Author sits down to write blogpost — you won’t believe what happens next!

I’m not sure that I have anything to say today — but I do miss my blog. The poor thing has fallen victim to various impulses within me that claim to know best.

One said, “Hey, I read an article online that says that people don’t read any more, so you should just post videos. Oh, and another article said blogs are dead and people just look at Facebook posts, so stop bothering to write here.”

Another impulse is to focus my time and energy on my job, i.e. Sketchbook Skool. (Yes, I refer to it as a job. The world’s best job, but a job nonetheless.) That means I figure I should devote my creative energy to making kourses and telling people about them, rather than venting here.

It’s a funny thing, being your own boss. There are definite perks, like taking off early to go to yoga or hiring a special effects team to make something you dreamed up, but there’s also the issue of having a boss who sits in a corner office in your skull and can call you into review your performance on a daily basis. My boss loves to tell me I could always be doing more. And this blog strikes him as a pointless cul-de-sac. (As you can tell, my week’s vacation helped revitalize my monkey. He’s tan, well-rested, and eager to get back to work.)

Despite all this wound licking, I have been thinking of a lot of ideas in the last few months, ideas that don’t necessarily have anything to do with teaching. A few weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea for a new book and wrote it down, in the dark, with a Sharpie, on a pile of paper on my dining room table. It’s sat in that pile ever since, unread.

I think it could be something interesting or utter crap, but I’m not ready to either take it on or be disappointed by it yet — so it just sits there, in a neat pile, waiting for me.

Another project: drawing dogs.  I started drawing on an iPad Pro this summer and flailed around for a while looking for a direction to my efforts. It was a pretty interesting exploration and I have been meaning to write a long post about it sometime (pending resolution of the issues in paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 above) but suffice it to say it kick started my drawing practice and toppled a number of hardened prejudices. The latest stage in this exploration has been to try to make a drawing of a dog every single day, always a different dog in  a different style.  Today I posted number 56.

This process has been energizing but has also resurfaced the usual issues.

One — monkey struggles. Three days ago I convinced myself I had milked the idea dry and could not make a drawing I could abide.   After giving up completely and bathing in failure, I drew three new dogs I really liked.

Two — the quest for approval, a monkey variation. Posting my dogs on social media has led inevitably to being overly aware of likes, comments, and all the attendant distractions. People like the ones that look like photos best and the monkey tells me these are the most pedestrian and not creative at all. Sigh.

I do apologize if this first post in ages feels a little lachrymose. I need to shake off the cobwebs and think of stuff I actually want to write about. But writing here this morning has scraped some of the rust off my hull and I look forward to setting forth on a new adventure.

Hopefully no one is reading this because you are all too busy watching baby hippo videos.

Young Tim

The first time I saw Tim was on Skype. His breeder held him up to a webcam and told us was the runt of the litter. His parents were champions. His dad was an auburn matinee idol. His mom was the rarest variety of long-haired dachshund, an English cream.

We didn’t care if he was a dwarf and a runt. We wanted him.

The breeder had named him Sly because he was. We renamed him Tim, short for Timid, which seemed kinder. Tim’s fur was black with a cream undercoat. In time, as his fur grew out he had a lavishly ruffled chest. Combined with his sleek pate and his long ears, he could look like an 18th century gentleman. One of his many nicknames was Ben, short for Ben Franklin. We also called him Mr. Nostrils because of how prominent they were.For a while we called him Black Phillip, after a goat in a movie that had been possessed by the Devil. Mainly, I called him Young Tim, even when he was no longer young.

Tim was a devil. He would slowly creep around at night, betrayed by his clicking toenails on the parquet. I’d growl, “Young Tim! Get back to bed,” and he’d slowly creep back to his basket, his plans to gulp down gallons of water and pee in the corner foiled again.

Tim was the world’s biggest hog. Whenever I went into the kitchen, he’d follow and wait expectantly for scraps to fall to the floor and he’d dart in and gulp them down. When we went for a walk, he’d glue his snout to the pavement, trying to hoover up every lump of gum, chicken bone, pizza crust or McDonalds wrapper that crossed his path. It got so I’d have to be strategic about which sides of which streets to walk him on, mapping where the trash was likely to be sparsest. When he and his brother got a little stout (the worst thing for dachshunds’ backs), we put him on rations. He got the same half cup of the same food once a day. Though we only served dinner at 5 o’clock, he would still rattle his bowl hopefully each morning, clanging it around as if to say, come on, man, give a wiener a break.

Tim was obsessive. When someone rang our doorbell, he would rub himself against the wall, licking and whining. He’d pull books off the lower shelves, sometimes removing the dust jackets to shred them into confetti. When we lived in LA, he was preoccupied with a local squirrel and would sit in the yard for hours, gazing up at the neighbor’s fence, praying for the squirrel to pop his head over so Tim could, what, we never really knew.

We also called Tim the Mailman. On every walk, he’d always deliver, peeing on the same fence post as soon as he got out the door, then pooing on the corner by the crosswalk, like clockwork, three times a day. He would never deposit anywhere else on our walks (tough occasionally, out of revenge, he’d go in the dark party of the hallway outside the bathroom).

Tim was fierce. If some dog or stranger rubbed him the wrong way he would dart and lash out, teeth bared, a growl followed by a surprisingly deep bark, like a fat man’s asthmatic cough.

But Tim was also timid. If you leaned down to pet him, he’d assume you wanted to eat him instead and he’d flop over on his back and show his round belly.

Tim had the worst breath. Earlier this year, he had his teeth cleaned and a dozen rotten teeth were plucked from his narrow jaws. For a month or two he smelt better, then the stench of rotting fish returned. Daily brushings didn’t help.

Tim was a lover. When new people came over, he’d follow them around, licking ankles, until he got picked up and carried around. That was his favorite position, not low man on the floor, but held aloft, cradled like a hairy baby, licking moisturizer off hands and foundation off cheeks, bad breath be damned.

If a guest stayed overnight, Tim would follow them into the guest room and insist on being boosted up so he could snake down under the covers and slowly co-opt more and more real estate until the humans slid to the very edges of the bed. Despite his bedhoggery, everyone insisted he sleep with them. Tim emanated love.

Tim loved to sit on the couch to watch TV but was far too short to get up on his own. He’d stand on his hind legs and tap me with his paw, then rebuffed, keep staring and staring until I picked him up. Then, up on the couch, he’d begin to rearrange stuff, nudging the remote into the floor, moving pillows, nestling into my knees or the crook of Jenny’s elbow. He was annoying as hell.

This morning, Jenny and I went through my photo archives. There were hundreds of pictures of Tim. In the snow in rubber boots, taking bath in the kitchen sink then wrapped in a towel, spreadeagled on his back in a patch of sunshine, yawning, sneezing, looking guilty. Looking at pictures made us feel better.

Soon, I’ll be ready to watch the videos. I only managed to watch one, of Tim racing like a maniac down a beach last summer, free and fleet. But videos are too much, to real. I don’t know when I’ll be able to watch the many movies I made with him, peanut butter on the roof of his mouth so he could talk about drawing. Tim was always easy to bribe, glutton that he was.

On Tuesday night, we went to the dog run. While Joe met other dogs, Tim went snuffling through the gravel. At one point I looked up from my book to see him intently digging his nose into the ground, clearly after some tasty morsel, another dog’s turd, who knows, I yelled at him and chased him off and soon thereafter we went home.

On Tuesday night, Tim began to vomit and squirt diarrhea. All night long he was up, puking and squirting and gulping down water. It’d happened before. Both he and his brother picked up stomach bug at least once a year,. It usually went away a few hours. Occasionally, it called for antibiotics and a rice diet. When Patti died, both hounds had the runs for a couple of weeks, brought on by stress-less and grief.

On Wednesday morning, Tim came out for a walk —but the mailman didn’t deliver. He threw up again, as we crossed the street and nearly got clipped by a cab. He sat under my desk and I checked him every few minutes, finally putting him up on my lap. By lunch time, I couldn’t hold off any longer. It was time to call the vet. Tim was slumping to the ground and making little noises. The vet said to come in, there was an open slot in an hour. I couldn’t wait that long and rushed over to Abingdon Square.

The vet took him in right away. Tim was dehydrated, his blood sugar low, so she gave him fluids. Then the X-ray revealed a white textured rectangular area. His small intestine was filled with something that looked like gravel. Gravel from the dog run. Gravel that was’t moving any further but was compacted in his tiny gut. Dr. Greenburgh said grimly, “He’s a very sick little dog.”

We rushed to the pet hospital on 15th street and he was whisked into the ICU. The emergency vet told us there was a possibility that if he was sufficiently hydrated that the gravel would start to pass but, otherwise, Tim would need surgery.

A couple of hours passed. Jenny had rushed over from her office and we sat numbly in the waiting room, sleep deprived and stressed out. The doctor called us back in. Tim’s blood sugar levels, his white blood cell count, other vitals all indicated that the treatment wasn’t working. His abdomen had fluid in it, probably from sepsis. It seemed his intestine had a rupture and was leaking bacteria. He need surgery immediately followed by a long recuperation period.

We went to down to the ICU to visit him. Tim lay on a table, as nurses tried to take his blood pressure.The vet had given him methadone to lessen the pain.He didn’t seem to recognize us as we stroked him and murmured into his ears. We said goodbye to him and went home to wait by the phone to hear from the surgeon.

At 8 PM, he called. Tim was ready for surgery, but he had no blood pressure. His blood sugar was still terribly low. He wasn’t responding at all and was very, very weak. The surgeon was very worried that Tim would not take it through the operation. I asked him, “Are you suggesting we don’t do it?” “It’s your decision but I am not optimistic.” I hung up and Jenny and I talked, tearfully. We didn’t want Young Tim, who has led such a love-filled and blessed life, to become some science project,doped up, sliced open, only to die among strangers in a strange place.

I called the surgeon back and we got in a cab. Twenty minutes later, we were hugging Young Tim for the last time as the doctor gave him an anesthetic and then a lethal injection.

He felt no more pain, and went to see Patti at 9 PM, hearing us murmur in his ear, “Good dog, Tim, you are such a good dog, we love you Tim, what a good dog.”

 

Top 12 smells of my childhood

In the order I wrote them down:

Plasticine®.

School paste, thick as Crisco®.

Fruit Stripe gum.

Lavender hand soap in my grandmother’s bathroom at the back of our house in Pakistan.

Ketchup packets squeezing onto meat pies in the ANU cafeteria where my mum was a grad student.

The dust, when I opened the case of my grandmother’s gramophone.

My dog Pogo’s puppies’ milk breath.

Cold cement in the bomb shelter and constructions sites where we played.

The vinyl back seat of the station wagon.

Burning charcoal in the servants’ tandoors.

Zoo elephants.

Fish sticks.

Tired of being tired.

I mean, how hard is it? Close eyes, breathe rhythmically for eight hours, open eyes, get up. I’ve been doing it since the womb.

But no more, at least not for the last decade. I think it started when I turned forty, this business of waking up at 2 am to pee and wander around and eat some cereal and then go back to bed and stare at the ceiling and think about all things that could be wrong with my body and my bank account and then read some more from a book I only read in the middle of the night and then punch the stupid pillow and flip it over and flip the one under it over and then straighten the sheets and then kick them off again and then ask Jenny in a low voice if she’s awake to which she mutters back something inaudible and flips the other direction so I read some more, and then realize it’s eight o’clock and I am late and feel like someone shagcarpeted my mouth and poured maple sauce into my eye sockets, and my Kindle is wedged under my cheek and has debossed a rectangular frame into my face which will last there till midmorning and there’s not really time for a shower but living without one is inconceivable and the dogs are looking at me like I have committed crimes against caninity by making them wait this long for a walk and I know the day ahead is bound to feel like my head is wrapped in a blanket dunked in plaster, but so it goes. At least, thank God, Nighttime is over.

This lovely experience can be mine for the reliving twice a week. No guarantees, though. Sometimes I can sleep perfectly for six days at a time. At others, I hopscotch through a weeklong minefield of insomnia. My doctor said to try skipping caffeine after breakfast — which doesn’t make any discernible difference. My grandfather, the doctor, lived to be 98 by prescribing himself a valium and a shot of brandy before bed every night. I think my mum does something similar. I am very drug averse (see my essay on my time as a junky) so most nights, I just tough it out, and let the hours tick by in the darkness.

In my twenties, I could easily sleep till mid afternoon but that changed  when Jack was born. Even if he didn’t stir all night, I would still startle awake thinking he was choking or screaming or all too quiet. and then do the whole staring-at-the-ceiling-thinking-about-cancer-and-the-IRS thing. These days, Jack is asleep on the other side of the country, but my sleep pattern is permanently damaged. I fall asleep as soon as I hit the pillow, then bounce back at the slightest disturbance.

My neighborhood is an asshole magnet. Assholes visit the bars on West 3rd Street and on MacDougal and Bleecker and then they are drawn to the pavement under my building, to sing songs from the ’90s and fight over where they parked the car. Asshole couples make a point of breaking up on my corner. There must be a Yelp review that recommends it as the place to vomit and cry and scream and catalog slights and infidelities, slap and claw faces, pull hair, key cars, and then have make-up sex. Thumbs up!

Current events inspire the assholes too. Any kind of sporting event (football, rugby, ping pong, darts) needs to be celebrated loudly, late into the night, and, of course, on my corner. Last night, after the defeat of the AHCA, an asshole kept screaming, “Obama is still President!” over and over.  That’s what woke us up at 2:30. “Obama is still President!” Normally that would be a dream come true. Last night it was a fucking nightmare.

Fortunately, it’s Saturday and I am going to take an afternoon nap on the couch. I need to rest up because tonight I’m going out with friends to some other neighborhood and get really, really drunk, scream a lot in the street, throw up, pass out in the gutter and finally catch up on my sleep.


PS Please don’t leave me any helpful suggestions for how to sleep better. They just make me anxious and inflame my hypochondria. Thanks.

Top shelf.

My grandparents had a living room and a sitting room. We hardly ever used the former; it was a long, large cavernous place with my grandmother’s gramophone in one corner and a fireplace we never needed in Lahore’s equatorial heat. The living room was just for occasional cocktail and dinner parties but the sitting room was used every day.

At the end of the work day, my grandparents and their junior partner, Dr. Iqbal, would relax with a gin and tonic and some monkey nuts from the drinks cart and discuss the business of the day. I would have a bottle of 7Up, tall and green with white bubbles painted up its side, and look through the book shelves. They were recessed into an alcove on the right-hand side of the room, teak planks reaching to the ceiling.

When there were adults in the room, I would concentrate on the lower shelves, a row of coffee table books on art and Pakistani archeology, a set of Will and Ariel Durant’s encyclopedic Story of Civilization, various slip-cased editions of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and a Punch annual from 1954.

But when the adults were distracted or absent from the room, I would clamber onto the cabinets beneath the shelves so I could study the topmost shelves. There were the ‘grownup books’: fat, sexy novels by Harold Robbins and Henry Miller, chunky bestsellers by Robert Ruark,  William Golding, Nikos Kazantzakis, and James Jones. These top shelves were where I first discovered Gerald Durrell, Irving Stone, Richard Gordon, and Paul Gallico. I’d stand on the narrow ledge, my head grazing the ceiling, my eyes skimming back and forth across the spines.

yellow-books1More than forty years later, I still remember all the publisher imprints, ingrained in my skull from staring so hard at the jackets of all those illicit books. Penguins in orange, blue and green, Faber and Faber, yellow jacketed book from Gollancz, Corgi paperbacks, and the gorgeous bindings of the Folio Society.

My grandfather had a second library, in his brown office, so-called to distinguish it from the white consulting room where he examined patients and kept his gleaming steel tools behind the glass-doored of white enameled cabinets.

gran-mason
The Grandmaster
The brown office was a dark and cozy study that smelled of the tobacco he kept in a glass caddy and his row of burled oak pipes. It had two deep leather armchairs, heavily shaded lamps, wooden blinds and walls covered with framed photos from the Maharajahs and Maharanis that he’d treated, plaques and groups photos from his tenure as the Grandmaster of Pakistani Freemasons and the President of the Rotary.

These shelves were stocked with medical books in German, Italian and English, full of plates and diagrams of biopsied organs, tumors, amputations, and the unfortunates who presented with them. There was a series of books with acetate inserts that let me flip through slices of the human body, exposing the skin, the organs, the viscera, the skeleton, with each turn of the page. And there was Gran’s prized possession: a first edition of the collected works of Freud, in German, eleven volumes in stern blue.

As my grandfather worked at his desk, I’d sit cross-legged on the floor and slowly turn the pages of his medical school scrapbook, a heavy, black book with thick grey pages containing deckle-edged photos of his patients and their infirmities. An old woman with a goiter the size of a watermelon. A man with a moustache and no nose. Twins with matching tumors. A young girl with knocked-knees and no clothes. I still own that scrapbook and it still has the power to stir me with its voyeuristic perversity.

I haven’t been in my grandparents’ house since 1970. But I can still remember the sequence of the books, the smell of the bindings, the illicit thrill of reading books I was far too young to understand. The pages of books still provide most of the important experiences and enduring memories of my life.

Kick me. Harder.

Dianne wrote to me the other day. She’d never written to me before but I’d made her do it. She said:

Where Are YOU? I’m putting my foot down now. Summer break, ok. The end of the world as we know it, hey, please shine a light. just a wee one. A scribble in a pen that intimidated you, view out the window, your dog’s butt. No pressure, but moments of creativity just feel very important at the moment. My own, and those who are part of my psychic wellbeing. Sorry man, but you blog, you take on responsibility.

I stammered that I’d been really busy, that I was working on a bunch of new things, traveling to film stuff for Sketchbook Skool, and that I’d been doing Facebook live events every day, blah, blah. But I didn’t really tell her the truth.

And the truth is I’ve become hesitant.

This has been going on for a while with me, this impulse to pull back. Instead of sharing things, I amass them, filling up my hard drive with ideas, drafts, sketches, but not going the final step to finish and launch them.

I started this hesitancy last summer when I rented a studio, made a bunch of paintings and was then coy about it all, hesitating to write about what I was doing or share more than a glimpse of the work.

The monkey had a hand in this reticence. He said that none of the things I was doing was especially impressive and that maybe if I kept stockpiling them, their lack of quality could ultimately be masked by their quantity. Of course, that wasn’t true. I never made an especially significant number of bad paintings and ultimately had to just release the results candy coated in some baroque musings about the creative process, as if my handful of Sunday paintings was some earth-shattering exploration to deep wisdom.

Then I started working on a project that had pretenses to be a definitive exploration of the creative process. I did a fair amount of research and took a lot of notes which boiled down to a grubby handful of one-liner bon mots. Each was to be the basis of a short piece, maybe a chapter in a book, then more modestly an epic series of blog posts. then, after reading so much about the demise of blogs, I decided they should be little videos instead and I churned out a handful of scripts, shot them —and promptly sat on the bunch.

Then I decided that the quality of the ideas wasn’t so inadequately that I should make the videos less off the cuff to mask their inadequacy. So I tried making them more elaborate — but still they lurked in a folder. I almost shared them with my wife a few times, but then demurred again.

Then I started doing daily calligraphy videos on Facebook. These were initially fun to do, but then I worried they were no more than evanescent
trifles and stopped after a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, my absence on the scene began to intensify my hesitation. I felt like I had to do something really cool or far-ranging, some awesomeness to make up for my indolence. That just made it heavier and heavier.

And, while I and my ego and character flaws bear the lion’s share of responsibility for all this balking, 2017 has not made it any easier. For the first time, I have really felt I had to watch what I say online. I have seen so much rage on the internet over the past few months, so much intolerance on all sides, so much fearful obstinacy, that my own tongue has been increasingly tied.

In the past, I’ve always liked to casually toss out the occasional extreme, not very well-thought-out idea, but the consequences for doing so have never felt higher. Sure, a reader or two has deleted me from their feed over the past decade and a half because I took a weird stance on something or other, but these days, it seems like whatever I do could end up on my permanent record. That’s not just self-aggrandizement; I think we are all a little paranoid right now. These are strange times indeed.

But the real fault lies with me. With my surrender to my inner critic and his incessant alarm ringing. With my harsh self judgement. With my short attention span.

So if you wished I’d write more, I think I shall. But I hesitate to promise anything. I’ve rarely live up to those pledges in the past.
I think I need to regain my confidence in what I am, what I have to offer, and in what is important to me and to you.

This post is the first step.

So thanks, Dianne, for the boot in the ass. I hope to pay you back in kind.

New me.

Ages ago, someone told me that we replace all of the cells in our bodies every seven years. Every single one.  That idea has haunted me since.  It seems to mean that I am literally no longer the same person I was seven years ago. Even though I have memories of things that go way further back, they are not the memories of the me of today.

That’s not a completely alien idea; it’s like copying files from an old computer to a new one or making a new printing of an old story. The information is the same but the vessel is new.  But somehow when it comes to the cells that make me up, this has always felt different. Because I think of me as this me, this couple of hundred pounds of meat and skin, these scars, this reflection in the mirror. I don’t usually think of myself as a concept, a construction, or as data that can be re-recorded on a new cassette.

I woke up with idea in my head again and as I write this, I’m starting to realize why. The first and most obvious reason is that I am in the middle of organizing all the data files for Sketchbook Skool, 16 terabytes of data stored on a big stack of hard drives. Part of my archiving process is to make clones of each drive so we have backups in case anything goes wrong with the originals. I put an empty drive into a slot in the dock, put the original in the other slot, push a button, lights flash, and soon every byte has been duplicated and I have two identical drives. All those hours of footage, all those conversations, and drawing demos are now in two places.

And somehow, as I do this, my  body is doing the same thing.  As I watch the blinking on the front of the dock, my old cells, the old me is slowly being copied and then deleted. Old cells are being cast off, exfoliated, dropping onto my pillow, blowing around my apartment with mites of dust, sluicing down the shower drain, peeing into the bowl, crapping out with my digested burrito.

Me shitting me out.

The other reason this popped into my conscious predawn today is that in less than two months, I will slough off the last cell that ever saw Patti first-hand. The last cells that ever talked to her, held her, kissed her goodbye.  Soon every part of me will be a fresh clone with no personal experience of her.

In December, Jack and I took Patti’s ashes out of the cookie jar that has contained them since March 18, 2010, and put them in their final resting place. We went to one of her favorite places, just after sunset, and we put her ashes in a place we can always come back to, a private place in a public spot, one she went to every day, where we know she would be happy to be, no matter where we are.

Her ashes are not Patti. They are just dead cells that were burned and preserved, not in amber but in a heavy-duty plastic bag, which we kept in that cookie jar, on a shelf where I could see it every day and gaze at when memories of her became intense. They stood for her but now they no longer need to do that. For she is in us.

new-cells-3

The process of burying Pattia was not sad.  It was actually slightly comic as Jack and I bumbled our way through it, making a couple of clumsy errors that were pure Patti, pure Hoofy. I don’t think either of us felt sad as we did it. Rather, we felt that she was with us still, that the pain of losing her was a faded memory, and that this was the final thing the three of  us would ever do together and that it should be light and silly just as our best times as a family always were.

Patti’s cells are now forever in that one place. Jack’s are now in Los Angeles, three thousand miles away. And mine are here, being replaced with new cells, new cells that look older, more wrinkled and grey.

Many of the hair cells were not replaced. Some of the brain cells did not replicate with all the memories in place. Other cells have less resiliency and vim than their predecessors. And  yet they are all still me, they all still bear the weathering of the years, the experiences, joys and traumas that made me and still do.new-cells-2

My memories of Patti have changed with these cells. Some are lost forever. And those that used to take precedence because they were at the front of the line, have stepped back into the mists. I am no longer haunted by thoughts of Patti at the window, of the policemen, of the visit to the coroner’s office. I no longer think of Patti as a woman of fifty, increasingly limited by her disabilities, who didn’t want to grow old in a wheelchair.

Now when I think of her, I rummage through my huge archive of snapshots. I see her in a Polaroid, pregnant with Jack. I see her in a soft focussed, black and white picture dressed up to go to a party, I see her laughing in a bar with friends I haven’t heard from in years, I see her smiling through her freshly cut bob, I see her holding our first dog Frank like a big baby, his long legs sticking up in the air, both of them grinning. I see her looking at me like she did on our first date, saying ‘Mommy’, the gap between her front teeth.

As I think of these memories, I feel old tears well up in my new eye cells. These new cells are never overwhelmed by the tsunami of grief that used to seize me but it’s good to know that those old memories can still effect them, even though I am happy, happy with my new cells, my new kitchen, my new job, my new love, my new wife, my new wife. My new cells make up a new me with all the best bits of the old.