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.

IMG_0163

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.

A hut of my own.

hans and peter 1

There was a book I was just obsessed with when I was eight. It was called Hans and Peter by Heidrun Petrides  (originally Swiss, “Der Xaver un Der Wastl“)and it told the story of two boys who find an abandoned workman’s shed and convert it into a playhouse.

hans and peter  2They cover the walls with newspaper and then whitewash it, they install an old wood stove, they plant geraniums in a windowbox, and make gaily colored curtains. The book was Swiss and had bright pastel paintings on every page (they were done by a 15-year-old girl!).

There was just something about this idea, of these boys making their own house, that was incredibly appealing to me.

hans and peter 3I guess it’s the same instinct that had us building forts out of sofa cushions and making a pirate ship out of the linen closet. I yearned for a treehouse or a tent or an empty refrigerator box — something domestic I could call my own.

When I was nine, I was sent to live with my grandparents in Pakistan for a couple of years. I had gotten a small tool kit for my birthday and when my grandmother promised me my own small patch of land in her garden, I had intense fantasies about using the tools to build a shed with a padlock at one end of my acreage. I was enormously disappointed when I arrived in Lahore and my grandmother pointed to a bed of snapdragons and said, “That can be your garden, Danny. You can water it whenever you want.”

The only apartment I ever had entirely to myself was my first one on Clinton Street in the Lower East SIde. It was the most dangerous neighborhood in the blighted New York of the early eighties but I was incredibly proud to have my own minihouse. I built a loft bed, a couch and cupboards, then upholstered them and sewed pillows in fabrics straight out of Hans and Peter. A year later I was gone from the ‘Hood and living with roommates, then Patti and I moved in together, and now I live with Jenny in this microhouse in Los Angeles.

However after all these years, I have finally achieved my Hans and Peter fantasy.

IMG_0126Our house has an old two-car garage, built in the 1940s and made of wood with a big swing-up metal door. Since the day we arrived in LA, I have been busily turning it into a studio of my own, a cubby house, a man-cave.

IMG_0117I spent a day on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor, half chipped lino, half cracked cement. Then I built myself shelves, tables, and drawers to hold all my paints, pens, inks, and journals. I installed lighting, a sound system, and a grass green shag rug for the dogs to lie on while I work.

IMG_0116Slowly, I am filling the walls up with paintings — the first I have done in ages that are not in a small book.

It’s wonderful. I can work any size I want, a true luxury for someone used to painting in the space between my laptop and the edge of the dining table. I can work on a project, then at the end of the day leave it out, and resume work the next day. I can shoot videos in here and completely control the lighting and the sound.

I am realizing that my whole approach to art — small books, tiny watercolor sets, etc. — is probably a function of having had so little space and time. Who knows where this newfound freedom may lead?

Welcome to America!

When I was twelve, I took a ship across the Atlantic and, after weeks at sea, finally saw the arm of the Statue of Liberty poking through the early morning mist. Upon descending the gang-plank, I bought my first-ever can of Coca-Cola from a Sabrett stand on the pier. It tasted like America and. for the next four decades, that’s where I thought I was living. 

Now, after traveling 3,00 more miles, I’ve realized I was never actually in America — I was in a completely different country called “New York”. And now, finally, I’m in the U. S. of A. It tastes quite different.

In New York, if you need groceries, you go across the street to the corner deli. In a cramped room, you will find a fridge full of beer, some shrink wrapped fig-newtons, a lottery ticket machine, and way behind the counter, a recent immigrant who will barely acknowledge you as he takes your money.

In America, there are enormous buildings called “Costco”. In New York, such a building would be called “Madison Square Garden.” But here, it is filled with palettes of merchandise stacked to the distant rafters. And what merchandise! Many of the brand names are familiar but the products themselves seems to have been manufactured for giants. Twenty-five pound bags of jerky. Seventy-two rolls of Brawny paper towels, in a bundle the size of an East Village duplex.  Need some AA batteries? Here’s a footlocker full of 500. A bucket of Vitamin C tablets, an entire side of beef marinated an shrink-wrapped. I felt like Gulliver amidst the Brobdingnagians. I staggered around for an hour and a half and walked out with a box of hangers.

In New York, if you need to get somewhere, you walk there. If it’s far, you go down to the subway or hail cab. In America, you drive your own car. Everywhere. To Costco, so you can haul home your plunder. To the gym, so you can walk on a treadmill. To the mailbox, so you can collect your Costco coupons.

Now, I know cars and I know how to drive. I got my license at 25 so I’d have proper ID. But when we arrived at LAX with several big suitcases, Jenny went to Hertz and rented a Ford Explorer which is essentially an 18 wheel-truck with cup holders. Every day, I have chauffeured her to her new office and then I have spent the day setting up our house, unpacking boxes, filling the pantry, going to Home Depot and IKEA (oy!) and building my new studio (I’ll tell you more about that next time).

All of my chores have had me glued to my Neverlost GPS device and dragging up and down the 405, which is like the Nile, the Yangtze, and the Amazon only covered with asphalt, amphetamine-addled truckers, and Mexicans in pickup trucks delivering lawn mowers. Everyone slaloms back and forth across lanes, while I squeeze my fingertips deep into the Explorer’s leather steering wheel. I am in an advanced yoga class of some kind — one ear cranes towards the clipped orders of the Neverlast lady, the other twitches at every honk and siren, one eye is on the swarming lanes ahead of me, the other darts back and forth between the various mirrors and monitors arrayed around the vast landscape of my car’s interior, sweat courses down my ribs, my right foot dribbles back and forth across the pedals, now lunging toward the accelerator, then jerking to the brake.

On one horrific trip back from IKEA, somewhere near Mexico, I realize that I have ordered and paid for a gigantic stack of lumber that they laughingly called a shelving unit and in my frenzy and disorientation I have managed to leave it behind at the store. The Neverlast lady sullenly tells me she is recalculating as I exit the freeway only to be ordered to do a U- turn and head back to the distant blue store over the horizon. In New York, incidentally, you had to rent a car and then travel to another state or borough to get to an IKEA. Here in my new American city, there are five different ones, all crammed with those 3-D jigsaw puzzles with made-up Swedish names.

In New York, you are never more than seven feet away from another human being. Literally — above, below, or on one side of you, there is alway somebody. Somebody who is blasting their radio or calling the cops or getting drunk or clog dancing. In America, you can sit in your home and hear … nothing. You can walk down the street, and see … no one. My dogs are so confused by the silence, they sit on the back yard with cocked heads and looks of utter disbelief.

In New York, you put on your coat and your scarf and your hat and a sweater or a coat and a harness and maybe a muzzle and rubber booties on your dog, take a stack of newspapers and bundle him in to the elevator, travel down to the lobby, through several sets of doors and finally onto the sidewalk. Then you drag him away from chicken bones, abandoned big macs, broken glass, pit bulls, and sleeping homeless people. When he is finally ready to relieve himself, you scoop up the offering in the paper under your arm and drop it in the corner garbage can. Then you head back, hoping you have your keys.

In America, you can just open that back door and your dog runs out onto your gigantic lawn and pees while you stand in the doorway in your underwear holding mug of coffee.

In New York, you sprout an avocado pit and put it in a mayo jar on the window sill. In America, you have lawn mowers you can ride and lemon trees and orange trees and mandarin trees all groaning with fruit and your for th taking because they are growing in your own yard!  Two nights ago, Joe and Tim walked across our neighbor’s front yard and Jenny said, “What’s that weird sound they are making?”, a sort of swishing, crunching sound as they walked across the impossibly, perfectly manicured grass. I bent down to feel it. Astroturf.

In New York, if your clothes are dirty, you put them in a bag, and take them to the laundromat on the corner where a lady shrinks and mangles them for you for ten bucks. In America, you interrupt your writing for two minutes, walk to the laundry room, take them out of the dryer, fold them and go back to your blogpost.

So far, I find America lovely and exhausting. I have to rethink so many basic things — walking, eating, slices of pizza (I have yet to see a single pizzeria in America). Even though I have visited LA many times, living here is a whole new kettle of balls of wax and fish. And so many things I thought were basically made up or exaggerated in the movies and on TV are all around me all the time.  Jenny, who grew up in Arizona and lived for nearly a decade in LA is quite used to America and rolls her eyes at my epiphanies and at my apparently dreadful driving.

With all of the new experiences I’ve had exploring America this week, I haven’t made a single piece of art. But next week, I can’t wait to begin my travel journal in earnest.

Okay, I have to stop now as tonight we are going to the movies. In America, they have movie theaters in which they bring you dinner and beers while you are in your seat watching the film. This I gotta see.

Westward weiner smuggling.

weiner smuggling

I’ve been in this town for forty years, in this apartment for sixteen. I have my favorite deli, pizzeria, subway line, barber, newspaper, baseball team and proctologist. In 72 hours, I’ll be packing my hounds into bags and taking them to our new home in LA. Hello, white space.

These have been times of change. In the last few months, I redid my apartment and started living with my girlfriend, then decided to pull up stakes and move to LA, left my job, started some super exciting new projects, got a new book contract, spent the summer with Jack, then he left again, I started watching Real Housewives, drinking green juice, drawing with a pencil, and parting my hair on the right — the list goes on. If this is mid-life, I guess I’ll live to be 106.

My life has always been marked by change ever since my parents split before I was two. I have lived all over the world, had calamities that reshuffled my deck several times, and more and more craved stability and consistency. I hated change and wanted to just be left the hell alone. But as I age I have realized that there is no such thing as consistency. Change is inevitable and it’s good. Even more so when you have some say in it.

Now, at last, I have control over my karmic checkbook. And I am mixing it up, folks. I may even get my eyebrows threaded. Stay tuned. We fly west on Sunday night.