Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yes Indeed, There Is A Plethora Of Swill-Related Posts

See, the thing about the way I work with Illustrator is that I think in ink. I can't fucking control a pen or a brush to save my fucking life -- but I've learned to use Photoshop and Illustrator in a way that gives pretty much exactly the kind of result I'd like to be able to execute in ink.

Which would make me feel terrible, and inadequate, if I didn't have to clean up brushes and pens and wind up with accidental tattoos all over my feet from dropping pens on them unlike the four or five Rapidograph dots I currently sport and rather than spending forty or fifty hours crouched over a drafting board to produce the above, which I cannot do with my back, I spent about twelve hours all told. Standing work, sitting work, walking around work. Good variety. If I can make this pay, it's a good job. Cool.

Swll Some More!

Deborah called me up yesterday and asked where we should go to sketch. I told her I needed to take photos and that I could use some inspiration for prints. She delivered, and here she is. Thanks, as usual, to a good pal.

This Is Your Brain On Art

There we go. Much better. And I've got a new one I might be able to finish today. It's got a new feature -- a human being! After all, what's the point of doing landscapes like these with no-one in them to feel distressed, alienated, and threatened?

So to shift the current focus of the blog a little bit, here's some information I recently received that gave me a fresh look at the relationship between mental illness and creativity. This is, as you may imagine, a subject of great interest to me. There are so many factors that come into play here -- everything from tenacity that looks a little like OCD if you tilt your head to childlessness to poor boundaries making characterization and dialog easier to write to vulnerability to sensory input to the stress experienced when one lives in a culture-hating culture -- on, and on, and on.

Look. I know healthy, stable artists who are sick of the 'crazy artist' stereotype. Sorry, folks, you seem to be in the minority. When people apply it to you, it's a stereotype. When they apply it to me, it's observation.

Artists of any kind tend to be a little messed up, and when they aren't, they are usually kinda weird. I used to go through phases of being upset when waves of mental illness seemed to sweep through my friends, and then I realized that I only like hanging out with driven creative people.

Well. I think I have figured out one of the reasons why art is so good for those of us who have a few screws rattling loose in the cranium.

The information came from two different sources. One was the book This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin, the other was an episode of the Mythbusters TV show.

The Mythbusters included a segment on the idea that you use ten percent of your brain at any given time. Bullshit, of course, but there was something very interesting that came up near the end. If you aren't familiar with Mythbusters, they're a TV show devoted to the scientific (on a crude but real level) investigation of everything from turns of phrase to movie cliches. They investigate the myth, and then when they're done, they try and either replicate it, exaggerate it, or completely reverse it.

In this case, they wanted to turn the myth around and have someone use their entire brain at the same time. Do you know what the subject did that used their entire brain simultaneously?

They told a story.

Memory, sensory details, emotions -- everything came into play. And as they described what was going on, I realized that if I had a chart of the areas of the brain, I could intentionally activate any of them through an act of imagination or memory. (They're pretty much the same thing, actually, or so it looks these days.)

You could do it too. It's not hard at all, it turns out.

And in This Is Your Brain On Music (a wonderful book, if you think you might be interested in it you should read it), it was revealed to me what part of the brain is used when you play music.

All of it. The whole meghilla.

Let me tell you a little something. I play bass, and before my music buddy became a father we were pretty serious in a garage-band way. Recorded an album that's actually listenable in a way. But my bass playing stalled out a bit, and I recently figured out the totally-obvious reason why.

With my back, I don't practice any more. The more I sit, the more I hurt. It's a simple formula.

But recently music has been taking off on me. I had a couple of baritone ukuleles that I found at yard sales. The nice thing about ukes is that with their short necks, I can play them lying down or sitting in my recliner. Well, a few months back I found something else. A pair of violin stands that are the perfect size for the ukes. I tuned one uke EADG like a bass, the other DGBE, which is standard baritone uke tuning, and then set them out on the floor. Where they stayed in tune a hell of a lot better, and they were there. I could just reach out, and there was an instrument that I could actually play. And I would.

In fact, I do. I've gotten in the habit of periodically breaking while working to play a melody or a scale or a few chords. Sloop John B is my current favorite, and those who remember the VPXIII singalong will be amazed to hear that I've got it sounding halfway decent.

It's gotten to be a habit because when I do it, it's like running a comb through my thoughts. The bristly stray cognitions that have begun to block my work in writing or visual arts are put back in place, and I can return to work refreshed and confident.

Very interesting, no?

And there is a feeling that I've been getting with my writing more and more frequently -- a sense of control. Of knowing that I know what I'm doing. It's actually intoxicating.

I think it's my whole brain going at once. I think one of the great attractions to art is that it allows the artist to fucking make their brain shut up and do what it's told.

Here's another anecdote. (I know, the plural of anecdote is not evidence -- but I am not claiming to do research here. I am saying, hey! You! Research this for me.)

For me, creating visual art does not feel like a complete experience in itself. I need music to fill things out. I don't want music when I write. People who write to music might want to ponder this a bit. Is this the reason I'm a second-rater in the visual arts? I need the music to propel me through the laborious parts of the process. If I was actually interested in each brush stroke I'd be a better artist. (Although Chuck Close works to music, so that theory might be blown right there.)

Last Saturday I was working on a print, and instead of playing music, I played an instructional CD on learning rhythm. Fascinating, delightful stuff -- here it it -- and it riveted me. I was chanting along unconsciously while I worked, occasionally taking time out to do a little hambone. It was a great fucking afternoon. I came out of it feeling euphoric. And I'll bet I maxed out my brain. Overclocked that son of a bitch.

I think I'm a whole-brain junkie. I think my brain is like one of those high-end sportscars where if you just drive it in traffic, it gets fucked up. You need to take it out on a track every once in a while and put that fucking pedal down.

Or so I suspect. Anyone got an EEG so we can check this shit out?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

WooHoo! Road Trip!

Of course, some would regard it as a bad decision to post this after the last post, but this conversation came up yesterday, and if a conversation has a punchline, I can't help blogging it.

If you don't know, my whole family is the
same way as me, pretty much. I'm just the XXX version.

The Oaf: I've been thinking about running amok lately. I dunno; it's not always a bad idea to let go of your dreams. I think I might be out of the game.

His Dad: Really? You think?

The Oaf: Well, there's three ways to go. Serial killer, mass murderer, and crime spree. Serial killing is right off.

His Dad: How so?

The Oaf: Well, it's basically a form of masturbation, and the great feature of masturbation is its convenience. I mean, you toss one off and you've got a body to dispose of? That just doesn't work for me.

His Dad: Yeah, I'd rather roll over and go to sleep.

The Oaf: Exactly. And mass murder... I mean, in terms of what you're doing, that's the one that appeals to me. Just start killing and keep it up until they kill you. It's the prep-work that throws me. I couldn't get ready for something like that in advance. You ever read Erica Jong? My ideal mass murder is pretty much the same as her zipless fuck. I might dive into a crowd from a height, but probably not if they were only one person thick. I dunno, maybe if I'd been in the military...

His Dad: Vets always get the blame.

The Oaf: Well, tell me why, Mr. Postman? See, they've been trained to respond to stressful reactions with violence just like me, they've been trained to view groups of people as dehumanized victim galleries just like me. But they have guns and shit laying around, and they have an excuse.

His Dad: So I'd ask you why you bought a gun and you'd get all red faced, start mumbling about home protection...

The Oaf: Exactly. And if I just run downtown and start bending people, man, what a fucking waste of time. Get to Hell and have Charles Whitman being all, "Ah, one point seven five? Shit, that's no body count for a man. I told you 'bout how I got sixteen, right?" at me for the rest of eternity. No thank you.

His Dad: Well, you should have thought about that when you were younger.

The Oaf: Shoulda, coulda, woulda. And a crime spree... I dunno. I don't think I could make enough consecutive bad decisions to get a crime spree out of it.

His Dad: Oh, crime spree's the one for me.

The Oaf: What? Really? Huh. Is it a matter of getting the right Caril Fugate?

His Dad: Nah, I just like a road trip.

The State of the Oaf

There we go. This looks right and will print properly. Alas, the other piece I want to work on? I lost the fucking file for it, and will have to reproduce it from scans and photographs. Oh, well. I'm just going to have to do the fucking work -- turns out that these aren't just going to Spectrum, they're also going to the SF MOMA! I got an invitation to submit in my email this morning. Which means I'm putting the Swillistrations out into the commercial and fine arts worlds simultaneously.

Duchamp rotates as I type, faster and faster and faster... a little smoke emerges from his grave...

So I haven't been too communicative about my personal situation over the last week or so. I've been mulling things over. This is an eminently mullable situation. Here's the deal.

Two weeks ago, I checked into the emergency room after vomiting impressive quantities of blood for three days. This is the third incident of this I've had in the past few months, so the missus was frightened enough so that... well. If I didn't do what she wanted, I'd have felt like a total shit.

Now here is a familiar pattern. I will take care of myself if it is something I need to do for the sake of another person. This is one of the reasons I'm hard on the nerves, but it's also one of the reasons I'm still alive. Yes, it's bad that a human being needs a mechanism like this in order to function. But you know what? Sometimes you need a fucking crutch. People badmouth crutches all the time -- but who goes around taking people's crutches away, for chrissakes?

That was what was driven home to me in the hospital. You see, what Karen and I thought was some sort of gastrointestinal condition turned out to be a stress reaction or anxiety attack. And it seems as if the sight of my reaction to three shots of Ativan, a Valium, and a dose of morphine made an impression on the missus.

Because last week she took me back to the hospital. She'd spoken with my doctor and they'd decided to get me on some tranks to last me until I consult with a shrink, one batch of pills and one batch of suppositories in case I climb back on board the blood-puking train. (Look, I need a general term for counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists and shrink would be the word.)

Which I am going to do. I'm not going to do it until the Swillistrations are done and off, because I need to cater to my OCD tendencies a bit in order to keep my stress at a manageable level.

This is representative of the way I'm coming to think now.

What strikes me as interesting is that I had the attack just a little while after I decided that I needed to simplify my life, to work with my quirks and eccentricities rather than fight them.

Now this is going to sound horrible, but I'm trying to look at myself semi-objectively here. I've always considered myself a crazy genius, but, you know. The domestic, or tea-cup variety. Someone who'd be more accurately described as a gifted eccentric.

That estimation isn't exactly holding up. I'm crazy enough so that big 'S' society has decided that I need medication and observation. And I'm genius enough to be simultaneously rocking literary fiction, scriptwriting, surrealist digital prints, and paleontological reconstruction, all well enough to be taken seriously by those in a position to do so.

I mean, I've gotten serious big-name approval. The scary kind. Patrick Neilsen Hayden bought my fiction and wants to see all of it, the BBC has broadcast my shitty cartoon scripts, Harlan Ellison (who does, in fact, know art) praised my art very highly in personal correspondence and it has improved distinctly since then, the Smithsonian mentioned my latest paleontological print by name on one of their popular science blogs. If I heard any one of these things about someone else I'd be impressed. To know that these are all true of me... Honestly, I still think I made all that shit up but there is a fucking paper trail! These things happened and they continue to happen! Shit, I'm about to start in on performance and spoken word stuff, and even there I'm starting out at a respectable level.

It is fucking hallucinatory. It contradicts my views of myself profoundly. This is one of the reasons I've been going nuts lately. I keep talking about this kind of stuff to the people I know because I can't believe it's true.

I bet it's getting a little dull to listen to.

What helps put this into perspective, is that when I told the doctor that I'd been diagnosed with agitated depression or mixed state when I was in my mid-twenties, she was suddenly very, very concerned. She scootched close to me and put her hand on mine and looked me in the eye and said, very, very gently...

"So, can you go outside at all? Or do you have to stay at home?"

The thing is, is that she wasn't being clueless. So far as they can tell, about a third of the people who are diagnosed with agitated depression kill themselves. This is, for many people who suffer from it, essentially a life-ending diagnosis. Permanent misery. To be able to speak articulately to a doctor while in a state of distress is enough to mark me as extremely high-functioning. And it is far from the only thing that's odd in my noggin.

But while it's important, it isn't what my life is about. Yesterday I wrote an essay for an upcoming project that I'll tell you more about later. It was a bit of absurdism/surrealism that was... Well, I know I can hurt people with my fiction, that I can show horrid events from a horrid viewpoint and have the reader walk away feeling worse for the experience, wondering why they didn't just stop reading. I wanted to see if I could write something that could impart a powerful feeling of positivity and uplift.

I gave it to the missus to read, and when I asked her how she liked it, I thought she might be close to crying.

"I wish you really did feel this way," she said. When I was able to explain to her that I do not write things that are not true, she felt pretty good. I swear, you know the story of the blind men and the elephant? I'm sorta like the elephant.

People tend not to see all of me at once. Some people cannot imagine me having a negative thought and some people cannot imagine me having a positive one. But I am a creature of balanced extremes. If I did not have a compensatory optimism and ambition, I wouldn't be here. But I do, and I am.

I'm going through an important transitional period in my life. This is why I'm having these crises. This is why I'm constantly excited. And the excitation is part of the problem. Good news increases my heart rate, makes it difficult for me to sleep...

It's stress. The doctor spoke to me about this when she encouraged me to get into counseling. Why am I having these spectacular blood-spurting breakdowns? Because my life is starting to come together and I have no basis for coping with success. At all. And it's something that takes coping.

So this is it. I'm giving up on trying to be a conventional person. Nine-to-Five house and kids 401k Sean is not a possibility. It's too late, and a bad fit. I do not fit into the American categories of winner and loser at all comfortably. I need to make crazy genius work.

Let me put this into literary terms. As a child I idealized the Heinlein man, Conan, the My Side of the Mountain guy, but that isn't the way it works for me. If left entirely to my own devices, I would die due to simple lack of interest in eating and drinking. I am not an independent person. I am not a loner. I'm more like Nero Wolfe or Sherlock Holmes, someone of great gifts who is also very dependent on those around him for support and structure. By struggling against this, I've made life harder for my support group.

That's one of the reasons I'm finishing Swill, and sending the art off to the Spectrum collection and the SF MOMA before I make the hike down into Oakland to be evaluated, designated, slotted, spotted, and then head-shrank. The genius part has to carry more weight than the crazy.

Here's where I am this moment. I've taken two of the Ativan since last Wednesday, and I don't like it. It makes me feel slow, numb, and slightly confused. It is better than serious anxiety, though. I've noticed that if I threaten myself with one, I calm down so I don't have to take it. Very interesting.

And the last two nights, I've gotten relatively decent drug-free sleep for the first time in years. I believe I've found the secret. I need to be in bed between eight and eight-thirty, I crash by nine, I'm up at five in the morning. That's my proper slot. My insomnia is partially because since I've stopped work, my bedtime has drifted later and later so I can spend time with Karen in the evenings. (Well, sweetie, would you rather have me awake at ten, or in bed at three?)

My facing up to the fact that I've got a mental illness that does require treatment, my days and nights of compulsively writhing and vomiting? These aren't issues. They're climate and weather. My life is coming together, and I'm finally finding out who I really am. This is a good time. This is a healthy process for me. This shit does not represent a setback, it is just some of the baggage I have to deal with. And other people have it worse, and there is no point in comparison.

This is my life, and hey. It may not be what anyone expected but it is a thing.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Second Cousin of Swill

Okay, so today I wrote a very odd essay -- inspirational surrealism, a rare feel-good piece -- edited it, redid the first Swillistration and greatly improved it, and executed the piece above. In addition, I purchased a book for a friend, walked the dogs, made lunch for the missus...