Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Watercolor Pad

Here's a grisly little anecdote from the year I spent living with my brother and sister. We rented a mother-in-law cottage in the backyard of a blue Victorian that had been divided into apartments. One sunny spring afternoon I was sulking in my room when either Duncan or Charity (memory fails me on this point) came in.

"Hey," they said. "You got to check it out. Someone threw out a brand-new pad of paper. Good stuff."

So I reluctantly hauled my carcass out of bed and walked out to the trash cans. And sure enough, there was a brand-new eighteen-by-twenty-four pad of Strathmore Series 400 watercolor paper folded in the trash. The front of it was covered with a thick splash of something brown and glossy and lumpy. I figured it for varnish, even though the smell wasn't right. I had to wonder about the mentality of someone who'd dump a pad because the cover was stained.

It wasn't varnish.

My sister got the details from my mom, who got them from our landlord, who was her friend. Seems earlier that week, one of the tenants in the Victorian -- someone I'd never met -- had her boyfriend over for a little party. They'd fucked, and then she went into the bathroom and blew her brains out.

This struck me as a fairly extreme critical statement. And then something else struck me. I went to look at the watercolor pad. I looked at the 'varnish,' noted the shade of brown, the little chips and flecks, the hairs.

Then I took a good sniff. Sure enough...

And this was the beginning of the dance. I had no idea what to do with the fucking thing at that point. I mean, the paper was good. But still. My first impulse was to tear off the cover and keep the paper, but somehow throwing it in the trash seemed disrespectful. I mean, how much of a body do you have to have before you're obligated to think of it as a former person rather than just detritus? I thought about way observant Jews would gather spilled blood to be buried with the rest of the body.

Should I burn it? Throw it out? Bury it? Call the cops or a hospital for advice?

For the next few months, that pad was in full view on my worktable, fixing my mind on the subject of the woman in question, her last night, what had led her to that point. Having been suicidal myself, I found it impossible to set the question aside. Had her boyfriend been abusive? Had he somehow earned that kind of rebuke? Or was she simply a wretched person? One day I'd sympathize, the next I'd regard her with scorn, the next I'd identify with her.

At the time I was single and I was very lonely. I wondered if she'd been pretty. If we would have liked each other if we'd met. If I could have saved her. If we could have saved each other.

I kept looking at that splash of blood. And the lumps. And flecks. And hair.

When I moved in with Karen, she made me throw it out.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Resolution, Of Sorts

Coming from an art/illustration background, messing around with things like color and focus are more fun for me than actually taking the pictures in the first place.

So this is going to be one of those miserable self-pity posts. Not as bad as some, but still. Oh, well. Sometimes I need to use the blog as a journal, so here comes a bit of self-examination. And hey -- if I wasn't feeling better, I wouldn't be able to write this.

I've been going through an extended period of fairly serious depression, which had disguised itself by synergyzing with the interminable flu. It was a classic Trojan Horse move. And since I experience some of the more exotic varieties of depression it's tricky for me to recognize your garden-variety state of emotional paralysis. If I'm not injuring myself or terrifying passersby, it's hard for me to recognize when I'm in an unhealthy state.

Now, while the missus has been gone, we've been talking on the phone every day. And every time, she's made a point of asking me to do something nice for myself that day. I have to admit, that question -- that whole concept -- leaves me feeling anxious. 'Do something nice for myself.' What the fuck does that even mean?

And then this morning I got a genuinely sweet email from a good friend. The time and date, the reserved nature of the individual in question, and the lack of capitals make me suspect it was a beverage-related missive, though no less welcome for that. One of the things he said was this:

i think you're a really good person who cares a lot about others, and i wish to hell you could extend to yourself the feelings you extend to your friends.

In a previous post, I wrote about my experiences at the Viable Paradise writer's workshop, and how I had a breakthrough moment where I realized that I was no longer capable of hating myself. This has held true -- I don't hate myself.

But that's not exactly the attitude you want from the person who exerts the largest influence on your life, now is it? "Well, at least they don't hate me." And it's not as if the hatred stopped because I liked myself -- rather, I became incapable of maintaining the cognitive dissonance (oh, how I love that phrase) of hating myself while respecting the opinions of me that others have expressed.

In other words, great improvement but it's still far from an optimum situation. If I regard myself as my owner, or wrangler, or keeper, well. I'm awful. If I treated any other organism the way I treat myself, I would be fucking locked up. There was a point recently where I didn't eat for a few days and didn't drink for one. That was a bit of a wake-up call. H'mmm, my palate and tongue have the texture of patent leather. Whassup with that? I had a rather unpleasant image of myself as a solitary old man dying from simple lack of interest in taking care of my own needs.

Yesterday I took care of my nieces. (At their request, I made noodle cake with stir-fried pork, mushrooms, red bell pepper, water chestnuts, and broccolinni. For desert, I gave them each an advent calender with chocolates in the little windows. "By having you open one a day, your parents teach you a valuable lesson about deferred gratification," I said to Ava. "By letting you rip through the whole thing in one shot, I'm thinking that I might be able to destroy your self-control." Ava was horrified -- "I don't want you to do that!" But she ate the chocolate. What can I say? Sometimes I'm evil.)

Being around other people really made me understand just how bad I've let myself get. Between not eating and not sleeping I've managed to put myself into a grotesque state that is neither dreaming nor wakefulness, where every sensory input has a touch of the uncanny. Where the essentially hallucinatory nature of consciousness cannot be ignored. And again, this was a wake-up call.

There's part of me that thinks it's time to sit down and make a list of resolutions. Drink less, exercise more, do some volunteer work -- but that shit never works for me. I do what I do because that's what I do and a list isn't going to change that. What I need is something pervasive. Something that affects my nature, which will then affect my behavior.

I am going to try and figure out a way to change the way I regard myself. I know, lifelong ongoing project -- but I feel as though I'm now in a position to make a different type of effort along these lines. The idea of regarding oneself with affection is profoundly alien to me. When I turn it over in my head it's like a freak exercise in topology or an Escher print or something. It's like trying to imagine fucking myself. That's not how it works -- my dick points out!

But since I've received serious confirmation of my abilities as a writer and artist, I've had a new perspective. As someone who values the arts highly, I can't help but feel as though I'm now responsible for myself as an artist as much as a human being. That the oaf might actually make a legitimate contribution to the culture if I can keep him alive and working. I know this is simultaneously neurotic and hubristic, but like I said, this is an exercise in topology. I need some kind of warp in order to direct regard at myself.

We shall see. We shall see.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Lightroom is a lot of fun -- and I think I'm going to try using it on illustrations as well as photos.

I could easily say something here about the vanity of life, and how the only solace it offers is the sensation of one second running into the next like droplets of oil, greasing one's passage to the grave. But that's just moon talk. Let's get into something real, something earnest.

I'm talking squitches.

When I read this cartoon by Julia Wertz, it sneaked into my brain, where it still hides. From time to time something will remind me of this and it will make me giggle. Click here to read the cartoon. You'll want to read it in order to understand the rest of the story.

(You'll also want to check out her site a little more. Wertz has an impeccable sense of the grammar and timing of the four-panel strip. Can't help thinking that she'd have been big back in the heyday of autobiographical comics...)

So my dad Verle, his wife Lisa, my sister Charity, her two daughters Ava and Una, and I climbed in a big old rental van and drove to Oregon for my Grandma Knight's ninety-fifth birthday. I don't know what your family is like, but we're all compulsive wiseasses. Our time together mostly consists of our trying to crack each other up. Well, Charity said something that reminded me of the squitches and I laughed and she asked for an explanation.

In the enclosed environment, the meme spread rapidly. "Where my squitches at?" was the inquiry on everyone's lips. And as the visit went on and the rising tide of sleeplessness and Christianity and not being able to say the word fuck drove us crazier and crazier (our Oregon relatives are lovely people, but are considerably more conservative than our branch of the family), we started getting a little leaky, started mentioning squitches around people who would have serious difficulty parsing the concept.

Then one night Charity took Ava, Una, and myself to see a movie. (The Fantastic Mr. Fox; I have officially given myself permission to dislike the works of Wes Anderson.)

You know those moments when you're exposed to some aspect of our society, and the floor opens up underneath you and you fall spinning through the void screaming, "Our culture is over"? I get those five, six times a day. But when I go to the movies, sometimes I can get them one after another in a matter of minutes, boom boom boom, when I'm watching the ads and previews. It's a multiple orgasm of hate, and few things fill me with more hate than most media directed toward children.

After the movie, when the whole family was in the van, Charity and I tried to explain to Dad and Lisa what made these particular promos so degraded. We were in agreement that the the new Chipmunks movie was about as bad as it gets.

"The worst part was the female equivalents of the Chipmunks. They were these hairy little hoochie-mamas singing If You Like It, Put A Ring On It," Charity said. "I fucking hate that song. I want to kill it and violate its corpse."

"Yeah, they were real gross," I said. "Imagine the area of the Venn diagram where the 'furry' circle overlaps the 'prostitot' circle."

Then a drowsy voice piped up from the back seat; it was my niece Una. She said, "That's where the squitches was at."