Friday, July 20, 2012

Weird shit I don't see in Charlotte

In all the times I’ve been to New York City, I had never visited the Museum of Modern Art until this past week. I loved it. But then, I love weird shit, and MoMA has more weird shit in a concentrated area than any place I’ve ever seen. Of course, a big part of the fun is scratching your head and wondering, “What the ****?”

One work that particularly amused me was by a Belgian artist named Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976). Because it is a three-dimensional piece, it is displayed beneath a glass case that is mounted to the wall. It’s called, “General with Cigar” and that pretty much sums it up. There is a portrait of an unknown decorated general and he has a cigar sticking out of his mouth. When I say it was sticking out of his mouth, I mean that literally. The artist cut a little hole in the general’s mouth, and with a giant glob of glue, he stuck a half-smoked, old, nasty cigar in it. So, yes, the cigar is sticking straight out of the general’s mouth. It reminds me of the sort of thing my son Ben would have done. Back in elementary school.

So, here’s the thing that really grinds my butt about “General with Cigar” by Broodthaers. The artist didn’t even paint the portrait of the general. He picked it up somewhere at a flea market. Doggone it, he didn’t even make the cigar. All he did was glue it to the picture. And he called it art. Okay.

Now, I have no idea what Mr. Broodthaers was paid for this work, but since it’s featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where I had to pay $25 just to walk in the door, I figure he was paid well for it. Considering the fact that all he did was glue a cheap cigar to a cheap painting, I would guess that it may have taken him all of five minutes to complete this work of art. (Maybe longer, if you allow for the time it took the glue to dry.)

I wonder if Mr. Broodthaers did a little jig all the way to the bank as he went to cash the check he received for this brilliant masterpiece. Did he giggle himself to sleep every night for the rest of his life? No, I don’t know what he was paid, but I imagine it was a boatload of money. And, so far as I can see, no matter what he was paid, surely it was too much!

Before I left MoMA, I stopped in the gift shop and picked up a poster of Picasso’s “Three Musicians.” I put it in a cardboard shipping tube so I could mail it to Charlotte and it would be waiting for me when I returned home. This required a trip the next day to the U.S. Post Office in Bushwick (Brooklyn). My daughter’s boyfriend, Jon, had warned me about how this Post Office is frequented by crazy customers who fly into a rage for no apparent reason. I thought he was exaggerating. Turns out he understated the situation. In one relatively brief visit, I witnessed two out-of-control customer tirades that left me scratching my head and wondering “What the ****?” just as I had the day before at MoMA.

As I was walking into the Post Office, a woman was all hot and bothered about the cost of her stamp and how there was something wrong with her envelope, and it wasn’t her fault, and now she was going to have to change it, but she paid all this money for her stamp, goddam it, and she wasn’t going to waste it, and somehow it was all their fault at the U;S. Post Office and they were going to have to make it right, and she didn’t care if she had to take the case all the way to the ****ing Supreme ****ing Court, they were going to pay for treating her this way and she wasn’t going to leave until they did, and on and on it went.

I moved to the next window and received the help I needed from a woman who was kind, calm, and patient. Actually, all the people working there seemed to be that way.

As I was exiting the Post Office, another customer, an African American woman, was verbally abusing the Asian American postal worker on the other side of the glass. The customer cussed the postal worker out and berated her with a racial slur, yelling something about how in order to work at the United States Post Office you should be required to speak English, and it went downhill from there. I don’t know what the issue was exactly, but I can’t imagine any reason to speak that way to another human being unless maybe you just learned that they had boiled and eaten your firstborn child.

I’ve been living in the South for about fifteen years now, and I just don’t hear people talking to other people like this. Yeah, they are capable of being rude in the South, but this was beyond rude. It was brutal. And, so far as I could tell, pointless. Especially when you consider the fact that these customers were verbally abusing people they expected to help them. How do the postal workers tolerate it? How can they stand to be beaten up every day like punching bags by rage-a-holics who should be locked away somewhere in a padded room?

The women I saw working at the Bushwick Post Office are heroes, in my book. And, I don’t care what they’re being paid, it could never be enough. As I was mulling the indignity of it all, I thought again about Marcel Broodthaers. I think it’s safe to say that the postal workers in Brooklyn aren’t paid in one year what Mr. Broodthaers was paid for the five minutes it took him to glue a half-smoked cigar to a flea market painting.

I guess that's how the world works. We seldom compensate people in a way that is commensurate with their worth. For some, any amount of pay would be more than enough, and for others, no amount of pay would ever be enough. I don't know that it is as in-your-face anywhere as much as it is in New York City. Not just at an art museum in Manhattan and a Post Office in Brooklyn, of course. But the injustice of disparity between the classes can be seen on any street corner. I suspect there is a reason why this is where the Occupy movement began.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Birthmarks welcome

When I was a kid, I had a very noticeable birthmark on my face. As you might guess, I was self-conscious about it. My mom even took me to a dermatologist, who gave me some cream to make it disappear, although it didn’t do much. Instead, the birthmark seemed to fade as I got older. You can still see it, but you have to look for it.

Because of the birthmark on my face, I was quite struck by Nathanael Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark” when I read it in school. It’s about a scientist who marries a woman who is absolutely perfect in every way, except for this small birthmark she has on her face. The scientist becomes obsessed with it and he works at coming up with a concoction that will make it go away. When he finally thinks he has it perfected, his wife agrees to take it. And it does the job. Slowly, the birthmark on her face disappears. Unfortunately, as the birthmark fades away, so does his wife. When it is completely gone, his wife is finally perfect in every way. Well, except for the fact that she’s dead.

Have you ever noticed that animals don’t worry about being perfect? My dog Pooky only has one eye and I’m quite certain she has no awareness of this. She’s too busy being Pooky. Striving for perfection seems to be a very human characteristic. Some of us learn early on that it’s futile, and we relinquish the quest. Others among us can never get past it. We’re always fighting against our limitations. Ever deluding ourselves into believing that if we just try a little harder, we’ll get there.

Religion, for some people, is all about striving the quest for perfection, or at least getting as close to it as they can. So they work hard to live morally upstanding lives. And they’re extra careful about coloring between the lines so they don’t mess up. Somewhere along the way, their religion has given them the impression that the goal to life is striving for perfection.

Is that what Jesus was all about? Was Jesus all about striving to be perfect? We like to say that Jesus was perfect. But by that do we mean that he never did anything wrong? How could Jesus have grown up like we all do and never do anything wrong? The kind of perfection Jesus achieved would be better described as completeness. In striving to be like Jesus, our goal as his followers, is not to live perfect little lives. It’s to live authentically, as the people God created us to be. It’s to be whole.

And, here’s the catch. In order to be whole, we embrace who we really are, including our imperfections. We look at the things about ourselves that we may have decided have no redeeming value, and accept them as a part of who we are.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about his “thorn in the flesh.” No one knows exactly what it was for him. There are different theories. Some people think he was nearly blind. Others say he had malaria. Or he was homosexual. It’s probably just as well that we don’t know exactly what it was because it doesn’t matter really.

What matters is acknowledging the fact that we all have a thorn in the flesh. It’s that thing that seems to keep coming up again and again and you wish more than anything that it would just go away. I’m like that about my weight. My struggle with my weight isn’t going to go away, no matter how much I may obsess over it. That’s a thorn in the flesh for me. I wish I could say it’s the only one. There are others, as well. A big part of what it means to be human is to have struggles. That’s the way it works.

Paul reminds us that this isn’t all bad. A thorn in the flesh is a constant reminder to us of our imperfection. And really, our imperfection may just be one of the most perfect things about us. Because it’s the way God made us. It’s a part of who we are in our completeness.

I can’t begin to see myself as God sees me. When I see myself, I tend to hone in on all the stuff that’s wrong with me. But I suspect that may not be what God sees when he looks on me. It may be the things that I wish I could change. But I suspect that may not be what God sees when he looks at me. It may be the things that I think are all wrong about me that endear me the most to the God who loves me.

Paul puts forth the idea that it’s in our weakness that we find our strength. I don’t know about you, but that certainly rings true for me. That’s the way it seems to work in my life. When I’m struggling so much that I don’t know which way to turn, I end up going to the only one I can turn to. When I’m so empty that it doesn’t feel like there’s anything left of me, there’s a vacuum inside me that only God’s Spirit can fill. When I don’t think I have what it takes to do what I know I have to do, that’s just the opening God needs to work through me. When I am weak, that’s when I become strong. When I feel like I’m not enough, I learn that God’s grace is more than enough.

For a long time, I thought this was all about this really cool thing that happens between God and me. When I’m weak, God makes me strong. But I’ve grown to think of the way this works a little differently. I think it’s more about me acknowledging that I need help, that I don’t have it all together and, if it all depends upon me, I’m in a lot of trouble. Then God comes to me in my weakness and gives me the strength I need. And I’ve noticed that the way this most often happens in my life is through other people. God gives me the strength I need when I admit that I need help. Then I’m open to receive it. And it comes to me through the people God sends into my life. When I am weak, then I become strong.

There is a story about a guy who falls in love with a beautiful woman and begs her to go out with him. “Be serious,” the woman says. “You’re fat, bald, ugly and your wardrobe is atrocious.” So the guy goes on a diet and loses 80 pounds and starts working out at a gym. He gets a hair transplant and plastic surgery. He goes to a tanning salon and buys himself a new wardrobe. Finally, he goes back to the woman and asks her what she thinks. “What a hunk!" she says, and she agrees to a date.

So he arrives at her door with a limo and driver. She emerges from her house radiant, promising him a never–to–be–forgotten evening. As they walk together toward the limo, lightning strikes the man. So now he’s lying on the street dying, and he cries out, “Why now, God? Why now, on the happiest day of my life?” God answers. “Sorry, Sam. I didn’t recognize you.”

We may spend a lot of time and energy trying to be people we aren’t. But it’s good to remember that God sees us as the people we are: people who are full of what we perceive to be imperfections. Striving for perfection is not only futile, but it’s not even God’s desire for us. What God wants from us is an authentic relationship with him as the people he created us to be. All birthmarks are welcome!