The art of friendship

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My pal, Tommy Kane and his wife Yun just spent a few days with us in California. It was so good to have them with us and we spent a lot of time eating in good restaurants, wandering through Venice and, of course, drawing.
I have known Tom for thirty years and we have drawn together for the last ten. Despite how close we are, when it comes to drawing we are quite different. Tommy is an illustrator, an artist who works toward beautiful finished pages, every one suitable for framing. His journals are immaculate, and each page is perfect from corner to corner. He just put out a lovely book of his work and it is a treat to have all that perfection in one place. The experience of looking at his journals is like looking at a final, published book—so immaculate, so rich.
My style of drawing is far more hasty, slapdash and impatient. And that can be a problem when we draw together. Tom expects to spend hours and hours doing a single drawing. He has a very specific way of doing a page, starting with his uniball pen, putting in loads of careful hatching, then adding watercolors and finally a layer of bright pencil marks. He’d prefer to do the entire thing on location, perched on his little stool. He has a patient wife/traveling companion and has drawn this way all over the world.
When we sit down together, as we did on the Venice Boardwalk and on Lincoln Boulevard, I find myself adjusting to his pace and do horrible overdrawn pages that don’t look like my normal work. I find it impossible with the way I draw to spend hours on a single page, Tom also compromises when we’re together and usually only manages to finish his line drawing before I start squirming and pacing and has to color his picture later on, from a photo.
I don’t begrudge Tom his slow and careful pace. He manages to capture so much detail and observation and yet keep his work fresh and bright. I draw, like almost everything else, at a neurotic pace, and the luxury of time just stirs up the mud.
Everyone has their own speed. Our friend Butch draws at a glacial pace, thinking nothing of spending ten or twenty hours on a page, D.Price, on the other hand, can knock out a drawing in three minutes. We have all drawn together and it’s like a tap dancer, a heavy metal guitarist, a tuba player and a sitarist trying to jam.
Whenever I go on a sketchcrawl, I have to adjust to the group, moving toward the mean of all the people drawing together. And it’s good to challenge that someotimes, to go faster or slower to add variation and stretch. In the long run, though, the work I do with others is never my favorite. It’s more of a fun, communal, social experience than a satisfying artistic one.
I’m not antisocial and I love to hang out with my friends.
But I’d rather pee, nap and draw alone

PS if you’d like to draw with Tommy Kane, join his klass at sketchbook skool.

Let them draw cake.

alliknow tshirt

I never paid much attention in art class in high school. I never went to art college. I’ve never gone to a single weekend watercolor workshop. I’ve just blundered along for a decade or more, spilling ink, contaminating my palette and painting on non-archival cardboard.

I’m uneducated. And so when it came to teaching other people how to make art, gulp.

This year though I’ve committed to shedding my “aw, shucks, I never lurned nuffin” guise and start trying to be a decent teacher. At first, that was like sitting down with a delicious, lavishly decorated three-tiered German chocolate cake and trying to work out the recipe. I thought I’d have to retrofit everything I have layered onto my brain through all these years of experimenting and dissecting art in museums and talking to people whose work blows me away and weeping bitterly at another god-awful journal page.

I like talking about ideas and all of the experiments I’ve done and the discoveries I’ve made but when I taught classes I thought to give folks their money’s worth I’d better start with the basics of drawings as they come out of all the how-to books in the library. Contours, negative space,  proportion, etc. That is useful stuff to know, in hindsight, but it can be awfully dry. Like starting to learn a language by spending a few semesters studying grammar or learning music theory before you pick up your first guitar.

My old hobo pal, Dan Price would say to me, “I just draw a shape, then the shape next to it, then the one next to that and before long you got a drawing that looks like something and then we can go have  a beer.” And that’s probably the most valuable art lesson I ever got. Just start somewhere and keep it interesting so you keep going.

Keep it interesting.

What’s been so incredible about working on Sketchbook Skool is seeing all the ways my friends approach the assignment we have given them all: to boil down everything they know about drawing and journaling into a one-time, one-week klass. And they’ve all done completely different things! Nothing you’d find in a  textbook. Just the stuff that comes out of them when they sit down to draw, as varied as they are. There’re no detailed recipes, but there’s lots of delicious cake and, by watching them bake it, you come away just knowing how you will do it. And that’s the key, how you will do it.

All of which has made me do two things: one, rethink the workshops I’m going to be doing, starting with the one at the Open Center in New York as the beginning of next month.  and two, have really fun doing it. Because instead of teaching others how to do what I  was never taught to do, I’m just going to grab them by the scruff and toss them into the deep end. I’m thinking of all kinds of ways of getting people who are deathly afraid of drawing and stabbing a syringe full of adrenaline into their artistic hearts. And the same and more goes for people who think they all know there is about drawing but want a little something to spice up their marriage to the muse.

I have had that feeling so often with drawing, when you sort of sigh and the pen feels like it’s made of lead dipped in shit and then suddenly there’s a hairpin turn that rattles my bones, and I’m off on some wild groove through a place I’ve never been before and it’s all very new and energizing and the page I’m making is fresh and sparkly. Hey, and don’t forget, at this point I am a clown school grad so I know first hand how to slip on a red nose and get embarrassing.

My revelation: it’s not about showing people how to read a map and use a compass and where to get their shots and what to pack and where all the tourists go for pizza. It’s about flinging open the door of the plane, grabbing hold of them and jumping the hell out in the middle of the jungle.

So I’m thinking of weird and silly things to do that will either send them off itching to draw every waking minute of every day or lining up at the registrar’s office to get a full refund. (Hey, and if you have any genius thoughts I can totally steal, let me know.  I still have twenty-three days till the workshop).

I think there’s a week left on The Open Center’s Early Bird rate so if you like worms, fly over to their web site and sign up.

My way or the highway

readingWhen I was nine in Pakistan, my grandfather’s chauffeur drove me to school every day. After a year, my grandfather told me that today he wanted me to tell the driver how to get to school.  He instructed the driver to follow my directions to the letter and we would see where we ended up. Ninety minutes later, we ran into the Indian/Pakistan border. I had guided us out of the country. I shrugged and the driver turned around and took me to school.

Living in Los Angeles means spending a lot of time almost lost. I am forever heading toward destinations unknown, with no landmarks to aim at, no Empire State to reckon by, no buildings more than a story or two tall, the horizon shrouded in smog or the marine layer. And Los Angeles, even more than New York, has no time for the timid, does not allow you to hesitate and peer around in confusion or slow down to read road signs or fumble for the map. It’s a brutal town that way.

Thank God for Roger L. Easton, the inventor of GPS. For nearly six months, I have relied on that computer lady to tell me exactly where to go anyhow to get there. Actually I have three computer ladies, one of whom is an Australian man. They dispense wisdom from our two phones and our car’s built-in sat nav system. When I am feeling especially disoriented and insecure, I sometimes have them all on at the same time,  barking out conflicting commands in various accents or recalculating in disgust at my inability to follow the most basic orders.

All these decades later, I am just as lost behind the wheel of my truck as I was in the backseat of Gran’s Mercedes.  All this step-by-step guidance is now as useless as last summer’s directions for assembling my Ikea bookshelves, in one ear and out the window.  I barely know my way around town, have only the vaguest sense of where Hollywood is relative to Downtown and that there are lots of town and cities and neighborhoods in between with names that are familiar from the movies but which I couldn’t begin to drive toward if my cel service went out.

Which brings me, inevitably of course, to drawing.

For the last few months, I have gotten more and more deeply into teaching people how to make art. I’m doing workshops, I’m writing a new book, and I’m pretending to be the co-headmaster of Sketchbook Skool. So I have to figure out how to tell other people, sometimes in just a couple of hours, how to do what I have taken a decade and a half to do.
blind-handI never learned much of anything from those step-by-step diagrams in art instruction books or in “watch me paint” demos on YouTube. Following someone’s suggestion to first draw a circle and then draw two more circles and then add a triangle and then erase this bit and that till it looks like an old sea captain just has nothing to do with why I draw. I love Bob Ross’ voice and his Afro but I never learned anything about picture making from watching him paint the reflections of pine trees in a tranquil lake. 

I think the way you have to teach people is by releasing a catch hidden deep inside of them. That catch that’s locking them down with the fear of making a mistake. They are so concerned that their drawings won’t look exactly like what they are trying to draw that they can’t get off their duffs and start making some marks on paper. They so badly want to be able to pick up a pencil and draw like da Vinci that anything less unrealistic seems pointless and defeating. Instead, they waste a bunch of time saying they have no talent, can’t draw a straight line, are so stupid, and so on.

But if you can just reach that catch and unlatch it, the world of possibilities swings open. Suddenly you see that drawing isn’t a way of making wall decorations or proving you have some innate gift, it’s how you see the world.  And the funny thing is, there are as many ways of seeing the world as there are see-ers of the world.  All cameras make the same sorts of images but all artists make things differently.  As Oscar Wilde put it, ”Be yourself. Every one else is taken.”

One man wrote to us at Sketchbook Skool and said, “Before I sign up, can you guarantee that you’ll teach me to draw?” I told him, um, absolutely not. Only he can guarantee to teach himself to draw. One less customer, I guess.

So how do you teach people to make art? Well, you start by turning off the GPS lady. You can’t draw if I’m holding your hand. Instead of turn-by-turns, you start by inspiring them with some postcards of wonderful places other people have sent back from their travels and then you let them start off in a random direction.

In the driveway, you might teach them a couple of simple principles like negative space and how to take measurements but you explain that these aren’t really rules, they’re just helpful suggestions to grasp at when you worry you’re going off the rails. You hang on in the back seat and encourage them to keep going, and make a few gentle suggestions, to maybe slow down on the curves a bit, and to stop pumping the gas and the brakes together. You tell them to loosen up and not clutch the pen so tight. You point out where they made an interesting turn and you console them when they think they are hopelessly off the road. You show them that if they just keep going, they will always end up somewhere new and interesting and probably not where they thought they were headed. And the driving metaphor finally runs out when you tell them that they can and should take risks and be brave, that no one ever died making a drawing, no matter how ‘bad’ it was.

The key is to build their confidence. To let them know that they can do it. If you have confidence, then you can start to let your self come out, the self that has been watching the world through your eyeholes all these years, that has noticed odd little things. that feels deeply about certain matters, that doesn’t necessarily speak in words, and that wants really badly to share its POV with the world, if only you will let it.  You can’t force that voice and vision or even describe shortcuts to it. You just have to let it feel safe and have ample opportunity to stick is head out from that deep hole in your soul.

It’s up to you. Your mom taught you to walk. But you taught you to run. Your dad taught you to drive in a parking lot. But you taught you to drive down the 405 while checking your email, singing along with Pharrell, applying lip gloss, arguing with your husband, and remembering to buy milk.

There are no shortcuts or instruction books to being a human being or to being an artist. Every single day is a lesson and the skool year never ends.

On making shit.

turd

A recent turdlette.

It’s so easy to despair. You sit down, uncap your pen, start drawing and then realize you have drawn a large, stinking turd. It’s inescapable and it’s bad. So bad that the stench drives you from your sketchbook for days.

Congratulations, you are on your way. The fact is, crap is the inevitable byproduct of the creative process. It’s supposed to be. And it happens to us all.

(And now you know why the background of my blog is brown).

Let’s get some perspective. I recently took a huge book out of the library that contained all 2,137 known works by Vincent van Gogh. It almost broke the rear axle of my truck. Now, bear in mind that those are the 2,137 pieces that have actually survived for 125 years. You just know that there were several times as many that Vinnie or his brother or some skeptical landlord trashed, burnt or flushed long ago. So, maybe van Gogh made five or ten thousand drawings and paintings over his ten years of art making. Three a day. Sounds reasonable considering the tear he was on.

How many are great? Ten? Twenty? Let’s go crazy and say, a hundred — that still means his hit rate was, generously, 1%.

I love the movie Amadeus. But let’s face it, it’s fiction. The idea that Mozart just sharpened a fresh quill and wrote down the Requiem or the Jupiter or Don Giovanni or any of his other 623 works of varying quality as fast as he could take dictation from God is just nonsense. He  squeezed out turds every day, just like the rest of us.

Picasso left behind 50,000 works. On some days, he made five paintings. The Cahiers d’Art, the complete catalog of his works, takes up 33 volumes and costs $20,000! Did Pablo think all 50,00 were genius? Did his gallery owner? I doubt it. So, these are some of the greatest geniuses of all time and even they didn’t hit home runs every time at bat. That’s why they worked on paper — because it can be crumpled up and hurled against the wall in frustration.

We have good reason to be afraid of failure.  Even if we actually are great.

In our commercially rapacious world, we don’t allow for crap (although there’s certainly plenty of it). The minute we set someone up on a pedestal, we start working to pull them down. If you write a great book, have a great show, make a great record, expectations will be immediately ratcheted up. But your initial success will probably be followed by something that isn’t quite as good. Overnight, you’re the Knack or the Stone Roses or Terence Trent D’arby. Or Skeet Ulrich. Or Lindsay Lohan. And once you stumble, you’re dead Meatloaf. There is little tolerance for failure.

Better to just be Harper Lee and quit while you’re ahead.

You are different. Because you are learning (hopefully for the rest of your life).To succeed in the creative process, you need a long-term view. Thick hide. And you need to keep working. You can’t get hung up with self-doubt and give up at the gate. You can’t mistake a failed drawing for a failed you. You aren’t your turds. You just aren’t.

And stop insisting on perfection as the price of moving on. Even Tiger Woods isn’t Tiger Woods. You have to swing at lots of balls, before you slowly inch your way from van Gogh’s brown potato paintings to Sunflowers and Irises. It’s a battle of inches. Slowly but surely, your turds will smell sweeter.

Learn from your mistakes. Otherwise all the pain you endured from making that bad art was just a pricey ticket you never got punched.

Bottom line: If you’re going through a period of making bad art, you must go on. You can take a break, but eventually, soon, you must go on. Because otherwise what you’re running away from isn’t the way you put pen on paper. It’s fear of who you are. And you’ll never escape who you are. Instead learn to accept and to love it. Flaws and all. And then to go on. Trust me, you are more together and less smelly than Vincent van Gogh.

Don’t be tripped up by a few bad drawings.  Keep them and learn from them and let them improve your future art and your future self.

People who never produce turds die of constipation.

Thinking about my super hard-working boy.

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Artists are dismissed as dreamers. But being an artist takes focus and perseverance. It is a tough job, grounded firmly in the real.

Dreamers are roadkill. Artists work. That’s why they call it “The Work”. Not “the ideas,” “the notions”, “the dreams”, “the visions”.  The Work.

Being an artist means seeing the world as it is and having something to say about it. Most people don’t. Most people are content with hackneyed second-hand points of view. Tree hugger or tea partier, paper or plastic. But being an artist means diving into what is really out there, building your own filter from scratch, a filter that adjusts the contrast, brings out the details, heightens the textures and looks deep into the shadows. If you have nothing to say, your hands will tremble, your lines will be weak, your compositions will be flat and your audience will be yawning. You need to reach down and take a stand. On something, anything.

Being an artist means working to see yourself as well. To figure out what colors you see in. What shapes you like. What appeals to you. And trying in some way to understand why. Not why as in words but why as in feelings, nuances, shades. What do I like, me? I like bent things, dead things, wounded things. I like things that are beaten by the sun and wrinkled by the years. I like to see their history in their surfaces, to feel what has happened to them, to trace the map of their journey carved into their flesh, to empathize. Why do I like these things? Is it because I know I am not perfect, I have been ravaged, I persevere and I honor those who do too? Or is it because I cannot actually make beauty? I need to ask myself these questions, even though I don’t aim to ever articulate the answers. I need to see in to that ugliness and share why it is so beautiful to me. So you can see it too, so you can see the love inside your own pain.

Being an artist takes courage. It takes balls and sweat to see the world through fresh eyes and to develop the skills to express that vision and then go out on a limb and share it. Because it’s a long row to hoe, a thankless journey most of the way, a trip no one ever asked you to take and no one feels obliged to cheer you along on. If there are any spectators along the road, they are probably skeptical, probably see you as a self-indulgent weirdo too lazy to get a proper job. But don’t look to me for sympathy. Or applause. Because being an artist is a cause you choose for yourself, the rewards are in the journey, and there is no Promised Land. You have to want to proclaim your vision, to broadcast your voice, to change the world. The finish line doesn’t lie at the doors of the Whitney Biennial, it lies at the grave. Every day is a lesson and a revelation and they follow one after the other to the horizon, providing their own reward. Artists accumulate wisdom and depth and no gallery owner can take a cut of that and no auctioneer can ring a gavel down upon the lessons learned. 

The only thing to goad you on is your fire and your nerve. Because after all, who asked you? Who asked you how you see the world, what’s good or bad, what needs changing, what could be. No one. You decided you had something to say and now you want to say it. No one is obligated to listen but you will make them sit up and take heed.

Being an artist means being an entrepreneur who imposes his vision, who asserts the value of what he is doing and insists people look at it and take him seriously. No one else will do it for you. No one else will come up with your business plan or a strategy or a new idea. You don’t answer to a committee or a board or market research. You make your product, you sell your product, you create your market, you get your ass out of bed each day and punch the clock you built.

Being an artist means being a craftsman, a self-promoter, and productive without a boss, a company, a client. You are making a product no one asked to buy, sourcing your own materials, developing your strategy, and above all, shipping what you make. It can’t just sit in your brainpan or your sketchbook, it needs to be stretched, framed, and hung up for the world to see and buy and resell and love and learn from.

If that scares you, cool. Museums show about 2% of the work they own. There’s already plenty of genius in storage.

But if that excites you and inspires you, awesome. Do the work and bring it on.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

—Howard Thurman

The art of living.

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Life is not an oil painting, sealed behind varnish and clamped in a golden frame, hanging in a white walled gallery in Chelsea, waiting to be bought by a hedge fund manager’s third wife.
Life is not an edition of etchings, a long series of identical impressions.
Life is not a mural, intended as a public display or the backdrop to an expensively furnished room. Life is not wallpaper.
Life is not a bronze sculpture, cold, monumental, an abstracted, idealized image of a hero long forgotten.

Life is a shelf.
A long shelf partly filled with journals. Some of the journals are hand-made, some store-bought, some in ornate covers, some stained and dog-eared.
Some of the journals are completely filled, others are abandoned half-way, maybe to be taken up at a later date. Some of the books are filled with paper that felt just right under your pen, smooth and creamy, bold and bright. Others were experiments that failed or overreaches, made of materials you weren’t ready to master quite yet.
Sections of the shelf may be filled with identical volumes, a type of book that you found comfortable at the time and stuck with it, disinterested in experimentation and change so you kept filling one after another. On the shelf, they may look the same, identical spines all in a row like a suburban cul-de-sac. But inside, each page is different, drawn by the same hand and pen, yet recording unique observations, days that fill up identically-sized boxes on the calendar but were all filled with different challenges, discoveries, lessons and dreams.
Each page of each journal is always different. Some are perfectly drawn and brilliantly written, insightful and illuminating. Others are a failure, with poor perspective and distracted lines. Some of the pages are dappled with raindrops or a splash of champagne, others are drawn in haste, still others crosshatched with great intensity and care. Some contain shopping lists, phone numbers of new friends, boarding passes to far-away places. Some are bright and colorful, witty and bold. Others are intimate and personal, never to be shared. Some pages describe loss and death, others a drawing of a gift you took to a baby shower.
None of these pages is an end in itself. No matter how good it seems at the time, eventually, you turn each one over. Even the ones at the end of a volume are merely leading to the first fresh page of the next. You fill the page, maybe you like what you drew or maybe it was a disappointment, but there’s always another to follow and another beyond that.
You try your best with each blank page, try to make something fresh and beautiful. Some of the time you feel excited and proud of what you’ve made, at other times you are disappointed and desperate. Often, a page you thought was just a turd looks a whole lot better when you come back to it years later. The drawing you thought was clumsy and flawed reveals some new insight and truth about who you were at the moment, fresh energy, naiveté, hope, darkness before the dawn. Each drawing, whether you know it at the time or not, contains truth. You just have to trust it and keep on drawing and writing and living your life.
Life is a process, and every one has the same end result: that last volume, partly-filled, cut off when we thought there was still art left to make. No need to rush to get there. Make the most of the page that lies open before you today.

Yarddogs.

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Since they were wee pups, my dogs Tim and Joe have spent their days on our apartment on the 8th floor of a Greenwich Village building. They had free rein — running around the living room, rassling on the cowhide rug, napping on the couch, yapping at the elevator — and if they want fresh air, they could go out on one of our balconies and look down on the street to monitor for cats and large black dogs.

Three times a day, they would don their collars and leashes for a walk up to the Park and down Thompson Street. Tim would pee on the corner of West 3rd Street, Joe would poo outside the Catholic Center, then they would come back through the double doors of our lobby and hop in the elevator. They were so comfortable with this routine that if I had a chore to run, I could let them ride up on the elevator on their own, confident that they would get out on 8 and wait for me in the apartment.

Their lives were pretty typical of New York dogs, many of whose lives are quite unusual. I have a friend who cooks her dog breakfast every morning and then pays a person to sit in her apartment all day with her dog so she never has to be alone. Maybe that’s typical too. When she complains about how badly the dog behaves, I would tell her (jokingly),”You need to just chain that dawg up in the yard and leave her to guard your property.”

When we arrived in L.A., Tim and Joe were a little bewildered. No elevators to ride, no fire engines to bark at, no half-eaten chicken bones to snatch off the sidewalk.

At first, we left them briefly alone in the house and they had a field day, knocking things over, peeing, howling at the neighbors.  Then we bought a gate so they could be sequestered in the kitchen — more peeing, more whining. I was getting worried — while I do spend a lot of time working in the house, I need to be able to go to Costco without hiring a dog sitter every time.

Each morning, I open the kitchen door and they trip down the steps into the backyard.  Within seconds of waking up, they can be peeing — dog heaven. But for Tim this luxury was utterly confusing. He looked up at me as if to say,”If you don’t want to pee in the house, but only outside on a leash when we go for a walk, what am I supposed to do here in the yard ?” Meanwhile, his brother was under a lemon tree, extruding a foot-long turd.

As I walked them, around the block several times a day, I noticed all the dogs barking at us from behind our neighbors’ fences. A lightbulb went on in my head. Aha! People leave their dogs in the backyard all day while they are at work. Yarddogs!

And so began Tim and Joe’s, transitions to yarddogginess. After several days in the back, they are content to spend the day lolling in the grass, sniffing through the geraniums, or relaxing in the shade of the orange trees. When I come home, they amble up to me casually, not clambering up my shins or clawing madly at the screen door. They meet me like a fellow animal. Being yard dogs, spending the day watching the hummingbirds at the feeder or rolling on the lawn, has made them more dog-like. The cold, hard streets of New York seem far away.

We built  a fomecore dog house. Joe likes it. Tim's not so sure.

We built a fomecore dog house. Joe likes it. Tim’s not so sure.

Slowly, I am undergoing my own yarddog transformation. I spent my first two weeks here in a frenzy of activity, building furnitures, stocking the pantry, reading guidebooks, writing and painting to fill the walls. I felt like I was still doing a job, in this new jury-rigged office I’d built in the back yard. I was still putting on my collar and leash and mimicking my old life in New York. But no one was holding the other end, no one was there to guide me and tell me what do.  I’d started to work for myself, but I had an absentee boss. I lost my sense of what the day’s work amounted to, because I was doing a lot of busy work to fill the day and it wasn’t moving me forward. And, for the first time in my adult life, I was alone all day. Instead of being surrounded by colleagues, meetings and deadlines, I was an old weirdo sitting alone in the garage drawing pictures for the hell of it. It should have felt liberating but I was still far from liberation.

So I made a couple of changes.

I started to structure my day and to set up some goals. I put landmarks on my calendar: going to the gym, drawing, working on my book, preparing my presentations, going to museums, and so on.  I would work on one project for a couple of hours, take a break and switch to some thing else.  It was still orderly, and somewhat corporate in its structure, but it provided me with a lot of relief, just like walking Tim around the bock before setting him free in the yard.  Eventually, I’m sure my regimen will loosen up as I discover new rhythms and a sense of accomplishment, but for now, I am getting lot more done and I feel more relaxed in this new life.

Another realization I had was that though I am not physically surrounded by co-workers, I do know a lot of people who are doing similar things. They are the ones who inspired me and showed me what a different sort of work life could be like. Illustrators, designers, drawing teachers, entrepreneurs, who work on their own and have designed successful creative careers and who I can reach with a an email or by opening Skype. They are my new colleagues. So many of my friends have generously offered me their time, chatting with me and giving me perspective. Sharing their wisdom has shown me how to do this. I am still weird, still in the garage, but I am not alone.

Changing one’s life is exciting and fresh but it is also scary and a lot of work.  I am learning so much every day.