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.

Living in an Equatorial World

Suddenly transported to a different land, we are confronted daily with the new. Certain phenomena can be examined, tested, toyed with, maybe integrated. What do we do with the jar of raw milk from Johnathan’s cow, or the lump of soft queso fresco? How do we convince a singularly stupid and/or near-sighted chicken to go into her coop? And when we had a gift of a bag of organic red beans right off the trees, still mixed with the pebbles and pods and dust of the harvest, we amused ourselves trying, gringos that we are, to wash them enough to resemble the nice, easy beans that magically appear in the supermarket.

Other elements cannot be questioned, only accepted. There is much to observe, and to realize we cannot assume. One never thinks about the sun being different, for instance. But it starts getting hot here even before sunup somehow. The heat of the day is exactly midday, which surprised me but really makes good sense, as we are equatorial, unlike further north where it’s hottest in the late afternoon.

In this different world, even plain-shaped birds seem to have been, for no reason I can tell, dipped in the Sixties. Yellow Submarine colors. At the end of the driveway, I looked up to see a small bird of blue, chartreuse, and stripes, and later learned it has the fabulous name of Violaceous Trogon, which J. says sounds like a four-year-old named it. Things grow extravagantly and with alarming speed, which is also how they disintegrate. A strong entropic force (tropic entropic?) pulls beings both once-living and inanimate (shoes, tools) back into the earth. The vultures wait in the trees, the worms wait in the mud, the rust and mold hover in between. A dead horse, bones and all, will be gone within three days, so we hear.

But most disorienting of all: the stars are not the same. The familiar constellations are on the other side of the sky. Where is Orion, and the Great Bear, and Cassiopeia?

At the same time, what possibility! Momentarily ignorant of how the lines are drawn, we are free to make them up as we please.

Questions

Do snakes get blisters on their bellies when they slide over rough ground?

Do birds feel the cold? They seem so cheerful even in the snow, even with hollow bones and skinny legs.

Do deer ever feel soaked in the rain? Or do they always feel just like deer, whether they are wet or dry?

And… when two hikers reach the Pine Grove Furnace General Store, home of the Half Gallon Challenge, wherein to celebrate their completion of half the trail, each attempts to eat half a gallon of ice cream, would it be better for them to end up: a) triumphant and sick after eating the entire half gallon, or b) dejected and sick after eating not quite all of the half gallon?

I only know the answer to one of these questions. You can guess which. The answer is: neither. It would be best to arrive at the store too early in the season for the ice cream store to be open. This way, nobody can say the two hikers couldn’t do it… but they won’t have to try.

Zippy was bummed, but I was secretly relieved. Competitive eating is not my thing, and though I am temporarily vegetarian (instead of my usual vegan), it seemed like overkill to consume that much moo juice. So instead, we hiked some more, watched the bumblebees mating, and thought up some as yet unanswered questions.

The book voices

Does it happen, when you read a long book, that the voice of the book begins speaking in your head instead of your own? Your eyes, your body move as you walk through the world, and pressing close and gazing out, reflecting on the traffic and the birds and the workmen as you pass them, is the one who spoke that book. The words, the pauses between, what is noticed, ignored, mocked, adored. You’ve absorbed. Or been absorbed–which?

Maybe this doesn’t happen to everyone. Some people’s voices are so strong they cannot be altered. These voices do not change color with the changing of books, music, seasons, companions. They are always reading their own book, never another’s.

But for the rest, one book follows another, your accent changes again. What then are you? The first story you hear? A sedimentary accumulation? What is left when the last book is closed?

We who dissolve into books can know a thousand lives. Do we ever know our own?

 

Snobs for the Earth

Simultaneously grinding my teeth and raising the inner fist of righteousness when I see the tee shirt. ONE LESS CAR. Okay yes indeed please eliminate the car. Oh but please please can’t my world be perfect, the harmony complete? Person on the street wearing opinions on your back, can we get together and agree upon:

ONE CAR FEWER?

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.

Fashion

She stood out from a long way off. Mostly because she had enough shine tacked to her blouse to attract a murder of crows. Sequins erupted from the purple, formfitting top, and a black velvet beret tilted over one ear, topped with a white feather secured by a diamond stud. Her steps were unsteady, yet each totter stretched into a sashay to better display the cramped toes peeking from strappy heels. She shimmered like a mirage in the desert as she weaved through the strip mall parking lot. She was too confident in her ensemble to tuck or primp as she walked, never mind that in these parts, oversized jeans and sports-themed sweats were more standard weekend wear. And never mind that she was pushing eighty. At the local limits of culture, one might see hipster vintage or hippie batik, but only for those still working on their first half century. Eyes followed her, and as they ticked off each extreme on her person and in her air, they judged. In her mind she was strolling Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, and she was seventeen, and it was 1980.

Or maybe not. Maybe she was seventy seven and loved both heels and the city bus, both purple and errands, loved a fashion that defied fashion. Her life was one long entrance. What’s the matter with being different, anyway? Examine your own entrances, folks: take a peek in the oil slicks your cars leave behind, rather than staring at her while pretending not to. How do you like what you see, your own drab lives reflected upside down and iridescent?

24 roses

This morning I went to the flower shop and got 24 medium stemmed roses. I put them in a bucket in the passenger seat of the pickup and drove to County Health. I went in the door and told the receptionist that I had a delivery. “Who for?” “A rose for everyone in this place.” She didn’t smile; there was an invisible wall between us. Surely she is used to both shenanigans and sappy charity. She allowed that she would receive one, and chose white, then directed me upstairs with the names of two ladies to request.

Upstairs the staff was delighted, choosing roses that matched their sweaters, and they were stirred at the mystery: “Who sent these?” I am a poor liar, so I said sometimes that I didn’t know, or that I was only the delivery person, or that I could not say. Some of the people in the waiting room waited for the catch. I had to mention that they were free, and try not to sound like a naive, condescending bitch. “Also, they have little plastic water vials so they won’t wilt while you wait.” Sometimes the ice broke when I asked not whether a person would like a rose, but: “Which color would you like?” Fortunately I had four white, eight red, six pink, and six yellow with orange tinge, so the selection was attractive.

I wonder about the people who did not want a rose. It seemed they did not want to stoop to something. What was the obstacle? Being a receiver? Pleasure? Unbusinesslike conduct? Interaction with a stranger? “I have errands to run all day,” said a woman who would not look up from her phone, and continued to list her obligations, her voice tapering off in a thread of stress. When I went back downstairs, the receptionist with the white rose had perked up a bit, and the tech next to her stretched her arms in the air and said, “Right here! I’ll take one!” A patient on her way out had just given flowers to anther person, and felt it was karma. I suspect the wizened guy in suspenders and a wiry beard was going to re-gift his scarlet rose to a ladyfriend, and the old guy in the ballcap and dirty shirt freely admitted that he intended to butter up the doc. “That’s right, you want to be on her good side,” I said, laughing.

The bucket was almost empty and the clinic was sated. The last two roses took a long time to give away, walking down the sunny streets and unsuccessfully offering them to a young woman, a cop, a couple of cyclists, and a paper supply salesman. Finally a nursing home clerk and her primary care specialist, as she referred to him, claimed them. I tossed the empty bucket in the truck bed and drove back to the apartment.

Empty-handed, I felt less of a Hallmark do-gooder glow than an infection of curiosity, more questions than conclusions. What were these people’s lives? What were their ailments? To whom would they go home, if they were lucky enough to have a home? How long would the last rose last? Regarding the choice: why each yes, why each no? Was anyone left out, and would someone share? Would anyone do the ol’ pay-it-forward? Can the joy of a surprise flower be measured? Can it grow on a person even if begrudgingly accepted? Possibilities hover in the air around each gift of thorns, single fern fronds, quarter ounces of life-preserving water, and faint smell buried in the whorls of a rose. I may never know, but two dozen points of color are moving about this city, accompanying two dozen anonymous people, and I like to think that the roses will hear and that they will know.

Security man

If you worked for the Department of Homeland Security, would you walk around wearing all black, with a walkie talkie strapped to your belt, and the logo of the Department of Homeland Security silk-screened in silver on your ball cap, your lapel, your jacket sleeve, and the back of your jacket? When I ask you how’s it going, would you reply “Long as things stay quiet tonight, fine”? Is it the Department’s strategy to recruit out of shape and slightly overweight people to mosey through their days dressed like a SWAT team, thereby hoodwinking ever-watching enemies into believing that the Homeland is barren of truly scary defenders? Or would this be an impostor, perhaps a white-supremacist militia member, patrolling a grocery store in Montana where almost everyone’s white anyway… I want to know, but this is a story I’m not writing. It’s one with only empty space where the next words should be.

How they are

“How are you?” I ask.

“I’m so in lust. I see him in Organic Chem, and then sometimes at the gym, and I think he has to notice because I keep trying to sit next to him in study group and I gush sweat whenever I talk to him. I think I’d have a chance if only we could run into each other at a party. You think I’m crazy?” say her eyes.

“Broke,” say her fingernails. “Flat broke. Who’d have thought I’d be buying three frozen burritos on credit? This isn’t the way that Grandma raised me, but then again Grandma never tried to get her PhD.”

“Screw you for asking,” says the rim of his ballcap. “Like you care.”

All the mouths say: “Fine.”