Comix at Clyde Coffee

You know that test in elementary school, the one the teacher hands out when she has a half hour to kill and a told-you-so lesson to deliver? It’s only a page long, but the whole page is filled with instructions, cross off this word and circle that one, sharpen your pencil, draw lines around paragraphs, etc. Instruction #1 is “Read all the instructions before you begin,” and the last instruction is “Ignore instructions #2-#18. Just sign your name at the top and hand your paper to the teacher.”

Well, I fell for it. Not in first grade, where I aced it, but just now. Often in social media culture, we only share the flattering. But not here. Thus follows a comedy of errors, one hail-mary success, and an upcoming gallery opening. Oh… and a hornswoggling case of mistaken identity. (Spoiler: I actually did not meet R Crumb last month!)

So. A few weeks ago, my friend Karin forwarded me a call for artists’ submissions for the third annual Comix Issue of our local indie paper, the Missoula Independent. The Comix Issue is fun and well-read, featuring the art of lots of local heavy-hitter artists, as well as newcomers. Exciting! Gotta do it! As my head hit the pillow that night, my mind trawled dreamland for an idea. And it arrived — at 3 am. (Why do they always come at the cost of a good night’s sleep? Ah well: worth it.)

Next morning, I laid out my story in the precisely specified dimensions, worked out rhymes, sourced images, sketched a draft, sketched the final, and was just about to ink it… when I went back and read the directions.

All of them.

That’s when I discovered there is a theme to this year’s issue: “Missoula in the Future.” What? How did I miss that? It was even in Josh Quick’s banner illustration:

Yeah, but that text is tiny, right?
Yeah, but that text is tiny!

My strip was a (non-morbid) story about the gravesites of our four pet rats… charming, but definitely not in the future. I was back to square one, except now with only a day left before the deadline.

Fortunately, my brain netted two more ideas. I scrawled them out and field-tested them on my parents and my sweetie. One idea flopped despicably with everyone:

This isn't the whole thing, but suffice to say it made exactly zero sense.
This isn’t the whole thing, but suffice to say it made exactly zero sense.

The other got a thumbs-up from J., and crickets from my folks, who are the toughest crowd ever. So I went with it, even though it was a single gag panel, and not (as the submission guidelines further specified) a story with multiple panels. This way, I figured, at least I’d be rejected because they didn’t like my idea, not because I didn’t enter.

Amazingly, neither outcome resulted — the comic was accepted! Look for it in the Comix Issue of the Missoula Independent, which will hit the racks this Thursday, May 5, and on the wall at Clyde Coffee‘s gallery opening on First Friday, May 6 from 5-8 pm. Clyde is a great little spot on the Hip Strip, known for its avocado toast and locally roasted coffee. It’s an extra appropriate venue because the subject of my comic is the Hip Strip itself… which, yes, I am only going to tease for now. A little suspense never killed anyone! Here’s a tiny excerpt from one corner of the first sketch, which I actually forgot to include in the final strip, making this a web exclusive:

And maybe if I’m lucky, next year’s Comix Issue theme will be “pets” or “memories” or something I can use…

*

Aaaaand now the confession:

I did not meet R Crumb.

I thought I did, for three solid weeks. I could barely get to sleep that night, and the next day, I told practically everyone I knew about it. I blogged about it. I was so jazzed.

Until last Thursday, when J. and I were downtown and decided to check out the art once more. We waltzed into the DDC, and I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before: every piece of art was signed “Rich Lande.” Now, when Crumb had introduced himself as “Rich,” I figured that was a nickname for Robert. And I figured the show was under the radar because R Crumb is totally not a gallery art person. But was it perhaps too much that when we Googled Rich Lande we got a biography that included a birthplace of Missoula, and graduation from a school of illustration in 1989–far too late for R Crumb? Why would he manufacture those details, and actually sign the art with a pseudonym? Oh $#!+…

It turns out that when I walked in and assumed the blues and jazz portraits on the walls were the work of R Crumb, and turned to John and said, “Whoa, wouldn’t it be wild if R Crumb himself were here?” …John instead heard something like “Whoa, wouldn’t it be wild if the artist himself were here?” So his reply of “He’s right over there” instantly catapulted me into an alternate reality, in which I dwelled for a jolly long time.

This explains why “R Crumb” looked nothing like his self portraits. And all the things I did not say, in order not to be an annoying fangirl (referring to his most common works, mentioning his fame, etc.) also served to keep things vague enough that the truth did not come out.

So, ha ha. Funny, a little sad, a little embarrassing. John did say that Rich is a big fan of Crumb and works in the same vein, but still– I’m sheepish that I did not discern immediately that the works were not Crumb’s.

But here’s the thing. For three weeks, I derived as much pleasure from the deceit that I had gotten to talk with R Crumb as if I actually had. This echoes the issue of forgery vs authenticity in art itself. Countless collectors proudly display art that brings them great joy–and which is not really what they believe it is. There’s plenty of murky morality in the business of counterfeiting art. One guy spent years making and selling forgeries and donated his proceeds to charity! That’s rare, but this episode of Shankar Vedantham’s Hidden Brain, goes into the psychology of more common fakery, and its effect upon connoisseurs.

Of course, Rich Lande is a real person who is making real art. He never represented himself as anyone else. The counterfeiting occurred in my head. That’s what makes it extra interesting: the art never changed. So here’s a proposal: maybe I should continue to relish the experience of meeting one of my art idols. Maybe deception and reality can coexist, and as long as we are aware of the tricks of our minds, we can derive enjoyment and encouragement from both. What do you think?

One thing’s for sure: somewhere, Rich Lande is walking around believing he has one hell of a fan.

Shake it up

We crouch in a cluster of rocks on a high ridge over a valley beyond which is Idaho, a wall of mountains in another time zone. We watch a cold front seep around the mountains’ shoulders and drop toward us, an unappealing cloud of precip and wind. Stuck into our pile of rocks is a long pole with a plastic owl tied at the end, making us look like children with a single, tattered puppet. Owl-on-a-stick is supposed to tempt birds of prey to dive within the range of visibility. Our chilled fingers grip binoculars, but there’s nary a bird in sight. Welcome to the raptor migration study.

I had not pictured my day this way. The birds are smarter than we are: they read the forecast and stayed wherever birds stay when they want to be out of the weather. Other days, volunteers report sighting up to 250 birds. Today, we wrap ourselves in plastic layers and train binoculars against the wind on a faraway spatter of wild ponies, or an intern crossing a field with her baby. After an hour, we give up and hunker in the truck, pretending to watch for the stray hawk as drizzle speckles the windshield. But, our lack of raptors notwithstanding, I think we are in exactly the right place. It was worth it to drive down the long, gravel road to be here today. Here is why:

As we sit in the truck comparing our brown-bag lunches, the guy in charge of the volunteer project, unexpectedly a George Clooney lookalike, explains the process of brain tanning to a twelve-year-old who just got back from India, where his mother translates Bibles into rare Indian languages. Apparently the brain is the best leftover part of a deer to use to seal its raw hide with a nice, oily, water-resistant finish. You can even drill out the brain plate and make a nice little decoration for your hat out of it, braided around the brim with some buckskin rope. Meanwhile, the mom tells me about life in Kerala.

How would I have ever found myself privy to such conversations had I not volunteered to count raptors today? Here on the MPG Ranch, we are situated in a migratory corridor: the perfect confluence of hills and valleys and wind currents for an avian interstate. And is it not possible that this is also the perfect place for all of us today, appearances to the contrary? If I weren’t here, I’d be, what, sitting at home doing what I usually do? Going on the same walk, making oatmeal, listening to the radio?

Nothing against the lovely habits of life, but it behooves a body to shake up the routine once in a while. Find the little events in the paper that always looked interesting, but were never the most important thing to do. Sometimes: do them.

You might end up picking trash out of the local river with a bunch of Kiwanis on a Saturday morning. Your crew might find a parking meter, a cat skull, and a full-size couch down there in the reeds, where you thought nobody ever walked, in addition to the usual beer cans and candy wrappers. When the shore’s all cleaned up, maybe you’ll be sitting in the sunshine when a mentally different man on a bicycle rolls by to tell everyone about his cow-charming skills. How he gently called the cow to his side, took his knife and cut away the barbed wire coil digging into her leg, and knew just the spot behind her ear to rub to make her feel even more glad. And you’d wonder afterwards how else you might have thanked the universe for all the good times you’d had on that river. Or how else you would have remembered the people who most days you passed by unthinking, unspeaking, unlistening, assuming you already knew what needed to be known about them.

Give yourself permission to do the less than necessary. I told my aunt that I felt spoiled, examining native flowers on Mount Sentinel, going to an Indian dance concert by myself, listening to people read their poetry at a bar. My aunt replied: “I object to your feeling spoiled. Where is it written that it’s not okay to have fun?”

Or you might stumble across a maypole on a mountaintop...
Or you might stumble across a maypole on a mountaintop… weaving us together

Plus, these outings can be good for everyone. What is less than necessary for one’s own survival is often beneficial to others’. Small acts of non-auto-pilot can knit us into a community. Friends sit with another friend after surgery, hold hands, say the serenity prayer. They save coins in baby bottles that go to teen mothers on Mother’s Day, and when they see the colored bottles on their counters every morning, they think of young women they won’t meet–or won’t they, maybe, someday, if they keep reaching out of their routines? These tiny gestures invite variables into our lives, bring us into unexpected contact with the world and each other.

What is the strangest small thing will you do this week?

The care and feeding of transplants

Who could be calling from outside? Nobody knows us here yet…

But I opened the screen door of the attic apartment and saw Carolyn, our next-door neighbor, standing on the driveway below with a brown bag in her arms. We had met her the day before, our first full day in Asheville. Already, here she was, a one-woman welcome wagon of Southern hospitality, with two ripe tomatoes, a boxed loaf of pumpkin bread, a giant container of mixed nuts, and four gold apples obviously from a real tree nearby. She had noticed the Montana plates on our car, and told us how much she wished she could move there. Not only her gesture but her timing was perfect. We had just finished carrying our most basic possessions into the loft of the peeling old house, and it felt like being on a lifeboat at sea. As if the world were fluid beneath us, and our munitions were few. And here she was, a friendly little craft who knew our port of departure.

It had been hard to leave J.’s parents’ house, much as we were ready for a place of our own. This despite the fact that the primary occupation of our week and a half visit was neurotically cleaning, disassembling, reupholstering and reassembling our Mazda, in which green nasties had sprouted during the wet spring months of our absence. Between bouts of scrubbing, we took humble excursions to remind us that beauty is nearby, and so is peace, even when we return to the daily grind. You wouldn’t know to drive along the Cleveland Highway that just a few hundred meters away is the blue hole spring at Red Clay, the water source of the last home of the Cherokee people before the Trail of Tears (upon which the Cleveland Highway was later built).

We also took care of the animals while J.’s folks were away: two hypersensitive daschunds, one bouncy mutt, an elderly cat, fifteen chickens, five chicks, plus everything that the hummingbird feeder attracts. The hens were a small-scale throwback to our chores at Nuestra Finca, enjoyably so. Flo’s birds are the only truly happy ones I’ve met. They roam free in the big, green backyard, and have roosting barns with protective netting at night. Every other day, with a plastic extension claw, one of us retrieves eggs from underneath the power saw, where they nestle in a bit of straw next to a hollow green Easter egg, unless a hen has decided to sit on a batch, in which case she is allowed to hatch them. When their laying years are over, no axe awaits, only a long, verdant retirement. Hence they feel entitled to develop outsized personalities, like the rest of us. The animal scene at Fawa’s Cottage made us remember a deeper purpose than a life spent among only televisions or newspapers or websites can convey: to care for creatures, as we ourselves are cared-for creatures, and to see them through their shorter lives.

The day before we left, a beautiful chill entered the air. I walked the perimeter and snipped leaves and berries and dried bits of blooms past, and put them in jars of water around the house. Symbols of fall: of the brilliant energy of change and death and transformation. We all, but travelers especially, must perform such minor rituals to remind ourselves of the season, to remain grounded in cycles despite constant uprooting.

Despite the repeated transplants, from the Montana bed to the Appalachian Trail vine to the Costa Rican forest to the Georgia sanctuary to, finally, the rocky soil of Asheville, we ought not fret. The city is a new nut to crack, jobs and housing and culture and people, and our lifeboat, though cozy, contains a leaky toilet but not a smoke detector… but the drive to North Carolina was beautiful, valleys of trees inhaling the warm blue afternoon, deep gulps in preparation for the impending costume change. It’s an autumn transplant, both in the sense of it being hopefully the last one for a good long while, and in a more urgent sense of wanting to get situated before snow flies. But the world is full of surprises, and we sometimes remember to trust our higher power. We have reinvented our lives before. Sometimes I feel ancient, but we ain’t that old yet.

I miss awakening to dawns full of toucan cries and monkey talk, to air redolent of fruits and flowers. I miss knowing my task for the day is simple, the rhythm steady, the subtle variations pleasures to be savored. I miss feeling secure and content within the boundaries of a miniature existence, one wherein the Future and Income and Lodging are not concerns. But of course the seasons turn, and all things end, and we are living in a different chapter now. Carolyn’s gesture of hospitality spurred me to another small ritual: baking. Symbol of taking up residence, filling a small space with heat and domestic aroma. Which means acknowledging that yes, this is where we are now, might as well make banana bread. Might as well make connections: give a loaf to Carolyn, two big pieces for our downstairs roommates (whose oven we use, our upstairs having only a two-burner and a nuker), a slice for our landlord, and some for ourselves, a communion, however haltingly granted, of place and nourishment.

Perhaps in the next few days I will even see fit to snip some bouquets of wild, scraggly plants from the yard, to adorn our lifeboat, to mark it as, for now, home.

Spring wallflowers

letter
(click image to read note)

As spring warms the hemisphere, people paralyzed by winter’s dark and cold now ease into movement, including depressed people. Bleak inner life and the newly pulsating rainbow of plants outside form a sour contrast, and the more vibrant flow of blood gives some the strength to act: suicides peak in May and June.

This spring I found a note by the river. The water rushed and rose up its sandy edge, full of demanding energy, and I could not walk past without stopping to bask. The paper was folded in quarters and slipped between the boards of a park bench where homeless people sleep when it is snowing, swaddled in thin sleeping bags.

A little release, a little shout, poem, question, inelegant, referential, young, assertive, testing. Yet assuming a friend.

I went home and listened to the song it spoke of: the Smiths’ “Sing me to sleep.” Pictured hundreds of solitary teenagers in American bedrooms cultivating a self-image of moody misery, Morrissey intoning on repeat, a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower on the floor. Some are serious, some sorta, some not. So which is she?

Lately I’m aspiring to become, like a famous pilgrim, “unstuck in time.” (Vonnegut, another literary reference– though what was hers? I couldn’t find it…) I’m more tender, awake, slow, open, and loving when I shake off time and control for even a short while. That kind of shedding has much to do with death, the death of the little self. A friend died snorkeling amid a symphony of colored fish off the coast of Hawai’i last week; rest in peace, Ed. Another fell from a roof in California while installing solar panels; peace be with you, Hans. Contemplating these deaths makes such a practice even more welcomed and needed.

Dear Friend, nobody else has to go for us to become awake together. Easier said than done… but it can be done.

What I think about when I think about running

(with apologies to Haruki Murakami)

Maybe I am fickle and awkward. Maybe I am incapable of being wholly diligent or wholly focused or wholly anything. Maybe my art is stacked in the corner. Maybe the dishes are scummy and the pans burned. But I can run. Yes, I can put one foot before the next. I can take this body and run.

So it is that, after running an eleven-mile race and loving it, I decide to train for a marathon.

*

“Franklin Bridge, you are mine!” I shout, standing on its planks with my arms in the air. It’s just a length of concrete spanning a gap on an unused road in the Rattlesnake wilderness, but there’s no disappointment, because I ran eight miles to get here. Each stream crossing is a minor triumph. Each turn, each water fountain. Celebrate everything.

*

I hear that more people get interested in long-distance running during recessions. Perhaps it is about control. Clearing mountain ridges, accomplishing something quantifiable, proving endurance. Or maybe it’s about momentarily evaporating from the world where control matters at all. The sky changes above, the runner the witness scrolling across the earth. Then the mind blinks, body parts pacing as if by their own command. Now there is only motion, only breath. A leaf blown along the path.

*

A withering 19.8-miler reminds me of the obvious: I’m not invincible. Not used to running in the heat anymore, despite moving here from Georgia, where I ran year-round, often in mud, often in 90+ degree heat, with overwhelming, fudgy humidity dragging at every swing of the arms. It takes several days of training for a body to remember how to sweat, how to transfer the heat from inside to out. It takes gradualism and forgiveness, patience and humor. Bodies are finite. Nowhere but in running am I quite so aware that there is only this step, then this one, then this.

*

It’s in my power to sculpt my body, to whittle it with sweat and new muscle and to toughen it into a hungry machine, dashing across open road, sizzling with aliveness, consuming and replenishing itself, strong even asleep.

Also in my power is to push it beyond, until it talks back with pain, to which I must surrender. It whispered at first, but on mile twelve of a short loop to Bonner, just a jaunt, just as I marvel how free and well it’s going, a sharp ache stabs my kneecap and slices around the edges. It’s not the dull throb of a week ago. This one says: You Stop Now. And says it again, again, again.

There’s talk of pushing through pain, but that’s exhaustion, ache. I know those pains, and the choice to push through or rest, but this is a different message. So it’s about stumbling now, behind a row of small houses stuffed with columbine and dutchmen’s-breeches, hidden from the road, my pace a crawl as the swollen river hurls past at the speed of sound. I am crushed. I used my power to wreck my legs, at least temporarily, in a minor but crucial way.

But after an hour of self-pity, something about this small crippledness electrifies me. I stand, try a stretch, wash up. It hurts now—not now—now. What will it tell me next? All of this is learning: running, not running. What will I learn now, stuck sitting in the afternoon sun, witness to the season’s first bee having at it with the mallow flowers? I would have witnessed nothing otherwise, had I never stopped moving.

For even running, I must surrender: how fast, how far, how comfortably or uncomfortably. The temperature of the water, the energy of the food, the feel of the shoes. Whether at all. There’s only the freedom of beginning, and of each single step after. All that is mine now is to lay off until the big day… show up at the starting line… and go. And see how far.

The curious pet

A mind exposed to something new is like a pet whose bedding is changed. The animal needs to sniff everything, secrete oils upon the fresh paper, chew up a comfortable nest, drag things around not to better places but to known and deliberate places. The home is cleaner but stranger and requires energy. And when the new bedding is poured in, a curious one will push her nose up toward the bag of aspen chips, blinking and dodging yet arrowed toward the source. Then she jumps inside the bag itself. She wants to understand how the changing works, where it comes from. Would that the mind be as desirous to climb into the source of creativity and move about within.

Entrance

It’s there, on the doors of most merchants and restaurants, on banners over the gates of state fairs, circuses and polling places, offices, libraries, and government institutions: an incitement to rapture. Entrance. En-trance. A reminder to snap out of the mundane and into the depths, to see with different eyes. What’s beyond these doors is deep, dig?

Sure, obviously that’s not what they mean. The word’s meant to be snapped in half cleanly, entr-ance: an occasion for entering. Kin to maintenance, to keep things up, or clearance, to move ’em out. But even then, entrance is to go in. Yourself, not just your stuff. To venture inside, to open each nested Russian doll until you get to the core, the baby doll, the seed of everything.

Who notices? Who cares? Maybe kabbalists, juggling Hebrew characters and occasionally the odd English word on the bookstore door. Maybe trendy spiritual pickpockets, aping the kabbalists. Maybe also the bored but wide-eyed of the world.

Yes, No

The daycare’s philosophy is never to say no to a child. You can give options, but you can’t say no. As in, “Caligulina, would you like a graham cracker, or a ride on the swings, or a bunny to pat? Those are your choices. Besides, a butter knife is too dull for stabbing effectively, OK, honey?”

Perhaps it’s regressive, but sometimes, dear humans, the answer is no. No, you can’t run in the street. No, the earthquake is not just. No, you can’t be eighteen forever, even if you dress like you can. The ultimate no is the end of it all. The grown-up philosophy to the Daycare of Yes is the theology of Nothing Really Dies. It’s true, energy continues, transformed but eternal, a beautiful unfolding chain. But you and me? There won’t be any you and me anymore. Sorry, but no.

Still, there are options. Even in the wilds of no, there are trails through the sharp sedges and along the sheer cliffs. You can tiptoe and take notes, smell the breeze and look for other animals in your predicament. You can drink deeply from the spring and see what you become. You can run as hard as you can and see where you fall. Or you can stand in one place with your eyes shut and hum and pretend you are in Disneyland, or Schenectady, or the Daycare of Yes.

So what’ll it be?

Say yes to no.

The brain of the buddha

She picked a coaster off the radiator and leaned toward me, put it into my  hand. “What do you see? Describe exactly what you see.” I pressed the tile between fingers and described. A painting. Signed by Matisse. A floating couple, red and blue, and a sort of room behind, with a sort of gray air, and a flower in the corner. I described until I figured I had said enough about the thing, though details continued to stream from its surface. Then I looked up and handed it back to her.

“Now, while you were describing this, were you thinking about the past?”

“No.”

“Were you thinking about what’s going to happen later today, the future?”

My smile twisted. “Well, I’m sneaky, actually. I was thinking about what you wanted me to say, and wondering about what you’re trying to get at with this. I was thinking that maybe I was supposed to be completely absorbed in describing it and forget about everything else. I was thinking this while I was describing to you.”

And on top of this–while I am describing what I was thinking while I was describing, I am also thinking, weaving yet another layer over us. I am thinking: She must think I’m totally neurotic. That my brain is coiled like a spring and always atwitter. I’m really not that bad. When I am swimming, I am a buddha. I swear. Or when I am sleeping, or wrapping presents. Probably twenty percent of the–

“Ah, that is normal,” she cuts in. “It’s common to wonder things like that. But were you thinking about the future?”

She was right. She had me. I was not. I was fully (and neurotically) in the moment. “No.”

“Ah then. At any moment, whenever you are thinking about the future or the past, you have the choice to instead observe your immediate surroundings. You can be completely in now. That is always an option you have.”

She set the tile back on the radiator and folded her hands in her lap. Sunlight fell in a stripe between us, and the air was clean and empty, except for the sounds of cars and birds moving outside.

Empty

Beyond everything is emptiness, they say. It is beyond and also immanent in sunsets, lice, chimneys, beans, philosophy, cribbage, reiki, my god, their gods, love, hell, flannel. The ground of being, from which all is made, into which all dissolves. Unconsoling, unpunishing, unanything, it is also fullness, complete potential. But how can emptiness be the highest currency of spirit? Who can pray to emptiness for clarity? Who can visualize emptiness for concentration? And what did emptiness think it was, to write us into this book of colored chaos?