On Art: Time and Tactility

I spent this Saturday afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago, an incredible institution that never fails to inspire jealousy. Not the admiring jealousy inspired by the visual artists I know personally – the ones who found their craft in the visual or tactile realm and who work like demons to improve their skills (and I am jealous of you, one and all, for both your dedication and ability to create something that can be touched) – but something deeper, that revolves around a time when art seemed to mean more.

I always forget how much I adore John Singer Sargent and Ivan Albright. Both seeing the art from a distance, as it’s intended to be seen, and getting up closer than I’m meant to, to look closely at the broad strokes of thick paint and color. When I inspect those, I remember that each stroke was a choice made, a decision on color and thickness and direction. I remember that each of those tiny decisions, strung together, created a miraculous result.

I’m not foolish enough to believe this is only in classical paintings. Digital art is the result of just as many tiny decisions, strokes of a mouse or Wacom tablet. Photography requires painstaking work around composition, light, lenses and structure. In sculpture the placement of chisel to stone is, in general, less observed than the glory of the end result. And in good writing, every sentence takes as much work and effort as every brush-stroke.

All of those, however, are backstage work. Invisible unless you hold it close to your eyes and make yourself remember that human hands were behind this creation. The thick brush-strokes of the painters whom I admire and most envy reveal both the genius which went into the entirety of the composition, as well as into each individual component.

This is, perhaps, no more than some idealized artistic myth. I’m prone to both mythmaking and idolization.

Admittedly, my sister took me to the Institute to particularly see the revamped Arms and Armor exhibit, which she knew was always my favorite as a boy and young man. What red-blooded American boy doesn’t love knights and implements of destruction? The new exhibit remains impressive, and you should go to see it, but for the reasons listed above I am more struck as a grown man by Whistler’s Mother (also here on a limited run) and Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth).

Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth), John Singer Sargent, 1897

Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth), John Singer Sargent, 1897

Maximum Velocity

Several years ago, I wrote my first science fiction story in ages. “Backup” is a dark-hearted futuristic noir tale about desperate poverty and the lengths to which men will go to reclaim what is theirs.

Backup was first published in Space Tramps, a Flying Pen Press anthology edited by the always delightful Jennifer Brozek in 2011. Unfortunately, Flying Pen Press ceased publishing fiction in 2013, and the books went out of print.

Last year I got an email from David Lee Summers, one of the leading minds behind the five Full-Throttle Space Tales anthologies. A new house was assembling a best-of anthology, and he asked if I’d like to re-publish my story! I immediately agreed, especially with the news that Jennifer would once more be editing.

(Can you tell I like working with Jennifer? Any author would.)

The upshot of this: Coming in June, you can read my short story Backup along with seventeen other short science fiction pieces:

From Space Pirates:
“On the Eve of the Last Great Ratings War” by David Boop
“Space Pirate Cookies” by C.J. Henderson
“Earth-Saturn Transit” by W.A. Hoffman

From Space Sirens:
“Outpost 6” by Julia Phillips
“Hijacking the Legacy” by David Lee Summers
“Rebel Moon” by Carol Hightshoe

From Space Grunts:
“Price of Command” by Irene Radford and Bob Brown
“Finders Keepers” by Scott Pearson
“Granny’s Grunts” by Alan L. Lickiss

From Space Horrors:
“Last Man Standing” by Danielle Ackley-McPhail
“Into the Abyss” by Dayton Ward
“Listening” by Anna Paradox

From Space Tramps:
“Backup” by Ivan Ewert
“The Frigate Lieutenant’s Woman” by Erik Scott de Bie
“Oh Give Me Land, Lots of Land, Under Starry Skies Above” by Shannon Page and Mark J. Ferrari

From Space Battles:
“The Thirteens” by Gene Mederos
“The Joystick War” by Jean Johnson
“Guard Dog” by Mike Resnick and Brad R. Torgersen

If you’re a history buff, David Lee Summers outlines the entire timeline of Full-Throttle Space Tales on his own blog entry, Maximum Velocity Cover Reveal … speaking of which …

005: Hateful Repetition

Today’s question is, “What do you do repeatedly that you hate doing?”

Heh. Only ten minutes? All right, let’s pick one and dig deep:

I hate that I internalized the idea that my own dreams and desires should never come before those of other people. My mother, whom I love very deeply and by whom I was beyond fortunate to be raised, recently told me she didn’t do my sister and I any favors by implicitly teaching us this mindset and explicitly reinforcing it.

My personal role, as I’ve seen it, has almost always been in support. To be there for what other people needed, to lend my muscles or mindpower or financial or emotional resources to the people who mattered to me. Or, in the absence of any of them, to whomever came along and needed help.

It’s a trait that has landed me in hot water with scam artists and sob stories. It’s cost me a great deal over the years in terms of deferred personal growth and pleasures or wishes denied. It’s not something I enjoy about myself, but it is rooted so deeply inside of me that standing against it causes a huge disconnect and massive discomfort.

I’ve been through therapy and life coaching. I’ve read uncountable books on self-help. I’ve tried assertiveness training. None of it takes away the very real psychic turmoil caused when I want to do one thing, and someone I love even suggests something different.

On top of the trouble it causes me, it doesn’t make me easy to live with, either. It took over ten years of marriage to understand that a yes-man doesn’t make a terribly good husband; and thank everything that is that we decided against having children.

As a friend it may be easier – you can typically rely on me to go with the flow, unless it’s something really important like avoiding a restaurant I know is terrible. Still, I suspect that even then, people would prefer I express a preference.

There have been times I’ve overcome this tendency. When I was at my very happiest in my skin, around 2010 or so, I had less trouble putting myself first and expressing my opinions. Unsurprisingly, I made a much bigger and better impression on the people I met and dealt with at that stage in my life. Over time, however, old habits overrode that other, stronger, more assertive part of my personality.

That said, I’m better than I was. I am still working on it. But while putting others first certainly sounds like a noble ideal, it’s something I hate about my character, and yet repeatedly indulge in.

Are there other, worse vices which I hate but repeat? Oh heck yes. Eating and drinking to excess, making excuses, passive aggression. As well as everyday behaviors like biting nails and mindlessly surfing the internet. I could go on all day with things I do repeatedly but hate doing, but as an exercise in digging to find the root causes, this is the one which consumes me, and which I suspect underlies many of those other vices.

Unless, of course, you’d prefer I hated something else. In which case I’ll do my best to please.

004: This Year’s Greatest Experience

“What experience from this past year do you appreciate the most?”

For the past 11 months, I have served as an Area Director for the Toastmasters organization. It has been, by turns, fulfilling and frustrating, rewarding and … really, really difficult.

In terms of appreciation, however, it’s hard to beat this experience.

Taking on this position inspired me to take on greater challenges in the office, and in other spheres of my personal life. I have said “yes!” with enthusiasm to several opportunities which I would have hesitated to accept in the past, even when I was unsure of my capacity to execute them with perfection.

I have met such a large group of warm and wonderful people, all of whom are invested in improving their skills and being of service to a larger cause. They come from all over the Chicagoland area, and when the District is split between North and South I will miss seeing several of them, but will rest well knowing that they are continuing their good work in another sphere. I consider many of these people friends, and several of them as inspirations.

I’ve learned a great deal about myself and have improved my skillset as a leader. While I could have done more – and I will always feel I could have done more – I have certainly grown in terms of dealing with challenges and setbacks, in terms of long-range planning and in dealing with sometimes difficult personalities.

I no longer fire off immediate responses to questions which can be set aside until more important matters are attended to. I have learned to keep my hands off those projects and clubs which are running well, relinquishing control and delegating authority to the proper individuals. I have also learned how to most effectively step in to offer assistance when it is needed.

At some level, too, I have learned to lose more gracefully. In this year, not all my efforts have borne fruit. Some clubs into which I put my time and energy have decided to discontinue their charters, and ideas I advanced have been turned away by others. I have yet to be able to find a replacement for my position, which is a source of some vexation.

Still, I do not take these as slights on myself or on my capabilities. Instead, they are lessons in the famed serenity prayer, choices made by others which are beyond my actual control.

For that knowledge alone, along with many other insights and opportunities, I can truly say that I have appreciated this challenge.

I can also say, however, that I will not pick these reins up again lightly. I enjoy crafting words and phrases, speaking in public and sharing my knowledge with others. The administration and oversight of others is something I can now gracefully relinquish into hands which are unknown to me, but which I am certain will be up to the task.

003: Does “Perfect” Exist?

In which we wax philosophical, apparently. I believe that there is, indeed, such a thing as perfect. However, that thing lies not in a thing as it is, but in a thing as it is perceived.

Let’s consider a perfect afternoon. I’ve eaten a delicious lunch and had a small cocktail to round things out. The sky is bright azure and there are small, white, puffy clouds skittering about the ceiling of the world. The temperature is in the mid-seventies, the grass is green, the lawn work is already done, leaving me comfortably sore and tired. I have no commitments in the evening or for the rest of the afternoon. The hammock is set up, and I am in that hammock, watching the clouds in the sky and considering this perfect day.

The day, in and of itself, is not perfect. Somewhere, a child lays screaming; somewhere, missles are being fired, somewhere, an old woman is dying alone and unloved. The day itself is certainly not perfect. The experience which I am having – my perception of this day – is perfect, as long as I don’t consider these other elements of lives outside my own.

And yes, these are the thoughts which intrude upon my most perfect days. For how dare I enjoy perfection in an imperfect world?

Let’s consider a perfect meal. A beautifully balanced pre-dinner drink, made by expert hands with a strong sense of flavor. Appetizers which prepare the taste buds and sharpen hunger, perhaps a little crunchy, perhaps a little sweet. Soup to follow which cleanses the palate and is presented with precision. An entrée of tender lamb, with a crisp crust and an interior which falls off the bone, served over garlic whipped potatoes and sweet peas. Dessert of crème brulee and a glass of Armagnac to finish.

A perfect meal, but one which would turn a vegan’s stomach, which would send an alcoholic packing, would absolutely freak out anyone more frugal than your humble narrator. A perfect meal nonetheless, in my experience and perception.

And yes, I ask as I eat; how dare I enjoy such luxuries, when I am surrounded by want and need? Who am I to partake of perfection when others go hungry?

Or a perfect relationship, one in which each partner’s needs are perfectly and exquisitely balanced to bring maximum pleasure to each one, to serve one another’s hopes, dreams, and desires and which lasts until the day they pass peacefully together into that long night. Hardly perfect in the eyes of their divorcee friends.

Perfect exists as an experiential state of mind. Is there a platonic ideal of any material thing? Perhaps elsewhere. Perhaps in the mists of another world. Here, however, as Milton says – Our minds can make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven. With our thoughts and our eyes, our choice of how to see those things around us, we can make perfection here on Earth …

Or we can question our rights to Heaven.

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