(March 2007) A clean & sparkling champion
I grew up reading superhero comics. When I was a kid, I believed in heroes (I still do), but times are making it harder. That “hero” was not someone who couldn’t make mistakes- because they always did. They were not perfect. But they did not do things that ever called into question their base character. The heroes that I read about were not boy scouts, they had their flaws- but all fought to raise themselves to a higher calling. They battled themselves to always be better people, to do some good in the world. There were stories of drugs, death, and a world that never appreciated their efforts. Rarely, did anyone ever give up on a battle that they might win as the masked hero, but were sure to lose as the human being. Peter Parker (Spiderman) was always the odd man out- a nerd, shunned, and ridiculed. Bruce Banner (the Hulk) was always on the run in fear of losing control, brute force with no brain. And Tony Stark (Iron Man) was an alcoholic struggling to keep it a secret. Some only saw the spandex, I saw the humanity.
When I was a kid in the 1970’s there was one particular public figure that loomed large as a hero: Muhammad Ali. He was the superhero personified in reality. He lived up to his statement: “I will be a clean and sparkling champion.” He always seemed to be raising the bar for himself in both boxing and character. He never settled for what others told him to be. I see the recent retrospectives of his life, and I admire him even more. It makes me long for this type of person in today’s world. It leaves me asking: where are the heroes?
It seems to be that our society is in free-fall. We lack true leaders, and we lack true role models. Those that have stepped forward seem to not just make mistakes, but have glaring character flaws. When they are caught in moral dilemmas, they turn on the public relations machine and start spouting generic slogans before entering rehab programs. And the level of these mistakes goes far beyond the everyday. The mistakes spotlight that their rise hid immaturity, moral faults, or poor ethics. Part of the decline is that we have no more privacy in today’s overwhelming media spotlight, and part of it is that too many of these so-called heroes rise for reasons other than the content of their character. But the times we live in are NOT a valid excuse. More and more athletes depend on chemicals over brains. Politicians depend on large scale donations and favors over humane and sensible decisions. Not that there ever were good politicians, but we can dream can't we? Musicians choose the corporate contract over the musical content. Hollywood chooses the generic genre done for the umpteenth time with a bankable star over the opportunity to create meaningful dialogue with engaging writing and acting. It is all playing out to a tragic end- powerful Rome also fell when it declined into self-indulgent behavior.
We wonder why kids are disrespectful, and society is too lazy to vote or get involved- this is why. Why bother if you have been disappointed a hundred times before? Why respect those that do not respect themselves? Why bother with your community if nothing ever changes for those that live there? Why vote only to be let down when you can cheat and win? Why protest working conditions if you’ll find yourself unemployed? Why work hard for minimum wage only to see the profits continue to line the pockets of the rich, or to see outsourcing to another country? Why trust to only be thrown under a bus by those looking to get ahead? Why bother believing in someone, when eventually they will fall?
Ali once said: “Nothing is wrong… but something ain’t right!” It is time for us all to risk the act of change for the opportunity to make things the way they should be. I have a son, and I want him to have a “clean and sparkling champion” like I did.
(August 2007) Clean & Sparkling champion Part II
“My memory may stammer, but my soul is a witness.” -James Baldwin
Like many other people, I find myself desperate for someone real in a world of cardboard heroes. America is full of charlatans performing in order to bilk the masses out of a dollar, dancing on stage when the wind blows right. The real heroes fight not for the dollar, but for the greater good- and it doesn’t matter which way the wind blows. But the greater good is not getting the headline; the dancing has been stealing the show.
Our politicians lie and deceive us. They ignore the lessons of history and force us down the same roads of disaster. Iraq is Vietnam all over again. Complete with the lies focused on “ending terrorism” akin to “halting the spread of communism”. We are told to fear terrorist cells among us, just as we were told to expose communists among us and create blacklists in the 1950’s. It is the politics of fear, not the politics to aid the people. False “keeping it real” celebrities and entertainers are placed out there in our mass media culture as icons offering nothing positive for a community- they are simple cardboard stereotypes dancing on a string.
Paris Hilton found God and community service in jail, following up with an exit interview on Larry King claiming to have never used drugs- yet she was caught in the act days later. Her community service (as of today) continues to be club hopping and making pedophile inspired clothing for children. As a member of a community, I am grateful for her profound contributions. 50 Cent (the former crack dealer) will challenge anyone black that he perceives as not keeping it real (Oprah and Kanye West), but he won’t criticize white George Bush for leaving whole communities for dead in the wake of Katrina. He told critics to back off of the "man". To me “keeping it real” does not entail doing a jig for the man.
We are unwilling witnesses as those who can (and should) speak out sit on their hands with their mouths shut, but then are offered praise for the easy situations. Michael Irvin said nothing as Rush Limbaugh (sitting right next to him on ESPN) suggested that Donovan McNabb was only the QB in Philadelphia because he was black. But he is roundly praised for his generic and teary “don’t give up hope” Hall of Fame acceptance speech. At the Katrina disaster benefit, Mike Myers had a look on his face as if someone had just electrocuted his pet when Kanye West made the gutsy statement that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. Even though I am no fan, that was heroic stand for convictions in statement. Maybe Mike was thinking about his next box office results? Even if Kanye is a sham, that was gutsy.
But we criticize those who dare to lose it all when they get “uppity”. Kanye was emphatically denounced as being inappropriate with his timing of this during a benefit. I am pretty sure that the tens of thousands languishing in New Orleans did not mind his timing. As was Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney as she spoke out early against the election fraud in the South during the 2000 and 2004 elections, as well as the war in Iraq. She could only try to fight the tidal wave of republican dollars that swept in and defrauded the voters in her districts forcing her out of office. *Google her images and see how many blatant racist images you find from her critics.
Having been there myself, I realize how hard it is to speak out when your livelihood hangs in the balance. You know something is wrong, but the flash of family, homelessness, and retirement income flashes across your consciousness like a bolt of lightning. You have to speak up, but that lump in your throat may just be next week’s grocery bill. It depends on willingly swallowing hard, or having a big mouth to let it out. Either road has sacrifice. Dancing for the dollar is a trade with the devil. You get the paycheck, but you sell your soul.
What is it about the times that we are living in that so many of our leaders have lost their souls? If everyone leading has their eye on the dollar, who stops us from going over the cliff? This is all smelling like universal financial slavery. It’s not a new idea that I write about, but it is truth. The time has come for not a few, but many of us to rise up and seek out heroes- or better yet, act like one. Standing up in the face of adversity is the greatest character trait that I can identify. Who will be hope personified in our modern world? And more importantly, how will we support them? Or have the dollar and the devil already won the war?
(December 2013) Everything with wings can fly (The suspension of belief, or the failure of too much belief)
I am so fed up with reality paranormal shows. There is a glut of these shows bursting at the cable seams right now, and the overall approach is a faulty system of too much belief. Simply seeing or hearing something that cannot immediately be explained does not make it supernatural or paranormal. That is a poor scientific logic, it's not paranormal- it's just unexplained. Let's apply that logic elsewhere: Birds and planes have wings. Birds and planes can fly, therefore everything with wings can fly- right? This is the logic of shows like Ghost Hunters, Ghost Mine, Haunted Highway, Ghost Adventures, Paranormal State, Destination Truth, Fact or Faked, Celebrity Ghost Stories, Ghost Lab, American Paranormal, Ghost Hunters International, Joe Rogan Questions Everything, Psychic Witness, My Ghost Story...whew...and so many more. The approach is the same across almost each show. They go into "investigate" with technology that has no real application to what they are doing, they have little to no understanding of that tech, and then every creak, blip, orb, and myth is declared as proof. The old rule is the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the proof needed to make it so. But here's the rub- they almost always say "We'll let the viewer decide" while subtly coercing the viewer along verbally with key words and phrases. Phrases like "Oh my god, what is that?!" or "I just can't explain that/don't know what that is!" while cutting away from the money shot for a commercial to add suspense. What that does is tap into how the brain works, we add more mystery during the break, it builds the suspense so we go looking for more than what is actually there. Those cheeky devils are manipulating us as a viewer. And that does not even take into account the pre-determined truths via segment wording, re-enactments, or the well documented unreality of reality TV being staged. It's amazing with all these shows over so many years that there is still not even one piece of credible evidence, and yet the extraordinary claims persist...why?
So why are these shows endlessly on every channel flaunting their new technology to hunt down the unexplained? I think it goes beyond the simple answer that everything with wings can fly. Why do people believe? Or better yet, why do people want so desperately to believe? I have written about this before- why is an "orb" in a photo, a ghost or a spirit? Most people have used a camera, and most know the basic concept of shutter speed and light, so why are orbs not recognized as dust and bugs and lens flares? We are surrounded by dust. Ever been in a sunny room? It showcases the billions of particles floating in a clean home, now imagine a home abandoned for 15-20 years. Imagine a hot summer night, bugs and pollen are choking the air. But still, that picture of Aunt Sally eating her potato salad with the orb next to her, is really her late husband Uncle Earl watching over her. We want there to be more, we want magic. It is drummed into us as children through stories and fantasy. All those folktales and bedtime stories help us make sense of the worlds values and morals, but rarely the sciences that govern the world. We love the idea that there is more to life than just this, because that makes the daily doldrums of going to work for a lousy paycheck bearable. We all find our ways to escape. Be it alcohol, television, reading, gambling, God, porn, drugs, or fantasy- so that yes, that orb really is Uncle Earl watching over us. It makes us feel ok with the reality that this life, this is not all there is to the struggle. We don't just one day disappear, we keep on going infinitely. That fantasy suspends our belief, let's us function in our daily lives. Produces a parallel system of belief. Everything with wings can fly- even if it can't. We need more. But for just a minute imagine if this, what if this life is all there is for us? How would that change the world? Would we kill time, or guard it? Would we go to war, sacrifice ourselves in the name of a God, settle for that crappy minimum wage job, allow bigotry and racism to exist? These shows tap into a need, and right now our world needs fantasy more than ever- because reality has become too much to handle.
So, where does that leave us? It leaves us in the middle, with sensible thinking. Not without belief, and not with too much. It leaves us with science first, not fantasy. See? It is just the way the sun works through a camera lens creating a flare- it's not photographic proof of a spirit that cannot be explained. And even if it's not able to be explained- that does not prove it is paranormal. It is just a guy outside with pollen, and dust, and bugs in the air- not a ghost orb. It is just an anomaly in heat being registered in a machine not intended to be used in sweeping photographs in an uncontrolled environment, not a blob that we see as "humanoid". Again I have to say that if we question who is saying what, then we begin to understand that the person stating that green glob is "humanoid" really is unaware that our brain is wired to see faces and human shapes as a form of recognition and belonging. The same way a baby instantly recognizes its mom, we see Woody Allen's face in the wood grain of Uncle Earls front door. One of the first questions that should be asked about these shows is: Who is this that is presenting me with this evidence? Just because some guy has been hired as a cast member for a cheap cable reality TV show, and has a camera- does not make him a professional at anything. Not everything with wings can fly.
(December 2010) The age of advertising, promotion, and theft
I would like to say that current advertising is an overload of lies and false representations, but isn’t that the history of advertising? To exaggerate and misinform a potential buyer, to trick a mark out of their cash with tales of how much they need something, how much their life suffers for not having a particular product? To create a fear that makes a patsy desperate to buy the latest thingamajig? Each new form of technology brings a new wave of how to sell products, how to promote whatever is being sold, and of course- how to steal from the easily duped. In print, ads were crammed into every available space. Look at any old newspaper or magazine- part news, part ad. The back of magazines and comics always advertised these amazing toys and gadgets for next to nothing. When I was little I mailed away for the 100 army men for ninety-nine cents. They came in the mail, and I was so excited. Until I opened the envelope, and they were all 1/8" flat pieces of plastic. I wanted the x-ray goggles so bad! They ended up being paper with pinholes in the lenses- how disappointed was I at 5 trying to see through walls with those? In the days of radio, the products had verbal tales of wonder and shows were sponsored by products. In TV, shows were broken up every 15 minutes with 5 minutes of commercials, product sponsorship became the norm. Toys and cereal were sold to me at a furious pace on Saturday mornings- those kids looked so happy, I wanted to be them. Movies had ads before the show began, and in the past 10+ years, films have been accepting regular financial backing for product placement within the movie- there are whole movies about products. The movie "Independence Day" (1996) had a Mac Powerbook save the world by infecting the aliens with a computer virus. Apple managed to save the world, and come back as a company on the brink of extinction. Emails had the plague of spam, and the web has had the disease of pop-up ads and personal profile mining from social websites. Websites have had personal invasions of privacy with accounts being hacked to have bots send out billions of messages proclaiming the need to visit this or that site, or to try this or that diet. I am shocked by how many Nigerian princes are desperate to have their money placed into American bank a counts- to the point of offering millions to any human being willing to hand over their bank account number so they could deposit millions more. Those Nigerian princes are rolling in it.
Every generation has this flood of marketing. But technology means more and more marketing is mining personal data from every single internet action in order to individualize the ads to target the right populations. We become living targets for products, targets for promotion, and targets for theft. Maybe it’s me getting older, but it used to be that the good stuff (news stories, movies, tv shows, music…) was interrupted by the annoyance of advertising. But now it seems as if there is a never ending flood of advertising that may or may not be interrupted by the microsopic bits of good stuff. It has become acceptable (and commonplace) to flood everywhere all the time with the lies of advertising, quick riches, and promotion. Maybe I am just revving up to be a grumpy old man, but I am sick of the endless mantra of buy-buy-buy. And I am beginning to seriously wonder how much (if any) of the endless stream is real? Isn't anyone else tired of this, or am I the lone insane guy on the street corner holding the sign: The end of the world is near?
Is any exotic fruit a cure all? Is any drink going to make you a better athlete or more awake for the 2:30 energy crash? Is any body spray/hair product going to make you more attractive? Is a blanket with arms really better than a regular old blanket? Is any fast food ever healthy and hip? Will I stop existing without a smartphone that can do it all? Is any toy going to make you feel good inside? And, I am left wondering how to get off the ride when your whole life has become the ride?
(November 2008) Jerry's Ghost
Here is a frightening story…
When I was in high school (10th grade) this new kid moved into the townhouse complex that I lived in- his name was Jerry. Jerry had the same bus stop that I did, he was a tall blond pale kid with thick glasses and a poor complexion. Jerry was odd, and one of those characters that seemed like he was trying too hard. Jerry made a lot of claims... he claimed he was a karate expert, he was rich, he played in a band…you know the type. He came across as a know-it-all jerk, and quickly un-made friends. For Halloween that year, Jerry dressed up as a ninja and spent the whole day with his hood on and not talking. Kind of creepy, I did not really like Jerry and he knew it. Soon after Halloween, Jerry stopped showing up at the bus stop. A week went by, and still no Jerry. Everyday I passed his townhouse on the way to the bus stop, and every day the shades were drawn. In fact, the bus stop was just a few doors down from his house. I don't think anyone paid any attention to his absence.
I have never been the best of sleepers. Even in high school I would stay up until the wee hours and get up at the crack of dawn. There are numerous pictures of my teen years with me having bags under my eyes. Late one night during Jerry's absence, I opened my eyes to Jerry leaning over me emitting some type of silent groan. He was deformed in some way, his glasses were all cockeyed, and he was a grey-purple complexion that made his acne bright pink. And he was still wearing his ninja robe, except it was dirty. I froze, it freaked me out-and I quickly scrambled to turn on the light next to my bed...to nothing. There I was at 2 am with the light on breathing hard and wondering what the hell that was about. The next morning at school everyone was a buzz- Jerry had gone out to the railroad tracks near where we lived (which I could see from my bedroom window) and hung himself from a train track utility pole. He hung there for a week before being found by some kids riding dirtbikes. The rumor was that he was found wearing his ninja costume. So everyday that week that we stood at the bus stop, Jerry was hanging dead about 1,000 yards away.
I was raised with an interest in the paranormal (monsters and ghosts), but from early on I could spot the fakes. I developed a skeptical mind, and this was a true test. Was this real or in my mind?
the FACTS: There was a "Jerry", he was a creepy jerk, and he did hang himself from a train track utility pole which I could actually see way in the distance from my bedroom, and he was there for a week before being found. It really was about 1,000 yards away from the bus stop, and it really was 10th grade. Jerry did dress as a ninja and not speak for a day, and his house was just a few doors away from the bus stop.
I did wake up and turn on my light, it was 2 am and I was breathing hard- and scared.
the EDITS: The ghost of Jerry was a dream. One of those "waking" dreams that confuses reality and a dream state, but the dream still produces very real emotions upon waking. But how did you dream of him BEFORE you knew he was dead? simple...I didn't. In many conversations afterwards, the timeline slowly shifted. The discovery of Jerry's body occurred BEFORE my dream. In fact, it had been the topic of school whispers all week, and likely influenced the way Jerry appeared in my dream. Yes, his body was hanging for a week- but in remembering I combined two/three weeks into one. My mind made the story more intriguing and scary. With enough monster and horror movies behind me, I assumed that Jerry would be discolored and "ghostly", the walking dead were always a purple-blue. I also had him in the ninja outfit that made him even more creepy, even though that was never proven as true.
The real story is the trick of the mind. This is the way that I see a lot of the first hand accounts of ghosts and monsters. As humans we are so quick to explain something we do not understand using ancient myth and the paranormal. Creaks become ghosts, shadows become monsters. Wood grain becomes the face of a demon, losing your car keys (and swearing that they were on the counter) becomes a poltergeist. Sometimes when I tell this story, people actually get mad that I tell them the real facts. They want the frightening story to be real, the unknown to be based in myth and legend. That's the way the mind is wired- to fill in blanks using what we already know and what we already believe. This was a sad story. Jerry's father kept all of his shades drawn for the rest of the year. Every day I passed his townhouse with all the shades drawn. The knowledge of what happened to Jerry, and passing this darkened house every morning must have built up to a point where it became something in my dream. There is also the point of mental development. As a young teen, I was at the stage of reforming stories to make them more interesting, to make more attention for myself. Most of us get past that point of personality development, but it should always be a consideration when dealing with first hand accounts. The mind tends to recall events in a way that makes them more exciting. It is like the magicians trick- the memory of the trick is much better than the actual trick itself. Memory edits out all the mundane details. The more exciting the story becomes, the more attention we receive- the more special we become. "See that kid? He saw Jerry's dead ghost...He can see where Jerry hung himself...he lives near Jerry..." For some it is better to stand out for being crazy, than to not stand out at all.
(September 2008) Journals from a stay at home dad
Asher laughs so much that I wonder if people think that he may be "special". I blame that on Chris's laughing fits while she was pregnant. Anytime he moved she would bust out laughing. That's why "Asher" (Hebrew name meaning happy boy) is so fitting. He already laughs so much that people (kids and adults) gravitate towards him. He used to go to daycare right near my old job. We had 2 or 3 half days in the morning as a necessity while we both worked. He was so scared when he started because at that point he had limited "kid" interaction experience. But by the second or third time, when he would arrive and leave -EVERYONE was yelling his name. We called him a rock star. Friends, older kids, teachers...he is such a people person. He is infectious, and he is my real art. Being a father has been bittersweet. I love it, and I loathe it. I see myself in him, and I am at peace. A lot of parents say that they no longer fear death, I don't know if I'll be quite that morbid- but I get the sentiment. Adults can get so distracted by life, and I am not immune to that. I do everything I can to not project my distracted adult mood on him, but at times I do...and I have to let him know what I feel. He deserves that respect, as long as it still allows him to be a child. He is so good at accepting that, and even trying to fix it, or rebound from an issue. Kids are resilient like that.
The most bittersweet areas are the lack of freedom and the difficult times of everyday life that all adults have. Anton Chekhov has a quote: "Any idiot can face a crisis, it's the day to day living that wears you out." I struggle to find the balance (like all other parents) where his life ends, and I get mine back- even for a few minutes.
Sometimes, I feel just plain selfish. Sometimes I miss my old do whatever I want, whenever I want life.
The best are all the other moments. The small ones. The nightly bath routine, reading books, putting on Thelonious Monk for him to go to sleep to every night, watching a movie together (even for the 100th time). Making him laugh, the double kisses and hugs, the multitude of endless nicknames we have for each other (and the fact that he gets it) like when he says to his mama "Whoa Turny" when she makes a sharp turn while driving, getting his chocolate milk when I get my coffee, the demands for candy when he "poops" in the potty (He was potty trained with chocolate, so when he first started pooping he would yell "I pooped ...chocolate please")...all the little things make the bittersweet hurdles less destructive.
So I am embarking on week 9 of being a stay at home dad, and I am feeling isolated, drained, stressed, and overwhelmed. My days have been loaded with "I'm cooking what now?" , and playdough villages, and dance parties, and upsets, and chocolate milk, and hugs, and snacks, and Thomas the train, and life skills, and art, and children's programming (both tolerable and frustrating). At times, I am left to wonder where "I" am in all this. Where is the adult "Alan"? It's not a new worry, I have had it for over a year now. Chris has worked nights since before Asher was born, so I am not new to the toll of childcare. I am like the people in that photograph stuck in the strings of Michael J. Fox's guitar at the end of "Back to the Future". I feel like I am fading, and for christ's sake- if they don't hurry up and kiss...I'll just disappear.
Career Dilemmas fuel the disappearing me
What about my career? For a very long time I balanced art and teaching part time with a career in social services. But, the last few years have produced a lot of conflict between my career and fatherhood. I accepted a full time teaching position at a local college right after Asher was born, leaving my position in social services. I ignored the red flags about the administration and the supervision, and the length of the commute 45 minutes + one way, resulting in 7 hours of driving a week. My first fatherly conflict arose after I came home one late afternoon to the nanny showing me that Asher could now walk across the room...and I missed it. I watched him stand up, and stumble-run across the living room in the arms of the nanny. Not my arms, hers. I spent another year and a half teaching at the school. Every day was tense and filled with political nonsense. When I was given the opportunity to play ball "their way" or leave, I chose to leave. Was it teaching career suicide? ...yep. But I taught the next year at 2 other local schools, and I would have stayed on if they had a position. I accepted another job in 2007 returning to social services. Again, I ignored red flags on the character of the supervisor, and ignored the red flags within myself. As summer approached and the supervisor conflicts piled up, I chose again to resign. Career suicide? ...maybe. But in looking at the daycare and preschool looming for the summer (at a cost of nearly $1,000/month), I decided to stay home. Now for just a moment, set aside preconceived notions on career to see what I see long term. We all are influenced by our childhood. Some of us take years of therapy and drugs to never sort out a negativity based in our youth. We spend decades making poor choices for reasons we do not understand as it relates to our upbringing. Some of us figure it out and overcome the negativity. Some of us are raised in a positive environment, and rarely have to deal with our past. Some daycares are great, some so-so, and some awful. Our childhoods make us who we are. So, with that in mind- I had a career in art and social services. Neither of which would ever make me rich. After a lot of thought and a LOT of anxiety, I chose to be there for Asher. I could have stayed in a SUNY teaching position, or in social services and have someone else raise my son for large portions of the day. Or I could be there, and have him remember me being the one helping him through the days. It was a choice of career or his life. Which would you choose? Struggling with a career in art is not new, I think that I can struggle and be a better parent.
9/3/08 Asher's first day of preschool begins. Today is open house day, so it's only an hour, but I am still so nervous. My first school day did not go well, and I want him to fair better that I did. Chris is at school today, and to be very honest- I have only done one child-life-meeting-event without her...his stitches. I had her do a dry run with me last night in fear that I would suddenly forget how to drive, or find my way around a city that I have lived in nearly my whole life. This is the beginning of his school years, and I feel like a deer caught in the headlights. While I don't think it's a severe life issue - it's pretty serious to me right now.
I guess if I have to look at my parenting, I can say that I did not continue the cycle (or create one)- I am not perfect, but I did that right. I am around him all the time, and he is very visible to me, and he knows that. There is so much pressure for parents today to be out of the home- out of their child's lives. We are pressured to be so busy, even when we are home, that our kids become invisible. If parents aren't being dogged for more and more productive work hours, then they are being dogged to fill up their kids lives with endless activities. I want to fill up this period of his life with us. Time with his mama and papa. He is loved, and feels that- I know it because in return, he is loving. He has a family, one that is there and celebrating the present moments with him. Maybe I have taken that book "the Precious Present" to heart, but I want to be there everyday. I don't want the majority of his waking day to be spent in daycare, or with someone getting paid to take care of him. I don't want him to be sleepily loaded into a car at 7 am, dropped off at daycare, and to be put back in that car at 5pm. This is NO judgment of any other parent, it is just a conscious choice that we made before he was born. This is the one shot Chris and I have, and we want to do it the best that we can. He'll get that time away when he is in school all day...and that time is rapidly approaching. In fact, it has arrived.
My greatest regret is that my father is not here to see him and love him- he was a great grandpa to my nieces and nephews. So, for the sake of some odd-weird-twisted-cyberspace-universe-theory, I put them together here, where it stays together forever in a cyberspace realm. In a way, this journal is me telling my father that he did a good job in starting to break the cycle. He did the best that he could for me, he tried and was there- and I am passing on that love to my own child. My father Barney passed away in 1993, long before I met my wife and we were married -and long before his grandson was born. This is an introduction. Barney meet my wife Chris, and your grandson...Asher.
(January 2008) The parallels of fallen dreams in our reality (the Death Of Captain America)
Back story (without getting too specifically nerdy):
This past year an icon of the Marvel Universe of comics, Captain America was killed. My first reaction was similar to when Superman died a decade earlier. Shock, and then the thought of it being a commercial ploy to boost sales. When I read the storyline, I was honestly deeply emotionally moved- I did not expect that. As I have written before, I grew up with these heroic comic icons. Not in the spandex heroic pose hands on hips way, but as true flawed characters. I also grew up solely in the Marvel universe of characters- with Captain America. He had many similar personality traits as DC’s Superman. He was considered a boy scout, outdated, left behind by the new modern hero- a throwback to the way things were. The modern hero was violent, sometimes side-stepped the law- overflowing with a sort of life-scarred teen angst. Captain America did not have that broken element, no matter how many terrible events he witnessed and fought. He was there in World War II fighting the Nazi’s, he was the soldier chosen to be experimented on with super serum, he watched his first teen side-kick Bucky die trying to disarm a missile, he was there to see the atrocities of the Holocaust, he was frozen and lost for decades, and he had villain after villain out to destroy him once a month…but still he persevered for the greater good.
In 2007, Marvel embarked on an all-universe encompassing story entitled “Civil War”. In recent years there has been a crossing over from the comic universe to our reality. Heroes have more and more life issues, and stories sometimes take on the point of view of the everyday person. In other words, like every other form of art, comics changed and intellectually grew up. Today, a regular person without superhuman qualities acts as a witness to the battles of the “gods” that rampage through their living spaces. The heroes in “Civil War” make an epic mistake that kills hundreds of everyday people. What follows is a political/social shift that forces (by law) superheroes to register with the government. The government joins forces with what can only be viewed as industry (Tony Stark aka: Iron Man) to enforce the new laws and practices. The split (indicated in the storylines title: Civil War) begins with heroes worrying that their legacy of always hiding their identity in order to maintain some sane private life will be lost, along with their freedom. The division of heroes created the battle of the ages for Marvel, and forever changed the future of Marvel comics. One of those changes was the assassination of Captain America, who fought against the registration. Captain America held a special place for me. He represented my father's era (World War II), and he represented the best of the comic book hero. Always fighting for justice, and always fighting for the good of mankind- without ever being pretentious. “Compromise where you can. Where you can't, don't. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say 'No, you move'.”
“When a country falls into chaos, Patriotism is born” (Lao-Tzu). This is not a matter of French Fries becoming “Freedom fries”. This is not about patriotism and a loss of the great-american-icon-eagle-flag-9/11 propaganda garbage. This is really about the end of a generation. That end also parallels our modern era in signaling the death of America (patriotism, naïve nationalism, national pride…). The “registration act” parallels our current fear of immigration and terrorism. It echoes the assassination of freedom, of the hero standing against the wave of fear, the government enforcement of unjust laws and practices, the constant underground warfare with those in power, and the constant drum of fear in the form of spies and perceived terror. Misinformation and manipulation are abundant in the story arc, with constant forms of denial in regards to the loss of freedom and the promise of a new world order. I was left saddened not just once for the loss of the fictional iconic hero, but again for the loss of the real ideals trashed in the wake of the past 10 years in our real world. And ultimately, this reminds me that I miss my father. I have written numerous times that in our dark age we need a true hero. Not one to be followed blindly, just one to be trusted, and one to usher the next generation to the higher calling of serving mankind. We do need a real person, but one with the heart of Captain America.
(September 2008) The time theory problem of social networking
For anyone born after 1979, you may have a hard time relating to this. I originally started using social networks like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and many more sites as a way of promoting my artwork. I put up a brief bio and a portfolio, and never really planned on going back. I started before Facebook exploded and became the site everyone now uses to find (and stalk) everyone else. After a while, I started using my Facebook status as a way of working out some conceptual art ideas.
Now, people are popping up that I have not seen in 20 years or more, and I see them not as I remember them- but old. For whatever life reason, we lost touch and I had no intention of seeing many of them- maybe ever again. Now I see them, and they see me. I see their wrinkles, baldness, kids, weight gain, 80’s hairstyles, denim jackets, and lists of bad ass 70’s music bands that they still love. I see their high school pictures, big hair, concert photos, camping trips and I feel like I am eternally in someone's living room being forced to watch slides of the family vacation. They were preserved a certain a way (as was I), and now that is tainted. I knew them in high school or college, and some even in grade school. And now they are back, and back in a really odd way.
Social Networks border on becoming that clichéd high school football star who fails at life and spends every night in the local bar reliving the glory days. Sometimes they even come at me with “Do you remember…” and add in an obscure or long lost memory. One in particular had a well preserved memory of us making a sixth grade yearbook cover drawing together- and then posted the picture for me to see. He talked of his admiration for my art, and felt bad about us never completing it together (he was out sick for a week or so). Admiration? He still feels bad...really? There is a gap there of nearly 30 years! My mind does not comprehend that gap too well, and certainly there is little to no reason in picking up those lost pieces. That’s the love/hate of Facebook and other social websites. To touch base and joke with people you know is fun, but to be found and sometimes even hounded by those deep in the past is not fun. In fact, it resembles drunk dialing at 3 am. I can’t blame anyone for that, it happens. But, I can’t be rude and not add them as a friend. However, I do not exactly want to re-connect with someone I barely knew in sixth grade or have not seen in 20 years. If I met them new today, I may not even recognize them or know them. I might meet them anew, and maybe go forward with a new friendship. But now that meeting has the baggage from 10-20-30 years ago- and that just does not work. I have found that leaving my past in the past is the best way to go forward- what's done is done. To be honest, it keeps me young by leaning forward instead of backward. But social networks seem to break a basic time continuum rule of the universe- the idea that time is linear. With social networks far too many people are trying to turn back, or outright break the clock.
(August 2007) a life reduced to sh*t
I was disturbed by the news today. I saw a news story on a local channel (WHAM 13- ABC) about a woman who was shot to death yesterday morning. She was walking down a street when a man on a bike rode up, robbed her, and shot her in the chest. My sick feeling began with: she was killed for what? Maybe $20.00? But , it got worse. At the end of the story, they make a clear note that she had a MySpace page. I felt a need to know who this was that passed. In looking Shalonda up ( I won’t give her last name out of respect), I felt like I was punched in the gut. Her page opened with a wickedly profane warning littered with F bombs to anyone spamming her, and her blogs were not much better. I only opened up her most recent blog which was a long rant in extremely graphic detail of her most recent large bowel movement (S**T) before she went on stage (she played bass for a band). I felt sick. A young life lost, barely mentioned in the news; and all that remained as a legacy was an internet profile detailing a profound bowel movement. I come across these types of personal pages on MySpace/Facebook all the time. I am sure that her life was more than this internet litter, but I am also sure that I was not the only one who looked her up to find this footnote. I think that WHAM-TV was 100% wrong to highlight this page on MySpace, any quality editor would have seen that it was inappropriate content for this story. All day I was hung up on a life lesson. If it (it being life) ended today, what would be left behind? What contributions have been made, or are being made to society? We don't know when it will end, so what will our final act be? Will it be a life in detail, or deformed?
(June 2008) Horror and Home both begin with H-O...
I am a huge lifelong fan of horror films. Sitting down to watch a new Horror movie is as good as opening a new sketchbook, it has endless possibilities. When I was a kid, my father used to order 8 millimeter parts of horror movies to show me on weekends. I grew up with Lon Chaney, giant city crushing tarantulas, and Godzilla like they were my family. My big radioactive family. I routinely read Famous Monsters of Filmland, and eventually Fangoria magazine. I loved to be scared, I loved the unknown, the monsters, the danger, and the anticipation of what might be in the dark.
I was 6 when I started watching old horror movies via 8mm. 8 when I was dropped off with friends to see Godzilla Saturday matinee’s, 9 when I moved into a house that had the same Amityville horror house demonic windows, and 10 when I walked to the theater at night with friends to watch the Exorcist. 11 when I was snuck into a drive-in inside a box to see Dawn of the Dead (which was originally rated X), and 12 when I first saw Halloween in the theater. Everyone has something that they use to add spice to life. For some it is the faith in religion, some believe in UFO’s, some ghosts, some space travel, some visit psychics, or read romance novels. It’s what we can’t get a hold of that sometimes gets a hold of us. I like the darker side of myself. I like to feel the fear. To possibly face something so dark that it consumes me.
I have always received the odd look for reading about serial killers, or the supernatural. In fifth grade a phone call was made to my mother because I was reading Rosemary’s Baby at school…and this caused some alarm in my teacher. In junior high school (a time of terror for everyone), I was ridiculed for not having bikini-clad chick pics up in my locker. Instead I had Michael Myers, zombies, and monsters. And yes- I pretty much set myself up for junior high brutality with that stylish locker decor'. But, I have always been myself and not part of the pack. I remember a 7th grade health class where everyone was asked what their favorite movie was. We all went around in a circle shouting out the movie we loved. EVERY kid in that class said either "Meatballs" or "Caddyshack"...except me. I blurted out "Dawn of the Dead". That was another phone call home. I did it not to be different, but because it was my favorite movie...I mean c'mon...a zombie got the top of his head cut off by a helicopter!
For the record, I do not plan on killing anyone…I actually detest real violence. In my art I have a reoccurring fascination for the broken mind, but that does not transfer to burying any bodies stuffed into foot lockers in my basement. I also am a strict skeptic. I want to believe, but I am hard pressed to see proof. There is a lot of difference between a leap of faith and a leap of logic. That makes me an oddity. For most psychologists, I would be red-flagged for my fascinations. Horror, serial killers, and the occult tends to do that. When I was a kid, most school officials just thought I was odd. How the times have changed. In that today- I may be scheduled for extensive testing to be sure that I would not one day show up with a duffle bag filled with automatic weapons. That's what happens when you use profiles to judge in a superficial manner-over actually talking with people. You miss the context of real life, and therefore the real person. If the me from 25 years ago were to visit a contemporary school setting, I would not be wearing all black (I detest that also)- I would still be that average kid. I did not look the part that was expected of me, and I still don't. Adult expectations are tough on all kids. I take pride in that part of me as an individual person, and that I survived the expectations. And as a person, horror is simply a part of who I am. Horror is a tie to my father, and serial killers are a tie to the interest in the darkness of human beings sparked by horror films. The occult has always been a what if? scenario for me to entertain myself with when real life needs a bit of mystery. Life should have some unknown elements- real life causes real feelings. It's an opportunity to have your body produce the fear response, while your brain tries to reason it out. When stressed or anxious or depressed or angry- some people choose to exercise. Some choose to meditate, or eat a half gallon of ice cream, or yell, or tune out, or drink, smoke, break things…I choose horror films. It’s like being home. It’s my comfort spot. It's a spot where the scary things are make believe.
(November 2009) The spider, the bat, and the universe
I grew up in the fantasy world of comics, it was something I did every weekend with my father. On Fridays after getting picked up at school, we would stop at World Wide News in downtown Rochester and pick up a stack of books at a cut-rate discount. My dad had an in everywhere he went, he was "that" guy. I would spend the weekend at his apartment and in between golfing, bowling, and visiting relatives- I would be reading comics non-stop. The world of Marvel and DC in the 70's was very real for me, there is a reason why they are called "universes". For non-comics fans you have no idea how immersive it is- but for fans, it is a deeply alternative reality. I read them at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I read them at the synagogue, in the car, and at night. Every weekend I seemed to lug home more and more. How my dad started me on this, I barely remember- but I am glad he did. There was a certain moral compass involved that kept me grounded.
I desperately craved to be Batman, but always ended up as Spiderman. Batman was the detective. He was intelligent, street smart, people smart, and book smart- always a step ahead of everyone. He was wealthy, a playboy, and strong enough to fight anything without the superpowers. Spiderman was always tripping over himself. He started out as an outsider looking in, watching the athletes win while he scraped by as a nerd (being that he was a character originating in the 60's -this was the term). Spiderman was smart, but it was a book smart- not a street smart, and most definitely not a people smart. Spiderman was a fragile and flawed hero; his self esteem never seemed to see any victory, no matter how many he saved from peril. Batman has his flaws, but the flaw of being unable to stop his parents from being killed as a child drove him on- made him better. Spiderman’s flaws always got in the way of his life.
Batman always found a way to swing in with support both as Bruce Wayne and Batman. He helped those in peril, be it financial or criminal. A captain of industry and a caped crusader fighting injustice- Batman had power on both sides of the coin. Spiderman strived to be a savior as a hero, but was branded a criminal for hiding his face- and out of costume he continually struggled as a person. He scraped by financially, and personally. In one fight with a villain a chimney crumbles and falls to the street below killing the father of his love interest. For years after that Spiderman is called out as a murderer in the media, hounded no matter how many villains he defeats. In trying to save the city, he ends up harming himself again and again. Batman had his struggles, but he seemed invincible. There was always a trick in there, even when he became addicted to the drug venom, which would be similar to steroids (if steroids were on steroids that is). A reader just knew that Batman would overcome it- and not through rehab- just through pure will. That's how Batman worked, he won by pure will. Spiderman seemed to always drag his luggage with him, struggling with who he was and what he wanted. Each relationship haunted him, each failure stayed with him- and the phrase with great power comes great responsibility was coined- even if he could never really live up to it.
Batman carried justice on his back; Spiderman carried the weight of the world. I always thought that Batman was the coolest of serious characters in all situations, where Spiderman seemed to deal with the stress through humor. Batman was the cool kid leaning against the locker- it came naturally. Spiderman was the spaz on Ritalin bouncing off the walls trying hard to just fit in. Batman never seemed to lose, whereas Spiderman never seemed to win. While Batman became larger than life (he was on TV, comics, movies, and every thing a kid wanted had Batman plastered on it), Spiderman became life. He struggled to afford bills, had friends dealing with drug addiction, bounced through relationships, struggled to understand and fit into social groups, society, and even into his own family. Where I wanted everything to be Batman's world, I found myself in Spiderman’s reality. There was a certain romance there, being the outcast that saves the world. Everyone knew of Batman’s contributions- he garnered respect among heroes and villains. Spiderman only cultivated distrust, but kept fighting the battle both outside and inside. I never wanted to be in Spiderman's world; but I knew Batman's world did not really exist; life would never be so easy.
(November 2011) The Secret of Art
I have had a lot of things regarding the mysteries of art said to me in my career. Some are useful (“don’t force your materials, have a conversation with them”), and some are annoying (“you are soOoOOo talented!”). Some are questions (”why do you make art?”), and some are statements in more than just words (“your work is so…uh, innnn-teresting.”). Sometimes people want to know reasoning, or insight, some people just want to look- and some people want to know the secret. I don’t have many secrets, but I have found one. In many ways the secret of art is: It’s just plain easier to make pretty pictures. The criticism is less, the praise is more. The effort to sell is less, and the income is likely to be greater. Pretty pictures have a universal appeal, challenging imagery has a limited audience willing to take the leap into thinking about what they are looking at. They don't consider many challenging works of art to be beautiful. Pretty art is souless. Yes Thomas Kinkade (see the image) may sell a lot of paintings, but rarely do they challenge anything to be thought about- beyond the flacid nature of pastel colors. The "pretty" appeals to décor, they appeal to the eye, to the mood, to the greater numbers. Pretty art doesn't question morals, or incite politics. It doesn't put a mirror up to the evils that man can commit. They are easier to understand, and they are less threatening to a viewer. They challenge less, and are enjoyed by more. So it really is a secret to a less bumpy, more successful career in art. Make the lake scene, over the political statement. Put a deer, or some other woodland creature in enjoying the view. Make the reclining nude, over the gritty industrial breakdown of society. Make the gentle pastel color scheme, over the clash of contrast. Make work as generically appealing as possible, don’t rock the boat. That said, the real secret of genius artwork is to have both the challenge and the aesthetic appeal in one image. It's very rare, and it answers the questions of balancing one of my core destinations in artmaking- work that contains the truth of both form (how the image looks) and content (what the image is addressing). The secret of art is the power of truth.
(October 2008) The Horror sub-genre of "Torture-Porn"
As I have written before, I was raised on the horror movie genre. I grew up with monsters, mayhem, and madmen. But in the last few years there has been a disturbing trend in horror with a sub-genre labeled “Torture-Porn”. The phrase has been attributed to a 2006 article in New York Magazine, by film critic Davis Edelstein. This sub-genre of Torture-porn has a focus on extended scenes of human torture, in particular (but not limited to) female torture. Example films are: Hostel, Wolf Creek, Turistas, the Devil’s Rejects, and Captivity. Now, I have a hard time with this subject as I grew up on another sub-genre of horror referred to as “Slasher” films (Ex. Halloween, Friday the 13th). These films tend to be focused on a high body count complied by an un-killable madman bent on revenge, usually with some type of physical deformity and super-strength. Slashers are created through childhood trauma, or traumatic event, and the terror is the stalking monster- the obvious good versus evil. Slashers also had their share of critics calling it depravity based on the teen exploitation content. Teens were often murdered in wildly gory fashion with at least one scene being carried out in the midst of sexual activity. So to call one sub-genre bad (and in my opinion Torture-Porn is bad), must mean there is a difference.
The differences lie mostly in context and development of violence, and story intent. Slashers tend to have a murder scene that has a gory-splashy-effect following an intentional anxious build up of snooping around in the dark. Torture-Porn has extended scenes of slow-painful-cut-the-tendons agony. The difference here lies in the reality and viewer connection. We are removed in a Slasher film from the babysitter wandering in the dark house, the killer is an in-human monster- it is intended as a startle scene. We expect to jump and scream, the build-up prepares us for that event. In Torture-Porn we are drawn in to the situation, invited to watch a human suffer a slow agonizing scene of torture. Slashers have the big money shot (ala machete to the head) for a quick death that is a part of the story. Torture-Porn has an elongated slow burn (ala small power tools, or cut tendons/fingers/joints via knife) that becomes the story. One has a cartoonish approach to violence, one has a voyeuristic approach. It is here in that difference that I have my first problem with Torture-porn. The negative criticism to the cartoonish approach is that it minimizes the violence, it negates the character and removes the humanity of the situation. The negatives to the voyeuristic approach has us watch the pain, the suffering, the dark side of our psyche. It does not minimize, it highlights- even parades the suffering around. Some may say that is the point, but what point is that exactly?
The stories of each offer the second difference. While I admit that many poorly made films tend to skimp on story development, Slashers tend to have a story, Torture-Porn has a situation. Slashers have (albeit generic) a good versus evil metaphor. We are introduced to characters, we root for the good. Torture-Porn has been knocked for not introducing characters, and for having no point made by the presented situations. Slashers have the standard madman seeking revenge, Torture-Porn merely sets a situation for the characters to be violently exploited. They are basically well-lit snuff films to watch someone have things done to them that we’d really like to not have done to us. While Slashers play to the giddy little boy that wants to see something gross, Torture-Porn plays to the twisted little boy that wants to do something gross. Torture is not for the fright/startle effect, or creating monster movies in any shape or form. I think that may be what bothers me most. Because of the gore, they are lumped in with the Horror genre, where they are more Thriller if anything at all.
The criticism of Slashers was that teens would be exposed to violence that they would therefore commit. I never believed that any unbalanced teen would be committed to an insane asylum for 15 years and come back every year on Halloween to kill babysitters. But I can actually believe that an unbalanced teen might want to experiment with tying up another person and torturing them for days until they died. One is outlandish, and one is reality. What makes it reality is that the content and violence inherent to Torture-Porn is the every day type that taps into an unbalanced minds control/revenge fantasy. Slashers had a case of no-way-to-get-there-from here for alienated/unbalanced/revenge-seeking types that would watch them. The Slasher mindset reasons that there is no true way to stalk and kill groups of teens on Halloween, because the viewer is not so unhinged, nor do they have super-strength...or possibly it might be an unavailability of a hockey mask. But the Torture-Porn mindset does offer a way there as it presents the single victim held hostage and abused for the dirty little secret of sadistic control. Torture-Porn presents the reality of serial-killing, and I find that to be yelling fire in a crowded theater. Stephen King once commented on Torture-Porn by using an art-based reference. “Yes, it makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable.” But with art, that uncomfortable feeling comes with an idea that challenges our current line of thinking. There is no idea that Torture-Porn challenges, unless it is to make torture socially acceptable. I understand the study of the evil that men do, and how understanding early warning signs, or social interventions can avoid this from happening to future unsuspecting victims, but can anyone say that this is what any of these movies has as its intention? Of course not, it is exploitation- and that is not a horror movie. Both types use exploitation, but there is a large difference between exploiting a fear of what goes bump in the night, and the fear (or glee) of inflicting pain upon a human being for pleasure. Does that mean impressionable types watching a film that exploits torture will go and imitate the movie? Probably not. I have heard the same argument against the "evils" of comic books, cartoons, videogames, slasher films, and rock music. Sometimes it is said that our art mirrors our reality. If that is the case, then these movies may mirror our societies general feeling that we have lost control.
(August 2009) The circular wisdom of age and stupidity
As I am navigating through a point in my life where I am noticing everything as it ages, I am finding a lot of time for self-reflection. Which is a chapter that I guess I skipped in my youth. I am seeing the aging of people that I know, and witnessing a loss of parental figures and celebrities that have accompanied me along the way- which in turn forces me to consider what I am doing and I guess, how long I have to do it. We all misspend youth, and I feel like I spent mine on a credit card binge without the income to pay the bill. Youth is about beauty and stupidity. There is the rare youth who is both in the grasp of beauty and experienced wisdom- but I was not one of those few. Little did I realize the comfy ease of day to day living with the want to do’s over the have to do’s.
I aged the hard way, like putting on pants that don't fit- lot's of struggle and denial. Getting older should be about acquiring wisdom. Wisdom that helps cope with the fading beauty and the willingness to comprehend what is changing around you. As I am getting older, the days do not ease by- they are overcrowded with the have to do’s in order to complete the responsibility checklist of adulthood. I think that may be the great life prank- we misspend our youth on trivial issues and cannot return to the days gone by when we are wise enough to know better. Now not everyone that ages is wise, and not everyone that is young is stupid. In 10 years, I may look back to now and declare what an clueless moron I was at this age, as I tend to do in looking back on my youth- I was not overflowing with any fantastic life choices. I have, however; learned a few things about mistakes. You should always consider and think through mistakes, if possible fix mistakes, and always learn from mistakes. But never dwell upon, or ruminate on life's errors. That'll only give you something to do that leads nowhere. There is no intelligence in that path.
I have a favorite common philosophy about intelligence. There is book (or academic) intelligence, and street (or common sense) intelligence- too much of one negates the other. Academic and street smarts are very different things- as are wisdom and intelligence. Intelligence knows how things work, wisdom makes the mistake and learns how to work things correctly (and better) down the road. Intelligence knows, wisdom considers. Wisdom does not forget the mistake, intelligence never knew it in the first place. I know those that are street smart, but are stuck in the rut of always outsmarting themselves. And I know many academically intelligent people, but they seem to be manufacturing a bland life. They have not explored the experiential quandary of making mistakes that pose a serious challenge to one's convictions. And that creates a particular dilemma. Let me put the example of two men I know out there. I have seen the path of an intelligent man (I'll refer to him as a boy scout) living the straight edge life, staying safe with youthful choices, picking a good path. He has made intelligent choices of schooling, employment, wife, and home. Sensible...vanilla...safe. I have seen it all play out to a lovely (if not bland) life. And I have seen a similar (almost identical) safe path destroyed by an unexpected/unforeseen incident mid-way through those vanilla choices. Without any experience, that incident grew to epic proportions- and he had no means to manage the dilemma before it became a full-on disaster. It was enough to derail that train, and once tipped- it could not get back on track. Even though I am watching the boy scout lead a "perfect" life, I dread his looming train wreck. And make no mistake about it, I wish for the best for him- but that train is coming down the line. And my conclusion as I witness these two lives, is that the early mistakes of youth prepare you for the wisdom to manage your life when things don't go right. The life without mistakes offers no true challenges to WHO the person will become through their convictions. But then again, I have never led the mistake-free vanilla life, I have no real idea what it means to always be on the right side of the train wreck. So maybe the prank is not in misspending our youth, but in how that youth is spent in our age. You cannot be old without first being young, you cannot be young without eventually getting old- and you cannot become wise without first experiencing stupidity.
(August 2007) What's in a name?
My son Asher XT Gordon was born in 2004. My wife and I labored over names; we both knew that it had to mean something special. Something for us, something for him, and something for the future.
I was exposed to charged racial situations early in my life. At this point, I think that it is important for me to point out that I have not had an abundance of black friends. I am not pretending. But, I have had a few good friends and acquaintances throughout my life, which makes these incidents (by percentage) all the more powerful. I may not have had a lot of black friends, but I have had even fewer real heroes.
In grade school, I moved from nearly all white suburbs to a nearly all black city school. My first experience with race was with a “troubled” boy (whom I befriended) named Cecil Cooper. He was black, and I invited Cecil over for dinner one day, and he abruptly asked “how do your parents feel about black people?” I didn’t really know the answer to this, and I was surprised by the question. I remember thinking: What difference does it make if you’re black? That’s how naive I was. This was the first of many experiences of being reminded and confronted by race while growing up. Sometimes it would go under my radar, sometimes it would raise my awareness, and other times it would raise my anger. I went from the white middle class suburbs to the inner city, and then back to the upper class suburbs. My education placement went from average (middle class), to top tier (inner city), to bottom tier (upper class). That upper class placement never let me forget where I came from. I was that white kid from the city, a place where poor people lived. Later on, there was the time I went into a record store with my black friend Al, and after leaving he pointed out that they had heat-sealed his bag shut, but not mine. There was the high school bon fire where my black friend Derek had numerous racial comments directed solely at him by the one of the sheriffs who busted it up. There was the boyfriend from Kentucky of the girl having a small college house party who pulled out a Ku Klux Klan outfit and told nigger jokes as soon as the “negroes” left the party (true story). Race is so prevalent to my history, that it is intricately interwoven into who I am.
I grew up during the 70’s- with heroes like Hank Aaron, and Muhammad Ali. I grew up during the dawn of Hip Hop, and was exposed to Run DMC in 1983, and regularly believed that the dawn of rap was the music of the revolution. In my first college literature class I was exposed to the works of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and the Harlem Renaissance. When I read the autobiography of Malcolm X in 1987, it literally changed my life. I heard one of the most moving political speeches of my life come from Jesse Jackson at the 1988 Democratic convention ("You must never stop dreaming. Face the pain of reality- yes, but don't stop with the way things are. Dream of things as they ought to be."). When I was turned on to Malcolm, the prevailing mentality from the white population was that he was a violent reverse-racist (which is in itself a misnomer). I came away with a different idea of Malcolm. His life and the changes within his short life were deeply inspirational.
I saw Malcolm X as a hero. Not make believe, but a real hero. And like I stated earlier, I did not have an abundance of real heroes. The short facts are: In his youth, his family was subjected to horrific crimes ranging from racial humiliation to murder. His life followed a road of crime, hustling, and superficial coping mechanisms. In prison he was exposed to Islam and education. He returned to a childhood love of knowledge and changed his life to move away from avoidance towards confrontation: "Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery." - Truth. In the time of that quote, those words were a much overdue push for self esteem. He became a leader out of a love for his people, and as a necessary defense (some may say offense) in racist America. He advocated change “By Any Means Necessary”, and was a vocal critic of race, American history, and the government. He had the courage to confront his own convictions, and he did so by constantly evolving his philosophy until his murder in 1965 at the age of 39.
As of this writing, I’m 39.
I was once asked at a conference to name the most educated, and well rounded individual I could think of, and why. I named Malcolm X (to the obvious shock of my educational counterparts). I explained that he was the total package. He is the high water mark of how good and admirable a human being can become, no matter where they start out. He was versatile in knowledge, had ferocious oratory skills, legendary convictions, he sweated truth and bled honesty. Always fiery, but never showy- he liked to Make it Plain. That’s the way he preferred to be introduced. How could I not have someone of this caliber, this American hero, this example of what I think the human race should strive to be- factor into the name of my son? For many people Malcolm X is the past- a history of what was. For me, he is the future of what will be.
(October 2013) History with no history
I have mentioned in many ways through my journals that I moved a lot when I was a child. I found myself in 5 different houses and 3 different school districts from the age of 9 through the age of 14. But this is not a sob story journal entry, it's a story of how I found my way, and what happened along that journey. Just the other day I was trying to look up a map of the first house that I remembered from my childhood on a newly developed street called Glen Acre. The house was huge for the time, had giant boulders in the front yard, and a small forest of bright white birch trees in the front yard. I recalled a pond and woods out back, and I wanted to see if that had disappeared as the town of Henrietta went through a boon of over-development in the passing years. I not only was surprised to see the pond still there, but that my old house was listed for sale.
I left the area when I was 9, but returned to the school district when I was in high school and was quite shocked to see that the people who owned the house over the years not only let it fall into ruin, but eagerly helped it on its way. Sometime around 1998 I recall driving by and saw that the garage door was open. That garage was packed floor to ceiling with boxes and trash and rusted out things long ago forgotten. Trash was spilling out all around the house, wooden pallets stacked without reason in front and to the side yard. The yard looked like it had been used for tractor pulls, and those once sparkling white birches that I remembered in the front yard were all gone- filled with grey dead trees.
When I saw the sale listing I was happy to see the 2 front yard boulders were still in place. I spent many hours playing on those boulders. One of my first memories was running out after Saturday morning cartoons (Sigmund the Sea Monster was a favorite of mine in the early 1970's) to play with army men on those hugely immovable mountains. They look so small now, so undersized. Time wore on those boulders as well, just not in the same way. It was at this house that my parents split up, and eventually divorced. This house that I recalled the one and only memory of climbing into bed with them in the morning. This house that created those little kid bad dreams with sometimes hushed, and sometime not so hushed late night arguments, passed out drunk adults, and a pool that my sister taught me how to swim by not breathing water. I was shocked to see that pool is not there anymore, it was an in-ground pool. I had never heard of anyone filling in an in-ground pool before. My scary grandmother Verna lived in that in-law apartment next to the garage. She was a mean old lady that I did not find out until many years later was not my actual grandmother. She adopted my mother, and she sure acted like it. It was from her that I learned what a "goiter" was, she had one the size of a grapefruit on her neck. Scared the hell out of me as a kid. It was at this house that my neighbors got so sick of hearing my big wheel on the driveway that they slashed the plastic tires by cutting big holes out of them. Who does that?
This house did not contain many good memories, but it was the last true time that my "family" all lived under one roof, and it was also the last time that I had any consistent stability in a home. It's hard to have much of a history if you keep moving, keep changing- obviously, there is not much tradition in change. Here is where the ruts of family choices began. I was born 10 years after my sisters when my mother remarried. That's a whole 'nother journal issue, let me just keep it simple and say that there was a gap and a distance that you could feel and cut with a knife. No one in my family went to college, alcohol and drinking were the norm for every day issues, and so was a host of menial jobs that simply paid the bills. Self development was not a priority, and religion/spirituality were non-existent. Looking back I was being trained to coast through life. Accept it as it is and don't question the routine. Be the sheep, not the shepherd- and never leave the pasture. I almost fell right into that routine.
Here is what woke me up, although it was not as easy as 1-2-3. My parents separated and my father stopped drinking. As I have mentioned before my life is a series of strange conflicts. My father was an alcoholic AND a liquor salesman. I spent weekends with him, and to keep me entertained he bought me piles of comics. I was introduced to heroes as role models. I spent a lot of time in the Marvel Universe avoiding reality. I found heroes there, in particular, Spiderman. I have other journals that go into greater detail of why these heroes impacted me, so I will be short. Marvel introduced a new kind of hero that was conflicted with their lives and their responsibility. These were guides- but, that was not enough to change me.
The constant moves and marriages created a lot of personal issues for me, which early on I self medicated with marijuana. Not a bad drug, but when you introduce any drug into a young teen (my sisters boyfriend first got me high in 6th grade) you create issues with maturity and development. I went on a binge in junior high and high school when I fell in with other kids who had "issues", and I was confronted with a large school and social change. I went from an inner city school to a very upscale wealthy district. This put a spotlight on me in every way. The way I dressed, my interests, my social skills- they were all issues. I was not much of a drinker, but I took to the natural herbs. The way I sum up this period is that my growth and maturity were put into a holding pattern. I spent years rebelling without any idea what I was rebelling against. Now I know that all that time I was rebelling against myself, and I was losing the battle. I hated school, I hated family, and I hated me. I had nothing to do with myself. No inner core that gave me directions. I simply existed.
I graduated from high school, watched everyone I knew go away to college, and started my life of mediocrity. Loaded trucks for a paycheck, and spent my nights wasting away. All along I had one constant, I had some random skill with art. Then out of the blue a voice told me that I had to do something, I had to do more. And I enrolled in college. Something that no one in my family had done- and no one could guide me. This is where I started to build my core, and my history. Would I ever have thought that school would be a place that gave me myself? I studied what I wanted, not what someone told me to. I stopped smoking pot, and started to work on my education. I spent so much time at school that there was little else that I could do but go to school and sleep. Looking back I can see what clicked, but at the time I had no idea what inner mechanisms I was responding to- or in fact, I had no idea what an inner mechanism was. This is why I still hold comics near and dear to my heart- they saved my life. I look back and I see that I felt a certain understanding of Peter Parkers struggle for acceptance. His social rejection, his insecurity. To see Tony Stark's struggle with alcoholism, to know that someone else was struggling...this is what brought me back from the edge. This love of comics made me enter into college as an art student. I did not really want to make comics, but I grew up inside of them. The art student became a whole adult by establishing a core. I am not religious, but I am a very centered person that follows a spiritual side. The comics, the art, the grounding- this gave me my first taste of what a home could be.
For me it was never going to be a traditional house with yard and a dog. Home was going to be something unseen. Something to go back to whenever I wanted. Eventually that path led me to my wife and created my family. But it has not been without the bumps of life. I always have to stay on guard for the ills of the past, they diminish- but never go away. Children of alcoholism, even those that do not have chemical dependency issues- have issues, issues of codependency (which if unchecked boils down to the idea of doing all the wrong things for the right reasons). Toss in moving many times, changing schools, growing up without security or role models. Throw in a delayed growth from self-medicating choices, and I have to go home a lot to feel grounded. But I am very happy to say that I have a home to go to, one that has a growing history.
As I looked at that house for sale, my first thought was that I am a man without a traditional history; but a man with a radically altered future.
(July 2011) Misdirection of Art
Why do people choose to go to school for Art? What is the core goal? To make art...right? Well, art & technology pose an issue...and yes- I am being judgmental.
Not that there is not good digital art, there is- a lot of it. Not that students can't be good with digital work, they can. The issue is not if art and technology can coexist. It can, and it this point it is really not an argument. The issue is that computers are being taught sooner and sooner, and that means that something else has to be dropped to make room, and many programs (in my own opinion) are so overly focused on the digital of "digital art", that what principles and disciplines really makes art good are being left out in place of technicians who know how to work the technology. Technology is getting pushed too hard on students who have yet to grasp the core concepts of making a piece of art. And please don't tell me how computers make it easier, or that I am a technophobe. Cutting and pasting pieces around that were scanned or stolen from the internet is barely creative, and I love a good work of art regardless of how it was created. This argument focuses solely on the appropriate time for technology to be embraced in the use of a creative field, and whether or not that technology is a crutch in creativity. At times, all arts in education fail to be creative. The focus is first on how to use materials to best showcase an idea, over the idea before the materials. Think of art in the means of any other career. Medicine for example. If a student goes to school to be a surgeon, and has an amazing idea of how to cure a disease, but no clue how to perform surgery- is that idea any good in his/her hands? An art student is introduced so early on in their study that the technology becomes the creativity- technology is used to fill the voids left by that failure of creativity. Creativity is not just rehashing an idea with a digital filter, creativity is not a tool- it is the foundation of all art. Yet the computer as a tool in particular has left too many believing it is the end of an idea. In the past 10 years, I have seen so many generic sears-above-the-couch art used in illustration that it is no shock why the use of freelance credible artists has fallen off the charts. Too many times have I seen illustrations that are no more than a generic wallpaper design, or use the sleight of hand tech-work to cover the lack of concept, draftsmanship, or design necessary for a good visual image. And many times I have seen illustration that is simply a photo run through a texture filter. I know that it is an old school concept, but illustrations used to be the visual punch that grabbed someone who was flipping through a magazine, it drew in a reader. Now it seems like everyone is either too cheap, or too scared to run artwork in their stories. I guess this is going to be short because the base of my argument is why people go to art school. To be creative. So, I ask is the use of any stock image that is 2 steps of cut and paste, and one step of a photo filter- really creative? And while I am a big fan of some computer based artists, almost all of them have an extensive background in hands on art making- and it shows. If art were the hard earned core of music, then computer art is studio tweaking of pieced together good looking boy band wholly dependent on auto tune with other people writing their bubblegum rock.
(December 2011) A funny thing happened on the way to the war
When I was in college I always used to joke that my appearance and my ideas were my version of Guerilla Warfare. That I was the Viet Cong, I was vanilla on the outside and a radical on the inside. Punk Rock attitude without the studs and hair. I still am that way, I have never really been about appearances- in fact I think subconsciously I may tailor my appearance to blend in, or as I sometimes say “become a ghost”.
It’s not a self-esteem issue, I like the surprise factor, whether it be in my artistic choices, or my interests, career, or in my life philosophy. Most of the time it plays to my favor, but a few times the shock factor of my views has ended with me embroiled in conflict. People sometimes feel safe based on our outer appearances, they let a guard down. And if you do not fit the expectation, and you shock them- people feel betrayed. There is always an appeal for me to be surprising, to not be who I am expected to be- it’s exhilarating. A certain freedom comes from being whatever you want to be. When I was younger I was so tense and anxious with social situations, I still am. I did not like crowds, I still don't like crowds. I do not like the swirl of it all around me. When I was younger- I did not want to be awkward, to be turned away. I still feel that way largely due to a childhood with alcoholic family members. You have to put up a false front to shield the harsh reality. But along the way I learned a very small (but important) lesson- just be yourself. I know, I know- that is so cliché. But it is also very hard to do. Your relationships, your job, your beliefs, your kids, your insecurities, your interests all tell you to be a certain person. They place expectations on you, and you place them upon yourself. I found that I enjoyed being flexible in my personality. I like being the unexpected flavor that looks like a vanilla cone. I like the discovery of who I could be, because in my youth I never was able to explore much of anything.
(August 2008) The wall within
"We don't need no education. We don't need no thought control. Hey- Teachers leave those kids alone! All in all we're just another brick in the wall."
I had no idea what I was listening to as a teen when I put Pink Floyd’s the Wall on my record player for the first time in 1982, but I knew it was something important. I had no idea why so many people wanted me to watch this new fangled V-H-S of a movie based on the album. You can just sense when you are witnessing creative genius unfold in front of you. It pulls up the shades to let the light in, and that is what this music did to me- it blasted the light into me. It planted the very first seed of doubt in large political or social movements. It peeked into the isolation (the wall) of mental illness. It fed the small lil’ part of me inside that was hiding an individual. It’s only now that I am older, how much I realize the powerful effect and the importance of that message. (That's Roger Waters spray painting "No Thought Control" on Israel's separation barrier in Bethlehem.)
As a teen, I fell into the group in “need of direction”- but there was very little there to offer me anything substantial. The adults in my life were very removed, some cared- and some didn’t. That’s life, but every kid desperately desires help- whether they admit it or not. I had friends who were all over the board; some studious-some slacker, some racist-some political, some sexist-some old school, some innocent-some guilty, some tuned out-and some tuned in. They were all products of the adults in their lives. That IS what adults are, every adult is a guide and a teacher- whether they admit it or not. What the Wall did for my generation x was to reinforce the belief that we do not need to fall in line like everyone else. That individualism keeps a society honest. It spoke to us in a way that only true art can- to the core of our being. That is the importance of art. It made us believe that we can rise up, that in the end- we can win…even if winning only means that we get to stand up before being slapped down. It exposed those slippery slopes that lead to dubious power, slopes that are created by a weakness and insulated against through bully-like behavior later in life. It strengthened an old-core-moral standing that we all contain the ability to make the right choice, even after many wrongs. And it shined a light on the growing disconnection of youth and adults. God this music is good!
I credit this story- this music- this creative genius with starting me on my path of self examination, and my interest in community equality. I am not crediting it with making me Mother Teresa (I am far from it), or making me utilize every hour to help mankind- just in being a piece of the puzzle that gave me direction when I really needed a map. All along my life's way, at any point- I could have taken a different path. What kept me on the right path was music like the Wall. And to all of those moral activists preaching that music is what ruins youth, I give you one more rebellious Johnny Cash middle finger to tell you that music is part of what saved me. How many have been saved by censorship?
So whenever I am overwhelmed by the struggle of financial life as an artist...when I am hounded by those barking about 401K's, and money-money-money, and expensive cars-vacations- success and failure, or the grand technology running every aspect of our lives...when I watch CNN-or FOX news-or read a newspaper, or see the latest self-help craze (Scientology, mediums talking to the dead, or Kabala anyone?) or hear just about any politician- I just need to put this CD on to feel strong again. It led to the right path- one of free and independent thought.
(September 2005) Thunder's End
In September of 1993 at the age of 78, my father passed away. In October of 1993, I took a part time job working in an animal hospital. I wanted the job because I loved animals, and I needed to do something extra that felt soothing. One day in October I came in to find a large German Sheppard half in a large cage, and half on a blanket on the floor of the back exam area. It was alive, but just laying there. His name was Thunder. Thunder suffered from a common problem with large dogs. His stomach had twisted and he could not ingest food, nor process anything in his bowel. At the time it was a $600 surgery to fix the problem. All day I sat around and petted him, waiting to see if he was going to have surgery or if he was going to be put down. ALL DAY I waited. The whole time I was petting him I was thinking about my father being in intensive care for 3 months. There was medication being administered to ease the discomfort, and an IV, and everything we could do to make him comfortable. Just at closing, the owner came in. He was a gruff man in his 30's that looked like a trucker. He could not pay for the surgery and opted to put Thunder down. I held Thunder on my lap while they injected him. I made the decision to have my father taken off of life support less than a month prior. I felt his breathing slow, I felt his heart stop, and then Thunder was not there…my father was not there- they were just gone. There was a body, but no dog. There was a body, but no person. Whatever my father was- what was left was not what I knew.
At the same time as this event I was teaching Illustration at R.I.T., and I did a painting demonstration for every class I taught. I thought that this was a great chance to show students that the depth of visual art can hit on many levels. That the idea was to capture the change of that moment, from life to death. Something “real” and something missing. Chaos to nothing. Sound to silence. And in my head, maybe to understand the weight of my fathers death. This painting hangs in my dining room and represents one of the great turning points of my life- the one where I had to suddenly pay attention.
I find myself thinking about this a lot- that moment when what makes us "us"...goes away. That moment when we just return to being a random selection of stuck together carbon. I titled it “Thunders End” for a few reasons. Obviously it was the end of this dog’s life. But more importantly there was a painting by Andrew Wyeth called Distant Thunder. Many people have characterized this painting as a signal to the oncoming turbulence of the mid to late 60's. It was painted prior to the mass social upheaval and change (The dog is said to have his ear perked at the thunder which represents the coming social change). I was a big fan of his work, and it just clicked: "Distant Thunder...Thunder's End". His painting may have symbolized the social upheaval breaking the peace of the nap. My painting was more about the internal struggle and loss of my father. I am not comparing my work to Andrew Wyeth, I am bringing Wyeth into my understanding. I have 2 or 3 paintings that I think are actually important. Not just as art, but as markers for my life. This is one of the most important.
(March 2013) Remembering the 4 Horsemen
It's as if whole sections of my memory, whole sections of my life have vanished. Poof! Gone. They return when triggered only by some nostalgic item. A toy. A book. Someone famous from way back when dies and makes the news. But even then it is seen as if through some smoky campfire haze. Maybe this is why I am becoming nostalgic? I am trying to safeguard what is fading, maybe this is is what everyone experiences as they age- the past fading away. Slowly each day we all become ghosts. Maybe this is how time erases us all?
Sometimes I hear people talking about traumatic incidents in their life. A car accident that they don't remember at all, or some life threatening situation that is only recalled as an “instinctual” reaction. One incident that is still very clear in my mind is the passing of my father. My pop (that’s what I always called him) was diagnosed with cancer in March of 1993, and was already battling diabetes and leukemia. With these diseases on his back, I am sure the four horsemen of the apocalypse were very real to him. What I remember most was the pure physical pain that changed his personality. He was always a very loving how-ya-doin' kind of fella, everywhere we went- everyone knew him by name. But after his first surgery he was in constant pain, grumpy, and snapping at me. None of us knew that the cancer surgery on his intestine had left him in searing pain when the surgeon did not completely close the intestine. As the doctor later put it, my pop had walked around for almost 3 weeks with what felt like a belly gunshot. When he finally went back into the hospital to have that repaired, he would never come back out. What followed was 3 months of bedridden intensive care.
The reason that I remember this so clearly was not because I spent every waking hour in the ICU, it's because I didn't. I was there just about every other day, but that natural getting older nostalgia, and plain old guilt still haunts me. I can’t use the excuse of being young, or self absorbed. I was 25 years old, and in graduate school. All I can say about my mindset is that I was not ready for an event like this to take over everything in my life. I was not ready for a loss of this magnitude. The type of grief that hangs over you like a storm cloud ready to burst. All day, all night. The kind of grief that has you honestly re-examine who you are. And the answer that I came up with to that question was: I didn’t know who I was. My pop was a strong guy, rarely ever sick, and never complained about illness- I just thought that one day I would walk into the hospital and he would spring out of bed and walk out on the golf course for his tee time. Instead, he gradually lost the battle- gradually he evaporated. And those images stay with you. They gnaw at you, they don’t ever leave you alone. At the time, I thought that I was a pretty competent adult. I was managing graduate school and managing my life, and going into the hospital every other day. I thought that I was ready- for what, I don't know. And having a parent pass away never, ever crossed my mind.
My Uncle Jack called me one afternoon and asked me to come into the hospital for a meeting the next day. I remember it was a Tuesday, September 21st. I was teaching at RIT on Mondays and Wednesdays. This worked good for me, “hey” I thought, “ this doesn't even mess up my schedule.” My mind was just going moment to moment, but I was really completely missing the details. My Uncles Jack, and Hy, and the doctor were there waiting for me. I remember it was a small cramped waiting room at the end of the hall just past the ICU. The chairs were proudly 1980's -oak and brass trim with pastel colored fabric. As I was walking down the hall, everything slowed down. My eyes were fixed on my uncles grimness at the end of the hall. I felt like I was in trouble, I had been caught stealing, or cheating. I could feel my heart just rushing blood through me. I sat down, and I knew right away that I was not going to be talking. My Uncle Hy, who had flown in from Florida was a commanding presence. A wildly successful businessman, loud spoken, and celebrated when he appeared in town. My father would always call me to make sure I was free to be around when he came into Rochester with the same line “Your uncle Hy is coming all the way from Florida!” Said each time as if the distance was getting longer and longer. My Uncle Jack, my favorite uncle; was quieter. He was a jokester. Loved his pranks, he had been known to pass off fake autographed baseballs to many a cousin. He was into the black market in World War II, and once had shown up to my fathers outfit in Belgium with a truckload of steaks. He always greeted me with a $20 bill hidden in his palm whispering "put this in your pocket", and a smile- today he wasn't smiling. Just walking up I could feel the weight of the world closing in on me. Each step closer made me feel a foot shorter. Here I was shrinking, becoming a ghost with these two men who had both survived World War II with my father. They were there for their brother, I was just a distant memory of a cute young boy, who was now the less cute older model. I remember hearing a clock tick-tock just after 11:00am, and then the doctor getting right to the point by stating that my pop should be "taken off of life support". I am really not sure where my thoughts were at that moment, but they were not in that room. Some people say that when they are confronted with their own end, their entire life flashes before their eyes. A slideshow of highlights. Sports, and camping, family, school, ceremonies, vacations, graduations, marriages, births- all of it. Does it ever include moments like this? The reason I was sitting there was not because my uncles wanted me there, it was because I had to be there. Somewhere like an echo I can hear my uncles outlining that my father had gotten too sick, and had given me the power of attorney which meant that I had to make the decision to turn off the machines. I realized that they did not want me there, they had already had this discussion previously with the hospital, a practice run at ending their brother- and were told that only I could make that decision. I was simply an afterthought from that practice. See, my father may have divorced my mother when I was young- but he stayed on as a part of my family for the rest of his life. His family being of traditional Jewish descent, did not care for that decision. They never accepted that ill-fated marriage, and they sure did not want reminders of it either. I was a reminder now that my father was going to be gone. They accepted me, but as I got older, and the cute boy grew up- it was simply tolerance.
My father gave me tidbits of advice on the families, but I never really understood this division until he became this ill. Then the quiet wars began about who would visit when, and the lines were drawn in the sand. My mother and my sisters on one side, his family on the other. Insults were lobbed as if they were grenades, and the mildest interactions became personal insults. I was stuck smack dab in the middle, I was Switzerland. I started this by stating that events like these have you question who you are, well this is where I found the start of my answers. Maybe that is the last gift that my father was giving to me. I certainly did not think that in the moment, as I was still following the echos of the biggest decision of my life. A decision to end my father as I knew him. And to be honest, I was still shrinking. I faltered and asked if I should call my mother and sisters before making a decision, and was pounced upon by my uncles. They wanted the decision now, while they were there. “End his suffering” “Take care of this now.” they said, and I wilted. I felt all the weight of the world just grind me into the tiled floor. I did not know I was responsible for his suffering. And I did it. I gave a half-hearted nod to the doctor. The doctor asked me to come into the room to say good bye, and I went full gear auto pilot. I don’t remember ever leaving that waiting room chair, but I do remember feeling the weight of each step. Sounds of the respirators echoed with nurses chirping like birds in the springtime getting orders to end every thing I knew. I don’t know what words I choked out, I am sure it was a simple “good-bye”. But I do remember exactly what my uncle Jack said through sobs “Good-bye Bummy, I will see you soon.” My uncle Hy never went in, he sat in his chair in the 1980’s waiting room waiting for us to be done. My uncle Jack and I walked out to wait, but not for long. Moments after we came to the waiting room the doctor came in to say simply “Barney has passed.” That echo boomed through the mist like a mortar shell, and I remember thinking one single thought. “What just happened?”
What followed that is a blur of tense family and funeral decisions. Meaningful moments of trying to sort out what comes next, and a lot of nights staring at the same ceiling. Now just shy of 20 years later, I am seeing my friends parents passing away. I see how strong they are, how they stand up with an extra 20 years of memories. My father was much older than everyone else's fathers. He served in WW II, they served in Vietnam, Whole different ballgame. I was caught between a generation. I have always been oddly in-between things, more of a spectator to my own life. I was caught between families, between friends, between grief. I don’t know where my understanding originated, but it was somewhere in those echos. Somewhere in there I understood that time heals nothing, facing the event; facing the emotions- that would offer a true healing. The echo told me that through the pain I would build a memory that made me smile, and not one that made me cry. One that I can only say is best summed up by the good Dr. Seuss: Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.
(May 2003) The life luggage of a fence sitter
Chapter I. I believe that being near death, or dying does not fix the evil that men do. I really believe that we tend to pardon the dead too much on the wrongs that they have committed out of some form of respect- but I find that nothing short of disrespectful towards the survivors. Both the good and the bad interactions of others stay with us for the rest of our lives as luggage. The kind of luggage with wheels that just follows you everywhere you go, the kind that has to be unpacked in order to get through security.
Sometimes I write in some attempt to understand myself better, and sometimes I write because for a very long time my thoughts and my artwork were my only family. I spent my childhood pretending and dealing with what would be later labeled "Children of Alcoholism Syndrome". If it wasn't comic books and sports- then it was ignoring that one or more of my parental figures was dead drunk in a living room chair. No pity necessary, that is appropriately in the past- but it still has a lasting effect on who I have become and how I interact with the world. While I cannot go too deep into explanations, as a child of an alcoholic family it is common to have a split with real life and pretend life. I once heard it put that a child of an alcoholic has to show everyone the well kept pretty front living room, but keep them away from the unkempt dysfunctional mess that is the rest of the house. Like I said- I am ok with those being the cards that I was dealt, but I also like to examine what effects this has had (and will have) on me. As Socrates said: the unexamined life is not worth living.
The split of reality and illusion creates an interesting concept as I think that I am a fence-sitter. My whole life points to having this dilemma as a core of my DNA. I always find myself stuck between 2 places, so much so that I am not even sure how to write on this topic. Do I make a list? Do I approach it in humor, or in all seriousness? Is it too personal , or is there a chance that someone reading it may identify with it or be helped? Maybe I am a split personality that has yet to come unglued. Maybe I'll end up at a Midas Muffler shop at 3 am trying to order tacos with no pants on. Oh, that'll probably never happen as I don't really like tacos. So, I guess I’ll just start with the collision of my father and mother.
An abbreviated outline of my father:
My father was a child of the great depression, and a veteran of World War II. While most of my friends parents were in Vietnam and listening to the Rolling Stones, My dad served in Europe and listened to big band music. My dad fought the "krauts", my friends fathers AND mothers fought "the man". He came from a tight Jewish family that immigrated from England and Russia. I was brought every weekend to the synagogue, and had a yamaka slapped on my head, but I was allowed to sit in the lounge reading comics instead of being in the service. I was also called by my father on every Jewish holiday and reminded to call his family- but I was not forced into religion. Despite a huge age gap (he was 52 when I was born), we got along very well. I celebrated Christmas, which my father also celebrated…by “celebrated” I mean he gave gifts and cards and came by for dinner. He was a recovering alcoholic and a liquor salesman (irony?). While I was into football, baseball and basketball as the cool sports- my father taught me golf and bowling (pause for heavy sigh here). He overcame an overbearing Jewish family, struggled through a war with the Holocaust, and eventually beat alcoholism. He had 20 years on my mother, and they divorced when I was 5. I spent weekends at his apartment reading comic books and watching universal monsters come to life on 8mm silent movies projected on his wall. While most of my friends spent time with each other on weekends, I spent time with Spiderman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He was a pack rat…he had dust so thick on his tables it turned into a wax. His organization skills of what he owned was simply to stack it up on the floor against a wall. Tables were loaded with papers, coupons, fast food napkins, paperclips in piles, and on his car gear shift he had hundreds of rubber bands. I recall a few times when I was young where we would pull into a Burger King or McDonalds, and he would run in only to come back out with a handful of 100 or so napkins. Nothing else, just the napkins. He would have huge stacks from Burger King, Wendy's, McDonalds, Arthur Treachers, Pizza Hut- if there were napkins, he would come. He must have made some type of most wanted list. To put it mildly- he was a clutter savant.
An Abbreviated outline of my mother:
My mother was a child of the 50's without any real anchor. She was adopted and at the very least emotionally abused. She has shown little in the way of ties to family through strained-tenuous interactions that always involved small bottles of alcohol clinking in her purse. It would be an understatement to say that we never really got along, we coexisted. She grew u p in an all-white area of Florida, and in her own words the only black student she saw as a child was thought to just be “un-washed and dirty”. Bigotry was the norm from her childhood. She was also an alcoholic and lifelong smoker. She worked a variety of jobs, from selling Tupperware to home realty to house cleaning. Her first husband (she has had a total of 4) worked for NASA (he died young), and they were friends with Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon. My father (also an alcoholic) was her second (they divorced when I was a wee tot), a short lived third marriage was to a severe alcoholic (divorce #2); before she finally settled with alcoholic number four. As a young kid I was well taught on how to mix drinks and look the other way, that's not a pity statement- it's a fact of life. I moved 4 times in 6 years, but I always had a roof, toys, and food- that is more that most have once alcohol ruins lives. While it came into play in my sisters lives as well, it was always the practice to turn a blind eye. When I say "sisters" I mean the 2 from her first marriage, and the one surprise that was announced deep into my adulthood. See, my mother had a child out of wedlock very young and gave her up for adoption. Later (via newspaper ad) my "sister" found my mother who reached to the heavens and claimed "she had so much love to give!". After about a year, things fell on the rocks (so to speak), and now they no longer see or speak to each other. There is some irony there...I think. My mother kept a "clean front room", the surface appearance never set off any alarms. Why would they? We were clean, the house was clean, everything had to be all right. My mother was not obsessive compulsive (OCD), but she was all about having things put away. At any moment, she would spontaneously repaint a room, or re-organize, or steam clean the carpets. Make of that what you will, but as I got older I used to think: what are you really trying to clean? She had multiple jobs in her life, she seemed to change employers every couple of years (or less), which also coincided with a streak of address changes. Like I said earlier, 4 addresses in 6 years. Later in life one of my pet peeves was moving, I hated it. I figured that if you are unhappy on the inside, no matter where you moved to- it went with you. Maybe it was the drinking, maybe it was the search for stability and happiness- I don't know. Eventually she ran her own cleaning business, and in stark contrast to my father often prematurely decluttered by throwing away things she might need in the future. Is that a metaphor? So to sum this up...
Depression/WWII vet, pack-rat/clutter king, Jew, family tied father
50's teen, overly organized, anti-clutter, Christian, non-family tied mother
Chapter II. This created quite a dynamic by those assigned to my rearing, how do I interpret this in looking at my own life?
1. I went to school for both commercial art and fine art -2 complete opposites. To put this in perspective...one is someone telling me what to do/ and doing it in a clear concrete manner...and one is independent/ and doing it in an abstract manner...it would be like trying to talk in English and Spanish at the same time.
2. I am an artist, but I do not care for the stigma attached to that choice. Nor am I too thrilled with the financial gains (which I often reject), or the career gains (which in the end I threw away after waiting a decade for stability). Artists are stereotyped, and I do not fit (nor do I embrace) that mold. That leaves me both loving and hating art.
3. I have worked as a college professor, and in social services (for a number of years at the same time). So I have full degrees in one field, but work in a field that I have no true degree, only experience. That dichotomy came to be due to my art studies spurring the social justice within me, but offering little in the way of doing anything to create meaningful change.
4. I have a wicked sweet tooth and I am a diabetic.
5. I am a white guy that has had a long passion for race. I was a white suburban kid dropped into a nearly all black grade school for 3 years, my MFA masters thesis was on race relations, large portions of my artwork has a focus on race, I worked with nearly all inner city black youth for 9 years, and I read a lot of black literature (I love Harlem Renaissance poetry- in particular Langston Hughes).
6. For at least 7-8 years, I spent weekdays at my mothers house, and weekends at my fathers. They remained good friends throughout the rest of my father’s life, even after my mother re-married. This meant as a child my weeks were always divided. Friends spent weekends playing together, I spent mine at a golf course, with 8mm silent films, or the Jewish nursing home.
7. I was the original "latch-key" kid. I was raised by TV families like Welcome Back Kotter and the Superfriends. After school, I would come home to an empty house. As early as 4th grade I was making my own meals and spending the evening with friends or by myself. Not from neglect, but because my parents divorced and my mother always had odd hours or a second job. My sisters were at an independent age in their 20's- and that left me to figure it out. Luckily Fonzie and the six-million dollar man softened the reality. The story that my wife hates comes from 5th grade. It was mid winter, and I was at a friends house until dinner. I walked home in the dark, but was too scared to go into the house alone. The house we lived in at that time had the same Amityville horror house attic windows, and of course, unsupervised me that I was - I had recently seen the movie. So I rang the doorbell a couple of times with the hopes that someone would answer, and when no one did I sat in the unheated enclosed front porch too scared to go in alone until my mom came home, which was about 2 hours later. I sat for 2 hours in the dark of a cold winter night too scared to go into my own dark empty home. That again must be some type of metaphor? Funny, because now I love to be scared by horror movies.
8. Growing up, my friends heard Crosby Stills & Nash, the ills of American establishment, and stories of Vietnam. I heard the Andrews Sisters, the glory of America, and World War II stories. I am very familiar with World War II era history, but I am a 70's child.
9. To add perspective to that I listen to jazz, big band, 80's/90's Hip Hop, and modern alternative music.
10. As an adult, I also continue to play videogames and like- no LOVE toys. My way in the world is play, but most people would tell you that I can be a very focused and serious adult, especially when it comes to work.
11. I am skeptically minded person that also loves the paranormal, but I don't believe. I want to, but I don't. No, really. My pet peeve is psychics and the fake paranormal- I have no tolerance for that level of ignorance. Despite regularly viewing "In Search Of" with Leonard Nimoy in the 70's, I am waiting for the proof.
12. I have 12 years on my wife, my father had 20 on my mother.
13. I am from the pre-internet/computer days. I am always torn between technology and hands-on methods. Which is funny because I have had a website since 1999, but I have NEVER had a cell phone.
a. This does not even begin to really breakdown the typical family secrecy aspect of alcoholism, I only mention that because it created a further split in my life of real life and fake life. It’s worth pointing out that I am not an alcoholic. I rarely drink, but had my "experimental stages" as a teenager. My experiences had me realize that no amount of any substance could help me escape what was inside of me. So it was better to sober up on my own and face down the demons, than to pretend there were no demons at all. That all boils down to another life split. Picasso had his blue period, I had my stoned period. I quit that segment of my life on May 27th 1990. And I quit just because I had enough. There was no incident, no legal issue, no terrible experience. I just had enough brain dead time. It wasn't just dulling the pain, it was killing who I wanted to be. It is very hard to describe the problems that marijuana can create. Marijuana pales in comparison to alcohol, but there is a reason that they call it dope. I have always said that it just stopped my maturity cold. It was like I froze for seven years, I was stuck as that kid sitting in the dark of winter on the front porch. Finally, I just could not stay there waiting anymore, because I realized that nobody was coming to let me in- I had to do that myself.
b. Nor does it really take into account religion. As I mentioned, I was exposed to both the Jewish and Christian faith- but left to my own accord. This means that I am in neither camp. In fact, I am in a whole other area. While I am spiritual, I consider myself a Taoist. In actuality, I am anti-religion. While I respect those beliefs that respect my belief- I do not believe in "God".
Chapter III. I have used that term “fence-sitting” for a long time, because I was so regularly challenged in college about my choices in art. Being an "illustrator" in a fine art program caused great distress for my professors. I may just have well been sitting there smoking crack and planning serial killing with the way I was looked upon by those in power. I use that term "power" purposefully, because my college education was what really fueled my insight. While it was hard on me, it had to be that way. The challenge is what broke me through the wall, what brought that kid on the cold porch inside the house. The challenge of others trying to force me into one hole or the other pushed me into fighting for who I was going to become. People want you in a category, not outside. That's a normal response, otherwise we become overwhelmed by all the variations we come into social contact with each day. I honestly think that my first protest to being “pigeon-holed” came in 4th grade. Instead of actually taking the standardized test, I just randomly marked boxes. I remember thinking "Why do I have to sit here for an hour? This is boring. I can do this really fast and be done." After they scored the tests, there was some type of meeting and I was put in a remedial class! …Swear to god that's true (see? I don't believe in God, but here I am swearing to one). Just as good is that when I switched from a nearly all white suburban school in 4th grade to an inner city school, I went from that remedial class to the advanced class. Then two years later when I returned to another suburban district, I found myself once again pushed back into the remedial class. I went from the middle class suburbs to the inner city to an affluent suburb, only to return to where I started. Even that young I was exposed to (and understood) the effects of money and social status.
Does this mean I am doomed to never pick a side, or is it just a life-long case of not wanting to be classified? Or is it about challenging change within my own life via the learned experience of having my father change his own life for the better? I still enjoy having someone look at me, the way I dress, my skin color, my education- and have certain expectations. I embrace gorilla tactics in social situations. People expect me to hum Journey tunes, and instead hear me quote James Baldwin. They expect a soft core vanilla, and instead get Malcolm X. They expect nice sofa sized paintings of flowers, and instead get a dead dog painting. I waited 10 years to become a full time professor of art only to throw it away for an ethical argument that I was sure to lose. I did not feel entitled, but I did expect a certain fairness. I guess that was naive, but it was the new reality that I was making for myself. The world as I want it to be, if it's not going to be fair- then I won't play. That really is naive isn't it? I think that the majority of the times that this has affected my life, it has not been in too serious a manner. Only once or twice has it done some damage (heavy sigh, pointing to educational career). I tend to split myself, but I reap both the benefits and detriments of numerous placements both in social situations and career decisions. I witnessed my father change his life for the better, even with those choices being extremely difficult, and I see that in myself. So I guess all that this self-indulgent journal amounts to is a shrug of the shoulders.
(August 2007) The virtue of politics
Back when I was in college, I used to have a professor who after finding out that I was a registered Democrat ceaselessly pointed out the corruption of Democrats while extolling the virtues of Republicans. He would argue with me, not realizing that I was not really participating. I had a particular point of view then, which I still hold true to now. I was registered to one party, simply to vote. Not because I blindly followed any particular viewpoint. I was constantly berated about "Slick Willy" (Bill Clinton) and the "liberal" Democrats as if I were in on a conspiracy to destroy his personal retirement earnings. I felt like a kid being bullied on the playground. I was (and still am) amazed how many people become enraged on one side or the other, without realizing how bad both sides can be. I picked who I thought would offer some good, or as I used to say "the lesser of two evils". Sometimes I even go far outside if I think there is something to believe in...ala Ralph Nader. I recently came across a few words from Confucius that I find appropriate as another election nears: The Master said, 'In his dealings with the world the gentlemen is not invariably for or against anything. He is on the side of what is moral.' and 'The gentlemen understands what is moral, the small man understands what is profitable.'
I have always held to the same principles on politics. You can't change anything without voting, and do not believe what anyone says, believe what they do. But, if they don't let you vote- then you have no control. And if they are not held accountable for what they do- then they can do anything they want. We live in a country that was supposed to be controlled by the people, and governed by the people. It's not that way anymore- that is a myth. In my arguments when I was in college, I was eternally caught up in the naivety of hope. Eternally following the myth instead of the truth. Hope for a better world can make you turn a blind eye, but only if you allow it to cast a shadow across your brain. The arguments were always focused on money. Financial gains, retirement funds, jobs, and material goods. I am as susceptible to that as anyone else (see my TV rant above), but I try to balance my wants and needs. I try to adhere to my moral beliefs and look to pursuing my personal virtue as a supreme, lifelong goal. Occasionally, I have found an honest politician that is trying to do something good for the world as a "public servant". The world goes downhill if all eyes are on profits. To paraphrase another favorite saying: If you can keep your head, while everyone about you is losing theirs, you will be alright. Money is not virtue. Status breeds hollow respect. They are sexy demons that lead you away from what really matters, and they leave you with no fulfillment and no relationships of meaning. I guess that it all comes down to this: I never miss a vote, and I always try to vote for what is just, what is moral, and what matters most to me. Believe it or not, my type of vote is feared by those in power.
What the political "machine" wants, is to keep us out. They want us "disenfranchised". They don't want the middle class, the black and latino, or the youth to vote. That would mean an end to their power, and a re-birth of democracy in the United States. Although our country has had decades of difficulties with politics, in 2000 something else happened. Something frightening, and we all allowed it. An election was stolen and rigged, and democracy was lost. This was not about hanging chads, this is about turning legitimate voters away to the tune of 57,000+ innocent voters labeled as felons (therefore- no voting rights) in Florida (97% of whom were black). This is about Ohio in 2004. This is about causing voters to wait in line for 4 or more hours within the (largely) democratic inner city, but no wait in the (largely) republican suburbs. How many voters just left? This is about the media ignoring the hard questions. This is about large corporations and power. This is about a war that no one wanted. This is about lies. This was about billions of dollars, and a careless disregard for what our country was founded upon. This is about respecting that we already marched for voting rights in Selma some 40 years ago. This is about true democracy, not the myth. True choice, not bullying. After 7 years, I finally know this nagging feeling that has shadowed me since 2000. It is fear. Fear to live in my own country, and for me- that's not OK. But that won't stop me from voting. Because I believe, even in the face of thieves, bullies, and villains- that it can change if we all stand up for what is right, and what is moral. We are better than what we have become.
(April 2003) Iraq, 9/11, and Afghanistan
I am an American, but that does not mean that I blindly support everything that our runaway government does in the name of American interests. Being an American means that I have freedom, not obedience. I am embarrassed by the treatment of those few who spoke out against the US reasons for the war. I am angered by Saddam Hussein, his bloated dictator-esque ego, and thumping his chest at the world. He is in no real risk of death, the actual citizens of Iraq are the ones at risk. I am angered by a United Nations filled with out of touch hypocrites. I am angered at the US charging in with the claim that we are after weapons of mass destruction, and then locating nothing. And to have it all based on lies. Then changing the claim of war from weapons search to "ending the bloody regime". What about the weapons of mass destruction? Whose war is this? Is it about Weapons, Regimes, or Oil? Who is fighting this war? Where are the wealthy offspring? It's all middle and lower class, which has become just one big American lower class. It's a case of the haves and the have-nots. We shouldn't pretend otherwise. And the casualties are lower class on both sides be it American or Iraqi. Does anyone think the average citizen in Iraq wants this any more than the average US citizen? Terror by Saddam, or terror by the US...it's the same situation of the haves in control, and the have-nots losing limbs and lives. I am mad that the war was announced to be "over" (according to president Bush) in May of 2003, as soldiers continued to die . I am angry that my tax dollars paid for it, and that "400 and some odd Billion" more will go to finishing the job. Meanwhile our education system, child welfare, and job outlook are going belly up. Where is common sense? We cannot help the world if we cannot even care for ourselves.
There is no greater illusion than fear. While working on an editorial piece on journalists in war, I was told that my image "did not showcase the dignity of war". What?! There is NO dignity to war. How can we rejoice in the victory and delight of the slaughter of men? What a nice distraction it is from the white collar crimes that seem to have increased in the last few years. Saddam is not the only robber on the block. The idea of "us" versus "them" creates the perfect breeding ground for leadership by Fear.
What secret promises were made to Afghanistan when they were fighting Russia in the 1980's? Put yourself in the shoes of one of the poorest countries on earth, devastated by war for the last 20 years. As you fight for your freedom against a superpower (Russia), the US slides in to whisper sweet nothings in your ear concerning a "donation" of some weapons and training to defeat that other "evil empire". There are also vague promises to help re-build after the destruction of your country is complete. You are a patriot for the freedom of your country. Hey look! The war is over, and the US is nowhere to be seen...that's because the Soviet Union is crumbling- your Vietnam style war is no longer needed.
Now you watch your country, still billowing smoke from the war that lasted generations, starve and die as the US chants they are now number one! Wouldn't you be pissed off enough to try anything to pay them back? To align yourself with anyone for some measure of respect. I am not by any means all knowledgeable on Islam, but I do respect the difference of ideology. Cultures should celebrate the difference, maybe in the hopes of finding a better view of life as a whole on this planet. I am ashamed of how targeted any Muslim group became post 9-11. Terrorists, and extremists come in all religions...just ask anyone who visits a planned parenthood. I do not believe that flying a jet into a building of business people was the right answer, I think that was an act of desperation. And I think it was an act of mass murder. Desperate times=desperate measures. This is yet another case of the US supporting questionable leaders, until they no longer serve our interest. We turn a blind eye to the terrible atrocities these people commit as long as it means more money, and more business.
(Update...Three years later: June 2006)
One thing that I have come to believe in, is that to set your mind on one idea, one view, one belief- is to never again have an open mind. This is ignorance. To continue to learn with an open mind, means confronting incomplete ideas, or a belief system. My first taste of this was in reading the biography of Malcolm X when I was a sophomore in college. Through the reading, I understood that he challenged the limitations that were first imposed on him in understanding his Islamic faith. He grew as a human being with the tough decision to NOT accept every aspect of his faith as truth. I greatly respected that approach to education. And so, here I sit amending the view stated above.
Maybe the reason for 9/11 lies not in the past Afghanistan war and promises, but in the religious conflict itself. The Koran and the Bible both are clear with their mandates to destroy the non-believers (infidels). Rather than have the act of flying the planes into buildings be the acts of madmen, maybe they are acts of faith. A belief that you are acting in accordance with God. Muslims believe the words in their texts are from God, just as Christians believe they are acting in Gods name. I do agree with author Sam Harris in that people speaking to God, the very religious types- immediately strike me as psychotic. The sooner we dispose of all religions, the better off we will all be. I am no longer willing to tolerate everything in the name of being politically correct. Everything in the name of freedom is not good, it is a case of the blind following the blind. The "evil" in the world is not from the stories of the bible, but the bible itself.
"Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you." (Koran 9:123)
"As a man believes, so he will act." (Sam Harris, the End of Faith)
"I love my country so much, like an exasperating friend." (No more, Mike Doughty)
(March 2013) The Internet Culture
What is happening to our world?
Much of our social interactions and causes are driven by the source of fear. Mass outrage over what is said, done, thought, painted, sung about- you name it, there is a group outraged by it. People are being bullied, gossiped, and stung by what is written by those with names, and those without. My issue is that the outrage ascends so rapidly, that there is no real time to digest the situation. The gossip chain has most everyone wrapped so tight that they cannot breathe. And that gossip chain has well documented flaws with accuracy. The internet mud slinging hits a lot of targets. The internet form of gossip has grown like the black plague in the middle ages. Slithering to every home, and everyone in those homes. It grew from desktops, to laptops, from smart phones to tablets. A portable injection of information- gathered and reacted to, before it is even understood. All our worst fears come to the surface. All our bigotry watered to grow.
The internet is such an isolating tool, that those in our society that are already fractured, find other fractured voices feeding that fear. It’s easy to yell a slur from the shadows. Like blood in the water it stirs the crowd into a frenzy. And no reasonable voice can be heard over the drums making the crowd groove. The first amendment gives us the right to free speech, but every free speech is not right.
(May 2010) Social connectivity is evolution at work
Through Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube, iPhones, Blackberries, iPads and a host of other internet/cell phone tools- we are being told how connected we all are. But are we really? We text, but say nothing. We post our status, but are nowhere worth noting. For every new media connection, we seem to be growing fart her away from reality. The enemy is at the gate, and the guards have dozed off. Traditional advertising is being replaced by what seems to be an underhanded attempt to brand everything. The world has been rapidly becoming one big ad for quite some time, only now each molecule is being claimed. It’s all hidden in the media overload. Ads are viral, rapidly shooting through us before we dare question what it is we are being exposed to. We used to think we were savvy with advertising, we knew what was in front of us- only the backdoor seems ajar.
Facebook is fed cash by Zynga (designers of Farmville and other programs) which claims their products to be games, but they are hardly games. They are obligations. You are obligated to seed, water, harvest or you risk failing. You are obligated to return friend favors, or you risk being mean- which in limited social context is a no-no. The whole idea of limited societal structure types is built upon snaring you and as many friends and family as possible, then bombarding the 170 million plus with ads and micro purchases tailored to our natural impulses. Join us, be nice, give and receive, develop, help, show off for attention, turn on-tune in, but NEVER drop out.
To be a part of the new age means that we inevitably have to accept that everyone is trying to milk us with a smile on their face. Facebook bills itself as a "place to share and connect with friends". That's about as nice a handshake as you can get, our concern should be what the other hand is doing. But if we know, what do we do about it? That lower price on a cell phone/satellite dish/laptop locks you into a tool with lesser service, or a contract that costs money to break. To upgrade costs more money. That free gaming/social site hits you with micro fees at each turn. To play along for the “full experience”, you have to pay to upgrade. If it is too good to be true, then that’s probably right. A dollar here and there from even 10% of 170 million people is still a helluva lot of dollars. The only way to milk that many people is to not let them see you pulling on the udders, get in, get the milk- and run. That, or wait until the cow is so desperate they come to you to be milked. It is the same rule with any addiction: “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it's better style. To get the man's soul and give him nothing in return.” (CS LEWIS) This idea of snaring people for free under the guise of a "good time" or to "re-connect with friends", and then duping those who are hooked makes sites like Facebook, and games like Farmville- akin to the largest crackhouse on the planet. That makes the designers into dealers, and yes- they do know exactly what they are dealing for the dollar.
I love technology, and I love being present as humanity evolves. It’s exciting to watch limitations be surpassed. But I don’t like being duped (or constant annoying attempts to dupe me or use my personal information as a target). I don’t like the bait and switch way that greed now seems to use as the norm. I feel robbed at every turn. It makes me feel dirty, it makes me feel invaded, and it makes me feel obligated. And yet, even I use Facebook. What good is that socially? I have a chance to possibly "re-connect" with lost friends. And along the way I have to dodge the dangers, much like the cavemen in the movies dodging the dinosaurs (yes, I know- they never existed together, it just makes a good analogy). I have to watch out for those people looking for me that I disconnected from for a reason. I don't play the "games" that are not really games, I never do any micro-transactions- so I never get eaten by the dinosaur. But, the dinosaur is savvy. It keeps coming at me in new ways. Using my personal information to target me, lure me out. In a way, I guess this is evolution at work. We have to stay one step ahead in order to survive. To not become a meal for someone else.
(September 2009) Conspiracy theory is a mental illness inside a ball of string
I have this weird attraction to conspiracy theory, but not because I believe in it. Everyone has one subject that they believe there may more to the story than is let on from the source. For me, I think that there may have been more to the 2000/2004 election stories than most people are aware of. Long voting lines in the democratic inner cities, suddenly moved election areas, lost and ineligible ballots. I probably want to believe this more than I truly think there was a conspiracy because it makes the Bush presidency digestible. Making Bush out to be an inter-dimensional lizard ruler cheating an election allowed me to laugh at the depression of the reality. Everyone has one subject that requires assistance in comprehending, but the conspiracy theorists that make me scratch my head are the ones who have dozens upon dozens of dark theories going all at once. David Icke is the current king on the conspiracy hill (and if he's the king, then the website "infowars" is the queen). To him, everything is a conspiracy- so much so, that there is no way for me to even begin listing his world views. And this is why I say that conspiracy theory is a mental illness- reality becomes wrapped around itself like a giant ball of string. An alternative reality is created to explain the reality we live in, which in turn is denied as fake and created by those wishing to deceive us of the "true" reality. A riddle within a riddle within a riddle.
The problem with this is (as my last journal entry above also mentions) that the media is on high speed, and that also sends lies and half truths out into our consciousness. Misinformation (conspiracy theorists would add intentional disinformation) tidbits get into the hands of those pushing political agendas. Not always dark agendas, just pushing what best benefits themselves. And that point is key: we are a greedy materialistic society, we want what we want- and we want to give nothing for it in return. As an example: The fall 2009 health care reform from the Obama administration. There is a lot of debate on specifics, but I am going to keep it simple as a-b-c. a) The current healthcare system in the US needs reform, it's a broken mess of a trainwreck. b) Old people don't like change. c) Democrats and Republicans want to be the heroes in solving this. Everyone in the fight is taking bits and pieces and adding fear and disinformation to make their point. It's really not that complex...to sum up what was posted all over the web in September 2009 "no one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick." The truth lies somewhere in the middle of the ball of string, but you have to get through many layers, and figure out what is true for yourself- but you can't get anywhere without getting all tangled up. I have seen many news stories where conspiracy theory is included in with the health care debate. "Socialist reform takes away your choices", "Youth indoctrinated into reform agenda", "Lizard people posing as doctors steal your DNA." (ok, I made that last one up...maybe). The thing about the "disinformation" is that it is not a new tool. It is as old as organized politics and public relations. It was used by the US for support against the Nazis in World War II, against the Jews in 1930's Germany, against the Native Americans in settling America, Against gay marriage, Civil Rights, Protestants and Catholics, feminism, slavery, welfare...and so on. Conspiracy in its base form is paranoia and fear on steroids - and then microwaved to the point in which it creates an alternate reality. The truth is in there somewhere, or at least twisted overcooked parts of it are in there. "Legitimate" or "mass" media now rushes to break the story before the amateur web writer. They are all rushing to be the hero, the one person who outs the dark secrets, the one that makes us draw our collective breath. But that approach in itself is often bogged down in the same muck of conspiratorial misinformation; as those rushing to get there forget to check facts, follow leads, and do the old-time investigation that is fundamental to journalism. The crackpot conspiracy writer rushing to the finish line has now become a standard, but that ball of string is now an anchor dragging reality away from the surface. Journalism at its core, has to be about the truth. The real truth, not whatever reality is concocted to meet twisted facts. Conspiracy is not reality, nor is it journalism- it's humor.
David Icke's theories are funny. No one believes there are lizard people running our country (or are there?). We can laugh at his theory. But when the conspiracy has a media platform and makes false political claims that effect us all- we should be concerned. Someone who has the microphone, and proposes lies as truth is mentally ill. And I equate the use of media in spreading lies that effect us all to a terrorist act. What is the difference between someone flying a plane into a building killing 3,000 people and believing that Allah will reward him with virgins in paradise for his act against infidels, and the radio jockey rallying an angry response from national listeners with blatant lies and misinformation that may cost thousands of lives in a broken health care system simply because they do not like a black president aligned with a rival political party? A plane or a microphone, which is more dangerous?
After years of wild conspiracy theory I was happy to see the history channel fight back with a special focusing on 9/11 conspiracy. One by one the wild conspiracy theories are debunked, and they began with a very strong declaration on the need for the theorist to be the one true hero that exposes the villains plot. The conspiracy theorists produce piles of unchecked information on the web or through small publishers on every possible angle, they make so many claims that they have lost sight of reality in the plume of smoke that used to be the World Trade Center. Some of the theories grandiose size match the depth of the grief and pain (ex: the World Trade Center was intentionally detonated by the government to start a war). The creators of this psychosis have no background or understanding of architecture, demolition, or disaster. They never ever consider there are multiple (and much simpler) ways to start a war beyond blowing up multiple large structures in the middle of New York City. Honestly, the theories sound like someone needs to put down the comic book version of good and evil and break out a history text. Bring public sentiment to accepting a war is easier (and more common) than these guys think, and evil is never so clear cut. Most, if not all- have never even been to the WTC site. They come up with the grand theory to make themselves the hero outing the "evil cabal" from half baked talk shows and other websites, they paint themselves as the one who sees the truth- the truth of the evil new world order. I am no fan of the government, but conspiracy theory is simply the act of people in tin foil hats making up stories and facts from their basement apartment. The danger here is in the mistrust that is thrust upon or disseminates into our society. Any basic fact check will prove the theorist wrong, and that form of media high-jacking is as dangerous as any terrorist. The terrorist creates fear, the conspiracist creates mistrust. Both are based on either pseudo faith, or pseudo intelligence. The threat is not the evil villain twirling their mustache, it is the self-righteous shadow purporting to be the hero to compensate for a failed or boring life. But, that is the elegance of freedom of speech. Anyone can say almost anything- but that does not make it true. Again like I said above: what is more dangerous, a plane or a microphone?
(July 2009) The annoyance of language infection
We are all crack heads living in a crack house
I am going to be all over the place in this journal, because as of late- I am annoyed by language. I was at the grocery store a few nights ago, and had to endure a young woman lose her temper at another customer. An elderly lady was annoyed at the young woman in front of her with about 15 items in the 7 items or less line, and as old ladies tend to do- she began loudly hemming and hawing about the number of items. One situation that should always be avoided is to mix the elderly and youth in conflict. Both tend to think that they are more deserving of respect, and therefore tend to say and do things without caring for how it appears to others. The young woman was annoyed but calm, and told the old lady to go ahead of her. Now what set the young woman off was the elderly lady continuing to complain- and the young woman having no sense of civility after losing her temper, well- that triggered the old lady. The young woman began screaming about everything, and all of it was peppered with F-bombs and other colorful words. And in turn, the elderly lady starting pointing her finger in the young woman's face while telling her what she thought of her. A lighted match to a gas pump it was...it went on and on, with no care as to who was in the store- kids and all. Separating them had little effect, I went through line and left with both of them still going at it from separate ends of the checkout lanes.
My wife and I have had this happen a lot recently. People having no care in the world for the language they use. It's not a matter of being puritan, it's a matter of vulgarity due to ignorance. It's the old rule of not knowing any better words to express yourself. I suppose I am old school. I believe that the words that I use in public are heard by all, and I would like to convey respect and dignity. Dignity is NEVER overrated. I guess I am also annoyed because I am not on the bandwagon of cell phones and texting. See I told you that I was going to be all over the place? First and foremost, because I believe texting is raping our language and making the mundane seem worthwhile. Second because we just saw a movie (a mildly attended matinee) where I counted no less than 7 phones texting throughout the movie- and that was only in front of me. What is so important? I use social websites myself, but I don't need to text in or post a status like this: "Where u at?...Going to mall BRB...shower then out...enjoying R&R...taking kids to soccer...eating and then naptime...You crazy ROTFLMAO..." Who cares? Language is to convey information, when language tells you nothing it becomes a virus. And texting makes that virus appear like an idiot is writing the code. When we stop talking, we can start communicating.
I saw a movie called "Pontypool" (Based on the book "Pontypool changes everything"). Very interesting movie. Without giving it all away, it is a zombie movie (with very few zombies) that begins with a virus spread in the language. Word of mouth causes an obsessive looping effect in the brain. What if a virus were spread by language? Mass media would be that guy in the subway hacking up a lung.
Media is the new methamphetamine. The drug that is everywhere you go 24/7. We are all crack heads living in a crack house. A story breaks and then it immediately goes out across the web. People begin reacting while the event is occurring- before comprehending what is unfolding. We are reacting to a crafted language over content. The media blurb is put out there like someone coughing out an illness, floating in the air, breathed in by many. A reaction is swift, and emotional response floats from person to person- oftentimes the message is changing, becoming more than how it first began. It is like a real life "telephone game". Remember that exercise? You sit in a big circle. One person whispers a descriptive story in the ear of the person next to them, and so on and so on- until it gets to the last person. By then the story has completely exchanged details and content. The media gets a story, it hits blogs, texts, social outlets, and word of mouth (via cell phone)- and begins all over again to keep the rating going. The virus multiplies until we are all infected. I am being assaulted everywhere I go by language conveying information I don't want or need- it is like being force fed speed. Be it f-bombs from some self important teen throwing a hissy fit, or the 10 facebook status postings telling me the smallest details of a boring life. I did not ask to become outraged by some celebrity train wreck on every magazine cover while waiting to pay for my groceries. I try to look away when I am having dinner in a restaurant loaded with 30 flat screens, or the breaking news on every website I visit. At first I thought that Pontypool was intriguing, but then I realized that it was not foretelling the future, it was chronicling the past.
(July 2007) The movie 300, Crutches, and Content
One step at a time…
The Digital Crutch:
Take a look at the artist Dave McKean. Arguably, one of the great illustrators of our time using a mix of traditional and digital materials. A good example is the 1989 batman book: Arkham Asylum. This book is commonplace in a good bookstore. He mixes an intense hands on art (painting and drawing) with photo collage and Photoshop. Jump to his current work and you can see a progression from hands on and digital to pure digital art. He begins to replace it with more photography, and more Photoshop. Make no mistake about it, he is one of the best digital artists out there...BECAUSE of his hands-on knowledge. But he has abandoned that aspect for almost all Photoshop, and that leaves his work with a detached feeling. You can see that within one of his children's books, the day I swapped my dad for two goldfish, and the wolves in the walls. Pages are present with these gorgeous loose ink drawings interwoven with color and texture from Photoshop, and then there are pages that are 100% Photoshop...they lack a human touch. Anytime a new material enters the art scene it is overused. Then dozens of imitators come in and make the innovators have to move in ways that may not produce the best work. It happened with airbrush in the 80's, and Photoshop in the mid 90's. Everyone gets swept up with the eye candy in the form, and forgets to consider the content of the art. As I have stated before, art that reaches a higher intellectual status considers both areas- otherwise it is just a craft.
Form over Content:
The movie 300 was a visual feast. That translates to beautiful form. The content of 300 was not only poorly historically exaggerated, but provided numerous examples of derogatory viewpoints to various groups. For a “true” story, historical inaccuracy and inflammatory propaganda translates to poor content. If you grade out on these two elements, 300 fails. It’s gorgeous, but that is not enough (for we all know that good looking and stupid does not make a well rounded person). If you claim it to be BASED on a true story, keep to the truth. There were no giants, ogres, or monsters in the Persian army. The machismo content was over the top with boatloads of bare chested oily men, and scattered homophobic quips. And the subtle homophobia is odd considering that the oily men are barely attired, akin to a hot gay photo shoot. But, this is from the creator of Sin City...which suffers from the same teen boy mentality of gender relationships. Another film that looks gorgeous, but delivers stupid. I am sure the Spartans did not deliver Arnold-esque one liners with each new kill, and the juxtaposition of hard rock music with the battle scenes made me feel like I was watching MTV. Portraying the Spartan women as pure and just, and the Persian women as whores, is a tool of propaganda during a time that the current Spartans (white cultures: America) are deep in tensions with with Persians (non-white cultures: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan). The Persians are represented exclusively by numerous non-white cultures, while the Spartans look like they are from Detroit. The timing of this movie is what sparked my thinking. This is not a new tool of the US war machine. It was heavily used in World War II in regards to Japan, the Civil Rights movement, and during expansion against Native Americans. Making your enemy less than human is a way to sanitize the atrocity of war. A common building block for war is fear. Fear of what you do not know and understand.
Truth and Exaggeration:
“Why should history stand in the way of a good story?” (-Frank Miller, the creator of 300). I had the same uneasy feeling with the DaVinci Code. If you base it on what is supposed to be truth, and you market it as historically revealing- then it should be accurate. Otherwise, why use history? Or why not just use history as inspiration, and not mention that it is based on a true account? If you are changing the facts, then it’s used to sell the story- NOT to report the story. This is a marketing ploy. It is constantly used as a way to fill the seats. Other examples of “true” movie stories that are hardly true: Pearl Harbor, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wolf Creek, JFK, American Haunting, Saving Private Ryan, Mississippi Burning, Evita, and too many more to list (I am sure that every reader can add one). Creating history to manufacture Hollywood dollars is in itself a genre. There are many modern books re-evaluating our school history texts. They detail the huge amounts of history that has been ignored, or altered in order to further the agenda of a ruling class. 300 smacks of this. It takes a revered Persian leader (Xerxes), disrobes him of common period attire (velvet robes), and attires him in what amounts to a scantily clad S&M wardrobe. This revered Persian figure is a descendent of Darius, who created what may have been the first declaration of human rights. Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. was portrayed in an Iranian film in ass-less leather chaps. How would America react? The original intent of the graphic novel was to use history to create a story. It skips huge elements of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC.). I am a life-long fan of comics and graphic novels, and I believe that this is where the great stories are being told. But, I also know that a graphic novel has to be exciting, and therefore is not a historical text. A graphic novel reaches a particular audience, and I don’t believe it could have been foreseen that this book would be made into a movie. BUT- once that step was decided, they should have shorn up the history. It would not have been a detracting element, it would have been a positive inclusion. For history only stands in the way of a good story when that story is faulty.
I never intended this rant to be this long, but this is not a topic to stumble into with a one-line sound byte. First, art is two-fold. In order to apply the tag of “art” then it must address a higher understanding of both Form and Content. Second, hidden agendas may exist in both an obvious and transparent form. The United States (as of the writing of this rant in July 2007) has had serious tensions with Iran (and other countries in the area) for many years. In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, we have recently pondered war with Iran (and North Korea). This is an insult to the ancient culture of Persia, which is now Iran. Insulting a country that you have tensions with is a first aggressive step towards war. And again, the timing and content of this film is very curious. The United States associates itself as a modern descendent of the philosophy of Rome and Greece. Our architecture (particularly political buildings) are a direct result of this influence. Therefore many US viewers subconsciously identify with the Spartans. 300 was released during a war with Iraq (close relative), a police state in Afghanistan (nearby), talk of war with Iran (Persia), and high tension with North Korea (we need a time-out, don't we?) As I stated above, war is easier if you are not fighting human beings. And finally, history and fiction should not be mixed. Fiction can be influenced by history, but to alter history to suit a story only creates a subjective agenda. History must attempt to be objective. Subjective history changes the way a viewer thinks about a topic. If that topic is supposedly truth based, then the result of the “story” is complicity deceitful to those in the seats.
(Update July 2008)
Alan Moore is wary of the fact that “Watchmen” is being helmed by “300” director Zach Snyder. “I've not seen any recent comic book films, but I didn't particularly like the book 300. I had a lot of problems with it, and everything I heard or saw about the film tended to increase [those problems] rather than reduce them: [that] it was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid.” (Excerpt from Ain't it Cool News July 2008 Writer Alan Moore, arguably one of the greatest writers in Graphic Novel history)
(February 2010) The frustrating Holy War of the Arts
I have something to get off my chest, something I put there myself about 20 years ago. Every profession has its warring factions. Wars may come and wars may go, and unless you were there- no one else knows. In art, I have been witness to the holy war of Illustration versus Fine Art. Somehow I got caught up in it, I never really chose a side- I was just suited up in armor and thrown to the illustrators.
The Dark Ages
I have a long collegiate background in fine arts. If you have no idea what that means, I’ll make it simple- it’s independently created art, art that challenges the way we think and believe. I started in fine arts and art history- some of my greatest influences are conceptual and abstract artists. I also have a long history with comic books and children’s books- many of my personal influences are linked to comics and children’s literature. I began studying art in the heyday of the art star- consider that the time of the art Jesus- if Jesus was all about money, ego and fame. The Mid 80’s were overflowing champagne glasses of Julian Schnabel and Robert Longo clinked to the beat of the Talking Heads. Art was not the hobo at the expressway ramp cleaning your windshield for spare change that it is today. Art was a rock star. I was not so into the rock, more so I had an interest in the stars before the 80’s that did not get enough credit. The artists that seemed to get some of the spotlight, just not enough- Mark Rothko, Jim Dine, and Jasper Johns types. I am classically trained with materials in the fine art tradition of exploration, with a strong foundation in rendering. It was natural thing for me to gravitate my studies to incorporate illustration; as in the mid 80’s that field also exploded. If you have no idea what that means, I’ll make it simple- it’s NOT independently created art- it is art created with the assistance and dictation of others. Illustration benefitted from the mainstream rock stardom of fine arts. Brad Holland and Marshall Arisman became the rock stars of illustration that had a fine art appeal. It was loose and painterly, and sharply conceptual. It was less about the art director and the written word telling the artist what to do- and more about the thoughts of the illustrator. Illustration became less about what was being illustrated, and more about the concept of the artist behind the illustration. In essence, illustration took over the role of the edgy and independent fine artist. This happens with everything that gets popular, it loses its edge and something new takes over. Art was not hidden in those days, it was out in the open- questioning our thinking and our beliefs. Every college student worth their weight likes new exciting thoughts. This was the new holy crusade. So, I joined up. I was attending RIT at a time where the fine art and illustration programs were combined into one large mass- like the freemasons. Classes were a mix of the two fields, rarely did anyone point out the schism between the fields. I balanced the two areas while pursuing my BFA at RIT. I was deep into studying modern art history, while learning the craft of visualizing literature. Despite illustration’s label as commercial, I was only really interested in creating literature based (magazine and book) work. I wanted my ideas to be seen with the written word- it can be a powerful combination.
In choosing my Masters, I stayed at RIT- but entered the MFA painting program. That is when I experienced the art class system for the first time. I was “that” guy, the one who made “realism”, and liked commercial art- the indentured servant. Every day, every critique became a battle, and I suddenly felt like I was thrown to the lions. Mark Rothko once said: "It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing." I knew what I wanted to get out of school, so the majority of the comments had no impact- but I really had no clue about the wars surrounding me. I went through my years jumping between the two fields- I could (and can) always hold my own in discussing either field. But, you can only jump so many times before something eventually catches you. Like Satchel Paige said "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you." It was always the sneering fine artist that left a lions mark and brought me down. The illustrators that I knew always accepted and were curious about the actual art, the materials and the technique. Illustrators were the men on the front lines getting things done- where fine artists were the out of touch generals eating grapes in their tents. What kept me there was the importance of art. Art was a vehicle to a message, any message. Whatever I wanted to say could be said, and it could be said with the light or the dark. Creativity was like a drug. There was no egg in the frying pan, but the brain had the same frying effect- only it was all good. There was no downside to this addiction, again I was sold.
I taught Illustration part time for 11 years while trying to get a foot in the door at other schools. In searching for positions, countless times I was asked about Illustration while hearing “we are looking in another direction- one with more fine art experience”. In the mean time, I took any freelance illustration jobs I could get. No illustration-focused school would hire someone with minimal freelance experience, and no fine art-focused school would consider someone with any kind of commercial background. Not too many years ago, I sat in front of a chairperson of an art program who asked me point blank “Why should we hire an illustrator to teach our fine art courses?” My reply was simple- “because I have a Master’s in Fine Art, not in Illustration”. I went on to calm her concerns by explaining that I have an extensive background in fine art. On that occasion, I was hired to fill in for a year- and no one had any concerns after the students produced work that caught everyone's eye (more a credit to the students than to me). Not long before that, I had found myself in front of a director of an art program who cheerfully announced that she "knew nothing about art". While I did end up teaching there, I soon found the environment to be one that offered little more than a poor paycheck. Sometimes, we all follow a false prophet- it was just my turn to be blind. During these years, art lost its steam and direction. Artists became that one guy on the street carrying the end of the world sign. Most of us pass them by while looking the other way- we don't want to make eye contact, and we don’t really have time for that kind of nonsense. Jobs began to dry up in both fields. Fine artists began desperately relying upon teaching to make a living, and illustrators had to learn how to transfer their work to the digital medium as traditional print media began to disappear in the computer age. The looming economy was gaining, and no one wanted to look back.
The Industrial Age & the Age of Enlightenment
I really have been ignorant. I mean seriously stupid. This whole thing- it's a family conflict. It’s like being caught in a sibling argument, each side wants allegiance. They want a commitment one way or the other, it does not really matter what the war does to you- just don’t stand in the middle...it is not permitted. I can understand the illustration point. If you only have limited experience- what do you offer the students? I get that point- but what goes un-credited is the knowledge of everything else that makes art. It is like reviewing a movie after only seeing the trailer, small points do not make the big picture. I did manage to teach illustration for 11 years, students must have gotten something. The value of my teaching in illustration came from a dissenting point of view. Looking in from the outside- I credit that to my fine art core. Making a pretty picture is not good enough, it has to have content that strives to elevate the mind. Most illustration students really appreciate and want that, it's my reputation- at least I always set that as a goal in illustration. Fine art is another story. It’s the fine arts that are most perplexing- what are they so scared of? What are they so angry about? Is it a fear of some type of art virus being inflicted upon the students? Is it like jobs being lost to Mexico? Is it the lost kingdom of the edgy thinker? Fine artists have become an island among their own kind. I have trouble even getting near the holy land. I spent my time as a student studying right next to many of these artists- never having any idea that they held such stereotypes. Again, I have taught many fine arts courses over a 14 year span. And what I found to be most successful in teaching fine art courses, is being the example. The artist who works- not just teaches, and I credit that to my illustration foundation. One cannot exist without the other, a yin & yang- it's the balance of skill and concept that make art great. Yet one side believes the other is lazy and has no skill, and the other side believes that the other has no brains and is a sell-out. While I may be at the point of laying down my arms (by choice or force)- I wonder if anyone else has realized the battle may be raging on the inside, but no one on the outside much cares- and while artists fight, the art world is quickly becoming more and more irrelevant. That is the one thing that I never wanted to see. Art creates ideas, new avenues of thinking- human dignity through creation. That should never become obsolete. If and when it finally does reach that reality, the crusade has failed- and it's message is dead. Because if art falls over in the forest and no one is there to see it, was it ever really created?
(September 2008) Personal politics and stock art
Can an artists personal politics actually damage the commercial art industry? Jill Greenberg is a photographer. She was hired to photograph Republican presidential nominee John McCain for the September cover of Atlantic magazine. This was accepted as a commercial job, watched by an art director, left to the discretion of the artist. The photographer decided to use this opportunity to display her personal feelings about the subject (John McCain). Without notice to anyone at the magazine (or at the photo shoot) she lit McCain with a strobe light from below (images on the left). The results were as expected, a horror movie menacing feel that cast shadows and distortions across McCain's face. Although the least damaging photo (one showcasing the age of his face and lighting that increased the bushiness of his eyebrows) was used for the cover, there were more shots taken at the sitting. After the shoot, the photographer took other photos from the shoot and created obvious anti-McCain imagery using photoshop to display on her own website (images on the right). It was only after the shoot, and after the magazine went into print that this was all uncovered. Is this a case of commercial rights, or artist rights?
Now, I am no McCain fan- but even I have issues with this approach. My issues are split. I do not agree with mixing personal and professional issues, but I am also greatly disgusted with generic editorial artwork utilized as nothing more than filler. John McCain was invited to have this done for the magazine, and this photographer worked as a commercial representative of the magazine. McCain did not consent to have his photo altered and defaced. He did not agree to sit down and have anyone make him purposely look bad. I guess that this goes back to what I write above concerning critical analysis that can separate Form and Content, but also the Personal and the Professional. Even if I agree with her personal politics and find the photos interesting, this was not the forum for her personal politics- nor is this ethically sound. Why is that?
This has the ability to effect everyone working in commercial art. There is an inherent trust that the artist and the employer agree to use artwork within a specific frame. One that agrees with both the artistic integrity, and the conceptual format of the magazine. These clash from time to time, but are generally smoothed out by mutual agreements from the artist and the art director. This deception can only produce a situation forcing artists to pre-sign consents to only produce imagery that suits the political base of the buyer. Because of the deception this agreement was broken- how does this one event effect commercial art? Better yet- how does the personal choice of this artist effect other artists?
For years now, the field of commercial art in the editorial area has been weakening. Editorial artwork (be it illustration, or photography, or design) used to challenge ideals and norms. It was common place to have work create a stir- now that is very rare. A litigious society, and an industry overly concerned with profit combined with a rapid uncontrolled rise in cheap stock art took the edge away from the artist. Art directors and designers had to answer to an ever increasing number of "cooks in the kitchen". Artwork was created by committee, which always waters down an idea. Stock art nearly killed photography, and has pushed creative illustration to the brink of non-existence. Stock is cheaper, and generic. There is no fear of a clash with an artist, or with a missed deadline, or a message being high-jacked. As mentioned above, this incident with McCain may produce a backlash that fosters companies to have artists pre-sign conceptual agreements. It would not be unheard of as a few years back the largest publishers in New York agreed on artists pre-signing away all rights to their artwork- or they would not be used by the companies. This allowed publishers to own the work, thus creating a large image warehouse. Buy it once, have it forever. How many art directors (or more importantly owners) will allow new or old artists to take a risk on style and content after reading of this deception? How many new artists will be given an opportunity to have their work used after an embarrassing event like this one? Events like this may seem small, but in an ever shrinking industry already reeling from stock houses, this is exactly what makes art directors and editors shy away from the risk that is supposed to be inherent with creative art.
In following this story, I saw that after the story broke- the Atlantic magazine went on the offensive. They used many derogatory terms in an Atlantic online blog regarding Jill Greenberg. They called her "childish and excrement obsessed", and then dropped the bomb that made me believe that she not only hurt herself as a photographer, she hurt others as well... "The only good thing to come out of this ridiculous situation is that I've been introduced to several very interesting photography websites." (Jeffery Goldberg, Atlantic Magazine). While I defend her right to have a message, I think that she crossed the line in combining her personal issues and her professional responsibilities- and at what price? Stock is cheap, and less likely to burn you in the end. And, make no mistake about it- stock is what Mr. Goldberg is referring to in that quote. He is taking a direct shot at the whole industry for this event. Ross Perot used to say this about a NAFTA (North American Free Trade) agreement "Hear that giant sucking sound? That's jobs goin' to Mexico." Well I say "Hear that giant sucking sound? That's stock agencies selling more and more generic no edge crappy artwork to companies that don't care about the quality of the art content." That or maybe that sucking sound is the quality of editorial artwork in our modern age.
(March 2004) Art Philosophies
Vested independent interest is vital, should a student study skills or ideas?
Elementary art classes focus on the very basic skills, higher education should blend the application (form) with the idea (concept). Along with other generations of art students, I sat through many art classes and long project critiques only to end up no better off. I was confronted with monotonous exercises (which may or may not have developed basic skills), and little to no conceptual development. I believe in slipping the material exercises into real projects that involve a students personal interest. The student then is able to tackle conceptual development (and express visual opinion), and have material growth based on an individual need. I find that today, in our evolving world of information- I have had to change the way I teach. The standard approach of traditional art is never going to go away- but that alone is not enough. A student tires of one still-life-cross-hatch project after another. They need the basics and the tradition, but also some voice in what they are working out as their "art".
There is good art and bad art
The simple idea: Imagine you just learned your A, B, C's, and you declare "I'm done". You have no understanding of sentence structure, no subject development or comprehension skills. Now you are told to write a novel. Simple exposure to the fundamentals of art (or the basic rules ala "A-B-C's") is not enough to critically analyze art. My point is made by putting the landscape artwork of 2 artists next to each other. The first "technicolor" landscape is by the famed artist Thomas Kinkade (more on him later in following journal). The second is by famed Hudson River school artist Albert Bierstadt. I think anyone can analyze the difference, one is better than the other- but to explain why can be hard. We all started out as kids drawing and painting. It was all supposed to be good. For some of us, we stopped at the age of 7 or 8, we never advanced our knowledge of art beyond that. But art goes far beyond the base junior high mentality of "it's all good". There are defined areas of art that have levels of good and bad. Looking at these 2 paintings, there is a difference i n the application and the understanding of: color, lighting, spatial elements, perspective, value, mood, composition, intent, and many other areas. Seriously looking at these 2 works means that you employ critical analysis. One appears to be painted by an adult who has a better understanding of what they are doing, and one appears to have been painted by a drunk moron who likes pastel colors and hobbit villages. Art is a means for critical analysis, which is a life skill. That skill means that I believe that we as a human race continue to improve and raise the bar. This does not mean I believe that art is always gradable on a scale (there are just too many types of art and types of ideas to have a consistent scale after mature growth takes hold). Rather, I believe the opposite- creativity is killed when it is put into any scale that limits direction. Therein lies the rub. The basics of art do apply in establishing worth, but only to a certain point. That point is then transferred to knowledge and awareness of art. You cannot stand in judgment of art without knowing the inherent history of art. The vast changes that have created the modernist idea, also have severely limited its communication to the masses. And with that said, now there is hopefully a return to what made art great in the first place- appreciation of the actual work.
Balancing Form and Content
Form is the how of art (as in: paint, textiles, wood, ink, computer...as well as the technicalities of art: technique, craft, plans). Content is the what of art (as in: subjects presented within the art). They can intertwine depending on the type of art and the style, but for the sake of understanding, they are usually separated. The problem lies in one taking precedence over the other. As a viewer, we all come to the table with mental baggage. In critical analysis, you must be able to set that baggage aside, but mental baggage in assessing anything is very difficult to set aside.
Example: 1. You are a conservative viewer looking at a work that challenges your "norms"...
Artwork A: is a beautiful black and white photograph. Full range of values, beautiful lighting, flawless print. BUT the photo is of two men in black leather, one has a dog collar and chain around his neck. Is it still beautiful? If this offends conservative morals, Can you separate the form from the content to appreciate the beauty?
Example: 2. You are a progressively politically active viewer looking at a work that does not address your political interests...
Artwork B: A wonderful photograph of an enlarged flower, exceptional detail, gorgeous range of value and balance. BUT the photograph is a standard fare flower. No innuendo, no statement...just a flower. Can you separate the content from the form to appreciate the beauty?
They are both art, and they both offend or enrage a viewer. The funny thing is that they are both by the same artist...Robert Mapplethorpe. If that name rings a bell, it is because he is the photographer that lit the NEA funding firestorm in the 1980's. The big dilemma was a question. Should government funding be given to art that does not support the "norm"? In terms of these images and the baggage a viewer brings to them...Is one, or are both wrong? Does that disqualify them as art? In critical analysis, which is the mature form of assessing the world around us, our emotions often get in the way. To recognize yourself in the work first, makes the assessment a true accomplishment. In assessing the work, both offer a great deal in form and content, it just depends on how much you are willing to see through the baggage that you bring.
A note on realism and abstraction (in relation to evaluating "art") that I make to students is that they both use the same aesthetic principles in visual art. It does not matter if the work is realism, or abstraction. Color, value, texture, and compositional integrity are the same, be it a portrait or large color blocks. Realism and abstraction cannot exist without properly utilizing the core principles of art.
(May 2012) Leading from the middle
It's not that I do not want to be involved in a higher form of employment, also known as an "administrator". Or to hold a high position of responsibility, it's not an issue of self-esteem or belief of what I can or cannot do. It's just that I do not hold that to be an ideal. In my experiences within a lot of organizations, it is very rare to have an administrator position show leadership. They are so concerned with the bottom line of money, or "optics" as they love to say- that they miss the point of having a true and honest direction. It often falls upon those in the middle to step up to show true morals and ethics that drive an agency. those above are very often the abusers of value and ethics outlined in the notorious job descriptions and employee handbooks. Where does that leave me? I can set aside what I hold to be important (ethics, morals, self-direction) to administrate soulless directionless numbers and papers over people and meaningful work. Leaders conceal themselves, they do not force themselves. I have heard a lot of people rush to judgement of those in the middle: "don't you want more?" "You should apply yourself!" "It's time to take on more responsibility!"...for what? I am loaded with faults. I accept these faults, sometimes even embrace them. That is not to say that I doubt I can do a job of higher holding, I just understand my weakness. This philosophy does not go over well. "Aim higher" they say, "Raise the bar...You can be more..." cliche' cliche' cliche'. I am aiming high, raising the bar- it's just not in a commercialized industrial manner. My bar is inside, my aim cannot be seen. I accept where I am, and who I am for my own pursuit, my own direction.
(March 2011) The over diagnosed, over medicated US
The medical industry wants all of us, and all our money to believe that they are our savior- and we in turn want them to fix everything instantly. We are creating a god complex through chemistry. It almost sounds like I am working a conspiracy theory, but I am really spot-lighting an ever growing trend. And I have to say that I am both frustrated with the way our society treats mental illness, and the way that far too many people use a diagnosis as an excuse for their choices in life. Every behavior is now diagnosed, and most of those deemed “not normal” are being medicated by a very powerful pharmacology industry, with some very powerful chemicals. But is it too much? What is normal? Who needs to be labeled, and what is that doing to our sense of responsibility? The former nerds are now labeled with Aspergers, those that were irritable are Bipolar, kids who could not be calm -are now ADD. Some rightfully so, and many simply labeled in order to be (hopefully) medicated into normal behaviors that are determined by another person. Too many pills and no real solutions. I have to pause and ask: If a pill makes you feel happy, are you really happy? Or does that even matter anymore?
The answer will rarely be a magic pill, or a white knight in a lab coat. Those are the exceptions, not the standard. The exceptions are the cases of the true mentally ill individuals that need something or someone to step in before things get bad and they show up at a rally, or a job, or a fast food place with a sack of guns. Before they wipe out a family under the delusion of “saving” them. Before the cult pressures them into swallowing a cup of cyanide kool aid to greet their alien god in heaven. That is when medication and intervention can be a positive tool, but that is not where the large sums of money lie. And money seems to be what drives everything these days.
Those mountains of cash lie in the hands of the millions that are avoiding their own life choices, and seeking the fix through modern chemistry. Take 10 minutes to watch the news, it's all negative. It breeds depression and anxiety. Murder, rape, crime, global warming, failing economies, natural disasters- all peppered with ads for medications to make you feel better. We watch the trainwreck celebrities and celebrate that it's not us while we pop our anti-depressant and wash it down with a miller lite. We may be depressed from our lives or the media, but who can tell? It is often an excuse through a diagnosis . Not that the diagnosis is wrong. A person may be depressed, they may be bipolar, have a personality or anxiety disorder- we don’t know. We don’t know because the diagnosis is based on an assessment, not a true test of any chemicals in the brain. There is no test. There is no medical procedure. It is all an interview- and people tend to lie, exaggerate, and hide as an excuse to avoid looking in the mirror. When I was younger, someone who would do something dumb, or mean to get attention was simply called a jerk. Now (more often than not) they have a personality disorder and are signed up for extensive programs and treatment where they are told that therapists can fail, programs can fail- but they (the patient) cannot fail. I wish I could sign up for that, I'm sick of failing. Patients are given medications and programs where all sorts of behaviors are overlooked and ignored under the label of a diagnosis. No one is just a jerk anymore. There is no way to really separate truth from fiction. Very few people who are already feeling depressed, or irritated, paranoid, or isolated want to put the spotlight on themselves. It's akin to kicking yourself when you are already down. It is easier to blame others for the faults in our own lives. Responsibility…that is hard, or at least we fool ourselves into thinking it will be hard. Business philosopher Jim Rohn once said: "If you don't design your own life plan, chances are you'll fall into someone else's plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much." So many people just wait. They wait to get a pill, they wait to see a therapist. They wait to get fixed. Meanwhile, life zips by while pointing at problems everywhere else- except in ourselves. Did you know that 80% of mental health professionals have a history of trauma in their past? Fixing others comes easy, fixing ourselves is the real work.
Now many people are shocked to know that mental health conditions are diagnosed without any true test. That’s because it is professional experience, reported symptoms, and patterns of behavior that determine the diagnosis. It's based on a generalized manual and close enough fits the bill. Most people who go to their doctor or a therapist are simply seeking help, and changing a life (or recovery) is a real possibility with a mix of therapy, developed self insight, and short term medication. However, I can say that many people that I have met tend to have trouble getting themselves out of their own way. It is a natural human condition, we stay with what we know. We get into a rut with behavior, and change is often too difficult. The payoff of the change is overshadowed by the payoff of remaining the same. The same triggers (things that set us off) keep producing the same behaviors and the same results- until we actually change what we do. Albert Einstein used to say that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. If that is the hurdle that many people have to clear, how is a pill going to help? How is a dependence on visiting and revisiting past trauma in therapy going to change behavior? If we take away the pill as a “solution” -except in the most severe cases, and we take away the “dependence” of a session of therapy; and we replace that with a clear goal and plan for change- what is left? …personal responsibility.
At the time of writing this journal, I have now been working in mental health for 15 years. And I preach one truth: Medication and therapy are tools- tools that do work. But if you are waiting for a pill or a person to save you- you will be waiting the rest of your life.
(September 2003) Disenfranchised teens & the origins of violence
This originally appeared in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Gannett Newspapers) as a guest essay on July 11, 2003. Unfortunately the text was severely edited (without my knowledge or consent), which dumbed it down to the level of the editors. My original reason for writing the piece was to argue the articles woefully inadequate research into the topic of videogame violence. The headline read "Teen plotters, violent videogames LINKED", and offered absolutely no scientific support or research in any way -not one bit. After signing a release, the editors at Gannett changed nearly every sentence that I wrote. Killing the rhythm, and making my supportive argument/jabs into fluff. Is that irony? So I present it here, in original form for everyone who can find it. It was written in response to the 3 teens in New Jersey who were caught as they were to begin a killing spree in early July 2003. Because they had role playing games on their computer, it was weakly considered to be fuel for their plan, at least according to the headline that was nothing short of a sensational lie...
One of the prominent front page headlines for July 8th read as follows: "Teen Plotters, Violent Videogames Linked". Ahh, Finally we can all rest easy as we have found the answer to our troubled and violent youth. Yes, it is just that easy. Thank you Mr. Miami lawyer/Videogame critic Jack Thompson for holding our hands and demonizing the treacherous entity known as videogames. Simple solutions to complex problems come from simple minds. We have raised generations of youth that are detached from our communities. I know because I am one of the first generations raised by Sesame Street and TV, a latchkey kid. The difference is that I did not become violent. Why is that? I had many home moves and school changes. I played videogames (and still do), drooled over slasher movies, watched mom and pop divorce, and it seemed to me like everybody else also had some sort of terrorizing bully breathing down their necks at lunch. So if that’s not the cause, what is?
Extensive television, videogames, and movies without supervision (supervision being communication about subject matter, characters, reasoning, choices, and feelings) can lead to serious disconnections with humanity, or a feeling of being disenfranchised. However, that is not the sole cause of the youth violence that exists today in our culture.
We are plagued with a buy it or perish type of advertising. Our youth is being brainwashed into believing that an item (that item being clothing, toys, shoes, games, movies, food…whatever) will give you a golden ticket to the "cool" show. If you don’t have that ticket, hop into the backseat with the outcasts, the nerds, the punks, the weirdo’s- bring your pocket protector, because you are now not part of the so-called norm of society. That is the belief- go along to get along. It is everywhere we go, all in the name of business and profit margins. We are drowning in violence and consumerism, and all of us know it. The movies now have ads before the violence begins, and product placements or endorsements are commonplace. Spiderman for Cingular One. James Bond for BMW. Austin Powers/Brittney Spears for Heineken-Pepsi. The Incredible Hulk for Mountain Dew. And television…don’t get me started on that mess. I am ashamed for what is left of our culture. Television is all one big ad, broken-up by the embarrassing shows that feature one humiliation after another that is referred to as Reality TV. Thank goodness it’s not my "reality". Conflict resolution comes through large steroid induced-tight spandex clad men (and women) that are yelling and screaming clichés of how they will crush each other as their sports-entertainment soap opera drama unfolds until one of them is unconscious or pinned to the mat for the 3 count. War is now reality news, and the mystery now hooks us as to the whereabouts of those pesky weapons of mass destruction. But, according to President Bush the good news is that the War ended over a month ago…shh, don’t tell the soldiers that are still dying in Iraq. Besides, aren’t we all more interested in the wedding plans of J-LO and Ben Affleck? Or what biting personal criticism American Idol critic Simon has today for an amateur singer?
We have lost our souls, and we wonder why kids are killing people?
Is it really a surprise? Let’s just take a look at how that New Jersey teen Matthew Lovett signed his "rambling" note before the killing spree was to begin: " I thought you’d like to know that I am a warrior, I am fighting for mankind’s freedom. Freedom from this society. (signed) Me. Matthew. The One. Neo, the Anti-Christ, etc. etc. etc." He may be heading in the wrong direction and confused, but his intent and his message are obvious. He has had enough. He wants off of this runaway locomotive that we call society. He wants out right now. The violent means is just a mirror.
We have been here before. We blamed Beavis and Butthead, Nintendo, GI Joe, Ozzy, Rock and Roll, and Comic Books. Instead of blaming media, let’s try something more beneficial to solving the problem. I have worked with disturbed youth for nearly 8 years. I have worked with many patient and gifted people, and I have learned the most valuable lesson. A lesson for every adult, and every aspiring parent. Listening to children makes them feel valuable.Listening helps in beginning to relieve the trauma that creates the anger that leads to violence. Its seems like no one is listening. Our youth has been left unattended in a strictly consumer based society that is no longer tolerant of those that are different. When problems with children can’t be medicated with TV, we use prescription medication. Where did all these ADHD kids come from? When I was a kid, having too much energy and excitement didn’t result in a pill every 6 hours. The worst that would happen was you had to sit down for a few minutes. But then again, when I was a kid the pharmacological industry didn’t make $100 billion a year, and kids weren’t watching 4 to 5 hours of TV a day, with thousands of murders, rapes, and mayhem as filler for the ever important onslaught of Pepsi-Coke-Nike-McDonalds commercials.
Our children are expected to be born as self-sufficient, all knowing, conflict resolving adults. That is when they are not in a medication-induced stupor that shuts down part of their brain, or watching TV, which shuts off the rest. We no longer raise our youth; they are more and more expected to raise themselves. Children need structure, something they can depend on. Children need limits, and should not be exposed to the trials and conflicts of the adult world. When they are exposed to the inevitable (as in Divorce, Death, Loss, Change…) adults should be guides towards a positive solution. Not buffers from reality, just an aid in establishing coping skills. Children need positive adults, they need us, the adults in their community to step up and take back the world. To re-create the world we all dream of. With that first step, we are already solving the mystery of where violence comes from. That or we can join the simple videogames are the problem ranks of Mr. Jack Thompson and lose them forever.
In the good ol' days, I used to write more often. Maybe it's a lack of time with all the added adult responsibility, work, or just that I'd rather make art. Who knows? Does it really matter? On my old website, I kept a huge cache of journals. Topics like, Art, Horror, Politics. Media, Social Ideas, and stories about myself were there in mass amounts. It helped me understand a lot of the artwork I was struggling to create, and most importantly it helped me make sense of myself in the world. In redesigning my website in 2012, I failed to save the writing- but I recently found a way to capture most of the journals. Unfortunately, some of the embedded images were broken; and long gone from my memory. I used to love mixing words and images. Here are a few that are good, a few that are bad, and a lot that are written expressions of who I am- or at the very least who I strive to be. Here are some old journals in no particular order of when they were written.
"If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got."