In The Cage

•December 2, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Ah, the cage of 2016 is nearly coming to a close. Happy to report I’m more outside of it than inside.

Completely in the Dark

samplerI’ve been in this thing for eight years now.

In fact, it began two years before my mother died on May 24, 2008.

Even though I’d willingly moved into the cage in January 2006—at the insistence of my late father—something, I knew, just wasn’t right.

So I had a Realtor put the place I’d just moved into, a co-op condo on St. Paul’s Summit Hill, on the market again.

By the spring of 2008 I was a happy idiot, working as managing editor at a national magazine, teaching an adult education class one night a week and, well, falling in love with the woman next door.

And I regularly hit the St. Paul Jewish Community Center a couple days a week to exercise. It wasn’t far from my condo, so I enjoyed running the track, swimming in the pool, lifting weights, and then relaxing…

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An Anemic Superman for the Playful Mind

•November 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment

So, where is the quiet space when there is no quiet space?viciousfreizelogo

I think you have to create it from the inside out.

It isn’t “out there” somewhere.

Here’s how I learned (somewhat ass-backwards) to do that.

Ironically, it came not from being happy or feeling at peace. It was a reaction to chaos. When I wondered about its origins, a couple things came to mind.

First, when I was very young, before we moved out East in 1965 or ’66, I often hung around Ruby’s beauty parlor. Ruby was my maternal grandparents’ next-door neighbor. I don’t remember much about Ruby outside of her towering bouffant and raucous laughter.

How did I get there? Was Mom tired and she passed me off to grandma, who was also tired so she passed me off to Ruby’s? (Photo at left, me and Grandma, with Ruby’s home/parlor directly in the background.)

I don’t know. Whatever happened, Ruby would drop my young ass into one of her stylist’s chairs and there I’d sit.

All of life was at Ruby’s—conversations, jokes, gossip.

I soaked it all in.

Another origin tale, probably from the same time, includes watching children’s TV shows like Soupy Sales or Captain Kangaroo (Mr. Bunny particularly affected me), and cartoons such as Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and Coyote, and all the Looney Tunes I could lay my eyeballs on.

“The world is absurd,” they all said.

I was primed to believe it.

Later it came from watching Laugh-In, and all the comedians who took a poke at society or were just plain silly, such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Saturday Night Live.

As preteens, we’d riff on TV commercials we deemed idiotic. We were gleefully cynical—which came easily since the world promised nothing but consumer-culture conformity, unflinching nationalism, and the threat of global thermonuclear war.

vf1987All these moments shaped and colored my thinking—the kind of thinking that inspired the calendar sketches leading up to Vicious Frieze I (1987).

***

It was 1986, during the second Reagan administration.

We thought the first would kill us, but it wasn’t so.

At Lakewood College in the fall of 1980, roommate Dave LaGue urged me to “Run to Canada, Mikie!” when we heard Reagan had been elected.

We thought he’d start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Or even worse, we’d never score a job after graduation.

The fact is by 1986 I was making more money than ever before. But I was also spending a lot.

Over Labor Day weekend ’86 I bought a sporty new red Mitsubishi “Mighty Max” pickup truck. That October I took a week’s vacation from work and drove to Door County, Wis.clearing1986 There I’d volunteered to do fall cleanup at a resort called The Clearing, in Ellison Bay, Wis.

How I first learned of it is anyone’s guess, but the trip lasted from Sunday, Oct. 19 to Thursday, Oct. 23. I was joined by a dozen other volunteers and shared a cabin with two guys, John and Doug (me at left beside the schoolhouse piano).

The journal doesn’t reveal much about the trip, only that “I felt a little constrained writing completely about what happened, on the chance someone would thumb through this journal.” It was a week full of physical labor: putting up storm windows, chopping wood, raking leaves, and repainting out-buildings. But at night, in front of the main lodge fireplace, we enjoyed a good meal and wine and spectacular sunsets out a window overlooking the bay.

Then, when I got back to the Twin Cities, I stopped writing in the journal for over a month.

Yeah, I know. Wha—?

***

You see, I was back in the pressure cooker of corporate life. When I started writing again, in early December, I tried to face it head-on.

A Dec. 3, 1986, journal entry spills it:

“I come ‘home’ to this apartment after a hectic day of work to writing dread. It’s deep-in-the-bones dread and I find it annoying being that I’m (at day’s start) filled with energy to start work on all the ‘things’ (story bits, phrases, wordplays, images) my mind is brimming over with—and on top of that the events of my daily life boggle me. That is, I realize I haven’t revealed to this journal one solid account of a normal day of work at Fingerhut. …Not to mention the wonderful small bits of social debris: letters, postcards, phone calls, visits. Years from now I know I’ll miss the ‘record’ of those little things. But I guess I’ll have to refuse a sense of hopelessness. I’ve kicked through diaries before with whole splotches missing. If I could only wrest on paper that elusive bastard I call myself; that snake who insists on being his own person, but is willing to evade the work to show for it—I almost need to think of myself that way, derogatorily, that is, to get the verbal ball rolling down the ruled lines of paper. I know the vacuum created by this past last month. I’ll need to recover some of it because there’s the seat-of-my-pants feeling there’s something worth saving.

“I’d like to kick this ‘writer’ shit.”

That November I’d just turned 27.

***

I wish I could say this gets easier. Even after all those years, from 1986 to now.

Back then I had few fellow artists with whom I could share the struggle. Now seems less lonely and, with Web 3.0 on the horizon, it’s getting easier to “find your tribe.”

anemicsupermanWhen I drew “An anemic Superman demonstrates he can still show off for Lois” (at right, for Vicious Frieze I) I was probably amusing myself—that is, until coworkers drifted by my desk to see what I’d sketched.

It goes directly back to my origins—being receptive to everything coming at me: children’s shows, cartoons, ads, jingles, song lyrics, titles of books, jargon, weird words and phrases—all of it, from wherever, whomever, whatever. It was all up for grabs.

It was, and still is, inspiring.

However, the “success” of being a functioning member of young and upcoming middle-class American society in the mid-1980s put pressure on my inner artist. As the old calendar pages of ’86 ripped away and 1987 began, I wrote to high school friend Jeff Taylor in a letter dated Feb. 9:

“I’m making new plans and goals of a ‘Mental Life’ sort for 1987. I think for a long time I’d allowed work and school to dictate too much of my ‘mental time,’ especially when I consider the funny formulations I made just after high school, when I’d tempered that last nub of innocence against the first raw whetstone of factory hours cynicism and loneliness…”

Well, yeah, minus the purple prose, the sentiment was spot on. The transition from teenager to early adulthood hadn’t been easy. But I knew even then my “Mental Life” was the quiet place where I could feel playful and light again.

The letter continues:

“But you can always make things like that work. And work I did. I wrote like a yelping puppy needs to pee. I was caught between the perfect world that no one in ‘normal’ adulthood recognizes and the ‘tough breaks’ every cynic feels he’s been through.”

This probably needs clarification. At 27 I was aware the adult world laid down some pretty heavy requirements about what was needed to be a part of it—the cynicism came from my suspicion that it wasn’t real. Not in the least.

The letter concludes:

“…now it’s not so much that I need to hang out in a playground or find a 3rd shift factory job to return to the same ratio of hope and derangement, but to realize that I haven’t let go of the kid yet and he can still put his two cents in and make it be just as valid as the jaded twenty-seven year old fart. So, I’m writing again. And liking it.”

How would it all turn out? What would inspire me next? Would there be a Vicious Frieze 2.0? And what would that even look like?

I couldn’t imagine. But I could keep playing.

Better Luck Next Time

•November 18, 2016 • Leave a Comment

All-new post in the edit hopper and up by next Friday. Happy Thanksgiving friends!

Completely in the Dark

BetterLuckCITDA friend recently asked how organized I had to be to write this blog. While I do develop an editorial slate, I’m comfortable having posts fall out of order depending on, well, serendipity.

You see, serendipity is nearly a religion for lazy piddlers like me. It often leads to delightful discoveries.

Like the one I made last week.

On Wednesday I got a bee in my bonnet about selling some books I no longer read. Of course that involved sorting and flipping through them just to make sure I wasn’t leaving stray dollar bills, bookmarks, or odd papers stuffed between pages.

In a paperback titled Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels, somewhere between H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), I found a real treasure, one that made me gasp—a missing letter from our old family friend, the late Mr. Tom…

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This Someone Is Still Doing Nothing With Everything

•November 11, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Nothing is always something. Sometimes you just can’t see it yet.viciousfreizelogo

“Small” says nothing is always nothing.

“Big” says, “Just you wait and see.”

Expanding, going big. Or shrinking—and feeling small.

This is where I’ve got to start, because I’ve struggled between those two states for most of my life.

Fear is small, courage is large. The former drains you, burns like acid from the inside; the latter brims to the full, wrapping its arms around the whole wide world.

Art and artists can be frustrating because they sift through “the nothing” in search of The Something. That tends to throw up a lot of smoke and dust and confusion, and it isn’t a pretty process.

blankcanvasI struggle with making things even as I catch glimmers of what they could be, beyond the blank page, white canvas, empty wall, computer screen—through all the smoke, dust, and confusion.

So, here’s how I discovered The Something that became known as The Vicious Frieze I-III (1987–1989), aka “A hallucinogenic cartoon of prodigious span.”

***

By the summer of 1986 I was a year into my first full-time job at a direct mail marketing corporation, and two months in my first apartment.

And I was already feeling trapped.

Which is ironic because during that year I was promoted to Lead Copyeditor on our small team of a dozen editors. As lead, I had to make sure jobs stayed on schedule.

So every December since 1985, I ordered desktop planning calendars—you know, the blotter pad kind—where I kept all the due dates at a glance.

As I grew more bored with my job, I started doodling and scribbling in the calendar margins, and sometimes around schedule notes.

Every morning as I came into the office, I soon found my coworkers huddled around my desk, laughing and checking out my latest “artwork.”

If you’ve known me for very long you quickly realize I don’t throw anything away. I have closets full of artwork, stories, drawings and projects that, if they came to light again, I’m sure would find new life in the world.

By the end of ’86, I had a stack of used calendar pages stuffed in a bottom desk drawer. When I cleaned out the desk and set up the 1987 calendar, I couldn’t bear to throw those drawings away.

But I didn’t know what to do with them.

I couldn’t see The Something yet.

***

For weeks now I’ve languished over writing this post. I started and stopped cold. I confess that, until now, I couldn’t see The Something in it.

Then some new friends made observations that prodded things forward.

First, I have to say that a lot of 1986-87 still reverberates in 2016—things that have never changed, actually, but I’d forgotten after leaving corporate life (again) in 2012: The Noise and Distraction Factor.

The world’s gotten noisier. There’s a lack of sweetness and light. All the instant critics on social media. This goddamn election.

Some people, consciously or not, make other people feel small. Still others make an effort to lift folks up, give them a sense of hope, and make them feel the possibility of their own power.

Heeding too much of what others are saying and doing often leads to false comparisons. Fortunately the observations my new friends have made helped to cut through the noise and sharpen the signal.

The first came from artist Mark Thompson via this tweet: “Live without input, more output.”thompsontweet

The second was a lovely article by Brooklyn writer Stefanie Paige Gunning, published on Medium as “Eventually, You Write Your Own Story.” In it she relates how she was novelist Jennifer Weiner’s Number One Fangirl, but lost her reverence after reading an essay Weiner wrote that, in part, disparaged careers in advertising—a field where Gunning has found much satisfaction and success.

Gunning describes her initial feelings of self-doubt and loathing, which she quickly realized came from voices outside of her—family, friends, the media—and which sent her into a debilitating depression she calls “The Hole.”

What saved me from languishing on this post was recognizing that Gunning’s “The Hole” was the same as my “the nothing” or the “small. ” Gunning writes:

“I’ve learned that The Hole is a place I can climb out of on my own without damaging myself, that I’ve got boots and ropes and picks. That my legs are strong and my heart is pumping and my lungs are full of air.”

Just because I couldn’t see where I was going yet didn’t mean a one-way ticket to Despairland. I’d forgotten I had my own boots and ropes and picks.

They included not only years of luck (both good and bad), experience, and curiosity, but also tools like journals, diaries, sketch pads, pens, paper, stories, screenplays, photos, drawings … and that goddamn beautiful Vicious Frieze.

***

Oh how I wish I could point to a 1986 journal entry that’s—Voilà!—the eureka moment for the first Vicious Frieze. But there isn’t one.

But I do recall what I did.

Sometime in late 1986, I went back to all that work and held it in my hands.

I sifted through it, looked at it closely, sat with it, and waited for it to tell me what it wanted to be, not what I thought it should be.

And you know what?

The damn thing spoke.

penny_vf1Every drawing on every calendar month had something to say (such as, “Penny was the pretty girl next door” from the first Vicious Frieze, at left). Collectively they said: “We need to be together! Maybe in a collage! Maybe you could color in around us, and let us spread out and be that!

Well, how could I disagree with that?

You see, all our seconds turn to minutes, then minutes to hours. Maybe it’s another tedious workday, but then you overhear a coworker’s comment and that becomes a sketch, a drawing, a cartoon, a couple of scratches caught on paper about whatever was playfully passing through your mind.

That, my friends, is the sweet spot. Those playful moments. They’re the grist.

The gold.

Those “small” moments needed a push toward a bigger day. They don’t know it and maybe you don’t know it, but they require a quiet space where you are listening and feeling expansive, not small and contracted and shrinking into a hole of nothingness.vicious2

Trust me on this one.

So in December 1987, Vicious Frieze Numero Uno was completed. By January 1988, I spied a Vicious Frieze II on the horizon.

Mr. Big took up his tools—just some small stuff, doodles on a nothing day—and said, “Just you wait and see.”

This Nothing Is Something

•November 4, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Still working on next new post. Have to find my mojo. Has anyone seen it?

Completely in the Dark

Something2By Monday, Jan. 8, 1979, the new year had finally settled in.

“I’ll probably be summing up 1978 for as long as I can,” I wrote in my Mead Composition journal, “How quickly time flies when you don’t record it!”

So, for nearly every day in January, I worked like the devil to get it all on paper: quoting songs I’d been listening to and jotting down snatches of dialogue I’d hoped to use for The Crowded Room, my high school story, quickly blossoming into a novella.

And university life was shaping up, too: party plans with fellow Mound graduate Geoff Morrison, and a new face in the crowd named Steph Pinsky. Taking the same liberal arts symposium with me, held Thursdays in the Architecture Building, Room 35, Steph—a “cute, black-haired, pretty-eyed freshman” who liked photography and writing, theater and dance—had turned my head. “I plan…

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He’s My Brother

•October 28, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Here’s something old until I get something new edited and up, likely but not promising, by next Friday.

Completely in the Dark

It’s not out of the question to say that what occurred on Jan. 3, 1962—had it not happened—would’ve entirely changed the course of my life.

When my brother Brian was born, I immediately went into a funk. I had 100% of my parents’ attention, devotion and love. Then suddenly everyone was cooing and fawning over this little monster that disrupted my paradise. I’d even go as far as to say he was the reason for my idea to strike out on my own.

Maybe our parents acknowledged that and evened things out. Eventually I laughed with (mostly at) my new sibling. Later I learned that because Brian’s birth had been so difficult on our mother, her doctor warned against future pregnancies. I’d always wanted a little sister, someone to mediate between me and Brian. Now that we’ve lost both our parents, he’s my only connection to the past.

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Taffy

•October 21, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Six years ago I restarted this blog on WordPress. Here’s a post from around that time. All-new post next Friday. Cheers, Mike

Completely in the Dark

Not big about “firsts.” You know, first kiss, first car ride, first day of school, first marriage…

But I do remember the first time I saw death.

In April 2008 I flew to Delaware on business. It was the first time I’d been out East in, oh, over 30 years.

A lot came rushing back to me as my coworkers and I drove our rental car through the countryside toward Newark. It was spring: the dogwoods were in bloom and the salty slap of ocean air … well, reminded me of life in Maryland.

So many things I’d forgotten about in our time between Indiana and Maryland: when Dad took us to a carnival and we went on the train ride, those bug-like spinning rides—and one particular ride, the water tunnel where I sat next to Dad and feared for my life. My beautiful picture

Don’t know how old I was then, but…

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