In New York, I had become quiet used to the Citibike program, to having a fresh bicycle waiting in a rack outside my front door to drive wherever I chose. I had always assumed that in LA I would be forced to drive every where — I remember from past visits that if you walk on foot down the sidewalk (where there is a sidewalk) , people look at you like you were covered with blood and dragging an axe. And the thought of toodling along on a bike where people are driving Ferraris at top speed while simultaneously talking to their agents on their blue tooth, sniffing cocaine off the dashboard and eating a double-double In’n'Out burger, well, that seemed pure fantasy.
As it turns out, Venice is something of a fantasy land. You see these bulbous beach cruiser bikes all over the place, and their riders are quite brazen. I’ve often had to yank my truck to the curb to avoid some blithe hipster, high on prescription marijuana, who its talking on his iphone while driving the wrong way up the middle of the road. People never wear helmets or pay attention to stop signs and generally make New Yorker cyclists look like uptight, law-abiding novices.
A friend lent us a cruiser of our own. So far, I have ridden it once and drawn it twice. It’s just not my thing. It would seem too ironic to get run over here in L.A. on a big girl’s bike. To hell with that, I’d much rather go out in a spectacular car crash like James Dean or Jackson Pollock.
I’ve always envied people who could bring their dogs with them everywhere. Old coon hounds sitting in the back of a farmer’s pickup. Fashionistas with their Pomeranians in their purses. Airport cops with stoic German shepherds on short leashes. Hip entrepreneurs writing code in old warehouses, with mixed breed companions named Woman or Copernicus or 8-track sitting under their Ikea worktables.
Finally, I have joined their ranks. Every morning, my hairy coworkers report to the garage with me. First, they make sure no one has accidentally left any bacon or chicken bones on the floor during the night, then flop down to supervise me while I work. That supervision is very trusting as Tim and Joe generally fall asleep within minutes and leave me to carry on unattended.
Every hour or so, something or other will pass outside our fence and they will leap outraged from their slumber and hurl themselves down the drive to bark angrily through the cracks. Then, huffily, they strut back to their stations, exhale indignantly and return to dreams of New York sidewalks and slow moving cats.
If I have to go into the house to freshen my martini or buy another ream of typing paper, they escort me to the door and wait by the kitchen steps. When I return, usually seconds later, they are delirious and insist on asking me all about my absence. Then back to bed. I mean, work.
I learned to watch birds on New Year’s Day, 2012. Jenny and I went to the annual Bird Count in Central Park, a frigid but sunny morning outing, on which we counted a goodly number of feathered friends, including two different types of woodpeckers. Woodpeckers? Yup, New York has a bunch of kinds.
Then, last spring we went to a ranch in Patagonia, AZ and saw some amazing critters, including my very first hummingbirds. I love these birds. They come in so many varieties and they do everything the cartoons say the do. They dart and hover, their wings blurring a zillion miles an hour, and they sip nectar.
Which is where I come in.
As soon as I heard that there was even the slightest possibility of hummingbirds in LA, I headed to Home Depot where they had a whole wall of attractive feeders shaped like giant flowers and such. I bought some bird Kool-Aid and a huge black iron shepherd’s crook to hang the feeder from. Then I raced home, mixed up the nectar, plunged the crook into the flower bed beneath our kitchen window and hung the feeder.
Several days later, Jenny and I were having our tea in our lawn chairs and I complained that a) I had no idea how I was supposed to let the local hummingbirds know I had set up this lovely feeder and b) it seems the lovely feeder was leaking as the level of Kool-Aid seemed to be dropping a little bit each day.
As I was griping, Jenny tapped me on the knee and pointed. A bright green hummingbird, like something out of a sci-fi film, was hovering by the feeder. It gingerly approached, and slid its needle beak into one of the white plastic flowers that circle the rim. I watched in mute wonder. Then as quickly and quietly as he’d come, the hummingbird darted away and soared over our roof.
“Tell all your friends,” I shouted as he disappeared down the street.
It seems he did. I have now seen a half-dozen different colors of hummingbirds. I’ve seen them sitting on or phone wires. I’ve even seen two of them fighting, clashing in the air with fluttering wings and puffed chests, then chirping and squawking till one was driven off and the other settled at the feeder. Fighting hummingbirds! Like tiny iridescent battle helicopters over a Taliban outpost!
Yesterday was a bittersweet day, driving up to Providence to help Jack move into his dorm and begin his sophomore year at RISD. Bitter because I am losing my boy again after we had a great summer together, spending a lot of time hanging out, making things, watching lousy movies, and drawing. Sweet because he was so excited about starting the new year, his first as a painting major, raring to get to work. He read several influential books this summer: the recent biography of David Hockney by Christopher Simon Sykes, Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins and Patrick O’Brian’s plump biography of Picasso. They combined to give him a sense that he better get on with it, that Picasso was already an acknowledged genius by nineteen.
One of the many nice things about having a kid who’s also an artist is the impromptu discussions we have about all sorts of art-nerd stuff — meaning in the arts, the roles of galleries, the pros and cons of acrylic over oil, the best way to crosshatch, whether or not Jeff Koons is an idiot, and so on. I feed off his enthusiasm and will sorely miss him, though he’s only a text message away.
On the drive up I-95, we were talking about line quality. I was pointing out to him that when I want to do a ‘good’ drawing, I slow down as much as possible, striving for accuracy in my line lengths and angles, but that when I step back from a drawing done super slowly like this, it can sometimes seem cramped and without expression. When I look at a master of the drawn line like Egon Schiele, there is so much confidence and sweep in his line and I know it was turn in a broad, swift stroke, not a cautious micromillimeter at a time. For me, the real essence of a great drawing is the quality of the line. An imprecise drawing that is full of life and personality is infinitely better than a stale xerox.
Jack’s response was that you need to put in the time making cramped and crabbed drawings in order to develop the confidence to draw like Schiele. That you shouldn’t sit down to make a ‘good drawing’ but just be in the moment. It may turn out well or not but it’s all about doing the ground work and then letting yourself go.
He’s right. If you want to play Bach, you need to do endless fingering exercises. You need to slow down your golf stroke and study each inch of it before you can connect with a masterful drive. You need to train your neurons and your muscle fibers and to train them to be accurate. Doing lots of hasty drawings will just frustrate you in the long run. It’s like driving, you have to start slowly in the supermarket parking lot, inching around orange cones, before you can take the curves at LeMans.
Unfortunately, this can be frustrating if you are counting on amazing results right away. It can take years to have a completely sweeping line. And even if you do get that confidence after loads of practice, a few weeks of not drawing can cause serious backslide. You have to come back, warm up, start again.
However, there is pleasure even in these slow, inch-worm drawings. They are precise, they are accurate depictions of what’s in front of you and there’s a certain satisfaction in that. Next, to raise it up to the level of high art, to draw it with feeling and a sense of abandon.
It takes years to raise a boy to be six foot three and so smart. It takes confidence to drive away and leave him in Providence, RI and know he’s going to do his best.
Information. The world is just jammed with it. I’m not talking about Facebook posts and texts from your besties; I mean the sort of analog information that is constantly flowing into the holes in our head and all over our skin.
But how much exactly? What would be the equivalent in terms I am familiar with — dpi, mexagpixels, gigs, etc.?
Well, the Internet has loads of answers but none are really definitive. The best I can make out is that if our eyes were digital cameras, they would each have the equivalent of around 600 megapixels and the resolution of the images we receive is about 530 pixels per inch (as a reference, the resolution of images we get on the internet is 72 dpi). Our ears are also constantly receiving sound data, and we can distinguish differences in the ~160kbps range. Our skin can feel vibration, touch, pressure, temperature and of course, pain. We have 20 square feet of skin, all studded with zillions of receptors — Our fingertips alone have 2,500 receptors per cm2.
In short, our bodies are getting a huge amount of data every second. A commonly quoted estimate says that our brains receive 400 billion bits of information each second. That’s 400 gigs, enough to fill my laptop’s hard drive, every second.
But…we have this enormous data stream coming in, and what are we doing with it? According to a recent study in the MIT Technology Review, our brains can only process 60 bits of information a second. And we are only conscious of about 2,000 bits per second. That means that .000000000015% of what comes in actually gets responded to.
Obviously, the vast majority of the time, we are screening out almost all of what is around us. How is that even possible? Well, we are living in the preconceived patterns we built for ourselves long ago, the patterns that put most things into categories that require very little data. We simply don’t need to see every pixel of every face we encounter because we know immediately, “that’s Mary”. We may not notice that Mary is wearing a knee-length, ocean blue floral print dress with six pearl buttons, etc. because that data has no immediate value. It wouldn’t help us to survive in the wild. Those of our ancestors who couldn’t quickly form observations into categories would have been overwhelmed by data and couldn’t have responded quickly enough if Mary turned out to be a pouncing saber-toothed tiger.
Relying on these quick sorting algorithms has been a useful way to survive, what with terabytes of incoming data and the fairly slow processors in these 3-pound, neck-top computers we were all issued.
But … over time, the price we pay for this has grown higher. As the data becomes more intense (iPhones, laptops, 2000 channels, etc), we have retreated more and more into categories and preconceptions and further and further from all the stuff that’s going on around us in what we oldsters quaintly call “the Real World”. The problem is what happens when you decide that your Facebook stream is so much more manageable than the 400 gigs of real data. You will be utterly oblivious as you cross the street, lost in your smartphone, and a saber tooth tiger pounces or an SUV squashes you flat. End of your gene line.
Which brings me to drawing.
A few days ago, I was walking on the Lower East Side and I saw this building festooned with painted signs. I sat down on the pavement, leaned against a wall, and pulled out my Lamy Safari. I spent the first hour or so just drawing the building underneath the signs. I started to see that the building itself was quite interesting, that it had curved windows and lots of interesting brickwork. I discovered how the building was constructed, how the windows lineup, where the structural underpinnings were arranged. I noticed all the stores on the ground floor, their merchandise and the ways that their awnings were hung. It seemed I was tapped into the full data stream (though oblivious to my dehydration, cramped buttock, and sleeping right leg).
Finally, I pulled out a white pencil and start to letter the signs.
Here’s the thing. I had spend a couple of hours starting at this building but now I realize how much I still wasn’t seeing. Yes, I had studied its structure but I had skipped over a lot of the details, I had missed air conditioners, reflections, broken bricks and more. I had approximated so many things based on the patterns I could divine. And I had not observed the perspective or the lighting at all.
But what really blows me away was this weird mistake I made. I misspelled “Entrance”. It’s certainly a word I know how to spell. And I was looking right at the letters on the wall, paying careful attention to the letterforms, to the kerning, the condensed type, the wear of the paint, and then I misspelled “Entrance”. I can’t explain it (Oh, and to cover my goof, I purposefully misspelled it again on the left).
My brain, despite all the time and care I was taking, still had to jump to conclusions. And to a conclusion that I knew was wrong. I somehow drifted away and came back to see my hand adding that ‘E.’ Some other thing was inhabiting my skull, hands on the controls, driving along, a barely-literate lizard brain that just took over while my conscious floated away and debated what I should have for dinner. It’s literally, mind-boggling. Maybe it was a full blown right-brain thing, drawing what was in front of me and disengaged from the rational world of letters and numbers. But then why the mistake? Was I just overwhelmed by the raw data flow?
All this information. And all this human frailty. What we really need is a little wisdom.