Monday, August 23, 2010

Bullies Win (Mostly)

What do Calvin & Hobbes author Bill Watterson, country singer Merle Haggard, and Gulf coast fisherman Mike Frenette have in common with my hapless next-door neighbor on Nantucket? They’ve all stood face-to-face with the bully culture of money in America, and felt the hand of power at their throats.

Merle Haggard, like so many musicians, signed brutal, confiscatory contracts with record labels just to get his music heard. He had no choice: they controlled the business and with that power came the opportunity, even the imperative, to exploit him. Musical artists who made millions for their labels died in poverty because of this rapacious disregard for their rights and disrespect for their talents. It’s still happening – only the rise of the internet threatens this hegemony in any long-term way: hence the Verizon/Google deal, and other scams, to control the freedom of the net and turns its immense potential for freedom of expression into profit. You can feel the fuming rage of the stymied power-brokers in the proposals they write and the bills they draft in Congress: how dare some nobody just post a video on YouTube and think millions of people will watch without having to pay for the privilege! The thought that some cocky little John Doe with a cellphone camera can post a picture that contradicts the news stories and the media narrative about some crucial event must make their blood boil. I remember when the video of Stephen Colbert’s Press Corps dinner speech was posted, amid the media spin that he had bombed: ten million hits on the video later, that particular lie was just another Colbert punch-line.

And now I read this on the AP news wire:

The latest guidelines for BP's $20 billion victims compensation fund say the nearer you are geographically to the oil spill and the more closely you depend on the Gulf of Mexico's natural resources, the better chance you have of getting a share of the money.Also, a second set of rules expected this fall will require that businesses and individuals seeking compensation for long-term losses give up their right to sue BP and other spill-related companies -- something that could save the oil giant billions.

The new rules for the claims process were released Friday by Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who was picked by President Barack Obama to run the fund and previously oversaw claims for 9/11 victims. Beginning Monday, the claims will be handled by Feinberg rather than BP, which is still footing the entire $20 billion bill.

I can’t think of any new story I’ve read in the last year that made me angrier than this one. “A second set of rules expected this fall” --?? Rules written by who? BP can just write new rules whenever they want, with no oversight? These people should be in jail, or better yet tarred and feathered (you can skip the feathers); instead they get to re-write the rules of their own reparations? Can’t the government stop this outrage? Isn’t the government supposed to be sticking up for the fishermen and business owners and ordinary citizens whose lives have been blighted by BP’s arrogance and ineptitude? No one stuck up for Merle Haggard or Frances Ballard, but this isn’t the back office of some cheesy record company, this is the United States of America, and the whole world is watching to see how we deal with the worst ecological disaster in modern history. But it turns out that it was the government itself, through Kevin Feinberg, the President’s hand-picked intermediary, who mandated these new rules. My sophisticated friends with PhDs laugh at me when I ramble on about “The Proprietors” –the corporations who seem to have turned the US Government into a wholly-owned subsidiary. But even these academic thinkers were given pause by the blatant collusion of Government and industry shamelessly paraded in the newspapers on Friday. And why should BP and the President be ashamed? No one condemns their actions, no one questions their motives, no one puts up a struggle … except the odd, ‘angry left’ blogger. We just get some Domino’s take-out and turn on the TV, instead. The Jersey Shore was hilarious this week. The Louisiana shore, not so much.

Which brings me to my neighbor, a smallish, humble, woman who rents one room in a chaotic house that could be the setting for Grey Gardens. You sense that she’s suffered a lot in her life; she’s accustomed to being a victim. How else could she endure the black mold on the walls and the black temper of her landlord? She’s not allowed to open her windows, she’s not allowed to clean up – any effort to turn the squalor around her into a livable home sends the owner into a howling temper tantrum, with insults -- and pots and pans -- flying. My neighbor says she can’t afford to move out. It may be true; I think she can’t afford to stay. The place is affecting her health. But her landlord senses this paralysis and preys on it with a relentless gusto that somehow reminds me of the much bigger predators at large in the world today. My son says I shouldn’t be surprised. We live in a country where the Founding Fathers obviously debated and compromised over what fraction of a human being a slave should be. You don’t get to “3/5ths” in a casual discussion. Perhaps we’re all just baboons, guarding our territory and shrieking at the intruders. The homeowners on Nantucket who build fences with locked gates on public- way paths to the beaches are no different than the Vanderbilts and Posts, using armed guards to keep city folk off the Long Island coastline in the 1920s. Sometimes it seems that nothing ever changes and the good guys never win.

Then you read about Bill Watterson.

When Calvin and Hobbes became hugely successful, the syndicate that sold the cartoon to the newspapers decided that they wanted to license the characters for merchandising: Calvin hats and Hobbes plush toys, and a million other iterations and trinkets. Watterson balked. He made the point that he didn’t want the issue of whether Hobbes was alive or not decided by a stuffed animal in a store window. Was he being a Prima Donna or a snob? Maybe, but it was his cartoon and his choice. The syndicate disagreed. They suggested he look at his contract – and indeed he had signed away all merchandising rights, just as the musicians signed away their royalties and the Louisiana fishermen will not doubt sign away their right to sue BP. Watterson tried to explain that when he signed the contract he wasn’t worried about the consequences and ramifications of Calvin and Hobbes becoming THE MOST SUCCESSFUL CARTOON OF ALL TIME. He just wanted to get one strip in one newspaper and pay his rent. Like Merle Haggard wanted to record “I Saw the Light” or that fisherman wants enough money from the people who destroyed his way of life to just keep on living.

The syndicate appreciated Watterson’s point, but told him it was moot. Watterson disagreed. What could he do about it? This: if they merchandised his characters, he would stop drawing the strip. He’d rather never do another Calvin and Hobbes panel than watch his work be hi-jacked by greedy corporate suits.

The syndicate said, fine, then -- we’ll get someone else to draw it.

And Watterson said – Good luck with that idea.

I guess they tried for a while. That’s the part I find most revealing and absurd and grotesque. These bean-counters were so blind to everything but money, so debased, so scrubbed clean of any vestige of aesthetic sense, so coarse, so mercenary and just so dumb, that they thought someone else could draw Calvin and Hobbes. It was just a product to them, a tool to generate income, a notation on the bottom line. But of course they couldn’t find anyone else to draw Calvin and Hobbes. And so eventually, they backed down. Amazingly, the little guy won. But as Watterson points out in the introduction to the boxed, three-volume edition of the cartoon, he had become pretty big himself, by then. And the victory was a costly one:

In hindsight, I see that, with so much money at stake, the artistic issues I argued about were irrelevant. In the end, it was simply might makes right. I was an unknown cartoonist when I started, and my contractual disadvantage reflected my nonexistent bargaining power when I got the job. Five years later, I was a big enough gorilla that I could turn the tables. Even though I finally got my way, the whole mess is depressing to recall, even all these years later. The fight was personally traumatic For several years it poisoned what had been a happy relationship with my syndicate, and in my disillusionment and disgust at being pushed to the wall, I lost the conviction that I wanted to spend the rest of my life cartooning. Both sides paid a heavy price for this battle.

I feel bad for Watterson, and I miss his brilliant cartoon, but I still find his triumph thrilling. It cheers and inspires me on my most angry despairing day, and I’m sure Mike Frenette and all the other fisherman fighting BP and the rock bands posting their albums on the internet, and even my sad and oppressed next-door neighbor would feel the same way if they knew what Bill Watterson did all those years ago, and they’d join me to celebrate what accomplished, and redouble their efforts to keep that accomplishment and the spirit of that victory alive. The bullies really do lose, sometimes.

It’s nice to remember that.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Paint Whisperer: Disaster and Rescue

The axis of evil in the house-painting trade: toxic liquids, divided attention and gravity. Not quite as deadly a trifecta as angry red-neck, cheap tequila and large automobile; not as insidious as uneducated citizen, PAC money and partisan TV ad … but still quietly awesome in its own way.

Here are some of my favorite paint calamities …and the inspired emergency responses that saved the day (or at least the final payment on the job)

The most common involve a bucket of paint tipping over on a redwood deck. Usually there’s a drop-cloth under the bucket, but unless the drop is backed with vinyl, the paint will soak right through (think: red wine through a silk table cloth). These calamities are also time sensitive, since the owner or the General Contractor could show up at any moment. The normal response is just to stare at the white puddle in dumb-founded panic. This is not the best clean-up strategy. It wastes precious seconds, and even without the imminent arrival of disapproving employers of one sort or another, every second counts. Paint is drying, soaking into the grain. ‘setting up’, doing its job. The solution, and this applies to any porous surface – bricks for instance, or cedar roof shingles – is dirt and paint thinner. Cleaning up with dirt – every kindergarten boy’s dream. But the dirt absorbs the paint and the thinner breaks it down. You get filthy, you waste several pounds of rags and a few quarts of mineral spirits (It’s always good to have several pounds of rags and a quart or two of mineral spirits on hand for just this purpose), you get a killer fume-headache …but it works. A friend of mine who didn’t understand this simple technique wound up digging out and turning over every brick in five square feet of sidewalk one summer morning. This was unnecessary and kind of crazy. It did work, though. An idiot who worked for me tried this system on grass – not a good idea. The grass got clean, but to call that a ‘superficial view’ of the situation is charitable at best – kind of like giving the Wicked Witch of the West a nice hot bath. The thinner soaks into the soil and kills everything. In that case we had to dig up a giant patch of lawn and dirt and re-sod the whole area before the customer showed up. This is a guy who looked at a can of Benjamin Moore “Navajo White” trim paint and said “What does Nava-joe mean?” You may say – well, sure, he was a house painter. Did you expect him to have an advanced degree? Well, everyone on my crew does, these days. That MFA in writing really helps when you have to improvise. And we all know that painting is a job, but the painting on your wall is a gerund. You can’t put a price on that.

A friend of mine slopped some paint into a new cedar roof. He took thinner and rags and spread it out over the whole surface, effectively ‘pickling’ the shingles. It sounds crazy, but so does punching a shark in the nose.

Years ago a summer kid was using a white pigmented shellac product called Bin to seal the knots on some second-storey trim. He had the quart can on the window sill, the window was open, there was beautiful couch right inside …and you can probably feel your stomach rolling already. The situation has a cartoon inevitability to it. And things get even better: we were at the far end of our little island, with no solvent alcohol on hand; that’s what you use to thin or clean up Bin. Oh, and in case you were wondering: this was before cell-phones. We were on our own in the middle of nowhere. The quart went over into the house, spilling white paint all over the couch. I thought we were doomed, but my boss knew a few things that I didn’t know. He had snooped the house and knew the owners had stocked it against some nameless emergency, with cans of soup, and bags of flour and other staples, shelved in the basement. Among the supplies were several cases of white vinegar … which he somehow knew was a viable solvent for shellac. This guy was old school: he didn’t panic, he just started shouting orders, while the crew dashed out to the van for rags and into the basement, up the stairs, racing against time: nothing dries as fast as Bin. That’s why carpenters like it so much. We flooded that couch, and cleaned it, and shampooed it … and got away with it.

I know it sounds like fun, but don’t try this at home, kids. This stuff is for professional stooges only.

The first dozen times paint catastrophes happened I freaked out; but I’ve gradually learned to take control of the situation and try to fix it, however hopeless things seem. Last summer we were painting a big house on one of the main streets in town, next door to an expensive restaurant. I had given a bid to the restaurant owner for his paint job, but he is spectacularly, radically, famously, comically cheap (He has a house in Montpelier and ignores the great restaurants there to eat at the Vermont College cafeteria, crowing that it’s “the best deal in town!”). He took my bid mainly to gloat over the money he was saving by using his dishwashing staff to do the work for minimum wage. They made a number of basic mistakes: painting with full buckets, not using vinyl-backed drop cloths, and not being careful about ladder placement. One of them set a step-ladder at the top of the steps, on the little deck by the front door. One leg was dangling in the air and when he started to climb, the whole thing went over, spilling oil paint on the stairs, the shingles and the bricks. His response: to run away, in his paint soaked sneakers. Working next door, I screamed at him to stay still. My friend and I swung into action – with the usual thinner and rags and plenty of dirt. We had it all cleaned up before the owner arrived. Weeks later, and I mean weeks, the thought occurred to me that we should have just let them try to fix it themselves: it would have been an excellent lesson for the cheapskate in the value of hiring professionals. But in the moment none of that mattered. Twenty years of dealing with these calamities had created a kind of lizard brain reflex in both of us. We could no more not clean up a paint spill than we could not take a breath coming up from under water. I thought we’d gotten away with it, too. But I saw the restauranteur at my next VCFA residency, waiting on line at the cafeteria. He winked and said “Thanks for the clean up.” His smile seemed to say “I’m cheap but I’m not stupid.”

But don’t get me wrong, this stuff can happen to anyone. One of the most experienced painters I know – from a family of painters – did exactly the same thing on the deck of what was, at that time, the most expensive house on Nantucket. The paint flooded the planks, the decorative stone work, the lawn and the lawn furniture. This time we didn’t have enough thinner or rags to fix the mess. Our boss had to buy new decking, new furniture, new sod, new stone work. The only good part was that this particular culprit, who had always been insufferably smug about his qualifications and pedigree as an old world tradesman, never said a dismissive word to anyone again.

Which wasn’t really fair. These disasters not only can happen to anyone, they will happen to everyone. That’s a guarantee, that’s the fate and predestination of physics, the merciless fact of life when you combine those three hilariously volatile elements: toxic fluids, divided attention and gravity. I always think of another friend, first day on the job: he didn’t attach his paint hook to his regrettably over-full bucket properly, and it fell twenty feet off the ladder to the sidewalk below. Even before it exploded onto the antique flagstones, all of us were thinking the same thing: There but for the grace of God go I. And Grace of God or not, it was only a matter of time before we wound up going there ourselves. Fortunately we didn’t have much time to ponder that idea.

We had some serious cleaning up to do.