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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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.