Colorful Language

Photo: A Constellation of Mysteries

Color is just one of the infinite constellation of mysteries that make up my world, my life. What looks like nothing but the fabric of my black corduroy pants has a surprising amount of what looks like non-black color in it when I look very closely. A bit of digital exaggeration and enhancement to bring out the colors I see either heightens the illusion or tells me, once again, that color is far more than meets the eye!

I’ve been taught that color, or at least our perceptions of it, might be manageable. As an artist, I try my best to take advantage of that possibility. But I know my limitations. Even rather experienced and advanced color theorists in this day and age come up against problems with explaining and understanding precisely what color is and how it acts, despite knowing the differences between additive and subtractive mixing, knowing how the retina and brain perceive and communicate color ideas to us, or knowing how the environment and context of what we see affects our perceptions of color.

What does it really mean if I say that Black is a construct that represents the absence of color and White, one representing all colors combined? Or if I tell you that an orange is, well, orange, but in deep shadow it might appear brown or black, or light yellow? Or that humans have white or black or red skin! What gives a single one of these concepts any credence at all? Color, it seems to me, is a matter of faith as much as of science—like so many things we think of as immutable Fact in our little universe. What both science and faith seek to explain, it seems to me, is beyond the scope of human understanding no matter how brilliantly we study and how majestic and divine our inspiration would appear. What is all around us is supremely complex and beautiful and, to my mind, needs no understandable explanation to be so glorious.

No matter what color it is.

We were So Civilized

Digital collage: We were So CivilizedNo matter where I am on the Fourth of July I am likely to think about the country in which I was born and have lived all of my life thus far: the United States of America. The Fourth is the official birthday of the nation, though many of the current states joined the union long, long after that July in 1776 when it was established by its founders. Like so many nations around the world, this country and its history are a tremendously complicated and varied patchwork of fact and fiction, hope and fear, two steps forward and one step back. Over and over and over again.

Imagine this: a pack of refugees from religious persecution left their homeland and sailed into the unknown across an ocean of which they also knew very little except that their passage across it was dangerous and miserable and killed plenty of them before they hit the new shore. When they landed, to their surprise there were already plenty of other people living on that new turf, and did that stop the interlopers from moving in, too? Of course not. I don’t expect it ever occurred to them, to be honest, that there wasn’t room for everybody or that if they took a ton of the resources around them that might just mean there were fewer for the previous residents of the land, folk who had, indeed, already long established a very different relationship with the continent.

That the illnesses and diseases the newcomers brought with them from Home would endanger and kill many of their new unwitting and unwilling neighbors could never have entered these interlopers’ minds, when they were so preoccupied with not only their current survival but their escape from the hardships and sorrows back in their own homeland. That they themselves would suffer privation, fear, danger, loneliness, and the loss of their lifetime homes, belongings, families and friends across the vast ocean they had crossed was a stark enough reality that perhaps they willed themselves not to think too hard about all that they faced next also affecting the long-tenured native peoples across whose lands they moved like human bulldozers.

The establishment of this new home was far from smooth and easy too, as anyone could probably guess, though I wonder if any of them really considered that the goal as much as simple escape from what they’d known before. Still, none of those inhabitants of North America—invaders or original denizens—could possibly imagine at the time, I suspect, quite how vast the whole continent was and what that meant in terms of creating new colonies within it, let alone new nations. In the years that followed, the westward migration confirmed the existence of innumerable tribes and clans of people not before known to the new arrivals, but also of wild creatures unimagined, of terrain unlike any they had dreamed possible, of climates that had been the stuff of legend until then.

In those many decades of carving out new paths and territories, it was inevitable that, just as it had been with the foregoing generations of various indigenous peoples, there would be struggles over who had access to what, who could live where, and who belonged together with or as far as possible away from whom. No surprise that this led not only to separated towns and enclaves and ethnic, religious, political or philosophical communities but also, in turn, to a wild array of accents and ideas that might as well have been different languages and different species altogether.

Amazing that all of this could remotely possibly coalesce into what is known as the United States of America. Today’s states are still so diverse, even sometimes from county to county or one side of the railroad tracks to another, that it’s nearly laughable to call them United. We fight like pesky siblings with each other all the time; it’s a miracle, in my book, that the so-called Civil War, one of the most uncivilized events in the country’s history, hasn’t simply continued from its beginning to the present day. It does, perhaps, at subtler levels. Just because the invasion of the continent by a bunch of frightened Pilgrims who only thought themselves seeking freedom from tyranny didn’t destroy the whole land and kill every one of them off outright, and because the various internal skirmishes that led to, but were far from limited to, the Civil War didn’t complete that annihilation doesn’t mean we’re not still perfectly capable of incredible incivility at every turn. We try, we fail.

On the Fourth of July, I think of how astounding and—generally—good it is that this messy nation has managed to survive this long without self-destructing. But I can’t help also thinking this of most of the rest of the world. Humans just plain are messy. We form and break alliances; we argue over being Right instead of being compassionate or practical, let alone pursuing justice. We blunder around, hog resources, ascribe privileges and powers to ourselves and our chosen comrades that we willfully deny others, or just pretend the others don’t exist, and thanks to our weirdly, wonderfully diverse array of accents, when we do get around to discussing the least of these things, even those who ostensibly share a language can’t understand each other half of the time anyhow.

Just possibly, our life form may have been civilized at a few choice moments. There is plenty of potential in this odd species of ours, I like to think. Even we Americans aren’t entirely irredeemable; we keep bothering and beating up on each other like so many brothers and sisters, and yet most of us still manage eventually to just agree to disagree and, in moments of precious lucidity, even to see each other’s point of view and operate in an environment of respect and hope. As rotten as we can be to each other, we care enough to wrestle it out and try to find ways to go forward. Together, even. If that isn’t a family worth saving, I guess I don’t know what one is. Happy birthday, USA. Go forth and get a little more civilized, if you can.

Depends on Whom You Ask

What’s happening in any given scene? Everyone who answers the question is sure to have his own answer. Point of view is colored and skewed every which way by one’s position at the moment, by the context of experience, by taste and beliefs. Is this a drama? A comedy? Every actor in the event might well give you a different answer.

The other day when I was hearing a delightfully humorous arrangement of the old western song ‘Blood on the Saddle’ (arranged by Trent Worthington) I couldn’t resist adding a silly illustration of my own to the music. In my sketch, the horse whose saddle has presumably been bloodied stands still enough now to act as a comfortable perch for a vulture that stopped by to survey the fallen cowboy as a potential buffet–though as the vulture has just landed he’s more interested in a short rest first. The horse, now riderless and not forced to buck, has no particular remaining interest in the fellow who until recently expected him to lug around the cowpoke‘s weight and kick his heels in the rodeo arena for a living. The cowboy, now just a flat stain in the dust of the ring, is of no more interest to the horse and little yet to the buzzard (not ripe enough yet, presumably). In fact, when I cropped the cowboy out of the picture altogether, it struck me that the horse and bird looked pretty peacefully contented just lounging around together.graphite drawingSo, whose point of view matters here? The cowboy’s, not so much. Having croaked, he’s now short on both opinions and feelings, so we’ll leave him out of the equation. The bronc, of course, has got to be somewhat relieved at the current situation; while he did participate in the squashing of the aforementioned rider, it’s a pretty safe bet that having the guy pile on his back and goad him to buck was hardly the horse’s idea in the first place, so he can hardly be blamed for, well, bucking the buckaroo off into the dirt. Falling over the fallen fellow, I feel it’s safe to say, wasn’t the horse’s idea either, but just a natural consequence of being thrashed around unwillingly in a dirt arena for someone else’s amusement. Fictional or not, this poor horse deserves a break after all he’s been through.

The buzzard, on the other hand, is just a passing freeloader. Of course, that’s what vultures are designed by nature to be and do: the cleanup crew following food-related disasters. Some days, the sacrificial mammals are less human than in this instance, but regardless of the source, nice dead things are made to be Vulture Chow. And the upshot of the dining experience is that the buzzards will leave the scene a much spiffier one than when they arrived on it. Seems to me that this vulture, too, deserves his moment of happy contemplation and repose before hopping down to dine. I’m guessing, then, that his view of the whole scene is rather–if you’ll pardon the expression–sanguine. Unlikely he’d care how the meal arrived at his ‘table’ so long as it arrived. He sits on his equine throne and surveys what, to a carnivorous bird, is a royal feast indeed.

And what of me, the observer and, partly, inventor of this scenario? How am I to respond to it? I bring my own baggage to the occasion. I’m not a lifelong fan of vintage Western songs, having come to appreciate them as a piece of Americana and folk music culture later in life but still from the remove of something like an anthropological observer. This song itself has had a number of covers from the period-traditional to playful takes like Mr. Worthington’s above-mentioned arrangement, and each iteration adds new aspects to the folklore of the story, tingeing it further with tragedy or humor, history or fiction. The story of a cowboy riding a bucking bronco until thrown and crushed by the horse is swiftly told but can grow and change with each retelling. Do I feel sorry for the cowboy? Insofar as I get involved in the lives, loves and losses of fictional characters (and I do), I will admit his story has its sorrows. It’s arguably a tragedy in the classical sense, since it was through his own choices and actions and the consequences thereof–one could even conceivably see his fall as a direct result of hubris–but death of anything other than comfortable old age still strikes most of us humanoids as just plain sad.

I guess you can tell from my earlier remarks that my sympathies lie more with the horse in this equation. He was put into an untenable situation and responded in true horse fashion to the best of his ability. Too bad for the cowboy that horse logic says the correct response to being strapped into bucking gear is to buck, and that, as hard as you possibly can. The horse in this tale got lucky and knocked that unwelcome irritant off his back. Tough luck for the irritant. It really is all about perspective when it comes to assessing the situation. What it boils down to for me is a recognition that being the cowboy may appear more exciting and impressive, but sometimes it’s better to be the horse.digital image from a graphite drawingWho knows? I might even root for being the buzzard: none of the hassle, all of the free booty. Say, I might be a vulture already! And I’m okay with that. Stop by and find an already made idea for a drawing? Why, sure. I am a shameless scavenger. But I prefer the term ‘artist’, if you please. And all you others are free to agree or disagree, just as you wish.

The Vast American Landscape

 

digital image from a photographAs November approaches and the always-tedious white noise of political ravings grows ever louder in the US atmosphere, I find myself musing once again that so little is what we think it to be. Clearly, if you read my post the other day, I am seldom content to accept the appearance as the reality, but it is never more significantly the case than around the time of elections. For all that Americans love to crow about being the truest democracy in the world and having the power to determine our own destinies and that of our nation (never mind our meddling globally), what’s most notable around voting time is how little anyone really does his or her research and how thoroughly gullible, petty and narrow-minded most of us are on our best days. It’s really kind of miraculous that, young as America is in the way of being a nation, it still exists as one. We’re all on our own paths, wavelengths, and possibly planets around here.

And those who rise to power in our country are no less prone to manipulating that sort of foolishness than those we claim to abhor elsewhere. We give things whatever ‘spin’ we prefer and, by golly, hordes of similarly spun fellow denizens jump right into the vortex with us, leaving reason and, ultimately, hope far behind. One might think that the current age of electronic wizardry would make us more aware, if not more cautious, of all sorts of trickery and monkey business, but alas, we cling to our ignorance and wilfulness with just as much dimwitted fervor as always. Knowing that the camera sees only what the photographer aimed it at and the recorder hears only what the engineer had it turned on to hear–and that the results of both operations can be almost endlessly manipulated after the fact so as to be something entirely new and different from the initial truth, however truncated that might have been, we still choose to stand with facing our own chosen suns while right behind us, out of frame, utterly different realities are carrying right on with their appointed happenings.

So in honor of this form of deception, whether imposed upon us or self-inflicted, I give you my image of the Grand Canyon. Or, as it was before a little Photoshopping hocus-pocus, a dirt pile under the freeway overpass, whose ‘magnificent agaves’ are small tufts of grass, whose brilliant coloring is all hand-applied, and whose vast open sky is a digital blanket pulled down to cover the abandoned storefronts looming behind the little hillock. What you see is what I get, my friends. Keep it in mind on the way to the voting booth, won’t you?

 

The Library for People Who Don’t Read and Other Miracles

Perspective. Point of view. Scientific experimentation. Verifiable, empirical knowledge. Assumptions. Imagination. Proof.

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The School for Skeptics always has room for more . . . but should we be listening?

Who gets to define these? How, why, and for how long? How many centuries did it take for the earth to “become” round? I learned a wonderful thing about Truth and reality from my grandma when Alzheimer’s disease changed her from an ordinary human into a particular and new to me kind of visionary. I suppose I’d been around plenty of people before who, whether through illness or anomaly, through some life episode or misadventure or merely through the self-guided development of ingenious discovery or delusional ideation, saw the world and its verities quite differently from the majority of us others. But I don’t think I’d paid very close attention to what that might mean, before ‘meeting’ the new and different version of Grandma.

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Grandma grew blurry . . . or was it only that the borderlands between our reality and another began to thin perceptibly?

She had already been moved into a lovely and much safer residence than her solo apartment, a place where she was fed properly, kept safe from rambling until lost, and tended like a well-loved family member, and she had begun very tenuously to adopt it as her home when I went along with my parents to visit her. Since she had acquired a roommate now and their quarters were modestly scaled, the other four of us strolled down to a pleasant sitting room nicely made for visiting. That is to say, Mom and Dad and I strolled, and Grandma rolled, now that she had completely forgotten she knew how to walk–except for rare occasions when, the staff informed us, she would simply get up and do whatever it was she wanted to do, then go back to her wheelchair and promptly forget again that she was quite fully ambulatory.

In the sitting room, which was comfortable and softly lit, there were several wing chairs and a small table with side chairs where guests could set cups of coffee or tea while socializing or perhaps play a game of cards if they wished; there were old-fashioned painting reproductions on the walls and dated but sweet wallpaper and there was a little arrangement of eternal, artificial flowers. There was also a bookcase, a fairly small one but basically empty, possibly because the residents in the dementia ward of the home didn’t quite know how to handle books gently enough any more or simply wandered off with them. We were curious and a little nonplussed by the place’s bothering to keep an empty bookcase around, but my grandmother wasn’t the least bit disconcerted. It was a quiet room and had an empty bookshelf because it was a Library for People Who Don’t Read. And that was that. It was funny, yes, but in addition it seemed, well, a little bit childish and decidedly more discombobulated than anything my former grandma, my actual grandma, would ever have said and I felt slightly embarrassed and more than a little sad.

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There are innumerable soft places for landing, but dare we visit them? Dare we stay?

She chattered a little, mostly in a nonsensical stream of short non-sequiturs, and eventually, grew a bit tired and weary and disappeared from the effort of conversation more and more until we thought she might just be falling asleep. So it was time for us to toddle off down the hallway to her own room again and make her cozy there. Her identification of the family photos on the wall was tenuous at best, and wholly disconnected from anyone in the room who happened to be represented in the photos. She told short stories that were part memory of long-ago times, part yesterday’s lunch, and part spontaneous fiction. She was quite taken with the tall evergreen outside her second story window. It turned out, she was mostly attracted to the man she saw sitting up in its branches there.

By then I was very tired too. It was mighty hard to follow these oddly disjointed and intermingled sentences and thoughts enough to attempt interaction with her anymore, and I was already sure that any comments I made or efforts to connect with what she was saying or thinking were pointless and soon forgotten anyway. I was very unhappy with myself for being so impatient and distracted and unable to just love this new and strange person living in Grandma’s shell. When the man outside her window was clearly more interesting to her than to me, I also became glumly frustrated with her lack of presence in reality.

It was then that I realized that Mom and Dad carried on the conversation with Grandma pretty much as though they could see the man up there too. They didn’t necessarily bait her or make things up willy-nilly, but they gently followed where she led and made no move to contradict her anywhere along the way.

I’m no genius. I think I’ve made that abundantly clear many and many a time. But it did finally occur to me that there was a perfectly reasonable reason to treat this whole interaction as though it were the most logical and natural thing in the whole wide world. Gently, my parents confirmed this bit of cosmic brilliance that had accidentally leaked into my small and putty-like brain. Which is, very simply, that we have no proof that there wasn’t a fella up in that cedar tree that Grandma could see, maybe even converse with somehow. Our failure to see him or understand what he was working to make known to us may very well have been purely a symptom of our being limited to our dimension or aspect of reality or interpretation of the universe, whereas my changed grandmother was now free to traverse the tesseract, leap the boundaries and see through the veil of human limitation at will.

Are all of the people who see, hear and believe things that others cannot see, hear or believe by definition wrong or damaged? Or is it just possible that there are realities and truths that we ordinary mortals of the majority haven’t the proper senses necessary for apprehending, that we can’t yet comprehend those particular particles? Something tells me it’s about time we come to our senses and allow that there may be a whole lot more going on than meets the human eye.

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What do you see, now that you are so far away?