Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dottie and Howard

That is not dead which lives forever and a day,
And come strange eons, even Cthulhu gets a lay

(With apologies to George and Nick -- I just had the impulse to litter on your side of the street.)

"I'm sick of this shit," I say.

"What? What?" The missus spooks easily these days, and I guess it's my fault.

"Oh, my brain keeps throwing me these fucking Howard Waldrop stories. I don't want to write historical fiction, ever! There are always people who are righter than I am about history. It's too much work."

She looks up from her iPad, and then her phone, and then her computer, and then she actually looks up. "What are you talking about?"

"The thing is, there's a market for this kind of crap. If I did it right, I'd be signing checks."

The missus sighs. "So?"

"Okay, here's the deal. Nineteen-twenty-five. Dottie needs a new hat, right?"

"Who's Dottie?"

"Dorothy Parker. She's looking for a hat, sees a store and goes in. It's Sonia Greene's store, and while she's shopping, she mentions that she's working at a magazine that just started. It's called The New Yorker. And Sonia tells Dottie that her husband is a writer."

There's a sound of music as the missus goes back to her maze game on the iPad. "Sonia's husband..."

"Lovecraft. H.P. Lovecraft. He winds up a traveling reporter like A.J. Liebling or Calvin Trillin, only earlier. So it would be kinda like a cross between The X-Files and The Thin Man. Screwball romantic comedy with supernatural mysteries."

"How do you get romantic comedy out of that?"

"Look, Dorothy Parker said that all she needed in a man was that he be ruthless and stupid. Lovecraft's exactly wrong for her! It's got to happen! And you look at the history, you get the impression Sonia wasn't really that into Howard. He was just a project to her."


"He'd put some brakes on Parker's boozing, and she'd make him eat his fucking greens. 'O crepuscular light that shines from the East, I think the most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to correlate its contents.' 'Well, it doesn't just happen, darling. Get me another, and make it a double or I'll pretend I don't know what crepuscular means.' They'd be swell together.

"And the whole New Yorker would change. I mean, Lovecraft mentions he's got a line to the forgotten Boy Poet of the Sierras, starts sending Ross letter after letter until he breaks down and publishes Lafcadio Hearn and Lord Dunsany.

"And let's be serious. What we call New Journalism? It started back then. Lovecraft was a lefty Tom Wolfe, but Robert Howard's reporting on the Texas oilfields was sober gonzo, the most motherfuckingest shit you ever read, and Ross whipped that shit into shape, put a real shine on it."

I can sense my enthusiasm getting the better of me.

"That was the best fucking magazine of all time! It had the best qualities of the early New Yorker, Weird Tales, sixties and seventies Rolling Stone and Esquire -- but what really gets me? H.P. Lovecraft and Dorothy Parker get happy, fulfilling lives. They give each other mutual annihilation of tragedy, the way we do."

The music from the missus's iPad stops as she freezes the game. "Wait a minute. Did that really happen?"


And then the question comes, posed in that sweet tone of innocence that makes me wonder how much she's joking.

"Why not?"


The missus and the hon. Richard Talleywhacker hate this honest self-portrait. They are so superficial.

I got involved in a little Twitter exchange, and found my opinions being choked off by the narrow bandwidth. So Terriaminute, here's what a hundred-and-forty characters would not carry.

My feelings about appearances were fixed early in childhood -- try and ignore them as much as possible. They are definitively superficial, and when you pay attention to an unattractive surface, you may be doing harm to a heart.

This has been reflected in the way I present myself to the world. Not only do I know almost nothing about grooming and dressing, until quite recently I took pride in that -- it showed a certain purity of character.

Now I think my attitudes about superficiality were a little shallow.

Unusual appearances can be isolating, and it is important not to make assumptions about people based on aspects of their person that are not decisions they've made.

As someone who can present a relatively conventional appearance, there is a lot of nonsense I simply do not have to deal with. But at times, I have not presented as a typical human being, and I have dealt with the rude personal questions and comments that come the minute you step an inch off the common grounds. Anyone with an innately attention-grabbing personal appearance deals with a continual flow of shit unimaginable to anyone who hasn't witnessed or experienced it.

This affects who you are, and how you respond to other people. It can bring defensiveness and it can bring dignity. One reason I try and be open to unconventional people is that I'm more likely to find a common attitude there, or a willingness to accept my rough edges. A lot of my personality was formed when I was socially isolated, so it's a suggestion that someone might be able to understand me. So appearances do have a substantial effect, even though they aren't legitimate cause for judgment.

When someone makes a decision about their appearance, then it does say something about them. The decisions I've tended to make about my appearance did say, "I am a soul above the petty trappings and extravagances of the social realm," it also said, "I wear the uniform of the single-parent army with a notable lack of grace; I am unfit to care for myself, and if someone cares for me, they don't bother to screw my clothes on evenly."

And there are people willing to look past that. Thank you, thank you, thank you, kind people, the missus in particular.

But a while back, I ran across a Malcolm Gladwell book in which he mentioned that in many ways, New York's improved crime rate was the result of improving the appearance of the city.

I'm a street kid, so I've always approved of graffiti -- it's a way of reclaiming a sense of power. But it turns out that it also tends to produce a certain tone in the environment, one that made people conscious of the option of crime. When things got cleaned up, and it was proven that they could be kept clean, it had a deep effect on the culture.

Appearances, and the ability to take responsibility for them, have real power. I'd like to acquire some of that power.

So these days, I try and pay attention to how I look. Minimal dog hair. Don't wear clothes I actually dislike. Wear a jacket or overshirt if possible -- try and not look like an overgrown toddler while wearing a T-shirt. Distinguish between punk rips and throw it out rips.

Punk! Perfect example.

I've always felt like a punk fraud. During the punk days, I was listening to the Beatles, Randy Newman, Taj Mahal, and a terrifying collection of fifties debris including everything from Harry Belefonte and The Kingston Trio to The Best Of Gilbert And Sullivan. I heard the names, saw the pictures, thought they were hilarious, thought I Wanna Be Sedated was great, thought the Sex Pistols sounded like a pissed-off cat sliding down a shale slope.

I'm a Repo Man punk, God help me. I had a Mohawk in the eighties, I've recorded more than one song with 'Fuck' in the title, one of which I am not allowed to ever release because my chickenshit bandmates were all scared of no-fly lists and shit. They said, give us a rant, I gave 'em a rant, they got all excited, and then once they listened to it in cold blood, they were terrified. Pissants.

So I see young punks on the street, teenagers with more money invested in leather and studs than I've ever seen at one time, and I feel a certain... "Uh-huh. And what do you play?" Or, "That is so fucking quaint. That's like someone in the seventies wearing spats." Annoyed superiority, which is one of the worst things, bad like fly bites or rotten onions.

But I scored a leather jacket a while ago for fifteen bucks. I'm six-three with ape arms, I don't find jackets often. Me in black leather? Too much -- but it's a Ramones-style jacket, and it fits, and fifteen bucks...

So last winter, I went out on a cold day. Cold enough to justify the jacket. Black T-shirt with a red Maori face, black fedora with the dog hair cleaned off it so it's actually black. I took a minute to look in the mirror, make sure everything is right...

... and out on the street, I walk a little taller, have a hint of a smile. I know I look a little silly, but it's fun. Passing the Jack-In-The-Box down on San Pablo, I noticed a couple of baby punks at the intersection. While I waited for the light, I noticed them whispering to each other, and then they crossed the street.

"Hey," the guy said. "We like your hat."

Normally, when someone says something like that to me, they're yanking my chain. But this time, it honestly seemed as though they just wanted to... Fuck, how do you put this? Touch the hem of my garment? Receive a benediction? There is no way of putting this that doesn't smack of hubris.

All of a sudden, I stopped feeling like a wan little wannabe all punked out out in the boonies, wishing I could touch the real thing. I was transformed into a wise old punk, one who had been in the scene at times and in places where the scene would otherwise not have existed. It was as if they could sense the Mohawk I had in Sonoma. The dryer-in-a-stairwell quality of my bass.

It just charmed the living shit out of me.

So we had a nice little exchange, and went on our ways. And ever since then? When I see a punk on the street, I no longer see a pathetic overpriviliged wannabe, and I no longer feel defensive. I see someone looking for an identity, finding a culture, and preserving a tradition, and someone who would have respect for me in that tradition. Punk is not what it was, but it is not something I hold in scorn. No more snotty remarks about Gilman Street from me. And no more embarrassment about my own punk phase. I earned it, I own it.

Think of it this way -- punks revere their elders. This isn't just a cultural pun, this is an ironic tap-dance worthy of Wodehouse. And they do so to such a degree as to confer benefits to the likes of me. That is so sweet!

And now the urban landscape looks different to me. Friendlier. Black leather and tattoos mean I'm included.

So you can see why I'm becoming more and more fascinated with appearances. They are the primary tool you use to determine how people will react to you. Which means they really are most of what you are for most of the people you encounter.

There's real depth to superficiality.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Learning To Love Lichtenstein

My assignment? Criticize an artist! My choice? Roy Lichtenstein! My feelings when I saw a Lichtenstein painting in person? My God, look at the technical control here, the way he dominates the canvas -- I love this guy! I was wrong!

(Appropriated from art by Al Milgrom from Secret Wars II, Beyonder character copyright Marvel Comics. And for the record? This wasn't just a scan. I had to recreate the damned thing, down to the Benday dots, carving every edge of every ink mark -- this was more laborious than generating a painting from scratch. The print is two feet on the short side.)

But I always loved Chuck Close. I had a blast doing this. Why did one artist seem fraudulent to me and not the other?

Being able to look at my own work and have pleasant feelings makes it a lot easier to open up to new experiences in art. Defensiveness is a creative dead-end.

Glendon Mellow has reposted his critical piece on the subject of art, illustration, and the aura of a painting. He and I have been engaging in a conversation about art for some years, and I've found it quite useful -- my views of art have changed considerably since we've begun exchanging views. (Toward the end of Glendon's piece, he has links to the post at Laelaps where our conversation began -- scroll down to the comments -- and an earlier post of mine on the subject of art.)

The main changes in my attitudes toward art grow from my rejection of personal defensiveness. In order to feel some degree of strength or position in the world of art, it was at first important to me to say, "This thing you think is not art is, and this thing you say is art, isn't."

These days?

I would rather enjoy art than feel superior to it. And contrariwise, if I don't like something? That doesn't mean it's a fake, or inadequate. It is not art's job to live up to me, or vice-versa. I find myself responding genuinely to a much wider range of art than before.

That's because I don't feel like an outsider in this world any more. I've seen my work in a real gallery, a guerrilla gallery, and a number of kitchen walls, I've gotten praise from some very respectable sources, and more than that -- I've found that I can walk into a museum or gallery and feel comfortable, and if I talk? People listen to me with interest and respect. I've even been asked about my degree. (I learned art history the way I learned music theory -- I only know what I failed to avoid.)

Since I now feel part of that world, I no longer need to feel as though specific works or artists are somehow inferior to me, as if disregarding them lends validity to my own work. Instead, expanding the range of work that I'm willing to respond to has produced a corresponding expansion of my interior world.

Glendon's piece brought this to mind, because it was a face-to-face encounter with Roy Lichtenstein's work that initiated this sea-change. I'd always assumed that his appropriation of cartoon images was essentially a rip-0ff, that he wasn't really a painter, etc, etc.

But when I saw some of his pieces in the context of the museum, I was riveted. It wasn't just the painting, though. It was the entire context -- the gallery itself primes you for certain types of aesthetic experiences, the size of the work strongly effects impact, etc. It made me realize both that I couldn't judge art based on reproductions, and that there was something childish in my earlier reactions. That I was trying to prove something by disliking particular artists or works.

It is more than a little embarrassing to recognize that I 'hated' Jeff Koons the way I 'hated' Eric in the third grade. (With less cause -- Eric threw rocks.) To recognize that I dislike the works of Jackson Pollack out of defensiveness, on the basis of ignorance.

It's not a bad idea to dislike genuinely bad art. To assume that certain elements in the artistic canon are fraudulent, and that you maintain status by bad-mouthing them?

Terrible idea. Terrible. It doesn't matter if you're an illustrator bad-mouthing Pollack or a science fiction writer bad-mouthing James Joyce. You just look like a jealous idiot. You only appeal to those who are defensive in precisely the same way you are. I'm trying to cut it out, so I'm really noticing it in other people.

You build bridges when you act out of attraction. When you do something because you like it. Avoiding things, cutting off potential avenues of exploration? It's necessary. You can't do everything. But you will never fully express yourself if you pick and choose influences on a reactionary basis.

And that goes down the perceived hierarchy as well as up. I no longer feel comfortable dismissing a work for being a television show, for instance. When you see how serious and intelligent practitioners of everything from cute dinosaurs to cartoons to Star Trek can be, it forces you to do some re-evaluation.

To put it another way -- if I love the folk art and literature of other times and places, why shouldn't I knowingly, intelligently embrace that of my own? To try and imagine how the products of my time and culture might impress those outside of it?

Or to put it another way.

I know a good bit about criticism. I know how to take things apart.

These days I'm much more interested in appreciation. As an artist, it's a lot more useful for me to see how things get put things together.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why I'm Scared Of White People

So my reading -- you know about my reading, right? Here's what Joe Clifford, the guy running the thing, says:

It's a brutally honest piece about violence, ignorance, and racism, a dangerous topic, and Sean doesn't shy from illumining his own prejudice and weakness, his own part in the play--but just as importantly, he does not apologize (as so many writers in his spot might do) for the same in others. In short, it's a gritty, real, and raw story about American, urban living in the modern age. I am proud to have him read at Lip Service West. (And you should come, because he's right: he fails to bring 10 people, I take the thumbs. Them's the rules. He knows that going in.)

Lip Service West
Friday, August 12
5512 San Pablo Ave. Oakland, CA
7 p.m.

There will be wine and cheese and hot dogs and such things as well as a solid line-up of writers performing edgy autobiography -- this actually is an enjoyable event.

Anyway. Speaking of race and violence, I just put things together, and I realized one of the reasons white people scare me. Aside from Goldman-Sachs. Yes, I am white, but I'm fucked-up white -- my mom was raised by an ama, spoke Tagalog before English, and had the physical habits and mannerisms of a Phillipino. Since I have fetal alcohol syndrome, I have epicanthic folds in my eyes, and have been mistaken for Asian more then once. I grew up in a community that was primarily African- and Mexican-American, and a lot of my speech patterns and mannerisms come from there. I get called everything from 'rice boy' to 'mister man' to 'funky nigger' when I step out of my door.

In other words, yeah, I'm white, but I am under no fucking obligation to be a goddamned example of whiteness, okay?

Anyway, white people creep me out. It's true, and I need to get over it, but there are reasons.

Good reasons. Don't-go-in-the-attic-reasons.

The subject of UPC codes on books came up in one of my email discussion groups, and I just got a full and massive white person flashback. Everything fell into place and I understood why I don't just think of white people as people who tend to be pink-to-buff, but as a group.

A conspiracy.

It started when I was a kid. In my school, whites were very much in the minority, and there was a filthy little trick the administration played in order to increase racial tension enough to mandate regular beatings for the vulnerable.

There was a series of classes, one for each grade, that was designated as being for 'bright' or 'advanced' children. Which meant any white kids who weren't regarded as actively defective, and any non-white kids who actually were bright.

Yes, I was known to be bright. Bright the wrong way. They did not want to encourage that shit.So the only white kids in my classes? The other losers. That's what made them stand out. And I was the biggest loser of them all -- or, rather, the skinniest and weirdest.

I saw the kids in the advanced classes, and they seemed as though they were all together, a unit, and somehow even the other white kids in my class were part of it. I was white, but I wasn't one of the White People.

Events occurred, and junior high, high school, and all along I still feel as though I'm outside of this thing -- but I also know that I'm the kind of person who's prone to feeling this way. How could there actually be a White Thing?

In high school, this white guy named Marty sits in front of me in math, and tells me just the craziest shit I've ever heard a human being say out loud and expect to be taken seriously. There are lasers burning invisible UPC codes into people's foreheads (Marty ruined zebra labels for me), and that lets the government control their minds, and everyone's history is on file with a computer called The Beast, see, like the Beast in Revelations, and...

I mean, he went ON. He did not stop. And every word was crazier than the last, and he insisted that he'd learned this science fiction shit in church. Which I knew was bullshit, because come on. There is no way you'd go to church and hear stuff that was, well. Obviously, transparently false. Nutty.

At that time I was working at the Point Richmond Child Development center, and one of the instructors there invited me to attend her fiancee's baptism. It's always a little hard when someone targets you for conversion -- it's a compliment, but a terrible, stupid, embarrassing compliment that's impossible to receive gracefully.

When I show up for the baptism, I'm first taken aside to attend Sunday School, and that's where I get a shock. All the biggest assholes --

Okay. Black dudes? Generally, one fight. A lot of the time, they'd even act as though they were friends with me afterward, which confused the living fuck out of me. The bad ones?

Black girls and white boys. Black girls would actually hurt you, cut you, do tricks with bobby pins that left blood blisters, and they'd look right at you while they did it, faces cold and mean. It was important to them that you know they didn't like you and they wanted to hurt you.

White boys were just too fucking dumb to live. Stupid, mean, and looking for another white boy they could safely pick on. And every bad-news white boy I knew was in that Sunday school classroom. These were the shitheads who had beat on me for years, just pounded on me until I got scary and they stopped, and here they were talking about the Prince of fucking Peace, and the Love of Christ, and you know?


They were so glad to see me. Real warmth. Whether I got a beating or a cookie depended entirely on how these thuggish sluggish meatloaves related me to their favorite fairy tales. This is a human trait that always inspires me with genuine revulsion.

Anyway, that guy Marty from my math class was there. And he had not been shitting me. All of them were spouting off about how the Wankel engine had been predicted by the Elders of Zion and so on, all of them just radioactive with mutually-reinforced self-approval. So pleased with their lunatic beliefs that they just glowed.

Anyway, after spending an hour listening to these poorly-crafted hominids congratulating themselves on being compassionate, humane, and altogether Christlike, we adjourned to the...

Fuck it. You had to call it a theater. It had theater seating, and a huge glass tank behind red curtains on a stage, and it was dark except for the stage. The preacher came out and began an extensive sermon, one dealing specifically with the yawning mouth of Hell and the torments awaiting the unbeliever.

He was preaching to me.

He had clearly been informed that I was coming, and he addressed himself directly at me, going so far as to point at me in order to punctuate such words as 'sinner.'

How very nice, I thought to myself. As my eyes grew accustomed to the lighting, I was able to look around me and see...

... them. The White People. All the pale folks I seen in school, the ones who had nice clothes and nice lunches, who played together. The ones who had hit me, kicked me, threw stones at me, called me faggot. The girls I had crushes on. The ones on the inside of the White Conspiracy.

All of them, looking at me, smiling hopefully, faces shining in the dark.