Graphite drawing: Self-Inflicted“Prepare for the worst but hope for the best.” It’s part of my credo, I guess, and may well have been aided in its development by doing those hilariously futile duck-and-cover atomic bomb drills of the Cold War era. And the air raid drills—we lived in a Ground Zero area near several military bases, strategic coast, and a handful of Nike missile sites in those days—fire drills, earthquake drills, tsunami drills, and later when we lived in the midwest, tornado drills. You’d think we’d all have grown up incredibly paranoid after such stuff in childhood. But I think that besides being remarkably resilient, kids use logic on such daily puzzles far better than they remember how to do when they hit adulthood and have been taught their prejudices, and are much more easily distracted and blinded by grey areas.

I don’t remember ever believing that crouching under a flimsy little wood-and-steel desk would save me even from the shrapnel of shattering windows and imploding walls in the event of an attack or large-scale disaster, particularly since I imagined the desk itself would become shrapnel along with everything else in the atomizing roar of a bombing. Little and naïve though we were, we had gleaned hints of the enormity of such things from our beginning school studies of the world history of war (skewed to our own culture’s view, of course); no matter how grownups think they’re shielding kids by sanitizing and limiting the information the wee ones are allowed to see and hear, children are quick to notice the blank spaces where redacted information interrupts the flow of facts, and no adult is more curious than a child to hunt for clues as to what was redacted. Frankly, if there really is any use for an institution like the CIA in this day and age when practically anyone can find out practically anything with the aid of easily accessible tools like the internet, cellular phone, and, apparently, privately owned drones, along with all of the more traditional tools of spy-craft, I suggest that the crew best equipped to uncover any facts not in evidence would probably be a band of children all under the age of about twelve.

Meanwhile, we still have large numbers of people who think it prudent to withhold or skew the information passed along to not only kids but even fellow adults, giving out misguided or even malevolent half-truths or remaining stubbornly silent and in full denial about things considered too dark for others’ knowledge. And what do we gain from this? Are there truly adults among us who still think that even smallish tots can’t quickly discern the differences between a fable or fairytale, no matter how brutish and gory it may be, and the dangers and trials of real-world trouble? Does delusion or deception serve any purpose, in the long run, other than to steer us all off course in search of firmer, more reliable realities?

As I just wrote to my dear friend Desi, it seems to me that the majority of humans always assume a fight-or-flight stance in new or unfamiliar circumstances before allowing that these might be mere puzzles to decipher, and more importantly, we assume the obvious solution to be that whatever is most quickly discernible as different from self IS the problem. Therefore, if I’m white, then non-white is the problem; if I’m female, then male. Ad infinitum. And we’re generally not satisfied with identifying differentness as problematic until we define it as threatening or evil. This, of course, only scratches the surface—quite literally, as the moment we get past visible differences we hunt for the non-visible ones like sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, and so on.

Unless and until we can change this horribly wrongheaded approach on a large scale, we’ll always have these awful problems, from petty playground scuffles right into the middle of the final mushroom cloud. The so-called justice systems of the world are set up and operated by the same flawed humans who make individual judgements, so the cycle is reinforced at all levels. Sometimes it truly makes me wonder how we’ve lasted this long.

Can we learn from kids? The younger the person, the more likely to blurt out the truth, whether it’s welcome or not. The subtleties of subterfuge are mostly wasted on children, who unless they’re engaged in happy storytelling for purposes of amusement and amazement, would rather be actively puzzling out the wonders of life than mucking about in search of evasive answers and duck-and-cover maneuvers. We might gain a great deal by reverting a little to a more innocent and simplistic view of the universe, one that blithely assumes that others are not always out to get us, that direness and doom aren’t lying open-jawed around every blind corner, and that the great powers of the internet and cell phones might just as well bear cheery tidings of goodness and kindness, and drones be removed from deployment as spies and weapons to work instead at delivering birthday presents to friends and packets of food to hungry strangers.

I’m not fooled into thinking any of this is easy to do, any more than any savvy kid would be, but I’m willing to believe it’s possible if more and more of us will commit to such ideals.

Hard Boiled Character

I’m very much a child of the Sixties. I was born at the beginning of the decade that brought to a point of confluence such disparate events and ideas and people as space exploration and spaced-out hippies, the Beatles and the Batmobile, suburban composting and the Cold War. Every one of those might be said to have had at least a little influence on aspects of my self and my character, but one of those I particularly remember from preteen days is that the very little I knew of the politics of the day was that my classmates and I were trained in school drills to dive under our desks and cover our heads with our arms as protection against The Bomb. Because we all know that there’s nothing better than skinny little kid arms and a plywood desk to save us from nuclear holocaust.

A corollary of this perhaps, is that even as a shrimp I could recognize the futility and insane ridiculousness of what the world’s Superpowers liked to tell us was inevitable and what, conversely, was going to stave off such things, so I preferred to play the 60s’ iteration of the 50s’ cowboys-and-Indians, that being a game that, as far as I’ve been able to discern, was all about galloping around on invisible horses, making a lot of noise, chasing each other, and brandishing toy guns in ways that would’ve cleared the Old West in an instant by accidental and ‘friendly’ fire had they been loaded. Our upgrade for the sixties was Spies, because as it was utterly clear no politicians in ours or any other country was going to be sensible and deal in saving self and planet by means of either successfully waging a visible war or, even more remotely, by learning to sit at table and negotiate anything like Peace.

So we played Spies, the cowboys-and-Indians or Us vs. Them variant that swapped invisible pinto ponies and buckskins for invisible (or better yet, pedal car) sleek, speedy autos with magnificent tail fins, the ten-gallon hats for fedoras and the chases across the Western plains for slinking around our own houses to peer Unseen into the windows—the ones we could reach—and spying on our own parents who stood in for Commies. And only if we were really lucky maybe really were Communists, though I knew no one who would have said so openly in suburban America in those days. In point of fact, I had no goal of catching anything other than perhaps a glimpse of where Mom kept a box of candy hidden, and certainly no wish to fire my terrifyingly realistic plastic squirt gun at anyone with anything other than a zip of icy cold water, but it was all Terribly illustrationThat, however, was pretty much the pinnacle of my career as anything racy or dangerous, and I’m quite content with that. But the memory of how thrilling the entirely artificial and manufactured world of child’s play was still charms me, and I still kind of like to revisit the image of self-as-desperado with a laugh and, yes, a tip of my broad-brimmed hat.

Get Out Your Super-Spy Gear: the Future is Inscrutable Yet Inviting

graphite drawingWhen my sisters and I were kids, the Cold War was still chilling the spines of two cranky paranoid continents to pretty much the polar-offset temperature of today’s heated heights regarding relations between, say, anywhere in the middle east and the US. So we regularly crouched under our little school desks in Cold War air-raid drill positions that would’ve made us a whole new and much more crouch-y Herculaneum if Da Bomb had ever actually been dropped on our noggins. The fact that my early heartthrob Morgan M [name redacted to protect his dignity, if any] had vomited all over our shared desk when the Hong Kong flu swept through our school might’ve made my particular spot-de-crouch that much more stalactite-covered and sculptural, had I dared to look upward, but really, there was no greater sense of danger in those classrooms than the one that some teacher might decide my huddling wasn’t taken seriously enough, so crouch I did.

I also, along with my sisters, considered playing cowboys-and-Indians pretty generally passe, so 1950s, don’t you know, and eschewed that popular pastime for the much better use of our coolness in playing Secret Agents. That we never actually spied on anything more exotic than our own basement Rec Room or went on any mission more hair-raising than to demand a pitcher of green Kool-Aid from Mom to take out to the backyard where we would guzzle it until we were bursting and then run around in sugar-high mania having our Spy-vs-Spy battles (only slightly less ludicrous than those in Mad Magazine) was irrelevant; being Secret Agents was cool, was jazzy, was scintillating and ever so grown up. Naturally, we didn’t have the remotest idea what a spy was or what secret agents of any sort did for a living/dying.

What we did have was a whole lot of green-sugar-water-fueled shrimpy persons’ fun. And then, on a really good day, we’d come inside and have nuclear-orange macaroni and cheese for dinner and some outstanding stories from Dr Seuss or perhaps the infinite child-rearing wisdom of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to top it all off. We were surrounded by the unspeakable dangers not only of the Cold War but of playground equipment made of heavy steel pipes and undergirded by solid concrete; by houses full of asbestos insulation and lead paint, foods crammed with deadly cyclamates and Red Dye No. 2; and of freely roaming streets full of unlocked houses with total strangers living in them and packs of mainly-unsupervised neighborhood kids playing Kick the Can on the same roads where cars full of seatbelt-repellant maniacs tore around smoking unfiltered cigarettes and spewing plumes of black exhaust every which way.

In my current glorious old age, I am quite delighted that I never had to be rescued from the depredations of cigarettes on either lungs or bank account, that I have a car with seatbelts and airbags and GPS (not a chance in the universe that I’d find my way around the old neighborhood without that), and that I have apparently lived to this advanced vintage with my teeth and internal organs basically intact and not even artificially dyed red. I’m pretty darn delighted to be, let alone to be healthy, well off, surrounded by wonderful people, and even able to remember some of those youthful dangers. But I’m still amazed by the will of modern, educated people to believe in all sorts of dangerous fictions. (I will leave my political commentary at that for today!)

Can’t say whether my love of more benign–designed for entertainment– forms of fiction, fantasy and mystery stemmed from that wilderness of seen and unseen ‘hazards’ menacing my youth, but all of that inherent excitement surely must have had some influence, on the whole. So I thank my parents for not over-protecting me from woodland fort-building and steel-wheel roller skating and river inner-tubing and from meeting the neighbors and all of that reckless craziness. And I thank my lucky stars and guardian angels and many random strangers that I have come through all of it so remarkably well that I look forward quite enthusiastically to the second of my half-centuries from here. No matter how completely that entire range of years is wrapped in mystery at this point.

So for my self-gifting and self-congratulating (I’m very good at both, as you know) on this my 51st birthday, I’m posting a couple of self-indulgent (also a talent of mine) fond and foolish reminiscences and a couple of my mystery story drawings. And wishing all of YOU a very happy day and a marvelous, surprisingly excellent year to follow: I’ll share my day with you if you promise to make it a grand year too, as best you can!

graphite drawing

No doubt the clues are all there, but there's something to be said for just continuing to go along on the adventure and seeing what happens . . .

Grandpa had a Cabin…

The capacity for joy can be learned, I’ve seen, through dedicated and deliberate effort. I, however, was trained up in it the easy way. It was inculcated by immersion from birth in an atmosphere of kindhearted comfort seasoned with large healthy doses of shameless tomfoolery. It was a pervasive and soul-deep thing as well as an attitudinal election year ’round, but in my clan, was also enhanced by something akin to Happiness Boot Camp, in summertime especially. Because Grandpa had a cabin.


At the mossy feet of the evergreens . . .

Gramps was a carpenter, a fisherman, and an old-fashioned Norwegian immigrant with great love for simplicity and the outdoors; of course he would build a cabin. Despite a part of him that was a devoted hermit, he had at the same time surprising powers for subjugating that tendency. This started, no doubt, with his surviving those greenhorn immigrant days out east with a great boost of prankish help from his good-naturedly nutty roommates–and from there it escalated to marriage, six kids, and a flurry of grandkids following that, and culminated in this would-be hermitage of his in the woods being co-opted at intervals by invading gangs of laughing, larking relatives.

By the time of the family cabin follies, Gramps and Granny and their tribe had long since moved out to the west coast, settling north of Seattle, an area having comforting commonalities with Grandpa’s home turf in southern Norway. It lent itself neatly to cabin crafting. Gramps built his modest A-frame in the fir, cedar and alder-rich woods along the Skykomish River, establishing in the act a one-building family compound tailor-made for training up growing grandkids in the arts of relaxed rusticity and genuine jollity. Grandpa had a cabin, and there we all got lively lessons in love.

Sometimes the love was more focused on its patience component than a bunch of wriggly kids might accept readily. After all, being in western Washington, time spent at the cabin could easily be bathed in torrents of gloomy rain that held the thrills of outdoor play in abeyance for unpredictable stretches of time. Then all of the adults penned in with us had to teach us various diversions for passing the time of our indoor captivity. The worst test of patience was with the “facilities,” for although the cabin had electricity and running water from early on, those were dedicated first of all to the kitchen, so for some years we all had to use the outhouse when in need. I, for one, dreaded even the traipse through the slug-infested wet grass and the dewy clamminess of a deeply shaded summer morning there, let alone the dark emanations of the dank two-holer.

But inside the cabin, all was snugness and warmth. The wiring gave us both light and baseboard heat, and the beautiful old iron wood stove amplified both with a crackling belly when well fed. We, in turn, were well fed and began our sous chef training under Granny and the moms and aunts, learning to pitch in with anything from goulash to fish head soup or more ordinary summer picnic classics. When the dads and uncles were on duty they taught us the outdoor chef’s arts of grilling burgers and dogs or, when Gramps had led any fishing expeditions, cooking up a handsome meal of cutthroat or salmon on the barbecue. If the rain tried to intervene, why then the grill got pulled under the porch roof overhang or into the carport/boat shed, and the stewing and brewing continued merrily in the kitchen while non-conscripts evaded cooking duties by reading, playing board and card games, drawing, and piling up toys with the youngest cousins, up where the toy stash was kept in the sleeping loft’s side attic. Sometimes it was entertainment enough just to joke around and be silly with the rest of the cousins up there where it was set up like a low bunkhouse, single beds lined up under the peak of the A-frame and covered with old cowboy-decorated sleeping bags and scratchy army blankets. When things got a little too rowdy, the downstairs grownups could always shout us over to the loft railing and give a little warning to back down the decibels a little.

Now, this is only a little of the indoor fun to be had when we weren’t all tucked in for the night and listening to Gramps’s magnificent snores shaking the cabin from foundation to peak. Probably the best of all were those rare nights when he Got In A Mood and entertained the youthful crew with a glimpse of a grandpa they otherwise never knew existed. In everyday life, you see, while he was generally very kind and patient and willing to teach us how to bait a fishhook or mend the roof shingles or row his little rowboat, he also had a little bit of what all children see as inscrutably proper grown-upness and so wasn’t as likely as our parents or even Granny to crawl under the furniture and make ridiculous faces and do other really overtly silly things. Except when he got that rare itch.

Only a few times do I remember Gramps clowning outrageously, so when he did we all took notice and it was a wild party indeed. He might grab a comb from one of the kids and tease his tonsure straight up into a perfect circus performer’s hairdo, laughing like a loon, and then out would come a secret stash of old tin toys that did mechanical tricks. Or a harmonica, a simple squeezebox-style accordion, a fiddle–none of which any of us shrimps had the remotest idea he could even identify, let alone play–and then he’d play a lively folk tune or two. Meanwhile, of course, after all of us kids had pulled our jaws off the floor, we got in on the loopy laughter, sang along with tunes we didn’t know, made Gramps’s and anyone else’s hair into wilder and bigger cartoon hairstyles, and whipped ourselves into hysteria until I’m sure that the nearest neighbors in their fishing cabins were cowering under their beds, certain they were under a Cold War attack.


He didn’t fiddle around often, but when he did . . .

Those were probably the only nights at Grandpa’s cabin that we didn’t all lie awake ’til all hours whispering and giggling or trying to synchronize sleep between his bellowing snores, because he completely wore us out with laughing. There were many participants, and Granny and all of her children made plenty of contributions to the entertainment, not all that much more genteel than those nights–but after all, it was his place, and at that place some strange and wonderful things occurred that could only have happened there.

I haven’t even begun to tell you of the beauty of that spot and its true out-of-doors pleasures, the way that the air around there always smelled of blackberries since the vines grew more wildly and fiercely than Sleeping Beauty‘s formidable brambly defenses and there were always wet blackberry leaves fluttering all around us, then the sweetness of the lavender-white blossoms, and then the fat, juicy berries bursting with their purple inky wine. I haven’t let you in on the secrets of the surrounding tree-thick roads, the empty lot that Grandpa finally bought and filled with a grand vegetable patch, the abandoned neighboring cabin we cousins “remodeled” in the woods. Or the glorious river, cold as icicles in midsummer, rocky, glittering, and full of secret delights. All of those things and more were part of our learning how to have a joy-filled life, and all because our Grandpa had a cabin.

digital photocollage

Is there any more magical place?

Titles without Tales


graphite on paper

One of Our Best Operatives is Missing . . .

As both a visual and verbal storyteller, I’m bound to come up against the stubborn blank wall of imagination empty on occasion, if not often. Long ago I began using the trick of “forced randomness” to fill in the blank until something more substantial would either emerge from the resulting prescription or I’d get a welcome brain-wave from another source to rescue me. As I learned, it’s simply making the first mark on the page that’s generally the hardest part: once there’s a mark, whether genuinely random scribble made with the blessed No. 2 pencil or a slightly gibberish-tinged line written in exasperation, I now have something to respond to, to edit, to like or dislike or build upon, in whatever way I’m moved to do. The response may be disgusted continuous pressing of the Delete key or furious “unscribbling” with the big bad eraser (a tool I find I rarely use for actually erasing). If that’s the case, why then, I can work to divine just what was so unsatisfactory to me about the initial move I’d made and then there’s probably fodder in the facts enough to get me started on something more useful, more personally motivated.

If, on the other hand, I see the seeds of utility and interest in that first foray, I’m often well served by turning the whole process into a good healthy bout of problem solving. That’s what real creativity is to me: my flighty little brain’s attempt to figure out what’s missing from the world, real or not, and fill in the blanks. Blank page, blank canvas, blank silence. Aside from beautiful and meaningful moments of personal zen, I’m driven to fill them with stuff that intrigues and feeds me.

Sometimes I’ll use external means to try to force motivation. I might pick up the first book or magazine I see, crack it open to the first page my fingers find, point to a spot on the page, and tell myself that whatever word or image I land on has to serve as my starting point, the guide for making Mark One. I might look out the window and whatever moves first within my view has to be the source. Any of the old standard repertoire of such tricks will likely do. But perhaps my favorite is to give myself a title or an over-arching concept that could conceivably serve as the framework for a whole series of artworks, chapters, stories. I think of it as my “Mr Booktitles” approach, named years ago in honor of a school of “acting”, sometimes embodied by very famous and very popular actors speaking every line of dialog or soliloquy or narration as though it were a stand-alone title from a very badly written book, a method that still keeps me astonished these particular actors–or the writers and directors that should be forcing them to do better–can get hired and admired. Go figure. But the fatuous title approach has served me reasonably well, so I guess I mustn’t criticize. All I do in the instance is create my title and use either the text or the artwork to try to flesh it out, give it some meaning.

The graphite drawing above came from just such an approach, and ended up being the first in a series of five or six drawings that “illustrated” different parts of the “story” represented by the title, a sort of post-Cold-War spy adventure that never did get written and for which the present artwork illustrated, ultimately, the nonexistent prequel to the never-happened story. Not that I wouldn’t write the actual story at some point, but it wasn’t necessary to have it in hand as impetus to get some work on the page in another format. Who knows, it may be that the illustrations had to exist in order for the story to ‘need to’ happen at some point. If that isn’t convoluted enough, I don’t know what is. But at least it gave me a useful jumping-off point for a series of works that remains something of a favorite among my audiences and yes, with me too.