The sour life.

Lemons

“Why don’t you go on west to California? There’s work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why there’s always some kind of crop to work in. Why don’t you go there?”   —Johnny Steinbeck, Grapes o’ Wrath.

It’s a schlep, people.

I have to get out of my lawn chair, walk all the way to the back of the yard, pick a half dozen lemons and limes from our dwarf trees, then walk all the way back to the kitchen, plug in the squeezer, slice and squeeze till my glass is half full, add soda water, and stagger back to my lawn chair.

I’m exhausted. Yet refreshed.

The art of living.

flowers

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.

Nectar.

morning

I learned to watch birds on New Year’s Day, 2012. Jenny and I went to the annual Bird Count in Central Park, a frigid but sunny morning outing, on which we counted a goodly number of feathered friends, including two different types of woodpeckers. Woodpeckers? Yup, New York has a bunch of kinds.

Then, last spring we went to a ranch in Patagonia, AZ and saw some amazing critters, including my very first hummingbirds. I love these birds. They come in so many varieties and they do everything the cartoons say the do. They dart and hover, their wings blurring a zillion miles an hour, and they sip nectar.

Which is where I come in.

As soon as I heard that there was even the slightest possibility of hummingbirds in LA, I headed to Home Depot where they had a whole wall of attractive feeders shaped like giant flowers and such. I bought some bird Kool-Aid and a huge black iron shepherd’s crook to hang the feeder from. Then I raced home, mixed up the nectar, plunged the crook into the flower bed beneath our kitchen window and hung the feeder.

And waited.

Several days later, Jenny and I were having our tea in our lawn chairs and I complained that a) I had no idea how I was supposed to let the local hummingbirds know I had set up this lovely feeder and b) it seems the lovely feeder was leaking as the level of Kool-Aid seemed to be dropping a little bit each day.

As I was griping, Jenny tapped me on the knee and pointed.  A bright green hummingbird,  like something out of a sci-fi film, was hovering by the feeder. It gingerly approached, and slid its needle beak into one of the white plastic flowers that circle the rim. I watched in mute wonder. Then as quickly and quietly as he’d come, the hummingbird darted away and soared over our roof.

“Tell all your friends,” I shouted as he disappeared down the street.

It seems he did.  I have now seen a half-dozen different colors of hummingbirds. I’ve seen them sitting on or phone wires. I’ve even seen two of them fighting, clashing in the air with fluttering wings and puffed chests, then chirping and squawking till one was driven off and the other settled at the feeder. Fighting hummingbirds! Like tiny iridescent battle helicopters over a Taliban outpost!

Clockwork Orange. And Blue. And some Green.

ImageMy neighborhood is cute. Little one-family houses with little yards all arrayed neatly along the six or so blocks of our “avenue”. My neighbors are friendly without being too. They’re definitely not New Yorkers but they don’t try to hug me either.
One evening, I tethered the hounds to the porch railing, strapped on my iPod, cracked open my colored pencil pouch, and started to draw the house across the street. Because, as George Mallory said of Everest, it was there.
As I say in the journal caption, I was listening to a dreadful story on a terrific podcast (RadioLab, actually, not TAL), and one part of my brain was listening intently to this story of a guy who corresponded with the man who raped and killed his daughter, while the other part drew every brick on my neighbor’s facade.
Now, do you remember the “Ludovico technique” in A Clockwork Orange where Alex is fed a drug that will make him nauseated by violence, strapped down and forced to watch a sadistic movie which is scored with something by Beethoven? Forever after, his beloved Ludwig Van makes him panicky and sick.

I guess my drawing/listening experience had a somewhat similar effect on me. My brain and all my senses were so wide open, so receptive, hungrily drinking in the details of my neighbor’s home while fixedly listening to this awful story. My eyes signals and ear signals somehow came together to create an utterly false experience, so now every time I walk out my front door, I feel a terrible pity for my neighbor and the ordeal he went through. Which he didn’t. Except in my journal.

They really should put a warning on this sort of story — “Listening to this broadcast while operating colored pencils and a fountain pen may cause a lingering sense of tragic empathy and melancholia.”

I’ve met the neighbor, by the way. Nice, cheerful guy and I don’t think he even has a daughter. At least not one that seems to be alive………..

Trucker.

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Last weekend, I bought a truck.  Actually, I didn’t technically buy it — Jenny charged it on her Platinum American Express Card.  So, the initial surge of testosterone that came from being able to say, “I just bought a truck” was thwarted by thefact that American Express called my girlfriend back to verify her identity faster than it called me back so the charge went through on her card instead of mine and my big-man-moment shriveled into a mumbled ‘uh, thanks’.

This is the fourth (or fifth) vehicle I have ever owned.

The first was a 1965 Ford Fairlane that I bought in Jersey City for $600 when I was 26. I bought it before I had actually had a driver’s license so it sat by the curb outside my house for a month before I could manage to pass the test. It was bronze-colored and had just 30, 000 miles on the odometer. In the six months that I owned it, I added another 500 miles to that total, most of it to neighborhood car washes. I loved the car but could never really manage its “three on the tree” transmission. When I moved back to Manhattan that fall, I gave it to my roommate, SImon,  who promptly totaled it in a supermarket parking lot.

The next car I owned was ten years later, a 1962 Mercury Monterey — two-tone (teal and white), 18 feet long, and, again, had only 30, 000 miles on it.  I was too anxious to drive it out of Manhattan and too impatient to drive it in the city so every other weekend my wife and I drove it up the Henry Hudson Drive for an hour, listening to WOR-AM, and then I would wax it curbside. Four months later, I sold it back to Augie, the man I’d bought from. I lost $500 in the deal.

The third car, I won’t tell you much about. Let’s just say I was a new father and the Volvo salesman was very persuasive.

Three years ago, I bought a tiny Honda motorcycle from a man in the street. He was an artist and needed the cash to replace his dentures. I drove it to my office once. On 10th Ave and 25th Street, I stopped at a light between two enormous 18-wheelers who slowly came together like the walls in the Death Star’s trash compactor. A voice in my head said, “Well, at least now you how you’ll die.” That afternoon, I found the toothless artist and sold his bike back to him. I lost $250 in that deal.

When I was nine, my grandfather’s chauffeur drove me through the streets of Lahore to school every morning. After a year of this routine, my grandfather, worried about my sense of direction, told me that the next day I was to direct the driver myself how to get to school.Two hours later, we were stopped by the guards at the Indian border. We were ninety-six miles from home.

When we got to LA three weeks ago, Jenny rented an enormous SUV. I think it was a Ford Brobdingnagian. I drove it, white-knuckled, to IKEA three times and then begged her to exchange it for an actual car. We got a regular-sized Nissan Something that smelled of stale smoke. Last Thursday, I went to visit my old friend Tommy McG in Venice. I parked the Nissan outside his house and then we walked down to the beach and had a drink on the rooftop of a hotel.  A couple of hours later, we walked me back to my car. “Huh,” he said, “it sounds like your engine is running.” I shrugged, and got into the shuddering car. At least there was still gas in the tank and I had remembered to lock the doors.

(Lest all of these facts give you pause, you should know that I have been using New York CIty subway trains and taxis, without incident, since 1973).

Okay, so I now own a truck. It’s very basic. It’s also in decent shape considering it’s twelve years old and other people have already driven it 150,000 miles. In LA, when you drive this sport of vehicle, people assume you are  a gardener. I have no problem with that.

Why a pickup truck? Well, so I can transport all sorts of things, yet to be determined. It’s the kind of thing people do out here, moving big things from one place to another. There’s huge amounts of room, huge stores, huge roads. So you just need to be ready to haul something huge at a moment’s notice.

Another really cool feature is I can carry a folding chair and table in the bed of the truck. Then I can drive anywhere, unfold, and have an amazing drawing platform.

And finally, I can now wear a cap. And maybe grow a fu-manchu. And toughen up a bit, yo.

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