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23 December 2008 @ 07:00 am
I started a new blog. Well, not a new blog, really, but I've decided to spin off the drawings to their own address and keep this one for assorted rantings. Why? Well, I've been drawing a lot more lately and I have grand visions of picking up the pace on the selections from my sketchbook that get scanned and posted. I'd like to share these with a slightly wider audience (read: my mom) while still feeling free to curse, rant, and spew forth political diatribes without worrying about offending anyone (read: my mom). Thus, I will be keeping this page for the written word while the drawings that my legions of readers have come to look forward to will henceforth be available at my brand-spanking new address: http://revengeofthepencil.blogspot.com
02 November 2008 @ 10:16 am
One of the true pleasures of being a longtime music geek is discovering a great band with a deep back catalog that has somehow gone overlooked. This happens less and less as I get older, but it makes the thrill of discovery that much greater. This has happened to me recently with Giant Sand, a group from Tucson, AZ who sound exactly like what I think a band that has spent the last 25 years making music alone in the desert should - alternatively noisy and beautiful, everything drenched in heavy reverb over half-mumbled vocals filled dark, twisted lyrics that are both hilarious and deeply moving. How has it taken me this long to find these guys?

Calling Giant Sand a band is a bit of stretch, actually. It's one guy, Howe Gelb, with whoever he happens to be playing with at the moment. The confusing part is that he has also released solo albums under his own name, often with the same musicians who play in Giant Sand. What's the difference between a Giant Sand album and a Howe Gelb album? Only he knows for sure. He also plays in an instrumental band called Friends of Dean Martinez, a side project with Lisa Germano called OP8, a traditional country band called the Band of Blacky Ranchette, and probably four or five other projects that I haven't heard about yet. What I like about all this, in addition to the amazing music, is the idea of this eccentric and supremely talented individual spending a couple of decades hanging out in the desert with a group of his friends as they crank out music at a frightening pace without any regard for commercial viability. Listening to Howe Gelb's various incarnations feels a little like getting invited to a very cool party where anyone might show up at any moment. I'll be the first to admit that it's not all great (I'm having trouble getting into the stuff from the 80s, mainly because the production feels a bit, well, "80s") but, in my brief time combing through his catalog, I've found the mediocre to be far outweighed by the brilliant.

For the uninitiated who might be wondering what this all sounds like, I'd recommend starting with the most recent Giant Sand album, "Provisions" as well as a solo album Howe Gelb did with a gospel choir called "Sno Angel Like You." He also has a ton of semi-official live recordings - as both Giant Sand and Howe Gelb- up at archive.org that are well worth a listen.
28 September 2008 @ 09:14 am
I've been drawing again lately. Given my propensity to experience bursts of enthusiasm for things like drawing and writing that lead to a week or so of intense activity followed by a precipitous decline and eventual abandonment, I have no idea how long this will last. For now, it's making me really happy.

Something that has given me a definite kick in the artistic pants lately is the proliferation of sketch blogs around the internet. I especially like "Sketchbook Month" and the collection of links up at the "Sketching Forum" page. The great thing about these is that most of them are amateurs; this is the work of everyday people who are drawing because they love it and who are, in many cases, producing some great stuff. Granted, some of these people have probably been to art school, but it's still a lot different than going to a museum and looking at a Rembrandt drawing that is so perfect it makes you want to cry but that demonstrates a level of artistic mastery beyond the reach of mere mortals.

On that note, here are a couple of my recent efforts:

My attempt to copy Rembrandt's "Woman Bathing in a Stream."

That's right, it's a Tyrannosaurus Rex - as any 8-year old boy can tell you, this is the dinosaur equivalent of Lee Marvin, Joe Strummer, and Darth Vader all rolled up in one. I hope I did it justice.
12 September 2008 @ 05:45 pm
Sarah Palin scares the hell out of me. I was busy last week with a little spot of bad weather that forced the evacuation of New Orleans, so I didn't have a chance to watch her speech until a couple of days ago. I found it vapid, disgusting, simple-minded, and incredibly effective. Most of the things she said were so obviously wrong that it should have been funny, but watching her deliver that giant load of political excrement and watching the audience at the convention eat it up immediately negated any humor. It was, in purely political terms, a very good speech and I think her presence on the ticket may doom us to another four years of Republican rule.

She gave the right wing base exactly what they wanted. She's running as "just a Hockey mom"; a good, old-fashioned, small town American gal. That's all very nice and I'm sure her devotion to her family is admirable, but what is she planning to do when she meets the Pakistani ambassador? Being a "mom" in no way qualifies a person to be vice president. Am I the only one who is reminded of all the morons who voted for George Bush because he governed "from the gut" and because they thought he seemed like a nice guy to have a beer with? Call me old-fashioned here, but I generally cast my vote for the person I feel is the smartest and most qualified (OK, also the person whose political views come the closest to my own). Sarah Palin is the embodiment of all that is wrong and terrible about the right wing in American politics - this idea that a tough, no-nonsense, red-blooded American can walk across the field and fix all of our problems with a little common sense and a vague promise to lower our taxes. Words alone cannot express my sadness and disappointment as I watch the poll numbers shift and I consider that huge numbers of Americans are actually falling for this. I just don't want to believe I live in a country where that many people are that stupid.
11 September 2008 @ 08:38 pm
We're back from the Gustav evacuation. The city didn't flood, our house didn't fall down, and the world didn't end. It's strange, after such a hectic week of driving back and forth to Austin and spending all of my waking hours worrying about the storm, to come home and find life moving along pretty much the way we left it. Still, the evacuation has left me shaken. I know that hurricanes are a part of life in New Orleans, but that doesn't make them any easier to live with. There is already so much uncertainly hanging over almost every aspect of our lives here, and on top of everything else there's the possibility that a storm could come along and destroy it. Granted, the odds are slim, but it did happen with Katrina and I don't think the city would be able to recover if it happened again.

I'm feeling really worn out by New Orleans right now, and not just because of the hurricanes. The crime, the poverty, the lack of functioning infrastructure, the bugs, the heat - living here is not easy. I'm sure any New Orleans resident who reads this will immediately jump out of their seat and start screaming about the BBQ Shrimp Po Boys at Liuzza's or the Rebirth Brass Band, and of course those are all part of the wonderful and unique way of life that we can find here and nowhere else. Still, after three years of living here I still don't feel entirely at home. Suzanne and I have had many happy times in our adopted city, but right now I'm feeling really conflicted about it. Maybe I should go get a BBQ Shrimp Po Boy to clear my head.
31 August 2008 @ 04:26 pm
It's 4:30pm on August 30, 2008. Suzanne and I are tucked away safely in my stepmother's house in Austin as we watch a massive hurricane making its way towards New Orleans. Funny, this is exactly where we were three years ago for Katrina. Three years in New Orleans, two hurricanes.

These are dark days for us. I can't even begin to list all of the things we're worried about right now. The big one, of course, is that our house will be destroyed, either by a flood or by hurricane-force winds ripping it to pieces. Then there's the possibility that our house will survive but big parts of the city will flood again and everything will be thrown into chaos. I truly believe that New Orleans would not survive another hit like that. It was bad enough last time. Those first few months after the storm, even for those of us who were lucky enough to be spared the horror of a ruined home or the nightmare in the Superdome, were awful. The city was empty, services were intermittent, and a frightening air of uncertainty hung over everything. That never fully subsided, and here we are waiting to see if the progress that has been made in rebuilding the city is all going to be washed away. I truly hope not, but right now I just don't know. I seriously doubt that the city can come back again. Parts of it are still ravaged and empty, and a lot of people who devoted time, money, and energy to rebuilding don't seem likely to do it again.

I have no idea how to feel about all this. I find myself thinking back to our time in California and how we dealt with the threat of earthquakes. I was there for the last big one in 1989 and, terrifying as it was, the damage was nothing compared to Katrina and the recovery was fairly quick. Still, there are some parallels, especially in the way people view the constant threat that hangs over everything they do. Most people - in both New Orleans and San Francisco - are willing to shrug it off as "all part of living here." I know I was when I thought about the possibility of a giant quake letting go in the middle of the city and dumping everything west of the Golden Gate Bridge into the bay. The thing is, it was always worth it. Northern California was in my blood; I loved living there enough to put up with the threat of something horrible, something beyond my control happening at any moment. Do I love New Orleans enough to put up with a similar threat? I'm not sure. Even if the storm turns away and this all turns out to be a lot of fear and panic over nothing, it's really thrown our life in New Orleans into question. I hate this uncertainty. I hate not knowing if everything I own is about to be covered by rancid flood water. I hate wondering what the city is going to look like when I get home and what it's going to look like three months from now. I don't know how many more times I can go through this.

Good luck to everyone on the gulf coast who is on the road right now or who is, like me, sitting and waiting to see what happens. I hope we can all go home soon.
12 August 2008 @ 05:52 pm
I was a comic book geek when I was a kid. Anyone who knows me and who is
surprised by this, please raise your hand. OK, I can't really see you all out
there, but I'm guessing that no one is raising their hand given that comic book
geek-dom goes right along with my later tendencies towards obsessive record
collecting and massive amounts of time spent in front of a computer.

Man, I loved my comic books. I would spend countless hours sorting through them,
reading and re-reading them, and prodding my friends into lengthy discussions
about whether Sabertooth and Wolverine might actually share some similar genetic
attributes (I still wonder about that sometimes). I should also note that, while
I tried to keep my comics in reasonably good shape, I was never one of those
soulless collectors who refused to take their comics out of the special cases
designed by NASA scientists to prevent even a single spec of dust from ever
coming near them. My comic books came with me to school, to Boy Scout meetings,
and to a lot of other places where I'm sure my parents would rather I had left
them behind. Thus, I am the proud owner of several boxes of comics that are a
little rough around the edges but that were well loved and served as a
cornerstone of my childhood imagination.

Here's the problem. Age, maturity, and my desire to someday kiss a girl
eventually reared their ugly heads, and my interest in comics waned. Of course I
kept my collection, but for the past twenty years or so it's been sitting in a
stack of cardboard boxes that have been shuffled around from house to house and
have been the object of numerous curse words every time we've had to lift them up
and load them into a moving truck. It has occurred to me in recent years that my
comic book collection really isn't doing anyone any good sitting there collecting
dust. I've thought about selling them, as they are probably worth a fair amount
of money, but somehow that just seems wrong. What I've really been looking for is
some kid - preferably between the ages of 7 and 10 - who shows signs of budding
comic obsession and who will appreciate my collection the way I did. I think I've
finally found the lucky winner. Two, actually.

A couple of Suzanne's friends from Swarthmore have two young boys, both under the
age of 10, who both seem to share my enthusiasm for men in tights repeatedly
saving the planet from the evil schemes of other men in tights. The parents
themselves - having gone to Swarthmore - are fairly intellectual people and are
fond of joking that, with the genes they're passing along, they are probably
raising the team statistician rather than the star quarterback. To this I say,
"Right on. Allow me to further your sons' geek tendencies by sending them every
issue of 'Uncanny X-Men' and 'Amazing Spider Man' published between 1984 and 1988."

This weekend, Suzanne and I will be boxing up my comics one last time and taking
them down to the Post Office. It definitely hurts to think of a huge chunk of my
childhood leaving forever, but I take great comfort in the knowledge that the
collection I spent many years and the entirety of my allowance building up will
be going off to be enjoyed the way it was meant to be. The obvious exception is,
of course, the 1982 Wolverine limited series. I'm taking those to my grave.
Suzanne and I have not had a vacation in four years. That's a very long time. In fact, that's an obscenely long time and I hereby vow never to go that long without a real vacation again. What's a "real vacation," you ask? Well, "real vacation" means something lasting at least a week, preferably where my better half and I fly off somewhere totally unlike the place where we live and have a fantastic time. Long weekends where we drive to other cities in the region, family holidays, and extended hiatuses caused by hurricane evacuations are not acceptable substitutes. So, yeah, a week in Vieques counts.

For those of you who have never heard of Vieques, it's a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico that is amazingly beautiful and rustic. "Beautiful" in the sense that it is full of endless miles of unspoiled, white sandy beaches looking out on the clear blue sea. The kind of thing that makes you want to stand up, hold your arms out wide, and declare that you are ready to be struck by lightening at that very moment because there's no way anything you could possibly set your eyes on from that day forward could top what you're looking at right then and there. Don't believe me? Have a look:

Vieques is also "rustic" in the sense that there are no big resorts, fancy restaurants, bustling nightclubs, or well-stocked grocery stores. There are chickens, underfed horses, and stray dogs wandering the streets, which are themselves little more than a small patches of pavement slapped around an intricate network of potholes and horse manure. The only real nightlife that Suzanne and I spotted was a cockfighting ring on the way to the airport. Somehow we never quite worked up the guts to go in and experience the true spirit of Vieques.

A brief, 10 point summary of every day of our vacation is as follows:

  1. Wake up at a leisurely hour
  2. Make coffee using the coffee maker and coffee grinder in the well-appointed kitchen in our lovely apartment
  3. Head out to a gorgeous beach that is only accessible via a bumpy, unpaved road to do some snorkeling. Note that we went to a different beautiful beach almost every morning and didn't manage to hit all of the beautiful beaches on the island
  4. Come back to the apartment. Have lunch. Take a nap (snorkeling is hard work).
  5. Bring our books and swim wear out to yet another gorgeous beach. Chill.
  6. Head back to the apartment. Wash the sand out of our various nooks and crannys.
  7. Go out for dinner.
  8. Head back to the apartment. Admire the stars from our balcony while we reflect on what an amazing day we had.
  9. Go to bed.
  10. Repeat.

Those who are already convinced that there is nothing better than a week (or more) in Vieques should stop reading now and just go book themselves a plane ticket. Those who need a fuller picture should hold their breath until my next blog post, in which I regale my faithful readers with harrowing tales of the bioluminescent bay and Captain Billy's snorkeling tour. Given my usual ability to get my blog posts up in a timely manner, this should be coming to a screen near you sometime around the beginning the next presidential administration.
07 January 2008 @ 05:24 pm
Being the bloodthirsty, heathen, America-hating liberals that we are, Suzanne and I had a chat over dinner last night that began with the question, "what do you think was the most terrifying moment in the Republican debate on Saturday?" Suzanne checked in with Fred Thompson almost in tears over the idea that someone would blame insurance companies for the current mess that our nation's health care industry is in. Because, you see, if the government would just get off their backs and let the free markets work their magic, then the good people running United Health Care would be able to provide all Americans, no matter how poor or how sick, with world class care. OK, so I'm paraphrasing a bit on that last one, but it still makes both of us sick to see the extent to which the Republican candidates are lap dogs of big business and are so wedded to their own quasi-religious belief in the power of free markets that they can't imagine any facet of American life that shouldn't be turned over to private industry. I suppose that's understandable given how great things have worked out with our current president's effort to "run government like a business."

So, yeah, that one was pretty bad. The winner for me though was the response to Ron Paul's assertion that maybe, just maybe, America's foreign policy decisions might have a tiny little bit to do with our current problems in the middle east. Never mind the fact that Osama bin Laden released a video tape explicitly stating that his motivation for the September 11th attacks was the presence of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia and our support for Israel, the clear answer here is that they HATE FREEDOM (yep, those are capital letters). Rudy and Mitt were especially vehement in their sputtering and incoherent claims of America's total innocence in the face of irrational and murderous evil-doers. Both of them claimed to have "read the writings" of the "Islamo-fascist" leaders and to have intimate knowledge of the motivations of every last person in the Islamic world. As far as I can tell, America was just standing by, innocently eating candy and helping old ladies across the street, when the big bad terrorists came out of nowhere and attacked us because they hate our freedom. That's their story, and apparently they are sticking to it.

I should point out here that I do accept the notion that there are a number of insane, irrational religious fanatics who are now dedicated to blowing up as much of this country as possible no matter what we do. I am not, in the words of my Republican cousin, claiming that "America is always the bad guy." However, it is worth looking at our own actions, considering how those actions may have contributed to the root causes of this murderous fervor, and doing everything we can to avoid throwing more fuel on the fire. I also find it deeply disturbing that a number of people who have a real shot at becoming president are standing up on a national stage, sticking their fingers in their ears, and shouting "nyah nyah nyah, I can't hear you" whenever someone points out that our country is faced with complicated foreign policy issues that can't just be boiled down to the good guys and the bad guys having a showdown at high noon. I'd like to think that the giant pile of corpses the Bush foreign policy has produced would be enough to convince the American electorate of the fallacy of this sort of thinking. Here's hoping.
I'm a huge fan of the blog “Pork Tornado” (which, for reasons I have never been clear on, occasionally appears as “Salami Tsunami”). It's essentially the continuing story of a hilarious and slightly misanthropic man in his 30s living in Atlanta. Anyone old enough to read should really head over to http://salamitsunami.com and have a look, as his blog is a lot better than mine.

The author of Pork Tornado has, up until recently, worked a mind-numbing cubicle job that he felt was crushing his soul. In an act of monumental courage that makes me want to jump out of my chair and deliver round upon round of thunderous applause, he told his boss to stick and went off to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a professional pilot. He's very up front in a lot of his posts about how terrifying this move was and how there's a real chance he will end up crawling back to his former employer after he has burned through all of his savings and failed miserably to find a way to make a living flying airplanes. This has also been accompanied by a lot of ranting about how far too many of us do jobs we hate, stay in relationships that make us unhappy, live in places we don't like, and essentially waste what precious little time we have on this earth because we think we don't have a choice. Of course these are all sentiments I've been hearing since my second grade teacher told me I could be anything I want to be when I grow up (Note to Ms. Harlan: why didn't you tell me how much math was involved in actually becoming an astronaut?), but they mean a lot more when delivered with a heavy dose of realism by someone who is actually acting on those words.

So, this being the new year and all, I've been reflecting a bit on my life and what it is I should really be doing with it. Questions like, “what's the one thing you have always wanted to do but were too scared to try?” Sadly, I do not harbor longstanding dreams of becoming a pilot, artist, acrobat, senator, comedian, or international pop sensation. It would actually be a lot easier if I did. I could screw up my courage, look myself and the mirror, and say, “damn it, this is the year I finally quit my job and go to clown college.” I guess I've always thought it would be cool to take my writing more seriously. I've even gone so far as to start a bunch of short stories (note that none of them actually have endings, nor will they ever be read by anyone other than myself), but writing fiction is really hard and actually doing it well enough to come up with something that anyone outside of my immediate family would find interesting requires dedication to the craft that I just don't have.

I am surrounded by people who have done amazing things with their lives. A good friend of mine just started his first year as a physician's assistant. My wife is a professor at a prestigious university. Another friend of mine recently quit his programming job and dove head-first into the bloody morass that is the life of a history teacher in the New Orleans public school system. These are courageous and dedicated people who have chosen paths that are far removed from anything promising comfort and stability but who have managed to do extraordinary things because of those choices.

So, what is the extraordinary thing that I'm going to run off and do now? Um... I think I might start by going into the kitchen and getting another beer. The truth is, I'm pretty content with my lot in life. I really do enjoy my work, I'm married to the coolest person ever to walk the face of the planet, and I live in a wonderful city surrounded by a small group of excellent friends. This is making me happy for now and, come to think of it, would be a pretty satisfying way to live out the rest of my days. I do hope that if I ever do decide what I want to be when I grow up, I will find the same courage that so many people around me have shown. Until then, I vow to spend as little time as possible sitting on my ass wondering if I'd rather watch re-runs of “Green Acres” or re-runs of “Hollywood Squares” and as much time as possible doing things that make me happy with people I care about.
25 October 2007 @ 10:16 am
Lance Hahn from J Church died. He was only 40 years old, but apparently he drew an unlucky number in the kidney lottery and spent the last couple of years suffering through numerous illnesses before he finally passed away over the weekend. I realize that this may not mean a whole lot to anyone who didn't follow the punk/indie scene in the San Francisco bay area in the early 90s (the last time I was cool), but for those of us who did, this is a sad day. J Church - named after a MUNI streetcar line - were an incredibly prolific and endearing band. They were a big piece of my life for a few years there, rivaling Jawbreaker as the band I spent the most time listening to while I got drunk in my dorm room and jumped around shouting out all the lyrics I knew by heart. I remember going to Amoeba records in Berkeley and picking up their countless 7" singles during their heyday (seriously, they put out a new one about once a week) and putting their cover of "Girlfriend in a Coma" on every mix tape I made. They were one of those small, local bands that never really made it but that everyone loved anyway. I listened to their singles collection, aptly titled "Nostalgic for Nothing", on my way to work this morning and found myself getting, well, a little nostalgic. A sad end to someone who really deserved better.

Anyone interested in some excellent, noisy pop tunes can find some MP3s here and here

22 July 2007 @ 11:44 am
Like a lot of white, suburban teenagers in the late 80s/early 90s, I was really into heavy metal in high school. The first concert I ever went to was Anthrax, although my second concert was Morrissey, a move that most of my friends found more than a little puzzling. As is often the case, my interest in leather pants, blazing guitar solos, and songs about Satan waned a bit as I got older. Somewhere near the end of my freshman year in college, the day finally came when I hauled a big stack of my metal CDs to Amoeba records in Berkeley and used the credit slip to buy a bunch of stuff more in keeping with the tastes of an early-90s music snob. For the most part, I still stand by this decision.

A few months ago I met one of Suzanne's students, a very bright art history major who also distinguishes herself by being one of the only students in the Tulane art department who wears a Slayer T-shirt. This got me thinking back to my metal days and, thanks to the wonders of BitTorrent and widely available used CDs, I've gone back and revisited a few of the essentials. For me this really amounts to Black Sabbath, early Metallica, Motorhead, and Slayer. Especially Slayer. Oh my God, Slayer. They're one of the few metal bands that were saved from the great CD purge of my freshman year of college. When I pulled out "Seasons in the Abyss" a few months ago there was actually a little sheen of dust covering the case, indicative of the fact that it probably hasn't been played for about ten years. And yet there it sat, lying in wait as it languished on the shelf next to "Songs of Leonard Cohen", Belle and Sebastian's "If You're Feeling Sinister", and numerous other CDs that, in my bizarre fantasy where all of my CDs come to life and start behaving in ways indicative of the music they contain, it would probably messily devour while praising the almighty demon lord. Slayer, unlike a lot of other bands I was into when I was young and foolish, have lost none of their potency. This is straight-up, meat-and-potatoes METAL (note capital letters) - no extended guitar solos, no stupid Dungeons and Dragons lyrics, and certainly no ballads. Listening to Slayer is like eating an entire steak in one sitting. Raw.

So my iPod has now spent a couple of months displaying such classic song titles as "Raining Blood", "Spirit in Black", and "South of Heaven". Not stuff that you really want to hear every day, but when you need it there is truly no substitute. My recently rekindled love of Slayer has led me to wonder if there are other metal bands out there that would provide the same level of pure, unbridled brilliance. I mean, I stopped paying attention to heavy metal in about 1992, surely there must be some new stuff out there that is also worth hearing, right? Sadly, this may not be the case. I've been spending a little time sampling some selections on iTunes, and I just can't seem to find anything else that supplies the same blast of brutal fury without any of the trappings that make heavy metal so easy to make fun of. Pig Destroyer, Avenged Sevenfold, Arch Enemy, Disturbed - I've tried them all, and I just can't find anything that really seems worth my time. The sad truth may be that I don't really like heavy metal; I just like Slayer, Black Sabbath, and Motorhead. I think I can live with that, although if anyone reading this can recommend something else that might be worth listening to, I'm all ears.

Hail Satan.
15 July 2007 @ 04:29 pm
I haven't posted any drawings for a while, mainly because our digital camera has crapped out on us and I've been unable to photograph any of the stuff I've been working on. With the bigger drawings unavailable, I took a look through the sketchbook for recent entries that I might want to scan in and expose to the harsh light of day.

Certain people complained that I looked a little grim in my last self-portrait, so I tried to crack something resembling a smile while sitting in front of the mirror on this one. I did this using vine charcoal, which I really like working with. It doesn't allow quite the range of value that compressed charcoal does, but it's very forgiving and easy to wipe away if things go wrong. It's also easy to work in with a paper towel to get that "washed" effect, which I tried to use on the left side of the face.

Here's an effort to combine a little hero worship with a drawing exercise - a portrait of the late John Peel. I've been thinking lately that I should try to draw people of different ages, as some really interesting things happen to our faces as we get older. The photo I drew this from really showed it around the eyes, with the little squint around the eyelids and the much more pronounced lines under the sockets. I'm also messing around with different media, using a lighter pencil on this one but still trying to capture a nice range of value. It's harder when you can't just reach for those dark shades the way you can with a heavier pencil or charcoal. I tried to pick up as much as I could with different kinds of line, but I think the beard would have been a lot easier if I'd just used charcoal.

This is one of those things that I doubt anyone but me will think is funny, but what the hell. I was just browsing the CNN headlines on Google Reader to see if anyone important was blown up today, and I happened upon an amusing instance of a headline exceeding the character limit. It appears that complaints of all the money in politics may be overstated.

03 June 2007 @ 10:29 am
Suzanne left last weekend for a two-month research trip in Antwerp, and the house feels more than a little lonely and empty without her. I've been doing my best to fill some of that with my efforts to improve my drawing and, while a stack of newsprint and a box of charcoal is no substitute for my lovely wife, it has been a satisfying way to spend some of my free time. For those who are interested in Suzanne's adventures in Belgium, she just started a blog at http://whereissuzanne.blogspot.com

I spent the bulk of last night working on a self portrait while the new Bjork album (which is so great I can hardly stand it) played over and over. Portraits are tough, and self portraits are even tougher. Most subjects that I've tried to draw have some margin for error and interpretation, but the human face is not one of them. The problem is that everyone knows what a face looks like, and if something is even marginally inaccurate it just looks "wrong", even if the viewer can't immediately say what the problem is. The self portrait introduces even deeper problems, as we all have an idea of what our face looks like that may not be entirely true to life. Try staring at your own nostrils for about half an hour while you try to accurately represent them with a piece of charcoal and you'll see what I mean.

I went to see the new "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie last weekend and, while it was ridiculous and stupid, it was also a lot of fun. I came home feeling like drawing something huge and bombastic, so I found some photos of elephants on the internet and came up with this.

19 May 2007 @ 03:11 pm
I have always lacked discipline. I am forever starting things and not finishing them, enjoying an initial burst of enthusiasm and then leaving it all to sit and gather dust. I played bass in high school and college but never got very good because I never practiced (years later, I sold my bass and amp to a friend of mine who also never practiced). I am the author of an embarrassing number of short stories that have no endings and sit unfinished in a drawer or in the dark crevices of my hard drive. I have an easel that gets hauled out of the corner about twice a year for a burst of artistic enthusiasm and then gets put away after I get tired of tripping on it where it sits, forgotten and unused. The list goes on.

A few months ago, I took a drawing class at Tulane. The instruction left something to be desired, but it did force me to do a lot of drawing and I even started to see improvement. In the months since the class ended, my efforts to stay in practice and improve my skills have been sporadic at best. It upsets me to see myself falling into the same patterns that have plagued me since I was ten years old, so I have decided to take what I am referring to as the "forced march" approach. Drawing requires a lot of effort and concentration and, clearly, if I only do it when I feel like it I'll never get anywhere. So I'm forcing myself to sit my ass down at least four times a week and put pencil (or charcoal, or pen, or brush) to paper, whether I want to or not. Even if it's just for fifteen minutes, just to get my hand and my eye moving together. Suzanne will be leaving next weekend for two and a half months of research in Belgium, so my hope is that I can keep this up through the summer and actually see a little improvement. The goal here is to improve my drawing and also exorcise the ghosts of my neglected bass, my unfinished stories, and all of the other things that I've been excited about at one time or another but have left to die on the vine.

As part of this effort, I'm also going to start showing off a few of my efforts right here on this very blog. I wish I could promise some sort of regular update, but I think just putting the stuff out there now and then will be enough. Note that I'm not actually claiming any real artistic skill here, I just want to prove to myself and to anyone who may be reading this that I have it together enough to actually stay with something that can be worthwhile and fulfilling. I'm not sure that's entirely healthy, but so be it. On that note, here are a couple of recent selections from the sketchbook:

From a New York Times article about people wrongly imprisoned in Japan

Copy of a Richard Diebenkorn drawing
I was reminded once again that I am truly not in California anymore during a meeting at work earlier this week. A member of the help desk staff was giving a presentation which included the following sentence:

"We're gonna work with y'all so y'all can do y'alls job."

For those keeping score at home, that's three "y'all"s in once sentence.
New Orleans just doesn't feel right when it's cold. My initial impressions of the city are of the hot, sticky weather. Everything lush and green, the smell of a million growing things in the air, and a sense of life and crawling things coming out of the ground like steam. Sweltering heat day and night with torrential rains every afternoon. This is what I remember from our first couple of trips in the spring and summer of 2005 when we were getting ready to move from San Francisco.

It's May now, so all of this is coming back after a few months of winter when it did actually get down around freezing now and then. Anyone from a northern climate is likely to laugh at this statement, but allow me to remind you that most of us New Orleanians (or California transplants) live in old, drafty houses that were constructed with an eye towards keeping cool in the summer rather than warm in the winter. There were many days when I came home to find my poor, freezing wife (who does tend to be a bit more susceptible to cold than most) huddled over her desk wrapped in a flannel bathrobe, a blanket over her legs, and the remnants of multiple cups of hot tea scattered about the office.

Is it possible that I am actually beginning to enjoy the climate here? That I take comfort in the knowledge that it will probably be October before we have another day below 80, that the humidity is going to climb to a point where going outside feels like taking a steam bath, and that all of God's many-legged creatures will awake from their long winters nap to invade my kitchen, bathroom, and any other cool, damp place in my house? OK, the bug thing I will never get used to. I'm sick of people differentiating between "good" and "bad" cockroaches and telling me that the stinging caterpillars aren't really so bad. The rest of it does have its charm though. I like the idea of sitting on my back porch on a warm night and looking out on our garden while sipping a cocktail. I like that the city turns a million kinds of green, that plant life I had previously seen only in little pots grows taller than me, and that the branches of the live oaks stretch out across the streets while their roots grow under it to produce potholes of epic proportions.

Remind me of all of this wistful rhapsodizing in August, when my energy bill is more than my paycheck and I unleash long strings of profanity-laced tirades against the heat while longing for the bracing chill of San Francisco fog.
14 March 2007 @ 10:26 pm
The year is 1992. George Bush Senior is president, a song by Right Said Fred called “I'm Too Sexy” rules the charts, and I am an awkward 16 year old with puffy hair and a firm conviction that Metallica's “Master of Puppets” album is the single greatest achievement in human history, followed closely by the discovery of fire and the first “Highlander” movie. I am also the 29th ranked player on the Alameda High School tennis team. That's 29th out of 30 – fortunately there was another, even more awkward guy on the team who played Mississippi to my Louisiana and kept me from finishing dead last.

Up until I discovered tennis, I had never been good at any sports at all. My parents, through a desire to see me get some exercise and tear myself away from my comic book collection, had encouraged me early on to try a couple of little league sports. I remember playing soccer for one season and not really understanding the rules, which hardly mattered since I never made it off the bench. Then there were a couple of summers of park-league baseball, where I was humiliated on defense every time the ball was hit to me and where my total offensive output consisted of a single foul ball (I was so happy to have made contact that I felt like I had just hit a game-winning home run in the world series). Eventually, my parents figured out that I was destined not to be a star athlete and that I probably got plenty of exercise just riding my bike around the neighborhood, so I was no longer prodded towards organized sports and my athletic disgrace was limited to gym class.

Then, at the age of 13, I developed an interest in tennis. Of course I sucked. Tennis is a very difficult game to learn – the mechanics alone are immeasurably complex and unforgiving, never mind the live opponent on the other side of the net who is trying to hit the ball past you. I think I probably sucked more than most beginners due to my total lack of coordination and natural talent. And yet, no matter how many backhands flew over the back fence and how many serves I hit into the net, I still really enjoyed it. I spent about a year hitting around casually with anyone I could find and dropping in for the odd lesson at a park down the street (the same park that was the site of my foul-ball glory). Then I heard about an afternoon clinic run by a guy named Les White, who also happened to be the assistant coach of the Alameda High School tennis team. Les was quite a character. He was an enormous ex-football player from Mississippi whose knees were in such terrible shape that he could only move around the court by leaning on a shopping cart full of tennis balls. He ran a clinic at the Alameda High courts (now the Les White Memorial courts) every day with a small staff of coaches, where he charged almost nothing and took anyone who wanted to play. I still remember the day I went down to the courts and asked him about signing up for lessons. “Signing Up” meant shaking his hand – which felt like a leather glove that had been chewed on by a pack of wild dogs - and being told to come back the next day with my racket. So I did. I also came back the day after that, and the next day, and the next, and ... well, you get the picture. I went almost every day for that entire summer and, against all odds, I actually started to turn into a decent tennis player. Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but the ball rarely went over the back fence and I actually manged to win a match every now and then.

Fast forward to that spring of 1992. By then I had been playing with Les for almost two years and had finally made the Alameda High School tennis team. I actually tried out after that first summer and didn't make the team, a crushing defeat that still stings to this day. But, by that second year, it was decided that all of those millions of practice balls had resulted in a game that looked pretty strong and that I could have a spot. I didn't even have to try out! It seemed that I was on the road to tennis glory, with a bad-ass serve and a Metallica T-shirt to strike fear into the hearts of all who stood in my way.

Sadly, the reality of Alameda High School tennis quickly reared its ugly head. This was not your ordinary high school tennis team. The school gym was plastered with pennants from years of state and local championships, numerous alumni had won scholarships to prestigious universities, our #2 player had his serve clocked at over 120 mph (no kidding, I saw him do it), and rumor had it that several families had moved so that their children could be in the proper school district to participate. Needless to say, this was not exactly a relaxed, hey-let's-just-all-go-out-and-have-fun atmosphere. The pressure was intense, and I disintegrated as soon as I stepped onto the court. I still looked pretty good in practice, but as soon as the match started my whole body turned into a pile of jelly and I played with all the poise and skill of a gorilla with a massive head injury. I did manage to win a couple of matches here and there, but mostly I just fell apart and spent most of my time on the court thinking of a line from a Morrissey song - “how I dearly wish I was not here.” All of those countless hours with Les just faded away as soon as I was playing for real and I could see the coaches, the parents, and the other players watching me. I limped through one season on the team in that 29th spot, thankful that it was an unusually rainy spring and that a lot of our matches were canceled, and then my illustrious tennis career came to an end.

But this tragic tale of adolescent humiliation does have some bright spots, and my interest in tennis did not die with the career of Right Said Fred. One of the great things about tennis is that you can play your whole life. I've seen players in their 60s and 70s who, while they may not move quite as well as they once did, could still compete with almost any amateur player. And so, after a couple of years letting my racket collect dust and giving my battered pride a chance to heal, I got back out on the court. Of course, by the time I finished college, I couldn't practice at Les White's clinic for three hours every day, so my level of play was never quite what it once was. But it turned out to be a lot more fun. I've kept up with it ever since, often going months or even years without picking up my racket, but always coming back around eventually.

Recently I've started to get back into playing a little more seriously. There's a clinic at New Orleans City Park that I've been going to every week and I've managed to find a few partners around town at about my level. My game still does tend to crack a bit as soon as someone is keeping score and, due in no small part to my humiliation as a high school player, I haven't played in an organized tournament for about fifteen years. It's possible that I'll work my way up to that eventually, but right now it just feels really good to knock the crap out of a serve or to run down a tough shot and slap a winner up the line. Granted, these moments of triumph are far outnumbered by double-faults and stray balls that go shooting off into the next court, but I always come home feeling that I've done something good for my body and that I've had some fun out on the court. These are things that I hope to hang on to for many years, even if there are long stretches where I stop playing. I like to think that the disappointment of playing on that team in high school built character and taught me important life lessons, but mostly I'm just glad that it's all over, that I'll probably never see any of those people again, and that I can still get out and enjoy the game. I'm also very grateful to Les White for teaching me how to play and for giving me something that will contribute to my health and happiness for many years.

Anyone in New Orleans who feels like hitting some balls around is welcome to write to me, provided that the stakes never get higher than a post-tennis beer.
07 March 2007 @ 08:43 pm
Last year, Mardi Gras was magic. In the wake of Katrina and all of the destruction the city had suffered, it was really wonderful to see the residents of our embattled city take to the streets to drink, dance, catch beads, drink, dress up in amazing costumes, and drink. Plus Mardi Gras is hilarious. Did anyone ever tell the King of Toth that his outfit makes him look exactly like the Burger King mascot? Could he hear Suzanne yelling “I can see up your skirt!” as his Royal Float came chugging by? I hope so. Despite all of it's potential for ridicule, last year's Mardi Gras made me feel connected to the city in a way I had not up to that point. I remember being in the French Quarter watching a parade – Barkus no less, which, for anyone unfamiliar with it, consists of dogs dressed up in costumes and marching through the quarter while their owners throw beads and rubber dog poo at the adoring crowds – and feeling this overwhelming sense of belonging and intoxication as I looked upon new friends in my adopted city and listened to a brass band. I remember thinking, “this place is amazing, I never want to leave.”

This year was a little different. Much of it had to do with Suzanne being away in New York for most of the prime parade weekend, but even when she was around I just couldn't get quite as excited about Mardi Gras. We did go to a couple of parades and had a fine time, but in the end I ended up skipping out on most of the festivities. It pains me to admit this - I'm sure someone is going to come to my house and revoke my New Orleans Resident privileges – but I stayed home and worked on Fat Tuesday, going out only to make a trip to the grocery store and complain that they had the nerve to close on Mardi Gras Day (fortunately Reginelli's pizza stayed open and kept a delivery driver on staff). Part of me regrets not getting into things a little more, but I know there will be a Mardi Gras next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, and so on. I've had a lot going on lately and this just wasn't the time for me to run out in the street and shove little kids aside in an effort to score beads and trinkets.

I sometimes worry that I am managing to live in New Orleans without really living here. When we were first getting ready to move from San Francisco, I envisioned wall-to-wall debauchery and late nights in smoky bars eating gumbo and soaking up the music and culture. There has been some of that, but the life Suzanne and I lead is becoming increasingly insular. Much of this has to do with my job, which is across the border in Mississippi. This means that I get up early, go to bed early, and spend an inordinate amount of time away from the city. As I've gotten settled into this routine, I find myself starting to wear a path (not unlike those Family Circus cartoons where the little kid runs all over the house being chased my little dotted lines) that runs from the interstate to my house, with a few little forays out to Whole Foods, the homes of a few friends around town, a couple of restaurants in or near our neighborhood, and the gym at Tulane. That pretty much sums up my New Orleans experience.

A part of me feels that I may be missing something here, that the city is full of wonders that I am ignoring and will regret not having taken advantage of when I'm old and gray and can do nothing but sit on my porch and complain about the government while Suzanne feeds me strained peas. That may be so, but then the experience of a city is really an individual thing and I think we all need to find the things that are important to us. At this point, what is really important to me is my life with Suzanne, our relationships with our small group of friends around the city, and my career. Yeah, that last one came as a shock to me too. But the truth is, I really like my job and, while it does kill me sometimes to be enduring this huge commute and spending so much of my time out in the wilds of Mississippi (note to anyone thinking of visiting: Biloxi is a grim place that should be avoided at all costs), I really like my co-workers and I find my work endlessly engaging. I should also stress that Suzanne and I do leave the house every once in a while. Last weekend we took our sketchbooks out to Audubon park and did a little drawing and a lot of sitting, watching the ducks and fantasizing about the day when we might get a dog. Then it was back home to cook dinner and watch a little Battlestar Galactica on DVD, an evening plan that had us in bed before 11:00. This is not exactly the devil-may- care, party-til-you-puke attitude that most people expect from New Orleans, but it is a kind of life that has led me to feel deeply satisfied and content. As for Mardi Gras... I'm sure there will be plenty of parades, drinking, and worthless trinkets waiting for me next year.