Born Under Saturn

SketchbookWhen I was in college, one of my art history professors assigned a book by Margot and Rudolf Wittkower called, “Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists.” I don’t really remember what the book was for, but at the time that I read it, it struck me as an interesting attempt to survey the artistic temperament by looking at the lives of famous artists and attempt to find out if creative artists had to be depressed or distressed in order to create. This book was also the first place I read about the fascinating sculptor, F.X. Messerschmitt. I’ve always been fascinated by ‘outsider’ types, and Messerschmitt (based on what little is known about him) is one of the most interesting of all.

I think the title, ‘Born Under Saturn,’ was supposed to be an astrological reference. The Wittkowers (if I remember right) concentrated mostly on artists of the Renaissance when belief in the Zodiac was probably pretty common and Saturn was supposedly a planet that would influence people to be serious minded, depressed and brooding. And that was one of the assumptions that I have always lived with; I aspire to creativity and I frequently find myself suffering from my own ‘Saturnine’ temperament. I thought it was inevitable that I, a person who identified himself as a drawer of pictures, should suffer from depression and anxiety.

Unfortunately, being depressed isn’t, in my experience, a great spur to creativity. I can’t imagine being an artist in the way that the few successful artists I have met seem go about their daily lives. They seem to love themselves and they seem to love being themselves and they seem to think that everyone else should love them too — and this seems like a good strategy because a good salesman believes in his or her product and maybe a big part of the product, as an artist, is you. And perhaps my stumbling, self-effacing, “ugh I would rather sink into the floor than talk to members of the public” makes me less approachable than someone with a smile on their face who is ready to enjoy the admiration of others and eager to fully embrace the idea that what they have (themselves) is worth having.

Frequently I will sit down to draw something and I will find that I love the process of drawing. I’m shit at drawing from life but sometimes can spend hours with a pen in hand, drawing anything that springs to mind, and for much of that time I manage to forget myself and my anxieties and insecurities. I’m less of a ‘fine artist’ and more of a doodler… which always caused me trouble in art school where many of the people you need to please have specific ideas of what successful art is or is not. And, considered objectively, the people who wanted me to give up doodling and start drawing were probably right — the kinds of drawings that my more successful classmates produced look like what most people would recognize as art. What I produced really looks more like what a bored office worker might produce with ballpoint and memo pad in an overlong meeting… or medieval marginalia… or the ‘Sergio Aragones’ drawings I remember seeing jammed into the margins of Mad Magazine. Sometimes I think my going to art school was both inevitable and a mistake.

As a high school student I had no idea what I would do with my life. I liked to draw — sit me down with pencil and paper and I was never bored — but what I drew (monsters, beheadings, rocket ships crashing into the sides of monsters that were as large as a moon, etc), was puerile and self-indulgent. Among my peers I had certain notoriety as ‘the artist’ and when someone needed something drawn they often came to me. In the sheltered environment of high school and junior high I was considered talented. Then I landed in college. With my horrible grades, I barely got in… and once I got in I discovered that I was just another middle/rear of the pack slogger with neither the raw talent nor the drive to pull ahead. I didn’t even have what a few of my classmates had – the charisma to do very little but be charming while doing it. Everyone else seemed to have some combination of greater reserves of talent, drive or moxie. In class I became painfully aware that most of my interactions with my teachers consisted of the instructor looking at my work and giving me advice on how I could perhaps ‘salvage’ it so it was not a complete failure. In one year I went from ‘the talented artist of high school’ to just another average to below-average student. And discovering this was a big blow to my already fragile ego. I felt like a fraud and a failure. I still feel like a fraud and a failure.

But while I make my drawings, I am distracted… at least for as long as I am drawing. Convincing myself to pick up the pencil and get to it is usually a struggle, but once I manage to start on a drawing I am usually OK, at least for as long as I am drawing. Unfortunately, afterwards I usually hate what I produce. There are occasional good bits. I’ll draw something and enjoy how it looks, sometimes for a day, sometimes longer… but after that the nagging doubts creep in and I find myself cursing my laziness, my lack of talent, the poor choices I made early in the composition or with the choice of subject matter, etc. I’m the anti-Midas because I feel like everything I touch turns to shit.

I know I’m not entirely right in the head. I feel that I don’t have any perspective when it comes to judging my own successes or failures – I can’t be objective. And at this point I realize that maybe that is just how it is. I think we all like to believe that change is possible, but the longer it goes on the more unlikely it becomes. I suppose it is possible that I could conquer my self-esteem issues and become a happy, motivated, well-adjusted artist. But I’ve been struggling with them for so long that think it is unlikely that I will.


Training Session

What have we learned?

Today we were supposed to have a software training session at my workplace. I was unlucky enough to have to attend this event. The software is for inventory, finance and purchase order management. The basic package is about 10+ years old… maybe older (although the company I work for has added a lot of modifications). The guy running the training has been with the company that supports this application for years. It’s one of those ‘green screen’ applications (like so many companies and banks use as their business intelligence backbone) where you have to press a series of numbers in order to go from ‘module’ to ‘module’ within the system. Most of the people who work with it really have to do only 1 or 2 things within the system… most of them don’t have the access to do more than their jobs (and the admins probably want it that way). The presenter started his presentation with a detailed description of EVERYTHING this system can do. I would estimate that 90% of what he was proposing needed to be explained would actually never come up for the people in the room.  Eyeballs were already starting to glaze over and hands were groping for smartphones. Two of the managers saw the direction this presentation was going. They interupted and suggested that perhaps he was preparing to give us a more detailed presentation than was required. The second managerasked him to just cover the material that the people in the room will need to enter and process a purchase order.

“I can’t explain the system unless I explain the functions,” he responded, petulantly. He stuck out his lip, like a five year old trying to look tough.

“Well,” she offers, “Just stick to the functions that these assistant buyers will be using.” She names a small number of functions — entering purchase orders, adding vendors to the system, etc.

“I can’t teach people who don’t have a fundamental grasp of programming,” he says. The guy’s face is turning red. He’s getting mad. What the hell? I guess he really takes purchase orders seriously.

Even though the room is dark, I can see the manager who is doing the talking is rolling her eyes. “We don’t need them to do any programming,” she says, her voice flat. “We are just trying to get them started out with purchase orders. Can you do that? Show us how to make a purchase order?”

The motherfucker sighs, as if to indicate this request is quite outrageous. “I will try,” he says, sulking, “… but this really isn’t the right way to go about it…”

“Thank you,” she responds, cutting off any chance he has to add further comment.

Fortunately for me, there was suddenly some actual work that required my attention and I escaped the training session.

Too much cake (or watching “Pacific Rim” 2013)

pacific rimAnnie indulged me by accompanying me to see “Pacific Rim” (the film by Guillermo Del Toro) at the theater the other night. Why I wanted to see Pacific Rim was simple:  dinosaurs fighting robots. But when the film was over, I left the theater feeling overstuffed — as if I had eaten too much cake. Sometimes you get exactly what you think you want and you end up feeling kind of sick at the end.

Pacific Rim is a film by Guillermo Del Toro where giant monsters (known as ‘Kaiju’) periodically crawl up out of a fissure/portal to another world in the bottom of the pacific ocean and attack coastal cities, much like Godzilla did in 1954. In order to defend themselves, the humans construct giant robots called ‘Jaegers’ which are piloted by pairs of humans who need to establish some kind of ‘mind bond’ with one another. The humans discover that the kaiju are being sent by aliens who are intent on taking over the earth. The pace and ferocity of the kaiju attacks increase and a smaller number of robots and robot pilot teams have to fight harder than ever to stem the tide. Idras Elba (Stringer Bell from The Wire), Ron Perleman (from just about anything) and that good looking guy who plays “Jacks” on Sons of Anarchy are in this movie along with a lot of other people.

Everything in ‘Pacific Rim’ is huge and loud and colorful and complicated. Hong Kong (where much of the action takes place) looks like the city from ‘Blade Runner’ with flashing billboards, lots of umbrellas and Asian people crowding around street vendors in narrow, dangerous streets. When the kaiju battle the robots, cargo ships get used as baseball bats, they knock over buildings like drunken men in a bar fight might knock over tables and chairs and the humans just need to scramble to get out of the way and hope the robot kills the kaiju before the city is completely destroyed. It is Greco-Roman wrestling and martial arts on a grand scale — each second of battle is accompanied by noisy, anarchic, glorious destruction.

I wanted to like it; I really did. I grew up on shows like ‘Ultraman’ and ‘Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot.’ I loved the ‘Kaiju’ movies where actors in rubber dinosaur suits stomped on cars, knocked over buildings, waded through the ocean like it was a kiddy pool and swatted planes out of the sky. So why was I underwhelmed by ‘Pacific Rim’?

I suspect the biggest part of the problem is that I am no longer 9 years old. As a young sprat, I probably had an inexhaustible appetite for seeing cities get destroyed and screaming commuters running away in fear as the army, once again tasked with the impossible job of fighting Godzilla, rolls in to get squashed and stomped on until the monster gets bored and wades off into the ocean to sleep beneath the waves for another couple of years. The ‘kaiju’ movies of the fifties, sixties and seventies did not benefit from modern digital imaging; everything was done with models. You could usually see the fishing line that the toy airplanes were strung from as they buzzed around Godzilla’s head like mosquitoes.  The ‘tanks’ which fired countless artillery shells at the monsters were clearly toy models. When Godzilla grabbed a commuter train in his mouth like bulldog grabbing a string of sausages, you could see that it was a model train. They would then cut to a crowd of Japanese salary men and housewives shrieking in terror and running for their lives. Like many children, I had a fascination with things that were very large and very small. Much of my fascination with Godzilla was probably based on the fact that I knew exactly how the illusion was created, and, dammit, it looked like a lot of fun. What kid wouldn’t like a movie that looked like the adults had made it with toys, fireworks and elaborate models of tall buildings? As an adult, I can imagine that I might watch Godzilla movies with a certain amount of nostalgia, but I doubt I could muster up the same level of enthusiasm if I had been an adult when I first saw those films on TV so many years ago.

In ‘Pacific Rim,’ on the other hand, the elaborate (and often visually overwhelming) effects didn’t make me think that the film makers were playing with scale as much. If memory serves, when Ishiro Honda made ‘Godzilla’ in 1954, he frequently placed the camera at a low angle… the camera was down there with the toy tanks as they rolled up to fire at Godzilla. The camera then switched to Godzilla’s point of view where he looked down at these tiny, annoying vehicles that were shooting at him.   Godzilla, like King Kong, was sometimes seen looking through windows at the tiny humans hiding inside. The director was always reminding us of the size of the monster. In ‘Pacific Rim,’ thanks to modern technology, the camera circles the action like a fly buzzing around the room. A lot is gained (the ship that one of the robots uses as a club really looks like a ship — it doesn’t look like a 1/72 scale model ship) and stuff is always exploding, flying around, shattering or getting squashed, but something in the experience of watching a film about a very large monster that makes humans insignificantly small and weak is lost — when the kaiju and the robots of ‘Pacific Rim’  wrestle and punch each other, the crumbling buildings and squishing cars seem much more incidental, like the furniture in a room that gets knocked around while two normal sized humans are fighting. Although ‘Pacific Rim’ has better special effects, I didn’t find myself as aware of the scale of the monsters and robots, perhaps because our vantage point is not moored to the human scale that Honda attempted to covey in his much less technically sophisticated 1954 film.

The ‘story’ isn’t much. The human robot pilots have conflicts with one another. Indifferent government bureaucrats have cut robot funding in order to funnel all of the money into some government contractor’s ‘Kaiju wall’ bamboozle project (and we see a Kaiju promptly burst through the wall in Sydney, Australia — clearly walls are not going to keep the Kaiju out). Idras Elba/Stringer Bell is slowly dieing because he was the pilot of one of the earliest Jaeger robots and was exposed to too much radiation. ‘Jacks’ from “Sons of Anarchy” (I don’t remember his real or his Pacific Rim name) redeems himself and falls in love with an Asian woman who helps him pilot one of the robots to victory. There is some badly explained and not entirely clear sub-plot where a scientist geek discovers that he can ‘mind meld’ with the brains of the kaiju much like the robot pilots ‘mind meld’ with each other in order to control their giant machines. Ron Perleman steals the show as a blackmarket dealer in kaiju body parts who dresses like a 19th century pimp with golden armored shoes and has a fondness for butterfly knives. Even though these actors were entertaining, none of the human part of the movie was interesting enough to make me want to care.

Everyone and his brother/sister has probably seen this already. If you haven’t, it is worth seeing on the big screen simply because, well, it is such a goddamn spectacle that would probably lose too much if viewed on the small screen at home. Del Toro spent a gajillion dollars making this thing; if you want the full effect of all that CGI, you will probably have to go to the theater. If you go, bring a child along; they will enjoy it much more than you will and perhaps you can catch a ‘contact high’ off of that child’s enthusiasm.

Sometimes they tell the truth by accident…

I work for a company that I will refer to as ‘Levy Pants Company’ (a very clever reference on my part to Peter O’Toole’s ‘Confederacy of Dunces’).  We have a relationship with a vendor of communications services that I will call ‘Acme Communications.’  Acme’s billing is so notoriously full of errors and overcharges that ‘Levy Pants’ employs a ‘billing negotiation company’ I shall call ‘Clawback Enterprises’ to negotiate our bills for us.  As far as I understand the process, in Acme’s billing agreements, Acme specifies that it is dependent upon the customer (Levy Pants) to determine whether or not the bill is accurate… which is where ‘Clawback’ comes in.  ‘Clawback’ uses billing specialists (most are former employees of companies like Acme) to look through the bills and dispute errors unfavorable to Levy Pants.  Every over-charge that is successfully dismissed nets Clawback about a third of what Levy Pants would have otherwise overpaid.  Acme’s usual strategy to fight Clawback is to simply ignore requests for disputes and to continually send incorrect invoices in hopes that Levy Pants pays them… where they land on my desk and I immediately forward them to my associate at Clawback whom I will call ‘Laura.’

I’m just a paper handler in this transaction. Most of the charges on these bills are for items I don’t understand that are supposedly used in places that I have never visited.  It’s like some massive and uninteresting conceptual art project or corporate avant garde performance piece.

Put another way, Acme Communication’s bills are so notoriously filled with overcharges that companies like Clawback exist just to dispute them.  This is insanity worthy of Twain or Swift… but overbilling may well be a growth source of revenue for Acme ‘cause they just keep doing it. 

Periodically, I find myself in a three way conference call with representatives from Acme and Clawback. During these conference calls, I’m usually just trying to puzzle my way through the massive spreadsheets that Laura from Clawback has emailed to me about how fucked up the bills from Acme are that week and while they talk I try to figure out what the shizzle the Acme and Clawback people are arguing about.

In our last conference call, a manager from Acme (whom I will call ‘Risky Business’ because he gives the impression of having the personality and moral compass of a drunken teenager) said something so jaw droppingly honest that I had to stop and pinch myself. First, he announced that our usual account representative (whom I will call ‘Denise’) had recently and unexpectedly left Acme.  You could practically hear a pin drop in the meaningful pause that followed, and the reason for her hasty departure from Acme was not offered (my impression is that an Acme account representative serves as a human firewall between angry customers and people like Risky Business, so Denise may not have enjoyed a high level of job satisfaction while at Acme — just a guess.).  Mr. Risky Business sounded hurt and confused that Denise would leave him in the lurch like this… but most shitty bosses seem to feel hurt and confused when their browbeaten, tired, underpaid and suddenly liberated employees shout, “FUUUUUUUCK YOUUUUUUUU!” as they sprint out the door into the sunshine with the glee of a condemned man given a last minute pardon. But then came the shockingly honest part.  Risky Business told us that his higher ups wanted him (Risky Business) to take over managing the account for Levy Pants and negotiating with Clawback, but he wasn’t going to do it because, in his words, “Your account is just too screwed up, and it would really mess up my numbers for the year.” Yes. He admitted that Acme had served Levy Pants Company so poorly that he didn’t want to take responsibility for the mess that he had a role in creating. He was also confessing that the current meeting was meaningless since it was supposed to be between company representatives and he was specifying that he was NOT our company representative… which is the business equivalent of saying, “Did I mention that I have herpes?” right after you have finished fucking someone.  Laura, our billing expert from Clawback, finally broke the silence by snuffling into a Kleenex (she was nursing a cold), and asking who would be handling the Levy Pants account.
At this point, Risky Business seemed relieved that no one had screamed, “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?” at his accidental candor. Instead, Risky Business assured us that Acme would be assigning a new representative to the account as soon as possible, blah blah, blah and then went back to spouting the Acme company line that the tens of thousands of dollars in overcharges were really nothing to worry about and would soon be resolved while I listened with half an ear and thought about lunch.

Balloon Animals

I’m listening, right now, to a radio story about some guy who makes balloon animals for a living. I think most of his money comes from writing books and making instructional videos that teach other people how to make balloon animals rather than getting paid for making the balloon animals themselves.  In his heart of hearts, he really wishes he could make a go of it as a musician playing classical guitar… but, somehow, the balloon animals he started off making ‘just to get by’ while he worked on his real ‘art’ (music) became his full time job and the music is what he now what he looks forward to once he gets done selling his balloon animal videos.

While listening to the balloon animal artist complain about how his former artist and musician friends started treating him as a ‘sell out’ once his balloon animals led to his being able to afford a car, a house, a wife, a family, etc., was both comical and sad, I thought about other small ponds. It seems the smaller the pond, the more bitterly the few fish fight over being the master of it.

The bit done by David Sedaris about life as a performance artist that follows it is also well worth a listen.

On an only tangentially related issue, the reviewer Holland Carter, in writing about the death of the famous artist Mike Kelley, that Kelley was, “…one of the most influential American artists of the past quarter century and a pungent commentator on American class, popular culture and youthful rebellion.” I underlined the word ‘pungent’ because I think it’s just hilarious.

Death by Thesaurus

This Finlay I nabbed from ‘The Land of Nod’ blog kicks all kinds of asses.

I have a confession. I begin to tire of Lovecraft.  There were times, in my dissolute youth, where, after smoking too much pot, I would suddenly get too stoned to be able to stand being around people, so I would retreat to my room to read Lovecraft and I would find myself chuckling at jokes that were not there and write notes to myself that would make no sense in the morning. I hope my saying that I am less than enchanted with his work than I once was does not make you think I am a bad person… I just don’t think that Lovecraft is a very good writer — great ideas, but his prose is more funny to me than impressive.  I think the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ is brilliant and fan-fucking-tastic, but when he piles adjective upon adjective and the verb at the end of the phrase frequently he puts… well, his prose is really kind of a mess. That said, he’s a far better writer than I would ever hope to be… and he has certainly inspired a lot of good writers (like Ligotti), but, sheesh, sometimes he just goes on and on about how something is ‘soul-blasting’ or so horrific that it cannot be described, yet HPL plows on, stitching those run away phrases and dangling verbs together while trying, doggedly, to describe things that are too “horrific” to put words to. I know I’m going to be pilloried for this, but I actually think that both Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith write better ‘Lovecraft’ than HPL himself, simply because the two of them are capable of producing romantic prose in the tradition of Dunsany or Poe without such ridiculously ponderous sentences.

There are people who say that his prose is ‘terrifying’ and the ‘essence of horror.’ Maybe it failed to terrify me because I don’t believe in the elder gods — or maybe it fails to terrify me because the people in it seem so flat.  Even when I was really stoned and paranoid and ready to swear on a stack of bibles that the dude at the pizza take-out place was a narc who could tell I was stoned and was sending the cops to my apartment (in my defense, I was stoned)— even then I didn’t find Cthulhu terrifying.

None of this is to claim that I don’t find Lovecraft entertaining… I find him extraordinarily entertaining.  But he just doesn’t scare me the way Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ or Orwell’s ‘1984’ or Burgess’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ or Mcarthy’s ‘The Road’ scared me when I read them.  Maybe it was the excessively baroque language that I think old HPL couldn’t quite carry off. Maybe it was because his characters didn’t seem to have lives beyond the page. Maybe it was just that there were too many stock characters sprinkled about his prose with regular predictability like raisins in oatmeal; everyone was either a ‘disgusting specimen of a mongrel’ or a ‘great, wholesome Irishman’ or a ‘Yankee of respectable stock’ that his stories start to feel like episodes of “Law and Order” where the same character actors return again and again in different seasons to play different victims, perpetrators or witnessses and you, as a watcher, begin to think, “Wait a minute… we’ve seen this dude before! He played the reluctant witness who didn’t come forward in last week’s episode, now he’s a dirty cop who was involved in a cover up and next week he’ll be playing the arrogant assistant DA…” Their faces and mannerisms remain the same, but their names and wardrobes change making it harder for me to enter into the TV world imaginatively much like having the rubber nose fall off in mid sentence would make the spook-house witch less scary.  I suspect that HPL wasn’t interested enough in people (or, being a recluse, didn’t know enough about them) to be able to write effective characters.

One of the things that throws my Lovecraft dilemna into sharper focus is that Annie and I finally got around to watching Joss Whedon’s “The Cabin in the Woods” this weekend (Good flick! I rate it 4 1/2 out of 5 severed heads!). Annie hates horror movies because when someone leaps out of the closet with a machete, it frightens her and she screams… whereas I find horror movies funny and chuckle to myself when the inevitable blonde goes, like clockwork into the woods/basement/dark house to look for her missing (and probably already dead) boyfriend and tells him to “Quit screwing around!” when the monster is creeping up on her. Annie hates that stuff, but she likes Whedon so she was willing to sit through “Cabin in the Woods.”  We had to watch it at home, however, so she could pause the video to calm down periodically. And Whedon’s movie was full of Cthulhu references (OK, no spoilers), but the references were also funny (to me) because they were nestled cheek-and-jowl with references to just about every modern horror movie ever made.  Which, I guess, is how I like my Lovecraft. I’m not afraid of elder gods or sea creatures or the unknown or witch craft — I’m more afraid of my fellow human beings. I don’t find the fungi from Yuggoth or the fish-people of Innsmouth or Azathoth scary; I find them entertaining. To be honest, I’m more afraid of people with road rage or the hillbillies from Deliverance. So when people try to tell me how scary Lovecraft is, I just don’t get why they are so scared.


OK, so a while ago a water pipe buried in our yard burst.  It was right next to our tomato patch, so we tore out the tomato plants and harvested a lot of green tomatoes before the water company came in with their earth moving equipment and destroyed the tomatoes.
The water company fixed the pipe, but, in the process, the good soil of the tomato patch was dug up and replaced with clay and gravel. Since Annie wanted to have tomatoes there next year, she had me dig out a 10×10 foot square, 6 to 8 inches deep, out of the clay and gravel. This was a surprisingly large amount of digging (I moved 12-15 wheelbarrowloads of clay and gravel). She was going to order a truckload of topsoil and we would till in some compost and let it sit over the winter so it would be ready to go for next year.
In the mean time, the water company had left a ‘warning sign’ near where they had fixed the pipe. Annie wanted to get rid of it, so I called up the water company and told them to come back and take it away.
Annie just called me.  While she was out today, the water company came by and filled my hole up with more clay and gravel and tamped it down. Then they took off, leaving her a note saying that they had come by and ‘taken care’ of that hole in the front yard.  And they left the warning sign.

The scene of the crime (pre excavation)