Creepy Playgrounds

The London Daily Mail has an interesting article about creepy sculptures that appear to haunt some of the playgrounds built during the Soviet era in Russia.  There’s no doubt that there is a profoundly disturbing, nightmarish quality about some of the figures that could haunt little kids and cause them to avoid the playgrounds altogether.

7055939An evil, grinning chimp with fangs?  A crying woman in a blue dress?  A goateed, wide-eyed doctor in a lab coat ready to plunge some unknown instrument into your skull?  A hollow-eyed, distraught boy kneeling on the ground?  A bizarre fight between an emaciated bull and a reptilian creature?  Who came with this stuff, the psychological warfare section of the KGB?

But maybe we’re being too hard on the Soviets.  Let’s face it, American playgrounds aren’t exactly free from disturbing stuff, either.  Any playground that has a jungle gym, an old-fashioned merry-go-ground, and “monkey bars” is bound to present its share of childhood horror.  And the decorations at some playgrounds are unsettling, too.  We used to live a block away from a park we called “Yogi Bear Park” because it had a teeter-totter where the fulcrum was a covered by a cheap plastic depiction of the head of Yogi Bear.  The adults recognized the figure as Smarter than the Average Bear, but to little kids it was an unknown, apparently grimacing figure wearing a bad hat and a tie.  What the parents saw as Yogi, the kids perceived as a weird, lurking presence.  Not surprisingly, the tykes tended to steer clear of old Yogi.

For that matter, childhood is filled with intentionally scary stuff that suggests that adults get a kick out of frightening youngsters.  “Fairy tales” aren’t happy stories about fairies, but horror shows of child-eating witches, child-eating wolves, and other evil creatures ready to devour any wayward kid.  Hey, kids!  How about a bedtime story?

We apparently delight in terrifying children.  The Russian playgrounds just bring it out into the open.

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The Physical Cues Around Us

I woke up this morning, prepared to take my morning walk, looked out at our patio, and noticed it is pitch black outside — when only a few weeks ago, at this same time of day, I was walking accompanied by the rising sun.  Thus was I gobsmacked with the reality that the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer.

We live each day so focused on the immediate demands of our lives that we often miss the gradual changes that are happening around us — until the physical cues provided by the world break through and make it clear.  The relative snugness of clothing alerts us to weight gain or loss.  Falling leaves tell us that September is only days away.  And the ever-lengthening night reminds us that the seasons are changing whether we notice it or not.

I’m not ready for summer to end — it seems like it just got here! — but the darkness this morning tells me I’d better enjoy it while it lasts.

Facebook Fatigue

Some years ago we were on a trip to Antigua with Richard and Russell where we met a very nice young woman from Great Britain and her parents.  She ended up hanging out with the boys, and after the trip we became Facebook friends.

The other day she posted this on her Facebook feed:

fear-of-missing-out“Has anyone else on here been considering deleting Facebook for a long time, but keeps putting it off? I’ve been toying with the idea for years but can never bring myself to fully do it; it’s an attachment to photos, friends from all over the world I might lose, FOMO of information, and sheer habit. I find it’s become more destructive than good, however. It doesn’t make me feel good, it makes me feel depressed, and in the few times per week I actually check it, I realise I’ve become a robotic scroller, consuming information mindlessly and feeling lousy afterwards. According to statistics, only 9% of Facebook activity per day is to be social, the rest of the time is accidental logging in (how many of you have tapped on the Facebook app without even meaning to, just to ask yourself why did I click on this?), stalking and filling up time. It sucks to acknowledge that you’re addicted to something, and it sucks to realise you’re scared of leaving something inanimate. Does anyone else have this feeling?”

[For the aged among us, like me, “FOMO” is short for “fear of missing out” and is internet slang for feeling a sense of anxiety that you’re missing something interesting that people on social media are talking about or experiencing, like the recent solar eclipse.]

Her post captures a mood that I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who are fed up with Facebook and other forms of social media.  They’re finding it to be a bit empty and unsatisfying, they dislike the ads and the nagging prompts to update their profiles, they really hate the angry political debates, and they question whether the amount of time spent endlessly scrolling is worth it — so they drop off Facebook.  Some are happy that they have done so; others get that FOMO feeling, because once a social media connection is made it’s really hard to sever it, and they come back, presumably feeling a bit sheepish about the experience.

I can see her point, but I think the benefits of Facebook and other forms of social media outweigh the downsides — so long as you avoid obsessing, control your exposure, keep your temper, and recognize its limitations.  In fact, my contact with this young lady exemplifies why I think Facebook is a good thing.  She was an interesting person, and being Facebook friends has allowed me to see what she’s up to from time to time, wish her happy birthday, and congratulate her on getting a new job.  The world is a smaller place than it once was, and Facebook facilitates a sense of staying in touch with friends, acquaintances, family members, and former colleagues who are now far away.  And if you happen to be traveling to a place where one of your Facebook friends lives, it’s a handy way to see whether you can set up a meeting over coffee or dinner and really catch up.

I think Facebook has obvious downsides, and there’s a Big Brother element to it that is bothersome, but on the whole I think if Facebook didn’t exist it would need to be invented.

A Man And His Collection (Or At Least, Parts Of Two Of His Collections)

Neil Rector is an old friend who followed a different path from most of us.  Years ago, he made the decision to focus on collecting art.  It’s fair to say that he is an avid collector, and an extremely capable one as well.  Since he first dipped his toe into the world of collecting, he’s assembled six discrete collections of different types of art from different periods and places — and his collections have curators clamoring for pieces as they assemble new shows.

Two of Neil’s collections are of Soviet-era photography and Russian unofficial art, and parts of those collections — but only parts — have been assembled in a stupendous show at the Columbus Museum of Art called Red Horizon.  It’s clearly one of the best exhibitions at the CMA in years, and today Kish and I were part of a group that got to walk through the exhibition with Neil to hear his personal reflections on the pieces, which was very interesting.  The show itself is fascinating, giving the visitor a peek behind the Iron Curtain at art, and thoughts and perspectives, that were forbidden during the Soviet regime but nevertheless were realized — because the artistic impulse simply can’t be totally quashed, no matter how repressive a government might be.

I can’t begin to capture what Neil described this morning, so I can only urge you to visit this powerhouse exhibition and enjoy it. And you can also reflect on what being a savvy collector might mean.  In Neil’s case it means having that terrific hammer-and-sickle riff on a Soviet style Venus de Milo, below, hanging in your dining room, and also having yourself memorialized in that collection of portraits of Soviet and ancient Roman tyrants, above.  That’s Neil in the lower right, in his best Soviet-style guise.  He was added to the piece, he explained, because artists view collectors and patrons as tyrants, too.

Go see Red Horizon.  It’s at the CMA through September 24.

Way Down In The Hole

The issue of the World vs. North Korea continues to spin out of control.

The North Koreans insist on conducting repeated missile tests for no apparent reason, strategic or otherwise, other than to just try to get the world to pay attention to them.  The world responds by condemning North Korea’s activities and, most recently, by the UN Security Council unanimously imposing additional sanctions on that country.  North Korea tries to up the ante by issuing bizarre threats.  President Trump responds by saying that threats to the U.S. will be met with “fire and fury” — perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, recalling the lyrics about the devil in Way Down in the Hole — and now North Korea has announced that it is “carefully examining” plans for a missile strike against Guam in order to “contain” the U.S. military base there.

4057dec000000578-4509784-image-a-27_1494928848360Oh . . . and the North Koreans also say that America is considering a “preventive war” against North Korea, and warn that any attempt to do so would be met with an “all-out war wiping out all the strongholds of enemies, including the U.S. mainland.”

What is the world supposed to do with North Korea?  We keep expecting, or hoping, that Kim Jong Un and his cadre will react rationally to standard diplomatic practices, like being admonished by its principal apparent ally, China, or being subjected to sanctions unanimously imposed by a world body that almost never acts because its members typically disagree about just about every issue.  And secretly, no doubt, every other country wishes that the starving, deprived, long-suffering people of North Korea would rise up and overthrow the Leader with the Bad Haircut and his military minions — who are always pictured yukking it up, as if planning nuclear strikes against peaceful countries is completely hilarious fun.  But nothing happens, and the North Korean threats continue, and countries that might be the target of a rogue missile launch become increasingly jittery, and the world hopes that we can somehow avoid a stupid, utterly unnecessary military confrontation.

So, what do you do with a North Korea that is run by somebody who is evidently unbalanced, is armed with nuclear missiles, and is intent on doing whatever it takes to attract attention to itself?  How do you deal with a country that is so irrational and is apparently guided exclusively by the whim of an unpredictable, outlandish leader?  And even if you somehow avoided an armed confrontation in this particular instance, how secure would you feel knowing that the unpredictable leader remains in place, ready to escalate things at any time in the future?  We’ve asked these same questions before, but the problem keeps getting worse and worse, with no resolution in sight.

We’ve got some difficult issues to deal with in the world, but a nuclear North Korea is perhaps the most perplexing, and the most dangerous.

Uneasy Chaos

Normally, I’m of the “no man’s life, liberty or property is safe when the Legislature is in session” school of thought.  Because I think the politicos typically just mess things up for the rest of us — whatever their stated or unstated intentions — I normally don’t mind if Congress is thrashing around and not really doing much of anything.

But when the White House seems to be the scene of constant chaos, it’s a different story.  In our modern government, so much power and decision-making has devolved upon the Presidency, particularly in the area of foreign affairs, that the perception of competency, stability, reasoned judgment, and careful analysis in the Oval Office and the West Wing is essential.  In short, we want our allies and our enemies alike to believe that the President and his Administration know what they are doing and have developed and are pursuing a coherent policy, and that those allies and enemies should toe the line with that policy or there will be consequences.

161203153317-john-kelly-donald-trump-super-teaseThat’s why the apparently unending disorder in the Trump White House is disturbing.  We’re not even a year into President Trump’s first year in office, and we’ve already seen the departure of his chief of staff and press secretary and now the firing of a communications director who hadn’t even been on the job for two weeks.  I’m not arguing that Anthony Scaramucci shouldn’t have been fired — in reality, he seemed to be so completely ill-suited to serve in that position that you wonder how he was hired in the first place.  But with the constant uproar, the unnecessary and off-message tweets from the President himself, the many personnel changes, the flood of disabling leaks, and the evident turmoil between and among the President’s most senior advisers, you really wonder whether the important things are getting done — and, more fundamentally, what kind of message is being sent about the United States to the world at large.  Does it embolden North Korea and other rogue nation-states to engage in even more adventurous behavior if they think the White House is the scene of bedlam?

So President Trump has turned to a new chief of staff, retired general and former homeland security chief John Kelly, to try to restore some order in the White House, and Kelly’s first act apparently was to show Scaramucci the door.  Now he’ll try to establish some order, stop the constant barrage of leaks, ensure consistent messaging, and maybe, just maybe, rein in some of the counterproductive tweeting activity by POTUS, too.

It’s a big job, but you don’t get to be a general in the U.S. Marine Corps without having some significant leadership and managerial skills, so maybe Kelly will be up to the task — if he can stay in the position long enough to actually have an impact.  I’m no fan of Trump or his Administration, but for the good of the country let’s hope Kelly can make a difference.  The current state of apparent chaos needs to end.

Failing The Toothpaste Test

If you haven’t paid much attention to the disaster that is slowly unfolding in Venezuela, here’s an indicator:  the economic disruption and hyperinflation is so bad that people can’t even afford to use toothpaste to brush their teeth at night, because a single tube of toothpaste costs half a week’s wages.

empty-toothpaste-tubeIt’s a classic example of the failure of a government-controlled economy.  Venezuela has a socialist government, but it’s a bastardized version that has a lot of Latin American “strong man” elements thrown in, too.  Dating from the days of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s government has so interfered with normal economic functioning that the country can’t even take advantage of having the largest proven oil reserves in the world.  Chavez expropriated industries, used oil revenues to pay for many social welfare benefits, and discouraged private enterprise.  After years of such mismanagement, Venezuela faces chronic shortages of food, medicine, and electricity, skyrocketing crime, and mounting social disorder — to say nothing of hyperinflation, now running at about 700 percent annually, that cuts into the buying power of workers’ wages and makes even a single tube of toothpaste a luxury item to be used sparingly.

The Washington Post story about the toothpaste tells the tale of Venezuela’s downward spiral from the standpoint of the working people of the country, and it is a sad tale, indeed.  The average worker’s income is about $33 a month — which is less than a quarter of the average wage in Haiti, which is one of the most impoverished countries in the western hemisphere.  People have to stand in line for hours to buy staples like pasta, rice, and flour, and the products they purchase are of poor quality — such as broken-grain rice that normally would be used as chicken feed.  Since 2014, the portion of people living in poverty has increased from 48 percent to 82 percent.  People are down to eating two poor meals a day, and many are starving.

The government’s only response is to dictate increases in the minimum wage, which was just raised for this third this year, this time by 20 percent, to 250,000 “strong bolivars.”  (When you have to name your currency “strong,” it tells you something about how the value of that currency is perceived, doesn’t it?)  Of course, the constant increases do nothing to address, and instead only promote, the hyperinflation that is ravaging the country.

We should all think about Venezuela the next time some politician starts talking about how well off we all would be if the government just took a firmer hand in managing the economy.