Friday, September 26, 2008

Hey, I Don’t Entirely Suck at Art

Who would have thought it? Granted, I’m not going to win any awards and there are high traces of suckitude in my art, but so far, it’s been nothing but As. In fact, during class, we have to periodically get up and make a lap around the room to look at the progress of other people’s art, and I’m happy to say that there are other people in the class that suck at a higher level than I do. I mean, really, there are some people that shouldn’t be taking art at all. It’s like “American Idol.” How can you possibly imagine that you can sing?

I thought I would be one of those people whose art the instructor tears off the wall and tramples into fibers so no innocent eyes would befall upon it and forever be ruined. I pictured her walking around the room, criticizing our art with a cigarette at the end of one of those long thin holders perched out of the corner of her mouth, muttering to herself through wisps of smoke, “Crap, crap, crap…” Then getting to mine, clutching her chest and falling over dead with gray matter oozing from her eye sockets. (I bet that paints a picture for you, doesn’t it?)

You may remember my trepidation about taking an art class, especially from someone who hardly ever picks up a pencil bent on creativity, and I figured it would be difficult to do. Granted it isn’t easy. Before each and every drawing, I stare at a blank sheet of paper with hesitation on where to begin, but in the end, I’ve been pleased with my abilities and the results. Some of it as you will see, however, is just awful, plain awful.

Some of the messier stuff we have to do for homework—India ink, pastel chalks, etc.—I do out on the patio on our old kitchen table, as the best way to clean spilt India ink out of your carpets is with a utility knife and creatively placed furniture. Which explains the picture at the top of the page. And the wine? What pretentious artist wouldn't have a glass of wine nearby?

Remember, when you look at these, I’m no Picasso, so be kind.

For this first one, we had been drawing sketches of fruit in block form, meaning that we divided up the fruit into blocks based on how the light was hitting it and our perception of the shape. I didn't fully get it, but after I had done a pear, the instructor used my sketch as an example to show the class, so I must have been doing something right. After that exercise, we had to draw our hand in the same manner, and since I was looking at my hand holding a pencil, it seemed easier to draw. After drawing it in blocks, we had to round over the round parts and shade in everything else. Given that I've never really drawn life forms before, I'm rather proud of it. Of course, it is an example of art not imitating life, as I rarely hold my pencil this way. Furthermore, I rarely hold pencils at all.

Below was one was one of the first drawings we did on the second day of class. We had to draw two angles our shoes without lifting up the piece of charcoal. It was difficult to do, until I found out we could lift up the piece of charcoal. It's called contour drawing. I should have worn nicer shoes to class, however.

This orange we did on the first day of class. We had to draw the same fruit seven times using a variety of medium and a bunch of different angles, from ink and pencil to charcoal and collage. Out of my seven, this is the only one I think actually looks like a piece of fruit. The others look like pieces of something else... It is colored with a Sharpie marker base and a pastel chalk overlay, which gives it a nice soft orangey appearance.

This one took a while. It is done similar to the orange above, but on a much larger scale. In the center of class was a jumble of boxes on a table and we had to sketch it twice. The first one had to be colored by Sharpies and shaded with chalk while the second one had to be shaded with India ink. I'm working on the ink version in the picture at the top of this page, and I think it turned out better than this one; However, I got an A on both, which solidified my hypothesis that you can get an A on anything if it shows you at least spent some time trying to do the assignment, regardless of its outcome.

This is the backpack of the guy who sat next to me in class the same night we did our shoes, as it is also a contour line drawing done in charcoal. We had some extra time so I also did my keys. That night, he brought absolutely nothing to class, not a stitch of paper nor a splinter of a pencil. What was the point of him being there? To go outside every few minutes and smoke a cigarette, which I think covered up the stench of his multiple bong hits before he came to class that night. I haven't seen him since, and I've often wondered what was in the backpack.

As a warm up to the hand exercise we worked on the other night, after the fruit, we had to sketch this plaster mold of a hand holding a ball. Yes, it was a human hand thank you very much, and I know mine turned out to look more like a cross between an ape and an android, with a SpiderMan wrist. You can make fun of this one if you like, as Natalie just did, calling it a skeleton hand as she chortled from the room. Nice ball though, right? Right? Um, hello...

Maybe I'll post more when I get them. I did a drawing of the dash board of my truck that I'm actually proud of. We had to put them up on the board in front of the class so everyone can compare their drawing with everyone elses and with the exception of one other guy--who can't draw a bad picture--mine was the best one... at least that's what I felt.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Elsa Goes to the Vet

I’ve always had trouble with the word vagina, ever since I first found out what exactly it was in my single-digit youth. It’s so personal and clinical, I still have trouble saying it in casual conversation…and one of my good friends is an OB-GYN doc too. I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with him in the last five years that didn’t have the word vagina in it somewhere. Multiple times if it was an especially good story. Vagina. It’s one of those words you whisper to someone else, a confidant, someone you trust that can understand that you don’t mean to be sophomoric when you’re saying it. Don't worry, you want to assure them, there’s no punch line.

Only a few times in my life have I been forced to say it aloud, where I couldn’t skirt the issue and call it something else without sounding like I was in the third grade. I’ll save you the embarrassment of the stories, but needless to say I still felt foolish uttering the word vagina, like it was a racial slur only the people of that race are allowed to use. A man can’t say the word vagina outside of a doctor’s office; that’s a woman-only word.

Maybe I was just immature, but as a kid I had a theory that sometimes words are spelled symbolically; if a word was a true word with a pure definition, all the letters would look like what the word was describing. My go to example when I was 12 was boobs. How many round letters do you need in one word to describe something that is inherently globular in form? Now that I’m older and rarely giggle when someone says boobs, one of my go to examples when describing my theory is “stilt.” See how tall all of those letters are.

Along those same lines, when I looked at the word vagina in capital letters—VAGINA—all I saw were legs. The V, upside-down legs; the As, legs. The G in the middle? Think Gräfenberg and you’re spot on. The I? You know what that is, don’t you, right next to the N, more legs. I imagined Freud would have been interested in speaking to me, but like I said, perhaps I was immature…which is why I don’t bring it up anymore. It doesn’t change the fact that I have difficultly even saying the word vagina in regular conversation. And I’m 35 years old for Christ’s sake.

I know what you’re thinking: Ryan, you’ve said the word vagina like 15 times already in the space of four paragraphs, so you obviously lack some kind of mental hang up when it comes to saying it. Ah, but you’re wrong, I’ve written the word vagina. You’ve said it. That little voice inside your head that says each word “out loud” while you read it on the page, that’s not my voice. That’s yours. It’s a loophole.

Anyways, I was faced with this conundrum a couple of days ago when I had to pick up the phone, call the vet and set up an appointment for Elsa, who, for the past month or two, has been spending an inordinate amount of time, licking herself… you know… down there…

I clarified the problem to the receptionist who answered the phone. “She’s been licking herself excessively,” I explained and then let it go at that. That’s all she needed to know. Who cares where she’s been licking herself, but instead, let’s focus on a lot of tongue work on a very concentrated part of her body that’s now causing her physical discomfort.

“Has she been licking her paws?” she asked, apparently dogs do that enough to make an assumption.

“Ah…no…” There it is. There’s the moment. I’m going to have to say vagina to a total stranger. A woman, no less, who’s going to scowl on the other end of the line when I say it, thinking that I don’t have the proper clearance to utter such a word. I’m no doctor. I’m just a man, so what gives me the right?

I sighed, and with a flash, thought of something that might work. “No, she’s been licking herself where dogs usually enjoy licking themselves.” Enjoy? I slapped myself in the forehead. Enjoy!?! Apparently I was thinking of the off-color joke that if I could lick myself like the dog can, I’d never leave the house. I know, it’s funny after a couple of drinks (and a dog licking himself usually needs to be present), but “enjoy” wasn’t part of the plan. I winced, probably sounding just like a third grader.

At least I didn’t have to say the word vagina. Phew.

So, poor Elsa. When she wasn’t licking herself, she was either thinking about licking herself or had just finished licking herself, and we had waiting too long to take her in, hoping the problem would take care of itself. Life is busy at the house and sometimes the poor dog gets brushed to the back burner. Meanwhile, she is beginning to sit down with ginger care, and sometimes she would whine for no reason; all the while, Kara and I kept saying that we needed to call the vet for an appointment.

On Wednesday, Matthew and I took a very nervous and palpably tense and shedding German Sheppard in my truck to see the vet. She’s no stranger to the vet’s office. When she was younger, she had a form of mange that required weekly treatments at a special dermatological veterinarian in Irvine…and yes it was as expensive as it sounds. However, Elsa chatters her legs together when we push through the front door, apparently smelling the fear of a thousand dogs before her, that antiseptic pall mixed with a slight tinge of urine, drool and death. Elsa knows, the moment she steps paw inside the door, that many a fellow animal has not returned from within the deep recesses of its halls.

Once in the waiting room, she paced the floors with a worried look on her face. As I eyed the longevity and lifespan chart, gently trying to reassure her that it will all be okay, she probably wondered if she was here for the $35 shot and the peaceful sleep.

Not to be. Instead, how about a $560 anesthetic, a blood sample, a snappy Brazilian wax job, some horse pills, a tube of ointment and a new lampshade for your head? That sounds like a better deal.

We had to leave her there for the day. The good doctor tried to examine the area, but Elsa wouldn’t have anything to do with it, and I heard piercing whines come from the secondary examination room in the back of the office. She is very trusting of me. I can usually get her to lie down for a look-see with just a couple of encouraging words (if only most people’s love life was that easy), but inside the fortress of doom that is the vet’s office, she’s on guard. Nobody’s going downtown and still keeping all of their fingers, doesn’t matter what kind of medical degree you’ve got on the wall. The solution was to knock her out so he could shave the area and examine the problem.

As it turns out, Elsa’s got a little extra skin down there, like a pug with an extra fold of skin on the outside of her vagina…hey, the vet said it first. When she goes to the bathroom, some of the urine gets trapped in that flap of skin and, urine being what it is—mostly caustic ammonia—starts to irritate her. A dog’s solution to irritation and injury is to lick it. Unfortunately, what Elsa lacks in reason, she makes up for in zeal, because she licked herself completely raw. Hence the whimpering.

The temporary salve to the problem is antibiotics and the above-said ointment, which looks like little more than Vaseline in a tube. The permanent solution is cosmetic surgery to remove the extra skin, and imagine my surprise when the vet had said he’d done it before. It takes about a half hour and costs around $500 bucks. It seems, everything on Wednesday cost $500. I guess you keep a doctor from the greens, it’ll cost you $500.

Elsa emerged from the examination room later that afternoon with a lampshade on her head. She looked embarrassed, and I was embarrassed for her. Her head was hanging low, still groggy from the anesthetic, but mostly shamed by the contraption around her neck. I had them remove it. It was foolish to think that a 90-pound dog was going to patiently sit around the house with that on its head. She’d have it off and shredded in a matter of minutes. Plus, she barely fit in the backseat of the truck as it was, and she definitely wouldn’t with that cone of degradation dragging her down.

Elsa spent the rest of the day humiliated, feeling sorry for herself in a crumpled heap halfway up the stairs on the landing. Every time I went to pet her to make sure she wasn’t licking herself or to see if she was doing okay—yeah, I felt bad for what she had to go through—her eyes would sink to the floor and her ears would fold back. I escorted her outside to go to the bathroom several times that afternoon, but she would go to the grass and just sit down, slowly. It wasn’t until Friday morning did she actually take care of it. And I stood there and I stood there and I stood there. Natalie came over to the sliding glass door and asked me what I was looking at. “Elsa peeing,” I answered. Okay, she may have thought. When in Rome. So, we both stood there for about 30 solid seconds, watching an uninterrupted stream come out of the back of Elsa, like someone had left the garden hose on. It took so long, she even got tired of squatting, and instead stood back up and lifted one leg like a male dog.

Since she’s returned from the vet’s office, she’s been sitting differently too. She has only once or twice laid down on her side, but instead insisting on sitting on all fours, Sphinx-style as I like to call it, constantly shifting around, clearly uncomfortable.

But it’s not over for her yet. We still have to apply the cream, which is supposed to help heal the raw skin. Of course, she hates it and all we have to do is just show her the tube of ointment, and she quickly makes her escape to the stairs where she thinks she’s safe. Though she eventually allows us put it on her (it’s Kara’s job because she’s not strong enough to hold Elsa down), she’s sensitive in that area…you know…down there.

Vagina! There, I said it.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Hippies Take Art Classes

I had no idea. Really. I just assumed that I would be surrounded by the usual community college students I have frequently seen rambling around the campus, but as soon as the desks began to fill in my new class (beginning drawing) did I realize that there is this subculture of weirdoes that lurk in the cracks of the school.

Where are these people during the rest of the day when not admiring abstract art? Probably sipping espresso, listening to jazz fusion while reveling in the confidence and wisdom of Jack Keurack.

I was the third one to arrive to the classroom. The teacher was already there, one of those young women with short scattered hair, not married, probably has some cats at her apartment, which would undoubted be littered with random examples of her favorite kinds of art, that which makes you think about what kind of degenerate you really are. A Georgia O’Keefe book sits on the hand-painted coffee table, and she is quite proud of her Native American tribal masks that were made in China.

She passed around the syllabus to us three and to each person as they walked in the room. One of my new school-related pastimes is to observe the hesitation and insecurity of students as they walk into a room full of empty desks. The desks were elevated tables set in a large square with about six or eight desks in the middle of the square. Where do they sit? Invariably, for the men, the urinal rule applies: If someone is using the first urinal, you use the one furthest from him, and you are only allowed to fill in the gaps when space allows. Women, on the other hand, group together… for whatever reason the women don’t like to sit alone. Generally, nobody sits next to anyone, however, until they have to, and when the room filled up so much that some people were forced to either stand along the wall or sit in the middle desks in the middle of the room, I was surprised how many chose to stand. It was as if the game of duck-duck-goose forever scarred us from sitting in the middle of a group of people.

During this, I took a look at the four-page syllabus. It was very specific. You only get two unexcused absences until you are dropped from the class…and excused absences will only be counted if it is a medical problem or a funeral, which seem to go hand-in-hand in my book. The more I read the syllabus, the more I decided that the teacher should have paid a little more attention in English class. It said we shouldn’t turn in artwork with tares on it. What’s a tare? Isn’t it some sort of vine? The dictionary says that it a tare is a vetch, and I just love it when the dictionary defines a word with another word I don’t know. It’s like buying 10 dimes with a dollar. Yes, a vetch is a vine.

I understand that sometimes punctuation is a nuisance and mostly unnecessary, but there are a few little marks that help the reader make sense of what you’re trying to say and to have a college-level syllabus peppered with errors (not just typos) seems a little unprofessional. A complete sentence helps. Oh well, my temptation to take a red pen to the four pages while I was sitting there was checked; I imagine it isn’t a good idea to point out a teacher’s fallacy on the first day of class. Especially if the tone of the syllabus was one of totalitarianism, tyranny and despotism.

The classroom began to fill up. The demographics of the people entering the room was a far cry to the engineering class I had in the Spring; I don’t think I remember the last time I saw so many different hairstyles, tattoos, piercings and strange clothing. One guy looked as though he had touched one of those silver electromagnetic spheres that makes your hair stand completely straight out, liked it so much, and decided to carry one around in his pocket all the time. I don’t think any two hairs on his head were touching each other.

One young kid sat down next to me with a binder-type notebook in front of him, and drawn on it in stick-figure style was what he later referred to as an Asian walrus. When he brought it to the attention to the class and the teacher (she had asked if anyone had any strange animals that they’d like to bring into the class as a subject), everyone thought it to be wildly funny. When did I lose my sense of humor? Oh yes, I remember now, when I moved out of my parents’ house and started to pay a mortgage each month. That’s right.

The teacher, whom we are allowed to call her by her first name, decided to allow everyone who walked into the room to add the class, which pushed us well over our body-to-desk ratio… so if everyone shows up on Monday, someone’s going to have to draw on the floor. Of course, that won’t be me because I’m punctual. Which brings up another thing. It’s the first day of class people! Why are you late? Where have you been that you couldn’t get to class by 6pm? Seriously, there were probably 10 flakes that came in late, fumbled for a syllabus, wrung their hands until they were shown an available desk and then made a bunch of noise. One girl slapped her notebook down on the desk so hard it was as if she was killing a cockroach, and another guy didn’t pick up a metal stool to move it but instead dragged it across the concrete floor with that vibrating, squeaking, scraping noise. Gah!

The class was short. The teacher went over the syllabus, which I was delighted to see that each day of class was outlined with specific tasks that we will accomplish that day. On the back was an impressive list of things we had to buy (with some misspellings) and since there was no required textbook, we should be saving some money buying some supplies that we will undoubtedly use in future arts classes. While she was going over the list, offering some advice, one girl, who looked as though she just walked through her high school commencement and wanted to get a jump on “real life” but her parents demanded that she go to college (read: she doesn’t really want to be there) started spouting off. The teacher said that classroom participation was a plus to our overall grade but I don’t think the spirit of the rule was meant to be taken so far.

The teacher showed us something she kept referring to as a “stomp,” and it even said “stomp” on the syllabus. I have no idea what it is or what it is used for, but apparently a “stomp” is a wooden stick used in adding shadows and blends to charcoal drawings and art made with chalk. It wasn’t until I got to Michaels after class that it is actually called a stump not a stomp, and I would have thought that an art teacher would have known the difference; to give her the benefit of the doubt maybe she’s never seen the word written down and the only person to actually ever say it to her hand some sort of speech impediment and couldn’t pronounce a long o sound.

Anyway, the teacher says that the most difficult thing to find on the list would be this “stomp,” and the girl announced, “I know where you can find them.” That’s it. “I know where you can find them.” There was silence as the teacher looked at her, waiting to finish, waiting to continue…waiting to tell us where we could find them. After about five seconds, during which time the girl never looked up from the syllabus, on which she seemed to be scribbling furiously with her pencil and then erasing just as frantically, the teacher had to end the suspense and ask her where we all could find them. Please, end the mystery. Freakin Michaels. Cripes!

A few minutes later, out of the blue, the same girl asked for a new syllabus, because “I scribbled all over mine.” Artsy people are freaks. On top of which, for one I’m not the oldest person in the class, not by a far shot, as there is a man there that’s got to be double my age, easily, and another woman who probably had grown grandchildren.

So, I don’t know about this class. The other two classes I’ve taken, I’ve had supreme confidence that I would get an A, no problem. However, this one might be a challenge for me because I suck at drawing. I mean, I can draw a building. I know perspective and I have a great eye for space, angles and concepts, but take away my ruler and I got nothing. Everything in this class is going to be freehand. Our first working class (next Monday), we’re drawing fruit. This will be interesting, but I just hope that she grades on attempt rather than skill.

As for my fellow classmates, the whole eclectic gaggle of weirdoes and oddballs, I find it funny how they all collect together in the art class. Wish me luck.

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