Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Two souls

I’ve been talking a bit to others about integration of different parts of ones life, or ones work, into your overall Life with a capital “L.” That’s brought back to me the concept of two souls, an aspect of Kabalistic mysticism I read about years ago, and really believe. Disclaimer: I’m no theologian, so this is representative of my understanding, and my own thoughts. That’s the best I can offer.

According to Judaism, we’re all born with two souls, and operate throughout our lives on two levels of consciousness. One is the divine soul, striving toward selflessness and truth, seeking peace and, ultimately, seeking God, or the universe, or whatever you want to call it—thereby propelling our spiritual life. The other is the animal soul that is motivated by self-preservation, self-gratification and a whole bunch of other self stuff, that thereby propels our physical life. Life is spent then as a constant struggle between these two souls, one seeking to impose its will and its way on our lives. Or, in a more positive sense, life is spent in interaction with the two souls, trying to integrate them into a whole.

But it’s not as clear cut as the good devil and the bad devil sitting on your shoulders, “Man I looooove my divine soul and wish my animal soul would stop trying to f#çk me up.” The animal soul is actually more powerful in us, and not all bad. Though more concerned with the physical, and housing our urges and desires, base and otherwise, the animal soul is also responsible for creativity and passion. It lights and fans an internal fire of desire that provides motivation. It is more intense, and more closely tied to what we would, in Western culture, assign as positive emotions; again, creativity, drive, strength and desire to achieve. The animal soul is what drives progress in the world.

But that’s assuming those passions are checked, and guided by the divine soul. Without that guidance and discipline, the animal soul can become a destructive force. On the other hand, the divine soul, by my understanding, is more pure but not as strong. By that, I mean it’s more comfortable with introspection than action; with working within than on working without, in the world; on studying and self-improvement than on changing ones situation. It is strong in that it is “of God” (hence, 'divine') and represents thereby a spiritual connection to…well, everything.

Okay, bad analogy number one (that, embarrassingly, shows how my simple mind likes to break down intense concepts into smaller chunks that I can chew). I like to think of it as Tarzan being the animal soul, with Jane as the divine soul. Jane is what Tarzan loves, and what drives him to nobler acts, and channels his inherent power. But Jane wouldn’t survive a day in this jungle without him, because he can kick @$$. And sometimes, there’s quite a bit of kicking to be done. Jane needs Tarzan, Tarzan needs Jane, both making the other stronger, better, and possible.

I don't know how cheetah fits into all this. :-)

The thing I liked best about this concept is that it acknowledges this struggle, and makes it okay. It’s not about saying, “You’re bad because you have a strong animal soul, and you should look more to your divine soul you skanky so-and-so.” It’s saying everyone has this struggle, and everyone shares this struggle. Everyone. And that acceptance is like welcoming home a long lost part of yourself, a lost child you cast out, unknowingly and have missed without remembering. You can let him in, and make a place for him. You may need to maybe move the china to a higher shelf and add some safety locks to the knife drawer and the gas stove (okay, bad analogy number two) but let him know, he is home.

You're home.

Now wipe your feet.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Soup questions

Fair warning disclaimer: This one is in search of a point. I kept thinking I would get there, but at the end of the day have failed miserably. But I want to post it as I haven’t posted in a few days, and I’m trying to get back to an every-other-day schedule.

I think Finding Forrester is one of the best films ever made. I watched it again, last night. It’s absolutely one of my all-time favorites, and one of those I can watch over and over again, still maintaining rapt interest. Some people do this with many films, but I’m sorry, three times was it for Star Wars with me, and once is enough for most others. But I happen to love Finding Forrester with Sean Connery, Rob Brown, Anna Paquin and Busta Rhymes, for so many reasons. It’s about writing, and finding a voice, and dealing with criticism. It’s about overcoming expectation is an essentially racist and sexist society where there is, nonetheless, real opportunity for someone willing to put in the work and display the talent and aptitude. It’s about demanding more of oneself, even when those around you have lower expectations. And it’s also a quintessential New York movie to me, in that it feels and looks like the New York I lived in for 12 years, and still miss, and which very, very few movies ever successfully capture.

My favorite expression from the movie is one that peppers my conversations from time to time, and that no one who doesn’t love that movie as I do (read: no one) ever gets.

Forrester: You better stir that soup.

Jamal: What?

Forrester: Stir the soup before it firms up.

Why doesn't ours get anything on it?

Forrester (looking out of the window through his camcorder): Come on. Closer. Now.

Jamal: You got someone doing that kind of yelling? (a reference to an earlier conversation where Jamal describes his neighbors yelling during sex)

Forrester: What I have is an adult male. Quite pretty. Probably strayed from the park. (Jamal looks at him quizzically, until Forrester shows him the image on the camcorder-a close-up of a bird) A Connecticut warbler.

Jamal: You ever go outside to do any of this?

Forrester: You should have stayed with the soup question. (getting angry) The object of a question is to obtain information that matters only to us. You were wondering why your soup doesn't firm up? Probably because your mother was brought up in a house that never wasted milk in soup. That question was a good one, in contrast to, "Do I ever go outside?", which fails to meet the criteria of obtaining information that matters to you.

Jamal: All right. I guess I don't have any more soup questions.

Later on, they’re talking in Forrester’s apartment, amid his endless volumes of books and papers, and the theme comes up again.

Did you ever get married?

Forrester: Not exactly a soup question, is it?

At the end of the movie, after Jamal makes a stand and proves he’s more than just a black pair of hands on the basketball court, he and Forrester are walking and talking outside the school. This is significant because the reclusive Forrester has panic attacks, and, before Jamal came into his life, would never leave his apartment, and had never left, without Jamal. This last time, to help Jamal, he left on his own.

Forrester: I'm thinking you'll make your own decisions from here on.

Jamal: I thought you'd say something like, "I always could."

Forrester: No more lessons. I have a question, though. Those two foul shots at the end of the game…did you miss them or did you miss them?

Jamal: Not exactly a soup question, is it?

So, I’ve picked up the expression, “That’s not exactly a soup question” as a way of saying, “I’m not sure that’s really any of your business” in a polite, if puzzling way. Now, you might get it and thus be part of a select group in the non-sequitur know.

Part of my problem with small talk in general is that it’s made up of questions masquerading as soup questions. People who are the best conversationalists are, IMHO, those people who can get people to talk about themselves. Get someone to talk about himself, and you’re guaranteed a five minute conversation with little more than slight pushes to get it rolling and with little effort you can keep it moving easily for another five minutes. Snippets along the line of answering the old joke, “But enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”

But the flip side of that is when you’re genuinely interested in someone, in what they think, in their experiences. Then those questions become soup questions, as they help you form your opinion of and expand your interest in the person, thereby establishing or strengthening your bond with that person. I miss those kinds of conversations. It seems I have less and less of them, replaced by something else. That something else is party conversations-those intermingling discussions that are designed mainly to fill the empty void between two people who likely aren’t going to see each other again for months or weeks, if ever. I find myself drifting in those, thinking I’d rather be drawing, or I’d rather be writing. Sometimes, I just plain drift over to a quiet corner and pull out my notepad or my sketchbook, and do.

What this blog has become is a place to have those conversations-to answer the unasked soup questions, if you will. This is a place to talk about some stuff that matters. To ask some questions that, perhaps, give some insight into information that matters to me. To whom? To whoever wants to read. And to some (selfish) degree, to myself.

So, ask more soup questions, friends. Make them count.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Feel better.

How do you make someone feel better? Is such a thing even possible?

I’ve been recalling an early Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schultz. In the first panel, Charlie Brown is sitting on a curb looking sad, and Violet and Lucy notice, and decide to walk over and cheer him up, in a spirit of altruism that seems very unlike them. So they walk over and stand for a beat, then Violet says, “Be of good cheer, Charlie Brown.” And Lucy adds, “Yes, Charlie Brown, be of good cheer.” Then, mission accomplished, they both walk off, feeling infinitely pleased with themselves, leaving Charlie Brown still sad, but now also puzzled as to what that was supposed to accomplish. Ha ha.

I remember reading that cartoon in a collected paperback book in elementary school, and thinking not that it was funny, but that it was true. That’s what we do. We see someone sad, and we want to fix it. (As usual, when I say we, I mean me, unless you can relate…)
We hate to see it. It hurts us to see another’s pain, or (maybe pain is too strong a word, though it’s sometimes appropriate) we hate to see another’s discomfort. Maybe it’s from the nobler inherent need to help others, to empathize with their pain and want to alleviate it. Maybe it’s from somewhere more selfish; seeing someone in pain strikes an internal chord that makes us begin to feel our own pain, and want to heal the other, at least cover it up in the other, before the infection can spread to us. I’m not sure if it matters which it is, and I suppose it depends more on your World View.

I choose to believe the former. I hope I choose to care. But that said, is there anything we really can do? When a person feels sad or bad about something, we may want to say or do something that makes it okay, but is there anything really, that we can do, except be around and watch as they go through it? Can any words fill the emptiness of loss, alleviate the terror of uncertainty, and stop the echoes of heart-wrenching tremors that rattle around in that empty space inside? We want to, sure we want to, but what can one really do?

Listening is often at once the least and the most we can do, and encourage someone to talk, to facilitate that. Not responding is sometimes the most we can do in response. That, and maybe hope that when and if they get through to the other end, that our mere presence and willingness to endure, was enough to help in some way.

Me, I like laughter. If it were me walking up to Charlie Brown, I might point to a spot on his shirt and ask him “what’s that?” and then bop him on the nose with my finger as he looked down, and hope that would amuse more than annoy. Because I happen to think the best way to feel better is to think of something that makes you happy, or has made you happy, or could make you happy. Again, maybe that’s too simplistic, but I’ve found if I can think of something good that’s more important than the bad thing I’m feeling, that sometimes helps me feel better. But by the same token, I’ve found talking to others and trying to get them to go through the same process, or to give them the gift of something to feel better about doesn’t always work. It’s more fifty-fifty. And the fifty that fails can fail pretty miserably. But I had a teacher in college that always said, "If I'm flying an aiplane and it's going to crash into a mountain, I hope it explodes in midair with tons of fireworks, seconds before it hits." In other words, if your going to fail, fail dramatically, and spectacularly. Well, sir, I do try.

So I’m left with no answer to this one. I don’t know if it is really possible to make another person feel better, really. The most we can hope for then, is that we can help ourselves to feel better, and that we can be there for the other person to help them find their own path to that place. And hope that, on occasion, you can get to that place together. Either that, or get tons of fireworks.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I heart junk.

On Sesame Street, Oscar the grouch lived in a trashcan, which was supposed to make you think, ‘yuck,’ right? But trash is good. Oscar was a smart SOB.

Reading my friend Maries blog, she was impressed by the trash pickup setup in Barcelona. She writes that there are “bins at the end of the block. The bins serve 2-4 blocks each. One bin is for glass, one for plastic, one for cardboard, and one for wheelie bags/coffee grinds/egg shells and the like.”

While this is amazingly efficient for a large city, I think we have them beat in the small town I live in. Here we have a central town-wide “transfer station” which people the town over bring their trash to, open all day Saturday, half-day Sunday, and Wednesday evenings only. The garbage goes in the compacter bin, where it is crunched and munched down to an airless mass that is hauled away to God-knows-where. Our contribution to this trash is kept pretty trim by recycling and composting in the backyard. Then there are several other stations at the transfer station. One large, and I do mean large, bin is for paper and cardboard, and another for glass and plastic and other type 3 and 4 recyclables. There’s also an even larger bin where you put old furniture, in which I’ve found a usable desk, and an antique fold out sewing machine table (see below).

But that’s not most the impressive part, yet. At the back of the whole area is a large shed that’s called the “Mall.” Just inside its doors to the right are several shelves which people keep stocked with their old books, paperback and hardcovers. Between the library and this resource, I haven’t bought a new fiction book in the past five years. If I wait a bit, and don't find it in the library, a copy of whatever I want turns up here.

A short list of some of the great stuff I’ve found at the “Mall”:

A hand-crafted child’s rocking chair. (Which our kids are getting too big for now, so I suppose I should redeposit)

A VCR, in fully working order.

A DVD player, in full working order.

A vacuum cleaner, in full working order.

Kids jeans, pre-worn and pre-shrunk.

A full set of Popular Mechanics Home Handyman Guides.

Two humidifiers (giving us now one for each room after the ones we purchased. Seems people here just buy new humidifiers each year, rather than just buying the new filters and cleaning the old one each season.)

A fold-out camping table.

An antique fold-out sewing machine table (which I refinished and converted into a fold-out N-scale model train table. I’ll post pix one day if anyone is interested.)

Two or three times a year the Mall is emptied out, the contents donated to local churches and Goodwill and the Salvation Army. So you never end up looking at the same old junk for a really long time. There’s always new junk. And the junk is always pretty new.

An unscrupulous resident might say that this is an e-bayers paradise, but I’m not that jaded, or desperate, or maybe intelligent enough to see it that way, yet. What I do see is that, though we don’t officially live in a rich town, we do live in a town with a few rich people. And apparently the wealthy have a lot of junk.

So, let me know what you need. I'm sure we can work out a deal. Me and Oscar, we got connections.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Being sure

“Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a rocket,” said Big T,
“Stuck a finger up his butt, and called it Hershey’s chocolate!”

And after he said that, my 9-year-old burst out laughing. He’s just asked me if I wanted to hear a new song that his friend had taught him on the bus today, and I’d said “sure,” because, I felt, “sure.” After he told me, I wasn’t so sure.

I remember hearing similar rhymes at school, and yes, I remember them being around the 4th grade, so maybe it’s age appropriate. That’s not the nerve-racking part, not the thing that I’m up tonight thinking conflicted thoughts about. The part that makes me happy is that he still feels able to tell me stuff like that. And how I’m going to handle it in three, or five, or seven years. Or, more concerning, if I’m going to be given the opportunity.

Right now, we talk. We have talks two or three times a week at bedtime, our private time before his little brother joins us. It’s time that’s typically taken away from his reading time (he just finished Eragon, by Christopher Paolini, before we saw the movie last weekend, and now he’s in the middle of Eldest, the sequel and middle of the Inheritence trilogy.) Sometimes the talks are punctuated by the book sitting open, his eyes flitting over to it from time to time, anxious to get back to the story. But there’s a more important story that I’m trying to work on with him. One about growing up, and staying close, and trying to remain connected. I think about this today, as I talked with a friend about having long, important talks with your kids about what they're experiencing. The best parent, the very best parent, can get told they are the best through these conversations. It's what speaks to the underlying trust, and is a mark of certainty in the familial bond. It's a pretty special thing. It's what I'm aiming for.

When Big T was a toddler, I took in a seminar on child discipline. It wasn’t what I thought, and almost blew off. It was a class which emphasized that the best gift you can give your child is the ability, the certainty and the confidence to make his or her own decisions, within a framework you instill in them at a very early age. The best discipline, and in the end, the only discipline that matters, is self-discipline.

I’m not talking about being a pal to your kids. I mean, that’s its own tender trap, there. I know plenty of parents who tried to play friends to their kids, and forgot the parenting part. The parenting part is about teaching, about leading by example, and acknowledging, explaining, but not excusing when that example falls short of the mark. Explaining that the most we try for is the best we can be, and that perfection isn’t within the realm of possibility. In our house, we aim for what we say we’re going to do. And that often means watching what you say, because you’ll need to live up to it. But a big part of that is acknowledging that parents are human, but they are responsible, and kids are kids, but they are accountable, to their parents, to each other, but ultimately, to themselves most of all.

We talk about love and the importance of family a lot in our house. Our kids go to bed every night saying some variation of “I love my family more than chocolate! I love my family more than buttered noodles! I love my family more than Saturday morning cartoons!” That love is important, because with it comes accountability. We’re responsible to those we love. And as we love ourselves, so are we responsible there. But I’m losing my point.

What I am thinking and talking about is trying to develop and maintain a relationship with my kids that makes them feel like they can tell me things. Today it’s a dirty rhyme that ought to shock me. But one at which I instead laugh and raise a casual eyebrow. We share the laugh, without recrimination. Tomorrow, I hope it might be some issues with how they’re doing in school or with their friends and exposure to alcohol and tobacco, and more serious exposure to drugs. Because that stuff is everywhere, and always has been. The only difference is in kids ability to handle it, or more importantly, much more importantly, their awareness of not being able to handle it and looking to someone they trust for guidance. Today maybe he can tell me a dirty rhyme. Tomorrow, he might trust me enough to call to pick him up from a party where his ride has had too much to drink. And I hope the trust that let him off the hook for the rhyme pays off in his trust that I won’t ride him about that on the ride home. Because the alternative to his telling me the rhyme isn’t that he won’t know it. The alternative is that he doesn’t tell me. And knowing is better. Knowing is always better. Of that I’m sure.

So, as I left the room, the room that he shares with his 6-year-old younger brother, I felt even less sure as Li’l T started to say the rhyme, the parts he could remember, “Yankee Doodle wnet to town…how did it go again?”

It’s going to be an interesting couple of decades.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Mens Mags

Years ago, I used to do a lot of flying, on business. Being an economy-minded guy, I liked to get every dollar I could out of that, so signed up for frequent flyer mileage. However, the flying was infrequent, and never amounted to enough even to get a discount on travel. But about five months ago I got a notice that one of the programs had miles that were about to expire, and offered me a set of subscriptions in exchange, and before they expired. Seemed win-win.

My problem is I’m not a big magazine guy. I have not even one subscription. So the long list of possibilities they offered seemed unexplored territory. There were no magazines on computers, no MacAddict or MacWorld, no Step Up Digital Design, no HOW or Communication Arts. There were popular magazines, Popular Mechanics, TV Guide, Glamour, Cosmo, etc.

So, I asked my wife what trashy pleasures she’d enjoy a subscription to, and got the Cosmo, the Glamour, and a couple other magazines we never buy unless we’re going on an airplane. And I still had five subscriptions I could have. So I signed up for what I thought were two acceptable men’s magazines, Stuff and Maxim. I’d seen these at the newsstand, saw them advertised as “men’s magazines” in a way that didn’t make them synonymous with pornography. But I’d never picked them up. So I figured, what the hell.

I started getting the magazines a month ago. I’ve gotten two issues of each, thus far. In general, they read like they are aimed at oversexed, easily-led high school boys who need to be told what’s cool, and feel like they’re in on all the inside jokes, whether or not they’re funny. Except all the bikini-clad women on the cover and inside are much too old for high school. Still, they look like kids to me. Is that a sign I’m getting old? I don’t know. They make me feel like it. And they make me feel smart—as in too smart to buy these.

When I used to get Playboy, in my early single days, the older women in those pages were much more attractive to me at my younger age. I never had a thing for women that much younger than me. I considered college guys who dated high school girls a bit creepy, and that hasn’t changed a lot. Not me, brudda. It just seems to me that the women that populate these magazines are so young, so much about some kind of spring break, Porky’s-type fantasy, it’s hard to imagine the appeal. Is that the sign that I'm old? Some of the articles-like asking about which vitamins are best for men, or comparing sports drinks, or even stories about gun trafficking and Hollywood are okay, but even in that I can’t say, “oh, I like it for the articles.” I’m just not getting it, and man does that make me feel old. I mean, hey, I also think Eva Mendez is hot as the next guy (not that I think the next guys is hot…), but do people really pay money for this stuff? Month after month? Is there a way I can get my money back from a free subscription?

Lately also I’ve started to be aware of the magazines just because I have very young boys, and don’t want to leave the magazine lying around. But not for the same reason as I would’ve if I got Playboy. Or maybe it is for the same reason; embarrassment. But in this new case, it’s because I’m embarrassed that I gave my address to these people. My boys haven’t even started like-likeing girls yet (as anything other than friends). I don’t want this stuff around when they do. So, the good news is, I recycle. I just wish there was something about these magazines that made the two-minute trip from the mailbox to the recycling bin a little more interesting.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Do Over

When I wrote comics, one of the favorite characters that I created was KickBack (because the name Flashback was taken). He was a character with huge legs and feet, who could jump back three minutes into his own past. Just enough time to correct a small, but critical, mistake. It saved his life several times. This was many years before GalaxyQuest (1999) made that the maguffin of their plot. (I wuz robbed! Or the guy I unconsciously, though assuredly, robbed that idea from wuz robbed.) And that was years before a movie with a similar theme, SlipStream (2005), starring Sean Astin came out. Great minds, and all that. Lately, with my being so impulsive—extraordinarily impulsive, for me, if you knew me—I’ve been contemplating this subject. What if you got do-overs? What if you could rewind time? What would you change, and what would you be afraid to change? What if you made things worse, as was the case in Slipstream, every time you went back? Or worse, what if you couldn ’t do a damned thing because the whole idea is against the laws of quantum physics, but you nonetheless just kept thinking about the concept over and over? Well, talk about it, of course.

See, the key to what makes the concept palatable is the time frame. If we were to talk about big do overs, we’d be talking about concepts like the movie Family Man, where Nick Cage goes back ten years, and sees where his life would be if he made a different decision at a key juncture. The problem I had with the end of that movie was, no matter what he did at the end, he still would never be able to make that decision ten years ago. Though he could maybe get Tea Leoni back, he’d never have those two gorgeous kids, never recapture the joy of that life. The ending was a maybe, at best. That kind of ending, and that line of pursuit, is just maddening. The time frame of a few months, a few days, a few hours, or even a few minutes is much easier to swallow.

What we need is a rewind button. Or maybe just a rewind card, like a business card, that you keep handy in your front pocket. That’d be something you could hold up, and use to take back the last 5 minutes—yeah, 5 minutes is a good amount—of time or conversation, and get a re-do. How often in a day would you do that? How often in a lifetime?

Maybe it’s something we can agree to in relationships. Not every relationship, of course—just the ones that meant the most to you. The ones that need the most caring, and you have the most care, for. You say something awkward and out of place, and then realize and regret the consequences. So you pull out your one hour do-over card and bzzzppp , the thing never happened, the words were never said, the action, whatever it was, never contemplated. Do-over. Man, how tempting would that be?

But, of course, there are consequences, and memory, though buriable, and even selective at times, is not erasable. What we have in its place is love, understanding, and forgiveness, and the ties that bind which facilitate those things. So that when you can’t erase, or forget, you can move past, and forgive. And for those instances where you can’t do any of the above, have the willingness to move forward.

Because, really, there's no other choice. Dammit.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Time for bla-de-bla-de-bla-de-bla.

So, my friend Steve keeps asking when I have time to write all this c#@%. At times it’s not easy. But most of the time, it is. I’ve been getting up at 6, wide awake, and with ideas burning through my head. The kids don’t get up until 7, and we all don’t have to be gone until 8. So I’ve got a solid hour, sometimes more.

I hate drawing first thing in the morning. My hand isn’t warmed up yet, and I too often create crap, or ruin something I’ve already started that would’ve come out fine if I just left it alone until the evening, thank you very much. That’s when I typically start two or three trains of thought that will eventually become blogs. See, blogging for me is different than journaling. Journalling is about recording today. For me, with blogging, I can develop two or three strings at once, organizing my thoughts in each one until I have what I consider an idea, or at least a thought that I’m willing to put out there. And the good part for me is just the exercise. In addition to this form of journaling, I’ve also written several letters to people that I didn’t intend to send, and been able to progress on a couple of the short stories that I’ve had languishing for months, now, if not years. (Okay the ones that sat for years I’ve tossed. I think I’m better than that now. I hope I am, anyway.)

I also ran down to the nearest Big Box (forgiveness requested) and picked up a big pack of tiny notebooks, 20 in a pack. The notebooks are the size of my hand, and fit easily in a breast pocket (if I don’t mind the nerdy look. But hey, if I’m man enough to wear a pink shirt, I can handle that). I keep one at my computer at home, one in my car, one at my computer at work, and I try to always have one in my pocket. The rest float around in the ether, turning up here and there, seemingly always to hand when I need one. They move from location to location, interchangeably. This gives me the freedom to write whenever I have an idea, capturing what I’m thinking about for later inclusion in one of the blogging docs, or a twist idea for the stories, or a new direction or thought that will become a new blog. I’ve had a lot of thoughts lately. So I’ve had a lot of energy, and a lot of waking time. And a lot to say. It’s been a good thing, if you’ll pardon my Martha-ism.

I used to be this way with sketching. I’d have a sketchbook with me at all times, even if it was a tiny one. I did some of my best illustrations from the scribbles in those. But these days, as I said before, I can only draw under special circumstances. I need a board on my lap, a pencil and a sharpener, an eraser, paper, and then the time. Oh yes, the time. But I can write anytime. I’m going to bed, staring up at the ceiling, and I’m writing. I’m driving into work, and I’m writing. I’m watching my kids watch a schlocky movie that holds my interest only periforally, and I’m writing. The problem is recording it. With the little notepads and an abundance of pens everywhere, I think I have that solved. Except for the driving part. Haven’t quite licked that one.

So, what I’ve found is that you make time for things that are important. I make time for my kids (though with each year they seem to have less time for Dad…). I make time for my wife. I make time for my work, or rather, my work makes time for itself, if I want a paycheck. And now lately, I’ve been making more time for writing.
Okay, maybe this one wasn’t very interesting. But I still found time to write it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


I’ve been thinking about passion, and intensity this weekend. Seems a little appropriate for the MLK Day holiday. I think MLK Jr. was all about passion.

I’ve been told I’m intense. I look at that word, and it feels negative to me. A light that’s intense is harsh, glaring, and hurts the eyes. You say intense pain, never intense joy. Intense feels piercing, invasive, uncomfortable, unpleasant. I don’t like to think of myself as intense.

I prefer passionate. Leaving the sexual connotations alone for a while, passionate is positive. It’s alive. It evokes energy and meaning and feeling, a pulse within itself that drives one to action. You can’t be passionately sedentary. Passion makes you move. Passion makes you act.

I remember reading books, a decade ago, with analogies of people as light. I can’t remember the specific books, but the analogies have stayed with me. People can be light, and draw other people to them with the heat and light of their energy, enthusiasm and passion. Others draw from the light, and give back to the light in a symbiotic relationship. Thus you find creative people in a community drawn to each other, hanging socially, exchanging ideas and creating new ones. That’s what sometimes happens, anyway. But, sometimes, some people draw from the light and draw from it, and drain it away, without returning to it. Some people can thus be drained of their light, their energy, their passion.

Of course, no passion is endless. Everyone needs their battery’s "recharged" at some point or another, if they’re being too intense, too passionate. And conversely, those around you, those who love you, can’t exist long in too intense of a light, Something has to change, sometimes. You have to rest for a time, but if the passion is there, and the passion is real, you’re ready to go again, and pretty soon. There is an ebb and a flow to it. But it’s the flow that drives.

Lately, my passion has been flowing. Flowing so much it’s been a bit exhausting. Flowing so hard it’s been scaring some of those around me. I’ve been feeling the drain, and haven’t identified anything specifically that’s recharging me, other than the kind words of friends, and love. Or maybe more specifically I should say, I’ve been recharging—overcharging—on that.

So maybe I should accept the intense label. If I’m passionate about the things I care about, about the things I believe, about the things I want, and that passion translates as intensity, maybe I should bow to that. Maybe intensity is what makes transforms creativity from a tool into an inescapable direction, a way of life, and maybe intensity and real passion are inseparable. Or maybe I’m just on the road to burning out.

Either way, this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Are you happy?

This is a question I feel compelled to ask people lately, and they look at me as if my second head had a blue mohawk. People walk around every day, and say “Hey, how are you doing?” as a meaningless greeting, eliciting the automatic, autonomic response “Fine, and you?”, or the less committal, “Can’t complain.” These rote catechisms, incidentally lost of all real meaning, are normal. No one thinks twice about them. I once knew someone I’d see daily whose response challenged this a bit. He’d ask “how are you doing” and meet the “Fine, and you?” with a smiling “Great, thanks for asking.” I later saw this adapted on South Park, with Gay Al answering, “I’m (th)super, thanks for asking.” He raised some eyebrows (the Marvel guy, not Gay Al) and elicited some smiles (again, the Marvel guy, though I’m sure Gay Al elicited some smiles in there, too.) It was something out of the ordinary, a bit eccentric. But he was on to something.

So, people been giving me such odd looks when, instead of “How are you?” I ask, “Are you Happy?” I’ve been doing it for a week now, and have been met with everything from odd looks to startled disbelief. Most often what I get are long explanations and qualifications for why the respondent can’t just say “Yes.” Maybe it’s the sincerity with which I ask that takes people aback. At least I hope the sincerity reads. I actually want to know who’s happy with where they are, with what they’re doing. I want to know how happy. I want to know who knows, and who doesn’t, and how many of those who don’t know, know or care why. Most people, in fact, can’t just say “Yes.” Because that’s not normal. Like if you walk down the street smiling. It makes people wonder what you’re up to. Or certain that they know already.

It seems almost a certain way to screw someone’s day, though it shouldn’t. What it should be is an opportunity. That’s how I intend it. Most people go through life so much on autopilot, they don’t stop to question if they are happy. More precisely, working hard to disguise and obfuscate whether they are happy or not, thereby making enjoyment of life, happiness, what Joseph Campbell called “following your bliss,” seem entirely beside the point. The point is to continue moving forward, one foot in front of the other. It’s a worthy distraction to stop and ask yourself if you’re happy, on that particular path. It’s a worthy problem to confront, from time to time.

This is inevitably leading up to something. One question. Am I happy? I wish I knew for certain. I thought I would be able to answer, by this point in the blog, knowing that I was coming here. I know I wish I could, with certainty, say “yes, absolutely happy. There’s nothing more I could want.” But I know that’s not true. I mean, I remember feeling that way in the past, for short periods, so I do know the feeling when I’m in it. Periods in high school, which, for me, was an excellent experience. I’ve since learned that this is unique. Periods in college, surrounded by friends, and real love. Periods at Marvel, doing something I dreamed about, and was proud of. Periods in my marriage, again surrounded by love. Periods at work, doing something exciting and challenging, and meeting that challenge, feeling like I’m contributing something of significance.

But I’m also aware of the feeling of knowing that, though all the ducks are in a row, and all the pieces for happiness are there, but the feeling, the actual feeling in the pit of my stomach or the flutter of your heart, is just somehow…absent. I know the roses are there, and I stop to smell them, but sometimes, it’s just a flower, not a moment. It should be a moment, a zen moment, where the world just falls away, and I can know, just for that moment. But something is missing. That “missing thing” feeling is something I’ve blogged about before, but I still have no easy answer for it. Maybe I’m just having a bad morning. Maybe I'm having contact withdrawl. Maybe I shouldn’t have forgotten to practice my “grateful” routine this morning (in a sense, this blog is the opposite of my thoughts just three days ago. That’s the pendulum swing I’ve been on, lately.). Or, maybe there is no easy answer. Maybe, sometimes, this wanting is just what it’s like to be human. I don’t know.

But I’m trying to figure it out. I’m working on my own personal ‘bliss list,’ of the things that I know make me happy.
Showing someone something they didn’t know (that they are glad to know).
Solving a challenging problem, or be part of the solution.
Making something beautiful. or cool, or interesting, or that I just plain like having made. Creating something.
Making my kids smile.
Getting a special note from someone I care about.
Feeling love, Real love.
Expressing love, and friendship.
Making someone else happy. To give that, and know that I gave it.
Or even just to help somebody else by getting them to figure out their own list, which maybe, just maybe, might help them figure out how to chase it down.

So, hey. Are you happy?

Sunday, January 7, 2007

What the Hell am I Doing-New Year's Edition

Reviewing this list since my last list, I realize I’ve been doing less in the month past than typically. I’m slowing down. This is a good opportunity to review and re-pace myself. I need January to set the pace for the rest of the year, and it can’t be a slow one. Not this year. This is the year everything changes.

Trying something new this post: More links. If you are curious about others opinions of the books, the links will lead to Amazon reviews.

Last Read: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. This is a great, fast read with lots of twists and turns. It’s ostensibly about a young Indian boy whose family owns a zoo. While traveling on a Steamship with the animals (they’ve have been sold to a zoo in America), disaster strikes and he ends up on a lifeboat with a group of animals, including an adult carnivorous Bengal tiger. Is that redundant? In the middle of the ocean. And from there it just gets wilder. The last third is a kicker. I highly recommend the experience. This will never be made into a movie, at least not an adequate one, so the book is the only way to have this experience. This is on my list of top ten re-reads. Speaking of which, in no particular order, her are the first five (other than the one already outlined above). I’m cutting this into chunks, since I want this to be a somewhat readable list. Will post the rest sometime in the next month.:

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.
I know I said no particular order, but really, this should be the top of the list. This is an amazing love story told through two lives-one of a man who jumps through his life, with no control of it, and the other of the woman he loves, and who loves him. Amazon synopsizes it better than I can. But it’s great piece of fiction. I can’t praise this enough. “If you read only one time travel romance thriller this year…”

Time and Time Again, by Jack Finney.
Okay, on the subject of time travel, which fascinates me for some reason, this is a good one. This was made into a schlocky movie with Christopher Reeve, and is one of those examples of movies I don’t understand. Why would you like a story enough to say you want to make a movie of it, and then fundamentally change the basic tenants of that story? Why does that happen so very often? Lesser movie, excellent, completely different, book. though not on the level of The Time Traveler’s Wife, above.

The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice, By Laurie R. King.
More period stuff. This title is the first of a series, whose premise is following the story of the brilliant and interesting woman whom Sherlock Holmes, in his later, retired years, meets, educates, falls in love with and marries. For Holmes fans, it may be a stretch, but I found it intriguing, and a great, sweeping story, as well as a great springboard for the latter titles.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr. This is the period piece that got me started. Scientists and a reporter in NYC in 1896, use modern profiling and evidence gathering techniques to profile and identify a serial killer. CSI:Old New York, with elements of a thriller and mystery.

End of Part one.

Last Seen: Apocalypto. This was a sweeping thrill ride. I’m not one for director swooning anyway, and think that every famous director from Spielberg to DePalma to Scorcese has had his share of lackluster efforts. I’ve never been one to say I want to see a movie because of the director. So the same holds true for the reverse—I wouldn’t avoid a movie because of the director, which seems to be a theme in all the other reviews I’ve seen. I’m a story guy. Gimme a good story, and I’m with you, right there. Anyway, this keeps your heart racing throughout the blood and gore and sadness (and there is a fair share, though nothing like, from what I’m told, Children of Men. Skipping that one, for now. Like I have a choice. This is my at-the-theater quota for the next 2 months.)

Last drawn: Finished the fifth page (in line art) for the children’s book I’m working on. Next, I need to do the color, which feels a bit intimidating, as I haven’t touched watercolors in a few years. Then on to dummying up the rest of the book, laying out at actual size. and mailing to my writer friend to sell. Pages are posted at my website.

Coming up: I am planning at this point (subject to chickening out and pending getting a pass) on attending the NY Comicon. This will be the first comic convention I will have been to since leaving Marvel. Spread the word to anyone who you know will be there! Meet my oldest! Poke my grey hair! Throw work at me!

Saturday, January 6, 2007

More, Part 2

I figured out a problem with the More blog of 12/23/06. Not a mistake, really, just a difference in interpretation. This has been bothering me, under all the roiling gelatin that’s passed for my grey matter, before and since the holidays. See, a friend commented, very succinctly and correctly, “I believe in moderation…'More' can easily become too much.”

That’s the dark side of More, isn’t it? When you want something and just want it and want it, and it starts to overshadow everything else there is. Soon everything in your life is flavored by the taste of the thing you don’t have. Everything good in there pales before the shadow of what’s absent.

Man, it’s so easy, and natural, and human to want too much. And dangerous, for all the reasons outlined above. Problem is, one usually doesn’t see what one has until it’s gone, can’t see what’s good until he’s lost it. Which just leads to more wanting, this time for the thing that you had when you started. I get it. I get it.

The antidote for greed is gratitude. I’ve been trying a little experiment lately. I start each day with gratitude, saying “thank you” for the day. “Thank you” for my teeth as I brush them (that they’re all mine and in great shape, and will be until the day I kick—no small feat coming from my family, with dentally challenged parents. Thanks, Sue Keller.). “Thank you” that I can hit twenty pushups before my day starts, and that I freakin’ want to. “Thank you” that I know how to do what I do all day, and enjoy it, and that I still want to learn how to do so much more. Motivational speakers (ugh!) call it an “attitude of gratitude,” (only because they’re so fond of alliteration and these things make for such nice book titles). But this is real. This is something. Because when you do it enough, it really does set the tone for the day. It makes that overcast sky on your way into the building something beautiful, and that blindingly sunshiny day, something spectacular. It makes the laughter of your children at play the most beautiful sound in the world.

And another funny thing happens when you start to feel grateful. More sometimes starts coming. And the More that comes, even if it’s just a shadow of the More you originally wanted, that starts to be Enough. And you’re grateful, all over again.

Was this blog cryptic enough for you? Good. Now I'm going to go outside and enjoy a piece of global warming.

Friday, January 5, 2007


I’ve had a hard time blogging of late. Not that I’ve stopped writing, but it's been difficult putting ideas together to represent a clear train of thought. My thoughts have been coming out disjointed, staccato, and without a sense of clarity that, usually, helps me understand what I want to say. When this happens, those around me have noticed that I get very quiet. Answers shorten, pauses lengthen. I get quiet. I'm pretty comfortable with quiet. But the main reason I do this kind of writing is because I have something to say, so I couldn't say anything until I sorted some of that out. Now I’ve something to say about not saying anything.

I believe in the Talking Heads line, “When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed. Say something once, why say it again?” Okay, it's from the song Psycho Killer, but don't hold that against me. I also believe in Willie Nelson’s song “Don’t let your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys,” for the line “He ain’t wrong, he’s just different,/ but his pride won’t let him/ do things to make you think he’s right.” Okay, again, I'm not a cowboy, but cut me some slack here.It's a male behavioral-ritual-reference thing. My point is, these beliefs contribute to the fact that I am, typically, pretty quiet.

I wear my iPod a lot. Company policy at the Publishing studio where I work frowns on downloading music, and books, onto your work computer. My iPod helps me get around that, downloading at home and transporting files with me. It also cuts the oft deadly silence of a computer-filled studio without central music. But a side effect is to emphasize silence. I forget I have the earbuds in, even when the music or book is off, wit hthe iPod in my breast pocket. I walk up to people and they adhere to the unspoken code of not speaking to someone who is listening to something else, even though I’m not listening to anything but their silence. Headphones in the office, on the street, on the bus or in the subway, reinforce silence within a group. We’ve become a nation of people quietly among each other, each echoing independent dins, within a sort of group silence.

This is a bit sad, to me. If you'd known me years ago, you’d know I was a very social animal. But that kind of outward bravado typically comes from a deep level of comfort and familiarity. That’s a comfort level I haven’t had since I left New York. There, I could strike up a conversation with anyone, on almost anything, knowing just a little bit about a whole lot. But that’s a skill that takes practice, and is easy to get out of practice in. I’m trying to get back in that practice, these days.

See, silence makes people uncomfortable.An inerviewing technique shared by cops and reporters alike is the asking of a question followed by silence. The person opposite feels the weight of the silence, and will usually move forward to fill it. With no response otehr than continued silence, the onus remains on the speaker, the one to whom the question was directed, to continue. We have an instinct to fill that void of silence between two people. And that's where they getcha.

So, on the other hand,quiet isn't all bad. Quiet is a great place for mental review. You can get your head together much easier (and when I say you, I of course mean I) in silence than even with soft music playing in the background. Music pushes or gently nudges you in a direction—anger, comfort, peace or agitation. Silence starkly stares at you, eyebrow raised, tapping one foot, and says, “okay, what now bub?” You’ve got to answer the questions that silence, poses on your own.

Silence is also a great place for note-taking. Clad in my silent earphones, I’m able to overhear conversation in close proximity, others lulled into a sense of isolation by the invisible cone the little white wires represent. I’ve gotten great, real dialogue that way for some of the stories and the like. And great ideas are borne of everyday conversations. You just have to be quiet long enough for the birth process to happen. It’s after the birth that all the screaming starts.

Myself, I've never had a problem with silence. If I'm with someone I really care about, I can fill hours in silence with the mental recording of features, of details, of specifics. Those recorded details are the food of future silences, filled with recollection. We are where we've been. We are what we remember, in those silences between the moments we call life.

So, all considered, I like quiet, in manageable doses. But too much can kill your soul. So I’ll try not to make too much noise, but wanted to give notice. Quiet time is over.

Hope your 2007 is going great.