Monday, December 19, 2011

The Ego Error

It's been a long time since I posted. (Not much of a blog if you don't post to it... I know.)  I was working on an art commission for a friend. He's a producer on the show "Jersey Shore" and he asked me to make a picture for him to give to his boss for an xmas present. My idea was to stick the four guys from the show into an old mafia mug shot. Seemed like a fun idea and, as often happens to me, I became completely absorbed and a little bit obsessed with the project. The first phase of the obsession was watching every single episode of the reality series. From episode one, to my surprise, I found it completely fascinating and addictive. Despite the obvious lack of intellectual content, the simple adolescent humanity of the show's stars was intriguing and I came to like many of them a lot. The second aspect of my obsession was an inability to capture thug-like Ronnie's likeness. His face became a fascinating, beautiful mystery to me and up until the minute I packed the piece into my car to deliver it to my friend, I kept reworking it over and over again.

I have no perspective on this piece anymore. For the longest time, I was completely in love with it. I loved the yellow brown background and the muted colors. The piece sat on an easel in my living room and I didn't want to ever give it away. I found it beautiful and soothing and then the night before I had to deliver it, I took one last look at it before going to sleep and suddenly it looked horrible, ugly and amateurish to me. My heart started to race, I couldn't sleep. I got up early in the morning and worked on it some more and yet my infatuation still has not returned. I got Ronnie okay, maybe. But never as well as I intended. And as for the overall quality of it, well... all I have for reference are photos now and photos never seem to do large pieces justice. So I don't know, I hope my friend likes it. I hope his boss does too, but the lessons I've learned from this are complicated and a little scary.

I put so much self worth on my own opinion of the quality of the work I do. I do not value myself for who I am, only for what I make. And I can be a very harsh judge of what I make sometimes - and at other times an ardent fan. There's a part of me that believes I should love myself for how I love others: my kid, my dog, my family, friends and neighbors... but that is hard. I have spent my whole life trying to make accomplished, beautiful things; songs, pictures, scripts and poems. And somehow lately my instinct to just let the beauty flow through me seems clouded and I have been trying to wrestle and craft the the things I make instead of just allowing them to flow.

Is it getting older? Is it too much time trying to please others to make a buck? The thing is it's all an ego problem. I want to make beautiful things because I really do see and imagine so much beauty all around me. Beauty is infinite says Emerson. But I also value myself based on these creations. I wouldn't go so far to say that if I make beauty then I too am beautiful, but at least I feel I have some value because I can make them. The ability to create more gives me a purpose. But if my work is bad, or I judge it so... then I am lost. It's judgment - spiritually shallow - freaking harsh and debilitaiting. If my work is not good, then I am not good. My life looses meaning. How childish! But that's the feeling.

I have been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson and I can't think of a writer who states profound truths more clearly or with more insight. Today I was reading his essay about spiritual truths. "Each man has his own vocation. The talent is the call. There is one direction in which all space is open to him. He has faculties silently inviting him thither to endless exertion. He is like a ship in a river; he runs against obstructions on every side but one; on that side, all obstruction is taken away, and he sweeps serenely over God's depths into the infinite sea."

There have been many times when I felt like I was on the ship, riding down the center of a swift flowing river, but lately - for ten years even - I think more often I have been slashing through the weeds near the shore and breaking free into the current only every now and then. How do we put our ships back in the center of the river? I think Emerson might say the harder we struggle to do so the more tangled we get in the weeds.

The way is easy.

Until you've lost your way. Then finding your way back...? I'll let you know when I get there.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Nineteenth Century Man

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday was a hard day for me. There was no real reason, I just couldn't get myself in gear, couldn't access any motivation. I didn't go to the gym. I just barely managed to take my dog for a hike and even in the mountains I lacked the proper energy and enthusiasm. Worst of all, I spent way too much time surfing the internet. Sure, the benefits of the internet are abundant, but  I tend to believe my world is not a better place because of the electronic other world. That's rather ironic, obviously, for a guy writing a blog... I know. But, you see, I keep trying to embrace the present. I want to be a man of my time, because frankly, what's my choice? But it's not my natural inclination. I don't think any of us are better off for living our lives staring at computer screens. Big desk tops, little iPhones, we all spend our hours absorbed in virtual worlds while the beauty and wonders of the actual, natural world pass us by unnoticed. How may people have you seen walking down the street with their heads lost in their touchscreen phones? How many times has a beautiful sunset lit up my windows while I was too deep in my computer to even notice.

Anyway, on Tuesday I was feeling low and finally I decided the only productive thing I could do was to go to the book store. I wandered the stacks and finally made my selections, two Dickens, a nineteenth century sailing memoir called "Two Years Before The Mast," and a collection of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I was quite pleased with my choices and I have been enjoying them extremely, but I am also abundantly aware that it is odd, perhaps a mistake even, that I have so much trouble enjoying anything written after about 1950. Raymond Chandler is fun, Nabokov is delightful but after that I just can't finish anything. I have tried... sorta. But I have yet to find a contemporary writer who transports me, who has art and beauty in their writing - at least the way I read them.

And that brings me to Emerson. How did I get to be 46 without ever reading him? I tried Thoreau six months ago and found him a little bit silly and egocentric, but Emerson is glorious! Beautiful, moving and - to me - awesomely profound.  I was reading his essay on Shakespeare and was struck by his idea that Shakespeare, like all geniuses, was not a great original thinker (his stories were all written before and familiar), but he was a great man of his time. He understood the zeitgeist (my word not Emerson's) of his age. He embraced and devoured it with passion. The people wanted plays and Shakespeare delivered what they wanted and his energy and the energy he got back from his audience allowed his genius and inspiration to flow.

Now I don't need to be known as a genius. But I have made my living thus far as an artist of various stripes and yet I have always felt, particularly as a TV writer, that I was not a man of my time. I would rather read authors from the nineteenth century than watch anything on television. And when I do watch TV the only show I passionately enjoy is Andy Griffith, circa 1961.

Ray Davies

The Kinks' Ray Davies wrote a couple songs about this dilemma. He claimed to be an ape man and twentieth century man who didn't want to be here. But Ray was enough of his time, the 1960's and 70's at least,  to have a passionate audience. Maybe in the sixties everybody felt like they were living at the wrong time too.

I'm hoping I can allow Ralph Waldo to inspire me to find a way to be a man of my time. But for the moment,  I more often find myself pulled into the romance and craft passions of the past. The irony and jaded coursesness of 2011 don't do it for me. The kindness and simplicity and humanity of the characters on Andy Griffith, the beauty and craft in the writing of Dickens and Tolstoy, the glow and light and soul in the the paintings of Raphael, those are the worlds that appeal to me... for now. Maybe those are romantic mistakes. Maybe I just haven't grown into the present... yet.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dog Faux Paw

Everyone makes mistakes. Presidents, football coaches, parents and puppies - no one is immune. Last night I made the mistake of leaving a party too early. Or maybe the mistake was just the gnawing discomfort of thinking that I had left too early. The truth is I wanted to leave from the time I arrived. Parties in general always feel like nothing but a series of mistakes, potential faux pas, awkward lonely silences, self conscious small talk, wasted time. I was not designed for crowds, no matter how smart or good looking they are. Even crowds of children and dogs are not my forte. I don't like to fight for attention. I prefer to interact with one or two at a time. That's the way I am. Who's mistake is that?

Today at the beach my beautiful dog Bodie made a rather unfortunate error. She loves the beach more than anywhere else in the world. She is - and I only slightly exaggerate - the fastest dog on the planet. As soon as she hits the sand, she turns on the afterburners. And it is glorious to see her run. Usually I throw a tennis ball for her, but I didn't have one today so she decided to chase birds instead. She set some seagulls alight and chased them into the surf. A little while later she saw two lovely white egrets picking their way through a tide pool on a rock reef. She bounded after them, huge leaps through the water and over the rocks. She was going very fast and had almost reached them when she plunged into a deep hole and slammed, chest first, against the rocks. She stopped in her tracks and looked back at me sheepishly. The egrets took flight - amused no doubt - and Bodie made her way back to me on shore, hanging her head, clearly in a bit of pain and embarrassed too. I pet her, of course, asked her if she was okay. Tried to assure that I loved her even though she had messed up and nearly broken her own snout. After a while she shook off the hurt and humiliation and started to run again. But when, on our return trip down the beach, we again came across the egrets fishing on the same rock reef, Bodie just looked at them and let them be.

And that is the sadness of making mistakes. They can rob us of our passions. They instill fear and caution until eventually we have made so many mistakes (the more painful - the more dangerous) and learned so many reasons to be afraid that we will hardly venture out the door. And so, I hope that Bodie and I will always be able to place enthusiasm above our fears. To learn from our blunders, but perhaps not to learn too well.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

old dog

Today I feel like an old dog. Tired. I see the beauty all around me, but I'm not leaping into it like a puppy with my tail wagging. I'd say this was just another mistake, but it's a feeling and feelings aren't mistakes, they're just passing clouds. Clouds that carry us along beneath the sun. And we can choose to let them pass and enjoy the ride, or ignore the clouds and be dead inside.

When I look back at my drunken past, sometimes I only remember the glow of inspiration. The fire of creative desire. I used to crank out the songs and poems in my notebooks without even a dash of hesitation or self doubt. There was no end to the pictures I wanted to make and I fueled their creation with all the chemistry I could devise. No fancy elixirs or inventive alchemy required - your common street drugs and liquor store hooch worked mighty good - mighty good.

That's the distant glow of my pure artist past. It haunts me like a beautiful lie, like a glorious lover's deception.

But the romantic view is as true as any other and today I wonder how I strayed so far from that better path.  I had my sparks and creative joys sprinkled about in there, but mostly I feel robbed of my passion, far from the path I once followed so fearlessly. Once I was unafraid to make mistakes, because back then, my mistakes were of the living, not the creative, kind. The kinds of mistakes that got me arrested or caused me to OD. That had me naked down the street or up a tree. The kinds that killed my friends and my dog, but they were not creative mistakes. I mistook the mistakes of famous artists I admired (Bukowski, Burroughs and Hank Williams) for recipes for creation. But at least I knew what I wanted to make. The art came out of my heart. There was no calculating what the networks were buying, what the readers would spark to. The only opinion that mattered was mine. That was not a mistake.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

today's mistake

My friend Lisa says she doesn't believe in mistakes. I told her I agree with her, but that was a mistake.

I make mistakes all the time. I learn from them. I sometimes regret them terribly. Most often they make me laugh and deepen my ever growing humility. I am very human.