, a city of 3 million people which, probably like many Americans, I’d never heard of.

Vinicius implored us to come visit Belo Horizonte, just as Furkun invited us to Istanbul, and Sara wants to tour us around Prague. (Interestingly, Artem did not suggest we visit Ufa, Russia.)

Invitations notwithstanding, I doubt I’ll be visiting any of those places anytime soon, as I have no desire to travel anywhere. One of the last lingering habits of my pandemic existence seems to be an extreme contentment in being at home. Yet I’m curious as ever about the world around me. So, instead of traveling, my housemate and I have opened our doors to couchsurfers, who brings the world to us.

“Couchsurfing” is a term that means offering a traveler a place to crash for a few nights. It’s also a web site (www.couchsurfing.com). It’s also a mindset, a way of being, a demonstration of living outside the norms of individual privacy that infect these United States.

I first learned about couchsurfing back in 2015, when a former hippie I met in Oregon told me I could find places to stay while bicycling throughout the country. She jumpstarted my immersion by providing my first reference. Over the next year I stayed with dozens of couchsurfing hosts all over the country. I did not have any dangerous experiences, though I will admit to several weird ones. Some people offer you a guest suite with a basket of warm muffins in the morning; others eat their dinner right out of the pan and don’t offer you a bite. Gun owners like to show off their racks; Mormons like to show off their children. The key to enjoying couchsurfing is: have no expectations and welcome every host as an adventure.

When I returned home it took a while to convince my housemate that he would enjoy hosting couchsurfers. If you haven’t done it, it can sound a bit odd. Over the next few years, several people I had stayed with across America came to Cambridge; and stayed with us. Finally, my housemate admitted that he liked them all, and agreed to list us as “Accepting Guests” on the couchsurfing website. When the pandemic hit, there were no guests to accept. Gradually, that has changed. We got a trickle of requests, hosted a few nice folks; the trickle became a river; and these days the requests are nearing flood proportion.

Our objective is to host one or two people a month. We always do that, and sometimes more. We could easily host two or three guests a week. So far, our hosting experience mirrors my experience as a guest: no dangerous people, a few oddballs, mostly awesome folks.

Choosing who to accept is a bit of a challenge; a bit of a game. First criteria: instinct. If something seems off, it probably is, and you don’t want to invite your worries into your own home. Second: profile. What has this person said about themselves and their travels to the world? If someone’s profile is mostly blank, I’m not likely to invite them. Third: references. We will not invite anyone to stay with us who does not have references from other hosts. I realize that this is a Catch-22 for people new to couchsurfing, but positive references are the currency of this community. You must be clever to get your first ones, but then they multiply. I have 55 positive references in my profile; some people have hundreds. We don’t require anywhere near that number, but a person needs to have at least a few.

If someone interesting meets those criteria, we are likely to invite them. If it’s a time when we receive many requests, we up the ante and read their ‘ask’ with more interest. Did they customize their request to reflect what’s in my profile? Does their request align with what we offer? Our profile is clear: we accept guest for one or two nights only. We’re not likely to accept anyone seeking a full week unless they make a truly compelling ask.

Aside from only wanting short-term couchsurfers, we offer a great stay. A private guest room. Good access to public transportation. And, we always have our guest join us for dinner at least one night. The point of couchsurfing is not simply to provide lodging for someone travelling on the cheap. It’s to share stories, opinions, learn how other people live.

For two years of my life, I was the traveler who arrived on his bicycle with stories of adventure in the wide world. These days, I’m disinclined to be that person. Instead, I prefer being the host, and hearing about lives all over the world from the comfort of my kitchen.

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“What I really remember…was the man telling my mother and me that it was difficult for his wife to live in Norman, because in Norman, no one tells you that you’re beautiful. ‘Not at the grocery store. Not at the hardware store. Not on the street. Nowhere! That is so hard for her.’”

Of course I as drawn to Rivka Galchen’s childhood memoir as an Israeli immigrant growing up in Norman Oklahoma in the 1970’s. (“Who Will Fight with Me,” The New Yorker; October 3, 2022). I was an immigrant of sorts myself in that place and time; where my Jersey edge was almost as foreign as Ms. Glachen’s Judaism. Yet the line that grabbed me had nothing to do with either the particulars of Rivka’s enchanting, mercurial, meteorologist father (Norman OK, nestled in Tornado Alley, is home to the National Severe Storms Center. The place is teeming with meteorologists.), or the lulling, happy childhood that a place like Norman can induce. It was this one-line vignette that another immigrant—a graduate student from Brazil—offered Rivka’s family.

At first glance, you kinda wanna slap the Brazilian wife upside the head. Really, girl? The worst thing about living in the United States is that no one fawns over your beauty? Get a grip. Until the husband’s complaint seeps in, and you realize the pain we all endure in a society where so much cannot be spoken.

When was the last time I told someone I did not know well, in public, as a matter of daily course, that they were beautiful? The answer for me, and I imagine many others, is: never. American culture has always been stingy on unsolicited praise, and in these days of toxic misunderstanding, giving someone you don’t know well an unsolicited comment is like begging to be cancelled.

In my years of staffing the Information Desk at my local hospital, I learned that it was alright to give unsolicited compliments to some people who approached: the matronly Black woman’s fabulous hat deserved notice; the woman with inch-long finger nails enameled and rhinestoned, glittered for attention; the disheveled gent wearing a crisp “Marine Veteran” cap stopped belly-aching about being screened if I said, “I appreciate your service.” If I was feeling feisty, I might even compliment a young Black man on his razor-sharp haircut. But I never complimented a white woman, or any age, for any reason. They are too prickly to risk a venture into pleasantries.

Yet even among those I complimented, my focus was always on some component they had personally shaped; their defining accessory. Never anything as all-encompassing or arbitrary as, “You are beautiful.” Although that statement means the exact opposite of, “You are ugly.” Each is equally, and totally inappropriate.

The Brazilian man’s wife is certainly not the only person who would appreciate receiving a positive compliment from a well-meaning stranger. Flattery is a basic human boost. The problem, of course, is that the compliment stirs the bubbling pot of power dynamic, entitlement, and who gets to define beauty. Note: the Brazilian man does not bemoan that no calls him beautiful; he likely has other means and measures of receiving affirmation. I suppose many the well-intentioned feminist would advocate for the man’s wife to find other, deeper, forms of affirmation, rather than pining for comments from strangers about her physical proportions.

All of these arguments are valid and true. They are also dispiriting. For it seems a shame that we live in a world where, when we come upon someone who is beautiful, we can’t simply express our joy in their gift.

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The Planet Fitness Conundrum

Planet Fitness has built a nationwide network of fitness centers based on simple economics: $10 per month. For the well healed, a Black Card membership at $23.99 entitles you to use any Planet Fitness location, have unlimited guests, and use the massage bed. Everyone also pays is an annual “equipment fee” of $69 to cover equipment maintenance. Still, the root appeal of Planet Fitness is strong: $10 per month.

I used to belong to a full-service gym, with a pool and a basketball court, yoga and Pilates classes, as well as acres of machines. It went under during the pandemic, so I joined my local Planet Fitness. I opted for the Black Card, as I frequent locations all over Greater Boston.

Plant Fitness is the McDonald’s of gyms: every one is the same. Yellow and purple walls with stone-age font supergraphics and gear logos. Lots of machines, an area of free weights, the 30-Minute Fitness corral, and the Black Card ‘lounge.’ Nothing less; nothing more. The speakers play the same music, the screens display the same ads touting convenience and low cost, with emphasis on our current fixation on clean, clean, clean. Plant Fitness facilities are, in fact, super clean. The staff is super nice. For ten bucks a month, Planet Fitness is an awesome deal.

The exception, unfortunately, is my home gym in Cambridge, where the staff is spotty and the space is, frankly, filthy. My experience there hit a low last Saturday morning. The gym was open, the lights were on, people were during their thing. However, there was no one at the desk, no one monitoring the workout area, no one cleaning the locker rooms. I checked in, changed, and did my workout. Trash cans overfull, paper towels scattered on the floor, locker room floor slippery with water and random coils of body hair. Still no sign of staff. I slipped behind the reception desk and helped myself to massage chair coins. In the lounge, I encountered a staff person draped over a massage chair, engrossed in a cell phone conversation. (A sign states no cell conversations, but let’s not quibble.) He chatted with whomever throughout my entire massage, still at it when I finished. I showered, dressed, and left. The check-in desk was still unstaffed.

Clearly, the gym had inadequate staff, and what staff there was, was negligent. What’s a person to do? Confront the guy chatting with his chum instead of working? Complain to non-existent management? File a report on the Planet Fitness website? None are satisfying options. Yet, my experience did not match Planet Fitness’ advertisements. At all.

Fortunately, I had just completed a good workout, so was mellow enough not to confront the lackadaisical non-worker. In fact, I tried to see things from his perspective. The Cambridge Planet Fitness often advertises for staff. Recently they posted $14.75 per hour. That is a pittance in an area where Target starts at $17 per hour, and Trader Joe’s is pushing $20 per hour. You’re not going to get chirper check-in folks and fastidious mopsters for $14.75 an hour. Maybe unlocking the door and turning on the lights is all we can expect from a person receiving that kind of wage.

The crux of the problem spans the full range of Planet Fitness’ operations: from a lowly unsupervised, disinterested employee right up to a national policy fixed on $10 per month. Fewer and fewer items sell for a dollar at Dollar General. Motel Six only cost six dollars per night, when I was six years old. Today, the closest Motel Six to me is a hundred bucks a night, even though I am decades away from my century mark. Eventually, Planet Fitness is going to have to raise its prices. I for one, am willing to pay more to go to a clean, well-staffed gym.

I don’t want to let Cambridge off the hook. I often go to the Planet Fitness in Dorchester, also a busy urban gym. Yet, Dorchester has friendly staff, neat workout areas, and gleaming locker rooms. Cambridge needs to clean up its act: be more like Dorchester. Which, if you know anything about the neighborhood dynamics of metro Boston, won’t happen anytime soon. Cambridge emulating Dorchester would be like intellectuals actually listening to workers. A topic for another day…

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Constellation at MassMOCA

I associate the pandemic years with heightened awareness and training about how racism infiltrates, and often defines, our culture; the underbelly of white supremacy and capitalism. After George Floyd’s death, I spent many an evening in Zoom workshops and trainings, grappling with how we might order a more just and equitable world. The message was often difficult to swallow for a man who’s navigated the dominate culture pretty well, and benefited as a result. I came to appreciate how Zoom made it easier for me—accustomed to the take-charge stance often associated with white males—to lay low, listen more than speak, absorb the perspectives of voices that bloomed on a remote platform.

Power points, bullet points, listicles. The presentations often highlighted the injustices of white supremacist/capitalist systems, and then offered alternative ways to interact among ourselves. Antidotes to the status quo were often inspirational, usually utopian, sometimes naïve. But the ‘fundamental defects’ of our inequitable society were pretty much always cataloged in the same way. (For this essay, I reference the thirteen characteristics that Tema Okun outlines in her article, “White Supremacy Culture.”)

Some of these characteristics seem clear, and clearly problematic: Paternalism; Individualism; Power Hoarding; Progress defined as more and bigger; Quantity over Quality; Either/Or Thinking; and Fixation on one Right Way. Others are less obvious, but make sense with a deeper understanding: how our society thrives on creating an (often false) sense of Urgency; how it promotes Defensiveness; assumes a Right to Comfort; and fosters the illusion of Objectivity. I reach the limits of my ability to envision a new world if I must consider Worship of the Written Word as a societal fault: reliance on writing certainly favors people with a particular form of education, but do we really want a world that denies credence to either record-keeping or creative writing? Still, the most difficult of all Ms. Okun’s characteristics to embrace—the one she lists first—is Perfectionism.

What can be wrong for aiming for perfection? Perhaps even achieving it?

In Ms. Okun’s view, the pursuit of perfectionism makes us focus on what’s wrong, what needs to be fixed, rather that appreciate whatever portion of an endeavor may be satisfactory. It makes the output of our effort personal: you made a mistake and therefore you are a mistake. A culture of perfectionism turns us all into critics, often turning criticism upon ourselves, thus undermining our own esteem. The antidote would be a culture of appreciation, a culture where mistakes are learning opportunities rather than shaming opportunities.

What Ms. Okun aspires to: a more accommodating and appreciative culture is a worthy objective. However, I don’t see why she (and others) label the current state, ‘Perfectionism.’ I understand that the pursuit of perfection can be destructive—if it means trampling on others to reach the pinnacle. But the goal of perfection is a noble aim, and pursuing perfection has resulted in mankind’s most illustrative accomplishments. It is, in many ways, the brightest upside to human development: our desire to constantly strive; to be better; to be the best.

I recently watched a delightful and inspiring documentary, First Position, a serendipitous find from the local library that provided an evening of insight and joy. The film follows half dozen young ballet dancers in pursuit of a medal, or scholarship, at the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City. Ballet, like ski jumping, curling, or even football, is a pursuit of perfection that lies completely outside the realm of basic human subsistence. There is no practical, evolutionary advantage to exquisite jumping on pointe. And yet we love it, we aspire to it, and we laud those who achieve—dare I say—perfection in the act. The pain these six young dancers endure in chasing their personal glory illustrates the abundance of human spirit in a way that ‘woke’ curricula simply do not account.

It is easy to overlook the many good things that our current form of society provides. So many people are poor, disenfranchised, and prejudiced against, we forget that never in the history of the world have so many lived so well. True, we do it at the expense of our planet, and we need to address that. True, we do it at the expense of our fellow man, and we need to address that. But let’s be careful what we wish for. As I sat through hours of education about what a utopian world might be like, I often found myself envisioning a bowl of oatmeal: adequate sustenance that lacked texture or flavor. We don’t seek a just world in which everyone settles into the mean. We seek a just world where human excellence is celebrated, in many more forms than we currently value.

I find it odd—and wrong— to condemn the reach for perfection as another insatiable anxiety foisted upon humanity by a capitalist system hellbent on creating constant hunger. I think it is much more than that. It is the ultimate expression of humanity at its best.

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MFA Boston Draws a Clear Line Between Fine Art and Community

It was the staples, that got to me. Stickpins too.

My friend Jackie emailed, in total excitement. A drawing she had made of her grandson, William, had been selected for an MFA Boston exhibit, “Portraits of Leadership.” “I’m not really sure what William has to do with leadership, though I suppose he represents future leaders. Still, I’m thrilled that one of my drawings will be on display at the Museum of Fine Art.” Jackie is an accomplished artist in pen, pencil and watercolor. Submitting a piece to the MFA was an aspiration too fantastic to ever dream: come true.

New logo for MFA Boston on mfa.org

Staples right through the paper.

Museum of Fine Art Boston is rebranded. It has a new logo and a new font, blocky and easy to read. Their website has a banner ad that floats, “Art is better together.” A prominent page features a quartet of portraits under the heading “Here All Belong: Creating community where all belong.” The second paragraph of MFA Boston’s Mission statement begins, “The Museum aims for the highest standards of quality in all its endeavors.” The rebranding leaves no doubt: MFA Boston is all about inclusion.

Banner on mfa.org

Staples that made permanent holes in each drawing, every painting.

Jackie and I made plans to go to the MFA on a weekday afternoon to see her drawing. “I don’t quite know how they’re going to display it,” Jackie said. “I sent a digital copy, and they never requested the original.” Surely, I thought, the MFA must have some high-quality process they use to print electronic submissions. When we met outside the museum, Jackie was quiet, almost despondent. She had seen the display on opening day; this was her second visit. “Don’t get too excited.”

Community art work, bostonglobe.com

Staples and stickpins that defaced every work of art.

“Portraits of Leadership” is a collection of drawings and paintings by local artists—and many school children—that accompanies the MFA’s temporary display of the National Gallery’s portraits of former President Obama and his wife Michelle. In one large, spacious gallery, hang two life-size portraits of the Obamas. In the corridor beyond, and on plywood walls built around columns in the visitor information area, are the community contributions to the exhibit: 5×7 sheets of paper, portrait orientation, stapled or stick pinned directly to the plywood. In the corner near the atrium café is a single digital display, where more than a hundred digital entries scroll through; ten seconds per image. Jackie and I waited patiently for “William and his World” to emerge so I could snap her photo alongside her artwork.

Jackie with “William in the World”

Formalities extinguished, our anger rose. Why was this such a shabby display? How could the MFA stickpin and staple artwork directly to the walls? The message is all wrong: fine art displayed in gilt frames, while community art is permanently defaced.

After our visit, Jackie emailed her (our) concerns to Sophia Walter of the MFA staff. I appreciate that Ms. Walter responded; unfortunately all of her justifications only exacerbated the duality between fine art and community art. She said they made the exhibit as nice as possible given they had teen curators and 2600 items to display. Why did the MFA not use real curators? Why not select specific items to display, as they do in all of their other collections?

The message the museum will put forth is: we want wide community representation. The cynical reasoning I calculate is: 2600 items multiplied by two, maybe even four family members per ‘artist’ adds up to a lot of tickets sold. In fact, Jackie lamented, “I have other friends and family members who want to see my work on display. But I am so disappointed. How do I tell them it’s not worth the visit?”

I am not a museum curator or a display designer. However, it’s not challenging to figure out how to display hundreds of identically sized pieces of paper without permanently defacing them. Correctly spaced rows of narrow channels will do the trick, as many a retail display can confirm.

Obama Portraits at MFA Boston, boston.com

By definition, the MFA is an elitist institution. It decides what art to purchase, what art to display, and in that process it establishes the parameters by which our culture defines art. The MFA can rebrand itself, highlight inclusive words on its website, and proclaim a mission of highest quality endeavors. But all of that is simply eyewash unless it treats ‘community’ art comparably to ‘fine’ art, with appropriate standards of curation and display. “Portraits of Leadership” does not do that. Worse, it illustrates that MFA Boston is tone deaf, even in its effort to get ‘woke.’

The Obama portraits will be transported to the National Gallery, where they will be hung as treasures for years to come. The paper portraits stapled to plywood walls? They will surely rip when the display is dismantled. Damaged beyond repair.

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Insatiable Want

“As Alito’s power on the Supreme Court has grown, and case after case has gone his way, he has come to seem more aggrieved.” The New Yorke

“Why is a man who is winning as much as Sam Alito is so furious?”

That line—deep into Margaret Talbot’s profile of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in the September 5, 2022 edition of The New Yorker—jumped out at me. After twelve pages of Justice Alito’s personal story, the pablum he offered the Senate at his confirmation hearings, his plodding behavior during his early years on the Court, his emergence as the right-wing kingpin of the so-called “Originalist” crowd, up to his tossing away a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization; that single line captured the man’s essence.

It also pretty much describes any human being who finally gets what he wants. The taste of victory is sweet, yet short. But when that victory is long-fought—and contrary to the public will—a man cannot rest on his laurels. Victory does not beget contentment. It only fuels resolve to deeper, more corrosive battles.

If you want to follow the evolution of Sam Alito in detail, please read Ms. Talbot’s excellent article. But if you want to view Justice Alito through the prism of just another power figure for whom every victory, every electoral vote, every Dow Jones jump is nothing more than incentive to enact bigger, more ludicrous, more repressive schemes, Ms. Talbot’s simple line sums it up.

Donald Trump wants to own the White House; Elon Musk wants to own space; Mark Zuckerberg wants to own our screentime; Tom Brady wants to own (another) Super Bowl ring. Sam Alito wants to own our private lives. These men are allergic to being content. Whatever they achieve only fuels them to want more.

The human condition is a balancing act between striving and contentment. Every man wants a better life for his child; yet every man reaches an age when he modifies his dreams and accepts his reality (except perhaps for the examples listed above). Many, perhaps most of us, can achieve a healthy level of contentment. Unfortunately, it only takes a few ravenous souls pushing, pushing, pushing their agenda for the rest of us to suffer the consequences of their bravado. A person who is content has no reason to exert energy against a hell-bent dynamo, until that dynamo has upset their contentment. In which case, it is often too late.

I don’t believe that insatiable want is the sole province of white men; in our society white men simply have the greatest opportunity to indulge gargantuan egos. Nor do I believe that women or BIPOC folk, given more access to power, would act more humbly. The sample pool is small, but Margaret Thatcher, Betsy DeVos, Ellen DeGeneres, and Will Smith are hardly shining examples of people who have used their outsized influence wisely.

Are humans genetically trapped by insatiable want? I can’t believe its fundamental to our DNA, as hunter gathers have no reason to hunt or gather more than they can eat before it rots. Agrarians, alas, have incentive to over produce…store…covet; and modern man has crafted a society in which work and wealth are distinct. Capitalism demands unrestrained so-called growth, and so far, globalism has only exacerbated the distinctions.

Regardless, even if insatiable want only infects a small segment of our species, and we could evolve out of it, we are unlikely to so in any timeframe that will stop our rapacious ways from destroying ourselves.

It may not seem obvious how Sam Alito is a threat to our existence in the same way that income inequality might lead to revolution or environmental devastation will lead to an uninhabitable planet. And yet, thanks to his opinion in Dobbs, a fifteen-year-old girl in Oklahoma is compelled to deliver a baby to term, even as she is too young to check out a book on sex ed from the library. That duality eats away at our ability to live healthy, informed lives just as much as a minimum wage job or a half degree Celsius.

And don’t think for a moment that Sam Alito will rest content on his achievement in overthrowing a woman’s right to an abortion. The man has a lifetime appointment to our highest Court. He has tasted victory. And he is furious.

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