Brain — on.

My brain has been whirring this weekend. I now have loads of things I want to make — but only one life to make ’em in.

• I am thinking of new daily projects I want to pursue. My 30-dogs-in-30-days iPad drawing project eventually reached 110 dogs, which was great fun for a while, but it’s feeling forced now and for the first time have missed several days. I am thinking of doing a series of drawings and long-text Instagram posts about my family’s history and my childhood. I spent some time yesterday looking at old photos and had a bunch of ideas. I have thought about writing on this topic before but always flamed out under the weight of it all, worrying more about how to wrangle several generations of dysfunctional people into an ongoing narrative but the idea of doing something bite-sized and episodic seems more doable and fun.

• I want to start up a podcast again. It’s been over a year since I did an episode of Shut Your Monkey and the podbug is nibbling at me again. I am thinking I’d like to do a chatty podcast about art making, probably under the Sketchbook Skool umbrella, kinda of like an audio version of the Zine we’ve been doing. A great new issue of the Zine comes out next week, by the way. I wrote a lot of it. (If you haven’t subscribed yet, get on it.)

• I just signed up for a mysterious creative camp for this summer and I am excited and super curious about that.

• There are only a couple of weeks till Illustration Nation begins at SBS and I have been thinking alot about what project I want to spend a month on. I like the idea of making prints or a book or magazine but am not sure what to do with the things I make. Maybe I’ll give them to you.

• I am very excited about a conference we are planning and keep thinking of more and more ideas about what to do there. Ideas that will get people together, ideas about all the people I want to have speak, ideas about how to promote it, ideas about little videos to show and ideas about what I will wear.

• I have been working on a short-film series on and off for the past year and I think I am now ready to release it. I’ll do so episode by episode. They’re gonna be short and autobiographical. I’m not sure why it’s taking me so long to get them done.

• I would like to do some new episodes of Sketchbook Club and now have an entire shelf of books set aside. I’m thinking of finally tackling Maira Kalman, Lynda Barry, Lapin, Eric Sloane and a few others. I’ll try to get one done in the week to come.

• I have three new shoots with artists scheduled for the next month and I’ll be travelling to Atlanta, then Charlotte and finally Nashville starting in ten days. I have been preproducing these for the last couple of months and I can’t wait to get out there, work with some new artists and film crews, and make some cool stuff.

• Koosje and I have been working on a new kourse that we are calling “Zillion” for short. We have begun filming and it has been so fun to work on a new kourse and to collaborate creatively with my partner.

• I was invited to do two keynotes in Washington DC — and they are major. The audience is super-important and not the usual sort of folks I talk to so I am eager to do something interesting. I am contractually not allowed to say who it is, alas, but let’s just say they are in Washington and work in a large building with flags on it.

Weekends are meant for relaxation so I tried turning my brain off last night by watching a movie. But The Square was the most amazing, brilliant, hilarious, thought-provoking film I maybe have ever seen and so it filled my dreams with monkeys, piles of gravel, and angry children. What an incredible work of art!

Today, I will make some stew and probably not watch the Super Bowl. Maybe the Puppy Bowl instead.

The Color of Money

When you grow up in New York City, weeks can go by with your ever getting into an automobile. Generally, the only cars you travel in are subway cars. That’s how I managed to reach the ripe old age of twenty five without ever getting a driver’s license.

I’ve always loved cars though. I can identify most makes, models, and years from a distance. Particularly those made when cars were still cars and not just interchangeable silver blobs. I read somewhere that people love the cars most that were manufactured the year they first became aware of cars, usually around five or six.  That’s why my very first car was a 1965 Ford Fairlane. I bought it for $800 in a used car lot under Route 1 overpass in Jersey City, when I was 25 and still a month or two away from taking my driving test. I’d moved out of Manhattan to live in Jersey City with a friend and for the first time actually needed a car to go buy a carton of milk.

Despite its age, the Fairlane had about 40,000 miles and its original paint which was a buttery bronze color. Patti (who managed to go to her grave without ever getting a driver’s license) dubbed the Fairlane “The Color Of Money” after the Scorsese movie which also came out that year. It was big and boxy with a fat stripe down its side. It had a manual transmission, “three on the tree”, and suited my old-mannish driving style. The thing was perfection.

Patti and I would take it around town but were always a little nervous about taking it on a road trip. It ran fine and I was obsessed about looking after it. I bought maintenance manual and endless tools. I’d change the spark plugs and oil myself and way more than necessary. I would hand wash, then wax it, buffing the bronze till it glowed like a Marine’s buttons. Perfection.

I let my roommate Simon drive it occasionally. One bleak day he came back from running errands and casually mentioned that he’d accidentally dinged the driver-side door in the supermarket parking lot. I rushed down to survey the damage. The door looked like a moose had run into it. It was crumpled like one of Simon’s empty cigarette packs. As I pulled open the door, it emitted a pitiful screech and a groan.

I was bereft. Sure, we could probably have gone to a body shop and had the door undinged. But The Color of Money was now  imperfect, soiled, sullied. Instead of a classic, it was just an old beater. A few weeks later, I moved out of the Jersey City house  and into an apartment with Patti. I gave the car to Simon and never saw him or it again.

I thought about The Color of Money today because I was listening to Episode Six of The Unmade Podcast, one of my current favoritest indulgences.  This podcast is about podcasts which is rather meta but deeply entertaining. Actually it’s about podcasts that have never been made (hence the name) but could conceivably be one day if anyone could be bothered.

In each episode, two Australian chums swap ideas for potential podcasts, then delve into what they might be like, and whether they’d be any good. Then they move on to the next idea.  Some of the ideas are great and unspool into hilarious explorations, while other are dead ends which are equally amusing to demolish like the door of a 1965 Ford Fairlane.

I love this podcast because it is all about creativity. These two blokes come up with ideas on the fly, then bat them back and forth, twisting and shaping them then tossing them aside. There’s no obligation to prove the ideas, just the raw pleasure of invention and problem solving.

It really gets my wheels turning as it did this week when they discussed another unmade podcast idea called “My First Car.” In this nonexistent podcast, guests would come on to describe their first vehicle and tell stories about what it meant to them, what adventures they had,what memories it provoked — and that would be it. Simple, dumb, and wonderful.

I’ll never be a guest on My First Car — because it doesn’t exist. But I wanted to share my memory of the Fairlane somewhere.  What stories would you tell if you were a guest on the show?

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.

How to make habit-making a habit.

We’re not talking nail-biting, hair-twisting, or bonbon-wolfing. We’re talking creative habits that make your life a better place to be.

In fact, we’re literally talking — me and my pal Ronnie Lawlor chewing over the subject, part of a series we recorded to get you (and me ) on track for 2017 and the launch of her new kourse, A Drawing A Day (click here to sign up).

What habit would you like to acquire in 2017?

98 years of change.  

Let me tell you a story. It’s about what change sounds like when it’s kicking down your door. And what you do about it when it does.

Herman was four years old when his country plunged into  the war to end all wars. World War I continued to rage on till he was nine, a boy too small to fight or even understand the causes and implications of the destruction all around him. But he soon felt the fallout.

After losing the military war, Germany was savaged by an economic one. Inflation rocketed to historic levels. It was a terrible time for even a canny entrepreneur, and Hermann’s father was born to lose, even in the best of times. He invested the family’s nest egg, the equivalent of $10,000, in a warehouse full of burlap sacks, then turned around and resold it at what would have been a handsome profit. His buyer was to pay him by day’s end, but stalled. By the time he showed up  two days later with the cash, a literal wheelbarrowful, the millions of marks would scarcely buy a loaf of day-old bread. The family was ruined.

Hermann and his siblings were sent door to door through the ghetto, hawking whatever wares their father scrounged together. When his older brother, Josef, rang an unfamiliar doorbell and discovered it was a classmate’s home, he dropped his bag of mantle clocks and ran in humiliation. No amount of beating would get him back out to sell again.

But Hermann persevered, hustling, supporting his family however he could. Knowing no one else would ever come along to bail them out.

In high school, Hermann had shown himself to be exceptional; he was clearly smarter and harder working than any of his classmates. His dream was to go to medical school, then to study with Sigmund Freud and become a psychiatrist. It was a preposterous ambition for an underfed boy from the shtetl but he stubbornly pursued it nonetheless.

By the time he completed his studies, the Nazis had decreed that a Jew could not practice medicine and he could not be receiving a doctorate. In fact, they announced, Jews should leave Germany all together. Or else.

While the getting was still good, Hermann went to a relocation office to register for exile. In a long line, he meant a lovely young woman from Koln. Kate said that she too planned to be a doctor. He told her he’d heard that Jews were still permitted to study medicine in Rome and that if she was interested, he would remain in  line and send her the necessary information and paperwork. She gave him her address, thanked him and left

Not long after, a pair of SS officers stopped Hermann on a train, demanded his papers, and said that he was under arrest. After some deliberation, they told him that red tape meant they could not arrest him on the train, but that he should continue on to his home and turn himself into the local authorities to be arrested there. Hermann got off at the next stop and secreted himself away on the next train to Italy.

In Rome, dead broke, he began studying medicine again. From the beginning. In Italian. He survived on a single herring a day and water from the Trevi fountain. One day, he met Kate again. She had made it to Rome and was still lovely. In 1936, they exchanged cheap gold wedding rings in City Hall, then exchanged them again with the authorities for steel rings enscribed “Oro Alla Patria.” The fascist government mandated that all gold items be turned in to fund the war effort.

Soon after they finished their studies (again) the Italians decided that they didn’t welcome Jews anymore and that they had to all leave the patria, pronto. Hermann and Kate looked for somewhere, anywhere, to flee. Their families had all left Germany for Palestine but Hermann was pretty sure he had a cousin who owed him money and had emigrated to India. So he booked passage on an eastbound ship, assuring Kate that he would find a haven and send for her.

He never did track down his cousin or the money he was owed, but India seemed like a safe place for a pair of young doctors and so he sent for his wife. They set up a practice in Lahore, ministering to British expats, and gave their babies English names. Hazel was born in 1939 and the next year, Michael. A thousand miles from the chaos of the war in Europe, the little family breathed a sigh of relief.

One morning, Hermann opened the door to several armed British soldiers holding manacles. Four pairs, including two for the babies. The family was arrested for being from a hostile county, enemies of the Crown, Germans, and were transported north to a prison camp. There, Hermann and Kate were assigned to be the camp doctors and ordered to treat their fellow prisoners: German spies and Nazi sympathizers. They began frantically writing letters to anyone who might give them asylum, to Palestine, to the USA, anywhere, but to no avail. Even when the war officially ended, they and their children remained behind barbed wire for a total of seven years.

When they were finally released, stateless, with no passports, they returned to Lahore. More upheaval. A civil war between the Hindus and Muslims cracked India in two. Thousands died, millions were dislocated as Lahore became a part of a new Islamic country, Pakistan.

Hermann and Kate and their family stayed on in Lahore. They worked hard, constantly updating their lab and their surgery with the most up to date equipment shipped from the West. They became pillars of the community, treating ministers and film stars. Herman was elected president of the Rotary, then Grandmaster of all Pakistani freemasons. He wore custom suits and owned 40 pairs of hand-made shoes. Kate bought her frocks in London and wore an armful of gold bangles. They had a large medical staff, a butler, cooks, two gardeners. Their chauffeur drove them in a Mercedes-Benz and they sent their children to British boarding school.

In the 1960s, the German government reinstated their citizenship, made an official declaration of apology to them and held a ceremony in their honor in Oberhausen, the hometown Hermann had fled after his encounter with those SS officers so many years before.

Then war broke out on their doorstep again. Their home was just a dozen miles from the Indian border and, as Pakistan and India locked horns and East Pakistan became Bangladesh, Hermann and Kate felt compelled to pack up their belongings once more and depart for Israel. They bought a home in Jerusalem, among their people at last. A year later, on Yom Kippur, they heard air raids sirens and ran down to their shelter. War again.

But this time, they wouldn’t be going anywhere. Kate succumbed to dementia in her 80s and Hermann died in his favorite armchair at 98. They are still in Jerusalem, buried side by side on Mount Olive, waiting for the Messiah’s trumpet to sound.

My grandparents’ lives were rife with change, none of it their doing. But every time the deck was reshuffled, they survived and thrived. I never heard them curse their luck or complain about their lot. They weathered all types of persecution, unforeseeable calamities, and yet, they never gave up, always looking for new solutions, new ways to make the most of their changed circumstances.

But it wasn’t easy. I’m sure they must have worried terribly; of course, they did. Hermann became increasingly reactionary as he got older, suspicious of Palestinians, Soviets, liberals, intolerant of anybody who was different. He saw antisemitism all around, and who could blame him after all he’d endured?

Kate’s children ended up living on the other side of the planet, marrying gentiles, pulling away, leaving her feeling isolated. She never practiced medicine after they emigrated to Israel, but became a housewife, she who had been served by a dozen servants. Despite all her years abroad, she enjoyed pottering around in her own kitchen, nostalgic for the days when she was still a fräulein in her happy, tidy, middle-class German home.

When I lie awake at night and worry about all the things that could go wrong – medical, financial, presidential, what have you — I remember all that Hermann and Kate survived, how, even when things were scariest, they pulled through.

They lived through a century of rupturing change — lived and flourished. When I suffer some piddling setback, I think of Hermann sitting down to study medicine all over again, in a language he didn’t speak, a meager herring in his belly, fascists all around. When I worry about madmen planting bombs in dumpsters a few blocks from my home, I think of how my grandparents felt every time tanks rolled past their gates or jets flew overhead. When I get annoyed at the bank or the DMV, I think of how he felt when the SS stopped to paw through his papers. When I feel anxious about my son moving three thousand miles away to start a life in California, I think of how they felt when their families disappeared into the fog of World War II, behind the gates of Auschwitz.

Don’t get me wrong. The fact that many of their trials were greater than mine doesn’t wipe away my worries. And It doesn’t trivialize them either. But it does serve to remind me that I come from hardy, resilient stock. I am descended from survivors. And when you think about it, we all are. Whether we know it or not, the world has gone through far worse than we face today, our new fears notwithstanding. We are free from famine, plague, genocide, and, though the world remains a troubled place, it’s still a beautiful one too. We can decide how we will see things, how we will cope with change, how we will survive. We are free to choose to live each day as if we were going to make it through what ever comes up, firm in the belief that we are going to survive to die in our favorite armchairs, many years from now.

New Podcast: Intoxicated

Ever since Baudelaire and his pals started wolfing down hashish, absinthe and laudanum, we’ve been stuck with this lie that creativity is best fueled by getting wasted.

Have you heard of the 27 Club? Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse … they are just a few members of this mythical group of creative people who died at 27, thanks to drugs, booze or suicide. Romantic, but stupid.

In fact this is just another monkey con to distract us from what we are supposed to be doing, creating intoxicating ideas, rather than firing up the bong or draining the keg.

The Monkey of the Week is the Enabler. It’s that voice that says: Have a drink, you deserve it. Get high, it’ll make you more creative. Act like a prima donna, you’re a star. I’ll give you some thoughts about why that’s uncool and how to cut it off pronto.

This week, I am joined by Victor Yocco, author and psychologist, who shares how he wasted a fair amount of his life by pounding drinks instead of the keyboard. When he finally sought help and turned his life around, Victor was able to write the book he and the monkey had been putting off for years.

Click here to find out more about Victor’s new book,  Design for the Mind – Seven Psychological Principles of Persuasive Design.  Use the discount code: yoccomupad to get 39% off the book if you order through the publisher.

Listen to the new episode here:

Or better yet, subscribe to the whole series on iTunes (and leave a nice review).

Or you can visit monkeypodcast.com and listen to the episodes right in your browser.

What’s your experience with your monkey? How has it affected you, and how have you overcome it? Record your Monkey Tale at dannygregory.com/monkey.

A summer whine.

As I start writing this, I already feel ridiculous. Hypocritical. Spineless. Overprivileged. Maybe if I just write whatever’s on my mind, I’ll get some clarity and balls. Let’s see.

This afternoon, Jack and I are going to pick up the keys to our brand-new studio. It’s a big, lovely empty space made for doing nothing in but making art without interruption.Jack can’t wait. The weeks since he moved out of his studio in Providence have been torturous as his mind brims with unpainted paintings. He’s itching to get to work and put them all on canvas.

Jack has a clear sense of himself as a painter. He’s not thinking about the whys of making art, not concerned with who will see the work and what they’ll do in response. He knows that he’s meant to make art and so he’s been like a clamped firehose, thrashing around the pavement, struggling for release.

I am stomped down, bottled up, and tightly capped. I haven’t made anything larger than a sketchbook page since we left Los Angeles, almost two years ago. Even that period in the garage was an anomaly. The idea of making art that could hang on the wall is still scary and ‘wasteful’. I have used our lack of wall space as an excuse for decades. I have long-claimed that art with a small ‘a’ means focussing only on the process and filled books to gather dust on shelves. I tell people not to think about what they will have made but only on what they are making now. When you are done, store it, frame it, burn it, I don’t care.

This is not just a black and white matter. On the one hand, I believe that when I take the pressure off myself to produce something finished and public, I am freer and more likely to take risks and make progress. So working in obscurity has helped me develop. And on the other, I don’t liven a hermitage. I do share images of my images in books and on-line. You’ve seen ’em. So have thousands of others.

But there are shortcomings to this approach. For one, I am always off-hand about the images I make. They are mere illustrations for my blog posts or book pages. It’s a way of avoiding real responsibility, this business of making pictures that are just marginalia, just a record of a nice breakfast, a quick sketch here or there.

I know this is gift-horse dentistry, a problem we’d all like to have.

I could say the same about my writing. Even when published in a book, my words still lack a certain seriousness, a full embrace of their role. It’s as if I only write captions, quips, epigraphs, body copy to be tossed out with tomorrow’s trash. A brief amusement in a social media post here, an email there.

Am I writing or drawing for the ages? Can I? Do I dare?

Maybe my years in advertising convinced me that what I make is always subservient to someone else’s agenda, another’s strategies and goals. And making advertising is inherently impermanent. A commercial last for thirty seconds, a print ad runs for a couple of months. It’s a diversion, never the main event. I know that some of my books have been in print for years, and that they have had more than a passing effect. Nonetheless this, sense of triviality is deep-dyed in me. I’d like to make something that matters. But trying to also scares the shit out of me.

Jack is a wonder to watch because he doesn’t feel a burden to achieve greatness each time he picks up a brush. He throws things around, then paints over them. He doesn’t stop to explain or justify. He just does. He’s the same kid who made elaborate Lego towers, then knocked them down to build something new.

Before Jack was born, my mother and my sister chipped in to rent a painting studio for me for a moth. I entered it with a sketchbook, a marker, and a lump on my throat. I hadn’t really drawn for ages and this room seemed designed to strip me of excuses. The first week there I wrote a long polemic about art and posted it on the wall. The next week, I made a few half-hearted collages. I spent the final two weeks trying to make a painting from an old photo of my grandfather. When the month was up, I left behind the handful of things I’d made and ran like hell.

I know it won’t be like that when we start this new adventure. First off, Jack won’t let me get away with it. But also, I have the feeling I can get there, that there might actually be stuff in me that is worth saying, worth saying large, and worth saying well. On that last point, I know that I need to work harder on what I make. Instead of dashing off a sketch or a watercolor, I want to push myself deeper into a painting, to explore, to respond, to refine. To evolve from playing the field to deepening my relationship with a work of art.

I know this is gift-horse dentistry, a problem we’d all like to have. And I am ashamed to start a summer in a painting studio with a whining screed about my inadequacies and fear. But I hope this self-assessment helps me to move past the anxiety of starting something new.

Thanks for holding my hand while I steel myself for the first leap.