High in Dubai

Barj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, stands across the road from my hotel. Last night, as I was on my way to the hotel gym, my colleague waylaid me and insisted I come to the top for a sunset cocktail.

Minutes later, we were at the foot of the building, the sun bobbling on the horizon.

Our friend had made reservations at the bar, Atmosphere, and we were ushered into the express elevator. Seconds later, ears popping we were on the 123rd floor.

We descended a flight of stairs and got our first glimpse of the view.

The city stretched before us. Zillions of wild skyscrapers, all lit up. It was like looking out of the window of a plane, too high to even trigger my vertigo.

Many of the buildings are still under construction. Their windows are dark but cranes are strung with lights.

After a martini and some snacks, we paid an exorbitant bill, and descended to reality again.

At the foot of the building, a crowd of thousands watched computer-controlled fountains dance to the theme from Bonanza and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Hours later, as dawn broke, we began our next day of filming.

We had to start early before the sun grew unbearably hot.

Our cast and crew worked together to make swift progress.

By 9:30 a.m., the sun was baking down. We had to take a break till mid-afternoon; we’ll return to shoot into the setting sun.

Desert diary


I am in Dubai for ten days, shooting in the desert and other parts of this exotic, peculiar place. Late June is probably not the optimal time to visit this corner of the planet — I have never experienced the sort of oven-heat that suffocates the place over after 9 a.m.

I’m making commercials that will be shown here and around the world. We are shooting in English and in Arabic. We are also making a film about the shoot itself. It’s all quite complicated.

90% of the people in Dubai are not from here. They come in search of opportunity and a piece of the oily pie. Our crew is English, American, German, Pakistani, Indian and me.

A horrible accident. I somehow sprained my pinky. Forty eight hours late, I was miraculously healed.

My journal looks a little more austere than usual. I only brought my trusty Lamy Safari fountain pen with me and a Q-tip made a serviceable brush. If you click on this picture, you can see a blowup of the page and read my most intimate thoughts.

Some thoughts on my neighbor, the world’s tallest building.

I’ll try to post some more notes over my remaining days in Dubai.



I like this kind of a lot.

I have been a bit crabbier than normal this week. No real reason, particularly as the weather has been lovely and springular. My treatment for boredom and curmudgeonliness: spend time with people and make stuff. I had three separate dinner dates with friends and the téte a tétes helped a lot. I also filled a number of pages in my journal and, though the paintings reflected my mood, they helped to lift it too.

Focussing on details helps to overload my head and force my Critic into a back corner where his voice is muffled. Here’s what I have been looking at.

Dip pens, pencils, and watercolor detritus on my desk. I am mixing dozens of new shades of pink.I am mixing dozens of new shades of pink.

I am mixing dozens of new shades of pink.

Good news arrived in the mail today. Jack's summer plans are set.

The illusion of organization. Well, that's a little unfair. I do have a pretty sweet setup in my studio though I have to remind myself to use all these supplies before they dry out.

I have a few shelves of filled-up sketchbooks. They are my favorite possessions.

This is my Patti shrine. It's in my studio and I confer with it when I need help. She always has good advice.

A detail from my new book. Dip pen, sum-i ink and the vaguest hint of watercolor.

I think this flower painting is a bust. It started out trying to be super delicate, then I got frustrated and piled on too much color.

A detail from another frustrated page. Eventually I figured out how not to hate it.

Another version of the previous painting. I am starting to be okay with this one.

A detail of a Patti portrait from the book.

Patti as a pup. I find it hard to believe I painted this.

This is my favorite P portrait so far. It feels like her.

My old hound, Francis Albert Gregory.

I like this kind of a lot.

This is cartoony but it feels like her. She had a longer neck than she would acknowledge.

Pregnant Patti portrait.

I like the way Joe looks here, nice and sausage-y.

This is another painiting that seems to have been guided from outside me. I really like it but am not sure how I made it.

Crap in my studio. I like the colors.

A tiny detail of a big page. I made this lady I was working with far prettier than she really is. Now I remember her as the painting, not as she actually looks.

I drew this bottle and glass from memory even though the real things were sitting right on front of me. Not a good habit.

This is what it's like to hold my tiny hound, Tim.

Pink Patti, the taxidermied squirrel.

Doodly drawings of dead people.

More self-deprecation, The Critic escapes from his cell.

I like this dude's 'tude.

More dead men not walking,

Me feeling crabby and old.

I like this gloominess. It's a tiny detail of a reflection of me in the background of a big crowded drawing,

My home. Calligraphy done in thick gloppy white ink with a clogged pen.

Peewee and some art inspiration.

More shelves in my biblioteque.

The top of Patti's desk including Pink Patti, the taxidermied squirrel.

Some really ancient journals from my extensive collection of crap.

The year of magical drawing

I’ve kept an illustrated journal, fairly consistently, for the last dozen years or more. There have been times I got too involved with office work or other distractions and my entries grew more intermittent, but I’ve always come back to a pen and a book to get perspective on my life. When I published Everyday Matters and the books that followed, I made a decision to share this ongoing record of the  events of my life with people who I don’t know personally. It was never a particularly hard choice to make because I think that an essential part of art making is a desire to share one’s view of the world with others. It’s not just creation, it’s communication.

I also discovered that the actual details of my private life that I put on display were less important than the fact that I was recording my life in the way that I was. People were far more interested in this practice as an idea that they too could embrace and adopt themselves than in the revelations of the contents of my medicine cabinet or the places I walk my dogs.

The dialogue that I established between the people who viewed and commented on my work in my books and on the web, also helped to sustain my interest — like a vast, relatively quiet audience insisting that I keep up the habit. When I first began drawing in my solitary book, it was something that only I knew and cared about. All these years later, there are so many people doing the same sort of thing and sharing it with me and others, and the act of keeping an illustrated journal has become  far richer and more satisfying all around.

I went back to keeping a  journal soon after Patti was killed. In fact, I did it with a new sense of purpose because my life needed perspective and clarity more than ever. I discovered a whole new style of journaling too, far more colorful and intense than before, an approach that matched my whole take on life after facing this turn of events. My life has become quite different and so have my journals.

I also continued to share what I was doing, right here on this blog. But after a while, the well-meaning, compassionate outpouring of my readers started to weigh on me. I felt like I was making myself carry out this process in the most public way, adding all sorts of additional pressures that I  couldn’t handle at the time. But I felt I needed to carry on because there were so many people who seemed to care about us and what we were going through, who wanted to know how we were doing, and I didn’t feel I could just vanish and withdraw. But people close to me said, “All that matters right now is taking care of yourself and Jack. Take time to focus on what matters most and everything else can wait.”

So eventually, I started to fade away, blogging less and less and then not at all.

But I kept on drawing and confiding in my books, continuing to feel that what I have been going through is something I ought to capture and (eventually) examine. And I knew, from some of the most heart-wrenching emails and comments I got, that there were people out there who were going through similar trauma and transition and that eventually I might want to share what I was experiencing with them and others.

At times, I’ve felt like it might be possible to  tie this whole experience into a neat package, something with a beginning, middle and end. A story with a moral, a bunch of quippy epigrams that would pass on my lessons earned. It’s turned out to be a lot messier, as life is prone to be.

When the anniversary of Patti’s death came and went, a date I had been long anticipating as the official end of my mourning period, at first it seemed like nothing much had changed. I still felt alternately good, bad, shitty, and fine. There was no massive parting of the clouds or turning of a giant page. I was still alive, Patti was still dead. I hadn’t forgotten much; in fact, I think I now remember more about our lives than I had before. Life goes on but in lots of ways I guess I am pretty different.

As Jack and I began our second lap of the calendar, I felt a shift. We were no longer going through the first day of Spring without Patti, the first birthdays, the first Christmas. Instead, we had were firming up our own era, more clearly defining the way we live as two independent people without a wife and a mom. Sadness is no longer overwhelming and debilitating, it’s just a feeling that ‘s there, that can be summoned up and hugged or put back on the shelf for another time.

Now, when I think about Patti, I am rarely sad. And I do think about her, several times every single day. But lots of the  guilt and fear and darkness and panic that accompanied those thoughts are rarely present. Instead, I feel like she’s just by my side, accompanying me through a new set of doors, advising, encouraging, being my friend and my love.

So maybe that’s closure. I don’t really know the meaning of the word and I don’t feel like anything is closed. It’s more that I am mounting a staircase out of the darkness, seeing more and more around me, but my eyes are still sufficiently accommodated to the darkness I’ve passed through to be able to look back without fear and see what was what.

… Actually, I started writing this to tell you some news.

Those pages I’ve been filling (and a bunch more that I am making that will lend some introduction and perspective to my journal) are going to be made into a new book. It’s going to be published by a wonderful publisher in San Francisco, Chronicle Books, and they will be bringing it out sometime next year. Fortunately, I have a while to work on it and to figure out how to turn this experience into something coherent and good enough to be a tribute to Patti and her life.

A rather unpleasant book editor in New York told someone I know, “I can understand why he feels the need to write such a book but I can’t see why anyone would want to read it.” She may well turn out to be right.

But right now, I’m focussing more on how to do it well and make it true. If it turns out to be of no real use to anyone but me, I can live with that. I may regret sharing the pain and discovery of this last year with more strangers but I doubt it. I have been lucky enough to have so much encouragement in the work I have done over the years and I like to think it has been helpful to share my perspective with others.

I know it has been helpful to me.

Why Everyday Matters

Everyday Matters” began as a simple grab bag of pages from my illustrated journals.

I’m not sure if I was lazy or clueless but I couldn’t come up with a rhyme or reason for how or why the pages were assembled. I just thought it would be cool to say, “Here are a bunch of pages that I wrote and drew over the years, — check em out.”

My editor frowned and said that wasn’t really how books worked and that I needed to come up with a theme, a story, an arc, a reason for anyone to care and keep turning the pages. After some head scratching, I decided that maybe the theme could just be “A New York diary” . Again my editor frowned. ” Just ‘New York’? What about it? What’s unique about your perspective? ‘

My next idea:  maybe it could have something to do with architecture (I had already drawn quite a lot of buildings) and she asked me from what perspective, what did I know about architecture, what was my POV on buildings and I said lamely, ” I dunno, I just draw a lot of them.”

Finally, one tense Thursday evening she said, “Look, why do you draw? Why have you always drawn?” I snapped back that I hadn’t always drawn, that I’d only started a few years before, in my mid thirties. I guess I’d never told her that. “Well, why did you start?” she asked.

I explained that the reason I’d started was private, not something I could share in a book, too personal, too private. She kept prodding me until I explained that my wife had been run over by a subway train and that in the months after I had begun to draw and to chronicle our lives and stuff I liked and places I went and thoughts I had and so on.

There was a longish silence.

In retrospect, I can see how much I’ve changed over the past decade, how much freer and more open I am with the facts of my life. But then, before I had published a word about my life, I was embarrassed, super-private, oblivious to how interested and sympathetic others might be about the changes in our lives that had occurred since Patti’s paraplegia. The fact that I hadn’t mentioned any of this to my editor up to that point is amazing to me now. As is her interest in my work, given that she knew none of the story or how it came about.

“That’s your story,” she said finally. “That’s what your book is about, about how you started to draw and what happened to your family.” I protested that I could never share that sort of stuff with strangers, that it would seem like I was exploiting our story to sell books. She explained that it would be a book that would touch a lot of people if I could write it and that she hoped I could. Otherwise there wasn’t much to discuss.

I went home and talked about the meeting with my wife. She encouraged me to do what I felt was right, that it was my story as much as hers and that if it meant something to others that maybe we should share it. I didn’t know it then but Patti was saying, “Be an artist.”

I sat down and started to write. The story poured out of me, and I saw how it gave meaning to all of the journaling I’d done, that it made it all made sense, my creative rebirth, my need to document my life, my search for meaning, and the way it had brought me to this moment, to sitting down and writing this book.

At the core of my resistance was a conviction that I was not and could not be an artist. I could draw and even publish books, but I could not delve into myself and share it with the world. I had all the capabilities but I did not have that permission. In the years since I Everyday Matters appeared, I have heard from thousands of people and I came to realize that I was not the only one with this limitation. Making art, sharing it with one’s friends and strangers is a transformative experience and I have worked ever since to encourage others to try it. I’ve written several other books exploring the ways people express their feelings and capture their lives in illustrated journaling and I hope to make more tin the future.

For me, art gives meaning to my life. Sharing it with others just makes it mean even more.


Thanks to Seth Apter of The Altered Page for asking me the question that provoked this response.

Out of Time

Click image to enlarge

In the emergency room, after Miranda and I had looked at Patti’s body, a policeman handed me P’s watch in a Ziploc bag. Without thinking, I put it on. It fit perfectly. The next day I took off my watch and never wore it again. But Patti’s watch has stayed on my wrist ever since.

The watch stopped at the moment of her death, 11:20. But over the next week or so, it slowly crawled forward. Each day I would notice it was a minute or two ahead. Finally, it stopped completely, at 11:40.

Sometimes people who don’t really know me comment on it, sometimes snearingly, ‘Nice watch’.This delicate silver watch on my meaty, hairy wrist. I explain it’s my wife’s. I don’t say much more than that. I don’t really care what they think.

As far back as I can remember, I have always worn a watch, usually a waterproof one that I never need to take off, through showers and sleep. Now I ask people what time it is. Or I look around for a clock. Or I just shrug. I’m okay with being late, selfish as that can be.

I am still aware of the passage of time, but seem to be measuring it by a different rhythm. It’s less of a tick-tick-tick, time is passing relentless tattoo and more of an organic drift through the day. I look back each evening and think about what I”ve done, assess its value, wonder if this is really how I should spend what time I have left. I havent made any big decisions about that yet, but I do feel more that time is precious, that it must be savored, and that only I should decide how to mete it out.  Not even a wristwatch has that right.