Black and white habits — they’re not just for nuns.

ironman.080In my thirties, I became a mad iron-pumper.

I repaired to the gym every single day at 7 a.m., rain or shine, Sunday to Sunday, and after a year, I became a muscular beast. I didn’t have a trainer, I didn’t take steroids or HGH, I didn’t wear a little posing pouch or wax my chest. Key to my success was my ironclad will, my insistence on never, ever missing a day, or being even five minutes late to the gym. I utterly refused to give myself an excuse to break routine. I was a brutal and inflexible taskmaster. And, like it or not, it worked.

My sister, impressed by my progress, joined me at the gym. She would be there every morning at 7 too, ready to get to work. Then, one rainy February morning, she called me and said, “it’s a lousy day, let’s skip it for once.” I did, and the next day, came up with another excuse not to go.  The habit was broken and I never went to the gym again.

Soon, I was back to being a 190 lb. weakling.

Obviously, I can have a tendency to black and whiteness (not just in my journals), but, as I grow older,  I am working to be more nuanced in my decisions and commitments. I have joined a gym out here in LA and I am resolved to be less crazy this time, trying to stay committed without needing to be committed. I have a trainer who I see a couple of times a week and then I try to go most days and work out on my own. At first, pushing myself was hard, and I felt nauseated and weak. But one day, my body seemed to remember our bygone 7 a.m. routine and perked up. I felt the old surge of adrenaline through my muscles and it went from being a chore to being fun again. Now I look forward to exercise. However, I’m not a slave driver anymore and if I skip a day here and there, I don’t let it break my commitment to myself and my health. I just go the following day instead and keep going.

Journaling is another one of my healthy habits. At times over the years, I have insisted on a strict regime, like a drawing every morning before breakfast, or filling a whole book in a month or on a week’s vacation. Pushing myself to draw whether I want to or not eventually makes me want to. It also means I make a lot of lackluster pages on the way to falling back in love with my book and my pen.  There have been times when, overtaken by the stress of work and other commitments,  I have fallen completely out of the practice and eventually forgotten how much fun drawing can be, and how important it in helping me stay relatively sane.

But I can recommit.  (Like the old joke says, “It’s easy to quit smoking — I’ve done it a hundred times”). Still, I don’t have a drawing trainer and there are no steroids I can take to make me get instant results. Drawing just takes practice and patience and commitment and the more I do, the better I get, and the more I want to draw. Drawing depends on muscles too and if I don’t use them they atrophy quickly.  WIthin a couple of weeks of breaking my habit, my ability to draw well suffers enormously. Fortunately, picking up the pen brings those muscles back pretty quickly and they don’t forget all the have learned over the years.

There are incentives I can give myself to keep going eve if the monkey in my head urges me to just sleep in or watch TV. This blog is one of them and my desire to keep it a regular thing can push me to do a drawing when I feel lazy. But, no offense to you, my readers, that’s not really enough.  Writing books is another one; if I have a deadline I have no choice but to fill the pages.  The same goes for presentations and speeches.

But the best incentive is art. Going to a museum. Rereading a great book on illustrated journaling or watercoloring. Spending some time with the work of artists I love. Talking to an inspiring friend. Going back through a journal I filled years ago. 

Another carrot is to give myself an assignment. Like drawing every tree on my block, drawing the cars I’d like to drive, drawing from my collection of of mug shots, drawing what I am doing every hour for an entire day.The EDM list is another favorite, challenging prompts that get my gear rolling and make me want to start again. 

My journal is a forgiving companion. It doesn’t wonder where I’ve been or chastise me for the gaps in its pages. It always welcomes me back with open pages and I am grateful for its friendship. Just as exercise keeps me healthy and energized, so does keeping up my art. 

Soon I’ll be thin and wiry and rippling with new muscles. And the most developed ones of all will be in my right wrist and fingers, bulging as they choke the life out of my pen and squeeze every drop of its ink onto the page. Grrr! Aaargh! Grunt!

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.

Perfect!

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I have been mulling over giving an online class since mid-Spring, when a number of people wrote to me to say that they couldn’t come to my workshop in the Berkshires and asked if I’d consider doing something on the Internet instead.

First, I did a bunch of research and talked to friends who are great teachers like Jane LaFazio and Andrea Scher and Brenda Swenson and Roz Stendahl. I had technical concerns and had to figure out the best platform, then I had to decide what the class would be like and about.  So I futzed around a lot and made very slow progress, especially for me, a person who tends to barrel into things like a bull in a china shop.

Recently, I got an email from a guy who runs workshops and manages a major teaching platform and he was asking me (well, not really me but anyone on his email list who had expressed some interest in his program but hadn’t gotten around to launching a class) what the hell I was waiting for. His question was about perfectionism, wondering if I was so intent on making the class perfect before I open it up that I might never get around to doing it at all. And he had a point — I do want it to be as good as it can be even though it’s the first time. In fact, because it is, as I assume that if it’s half-assed, no one will be back for the second better one I do, and my ambitions will be thwarted on the launch pad.

Anyway, in needling me about this he said :

“As you sit on the sidelines, waiting for the “right moment”…
People who NEED help are MISSING OUT on your unique information, your potent coaching, your ability to encourage and support, your brilliance.
People are missing out on opportunities to grow, to develop, to learn new skills, to seek happiness…

… In Judaism (my heritage), there is a beautiful idea called Tikkun olam, which means “healing the world.” Tikkun olam evokes  humanity’s shared responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world. It gives meaning and purpose to our individual strivings, putting them in service of a greater good.
You could be helping to heal the world.”

Well! That’s a far loftier ambition than I had — I certainly don’t think I am on the verge of healing the world or anything like it. But I acknowledge that every day my class isn’t out there, someone may not be learning whatever the hell it is I have to teach them.

However, I have been thinking about his point in a different context. What happens when one is so fixated on perfection that one never begins? Never begins drawing. Never begins making stuff. Never begins pursuing any sort of passion for fear of not being able to do it incredibly well. Nothing you do will be good enough even for you.Why bother if you can’t be great?

A variation is fiddliness. Constant reappraisal, erasing, tweaking, reconsidering. Taking your drawing into Photoshop and cleaning it up, coloring it, recoloring it, sharing ten versions of it, asking for comments, on and on, never done, never good enough.

I love James Lord’s book on Giacometti in which he describe sitting for a portrait in his studio for weeks which he paints it over and over, only stopping when his gallery owner shows up and forcibly drags it away from him. The book contains reproductions of each day’s work and, honestly, he could have stopped after a day and had a decent painting, but he goes on for ages, always dissatisfied, putting himself down, rethinking the idea, scraping it down again and again. Giacometti was the same with his sculptures, paring away at them so they kept getting thinner and thinner, until they were barely there. Maybe his perfectionism made him great. Or Swiss.

One of the problems with perfectionism is that you think you can conceive the destination before you embark on the journey, that you can plan it all out in advance, and that nothing else can intrude and change the outcome you have conceived. But, first of all, the world doesn’t work that way; unless you are doing something extremely simple and banal, something you can actually hold in your brain all at once, it will invariably intrude and change your well-laid plans. And, secondly, you should welcome that intrusion. The accidents, mistakes, serendipities and ink splatters that the universe throws in your path make your work and your life more interesting. Perfection isn’t organic. It can be constipated and lifeless.

So, be forewarned, my class isn’t going to be perfect. Fat chance of that considering that I am behind it. But I do at least want it to be good, not slapdash and reasonably thought through. So I’m working on it everyday and hope it will be good enough to go soon.

Meanwhile, if you are waiting to make stuff because you haven’t got the perfect pen or book or subject or teacher, get over it. We all make shit every day. If we didn’t, we’d die. Or at least be really cranky.

The art of time management

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When you punch a clock, even a gold-plated, corinthian-leather-encased execuclock, your time does not belong to you. You have sold it and the highest bidder can do what he wants with it. He can use it to make wonderful things that will improve the world or to get him coffee and scrub his bowl. You can gripe, you can whimper, but you have punched that clock and now it is going to punch you back, suckah.

These days, my time belongs to me, the new boss, same as the old boss. And I insist that this time I have bought back gets used properly, to the last tock of the ticker. There will be no lolling on the midday couch, no leisurely lunches or bowel evacuations, no navel gazing or whittling of any kind. Every day must and will be filled with productivity.

Now, because I am currently an “artist “(it says so on my LinkedIn page, so it must be true), I am allowed some wool gathering and beard stroking, so long as it is clearly being used to hunt down that pesky muse, drag her to the altar, and squeeze every last drop of creative inspiration out of her. That requires scrupulous documentation.

In the image above, you can see a page from my weekly calendar. I find it essential to structure my day so the hours don’t slip through my fingers and dribble out the door. I insist on logging what I do all day, as if I was still filling out timesheets. One simply must have a clear record, nicht? Otherwise, I might end up cracking open my first six-pack right after breakfast and playing the bongos all day in Washington Square.

So I log my hours and I color-code ‘em too. Pink is personal time, hanging with friends, reading on books, kissing my girl, walking my hounds, discipling my boy.Yellow is what I now call ‘work’: drawing, painting, writing, making videos, stuff I used to call ‘fun’. And blue is old school, freelance writing and consulting projects for clients I am still connected to after all those decades in the salt mines. Those blue hours are the lucrative ones, folding-money-wise, but they also cost me the most. My heart is no longer in them though the monkey keeps picking up the phone and signing new contracts. But in my pink hours, I spend time scheming on how to get the blue hours down to a precious few. And I think I’m winning. Slowly but surely my calendar is shifting hue and by the time I’m in LA, I’ll be out of the blues for good and all.

I have had a lot of fun with the yellow hours this week. I have made a half dozen videos for my upcoming class and I am really hitting my stride. I am happy with how they are turning out and I hope you will be too. Another big addition to the yellow column is a new book — my lovely editrix, Bridget, just told me that the acquisitions group at Chronicle is really excited about my proposal and we should have the details of the contract hammered out any day. Then I have to get serious and write and draw it. I think my deadline is sometime in the spring. It’s going to be a humdinger.

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Pink is getting busy too, Jack and I spend two half days painting his room. You can imagine what a room that a boy has lived in for almost every one of his 19 years can be like. Instead of painting, I thought of calling in one of those companies that clean up crime scenes. I haven’t painted a room since I was in my twenties but it’s not a skill you forget and we had a great time working together, listening to music, cracking jokes and getting paint in our hair. Being Gregorys we managed to get splatters of white paint on the blue wall and blue paint on the ceiling but when we were done and exhausted to the bone, we agreed it looked amazing, like a real grownup room again.
Soon we will both leave our apartment for a good long while, meeting up again here at Thanksgiving and in the meantime we’ll have memories of a great summer, and of lots of time well spent

Big data

20130824-180221.jpgInformation. The world is just jammed with it. I’m not talking about Facebook posts and texts from your besties; I mean the sort of analog information that is constantly flowing into the holes in our head and all over our skin.

But how much exactly? What would be the equivalent in terms I am familiar with — dpi, mexagpixels, gigs, etc.?

Well, the Internet has loads of answers but none are really definitive. The best I can make out is that if our eyes were digital cameras, they would each have the equivalent of around 600 megapixels and the resolution of the images we receive is about 530 pixels per inch (as a reference, the resolution of images we get on the internet is 72 dpi). Our ears are also constantly receiving sound data, and we can distinguish differences in the ~160kbps range.  Our skin can feel vibration, touch, pressure, temperature and of course, pain. We have 20 square feet of skin, all studded with zillions of receptors — Our fingertips alone have 2,500 receptors per cm2.

In short, our bodies are getting a huge amount of data every second. A commonly quoted estimate says that our brains receive 400 billion bits of information each second. That’s 400 gigs, enough to fill my laptop’s hard drive, every second.

But…we have this enormous data stream coming in, and what are we doing with it? According to a recent study in the MIT Technology Review, our brains can only process 60 bits of information a second. And we are only conscious of about 2,000 bits per second. That means that .000000000015% of what comes in actually gets responded to.

Wow.

Obviously, the vast majority of the time, we are screening out almost all of what is around us. How is that even possible? Well, we are living in the preconceived patterns we built for ourselves long ago, the patterns that put most things into categories that require very little data. We simply don’t need to see every pixel of every face we encounter because we know immediately, “that’s Mary”.  We may not notice that Mary is wearing a knee-length, ocean blue floral print dress with six pearl buttons, etc. because that data has no immediate value. It wouldn’t help us to survive in the wild.  Those of our ancestors who couldn’t quickly form observations into categories would have been overwhelmed by data and couldn’t have responded quickly enough if Mary turned out to be a pouncing saber-toothed tiger.

Relying on these quick sorting algorithms has been a useful way to survive, what with terabytes of incoming data and the fairly slow processors in these 3-pound, neck-top computers we were all issued.

But … over time, the price we pay for this has grown higher. As the data becomes more intense (iPhones, laptops, 2000 channels, etc), we have retreated more and more into categories and preconceptions and further and further from all the stuff that’s going on around us in what we oldsters quaintly call “the Real World”. The problem is what happens when you decide that your Facebook stream is so much more manageable than the 400 gigs of real data. You will be utterly oblivious as you cross the street, lost in your smartphone, and a saber tooth tiger pounces or an SUV squashes you flat. End of your gene line.

Which brings me to drawing.

A few days ago, I was walking on the Lower East Side and I saw this building festooned with painted signs. I sat down on the pavement, leaned against a wall, and pulled out my Lamy Safari. I spent the first hour or so just drawing the building underneath the signs.  I started to see that the building itself was quite interesting, that it had curved windows and lots of interesting brickwork. I discovered how the building was constructed, how the windows lineup, where the structural underpinnings were arranged. I noticed all the stores on the ground floor, their merchandise and the ways that their awnings were hung. It seemed I was tapped into the full data stream (though oblivious to my dehydration, cramped buttock, and sleeping right leg).

Finally, I pulled out  a white pencil and start to letter the signs.

Here’s the thing. I had spend a couple of hours starting at this building but now I realize how much I still wasn’t seeing. Yes, I had studied its structure but I had skipped over a lot of the details, I had missed air conditioners, reflections, broken bricks and more. I had approximated so many things based on the patterns I could divine. And I had not observed the perspective or the lighting at all.

But what really blows me away was this weird mistake I made. I misspelled “Entrance”. It’s certainly a word I know how to spell. And I was looking right at the letters on the wall, paying careful attention to the letterforms, to the kerning, the condensed type, the wear of the paint, and then I misspelled “Entrance”. I can’t explain it (Oh, and to cover my goof, I purposefully misspelled it again on the left).

My brain, despite all the time and care I was taking, still had to jump to conclusions. And to a conclusion that I knew was wrong. I somehow drifted away and came back to see my hand adding that ‘E.’ Some other thing was inhabiting my skull, hands on the controls, driving along, a barely-literate lizard brain that just took over while my conscious floated away and debated what I should have for dinner. It’s literally, mind-boggling. Maybe it was a full blown right-brain thing, drawing what was in front of me and disengaged from the rational world of letters and numbers. But then why the mistake? Was I just overwhelmed by the raw data flow?

All this information. And all this human frailty. What we really need is a little wisdom.