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.

On my own.

Three weeks ago, I dropped my boy off at art school in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s a trip we’ve been planning for years, maybe even decades. From the days when Jack was first able to pick up a crayon and started making marks on paper, his mom and I celebrated his creativity and put those pieces of paper into a special binder, a collection which grew to two books, then three, then a shelf-full.  We didn’t have any particular plan to create an artist or designer or an illustrator; we just celebrated what seemed special about him, and let him know that if this (or drumming or soccer or World of Warcraft…) is what he really loved most, it was fine with us.

When it came time to apply to college, I told Jack that committing to an art school had risks but so did any career path. As far as I was concerned, a bigger risk would be to seek a profession that didn’t ignite his passion, to simply try to make money at something in which he had no real interest. I know too many people who have gone down this path and found little at its end. That shelf full of drawings proved that Jack had a calling, a rare thing indeed.

I borrowed a truck from a friend, loaded it with Jack’s belongings and we drove up 1-95 to RISD. After lunch in the cafeteria, I sensed that Jack was ready to take off, that he wanted to set up his room, meet his new friends and start his life. My job was done.

I had been dreading what was to follow. I have only ever lived alone for about six months — after graduating from Princeton and moving into a studio apartment on the Lower East Side. Then I got some roommates, then a girlfriend who became a wife, then a son …. and the last three decades were filled. Overnight, I was on my own again.

For a year, I had been worried about being alone in my empty apartment — empty evenings, lonely mornings, no one to talk to but my dogs and the wind. My girlfriend Jenny has been in Dallas all summer and I have been missing her sorely too.

But here’s the funny thing: I love it.

Despite all my worries and fears of dying alone in my sleep and being eaten by my dachshunds, I love being able to decide when I get up, when I got to bed and what I do in between. What I eat, what I do, whether I watch TV or read or draw or stare out the window. It’s fantastic. Time expands. I have a huge sense of accomplishment and also of being relaxed and at my own pace. And I love having a neat apartment, not having soccer equipment on the living room floor or boxer shorts in the kitchen. I don’t have to share the bathroom or the remote control or the sofa. It’s just me and two miniature hounds.

I do miss Jack. I email him, he texts me, we chat on the phone a couple of times a week. He sends me phone photos of the art he is making and tells me about his new friends, about his teachers (for the first time ever he loves them all), about how great the food is.

And he is flourishing. He works his ass off, staying up till the wee hours doing enormous assignments. His first week, he posted the following on Facebook:

a haiku about getting out of bed;
no no no no no
no no no no no no no
no no no fuck that

Then one of his new classmates uploaded this picture:

Jack’s new best friend.

He’s going to be okay, it would seem, and so am I.

P.S.  I try to avoid getting emotional about commercials but this one has been getting to me:

By way of explanation.

I have been received occasional emails and comments from people wondering why I have stopped posting on this site. Let me begin by saying that Jack and I are doing quite well, despite the silence. We have both had milestone birthdays in the past month; he turned 16 and I turned (gulp) 50. We have been making a lot of art, spending time with each other and friends,moving our lives ahead. There have been setbacks and moments of deep sadness and anxiety, but as each one passed, I felt stronger and clearer.

I have decided however that I am less comfortable sharing enormous amount of detail here. I have received a lot of encouragement, wisdom and support from visitors to the site,  but I feel that these enormous passages in our lives should be expressed somehow differently, with more care and perspective. So, while I continue to write and draw about these days in my journal, I will be much more selective in how I share them, here and elsewhere. Instead, I shall use dannygregory.com as a place to express myself as I always have, about matters creative and artistic, rather than as deeply personal as the posts I put up in the early summer. I promise to share a lot of this material with you in the future — just in a different shape and form.

I don’t regret that public airing of my private feelings, but I no longer have the same need to do so. I’m sure you understand.

Also, after being plagued by malware and paying a consultant to repeatedly exterminate the vermin in my site, I have decided to radically redesign dannygregory,com. I will launch the new site soon and on it I will share a lot of material from my sketchbooks which I  hope you will find useful.

If you have visited this page over the years, you are probably quite used to my occasional bouts of ambivalence about leading a public life and know that inevitably I shall prance back onto center stage, neuroses in full display and reveal more than a sane person probably should about my experience of the world.

Until then, I remain small and timidly yours,

Danny

—–

Oh, one more thing  —  Seth Apter has just published an interview with me in which I explain, for the first time, the real origins of Everyday Matters. You might find it interesting.

Staying in touch

Sometimes when I’d wake up in the middle of the night, Patti beside me, I’d wonder if she was breathing. I’d put my ear close, hear nothing, then nudge her to see if she was still alive. She’d stir and I’d exhale. Sometimes she’d wake all the way up and we’d talk. I never felt that bad about rousing her; she had the gift of falling right back to sleep. Sometimes I’d put my arm around her, feel her by me, and wonder what it would have been like if she hadn’t stirred, if she’d gone in her sleep. I’d try on that hollow feeling. But I really had no idea.

A lot of people miss Patti. They send me emails to tell me. They send her emails too. I miss her, of course I do. But I also miss my life, the way it was, so steady — built layer upon layer like a giant oak, habit wrapped around habit, assumption encircling assumption. For nearly a quarter of a century, we built this life and, when Patti’s ended, so did mine. My life was like the second twin tower. It collapsed right after the first one fell.

Now I have a different life. It’s a pretty good one, despite what I would have thought as I lay with my arm around my sleeping love. It has moments of sadness, deep holes in the road,  but it has a lot of beauty too. I love my son, my  mum, my sister, my hounds. I have so many good friends and the generous support of people I’ve never met. To a large extent, they help me fill in those moments of darkness, help me decide what garbage bags to buy or what to have for dinner. They will talk to me on the phone for hours when I need them, will indulge my nonsense, will cook me rice and beans. But they can’t fill in all the gaps.

Jack and I are resilient. We get on with it. But no one else puts notes in our pockets or brings us ice cream or keeps our every doodle in a file like PL did.

I’d love to chat on the phone with you as I walk to work, Pat, just once. I’d like you to reach out in the dark and stroke what’s left of my hair. I’d even like you to just tell me it’s okay to cry. But failing that, I will remember as well as I can what it was like to put my arm around you, even as I walk down the road alone, and I will treasure every day I have, rather than lying worried in the night.

My new life will be bright. Because you light it.

Waisting Away

One of the inevitabilities of being married and middle-aged is the gradual spread of one’s waistband. A souvenir of all those evenings when Patti would bring me a bowl of ice cream on the couch or we’d eat off each others’ plates like Jack and Mrs. Spratt.

Now our pantry is bare-ish. Jack and I shop on Sunday afternoon, buying just enough to provide cold cuts and fruit for  his lunches, cereal for my breakfast, a few other meager things. I shop most days on the way home from work, buying whatever I will cook that night, always a salad, maybe a steak or chicken breast for him, some veggie or fish thing for me. My favorite word these days, Jack complains, is ‘Spartan‘.

Despite these complaints of deprivation, we are both healthy and rarely hungry. I am amazed at how much less I want to eat. It began in those first horrible weeks in late March, when I simply lost my appetite altogether. But once that passed, I found food wasn’t especially comforting, and instead I preferred the gym I had just joined. For the first time in ages, I love pedaling madly on a bike or throwing barbells around. I also find I have the time. When Patti was alive, I so often felt that time spent on myself was time taken away from her (a perspective she vigorously opposed, but to no avail). Now I have the time and control of my agenda to indulge myself in new ways. Fortunately, so far, most of them are healthy.

My newly instituted regime is also a reflection of a new assessment of my age, of how many years I have left. I’d always assumed that Patti and I would march into the grave holding hands and I had no especial interest in outliving her.  Now, however, because I will continue on this march with no one to lean on, I feel I should be as vigorous as I can be. Both my parents are healthy and robust in their 70s and my grandfather just died at 98. Chances are I will be around to choose apples, tap melons, lift dumbbells and fill sketchbooks for a little bit longer.

In the meantime, I need new trousers and a shorter belt.

The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step

Jack and I have always shared certain things: pens, a love of R. Crumb, a disdain for Dane Cook. Now we have a new and more complex relationship, one that can be annoying and claustrophobic some times, rich and vital at others. We are roommates, creative collaborators, dinner companions, advisors, and dad and son. And there’s no Mom to act as a buffer, filter, and cooler head.

It can be tough living with a teenager who doesn’t realize he is shedding clothes all over the house or drinking the last of the juice. I’m sure it’s just as tough for Jack living with a cantankerous, soppy weirdo. Despite our differences, we are managing okay, crafting a new sort of life in our man cave, surrounded by chip packages and dachshunds.

Most recently, we’ve taken to sharing a pair of blue shoes that we both coveted. It’s been a true compromise as the shoes are a little small for Jack, a little large for me. The experience has proven useful, teaching us what it’s like to walk in each others’ shoes.

Cleaning up our act

My relationship with my journal is like that with a family member or a friend I’ve known since childhood. Sometimes we are distant, formal, perfunctory, obliged. But when I really need my journal, it is there with open pages, ready to hold me as tightly as I hold it. These days, I need it more than ever, and I am more intense, more candid than usual, as I scrawl across its pages.

I would like to share some of these pages with you but they are heavy going and so I will doll them out a spread or two at a time over a number of days. If you like what you see, come back soon and I’ll have posted more.

Here’s where I began. By cleaning up my apartment, on my hands — dismissing the cleaning ladies who had scrubbed my toilets ever since I could afford them — reclaiming what is mine, filth and all. It is part of a process I’ve embraced, of forming a new relationship with the everyday, taking full responsibilty for every aspect of my life.

Being married means sharing the good, the bad, the important, the mundane. Patti and I leaned on each other in a thousand ways: she would shop, I would cook. I would bring home checks, she would pay bills. She kept up with our friends, I worked late. It was a deep symbiosis developed over 23 and 7/8 years — which unravelled in a heartbeat.

So now I am forced to reappraise all of the decisions we made as a team. Many of them can wait: is that the right shelf to store the wine glasses on? Do we need all of these dish towels? Should we live in New York? Others assert themselves and demand resolution. One by one, I pick them off; making lists, adding bleach, filling my weekends with chores.

Every choice is made in consultation with Patti’s ghost, with serious consideration of what she intended, what she thought I wanted, of how to stay true to her spirit, yet accomodate our changed reality. Sometimes it’s terribly sad. Often, it’s a form of companionship that keeps her in my heart, in my pantry, in my thoughts as I doze off.

It’s daunting, it’s doable, it’s underway.