Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Castle In The Sky

I've been thinking a lot about the "why" of art. Actually, what I've been pondering is the "why" of anything we're passionate about.

It started with a documentary about Vincent Van Gogh a few weeks ago. I never knew until then that Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. In fact, he was a relatively unknown artist. It was only years after his death, when the myth became bigger than the man, that his work started selling like mad. Even so, Van Gogh painted. All the time. Part of the reason he didn't sell his work is that he believed his work to be flawed, and nothing short of perfection was good enough for ol' Vinnie to sell. It's a shame he never understood that it's the imperfection in his work that makes so many of us identify with it.

One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way.
~Vincent Van Gogh

In the three short years that I've been painting, I've already surpassed Van Gogh's sales (while he was alive, that is) by 500%. If you count card sales into that... fuggidaboudit. Van Gogh can eat my glue fumes. So it was that I tried very hard not to take offense when someone referred to my work as "just a hobby." I could have handled "hobby," although that's bad enough. But... "just"?!

You might as well say that breathing is a hobby, because for me, art is just as essential as breathing. Maybe I'm just quibbling over syntax. "It's been known to happen before," she says wryly. However, it has me thinking about the difference between doing something that is purely for fun and doing something that is a passion. I'm not saying that you can't be passionate about something that is fun as that would negate my current existence. I'm talking about something that gets you so jazzed you can't think of anything else you'd rather be doing.

What is it in us that crosses that line? That fine line between "just for fun" and "can't live without it." What tiny little spark is it that lights the fuel in our soul and causes us to burn for something? What's that thing that says, "To hell with what anyone else thinks. I must do this!" What? I'm asking, because even though I have that in me, I don't know what it is. Sure, it's passion, but why me? I know plenty of people who are probably more talented than I, but who don't have that kind of drive in them. Maybe they just haven't acquiesced to it yet.

Maybe that's it.

Maybe it's some sort of internal evolution that causes some of us to realize that "this is it" and everything else pales in comparison. Some people know what they want to do by the time they're 10 years old. Some don't discover it until middle age (raises hand sheepishly).

If you could do anything, what would it be? Keep asking yourself until you get an answer.

If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into and understanding of many things.
~Vincent Van Gogh

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Perchance To Sleep

Perchance To Sleep
A Short Story

It’s not that I’m completely exhausted by the four hour drive. I’m tired, but it’s nothing that a hearty stretch won’t cure. Neither is it the case that my fingers are still painfully cold from having to chain up and unchain coming through the mountain pass. My hands are cold, sure, but it isn’t that big a deal. What it comes down to is that I’m delaying the inevitable. That’s my real reason for stopping at the oh-so pretentiously named coffee shop Here’s Mug In Your Eye. Western Washington is famous for its overly caffeinated insanity, and shops like this that proliferate on every corner are a sure sign of said insanity.

No, my real reason for stopping two miles short of my destination is that I’m just not all that anxious to get there. I haven’t been back to the ol’ homestead, nor have I seen Pop in about six months. However, my sweetly interfering auntie said, “I just don’t know how to handle this episode. You’d better come.” So, I dropped my real life - yes, there is such a thing in Spokane - and came back here to a place that feels like a long lost mirage. Not an oasis, mind you. A mirage.

To an outsider, my youth would probably seem pretty damned average. I shot up to six feet tall my freshman year of high school, and didn’t stop until I hit 6’3” my sophomore year. Football was an easy and natural outlet for me, so I excelled at that. I got decent grades because I had one of those rare coaches who actually cared that his players hit the books as hard as the opposing team‘s players. In textbook fashion, I bedded the second girl I ever dated. Naturally, she was a cheerleader. She wore my class ring. We went to prom. Then as happens, the summer after we graduated we found reasons not to like each other. That way we could split up before heading to college. That’s what it looked like from the outside view of Bobby Logan‘s life. Just average. Nothing to make a movie about.

Inside, in the house where I was born and raised, it was a different story. It was stifling and dark and every family meal - a requirement every night at 6 pm in the Logan household - felt like wading through marshmallows. Mom tried too hard to be overly sweet; Pop tried too hard to be overly interested; and I tried too hard not to puke from the annoying burnt sugary smell of it all. I didn’t just feel stuck, I felt like it was all stuck to me. But that was then, this is now. I did manage to escape. I’m 48 years old, have my own, fairly successful life. These days I‘m known as Bob Logan. The only person who doesn’t get socked for calling me Bobby is my pop. My coffee is gone. Time to get on with it.

Like always, I use my old house key to let myself in. It occurs to me that I’ve had that key for about 35 years now. Except for the faint light coming from the range hood in the kitchen, the house is dark. “Pop?” No answer. I move through the living room and down the hallway toward the den. Again, “Pop?” Still no answer, but I can hear him making odd little weeping noises. I reach in and flip on the bathroom light and squint for a minute at how it floods the hallway. But it’s enough. I can at least see the outline of him where he’s sitting in the den.

I walk in to the den, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. “Pop? It’s me. Bobby. Pop?” No answer, just the quiet sobbing noise. “Pop, I’m going to turn the lamp on over here. Watch your eyes.” And there he is, Mike Logan, wearing pajamas and a bathrobe that have both seen much better days. He’s clutching a teddy bear. No, not clutching, but kneading it like he’s getting clay ready for molding. I recognize it, the bear. It belonged to my sister. Pop has tears running down his cheeks and judging from how wet the collar of his bathrobe is, he’s been at it for hours.

I squat next to his chair and put a hand on his arm. Although he retired from the lumberjack trade a good ten years ago, I can still feel the knotty muscles in his forearm harden and relax as he kneads the bear. “Pop,” I begin again gently. “Pop. What’s wrong? What is it.” Pop blinks a couple of times at that and swallows hard. Finally he looks over at me, surprised to see me crouching there. He tries to say my name, but it comes out in a squeak. He clears his throat, that old familiar great rumbling noise that I’ve inherited from him and tries again.

“Bobby. When did you… what are…” He looks at the bear gripped in his massive hands, then looks back up at me. “This was your sister's.”

“I know, Pop. What…” I let the question hang.

“I miss your mother. I don’t just mean the last five years with her. I miss the woman I took to the sock hop in ‘58. She was so different from the woman you grew up with. I’m sorry you couldn't know who she was then.”

“Here, Pop. Looks like you could use this.”

Pop looks confused for a split second, then releases his left hand grip on the bear, takes the cloth from me, and wipes down his face.

“Thanks, Bobby. You’re a good son.”

I wave that statement away and try to start over again. “Pop, what’s going on? You know, Aunt Meg called and told me to come. She didn’t know what to do.”

At that there’s a slight smile on Pop’s face. “Ah, Meddlin’ Meg. What would we do without her?” I sit down in Mom’s old rocker, but I don’t say anything. I know this is where I stay silent and let Pop get it all out. I mentioned that I’m tall, but Pop towers over me and outweighs me by a good forty pounds. Back when he was working, he was in amazing shape - muscles everywhere and those huge grizzled hands. Years of working in an industry where you easily end up losing a limb if you screw around had given him that long, hard stare look in his eyes. You know the one; Scott Glen and Sam Eliot often copy it in movies. All that is to let you in on what I learned early on: when Pop is ready to talk, shut the hell up and listen.

“I loved your mother. Through all the years and all the… the stuff. I loved her. She was beautiful and she had such amazing spunk back then. Just full of life. I couldn’t wait to come home from work every day just to be able to see that light in her eyes. When we married, I promised to take her to Scotland. It was her dream to go there and walk the hills that our ancestors had walked.

I never got the chance to take her. By the time I could afford it… well, as the young hippie once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Your sister came along, we bought this house, you came along, then… life. You didn’t get to know that version of your mother, the woman who lived in her body before the one that gave up on all her unfulfilled dreams.

You were barely more than a toddler when it changed, when that drunken asshole killed your sister. She was such a pretty little thing and she loved you. She used to drag you around like you were her favorite doll, and I guess you were. Where your mother was concerned, the sun rose and set on that girl. They were so much alike that sometimes I’d wonder if I’d contributed anything at all to the gene pool. So, when she was killed, when she was so unthinkably dead at just seven years old, I think your mother just let a big part of herself follow. Because all the life seemed to get sucked out of Mary in one fell swoop.

What you ended up knowing of your mother was that version of Mary. The lifeless version, the version that smiled and tried hard to please, but without there being any real feeling behind any of it. I still loved your mother, yes, but I couldn’t handle that version of her. It was like I had lost two beautiful girls when that drunken asshole swerved around the corner and into our lives. I just couldn’t handle it. The only time my head was quiet was when I was working, when the chainsaws were buzzing so loud that it was impossible to hear yourself think. I’d push my chainsaw through the wood until my muscles were on fire. Anything to diminish the worst pain on earth. So, I took on every logging job I could find in an attempt to stay away.

After you left for college, Bobby, it got even worse. The silence in this house was nearly deafening. That’s when I started joining the guys for a beer or two after work. It seemed to be a routine that your mother actually welcomed. I’d come home and there’d be some kind of dinner in the fridge; she’d already be in bed. I’d eat whatever was on the plate in the fridge and crawl into bed myself, too dog-tired to care about anything. There was a lot more room for us to skirt around the elephant in the living room if we did it individually.

Five years ago when the doctor told us that the hard gas she thought she was experiencing was actually pancreatic cancer, I was almost relieved. I knew it was going to take her fast and that she wouldn’t have to linger long and suffer more. I knew she was headed to a better place.

I’ve thought about a lot of things since she passed. Wondered if I could have done differently, wondered if I could have changed things for her. I don’t know. Maybe I should have forced her on a plane and made her stand on the edge of some bluff overlooking the North Sea. I don’t know. I wish a lot of things. I wish I could have given you a better setting to grow up in. Mostly I’m just tired. Weary. I wish I could go to sleep one last time and have it done. Maybe that’s selfish, but it’s my wish.”

Here Pop stops talking, whatever wind was in his sails is gone. I know it’s okay for me to speak now. “Pop, let me make you some cocoa.” It sounds stupid, but it’s all I can think to do. Evidently it’s the right choice because Pop nods. So, I go out to the kitchen, poor some milk in a mug, put it in the microwave and hit the button that says, “hot beverages.” How easy do we need to make it for ourselves, I ask you. I’m lost in thought until the microwave beeps. I mix in the cocoa and a bottle of morphine pills that I have left from knee surgery last year. Don’t judge me. It’s what he wants. He no longer has the chainsaws to drown out the noise.

I take the cup in to Pops. He sets the teddy bear on the floor and takes the mug from me. We sit in relative silence while he drinks it down. When he’s done, I help him to bed. I smile a little at the way his feet hang off the end of the bed. I pull the sheets up and get him tucked in like he’s a little kid. I sit on the edge of the bed.

“I’ll just wait here a minute until you start to drift.”

Pop nods.

I can see the morphine start to work, making his eyelids too heavy for him to hold them up. I take his hand and squeeze it.

“I love you, Pop.”

One last thing. I go into the den and get the teddy bear. I bring it back to the bedroom and tuck it under Pop’s arm. He barely responds to the movement. I bend over and kiss his forehead, something I don’t think I’ve ever done. I can’t remember kissing my pop ever, at all.

“’Night, Pop. Sleep well.”


For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Brad MacDonald challenged me with "A teddy bear, a chainsaw and a dream unfulfilled." and I challenged Jester Queen with "Describe a color, any color, to a blind person."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Hang Tight

I'm back to writing for an IndieInk challenge this week. See details at the bottom of this post. What follows is a work of fiction.


As soon as I heard her voice I knew the news wasn't going to be good. She said weakly, “Can you come?” I responded, “I’ll be right there. Hang tight.” I hung up without saying goodbye, but she wasn’t the type to be offended by missing trifles. I hit the save button on my word processing program, locking in the latest addition to my ever burgeoning manuscript. I swallowed the last of my cold coffee with a grimace as I grabbed my keys, headed out the door and down the road.

I tried not to speed on my way to the hospital. Normally I’m not at all aggressive behind the wheel, but suddenly the 35 mph speed limit was intolerable. Once there, I swerved into the first parking space I could find and all but ran to her room. She was pale and obviously not doing well physically, but it was the fear I saw in her eyes that really frightened me. I smiled anyway, at least I think I did, and gave her the usual greeting, “Hey, Chiquita!” Rather than respond with her usual, “Wuddup, Banana?” she only raised her left hand in a half-assed wave as her lip began to tremble.

I first met Maretta eighteen years ago when she was my first editor’s assistant. It started with daily phone calls regarding document updates that we passed back and forth between our two computers. Truth be told, sometimes I made up questions or concerns, because I loved hearing her voice. She still had a hint of her old Oklahoma twang, roughened by perhaps a few too many beers and cigarettes on the weekends. In my mind, I had this romanticized vision of the love-child of Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley in my mind. I always ended the calls by threatening to fly to Chicago and take her drinking once my book was, and here I would cough politely, a best-seller.

A year and a half later, to my utter amazement, my book did become a best-seller and my accountant told me to “go have a little fun, you can afford it.” It was a Friday morning, and I booked the first flight out (first class, no less) to Chicago. I called her once I was seated on the plane.
“Hey, Chiquita!”
“Wuddup, Banana?”
I smiled. “What are you up to this weekend.”
“Not much really,” she drawled. “Prolly gonna go trollin’ for some kinda handsome.” “Yeah? Don’t leave without me.”
“Right. Sure.”
“Serious. My flight gets in at 4:26 p.m. your time.”
“Fuck me! No! Really? Really?!”
“Really, Chiquita.”
“You are fruit bat shit totally Bananas!”
“Well, bring on the flying monkeys, because that should put me to your doorstep by about 6 p.m.”
“I can’t wait. Unbelievable. I can’t wait.”

Five and a half hours later, I was pressing the buzzer next to the door of an old renovated warehouse. The unmistakable voice blasted through the speaker above the mailboxes, “That you, Banana? Come on up!” I heard the door lock click open and as I opened it, I suddenly felt nervous. I wasn’t nervous in a way that told me I should be worried, but nervous in a way that told me I was right, that I was in for an adventure. I took a well-aged, industrial elevator to the third floor. There was only one door up there, painted in a style that looked like Chagall had spent a drunken night spattering paint around. I liked it. I didn’t realize I’d stood there staring as long as I must have until the door was flung open and that voice said, “You gonna stand there all day, or what?!”

She stood there, all of 5’2”, hands on her hips, wild red hair that fell half the length of her body, and the most amazing sea green eyes I’ve ever seen. I don’t know exactly what I had pictured in my head, maybe someone with both feet in the Angelica Houston gene pool, but clearly, this woman wasn’t it. She looked more like a mash-up of Debbie Reynolds and Linda Hunt. I grinned.
“Maretta. It’s you!”
“What’s this Maretta shit? You never call me that.”
“I… oh hell… give me a hug, Chiquita!”

That snap decision to fly out and meet her is one I’ve never questioned. We were fast friends, as I’d expected. The weekend flew by in a blur of laughter, tears, plenty of coffee and whisky - depending on the time of day, and talk about subjects that swung on a vast pendulum - everything from the complexities of female vs. male orgasm to the scent of roasting corn on the cob. Two years later, finally fed up with her going-nowhere-fast position as an editor’s assistant, I hired Maretta to be my personal editor. At first she protested, citing that I probably couldn’t afford her. However, by then I had two best-sellers under my belt and had bought a beautiful twelve acre chunk of property in the Cascade foothills of Washington state. I had a house that was much too big for one person and two cats. There was a small log cabin on the property. I offered to have it remodeled and updated for her. She could live in it rent free and bank most of what I paid her.
“Can I have horses?”
“Why not? There’s plenty of room.”
“Then… deal.”

That was how we’d spent the past sixteen years - me in my big house up on the ridge, she in her cozy cabin down the path, half an acre uphill from the river. We worked in the living room of the big house. I’d long since converted it into a huge office with a sizable library. Men came and went in both of our lives, but for whatever reason, not a single one seemed worth settling for. If it was an unusual friendship, it was at least one of the very best.

Last week Maretta had been wandering the hills on her horse, Starblazer. Spooked by a skunk that had wandered across their path, Starblazer reared and threw Maretta to the ground. She landed hard enough for her calf to be punctured by an old jagged tree stump. Surgeons spent hours picking bits of debris from her wound. While she was in recovery, I was told that the main concern was infection.

Now here we were five days post-surgery. I held Maretta’s hand and wiped hot tears from her cheeks. It was the first time I’d seen her eyes without that feisty fire burning deep inside them. She had always been the stronger of the two of us. I’m pretty damned strong, but Maretta is kick-ass-take-names tough. I think when you’re that short and have all that blazing red hair, you either go shy and quiet, or you, as Maretta had, make it your mission to be a spitfire. It was disconcerting that I was the one trying to give the comfort that I owed her. Infection was spreading through her leg faster than antibiotics could work. There was talk of sepsis. “We have no choice but to take her leg just above the knee.” Amputation.

“This is deep ugly shit, my friend. But, we’ll manage. You know we will. I’ll make sure you have the best care while you recover. You’ll stay in the big house so I can be at your side the instant you need me. Amazing work is being done with prosthetics these days. You’ll go through rehab, you’ll get your strength back. I can’t imagine losing a limb, but losing a limb isn’t losing what makes you Maretta. I love you so much, my dear friend. I don’t know what I can say that will make it better right now. Just know that I love you.”

“Yeah. I’ll be fine. Being short, red-headed, and having a voice like Peppermint Patty ain’t enough. I might as well add One-legged Wonder to my list. Fuck me!” She snorted with laughter so hard that snot flew out her nose, which served to make both of us laugh until we were hysterical, and then laugh harder when the nurse checked in on the commotion. But I knew as soon as I heard her voice that old favorite sentiment of hers, “Fuck me!” I knew she’d be okay.

“You know… I didn’t expect you to be this much trouble when I signed you on. I might have to reconsider this whole relationship.” I couldn’t hide my smirk.
“Yeah? Then fuck you too!”
And we giggled until the pain meds took her where I couldn’t follow.


For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, jahedgepath challenged me with "Write a response to the following opening: "As soon as I heard her voice." and I challenged Eric Limer with "Write about loss of any kind."

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Whoa, Nelly!

Dear Negative Nellies of the World:

I'm beginning to think you really love the leash. Your constant need to point out each and every flaw in your life, without being willing to do anything to change said flaws, leads me to believe that you're in it for sport. In truth, I'm under the impression that you simply don't know how to function unless you're dwelling on what's wrong - dwelling on it without bothering to take any kind of step toward solution.

And, really. If you're satisfied playing in the mud that has you mired, hooray for you. What's annoying about it is that you don't seem to consider how banal it is for the rest of us who get to listen to your near constant bitching. About everything.

You ask for advice, but you don't really want it. You glom on to every self-help quote ever uttered, but you don't apply any of the inherent principles. You whimper, kvetch, moan and manipulate as if you want someone to take you in their lap, feed you milk toast and rock you to sleep while you clutch your favorite blankie (which is probably too scratchy, or it smells funny, or it's too hot, or, or, or...).

Guess what? The real world awaits you. That's the good news. The maybe not so good news is that the real world is never ever going to be what you expect it to be. But guess what? And this is important, so write it down: That's life. It's a phrase also known as "Shit happens."

I know you, you've got a hard-bound book the size of Tolstoy's War and Peace that's just filled with Oh Buts. This is why you not only don't accept advice, but you really don't want it. You are an illogical creature at best, and one simply cannot expect illogical creatures to see simple wisdom.

I actually had a conversation the other day that went like this:
*sigh* "I totally hate my job!"
"So, quit."
"What?! No way! What else would I do?!"
"What would you want to do?"
"Well, I love to bake."
"So, find a job where you can bake. Better yet, do some research and open a bakery."
"Oh, but I couldn't."
"Why not?"
"Because I have bills to pay."
"Can you live on less? Find some things to cut back on? Money's not everything - being happy in what you do counts for something."
"I just... can't."
"No, you're right. You can't. I guess you should just stick with what you've got."
*sigh* "Oh, but I hate my job."

You folks are the type that don't much like hearing straight talk, but here it is...
~Quit with the fucking excuses. You don't like something? Change it. It's difficult? Hell yeah, welcome to Life.
~There is no easy way out. Put on your big kid pants and get on with it.
~Unless you're in a dire emergency and your health and well-being are at risk, or something truly tragic has happened in your life, nobody wants to hear about your issues.
~Unless you're ready to get real, don't ask for advice.

Maybe you're unaware of how much negative energy you're sending out into the universe. Maybe you're unaware that your friends sigh and roll their eyes behind your back and mutter, "Enough already!" Maybe you just don't understand what a downer you are.

I'm not saying that we all have to be happy and perky all the time - that's an unreasonable expectation. However, I've known people in dire circumstances who still manage to make the world brighter just by keeping a realistic attitude. So if you don't want to, or simply can't change your world, do yourself and the rest of us a favor. At least think about what you're saying before you say it.

Perhaps you just need a little lesson in language. Very well. There's a difference between inconvenience and disaster. There's a difference between bummer and tragedy. There's a difference between disappointment and devastation. There's a difference between ouch and agony.

What it all boils down to is this: if you're looking for empathy, stop soaking in apathy. No more complaining. No more bullshit excuses.

Get real. As my friend Jake says, "Burn the leash already!"

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Seeing Green

The other day I rediscovered a lovely old quote from a Francis Thompson poem.

Spring has come home with her world-wandering feet.
And all the things are made young with young desires

I love that imagery. I love the idea of a woman finally making her way home and opening an old, battered suitcase that reveals myriad colors - brilliant purples, bold yellows, soft pinks. And those crazy, elusive shades of green. Yes, elusive.

In all the artwork I've done, I've never quite been able to capture Mother Nature's greens. I can come close, and I can fool most of the people most of the time. But I can never fool Mother Nature. There's just something about her verdant hues that can't be captured.

This is what I've been contemplating this past week as I sit outside and watch the bold little blades of grass stab up through the matted brown weeds in the field, or the evergreens whispering in all their shadows, or the cottonwoods, maples and willows send out tiny buds.

Green. Those greens. They're rich and warm and inviting even as cold drizzle falls from the sky. They holler, "Springtime! Wake up... wake up, ye Winter Slumberers!"

All I can do is watch. It is not mine to capture this. It is mine to drink in, and to taste and savor like a perfectly aged Merlot.

Yes. Because trying to capture the essence of those Springtime greens and translate them into something that anyone else can, not just recognize, but equally share... that's like trying to tell someone how amazing that glass of deep red was and expecting them to savor it the exact same way.

But you know what I mean. Don't you.

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