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1000 Black Lines

:: digital coffee stains on the paper of the blogosphere ::


I think everyone has had moments like these when you realize you've made a bad decision and try to correct it with several more bad decisions. The allure of "free gift wrapping" is not exclusive to holiday gift buying. My father used to say he liked "sugar free" soda pop. "Because the sugar's free," he said with a smile.

It's a tradition each year around Thanksgiving that management rewards each employee with a gift card to a local yuppie grocery store. You know the kind of store where a bottle of water is $5. It's common practice among employees to purchase a small item (usually less than 5% of the gift total) and receive the cash back (in order to buy four times the amount of food at a plebian grocery outlet store).

So, with family bundled up for a ride, we ventured to the yuppie food market for small item purchases thinking we would have money left over to dine out. In other words, using that yuppie joint like an ATM. The allure of free money disappeared when the store clerk handed us another gift card for the balance of the gift. The expectation of a pizzeria's sweet, tangy tomato sauce on an Italian sausage pizza dissipated and left a gravel taste in my mouth.

Finding My Volcano

DISCLAIMER: If you haven't watched the movie Joe Versus the Volcano, then I recommend you purchase a two-liter bottle of orange soda and watch the movie in order to understand this blog.

I think it's time for something drastic
and it could be more than I bargained for
ten to one it is...

— Smalltown Poets

Do you remember the opening scene to Joe Versus the Volcano starring Tom Hanks as Joe Banks and Meg Ryan as... (well who cares, as long as she is in the movie she can be a tree)? Joe plods to a complex and makes his way through a labyrinth of halls and doors and arrives at a windowless office with fluorescent lighting. His office resembles more of a prison than anything else. The thing that scares me is how similar Joe's office mirrors my own.

Some days, much like today, I get this intense craving for orange soda and want to check Ebay to bid on used steamer trunks. Must be "brain cloud" that causes such desires or at least that's what Joe's doctor suggested. Maybe I just need a change of scenery. Often, when these symptoms occur, I'll walk to the Xerox print station and stare out the window in order to acknowledge the fact the there is an existence outside my office. How is that a mindless row of Xerox machines faithfully spitting out reams of papers are allowed to occupy one of the few rooms with a window? It just doesn't make sense to me. Fortunately, the parking lot below is not the only scenery. Beautiful conifer covered mountains allow me to escape the corporate confines and office politics for a few minutes. "Oh, there you are," I hear behind me. "Could you make these copy changes? I've got to go to another meeting soon. Can I see samples in an hour?" I look at the papers thrust in my hands and nod my acknowledgement before I trudge to my office.

I take the long way to my office in order to pay homage to the caffeine deity who watches over the small lunchroom. The caffeine goddess blesses me with dark elixir. With Styrofoam chalice in hand, I return to my workstation and examine the papers with directions penciled next to text blocks. So, this is the kind of job I get with a graphic design degree. Maybe I should have chosen a major in Ditch-Digging or Dishwashing. But no. I had to chose a career in a windowless office with industrial off-white walls.

As I roll the dark bean beverage around my tongue, I think of all the places I'd like to go with a steamer trunk. Just this morning I had told my wife that we should buy a truck and then a trunk for each family member. Fill each trunk with personal belongings, stow it and the newly acquired truck and depart to regions unknown. But would this brain cloud follow me? As the story goes, Joe falls in love and then falls in a volcano. Falling in love with the mother of my children seems easy compared to the later. Maybe I just haven't found the right volcano to throw myself into.

Crossroads, again?

This weekend my wife and I were cleaning the front room in preparation for Christmas decorations while our child played trains. Several boxes had been stacked in the corner near the bookshelves and I discovered some old sketchbooks from my university years. Many pages were covered with unfinished drawings (like the one above) and notes, poems, quotes and/or incomplete thoughts.

One book was over twelve years old and had a Sharpie drawing of my wife-to-be dated April 3rd, 1992. I must have sent the book home to my family because there was a letter in the back explaining the book's contents. Another sketchbook from '92 - '93 had a lot of pen drawings of the back of heads or hands from sketching during lecture classes.

There was also a collection of composition notebooks. In one such notebook I had written a quote: "Your biggest competitor is your own view of your future" (The Visionary's Handbook). Halfway through that notebook I rediscovered the following poem sketch:

I see the wicked prosper,
I see those around me live
like there is no eternity
and I get confused.

After reading that, I remembered the story behind that specific entry. I had been at an emotional and spiritual crossroad (not to mention a job change and relocation). It's interesting how I seem to have found another crossroad to stand upon (or maybe I've returned to that same place). Should I stay? Or should leave? I guess it's good to take account of what has happened in order to adjust "your own view of your future."

My wife and I finished cleaning the front room while listening to December. We never got around to decorating the place for Christmas. Maybe next weekend.

Did anyone see that shooting star?

For the first time in my more than thirty winters of life, I saw a shooting star. As I waited Friday night for the six o'clock bus to take me home, I saw to the south a white sparkle like the white tip of a thumbnail against the early evening sky and to the east of Lone Pine Mountain. It was bright and I wondered if it would have been more spectacular away from the light pollution of the city. I gazed at the dark blue, empty sky until the bus arrived to take me home to enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers.

Creative Non-fiction Class in Nine Parts

Part 01: Introduction
Part 02: Writing Exercise
Part 03: Homework Assignment
Part 04: Topics don't make Stories
Part 05: Categorizing Books
Part 06: 3 Ways to Discover A Story
Part 07: Homework Assignment
Part 08: Recovery
Part 09: Story Transformed

The Writing Life -- Lesson Three

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard states that "The written word is weak." She writes that words are weak in relation to life's sensual appeal and requires intellect and imagination to enjoy the subtleness of static ink on paper. This is true. In order to enjoy the depth and power or words you must grasp their subtle nuances. But I believe words are both delicate and fragile as well as powerful and indelible. For example, the delicate choice of words one might compose in a letter to a lover; a careful string of words to suggest just enough to require a response, but withholding elements that might seal a commitment. Or recall the powerful promise of the written "We the people..." that is archived in the halls of our capitol and inscribed upon our hearts and minds. These thoughts have troubled my mind for several weeks. Are words weak? Or are they powerful?

A few weeks ago, I received an email that sent me into days of despair. After reading the digital words, I became confused and hurt. This isn't the first email message I've received to assault my spirit so violently. I followed the routines and rituals of life as a path to return to normalcy. "Sticks and stones... but words will never hurt," I steeled my soul with this mantra. Words are weak, I tried to convince myself.

Days and nights preyed upon me as the eagle ravages its victim. Many a time I tried to forget my misfortune by occupying myself with books and scriptures of past generation, but it was like extinguishing fire with oil... The Book of Job was more fascinating to me than the Psalms and I preferred the Elegies of Jeremiah to the Song of Solomon... Thus despair weakens our sight and… We can see nothing but specters of doom and can hear only the beating of our agitated hearts...
--Khalil Gibran, Broken Wings

Someone was not pleased with a story I wrote (rough draft actually) and now I am more cautious when opening any emails. I've become afraid of the potentially venomous sting of words a mere click away. How should I respond to such caustic use of the English language? Though the email harbored no profanity, it leveled my spirit with its artillery of letters. How could I let these weak words pierce my soul so successfully?

At first I was horrified, how could they hate what I wrote? I meant no malice, quite the opposite. I meant to extol the subject of my story. There had been a pleasant camaraderie with the subject. Then, I wanted to apologize. But for what? The story was true. And I was witness to it. But sometimes when a story is told the main character does not like to view their reflected image in words. Next, I waited because I did not want to open any emails for fear of Pandora's cyber plagues. For several weeks I waited and the unopened email messages grew very long. Then my thoughts returned to Annie Dillard's The Writing Life.

Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere. It appeals only to the subtlest senses--the imagination's vision, and the imagination's hearing--and the moral sense, and the intellect. This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader's ear must adjust down from loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word.

Maybe that's what prompted the email I received. Life may have been too loud for the reader and to adjust the ear to the whisper of the written word may have been frightening. Maybe I should have expressed that the reader place an ear to the page and listen to the inked paper like an audience witnessing an orchestra tune their instruments before a concert. Once the ear is properly accustomed to the imaginary sounds of words then the reader should focus on the content of the story and enjoy the delicate power of literature.

My beautiful desk -- Part Two

Oh, my beautiful desk, my forehead embraces you once again. Thud, thud, thud...

Yes, again my head bounced upon the desk before me. The marketing deities "redesigned" a brochure for me (and an envelope). Or rather, they supplied me with a couple sheets of paper that included taped images (yes, someone took the time to cut up old printed marketing material and tape it to a sheet of white paper) of where they would like product placement and scribbled notes in pencil and ink designating copy placement. As silly as it may sound, this "redesign" attempt by the marketing deities was very helpful. They had used a form of communication that they understood and I was able to translate their desires. I was truly grateful… until I discovered they wanted to see full-color samples by tomorrow (because marketing deities have holidays and won't be available the rest of the week).

And yea, verily, it will be a very long dark night with the caffeine goddess. Thud, thud, thud...

Nickel and Dimed

Posted without comment:

The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians -- like the ten-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill.
--Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

So You Think You're A Designer?

I've been invited to host a lecture on graphic design. But I'm not sure where to start. I guess I'll start at the beginning…

What makes a graphic designer a designer? Is it the computer (MAC of course)? Is it the software (Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator & QuarkXpress)? Is it the black turtleneck? It's really none of these. They're all tools (except the turtleneck -- that's purely fashion).

The next generation of graphic designers assumes that to be real designers you need to be an excellent pixel painter. In a way, the technology has advanced to the point that these tools (hardware and software) keep you competitive in an aggressive market. However, ask a twenty-something designer how one might use rubylith to create a photo-ready four-color brochure and you'll get a blank stare. Another common sign of a young designer is the confusion as to why a print vendor won't print his RGB files.

Am I speaking over your head? If so, it's probably because you don't speak Designese, the language of graphic designers and print vendors. Designese actually has two dialects: one for the designer and the other for the printer. A good print production manager knows both dialects fluently. It used to be that graphic designers knew both dialects well. But somewhere along the way a new breed of designers creates print projects with no complete understanding of the intricate process in taking a job from concept to completion.

Young designers have a technically savvy that is admirable, but lack ingenuity if their software tends not to perform the way they planned. For example, new designers tend to over use Photoshop filters to create 3D shadows or embossed images -- yet their art still has a "flat" artificial quality to it. It is because they only think in relation to the computer monitor. Designers who have been working since the late 80s or early 90s were used to manipulating rubylith layers to overprint certain colors. They had the end product in mind because they understood the process. In other words, older designers understood the idea of consequences for their creative ideas. For example, to obtain a "rich" black in a photo you could include a percentage of cyan, magenta and yellow (depending on what paper your printing upon). They could create the illusion of depth to a photo because they knew that there was depth to the ink that is printed on the paper.

Hm, (pause)… this isn't intended to be a rant against the new school of graphic designers. It's just my observations that a lot of designed pieces these days are rather flat. Maybe it's the education style that teaches the who, what, when and where but forgets the why. (sigh)…There's so much ground to cover – where should I start?

The Writing Life - Lesson Two

This image is of a painting I did about seven years ago. It's a lyrical representation of a stand of trees I saw in a magazine. The composition attracted my attention more than the photo itself. Anyway, I thought it would go well with what I was reading recently...

A painting covers its tracks. Painters work from the ground up. The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions, and obliterates them. Writers, on the other hand, work from left to right. The discardable chapters are on the left. The latest version of the literary work begins somewhere in the work's middle, and hardens toward the end. The earlier version remains lumpishly on the left; the work's beginning greets thereader with the wrong hand. In those early pages and chapters anyone may find bold leaps to nowhere, read the brave beginnings of dropped themes, hear a tone since abandoned, discover blind alleys, track red herrings, and laboriously learn a setting now false.
--Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

My beautiful desk

Thud, thud, thud...

That's the sound of my head banging against my faux wood desk surface. Take ownership in your work, says my supervisor while the "suits" tell me how to design a brochure.

My desk and I have a unique relationship. Never revealing words I've muttered, nor phone conversations with vendors about unassuming "suits," my desk silently listens without response and faithfully holds a chalice of caffeinated elixir. My beloved, cheap, warped desk hides my bouncing leg while I listen with "interested" expression to a young marketing associate informing me the best way to make a marketing campaign look more attractive (as if that college degree in graphic design really wasn't worth the paper it was printed on).

Thud, thud, thud...

Oh, my beautiful desk, my forehead embraces you!

Poet and Prophet?

Ever read a book and there's a passage that get's stuck in your head like a bad top 40 pop tune? That happened to me recently as I was reading one of my favorite writers, Khalil Gibran, famously known for The Prophet. In his novelette, Broken Wings he wrote:

Modern civilization has made woman a little wiser, but it has increased her suffering because of man's covetousness. The woman of yesterday was a happy wife, but the woman of today is a miserable mistress. In the past she walked blindly in the light, but now she walks open-eyed in the dark. She was beautiful in her ignorance, virtuous in her simplicity, and strong in her weakness. Today she has become ugly in her ingenuity, superficial and heartless in her knowledge.

Is he condemning greedy men for the state of "modern" womanhood? Or is he endorsing early feminism? That passage will have to be properly understood in it's context (Broken Wings was first published in 1912), but the idea exists that the demise in America of a patriarchal system coincided with the Industrial Revolution. It's possible the poet's demoralized woman in Broken Wings was a foreshadow of today's feminism. And where are the American men today? Maybe they hide behind the guise of work and derive purpose from that. They work in tall office buildings in a metropolis to make a good living. But the truth is that "because of man's covetousness... the woman of today is a miserable mistress."

Reality television programming seems to reinforce that idea. A group single women agree to be filmed while displaying their superficiality and ugliness in an attempt to marry the "Bachelor." It's both demeaning to the women (and men). The strength and virtue of women of character are obviously not popular television programming. Fortunately, Khalil Gibran didn't watch television. So, is he a prophet? or just the author of The Prophet?

Malaprop's Music and Poetry

Everyone is invited to an evening of

Poetry, Coffeecups, Words, Music, and Peaceful Vibes
Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe
Saturday, November 13
8 pm to 9:45 pm

Dawn Humphrey
CD: You Don't Have To Wait Until Heaven

Matthew Mulder
poet & writer
Book: Late Night Writing

Pasckie Pascua
editor & poet
Book: Vagrant Verses, Serpentine Summers

For details, call The Indie at (828) 254 4501 or (828) 252 4642
Visit www.freewebs.com/indieasheville
or www.freewebs.com/thetravelingbonfires

The Writing Life - Lesson One

One of the reasons for taking the writing class I am attending was to learn how to write a book. If you recall my dilemma about writing a book, then you'll remember I switched gears a bit. You tend to assume, "Whoa, I got this great idea for a book." And then you discover you need to do more research, or the topic needs to be re-examined at a different angle, or it simply is an interesting factoid but there's no story--no book. Books are stories (unless you're referring to reference books) and need to be planned in that manner. Who's the protagonist? What's the theme? Where's the plot?

So it is that a writer writes many books. In each book, he intended several urgent and vivid points, many of which he sacrificed as the book's form hardened. "The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon," Thoreau noted mournfully. "or perchance a palace or temple on the earth, and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them." The writer returns to these materials, these passionate subjects, as to unfinished business, for they are his life's work.
--Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Maybe I'll be able to return to those grand ideas I had and find some common element to weave a story around. Maybe there is a complete a book in me waiting to be published. In the meantime, it's "unfinished business" to be put in a file and opened at a later date.

Peace - The Great Venture

A couple months ago, my wife indulged me by purchasing a sample subscription to The New York Times (Sunday Edition). We had Sunday lunch out on the porch and enjoyed the warm late summer/early autumn season as we paged through that week's edition. It happened to be the weekend of the tragic Russian school hostage news. The image of a young father beside the body of his son has not left my memory. Will that ever happen in America? Will that be me someday?

Last week, NPR's Speaking of Faith ran an incredible show on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The line that comes back to me is:
There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture, and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God's commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.

I know several peace activists. But I don't know too many who would embrace that statement. In a few years my son will enter the education system. Will America be safe from schoolyard terrorism? I don't know. It seems that peace offers no safety but rather visits at the moment of complete insecurity and wraps you in its presence -- not protection. I remember that image from The New York Times of a young father beside his dead son and I chose "the great venture" as the true road to peace.

Writing Class

Last night's nonfiction writing class covered leads, transitions and structure. Two of the class members offered writings (one personal essay the other on business practices) that were critiqued in class by students and teacher. I am amazed at the caliber of writers in this class. They have challenged me to write a more compelling story.

The writing assignment I turned in last week was based on an interview I did in August with a River Arts District painter. The artist interview was initially planned to be submitted to a local monthly arts column but I saw in that piece something bigger. The artist's desire to change her culture by presenting art that questions conformity, challenges American materialism and hopefully provides financial support became a more universal theme. For several weeks I compiled research material that enhanced her story. I spent a Friday night at a gallery showing getting a vibe for the River District community. And the story transformed from a 400-word sidebar to a feature length 3000 words. Next week my piece will be consumed and critiqued. I hope I offered something on the same level as their writings.