The Artist’s Greatest Fear

I think a life of destitution as an unknown in service of art isn’t the artist’s greatest fear.

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The greatest fear is to become successful (and famous) for the wrong thing. The thing you didn’t want to become your career.

Did you know William Shatner was in a film of the Brothers Karamazov? Yeah. Captain Kirk. TJ Hooker.

He’s had a blessed life. He’s got no reason to complain. Guy’s like King Midas. Earned hundreds of millions off those Priceline commercials. Look it up. He’s a rich old guy now. He’s long since made peace with all the corny crap he had to do to get here.

But for the rest of us–the ones who aren’t William Shatner–I think the fear of the wrong version of success haunts us still like nightmares.

Say that you’re some Ivy-Leaguer who takes all the right classes and makes all the right connections. You go to Hollywood to push your serious screenplay about Rigoberta Menchu or Jimmy Hoffa’s secret gay history or something. Whatever.

You go to L.A. and share an apartment in Silverlake with three other waiters-cum-screenwriters for a while. They are stealing your towels. You need dental work. You start getting hungry. You’re not getting laid. You’ve got school loans to pay.

On a drunken whim you turn in a treatment or screenplay called “Farty McFarterson’s Golden Retriever Farts Rainbow Basketballs.”

Nickelodeon picks it up. They pay you for it. They want to hire you on to the project. There’s a weekly series about happy little Farty making fart noises and his farting golden retriever defeating the evil Republican-looking possums with basketball farts on a basketball court. There’s a movie. Everyone loves it–at least everyone in that critical 4 to 9 year-old-demographic, with secondary support from teens and old men. You get a cut of merchandise sales. You move to a nice place in Laguna Beach. You get a Bentley Continental GT.

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You go to parties with other cokeheads and say:

“I have a project, yeah. . . yeah.. . . “
“So what is it?”
“It’s a project for Viacom. Series. There’s been a movie, too.”
“Cool! Duuuude! So what is it?”
“It’s a well. . . . it’s… Farty McFarterson’s Golden Retriever Farts Rainbow Basketballs
“Oh. That’s you? Oh. Well, great. Hey, I think I see Carrot Top over there. Hey! Catch you later, braahhh!”

See what I mean?

You will forever be haunted by your “success.” Try getting a job anywhere else in Hollywood with a résumé like that. Where are you going to work? “That’s my Skidmark!” or “Smegma Avalanche!” on MTV? Try New York instead.Fuck. But when the cancel the show, you need to start looking. You have appearances to keep up, after all. Not going back to that apartment only to get your towels stolen.

So, see, it’s important to be successful. It’s more important to be successful for the right reasons…

At least I think so.

photo credit: fensterbme via photopin cc

What I Learned Selling Cub Scout Popcorn

“Hey! Wanna buy a bag of popcorn? It’s only twenty dollars.”

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It took a lot to get me to say that to people without blinking. It was much easier to get the words to come out of my son’s mouth. To him “twenty” is just a number. It’s not lunch or a fraction of a car payment. He’s a much better popcorn salesman than I.

But over the course of a month, both of us had to get past our shyness. We have only three bags left in a box that was once full of dozens among a bunch of other boxes full of dozens. Looks like we will have made our goal and he’ll be able to participate in the pizza-party/scoutmaster-dunking or whatever goofy thing was offered as the inducement.

We didn’t participate in the popcorn sales last year. My son had just started in Scouts and I was getting my bearings as a specimen of that dubious genre, the “Scouting Dad.” When I had to deal with these things before at his school I’d just say “we can’t participate in the cookie dough/magazine/fetus key-chain promotion, but please take this check as a contribution to your cause.” That didn’t wash with the Scouts. They were looking for us to make a $700 vig. They’re looking for good earners in the Scouts. Not just some two-bit hoods with ten dollars from daddy. Fuggetaboutit.

So we loaded the pickup with cartons of popcorn bags and boxes showing ideal, smiling boys plaintively offering delicious-looking kernels in hopes strangers would fund their annual camp-out and give them the opportunity to humiliate a grown man in shorts while eating pizza. I thought it would be a good opportunity for my son to learn to make the sale.

Life is about sales, no matter who you are. Online, I talk to a lot of students going into things like engineering and microbiology and counselling. They scoff at my assertion that sales is everything. I counter with this: “When you’re trying to convince someone to give you a job, or an assignment, or funding, you are giving them the information they need to make their decision, but you are also persuading them by gaining their confidence and charming them in a way. You’re convincing them that you are the right person with the right product and they must take action, now. That’s sales, you a-holes.”

Sales is thus an invaluable life-skill I felt my son needed to learn.

And here is what we learned selling twenty-dollar bags of popcorn:

  • A smile still works wonders.
  • The phrase “can you help me?” — especially in the voice of a small child — melts hearts and overcomes resistance
  • “Hustle” helps. There’s an infectious quality to urgency. One of my favorite harangues to my son became “YOU ARE WALKING LIKE YOU ARE IN A FUNERAL PROCESSION!”
  • Most people want to be generous. They really want to help. The most generous people are those who appear to be least able to afford it. Be nice to everyone. Everyone is a potential customer.
  • Karma is a motivator.
  • Noticing and showing interest in the potential customer always helps. A nice comment on a scarf, t-shirt, or shoes humanizes the pitch and virtually demands a response.
  • If you believe in what you are doing, and what you are selling, your results increase tenfold. My favorite pep talk to my son was “Think of the little boys who want to join Cub Scouts but whose parents can’t afford the dues. That’s who this is going to help.” Suddenly it became not just another dumb thing he needed to do. It became a cause. Even an 8-year-old can understand that.

So overall, a good experience I was glad to have with him. I hope that these early exposures to what it really takes to persuade and relate to others will help him through life. My bet is that they will, even if he becomes a microbiologist.

Dogs

Dogs are terrific. I miss having a dog.

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New friends at my coffee spot. Serge and Rudy: Made for each other.

Somehow — eons ago — a few of the wolves that existed at the time decided that humans weren’t so bad. We were generally entertaining, had a steady supply of food and opposable thumbs that helped remove thorns and rub ears. Domestication soon followed. Mankind went on to take those proto-dogs and bend their basic genetic makeup into all sorts of fun shapes. And here we are.

My first dog was a corgi mix who was companionable enough. I think my best memory of her came when she was barking from the window of the motorhome as we watched it burn from a short distance away. My dad — who wasn’t a physically bold man at all — strode up to the burning wreck and grabbed her out of the window, saving her life at the risk of his own. She was so happy to be out of there. That’s also probably my best memory of my dad. He did what he needed to do. Penny the dog had provided the occasion.

She lived a few years after that, but the smoke inhalation had probably weakened her. One day at the mall my dad told me that we wouldn’t be seeing her again. He didn’t do such things well. He went on to describe all the dogs he’d lost in his long life and in so doing, quickly broke down in tears. We all cried in consolably. Poor Penny.

But there were many other dogs that followed. We had a Doberman named “Vashti” who did a good job of pulling me around the neighborhood at top speed during nightly walks when I was a teenager. She was AKC-registered and my dad had hoped to get her bred and for us to start a small Doberman puppy mill in our backyard. Like most business plans, that went awry. She had a tilted uterus or something and couldn’t get pregnant. So we just kept her as a pet and depended on her to scare the neighborhood vandal kids. She fulfilled that duty even as she became one of the fattest Dobermans anyone had seen. The vet made us put her on a diet of green beans and a small serving of Kibble. She kinda hated us after that.

Then there was Milly the German shepherd. I named her after a girl I didn’t particularly like. Milly the Shepherd was generally irritating. I think in a pack she would have been a beta or a gamma. She did provide us with one cherished family memory: Mom had baked cookies and we were standing around the kitchen eating them and interacting like … like a normal family. Milly must have been so elated with this peculiar spectacle that she leapt up on top of the counter and started eating the cookies straight off the sheets. There was a brief silence as we — as a family — grasped what we were seeing happen right before us. Then, like a team of superheroes, we all jumped her and started kicking her ass as she scrambled away with the last of the cookies. We had that one warm family moment in the ten years of my adolescence and Milly the Dog was there trying to fuck it up. However, upon reflection, she did succeed in turning it into a David-Lynchian twisted instance of freakishness, which was probably somehow more fitting for us Westside LaBries.

While we still had Milly, we added Kaiser the Doberman. Kaiser was like Milly’s assistant. When you have two dogs you obtain at different times, the second one to join the organization tends to recognize the authority of the first dog by being stupid. Kaiser was, if anything, unfathomably stupid.

In the master bedroom of that house we’d leave the sliding-glass door open through most of the summer, allowing the evaporative cooler to push the curtain out with its chilling breeze. The dogs would hear noises in the backyard and come running through the hallway at top speed and out under the breezing curtain to scare off the passing garbage truck. Well, around November the cooler was no longer needed so we started shutting the door. I was on the bed playing Atari one afternoon when Kaiser comes running down the hallway like he’s on fire. The door was closed. He didn’t know. He rammed his head straight into the closed door, causing a thunderous shake and nearly breaking it. He dropped, shook his head and yelped. I felt bad for him and got up to tend to his wounds, but before I could reach him, he had risen, run back down the hallway, made a u-turn, and was halfway back towards his second door/skull collision of the preceding fifteen seconds or so.

After my dad died and our family left that house, my mom donated Kaiser to the Border Patrol. A year later, he made it on to a set of trading cards commemorating famous drug-sniffing dogs of the US Border Patrol. He was the first member of our household to make it in the world. He had become a cop.

…which kinda figures, I mean . . .

Things I Can’t Do

I grew up around people who lacked one critical skill: They couldn’t admit there was anything worth doing that they couldn’t do.

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I’m a pretty lousy satiric cartoon re-captioner, for instance…

And to some extent, this denial of incapability was helpful. There really wasn’t much they couldn’t do. If you can read and ask questions, you have the skills you need to learn how to do almost anything. That was our motivating ethos.

My mom and dad had never managed a restaurant or casino when they took over a struggling little cantina with some slot machines in the near-ghost-town of Searchlight, Nevada in 1977. But they soon figured it out. My dad had never tended bar and my mom had never cooked for hundreds of people before that experience. Somehow they pulled it off and built the place into a going business in a matter of a few months…

…only to lose it all when my dad learned that handshakes make for poorly-secured business agreements.

When we moved to Phoenix my dad had no experience in wiring rooftop evaporative coolers. He got a book and more or less figured it out without having to pay an electrician. Sure, there was that time when — as we parked in the driveway — we saw a pigeon alight on the frame of that cooler, make a final death-squawk, take a high trajectory off the roof, then go “thump” as its lifeless, smoking corpse landed at our feet. My dad immediately got the ladder and climbed up top to investigate. We nearly witnessed a repeat performance as he grabbed the cooler with both hands then jerked back, swearing (he hadn’t bothered to turn off the power first).

But overall, dad got a passing grade. Hey! The cooler was keeping the house cool–and the pigeons hot. Bunches of them, we later found out.

And so when I got old enough to start working (for my dad), it was all OJT: On the job training. I could read and knew how to use a card catalog at the library and could frame informal requests for help from professionals in a persuasive way. I wasn’t afraid of failing. I learned a lot of about soldering and the difference between RTS and XLR connectors, when not to connect the ground wire on both sides of a signal cable, how to set a compressor curve and how to edit tape (for the millenials out there: Sound was previously recorded on a polyester-based magnetic tape that needed to be physically manipulated with razor blades and adhesive. Brutal, I know). I was only about 15 or so, but I figured it out — bit-by-bit.

My parents continued to believe there really was nothing they (nor I) couldn’t do given access to the proper sources of information. My dad’s universe was composed of three rings: At the core were the creators who had a certain magic (that’s where he resided, natch). Next ring was inhabited by workaday schlubs like bank presidents and pharmacists. The final ring was inhabited solely by people who swept the hair out of barbershops.

That didn’t leave me with too many career choices.

But now, I’m older and wiser. I will readily admit there are things I just can’t do. I understand the premises behind most of them, but I have come to know that my specific aptitudes render me useless in regards to certain things.

I can’t fold fitted sheets. I watched in amazement a while back as a friend carefully tucked the ends together in some way that violated my understanding of geometry. I can’t do it. If she’s not around, those sheets are getting balled-up and shoved into the closet. That’s that.

I can’t keep a schedule, usually. Though this is probably a case of a very focused sort of resistance to regimentation. I seem to know exactly when ski season starts (even if I can’t go that year). As for when the bell rings in the morning at my kid’s school — 7:35? 7:40? I no unnerstan too good. I blame my background as a self-guided homeschooler (teachers weren’t necessary in our world either, of course). My high school classes started at 9:30 or 10 or so, ran until I wanted to take a bike ride or blow something up in the back yard, then resumed after dinner and ran until 2 AM — with the occasional distraction provided by important readings into why TV had to be eliminated or space exploration.

As I grew up, I found after twenty years of trying my best to keep myself interested in TPS reports

and just keeping my nose down and my mouth shut that those things take critical skills that I never developed. I’ve always been good at looking off in the distance kinda vacantly, only to suddenly say “Hey, we should take that thing and turn it upside-down. It might work better that way.” More the half the time I’m right, which amazes some people and kept me in the game. But such things do not a good corporate career make. I lack that corporate gene, I guess.

I no longer disregard the skills of people who can do things I can’t. I’m helpless in some very specific ways.

Please help.

More Influences

So, of course I had to think more about what’s influenced me as a writer, and in life. Once I get on a roll it’s hard to stop.

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I don’t know what possessed me in my youth to pick up a small volume of the essays of Michel De Montaigne. It was a stuffy little book written by a guy whose name I couldn’t really pronounce. He generally wrote about things that were going on in his head, or things he had read. In that way he was a sort of proto-blogger from the 16th century. Regardless, I fell in love with the mind of that rather dour man who pioneered the form of the personal essay.

He came up with some pretty stinging little epigrams that have stayed with us through the centuries. Things like:

“We must think quite highly of our convictions to have other men burned at the stake for them.”

Or

“The key to happiness is to not value anything you can’t carry with you as you swim to shore after a shipwreck.”

Or

“I think no more of him for having emerged from the same hole as did I.”

The last was about his brother.

Pardon me if some of these are a little off. I’m doing this from memory.

Montaigne knew solitude, and making the best of it. When we think of the solitary essayist staring out of his window on the grey world during an overcast day, jotting things down with a quill pen in a fit of deep cogitation as the thoughts finally emerge fully-formed, we are thinking of Montaigne and his various spirutal descendants.

But you’re probably not thinking of me. I’m one of his goofy spiritual descendants. I didn’t quite read all of the memo. Something shiny distracted me. All told, I’d probably rather be riding a motorcycle, etching my thoughts into the earth as invisible traces along a moebius-like strip of asphalt somewhere in Western Colorado. Maybe that’s what Montaigne would be doing today as well. I dunno. He’d probably ride a BMW mainly because it seems he could handle being stranded alone in the wilderness better than most.

Another influence on me was Thomas Mann. Mann was hot at one time, but like so many other greats who were read obsessively in the mid-20th century, he’s no longer much in fashion. That’s too bad because the emotional distance and moral confusion of his protagonists play very well against the modern way of seeing heroes. Read Death in Venice or Doctor Faustus and tell me if the narrators aren’t describing the empty hollowness of a world that has lost its grounding. They do this in everything they say and do. More people today should read Mann, especially the part in Faustus where the title character sits down at a piano and starts tinkling away, playing whatever his ear tells him to play. One of his churchly colleagues from the university asks him what it is he’s playing. He says “nothing”. His friend is not satisfied. What was it and where did it come from? Faustus didn’t know. It was just a thing–just a thing he was doing. His more literal-minded contemporary couldn’t grasp how such a thing was possible. It couldn’t possibly exist that way. And there, in that dialogue, you have the way that most people encounter creativity in themselves and in others. The creative don’t know where it comes from, the non-creative can’t imagine how that’s possible. It seems to count as a sort of possession by the devil. In some ways, that’s not a bad way of looking at it.

Then there’s Anthony Burgess, who is best known for A Clockwork Orange,  but also wrote a series of dark comedic novels based on the Enderby character. It’s hard not to see these as semi-autobiographical. Enderby is a gifted and underappreciated poet who is constantly self-defeating. He’s butted along from one situation to another, his talents used and abused by others while he just wants to be alone making the beast with one back. There are multiple efforts to “cure” him and make him a functioning member of society. Doctors try, his bosses and coworkers at his various horrible jobs try, his uptight and worldly literary agent marries him in an effort to make him fit-in. He just bounces along, always a stranger in the world he writes about. There are laugh-out-loud moments in Enderby, but we’re laughing with a certain sadness. One great thing about the book is that it starts with the reader knowing that he achieved what he was after, albeit posthumously. He achieved the immortality he sought, though it’s the lot of poets and other artists to never know whether they have gotten there or not while they are living.   

So those are a few other authors who have influenced me through my life. I suppose I should read happier things. Can you suggest any?

Words and Image ©2014 Bill LaBrie

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Tombstone: Men Being Men

My son and I have an annual tradition: Helldorado Days in Tombstone each October.

This was our third visit to this tourist mecca and staple of old west lore during its high-holy days of kitch. I don’t want to sound like I’m putting it down. There’s nothing quite like seeing a relatively-preserved 1880s town overrun with people who look the part, and many of them put a hell of lot into their outfits and acts.

The re-enactors and spectators come from around the world for a chance to party like it’s 1882–back when Tombstone had a greater population than Los Angeles did at the time. It’s a nice dip into fantasy-land.

Some of the greatest fantasies concern the honor of the men at the time. Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp have been romanticized by history. In truth they were just men who did what they did — as men are wont to do.

Wyatt Earp was not only a legendary marshall and sheriff, but also a pimp and brothel owner.

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While living in a covered wagon parked next to the Birdcage Theatre and Saloon in Tombstone, he kept house with a common-law wife (also a onetime prostitute), Mattie.

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But of course he was a man about town. He took off to San Francisco with a lovely working girl/saloon singer from the Birdcage named Sadie (whose prostitution licence he personally signed). Together, they moved to San Francisco.

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Estranged wife Mattie moved to Colton, California in hopes of reuniting with Wyatt, but the telegram she expected to get from him never came. She moved to Pinal City, Arizona in hopes of returning to her former trade, but when she found the town nearly vacant after the silver rush, she took an overdose of laudanum (an opiate) and alcohol and killed herself.

The picture of the woman at the top 0f this article is posted in the Birdcage Saloon today and is said to be of Sadie, taken by a famous local photographer at her request and given to Wyatt as a gift to keep him company when she was working or away. That’s been discredited as a story (the picture’s been traced to an NYC novelty company and was published 1914), but it’s fun to think it might be her.

Anyway, it made you click the link, didn’t it? ;-)

There’s more reality in Tombstone than meets the eye.

Poem: Self-Cannibalism

“Self-Cannibalism”

You’ve freeze-dried the joy heard
First from a crackling car speaker,
Packaging your life’s magic inside
A Lucite puck for modern display.

A million’s not a million as time goes by
And villas in Nice don’t get cheaper.
You said it best when you first spoke,
But Inland Revenue says no.

Pull out the charts and spool up the masters,
Some session men booked from seventy-three.
Playback the old tracks that yet remain perfect
As you chomp on your own flesh yet again.

If You Do This, Stop?

If you do something like this just stop? It’s really bad?

To any middle-aged men who "upspeak": You should dress the part? Really? I'm serious? Dress this way?

To any middle-aged men who upspeak: You should dress the part? Really? I’m serious? Dress this way?

It gets really annoying listening to you? It’s like you’re not sure of what you’re saying? It sounds like you’re asking permission to speak? Ten year olds do that, and that’s OK? But you’re — like — thirty-five or something?

Women tend to to this and we accept it? We really shouldn’t? But we do? We’re now tending to accept it from men? It’s spreading like an infection? Maybe this is a symptom of overparenting?

There’s something else to keep in mind? The more you use that inflection, the less you actually will believe in what you’re saying? I’ll bet there’s some neuro-hormonal effect that a rising accent has on one’s brain? When you turn every statement into a question, you’re probably making yourself suggestible in many different ways? And, if you’re like most people you don’t need that?

And anyway, It makes me want to smack you?

Thank you?

Poem: Second Spring

“Second Spring”

Freeze first yields to thaw
And the mornings abundant
Only to reclaim from anxious hands
Its eternal due.

The spring comes again–
This time it’s stronger.
Celebrations are muted:
We’ve seen this before.

But deep in the earth
The expectant kernels
Cast off their mourning
And rise, finally, without shame.

In hearts, as in furrows,
The life gives its notice
That time has now come
At long last.

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Words and Images ©2014 Bill LaBrie