Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 In Review

In the film "Citizen Kane,'' which Orson Welles made in 1941, there occurs my favorite passage of movie dialogue. Old Mr. Bernstein is talking about the peculiarities of time. 

"A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember,'' he says. "You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.’’—Roger Ebert

This year's music:


I met Lucia through an artist friend when I was 19. She was attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where I hoped to apply. Lucia was a graduate of the Hockaday School. I’d never heard of it, but it sounded expensive. She had grown up in the Highland Park section of Dallas, and her father put the Wall Street Journal in front of her at breakfast each morning. I’d graduated from a fair-to-sinking public school. I still lived with my parents on the far south side of town, and read the Dallas Morning News.

We met for drinks on a hot, golden evening at Stoneleigh P.  Lucia was tall, with thick blonde hair and green eyes. She was a few years older than me, in her mid twenties. Lucia asked me how I knew our artist friend, and which teachers I’d studied with at Southern Methodist University

After half an hour she took my hand dramatically, looked into my eyes and said, “John, I know something about you, just from talking this short while. I’m telling you this for your own good; you must get out of Dallas. Dallas is run by just a few families and I know all of them. There’s nothing for you here and there never will be. You need to come to Philadelphia. Do whatever you have to do, but get out of here.” 

Naturally, I was moved. I’d soon find out that every minute with Lucia was high drama, but so what? I needed encouragement to take this big step. I’d have moral support from this living Barbie doll. Whoopee!

At the end of September I flew to Philadelphia for several days. Lucia acted as my tour guide, introducing me to the city. She lived in a building called St. James House, on the corner of 13th Street at Walnut. 13th street was narrow, only one lane wide, with sidewalks and stone towers facing across. We walked out into the night. It was a new experience for me, walking around a city at night, meeting other art students on the sidewalks. I loved it. I wanted to return and prayed I’d make it, literally. I flew back home and worked for another year, writing to Lucia occasionally. She never sent me a letter in return, but whenever I phoned her, she responded with great excitement. 

I moved to Philadelphia the next fall, and again, Lucia met me at the door of her apartment building. She’d fallen in love with a good-hearted Italian boy named Michael and he’d moved in with her. After a cup of coffee in Lucia’s tiny room, we walked across 13th Street. She’d arranged for me to stay a week at a friend’s empty apartment, on the 10th floor of the Chancellor. Lucia went down to the building office and got the key to another apartment that was available for me to rent, if I wanted it, on the twentieth floor. I looked across the room to the east-facing windows. I could see over the building tops to the old part of town, South Philly, the Delaware River and Camden, New Jersey. I told Lucia I loved it and she kissed me on the lips. 

We two friends began the fall semester, living just a few horizontal feet from each other. Surprisingly, I didn’t see Lucia much, after school started. I was disappointed, but not devastated. I was learning about the different kinds of people in the world. I noticed those who came close to me quickly tended to ricochet off in new directions, just as quickly. 

My brief encounter with Lucia was entirely positive. Knowing me only slightly, she'd given me invaluable help when I needed it. All I could do was express gratitude. I still feel that way today.

As our school year slowed to its end the following spring, Lucia called me from across the street, to catch up on the news we’d missed. I told her about my fascinating year, and the job I’d lined up for the summer, back in Dallas. Lucia was leaving Philadelphia for good. She had come to dislike the general environment, and decided not to marry her boyfriend Michael after all. She regretted all the upheaval in her life, but now that it was over, we would get together when we both returned to Dallas, in just a few days.

The last evening I saw her, she stood in the doorway of St. James House, waving sweetly, this glowing, blonde Texas debutante. Once more, she promised we'd meet up again in Dallas and trade stories. I never saw her again. 


For sixteen years, my parents lived in a pleasant, one-storey ranch house on a large, park-like lot. I graduated from high school while living there. Here is a photo of my niece and nephew by the front door, circa 1990.

When my parents left the house a few years later, it was still a nice place, well-maintained. This is a photo of the house today.

I often think about buildings and the people who knew them. A long time ago, plans were laid out, a foundation was poured. Did the construction crew feel pride, when they finished their work and drove away for the last time? When the last family left the house, did they realize no one would ever live there again?

Max Park

When Max was little, we took him to a park on Vicente Street in San Francisco, specially designed for young children. We called it “The Max Park.” The park had places to climb and swing, but Max spent most of his time there digging in the sand box. It was our closest, safe place for playing with other children outdoors, so we went often. 

The park was nice enough, but the wind from the ocean always blew cold over us, and there were few places to sit. Every visit became an endurance contest, and when it was over we had to get the sand off Max before he entered the house. By that time, I was cold, tired, and wanted a drink.
This went on for several years. As Max got bigger, we rode our bikes to and from the park. 

One day I asked Max if he wanted to go to the park, and he said, “No.” His Max Park time was ended. The last day we’d gone to The Max Park was the last day we’d be there together, but neither of us knew it at the time. Most endings happen this way.
As the days and years pass by, I see ending after ending. 
Every day is the last day.
The last day we’ll see that sandwich man at our neighborhood Subway, the last time we’ll swim at this beach, the last message we’ll get from this friend. We can’t know what ended until later, but we’ll certainly do something for the last time today.

I think about those lost experiences and those lost people, the woman I saw on the sidewalk of Bush Street every day, when I walked from my apartment on Nob Hill to my job downtown, the woman with ratty hair, walking her little dog. What is she doing now? Did she wonder what happened to me, when I moved to the Sunset in 2002, or did she even notice? And which people remember me, that I never noticed? Are past events lingering in someone's brain, or have all traces vanished, as if they never happened?

If there were any wisdom (and there isn’t—there’s everything and nothing to be learned) it would consist of learning to fall freely. For we are in full, flaming descent, but we move so slowly we imagine we can hold on to certain things (at least this friend, at least this moment). If we fell faster we’d call out in panic. But our speed is slow if constant and some things and people are falling at the same rate; relative to them we don’t seem to be moving at all. But then something we are holding . . . . accelerates and slides out of our grasp — and suddenly we glimpse blackest, rushing night through the gap.   —Edmund White, Caracole


Nevertheless the time passed.
—Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Journey to the End of the Night

We were more settled than in 2014. We did not have to sell or buy a house. The facts:

We are older.


Max is bigger.

The big picture is not finished yet. Compare with last year to measure progress. You may ask, "Why is it taking so long?" There are two reasons: 1. The picture is complicated. 2. I'm slow.

We went to Alaska on a cruise ship. Misa and Max wandered around the ship. I mostly sat on the balcony and watched the water go by. We all ate. A lot. Alaska was pretty.

Please write if you feel so inclined, we enjoy hearing your thoughts and news. Wishing you well in 2016.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014 In Review

2014 In Review

It seemed from all of this that uppermost among human joys is the negative one of restoration: not going to the stars, but learning that one may stay where one is. — Peter de Vries, The Blood of the Lamb

Hello everyone, here we are again, at the end of the year. It’s 80° F in San Diego today and I’m dreaming of Hawaii. I can’t go, but I can get a little scent of the islands from this newly-released song by Keali’i Reichel:

Max and Misa
This was the year Max surpassed Misa in height, though he’s still ten years old. He likes being taller than Mom. He will be equally pleased when he’s taller than I am, which may happen soon. Max did good work in his English and Japanese schools this year. He volunteered for Safety Patrol and kept the crosswalk secure. 

Misa got back to her dance classes after recovering from injuries, but only as a student, for now. 

Work continued on my long picture. This year I worked on downtown San Francisco, Nob Hill and Russian Hill. Each building, each window moves me like a human face. They turn toward—or away from—the light. Like other living things, they are always in motion, and the picture records a moment between their birth and their death.

If you wonder why the sky and water are white, see last year's post.

Early in the year, our tenants Bryan and Chaundra told us they would leave for New York in the spring. We were sad to see them go, as they took excellent care of our house in San Francisco. We decided to sell that house, and try to buy one here in San Diego. All of us grieved to cut this tie to the city we love, but it looked like a house here would yield the most benefit from our money. Max loves his schools and his friends in Carmel Valley. They encourage him to excel. We wanted to make sure he could remain in this nourishing environment through his school years. 

We had good agents in both cities. Still, the real estate transactions proved difficult and complicated, especially buying into Max’s school district. After living most of my adult life in San Francisco, I thought any other market had to be easier, and offer more choices. We found out that other parents also exhibit a strong preference for Max’s school district, and bid up prices here into the stratosphere. At the same time, the district boundaries for elementary and middle school formed a small intersection. If we bought outside it, we risked putting Max in a different school from his friends.

Misa helped me negotiate these limitations and make the best choice for us. In late July we moved into our new house. We are glad to be on a hill, across from a small park. I can still ride my favorite bike trail and Max can play with other boys nearby.

The big changes stressed me out and damaged my muscles. Fortunately, we’d already purchased a vacation to Baja California. We had not been there before, and we loved our resort. The food was the best, and included in the price of our room. Everyone at the resort was friendly and helpful. They gave us free yoga lessons, where I tried to restore my stress-damaged body.


In autumn, Max began the fifth grade and we continued settling into the new location. We attended my niece Rachel Duke’s wedding to Olivier Swinnen in Dallas. Our family continues to spread across the map, so it was nice to see everyone in one place.

The Bride and Groom break the tension with our resident pastor, my brother Mike.
Roy Ragle, 1944 - 2014
Above Roy's mantle is a self-portrait I made around 1990.
On December 11, I lost a dear friend and fellow artist, Roy Ragle. In 1989 I participated in San Francisco Open Studios at my apartment in the Richmond District. A tall, thin woman came to look at the pictures and talked briefly. Later she returned with her husband, a big man who climbed six flights of stairs on crutches just to see me. Thus I met Carol and Roy, artists from San Diego who lived a few blocks away, in a long flat overlooking Golden Gate Park. They bought a small painting that day, and they would buy many more in succeeding years. They honored me thus, because both of them were accomplished artists, and their work was in the collection of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.

In 2005, Roy’s prints were shown at the Oakland Museum. Max was just learning to walk and getting into trouble in the background.

Roy and Carol were the finest people, and the best friends one could hope for. They supported and encouraged me in every way. They were always positive, despite life’s inevitable difficulties. Carol endured the loss of her hearing, but continued to refine and advance her fine illustration work. Roy suffered from Crohn’s disease and other disabilities, but he was always thrilled to see me or get a letter. Roy’s letters are magnificent works of art in their own right, and they have appeared in a magazine article.

My painting of Carol and Roy, mid 1990s.
Farewell, Roy. This world is a sadder, colder, less interesting place without you.

Wrapping Up
Please send your stories; I love to read them. In facing the new year, I look back at T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I read the book when I was nineteen, and Max is reading it now. White gives us an idea for dealing with pain, grief, disappointment and other forms of tough luck:

 "The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting."

Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 In Review

I always knew I would have to rewrite my life. I just didn’t know how soon I would have to begin doing it.
I’ve only finished the first chapter of my novel, but lack of fame resulting from it is already a great concern. 
—Kendall Hailey, The Day I Became an Autodidact, and the Advice, Adventures, and Acrimonies that Befell Me Thereafter


2013 was our first full year in Carmel Valley. Hot air balloons flew overhead, and we shared fruit with little friends on the ground. 

We have been welcomed by many neighbors, and got together as often as we could. Almost everyone is a parent here, so their schedules are full.


Full size
Many of you asked about my painting, how it's coming along. I have been working on the same project for several years, a picture of the San Francisco Bay. The most difficult parts of the picture—and perhaps the most interesting to work on—are the water and the sky. I wanted to color these areas first, before completing the land. 

Full size
I painted the water and sky several times. Each new layer was an improvement, but but they still didn't look 'right.' I painted a study of the entire composition, in order to make each look the way I wanted.

Study, 1/4 scale
Study, 1/4 scale
Study, 1/4 scale
Study, 1/4 scale

Looking at the same composition for so long, it becomes difficult to remember the desired effect, to hold it in mind and bring the picture closer to it. To clear my head, I went to Coronado Island and painted studies of San Diego Bay and the city. 

I applied the experience outside to more sky and water studies, taken from the San Francisco composition.

After all this study, I concluded that I'd taken the big picture in the wrong order. Instead of painting color in the sky and water first, I needed to color the land first, then sky, then water. The sky had to offset the land features, and the water must reflect the sky. I painted white over the water and started over on the land.

It often happens that the most important work on a picture is scraped off or painted over. The scraping off and the painting over are critical.


Max grew taller this year. He had many trips to the beach and many get-togethers with guys in the neighborhood.

In the fall, Max ran for Student Council Representative from his class. He did not win, but we were proud of his campaign.


We hadn't had a real vacation in two years, so we counted our pennies and took off for Kauai. We stayed in a resort in Kapa'a, on the eastern shore of the island.

When Max goes to the beach, he is mainly interested in moving sand. Max says the sand on Kauai is of very high quality.


Misa dealt with 'health challenges' this year, that prevented her from teaching dance. They did not prevent her from keeping the house running and the son in motion at English and Japanese schools.

In October, my brother Mike and mother Lila got to visit us. We were thrilled to see family in California, which doesn't happen often.

Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition, which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable. —Primo Levi