Friday, June 15, 2018

Three Things


My father told me three things he would later come to regret. 

Deer Diary

            Usually it was my habit of ignoring his instructions that made him angry. Actually paying attention to his counsel, then applying it in ways that he did not expect or approve of, that’s what really put a burr under his saddle. The saddest part is, upsetting him was never my intention. It just seemed to happen regardless of my behavior. 

            Dad seldom gave advice. He preferred directives, usually preceded by the phrase, “You’re doing that wrong”, or “Here, let me show you something”, which was really just his other way of saying, “You’re doing that wrong.”

            The most useful and lasting advice Dad had to offer came from his candid observations.

            He couldn't go into a McDonalds, for example, without marveling at the organizational efficiency of the place. He always commented on the unidirectional flow of raw materials from the back of the building to the front, with value added along the way. What didn’t go out the front doors and into waiting cars, he noted, was neatly channeled into trashcans, and finally cycled in an efficient stream to the dumpster out back. Every action, every stop along the way was planned and executed for maximizing profit. He all but glowed over the prospect of cause, effect, and the managerial control that made it all work. 

            This marriage of knowledge, organization, and administrative power were epitomized by the university medical center where he worked, personified by the doctors whose budgets he managed, whose retirements he planned, whose paychecks he signed at the close of every month. 

            Dad practically worshipped order and control. His professional world functioned according to plan, with strict adherence to the dictates of established processes and concrete calendar deadlines. Things worked because people worked to keep things working. It wasn’t supposed to be fun. 

            Creative endeavors were a sideline, to be indulged only after the real work was finished. Even then, creativity should be productive. Practical. Exploration for its own sake was an unsupportable proposition, indistinguishable from play – which is why his occasional epiphanies to the contrary stood out in such stark contrast to his overall worldview, and carried so much more weight.

            Of the many opinions, directives, examples, orders, platitudes and heartfelt paternal memoranda Dad offered over the years, only a few somehow found their way through my adolescent armor, took root in my mind, and burrowed in to stay. They may have been issued from his castle of practical conservatism, but once filtered through the rebellious prism of my rationally contrarian personality, these three recommendations did more to convince me to pursue my own devices and fulfill my personal, creative agendas:

1. “An academic degree is like a bus ticket. If you don’t want to go where the ticket takes you, there’s no reason to waste your time getting it.”

2. “Most people are too busy making a living to ever make any money.”

3. “It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, as long as you can pay the bills.”


“An academic degree is like a bus ticket.”

  
            Academic medicine is a process marked by an endless series of milestones: diplomas, degrees, certifications, fellowships, continuing education and re-certification programs. After medical school comes the residency match, the pyramid system, and specialty board certification, followed by competition for positions in fellowship programs, election to national and international specialty colleges and professional societies, and hierarchal status within these same organizations. The academic career track provides even more markers of success (or lack thereof), in research and publication, assistant and associate professorships, committee assignments, and department administration. 

            As a surgical intern, all of these opportunities were laid out before me. If I worked hard enough, kept my nose clean, kept my mouth shut, did everything I was told without complaint, anticipated pitfalls, kept up with my reading, and behaved responsibly, one day I could make it all the way to Chief Resident. I might be offered a fellowship, then asked to stay on as an attending physician, and work my way up the academic ladder. If I proved to be good enough at medicine and politics, I might even enter the realm of administrative decision making.

            Yes, the road to being a surgeon was rough. I’d worked hard to buy the ticket, and found my seat on the bus. Once I got far enough along the path to see where that road was leading, though, I decided I didn't want to go there after all. 

            Why? In a word, it wasn’t fun.

         (“Work isn't supposed to be fun! That’s why they call it work!”)

           I needed a ticket to an enjoyable life. I didn’t need a ticket to academic surgery. So why not go for a solo practice? Just hang out my shingle and …

            Non-academic practices have pecking orders that rival the educational model, with rewards correspondingly based on competitive performance and supervisory review of board certification, licensure, association membership, continuing education and hospital affiliation. In addition, a solo medical practice offered all the hazards and pitfalls of self-employment plus the added burden of malpractice liability - without any preparatory business training, and peoples’ lives hanging in the balance. 

            I didn’t want a ticket to go there, either.

            So, what do you do when you buy a ticket, let it take you where you thought you wanted to go, then find out upon arrival you don't really want to be there? I’d earned my ticket to medical school, and gave doctoring my best shot. More important, I took an oath as a physician, and I meant it: Primo Non Nocere (First, Do No Harm). If my heart wasn’t in it, the most responsible way for me to do no harm was to exit, stage right. But if you do that, what is waiting for you in the wings? Are you allowed to get a ticket to someplace else? And if so, where did I want to go? 

            I didn't know. If only my dad had offered some guiding insights for the uncertain traveller…


“Most people are too busy making a living to ever make any money.”


            Dad’s general philosophy allowed that people who worked (to keep things working) did so grudgingly, and only because it was the only way they could put food on the table. Most people, in his view, were lazy, and, given the opportunity to stop working and sponge off of society, would do so at a moment’s notice, and happily keep at it for the rest of their lives. This was fact.

            But he could also see that doing right by society, holding down a regular job and providing your family rarely allowed anyone to get ahead. To become wealthy, you had to have an angle. You had to be clever, and work extra hard to come up with an original idea, then develop and promote that idea until it finally paid off.  

           He wasn’t talking about pipe dreams. He was talking about ideas that had real potential in the marketplace. Unfortunately, he noted, few people had the time, the energy or the intellectual and financial resources to take a concept from the idea stage to the store shelves at Wal-Mart.

            If people are too busy making a living to accumulate wealth, it follows that someone intent on moneymaking should not worry so much about the day-to-day cares of bill paying. Rather they should lower immediate expectations, minimize their cost of living in the short term, and spend whatever resources they have carefully, selfishly creating the environment and the means to produce something original. If they succeed, they’re winners. If not, then they have to go back to the grind of daily labor – and pay off all the debt they’d racked up by following their dreams.

            Legendary recording artist Sam Cook announced in his late teens that he was never going to get a job. His family was appalled. They knew that if you didn't work, you didn't eat.

            For his part, Cook observed that people in his family who worked for an hourly wage got paid on Friday, and were broke again the following Monday. They existed to barely make ends meet, in an endless cycle of labor and debt. Sam Cook wanted more than that. He broke away from the family mold, followed his talent, and went on to become one of the most successful, most influential performers of his time.

            I think Dad would have approved of Sam Cook. He certainly approved of Elvis Presley, a man with whom he identified at a basic level. Elvis was a truck driver from the country, who took a chance on his talent, and made it to the top of the list. Elvis made something of himself. He succeeded, against all odds.

            Both Sam Cook and Elvis Presley succeeded in unlikely careers because of their understanding that they each had a remarkable talent, and to capitalize on that talent, they would have to step boldly away from traditional societal and professional roles. Dad admired that, because they succeeded

            He also, once, admired an artist – for his work, to be sure, but mostly for his business acumen.

            Clark Bailey was an art professor at the Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts, where my father served as the school’s business administrator. An accomplished metal sculptor, Bailey wrought wonderfully sinuous human figures and abstract forms from such simple, available materials as coat hangers and car bumpers. By the time we came to know him, the artist had achieved a certain level of national recognition, and was making the best of it. 

           My father, whose signature appeared on the professor’s monthly paychecks (and likely his income tax forms as well), was well acquainted with the artist’s finances, and his sources of income both on campus and off:

            “That Clark Bailey has the world by the tail, let me tell you! He’s the only artist I know who found a way to beat the system, and boy he beats it like a drum.”

            Clark Bailey found a way to make a living that also left him plenty of free time to make money. His talent for doing so was separate from his artistic ability. Making art was a requirement of his chosen profession; making money was a function of his ability to use his art-making time to make business connections as well, and to put those connections to good use.

            “I was over at his house last weekend for a cookout, and he took me out to his garage to show me his collection of sculptures. Most people have no idea how many he has done, and he likes to keep it that way. That’s his secret. Now, toward the end of the year, he’ll decide how much money he wants to make, in addition to his salary. Then, he says ‘I’ll sell that one, that one, and that one.’ Those are the ones he’ll release to the galleries for sale. The rest he keeps in mothballs until next year. This guy literally sets his own pay scale! Now that’s freedom, I’ll tell you. The man is more than a good artist. He’s a brilliant businessman.”

            Create a consistent product line. Build demand. Manage the market. Got it. I don't know why that story wedged its way into the mind of a pre-teen whose only career interest was to someday get to medical school, but when it did, it sunk deep, permanent roots.

            The other enduring lesson I learned from Mr. Bailey was the urgency to create now, today, while you still can. Clark Bailey’s promising career was cut short in a hunting accident, just about the time I was entering high school. His passing reinforced the unspoken imperative given by my mother’s premature death: Your life comes with an expiration date, and it’s sooner than you think. Don’t put off happiness for some point in the future. You may not last that long.


“It doesn’t matter what you do for a living…”


          There was something else my father told me, about a man he once met in the mountains of eastern Arkansas, back in the 1950’s.  It was meant to be an object lesson in laziness:

      “He was as poor as a church mouse, this fellow, lived way up in the middle of the woods. A real Hillbilly. This man had nothing more than a shack to live in, and an outhouse, and an old dog for company. He kept a little garden out back, I guess, but mostly he ate whatever he was able to shoot.

      “What money he made came to him in the summer and fall, when he would act as a guide for people who wanted to fish in the mountain lakes, or hunt up in the hills.  He had no idea how poor he was. I once heard him brag to us city folks how foolish he thought we were:

‘I work two, three months out of the year, taking city-slickers up to the hills to catch fish or shoot some deer. I figger I’m walkin’ up that a-way anyhow, so what’s it to me if they want to foller along? They give me a hunnert dollars for it. A hunnert dollars! Come wintertime I can make three thousand, easy as that. The rest of the year I stay in my cabin, hunt and fish when I want to, come and go as I please. I don’t know many city folk as rich as that.’”

I don’t know many, either.

         Dad’s reason for telling me this story was cautionary: Don't sell yourself short

          Instead I took it as a grand parable: Decide what makes you happy, and pay no attention to how others judge your success.

          In my first half-century on the planet, I’ve been a student, a performer, a union laborer, a doctor, and an artist. According to many who have shared their opinions with me over the years, my father chief among them, the thing I was supposed to be best at was medicine. 

          Sorry, Pop. I’m much happier drawing pictures for a living. 

          I had been drawing pictures for twenty years when my father dropped by the studio for an unexpected visit. He rarely visited our shop, and his discomfort was apparent, as it always was when he saw me in the context of my art. That day, though, he seemed to have come to a place of resignation, if not acceptance. Whatever it was that led to his reluctant change of heart, I would never know. Maybe it just took that long to realize that art for me was more than a distracting sideline, or to acknowledge that with the passage of so much time away from the hospital, I would never be able to catch up with the medical advances required to go back into practice.

          As he looked around the studio, its walls filled with my drawings and my wife’s paintings, he seemed to relax for a moment.

          He sighed audibly, and said, “Son, I don't know what you do. I don't know why you do it. But you seem happy. You always seem to find a way to keep yourself fed… and you‘ve never once asked me for money.”

          That’s as close to praise as I ever could have expected from my father the accountant, and far more than I’d ever hoped for. 

          I hope at some point that he realized that whatever success I’d achieved came mostly from listening to his advice.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Flagging Sales


We received an invitation to a military ball. 

For any civilian, this is a big deal.  A really, BIG deal. This is the military at their best – dress uniforms, spit and polish, tablecloths and napkins. Not many outside of the uniformed fold have any reason to be there. You want to do it up right.

So, the Missus gets a new dress. I buy a new suit, one that works with a black tie and cummerbund, and a new pleated shirt. Cufflinks are excavated from the back of the sock drawer. Dress shoes are located, dusted and polished.

All is in order, until a military friend says, “You’ll be wearing your American flag lapel pin, right?” Of course I would, if I had one. Truth is, I haven’t worn anything with a lapel on it since sometime in the last century. So no, no flag pin. “You’ll have to get one. It’s not optional.”

Sure. Fine. Okay. No need to insult our hosts. I’ll pick one up today, at the gas station, or the corner convenience store. Or the party supply store. Or the hardware store. Or perhaps the Dollar Store. Maybe that other dollar store? No, the pharmacy, they’ll have one. Or the other, competing pharmacy up the road. The one across town surely carries these things. For god’s sake, they used to be on display cards at every cash register in creation. You couldn't throw a rock, or swing a dead cat without hitting one, or two, or ten. Where are they all now?

Wal-Mart, maybe? Target? Hobby Lobby? Are you serious? Nobody can sell me a lousy American flag pin? The guy at the Toy & Hobby store should have bags of ‘em, I thought. No, but if I found more than I needed, he’d like to buy one from me.

It is a gala, after all. 
High-end sparkle is 
entirely in order.

Wow. I knew that these signature patriotic symbols were more than popular in this flag-waving, I’m-a-better-American-than-you society we live in, but I never dreamed they would be so universally desirable that every one of the businesses in my neighborhood could be sold out. So I asked, “When do you expect to get more in stock?”

We don’t. Ever? Never. In fact, none of the people I talked to could remember when they last had one for sale. Most said they’d never carried them. No, they had no idea where I might find one. Have I tried looking online?

I had in fact looked online. That’s how I knew they were supposed to be sold at Wal-Mart, only my store somehow wasn’t on the special ‘flag pin’ list. Lowes had a nice Stars & Stripes pinwheel for the yard, but no flag pins. Would I like one of those? At this point I was actually thinking about it.

Surely the flag store downtown would have them. That’s the store that opened years ago because the owner wanted to buy a flag to fly outside his house, and couldn't find anyone who was selling them. Their web site said they carried the pins, so I called to see if they had one I could stop by and purchase in person. No. They closed their brick and mortar store a while ago, in favor of an exclusive online presence. They’d be happy to send one to me right away, though, for the retail price plus a standard shipping fee, which frankly was equal to the cost of a dozen pins from another online source. And that one offered free shipping.

No, I still figured I could buy one in person, at retail, in my own community. Time to lean on the right wing.

I called the police uniform shop. Nope, no pins. The gun repair shop. Nothing. The tactical firearms store, the one that hosts republican politicians for town hall meetings. Three tries, all during business hours, and they didn't even pick up their phone.

Of course it was imported. 
Why would I expect it to be 
made in America?

Back to the computer, to cast a wider net on the… net. Got the Missus to search at the same time, and discovered that we could get one directly from the White House Gift Shop. It comes in a box with the presidential seal on the inside, in a box with the presidential seal on the outside, for only $24.95, plus shipping and handling. That's a lot more than I wanted to pay for boxes.

After another half hour of being channeled back to the same pages over and over, we finally gave up and placed an order for a cheap enamel pin.

Thank you! Your item will be delivered a day after you leave for your gala event. Unless you wish to add an additional $20 for expedited shipping…

No, thank you, we would not. Twenty-five bucks for a two-dollar pin? We can get that deal from the White House. There had to be a better way – but the clock was ticking, and we had few options.

Cancelling that order, we dove back into the search, this time switching the query around from ‘American Flag Lapel Pin’, to ‘Lapel Pin American Flag’. And it worked!

“This classic American flag pin is fashioned out of silver-tone metal, genuine mother-of-pearl, and red and blue enamel. Imported.”

Of course it was imported. Why would I expect it to be made in America?

“$29.50”

No. Way. (But it is nice and sparkle-y, with all that mother of pearl. And their store is just a mile away, so no shipping charge. Hmmm…)

No. No! Before I pay thirty bucks for a damn flag pin, I’m going to call every truck stop within twenty miles of this studio. They HAVE to have bona fide American flag pins, along with all the Harley and Hard Rock CafĂ© and Peterbilt pins they sell to truckers to stick on the fronts of their cowboy hats. I travel the roads. I know what I’m talking about. I’ll spend thirty bucks in gas to drive to a major Interstate crossing and pick one of those suckers up myself, if they’ll just tell me which direction to point my van.

They don’t. No one has flag pins.

I give up, and give in. Over at the upscale mall, I plunk down $29.50, plus tax, for a pin made of genuine mother of pearl, and blue and red enamel. 


And why not? It is a gala, after all.
High-end sparkle is entirely in order. 

No doubt the Missus and I will both be flooded with online ads for weeks from every company that has ever sold, or plans to sell, an American flag lapel pin.

Bring it.


I’m an American, dammit, and I have a flag to prove it.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Presi-Digitation

Discovering and Decoding 
the President’s Binary Hand Signals

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Birmingham, Alabama
1 April 2017



One and two and one and one and…

Visual artists Don Stewart and Sue Ellen Brown of the DS Art Studio in Homewood, Alabama have made a startling discovery, simply by observing the hand gestures of the 45th president. After months of careful study, the husband and wife team believe the leader of the free world is telegraphing coded messages using binary code in his own digital sign language, and has been doing so since he began running for office.

Hand Signals
Stewart, a former physician, and Brown, a computer artist, began noticing the candidate’s peculiar hand motions early in the presidential campaign.

“It was actually way back in the summer of 2015,” says Brown, who was first to comment on the candidate’s odd manual gesticulations. She noticed the regularity with which Mr. Trump repeatedly extended his index finger in an upward ‘number one’ direction, followed by circling his thumb and forefinger into the letter “O”.

“He just kept doing it, over and over, so I got curious and started keeping notes,” Brown said. “It turns out he was speaking in sign language, signaling individual letters, made up of zeroes and ones.”

Since then, the husband and wife team has been poring over hours of video footage, carefully cataloguing the sequences of 1’s and O’s indicated by Trump’s articulate right hand. After writing down the numbers on separate note pads, the two then compare their numeric lists, revisiting the video record to resolve any conflicts.

Once the raw lists of binary figures are complete, they are scanned into a computer program that simultaneously reads the numbers, and separates them sequentially into eight-bit segments for translation into alphanumeric characters.

“It took us a while to get the software right,” says Brown, “But with a little bit of tweaking, we were able to obtain reliable data. Incredible data. Better data than anyone has ever been able to generate before.”

With eight ‘bits’ or gestures, per letter, it takes a long time to code a word by hand, much less a full sentence.

“That’s probably why he talks so much,” says Stewart.

According to the two researchers, Trump’s messages cover a wide range of topics from DAPL and NAFTA to MAGA and several mentions of WAFFLES. ‘You are Losers,’ and ‘I am WINNING’ appear frequently. Neither artist would offer details concerning the content of additional coded messages, citing national security concerns, and the fact that their translations aren’t infallible, for a number of reasons.


“It turns out, he’s not a very good speller,” said Stewart, “Though the man is spot-on with the terms ‘B-I-G-L-Y’ and ‘H-U-G-E’. He nails those every time.”

“And TRUMP. There’s a lot of T-R-U-M-P,” Brown said.

When pressed, the two investigators also admit that their translating program isn't perfect. Some of the passages they have recorded make no sense at all when processed through their proprietary computer algorithm. This could be due, they say, to glitches in the software, or simply a faulty interpretation of the hand gestures, for example, when an upturned finger actually means ‘Number One’. “That can throw off an entire sequence,” said Stewart.

Both concede that more study is needed, and have plans to run their ‘nonsense’ data through a more advanced series of algorithms, including punctuation filters, and Cyrillic character analysis.

When asked why they have only interpreted the president’s right-handed gestures, Stewart noted, “If you try and follow both hands at once, the messages become unreadable, so either the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, or he’s sending different information to two audiences at once. For now we’re focusing on right-sided speech alone. That’s where most of the action is. We plan to review the numbers from his sinister side in a follow-up study.”

Asked when the intelligence community will allow them to discuss their findings in greater detail, the artists stated that the meetings with federal authorities have been planned for some time, but repeatedly postponed until a later date.



Contact:

Don Stewart                www.DSArt.com
Sue Ellen Brown         www.ZooLNArt.com
DS Art Studio Gallery
2805 Crescent Ave
Homewood, Alabama 35209
205-802-4700
1-800-372-7864



####

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Bleeding Heart Capitalist


I’m an Artist. 

My income relies on my ability to


acquire raw materials, add value, and sell my products at a profit. That makes me a Capitalist. My choice of professions tells most people that I am a hopeless, bleeding-heart Liberal. My modest success in the field, however, aside from being an extremely rare phenomenon, means that I know something about business - a condition that implies that I must be a Conservative. 

Oh, and I used to be a Doctor, so I have at least a basic understanding of the healthcare industry.

There. Now that we have the labels in place, let me say a bit more about what I do: I make art. Not food, not clothing, not shelter. My products are not essential. I know my place in the system. That said, most of the goods and services exchanged in our national marketplace are not essential, either. We don't have to have big, shiny cars, or soft drinks, or cell phones or hair gel to survive. We do have to have all of these things and more, though, to maintain a thriving economy.

I also know something of my potential in this economy. Each year I sell thousands of pictures to happy customers all across the country. My customers are all knowledgeable, relatively healthy people with a certain amount of disposable income. They have to be. If they weren’t all of these things, they wouldn’t understand my drawings, much less appreciate them. Nor would they have the means to purchase my artwork. To keep my business going, therefore (and to keep myself supplied with food, and clothing, and shelter), I need a growing pool of potential customers who fit these three criteria. And because I’m Selfish, I want to do everything I can to make more people smart, and healthy, and rich.

I keep trying to imagine how much more successful I could be, (and how much better every American business could be) if everyone in the United States had a quality education, were gainfully employed, and had reliable access to healthcare. Throughout my lifetime, I’ve noticed that one political party has worked toward these goals, while the other has consistently supported legislation that serves, on a very practical level (regardless of its stated intent), to make people sicker, and stupider, and poorer.

And that’s just bad for business.

It seems pretty simple to me: Sick people can’t go to work, and they can’t succeed in school. That means they can’t make money, and they don't get smarter. They certainly can’t buy designer shoes, or Big Macs, or my artwork. They also can't keep up with their mortgages, or contribute to retirement plans. In fact, health issues are the number one reason people lose their homes, and among the top reasons workers lose their jobs. Job loss leads then to even more health issues, higher drop-out rates, and more difficulty becoming re-employed. It also contributes to higher crime rates, drug abuse, and ever greater demands on inadequate social safety nets. 

“But there aren't enough jobs!” I hear people say. “We need more jobs!”

Yes, we do. But under the present system, we’re not likely to get very many. People who have no money cannot buy the things that companies make. Fewer sales lead to decreased production, and that means more layoffs, 
not more jobs.

I wonder what would happen if everyone else in the country suddenly became as selfish as I am. I try and imagine a society where people are healthy enough to go to work, have stable homes, have time and money and motivation to finish school. A social structure where fewer people fall through the cracks, and when they do, there is someone there to catch them. Then I imagine how many more homes, and Big Macs, and pieces of art that these healthy, informed, productive people might be able to buy. And how many more people would have to go to work to make that happen.

I imagine how my business might function if I were suddenly selling tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of pictures. Frankly it couldn’t. Not now. Not without more people working for me.

Isn’t it time for us to make being well a part of the definition of being American? I’d be happy to work a little harder and pay a little more in taxes to make that happen.

But maybe I’m just being selfish.