So it turns out that there are some shortcomings to owning a twelve-year-old truck. Nothing major, just a reluctance to start the first time I turn the key. I spent the afternoon at my local mechanic’s garage, inhaling the heady perfume of grease and metal shavings, while he replaced some worn bits and poured in some fresh magic potions. Meanwhile, rather than watching the History Channel in the waiting room, I drew the brake lathe. My mechanic, who also likes to draw, made a color Xerox of my journal pages and hung it next to the centerfold in the office. A pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Can’t wait to go to the dentist next and draw my root canal.
In New York, I had become quiet used to the Citibike program, to having a fresh bicycle waiting in a rack outside my front door to drive wherever I chose. I had always assumed that in LA I would be forced to drive every where — I remember from past visits that if you walk on foot down the sidewalk (where there is a sidewalk) , people look at you like you were covered with blood and dragging an axe. And the thought of toodling along on a bike where people are driving Ferraris at top speed while simultaneously talking to their agents on their blue tooth, sniffing cocaine off the dashboard and eating a double-double In’n’Out burger, well, that seemed pure fantasy.
As it turns out, Venice is something of a fantasy land. You see these bulbous beach cruiser bikes all over the place, and their riders are quite brazen. I’ve often had to yank my truck to the curb to avoid some blithe hipster, high on prescription marijuana, who its talking on his iphone while driving the wrong way up the middle of the road. People never wear helmets or pay attention to stop signs and generally make New Yorker cyclists look like uptight, law-abiding novices.
A friend lent us a cruiser of our own. So far, I have ridden it once and drawn it twice. It’s just not my thing. It would seem too ironic to get run over here in L.A. on a big girl’s bike. To hell with that, I’d much rather go out in a spectacular car crash like James Dean or Jackson Pollock.
I’ve always envied people who could bring their dogs with them everywhere. Old coon hounds sitting in the back of a farmer’s pickup. Fashionistas with their Pomeranians in their purses. Airport cops with stoic German shepherds on short leashes. Hip entrepreneurs writing code in old warehouses, with mixed breed companions named Woman or Copernicus or 8-track sitting under their Ikea worktables.
Finally, I have joined their ranks. Every morning, my hairy coworkers report to the garage with me. First, they make sure no one has accidentally left any bacon or chicken bones on the floor during the night, then flop down to supervise me while I work. That supervision is very trusting as Tim and Joe generally fall asleep within minutes and leave me to carry on unattended.
Every hour or so, something or other will pass outside our fence and they will leap outraged from their slumber and hurl themselves down the drive to bark angrily through the cracks. Then, huffily, they strut back to their stations, exhale indignantly and return to dreams of New York sidewalks and slow moving cats.
If I have to go into the house to freshen my martini or buy another ream of typing paper, they escort me to the door and wait by the kitchen steps. When I return, usually seconds later, they are delirious and insist on asking me all about my absence. Then back to bed. I mean, work.
A canary sits in its cage, gazing through the bars. Year after year, it watches the world beyond and dreams. One morning, it notices that the cage door is open. The canary catches its breath and waits to see when it will close.
Eventually, the canary hops onto the edge of the door and pops out of its cage. It flies around the room, sits on the back of the couch, perches on the bookshelf. An hour later, it returns to the cage and goes back to gazing through the bars, dreaming. The door is still open. So is the window beyond.
Freedom is not easy. Security, comfort and familiarity are.
Many birthdays ago, long before I had the habit of drawing, my mother and my sister chipped in and rent me a studio for a month. It was the most terrifying gift I had ever received. I went down to Desbrosses Street in Tribeca, and walked into the studio. “Mine, all mine,” I muttered under my breath. The room was about fifteen feet square and empty. I took out a pad and a piece of charcoal and wrote about how I felt having studio all of my own. I filled several pages with writing in charcoal, taped them to the wall, and left.
I came back a week later and made a small collage from cut-up pieces of magazine. I taped that to the wall and left. A week after that, I drew colored lines on the collages with a highlighter marker. The final week in the studio, I brought in a photo of my grandfather and a large canvas. I painted a very bad copy of the portrait onto the canvas. At the end of the day, I left the canvas, the collage, and the charcoal writing on the studio, locked the door, and never went back.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had planned to work in the second bedroom of our house, to sit at a small desk in the corner and write my new book. Then I saw our two-car garage, 300 or so feet of emptiness. Like the garage, I stood with my mouth wide open. I spent the first week, filling it with tables and shelves and cubbyholes. I spent the second week sitting at my desk, writing my new book and rearranging bottles of ink. Occasionally I would draw in my journal, using a fountain pen and a white pencil.
I spent the third week thinking. I realized had managed to reproduce my office in New York. I had a lamp, a rug, a laptop, a phone, a box of thumbtacks. I ate lunch at my desk and surfed the web. I was even filling my calendar with a record of my daily doings in case I had to fill in timesheets at the end of the month. All that was missing was a couple of account executives and a client.
So I went to the art supply store and bought whatever I wanted (if you remember my old essay, “Art Supply Porn“, you’ll know my fantasies are legion). At first, however, that just amounted to a few tiny palettes for gouache and a bottle of ink. Oh, and a block of 14 x 17″ mixed media paper.
Back in my empty garage, I opened the block and did a tentative self-portrait in ink. This simple act I was breaking one of my cardinal agreements with myself. I was making drawing, with no writing , that was not in a book. No wonder the self-portrait looked like I had just eaten something bad. Then I did a gouache painting on the block and pinned it up next to the self-portrait. Then in a fit of pique, I got a house paint brush, dipped it in inks and drew a huge painting of Tim on the back of an empty Ikea box.
I felt slightly winded and rather nauseated. I took out my journal and told it what I had done, revealing my betrayal and the dim feelings I had about it.
The next day, I bought a 64-box of Crayolas and some tempera and did a wax resist portrait. Then I did some more gouache paintings, then a painting of the back of the house in poster paints on cardboard. Soon the garage wall was full.
The following week, I sat on the corner of my street holding the fattest Sharpie I could find. On a big sheet of cardboard, I drew the house across the intersection. When I had filled the whole board, I went back to the garage and got another piece of cardboard and continued the drawing, a big, grubby, dog-eared diptych.
The next day, I continued the drawing, working my way down the street. When I was done, it was eleven and a half feet wide. Then I added gouache, creating a cheerful portrait of another glorious day in my new neighborhood. Just as my hero David Hockney was transformed by the California sunshine, I felt a call to use candy colors and bold lines and to work as big as all outdoors.
Now I am working on a drawing that is as big as my garage wall, fourteen feet in all, a broad panorama of all the crazy houses arrayed along the Venice canal. I even added a gondolier.
My sketchbook now looks a bit small and grey but, despite my sudden expansiveness, I love it still.
If you are getting little set in your ways, check out the door of your cage. The world is wide and a little terrifying, but it’s wonderful out here. You don’t need to chuck your job, your home and all the rest, but try flying around the living room a bit and enjoy the view. There may be a cat out there, but if you fly high and far, you’ll be safer than you are trapped in a cage with an open door.
“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.
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.
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.
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!