I mean, it’s kinda new.

New Year, New Me. Right?

Not really, though.

Nothing much changed for me in 2019. I’m still married to the same perfect woman, who still enchants me with every breath and every glance; I’m still pet-parent to the same two dogs, the same tortoise, and the same (occasionally obnoxious) cockatiel; I’m still teaching at the same school — which means I have many of the same students — and still writing, still working on the same time-traveling Irish pirate story, still not writing enough and still mad at myself about it.

I’m still upset about the state of the world, still ambivalent about what I should be doing about it beyond what I already do.

And of course, I still hate Trump.

There are some changes. My wife has made big changes, which of course affect me, mainly by making me proud: I am enormously, heart-shakingly proud of her strength, I am proud of her incredible talent and imagination, I am proud of the world that it has continued to become more aware of how amazing my wife is — and it is finally starting to reward her for her never-ceasing efforts.

We moved into a new house, which is smaller and cheaper than the last; it’s been nice to ease the financial burden, and it’s showed us how much room we actually need (More than this place, less than the last), and that, after seven residences in the last six years, we would really like to set down roots and own a home again. Though I am wary of the potential coming economic crash: last time, we bought a house just before the economy burst into flames; I’d like to be a little more careful and intentional this time. So maybe that’s new.

I did manage to sell my books, though still not to a publisher nor an agent; I sold them directly, at the Tucson Festival of Books. Not the vision of authorial success I once had, but nonetheless: standing behind a table and talking to people about my book, and watching them agree to buy it and hand over money, was an extraordinary feeling, one I hope to repeat this year. And I did start sending out queries again, because my wife has shown me, as she always does, that artists don’t give up. Ever.

I was a better friend this past year than I have been in a long time; I grew closer to the people whose company I enjoy and whose support I rely on, and I’m happy about that.

And, of course, I’m one year closer to dying, whenever that may happen; but I still don’t care. Death comes for all of us, and I see no reason to spend any time watching it come. I hope, and I try to behave so that I will welcome it when it comes and pass away with no regrets; but if that doesn’t happen, if it comes too quickly or I have done the wrong things, still I would rather have lived than not have lived at all; still I am happy and grateful for the time I have had, the memories I have created (and even the ones I have forgotten), the people I have known, and the deeds I have done.

 

I don’t have wisdom to share: if anything, this year has taught me more than most years about how naive and ignorant I still am. I am writing this on a whim, and trying to decide if I should continue whimming on this blog for this coming year. I dunno. It’s good for me to write, but I have to write the third book in my pirate trilogy, and I want to get it done ASAP, because I have several more ideas I want to pursue — but first, I have to finish a story, something I still struggle with. I have no idea if this blog is good for people to read. I  hope so. I hope this is a good thing. I intend to continue doing the same good things into this next year, hopefully make some good changes, hopefully continue to learn and grow.

One thing is for damn sure: I’m going to put in time and effort to make sure that Donald Trump is voted out of office in November. So I warn you now, this blog will likely become much more political over the coming eleven months. It will probably get agitating to those who read this regularly, but I don’t care (No, I do care: and I’m sorry. But also, I’m going to do it anyway.). We all need to be agitated, because the alternative is complacent: and that’s how we got into this mess in the first place.

 

I wish you all, and myself, a wonderful new year, full of hopes and fulfillments. Let’s make this one a good one.

This Morning

This morning, I am done with grades. This morning is the last of my school year.

This morning I received notification that California has approved my application for a teaching license. This doesn’t change my immediate plans, I will still be staying in Tucson for the next academic year; but it gives us more options for the year after that. It also shows, I think, that my sordid past is now behind me, because if even the champion nanny state approved me, I don’t think anyone will say nay because I was mean on a blog almost ten years ago.

More importantly, this morning is the last of my wife’s career as a teacher. She returns now to doing what she always should have been doing: making art full time. She has been a wonderful teacher, who has helped many students to improve their skills, gain confidence and interest in art, and especially to see the world in a different way; she will be sorely missed at school. But this is the best thing for her, and this is what is right: because look. Just look.

 

 

 

So congratulations, Toni. You have more than earned this. I am so proud of you for what you have done as a teacher, and I’m even more proud that you are walking away from it to dedicate yourself to art. You amaze me every day.

Especially this morning.

This Morning

This morning I’m thinking about crime and punishment. Sin and redemption, maybe.

Our school got vandalized this past weekend. The new mural, which my wife’s art students have been working on for months, was severely damaged: they spraypainted racist and sexist words, large phalluses, and extremely stupid pro-drug comments all over it. We don’t know who did it, but whoever it was clearly targeted the mural specifically, as nothing else was damaged (A couple of small tags in the parking lot are the only other marks left behind).

I have no idea why someone would do that. You’re pissed off? Sure, that’s fine; do something about it, confront people, post on the internet that you’re mad, write a letter, hell, stand outside with a sign and say “YOU SUCK!” There are a thousand ways to express your anger, most of them very satisfying. What the hell do you get from something like this? Is it funny to be cruel to innocent people? My presumption is that the anger of those who did it was directed either at the school or at humanity and the world in general; so why go after the artwork being created by people you don’t hate? And if you do hate them, why go after that?

If we do catch who did it — and it was reported to the police as a hate crime, as indeed it was — then their punishment probably won’t be enough, because it probably won’t fix the problem: someone who thinks this is the way to go about expressing your anger is only going to continue targeting the wrong victims in the wrong ways. I don’t know how you fix that.

I know how you fix the mural, though. I know because the students and staff at the school did that yesterday, as soon as the vandalism was discovered. The people who had been leading the mural project were seniors, so they weren’t at the school as they graduated this weekend; two of them did come by, intending to work on the mural, which was unfinished; when they saw what had been done to it, it crushed them. It was the rest of the school, out of affection for those young artists — and for my wife, who was helping out with the mural mainly in an advisory role, though she did also put several difficult hours of work into it — who took it upon themselves to try to clean off the spraypaint, and then to re-paint the original design so as to cover up what could not be removed.

It’s not fixed. It’s not finished; there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. The alumni who were leading it are not sure yet if they want to try to finish the piece, because clearly, it is vulnerable and it is a target, and there’s very little stopping the vandals from coming back and doing it all again. If our artists decided to take the risk, and put whatever spirit they have left into finishing this mural, only to have it defaced a second time? It would be devastating.

That would be a hate crime. That would be vandalism, in the sense of meaningless destruction. And there wouldn’t be enough punishment for people who would do that.

This Morning

This morning, I think I have an answer to my question from yesterday morning.

Yesterday, I was wondering what I could say to my wife, to my students, to myself, that would help comfort us in the face of inevitable suffering, and I wished that I could rely on God as that answer, because then I could at least stop thinking about it — and I should have said worrying about it and fretting about it, because that’s the point; it’s not the idea of not thinking, it’s the idea of “let go and let God.” Which I can’t do, but I appreciate that people can.

But I have another cliche that I have gleaned from outside of the fields of the Lord (And that enormously obscure reference is brought to you by the podcast I’ve been listening to, Sunday School Dropouts. Probably also why God has shown up in this atheist’s morning ramblings.), that as I understand it, many churches focus on as the heart of their message (and others may sprinkle in, in between railing against homosexuals and abortion and Democrats in Washington), which is this: God is love.

Once again, that doesn’t work for me. But it comes with another way of looking at it, that I think does fit in nicely with what I’ve been looking for:

Love is God.

That is to say, love is everything. Everything that matters. It is the alpha and the omega, it is the answer to all questions, all doubts and fears. Love. And love, I think, can offer an answer precisely as satisfying  — and not any more satisfying — as can the answer “God.”

What should I tell my students when the future looms ominously over them? Love. Look for love in your life, look for love in what you do; if you don’t find any love in your life, then change it, and if you don’t find any love in what you do, then stop doing it. Don’t work for money, work for love: and I don’t mean to be flippant there, because I am a person who works for money precisely because he cannot live on what he loves; but for me, the money I earn is spent on those I love, and used to give me an opportunity to do what I love, which I am doing right now. So I never mind my job very much, because it is done for love, if not always in love. And yes, sometimes I love my job: I do love books and poetry, and I love writing, and I guess I don’t entirely loathe my students. (No, I love some of them. More, I love the people they become, and the potential I see in them when they are young.)

What do I tell myself when I am in my darkest, foulest, most hopeless moods? Love. I have lost some of my liberal idealism in these last few years, and I have begun to lean a wee bit more conservative; it has made me worry, because I know that this is a common pattern, especially among aging white men, as we start to get a taste of power and become greedy and start worrying about people taking away what we have. And I do not want to be that guy. But I think that so long as I focus on love, so long as my actions and intentions are begun with love in mind, then I won’t turn into someone I would hate. At least some of my shifting to the right is based on the consideration that people on the right can’t be bad people, can’t be evil people, not all of them. (Trump is.) Not any more than there are evil people on the left. It’s not reasonable to take a person’s political leanings as the sole evidence of their morality or their value, or anything else apart from their political leanings; evil people are conservatives, conservatives aren’t evil people. Thinking that makes me give some conservative ideas (like the free market and lower regulation, the independence of states and, perhaps most shocking to me and those who know me, the value of the Second Amendment) the benefit of the doubt, and that makes me move away from my liberal roots.

But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I’m a liberal or a libertarian or a moderate or an anarchist: so long as I consider what is best for my fellow men, and treat them always with respect and with love, then my ideas will never be bad, even if they are wrong.

I also need to remember this for myself when I am disappointed in my writing career. When I think about how old I am compared to other writers, and when I realize how good I am compared to some other writers — and then when I think about how entirely devoid of success I am compared to most other writers; I need to remember: love. I do this because I love it, because I love the me who does this. And so long as I write for love, with love, and out of love, then I can’t be a failure. I am a writer.

What do I tell my wife when she worries about our future, about what we’ll do for money, about where we’ll live, about how we’ll see the world and how we’ll live in it? I will tell her, as I do as often as I possibly can, that I love her, without limits and without end, and that I always will, and that love will see us through, no matter what else happens. Always. Love.

It doesn’t solve the problems we all face. But then, neither does God. I hope that it brings you some comfort, as it brings me some. I hope that it gives us all the strength to keep fighting towards our goals, and I hope it keeps us from hating those who fight against us, or at least in the opposite direction. I hope that the love in your life is enough to make you smile, as it is for me, even on a Monday morning.

Thank you for reading what I write. I won’t say I love you, because I don’t know you, but I love the fact of you and the existence of you, and what you give to me. Thank you.

Now go love!

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about perspective.

My wife, who is currently teaching high school art, teaches perspective to her students. There’s a technique to it, and a basic concept that some of the students struggle to master. But if they do master it, there’s more waiting for them. We all know about one-point perspective, and two-point perspective (Don’t we?), but did you know there is also three-point perspective? And four-point? Did you know it goes up to TWELVE-POINT PERSPECTIVE???

If you, like my wife, are a highly trained visual artist, then you might actually know that. In which case your view — your perspective — of this post is different from mine,  and different from most; you might have seen my all-caps and multiple question marks as naive, either irritating or cute depending on how you see me and probably what mood you are in.

If you ARE my wife (and she’ll read this at some point, I hope. I mean, maybe she’s sick of my writing; Lord knows she has to read enough of it. So maybe she’ll skip this one.), then your view of this post will be different again, because not only do you know all of this already, but you are reading about yourself, being used as my example. Again. (And you had to read my little anxiety-comment about being tired of my writing, again, and you probably sighed or rolled your eyes at the apparent need to reassure me, again, that you like what  I write. I mean, 25 years we’ve been together; come on, are we still worrying about this?)

Perspective changes everything.

I was going to lead this off with the old cliche about keeping things in perspective. There are eight weeks left of my school year (I know, fellow teachers, I get out super early, around the third week of May, and it’s sweet — but then we start again around August 1. Inservice is in July. Don’t be too jealous. Though at this end of the school year, with the summer ahead starting before Memorial Day, it looks pretty sweet — so go ahead and be jealous. Just come back at the end of July and read about how miserable I am to be going back to school already, while you probably have a month left of summer; then you can have your revenge on me.), and that makes me both excited to finish and get to my summer, and also terribly stressed that I only have eight weeks left to teach everything I haven’t taught my students this year  — which, of course, is far more than eight weeks’ worth of material. Today is also the first day back to school after Spring Break, which feels terrible right in the moment; but my Break was absolutely lovely and perfect; and of course, there will be many more breaks to enjoy. As sad as going back to work after vacation is, it also means I get to have that last day of work before vacation, and those are wonderful.

So I wanted to make the point that most frustrations are minor. Sure, it’s Monday and I have to go to work; but it’s almost April, and I will have summer soon. Sure, I’m tired; but I’m alive, and generally healthy. Sure, I’m frustrated  with my job and with my lack of a professional writing career; but I’m not a ditch digger nor a slave, not a sex worker nor a sewer worker. You have to keep things in perspective, I thought, and decided that I should write that, as a little encouragement to my fellow workers who are off to their Monday.

But then I thought a bit more about perspective, and I realized: there is no “right” perspective. “Keeping things in perspective” implies that there are big important things, and there are small trivial things, and there is a clear delineation between them, and knowing which are which is the key to happiness, or at least contentment. But I don’t buy that: because importance is relative to the individual. Because the size of issues is time bound, meaning that climate change is a global catastrophe waiting to destroy us all, but it is not affecting me this morning, right now, and my having to go to work is. Having to go to work is infinitely smaller; but it’s also infinitely closer than the climate change catastrophe. (I know it’s not infinite, and I don’t mean to belittle climate change; that catastrophe is closer than we think, and scarier. But I’m trying to make a point here.) That means, essentially, that the two problems are about the same size in my life and in their influence on my mood right now. In fact, the Monday thing is a little bit larger because I’m also tired, which makes Monday worse, and doesn’t have any effect on worrying about climate change. Someone else in the very same situation would have a different view of the relative importance of these things, and who’s  to say that their perspective is wrong? Or right?

So I think the best idea is not to try to keep things in perspective: it is to realize that you can, almost always, change your perspective. (“Almost always” because sometimes things are inescapable, immediate and intense and critical, and then you must deal with them and survive them and get through them.) But when you can gain some distance from a problem, from a feeling, from yourself, then you can shift things around as you wish. You can focus more on a specific aspect, bring it nearer, clearer, larger, and push other things back in relation to that aspect. That power is what’s important — at least right now.

Don’t keep things in perspective. Change your perspective. Make a big deal out of little things, and enjoy your little victories as if they were world championships. Make those large looming abstract worries into tiny, distant problems, and block them out with something right here, right now: do some laundry, and be proud of what you have done. Eat a bagel, and glory in the perfect breakfast. It can be a big deal if you want it to be. In other words, sometimes you can sweat the small stuff and ignore the big things; that is your choice, your privilege, your power. Your perspective.

At least, that’s how I see it.

 

(P.S: I am confident that my metaphor has completely ruined the correlation with the artistic technique of perspective; I’m really talking more about foreground and background and such. I am sorry if that broken parallel was a bigger issue for you than it was for me, but it wasn’t a big problem for me. I’m just happy I got this post written. If you’re my wife and you’re annoyed with me, you can have the pleasure of throwing something at me. If you hit me with it, you win!)

Book Review: The War of Art

Image result for the war of art

The War of Art

by Steven Pressfield

In retrospect, I should have known from the foreword that this was the wrong book for me: Robert McKee talks about art like it’s a war that Pressfield will help me to win; and while I think art is a struggle, I really don’t think it’s a war; indeed, as I am a pacifist, couching things in warrior’s terms is just going to push me away. He also references golf as evidence that Pressfield is a consummate professional (Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance, which I have neither read nor seen; I guess it’s about golf? I guess Pressfield likes the game? But he writes anyway instead of playing, which – I guess is impressive?), and there’s the second best way to alienate me. He talks about tearing up over the Spartans’ death at Thermopylae, which was the subject of Pressfield’s other big book, Gates of Fire, which I did read, and did like quite a lot – but it didn’t make me weepy, and I don’t know what it has to do with inspiration to make art. So I’m really having trouble relating to this foreword author – and then he ends his intro with this:

“When inspiration touches talent, she gives birth to truth and beauty. And when Steven Pressfield was writing The War of Art, she had her hands all over him.”

Creepy sexual metaphors, especially about things that are not remotely sexual – like the act of putting words on a page – that is the number one way to make me say “Nope.” So I should have known.

Let me say this, though: this is a book intended to inspire artists, to help people break through creative blocks and create art they can be proud of. I can’t think of many more noble things to try to do, and I appreciate Pressfield’s earnest and genuine attempt to give people tools to do what they should be doing. So: if you do appreciate sports metaphors, and war metaphors, and you like a good, strong pep talk – or as the cover blurb calls it “A vital gem… a kick in the ass,” (which also should have been a warning sign for me) – then please ignore this review, and go get this book. I hope it helps.

It didn’t help me.

There are moments when I agree with Pressfield. He talks about questioning his writing, and feeling hopeless, and the strength and stamina it requires to push through all that and just keep working. He calls it work, and talks about how important it is to just keep putting in the hours, to keep trying, to keep seeking to hone your craft and do the best you can – but first and foremost, to just put the goddamn letters on the goddamn page, and to never give up. And I agree with that entirely. He talks about how he was in his 40’s before he found success, and how it came from an entirely unlikely source, which was, logical or not, simply the book he had to write at the time; and as a 44-year-old writer who is working on his second novel about a time-traveling Irish pirate, I appreciate everything about that.

But then there are the places where he talks about being a Marine, and how other servicemen in other branches are weaker than Marines because Marines love being miserable (This is a metaphor for how artists should be: willing to suffer and be miserable. I kind of see that. This whole Marines-have-bigger-dicks-than-other-soldiers? Nah.) and the other services are soft. Where he talks about writing and art like it is a war to be fought and won; or an animal to be hunted and then eaten; or a football game where you have to “leave everything on the field.” And I hate all of that. He talks about the urges and habits that get in the way of art as Resistance, and that’s pretty good, but he also talks about how like not cleaning your room is a way to lose to Resistance, and – what? And how golf is an art, and Tiger Woods is the greatest artist of all because he can be interrupted mid-swing, stop his swing, and then refocus and hit a golf ball really hard and – I fail to see the art in that. And he says that mental illness, depression and anxiety, are not real, but only a failure to combat resistance, which can be overcome by determination and the earnest pursuit of one’s true calling, and hey, fuck you, Pressfield.

He’s got a strange (And contradictory) section where he tries to talk about thinking territorially instead of hierarchically, and basically he means you should do what you think is right rather than worry about what other people think is right, and okay, sure – but first, he says elsewhere in the book that he knows he’s written well when his family is pleased and proud of him, which is hierarchical thinking by his own definition and explanation, so either he’s a REALLY bad editor who missed that continuity break, or he’s full of crap in one of these places; and second, his example of someone thinking territorially is Arnold Schwarzenegger going to the gym. Which is both weird and not at all artistically inspiring. It gets really weird in the third section, where the devout Christian Pressfield (Though he also admires the ancient Greeks so damn much that he seems to kinda want to worship Zeus and Apollo. I can’t really disagree with that, though I wouldn’t pick the same gods.) talks about angels who help inspire artists to work, because God wants us to create beautiful things for Him to admire, and how everything an artist is comes from God and we should understand that we contribute nothing, that we are only the vessel through which the divine will is worked. I mean, when we’re not being hardcore fucking Marines. Or hitting 310 yards off the tee. Otherwise, though, we should be all humble before God. It is not quite this Christian – he really does admire and know a lot about the Greeks – but it does read that way, as a repudiation of human accomplishment and a glorification of the eternal Whatever. And as an atheist and a part-time humanist, I am not at all down with that.

This thing reads exactly like what it is: a privileged Baby Boomer looking down on everyone else who doesn’t have all of his privileges; and by the way, he says some interesting and intelligent things that show me he really is an artist like me. Just way more of a shmuck. Hoo rah.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about the work of art.

I have often questioned whether or not I’m an artist, a writer. And whether or not I should be an artist. I think that I don’t take it seriously enough, because art doesn’t always come first for me; I do all sorts of things other than art. The most obvious is work: as a teacher, I put in fifty or so hours a week on my job, and since I’m an English teacher, a lot of that time is spent reading and writing and talking about reading and writing. I took the job because I thought it would be both fun and beneficial for me to be surrounded by language and literature,  and to some extent it has been both; but I don’t understand why I didn’t think about how much effort it would take to do the job well. I question all the time whether I should have stayed a janitor, some kind of nice, essentially mindless work that would allow me to go home at the end of the day and write, for hours on end. I ask myself: are you really an artist if you spend all of this time and energy on your job? Shouldn’t all of that effort go into writing? Shouldn’t you quit your job and find a mindless one? Or at the least do your job poorly, with the minimum expenditure of effort?

Maybe so.

I also took this job because of summers off, and the several week(s)-long vacations; I figured I could use that time to write more seriously. And I have; summer has always been my primary writing time, along with spring break and winter break, and fall break, now that I have that. But even in those times, I only spend a couple of hours a day, at most, on actual writing. I’ve read about authors who work for eight hours a day, or who lock themselves away for a month, two months, six months at a time, and do nothing but write, all day every day. And here I am with two or three months off, and I write for — an hour a day? Clearly I can’t be much of a writer if that’s all I can stand to do.

But that’s not fair. Because the truth is that writing is fucking hard. It takes an enormous effort to focus on every single word, every single punctuation mark, every sentence, every paragraph, and make exactly the right choices in exactly the right places; and to do that at the same time that I am trying to keep a larger story in mind? Especially when the story is a novel, and so I have both the complete scene I am writing and the overall story to keep in mind while I am selecting each and every word? Jesus Christ, it’s amazing I can do this at all, if you don’t mind my bragging a little. Of course I don’t make all of the right choices, I probably make wrong choices most of the time; but I’m good enough at this that even my wrong choices are generally not terrible, not unforgivable. And just as a doctor’s first rule is “Do no harm,” meaning make sure you don’t do the wrong thing even before you try to do the right thing, I think my first rule as a writer is, “Don’t write shit. Or at least if you write shit, don’t let anybody else see it.”

But even that is hard, because shit is enormously easy to write. Just ask James Patterson. BOOM! No, I’m kidding, he’s not a bad writer. He’s a whore who made a name for himself and then let his publisher pimp that name out in “collaborations” that Patterson likely has almost no hand in, but his name is prominent on the front cover in order to boost sales — but he’s not a bad writer. I don’t want to actually name any bad writers; I’m not going to throw any writers under the bus quite that hard, because all of us struggle with this. All of us have to put in this colossal effort, and then take this terrible soul-searing step of letting other people read what we write.

It’s brutal. It is laborious and effortful and wearing and taxing and just hard.

And I keep doing it. And I keep doing it well enough that I am pleased with what I produce. And I do it sincerely enough that I feel better emotionally after I’ve done it, after I’ve written honestly and as well as I can; even though I’m generally mentally exhausted after I do it. I will also say that I don’t write much more than an hour most days, but I can always put in that hour: these morning blogs have been quite good for that, it turns out; I’ve also worked on my book every day for the last few days, and I’ll do it today, too. I am also capable of some serious marathon sessions of writing: I wrote the final chapter of my most recent book over one weekend, two days of solid writing for more than eight hours each day; I produced something like fifty pages.

Huh. Maybe that’s why I haven’t written that much in the months since.

But even when I hit these dry patches, I still come back to it. Even though it’s hard — and it is hard, though I sometimes fool even myself into thinking that it’s easy because sometimes the words just come and are perfect; but that is the end result of a whoooooooooole lot of hours spent slogging, and writing and rewriting and discarding the whole thing and then starting over again. Still I put in the time. I put in the work. Because I love it, and I believe in it, and I like myself better when I do it than when I don’t.

I guess I am an artist, after all.