Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Guided by ex-planet Pluto

"Feeling Sorry for Pluto" by Chris Roberts-Antieau.

"Let the beauty we love be what
we do
There are hundreds of ways to
kneel and kiss the ground."

from The Essential Rumi
by Coleman Barks

When friend and mixed-media conspirator Lynne Perrella directed me a few months back to look at the work of Chris Roberts-Antieau, I felt I had found something lost, missed and remembered, like the moonstone necklace from my grandmother that slithered off, probably behind some gap in the carpentry in my childhood bedroom.

Everything I found in her work - the color, humor, originality - fueled my stubborn intention to expand my illustrations. We will file that under "work in progress." What had me shrieking, silently, for sometimes that's as raucous as I get, was "Feeling Sorry for Pluto," which left me empathizing with the downgraded dwarf planet or, now, planetoid.

The backstory on my downgrading was that I simply failed to return to my last real job when I became ill, but my exit coincided with the middle years of corporate staff shrinkage, which always came at Christmas. The elimination of one more colleague and one more job caused those of us who would return to play again next year to leave glistening snail trails of survivors' guilt around the office for weeks. Poor Pluto could not have known what was galloping toward him; I doubt that there were rumors. That an artist found this cosmic melodrama a worthy expenditure of her time and talent felt like the signed permission slip which said, (fill in the blank) may create visual or written work on any subject, in any medium, that pleases her and everybody has to be okay with that.

As I wander father away from known roads in bloglandia, the scope of style, content, intention and execution I happen upon seems to yawn open like the movie curtain at an original Cinerama screening. We Who Blog are many. The variety of our tales even greater.

With more examples of unique work to consider, the clearer it becomes that the only voice in which I can speak honestly is my own. To attempt anything less authentic makes me feel as though I've built a wall of cinder blocks in front of what I'm trying to say. In common, human exchanges, I seek precision in words and often fall short...and this is me, being myself, about something simple. Grabbing more nuanced material by its lapels and trying to shake the truth from it will not happen if I think I can channel Cormac McCarthy. I would lean back, smug and victorious, if my pen left in its wake the drawings of Edward Gorey. It does not.

So I write what I write in the words my mind hands me. What I draw is even less predictable; I just wait and see who shows up. I acknowledge that what I contain and what I ultimately drag into the light may not move us further from the apocalypse. It may not carry us closer to even one juicy bite of awareness, but I will keep showing up, criticism suspended, and see what I pull out next.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Opposite of Shadow

(Because of an inability to communicate the urgent need to change billing at my website, it may disappear. This short fiction was a sample that appeared there.)

Mrs. Travis sat on a red naugahyde footstool in front of the television. She sat near enough to put her hand, flat, on the screen, her knees just touching the cart on which the set rested.

"He's right here, isn't he?" she asked, holding her left palm in the middle of a scene from Loving You. Her hand covered Elvis Presley as he stood in conversation with Lizabeth Scott. "Aren't I right?" she asked again.

"You're right, Ma. You always get it right."

"Now he's over here," she said, sliding her hand to the right and a little down. "Now it's just his face," she said, with both hands pushed against the tv, fingers spread to reach as far as they could. "Now it's the other guy talking. I don't feel a thing when he's on. Uh, oh, he's back." Her palm smacked the screen, landing magnetically on Elvis as he loaded his guitar into the back of an open car. Then the picture changed to a Carpeteria commercial.

Mrs. Travis sat back and folded her hands in her lap, sighing and nodding to herself. "Emma, how many times have I watched this movie?"

"Ma, you know that better than I do. Maybe twelve, fifteen times."

"Exactly eleven times, and Jailhouse Rock eight times, and Love Me Tender five times, and It Happened at the World's Fair five times and..."

She broke off speaking when the movie came back on. Mrs. Travis continued the choreography of slapping, sliding and pressing the screen without speaking until the next commercial. She sat back again, rubbing her palms together, then held them against her face, covering her eyes.

"You know, Emma, I was blind before he ever did make his first picture. Everybody thought it was his voice made him so special, but feel, come here and feel my hands. They're just burning up. That very first time you had Love Me Tender turned on, I could as good as see him across the room. Remember, you said my cheeks got red?"

"I remember."

"It wasn't just his voice. I guess his looks were pretty good, too, that's what they say. But it wasn't that. People didn't know why he got to them the way he did." She turned her head to her daughter. "It was the heat," she said, stretching her hands toward Emma. "It was the heat."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Half this, half that

In observation of self-declared I Think We're All In This Together Day, here is John Prine singing his "That's the Way That the World Goes Round."

Prine's debut album, John Prine, was one of the first reviewed by Mr. Kelly, newly-hired as a copy editor and rock and/or roll critic for a daily newspaper. The singer-songwriter was also one of Mr. Kelly's first interviews. His music seasoned our lives for years.

We are tsunamied frequently, regularly, by waves of the unbearable. Regrets assume goblin form and hector us before sleep. Loss is layered over loss, like a house where the former owners continued to paste new wallpaper atop the old, ignoring the way it buckled and peeled from there simply being too much.

Doubt, with fear claiming the shotgun seat, careens unmuffled through moments that appeared tranquil. We seek simplicty yet spend hours looking for matching socks in the box where no one thing is like another.

Some consistency could be attainable, if we allow inconsistency as a non-negotiable option; no judgment. My wish for this holiday: may I not alarm myself needlessly, or not at all. May I spend more time laughing than fretting, and if I don't manage any of that today, may I return tomorrow and try again. I wish the same for you.

Happy enchilada.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Some of what I love about Dover books

(The bearing this video has on the text will be revealed in a few paragraphs...please read on.)

My introduction to Dover books, in the early 70s, came about as I began my short-lived career as a dollmaker. From their Pictorial Archives collection of vintage, copyright-free graphics, I found a suitable border for a business card. What followed was a year of round-the-clock sewing, orders from legendary places such as the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, a mention (with photo) in the LA Times Sunday magazine and a lot of stores that didn't pay their bills.

What brought the publisher to mind was the stack of Dover titles lurking under our dining table. In preparation for a store demonstration on techniques for visual journal pages, I'd selected a few titles for photocopying, to have available for backgrounds, transfers, collage, and it was considerably past time to re-shelve them.

They included The Solotype Catalog of 4,147 Display Typefaces by Dan X. Solo; The Noah's Ark A.B.C. and 8 Other Victorian Alphabet Books in Color, edited by Ruari McLean; Borders, Frames and Decorative Motifs from the 1862 Derriey Typographic Catalog by Charles Derriey, and Andreas Feininger's New York in the Forties: 162 photographs.

In his introduction to the book, John von Hartz said:

"As an artist and reporter, Feininger transmits the innocence of the age and the humanity of its people. His clean, uncluttered photographs catch the city with unabashed honesty. His portraits of people - ethnic shopkeepers, a newsman in Chinatown, arm-wrestlers in Harlem, bootblacks and their patrons - are real human beings preserved in their place and time. Even when documenting the dark side of the period - the unemployed, the neglected, the lost - his portraits reveal the compassion of a humanist."

I've only been to New York once; I know it better from the movies than from life but those wind-chilled February days of my visit did nothing to slow its pulse. The friend who was my guide had been born there, spent a portion of her childhood in an apartment above the Cherry Lane Theater and led us, back in the days when we could manage with little sleep, through every neighborhood we could reach, some before the sun rose.

Feininger's images seem to be in motion; steam pours from factory windows in the garment district; tickertape rains on Lower Broadway; sunbathers and strollers hum with anticipation at Coney Island on July 4, 1949. Marquees blaze on Times Square and shirtwaisted women squint against a brilliant sun as they shop on 34th Street.

Among the blogs I follow are several on which the photos and text vie for which may be considered the most extraordinary element. I cannot say which sings to me more loudly; I am a fool for words and pictures.

For affordable collections that offer the world as it was, Dover stands alone. What better use of the blogger's stage than a shout-out for our favorite things.

Video from Rangefindergeneral, part of a 1983 BBC series of interviews with great 20th Century photographers

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Rats, it's summer

Summer comes to Los Angeles...Flaming Hot Cheetos in a flannel-lined sandwich. Likely it will have turned us loose by the middle of the week, but in the meantime we sizzle and drip. And the forecasters are calling it dangerous, because of the temperatures and the humidity, so I am not the only one wailing.

Weeks of the euphemistic June Gloom that changed its reservations and stayed well into July left those of us not heat crazed and leathery to rejoice. Maybe summer won't arrive; that was the hope. I become dull witted in heat, I become lumbering and queasy. My people migrated from wintry lands, our blood goes thick and sluggish in temperatures above 82 degrees.

Overcast mornings and afternoon sun mitigated by moving air would define a bearable summer. I am a weakling, a lightweight in my failure to adapt to the county of my birth, home for most of my life. One summer lived in Washington, D.C. and a July vacation in North Carolina give me standards for discomfort that Los Angeles has never experienced.

In D.C. I was sure mold grew on us as we slept. I didn't even know anyone other than an uncle and aunt who had air conditioning. Our hair never dried. As I waited for the bus on the second leg of my journey after work, cloudbursts left us steaming by the time transportation arrived. We fogged the windows, then tried to breathe our way around the locker room atmosphere and squelchy bodies.

My sister and I share the summer aversion. She is in Virginia which differs from D.C. or Raleigh in no appreciable way. We eye the calendar and the trees for signs that fall is near. We do the dance of joy when, one morning, the air finally carries the snap that releases us.

Call this my seasonal lament. Call it observation. My life gives me no cause for complaint; how ungrateful and narrow that would be. I think of conditions under which I might be toiling and know this temporary discomfort would be bliss for millions, multiple millions.

Even as a child I sometimes felt ill from the heat. We sought respite in movie theaters, the library and a series of wading pools that were our vacation joy...again, not deprivation. Yet as years pass, it takes me longer to acclimate myself to change, the shift from mild to hot slows me and leaves me confused, unfocused. I am less agile and mobile than I was, resulting in fewer choices for escape.

I remind myself that if this is my greatest concern, my existence is one of ease and comfort. It is charmed. If only I hadn't become so spoiled by that vanished marine layer to which I write beseeching fan letters. Like one really homesick session at camp, all my credit at the store going for postcards and a pen as I begged for rescue, I have flimsy inclinations under even slightly adverse conditions. It is not a pretty thing, but at least I admit it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Where might we go from here?

Here is the link to my friend, Lisa Hoffman's blog. Rather than try and reword or review it, directing you to the source made much more sense. If you care to travel back through her archives, she offers introductions to areas of design - and designers - that I might not have found without her.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Story and myth

From Thomas Moore's The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life:

"The stories we tell with good intentions and with as much honesty as we can muster may be incomplete, like a statue of Venus without arms or a nose. We may be tempted to make up for the lack by adding plastic parts, unnatural and anachronistic, but ruins of statues are often more beautiful than the originals. Our partial stories may be complete in their imperfection and their refusal to be brought to an end or to have all the necessary and required parts."


"Myth gives a person the sense of living in a meaningful story, the feeling that one's life makes sense and has value, and these sensations are the basis for self-confidence and stability, purpose and poise. Without myth, life has to be proven valuable every day and is lived from profound anxiety; but with the awareness that one's life is grounded in eternal stories and motifs, one's own personal story begins to feel enchanted, and this feeling gives rise to love of one's own life that is the cure for narcissism, insecurity and self-doubt."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A memory of magic

(With thanks to TC for reminding me this was lurking in the archives.)

As young children, my brother and I had imaginary friends. His were both named Robert. Mine were named for three of my mother's college sorority sisters; they stopped by for tea. Our sister didn't play with imaginary friends, but had a stuffed bear named Elmira who alternately received rejection slips and checks from magazine publishers. There were days when the family junk mail held nothing for her, then there would be a check and our congratulations. Once in a while a manuscript was returned and we carried on as if nothing had happened.

Looking back on our fantasy play, I see us as children into whose lives a great big handful of magic beans had fallen. It is beyond my knowing, whether we created alternate worlds to escape the ordinary one or our make-believe was simply a product of being children, particularly children of parents who were also well connected to imagination, expressed through their writing and art and day-to-day living.

As we grew, our lives expanded when messengers of real magic began to appear. Some of them were drawn by our father's newspaper column or the radio talk shows on which he was interviewed as an expert on flying saucers.

It was through this door that Jackie and Sandy walked. A retired couple, they spent their summers traveling through North America with a carnival, he doing card tricks and she telling fortunes. They also loved the desert, a passion shared with our dad, and Jackie had seen UFOs. They became our godparents in non-ordinary reality and made our back-country desert trips much livelier with their tales of carney life, successful unearthing of ghost town relics and their unshakable belief in things which could not be explained.

The column led to our meeting an actual, larger-than-life treasure hunter named Romaine who traveled alone into the jungles of Mexico and South America looking for stories, artifacts and lost civilizations. Our father co-wrote some of his tales for men's adventure magazines. Each time he returned from these dangerous excursions, he brought the raw footage he'd shot and show it to us first. On one South American trip, he found a coatamundi which he named Panchito and smuggled on the plane inside his jacket. At our house the exotic pet roamed our living room, nibbling the dust jackets off books on the lowest shelves. Romaine came and spoke to my fourth-grade class, demonstrating a blow gun and poison darts used by one of the jungle tribes. (Much better show-and-tell than Boyce's tonsils in a jar.)

There were others. Some were friends from our dad's college days, science fiction and mystery writers; our family doctor who experimented with leeches (not on us) and knew about cooking rattlesnake; a motorcycle cop who taught us how to dig for arrowheads along the California coast; a museum curator who showed us through dim storerooms, spoke Native American dialects and knew sacred dances.

Any hours we spent in the company of these friends made our hearts lighter, our minds race. But it was overhearing the nighttime conversations that heightened the wonder.

My brother and I were past 50 when we first spoke of the nights we would lie quietly in our rooms, pretending to sleep and fighting to stay awake in our tiny house so we could hear the grown-up talk. Our younger sister sometimes slept through these hours but we struggled to hear every word. This was when the aliens and the ghosts and the seances, the spiders and the shrunken heads, the impossible and the terrifying and the gruesome were revealed.

This was the really good stuff. So we strained and listened, letting ourselves experience how enormous and unknowable the world really was, finding in these low-voiced exchanges not something to frighten us, but something to ignite and empower. We felt that we had been let in on The Secrets, allowed to know, perhaps unintentionally, that life, rich and full, existed beyond what the eye could see.

The three of us still carry those stories and their tellers in our pockets...like touchstones, like arrowheads or ghost town glass, like magic beans.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I think we may be missing the good parts

CBS' Sunday Morning had an editorial segment on the pitfalls of multi-tasking; scientific information that it has altered the human brain, requiring (my interpretation) more and greater distraction and stimulation of busy nothingness. For one who, in my best moments, may be said to task this is not breaking news.

Driving and talking on the phone seems like folly on four wheels. I used to work with my color pencils as I talked on the house phone; I no longer do that, for both activities got too little of me. I am unable to turn away from a heating pan to find something in the drawer without the pan's contents boiling over. I can watch clouds - or just the sky, bare of ornament - for lengths of time that make me blush. I have evolved into the champion of my childhood picture book, Ferdinand the Bull. My wish is to smell the flowers, in a literal or figurative sense, and keep the agenda as simple as possible.

The first odious thing about multi-tasking is the phrase. Is it so difficult to say, "I'm having to do several things at once"? It feels like a robot language; we've programmed the glombot to multi-task...could it be one of the aps? Yes, I have a cell phone. Our house may have been the last in California to relinquish its analog models...we couldn't even get a signal in our carport. We talk, we text, and I (can't speak for anyone else) type out my complete words on the phone keypad, paying attention and sometimes hitting the wrong key, sending a message before its time and receiving "???????????????" in response.

Doing something which requires time also deserves attention, whether it is my first choice of activity or not. When our task is one which fulfills us, why would we want to diminish the pleasure by doing something less appealing at the same moment? My suspicion that we are on the brink of irreversible overload makes me protective of what cells or neuropathways or functions remain. What stresses the mind also stresses the body, which should be reason enough to reconsider.

We have been fed a lot of baloney in our lives. Multi-tasking is not a virtue; it is a way of cheapening, dulling and diluting our experiences. Please, sit down and watch the movie, do the crossword, listen to the friend who has called, or call back when you can be present. Stop what you're doing when someone comes home at the end of the day and wants your attention.

When resources are diminished, it may be all that we are able to give is our time. That may be what is needed most. One thing at a time, whether for ourselves or another. One thing at a time.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


In a collection of yellow-edged postcards that I am unable to send, there is one, a cartoon, with the caption, "The moon must be in klutz." That could be it. Unrest has just pulled its SUV into the driveway and will soon be using all the clean towels and setting drippy glasses on our books.

Ordinary tasks have become puzzles without solution. Dreams bring me the frustration of seeing what those around me can't, endlessly questioning decisions of others which result in hardship or peril for those they have deceived. There was the tunnel in which elephant-sized black cats wearing rainbow stripes slurped passengers from speeding trains. A deceased friend returned, possessing the ability to restore life with a touch.

For at least a moment yesterday, I (yes, awake) pictured myself in a thrift-store prom dress, something between a ballet gown and Disney princess, with a rhinestone tiara I may even still own and a gourmet cupcake (pink icing), sitting as though nothing screamed for attention. I was given the chance to step out of the current and sit...and be. I had no sense of concern for things undone, not even the ordinary reproach for all I regularly ignore. The moment was sweet.

Watching, or being kept company by, broadcast tv later, my one thought was how tired and impatient I was of people wanting to sell me all manner of over-priced, impossible, unnecessary...stuff. Gram Parsons, in his song RETURN OF THE GRIEVOUS ANGEL , sings, "And the man on the radio won't leave me alone...he wants to take my money for something that I've never been shown..." I felt that we are seen as nothing but consumers, marks at the carnival, and are expected to say yes to any old thing.

Each day I find local news more unbearable. If I didn't have curiosity about the weather, I would never turn it on. But the Cassandra dreams aren't coincidence, they can't be. We have no one to tell but each other; we will not be able to change any minds. I am uncomfortable in my skin and in my observations. If what seems true is fact, that we have - willingly - lost our way, how far do we need to stand from the epicenter to save ourselves from permanent displacement, if that is even possible? And will this feeling diminish or increase? When the moon moves out of klutz, will I resume the accustomed level of angst or are these adjustments here to stay?

I am no longer a candidate, let alone a volunteer, for carrying signs, let alone torches and pitchforks. I sense disquiet seeping, interrupting our easy moments, few enough as they are, if we give too much thought to the signs. Like the pulling of tides, that sly moon may have dragged some of us too far from shore to make it back and my question is, what do we do now?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

We write

For 20 years my father wrote a daily newspaper column. He wrote human interest, local travel, humor, exaggerated family exploits and whatever caught his attention. Through his column - and being considered the regional expert on matters alien and unexplained - he built friendships with readers whose passions took them way outside the lines of our 1950s suburban ordinariness.

What finally floated to consciousness is the fact that he sat down and wrote what today would be the equivalent of a substantial, meaningful, entertaining blog posting five days a week. In addition, he covered news stories, wrote reviews, first-person adventure tales for magazines, juvenile fiction, adult non-fiction, history and travel for publications and one tv script.

The writing he did at home kept him separate from our family parts of most days. His, as he called it, den was off the laundry room at the back of our house, too near the rear patio or side yard for us kids to play (translate: make noise) while he was working. His freelance projects led to other assignments and gave our family resources that his daily job couldn't provide. When his agent (whom we came to call Uncle Hy) sent a juicy check, my brother, sister and I each had a payday as well.

On vacation at our favorite Pismo Beach motel, he sat in the room typing while we watched the ocean or played shuffleboard. His usual arrangement was to leave sufficient columns to cover his absence; occasionally there would be a "reprinted by popular demand" notation as they ran a piece from the past. This trip, he needed to get his copy back to Pasadena for the next day's paper and, while I no longer know the exact details, it involved meeting the south-bound train as it stopped in a nearby hamlet called Edna. A wrong turn took us away from the station, then had us on the opposite side of tracks as he roared along dirt roads to post his columns. We arrived in time and the business of being a newsman's children, for half an hour or so, became urgent and adrenalin-filled.

I just read Dodie Bellamy's recounting of her mother's death, called "Phone Home" from Life As We Show It, and the ways in which she connects it to the movie E.T. I took from it realizations about how difficult it is, as a child or a grown-up, to have even a speck of an idea what a parent is about. When I started to write fiction, I was conscious of wanting not to sequester myself from my son and husband as I worked, yet without focus and quiet was unable to hold my thoughts together.

The volume of work my father produced, the hours he worked at something which clearly mattered to him but which also added to our quality of life, are aspects of him I neither recognized nor appreciated in childhood. It was, and is, my belief that his writing gave him an escape from family life, from immersion in the doings of his children; he was able to maintain distance through virtuous pursuit. Whereas I, after more than a year of short-story writing and another year beyond that of working with a partner creating original animation projects, knew that I was not willing to trade what the writing might bring for being closer to my family. That was not my path.

When I became aware of blogs, and was encouraged by two artist friends to jump in and see...my focus differing from theirs for I wanted it only to be about writing...it took me months to begin. It took me longer than that to commit myself to an acceptable minimum output. There are days when I am without words or thoughts, or without a way to bring them together that won't make me cringe.

Though I have been near it or part of it all my life, writing is still a mystery. Each time I am able to tell a story as I wish to I experience wonder. Though I am considerably older than my father was during his most productive years, I am awed by the focus, consistency and, I imagine, necessity which allowed his work to happen. We pay a price for our gifts, the creative demons or angels that we choose to heed. The extent of his legacy is one I will not possibly match. I do trust, though, that I am a competent steward of what I've been given.