Saturday, August 8, 2009

On taking Time to catch up

I used to have stellar handwriting. The computer age has ruined it, as you can see. I've been trying to catch up on my backlog of Time Magazine and they featured an article on the lost art of penmanship, headed with an illustration stating, "I'm 26 years old, and I cant write in cursive" (sic). Amongst the article's points of interest is the revision of the Zaner-Bloser cursive manual in 1990 to remove the few remaining cursive character flourishes (I guess I'm 19 years late to the party on that one). Also included in this issue of Time (August 3) were articles on Zimbabwean politics, the relationship-threatening Libby pardon debate between former President Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, and an article discussing preterm birth and infant mortality. In all of this, I found the two-page spread on the decline of handwriting the most disheartening.

I remember how my first grade teacher, Miss Thurston, fawned over my handwriting. I was consistently one of the best in my class and I remember quite clearly when I became lazy about it and Miss Thurston wondered aloud to me about what could have happened because my handwriting quality had slipped. I took her criticism to heart and redoubled my effort on my penmanship exercises, regaining my status as one of the best.

Somewhere after that, between cursive in second grade with Miss Hamblin (who took over for Miss Heist after a skiing injury) and high school, I fell in love with letters. "R" and "Q" were always my favorites. I have played all of my life with letter forms. You'd think that somewhere in there I'd have become a typeface designer, but no. I have notebooks full of explorations for head letters and even an alphabet I designed for an as yet unwritten horror story that plays a key role in the protagonist's story.

It seems that our post-millennial lives are becoming ever simpler. The flourishes and curlicues and loop-the-loops are gone from what this generation's children are learning. And they're being given only half the time to learn their handwriting, according to the article. In our modern society, it's more important that we know the mechanics of a keyboard than those of a pen. I can't be too judgmental though. I somehow got into a typing class (that's what we called "keyboarding" in the 20th Century) as a sophomore in high school. I was surrounded by juniors and seniors. Of all of the classes I have ever taken, it has served me the most faithfully.

But at what expense? Look at my handwriting! What was my pride and joy just 43 years ago is now barely legible. And, funny thing, the handwriting of my child and the next generation of children will be even worse. We live in an age when we're giving up more and more art for the sake of "efficiency." You can see it everywhere in our culture. With the proliferation of micro-keyboards on cell phones, even touch-typing will become a thing of the past. Who'd have thought that the ultimate evolutionary achievement of humanity -- opposable thumbs -- is only to allow us to more easily accomplish the least significant and most pervasive technological task of our era: texting.

So yes, like Claire Suddath, the author of the Time article, I mourn the death of handwriting. It's yet another casualty of our headlong rush into so-called modernity. Hurray for us. Let me tell you all about it on my Twitter.

By the way, the legend on the card illustration reads "2 or Q?" Believe it or not, the post office can't tell the difference. Go figure.

Monday, July 20, 2009

On the moon

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Forty years ago I lay on my stomach on the gold shag carpet of our living room in Denver and watched as an Eagle landed on the moon for the first time in human history. I was thrilled and the prospects for the future were grand and inspiring. Lunar colonies. Jetpacks. Flying cars. Mars was only a few years away for sure. Mars!

But we don't live in the future that my generation thought would happen. We don't live in an age of sliding Star Trek doors and bullet-shaped hover-cars. We don't commute Jetson-esque to Spacely Sprockets and push buttons for a living. We don't have domestic robots. We don't live in the sky.

I have to tell you that I'm disappointed. I'm let down that the dross of Americans decided that the moon wasn't interesting after only six trips there. It disheartens me that what fires the imaginations of people these days is the latest video game release or this week's celebrity scandal.

We used to have desires to make the world better for our children. Everything would be a stepping stone to the stars or an undersea wonderland that would put our fantasies of Atlantis to shame. It depresses me to think that all to which we can look forward is the next smart phone or smart car or smart bridge. Where is the grandeur? Where is the hope?

Don't misunderstand me. There are plenty of marvels in our modern world. I have a computer that is 12 inches long and two inches thick with more computing power than the first computers ever built and smaller by exponential magnitudes. I have a phone that I can carry anywhere I go and talk to anyone I wish and it's the size of a woman's compact -- or smaller. I have a television that is five inches thick that produces an image so crisp that I can see clearly the ping pong balls of which the original Daleks were constructed.

But I would give up my modern gadgetry to be able to catch a commuter flight to an orbiting Hilton for a long weekend. I would trade it all for a flying car. Or a gurney at the hospital that would spit out my current state of health and all of my test results without my so much as having to remove a shoe. I'd give it all up to watch an American walk on the moon again. Or drive a lunar dune buggy over sandy interplanetary shores. I'd weep tears of joy to see an American on Mars in my lifetime.

I want to live in the future that Apollo 11 foreshadowed. Is that too much too much to ask?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On Twitter-induced nostalgia

I've been having a round of nostalgic feelings. My daughter's visit ended yesterday, which had me experiencing lite feelings of loss and reflection. I subscribed to @ReliveApollo11 on Twitter and have been re-experiencing what it was like to follow a space mission back when every new rocket launched sent a thrill down the collective spine of Americans.

Then, on Twitter this morning, the top trending topic was "In 1998 I." So I tweeted my take on the topic, refined an illustration I was working on, and started writing this while watching The Open Championship on ABC with my boyfriend.

In 1998 I had been learning the Mac ropes on a computer graciously lent to me by a friend for about a year and decided to take the plunge and buy my own computer (a Motorola StarMax). Friends helped me install the the software I would need to bridge the gap from pen-and-paper artist and writer, to the new electronic medium of computer art. In 1998, I almost completely stopped using pens and paper. I have never stopped buying pens though.

I'm a peculiar artist, I guess. I've always wanted to be able to reproduce my drawings in any way and quantity I wanted. In addition, I never really learned to work with color on paper or canvas and this fed into my interest in being able to copy my work. Until the dawn of computers, reproducing color artwork had been hard to do. One could have prints made for a large fee, or settle for a photograph of the work. Neither of these appealed to me. Plus, at the copy center where I worked, I could have as many Xerox copies made as I wanted.

What I discovered with the computer (after a really long period of time) was that I could create my black and white drawings and then experiment with color to my heart's content, almost never to my satisfaction. Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that saturation was everything.

But that's an aside. I realized with today's trending Twitter topic, that in 1998 my first computer represented an unexpected and (at the time undesired) paradigm shift in how I created art. It changed, in a lot of ways, how I realized my vision. It introduced me to process-based creation -- something with which I had little experience. Just being introduced to a tool that I could use to easily edit and update text was everything. Being able to express my visual visions was in the electronic domain was showstopping!

But, as my computer-loaning friend pointed out at the time by naming the Mac he lent me "Hugh," I was assimilated in 1998 and my means of creating art changed forever. At the time, I thought that it had changed for the worse. It took a long time to master the new electronic tools, so much that my first real endeavors were so horrible that I spent more time writing than drawing. It took time, but eventually I arrived where I am today. I can build an illustration in about the same time on the computer as it used to take on paper. The vectors are better and more perfect than anything I ever made with a pen. And I'm learning about color. Finally.

And I wouldn't have thought about any of this if it hadn't been for my daughter. Oh, and Twitter.


Twitter may not be as dumb as I thought.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On my snoozing guest

My daughter is still asleep. She's visiting from Denver. She came to town for her tenth high school reunion. My goodness gracious, when did I become so aged as to have a child old enough to go to a tenth reunion?

My daughter and I have always gotten along pretty well. Oh, there were those dangerous times during her adolescence that I was sure we wouldn't survive. We managed somehow, though, to my undying amazement and gratitude.

She's the reason I haven't completely given up.

My talents (such as they may be) are on display with my words and pictures. Her mother was equally talented. My daughter has demonstrated for a long time that she received the best of our gifts. She's completed two novels (I finished my first only a few years ago and it has resulted in creative paralysis) and is working on another. One of her childhood advocates and friends (a friend of her mother's from back in the divorce days) is her editor. I have no doubt whatsoever that my beautiful child will show me up one day and become the successful novelist that I always fantasized that I'd be.

But she compliments me too. I have a story idea that I've been parked on for 15 years that she thinks is still fresh and innovative and wishes that I would hurry up and finish it so that she can adapt it into a screenplay. I've long thought the concept was novel, but she thinks that it would be the best horror story since, oh I don't know, Halloween. So I've been trying to work out the details of the story so I can at least leave her notes if I never get it done.

We are alike in so very many ways. We both write. We both love movies. We love to debate whether the latest comedy we saw was a spoof, a parody, a satire or an homage. Her aunt doesn't think there's a difference between those. We know better.

We love to laugh together and have enjoyed just hanging out for the last few days. There's no pressure to go sightseeing since she lived here for years. There's no need to run about madly just for something to do. We have catching up to complete and a whole season of Supernatural to watch and you can't do that when you're out and about just for the sake of not sitting on the couch.

We have a comfortable relationship. We're a lot more like friends than a parent and child. She's smart and witty. Most important of all, she laughs at my lame jokes. What more could a father want? Really, what else?

I'm going to have to wake her soon though. I want to start doing stuff around the house. Loud stuff. Like cooking and watching TV. I want to listen to some music.

Uh oh. Her eyes are open. She's on to me. Gotta go.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On matters of spirit

When I started thinking about writing this, I was going to pontificate about spirituality and religion -- which I consider to be synonymous. The image that I wanted to accompany this was of a stained glass window, but keeping with the playing card theme, I wanted it to be a reflected image. Then I thought about the Sun and Moon theme. I blame the Pagan in me. The completed illustration sat for a day while I pondered with what legend I would inscribe it. I at last settled on "Night and Day."

That's where the concept for writing about matters of faith fell apart because Cole Porter's "Night and Day" became stuck in my head, where it has been earworming me incessantly now for days.

So, given the long meandering creative process just to get to writing this out, I thought I would digress into the lexicon of my internal musical playlist.

My digitized music library consists of over 40,000 legitimately purchased songs, or approximately 3500 CDs. Of those songs, I consider only a few dozen to be life-altering. When I say that, I mean it. Some of these songs have spoken so deeply to me -- either over time or at once on first listen -- that it has changed the direction, or at the very least the temperature, of my life. Sometimes it's the lyrics that have the most impact. Sometimes it's the music itself. Other times it's a trifecta: music, lyrics, and the time in which it was heard.

When I was 19, I heard Harry Chapin's "There Only Was One Choice" for the first time. It's from his 1977 LP, Dance Band On The Titanic and seems somewhat biographical, but also includes some contempt for the marketing of the Bicentennial of the United States. What struck me and stuck with me was some of the lyric:

When I started this song I was still thirty-three
The age that Mozart died and sweet Jesus was set free
Keats and Shelley too soon finished, Charley Parker would be
And I fantasized some tragedy'd be soon curtailing me
Well just today I had my birthday -- I made it thirty-four
Mere mortal, not immortal, not star-crossed anymore

What moved me was Chapin's profound arrogance: "Well, Jesus and Mozart died at 33. I must be going to die too!" It set a cornerstone in my philosophy and a target date for what I expected would be the finest year of my life.

It was.

There have been other songs too: Billy Joel's "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," which is the song I most associate with my now deceased ex-wife. There's Berlin's "Rumor Of Love" which calls to my mind an old boyfriend, the guy with whom I shared my 33. "The Ecstasy Of Gold" from Ennio Morricone's score for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly transports me every time I hear it. It is one of those brief, magnificent pieces that fires my imagination. I swear, the piece is what inspiration sounds like!

The playlist in my head is about two CDs worth of songs from a vast library. To listen to it evokes all of the triumphs and trials of my life. I can tell you exactly where I was the first time I heard "Shock The Monkey" or "What I'd Say." I can tell you that I lay on the floor drunk and cried after my lover left me, Freddie Mercury asking, "How Can I Go On?" This is the Top 40 of my life on the radio of my soul.

So when I think of spirit, I think of music. I think about church and stained glass. Then I invent Pagan images of sun and moon (I'll bet there's a story there). Then I'm earwormed by Cole Porter. It's all so logical.

Night and day, you are the one
Only you beneath the moon and under the sun
Whether near to me or far
It's no matter, darling, where you are
I think of you

Night and day

Monday, July 6, 2009

On coming to the end

I've been watching Dead Like Me and I have to wonder about the show's creator, Bryan Fuller. His other shows (Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies) feature the same kind of narrative and altered reality style, but Dead and Daisies both feature main characters who have been resurrected from death. What does it say when your creative impetus revolves around the undead? Perhaps Fuller is only obsessed and not downright creepy. Either way, I am once again caused to consider my mortality.

The spate of recent celebrity deaths has underscored my meditation. Farrah was 62 when she lost her battle with cancer, just two years younger than my dad when he died just a few years ago. That's just over a decade older than I am right now. Michael Jackson was only months older than me. I don't have any delusions that I'll be next because of this -- that the Heavenly Hosts have come for the gifted and they count me among them -- but it does make me wonder how my life's clock is winding down. And what I have to show for it.

I don't think that I'm afraid of dying. I'm not worried about what shape the afterlife might take, or even if there's one at all. I don't live in terror of judgment before the throne of the Almighty because I've lived a mostly good life, been kind to people and pets, and paid my mortgage on time (mostly). I think if there's anything that i fret over, it's that I'll have no legacy to leave behind. And that no one will remember me when I'm gone.

On my way to dinner at my favorite Keys Cafe on Lexington and Larpenteur, I drive by the Roselawn Cemetery. There are a lot of people in there under monuments staid or grand, subtle or spectacular. The more recent arrivals have suffered the same ignominy as my mother's parents though. They rest in eternal light under an eponymous plate pressed flat on the ground. You know the kind, the marker that makes it easy for the groundskeepers on mowing day. I wouldn't stand a prayer of ever finding my grandparents if I wanted to pay my respects. Their memory will die with my daughter's generation. And there isn't even a splashy grave marker for perpetuity.

Is this was our immortality has become? A homogenized slab the size of a shoebox that won't catch the blades of the industrial strength lawnmower? How incredibly sad that there are no stone angels singing them into heaven for what will surely count for mortal mankind as eternity. How unfortunate.

But I'm not afraid of that. It's not like I'll care, being gone to my own great reward and all. I won't mind if I have an upright stone or a post mortem name tag on a fairway. But I do fear being forgotten, that my daughter's child's generation will be the last to remember unremarkable me, gone to dust with no Lord of the Rings or Chess or Guernica to immortalize my memory.

This missive isn't intended to be self-serving and depressing. I apologize if it's come across that way. I only mean to say that there seem to be fewer days ahead than behind and the ponderousness of that conclusion is occupying some prime real estate in my mind. If I don't wish to be lost to the ages, perhaps I should get off my ever-widening ass and create a legacy.

If not that, I'll have to convince my daughter that I want stone angels dancing on my pinhead when at last I've shuffled off of this mortal coil. Big, honking angels. Then it won't matter who I was.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

On the between time of creation

My Muses are fickle, God love them, but I manage. I've gone years between spates of creativity. As a writer and illustrator, I have rarely done both at the same time. I've written some epic poems and illustrated them after the fact, but only once have I drawn and written at the same time for the same project.

Sadly, I seem to have lost my patience for that.

I've always been an immediate gratification kind of guy. That's why almost all of my endeavors have been in black and white, either as a writer or as a pen-and-ink illustrator. During the 1990s, I was a very prolific illustrator, often knocking out one or two new drawings a night, from pencil sketch to final inking.

But something funny started happening as time went on. My visions became more sophisticated. My drawings took longer to complete. My skill in execution improved and became more complex too. Instead of completing a drawing or two in a night, they now took days.

I lost patience for the process of creation and switched media to writing. Like I said, though, the Muses are fickle. There was a gap of a couple of years where nothing came out of my hands. No pictures. No stories. Then the Muses returned and I wrote a novel. Then there was another gap of years.

I talked the other day about what's between the times when we think our life happens, the time we expend to get to the park before we can throw the Frisbee, for example. Well, there's creative between time too: the time between the spark of vision and the completed work. I found that I could get lost in the process of creation if the work was finalized in what I viewed as the time allotted. When the time allotted became longer than my patience for the project, I no longer had any interest in executing my visions in pen-and-ink.

Curiously, this was about the same time that I got my first computer in 1998.

The illustration that accompanies this writing was done via a Wacom tablet in Adobe Photoshop, then manipulated in Illustrator. It took a shockingly brief amount of time, so advanced are the tools of artists these days.

I espoused between time the other day, saying that a lot of good can come out of just slowing down to recognize the roses as you drive on by -- not to mention stopping next to a blossom and inhaling sharply. But now I think I've made the other point, that the process of creation is cumbersome and that, speaking for myself, artists are impatient. Do you suppose that it was for this reason that Henry Ford invented the assembly line? Or was is just to meet consumer demand?

I'd like to recapture that between time in drawing. But at the same time, I created my "Stop & Smell" illustration and wrote this ponderous message in less time than I could have done with a pen on paper.

Have I lost or won?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

On being less hasty

I watched Discovery Channel's series The Future, A 360ยบ View. I really enjoy documentaries that talk about where our lives are going and what new and fascinating technology is going to be impacting our culture. But one thing that is made clear over and over throughout these programs: the future is speedy.

Now, I've expounded upon this before, but when one of the entrepreneurs that was interviewed said that he thinks that travel needs to be fast so that there's more life, I really wonder what he's talking about. Seriously.

Some of my biggest adventures have happened at less than walking speed. Some have happened at the highway speed limit. I wasn't in a rush to get somewhere so my life could begin, I was living in a very specific moment -- the journey. And if we think that the speed limit is slow, how far have we come from days when people traveled on horseback, by stagecoach, or in old flivvers that could hardly outrun the livestock with which they shared the streets?

A 5500 mile road trip through Arizona, New Mexico and California had me covering some of the most exciting physical terrain one can drive through. At the same time, as I made a considerable portion of the trip alone, I traversed some lesser known territory -- the landscape of my mind. I hadn't been alone for that length of time in years and, just in having the luxury to admire the mountains and trees and rocky outcrops, I was able to conduct an inventory and relearn a few things about myself that I'd forgotten, and a few new things as well. None of this could have been done on a four-hour plane flight.

In my view, the future has got to be slower. Oh, yes, technology will march on and we'll have flying cars and jetpacks and floating cities. But the pace of our lives has to be conducted at a less than breakneck pace. Otherwise Twitter becomes our only means of communicating with the world. We can't abide more than 30 seconds for each newsworthy event on CNN. We don't read books.

We go so fast that nothing has meaning and that there's no time for anything, especially what's in between. And frankly, what's in between can be a lot more interesting than the starting point or the destination.

Trust me. I know.