Tire Tracks on the Putting Green

Formal dinner

Can I just get a burger and a large Pepsi?

I’m not what you would call a fan of Donald Trump.

To be honest, I doubt if I would waste a good cup of coffee to extinguish a brushfire in his comb-over. At the same time, watching the video clips of our President lurching along in front of the 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth II at the inspection of the Queen’s Guard during his recent visit to the UK, my principal response was not disgust, or embarrassment, or outrage, or any of the other sentiments that seemed appropriate, but — strangely enough — sympathy.

Wait! Don’t hit me again: I can explain.

When a giraffe or a bluebird or an armadillo is born, he hits the ground with most of the guidelines for future interactions with other giraffes, bluebirds, or armadillos already programmed into his little brain. Over a period of days or weeks the adult animals in his life will provide updates and security patches, but the basic outline is pre-installed, and the little beast will know from the beginning how to behave in almost any situation that might arise involving others of his own kind.

We humans, on the other hand, resemble large pink sea-cucumbers at birth, squirmy tubes that take in food at one end and produce copious volumes of excrement at the other, sometimes simultaneously. We have a few basic reflexive actions programmed in, mostly having to do with moment-to-moment survival, such as sucking and grasping and a tendency to scream blue murder if confronted with the risk of falling or abandonment, but our social skills at that stage are, at best, incomplete.

This unfinished quality, called neoteny, leaves us incredibly vulnerable for the first few years of our lives, but in return it makes us something of a blank slate, capable of being trained to suit our specific environment. A human infant born to a naked cave-dwelling stone-age family requires a suite of skills and responses that are very different from those that might appertain to a silver-spoon baby in Westchester County coming home to a Swedish nanny and a trust fund. If humans started life with a one-size-fits-all set of internal guidelines like those of the giraffe, they would be equally limited in their ability to adapt, to spread, and to diversify. There are no giraffes living wild and proliferating in Greenland, or the Gobi desert, or Patagonia, or Chicago, or low Earth orbit; for better or for worse, there are humans in all those places.

There is a downside to this system, however, apart from the incredible challenges of keeping a human child alive and healthy long enough for her to survive on her own. What happens if, for some reason, the necessary programming is not all there when needed? Or if the programming is flawed, or outdated, or specific to a set of conditions that are not those that the child is actually experiencing?

Bear with me for a moment while I digress still further …

My social life involves occasionally showing up at other people’s houses for drinks, or food, or conversation, or some combination of the three. A specific time is usually indicated:

“Come over about five.”

“We’ll be having dinner at seven-thirty.”

“Let’s get together at six.”

I am, unfortunately, that terror of every host, the person who interprets the invitation absolutely literally. If you say 5:00, I’ll be coming up your front steps at 4:58 and then dithering on the doorstep for a minute and forty-five seconds before ringing the bell.

unwelcome mat

“I’m sorry I caught you still putting your face on, but if you meant 5:47, you should have said 5:47, dammit!”

I’m not stupid: I know that my punctuality is not quite acceptable, but I simply don’t know how to make the adjustment. Does 5:00 mean 5:12? Does it mean 5:32? Is 5:05 too early? Is 6:00 too late? Other people seem to simply know what is intended, they show up at strange and patternless intervals over the entire course of the evening and it’s right. I’m doing precisely as instructed and it’s wrong.

This is an example of training that was correct under one set of circumstances, but which has not translated to a new milieu. My family was military, deeply conservative in its values: punctuality was drilled into me from the first delivery-room butt-slap, and reinforced – with additional butt-slaps when required – over subsequent years. We were not social, we didn’t go to other people’s houses for drinks or tiny sandwiches, or ask those people to visit ours. Everything worked according to a set of strict rules, and if we didn’t know the rules for a thing, then we didn’t do that thing.

I am very much aware of my ineptitude in areas like this, and I am grateful to the friends who tolerate it with such good grace. I show up at the wrong times, I say the wrong things, I read the wrong books, I listen to the wrong music … But as Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” I’d upgrade my programming if I could, but it’s too deeply ingrained, and the new patterns are too vague, too uncertain, to overwrite it.

Now back to London.

Looking at the President’s face, his body language, his ill-fitting suit, his spray-on tan, flopping necktie and awkward, shambling gait, I saw the same arrogance and self-absorption that everyone else saw, but beneath that I also saw a man who had simply never been taught how to be nice, how to behave in social settings, how to be courteous to an old woman whose whole life has been spent bound up in rigid protocol and an elaborate and unbending system of rules governing her every waking moment. I saw a man whose parents had trained him relentlessly to eat or be eaten, to do unto others before they could do unto you – to never ask, to never admit, to never back down. To never, ever, let someone else get ahead of you.

In 1969, Canadian educator Lawrence J. Peter published a book describing what he called “The Peter Principle”. His thesis stated, essentially, that in a hierarchy, individuals rise to the level of their own incompetence – meaning that you do well, you master your craft, you get promoted, you climb the ladder … until you climb beyond your ability to perform, at which point your movement stops, and you settle in at that level, unwilling to backtrack, but unable to function where you are or to move forward, trapped and miserable.

Maybe I’m projecting, but he looked pathetic to me: he looked like someone who was tragically out of his element, ignorant of even those simple “Yes, ma’am/No ma’am/After you, ma’am” kind of rules that most people take for granted, and that can ease so many awkward situations. He was a big mangy mongrel hound at the Westminster Kennel Club, shedding all over the shih-tzus, expressing his anxiety in aggression and excessive barking.

He didn’t belong.

Life is easy when you can just yell at everybody, demand respect – or at least a reasonable imitation of it – because you’re the Boss, and (as Mr Trump is so fond of pointing out) the Boss always gets to do whatever he wants. But what happens when you come up against an Angela Merkel, or a Queen Elizabeth, or a Barack Obama – people who always seem to know exactly which fork to use, and where to stand, and when to bow? People who have read all the right books and can quote all the right philosophers? If you’re me, you apologize, you ask for help – but I was trained to do that when necessary. What if you’re a man like our President?

Then, perhaps, you just stumble along – miserable, breeding misery, waiting for the first opportunity that comes along to make someone else feel even worse.

Paddling Point Nemo

There it is. The middle ground. Enjoy.

I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going sort of person.

I have strong opinions about a lot of things, but they don’t get in the way of my being able to talk to just about anybody, about just about anything, and I try to be courteous to, and considerate of, the people I deal with in my day-to-day life – regardless of who they are, and who I am. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I think it’s important to give it my best shot. Continue reading

Really and truly.

Uh, oh. This can’t be good.

Many years ago, during a visit to my family in my hometown of Boaz, Alabama, I got the notion to prepare a really fabulous meal for everybody.

On the face of it, this would seem like a nice gesture, but don’t fool yourself. I was thirty years old, and my snobbery knew no limits. I was from Boaz, but not of Boaz; I had gone away and become part of a wider world, and a fancy meal was just another way to prove my superiority. (I suppose all escapees from small towns go through that phase somewhere down the line. We’re Truman Capote or Andy Warhol: We go away for a few years, then come back to visit, proudly bearing suitcases full of Robert Rauschenberg and Igor Stravinsky and W. H. Auden and chicken recipes in Italian.) Continue reading

Bonfire of the Vanities

Just can't have anything nice around here ...

Just can’t have anything nice with you around here …

During my survey of the art news this week I happened upon a provocative headline from the Daily Beast: Why Artist Gerhard Richter Destroys His Own Art. The title of the article is a bit misleading: the writer asks the question but she does not actually attempt to answer it; instead she merely elaborates on the fact that Mr Richter has destroyed a considerable number of his own paintings over the years. She did, however, get me thinking about artists and their emotional relationship to the products of their craft — because I, too, often feel the desire to haul a big load of my artwork out into the yard and set it on fire. Continue reading

Seeing it all in black and white.

zebraFor much of my childhood (up through, I believe, about 1970) all of my family’s television viewing was on an RCA portable of late 1950s vintage, a clunky plastic thing with an extensible antenna on top and a wood-grain panel on the front decorated with dials and knobs that read “On/Off”, “VHF”, “UHF”, and “Fine Tune”. Inside the unit’s scorched yellowy-beige backside brooded a clutch of humming, glowing vacuum tubes, and its strangely convex twelve-inch screen delivered the Kennedy funeral and I Love Lucy reruns alike in a palette consisting entirely of gentle, hazy grays. Continue reading

Journal: Monday, June 13

mouthIn the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting last weekend we’ve seen an outpouring of support and solidarity for the victims. Strangely, I find this almost as depressing as the event itself.

Where was all this sympathy, this solidarity, when our poltitics, our media, and our social discourse were being hijacked by the Pat Robertsons, the Donald Trumps, the Tom Cottons, the Bill O’Reillys? We have created a society where attacks like this are not just tolerated but encouraged, every single day, and millions of people sit in front of blaring televisions and nod and thump the arm of the La-Z-Boy and mutter “Damn straight! You tell it!”.

Or worse, they sit in mute disgust and do absolutely nothing. Continue reading

Sighting the target

burning computerLike millions of other people sitting in front of their computers yesterday, my reaction to the sad story of Cecil the lion was both visceral and vehement. The impulse to react accordingly was irresistible: it was also wrong.

The fifty-something American from Minnesota whose adventures launched such a firestorm was perfectly cast for the role of villain. He was a dentist, a job that arouses pretty negative feelings in many of us; better yet, he was obviously a wealthy dentist: How many of us can afford to walk away from our jobs for weeks at a stretch to go jaunting off around the globe (especially when we have dental bills to pay)? Most importantly, he was an avid sports hunter, not just of the local turkey and deer but of animals that most of us only dream of ever seeing in the flesh. Continue reading

Journal: Monday, March 23

CruzThe ruler of the Aztec empire was called the “tlatoani”, which roughly translates to “the one who talks the loudest”. From the founding of Gran Tenochtitlan in 1325 to the final collapse in 1521, the Aztec civilization survived for a grand total of 196 years, during which time they had become so hated by all of their neighbors that even the rapacious Spanish invaders were embraced as the lesser of two evils.

Ted Cruz for President? Being the one who talks the loudest does not necessarily mean that what you’re saying is right, or smart, or good for your people, or for your country. In fact, it usually means that you don’t really care about any of those things: you simply want to be king, you want to sit on the big chair where everyone has to listen to you, like it or not (like the students at Liberty University this morning who were required to attend Mr Cruz’ announcement speech) — even as fundamentalist religion, anti-intellectualism, environmental collapse, and ill-considered military adventurism are bringing your nation to its knees, as they did in Tenochtitlan five hundred years ago.

I suppose that if you’re someone who believes that allowing same-sex couples to marry is the greatest threat the United States faces in the twenty-first century, then by all means, Ted Cruz is probably your guy. But denying me my rights is not going to protect you when the conquistadores arrive, and burning the books and crucifying the thinkers because they describe problems you don’t want to face is not going to make you better equipped to cope with the real world when it comes crashing through your gates.

 

Arrival from always, departure to forever

David and Pam In 1966, just as the war in Vietnam was hitting its stride, my father retired from the US Air Force.

Packing up the wife and three small children (the oldest — me — having just completed the second grade) he returned to the town of his own childhood, a place in the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama with the peculiar name of Boaz.

Moving was nothing new for us: by that time I had lived in military bases in Montgomery, Alabama (twice); Biloxi, Mississippi; Syracuse, New York; and had even spent a short spell in Boaz while my father was serving a stint in Vietnam. I knew that stability was fragile, possessions a burden, and that friendships had to be quick to form and shallow enough to walk away from without pain.

The final move to Boaz, however, was different. A military base is a special world for a small child, safe and vivid and full of excitement and mystery; Boaz was … well, quiet. No recruits double-timing down the street in front of the apartment; no decommissioned fighter jets parked in vacant lots, swarming with small children (for whom a chain-link fence was more an invitation than a barrier); no Commissary; no PX; no movie theater just around the corner; no library.

Despite having spent most of my life up to that point in the deepest Deep South, I did not have a southern accent — my mother, a transplanted New Englander, had bequeathed me her more precise grammar and neutral delivery. I was fairly well-read for my age (thanks to the easy access to books on base) and my previous schools had been somewhat more advanced that the one I now found myself attending. Teachers seemed irritated, even antagonized, by my efforts to please. Classmates were suspicious, sometimes hostile. The transition went from awkward to uncomfortable to excruciating in no time at all.

The adaptability that goes with being a military brat assumes certain preconditions — an urban environment, a population of other kids with equally shallow roots, and the levelling effect of never being exposed to the same group of people for more than a year or two at a time. Boaz had none of these things. This was an environment where cliques had long since been sealed, newcomers remained newcomers for years, and everyone spoke with the same accent. I felt, sounded, looked alien. The only thing that kept me from diving under the bed and never coming out again was the idea, despite being told otherwise, that we would move again before too long, return to the real world, the world of tanks and books and soldiers singing rude songs as they trotted down the street.

“… Look down through the five senses like stars/To where our lives lie small and equal like two grains/Before Chance — the hawk’s eye or the pilot’s/Round and shining on the open sky,/Reflecting back the innocent world in it.”

 

— Lawrence Durrell, “The Pilot”

Within a matter of months, just as the terrors of the new reality were taking firm hold, a family with a daughter my age moved in next door.

They were also from elsewhere, they were Air Force, they were also well-travelled, and Pam talked just like me. Naturally, we became friends — not in school, oddly enough, we were rarely in the same classes — but we spent much of our free time together, riding bikes, climbing trees, romping around in the cornfields (long since built over) behind our houses, tormenting our younger siblings, and talking, talking, talking.

After a year or so, Pam and her family moved around the corner, but remained within shouting distance. As time passed, we drifted in different directions — Pam was athletic, bright, heedless, the sort of person who excelled without obvious effort, while I was shy, small for my age, brainy, but an underachiever, irrationally terrified of my classmates and my teachers — but our bond endured.

By high school we had moved almost entirely into different worlds: apart from band (characteristically, I played clarinet while Pam played trumpet) we had little in common, and we each spent more and more time pursuing our separate interests.

College brought us together again, closer than ever, for a couple of years. We became almost inseparable. Teachers referred to us as brother and sister, and classified us as bright, but doomed.

Despite that renewal of our friendship, the separation that followed was more than just a relocation around the corner: Pam moved to Huntsville, fifty miles north, married, divorced; I moved to Birmingham, ninety miles south, stumbled through two more years of college, and then wandered off into a long and labyrinthine passage to adult life.

In the decades that followed we both moved, and moved again, changing as we went, putting ever more distance between us. By the time we reached our thirties, I had washed up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Pam had come to ground in San Diego, California — we had finally managed to place an entire continent between us.

We still met, at widely spaced intervals, almost always in Boaz, on neutral ground. Pam had remarried, with stepchildren to look after, and I was building a career, so the visits were often brief.

At our twenty-fifth-anniversary high-school reunion, we made up for lost time, spending the last few days of the holiday in New Orleans, reliving the past, lying to each other about the future. Pam drank a bit, and smoked a lot — these were habits she developed early on, and polished as time went by. (I smoked for some years, but finally gave it up as simply requiring too much effort, and never had much capacity for alcohol.) By our mid-forties the differences in our lifestyles had become deep, but even on Bourbon Street at four a.m. I still kept seeing the girl next door behind the haze of jello-shots and nicotine.

A few years ago Pam and I saw each other — for the last time, as it happened — while she waited for a connecting flight at DFW Airport in Dallas. I drove out to the airport to meet her and we sat on a bench in the Texas sun for a couple of hours and chatted, just as we always had. Despite the heat, she was cold, bundled up in a jacket and furry boots; thinner than I had seen her, smoking one cigarette after another, her conversation wandering, clicking, sometimes stumbling, sometimes dancing. She was ill, but I did not understand that — perhaps I refused to understand that: I believed that she wasn’t taking care of herself, that she was over-tired, under-eating, typical Pam. For me, nothing else was possible. I avoided looking too closely, asking questions.

In the years that followed I failed to keep up, to maintain contact, more concerned with sustaining my illusions than with the person who wore them.

This week Pam moved again, moved even further away, and the continent that lies between us is one that can only be crossed once, and then only in one direction. She’s gone further from me than I ever thought possible, and I am less now than I was.

We spent more time apart than we did together over the last forty-eight years, but that means that there was little time for bad memories — our moments together were precious and important.

Even there on that airport bench, sitting in the sun watching the taxicabs creep past us, the shouting men, loaded with luggage, shrill women in uncomfortable shoes — even there, I remember clearly that, different as she was –as different as I was — one thing had not changed: I could hear forty years of echoes every time she laughed, and with every smile we were children again, strangers in a strange land, sharing.

 

Journal: Sunday, December 15

Art exhibit at Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Art everywhere!

My friend Erin and I spent all day yesterday at a holiday art function, milling back and forth in front of a display of our respective work, shaking hands, smiling and nodding, chatting with the visitors whenever the opportunity presented itself, generally being sociable. The word, I believe, is schmoozing.

This sort of thing is not something I’m particularly good at: my recent works include a very precisely-rendered pen and ink representation of a carnivorous beetle, shown eleven times natural size; a realistically-modeled life-sized human heart studded with shards of broken glass; a trilobite fossil built up out of trash; and a large acrylic painting of the serpent lurking in the Garden of Eden. Light cocktail conversation about my artworks is sometimes a bit difficult to bring off.

That said, the event was fun. Sometimes you get lucky and you find yourself facing a crowd that is interested in the plastic arts not just as decor but also as a form of expression, no less valid than a novel or a film; this was that kind of audience. They asked the right questions, and they were interested in the answers. There were other artists there whose work I admired, and whose opinions of my work I solicited and valued.

Tiring? You bet. Worth it? Definitely. Very slowly, step by step, I’m beginning to learn how to go beyond just producing the art to actually presenting it effectively to people who might appreciate what I’ve done. I still have a long way to go, but I feel as though this weekend has taken me an appreciable distance down that road.

 

Journal: Sunday, November 17

"Niobe" - mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

“Niobe” – mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

Some time back I wrote a  journal post here in which I bemoaned the fact that a couple of pieces of artwork that I had just completed seemed to be falling flat with my usual public. In retrospect, I realize that I may have sounded petulant, and perhaps even just a tiny bit snobbish.

What’s changed since then, you may ask? Last week a total stranger walked into the shop where those particular works were on display and purchased one of the pieces in question — by far the more challenging of the two — “Niobe/The Immaculate Heart”. This was not a friend or relative browbeaten into making the purchase just to shut me up, but someone I didn’t know, an out-of-towner who just happened to be in the market for art.

In fact, “Niobe” only hung on the wall for a couple of months before finding a home. Like all artists, I can get a bit needy sometimes, looking for some sort of approbation or validation for my work from the people around me — these squirrelly little objects are like children to me, and it’s all too easy to interpret an apparent lack of enthusiasm from the public as rejection. In the grand scheme of things, however, two months to find a purchaser for something as intense as “Niobe” is pretty darned good: the weakness was not in the public, nor in the art, but in me, in my own confidence. It was me who didn’t appreciate the value of the art, not the public.

Consider me chastened.

Sales are still slow, and I realize that some pieces will probably end their lives packed away in my basement, or cannibalized for parts, or devoured by wild beasts — and some of them probably deserve such a fate — but but what matters is that I am making a connection, at least part of the time. It’s still worth doing.

I may know a lot about art and books and Bugs Bunny and the history of the Byzantine Empire, but I can see that I still have some things to learn about having a bit of faith.

 

Journal: Tuesday, September 24

"The Triumph of the Nightingale" - mixed media, 7 x 14 in (17.5 x 35 cm).

“The Triumph of the Nightingale” – mixed media, 7 x 14 in (17.5 x 35 cm).

In spite of my head cold, trips to the vet, money woes, and general malaise over the last couple of weeks, I did manage to get two new pieces of artwork done.

One is a fairly whimsical intellectual exercise, a “sequel” to the Max Ernst painting of 1924, “Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale“. My take on the theme — called “The Triumph of the Nightingale” — reuses several elements from the Ernst painting, such as the garden gate, a suggestion of the peaked roof of the little shed, and the flying bird, but condenses everything down into a vertical format, and folds all the pieces together more tightly. Ernst’s panic-stricken children are reduced in my work to a single body part.

Someone familiar with the original will almost certainly get the connection; someone who has not seen the Ernst painting can still appreciate the visual appeal of my picture, and perhaps enjoy wondering what it all means.

At least that was the theory: in practice, this work has not really gotten much traction with anyone. I don’t know what the problem is, really: is it too “pretty”? Too obscure? Too sterile? Too hermetic?

This sort of problem is not unique to art: when my friends make comments about sporting events, they often use language that is, for them, a convenient and accessible shorthand, but which for me is completely meaningless. They are so immersed in their context that they are not able to objectively assess the reach of that context — a creature born and bred in the deep ocean may easily forget that some organisms live entirely in open air. Likewise, my knowledge of art and literature can be a handicap when I’m looking for universal themes, since what I believe to be universal may only be so within a defined intellectual or cultural environment.

On the heels of that debacle, the next piece was an assemblage dealing with the idea of grief — drawing on my upset over the death of my cat Sebastian — called “Niobe“. In the story, the queen Niobe has a brood of beautiful, talented children whom she adores so much that she proclaims to one and all that they are even more wonderful than the twin children of Leto, Artemis and Apollo. Comparing your offspring to those of the gods is always a recipe for disaster in classical literature, and this instance is no exception: Artemis and Apollo are sent to teach Niobe a lesson in humility, and they do so by killing her children; one by one her sons and daughters die in her arms.

"Niobe" - mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

“Niobe” – mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

To illustrate the theme, I modeled a realistic human heart, studded with shards of glass, reducing the concept to its most visceral (pardon the pun) and physical level.

Here again, the piece failed to take hold with my usual fans. I did get some very positive responses from Mexican friends, who saw a parallel with the pierced heart that symbolizes the Virgin in much religious art in Mexico and Central America — they understood what I was doing immediately, and connected readily with what was, for them, a familiar image. Context made all the difference: a North American audience who sees a naked human heart as the stuff of horror films experiences something completely different than Latin American viewers familiar with the stark but comforting images of the wounded Immaculate Heart of Mary.

This is not a case of relying on a story that was not familiar enough; I think the image speaks for itself even without the context of the myth. Unfortunately the message varies widely from person to person.

Like riding a unicycle along a tightrope, constant forward motion is essential in what I do. If I hesitate, if I stop to think for too long, I tumble off the wire. I have to keep working even if what I’m producing is not succeeding, because it’s all too easy to let my native laziness take over if I give it any excuse at all. Finish one piece, start the next; if I get bogged down, set that one aside, move on to another. Introspection and contemplation — like what I’m doing here — are fine, but only so long as I can do them without coming down off the wire.

I’m not unhappy with these two pieces of work. They did what I wanted them to do, they feel right, they just don’t resonate well with the world outside my head. I’ll take note, and perhaps this experience will influence the next piece, or the next. More importantly, however, I will keep pedaling, and stay on that tightrope a little longer, and see what happens next.