Friday, April 30, 2010


Two photo-collages about the Chicago Transit Authority, riding the trains, the Blue Line especially, made in summer and winter 2004.


trains going by loud
click clack on the tracks—
mood of faraway


Photo-collage makes a synergy of multiple images into one bigger image, one overall image. The parts become more than themselves, and the sum is greater than the parts. The individual images are impressions that bind together in an overall pattern.

The originals of these two collages, which were made in B&W, have been shown as large-scale prints in one or two group gallery shows, in Chicago and Minneapolis.

Going back through old materials, old prints, old files, rediscovering some art and music made over the past few years, both before and after the life-changing events of moving out West, then later moving back, and all that followed.

The first CTA remains one of my own favorite pieces. The background is a brushed steel background that I photographed and made into a texture. The images were all taken within a ten minute frame, originally in B&W, back when I was first beginning to make B&W images again, while waiting for the Blue Line to take us from downtown out to the northwestern streets. A hot, sunny day. The industrial beauty of the machines. The lines of details, the rush and roar of the electric trains.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Piano Etudes 3

Here's another piano étude from my music school days, rediscovered when going through some old papers in the basement. This is one of my personal favorites.

The étude aspect of this piece is that it contains both a musical palindrome, and variations on a theme. In the first part of the piece, note that the chordal/melodic pattern in each hand repeats twice, although the rhythm changes. There is a free central section, ending on a quiet, almost-tonal cadence. Then in the last few bars, the original "theme"—I hesitate to call it something so formal and apparently intentional—is repeated, using the original notes but in retrograde, while the theme's original rhythm is preserved, until the last slow ending.

This is quiet music, of a type I still enjoy playing, or improvising. There is motion, so the music is not static. But it is quiet, restrained, gentle, almost silent at times. (A lot of music doesn't leave enough room for silence.) I could go on, descriptively, but the music largely speaks for itself. I enjoyed writing and playing this étude; and I've played through it again, recently, and still enjoy the mood the music makes.

Option-Click or Right-Click on the image for a downloadable full-size PDF of the music, suitable for printing and/or playing.

Standard Note on the Music: Feel free to download and play any of these piano études. The only thing I require, in the spirit of "giving away" this music, is that if you do download and perform or record one of my pieces, you must send me an MP3 and a concert announcement, for my records.

(©AP Durkee. All Rights Reserved.)

Previous études in this series:

Piano Etudes 2

Piano Etudes 1

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Inspirational Advice

(Hat tip to Nigel Beale for bringing this to my attention.)

Steve Jobs was invited to give the commencement address at Stanford University back in 2005. He told some stories, gave some advice, and was pretty funny at moments. What all of his story and advice boil down to is three points:

1. You must believe that the dots will connect somewhere down the road. This will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the beaten path, and that will make all the difference.

2. Do what you love. Don’t settle for less.

3. Remember that you are going to die, this will help you avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. Have the courage to trust your intuition. Stay hungry, stay foolish.

Now, you be may be thinking, well that's fine for him, but I'm not Steve Jobs, so it doesn't apply to me. It's fine for him to have made something of this life, but I'll never have his chances.

You'd be wrong.

This advice does apply to you, and to me, and to everyone else you know. It applies to your children, who followed their own dreams instead of living up to yours. It applies to anyone living on your street who is doing what they love doing, no matter how mundane it may seem to you.

It applies equally to people you like and whose lives you approve of, and to those you don't like and don't approve of. I know post-hippies living in the New Mexico desert who are living out their dreams; it's just that their dreams aren't "ambitious" in the fame-and-fortune department. Their are people you know who you think are wasting their talents; but it's their talent to waste, not yours.

THe part of Jobs' advice that I find most compelling is that we're already naked, we're already mortal: there's nothing to stop you from following your heart, this instant, right here, right now.

Remember, Steve Jobs started as a hobbyist in his garage.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gardens of Stone and Fern

images from Devil's Lake State Park, WI, April 2010

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Spring Rain at Devil's Lake

images from Devil's Lake State Park, WI, April 2010

After a short roadtrip up to Minnesota, I spent the night at Devil's Lake. I slept in the back of the truck, warm and cozy. During the night it began to rain, hard at times, with high winds. In the morning, before heading on down the road towards home, I spent some time in the rain-sodden park, making photographs.

clouds cover East Bluff,
threading the Devil's Doorway—
needle of memory

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mark Twain: In Celebration

A few random notes and quotes in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Mark Twain's death.

First a couple of my favorite short pieces from the man himself:

The Way Prayer

On the Decay of the Art of Lying

A few random Mark Twain quotes:

This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.
—Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar, entry for April Fool's Day

Arguments have no chance against petrified training; they wear it as little as the waves wear a cliff.
—from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

I will now claim—until dispossessed—that I was the first person in the world to apply the typewriter to literature. . . . The early machine was full of caprices, full of defects—devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to [William Dean] Howells. . . . He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered.
—"The First Writing Machines"

The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example.
—from A Tramp Abroad

You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.
—Letter to Orion Clemens, 23 March 1878

A long interview with Hal Holbrook regarding a special performance he will be doing of his one-man Mark Twain show to mark the anniversary. (Hat tip to Frank Wilson.)

This past month, even the SyFy Channel on cable has done a sideways Mark Twain celebration, by presenting a mini-series based on Philip José Farmer's epic RiverWorld novel series, a major character in which is riverboat captain Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. (This isn't the first adaptation of the Farmer's sprawling novel series undertaken, and I'm not certain that the previous adaptation wasn't more faithful to the letter of the books, but in my opinion this adaptation was certainly fun, and hit many of the right notes to capture the spirit if not the letter of Farmer's novels.)

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Monday, April 19, 2010

How to Write Badly, in Ten Easy Lessons

A misère game is a game that is played backwards, in "misery" or "poverty." That is, it is played by the conventional rules, except that it is played to lose. The object is to lose the game, or to force your opponent to win. Misère game strategy involves reverse thinking, backwards expectations, upside-down logic. By extension, misère advice teaches us what not to do.

By that token, when we make art we can also play to lose. We can play to play, not to succeed, not to win, not to compete against any standards, internal or external. This is a potentially valuable lesson to remember for any artist. We can opt out of the usual games, assumptions, and economic-political battles that make up the commercial art world of galleries and fame. We can just ignore that.

One of the best cards in the Oblique Strategies creativity advice deck of cards says, simply, "Go outside." That is the likely solution to fully half, maybe more, of all creative blocks: just go outside. Go out and play, and forget about those usual competitive strategies we employ.

Competition is built on an assumption of lack rather than abundance: the assumption that there can be only one winner in any game. That one must dominate, and all others submit, and lose. Competitive game theory is a theology of warfare. Most games are built on competition, and designed so that only one can win.

By contrast, games which are designed to be cooperative, even confocal, strive to maximize the number of winners. Such games require team-building, trust-building, and partnership. Cooperative strategy invests in the values of power-with rather than power-over. In fact, some cooperative games are completely non-hierarchical.

Naturally there are those who think cooperation is unnatural, and not humanly possible—well, they're half-right, since if you've convinced yourself that competition is "the natural order of things," you're going to completely miss noticing other paradigms such as cooperation. This is a case study in which belief does in fact create reality, because what you believe to be the truth of human nature is going to color how you interact with others.

I've recently run across some misère advice for writers, coming from two different sources, one for which I have no attribution, one quite well known.

I recently picked up the 1958 edition of The Langston Hughes Reader, a thick anthology containing Hughes' poetry, prose, autobiography, short stories, novel excerpts, and much more. There were specimens of writing I had not encountered before, and was very pleased to read for the first time. Of course, this volume being published in 1958, there is no post-modern-critical-theory slant to the editing; nor is there any mention of homosexuality, etc. That's not a loss, really, as those more contemporary theoretical discourses can be easily misused on a writer like Hughes; and the book is otherwise quite comprehensive to that date.

Near the back, there is a short satirical (or not) essay, originally published in The Harlem Quarterly, that I can't resist repeating here. (Note: I won't update his language here; remember this was written in the 1940s or 50s.)

How To Be A Bad Writer (In Ten Easy Lessons

by Langston Hughes

1. Use all the clichés possible, such as "He had a gleam in his eye," or "Her teeth were white as pearls."

2. If you are a Negro, try very hard to write with an eye dead on the white market—use modern stereotypes of older stereotypes—big burly Negroes, criminals, low-lifers, and prostitutes.

3. Put in a lot of profanity and as many pages as possible of near-pornography and you will be so modern you pre-date Pompeii in your lonely crusade towards the best seller lists. By all means be misunderstood, unappreciated, and ahead of your time in print and out, then you can be felt-sorry-for by your own self, if not the public.

4. Never characterize characters. Just name them and then let them go for themselves. Let all of them talk the same way. If the reader hasn't imagination enough to make something out of card-board cut-outs, shame on him!

5. Write about China, Greece, Tibet, or the Argentine pampas—anyplace you've never seen and know nothing about. Never write about anything you know, your home town, or your home folks, or yourself.

6. Have nothing to say, but use a great many words, particularly high-sounding words, to say it.

7. If a playwright, put into your script a lot of hand-waving and spirituals, preferably the ones everyone has heard a thousand times from Marion Anderson to the Golden Gates.

8. If a poet, rhyme June with moon as often and in as many ways as possible. Also use thee's and thou's and 'tis and o'er and invert your sentences all the time. Never say, "The sun rise, bright and shining." But, rather, "Bright and shining rose the sun."

9. Pay no attention really to spelling or grammar or the neatness of the manuscript. And in writing letters, never sign your name so anyone can read it. A rapid scrawl will better indicate how important and how busy you are.

10. Drink as much liquor as possible and always under the influence of alcohol. When you can't afford alcohol yourself, or even if you can, drink on your friends, fans, and the general public.

If you are white, there are many more things I can advise in order to be a bad writer, but since this piece is for colored writers, there are some things I know a Negro just will not do, not even for writing's sake, so there is no use mentioning them.

—Langston Hughes

This is true misère advice for writers. I am reminded both of some of Mark Twain's more scathing commentaries, and of similar reverse-advice pieces from other writers. I especially like Hughes' little tag comment at the end, disguised as a throwaway, which opens up whole new cans of worms only to let them wiggle free and be ignored.

Hughes' No. 6 on his list, about having nothing to say but saying it at great length, is one of the biggest problems I have with contemporary literature, both poetry and fiction. The main reason many writers pad out a novella into a novel is because publishers like to sell novels rather than short story collections; they believe that's what people want to read. But this only strengthens the tendency of bad writers to over-write. What's wrong with a great deal of contemporary literature is that it's over-written in the extreme. And there are lots of writers out there right now, some of them with shiny new MFA degrees, who love the sounds of their own voices, who are addicted to writing, but who really have nothing at all to say. Far better to be silent than to write another pointless book of poetry, or another new novel about nothing.

From another direction, a friend of mine recently sent me a short list of advice on "How to Be Miserable as an Artist." This too is misère advice (oh whoa is miserable me!), and it's also quite funny. It sticks a pin in those self-inflated Sensitive Artist types who are all about the pose of being an Artiste, and not about the quality of the actual artistic work. I have to say "ouch" to some these quips, as they hit rather close to home (especially the ones about familiar approval), in terms of where one often finds oneself, early on in one's artistic career.

I have no attribution for this list. It strikes me as one of those Internet jokes that an artist made one day, out of frustration, and the sense of gallows humor one sometimes needs to cope with living the artist's life.

How To Feel Miserable As An Artist
(or, What Not To Do. . . .)

1. Constantly compare yourself to other artists.

2. Talk to your family about what you do and expect them to cheer you on.

3. Base the success of your entire career on one project.

4. Stick with what you know.

5. Undervalue your expertise.

6. Let money dictate what you do.

7. Bow to societal pressures.

8. Only do work that your family would love.

9. Do whatever the client/customer/gallery owner/patron/investor asks.

10. Set unachievable/overwhelming goals to be accomplished by tomorrow.

Every one of these can be painful to read, as they're all mistakes I've made, and seen other artists make. Sometimes these sorts of attitudes can take a long time to overcome, and choose to do differently. That's why this is gallows humor: it's something in which many of us can see ourselves reflected. I have to say, No. 8 really makes me both squirm and laugh at the same time: it speaks directly to truth that it's never wise to go looking for love (or approval) in all the wrong places.

I do feel the need to point out that, truth be told, in terms of being a professional graphic designer or illustrator, No. 9 on this list is in fact good advice that you need to follow—as long as the project you are working on is a commercial, marketing or advertising project. Your own personal, fine-art work should not be directed by others, but it's all right, even healthy, to let go of your ego and expectations when you're working on a commercial illustration project.

Although, true also to be told, the chances of your working for an art director with less intelligence, skills, and experience than your own are very high. Most of the time you just have to pretend not to care, let it go, and move on. There is no shortage of people in the commercial art and advertising worlds who have risen beyond their levels of competence. I've even once heard an art director say, without irony, "I'm not an artist, I'm a concept person."

So keep that in mind: for the sake of your own sanity, it is often wise to compartmentalize your fine art and personal projects away from your commercial ones. Just don't get them, or their expectations, confused.

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Writing About Music

I've written before about the blind spots that writers often have about music—specifically, poets who have an apparent inability to understand how music is its own force, not merely a support for song lyrics. I have also considered before about how audio performance, for example radiobroadcast, might be a genuine enhancement for much contemporary poetry; but I suspect that the poets' blind spots will keep this from happening, too, as most poets of my acquaintance seem to believe that print presentation trumps any other form, and should. No wonder there are floating accusations of hermeticism and irrelevance circling much poetry criticism nowadays.

Geeta Dayal has written a book about Brian Eno and the making of his 1975 album Another Green World, both a history of an influential album that lies at the root of much contemporary electronic pop music, but also an examination of the creative process. (The book is published by Continuum, and can be found here.) An interesting aspect of this book about a classic album is that both of the creators used the Oblique Strategies deck of cards (developed by Eno and Peter Schmidt), which is designed to help an artist break through blocks, mental ruts, and other impediments. Eno used the Obllique Strategies cards throughout the making of his album; and Dayal used the cards to help her write her book about the album. (I love the Oblique Strategies, and have been known to use them myself from time to time.)

Author Geeta Dayal was recently interviewed on PRI's weekly arts & humanities program To the Best of Our Knowledge. (Their podcast, which I highly recommend, can be found here.) Listening to this interview was a real treat for me, because it pointed out many ways in which the arts can interface, and that creativity is a way of life, not a hobby. (Seriously, this entire program is well worth a listen. You can listen or download this program here.)

Dayal said some interesting things during this interview, but one particular set of comments really struck home with me, and clarified my thinking about writers' blind spots about the other arts, and why so many writers so often fail at conveying the experience of being involved with music, of being immersed in the process of musical creation and performance. (Rock criticism, generally speaking, is even more full of clichéd rhetoric than poetry criticism.)

In Another Green World, only 5 out of 14 songs use lyrics, sung and/or spoken. Eno has been quoted as saying that the most important thing for him was to use the texture of the voice as a musical instrument; that the words don't mean that much to him, that the lyrics aren't even that important. The song's lyrics do add up to sentences, rather than random words, and they do mean something in themselves; but they're oblique, not foregrounded the way lyrics are in most songwriting: most of which tends to be about the music supporting or enhancing the meaning of the words. This is completely the opposite of that.

Dayal comments during the interview:

[Eno] was tired of this kind of hierarchy, of the voice being in the front. You have the singer in the front of the stage, the drummer in the back, you have a guitar player and a bass player. He wasn't into that any more. What he wanted was to sort of compress everything together, have everything be on the same level, have these sorts of layers.

I definitely think that one of the reasons why Eno is a particularly challenging person for rock critics to write about is simply because rock criticism really grew out of literary criticism, and poetry, in a lot of ways. There's a reason why so many people write about Bob Dylan: Dylan is somebody where you can really analyze the lyrics, and that's a comfortable place for a lot of writers to be.

Interviewer: And you don't have to write about the music.

Dayal: Writers, being writers, love talking about words. It makes sense. And so they love people like Bob Dylan, and you see Greil Marcus has written book after book after book about Bob Dylan! There's a reason why these really gifted writers go back to people like Dylan, or the Stones, or the Beatles, or whatever. When you have somebody who's like Brian Eno, who is saying "I really don't think the vocals are that important, I really don't think I'm that interested in the lyrics," it really stumps them. [laughter] Because they're like, then what do we write about? How are we going to say anything about this?

Now, for me, I spent many years just writing about pure electronic music. And so, I love writing about the sonics, about the sounds themselves. I got it, I understood. I actually prefer writing about someone like Eno, rather than breaking down and analyzing symbolism and meaning in rock lyrics.

I completely agree with this. I think Dayal has put her finger on a fundamental weakness of much music criticism, particularly about pop music genres. Writers, being writers, love talking about words. Fair enough, because that's both the drink and the essence of what writers do. But also, it creates this blind spot I'm talking about, in which writers are often stumped when trying to write about something that is not, or cannot be, contained in words; or is not made up of words.

Music criticism about symphonic literature is often metaphorical, even poetic, if you go back and read the classical music criticism of past centuries; yet the best of it discusses what the music evokes in the listener, and is more than mere descriptions or detailed historical notes. A lot of good rock criticism (Greil Marcus included) is about the history of the music itself: its roots, its origins, its lineage and results; it makes you understand the context of what you're listening to, as good criticism ought to do, deepening your experience of the art by surrounding your experience with complementary knowledge. But the best rock criticism (one thinks of Lester Bangs at times like this) re-creates the experience and power of the music in the reader—the way a poem needs to re-create the experience in the reader. In other ways, it's somatic, not merely cerebral: gutsy, not just intellectual.

There have been some great poems written about hearing the blues, to be sure—but that's an artist writing about art, not a critic writing about art.

My own background echoes Dayal's, as a writer: science-trained, involved with experimental music, non-verbal music, and avant-garde music, in whatever genre, including rock, from the beginning. I feel like I've finally encountered a rock critic who gets it, who understands my own viewpoint, because she seems to share it. (David Toop being one of the few others who gets it, and he himself being an avant-garde composer who's worked with Eno et al.) Most rock criticism, in my opinion and experience, is definitely word-fixated, I think largely for the reasons Dayal points out.

So writers tend to focus on the song lyrics—on the words—and don't have as much to say about the music. (I can analyze the music pretty readily—but I went to music school, where they shoved a lot more music theory down our throats than you could ever imagine, or desire to know about. Trust me on that one.) This leads directly to that blind spot writers have: in which they forget that songwriting is not writing, it is not a poetic form, it consists rather of the synergy of words-and-music together. Neither one complete without the other. The best songwriters raise the synergistic combination that is the song to much higher levels than either the song's melody or the song's words could attain alone, on their own. It's the synergy that matters. And that's why calling even great songwriters Poets, and building cults around their song lyrics as Poems, is absurd. You cannot analyze the words of a song, and ignore the music, and successfully comprehend the finished effect. They cannot be broken apart.

This goes a long way towards explaining the Cult of Bob Dylan, and the Cult of Leonard Cohen, in which both of these actually very good singer-songwriters are deifed into Poets—which they are not. Again and again it must be said, you can't really analyze a song lyric, purely as poetry, apart from the context of the music, which is the other part of the song. This is why many song lyrics, when presented as poems on the printed page, simply fall flat—or seem quaint and antiquated, with endless metrical end-rhymes. Those things pass by in the context of being sung, in the context of the music, but as words alone they can be trite. (Of course, saying any of this around members of the Cult of Dylan is unpopular, but it is nonetheless true. What Dayal says about those who write about Dylan is exactly correct.)

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ocean & Skies: at Goat Rock

images from Sonoma Coast State Beach, CA: the Russian River at Jenner, February 2010

light on the sea
strands of water, motion—
storm coming to land

This arched rock offshore from Goat Rock Beach is one of my favorite places on the California shore. It's iconic, dangerous, distant and majestic, beautiful and timeless. When you stand on the beach—which was closed this day due to very high surf and incoming storm winds—you can see through the arch to the far horizon, and waves crash around it, and through the opening. From the cliffs above the beach, it's an icon of every kind of gateway you can imagine, some of them otherworldly.

As I headed north from San Francisco, towards Mendocino, and eventually Portland, I arrived here under very dramatic skies. I've been here lots of times—it's a favorite place, after all—but rarely under storm skies such as these. In my own estimation, these are some of the best photos I've ever taken—here, or anywhere. They please me a great deal. And as usual, it's all about being in the right place at the right time.

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Defining Moments: A Writing (Story-Telling) Prompt

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. —Virginia Woolf

The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser

Here's a possible writing prompt for any writer to try, which was inspired by an acquaintance who posed a request, based on a reflective observation: There are times in when we have a defining moment when it makes us who we are. . . . Please tell me yours. He proceeded to get the ball rolling by telling two of his defining moments: The first one is when I found out I had AIDS. The second was when I found out that love was transcendent. And it is. . . . I try very hard to live like a normal human bean but once you have tasted the fruit of transcendence, never o never will you go back again.

This led to a wide range of responses from others, but I noted that most were short, ranging in length from one sentence to one short paragraph long, and full of significance to each respondent. Many were about moments of high drama: the death of a friend or loved one; the sudden awareness of one's own mortality; confronting abuse; confronting one's own worthiness and willingness to be loved. (Love and death, the eternal spires around which we all pivot.)

So, herewith, a writing prompt: Briefly write out one or more defining moments in your life, that you look back upon as defining moments, essential in making you who you have become, here and now. I feel without being able to rationalize my intuition, that it is important to keep each paragraph written about such moments short, focused, and confined to the essences. There are limits on style for this writing, or on subject; however, I have a few comments below on temptations one might wish to navigate around.

I'll start the ball rolling with two of my own defining moment paragraphs:

When I was 18 years old, I spent the summer in Wyoming, nine or ten weeks in al, studying geology in the field. We were based at the University of Michigan geology field station on the Hoback River, just south of Hoback Junction, where the Hoback flows into the Snake River, and less than half an hour's drive south of Jackson Hole. The field camp was like a summer camp for college students; on our off days, I hiked with others to the tops of the peaks behind the camp, and onto the ridges beyond; we swam in the rivers; we drove up to town to shop, wander around, and just have fun. There were longer field trips that looped around the region, through several states. These were my first visits to Yellowstone. I fell in love with the Grand Tetons, which remain the ur-mountains in my dreams and mental imagery. I climbed the Tetons a few times, once standing on Teton Glacier just below the summit, and looking east into infinity. This summer was my introduction to the outdoor life, to outdoor living, which I have pursued all my life.

[Outer-contextual note: Of course, this wasn't really my introduction to outdoor living: I'd spent a great deal of my childhood out in Nature, for various reasons including: to get away from bullies; our family lived on the edge of town, the virtual edge of civilization, beyond which were wild ponds and fields and dirt roads; I had had my first experiences already of psychic oneness with animals and plants. What my summer in Wyoming did do, that was life-changing, was introduce me to living in the mountains; camping in the wilderness; a sense of geologic time-scale, which as any working geologist will tell you, is a kind of schizophrenic sense of time in which you have to keep shifting back and forth between everyday time, the ordinary time-sense required to drive a car or pay your bills, and the vast scale of deep time, in which the changes in the rocks over millions of years tell their own stories.]

Fourth or fifth car crash I've ever been in, as a passenger. After we'd skidded to a stop, heard my voice asking if everyone was all right. Discovered that I was the sort of person who holds it together in the midst of a crisis, and collapses later, when I'm sure everyone else is okay. My boyfriend at the time, who was also in the car, totally misunderstood what had happened at that moment, and wrote me a Dear John letter later, saying that he thought that after the accident I was controlling and manipulative, and broke up with me. Among other lessons learned that day: No good deed goes unpunished.

Of course, the temptation here will be to make each paragraph aphoristic—conclusive, neat, and self-contained—when in fact life is a continuous seam of interlinked and interdependent events, which we rank only in retrospect as defining or otherwise significant.

But life is neither conclusive nor neat. (As Virginia Woolf writes, quoted above.) What this writing prompt asks us to do is write about moments that stand out above the rest, but I think it wise to remember that such moments are still part of life's continuous flow, full of turbulence and eddies. (The metaphor of the River Of Life is enduring as a mythic and archetypal image precisely because it's apt.)

This is an exercise in memoir, in autobiography—indeed, in making memoir possible and autobiography manageable. Sometimes it's easier to break up the daunting and impossible task of life-review into smaller, more manageable quanta. As with cleaning house, or moving to a new home, thinking about the project as a whole can induce crippling panic, while focusing on one room at a time can make it manageable.

It is also an exercise in the fictional aspect of memory: the (re-)construction of the past in order to make a tangible, determinative narrative: a story that makes sense to our (rational) understanding, that helps us explain to ourselves who we are, and how we got to be that way. In fact, no such narratives exist: we construct them, we spin the fictions of our own lives. Memoir in fact is the least historically reliable, least historical accurate form of nonfiction writing available, because all too often memoir consists of defensive self-justifications.

But while we admit that life is a seamless flow, not a string of individual events, we can also admit that we might need to shape it into stories, so that we can comprehend the apparent causes-and-effects within the narrative. We make stories. Our consciousness, and our self-consciousness, are made up of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Joseph Campbell's definition of myth is "the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves." We participate, therefore, in continuous myth-making. (As Muriel Rukeyser wrote, quoted above.)

The positive, even therapeutic aspect of retroactive myth-making is that we can go back and make it never happened. As long as we do not engage is repressive denial, we are able to reframe what has shaped us, and still shapes us, into something alive and life-affirming. Your wounds don't have to oppress you—you don't have to let them do so.

A further temptation will be to write about each personal defining moment in general terms, to universalize them, to make them mythic, to surround them with the discourse of permanence and significance—but to do so in ways that universalize our individual memories into clichés.

I urge you to resist this temptation. Rather, be as specific and personal as possible. Be detailed—one aspect of this as a writing exercise might be to go for the telling detail, giving just enough detail to make the story resonate, but no so much as to clutter it with unnecessary decorative touches. In other words, to find a balance between saying too little and telling too much. Sometimes what's universal in our stories is what we leave out, what we don't say, what we leave a gap for, that can be filled in by the reader. Let the reader find the universal within your particulars, don't force it on them.

I further encourage anyone who wants to try this writing prompt to avoid over-rationalizing and over-explaining. Don't over-think. Let the mysteries alone, and don't try to explain everything. (Or explain the mysteries away.) A defining moment may not always make sense, even now, to our rational selves, while simultaneously our emotional selves know full well how important the moment was.

I'll end with two more of my own defining moments:

The night of my birthday, in my early 30s, mid-January. Walking across Lake Mendota, from James Madison Park to Picnic Point, in the middle of the night, the ice pinging under my feet. Black ice, with no snow on top of it, so looks and feels like walking across the Void. One of those times in life when I didn't care if I lived or died, and placed it in the gods' hands. Arrived safely on the other side of the lake. Went over to the worldgate, and had several shamanic visions. Walked back around the lake, taking the long way around, rather than walking back over the ice, even though it took hours and I was wiped out already. Wanting to live.

Giving up life and career in 2006 to move back home and move in with my parents as their live-in caregiver, till they died. After they died, having to deal with everything. Simultaneously getting diagnosed with a longterm debilitating chronic illness, which as a pre-existing condition prevents me from getting any health insurance to this day. Having to buy a house and move, in the midst of my own illness, then the economy tanks and the world goes insane. 'Nuff said. Actually, I'm still dealing with the aftermath of all this. Wanting to get my own life back.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Making a Concert Poster

I was asked to make a poster for an upcoming concert for Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus in Madison, WI, of which I am a member. It was an interesting project, the process of which I want to describe here by way of example. The process of making the poster itself was interesting. And there are thoughts about being a freelance creative that it brought to mind.

Click on image for larger version

The theme of the upcoming concert (at 7pm, May 22, 2010, at Mills Concert Hall in Madison) is Broadway theater music, and the show is titled Broadway, Our Way. (I had some input on the name of the theme, a few months ago.) I'm not that big on Broadway musicals; I like certain composers' work very much, notably Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and there are some great songs that have come from Broadway and become jazz standards, as well as standards in the "American Songbook." I've performed in numerous musicals over the years, among my extensive musical concert experience, and have enjoyed myself each time; yet Broadway isn't my Big Thing, and never was, not the way some other genres of music are.

The process of making this poster was different than many other concert posters I've made. In the past, I have often specialized in photo-based illustrative posters, in Photoshop, combining elements that I've photographed, scanned, or drawn in vector software such as Illustrator. The basic elements of this poster, for the first time in a long time, were hand-drawn.

My first decision was to make this an 11x17 poster in landscape (horizontal) format, rather than the usual portrait (vertical) format, because the theme of the program is Broadway theater, and I wanted to show the front of a Broadway stage or movie theater, and build the design around that.

I tried to do a photo-based poster at first. It just didn't work out. It didn't want to happen, and I eventually felt the concept to be stale and stuck. I looked at clip art for inspiration; I went out and photographed some renovated movie theaters in my area, with classic marquees and poster frames and doors and lighting. But it wasn't coming together; it felt stale.

Meanwhile, I had recently seen a wonderful 4-hour documentary on Andy Warhol on PBS, which included some archival film of how he made those large screen-prints (serigraphs) in series: multiple versions of the same image, often with variations in color or detail. What caught my attention was that Warhol had often screened the color fill-ins as underpainting first, over which he printed the black ink of the basic posterized image of, say, Marilyn Monroe. I was inspired to make this concert poster an homage to Warhol, evoking a poster look inspired by his screen-print style.

I chose a color palette of pink, yellow, and green pastels, as the basic background colors, for two reasons: the association of pink with LGBT cultural productions—not least the pink triangle—and because Warhol had often used similar pastel colors for his screen-prints. I like to incorporate these sorts of associative visual puns in my illustration work, adding layers of association and meaning that pun on "insider" cultural knowledge, but can also be seen as purely decorative design elements. It makes more fun for me, even if no one else gets the visual joke.

I drafted the basic poster background elements in pencil, measuring with a ruler, and drawing straight lines with a straight-edge, the image of the front of the theater. I drew the theater marquee, the doors, the poster displays, the sidewalk, the shapes of the front of a theater entrance. I had my basic image. Then I inked over the image, keeping to a closely-matching but calligraphic line of varying thickness, using a Japanese calligraphy brush pen.

Then I put a new sheet of paper the same size paper over the main drawing, and using a very broad sumi-e brush and sumi-e ink, did large splashes of painting, following the basic illustration's forms, but loosely covering them over.

Both sheets, the original fine-line calligraphic drawing and the broad-brush drawing, were scanned into Photoshop, where I colorized them and started adding the posters other elements in layers. I added the type, some other details, made posters for the Broadway shows whose music would be performed during Perfect Harmony's concert program, and added logos, etc. (By the way, the current version of the PHMC logo is one I designed a couple of years ago for the Chorus, in collaboration with Jim Larson and Kyle Richmond.) As a last joking touch, I signed and dated my name and Warhol's in a corner of the finished poster: just to make the homage more obvious.

The clients and many other people have all said that they really like this poster. I'm glad for that.

I'm not jumping up and down with it, exactly, myself, however. My heart wasn't fully in it, I was distracted by some personal health problems during the process, and I was frustrated that my initial photographic conception had not worked out at all. So, this isn't my favorite piece of my own illustration work. Some of it was quite fun, though, and the decision to draw rather than photograph the basic elements was very pleasing; I have been teaching myself to draw over the past few years, and it was a pleasant test of my new skills to make the poster using calligraphy brushes. With that aspect of the final result I am very happy. I hope to play with similar ideas again soon.

(By the way, I hope to see you at the concert!)

Some comments now on freelancing, which I think apply whether you're an artist, a writer, or whatever.

A very important rule of freelancing: You can't always satisfy your own creative needs by doing commercial illustration work.

And not everything you do will be a masterpiece. You just have to learn to live with that, and keep doing your own personal work anyway. Do it on the side, after hours, if you must; but keep doing it. The goal of a design or illustration project for a client is to give them what they want—and to do so without betraying your own artistic instincts. When everyone is pleased with the outcome, be satisfied with the job you've done, and accept the praise gratefully.

The professional artist does not linger over might-have-beens, but goes on to the next project with everything that has been learned via successfully completing the current one. You won't always love everything you do—but that's okay, that's normal. Your job is to do the best you can given what you have to work with, and if the client is happy with the finished product, you've done very well indeed.

Another very important rule of freelancing: Don't work for free. You must always receive something in return.

Now, it's okay to do some volunteer work, and donate some of your creativity to causes and/or organizations that you believe in. (Over the years I've donated my creative efforts, and also some artwork, to various AIDS support organizations, the American Cancer Society, and others.) But you need to make it clear that you are donating, and that normally you get paid for your work. Don't be self-important or rude about it; just gently remind people that your creative time and effort is valuable.

I receive numerous emails every year, asking to use one of my photographs, illustrations, or designs. Most recently, for example, I was asked for the use of one of my photos for the cover of a to-be-published book. I responded with my rates for the usage of my artwork, and have not heard back; I do not really expect to. A lot of the requests I get via email are from people I don't know who expect to be able to use my artwork for (almost) free; in most cases, I refuse. I am more than willing for my artwork to be used in whatever project people would like to use it for—and I expect to be paid. You'd pay your lawyer; why won't you pay your artist?

In truth, most of the requests I receive are very nice and very polite, and I respond to them nicely and politely—yet they offer me nothing. In many cases, the person requesting my art for free argues that "It's good exposure for your art!"—well, to be blunt, that's an argument that, when made to any professional and experienced artist, comes across as a request made in bad faith. I don't need more "free exposure," I get plenty of that already. (I'm not saying I've always turned down such requests; it depends a great deal on the nature and purpose of the request.) What I require is that my creative work and artistic skill to be respected—which means I need to be paid.

Now, I may not charge much at all; but I will charge at least a token fee. There is a necessary exchange of value for value, that betokens respect. In the past, when I've let some client talk me into using my work for (almost) free, in many cases I never heard from them again: I never received promised payment, and I never received the copies of the finished book or magazine article which had been promised to me. Well, live and learn. But learn this: Don't let yourself, as a freelancer, be taken advantage of. If you don't ask them to pay for your work, you're showing them that they can abuse you, because you're not respecting your own work enough to charge for it.

For this poster I was asked to design for the Chorus, I was offered a payment in trade. I sometimes accept that, if the client is a non-profit organization that I support. In this case, being a member of the Chorus, I received a few perks in exchange, and also an advertisement in the concert program for my photography work. I find that acceptable payment. Here's a version that ad for the concert program—the creation of which was an entirely separate process:

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A Photographer's Garden

There are several reasons why I have planted my garden around my house the way I have. First, I've placed a lot of perennials, so that each year they'll come back, and spread. They don't need a lot of attention, so when I'm traveling, and neglecting them, they'll still survive and thrive. Gradually, some of the sculptures will get filled in and shrouded by plants and flowers: a gradual process of change.

Second, I want to always have some sort of flower in bloom, from spring through autumn. One of the aspects of living in California that I most loved was that there was always something in bloom, year-round; we were never without flowers, and botanical color, of some shape or variety; never a gap in the blooming and greening. I expect to plant more perennials this season, perhaps even another rose bush or two; there are some inherited ornamental shrubs that are pretty ugly, which I expect to remove later this year, to make that entire bed available for flowers and vegetables mixed together.

Third, I have planted lots of vibrant colors that give me something to photograph: to enjoy in all phases of blooming, but also as variety of color and shape on which to practice my photography, and constantly be able to make new images. So my garden isn't just for my pleasure, and enjoyment; it also supports my work as a photographer and artist. That's also why I've made some stone-garden and land art sculptures elements in my garden. Even in winter, the stone patterns are alive in the garden, while the plants rest, dormant.

As the season progresses, I find myself spending as much time in my garden with my camera as on my knees with my trowel. A garden can take several seasons to develop and bring to peak fruition. This is only my second full season here, and already I have more color and variety than before. This early hot weather, alternating with rain, is producing an early flurry of color and light that is endlessly fascinating to watch, to be a part of, to wander through and make photos of.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Three Worlds

inspired by a woodcut by M.C. Escher

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ten Influential Books

I've seen lots of writers lately giving a list of their "Ten Most Influential Books" in their lives. It's an interesting bit of memoir-play, or self-awareness-spelunking, to go back through a life and see what books really were so significant to you as to have influenced you forever after. As a non-professional-academic-literary-non-English-teaching non-writer, of course I have some caveats.

It's a facile and easy meme, and I wonder how shallow or deep it is, really; shallow in the sense that it's all too easy to proclaim oneself as part of the literary pack of smart people by listing those recognized classics of literature that everyone puts on a pedestal and worships, even if they haven't really read them. (Maybe Vladimir Nabokov really was one of the greatest writers ever; but right now, it's so fashionable to laud and worship him, it's impossible to make an accurate assessment, and anyone who is not 100 percent voluble in their praise is seen as heretical.)

Ten is of course an arbitrary number; I might list a dozen instead. (Why do so many list-makers choose ten? Is it out of imitation of many "Ten Greatest...." lists? Or is it perhaps a reflection of our numerical system being established in base 10?)

This list can never be complete; for every book I discuss here, I must leave at least two out. I'm going to miss books I'd want to include later. I'm going screw up, in other words; which pushes my Recovering Perfectionist buttons, and makes me want to spend hours on making a list so that it's as perfect and inclusive as possible.

I have to say, most of the Most Influential books in my life have not been works of literary fiction; some, but not the majority. One or two literary classics, even, but my list contains a lot more psychology and spirituality. As an artist, I'm not influenced by books about art so much as the art itself; likewise, as a composer of music. I'd have to make separate but parallel lists of artworks and musical compositions (or albums), which I won't do here and now.

I must admit, I feel a certain perverse reverse-snobbery in pointing out that what I find most pretentious about many of the other lists I've read, that is, their lists of Great Books, is something you won't find here. I acknowledge the reverse-snobbery of my feelings, yet I hope not to have fallen into pretentiousness. I'm quite sincere, below, in what I've listed; and quite sincere that I've left off many other books that had similar deep impacts upon my life. Am I so different from other readers who can claim that reading books changed their lives, for the better? I don't think so. The trope of books expanding your consciousness is, I believe, sincere; where I find insincerity or pretentiousness in some of these lists of influential books is when I've read entries that seemed to be there out of literary fashion, or of course they were "supposed" to be there. Frankly, I'd rather see some writer proclaim that Maurice Sendak meant as much to their literary development as did Nabokov; that is a form of authentic acknowledgment one might sincerely accept.

So I'm going to list some books that really did influence me, many of which most folks have no doubt never heard of. My criterion is simple: These are books that changed my worldview, that opened doors to a wider world for me, that blew my mind in a good way, that broadened and redefined reality, that expanded my consciousness permanently. So herewith, my list no more arbitrary than anyone else's, less fashionable than most, and completely idiosyncratic.

In no particular chronological order:

Sheila Moon: Knee Deep In Thunder. A young adult fantasy novel written by a renowned Jungian psychologist and poet. I remember seeing this book in the elementary school library in Ann Arbor, when I was 11 years old, and I was at first caught by the title. I pulled the book and off the shelf, and began reading it, and was immediately pulled in. The novel is a fantasy quest adventure story, but it is based on the Navajo creation mythology, which makes it unique. This was my first introduction to Navajo cosmology, and the cast of characters in Navajo myth cycles, which has fascinated me every sense. Reading this book led me to study Navajo religion throughout my school years and after; it led me to study many other Native American spiritual systems; it led to my minor area of study being Native American music(s) in graduate school in ethnomusicology (my principal study area being Javanese gamelan). My worldview was profoundly affected and altered. It was 30 years later before I found my own copy of the novel, which I discovered at that time was also the first book in a trilogy.

Isaac Asimov: Fantastic Voyage. The first hard science fiction novel I ever read. Actually a novelization of a campy but fun SF film so full of holes in its logic that Asimov not only rescued the premise in his novelization, he turned a B-movie into a terrific book. It's rare when the novelizations are better than the movie, or as good, or fill in the gaps. (Another such case is Orson Scott Card's excellent novelization of Jim Cameron's movie The Abyss. Although I have to give credit to Cameron, too, as most of what made no sense in the original theatrical release was fully explained in the extended director's cut, which added fully half an hour of film.) I read this novel when I was 13, and it opened the door to a lifelong reading of SF. Asimov led me to Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke, and many other great writers; Asimov edited the massive three-volume anthologies of the Hugo Award winning short stories and novellas up to the 1960s or so, which was a great way to discover other writers, than go find the rest of their stories and books.

Harlan Ellison, editor: Dangerous Visions. The anthology of new SF writing that heralded the New Wave in SF: which is to say, the absorption and adoption of literary experiment and form, such as stream-of-consciousness, and radical content, such as overt sexuality, into science fiction, opening up and revivifying a literary genre that had not gone moribund, exactly, but had indeed fallen into some literary pulp habits at times. This led me to seek out the same techniques in (mainstream, literary, fine art) fiction (call it what you will, just don't presume that it contains better writing than in SF, as it does not), which led me to Beckett, Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and so on. The values and techniques of (literary, fine art) fiction as applied to science fiction led to discovering those same values and techniques everywhere. Which led me to read everything by Joyce by the time I entered college at age 18; with the exception of Finnegan's Wake, which took a few years to get through; but in fact I have read the Wake, which is more than even many critics seem to have bothered to actually do. Dangerous Visions, to be more accurate, reflected its times, it didn't initiate them. Around the same time, Heinlein published Stranger in a Strange Land, Ursula K. LeGuin published The Left Hand of Darkness, and so on; what DV did was gather together in a huge anthology these literary changes in SF that were already going on: the anthology magnetized and oriented and illuminated the synchronistic literary trends.

C.G. Jung: Answer to Job. Still one of Jung's most remarkable books, it answers the questions of theodicy by showing how the Old Testament God who abused Job's good graces was in fact an undeveloped personality that needed humankind's moral evolution to become whole Himself. (I would argue that that evolution is still on progress.) This was the second of Jung's books that I read; the first was Mandala Symbolism, which attracted first as a visual artist interested in cosmology. In my 20s, I worked in the Undergraduate Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; it was a part-time job while I was in college myself. Most of the time I sat at a desk waiting to assist library patrons; the many volumes of Jung's Collected Works were on the shelves near by, and I started reading from one end of the shelf to the other, eventually getting all the way through the CW in a few years. That led me to ever deeper studies in Jung and his ideas, which continues to the present day. I can't pretend I comprehended all of it, but it did open doors in me; and I am re-reading the CW now, with deepening understanding and appreciation.

George Leonard: The Silent Pulse. One of the best of the wave of "new age" books exploring the frontiers of science and human consciousness, and where they converge, this book touches on brain research, theoretical physics, social theory, alternative states of consciousness, emotion research, martial arts, and centering meditation—and it does so lucidly, compellingly, and without hermeticism or jargon. (Literally one of the best-written "new age" books I've ever read.) Leonard also includes personal experiences gleaned from his work as a teacher, as a student of Ki Aikido, and as a participant in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. This book sticks with me, still, because it synthesizes together a great wealth of personal development material and makes it utterly practical, utterly performable, and positively inspirational. We might wish more "inspirational" books actually were: this one actually is.

Dorothy Berkley Phillips, Elizabeth Boyden Howes, Lucille M. Nixon, editors: The Choice is Always Ours: An anthology of the religious way. I first this themed anthology in my teens. It consists of several hundred excerpts from the writings of religious thinkers, poets, psychologists, philosophers, artists, teachers, mystics, and other, all organized thematically into three large sections on The Way, The Techniques, and The Outcomes. Many similar books have claimed to be eclectic in their pursuit of similar studies, but have remained parochial because their writers could not expand their viewpoints far enough. This anthology, by contrast, is genuinely ecumenical, in every sense of that term. Reading this book was part of my personal quest, begun at age 13, to try to understand my own spiritual experience; I read it alongside another classic, Huston Smith's The Religions of Man. This anthology was my first introduction to writers and thinkers who would later become very central to my own thinking—the essence of influence—and experience, including Jung, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mesiter Eckhart, Edward Carpenter (homoerotic poet and philosophical disciple of Walt Whitman), John Donne, and many more. (Sheila Moon also appears in these pages, as do more Navajo chants.)

Jean Valentine: Ordinary Things. A slim book of poems in a spare, evocative language that doesn't say more than what it says, and thereby opens the door to vast caverns of human experience in which the flickers of light do not outnumber the shadowy mysteries. Valentine conveys intense, powerful emotion with very spare, condensed, almost haiku-like images and phrases. The pauses in some lines are like shocking blows to the consciousness: they stop you abruptly, then let you move forward again, into a narrative you may not fully understand intellectually but are completely absorbed in emotionally. There is no hermeticism in this poetry, no deliberate obscurity; rather, the poet gives us just enough to fill in the gaps from our own experience, to "finish" the poem from our own lives. This is what makes these very personal poems become universal and archetypal. I was strongly influenced by this book of poems, when I discovered it around age 19 or 20. I pulled it off the shelf at the University Bookstore, and was spellbound; I must have stood there for an hour, reading the entire book before purchasing it to take home and re-read it several times over the years. Jean Valentine's poetry, in this volume in particular, gave me permission, I felt, to write the kind of poems that I wanted to write, that I heard in my head, that it seemed like no one else was writing, or wanted to write. Her style and tone were so close to what I was hearing within myself, that to see that someone had not only written such a variety of poetry, but had published a book of it, was liberating and inspiring. (I have no doubt that many early poems of mine were imitations, as I learned my craft; this is one very typical and valid form of apprenticeship in poetry, and eventually one grows into having one's own unique voice. But we all began by imitating those who triggered us.) To be given permission to do what you want to do, to write how you want to write, to be the person that you want to become—this, too, is the essence of influence.

Jim Marion: Putting On the Mind of Christ. Even though I am not a Christian, but rather a post-Christian, and even though Jim Marion is a rather conservative Christian, he is also a mystic whose descriptions of his experiences of mystical Christianity transcend any sectarian differences to manifest something genuinely universal and ecumenical. How can I describe this book? It's one of three systems of cosmology that all appeared in my life at about the same time, all coming from different directions that had never heard of each other (I believe), yet describing essentially similar realities. (The other two were Dr. Caroline Myss' seminal book, Anatomy of the Spirit, and the teachings of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, an organization I pursued studies with for a time, and still think fondly of.) Marion's book is about the inner experience of Christian spirituality; a book for mystics and spelunkers and clairvoyants. He describes seven levels of human consciousness, and how each level relates to human personality and experience. He also spends several chapters on the dark night of the soul; which is what first drew me to this book. And he ends the book with consciousness that human and divine are not-two, but One: the realization of the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, right now, in nondual consciousness, that each person can experience for themselves, if they do their inner work with dedication and endurance and commitment. What Jim Marion articulates and confirms (as do those others mentioned here), is my own intuition of the structure of unseen worlds; he led me to see that I was not alone in my perceptions and feelings: a form of validation and confirmation.

Barry Lopez: Winter Count. (Along with River Notes and Desert Notes.) Lopez is one of our great creative nonfiction writers, a superb essayist and writer about naturalist and anthropological topics. These short books are short stories—fiction, although it's often hard to tell that they're fiction, as they often read as pure reporting or fieldwork notes. The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred, even missing at times. In this, Lopez follows on the heels of, on the one hand, the great naturalist essayist Loren Eiseley, and on the other hand, the Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges. The flavor of Lopez's stories is occasionally Borgesian; yet it is also akin to the Native American storytelling traditions of the Pacific Northwest region, where Lopez makes his home. "Magic realism" and "Surrealism" are literary terms that are of little use to us here, because these short stores are more rooted in life than in theory; they may arise from the same psychological and archetypal substrate that also gives birth to Surrealism and magic realism, but they are their own flowerings, not the clones of any other.

Michael Harner: The Way of the Shaman. This was one of the first "popular" books published about shamanism, that could be found at the local corner bookstore, and not be found only buried in an academic bookstore or library. Harner's work on shamanism was with tribes in South America, and he used his experience to develop what he calls "core shamanism," which is at root a universal practice of spiritual technology. When I read this book the first time, I had been searching for the roots of my own spiritual experience, and had been led towards shamanism; but this was the first book that connected my experience with my reading. From its bibliography, I was led towards many other valuable books on the topic, some scholarly, some popular, all of them useful to me for explaining myself to myself. There was also an influence on my art, which has been called shamanic numerous times; namely, that evoking my experiences of shamanic states of consciousness in my art—in fact, of celebrating and recording them in my art, writing, and music—led me towards a genuine calling to be a healer whose healing happens through his creativity, be it on the individual or environmental levels. So this book opened doors for me, for which I will always be grateful.

Others I might have included:

Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse

Matthew Fox: Original Blessing

Michael Novak: The Experience of Nothingness

George Mackay Brown: any of a number of his volumes of poetry, although Fishermen With Ploughs would probably be at the core

Samuel R. Delany: Dhalgren

and so forth

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mountain Dream Drawing

In my dreams last night, the vivid last dream before waking, I am preparing to take off for the mountains; it’ll be cold, and I’ll be camping; my truck is all packed, I'm just trying to get away; people delay me with chores and chat, and slow down my progress; I take a wrong turn at the exit ramp for the highway into the mountains; so I pull off where I can get turned around, get gas and get going; I have a good chat with a park ranger overseer at the station who’s an old woman, practical and down to earth; eventually I find a gas station and get back on the two-lane that goes up the grade to the high peaks, up over a curving bridge and onto the climbing road.

I say I'm going to the Tetons, in my dream, but the mountains I'm going to are parked much higher up, like in the Colorado Front Range, towards Rocky Mountain National Park, a patch of white-capped jagged peaks at the top of a spine of mountain ranges.

I've had recurring dreams of being in the mountains; of going up, and coming down; of camping, hiking, traveling, driving. A recurring dream of being in a small city in a valley at the base of some very high mountains, then going up through a long valley which gets steeper and steeper till I arrive at a cirque valley hanging above the world; you can stand at the mouth of the valley and see forever, the air very thin and cold and bracing. When I was studying geology in the Tetons, age 18, we climbed up to one of the high cirque valleys, at the top of which was an active glacier, and looking east across Jackson Hole, and on into the Gros Ventre range, you really did feel like you could see forever. Maybe these mountains are the high mountains of my dreams, that I’ve been to in more than one dream, over the years, very high up, very isolated, exquisitely beautiful.

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Music is Medicine, Music is Sanity

This is what it's all about, folks: Music is medicine, music is sanity. Not just for those afflicted with the problems of life, but for all of us. I can't say it any better than violinist Robert Gupta says it here in this TED talk:

I might add that the choice of Mr. Gupta to play the Prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 on violin is very apt. Not only does Bach transcribe very well from instrument to instrument—his solo pieces are always contrapuntal, the counterpoint lines being built up by alternating note-patterns in different registers—but Bach is a composer whose work within fixed forms is always full of surprises as well as known patterns. In the Cello Suites, all the movements are classical courtly dance forms; but what he does with them is uniquely expressive of his own spirit and intellect.

Bach's music is indeed very sane, even at its darkest.

Bach does have the duende, the dark soul, the dark night, and can be quite powerfully emotional at times. Yet the emotion is contained within forms that allow it retain a classical elegance. It is not "sturm und drang" (storm and stress) such as we find in later German Romantic composers: Bach's emotion is always restrained, never heart-on-the sleeve. That makes it all the more powerful, for being less overtly dramatic.

So it's appropriate to hear Bach after this talk, as Bach exemplifies the very healthy psychological attitude of: I may act crazy sometimes, but I am not insane. Life can be insane; when we act crazy, we're coping with life; we act crazy, sometimes, so that we do not go insane.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Rock Gardens on Paper

Newt in the Garden of Eden

images from the UC-Berkeley Botanical Gardens, CA, Feburary 2010

At the UC-Berkeley Botanical Gardens for the afternoon, magnolias and rhododendrons already in bloom, wandering over to the Japanese Garden section, where the ponds and streams and moss-covered boulders along the trails never fail to soothe and relax, the pond is full of newts.

Newts are amphibious. The exist mostly in water, but can also live on land, and do for part of the year. One of the California State Parks south of San Francisco has an actual "Newt Crossing" sign on its entrance drive, reminding you to watch out for the soft-bodied critters dashing across the road during mating season.

Those little white spheres or bubbles are egg sacs, attached along the stems of the water lilies, or other pond plants. The newts like to attach the egg sacs along a frond or stem, rather than in clusters.

We sat there and watched the newts playing, patrolling the eggs, and engaging in sexual activities. They danced and dove in the water, and put on quite the lascivious ballet. How often do you get to see such glories? (I'll resist several newt puns that come to mind, for now.)

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