Monday, September 29, 2008

Portrait of a Lady

Well, she is gone. Out of my life. Adios. Hasta la vista.

I know she has gone to a better place. Being housed in my barn took a toll on her.

An early bird at the Califon town yard sale last week bought the mid-nineteenth century portrait of a woman that I acquired at an auction years ago. I paid a hundred bucks for her. She hung for many years in our living room before being banished to the barn.

It was 7:30 AM and I was getting ready for the sale that kicked off at nine. I was just pulling the furniture I planned to sell out of the barn when a black Mercedes pulled up the lane. Out popped a petite middle-aged woman who immediately began poring over the furniture I had just dragged out. “I’m not interested in any of this,” she declared while slipping past me into the barn. “What else are you selling from in here?”

The lady, hanging in a dark corner, seemed to shout: “Me! Me! Me!”
“I suppose I could part with the portrait,” I said. She was interested.

We took her out into the daylight for a better look. She’d seen better days (the portrait that is). Some mold had grown on her nose. The layers of dust and grime hid the great swaths of paint I had inadvertently removed in an ill-advised cleaning effort.

“I suppose I could take a chance for $100”, the early bird said. Sold and she and the lady were gone.

I texted my daughter, Elisabeth, that I sold the lady. She immediately fired back: “No way!!!”

Elisabeth always hated and was spooked by this painting. When she was little she would not be in the living room alone with her ladyship.

The portrait shows a middle-aged woman with curls piled on her head and with what I would describe as a forlorn expression, neither menacing nor severe. To me she always resembled a depressed Joan Baez after a bad perm.

Elisabeth was not the only one uncomfortable with the painting. Most of her friends shared her unease. In fact, we later learned that several older girls declined to baby-sit for us because they thought Joan Baez was giving them the evil eye.

So she was replaced by a non-threatening portrait of a child and packed off to the barn.

There she hung for a few years. Kathie felt that it was foolish to hang a potentially valuable painting in the barn and, now that Elisabeth was a few years older, we should find a place for her in the house. We decided on the upstairs hall. In those days, with the long commute, I usually didn’t get to these kinds of projects until after the kids went to bed. So I fetched the picture, took down the one in the hall, and replaced it with her ladyship.

Later, in the deepest, darkest night, Elisabeth awakened, troubled by a dream that the woman in the portrait was chasing her. She got up to go to the bathroom for a drink, turned on the hall light, and came nose to canvas with her nemesis.

She let out a scream that would not only have awakened the proverbial dead, but would have caused him to run for his life as if he had one.

Twice in my life I have been awakened from a sound sleep to find myself standing in the middle of the room. The first time was during my childhood when the abandoned house across the street blew up. This was louder.

After we quieted the poor child, I traipsed out to the barn with the portrait in tow and there she has hung until last Saturday.

Elisabeth called shortly after the early bird and her prize had left. “I am so glad you got rid of that picture,” she said. “It has a really weird vibe. I am sure your luck will greatly improve now that she is gone.” Hold on sec. I am in good health, retired, and supported by a working wife. What’s so bad about my luck?

Anyway, I expect to see the Baez ancestor again. She will either show up at my door with a note from the early bird begging me to take her back. Or worse, I’ll see her on Antiques Road Show all primped up and worth thirty grand.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Great White Whale

Moby Dick is my favorite novel. The 1956 John Huston film starring Gregory Peck as Ahab is my favorite movie and for my money perhaps the adaptation of a novel to the screen.

The film recently aired on Channel 13 and seeing it inspired me to do a woodcarving based on the great white whale.

I was looking for a dramatic idea for a piece that I could enter in a prestigious art show in Buck’s County. Also, I have a perfect spot for it in the house. This is important, since I have never been able to sell any of my works, they must all find a home with Kathie and I.

About a year ago we purchased an old New England sea chest that resides in the upstairs hall of our house adjacent to my closet. Kathie has given me carte blanche to decorate this area in any way I choose. Actually, this is carte semi-blanche since there are some constraints on what I am allowed to display. For example, my Indian artifacts are out because they scratch the furniture. The photo of Jack Nicklaus and I is also out. Why I don’t know, but it keeps winding up back in my dresser drawer.

I have chosen a nautical theme since I have a few pieces of scrimshaw. A model made by my grandfather of the whaling ship he sailed on in his youth also sits on my dresser top.
Moby would be the perfect addition to this collection.

I had ten days to whip this thing up for the show. I carved like a fiend, as monomaniacal as old Ahab himself. My X-Acto knife was my harpoon as I stabbed and carved life into the great white whale. Wood chips were everywhere: in my beard, in my food, in my bed, on my wife. Finally, as Michelangelo wrenched David from a block of marble, Ahab and his nemesis emerged from my scraps of #2 pine. Ta-da! My masterpiece was complete. And a giant it is at 2 1/2 feet long and 2 feet high.

Next step: haul the Colossus of Califon to Bucks County for the big show. This is a juried event. A panel of la-di-da judges passes on the entries and admits only the worthy. I was blissfully unafraid in my ignorance.

First surprise: there was a line a block long of artists submitting their work. We all shuffled along dragging our artwork behind us. One poor man staggered along in a pornographic embrace with a life size wooden statue of a nude upside down woman. A very nice young artist in front of me, whose specialty is painting pictures of smooth stones on smooth stones, told me it was kind of hit or miss whether one’s work was accepted. She said that some years she got in, others not. I guess it depends on how the judges feel about smooth stones from year to year. I was not worried. Moby was a lock. And, like Ahab, I might have exhibited some hubris as I was pondering whether I should wear a turtleneck or a tie to the artists reception

Several days later a letter arrived. Moby was not accepted. That’s the words they used: “Not Accepted.” I was stunned. The great white whale was harpooned and sent to the bottom with old Ahab on his back, just like in the book. I was told to pick up my work on a specific date or I would be charged five bucks a day.

I couldn’t make it on that date so I called the Chairman of the show to arrange to pick it up on another occasion. She asked why my gallery rep couldn’t come for it. I did not inform her that I did not know what a gallery rep was, never mind have one, but lied and said she was too busy delivering my works to eager buyers.

When I got Moby/Ahab back it had a paper taped on with a big, red “N” (as in “not accepted”). I was going to leave it on as a part of the piece’s history and to bring the big fellas down a peg or two. Kathie removed it.

So now Moby is docked on my sea chest where he will sit until the tide of artistic appreciation rises and launches him on the sea of fame and fortune…or until my grandson knocks him over.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sam's Club Reject

I just got bounced from Sam's Club.

For those of you who have been in solitary confinement for the past dozen or so years, Sam’s Club is not a topless bar as the name suggests but a Wal-Mart spin-off that charges you a $40 per year membership fee for the privilege of buying the same crap you can buy in Wal-Mart. This only works in a society where the citizens gladly pay a dollar a bottle for liquid refreshment that comes straight from their taps free for nothing.

The gig is that by buying the crap in gargantuan quantities, Uncle Sam passes the bulk savings on to you, the savvy club member. By the way, Sam is none other than Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart. He is dead, so I am not so sure I want to be a member of his club anyway.

Don’t go there to pick up a roll of toilet paper. If, however, you need a pallet of the stuff, enough to wipe every behind in Cleveland with enough leftover to supply an entire middle school on Mischief Night, then Sam’s is your kind of place.

I don’t buy into the club concept. Why should I pay forty bucks just to go shopping? It’s not like there are any other privileges that go with it or that it is prestigious. When was the last time you saw “Member of Sam’s Club” on someone’s resume?

The savings are not that terrific either. I do the grocery shopping in our household and generally frequent ShopRite. Prices there are usually on a par with or lower than those at Sam’s. They also let you buy without proving that you have never belonged to a labor union or been a member of the Democratic Party.

They take this club business seriously at Sam’s. When I went several months ago, I cleverly got in line behind a man buying just a pack of gum. An extremely large pack to be sure, but one pack nevertheless. Well, when they ran his card it seems it had expired. An executive meeting had to be called on the spot to decide whether to extend his club privileges to enable him to buy his gum. I, along with the twenty other people on line by now, was extremely relieved to see things go his way. As he left, he wore the dazed look of a man whose chewing gum had just cost him forty six bucks.

The other day Kathie asked me to stock up on some things there and to renew our membership. I disagreed, grumbled, complained and went to Sam’s.

No prob renewing the membership. The trouble came at check out. First, the woman ahead of me had a gigantic box of Depends, enough to soak up the entire output of a frat house after a kegger. The genius at the register holds the box up for all to see and says to me: “Are these yours?” Before I can answer, the woman snatches them from him. “They’re mine she says”, while skewering him with a homicidal glance.

I was next. I handed over my newly renewed membership card. He stared at the card and then at me. “Are you Kathleen Andersen?” he asked with a perfectly straight face. Now, the correct answer to this question would have been “yes”. I am sure he would have bought it. Instead, I said: “Why do you ask?” “Because this is her card,” he replied holding it up for my inspection. Sure enough, the card is in her name. Not only that, there is a picture of her on the card.

I have soloed to Sam’s on several occasions and never had a problem using the card. In fact, it was the first I realized that it was in Kathie’s name.

Also, what’s up with picture? Are they afraid that identity thieves are going to counterfeit Sam’s Club cards so they can corner the market on toilet paper?

Apparently that is the case. “You can’t use another member’s card,” the genius sneers.
“She’s my wife,” I respond. Management is called in and a conference takes place. Sadly, things do not go my way. I am not allowed to purchase the two hundred bucks or so of rock bottom priced bargains I have stacked on the counter. I am handed the card and summarily dismissed.

As I slink toward the door, a convicted Sam’s Club Cheat, I am heartened by the words of Groucho Marx who said: “I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Rage Against the Machine

The Techno-Gizmo Machine is winning.

Sometimes I think I can deal with the gadgets, devices, passwords, access cards, pin numbers, etc. that the Machine requires to be a part of out lives. Sometimes I actually think I can win.

The events of the past several weeks demonstrate that I am wrong.

I recently went to Staples to purchase a switch that would enable me to connect a computer to my cable modem via an Ethernet cable as well as the wireless router. I was pretty proud of myself for having figured this out.

As I was checking out, the young lady at the register asked if I had a Staples Discount Card. I replied that I did not. “Yes, you do,” she said with that eager, ready to pounce expression that the young get when they have cornered an elder. Now I was confused. What high tech magic had she worked on her register that would convey this information, considering I hadn't even found my debit card yet? "I really don't think I have a Staples card," I said with just a hint of uncertainty creeping into my voice. "Sure you do," she replied,“I can see it in your wallet.” Sure enough, my wallet was open on the counter as I groped about for my debit card. Then, with a lightening fast move that would have brought a tear to old Fagan’s eye, she deftly snatched a Staples card from between my ShopRite Price Plus Card and my Sam’s Club Membership.

“There, all set,” she cheerfully gloated. I stood there with the dumb look of a rube who has just had a quarter pulled from his ear by the carnival magician. Now, I know my wallet is a black hole where sales receipts go to be magically recycled into blank sheets of paper, but I have no idea where the Staples card came from.

Whatever joy I felt from solving my computer problem vanished. The Machine trumped me with a discount card.

Another seeming victory was similarly snatched away. I have managed to negotiate a deal for the Triple Play from Comcast that packages upgraded cable television, broadband internet, and digital phone for the same price as I was formerly paying for just basic cable. This required hours on hold and dozens of phone conversations that took me from the depths of Arkansas to the outskirts of Lahore.

Unfortunately, just two weeks after we were up and running with all computers connected, a violent thunderstorm fried our modem. We returned from vacation to find we had no phones, and no internet. Kathie observed that in 30 years with the phone company we had never lost our service. This was spoken with what I interpreted as an accusatory tone.

One minute I was Steven Jobs, the Poor Soul the next.

Two days later, a repairman apparently suffering from clinical depression showed up at our house to install a new modem. When he was finished I asked if there was anything else I should know. He just gave a shrug that suggested that not knowing was always the better option and gloomily strode out the door.

A week later, I got a call from a Comcast rep inquiring if I was satisfied with the service and the installation personnel. I didn’t tell her how I had to accompany the installer on his mission because I feared he would throw himself out the third floor window. She asked if he had explained the service and how the various features worked. I hesitated to criticize the unstable installer because I don’t want to be a stop on his hit parade when he finally snaps. I did say that perhaps he was a teensy bit vague. She promised to send me the Welcome Package, which, of course, never came.

Cut to last weekend. I am boasting to my nieces about my prowess in negotiating the Triple Play and saving big bucks. Of course, I leave out the part about the violent thunderstorm and two phoneless days. They ask how I like the digital phone. I reply that I can’t get used to the dial tone which consists of three short bursts followed by the normal tone.

“That means you have a message in your voice mail box,” they say with their eyeballs rolling skyward in unison. “Didn’t anyone explain THAT to you?”

No, they didn’t, but we still eagerly await our Welcome Package. As I write this I am on hold with Comcast because we have just had a brief power outage that seems to have fried my new connector switch that I just purchased at Staples at great cost to my self-esteem.

At this point I surrender to the Machine. I will run a digital white flag up the old internet flagpole. If only I could remember my password to it’s web site.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Officially Old

Well, it’s official: I’m old.

I went down to the Social Security office and signed up to receive my benefits.

There were warning shots over my bow that I was getting on in years, like the disappearance of my children from the dinner table and the AARP membership card that appeared on my fiftieth birthday.

But going on Social Security nails it down.

For some reason or another, I have managed to hang on to my original Social Security Card. I remember applying for it at the age of 16. In fact, that was my last appearance at a Social Security office.

Having a card, in those days, meant you could work without having “working papers” and parental permission. This was an exciting prospect at the age of 16. It is less so at the age of 63.

The card is signed by Gerald Andersen in a clear, legible hand that still bears the signs of the Palmer Method of penmanship that was ruler smacked into my small muscle memory by the sisters at St. Al’s, a far cry from the palsied scrawl that passes for my signature nowadays.

In reading the back of this withered document, I noted the following peculiar statement: “Tell your family to notify the nearest Social Security Office in the event of your death.”

In the nearly half century since this card was issued we have made enormous technological progress, but apparently we have lost the ability to communicate from beyond the grave.

To get your benefits you need to apply. I chose to do this on line. As I have said before (“The Unemployment Office”) I don’t deal well with forms and questionnaires, and the SS one is a doozy…long and complicated. Each time I would complete a page and hit the “continue” button it would come flying back at me with a half dozen errors flagged in red and with an extravagant number of exclamation marks (I don’t know about you, but I hate to see my tax dollars going toward excess punctuation marks) . They ask a lot of questions one of which is “do you have any outstanding arrest warrants?” I couldn’t help but wonder what criminal mastermind would answer yes to this question.

You can complete the process on line, but they want you to mail them your original birth certificate. I chose not to trust them with this since, after all, this is the federal government……”Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

So I made an appointment to come in to the Parsippany office. They sent me two reminders and left a reminder call. I guess this is necessary when dealing with older citizens. I only got one notice to appear before the draft board.

They also tell you to get there fifteen minutes before your scheduled appointment. At first blush this seems unnecessary since old people are always early. I think that is why they suggest fifteen minutes, because otherwise we geezers would be showing up an hour ahead of time. I, in fact, was 45 minutes early, but waited in my car.

Things got off on the wrong foot. As I entered the office, staring at me from across the room in six rows of chairs are 40 waiting old people, all of whom, I am sure, are an hour early for their appointments. I am ashamed to admit it, but I always feel a certain sense of superiority in these situations: I am young and on the ball, not like these people.

I was quickly disabused of this notion. At the entrance there is a large computer screen and a sign that directs you to register. You are instructed to select the reason for your visit from six or seven options, and enter it on the screen. I assumed it was a touch screen and touched on the reason that best described my visit. Not only did nothing happen, but I discovered that there was a screen over the computer screen. I turned to the guard who was seated at a desk nearby. He told me to just enter the reason for my visit on the screen.
Stupidly, I pressed on the screen again. “Try using the keypad,” he suggested with more than a hint of sarcasm. Sure enough, there was a keypad in plain sight. I entered the code for my visit and was prompted to enter the last 4 digits of my social security number. Now, of course, I am totally flustered and forget my number. I must take my wallet out and refer to my card.

As I turn around I face 40 pairs of elderly eyes who, had they been a Greek chorus, would have chanted You Old Fool in unison.

I slunk to a seat. No one who came, no matter how old, how infirm, or how alien, made the same mistake I did. All went directly to the keypad.

I guess I’m ready for Social Security.