A painting called JOY

A painting called JOY

“A dancer’s body breaks down,” she said, “Painters can paint all their lives. Musicians can play until they are old, but a dancer’s instrument, her body, gives out.”

To be a contrarian I responded, “And then there is Martha Graham. She danced into her 80’s, didn’t she?”

She wrinkled her nose and said, “Not very well.”

The lights dimmed, the movie started, and our conversation ended.

She was, in her youth, a dancer, classically trained. She’d spent the bulk of her adult life teaching and choreographing. And, as she told me, “Those things are all you can do when you can no longer dance. They are what’s left.” Had our exchange not bothered me so much I might have felt sadness for her.

Like an art-mantra, Tom used to say, “A writer writes and a painter paints.” I wanted to say to my seatmate, “A dancer dances.” I thought immediately of Linda who dances even when she is not dancing. She is a riot of movement, joy-in-motion; her need to dance is infectious. Even non-dancers find themselves jigging across the floor when Linda is dancing at the party. I once told her that she is my secret weapon for throwing a successful party.

I imagined my seatmate as a young girl. Before all the training, before the technique and expectations, there was enthusiasm. There must have been joy. There must have been lots of joy. She must have known the world by moving, twirling, spinning in it. Artists – before they call themselves artists – make sense through sound, through scribbles, through spinning. They only way forward in life, the only way to make meaning and to learn, is to scribble more, to engage and translate through movement. Lazy educators write off this imperative as self-expression.

The great artist deathtrap is called technique. It is a paradox. It is necessary. It is a kind of language mastery. It is, at first, a struggle of control. How do you say what you need to say when your language is visual, aural, or kinesthetic? Training is necessary. The path to full expression is always paradoxically through constraints, control of breath or brush. Yet, too often, as is the case with my seatmate, technique replaces the enthusiasm. It can turn joy into judgment. It can make an artist forget their WHY and replace it with a too rigid HOW. It is how artists limit themselves with their artistry. It made my seatmate, a healthy ambulatory woman, believe that she is not capable of dancing.

Later, I told Kerri about my conversation at the movies. She said, “That’s why fewer and fewer people are going to symphonies or galleries. People draw lines. Artists not only limit themselves with their artistry but they also limit access to their artistry.” Joy is infectious. Artistry without it is not very interesting (and, arguably, not artistry).

Create A Purpose

photo-2In the sixteenth hour of our drive to the mountains, to keep us awake, Kerri and I began a rousing game of This-or-That. “Frosted Flakes or Lucky Charms?” Frosted Flakes all the way; those little marshmallow things get wonky in the milk. It’s amazing what you learn about yourself and others when the world of infinite possibilities is reduced to two choices. The game soon escalated to the impossible with pairings like “Coffee or Chocolate?” Real life penetrates the game when the only possible answers are, “It depends!” or “Both!”

Since our drive to the mountains I’ve been paying attention to how often people unwittingly play the This-or-That game, pretending that there are only two choices and, further, pretending that the choices are distinct and knowable. Democrat or Republican? Communities collapse when they forget that the important stuff is unanswerable. The important stuff is a moving target and requires conversation, debate, and comes along with multiple points of view. Two sizes do not fit all bodies.

I’ve also been playing my own inner game of This-or-That, purposefully choosing impossible pairings. Order or Chaos? It seems like a no-brainer until you dive in a bit deeper.

My favorite version so far is the Purpose-of-Life category. I picked a most lofty purpose: Illumination – and matched it with the utter absence of purpose. And, of course, I came to, “It depends!” or “Both!” I sprang my line of reasoning on Kerri (she thought we were going to talk about what to make for breakfast. She’s grown quite used to my surprise topics so she rolled her eyes, sipped coffee, and listened, knowing that no breakfast choice would be possible until after I unpacked my game).

No matter which spiritual tradition I read, the final point seems to be presence (living fully – aware of your moments). And in practice, presence becomes possible when thought is either transcended (meditation) or focused (prayer). Meditation and prayer are both purpose-full. Thought needs transcending and/or focus because it is mostly a babbling brook of nonsense or, better, a brook of babbling nonsense. It’s a lot of made up stuff that often takes the form of a game called This-or-That (I win/I lose, I’m right/I’m wrong, Us/Them). The game, as is true of all forms of interpretation, gets in the way of direct experience. It interrupts presence.

Detach from the babble. Meditate. Or recognize that it’s all made up and focus what’s made up. Pray. In either case presence comes through the recognition that it is all made up. The hitch: every notion of purpose, then, is also made up. There isn’t one. But, having a purpose is required to come to the recognition that there is no purpose. It’s a loop. It’s all creativity. It’s all imagination.

Spectrums and polarities are often cycles in disguise. They are both/and. They are yin and yang (not Yin or Yang). Illumination or Purposelessness? It depends. Both. Order needs chaos just as much as chaos needs order. The question is, what do we want to create? Why, a purpose, of course! So, let’s see what’s needed and decide to address it.

“My imagined purpose is breakfast,” Kerri sighed at the end of my rambling dissertation. “Pancakes or an egg scramble?”


Love To Laugh


my bride on our wedding day.

Today marks our one month anniversary. Kerri and I were married one month ago at 11:11am. There are two things that probably best define our wedding: 1) the very first thing we bought for use in our reception was a wiffle ball set and a kickball. It’s taken me a long time to learn that ‘sacred’ and ‘fun’ are essential to each other. Love without laughter is empty, indeed, and I cannot now imagine anything more sacred than love. We wanted to laugh and we wanted our guests to laugh with us.

There is, I’ve learned, a very good reason that the Hopi include tricksters in their important rites. They know that laughter lets the god in. It is a paradox. If you take the god too seriously you will inhibit your relationship with it. You will abstract yourself from it. You will abstract yourself from what is most essential. Laughter is a great facilitator of relationship. Friends laugh together. Kerri often talks about the Amish quiltmakers building a flaw into their quilts. The flaw allows the grace to come in. The laughter, the fun, plunks relationship squarely in the center of the sacred. It makes it real. It makes it relevant. It makes it personal (the three most oft used words to describe our wedding: personal, real, relevant).

To that end, 2) of the wedding week, Jim said it best, “You do know how to throw a great litter of parties.” Truer words were never spoken. We threw 5 consecutive parties in 5 consecutive days, each growing in size and scope. We wanted the people we love to have ample opportunity to meet, talk, and grow to love each other. It took a litter of parties, multiple touches, multiple opportunities, to sow our new garden. More than once Kerri and I watched as the circles of our lives crossed and recrossed, a new tapestry of friendships and stories emerging. Linda taught folks Irish dances on our back patio. Jim and Jim met and played a spontaneous mini-concert. It was gorgeous and spontaneous and rich, rich, rich in laughter (see #1).

This morning Kerri sat with coffee in bed and talked about our wedding (“Can you believe it’s been a month?”). We told stories and compared notes. We laughed. “My one regret,” Kerri said, “was that we never played kickball! I wanted to play kickball!” It’s true. The wiffle ball set and kickball never made it to the beach. There was dancing, so much dancing. The hula hoops even found their way to the dance floor (the bride had four going at one point). So, the kickball remains unrequited. However, the plan for our first anniversary is now set: October 10, 2016, a game of kickball on the beach. An after party of wiffle ball will follow with any and all comers. It will be casual, like the wedding. No need to bring anything. Simply come prepared to laugh.

Make Art So.

at one time even this was considered a new technology

at one time even this was considered new technology. numbers, too!

Chet said, “But where’s the human in all of it?” His question took me by surprise. It is a question that often puzzles me. I was telling him about my recent inner earthquake, the moment that the train of technology jumped the tracks and collided with my art engine. Both exploded.

For weeks I’d been looking forward to a full day of exploration at the Chicago Art Expo. Hundreds of contemporary galleries from around the world assembled in one place, each showing their premiere work. As an artist these events have always fed my soul. This time, with the exception of a few older masters (a Chagall, a Picasso), a Hockney that made me smile, and few pieces from The San Francisco Figurative painters, I was unmoved. Worse, I was uninterested. As I wandered through the exhibits I listened to curators over and over again working hard to give context to the art. The viewers had no immediate access to it. They (like me) needed an explanation to access its relevance. I felt as if I was watching art-priests interpreting god for parishioners who had no expectation of direct access to the divine. The art needed a middleman. It required an explanation.

Just before going to the Expo, Skip shared a link with me. It was a video of animator Glen Keane drawing in virtual space. He was literally drawing from within the image. It took my breath away. Glen Keane called the technology a new tool but, like many new tools – so many new technologies, this one has the capacity to change our relationship with life and, therefore, with art because it could change our relationship with time and space. At one point in time, electric light was a new technology. The automobile, the airplane, the telephone, the camera and the phonograph were once new technologies. Each changed our relationship with sound, light, distance, the planet…each other. They changed how we see and experience possibilities. And, at the time of their invention, the community, at first, did not understand the power being introduced into their lives. They, like we, were stepping into the future with their eyes in the rearview mirror. What we know as art changed with the introduction of each of these technologies.

I couldn’t help but see the work at the Expo through the lens of this most contemporary tool. My eyes, for a moment, were wrenched from the rearview mirror and forced to look straight ahead through the windshield. Relative to the tool, the work at the Expo seemed abstract to the point of inaccessibility. It felt academic and I felt distant from it (lots of head, little heart). The tool although incomprehensible, was exhilarating, approachable, and inspiring. It made me want to play. It made me want to create. With this tool, Jackson Pollock would have danced and splashed in 3-D space. Picasso would have explored Cubism from within the cube. And, with this tool, I could see them doing it; I could sit in the same space and get paint on my face. In the video, Glen Keane says, “When an artist makes a line, it is a seismograph to their soul.” This tool, this technology, is a 4 dimensional seismograph.

Eve Ensler wrote, “Art has the power to explode the heart and open up other energetic capacities to re-perceive it. It defies boundaries and leaps tall buildings. It transports, it translates, it transcends. Transcendence is so important right now because our lives are so mechanized, controlled, and commodified; art has the capacity to open our souls and could be our revolutionary, evolutionary salvation.”

Yes. And, yes again. I can draw in the dirt with a stick. I can draw in virtual space. The verb remains the same. The access to others – the reach of the art – changes.

To Chet I wanted to say that humans create technology. And, in turn, technology informs humans and, therefore, art. Our very short attention spans are the result of our relationship with technology –  800 word blog posts are now too long, and 140 character tweets are desirable. Much of the Expo was digital photography or digitally altered images. It was mental and cold and abstract – certainly expressions of our time – expediency allows for little depth of experience. The technology did not make it cold; the way it is wielded by human beings makes it so.

Chase The Butterflies

a detail from my painting, John's Secret

a detail from my painting, John’s Secret

Wisdom butterflies that have recently fluttered across my path:

Soaking up the morning sun and drinking coffee from the deck of Common Grounds, 20 said, “You’ve heard this one, right? There are three sides to every story.”

Standing on the side of the road peering into Judy’s car, she gave us some sage relationship advice. She said, “That’s the secret to life, you know: listen before you talk.”

Kerri was composing a song. I asked her how she starts, how she knows where to start. She said, “I don’t know. Sometimes you just need to put your fingers on the keys and follow the music.”

There is an aging pink post-it note stuck (permanently) to the desk. It reads, “Make The Adventure.”

On a recent phone call, Skip offered wise counsel about how I see my role in a new business, “Find your own metaphor,” he said. ”What is the metaphor that will keep you energized, that taps into your 10,000 hours?”

Sitting behind his drum set, waiting for rehearsal to begin, John said, “Our job is to make the art, not to determine its reception.” And then he said, “What do you think?” and laughed.

Josh took a belly punch from the universe yesterday. He said, “I want to be angry but anger does me no good. I have better things to do with my life than get angry.”

A detail from my painting, An Instrument of Peace

A detail from my painting, An Instrument of Peace

P-Tom weighed in with this: “Faith is scandalous,” he said, “It pushes back against everything we experience.”

Dog-Dog raced across the yard in hot pursuit of a butterfly. I’m wagering that he knew he would never catch it, but the chase was glorious.

Change Your Focus

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

Life can change in an instant. There are collective moments. There are personal moments. For years, my dad kept articles about the conspiracy theories swirling around the Kennedy assassination. It was the moment that marked the end of things as he knew it. Life would never be the same. For many years I shared his fascination because my first memory is an image from John F. Kennedy’s funeral which we watched on black and white television: a soldier leading a horse with empty boots reversed in the stirrups. I suspect that the image was potent for me because it was potent for the adults caring for me as they watched the funeral of the president.

Many years later, on a beautiful September morning in 2001, I sat in front of another television set and watched the Twin Towers fall. I thought, “Life will never be the same.”

With the recent anniversary of that day, on another beautiful September morning, Kerri and I read aloud to each other a book, 102 MINUTES: The Untold Story of the Fight To Survive Inside the Twin Towers. I was surprised by my reaction to the book. It felt a return to the place where we got lost. Like my dad, I missed the innocence that vanished in a single day (doesn’t each generation experience this loss? I imagine my grandfather yearned for a world before the atom bomb).

Throughout the reading, two potent and related metaphors would not let me go. First, a two-part metaphor for what I believe ails our nation. With a hyper focus on profitability, many long standing high rise safety precautions were minimized in the Towers. Less escape stairs meant more rentable space. Structural fire prevention measures are costly so they were either written out of the code or ignored. No one believed these twin Titanics could fail and when they did, the greatly reduced escape routes were either severed by the planes that hit them or were inadequate to accommodate the evacuation of the buildings. Additionally, communication between the police and fire departments was broken – they had the capacity but lacked the will. They did not use their updated systems because they were fighting over who would be in control. Their polarization crippled them on the day that they most needed to communicate.

So, the metaphor. One of the themes of my life (and, therefore, this blog) is the importance and necessity of a conscious placement of focus. Where you focus matters. Focus is a creative act. Our hyper focus on profitability took down the world’s economy in 2008. We’ve deregulated our financial institutions, removing all the safety precautions so that we might, as my pals in the financials services once told me, “Print money from nothing.” And the structure weakens. The wealth of the nation is in the hands of a shrinking few even though, as I learned in Economics 101, a healthy capitalist system is built upon a healthy middle class. No one believes this Titanic can sink. Communication between those who are supposed to be looking out for our safety, The House, The Congress, etc., are famously polarized. They have the capacity but lack the will and do not exercise their communication in the fight over who will be in control. In the meantime, we need them to communicate; waiting until the Tower falls will be too late to start. Our focus is on the wrong stuff.

 A sketch working out some details for House On Fire

A sketch working out some details for House On Fire

Which, brings me to metaphor number 2. This is the metaphor that cures us. The other story of those 102 Minutes is a story of kindness. People reaching for other people. When the disaster struck, the gap between custodian and CEO disappeared. The social divisions were irrelevant. People helped people simply because they needed it. They recognized that they were living a common story, a shared story, not the story of division that predominated a single moment before the planes struck the buildings. Everything changed in a moment. Or, perhaps everything became clear. People died to help other people. Their focus changed.




Laugh More

my idea book for our coming-soon cartoon, Chicken Marsala

my idea book for our coming-soon cartoon, Chicken Marsala

There is laughter coming from the next room. Across the way, a woman bursts into tears and a man with a ponytail leads her away from a group. They whisper. He tries to calm her. He makes her laugh. She wipes her eyes and they walk back to the group and all act as if nothing had happened. And, maybe nothing did happen. I am too far away to know the circumstances of her tears. I know the circumstances of her laughter.

Today it rained. I sat at my drafting table and worked on a cartoon strip. Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog sat at my feet. For the first time in over two years I streamed NPR and listened to the day’s news and some other stories. There was a story of a hunger strike in Chicago over the closure of a school. There was a story on public figures and apologies. There was an age-old story of the division in congress. I felt the same way listening to the news as I just felt watching the woman in tears. I am too far away to know the circumstances. I am too far away to know with certainty the truth of any of it. I’ve developed a healthy distrust of news reports. All I know with certainty is that truth is relative, truth is a point of view. I inked my drawings and listened as I might listen to a book-on-tape.

There is more laughter. It is coming from a meeting. I find comfort knowing that a committee in charge of anything can laugh. I hope that they are laughing at themselves.

Ann once told me that they key to success was to find a need and fill it. This world seems to have no shortage of needs. It does seem to have a shortage of laughter.

Recently, David shared with me his thoughts of Plato’s analogy of the cave. Perception as projection. It’s all shadows. Once I watched a Balinese shadow puppet master perform. The performances always take place in the outer ring of the temple and are meant to remind people that what they see in this life is a shadow, a projection merely. One of the messages: we are too far away to know Truth. Another message: our projections are worthy of our laughter and not much else. The puppet master had us rolling on the ground. His characters were mostly tricksters, stooges, and in their over-serious pursuits they were hysterical in their folly. Another message, perhaps the most important: the quickest route to the divine, to the connective tissue, is through laughter.





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