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My Column for Toynbee

PPH February 2017? ???

Thank you for looking at this, Toynbee..

Be proud of your grandchild who has rejected your offer to pay for Harvard law school and is studying to be an art critic. There is a lucrative market for gilt-edged criticism because many people want a professional to tell them how to think. A critic who is remunerated should not be confused with your whining neighbor who has never said anything good. "It's a nice day."

"Ugh. I heard we're expecting a tsunami."

Most of us would rather take a beating than accept criticism. Divorce lawyers have retired after working only 20 years simply because too many ignorant youngsters complained about burnt toast or the need of taking a daily shower.

Many of us have enjoyed a long and fruitful marriage only because we keep our opinions to ourselves.

When we buy crackers or an automobile, however, we are making a critical evaluation. Often our choices are shaped by the critics who write commercials. Their words encourage us to buy one product and reject another.

You might remember when Arthur Godfrey’s show was sponsored by Lipton’s. Lipton sold different kinds of soup in little packages. You’d buy the little packages, add water and cook it up yourself. Godfrey probably sold more soup than anyone in the country before or since because he told it like it was. He’d look down into a steaming bowl of soup and say, “Plenty of noodles in there.“ He’d pause, think about it for a few seconds and then add as an afterthought, “And there’s chicken in there, too. You won’t find it but it’s there.”

I seem to recall that Lipton’s wanted to drop Godfrey for making fun of their product, but then they discovered that the public loved clever criticism. Lipton had trouble keeping their soup on store shelves and Godfrey was recognized as a marketing genius.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was regarded by his peers as the best writer of his day, got many letters from critical readers and often commented on them. He said, “A writer must make up his mind to the possible rough treatment of the critics, who swarm like bacteria whenever there is any literary material on which they can feed.”

Often a thick skin is not enough to be a critic, for over the ages many skins were punctured with knives.

Although Mark Twain criticized almost everything, he was probably dispatched by his cigars. Not taken in by the fashionable xenophobia of his time, he protested the public’s fear and dislike of Irish and Chinese immigrants. You might remember his story of the little boy who saw adults throwing stones at Chinamen. He felt that God wouldn't love him if he didn't throw stones at Chinamen so he threw stones at Chinamen, too. Much as the Muslim and people-of-color scare inflicts our age, it was the influx of Chinese immigrants in California that raised redneck hackles in Twain’s day.

The older you get, the easier it is to criticize everything. Skirts and hair are either too short or too long. Even animals should not walk about with a ring in the nose. Why do grossly obese people eat junk food which drives up my healthcare premiums? The old dubbers on the highway either creep along in their campers or the crazy young fools ride up on my bumper and then pass me with an ear splitting roar.

Today it is even more fun to be a critic because 150 years ago, unless you were published, the only people who heard you were those you were criticizing face to face. Today, with Facebook, the five or ten people who turn to your page every morning can tell just how much pain you have in your left hip by the amount of vituperation you spew out on the world.

Gladys and Doris were astute social critics. I admired them for their perceptive wit. Gladys was over 80. Doris was 95. They had seen much and forgotten nothing. They knew how to criticize without criticizing: both were masters of tongue in cheek commentary. When I mentioned to Gladys that my wife Marsha’s teen-age daughters were coming home from college for spring break, she said, “Oh, that’s wonderful. They’ll be such a help to Marsha around the house.”

I once told Doris of my great uncle who played clarinet at dances back around 1905. His young bride was annoyed because at midnight, after the dances, he had a habit of walking home with the girls. Doris said, “How nice of him. He wanted to make sure they got home safely.”

Criticism can be an art. Young people wanting to succeed in the genre should know that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

The humble Farmer

Robert Karl Skoglund
785 River Road
St. George, ME 04860
(207) 226-7442


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