L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Trying to Balance the World

The saying goes something like, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention". I agree with that absolutely. Even with our eyes half-closed, there's enough wrong, enough gross imbalance in this country, in the world to fill us up with horror. And if we are paying attention, how do we keep ourselves from being completely swamped with despair? How do we go about our lives, consciously, without being crippled with depression? How can we find the strength to recognize and focus on all the positive and the good in our lives, when nearly all the news we get is negative? What is out there to give some balance, to feed us hope and some positive stimulus that, as sensitive beings, we need in order to function?

I struggle with this void all the time. I think I cope less well with this than most people. People I know, family, Facebook friends seem to have a better internal balance. So that they can be smart and informed about all the world's horrors, without losing their perspective. So easily, I lose mine. My outrage always brings out the warrior in me; I want to go out and fix all the worlds problems. (I must be some sort of egomaniac, because it never occurs to me that I might not be the right person for the job.) At its worst, my unfocused fervor to go into righteous battle makes me feel that - in order to be ready, I guess - I need to turn my life upside down. Sell everything, move "off the grid" or to another country, devote my life to one and all of the so many great "good causes". I need to turn myself inside out, because somehow I think that's the only way I can help save the world. And when I'm thrashing about like this, desperate, one of the first things I think to rid myself of is making art; what good to the world are the silly pictures of a whiny, middle-aged artist who paints himself in a dress?

(Sadly - or fortunately - I have to realize, I'd make a terrible "savior of the world". It seems I have the ego for it, and I'm a good organizer, but I'm no "leader of men"; I always make a surprisingly awful boss. Always say the wrong things, always piss people off. Desire and commitment are only part of what's needed to do - well, anything, really. You also need very specific talent and skills. Very few of which, in this case, I possess. And so, it becomes obvious, I am unqualified to save the world....)

I don't really ever question why I paint what I paint. But I constantly question what the point of it would be to anyone else. Especially in the presence of what I see in the art world: deeply feeling and intelligent artists, striving to say something meaningful with their work. Something that relates to and comments on the world as they experience it. I always feel a bit out of place alongside these artists, because I don't make art like that. I really don't try to say anything at all with my art. There is content, of course, but whatever is there comes about subconsciously. My primary goal is always to just make something beautiful. Often humorous, always beautiful.

But when I'm feeling a little less insecure, a little less self-conscious, I will allow myself some hope that my work does serve a purpose. It's hard for me - myself - to really understand, but maybe the fact that I make work that doesn't reflect the real world, that avoids any commentary on war or misery or any of the real inequities so much of the world faces, does some good. Maybe my "silly" work does some good. If I complain that there is so little hopeful, balancing information or imagery being fed us through the media, then I have to recognize that maybe I'm doing a tiny bit to give someone, somewhere, something of that. If I make paintings that contain some light of beauty or laughter - which is what I try to do - I have to believe that there might just be people out there longing for something of that. Just the way I, as a child, always longed for it. As I long for it now. And if I recognize that I have some sort of "warrior spirit", I also need to understand what it is I have to work with, what it is I was designed to do. What my small but specific talents might offer to a world suffering and overwhelmed with uncertainty and real ugliness. To be coldly aware of the world as it is and, at the same time, to have the desire to retreat into the soft chambers of human imagination and human joy are not mutually exclusive. And that is what I have to keep searching to balance within myself. And I hope that my work can, in some small way, be helpful for others trying to maintain that balance.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Question of Birds

How long does a bird live?
A robin or a sparrow or a jay.
How large is its brain?
What are its cognitive powers?
Does it have any sense of time or change?
How much does it feel of the cold or heat?
Easy enough to know these things,
With a click and a click.

Not long, not large, not much
Would be the answer
To the question of birds.

But if we question our own ability to answer the question,
Our capacity to carve an understanding
Within the hardened range of our own comprehension,
Of a bird or of anything, could we ask:

Would it ever fear the turning of the leaves in Fall?
Might it feel the ache of the old age of a brief life?
Could it know any regret,
Or the sharp loss of other brief lives?
Clutching to a narrow branch high in a leafless tree,
Head tucked against the grey mist,
Could it ever feel a longing for time
To bloom forward?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Back. Again. Still.

I find that sometimes the good brings out the bad. And that's usually for the best. The more success I have, the more I can face my failures. The more loved I am and the more love I am able to give, the more vulnerable I can allow myself to be. And then the more room for all the old hurts to surface, the ones that never really healed. Some people are able to gracefully ride out their pain and failures. They move on, they press on. I always need to drag out the hurtful things, again and again, hold them in my hands and stare them down, before they begin to fade. But then there are the ones that come back. Again. Still. Because I don't want to look at those ones. Because I don't want to engage them. Those shadows I keep turning away from.

The shadows of all the things that hurt and confused me as a child. All the shame of being unliked and alone. The new kid. The shy kid. The fat kid. The sissy kid. Freckle-faced. Bed-wetter. My dad was in the Air Force so we moved a lot. So many schools. It was hard to make friends. And the friends I thought I had often turned out to be...not really my friends. A lot of betrayal in my young life. Being laughed at and taunted. All the questioning of why are people so mean to me? All the moments of humiliation that never go away. Not really. After almost fifty years, the feelings of them, the very real pictures of them never go away.

- Fourth or fifth grade, maybe. I knew Steven Large from school. I thought maybe I was his friend. He was English. He was very smart and everyone thought his accent was cool. One day in his back yard with his friends. All the sheets hanging on the clothesline. Between the sheets, and Steven and his friends spitting on me. Spitting all over me.

- Seventh or eighth grade. Gym class. Biggest, fattest, probably least developed physically; certainly the least developed emotionally. I was always the tallest and fattest boy, which made me a great target. If you're big, other boys want to fight you. If you're a sissy and don't want to fight, you're the best kind of target; call out the big guy who you know won't fight back. Every day at my gym locker a boy pushed me hard. I never knew what to do. Every day he pushed me. Finally one day, without thinking, I swung out my arms and pushed hard against his shoulders and he went flying back into some locker doors and sprawled on the tile floor. Before he could get back up, I burst into tears.

- Third or fourth grade, I think. My mom was visiting my dad in Hawaii while he was on R&R from Vietnam. I stayed with my friend Mitchell Conn and his family. We lived in Merced, but we drove up to Sunnyvale for the weekend, to stay with his wealthy cousins and their family. I still wet the bed. On Sunday morning, Mitch led his cousins into the room where I was sleeping. I awoke to Mitch pulling back the covers so they could see how I'd wet. I remember it was such a beautiful, bright sunny morning. The sheets and the fluffy bedding that I'd wet were blindingly white.

- Eighth grade, probably. Linda Little, the female "ringleader" of the cool black kids at school teased me all the time. And pushed me and smacked me. She and her friends liked to single me out. One day, I was standing on the edge of the sidewalk at the top of a small hill on the school grounds, when she came up to me and gave me a shove. I lost my balance and rolled all the way down the hill. Everyone saw. When I got up off the ground, I yelled "black bitch" (even then, with an ache that it was racist to say that) and tried not to cry, but Linda Little and her friends just laughed.

- Junior High. John was my best friend. I used to hang around with him and his younger brothers. They were from West Texas. He had a strong accent and was as skinny as I was fat. He liked the Beatles when they weren't even that cool. We rode our bikes everywhere. To the outskirts of town where there wasn't anything, only flat dried-up fields. I was probably in love with him. In a few years, by the end of junior high, he'd grown up a lot, got a girlfriend. Maryann. He stopped hanging around with me and he told people in school about how I made costumes for my GI Joe and my sister's Barbie. How I played with dolls. He did it to make himself more popular.


More than a year and a half ago, a coworker I work closely with - who I'd always been friends with - misunderstood the intentions of something I said and stopped talking to me. I tried to speak with him about it but since that day, other than the most absolutely necessary work communication, he hasn't spoken to me. Some of his friends who, prior to all this, were friendly enough, now seem to be following his lead. So I have several people at work who shun me. Really, that's what it is - as ridiculous as it sounds - I'm being shunned.

Things are going so well in my life. On all fronts. I've really worked out a lot of things that, for a long time, I've needed to deal with. I'm very grateful. And yet, at work, much of my attention and energy have been focused on this negative, confounding situation. But now, finally, in the last few days it has slowly begun to seep in - after more than a year and a half - that my distress with the situation is mostly because it takes me right back to who I was as a child. Puts me in the same position, puts me into the same confusion: Why are people mean to me? Why don't they like me? And I haven't known how to fight that feeling of being defenseless. Maybe that's why this year and a half has been so out-of-proportion painful. It's the sort of thing I wish I could just laugh off, muscle through. But, because of who I am, how I process things, it's brought back all the unfair confused hurt I felt as a little boy...and I know that that's completely necessary for me. For my health and my growth as a person. The sparks of comprehension I'm beginning to feel about all of this are signs to me that, soon enough, I'll be grateful for this hard time. I'll see it as a blessing.

I'm the kind of person who is always going to try and fix things, to talk things out, but you can't make someone talk to you. At this point, my understanding of the situation is that my coworker is a very sensitive individual. Who acts as though he's not. On some level he knows that he overreacted to the whole thing and is embarrassed by that. It's guess it's easier for him to put the blame on me than to sit with the shame of his behavior. All of which, honestly, I can completely understand. I understand because there is another side to this.

I've shunned people, too. A lot of people who grow up victimized in some way, subconsciously look for some way to hurt back. It's a sad truth that, if you're bullied or ridiculed or shunned, you may later have a tendency, yourself, to bully, ridicule, or shun. It's the abusive cycle. It's a defensive mechanism: if I hit you first, you can't hit me first. Even if it's just a look or caustic words delivered to keep someone at a distance. Or behaving toward someone as though they just don't exist. I believe that it's all part of the hyper-vigilance, that need to self-protect that is so often a result of trauma.

One of the biggest things about getting my anxiety issues under better control was that I've needed to go back and apologize to people that I've snubbed for no other reason than that I just couldn't deal with them in some way. My response to things - normal things - was often quite warped. For a long time. At work, over the last few years, I've made personal apologies to people I've treated dismissively or unfairly demonized in some way. And a few months ago, I sent out a general email to apologize for any bad behavior in the past. I felt pretty vulnerable - and maybe a bit foolish - doing so, but it seemed the right thing; I'm grateful that people were so kind and understanding in response. But even still, I'll always need to examine my reactions to people and question my motivations. So that my relationships with people aren't shaped by the feelings of the hurt little boy I was.


As I've been writing this, I keep thinking about three boys I went to school with. They'd all be the same age as I am now. I didn't really know any of them. But I've always remembered them so clearly.

I want to say I'm sorry to Joseph, the little boy in first grade who was ugly and smelled like pee. When given the choice to name my baby brother Joseph Brian or Brian Joseph, I chose the latter. A choice made only out of disdain for that poor little kid. I can still see his little first-grade face and I feel so sad. I hope life has been kinder to him since.

And I want to say I'm sorry to the Hispanic boy in junior high gym class - I think his last name was Gutierrez - who was fat like I was. His body was very soft and he had deep scars on his abdomen. Having to get naked in the locker room, having to run around the track. All the shame I felt, he must have felt. I don't know if I ever really talked to him. Or any of the other fat or big or slow kids. I was so desperate to not be the last one, the worst one. "At least I'm better than he is." That's all I could think about, then. "At least I'm not as bad as you!" I wish I could have known how to be friendly with him; we might have given each other some of the support we both needed so much. I hope he's had a happy, loved life.

And I want to thank the boy - another Hispanic boy - who stood up for me one day, when I was in sixth grade and we lived in Miami. I think that's when it was; there were so many times in my childhood that were similar. When I'd just be walking home from school and I'd get followed. A couple of boys from school would crowd around me, calling me names, trying to get me to fight with them. And I would stay as silent as I could, just walking, trying to be as dignified as I could, my head high, my eyes straight ahead. No one ever stood up for me, no one tried to get people to leave me alone. So I remember that day. The sky was heavy and the light was dim and yellow, like it often seemed in Miami. I didn't know the boy at all, just recognized him from school. I remember he was dressed very tidy, a button-down shirt, pressed. And he just walked along with me and kept telling the other kids to leave me alone. Even pushing one or another of them at times. He just walked along with me until they eventually drifted away. And then he went his own way. I don't know that we ever talked after that; I don't remember him except for that day. But I want to say how grateful I am to that noble child who just wanted to do the right thing. To be kind to someone who needed it. I needed it.