Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy


Either this is the classic of American literature that people say it is, or it's a bloated, essentially characterless, thinly-plotted, portrait masquerading as a novel. I'm not sure, so no stars, but it's probably both. One thing I do know is that reading this novel was an ordeal in almost every sense of the word, no doubt intended by the author, which is why it's hard to recommend. It's unlike anything I've ever read. There are characters, but they remain essentially faceless throughout. There is gory violence on virtually every page as the narrative meanders through the starkly beautiful epic landscape of the American west circa 1870s. The mountains, plains and deserts are in fact the only relatable character, and they are rendered in a language that is lushly gorgeous and draws attention to itself with jargon and syntax that is almost biblical - echoing a biblical/religious subtext and theme throughout. I have no doubt that this depiction of the bloodlust, brutality and immorality that characterized the conquest of the American frontier is closer to the truth than anything that has been written before, or perhaps since. So is the novel important? I guess so. But unless an ordeal is what you're looking for in a novel and one without characters to relate to, and very little in the way of plot or redemption, I can't recommend it.


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Monday, July 28, 2014

Approaching 50

As I approach 50 -  

I laugh less but appreciate it much more
I enjoy Johnny Cash's music
I find women of different shapes and sizes beautiful and attractive
I understand the value of hard work
Why it happened doesn't seem to matter as much as the fact that it happened
I am slower to anger, quicker to cry
I am slower at almost everything, but time seems to move faster
Memories are less about events and more about people
Family is more important
I fear less in general, except flying (which I fear more)
I take myself less seriously and others more seriously
I appreciate a good pair of shoes
I don't think about the goal as often
I appreciate a good night's sleep and take it less for granted
Words matter more
On some level it all feels like entertainment
I appreciate animals more but want to own one less
I believe more in fate, intangibles, positive energy, karma
Children seem smarter
Music seems more miraculous
It's more about finding enjoyment, pleasures in small things
I am happier to be exactly where I am

Monday, July 21, 2014

God Telling A Joke by Dave Margoshes

God Telling a Joke and Other StoriesGod Telling a Joke and Other Stories by Dave Margoshes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once I started reading this splendid new collection of stories I could not put it down, one story led seamlessly and effortlessly into the next. Notwithstanding his 16 books of short fiction, novels, non-fiction and poetry and his many awards and citations, Dave Margoshes remains a relative unknown, which is perplexing for such a fine writer who has been producing consistently good writing for decades. This new collection is as good as anything he's ever written, graceful, moving, witty, polished stories filled with a diverse range of authentic memorable characters. Even better is the humour that runs through the book - which might be Dave's funniest - but I don't mean Jerry Seinfeld funny, I mean a rich resonant earned humour that is the product of a seasoned pro. This is a writer who's in it for the long haul, who understands that clever does not mean good, and that the journey is greater than the destination.


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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Songs of the Wichita Lineman

According to the Wikipedia entry on the song Wichita Lineman, "...the BBC referred to it as 'one of those rare songs that seems somehow to exist in a world of its own – not just timeless but ultimately outside of modern music'." I know this because I looked it up last week. I've loved that song my whole life, and more, it's held a certain mysterious fascination with me, one that I've never been able to explain in words. The chord changes, the lyrics that are somehow both simple and artfully complex, and Glen Campbell's understated yet sophisticated rendition, down home and dramatic at the same time, understated and soaring, plaintive and triumphant. When I read, "not just timeless but ultimately outside of modern music" I nodded to myself and said, yeah, that's it, there are some songs that have that strange quality, they achieve that inexplicable tension and resolution that transcends the artform. It's not just musicianship, or the compositional skill they embody but something that is so soul-stirring as to be sublime, resulting when the right song and the right performer come together. Which got me thinking about other songs that achieve that level. What I found when I started compiling my list is that they cross the genres. But the one consistent thing is that they are all songs that I've heard most of my life and never got tired of. Even from the first time I heard them they seem to have always existed, like nature itself. They're songs that aren't just good or great but they produce chills every time. Here it is, in no particular order. Commentary added when it occurred to me:

Wichita Lineman (written by Jimmy Webb, performed by Glen Campbell). An aria sung for the ages by a cowboy.

Promises, Promises (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by Dionne Warwick). Composed for Broadway, a unique arrangement with hybrid instrumentation, a bizarre change in tempo mid-song that works, and a complete lyrical/narrative arc, matched beautifully by Warwick's achingly heartfelt vocal performance. This song beats out Walk On By by a nose hair. 

I've Got You Under My Skin (written by Cole Porter, performed by Frank Sinatra). Sinatra's voice and delivery were made for this song. It swings; the very definition of 'hip'. Simultaneously fearless and vulnerable, soft and strong. Gives me goosebumps on top of my skin every time.

Let it Be (written by Lennon and McCartney and performed by the Beatles). Practically a prayer.

Born to Run (written by Bruce Springsteen, performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band). Anthemic, booming, operatic, raw, romantic, gritty and triumphant. A paean to youth, young love and American idealism. This album was the reason I stopped 'studying my pain' (Thunder Road), in fact, stopped studying altogether.

This Guy's in Love With You (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by Herb Alpert). An example of a song and performance that are so understated and spare, they soar. I will not argue that Herb Alpert can't sing worth shit, and yet every note is somehow spot on.

Close to You (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by the Carpenters). Karen Carpenter's singing is positively ethereal.

Hallelujah (written and performed by Leonard Cohen). Leonard Cohen makes Herb Alpert look like Pavarotti. He is Karen Carpenter's exact singing opposite, the fallen angel to her angel, which is why his rendering of this simple song qua poem works so exquisitely. 

Fire and Rain (written and performed by James Taylor). The song that every songwriter wished he could have written and every guitar player wants to be able to play and sing like James Taylor. 

Bridge Over Troubled Water (written by Paul Simon and performed by Simon and Garfunkel). The greatest song ever written about hope and self-sacrifice. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Salesmanship: Three Stories - FREE

My story collection Salesmanship is now available for FREE for your Kindle e-reader at Amazon.com or for your Kobo at Goodreads

Wondering what it takes to get into heaven these days? B. Glen Rotchin takes us on one human’s whimsical encounter with his maker. In another story a cynical aging textile salesman's attempt to humor a Lubavitch boy unexpectedly brings him closer to personal truth. In the last story a fateful basketball game brings together two Jewish boys from opposite sides of a cultural divide. The author of two novels, The Rent Collector and Halbman Steals Home, the dark humour and layered meaning that characterize Rotchin's work are on fine display in these three poignant tales.

Here's what one astute reviewer wrote about the title story: 

".. it is a brilliantly told story about a rapidly aging man trying to determine what his life, or life in general, has amounted to. And as the title aptly implies, Salesmanship, after years of having said “no” to the Lubavitcher boys and to faith, he finally says “yes.”


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Introduction to Painting - a Diary


Friday, January 24
Subject: Introduction to Acrylic Painting

I was wanting to write for the past few days but decided to wait to for something exciting and new to report. Well, at least it's new...
Values - not grey squares

Last night was my first session of Introduction to Acrylic Painting. Three males in a class of fifteen, including me, a retiree who said that the reason he decided to take the class was that he couldn't take his wife's nagging anymore, and a gay guy from Miami who is studying at a local university (I'm using the term 'gay' here strictly in the service of accuracy. I am confident of this description, not that it was surmised from any stereotypical affectations, which would be cruel, but since he was wearing the requisite earring on the side to indicate his pride in his homosexual identity.) The rest of the class was ladies of all shapes, sizes and ages at opposite ends of the spectrum, retirement age to students trying to create portfolios for admission into a university arts program (which strikes me as a puzzling endeavour - I mean you can't just stay home and paint to create a portfolio? It's not like lab work to get into medical school.) There was even an uppercrust mother-daughter tandem who were inappropriately decked out in designer fashion. And in utter contrast to them there was a Muslim woman covered from head to toe in black polyester fabric (guess she won't be attending the class on figure painting.) So how do I fit in with this menagerie? That was the question I kept asking myself. Seemingly not quite past my prime enough (I hope) nor too before my prime to be there. I'm sure I'm the only working stiff in the group. When the class split up to get down to business, I found myself sitting at a table surrounded by retirement age stay-at-home ladies, so I guess my question was answered: I'm not one of the youngins. During the first exercise the lady to my right whipped out a neat-looking tool-box replete with paints, brushes, a palette, the whole shebang. She said it was her fourth time taking a painting class. It crossed my mind that this class was called "Introductory to Acrylic Painting," begging the question, why would you need to take an introductory course four times? She said that her goal for the course was to be able to paint portraits of her two prized Maltese dogs. Then she pulled out photos of the pups, their big-eyed, wet-nosed faces crowned with bangs tied up in cute little braids. My goal for the class, I told her, was... wait, I had no goal for the class, and said so reluctantly, which made me feel more self-conscious about why I was there than I already was. Now I felt like a person without goals. The rest of the class we were charged with the task of painting little black and grey squares in a variety of gradations. Incidentally, gradations from black to white are called 'values' in art speak and not as I had mistakenly been calling them for the last 49 years 'black and grey'. I know that painting the scale from black to white sounds easy to do, but it's harder than it looks and I learned two things about myself from the exercise. First, that I have the patience of a someone with ADHD and, second, I prefer to paint my porch in mid-summer in 35 degree heat than paint grey squares for two hours. And the best part of all (read: sarcasm), while everyone was washing up their brushes getting ready to leave, I was still painting grey squares because I baled on the exercise twice and had to start over. And because I could not finish in the allotted time I now have homework painting grey squares. Our instructor was emphatic that the exercise must be completed and we should bring the assignments to the next class for analysis. I did not bargain for this. Homework making grey squares for chrissakes!! My whole reason for taking the course was not grey, but the exact opposite, to get a little colour in my dull grey mid-winter life. I expressed my concern to the instructor who said not to worry, colour comes after values. Phew. So I guess I'll stick with this. Then the instructor passed out the materials list; two pages long. She is obviously part owner of the store where she 'recommended' we buy our materials. After making this investment you're darn right I'm going to stick to the bitter end of these twelve weeks no matter how many grey squares I have to paint. Then hopefully I will have enough skill to recognizably render a portrait of our pet turtle, because we don't have a dog. 

Friday, January 30
Subject: Class number 2
Not grey squares


My second painting class last night. Well, the good news is that we've graduated from little grey squares (excuse me, 'values'). We spent the three hour session painting little grey shapes instead. That was the rule: the shapes must NOT be square. Any shape other than square was permissible. No squares, I repeat, absolutely NO squares. Man, am I ever glad I went to graduate school to prepare me for this. The first surprising thing that happened when I walked into class were all the empty chairs. We apparently lost five students between last class and this one, including the two lady retirees who sat on either side of me last time (I hope my snide retorts had nothing to do with their departure). We also picked up another student, a male, which, with the reduction of the student body increases the masculine quotient to 33% of the class. This new guy is also gay - trust me it's eminently apparent - which, if we're talking statistics now has increased that percentage of the class by 50% to 16.67% of the total which, if social theory is correct, represents a significantly larger percentage than would exist in the general population. And this does not consider the gay females in the class, and I'm guessing there's at least one or two. Just saying. As for why the attrition after only one class, well, it may have to do with all the grey squares - if they'd been a little patient they would have experienced the thrill of NOT squares. But it is most likely because one session is a freebie. You don't get your money back after class number two. The other good news is, and again too bad for the losers who bowed out early, our instructor provided us with a glimpse of the future and it definitely includes color. Not next time, but the time after that, which gives us all something to look forward to. And something else to look forward to, next week we are graduating from geometry to kitchenware and house decor. Apparently, we will be painting actual three-dimensional subject matter like vases and bowls. Still black, white and grey, but it's a step in the right direction. You've got to walk before you can run I suppose. As I was thinking about what I've learned so far - our instructor said that her main objective of the course was to teach us how to see, truly see, which is laudable and leads me to question what I've been doing with my eyes these past 49 years. Compiling the entries of my exploits trying to learn how to paint feels like documenting the process of teaching a chimpanzee American Sign Language (only I don't get a a grape or morsel of banana when I get the correct answer). I forgot to mention one thing about the tushes that were missing from the seats. Two of them belonged to the haughty mother-daughter team decked out inappropriately in designer fashion. I could have predicted they'd bale because a. the mother had an attitude like she could already paint circles (not squares) around the instructor and b. when the teacher reviewed the materials list she was the only one who had the chutzpah to ask if the instructor could recommend a 'cheap' place to purchase the requirements. Okay, I'll admit that point b. does not exactly presage their absence from class number two, but it does somehow illustrate where the lady's priorities were. Five will get you ten that she was, by a factor of 100, the richest person in the room. Both she and her daughter were expertly coiffed and beautifully manicured - no doubt they got some kind of two for one deal from their beautician. They didn't belong and made no effort to conceal the fact. Our instructor, to her credit, also hides nothing; from her inability to speak English to her rotting teeth, to her enthusiasm for tiny gray squares. She would not be out of place working the field in medieval France. Which is a relief, frankly. I'd much rather learn to paint from a peasant, someone earthy with grime under their finger nails, than from the likes of glossy maroon nail-polished Mrs. Fancypants. Good riddance to her, I say. And hello Fallah, that's the name of the black-cloaked Muslim lady who sat next to me last night. Her enthusiasm for black squares was understandably (if one is to judge by her choice of dark nondescript wardrobe) positively infectious. I wonder how she will deal with color when it happens? We didn't speak much last night, but who needs words with so much good art vibe in the room? That is, up until Fallah asked the instructor to change the music (some sort of French chanteuse was playing). I must admit the music was annoying me too with its whininess (why do chanteuses always sound like they are on the verge of weeping from heartbreak?) I'm with you Fallah all the way, shot through my mind. And then I had another thought - the only Muslim in the room and she tries to control the cultural background. Typical. I guess this thought did not occur to the instructor because she obliged, changing the music to jazz, which I could tell did not please Fallah in the least. And that made me smile.

Friday, February 7
Subject: Class number 3
Damn hexagon

Colour is definitely on the way. Or so our instructor promises. If she didn't teach painting I'd say she had some potential writing suspense novels. She leaves us all sitting on the edge of our seats in anticipation. We are definitely getting closer to something more 'real' than little grey shapes anyway. Witness the exercise inset, which began in dramatic fashion. We entered a dark room, like a theatre. Little collapsible wooden tables and seats were propped around what looked like a miniature stage covered by a white table cloth. On this platform were four groups of still life objects, three objects per group, of bottles, vases, cubes, balls, and in my case a hexagon. The objects were painted solid white and spotlighted from above to accentuate shape and shade. To hear the instructor describe our task you would think that we were attending a performance and these household objects were poised to leap from the stage, or arabesque, or recite a Shakesperean soliloquy. Our goal was to capture the 'personality' of the objects, she explained. One squat bottle she said, 'sat there like an obese old man' and she bloated her cheeks like a bullfrog and spread her arms wide to demonstrate girth, which was kind of humorous because she's as skinny as a heroin addict. A long-necked vase, she described, 'reached for an apple on a branch'. In addition to the inherent character of each object we had try to show how each object 'related' to one another. I'm not sure I succeeded in doing that and let me tell you that damn hexagon, if he did have a personality, was one that annoyed, aggravated and basically pissed me off. He was asking for a fight the whole time I was trying to 'portray' him. Such a damn stage hog, right there in the middle, blocking the two bottles from getting much attention. One bottle is reaching up like a grade school student with his arm waving from the back of the class, saying 'missus, pick me, please pick me'. The other bottle has given up altogether, lying at the back and hiding behind his classmate, his ass the only thing showing. Pathetic sod, on his side, surrendered, vulnerable, tired of the battle and embarrassed to be so lame. If he could escape he would. I knew hexagons like that at school. Assertive assholes, pushing themselves to the front of the line. I wanted to punch their fucking lights out. I wonder if our art instructor thought this exercise had the potential to stir up such violent emotions? Possibly, if her choice of music was any indication. There we sat in the darkness, heat emitting spotlights beaming down on us from overhead, struggling to portray in grey the 'personality' of assemblages of kitchenware, and an air of melancholia began to pervade the room. The penultimate moment came when the instructor put Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits on the CD player. I just about wanted to drink the cup of black water I'd been washing my brush in to the strains of "So long Marianne, it's time that we began, to laugh and cry...". Apparently, our instructor (and deejay) must have been thinking, better to be depressed than aggressively violent. I dunno, I'll take violence over depression any day. At least it's proactive. 

Friday, February 14
Subject: Ultramarine Blue (red shade?)
Ultramarine Blue (red shade?)

What is it with art teachers and xylophones? Ours seems to have a fetish with xylophone music (Milt Jackson in particular). I guess I should thank my lucky stars that she isn't obsessed with bagpipe music. I will say this, xylophone music does not complement the tedium of painting chromatic circles and color scales. It's actually like the sound of aluminum scraping concrete while you clean the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush. I'm not sure what would be an appropriate soundtrack to painting a chart of primary, secondary and tertiary colours. Leonard Cohen is definitely better for painting grey boxes. I don't hear him as a backdrop to painting red, blue and yellow rectangles. She wasn't far off when she put middle eastern music on the CD player about half way through our class last night. My Muslim friend Fallah, who sits next to me, perked up noticeably when that music came on. It being the third week of us sitting next to each other, we chat now, and even comment on each others work, giving each other encouragement. She is utterly talentless (unless some talent can be found hidden tucked away under the black cloak that covers her from head to toe) but I still ooh and aah at her creations for the sake of collegiality. We are art neighbours after all, and this may be our sitting positions for the balance of the 12 weeks. Fallah clearly loves what she's doing, and my compliments add to her bubbly good spirits and shining smile, which, last night in particular, acted as a welcome counterpoint to the annoying clanging of the xylophones. Yes, we've finally arrived at colour. It feels like a major step. And there is no doubt it's been a relief, not just for Fallah who was positively giggly dipping her brush in Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue, but for all of us. Colour has presented more of a challenge than anticipated, even before starting, especially Ultramarine Blue (red shade). I went to four different art supply stores to find a tube of that colour and none had it. Being the stickler that she is our teacher insisted that we purchase colours with unnecessary names like Quinacridone Red and Phythalocyanine Blue (artists clearly make these names up to feel more professional and specialized). The trickiest part is that each colour has a 'shade'. For example you can get Quinacridone Red in either blue shade or green shade, although there is no noticeable difference as far as any regular person can tell. Our teacher was emphatic that we needed the Ultramarine Blue (red shade) for the class. Well, turns out that the red shade as opposed to green shade is either very popular or very unpopular because none of the stores I visited had it. Either they were sold out, or they didn't carry it because no one wants it. The maven at one store actually wasn't even sure if they made the Ultramarine Blue in a red shade, so he had to check the manufacturer's catalogue. He confirmed that it apparently exists, so I intrepidly drove around half the city searching for it, like it was some kind of art class Holy Grail. And like the mythical chalice I am still not completely convinced that it exists. Because when I arrived in class everyone else seemed to have the same problem as me. In desperation and in fear of being ill-equipped each of us had bought the Ultramarine Blue green shade. I may have noticed our teacher smirk knowingly when we complained. I'm thinking this was her ploy, some sort of test of our commitment to the cause of art. I almost expected her to say 'now that you have demonstrated your faith, grasshopper, we can now move to the next stage of your education and one day you will be able to call yourself an artist'.

Friday, February 21
Subject: What I misunderstood in art class
Charles Delaunay

First thing's first, her name is Fatima, not Fallah. One more thing that I learned in art class, and initially misunderstood. Glad I got that one straight before reaching the halfway point in our course. Now, not only do I appreciate my tablemate's good humour and enthusiasm for art, but also her discretion not wanting to correct me for fear of causing me embarrassment when I kept calling her Fallah. Some Muslims practice kindness and discretion; one more thing that I learned in art class. File that next to 'not all Muslims are bloodthirsty terrorists'. Not only had I gotten my friend's name wrong for the last three classes, but last night I had the sinking feeling that I've been missing a lot of other things in class too. That worry led me to a night of furtive sleep. I kid you not. I was so concerned about the way I'm handling our latest exercise that I'm losing sleep over it. Boy, there really must be something wrong with me if I can lose sleep over an art project. Or conversely, if my art class is all I have to worry about then I guess everything else in my life must be pretty damn great. I'll stick with the latter notion. We started a project that will extend over two classes. It builds on our last lesson about the basics of colour theory. We were presented with the work of the French abstract artist Charles Delaunay. The series we looked at were paintings of precise chromatic shapes, circles and arcs, in rhythmic patterns along a spine-like vertical plain (see above). We were told that we would use his work as inspiration to create our own chromatic arcs to suggest movement. I think I mentioned that our teacher doesn't speak English very well, and even in her native Qu├ębecois Joual she has noticeable difficulty expressing herself verbally. Understandable I guess, she's an artist with a passion for colour and form, not a Shakespearean actor. When she is explaining an exercise, she uses a lot of hand signals and contorts her body to demonstrate her vague notions (evidence that she was a dancer before she was a painter). Her lack of facility with language doesn't help when providing her befuddled neophyte students with instructions for the next exercise. She's nice enough, with reams of patience, always asking us if we have any further questions after she has failed the clarity test for the fourth time. The problem is that although we still don't understand what she wants, we stop asking because it's too painful to witness her suffering through the effort of explanation. Last night what I heard was "rhythm, movement, a vertical plain, colour." I pieced it all together in my mind and excitedly ran to my canvas, which, for the first session was propped up on an easel instead flat on the table in front of me - another advancement in our education, and even more, a convincing indication that we were well on our way to becoming 'real' artists. I did not hesitate, excitedly throwing my whole self, literally, into the exercise. I covered my canvas in a wash of light purple. Then I sketched out the required vertical plain with a ruler. I drew a faint pattern of circles and arcs in white paint freehand to get an idea of a scaffolding I might follow. I stood back from the canvas and started slopping on the colours wherever it felt right. I stood back and leapt forward toward the canvas, some red here, some blue there. I mixed colours, some green, some orange, some purple, and layered them on, letting the colours bleed one into the next. Yes, I really felt like the painter I meant to be by enrolling for this class. I was playing with colour which lightened my grey mid-winter spirits, which is after all why I really took the course in the first place, rejoicing in slapping on a painterly arc here and making a circular splotch there. I felt the Delaunay-like vibrancy of the colour in my flesh. The movement I witnessed was an extension of my body stepping backward away from the canvas to consider the paint I had just applied and then stepping forward to apply more paint for a correction or an addition. Layer upon layer, I danced forward and backward, and the shapes and colours began dancing too. After about 45 minutes the trance I was in was broken when our instructor said it was a good idea to take a break and walk around the room to see what the other students were doing. Being a good protege, a student-artist as opposed to a hobbyist, that's just what I did. I proudly circulated between the easels of my classmates expecting to see the product of rank amateurs, the dull uninspired work of the passionless compared to my own vibrant Gauguin-like canvas of riotous colour and movement. What I saw was like a punch in the gut. Everyone else had taken pretty much the same approach, carefully imitating the geometric circles of Charles Delaunay, architecturally, cleanly plotting out in pencil their shapes around a vertical axis with a makeshift compass (that the teacher had provided and I had somehow ignored) and filling them with of shapes of pure colour, painted meticulously within the lines. One after the other, they had stayed faithful to the model. My canvas was the only one that was completely alien. Like a martian among civilized human beings. And when I returned to my place and stepped before my creation what I saw looked like someone had consumed a western omelette too quickly and projectile vomited it out against the wall. I was crestfallen and slumped in my chair. I did not have the energy to stand up let alone make another stab at my canvas to fix the mess. I turned to Fatima who was carefully and confidently plotting out her circles and filling in the lines like the rest of the class. For the first time she seemed to know exactly what to do and I was completely lost. I complimented her work and actually meant what I'd said. She looked at my disaster and before she could utter a thought, I shot out "A different approach," hoping my words would explain the train wreck we were surveying together. She smiled and said, "You are a true artist," which I took to mean that like our instructor, she was utterly at a loss for words.

Friday, February 28
Subject: CDID Sufferer

I'm having a little trouble putting my latest art class experience into words mostly because it's difficult to confess to feelings of self-disgust. Last night was essentially an extension of our last class which as I've described was a fiasco. I had completely mis-executed the project so yesterday was a reminder of how badly my work had been going. But it gets worse. I actually spent several hours last weekend trying to fix my mis-formed arcs and misshapen circles. While it appeared that I was on the right track in the tranquil solitude of my personal dwelling, when I got to art class I realized that compared to the much more careful and accomplished work of my classmates I had, in fact, done very little to fix things. At home, I had practically started from scratch, slapping layer upon layer of paint, mixing and re-mixing colours and applying them in excess. In the process I discovered that as a child might have ADHD I have something called CDID: Colour Defiency Impatience Disorder. This is a disease characterized by a complete and utter lack of colour sense coupled with severe impatience expressing itself as an inability to be satisfied with any colour combination and a constant need to change them, and resulting in wasting copious amounts of paint, which in the case of the very expensive materials we use, is akin to a drug addict overindulging in cocaine. We are half way into our twelve week course (and had only two classes of actually painting with colour), and my tubes of paint are already almost empty. The canvas I am working on is now as stiff as a plaster cast. Clipping my canvas to the easel last night it almost toppled over from the added weight. And that's not even the worst part of what happened. The worst part was that my regular tablemate, the talent-deficient Fatima, chose to sit elsewhere. I don't believe it was anything personal or prejudicial ie. "I'm not sitting next to that Jew anymore," at least I hope not. I realize now how it soothed my ego to work next to Fatima. She (or rather her lack of artistic ability) meant so much, acting as stabilizing pontoons to my own deficient sense of artistic self-worth. Last night, in her absence, all that was shaken. Instead, my easel was placed next to Michael, the retiree who I had guessed from the way he painted with precision and exacting patience, to be an engineer in his former life, but was in fact, as I learned, a pastor. I don't know if there is any connection between the ability to paint beautiful arcs and circles and faith in God but after witnessing how Michael handled a brush and his masterful and subtle ability to mix colour, I must conclude that there has to be a link. Could it be that the same skill was required by the Creator to shape the planets and set them in motion in the heavens? Michael claimed that he has not painted since elementary school which, if he was not a man of the cloth, I would have responded to by calling him a damned liar to his face. His painting is so refined, his colours so well chosen, if you had told me that his work had been painted by Charles Delaunay himself I would not have disagreed. Not only is Michael prodigiously gifted in art, he is a man of gentle countenance and good humour, married 52 years with 3 children and 7 grandchildren, and brings a bag of candies to every class to distribute to the students. In short he is infuriating on every possible level. Yesterday, he paused from his masterpiece and came to look at my multi-coloured disaster, complimenting me much in the same way I had complimented Fatima a week ago. In other words he patronized me. I had to hold myself back from taking a swing at his head (while sucking on the bonbon he had just handed me). And then, of course, I felt inexorable shame for the violence I was feeling and for the rest of the class I could not escape from the dark pit of self-disgust into which I had fallen. My painting got progressively worse. The colours got darker and darker. The shapes more twisted and contorted. My canvas looked as exhausted and frustrated as I was. I finally threw in the towel three quarters into the session. I cleaned my brushes and packed up the remainder of my paints, impatient to get the hell out of there and as far away from pastor Michael and his perfect circles as possible. Leaving the class I wished Fatima a good week and told her that I missed sitting next to her. She responded with a sympathetic smile that carried a hint of pity.

Sunday, March 16
Subject: The Dragon slays the princess
The Dragon


Missed a class. The day I returned home from my business trip I was simply too exhausted to attend that evening and crashed out early after work instead. I knew that we were beginning a section on complementary colours and secretly hoped that I could avoid having to do another tedious exercise painting colour scales. No such luck. Last class was a mixed bag since Mireille (did I ever mention that it's our teacher's name) had to juggle half the students who missed the last class because of March break, and the other half who attended diligently (including Pastor Michael and my former friend Fatima, who obviously don't have kids or don't take holidays because every day is a holiday for a retiree.) Notwithstanding her Herculian efforts to explain two sets of exercises to two groups in two different languages, it was even more confusing than ever before and more painful to watch. Mireille's difficulties appeared to be multiplied exponentially, and there were moments, in search of a word or a mode of expression, where she would just throw up her hands in frustration and shut down in defeat, like a machine out of gas. But I will give Mireille one thing, she is steadfast about each and every student sticking with the program, so, our group was stuck painting scales while the other group pulled ahead with the next project. I was at a table with Pastor Michael and a young girl (whose name I never learned), which I took to be fortuitous since they had already completed last week's exercise and could explain it to me if I needed help, which of course I did. But first, there was the matter of wrapping up the discussion of our project on colourful circles. A lady (also name unknown who sits on the other side of class and has missed the last two weeks), had finished her project at home and pinned it up on the board for everyone to see and admire. It was magnificently completed, hence her desire show it off. And she had taken a major liberty which Mireille did not seem to mind. Rather than a vertical axis this student had decided to copy one of Delaunay's works precisely and put her axis on an angle, from one corner of the canvas to the diagonally opposite corner. I, of course, was incensed, because wasn't it the main point to use a vertical axis, and what gave her the right to skirt the rules so brazenly? She was certainly angling (pun intended) to be the teacher's pet, showing that she was better than the rest of us and rules did not apply to her. The other aspect of her display which rankled was how undeniably perfect in execution it was. Mireille seemed unbothered by how she had skirted the rules and made the work the centrepiece of discussion. How does the angle change our feeling about the movement of the work compared to a vertical axis? We all stood around dumbfounded. No one spoke, less fearful that we'd sound stupid than simply in speechless awe of how excellent it was. After a minute of blank silence I spoke up. I have no idea what got into me but I did the unthinkable. "How about if I put my vertical project next to the angled one to see the difference." Mireille, relieved that someone was willing to voice an opinion, immediately agreed. I don't know why I offered but was sure that it had little to do with comparison, although maybe it did, but not in the way I had originally considered. I certainly don't think I was fishing for compliments. On the contrary, I knew that my project was a travesty in comparison to the other one, an angry overdone beast compared to the other graceful elegant and delicately angular arcs, and somehow that was the point. In an instant I decided to risk embarrassment and derision, risk offending sensibilities, it somehow just had to be done in the way that an ugly secret kept hidden needs to be exposed in order to clear the air. My monstrosity represented everything that the other work was not; inelegance, lack of control and discipline, hostility, misunderstanding and confusion. It was the brutish testimony of an impatient working stiff who earned his keep eight hours a day and struggled to support a family, as opposed to the statement of a housewife or a retiree, people of leisure who had no worries and nothing but time to waste. It was a statement that had to be made and only I, of all the people in the class, was in a position to make it. Pinning my project up next to the shorter other work I half expected my taller beefier painting to bend down and swallow the weaker more helpless canvas in the way that a dragon would consume a tiny captive princess if fairy tales ended the way they should. I wanted to challenge the other students, dare them to mock it/me. At first my display was greeted with a silence that sunk deeper and became blacker with each ticking second. I could practically hear mouths drop open like bystanders speechlessly witnessing the aftermath of a car crash, the multi-coloured horror of a wreckage. The silence was unpleasant and growing more uncomfortable. We needed rescue. Then, as if a light from above cutting through a shadowy crack in the ceiling, Michael spoke up. Of course, it had to be the pastor, summoning and channeling Divinely inspired insight in a moment that desperately required salvation. "You sure used a lot of paint" he said, chuckling. I laughed back, nervously, like we were sharing a joke with the rest of the class, as the laughter of the students multiplied in waves throughout the room. The blood rose to my face as I slumped to my place at the rear of the studio in the shadows behind the other students. And that was it. Barely anything more was said, except some self-evident inane remarks about the angled work being "off-balance," echoing exactly how I was feeling inside, and slightly queasy. For the remainder of the lesson my work hung there like an insult, a laughing stock for all to ignore. I refused to take it down on purpose until the very end of class. And I don't regret putting it out there. It's a true and honest statement, whether the rest of the class (including the man of God) likes it or not. At least, now they are aware of who or what lurks in their midst. A rude and unpredictable force, an energy that is undisciplined and wild that might jump out at them and attack, like a beast in the forest! Back at our table I got to work on the exercise of painting scales to learn complementary colours. Pastor Michael sat across from me. I did not seethe. Actually I felt relieved. The air had been cleared. I didn't care anymore what he or any of the others thought of me or my work. About mid way through the class I asked Michael what a complementary colour was, and strangely enough he admitted that he had no idea, notwithstanding the fact that he was well into the next project while I had fallen behind painting colour scales. Then it hit me that complementary colours were one primary colour and the other two primary colours mixed together i.e. red and green (mixture of yellow and blue), blue and orange (red and yellow mixed together) and yellow and purple (red and blue mixed together). I shared my knowledge with Michael and felt I had scored a point. Then I asked another question; what is the nature of the relationship between complementary colours? And once again my tablemate was ignorant. And then the second eureka moment in a matter of minutes struck. When working with a primary colour we add the complementary colour to mute it in order to create shade and volume. We do not add black because that has the effect of deadening the primary colour, reducing its vibrancy. I called Mireille over to confirm my findings and the huge smile on her face spoke volumes. "Exactly" she said. And that's how a dragon slays a princess, I thought to myself.

Friday, March 21
Subject: Getting Zen
Art Class Zen - not


I'm getting better, or at least more zen about art class and I owe it all to the Lotus Temple (attached). I worked on it a ton, but not as long as the previous exercise, because this time I got smart and decided not to fool around, just stay focused on grasping the instructions and trying to follow them to a tee, no creative spirit, no wild gestures, no joy in colour, no self-expression, just a clinical execution of the exercise as written. I think the results speak for themselves, and there was no time wasted (although it still took more than 10 hours to complete) and it accomplishes exactly what it was meant to. Best of all, I am now all caught up with the rest of the class. I was actually looking forward to finishing the exercise (the first time that the homework was not a pain in the neck). What you are seeing is a basic architectural design, namely the Lotus Temple located in India, and its mirror image. We were told to choose from our colour diagram a scheme of no more than four colours comprised of two colours and their complements. Then we had to paint the upper half according to our wishes but within the restrictions, and the bottom half had to mirror the same colours as the top half but with a complement mixed in to 'mute' the original colour. If you let your eye move from a shape on the top to the same shape on the bottom you will see that it's the same colour only a muted version. It creates the illusion of reflection, although when I look at it it appears more to me like the canvas is draped over the corner of a table. Anyway, it's a neat effect. Seems like I'm starting to make peace with my art class, thanks to the Lotus Temple. Last class was zen too. I was calm cool and collected because I had a handle on what was expected. Even better, I got the upper hand on my tablemate pastor Michael for the first time - yeah I know zen means not being competitive, but I can't help it. He did not seem to comprehend the nature of the exercise (even after I explained it to him... yes, he asked me for help) and Mireille kept stopping by our table and correcting his choice of colours because he was constantly deviating from his four colour limit. At one point, as I pulled away from Michael because he rapidly fell behind, he gazed over at my canvas and said "Good work," and it was sincere. The sincerity of his encouragement presumably derived from his awareness that I can so easily go off the rails and have a tendency to do so. His witnessed the results of me getting carried away with myself. You gotta love Michael, always the pastor ensuring that his flock does not stray. But now it wasn't necessary. I was firmly in control of what I was doing. I took his "Good work" as akin to a pet 'healing' when asked to do so, a word of praise for exercising self-control. I responded "Thanks, I actually feel like I know what I'm doing for once" (which was a subtle jibe since he clearly did not.) Mireille even came by twice to compliment my work, instead of gazing pitifully at my effort like she usually does. I tell you there is no substitute for the feeling of mastery. Okay, I know I'm getting carried away with myself now, but then again, how often do we get the chance to gloat in life? Especially at the expense of a priest? Anyway, we'll see how my finished product stacks up against the other students when we compare and contrast at the beginning of next class. We're not supposed to be looking at who's work is better and who's worse, but of course we do. We're supposed to observe and notice differences in approach, but no one really does that. Each of us wants our work to be the object of admiration and praise, though no one will admit as much. Then the class is starting on still life with colour, fruit and the like. It feels like we're all reaching a genuine milestone. That is, if pastor Michael can catch up. Okay, okay, I'll try to be more zen next time.

Friday, March 28
Subject: Nature Morte (Still life)


Art class still intimidates me, especially when we have to apply what we have supposedly learned to something more than an exercise, like representing an actual object in the real world. I mean they're all exercises, but an analogy would be the difference between playing scales and playing a song, even something as simple at 'Frere Jacques' or 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'. It's comforting to just follow instructions and try to match a certain colour, or paint between the lines, or avoid making a gigantic mess, which for me is challenging enough. Last night's session was as close as we have come so far to turning scales into playing an actual song: We started on our first still life. Our subject was reminiscent of something Cezanne might have painted, a collection of yellow squash and orange peppers arranged in trios on a striped table cloth that was evocatively draped in folds and bunches to highlight shadows. There is no way I'll be able to do this, I said to myself. It wasn't the veggies that threw me off, it was the wrinkly table cloth. It's always amazed me how artists rendered the dynamic of light on fabric in their paintings. Trying to do it myself felt akin to going skydiving. Do we actually have enough of an understanding of the relationship between complementary colours to actually render the folds in fabric? I had my doubts. Trepidation eventually gave way to excitement though. And once I got started I felt as if, notwithstanding the dearth of tools, I would at least learn whether I actually learned something after 9 weeks (yes, it's actually been NINE weeks), and I mean besides the fact that I have no patience, am incredibly self-conscience, competitive and seem inordinately preoccupied with proving my masculinity. The last class did start off well though. I got to strut my stuff like a peacock when we displayed our last projects for critique. I must immodestly admit that mine turned out better than expected and the other students remarked as such. I was a little disappointed that only five of us had completed the assignment. And poor pastor Michael - at first he resisted taking his unfinished project out of hiding since he had not made a stitch of progress on it from last class. He'd had a busy week, he said. Of course, what flashed though my mind was, how busy could a retired pastor's week be? Were members of his flock knocking down his door with spiritual crises all week long because the active pastor couldn't handle the overflow? He looked almost embarrassed to be pinning his canvas to the board for our assessment. For the rest of class we were at easels, and I positioned mine on the other side of the class from Pastor Michael, not for any other reason other than it gave me a better view of our new subject matter. From the triumph of displaying my last project at the outset of the session, to mid-class, when Mireille remarked that she was impressed by the squash I was painting, I felt that I was leaving pastor Michael behind in more ways than one. So here we are coming to the end of the course and getting acquainted with 'nature morte', which means 'still life' in French but literally translates as 'dead nature'. Appropriate that this is where we're ending up. And it occurs to me that an acquaintance with death, in one form or another, seems to be a prerequisite for an appreciation for art and living. Boy am I ever getting profound - or full of myself. 

Friday, April 4
Subject: Arguing with myself

Well it didn't turn out too badly, except the proportions are wrong. That object on the left is actually supposed to be a squash not a lemon. In reality it is markedly larger than the pepper, but somehow it was the pepper that occupied most of my attention so it got larger treatment, kind of like a kid acting up. I could work on the tablecloth a lot longer but I'm fed up with it (my lack of patience again). I simplified the number of folds for the sake of saving myself hours of frustration. We presented our works at the beginning of last class, as per the usual routine and, if I do immodestly say so, mine was vastly superior to all the others, all being four, including mine Pastor Michael's and Fatima's (looks like we're the diehards of the class). Only half the class showed up and half of those didn't bother to bring their projects (probably to save themselves embarrassment). None of the youngins were present, they seemingly had other things to do, possibly school exams. Michael's wasn't finished, and the part that he presented showed struggle. Fatima's was completed -  she always completes her projects - and aside from the fact that she has no ability whatsoever to render volume, she did a nice job selecting colours. It was a flat yet attractive composition, that if you had not known her subject was supposed to be veggies you would have seen no discernible evidence. Still, the colours were nice. I remember the very first class when she introduced herself she said that the reason she was taking the class was that she enjoyed colours. Her project showed it and I commented as such when we were asked to respond to her work. When we came to my work, an argument ensued. I argued against the work while the rest of the class argued for it. I feigned embarrassment - it seems to be a no win situation with me, I'm embarrassed when my work is shit and I'm equally embarrassed when it's not - pointing out that the proportions were wrong. I also said that I thought my pepper looked cartoonish and the squash looked realistic. Most of the students said that they felt the exact opposite. Again, trying to seem self-effacing I said that I had great trouble rendering the texture of the pepper, which is shiny, while the bumpiness of the squash seemed to happen by itself. The other students disagreed expressing a consensus that I had done an excellent job achieving volume and texture. I finally quit while I was ahead and realizing that false modesty does not become me. My status among my classmates had climbed several notches in a matter of minutes. Incidentally, what you are looking at is the refined version - I have since worked on it for a few hours and corrected the pepper so I think it's not so cartoonish anymore. It's one of the things I like about painting, if you are willing to put in the hours all errors are correctable. Wish life were so simple. Anyway, after an auspicious beginning I was ready to take my spot behind my easel (and atop my pedestal). But alas it was not to be. As the class progressed I began to realize that I was feeling queasy. Something was brewing in my gut (which eventually emerged full force the next morning). I held it together and threw myself into the class as enthusiastically as possible with my energy waning. How could I not force myself to enjoy the fruits of my labour? We were painting a live model. 

Friday, April 4
Subject: Minute paintings (not minute as in small)

What you see here are the results of the exercise we did to start our second to last class. The model would hold a pose for one minute in which time the students were asked to render a form. We worked quickly and on newsprint. Apparently this is a warm-up exercise akin to stretching the muscles before the heavy-lifting or gymnastics. Once again we were utterly perplexed by the task, but notwithstanding how ill I was starting to feel, I figured the key was to muster all the energy I had to launch myself into the task, which I did with whatever gusto I could. And I think the trick was not to let my mind intervene in the process. It felt liberating and I got the hang of it fast. What ensued was a straight dialogue between my eyes and my hands, and they seemed to be getting along fine. For the first time, I wasn't concerned about the technicalities of mixing the right colours, or getting the proportions right, or where to put the shading. I just slopped on the paint and by the end of it my palette looked like it had been rolled in by pigs. This exercise was made for me. My other classmates seemed to be having much more difficulty, Pastor Michael in particular. He's a slow, reflective, patient man. An organized systematic guy who typically spends ten minutes just planning out his canvas and then another ten mixing his colours, one at a time, each is exactly the desired shade of red or blue. In other words, this exercise was designed by the gods to give a guy like Michael fits. Loosen up, man! You could almost hear the deities of art screaming down at their lost servant. In the meantime I was like a kid in a sandbox. This art class was definitely going my way. I didn't have to paint between the lines. And we used fat, housepainting brushes which accentuated the gestures. I loved it and kept thinking, this is the format for me. BIGNESS. I'm a big picture kind of guy in more ways than I even realized. I suppose there are those of us who like staring up into the heavens looking at the stars and planets and constellations, contemplating the vast sweep of the universe and existence, and others who prefer being hunched over microscopes surveying the minuteness. I'm a vastness kind of guy.

Friday, April 11
Subject: Flesh and blood model

Well, it all culminated in this, or should I say her, Beatrice by name. My first live model. Not quite nude, but flesh and blood and plenty of skin, which ended up being the most challenging part - trying to mix a credible skin tone out of blue, orange and white. And that foot on the left gave me fits. And faces… now I understand why artists don't bother painting eyes when they paint models, because they CAN'T. And I'm not talking any joe shmo artist, even the best of them don't bother with eyes. If you don't believe me check our Cezanne or Degas or Modigliani. Black holes for eyes. Now, I don't want to sexualize the process of painting a female figure, but somehow I was finding it unavoidable. Is this part and parcel of the creative process? That it be inextricably linked to the procreationary impulse? And she wasn't even naked. Also, a model she may have been, but Beatrice was no magazine model. Yet, as the class progressed and I attempted over and over again to fathom and translate onto canvas her bodily proportions I found myself becoming inexplicably attracted to her. I felt like a patient falling for his psychotherapist. Every confounding corner of her flesh, every shade into which I ventured visually, seemed to metaphorically simultaneously probe a dark corner of my mind. I was objectifying her and fantasizing about her and she didn't move, didn't protest. Nothing was going on between us in reality (she was ten feet away), and yet everything was going on. Of course, this was me obsessing with myself again. And I struggled to stay focused on the task at hand. But a word about the other goings-on of our final class: It was a session full of warmth and good cheer and it featured a veritable feast of gastronomic delights including pizzas, cheese and crackers, bottles of white and red wine brought by the students (women acting on their domestic impulses) and a bottle of celebratory whiskey brought by hard-drinking yours truly. I was secretly determined to get at least one person drunk, and figured it wasn't going to be Pastor Michael or Fatima. We ate and toasted the end of our journey together and painted the live model for a second session and the atmosphere felt positively Bacchanalian. We had completed a journey together, come to an end, and the sense of bonding having arrived at our destination as kin was palpable. The cool exteriors had finally thawed, the liquor no doubt contributing. We chatted freely and I learned more tidbits about my cohort that hadn't been previously revealed. For instance, Fatima is a widow, her husband having died quite young and tragically. She spent some time showing me pictures of her treasured married boys and cherished grandchildren on her smartphone. Newly contextualized, Fatima's constant smile and good cheer now had greater meaning for me. I asked her if she intended on taking another class and she said yes, but closer to home since she did not want to rely on her son for lifts anymore. I truly felt like I was going to miss her. Michael said he was going to take another painting class too. That admission surprised me because it had occurred to me that our unspoken competitiveness might have ruined the class for him. Then I realized that he had no idea about that. It had been me being competitive with myself all along. As for me, I haven't decided whether I'm going to take another class. One thing's for sure, if I do it will definitely not be on a weekday. The shlep after work is too much. I also haven't decided where painting fits into my life. It's definitely changed the way I see a lot of the world around me. I notice colours and patterns of light and dark in ways I never noticed them before. And not only in the world outside, but more so in myself. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Happy National Poetry Month

THE LYNX

The lynx emerges
from hiding
to track the white
snowshoe hare;
the chase that began
with a scent
ends in technicolor violence,
her fur sheared open
by fang and claw
steaming innards spilled out
beside her
like the contents of plastic shopping bags
she succumbs in silence
a finale
without protest
.
The 'hungry and homeless' man
whose sign asks for change
is as static as a still life
if he was ever alive
and dies before
a much larger
unmoved audience.