Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Scribble Scribble 1

Here's how it's going to work: One sketch based on an acknowledged master drawing from Nathan Goldstein's 100 American And European Drawings...

(I'm just starting here -- if I keep this up I'll go non-Eurocentric for the next batch.)

... one observational drawing, usually done as a visual exercise (in this case it's a blind contour drawing -- I never lifted the pen from the page and I only looked at the subject while working)...

... and one cartoon-oriented drawing done from my imagination.

So if you've ever been an art student you've probably had this experience -- a casual acquaintance catches you lugging around a big pad of newsprint and wants to take a peek. And when they see the drawing exercises you've been doing in class they immediately dismiss you -- "Oh, it's all scribble scribble."

I've heard that exact phrase a few times over the years. They never seem to catch me when I've got my portfolio -- it's always a fucking sketchbook, alas for my vast-yet-tender ego.

Anyway, I'm going to take a shot at doing something I should have been doing all along. I'm going to try and make a habit of doing some kind of sketching every day.

Maurice Lapp, the artist and teacher who taught me most of what I know about art, always said that it was important to draw from three sources: The master artists, observations of real life, and your own imagination.

So I've decided to do three fast sketches every day for at least the next one hundred days -- long enough to get through the above-mentioned portfolio. We'll see what happens after that.

When I've got my draftsmanship in shape it has a positive effect on every aspect of my creative life -- and while I'm going through a strong period so far as the creation of images goes, my drawing skills are weak at the moment.

I'm working fast for two reasons. One is that I don't want to take too much time and creative energy away from more serious projects; the other is that I draw too damned slowly and I hope to address this issue.

See, I want to do some cartooning this summer -- hopefully this will get both my draftsmanship and my speed up to the challenge. We shall see...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Crit List 3: Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite

Well, I hadn't intended to post another critical piece so soon -- but when Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite showed up in the mail, courtesy of James Benstead of Tallis House, it demanded my attention.

I knew going in that I wasn't going to be reading another Borribles book. And honestly, there's no point in referring to the Borribles when discussing Journal. They're opposite works in just about every conceivable way, quality aside.

Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite is a mature work. Its prose is polished and lucid to the point of being virtually invisible. (High praise in my book.) It's about writing, about the importance of art in life, about ambition -- in other words, it's about many of the questions that are currently occupying a good deal of my attention. I found it thought-provoking, frequently beautiful, genuinely useful, technically fascinating in its approach, and at times frustrating and disappointing.

But despite that last caveat I know this is a book that I'll return to. It's a wonderful thing for a writer to read. The author clearly sees the act of writing as an essentially heroic one, and the way the book has been constructed makes a convincing emotional argument for this position. It makes me want to write more and to be more ambitious -- and to take pride in ambition.

It would be an act of hubris for an author to make that thematic statement if they seemed to be holding up their own work as an example of greatness. But this isn't the way de Larrabeiti handles things. This isn't simply a novel; it's also an anthology of great writing in both poetry and prose, all carefully selected to support the story and its deeper meanings.

If I'd heard about this in advance I'd have been very dubious. But it works -- and as a result this book is rewarding on a number of different levels. Just as a collection of writing it's wonderful. But that writing has been put to use that isn't clever -- rather, it's deep and heartfelt.

Normally I'd read a book of this length in two or three hours. This one took me all day because I read many passages slowly and repeatedly, savoring them. There's writing contained in this book that is as good as writing gets -- and it's all in service to de Larrabeiti's statement. I'm very ambivalent about appropriation and name dropping in fiction but I loved this.

I mentioned that this book is good for writers; there are passages on how to write and on the enemies of literature that I'm considering tattooing on my forearm for convenient reference.

The plot is slight; it's in service to the theme of the book and as such is serviceable -- but it is badly hampered by what I see as the book's central flaw.

The plot deals with the relationship between a teacher and a gifted student; the book is broken into three interwoven sections -- notes from the teacher, quotes from the student's diary, and selected literary passages.

I found the sections written from the student's point of view to be thin and unconvincing. She remains nameless throughout the book -- and while I suspect that de Larrabeiti did this in order to emphasize her importance as a muse or an anima figure (one of the book's strengths is its use of classic mythology, which is fully and naturally integrated into the story), it seems to be part and parcel of her existence as a plot contrivance rather than a living, breathing person.

This wouldn't matter if everyone in the novel were cut-out figures but this isn't the case at all. She's a perfect foil for the protagonist -- and nothing else, and as a result her portrayal weakens the book substantially for me.

And unfortunately this is exacerbated by trick typography. Each of the three threads in the novel has been given its own typeface. Since the quotes are in the italic version of the protagonist's font they work together perfectly; the student's passages are in a sans serif font that would work well as a display font. It makes brutal reading when used for body type. It just looks ugly on the page -- and as a result it offended the visual artist in me.

I found the typographical experiment to be a failure; it made me all too conscious of the reading experience and not in an enlightening way. On the other hand, who's to fault the decision to make an experiment? I'd rather see a failed experiment than a conventional success, and most of the experiments made in this book succeed.

Despite these petty complaints I really, really liked this book. As I said, I know it's one that I'll reread in the future. If you are interested in the relationship between art and life it's well worth a look. Few perfect books are this good -- de Larrabeiti aimed high and achieved well.

(As an aside, a description of the myth of Narcissus made me conscious of how often our culture has misread mythology. In the myth, when Narcissus fell in love with his reflection he believed it to be the face of a nymph -- he wasn't self-obsessed, he was cursed with features that inspired love. And that made me think of Oedipus, who didn't have a mother fixation -- he just happened to wander into a bad situation. Now I'm gonna have to re-examine all the familiar myths I run across...)

Guess Who's Been Published Again?

Well, it looks as if you'll be able to see my fiction making its first appearance in a genre-oriented publication. The second issue of New Voices In Fiction is out and it also features an interview with Kim Newman, of whose work I am rather fond -- I actually prefer Jack Yeovil but I'll settle for Newman.

Anyway, if you go here you can see a brief slice of the story -- it's another SF bar story, this one with a slightly uglier edge than It's The Little Things. This one concerns an attempt to devise a way for people to think rationally. It ends badly, of course. And there's also one of my author's notes, this one guaranteed to make the missus cringe, despite the qualifier the editor added to the end.

I can hardly wait to hold this in my hands. Neat!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

How The Oaf Saved Giftmas

Meeaaarrry Giftmas!

Gather 'round, my children, as the oaf patronizes you from the third person. He is feeling mightily pleased with himself and is moved to share the reason as to why he is smugger than Halliburton on this moist midwinter morning.

Now may I suggest you read no further unless you can embrace the pure and true spirit of Giftmas. Any petty denominationalism may be parked just outside the door. It is the middle of the fucking winter and people need a little something to convince them that life is not a waste of time.

That would be a present.

A good present. There are presents where the best part of it is ripping off the wrapping or seeing someone's face when they open up the package. These presents suck.

A good present proves its worth over the course of years. It's something you use or run across periodically and it pleases both in itself and in the way it calls to mind a time, a place, and a person. A really good present is a physical expression of healthy love and an enhancement to life.

Well, the oaf ain't that cool. But this year he was able to let the healing rains of Giftmas fall on the parched plains of entrenched adulthood and the results will be visible for years to come.

See, what the oaf's family has done since the entre of the kids has been to get presents for the girls and then each adult would pick a secret Santa victim by drawing a slip of paper with their name from a hat. Trades and hustles were allowed; the oaf would typically insist on providing a present for his brother-in-law and then buy an art book he wanted but could not justify purchasing for himself.

This year the holiday was not planned; it occured, suddenly and shockingly. The oaf recalls a cracking noise like hot water poured into a cold glass accompanied by an odor of brimstone; he could be mistaken. But there was no time to organize Giftmas and alas!

Dismay and confusion, accompanied by a faint thin grayish feeling of impending decrepitude, a horrid sense of the essential disregard in which existence holds us, a taste in the mouth as subtle and pervasive as celery in a stew that spoke softly and insistently of the bleakness and thanklessness of life.

This was not helped when the oaf and an unnamed boon companion vanished for half an hour and returned visibly intoxicated with their volumes turned all the way up and the channel turned to weird.

There was an assembly of toys for the girls, suicide tools called Moon Shoes that required the use of many elastic bands. ("Those look like they were invented by a bone doctor," quoth the brother-in-law, and all nodded sagely as they hooked the elastic bands onto the hooks molded into the plastic tubes and the flat piece the child would have attached to their bodies with industrial-grade Velcro, tm.)

The sense of energy, of joy in one another's company that had been the hallmark of the morning had faded.

It was then that the oaf pulled out the fruits of his semester's labors. A portfolio, an art transportation tube spilled forth their contents onto the now pristine dining room table.

"Buffet rules," the oaf said. "Take all you want but frame all you take."

And then there commenced a period of basking in admiration, generous and open-hearted negotiations over particular prints, a brief kerfuffle over the participation of the children, signing was done, the phrase, "Of course you can have two; you can have as many as you really want," was repeated, and people felt as if they had gotten a fucking present. They glowed, they smiled, they were excited and involved and everyone was really, really into it.

And the oaf has every intention of feeling pleased with himself for quite some time.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Crit List 2: The Land Of The Lost

Ah, how rarely do we get to recapture the dreams of childhood!

Only a total dick would neglect to post a dinosaur (Gorgosaurus libratus) image along with a Land of the Lost post. And only a total dick would fail to acknowledge that he totally swiped the pose and proportions from one of Gregory Paul's skeletal diagrams.

There are a lot of people in paleo art who really should cut Mr. Paul a check... I don't steal from him in my serious pieces but can you spot him in my sketchbooks? Yes, you can.

Well, I hadn't intended to revisit another childhood memory for a while but Brian Switek's post on the upcoming Land of the Lost movie was too opportune to ignore. Let's talk about the original Land of the Lost.

See, back in the day I was a fan of the original show and I've watched it recently -- and it's worth discussing here.

When the show debuted in '74 I was a ten year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs fanatic. His Pellucidar series, set in a hollow Earth filled with a mishmash of prehistoric animals ranging from labyrinthodonts to mamoths, was my particular favorite.

(I might go into Burroughs in another post -- but I have to confess that I lost interest in his work for decades after a particular passage in Tarzan at the Earth's Core where a stegosaur gnashes its flesh-rending fangs and folds its plates into wings, using them to glide down a mountainside in order to attack Tarzan. I closed the book -- all the Frazetta-painted buttocks in the world weren't sufficient motivation to read Burroughs after that.)

Anyway, as soon as I was able to read I systematically hunted down every lost world fantasy in any library to which I had access. So when I started seeing the Saturday morning TV ads for Land of the Lost I was in heaven.

And the show did not dissapoint -- it seemed to me to be real science fiction, the characters were involving, and I was fascinated by the world they created. It was produced by Sid and Marty Croft, whose other shows like H.R. Pufnstuf and Sigmund the Sea Monster had always impressed me as kinda dorky and creepy -- but here, the creepy vibe really worked for me.

Flash forward to a year or so ago when I had been dragooned into going to Best Buy, where I spotted the first season of Land of the Lost. After a brief and pathetic tussle with economic reality and the question of whether or not this was something I needed to own I grabbed that sucker. As soon as I got home I put it on to play.

My first thought was that the effects were shockingly bad -- the rafting trip that runs through the credits is hilarious. And the overacting was pretty amusing as well. They only had a few clips of rubbery malformed dinosaurs in action which they repeated over and over.

But I kept watching. And something strange happened.

I started to enjoy it not just as camp but as adventure fiction. As science fiction. The kids started to ask for it when they came to visit. The missus started wandering away from her video poker and succulent websites when I was watching it.

This was the H.R. Pufnstuf take on The Lost World and it was, in an admittedly very limited way, good. How the hell did that happen? How did they do that?

Hey, if anyone associated with the entertainment industry is reading this, it's simple. Two words. And with these two words you can conquer any production limitations that have been placed on you and produce something entertaining and involving -- something that has a legitimate shot at success. Those two words?

Good writing.

I'm not talking about great writing. I'm talking about solid conventional storytelling coupled with a degree of genuine creativity. Good, professional commercial fiction. Land of the Lost had the perfect TV combination of the big overarching story and complete stories in each individual episode. Series like Lost and Heroes could benefit from the study of Land of the Lost.

And if you're a SF reader, here are some people who wrote scripts for the show. Ben Bova. Larry Niven. Theodore motherfucking Sturgeon! Of course as the story man for the first season David Gerrold deserves the lion's share of the credit for this.

(Hey, if you aren't in the know, Sturgeon at his best is one of the best short fiction writers America has produced thus far. No shit. Vonnegut fans, think of the name Kilgore Trout. Then read the name Theodore Sturgeon. Then hie thee to a bookstore or library but pronto.)

There are a few specific factors in the writing that are worth pointing out. First off, while the show had a very conventional moral center (which isn't an issue for me -- there's nothing wrong with the perrenial values of love, humanity, and self-sacrifice) it allowed its characters a degree of moral ambiguity you rarely see in storytelling addressed to children.

The characters could be short-tempered with one another. They could have moments of despair and fear. They could be unreliable allies -- and allies didn't have to be friends. And friends weren't always allies.

Also, the mythology of the show, the world it built, showed a quality of depth and imagination that was really involving. The slowly revealed nature of the technology behind this strange artificial world and the story of the mysterious lost race that built the land were actually interesting. They could easily have been used as the basis for a story for an adult audience.

There was a willingness to put the characters in real danger that I never saw in any other children's show. It had a quality of high drama that really impressed me as a child -- and that quality was still there when I watched the shows again as an adult, once I got past the cheesiness and found myself sucked into the story.

Speaking of cheesiness, the hilarious overacting I mentioned at the start of this? Turns out it's very effective. It's not the work of amateurs. It's a different style of acting and one that works in this kind of thing. More stage acting than film acting, if you know what I mean.

When the characters fight with each other, especially the two juvenile leads (Kathy Coleman and Wesley Eure, for the record), you get the sense of a real squabble. And Coleman's scream comes from the Fay Wray school -- she sounds scared and that makes things scarey.

All the actors were able to portray fear, anger, and concern in a way that brought (and brings) an unexpected emotional weight to the show.

Again, this is strictly on a pop-culture Saturday-morning level of achievement but it's still worthy of respect and appreciation -- if this is the kind of thing you like, you'll like it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

So What Am I Going To Do With My Other Site?

Here's the evolution of my hand/eye logo. First I started off with a sketch, for which I'm not going to look. I had trouble getting a satisfactory squeezy quality to the eyeball so I had the missus take a photograph of me squeezing one of her exercise balls to use as a reference. (Squeeze the eyeball! Squeeze the eyeball! NNNNGGGGRRRGGGHHH!)

Next I went and painted over it in Photoshop and turned it into a .gif for use on my old site. After a while I found the crudity of the execution disappointing but I still liked the image.

So then I retraced it in Photoshop and used the Illustrator live trace function to turn it into a vector image. It's too big, the colors vary -- at some point I'm going to do it over again as a vector image right from the start.

Still, I'm pleased with it. It works for me both as a writer and an artist. And it also calls back to some important influences -- it's got a little of Hunter S. Thompson's double-thumbed fist Gonzo logo, the Resident's dapper eyeball guys, and I recently realized that the combination of the red hand and the eye was a sort of Sauron/Saruman sandwich. Go figure.

This blog isn't my first website. Here's the first one. It's more focused on being entertaining -- but since I started my blog I've done very little to it. Time constraints, you know?

So I'm wondering what I should do with it. It's more work to post to -- I've got to do all the intertube stuff myself rather than just plug the words and pictures into Blogger. The gallery pages are a nightmare to work on. On the other hand I kinda like it. And I don't want to let go of the rights to seancraven.com.

I'm thinking that I might stick to posting stuff about the arts and my participation in them here on the blog and then using the site for the personal and humorous posts and then just put links up here.

I don't know at this point. I'm really not sure. And while I don't have a counter up there I think it garners some hits from time to time. So this morning I put a link to the blog at the top of the page and for now I'm just gonna let it go while I ponder.

But if you like the blog, go take a peek. Go on. It's got some amusement value. I promise.

Oh, and I saw a prototype for my card -- it's gonna take a few weeks before I get the real thing but the prototype looks pretty damned good. The front and back work out better than I'd hoped and the interior is better than the print I based it on. I'll turn it into a print of its own next time I'm in the lab.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Truly Horrid Idea and Applebee's Is Just Plain Nasty

You used to be able to get these Japanese felt-tip brush pens -- they had a terra cotta-colored rubbery exterior and a fine brush on one end and a thick brush on the other. When they started going dry you could pull them open and dose 'em with more ink. I loved those pens. Where did they go?

This piece was fun to do -- just whip it out in ten minutes or so. Working fast was the point. No sketching, no preconceptions -- just let the hand do what it will. I need to start sketching again.

It used to be that the words used for verification of hominid status for purposes of spam blocking -- the kind you find on comment pages and so forth -- were usually just smears of random consonants.

But a while ago they started sounding like words -- usually the kinds of words you'd see used in really bad fantasy or science fiction novels, the kinds that come with a map and a glossary.

When I mentioned this over on Glendon Mellow's site he called me on it and said I had to write that book. God help me, I think he may be right. So I've started saving the verification words in a document on my desktop.

I've got four words so far. Bactrin, Flediton, Plogu, and Pulas. See what I mean?

This can't possibly lead anywhere good. And it's not like I need another project -- but there are times when something reaches out and beckons to you irresistably. God only knows I read enough of the bad old stuff in my youth -- I've always loved pulp fiction and as a youngster I wasn't what you'd call discriminating.

This could be the start of something terrible.

Speaking of repulsive messes, I had one of the worst meals of my life today.

I cook. I'm a good cook. My food tastes better than what you can get in most restaurants. My grandaughter won't eat eggs unless I make them, when my sister was married she asked me to make stuffed mushrooms even though the event was catered. The caterers ate almost all of them before they got set out for the guests. My brother-in-law has been known to call me the day after he's eaten one of my meals and try to talk me into going into the restaurant business.

So today when I was taken out to lunch at Applebee's it was, quite literally, the first bad food I've eaten in years.

I mean, I had forgotten what bad food was like!

It's going to take me a long time to forget this.

The missus has a broker. Her old broker would send her chocolates and champagne every year. Her new broker just sent her a twenty-five dollar Applebee's card. When we walked in the door there was a sign on the outside of the building that said that the purchase of one of those twenty-five dollar cards would get you a bonus five-dollar card. Which figures.

Jesus, it was disgusting. I knew I was in for a disaster but I'd hoped it would be like eating a sack of chips -- you don't feel good about yourself but you keep eating it for the taste. Nasty, regretable, and yet oddly pleasing.

There was no pleasure. There was no taste, aside from the buffalo wings, which were actually frozen chicken nuggets bathed in this sauce... plastic? Cigarette butts? There was a harsh chemical tang to the red-orange glutinous paste that clung to the horrid little wads of breading and the look on the missus's face when she took a bite of one justified the entire meal for me.

The midget bacon cheeseburgers were utterly without flavor of any kind. No onions, no mustard or mayo. No flavor to the bacon. How do you get bacon with no flavor?

The side salad came with stale croutons and a huge mound of cheese and more of the soul-free bacon. The whole thing was assembled as if the people working in the kitchen hated food. When they were kids they saw food kill their dad and they've been seeking vengeance ever since. Or something. You couldn't get food that bad without a motive! And a can opener. I swear, the lettuce was from a can. Every dish was assembled from packaged processed foods. It wasn't a meal, it was a fucking industrial byproduct.

The idea that we were surrounded by people who had come here expecting a good meal was depressing. The idea that they thought they'd been served one was appalling. Partway through the meal I whispered to the missus and granddaughter, "Hey, do you think our waiter would eat out at a place like this?"


It doesn't matter how many Rachel Ray recipes they put on the back of Triscuit boxes, it doesn't matter how much truffle oil they have at Costco. If a restaurant like Applebee's is flourishing in America then our national palate is a shame, a sham, and a disgrace.

Time to slowly sip a quart of water and reflect on tomorrow's lunch -- which, with luck, will be at Bo McSwine's barbecue. Brisket, blues, and Belgian ale will wash the last pasty oligineous taint of Applebee's from my mouth and restore my parched and weary soul. And if it ain't at Bo's, it'll be at a decent burger joint, Al's Big Burger or The Red Onion.

Please, oh please let it come to pass.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Another Tiny Step: A Business Card

So the idea is that this is folded in half, with the eyeball logo in the front and my contact information in the back. When you unfold it you find this...

It's been adapted from the big print I posted a while ago. The practical nature of vector illustration comes into play here -- all the elements in this are separate objects that I can cut and paste and manipulate to my heart's content and they'll print cleanly at any size. Rock on, Adobe Illustrator.

I've got to say that I have had a few thoughts about whether or not it's really a good idea to have a business card that features, well. Gore.

But if you can't handle a dinosaur fight you probably shouldn't think about working with me. Right?


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why I Hate Drivers And Cyclists, Plus A Bonus Stupid Tough Guy Moment

These were done from other artist's works and from photographs.


There's an old Peanuts cartoon where (I believe) Linus cries out, "I love mankind, it's people I can't stand!" I'm the exact opposite. I can't look at a crowd without contemplating extermination but almost every person I've known I've been able to regard with affection and respect. If only I could make up my mind...

So yesterday I was walking to the comic store when I had an unpleasant experience. I walk pretty much everywhere. For reasons that will probably become clear to you I simply do not drive. Never have, most likely never will. And as a lifelong bicycle rider and pedestrian I've developed some pretty bad feelings about the whole idea of letting bald chimps control rapidly moving chunks of metal.

As a result, I'm pretty careful most of the time. So yesterday I was standing on a corner, waiting for the light to change. It did, I stepped into the street and immediately a car pulled directly in front of me, passing less than a foot from my body. I reflexively punched the passenger side window (thank god the car was so close -- I didn't have room to get in a solid blow and the last thing I need to do is pop another fucking knuckle) and the car whipped around the corner.

I turned to watch it and saw the driver pull over and start to park. At this point I'd entered into what I think of as a fugue state. This happens when I feel physically threatened and it might actually be a fugue state -- I haven't had it diagnosed. Sounds are very soft and language is just another sound and all that I'm thinking of is physics -- the movement of objects through space. The objects in question being my body and the source of the threat...

It's weird and disturbing to experience that condition. Afterwards it makes me feel like a shitty person because that semi-conscious state makes it difficult for me to exert responsible control over my behavior. It makes me feel as if I'm not really a person -- as if I'm just a potential event.

So when I see the car pull to the curb I turn and start drifting toward it. And as I approach the car pulls away from the curb and drives off and I come to and start cursing myself for losing it and cursing the driver for almost running me over.

A block later I've just started getting my nerves calmed down when the car pulls up next to me and the driver rolls down the passenger window.

"You wanna fight? You wanna fucking fight? Cause I'll get out right now if you want to fucking fight."

(Please note that at this point the engine was still running, which I interpreted as a signal of, shall we say, compromised intent. The gentleman in question might have had military or martial arts training -- but based purely on first impressions the idea of a fight between us was pretty damned silly. So he was actually showing a respectable degree of physical courage here, even if he did have to wind himself up to it.)

I lean in the window and speak in a clear, loud voice. Not quite shouting but not far from it. "You almost fucking ran me over, man. You just whipped right in front of me like you weren't even looking."

"I had the light!"

"No, you didn't. I was crossing in the crosswalk looking at a little green walking man."

"Well, you must have been looking across the street because I had the light."

I took a breath.

"Look. If it went down the way you say then I was wrong and I apologize. But it didn't. You weren't looking where you were going and you almost ran me over!"

"I'm a good driver! I look where I'm going!" He gestured to a child's car seat. "I have a kid!"

What that meant I do not know. Another deep breath, followed by the assumption of a diplomatic tone. "I didn't say you were a bad driver, I said you almost ran me over."

He deflated a little -- or maybe he just realized that he might not be acting the way he really wanted to, or that I wasn't acting the way he expected me to. "Well, if what you say happened is true then I apologize." Then he glares at me and gets excited all over again. "But you don't go fucking hitting people's cars, man!"

"Your car came this close to me, dude," I said, and held my fingers a few inches apart, then thumped my chest over the heart and made a panic-stricken face.

And the tension left his face. "Okay," he said. "Okay." And he held his hand out and we shook and he drove off.

I don't think he was a bad guy and I think he mostly believed what he said -- I hope that he had at least an inkling of the notion that I was in the right. I'm glad we talked it out and I'm glad that I was able to avoid being a complete asshole. I'm extra glad that I didn't get into a fight.


This is the second time in the last week a careless driver has come close to hitting me in circumstances where I've clearly had the right of way -- the other one was a young woman with a cell phone whose expression of sheer terror when she looked up and realized how close she came to creaming me was quite gratifying in a mean-spirited way.

I am sick of it. And when the guy who almost ran me over made his statement about not punching cars I almost lost it right there. How am I supposed to communicate to a driver that they have done something grossly, life-threateningly negligent in a way that makes them actually take notice? If I hadn't punched his car -- and I reiterate, it was a purely unconscious reaction -- he would have had no fucking idea that he had come very, very close to killing or injuring a pedestrian. I honestly think he was more upset about my striking his car than about any other aspect of the situation. What the fuck, people? If you care that much about your car, if you don't want to know when you've made a serious mistake, you are defective.

Cyclists, while certainly less threatening, are far worse in terms of attitude and behavior.

One of the reasons I stopped riding my bike was that I was finding it tiresome to stop at a stop sign and have a series of cyclists zip past me right through into traffic.

Once last summer when I stopped at a stop sign a truck crossing the intersection stopped and the driver yelled out his window, "That's the first time I've ever seen a bicycle stop at a stop sign! That's beautiful, man!"

And that's when I realized that one of the reasons drivers get so squirrely at intersections is because they're expecting me to just shoot through and they don't know how to deal with someone on a bicycle who at least tries to obey the law.

There's been a new trend I've noticed lately -- cyclists talking on their cell phones. Sometimes they're in traffic, sometimes they're on the sidewalk. They never wear helmets. Why can't we just harvest their organs now before they get all bruised?

Why aren't I allowed to club cyclists on the sidewalk right to the fucking ground? Why don't they call out or ring a bell when passing from behind? You know who's the worst for this? Bicycle cops. Go figure.

It seems as though everyone on wheels has a sense of entitlement. They all think they're special bunnies and everyone else is wrong. Wrong and IN THEIR WAY.

I'm at the point where I don't really believe in good drivers or cyclists anymore. No matter how nice a person you are the odds are pretty good that when you are operating a vehicle you are going to act like a jerk every so often -- but when being a jerk means threatening the lives and well-being of the people around you, well. That's a little past carelessness. People aren't fit to drive and the death toll on the roads bears this out.

It would be just ducky if there were enough pedestrians to be able to organize and politicize -- but there aren't. There just aren't.

So all I can do is hate. Look at you in your cars and on your bikes and on your skateboards fucking risking lives for the sake of a moment's convenience or a sense of power or entitlement or territory or out of sheer stupidity -- hell, I don't know what motivates the steaming monkey-mass as they steer blindly with one hand while sucking down a coffee and yapping on their cell phone.

Just know this. No matter how I might feel about you as individuals as contributing factors in this situation I hate you and I fear you -- and one of these days you'll probably run my ass over.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Just Because Nobody Can Understand Anything You Say..."

Huh... I believe I might be detecting an ongoing theme in my art. 's funny, it's not until I saw my Picasa page that I realized how obsessed with bones I am.

Mmm. Greasy delicious bones.

Well, I seem to see a pattern shaping up. I've written about dialog, I've written about plot. Now it's time to tackle prose.

When I tackled plot I confessed that I didn't have any real talent for storytelling. Prose is different. I'm good at prose. You may not know this since the prose here on the blog shuffles around barefoot wearing a pair of grease-stained sweatpants but I have a real knack for putting words together. Writers have commented on it, editors have commented on it, it's just the way it is. Please don't hate me for it. And please don't hate me for writing about style in my shitty internet prose.

When someone in my last writing class asked me how to sharpen their prose I was at a bit of a loss. And since then I've been thinking about how I'd really like to have answered that question. Here's a tentative start.

First off, you need to scout out the territory. You need to get a feel for how other people use words and you have to experiment with your own use of words. Here are some ideas to get you started.

You have to start with words. You have to really get a feel for the way words sound on their own. You have to understand what they mean. And it doesn't hurt to have some idea as to how the words came into being, what languages they come from, what the meaning of their root words are. I'm not an expert here by any means -- but what I do know frequently influences my decision as to what word to use where.

If you're at all unclear about a word then look it up -- and read the entire entire definition, including the etymology, related words, etc. When you go to the dictionary don't just jump in and out -- always take a few minutes to wander around and gather stray knowledge. It accumulates.

Of course words do not act alone. So the next thing to do is to read and study poetry, quotes, aphorisms, anecdotes, one-liners, etc. In these miniature formats the relationships between individual words are much more important than they are in prose. Read books of quotations and see how the great writers and speakers of English have handled phrases and sentences. How is meaning conveyed? How is emotion conveyed? Tone and atmosphere? How do a few words strung together tell us something deep about the nature of the person who wrote them?

Then write some poetry. I'm not a big fan of poetry and I'm not very good at writing it. But if I hadn't spent a good chunk of time reading and writing poetry my prose wouldn't be as fine and flexible as it is. Poetry is one of the best whetstones upon which to sharpen your blade. Read it slowly and savor the words and how they work together.

Write some aphorisms -- take an observation or a belief you hold and express it in a single sentence where meaning and grace are inextricably linked. Then write it another way and see if it works better. Do it again.

Write sentences of description -- how can you give the reader the object of your description as clearly as possible? Try describing the same things from two different perspectives -- in one you should focus on technical accuracy, in the other on evocation.

Describe a rock with so much precision that an artist could draw it recognizably from your description. Use your words to construct a diagram. Then describe the same rock (or sandwich or street scene or whatever) in a fashion intended to invoke in the reader the same emotional state or aesthetic reaction you had when you were looking at it. Or holding it. Or tasting or smelling it. Or throwing it at someone's car.

When it comes to longer pieces the only people who have the same passionate obsession with words as poets do are humorists. May I suggest spending some time with these writers -- S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Roy Blount Jr., Mark Leyner, and most especially Brian O'Nolan writing as Myles na gCopaleen. (Dorothy Parker you should be reading for poetry and one-liners, although her mean criticism is pretty damned good. Not to downplay her fiction -- it just falls out of the scope of this discussion.) Just reading his Catechism of Cliche will make you a better writer, guaranteed.

The reason for this is that humor demands precision if it is to work. Humor, as I've said in another essay, isn't a genre. It's an emotion, a reaction. A mental state. You know how some people can tell jokes and some people can't? Most of it comes down to timing. You need to hit a certain verbal and conceptual rhythm if you're gonna get someone to laugh -- humorists hit that rhythm with words and that takes skill. And that kind of skill rubs off.

Of course you should be reading as much good writing of all varieties as you can -- fiction, non-fiction, journalism, science, etc. -- but quotations, poetry, and humor are going to give you the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to improving your prose.

Now for a few principals. They didn't start with me -- but they're hoary old chestnuts because they're true. They're really, really true.

Say things as simply and directly as you can. This doesn't mean that everything you write should be simple and direct, though. If you need to write something obsure and convoluted get to it -- but do not make it any more obscure and convoluted than it absolutely has to be to deliver your message. Make things as minimal as you can while preserving your intended meaning to the full. (He yelled.)
One of those never-ending lessons is learning how to minimize the number of words you use. I'm still finding words and phrases used from habit in my work and when I remove them it makes for better prose.

And I'll go further then that. When my observational drawing skills are running hot I'll find myself looking at a phrase not as a verbal construct but as a visual one -- literally seeing the phrase on the page as a shape rather than a set of words -- and I'll know that the phrase in question takes up too much space for the meaning it conveys. You may not be able to do this but you can always ask yourself, "Is this phrase/word/sentence justified by the meaning it carries? Is there any way to reduce the amount of space it takes up on the page?"

Avoid modifiers as much as possible. Simple verbs and nouns are your friends -- adverbs are the enemy and adjectives are asshole friends, the kind you like even though they get you into trouble.

Never use adverbs for anything other than humorous effect -- and understand that modifier-heavy humor has become a cliche, particularly on the internet. It's fun to write, fun to read, and there are too damned many people working that side of the street. If a word ends in -ly regard it with grave suspicion. Instead, find the right verb. Don't make someone move quickly when they can run.

Minimize the use of adjectives. This isn't as hard and fast as the rule on adverbs but the same basic principal applies -- rather than using one word to modify another, find the proper word in the first place.

Now here's one that's open to debate. I would love to be the guy who really rocks his vocabulary, who regularly and cheerfully sends the reader off to the dictionary. That guy is a hero of mine.

But my time in writer's groups and classes has beaten that tendency right out of me -- and I think my writing's the better for it. Here's an example from an upcoming story of mine.

I initially described the attack of a flying creature as a 'stoop.' This is the precise term for what the creature was doing -- when a bird of prey folds its wings and drops onto its victim, that is a stoop. Everyone corrected it to 'swoop.' Because they sucked. Fucking ignorant troop of myopic mandrills.

But when I described the physical act rather than use the technical term it brought the passage to life -- and it made me realize that it's not a matter of simply using the smallest number of words, it's hitting that sweet spot where intended meaning and phrasing coincide.

And something that I've recently become aware of is the gerund. A gerund is a word modified by the -ing suffix. Work, working. Only use gerunds when they allow you the most graceful available phrasing -- and never ever use them in an action scene.

And, finally, here's a little story. When I was nineteen or twenty a friend of mine once got really, really mad at me and said something I think about every single time I sit down to write...

"Just because nobody can understand anything you say doesn't mean you're smart!"

Words to live by.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Blogcessive Compulsive: Two Thousand Hits!

Edmontosaurus annectens. This is both one of my first computer illustrations and one of my first dinosaur illustrations, done some time in the early nineties. It was a scanned pen-and-ink drawing rendered in an early version of Painter.

This one was a pencil drawing modified with both Painter and Photoshop. The background is an ink blot with a gradient replacing the grayscale. It was done right after I finished my vocational rehab, in the late nineties, 1998 or so. Hey, was that time? Whatever it was, it just flew by.

Some time after I finished this I saw Gregory Paul's skeletal diagram for the same animal I realized my version was drastically distorted. I went back and looked at the photograph I had worked from and found that it had been taken at a slight angle which really messed up the proportions.

No, wait a minute. This isn't an Edmontosaurus. This is a Lurdusaurus. Yeah, that's it. I did it this way on purpose. It's a Lurdusaurus. (Hey, anyone ever seen a skeletal diagram for Lurdusaurus? So how do you know I'm lying?)

Well, I had a swell day today. I went out for a hike with my dad and while we had to cut it short -- poor bastard was recovering from a bug and wound up getting tuckered but pronto -- we saw a pair of golden eagles and a bobcat. One of the best wild cat sightings I've had so far. (Speaking of cats, my music buddy Paul claims that he'll be able to get me some face time with a liger. Further details as they come.) I missed out on signing up for my statistics class so I'm taking digital photography next semester -- with any luck this means I'll be able to post photos from our hikes within the next couple of months. And then we had Chinese food for lunch instead of our usual burgers. The old man had beef stew over noodles and I had lamb and eggplant and we split a green onion cake. Ma Joong and Chiao Tai (see Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee novels -- guess I'll have to report on them at some point) used to have those for breakfast all the time. Mmmmmm. Greasy, gooey, crisp, and savory with scallions. The Chinese grilled cheese sandwich. My lamb and eggplant was in a sweet and sour garlic sauce that was muy tastey and the Da gave me all the chunks and sheets of gristle that enriched the broth of his stew. "I don't know where you came from," he said as he forked over the goods, "but here you are."

What can I say? Connective tissue rocks.

And then I come home and look at the old website. And, of course, I check out the numbers.

Man. Two thousand hits. Dag. How the hell did that happen? (Let's be serious. For weeks now I've been waiting for the hits to mount and I knew it was gonna happen... well, a few days from now. I sure wasn't expecting it today.) I guess all that internet networking stuff really works.

Well, just for the hell of it I'm gonna take a little ego trip. This site is intended to be a tool to help me become a working writer and artist -- I mean, I'm working like a son of a bitch but I want to get paid. So I guess I mean a professional writer and artist.

So what kind of progress has occured since I started the blog?

I've made two professional fiction sales and I'll be appearing in a book alongside one of my current favorite writers.

I've placed a print in a fancy rich-person gallery show.

And that print is just part of a completed series. I've got the art printed and ready to roll for a whole solo show.

I've had a short story used as the subject of a report at the Columbia School of Writing.

I've had another of my favorite writers praise my art and design for Swill magazine, which has also been studied at the University of Columbia.

And he recommended it to the editor of one of the big Year's Best anthologies -- which means she's gonna be seeing some of my fiction at least once a year for a while.

This year I had fiction in two magazines and art in two magazines. Next year it looks like I'll have fiction in at least three, maybe four magazines, a story published in a book, and art in two magazines.

I've had editors asking me for fiction, rather than me asking editors for rejection slips.

I've finished a functional draft of the first volume of the novel. (And I've heard back from my first reader outside the writer's group and the word is that it needs to be tighter at the start and the end but otherwise it's a solid read.) I'm so ready to start rolling on the rest of it.

And then there are the tiny stories I've placed at Thaumatrope.

Not bad, oafboy. Not bad at all. Yeah, I'm feeling proud of myself. Right now I am not the guy who sucks. It feels pretty good.

And I've got to say that I'm really appreciating the long-distance oddly attenuated quasi-friendships I've developed over the intertubes. I wish all of you...

(Glendon Mellow, Traumador, Brian Switek, lunchboxxx, the guy [I assume] who hates theropods, the Brainiacs, especially Rory Harper and Morgan J. Locke, Zachary Miller, Rob [who isn't really an internet pal since I met him in real life and from time to time he shows up in my living room to be sniffed by the doggerals] and all kinds of folks who I'd remember if I wasn't drinking right now -- and a special salute to Megan. If you don't like the fact that I'm writing, blame Megan. She encouraged me with both words and $$$... never feed a stray cat. Unless you want them to take up residence in the neighborhood. And I know that tomorrow I'll look at this list and realize that the one dearest to my heart does not appear on it. Unless you count the missus -- I'm gonna post about her in the near future. Look, you've gotten some idea as to how weird and defective I am. She's the one who took me in, glob bless her.) 

...lived around here so we could get to know each other well enough to get on each other's nerves, or at least have a beverage or two and a few laughs. If you want the laughs, I'll take the beverage and you can laugh at me.

Next time around I promise you a more interesting post. I think it's time to get back to working on my Anomalocaris piece... which is going to be a lot more work that I thought -- but the results should be interesting.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Crit List 1: The Borribles (expanded as of 12/16/08)

These covers were painted by Don Maitz. If there's any objection to my posting them by anyone associated with the books, I'm happy to take them down.

When I started this site I intended to do a fair amount of reviews and criticism. When I did my piece on Jurassic Fight Club I wound up backing away from that. First off, I found that I was doing the standard web snark attack -- and I found that I didn't like being that kind of person. When I realized that my snotty remarks were being read by creators who had worked hard and honestly it made me feel like a shit.

And the fact that it garnered me more hits than anything else I'd done took me aback. First, I want people to come to this site to see my work, not to read amusing slams on someone else. Second, I'm kinda self destructive and when I saw that I was achieving some kind of success I scuttled away from it as fast as I could.

See, this is a site about being a creator and about trying to make the move to being a pro. So any reviews or critical pieces need to be done from that perspective.

So I'm going to throw myself back into the fray and talk about a series of fantasy novels that have been a source of pleasure to me for decades. They've also given me a lot of help on my novel. Let me tell you about it.

When I was a kid there was one fantasy series that my family was familiar with -- The Lord of the Rings. It was my grandmother's favorite. She was one of the few who read it when it was first released and it was her favorite book. The Hobbit was the first book I had read to me as a child.

But as important as J.R.R. Tolkien was to me, he never really spoke to my life. That was part of the pleasure -- he took me entirely out of my world. But even as a child I was disgusted by the nationalism and classism inherent in his work. (How can anyone not cringe at the relationship between Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins?) That's not to say that he was a bad person -- but his world view was not one that I could accept without criticism.

When I was in high school, I found a fantasy book that took place in a world that was very, very close to the one that I lived in. That was Michael de Larrabeiti's The Borribles. This was a fantasy contemporaneous with and parallel to punk rock. It had heart and it had guts and it spoke to me in a way that no classic fantasy novel ever had. It was bitterly satirical, strewn with trash and covered in graffiti. This was a world where I belonged, where my friends belonged. It was fantasy in the gutter, in the alley, in the dumpster. It was grim and ugly and violent -- but it was redeemed by humanity and love. This was a world I could live in.

The basic idea behind the series is that children who for one reason or another live on their own and take care of themselves turn into creatures called Borribles. Borribles don't age, they don't grow. They can be recognized by their pointed ears, which they usually cover up with a watch cap or long hair. While they sometimes mingle with normal children they've established their own society, a varied collection of tribes usually organized along racial or cultural lines, named for the territories they inhabit.

Their enemies are the forces of conformity and heirarchy. Specifically the police (having grown up in a predominantly black community where the police force contained a racist gang who called themselves the Cowboys, I could relate to this) and the non-human Rumbles. If you have any familiarity with the Wombles of Wimbledon you won't have any trouble recognizing the Rumbles...

Here's a dirty little secret. Writing -- or, rather, editing -- fiction has ruined my appetite for reading. I read everything with an eye toward how it could be improved. Commas, dialogue attribution, point of view -- I can't let go of the technical side of writing.

But a few months back when I was in the thick of writing my novel I reread the Borrible books and found that they sucked me right in and still moved me. I was conscious of the crudity of the prose -- I wished I could take a red pen to them. The point of view is an omniscient one broken up by passages told from the perspectives of various individual characters and the shifts in POV frequently seem capricious. There are any number of moments where emotions that are made clear by the speech and actions of the characters are explicitly described by de Larrabeiti.

But as I read the books I dropped my mental red pencil as the simple power of direct storytelling over-rid my critical stance and swept me away.

A big part of this has to do with the intensely imagined quality of the work. The characters and settings are tangible, vivid, odiferous -- the continual appeal to all of the senses immerses you in de Larrabeiti's world.

His sense of action is very instructive to anyone who anyone who writes adventure fiction. His fight scenes are absolute classics -- if he hadn't been in a few fights himself I would be greatly surprised. At the end of volume two there's a scene I've jokingly described to friends as the greatest shovel fight in world literature. It's actually in strong competition for best fight scene, period, right up there with the fight between Flay and Swelter in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.

Spoiler Alert! For those who are interested, James Benstead of Tallis House publishing very graciously sent me this manuscript page from the third draft of the above-mentioned shovel fight from The Borribles Go For Broke. Caution -- contains climax!

But most importantly, the characters were all acting from strong, believable motivations. With a few plot-enhancing exceptions you know exactly what all the characters are doing and you know exactly why.

And that helped my novel. Here's how.

In the Borribles the motivations for the various characters are so clean-cut as to be diagrammatical. The bad guys want to either take advantage of the lead characters or they want to crush any sign of social deviation. The values that the good guys (and these books) hold dear are simple ones: Make a name for yourself. Live free. Don't let anyone get away with fucking with you. And above all else take care of the ones you love. Any death, any suffering is preferable to failing to live up to that creed.

If you've got a problem with those values, I have a problem with you. Those who think these books inappropriate for children must imagine that being a young person guarantees a life without hard decisions, without threats. This simply isn't true. I'd rather the kids I love be ready to face the world with open eyes, strong hearts, and a willingness to either stand tough or make sacrifices when the situation demands it.

When you put those motives together in opposition you inevitably get a story that's clean, involving, and moving. It's mathematical, mechanical -- and yet organic.

So after re-reading these books I went back and asked myself what my characters wanted, what their values were -- and how those values would bring them into conflict with one another. It brought my book to life.

The Borribles trilogy is available in both individual volumes and a single-volume compilation from Tor Books.

Michael de Larrabeiti died last April. I wish I'd had the chance to meet him and say: Thank you, Mr. de Larrabeiti. Don't get caught.

(Click here for a look at Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite, a very different and more mature work by de Larrabeiti.)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I Sold To Thaumatrope -- The World's Shortest Fiction!

Here's an old one, dating back to my days of aspiring to comic book work. Maybe someday...

Well, there's a new market in town --

Thaumatrope Magazine.

I found out about them at John Scalzi's site last night. They specialize in fiction of one-hundred and forty characters or less. That's right -- characters.

The thing is, is that I've had a one-liner based on H.G. Wells's The Time Machine lurking in the back of my mind for a couple of months now. This meant that I was obligated to go and submit to them. A few minutes later another one appeared, and then another.

All three were accepted. They'll be appearing on December 20, 22, and 26.

But I've had to sign up for Twitter to do this. And I have no idea what the hell Twitter is and after looking at their site I'm not sure I'm capable of understanding Twitter.

And now I have to sign up for PayPal! Jesus, this is terrifying.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Tiny Piece Of Paper That Says The Party's Over

Well, here's a stand-alone section of the novel that's pretty close to straight autobiography. Ah, Santa Cruz in the eighties...
(I really shouldn't have to say Copyright 2008 by Sean Craven, right? But I'm saying it anyway.)

“This isn’t going to be a thing, right?” I heard James say to Dierdre. “I’m not up for a real party.”

“I know it’s been a long day,” Dierdre said. “We’ll shoo everyone out by ten, okay?”

That was bullshit right there. In Dierdre and James’ circle their house was referred to as the Lounge because that was where people went after work. Lulu and Willy’s presence had been putting a damper on things but now that they were out of the living room Dierdre was anxious to get back to normal. There was no way this was going to be a quiet little gathering.

The fridge was full of beer and there was a stack of Dierdre’s famous mix discs next to the stereo by the time Duane and Katie showed up with a friend in tow. They were both painters but as a couple they had one of your classic opposites-attract dynamics. Duane was big, crass, loud, and brilliant, a caveman savant. Katie was extremely shy, very quiet, and polite in a way that made you want to watch your manners not out of guilt but because it was nice to be polite. Their guest was wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt and the long mouse-brown hair on his scalp and face had a coarse, kinky texture that was distinctly pubic; poor bastard looked like a scrotum on a stick.

“Hey, Matt, I want you to meet Sky,” Duane said.

I took Sky’s extended hand, which felt like a bundle of chopsticks wrapped in pudding skin.

“Pleased to meet you,” I said.

Sky gave me a weak smile.

“I ran into Sky when I was at the farmer’s market,” Duane said, “and he told me that I was totally full of shit with my brown rice diet.”

“The human body was not intended to digest cooked foods,” Sky said. His voice was just barely audible, and he pronounced each syllable completely separately from the others – ‘in-ten-ded.’ I was worried that he might not live through the conversation. “Grains are especially unhealthy. Everything you put into your body is a mind-altering drug, and grains have a very low frequency of vibration.”

“Now I’m only eating harm-free food,” Duane said. “It so fucking rocks, man, you’ve got to get in on this.”

“Mushrooms and other fungi are particularly excellent,” Sky said. “The mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of the actual organism. They are a gift, a beautiful gift of love.”

“Man, isn’t that just fucking wonderful?” Duane said. “Everyone should live on nothing but gifts of fucking love.” He tore the cap off a bottle of Lone Star and sucked down half of it while Sky smiled indulgently at him. Duane belched moistly at me, wiped his mouth with a meaty bristle-coated paw and said, “You’ve got to do it, man. You need more fucking love in your life.”

“I ate a single scarlet waxy-cap mushroom yesterday,” Sky said, “and the vibrations made me so high. So high.” He closed his eyes in blissful reminiscence. “I could think etherically and I knew that all thoughts are vibrations and all is thought.”

“I didn’t know scarlet waxy-caps were psychedelic,” I said.

He opened his moist, pale eyes, smiled up at me, and patiently repeated himself. “Everything you put in your body makes you high.”

“I’ve been doing some paintings about this shit,” said Duane. “They’re fucking huge. Insane colors, straight out of the tube. Lots of palette knife. You got to see them.” He poured the rest of his beer down his throat. “They’re gonna be my next show, man. Spread the fucking word.”

I gave him a thumbs up and drifted away, keeping an ear out for a conversational opening. Out in the living room I had a rare opportunity to see women having a nerd-off.

“How can you say that?” Dierdra said. “Fuck Elvis, Chuck Berry invented rock and roll!”

“I ain’t sayin Chuck Berry ain’t important,” Lulu said, “But he’s dull. And the whole idea that rock was something that just sprang out of nowhere is bullshit. Gimme some Little Richard or Fats Domino. I mean, what about Louis Jordan and the Frogman? New Orleans rhythm and blues was a fully developed musical style with a solid tradition a long time before rock showed up and it’s a lot more fun than Elvis or Chuck.”

“I always liked Jerry Lee Lewis,” said Katie. “He’s got the original creepy rock star sex god thing. So hot.”

Finding out that quiet, demure Katie had a thing for Jerry Lee Lewis finished my beer for me so I went back into the kitchen, where Willy and Steve were sitting at the table, talking about the van.

Steve had been James’ neighbor before he and Dierdre had moved in together, and had recently gotten James a job with him at a print shop. Steve had a strong-boned Mediterranean profile and a very bad attitude about his infinitely regressing series of former girlfriends. You sort of had to watch your step around him if you wanted to avoid giving offence.

“I’ve always had a fantasy of living in that kind of enclosed space,” Steve said, “like a boat or a Winnebago. Have everything set up just right, make it a real machine for living.”

“It’s a total shithole but it feels like home,” Willy said. “It’ll be nice to be able to fuck without having to sneak around and make it seem like nothing’s happening. Man, I remember when public sex was kinky instead of fuckin desperate. I’m sick of bathrooms and couches and fuckin hand jobs under a blanket while everyone’s watching TV.”

That was lovely image. Jesus. Now on top of everything else I had to wonder about Lulu and Willy having ninja sex all over the house. For once the thought of my stinking, repulsive room was a source of relief. What kind of pervert could fuck in that hellhole? I pulled a beer out of the fridge and cracked it. I tilted the bottle, opened my throat, gulped until the beer was gone, and pitched the empty into the rapidly-filling recycling bin.

There were already too many people for me to handle so when the doorbell rang again I went to my room. I was mulling over the fact that no one cared enough to check on poor me when there was a knock on the door.

“Hello?” I said.

Dierdre came in. “They won’t go away,” she said. “I try and hint and they just don’t want to get it, and James is exhausted and they won’t go away.”

“So you were wondering,” I said. Here we go again.

“It’s really good stuff,” Dierdre said. “Not speedy at all.”

“Oh all right,” I said and held out my hand.

Dierdre gave me a square of paper. It was thick, coarse blotter about three-eights of an inch on a side and it had a blue hieroglyphic eye of Horus printed on it. I popped it in my mouth and felt the queasy tingle of excitement that I always got the instant acid entered my body.

“Thanks a lot,” Dierdre said. “I really owe you for this.”

“No sweat,” I said which was of course total bullshit. No sleep at all that night, twelve hours of my various injuries screaming at me while I was in a psychedelic state, and while I was going through the most intense part of the passage I’d be all alone. But Deirdre asked me to do it.

“So are you going to wait until you’re peaking, or come out now, or what?”

“I’ll give it half an hour,” I said. “That way I’ll be able to sort of make myself present before I get all, you know. Like that.”

“Cool,” Dierdre said. “When you come out, I’ll put on some Residents. That’ll help chase them off.” And then she left.

I was already feeling better. I had a purpose, a point. A reason to exist. I was going to make everybody out there want to go home.

I made some preparations for the trip. I cleaned a pile of pot and put a new screen in my bong. I selected a thick stack of picture books to look through and hallucinate over, lots of D’s – Dulac, Dali, Druillet. I selected some discs of chamber and ambient music, Bach and Eno, Pachelbel and Jarre. Sonic tranquilizers. I cleared the detritus from a path leading from the bed to the door. I’d make Dierdre give me a measure of dark rum or whiskey for the comedown.

I looked at my jeans for a second, testing the acid. The light and dark threads of the denim were throbbing slightly but there was no sense of significance to it, no message from the cosmos. I went into the living room and stood by the stereo and listened in on Dierdre and Lulu.

“Maybe we could clear a space out in the garage and you could set up a little studio there. We’ve got some old blankets you could use for soundproofing,” Dierdre said.

“Well, I dunno,” Lulu said. “We could think about it, I guess.”

“Oh, come on,” Dierdre said, then turned to me. “You’re doing it again.”

“Huh?” I said.

“Looming and lurking.” She turned back to Lulu. “So what are you going to do, keep recording out on the street?”

“Well, yeah,” Lulu said. “If we change the way we record now, we’d have to go back and do everything else over again. You got to have sonic consistency.” A quick acid shiver ran up into my cortex as the rush started to hit and it told me a secret. Lulu was lying. There was truth in what she said but she knew she was lying when she said it.

I looked around, and heard Sky talking about his scarlet waxy-cap again.

“…and I could feel the vibrations of the mushroom just lifting me up,” he said.

James ran a hand through his hair. “So what exactly do you mean by vibrations? Is this some kind of string theory stuff or a spiritual thing or what?”

Sky held his hands up. “The vibrations are the most essential part of anything,” he said. “Really, all we are is a collection of vibrations.”

“Fucking A,” Duane said.

A jolt of volts chewed their way up my spine and the world got brighter, crisper, so clearly focused it was confusing. Now was the time. I stopped lurking and loomed right over them.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

Duane turned to me and lifted his bushy eyebrows. “Huh?”

“It’s… I don’t know how to say it, but it seems like you’re missing out on the point of eating things.”

Sky looked at me with a half-smile. Diet freaks are like theologians; no matter how ridiculous their statements they’ve heard all the arguments and have their responses all lined up. You have to use a lateral approach if you want to breach their defences.

“I mean, the mycelium didn’t give you that scarlet waxy-cap. You took it, as was your fundamental right as a gathering animal. You shouldn’t be brown-nosing the natural world for allowing you to fulfill your role in the ecology.”

“The world is a gift --”

“Tell it to the airborne pathogens your bold and noble immune system is slaughtering as we speak. You know why we treat cows and chickens and pigs and sheep the way we do?”

“Man, you’re getting kind of loud.” Duane said that to me. Duane! James just smiled and pulled back a little to take everything in.

I leaned at Duane instead of Sky. “We don’t just kill them and eat them. We make them live in tiny cages that physically deform them. We make them live in shit, we feed them shit, and we pump them full of antibiotics so it doesn’t kill them.”

Sky still had that half-smile, but it was losing juice.

“That isn’t just cruelty. That’s the monstrous cruelty of the victor. Those horrible stupid brutes are the enemy, man, the enemy. Every time you bite into a hamburger you’re striking a blow, furthering the destiny of mankind. I mean, you don’t hear people talking about Nazis and the Taliban and so on in terms of avoiding harm, do you? You ever hear of cruelty-free warfare? Why should we treat cows any better than we treat Nazis?”

“Dude, that’s crazy talk,” Duane said.

“I am legally and clinically sane and I can get it in writing,” I said and pumped my fist in the air. “Apex predator! Apex predator!”

“You’re on something, right?” Duane said.

“I’d say a pussy-assed hundred micrograms of Switzerland’s gift to civilization, one of those candy raver disco doses,” I said. “A sad speed substitute, just enough to keep a glow-stick baby dancing all night. I believe I might need a little more to push me over the top.”

“Live it up,” Duane said. “Hey, let’s find Katie, okay? It’s getting kind of late.”

Sky nodded. I decided it was time to go find Deirdre and pry an appropriate dosage out of her. Back into the living room, assuming I could find it.

Everything seemed to be painted onto a series of screens or clear plastic overlays, every object in my field of vision flat and still arranged, according to the pure and perfect laws of perspective. I could feel every trace of injury throbbing, and every fiber of muscle in my body testing its cartilage connection to the skeletal scaffolding. Okay, the dose was probably more than a hundred mikes. But still.

Dierdre looked at me and grinned and then put an old slab of vinyl on the turntable. Out of the speaker came the sounds of a possessed toy piano. It was the Diskomo/Goosebumps EP by the Residents, the Goosebumps side. Goosebumps is a collection of nursery rhymes that the Residents set to music that they composed and played entirely on instruments purchased from Toys ‘R’ Us. It’s an avant-garde classic just choking with giggles and menace.

Dierdre grabbed me by the arm. She was grinning, red lips bone teeth green eyes all gleaming up at me, tiny incandescent bulb highlights scumbled onto the glossy surfaces like flecks of titanium white, forming her face in abstract.

“They’re starting to leave,” she said. “Keep it up and I’ll be able to get James in bed before he starts getting pissy.”

“Dosage inadequate,” I said. “This is what you give to a guy in a Cat-in-the-Hat hat or a fifteen year old girl with a pacifier on a necklace. I’m not seeing anything interesting aside from the luminous shell of your charming face. Discomo.” Discomo was on the other side of Goosebumps. It was faux-Innuit folk music set to a disco beat, and does mankind boast any more glorious creation?

“Okay, but you go talk to Steve and Naomi,” Dierdre said. “I think he’s hitting on her, and she’s, well, Jesus.” She tightened her grip on my arm and hissed up at me. “Steve and Naomi! Will two more hits be okay?”

I said, “Adequate if not optimal,” aimed myself at the unsuspecting pair and loomed over them. “Hey, Naomi,” I said, feeling every tooth in my mouth vibrating.

“Matt!” she said. “Where have you been all night?”

“I hear you got dosed,” Steve said.

“Ohmigod,” Naomi said, “ohmigod. Are you okay? Do you need some juice? Is this music freaking you out?” I wistfully contemplated the notion of Naomi taking care of me for the rest of the evening, my head pillowed against a soft thigh while her glossy black curls tickled my face and her Minnie Mouse voice droned me into a state of egoless bliss. The thought pissed me off. She and Steve did, in fact, have a bit of a couple look to them.

“I’m doing fine,” I said. “It’s a pretty minimal dose, just enough to make me feel a little spooky around the edges.” God damn that dapper little bastard. Some men are bad for women, and they get to be bad for women over and over again.

Then I looked at Steve, watched his mouth opening and closing in slow motion like some grisly marine organism (Teeth! Teeth are freaky! It’s like you can see part of someone’s skeleton! What if the whole thing starts to crawl through the opening?) and I sensed the pages of a health awareness article in Reader’s Digest flashing by like a calendar in a Grandma’s house movie and Steve was a good person he needed to be careful if you don’t have your health –

I set my hand on his arm very gently so I wouldn’t hurt him. Poor thing.

“Dude,” I said, “how’s you’re blood sugar?”

When he blinked at me the blink stuttered. He should spend some time practicing in front of a mirror… “Huh?”

“I just suddenly started to worry about you,” I said, and turned to Naomi. “Health is very important.”

She nodded, curving her neck more than was seemly, pulling it out like taffy. Ah, youth.

“But Steve,” I said while I helped him hold his arm still. “Really, I’m concerned. Do you have a family history of diabetes?”

“What the fuck?”

“Yes, that’s the family part. But what about the diabetes?”

Steve sighed, the wind in his sails. “No, I don’t have a family history of diabetes.”

He took an arm away from me just when I was starting to get a grip on it and looked at the strap thing for time measurement that was between the hand and the arm. The spot between the hand and the arm was a swivel, a joint, a something that you could bend. On purpose.

Steve’s mouth opened some more. “Jesus, it’s getting kind of…”

“Wrist! That’s the word I was looking for. Wrists are the bendy part,” I said. “Please, for my sake keep an eye on your pee. If ants start gathering around your urine then you’ve got —” I felt a hand on my arm. I let it drag me into the hall.

“You total bastard,” Dierdre said, grinning. More teeth. It’s like everyone has them. Who came up with that? She handed me another couple of hits. “God, you are a total bastard. I think you can go to your room now.” I popped the little paper squares into my mouth with the fine certainty that I was making a mistake. “You know what I think is that the acid just gives you an excuse.”

“That’s not true. I’m a very nice person when you haven’t crammed me full of your filthy devil chemicals,” I said. “I’m going to need some rum in about eight hours.”

“You know where it is. Help yourself. G’night.”

Going into my room it struck me that eight hours was a long time. I paused for an absent moment and swirled the semi-liquid wood pulp around my mouth.

What was I going to do until then?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

From The Valley Of Lost Projects: The Ghosts Of T-Shirts Past

An earlier version of this had the burst in the background positioned so that it looked as if the Protoceratops was farting.

Dizzy Toilet Devil Logo Black and Glow. On the back – “We Had To/Destroy The Song/In Order To/Save It.” Spattery – do by hand with brush, import, turn to Illustrator file. In corona around toilet devil – “oddcore, power folk, lunchabilly, rhythm & booze, drunk rock, children’s music for underdone adults.” Underneath, Dizzy Toilet Devils.

Well, it's true!

These designs were done for a friend of a friend who worked at a T-shirt company up in Canada. I was told that they'd been accepted and there was money on the way and then my pal climbed on board the crazy wagon and vanished from my life. I still wonder if any of these were actually used.

And here are a few more thoughts from the files...

The eye-in-hand motif, green shirt and iris, brick-red hand, blue eye outline and shadow.

Swill. Black shirt, bright red lettering, glow in the dark outline.

SAFETY LEADS THE WAY – chipper Helvetica on the left hand of the chest against white, maybe a ringer T – with a gory spatter of blood. Dried or fresh? Dried. Make it look like a stain. Figure out the perfect corporate douche design, the shirt you get as a prize at work.

(I actually had this one once -- got it as a prize for making a safety poster. I took it home, tore the sleeves off and spattered it with blood-colored acrylics left over from the poster and then wore it proudly for years. I remember once a pal took me to play pool after work at an old-guy bar and it took me a while to realize that I might be getting the odd looks because I was wearing that shirt, a lab coat, and a pair of pants with a skull motif. That's the kind of style you can only get accidentally...)

IF IT SWARMS – EXTERMINATE, the two words to be separated by a square graphic of a crowd scene, preferably a Republican national convention. Glow in the dark on black.

EAT MEAT – MURDER’S NEAT! The two words to be separated by a picture of a man holding a pistol to a cow’s head as the cow weeps and says, “Please, oh God, you could just walk away and it would be like nothing ever happened.”

Hey, I'd wear 'em.

And a special tip o' the oaf to Traumador, who gave me the idea when he expressed interest in a shirt based on my previous post. Maybe someday, little guy. Maybe someday.