Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016 In Review


“Christmas will soon be here, Svevo,” she said. “Say a prayer. Ask God to make it a happy Christmas.”

Music this year:




This part of life is almost monastic. I get up every day at 3:45AM, meditate, then cook breakfast. While cooking, my iPad reads the current book into my headphones. In a normal day, I only get scraps of minutes for reading, so the machine helps me make steady progress. Here are some passages from books I read this year:

I can’t believe how real life never lets you down. I can’t understand why anyone would write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing.



So decide now that you are worthy of living as a full-grown man who is making progress, and make everything that seems best be a law that you cannot go against. And if you meet with any hardship or anything pleasant or reputable or disreputable, then remember that the contest is now and the Olympic games are now and you cannot put things off any more and that your progress is made or destroyed by a single day and a single action.

Epictetus, The Encheiridion


By Donald Trump’s own account, what may have been one of his most important lessons occurred just after he started college at Fordham. One rainy, cold day in November 1964 he accompanied his father to opening ceremonies for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which joined Staten Island and Brooklyn and was the longest and highest suspension bridge in the world. It was also City Construction coordinator Robert Moses’s last hurrah, and its opening day was an occasion for politicians to deliver remarks and, mainly, receive applause, regardless of whether they had actually backed the project. But what Donald Trump noticed was that Othmar Hermann Amman, the eighty-five-year-old Swiss-born immigrant who designed the Verrazano, George Washington, Whitestone, and Throgs Neck bridges, was alone and ignored. “I realized then and there,” the young developer-to-be told a reporter many years later, “that if you let people treat you how they want, you’ll be made a fool. I realized then and there something I would never forget: I don’t want to be made anybody’s sucker.”



It was in the reign of George II that the above-named personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now . . .

William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon


After breakfast, I work on the eternal picture. As you can see, I’m crawling, inch by inch toward the west. I knew this section of the picture would be especially slow and difficult. The work breaks my brain open, which is its reward. I'm still working in Canvas #3, which depicts Pacific Heights, the Marina, and the Presidio.


Here's where I was at the end of 2015

I was able to get most of the buildings in the foreground colored this year, and  now I'm lost in the trees.



    





I start work at my job around 7AM. Misa and Max open their lives for business and leave before 8. 


Sometime during the day I exercise. In winter, this means riding a bicycle trail through Carmel Valley. The weather here is perfect at least 350 days each year, so I never have an excuse to skip exercise. The trail follows a little creek. Bunnies scamper across it, lizards crawl across. Twice I saw a skink, which looks exactly like a snake, except it has legs. 


After the bike ride, I lift weights. The weights are smaller than they used to be. 


We eat dinner at 5:30. After, I read to Max. Presently we are reading Robert Greene’s book, The 48 Laws of Power. Here are some passages:

In the end, life is short, opportunities are few, and you have only so much energy to draw on. And in this sense time is as important a consideration as any other. Never waste valuable time, or mental peace of mind, on the affairs of others— that is too high a price to pay.

Never let the presence of enemies upset or distress you—you are far better off with a declared opponent or two than not knowing where your real enemies lie. The man of power welcomes conflict, using enemies to enhance his reputation as a surefooted fighter who can be relied upon in times of uncertainty.

Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power


I need to be on my way to bed by 7PM. I’m fortunate to have Misa, to work the late shift. 


A meditation teacher once told me, “You start making real progress when you can do the same thing over and over, with steady enthusiasm. Once you stop fighting, you receive the spirit of repetition. You don’t need escape. You stop shopping for a different, better life.” When you hit the same nail, over and over again, you get good at it.  


Misa had serious health problems this year, but she’s feeling much better. We hope we have them under control now. Despite these difficulties, she continued to make jewelry and needlework. This was one of her projects.


Max is the BIG story this year. He’s taller than I am now, and he's proud of that. The transition to Middle School gave Max big challenges, but he met them with stamina and determination. Late in the year, he received his own phone. He was relieved, because almost everyone else in his school already had one. The old man shakes his head and mutters at these kids and their crazy gadgets.


We visited Washington, DC in summer, and found it pleasant and interesting. Misa helped me get ample time in the art museums; she’s a good girl to take along. 


This is a painting by George Bellows of New York City, painted in 1911. His strong tide of paint captures everything I like about New York, the energy, the crowding, the ricocheting walks, as people strive to avoid collision. 


Send your stories, I want to know about your year. All the best to you in 2017.



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:




Lucia

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. 



House

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

2015

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.


2011
2015

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. 

Painting
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.




Moving
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.




Mexico
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."