Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Missus (A Tribute To Our Love -- Skip To The End For The Funny Part)

These sculptures are the works of the missus. She began as a potter and bodyworker and after a certain point her ceramic work began to develop sculptural qualities -- her tactile knowledge of the human form began to inform her potting.

After a while she began to take classes in sculpture. She began working with full-figures in clay but after her skills developed she began to refine her approach. She began to work with porcelain.

Her technique was to develop a rough form, then cover it with cloth (I lost a lot of T-shirts that way) and lay a sheet of rolled porcelain over it for the finished rendering. Then she'd dig the form out and fire the porcelain sheet. Some were high-fired, some were raku -- put into a wood fire that forced smoke into the crazing of the porcelain, highlighting the crackled effect. Sometimes she'd highlight the crazing by having me treat the finished piece with an ink wash.

Unfortunately she began to experience problems in her hands and arms as a result of this work -- her process was very physically demanding. And she was never able to get the hang of drawing (I think she could have if she studied it from the ground up instead of leaping headfirst into life drawing). So for a number of years she had no artistic outlet. But over the last few years her lifelong passion for gardening has taken on a distinctly sculptural quality. When I'm better at photography I'll post a piece on her current work but for now here's a healthy taste of her garden, courtesy of writing pal and horticultural polymath Deborah Kuchar.

(Note -- this is a repost. Today is Karen's and my twentieth anniversary and this is what I have to say about us.)

Well, I just wasted half an hour trying to track down a James Branch Cabell quote from Jurgen. Here's a paraphrase.

Poets fail to understand the strength of love. It is a force so powerful, so overwhelming, that it can compell a woman to put up with them.


If you've been steadily reading this blog you may have gotten the impression that I'm, well, kind of, uh. What's the word I'm looking for? An emotional trainwreck? Damaged goods? An old school crazy artist swinging wildly between elation, depression, rage, arrogance, and shame, a bit of a sot, someone with a great deal of verbal skill and a gift for sarcasm and mean-spirited commentary? That I'm a financial black hole with a sense of entitlement? That one of my most marked characteristics is what has come to be known as 'the zone of destruction'?

That I am, in a word, intolerable?

You may well ask yourself, what kind of woman would put up with this monstrosity?

A very, very strong woman with peculiar tastes (sometimes I think that if I really understood what she saw in me I'd run screaming into the night) and a terrible memory, of course.

A woman who is brilliant, artistic, scholarly (she doesn't think she is -- but you should hear the Latin terminology that gets thrown around the house), driven, powerful. Someone strong enough to stand up to me. Someone who isn't just a person -- someone who is a force to be reckoned with.

One who loves me, cherishes me, supports me endlessly, and who hates -- HATES -- my habit of self-deprecation. Boy, she's gonna give me a hard time for writing the above. Heh, heh, heh.

As of this February, she and I will have been together for twenty years. She is unquestionably one of the great blessings of my life. My gratitude for her is something I reflect on every day.

We've both grown immeasurably as a result of our influences on one another. Our approaches to life are diametrically opposed -- and as a result we have a lot to teach each other.

What do I mean by diametrically opposed?

She's an optimist and I'm a pessimist and in both cases we've suffered due to irrational expressions of those tendencies. This is one of the key sources of friction between us. (That said, it's pretty fucking obvious that her attitude has served her well and mine has served me poorly. I'm trying to learn from her.)

Back in the day she was a hippy -- she was on Ken Kesey's bus, her first daughter was the result of Woodstock, she lived on a commune. We are talking stone fucking hippy. Me? I had a mohawk in the eighties and have every Ramones album. (Of course these days she's into stuff like Scissors Sisters and Pink while I'm as likely to be listening to Billy Joe Shaver or Fats Waller as anything else.)

In person I tend to be a hell of a lot less brash than you might think from the site. I tend to be shy and deferential in social situations where I don't have a clearly defined role to play. The word 'sweet' has been frequently applied to me without intended irony. The missus is bold and daring, a real Alpha type.

She believes in Lemuria and animal telepathy. When we first got together she paid someone to cast a professional-grade astrological chart on me. When I ran across a list of the ten most dangerous cults in California she had been involved with the top two. I'm a skeptic and a fairly snide one at that.

She's a Jew from Queens. I'm an atheist-identified agnostic from Richmond, California. She comes from a money, I'm blue-collar to the bone.

She takes her bite out of the middle while I'd just as soon go hungry.

But after all this time we've swapped a lot of our characteristics. She's learned to apologize and take responsibility for her actions and I've learned to stand up for myself. She's grown more gentle, more kind, while I've grown less bitter. And we've both learned to be more loving. It's not like we've changed radically -- we've just become better and more functional versions of ourselves.

My presence has allowed her to make serious decisions and radical changes in her life. Not to go into it, but she's been in situations where people have to some degree taken advantage of her or she's been involved in situations that did not make her happy because of her fear of loneliness. Having someone who is fully committed to her has allowed her to make some fairly bold decisions and changes in her life. She is physically and emotionally healthier now than she was when we first got together. Twenty years on and honest to god, she looks and acts younger now than she did when we met.

Since I've been with her I've gotten a handle on my mental illness. (I may complain about it, I may worry about it -- but I'm no longer in need of institutionalization. I'm capable of functioning in the world.) I've let go of my feeling that hating existence is a sign of superiority. I've opened myself up to the possibility that there is some good in life. I am far more capable and functional than I was when we got together. I've even developed a couple of social skills.

And, less importantly but more obviously, she's given me a place in the world, a place that is really mine. Because of her my actual standard of living is far better than would be indicated by my income over the years. I've been places and seen things that would otherwise have been denied me. I eat well, sleep in comfort, and have a wonderful place to work because of her.

Our relationship is still growing, still changing. Still getting better. It's not perfect. We've both had to make sacrifices and hard decisions. But even during our worst moments we've always known there's something that's more important than her or me.

There's us.

(Okay, I can't let this end without giving you a good Karen story. For a while we would take the dogs and go up to Strawberry Canyon and hike for an hour every morning. At one point she decided that she wanted to listen to her iPod as we walked rather than engage in conversation and I shrugged my shoulders and agreed to let her -- the sheer rudeness of her request having overwhelmed me.

So one morning we're heading downhill back to the car and all of a sudden her stance changes and she starts to pimp walk. She struts, pumps her hips, swings her arms out while making enthusiastic if ill-informed gang signs.

Approaching us up the hill is an old-school Asian couple, I'd guess Chinese. The man is walking five paces ahead of the woman and they aren't talking and the irony of our conjunction was not lost on me.

When they're maybe eight feet away Karen, utterly lost in her music, suddenly stops and flings her arm dramatically forward, pointing in their direction, and loudly says, "It's the Ying Yang Twins!" before returning to her hilarious pimp walk.

[In case you don't know the Ying Yang Twins are a hip-hop group notable for their vulgarity. Karen was into them for a while.]

I wait until we're around the bend to gesture to Karen that she should take her earbuds out.

"Uh, sweetie?"

She looked at me impatiently. "What?"

"Do you have any idea of what you just did?"

That's part of what makes us work. I'm not the only source of public embarrassment in our relationship.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Yesterday Was A Pain In The Ass (And Locations Further South)

Sometimes it might seem like I don't like anything. That's not true. I've been fortunate enough to have been given a few trips to the tropics -- these were drawn on a Caribbean cruise to which the missus's father treated the whole family. Which I loved.

I was no more alienated from the people on the cruise than I am from the rest of the livestock in the world (although the palpable misery of the people in the casino was a bummer) and my daily routine was dee-fucking-lightful. Three edible meals a day that someone else cooked.

I'd go snorkeling in the morning, nap after lunch, in the afternoon I'd drop a couple of Lortab (which was my painkillor at that time and the best so far), then retire to a pleasantly empty bar and listen to Billy Holiday and such while drinking two Guinness (the Guinness was a different beer than I was used to -- same bottle, same brewery, but it was so much better than I expected) and a double Knockando.

The missus said, "Actually, I like your drinking this time. It makes you witty at dinner." Which I was -- I walked that fine line that separates the outrageous hilarious oaf from the disturbing oaf with great skill, frequently provoking gales of laughter.

I would sometimes sketch in the bar -- these are the best of those lazy afternoon sessions. At that point, though, I was going through one of my periodic, "My art sucks, I can't draw, I hate myself for failing the muse," phases. I kinda like these, though.

The only drawback was that I came back fat. Of course that may have had something to do with Cortisone and the sixty pounds of muscle I lost while bedridden with my back and hitting my middle years all at the same time.

Yesterday was a pain in the ass, for the most part.

Lessee. First off, there was the whole bar story debacle as covered in the last post. This left me feeling crappy -- my most widely-available stories were flawed by nature due to my laziness-inspired cluelessness. Which gave me that shame of craft feeling.

Which didn't go away when I started in on the day's art. First, I found that the image that I posted yesterday had been converted to 72 dpi. For reasons I do not know. I'd created it at 300 dpi -- and suspected that I should have gone higher, to give me flexibility in case I wanted to use it in a print at some point. Now? All those hours of cleaning and darkening the pencil sketch went into an image fit only for the internet.

So I go back and look at some of my other images to make sure the same thing hadn't happened to them. In the process, I found a tiny flaw in my big imaginary landscape. Since I want to print that out large, the file is about a gig and a half. Working on it gives me nostalgia for the old days -- opening it takes forever, saving takes forever, you have to go off and do something else while doing either.

So after finding the flaw I started going over the thing a pixel at a time. This is an image that's four feet long at 240 dpi. It takes a while.

And I find something mysterious. There are these little scraps of hard-edged color -- it looks as if someone's tossed a handful of cellphane confetti onto the damned thing. And when I track down the Photoshop layer where those bits of color lived I found another mystery.

They were on a file that had been converted for smart filters. Once you do that, you can't do anything but filters on that layer. No drawing, no smudging, nothing. And the filter on that layer was a blur. So there was no way for that layer to have anything on it that wasn't blurred.

But there they were. Like I said, a mystery. And one that took me a looong time to track down.

I think I've figured out how to fix it. Wish me luck.

Then I went to prepare the piece I'm printing on canvas tomorrow. (Oh, that's gonna be pricey. Oh well.) Blowing it up to size -- 3' by 4' -- went smoothly. So did adding the overlap at the edges.

But bearing in mind my experience with the landscape, I went over it one fucking pixel at a time.

I found a bunch of stupid little flaws. Which I fixed and the thing looks better. But I've already printed out two of these and one's been framed.

Again, craft-shame. Kraftschaden?

(A quick aside -- I was just called downstairs to field a phone call from my dad. In reference to this news story the following conversation ensued.

The Oaf: I wish I could find a way to get to Washington and punch that cocksucking idiot's heart out because punching him in the fucking head isn't gonna do a goddamn thing.

The Da: Fuckin' A right.

The Missus: Who's an idiot?

The Oaf, for the ten millionth time since the start of their relationship: Please, sweetie, I'm on the phone, I can't talk to you when I'm on the phone.

The Da, as heard by the non-multitasking Oaf: Blather obbla woadle schnuck! Phlabber. Glot.

The Missus: Who's the idiot?

The Oaf: You are, for talking at me when I'm on the phone! Will you cut it out?

The Da: Faolin tchotchke schlab I can't believe the Democrats aren't just saying, "Go ahead and filibuster, assholes, see how your voters like that."

I did apologize later -- but why does she keep doing this? There seems to be no way to stop her.)

So I wake up at midnight. My back's not as bad as it was earlier this week; this was just the regular insomnia. I stay up until nearly five, then come back to bed and try headphones and melatonin. I've been taking it easy with the sleep aids lately and the melatonin hit me hard, got some good dreaming and visuals out of it. Hallucinations are the funnest part of being crazy.

(The best were a series of Frazetta drawings [which were, of course, imaginary] of, um. Lady's bee-hinds done Frazetta-style. What can I say, I've got a vulgar subconscious -- and yesterday I saw a comic with his The Moon Maid painting on the cover. And I just got the pun in that painting for the first time in my goddamn life and I first saw that one when I was eight or nine...)

The bad news was that when the melatonin relaxed my body my fucking back went out again. Now I feel that delicious electric barbwire tickle all the way from my hips to my toes, both sides, and I had to get out of bed while still able to sleep because of the pain.

So I am a grumpy fellow. A very grumpy fellow indeed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bah! I've Got To Stop Writing Bar Stories

Now why I'm keeping this secret when most of the people reading this know exactly what's going on is a source of bafflement to me...

But there's something going on. I'll tell you that much. On March First everything changes. Okay, not everything. But there'll be something.

Cumulative evidence, both internal and external, has convinced me that I need to dump the bar series. (For those not in the loop on this one, I've written some stories set in a bar. They're weird SF, very old-fashioned in the way they work the initial concepts, and are told by barflies.) Here's why.

The main problem with them has always been integrating the setting into the story in a way that makes sense. Problem number one?

The setting doesn't need to be in the stories I've told.

When John Shirley -- he's got some readings coming up, and I'm planning on attending the one on February 28, click for further information -- read the first story in the sequence, he said that he'd have shown at least some of the real action in the story happen on-screen. I suspect diplomacy on his part.

I gave a long defense of my approach, based on the fact that the story was written specifically because I wanted to write a bar story. Which was true.

Which didn't mean that Mr. Shirley was wrong. The core of the story was right there from the first draft. All the major changes that the piece went through during its numerous revisions had to do with the packing material, with the parts of the story that were actually set in the bar.

The central and (to some degree willfully) unrecognized problem with those sections was that they didn't fucking need to be there in order to tell the story.

But I remained in denial, despite what I'd heard in my writer's group. What I'd heard from other readers.

Well, this morning I got an email from Allison Landa giving me her critique of the most recent story in the sequence. Among other things, she said...

I don’t consider the bar setting relevant and, in fact, it distracts from the meat of the story.

She also pointed out some cliches that were built into the setting. On some level this wasn't news to me but this time I found myself wondering if maybe everyone was right...

Then I got this comment from Rob Pierce regarding the Free Story I pimped yesterday.

Enjoyed it, of course, but it doesn't feel fully realized. There's a guy in a bar telling a very strange story so matter-of-factly that even when the thinking cap is revealed it doesn't seem dramatic. The whole thing for me felt like a concept, like you were saying "hey I've got this really cool idea for a story." And despite its publication, that's what I think it remains.

(For his full statement, see the comment on yesterday's post.)

Ooooooh, shit. The other other shoe just dropped.

Okay, folks, clue delivered.

The method of telling the story -- having a third person tell it to the 'voice' character, who then repeated it to the audience? Can you say insulation? One of my main concerns in my fiction is delivering something as close to a direct experience as I can get. This technique does the opposite. Fuck me.

But I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have any reasons. And now that I know that the approach is broken it's pretty clear to me what's going on here.

First off, I really love bar stories. I may not be good with them but I love them. Of course, I hate drinking in bars and that was one of the things I wanted to get across -- but that's not what I'd call a major theme upon which a body of literature could be built. Farewell, Jorkens and Mr. Mulliner. Gavagan's Bar, the White Hart, farewell. I'd rather drink alone anyway.

The next one is a little tricky, but it's essentially conceptual. In all three of these stories I had a basic idea --

The whole planet is covered in invisible bugs. What if some of them were intelligent and we were committing genocide on a daily basis just by wiping counters and cleaning toilets?

Rational thought is the product of discipline, and its most refined forms are skills derived from a tradition that has been built over the course of history, something that must be taught. It's unnatural, an artifact. What if you could do something to the human brain to make it more predisposed to rational thought?

Why the hell are raccoons stockpiling concrete on the roof outside my studio? Are they trying to make the jump to tool use?

-- and in all these cases the basic idea was something I had lurking in my head for a long, long time. Years. And they hadn't gotten anywhere near turning into stories.

The bar acted like a mental Petrie dish. In each of these cases, I had the experience of running over a particular thought like this and then saying, "Hey. Let's put it in the bar."

And when I did, all I had to do was sit down and start writing and the story just came. Clever little details and hooks produced themselves without the need for elaborate planning. The pattern in the critiques that I've gotten on these stories has been tons of red ink during the sections set in the bar, then little or nothing during the actual narrative.

There's another clue for you, Oafboy.

I think the key there is that I was imagining someone telling me the story. So all I had to do was listen. And since that was the way I imagined the stories -- and they came so easily, they were fucking gifts -- that's the way I wrote them. Stories don't come to me every day so I tend to take what my imagination gives me.

Time to start developing my creative techniques, he said.

And finally, there's a far more crass reason. The damned things sell. Both finished stories have been published, one twice in hypothetically-paying markets, and both have been posted on line. The Little Things even got praise from Biology In Science Fiction. There's a motive right there.

But more than that, the spoken-word format allows me to write the stories in a much shorter form than would be possible if I were to include things like, oh, I don't know.

Character. Setting. Description. That kind of thing.

Most of my short fiction has been at a length that rides the border between a short story and a novella. Seven to nine thousand words seems to be my sweet spot. (Now that I think about it, I've read the critical claim that the novella is the perfect length for a science fiction story...)

That length is pretty much unsellable. Almost all markets are closed to work that's longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.

But I've had just about everything I've written make it out into the public eye (and I still hold out hope for some of the pathetic crippled monstrosities thumping around my story trunk) and anyway. Who worries about the money when you're writing short form works? That's what novels are for.

(And the occasional collection. I figure that I'll put out a collection of my short fiction at some point in time. I've got just about enough to put up a self-published on-demand collection at Lulu. Hell, I want to do it just for the chance to design a book, now that I've done a magazine properly.)

So by taking the fast and easy route when I write these stories, I'm cheating them. If I want to build up a respectable body of work I can't be pulling that shit.

I need to just write them as well as I can and fuck a bunch of commercial motivations. If someone wants something commercial from me I'm happy to do it -- but to write commercial stuff and then hope to sell it? That's not the game I want to play. (Puts on his grease-stained cardboard crown.) I am, after all, a literary artist of the highest water. Belles-lettres, motherfucker.

So I guess I'll have to go back to the raccoon story and write it like a fucking story. At least I've got a solid notion of the events, characters, and setting of the story, of the basic narrative arc. Now to turn those into a plot.


A Free Story At New Voices In Fiction, Plus Some Pissing And Moaning

I sketched this at the botanical gardens up at UC Berkeley. Man, it's gorgeous up there. I want to go and sketch there again, once I'm all caught up... which will never happen.

Well, I recently had my second troll show up -- go here and scroll down to the bottom for a nice dose of dumbass -- and I decided to Google his name. Which is my name but since Googling yourself is fucking obscene I'm not going to cop to it in public. This time.

Anyway, in the process I found that New Voices In Fiction had posted my most recently published story on their site. It's in the same sequence/series as the story I posted about a couple of days ago. This one is about those most inseparable of twins, booze and brain surgery. It's just good plain fun, chock full of the optimistic view of human nature you've come to expect from me.

Here it is!

On a more distressing note, my back is giving me hell. I've pushed it this last week -- had school four days in a row, did a skeletal drawing, and carried some groceries home. Pathetic, huh? It's not the pain that bothers me so much as the sensation of weakness -- physically, that is. I can feel the vulnerability of my back right now. It's like there's a hinge there and if I stand wrong the top half of my body will just flop over.

Of course it's the pain that keeps me from sleeping. And I don't have any fucking pills and I missed my appointment last week and I'm gonna have to pay for it and shit. Just a bit of a bummer, you know? Ah well and oh my.

But the real issue here is that I'm having to let go of a project I've been wanting to do for more than a year now. Here in the East Bay Area there's an annual tradition of having open studios. A local arts organization, ProArts, organizes the whole thing and it's a real circus.

Now that I've decided to try and do something with my art I wanted to participate. But it would involve spending two weekends in a row of pulling eight-hour days on my feet. I should have known better than to start into something like that but I gave myself the old, "You fucking lazy-ass hypochondriacal goldbricking bastard, go out and try and make some fucking money," speech.

That one always gets me in trouble. The people at school who are doing this need everyone they can find to participate so I feel really bad about having to withdraw from this.

Stupid back.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Something's Wrong With My Brain -- Something New, I Mean

From my first dinosaur to my most recent... Here's a Psittacosaurus neimongoliensis. I worked from Scott Hartman's skeletal diagram -- if you like this kind of stuff, I can't recommend his site highly enough.

Well, the old self-sabotage has taken a radical new turn. Normally I'm the kind of person who is punctual to a degree that borders on the pathological -- I always allow myself plenty of time to get lost when I'm going someplace new, I always show up fifteen minutes ahead of time, etc, etc.

But in the last couple of weeks an alarming deficit has started to show up. In an earlier post I mentioned my difficulty determining the time when a lab started. Well, last week I had an appointment with my pain control specialist and I totally blew it off -- completely forgot about it.

I've got a superstitious belief that things come in threes... Well, that's two.

On the up side, the teacher that's reading my novel? Well, she was talking it up to one of her pals and so now the TA for my digital printing class wants to read The Ghost Rockers. Which is cool -- the idea that I'm getting word of mouth already is encouraging.

You know what makes it extra cool? She's Lisafer, the guitarist for Cookie Mongoloid. I am no stranger to metal -- but this is stranger metal than most.

(The Oaf bangs his head, makes devil horns.)

Rock on!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A New Story! A New Story!

Behold! My very first attempt at drawing a dinosaur. This was back in the days when Gregory Paul was suggesting that small theropods may have been feathered and everyone formed a circle around him, pointing and hooting and saying, "Get a horse! It'll never fly!"

I had my doubts but I wanted to try drawing one.

I came upstairs this morning with every intention of continuing the skeletal diagrams for my Psitaccosaurus neimongoliensis. Instead, I wrote a new short story.

For the last while we've had some critter -- either squirrels or raccoons -- stockpiling chunks of concrete on the roof outside my studio. I've joked to my music buddy that someone's trying to make the jump to a paleolithic culture.

This came up in conversation with the new writer's group on Thursday and it dawned on my that I've written two stories with the same characters and setting that used other whimsical SF notions -- I think of the series partially as a dumping ground for those kinds of stray thoughts. I've mentioned this in my blog at other times.

Well, this morning my narrative function made the little ping noise that mean's a story is ready to write.

These stories are old-school short fiction. This one in particular had John Collier and Saki whispering in my ear while I worked.

Here's a taste. I'll let you know when it finds a home.
Procyon habilis

Like I said, I always get into trouble at Gary’s.

I sighed loudly enough to let Gary know that I was doing him a favor and got up.

“Hoss, this is Heather. Heather, my man the Hoss,” Gary said.

I smiled and nodded. “Heather.”

Heather smiled back – big worried eyes and a thin tight smile -- and reached her hand up. “Hoss,” she said.

I took her hand gently – I’m always wary of using a firm grip – and kept my eyes on her face as we shook. Her dress was cut low and I couldn’t help but imagine myself falling face first into her pillowy cleavage. Poof.

I scooted into the booth. The scuffed leather-covered padding on the bench was thin and the space between the table and the walls was narrower than I found comfortable and Heather and I were entirely too close to one another.

When I looked up I caught Gary staring at her. “I’ll have your drinks in a second,” he said, and went back to the bar.

Heather picked up her glass and licked at the salt on the rim, looked at me as though inspecting a piece of livestock. The silence went on forever, so long that I actually jumped when she spoke up.

“So you got any kids?” she asked.

“Nah,” I said. “I love ‘em but I can never finish a whole one.”

Heather giggled. I wasn’t sure she was really amused – she seemed worried. “Maybe that’s what I should do with mine, just put him in the oven.”

“Kids are great,” I said, “I used to work at a day care center when I was in high school. I love kids, I’m pretty good with them, but I just don’t want any of my own.”

Gary set our drinks down on the table; another margarita, my stout, and a double of something amber.

“I know you like your whiskey,” he said to me. “Since the lady’s paying I figured I’d give you a taste out of my private bottle.” He looked hard at Heather as he spoke and his statement sounded obscene – I’d like to give you a taste out of my private bottle.

“Well, thanks to both of you,” I said, and Gary pulled away reluctantly.

Heather lifted her glass. “To kids.”

“To the health of your boy,” I said, and we clinked glasses. There was something about this whiskey, something richer than usual, and I realized that it wasn’t watered.

Then Heather scrambled for her purse, sniffing loudly. Her eyes shone with tears as she pulled out a Kleenex and dabbed at her face. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do with him, Hoss.”

I took another gulp before I spoke. “What’s wrong?”

“He’s… Jason’s in with a bad crowd,” she said.

“You mean like a gang?”

She shook her head. “No. Well, sort of.” And then she laughed through the tears and the sound made me think of ripped cloth.

“What do you mean?”

Heather blew her nose and wiped at her lip for long seconds before she replied. “They’re raccoons.”