Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolve Not To

New Year’s resolutions are nothing but cruel tricks designed to lead you down the path of failure. We place so much faith on the flip of a single page of the calendar. Three hundred and sixty six days come to a close today. At this decidedly arbitrary point in space, the earth slowly prepares for another journey around the sun, and we tack up on the wall a unmarked 12 pages of dates and months to mark the seemingly sluggish passage of time, sighing to ourselves, much in the way we did last year, that December 31, 2009, seems so far away.

Perhaps only in our minds, the unsullied new year has such promise. Midnight tonight, change will stand on the threshold and convert our lives into something magical…all because we merely say it will.

This promise of change, a trick on the concept of tradition, the mundane repetition that sometimes blankets our lives with the smothering of dull duplication will never end because we get a new calendar. The last 12 months have been the same cycle: Go to work, eat, sleep, go to work. From the big picture, each day seems to be a mirror of the last and a reflection of the next.

Alas, when the new year comes around, wrapping up so nicely the holiday season with a smart little bow and a cheerful party, typified by a song nobody knows the words to (and those that do don’t know what they mean), we are offered the chance to renew ourselves with a promise of change. This year will be different; all of the dreadful things that happened last year are finally relegated to the past memory.

We promise those around us—announced usually after a couple of drinks in a round-robin game of “What’s your New Year’s resolutions?” and then desperately try to convince ourselves that we’ll somehow become better people: We’re going to lose weight. We’re going to work harder. We’re going to be more optimistic (my personal favorite). We’re going to take advantage of every fleeting moment in the hopes and dreams that we can eek out more meaning and more excitement in our lives. We’re going to save money. We’re going to the gym and finally get in shape. We’re going to better ourselves in some way that will add pleasure, accomplishment, pride and a sense of significance to our existence.

It’s mostly selfish too. We never resolve to be nicer to other people, or to donate our time to charity. We would never give up the dream of self-improvement.

All of this is leveled down upon us with a pop of a cork and a countdown to midnight, the revelry of friends and family, the enthusiasm for what the new year will bring… the unknown… the one time we are allowed to look into the future and dream about the possibilities contained within the next 12 very short months. The deception has begun: The change of the calendar brings with it a guilt that we too should change something about ourselves, whether they be lofty goals or trivial particulars, and soon we find that resolutions, though maybe full of good intentions, are also loaded with disappointment and disillusionment.

The year changed so easily, why can't you? You’re standing in the middle of a New Year’s Eve party as the clock steady clicks off the few remaining minutes until 2009 and you are faced with a conundrum. What needs changing about you? It’s funny, but that’s not the question you should be asking. Instead, you should ask yourself, why do I need to change? What in my life am I doing that I shouldn’t and what can I do about it?

The singular problem with resolutions is that they are often doomed by their own ambitiousness, as the desire to find a quick salve to simmer your shortcomings and sanctify your all too lofty dreams of perfection becomes your eminent downfall. Unrealistic goals are a quick way of setting yourself up for failure, defeat letdown and the crushing depression that usually follows . Failure is hardly a way to start the year, so you find patronizing excuses to step out from under the guilt.

Sooner than we can say February, we’re back to the old routine again: eat, sleep, go to work, pining for the weekends and the big plans, the future endeavors that will eventually change everything. The procrastination. The what-ifs. The maybes. The mights. The “everythings” never come because we never want them to; the status quo is such for a reason, and we fear change even the slightest fraction. Complacency is comforting, consistency offers a regular menu of steady predictability, and if the current situation is acceptable—regardless of whatever colored glasses you see it through—then why change it?

This becomes February’s argument against December’s promise of improvement. If you lose weight, you’ll have to buy new clothes; what’s one more piece of pie? I’ll start my diet tomorrow. If you save money, you won’t have any fun; but I just need the latest fashions, the matching purse or the Wii attachment. If you be more optimistic, you’re only hiding from reality (again, my favorite). If you stop and smell the roses, you’ll miss out on the race, and we’ve trained ourselves to believe that winning The Race is the most important thing in life, the ultimate “keeping up with the Jones.” Ah, February, you cold temptress, locked still in the shadows of winter, depressed, recoiled, inconsiderate of our dreams of betterment and progress. The last month of winter, the month of the dead, just before spring.

Soon enough, come March, you’re enjoying the routine of November all because you tried to fool yourself into thinking that a party with some champagne, a giant ball on top of a building and Dick Clark’s bland successor Ryan Seacrest in Times Square, is going to change your life… because you merely said it would. You made a declaration, a resolution. Essentially, you made a promise to yourself and others to change something about yourself without having the slightest idea how to accomplish the task.

Success does not come from thoughts or promises or resolutions, regardless of how much faith is bundled up with them. Success and change are the results of action. Going to the gym involves getting up off the couch. Saving money means you don’t need that Starbucks, regardless that the commercials say you do. And savoring every moment so you don’t miss out on life can only come if you are out in life making those moments. If you say you’re going to lose weight in 09, start by eating less, taking the stairs, walking around the block. You want to save money? Draw up a plan of action, a budget that is realistic. Include those items you normally buy, but just don’t buy as much of it. And, if you’re like me and you plan on being more optimistic, start by seeing the light side of life. Not everything is doom and despair.

Remember this: Just because your house has a window, it doesn’t mean you have a good view, and just because you told yourself at some party tonight that your life is going to change just because you demand that it does, that doesn’t mean it automatically will unless you start down the road toward your goals. The only thing that can free you from the bonds of the mundane and the boring commonplace that may have been 2008 is yourself.

Of course, imagine if everyone had one resolution they actually stuck with for the rest of their lives, with a new one added each and every year thereafter. What a great world this would be. Regardless of what you do this year—get poorer, fatter, richer, or better—make it a good year for yourself and those around you.

And you don’t need a resolution to make that happen.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Transformation of Dana

In the darkness of the club, with the Christmas-like rope lighting silhouetting her against the shelves of liquor bottles above the bar, Dana looked a lot like Jaime Lee Curtis—or maybe if Jaime Lee Curtis had a less-famous sister: tall with short spiky fake red hair and a long, oval face with a sharp nose. How exactly she walked around in high heels as high as they were was as big a mystery as why she wore a low-cut tight-fitting shirt on a cold winter night.

She was probably about 47 years old, but maybe the low light made her look older. She said her name was Dana, but the band introduced her as Maria and she kept calling me Brian. She was the only waitress working a room of about 20 tables that eventually filled up as time drew near to the appearance of the headlining band, B.B. Chung King, a creatively interesting Asian man in a cowboy hat who plays the blues. Our first interaction with her was gruff, rather like Flo would treat someone at Mel’s but without the laughtrack or the harmless lighthearted banter. It was a curt abandonment of all niceties normally associated with customer service.

Kara and I had dropped off the kids at my folks’ house for the evening with the idea that we would meet up with long-time friends Scott and Melanie for Scott’s 36th birthday celebration at the Arcadia Blues Club on Huntington. They said meet at 8pm; we got there around 7:30 and parked right in front of the place, which isn’t normally a good sign. I expected it to be crowded, packed to the gills with finger-snapping, head bobbing, beret wearing neerdowells with a penchant for good music all waiting for a break so they can cram out into the alley for a cigarette.

A good movie that I occasionally enjoy is “The Glenn Miller Story” with Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, and the scene that always gets me delighted is when Stewart and Allyson go to that club where the blues and jazz legends have miraculously assembled to have an impromptu jam session which lasts well into the morning; one part even shows June Allyson falling asleep. The music is ruckus, wild, unpredictable and great, but the scene is partially distracted by the rotating colored lights added afterwards. That’s the blues/jazz club I’ve always envisioned going to, but I doubt one like that even exists.

The Arcadia Blues Club is rather a misnomer. It isn’t really a club, in the sense that it is an esthetically pleasing spot that is open late at night that offers a wide variety of food, drinks and entertainment, including dancing... but it was more of a bar: they did play blues and it was in Arcadia, so I guess two out of three isn’t bad. For starters, the entire room was painted black—floor to ceiling—and not a single light was on anywhere except over and around the bar. There were few things in the club that gave the impression you were going to hear blues. I think there’s a treble clef on the wall and perhaps a poster of a blues festival that has long been forgotten. In a room off to the left of the bar was a few unoccupied pool tables and a variety of doors that I assumed led to a kitchen and/or the bathrooms. When we got there, it was quiet, except for some low background music and the sound of a half-dozen people talking and eating dinner.

The man at the door reminded me of smaller version of Dolph Lundgren, the Russian from Rocky IV, and through a very thick Soviet accent that sounded more like he was going to line us up and shoot us as spies, he welcomed us to the club and asked for the cover charge. I despise paying a cover to get into a bar, as it just means that I’ll spend that much less money on drinks or food, but since I hadn’t paid a cover in about 15 years and it was for a good cause (Scott’s birthday), I forked over the $20 for both Kara and I. He explained something about a drawing, gave us some tickets, and it sounded more like tickets to the breadline. We parted confused. There was another blonde that flitted back and forth from the bar to the front door, but that seemed to be her only purpose, that and she placed these little battery-operated flicker candles at all of the tables, so out of the corner of your eye, it looked like those flashing construction signs by the side of the road: She didn’t look like she worked there but she also didn’t look like she would voluntarily go there, rather that someone was paying her to make sure the guy at the door had a plate of food and a refill on his drink about every 10 minutes.

Picking a table at a bar is a complicated experience. We had a lot to choose from which made it all the more difficult. You first need to evaluate what sort of sound system will be later pummeling your eardrums and convulsing your heart and then you need to discover the access points. Will the space become so densely packed that I’ll have to crawl under the tables and over people’s laps in order to get to the bathroom, or will we be so ensconced in the crowds that even a waitress with the tallest of heels and spikiest of red hair will never be able to reach us? I had never heard of this band and I had no idea to what level a following he had waiting for him to play, but I had no idea how many people were supposed to come…nor who. I didn’t want to sit in front because the possibility of deafness becomes greater the closer you sit to the speakers, and I didn’t want to sit in the back because the darkness would overcome us all and we wouldn’t be able to recognize our own hands in front of our faces. Somewhere in the middle will do.

I scanned the room and not surprisingly, we were the first to arrive. There were a couple of tables up front that were reserved for names that seemed unlikely to be part of our party (plus reserving a table isn’t part of Scott’s M.O.), so we pulled together two tables with the combined seating of eight… if more than that show up, we could easily harness in a few more chairs.

Then we met Dana, looming over us like more of a teacher behind the squat rectangular glasses perched on her pointed nose than a waitress. She didn’t say her name right off; she barely said anything but, “What’ll ya have?” Apparently the friendly greeting was the Russian’s job at the door. I was certain she had tattoos, something like a rose on her shoulder with big thorns to symbolize her ex-husband and unrequited loves or a skull on her inner thigh warning all who venture too close. I got a Sam Adams (always start with the best beer on the list and go down), and I probably would have cringed if I had known the price—a single bottle of beer lately seems to be the same price you would pay at the grocery store for the whole six pack, and somehow we’re okay with paying it. Kara wanted wine, and Dana informed us in no certain terms that they offered Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cabernet, essentially white, pink and red. And only because I had fallen for the trick before, I asked to clarify that the “Zinfandel” she spoke of was in fact a white Zinfandel, which it was. Kara ordered the Cab instead.

It is always my policy to be friendly to the staff of a bar. It ensures good service for one and for another, and you might just play your way into some perks. For example, I went to the Wood Ranch restaurant on an especially rainy night a few days before Christmas to pick up a gift certificate for Natalie’s teacher (Gnat said “Ranch Wood” was her favorite restaurant), and while I was there, I took the opportunity to have a glass of wine and enjoy the Christmas camaraderie of strangers. Since I was by myself, I chatted up the bartender, who looked like he could have very easily been a Joel or a Jeff, what with his youthful unshaven face and that glint of enthusiasm he still had left for his job. He poured a jack and soda by mistake and slipped it next to my Ravenswood Zin instead of dumping it out. It’s things like this that earns a 25 percent tip from me. Am I a big fan of bourbon? Not especially, but it was a nice warm drink on a cold rainy night.

So, back at the ABC, I asked Dana if she expected the place to get crowded. It was an innocent question that I hoped would spark a brief conversation, at least putting us and our future table mates in her good graces for the duration. At the very, very least, it would make us familiar to her and not just some group of hobos off the streets. In a brusque voice from over her shoulder as she trekked back to the bar, I got a one-word answer, “No,” as if I asked if we could borrow her car to transport manure. So, that’s how it was going to be? Oh well, so much for good service, but I was starving all the same, which was a mistake not to take care of that earlier. Since we don’t go out to these places very often, I wasn’t entirely in sync with the usual practices of preparation for a night out…at least back in the college days, we’d have a few drinks and dinner somewhere else to not only save money but to get good food. Usually bars are known for two out of three things: good entertainment, good food and good drinks—you can usually pick two but you’ll never ever get all three. We thought I should wait for everyone to get there first because someone else may be eating too and I didn’t want to be rude, but by the time my Sam Adams arrived and I was half-way through it, food became a priority.

I ordered the Club. That was it. That’s all I had to say apparently. “I’ll have the Club.” Dana turned away abruptly, giving me the impression that I’ll get it however they make it and I won’t get a choice in the matter. And I should feel lucky at that.

In unknown situations and new environments, I always order the Club. You can’t screw up a Club sandwich, and the likelihood of getting food poisoning from something so simple as deli meat and bread is much smaller than if I had gotten, say, ravioli and cheese or anything else they offered. However, the choices of food wasn’t that great either. You can get a salad, fish and chips, the club or a hamburger. They did have an array of desserts, which seemed unusual. Who thinks of tiramisu at a bar?

Our two will be good entertainment and good food, it appeared.

Meanwhile, a lanky guy in a bright red shirt who would have looked more at home behind a computer terminal at an IT company than on stage at a blue’s club began adjusting the instruments, paying particular attention to the drum kit, which seemed to be in complete disarray. Who would put it up there and not know that the high-hat goes on the left and the rest of the symbols on the right? It seemed odd that he would have to organize the whole thing merely 10 minutes before he was supposed to play. But I just wrote him off as a roadie, or at the very most, the sound check guy.

Dana returned frequently, which was nice, but there wasn’t that many people there yet to make it surprising. What else was she to do? Stand there and fume? She got a lot of that in too. On the back of the menu, they had a few specials, one of which was Pabst Blue Ribbon beer for only two dollars, which is probably $1.99 more than necessary. She tried to talk me out of it, claiming that it was nasty, but since I never had one, I insisted. She stomped toward the bar to retrieve it with a disappointed look on her face and returned a lot longer than it should have taken to open a beer can (yes, can!). Along with it, I got the Club. It was plopped down in front of me with little ceremony…and my request for some mustard bounced off of her back as she stomped away.

The tall lanky guy in the red shirt made his rounds around the room asking the few people there what sort of blues they were interested in hearing, and when he got to our table, he introduced himself as just “Bobby.” He was friendly and I liked the attention, so he must be the owner or at least the manager. Since we had never been to a blues club, I told him that any sort of blues would be good blues to us, as I had no favorite tunes that came to mind. I then put my foot in my mouth, by first asking if he owned the place. He said he didn't, which turns out to not be the truth. Doing a little checking, Bob Darhms, a longtime drummer from blues-infested Chicago, is the principle behind Red Entertainment, Inc., which is the company that owns not only this club but also Yesteryears in Pomona.

Modestly, he was just Bobby, the drummer. Oh, in that case, I will further shove my foot in my mouth and ask the origin of the B.B. Chung King band name. Again, making conversation, perhaps learning something new about the act we were about to see, and if I know one thing, it’s that people like to talk about themselves. Well, apparently, this Bobby was the Bobby from The Bobby Blueshouse Band, the Arcadia Blues Club house band that plays every Friday and Saturday night. Who knew? You’re right, probably everyone in the room. Perhaps I hurt his feelings by not recognizing him, but really, he looked like a guy that would fix my computer at work. However, if I squelched his pride, he recovered quickly and explained that B.B. Chung King didn’t come on until 10pm. He even showed me the flyer on our table that made no mention of the time!

Yikes. Ten! That’s Post Meridian, right? That’s a long time after Kara and I usually start making our way towards the bed for the night, especially during the hectic holidays. We were hoping to be pointed toward home by that time, as we ignorantly assumed that the headliner would start playing at 8pm. Again, we’re out of practice. Two hours of blues sounded like, to us, a full night of entertainment, and since we assumed the kids would have trouble falling asleep at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, the carnage wouldn’t be that bad by the time we arrived to retrieve them at 10pm.

So, there’s now two full hours of the Bobby Blueshouse Band that we’d have to endure before hearing the headline band that we paid to see, and by his first offering, I wasn’t wholehearted impressed. If I ever start playing in a blues band at a blues club one day, remind me to start the night out with a swinging tune instead of something I’d likely hear at a New Orleans funeral procession. I was bored. I’m not going to say they weren’t talented—the bass player who felt compelled to keep his Bluetooth in his ear the whole night (perhaps his wife couldn’t make it and she wanted to hear him play) was fantastic and I especially enjoyed the trombone player—but it didn’t seem like they had been playing together for very long. The changes were loose and the songs mostly petered out instead of smacking us in the face, earning a half-hearted applause from the sparse and scattered crowd.

Around 8:30, Jeremy Dover and his date came in. I wasn’t expecting him and since it was dark, I let him wander around the room for a while before I made sure it was him. Then Scott, Melanie, Scott’s two cousins and one of their dates showed up as well. With the table full, we were ready for blues. The band improved drastically, and since they had no official warm-up period before they just started to play, I guess they just needed to sync up and feel the vibe, which they most certainly did.

Jeremy called across the table to Kara and I: “Don’t worry, it gets better, much better. B.B. Chung King’s music will tear your face off.” I know why he tried to prop us up, because we were just sitting there listening to the music, unlike everyone else who were offering up cat calls, whistles and ovations of cheers to the solos and the riffs that stood out amongst the rest. Perhaps he thought we didn’t care for the music and weren’t enjoying the sounds, which is far from the truth. What Jeremy didn’t know is that I internalize most public displays of excitement or emotion; for whatever reason—embarrassment, shyness or introverted reservations—I rarely express enthusiasm for anything. That shouldn’t be translated into me not having a good time. I was. The music was great, as good blues music is one of my favorite genres; however, if Jeremy could have seen my foot tapping along or my hands bouncing off the back of Kara’s seat, he would have seen how much a good time I was having. I just don’t show it too often.

While all of this was happening, an interesting thing occurred that perhaps only Kara and I were able to witness; that was the silent transformation of Dana. What was once cold and disinterested, turned to delight and engaging. The stomping to the bar with mono-syllabic grunts and impartial suggestions converted to interesting and enthusiastic activity. Was she now dancing!?! Yes, she was at the bar doing her best Ginger Rogers, all by herself. When I followed a Pabst with a Heineken, she laughed that I was “all over the place.”

Arriving at our table didn’t involve a turned down lower lip and a flittering glare over the top of her glasses with her arms akimbo, but instead she sashayed and cavorted toward us with a swing of her hips and a boogie in her step. Then she took your order. From where did this other Dana come? Did her twin show up for the second shift? Did Jamie Lee Curtis actually clock in and take her place, researching a roll for a movie? The night and day was fantastic, and nobody noticed because the Dana they had met wasn’t the same Dana we had met.

Was it us? Did we look like water-drinking, salad-eating no tippers who take up space at the tables and mooch free music off the band. Or was it the music? At first, she resembled a typical bar maid hocking drinks in a nonchalant mood indifferent to anyone and everyone, perhaps hardened by the world, downtrodden by the unforeseen twists in her life. But after the band got started, after the place eventually filled to semi-capacity—at least most all of the chairs were occupied by maybe 50 or 60 people—only then did she morph into alter-Dana, the cheery upbeat Dana that was dancing in front of the stage with the soul-saving “preacher” who washed away our sins and blew a breath of hope into our lives through the a few covers from The Man in Black. He was about 65, wore a round brimmed felt hat and the only thing that shined on him was his smile, the glint from his round-rimmed glasses against the lights and the cross around his neck. Before he got up on stage, I noticed he was by himself, sitting at a table by the wall, unassuming in the darkness as just another patron in from the cold to hear some music. Then he bound up on the stage, belted out two or three Johnny Cash songs with about a 10 minute sermon sandwiched in between, during which time he did a little soft shoe on the dance floor, soon joined by Dana…our surly waitress Dana turned carefree fairy alighting about the room.

My friend Heidi made a surprise visit, exclaiming that she had never before been inside of a bar, which made for a good laugh. It was through her that I learned Dana’s name, because she asked her what it was, but I was confused when the first band, capping off their final set, gave credit to the various people who made it happen, one of which, Bobby announced, was Maria the waitress. At that point, I wasn’t sure who was wrong.

By the time the second band set up and began to play, Kara and I were tired, plus we had to look forward to picking up the kids and another 45 minutes back to our house. It was almost 11pm by the time we left. I cashed out my tab, to which Dana called us sissies for not being able to stick around for the rest of the show…and by the quality of music B.B. Chung King was cranking out, I wished he had started earlier so we could hear more of it.

We had a good night. We stopped at The Hat to fill that void the Club couldn’t reach and when we got to my folks’ house around 11:30, the kids were still awake and waiting for us with bloodshot eyes and zombie-like motions. It was as late as they had ever stayed up and I’m surprised they made it that long. Oh well, they had a good time with Grandma and Grandpa.

Natalie was snoring by the time we were down the street and Matthew soon followed. We didn’t hear from either of them until about 9am this morning, and needless to say, today became a lazy movie-watching, game-playing day.

In the end, it was very interesting to watch someone’s personality transform from one of malevolent resent and bitterness to one of goodwill and frivolity to all, and what was remarkable was that there was no clear evidence of what made it happen. It reminded me of “When Harry Met Sally.”

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

Speechless (then some art)

I don’t know that I’ve had much to say in the last couple of weeks. There has been nothing in my life, or the lives of those around me, that warrant any explanation. It has been status quo for a while now, with nothing out of the ordinary. Sure, we’ve had dance recitals, camping trips, Disneyland adventures and birthdays, but anyone who reads this nonsense was probably there and knows all that happened (or didn’t happen however the case may be).

So this leaves me with rants (I rarely rave, nobody wants to read a rave). Frankly, I haven’t any. Sure, the California government is screwing us once again. Sure, we’re going to have a socialist in the White House bent on redistributing my wealth. Sure, everyone is two paychecks away from the breadline and on the brink of financial ruin the likes of which the last three generations have never seen. And sure, China is slowly taking over the world one crappy kid’s toy at a time…

But you know all that.

That leaves me with personal rants (again, nobody wants to hear good news, right?). I just don’t have any, any I’d like to share that won’t make me look like a total jerk. On the other hand, I finished my art class with a resounding A; but that’s good news, right? I may post my last three drawings for your consideration, but since two out of the three are pretty good (in my unbiased opinion) I can’t really make too much fun of them. That just leaves me showing off, something I despise. I could tell you that work is going well. I’ve added a client, some new quasi-religious magazine that I’m writing green articles for (you know, eco-everything, recycle your urine, global warming, buy Chinese-made light bulbs, etc.), but I’m getting paid peanuts in the hopes that the magazine will become successful… I’m not holding my breath. It keeps me fresh.

I’m going to officially start work on my Opus Glendora book. For the last year, I’ve been collecting information, photographs, documents, etc., and now I’m going to spend one night a week at the library doing grassroots research, formulating an outline, page counts, layouts and style sheets for the final project. In January, I’ll have exactly two years to pull it together, and that may sound like a long time, it will go rather quickly as I try to fill a 250-page 12x12-inch coffee table book. Yes, my plans are grand, and they will, no doubt, change as the years go on, but I’ve got to get started on it. Of course, I’m still waiting for City blessing, but I’m not going to wait for it and it won’t stop me from doing it.

Bleck, like I said… I got nothing for you tonight. Sometimes you’re on, sometimes you’re not, but I just felt as though I hadn’t said anything in a while and you were getting bored clicking here and finding nothing new or interesting.

I hate to leave you with nothing.

Maybe I’ll post my last three art pictures instead. How dreary.

This first of the last three drawings is on par in difficulty as the collaged crayons I posted a couple of weeks ago. We had to take a photo of a group of things, and since I didn’t know what we’d do with the pictures, I ignorantly took difficult-to-reproduce pictures. The one that the instructor chose for me was a nice picture of a group of bolts piled on one of the granite rocks in my backyard (shown at the right). This picture, as well as 35 others were taken the first week of class with a promise that we'd use them later for future assignments. If I had known I was going to use it for this, I would have used something with flat sides.

For this drawing, we had to increase the photo’s ratio to fit on our drawing paper (18x24), sketch it out and then shade in the values of the photo using only straight lines. As the assignment was designed, the darker the area, the closer the lines would be, convincing the eye that there is less white space therefore less light in the image. The drawing itself took forever, only because I took a picture of something difficult and complicated and then I dragged my feet in doing it. The end result is thousands of lines in irreversible black Sharpie that resemble the various shades and shadows of a bunch of bolts.

Before you click on the drawing and get an upclose view, realize that the farther back you are, the better the drawing is supposed to look, better is the effect of the exercise. Nobody stands up close to Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" and wonders what the deal is with all the dots. It is a case of too close to the trees to see the forest, or in this case, too close to the lines to see the bolts.

With a failed attempt at a self-portrait behind me, we moved onto the next phase of self-portraits, this one involving a skewed version of a self portrait. We were required to bring in something reflective, like a spoon or a silver dish, something that wouldn’t give back a clean reflection (like would a mirror). I immediately chose a hubcap off of one of my Beetles, and because I have a half dozen or so in various places in the garage (ranging from pre-war to Rabbits), not necessarily on the cars themselves, they were readily available and fit the bill. Simply enough, we had to draw what we saw in the reflection… too bad I had to be in the drawing otherwise I would have been more pleased with the results.

In the drawing you can see the windows and walls behind me, the ceiling with its exposed beams. In front of me are my pencils in their case, my eraser and pad of paper (with the drawing that I’m doing IN the drawing that I’m working on). It was fun to do because you really couldn’t make a mistake as all of the elements are abstract and there were very few straight lines.

Intially, the final drawing didn't seem that difficult. We had three classes to work on it and nearly two weeks to finish before it was turned in on the last day of class, December 15. Again, we had to take a black and white picture of something that had a range of values, from complete black, through the range of grays and into white. At the last minute before class, I dragged a six-foot length of chain from the garage and took a picture of it on the patio cement (see right). I felt it was a pretty cool picture, nice and tight, well detailed, showing most all of the 64 links of the chain. Who knew that it would be my downfall.

We got to class and the assignment was announced that we would be doing pixel work, meaning that we would draw a pixilated version of our photographs. I was ambitious, thinking that I could do it easily enough. After all, we had nearly two weeks to finish it and I only had to color in an 24x18-inch piece of paper. How hard could it be?

The idea was that we would map out a grid of lines on the picture and the blank paper, one-half-inch on the picture would equal a full inch on the paper. After doing that, take each half-inch square on the picture and shade in the color value on the paper. If the square was white, do nothing, but if the square was black or a shade of gray, you’d have to shad in that square whatever the appropriate value was.

That’s all well and good, but what if the half-inch-square on the picture contained two shades? Or more? What then? Well, for those squares, they’d have to be broken down into quarter-inch squares… and some of those on my picture needed to be halved further into eighth-inch squares. For my particular photograph of the roughly 64 links of chain, there were certain details that needed to be tended to, namely the rounded edges of the links. Every link of chain has eight corners, which means I needed to contend with 512 corners, and each side of each link had three basic values, dark in the shadow, gray in the medium light and light gray in the full light. That means, that I needed a level of detail unlike anyone else in class, nearly 1,550 different areas of shading. When I finished making my grid down to the detail described above, I had 5,984 little squares on my paper that all needed attention; they all needed some shade of gray, as there were very few squares that were completely black or white.

I gained empathy from my fellow classmates and the instructor when I started work on it. At the end of the three-hour class, I had only shaded in roughly 300 of these 6,000 squares, and what resulted looked nothing like a length of chain. Furthermore, I would consistently get lost, having to plot my position from the photo to the picture was difficult, constantly counting squares to make sure I was on track.

At the end of the second class on this assignment (on December 8), making very little progress, I calculated that it would take me another 70 hours to finish. With my work meetings Tuesday night and all day Wednesday, Matthew’s birthday party on Saturday and Natalie’s dance recital on Sunday, I wouldn’t have that kind of time to finish it. Rather than disappoint myself and my instructor in turning in an incomplete assignment, I decided abandonment was my best option. I even asked, “Given that I got an A on every assignment in this class, what would my final grade be if I didn’t turn in the final? She wouldn’t answer me, but gave a smile that told me what my grade would have been. In the end, I didn’t want to take that route, to bow out on the easy road, so I found another picture and started over.

My search was for something relatively easy. Sure, I was going to get an A no matter what I did, so I didn’t want to kill myself pulling a drawing together. I found this picture of a P51, one of my favorite fighters from World War II (that and the P40). It still took about six hours to draw what you see here, and the reason it looks the way it does is because the whole drawing is made up nothing more than little squares. I didn’t actually “draw” anything, but instead shaded in square after square, about 1,000 of them for this drawing.

It turned out pretty cool, but I would have enjoyed it more if I was able to draw it conventionally. Either way, I got an A on the drawing, an A on all the drawings, and an A in the class. Since I send a Thank You note to every one of my instructors at the end of each course, she emailed back that I obviously aced the class.

I can’t say that for many of my other classmates, most of which didn’t even bother to turn in all the drawings. The guy I befriended that sat next to me, did a couple of his B drawings over again so he could assure himself an A, but the best artist in class—the one that continually blew everyone’s art out of the water (his pixel drawing looked like an actual photograph, it was disgusting)—hadn’t turned everything in by the last day. He probably got an A based solely on skill alone, but I would say that’s it. Everyone else was B or lower, I’m sure.

Again, this is one of those drawings that doesn't look good upclose. If/when you click on the larger version, it will look like a six-year old did it with a crayon, when in reality, each mark you see on the paper is either a little square all to itself, a much larger square no bigger than a half-inch or a series of squares connected together.

The last day of class we had a potluck and drew what is referred to as an “exquisite corpse.” When I saw it on the assignment sheet, I just assumed it was a fancy Latin-esque way of saying the class was over, i.e., beautiful death, nice ending, etc., but an exquisite corpse is a method of drawing that involves everyone in class. We each started drawing anything we wanted on a piece of paper and after a few minutes we rotated drawings, passing it to the right for the next person to add something. The intention was that by the time it made its way around the room and all 15 of us that were in class had a chance to add something, it would be a completed drawing. However, it only elucidated what level of twisted individuals make up a community college art class. So much so that I won’t show you the results. They didn’t make any sense to me, and since nobody was graded on the exorcise, nobody put too much effort into it. My best contribution to someone’s drawing was the addition of an outhouse under a tree with a panicked arm reaching out of the door for a roll of toilet paper just out of reach.

We ate, we drew, we left. My 4.0 is still strong. I am forcing myself to take the Winter semester off because of two reasons: 1) There are no classes I can take that I need that fit into my limited schedule; and 2) Winter and Summer are compact semesters, only lasting six weeks, which means that most classes would be three nights a week and that’s a lot of time away from the house.

In the meantime, I’ve got a book to start writing and researching. My alter life as an artist is now officially over.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Our Christmas Tree

Into the woods with a saw in hand,
Christmas trees scattered across the land.
We searched for the right one, row after row
The one Gnat picked had a heavenly glow.

She gave it a hug, its needles were prickly,
Matthew pet a branch and said it was tickly
We all agreed, raised hands cast our vote,
It was the best, without exception or note.

Finally the time came for Dad to chop it down,
We packed up the truck for the trip back to town.
Our hands were sappy and the truck smelled of pine,
We sang Christmas Carols to pass the time.

Dad strung up the lights, some twinkle, some don’t,
The tree should stand straight, this year it just won’t.
The kids place the ornaments, mostly with care,
Some broke, some fell and some branches left bare.

The room was aglow when we plugged in the strings,
The radio played as some old crooner sings.
We finished the tree and it was quite a sight,
Now we just wait for Santa’s annual flight.

Merry Christmas!


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