It disturbs me that I’ve never heard of Joan Didion, celebrated author and journalist who died recently, at 87, so I’m trying to catch up. The authors of every documentary and eulogy I’ve read so far, all journalists, seem to feel it’s important to include that she once interviewed a 5-year-old child on acid, maybe to deal with that unpleasantry up front, in case it’s posted in the Comments section by an outraged parent. I am uncomfortably reminded of the 1976 movie, “Network,” about a tv news show in the hands of ruthless executives who will allow any tragedy to play out in front of the cameras as long as the ratings are high.
Joan Didion submerged herself in the Haight-Asbury hippie scene at the height of 60’s free love counter-culture, in order to write “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” Submerged, but emerging intact, she tuned in, but did not turn on or drop out; she wrote about it. Her 2005 work, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” explored her “secretly crazy” inner life after the tragic deaths of her husband and her daughter. I have not read it. She also had a diagnosis of MS. She wrote about her onerous personal challenges with similar journalistic detachment.
Let me halt here, with the disclaimer that I am not her biographer, nor am I, in any way, a journalist. I simply wanted to set the GPS for a little solipsistic digression of my own.
Why had I not heard of Joan Didion? I read, I am college-educated, I sing in choirs sometimes, I don’t really hang out with people, but I enjoy following on social media both literary types and the people who make their living with their hands, feeling more kinship towards the latter than the former. I am in awe of people that build and make things, and of first responders. They are the ones who best know how to make gravity work for them.
But I do love to watch the charmed literati at work creating conflict and resolution with words, charts, and figures, circumventing gravity like weather balloons, giving readings far above the grunting and sweating populace.
Being bound by gravity as I am, I feel that I am fairly representative of a good-sized population that barely has time to skim the headlines and gulp down a cup of coffee before they are off resolving the crises of the day. Is my opinion important? Most definitely YES, because daily I make decisions that could impact me and others associated with me.
I did not hear of Joan Didion, perhaps because I am a member of that generational slice that did not quite make it into Generation X, but who were under-qualified to be Boomers. We were too young to scream at Beatles concerts, too young to go to Woodstock, and when we finally came of age to protest, suddenly the music changed overnight and the dress code switched from torn jeans and beads to preppie skirts and jackets during the day, and boogie oogie bling at night. I briefly sung in a disco band in a little sparkly black dress, but often could not remember if I had sung the chorus yet or not. Later, I dabbled in performance art, and though it was deeply meaningful for me personally, it was no longer in vogue.
I’ve never been ahead of the trend; I’ve always been 5 or 10 years behind. I love the classic old movies, because their value is immutable. I’ve never quite learned how to dress for success. I’ve only recently become fully outraged over the Vietnam War, and the Civil War, and the West, having seen Ken Burns’ documentaries on Netflix over the last couple years of the pandemic.
I, like many, are not ignorant by choice, but because our daily concerns weigh us down, suffering from gravity as we do. It is an act of courage to just make it through the day, for a lot of us. I am grateful for any time I have left, to reflect, to continue to learn, to question, to do my art and take care of the people and animals that depend on me.
While my peers in the 60’s were screaming over the Beatles and the Monkees, I quietly nursed a painful crush on actor Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan played Beethoven in a Disney tv show. (I also had a crush on Beethoven, perhaps because my father frequently played the Moonlight Sonata on the piano as a lullaby for us.)
Years later, I felt that same vestibular sensation watching old reruns of McGoohan in his existential tv series, “The Prisoner.” According to Wikipedia, “The Prisoner” addressed issues of individualism vs collectivism.
That spooky feeling arose again just recently while binge-watching Netflix’ provocative Korean “Squid Game.” While the protagonist keeps asking, “Who is behind all this?”, I’m asking, “What is the key to understanding this series?” Not being an intellectual with hefty philosophical terms readily at my disposal, I had to go away and think about it for awhile.
In “Squid Game,” people who are at the end of their rope, who have burned all their bridges and have nowhere else to turn, are presented with the opportunity to win an unfathomably huge sum of money, however it is not made clear to them at first how horrifyingly high the stakes will be. Like “The Prisoner,” they are gassed and brought to an unknown island where this life-and-death drama unfolds.
The games the players sign a release to play are games they might have played as children, as children play, no holds barred. “When you lose, you die,” literally. They are games of permanent elimination. However, wryly, at any time they can choose the “democratic” option to vote whether or not they want to leave the game and return to their real lives, where disaster surely awaits. Majority wins. It’s only fair.
Human relationships are put under the blowtorch. Who will be on your team? Who will be your best friend? And when the blood-soaked chips are down, will your old, ingrained instinct for self-preservation supersede your new-found love for fellow man? And who is dispassionately watching and enabling these wretched, horrible games? Is it the super-wealthy, corrupt, disinterested, “VIPs”, given a lavishly furnished suite from which to anonymously view and bet on the proceedings, cocktail and gigolo in hand? Or, is it even us, the Netflix viewers, hiding behind the safety of our tv screens?
“Squid Game,” released in 2021 was written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, and stars Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, O Yeong-su, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon, Heo Sung-tae, Anupam Tripathi, and Kim Joo-ryoung.
There are only 9 episodes – I binged them all almost in one sitting – 5 in one night and the rest the next morning. Now maybe I need to learn Korean to hear what the actors are REALLY saying.
Just lately, I’ve ventured into making tutorials and demos. So far, I’ve made 5 of them. My personal favorite is “Create a Fairy” – a conventional tutorial devolves into a heated confrontation between creator (me) and creation (fairy). The first two videos demonstrate what you can do with digital painting in Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Character Animator CC. The last 3 are strictly digital painting – all screen recordings of digital painting are sped up to hyper-warp speed.
I’m still working on some long-term animation projects, but these short projects were a welcome, temporary diversion, and I do hope some people might find them useful. I know I learned a lot from the process, for sure.
These 3 videos are strictly digital painting. Each one took around 4 hours to create in real time, but I greatly sped them up so that each is compressed to 4 or 5 minutes.
This story has been told so many times in my family that we all are numb to its horrors. There are many things of which I always had to be reminded, because I had no memory of it, such as me being pulled out of the pond by my hair because I was so heavy, in my waterlogged snowsuit and boots, that I could not be picked up, and that later, after resuscitation, my teeth were chattering so hard that I had bitten my tongue all up.
I don’t remember hearing my little brother’s screams as he stood on the slippery snow-covered edge of the slushy pond. He told me later that he was afraid that he would fall in, too. He was still clutching his icicle. My icicle had slipped out of my hands into the pond after I had stuck it in the deceptively smooth, white surface, hoping to discover that the pond had frozen over and that we could play on it like we had slipped and slid hilariously around on it last winter.
But for the record, for those of you that have never heard this story, I’m putting it here, hoping in the retelling that I might find some art in it. “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off,” as Joseph Conrad once said.
Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, later “Joseph Conrad” was a Polish sea captain who did not learn English until he was in his twenties, and did not start writing until he was 35. He wrote prose like J.M.W. Turner painted seascapes. He wrote unparalleled descriptions of sea meeting sky, the solidarity of human experience, and of the darkness that can overwhelm the individual soul. He wrote “Heart of Darkness,” which was later made into the acclaimed Coppola 1979 Vietnam war film, “Apocalypse Now.”
The darkness I remember, but I do not remember feeling horror or cold as my waterlogged clothes pulled me under. I do remember watching in wonder as exotic tropical fish swam inquisitively around me, a vision conjured up by my brain as my oxygen ran out.
My icicle was beautiful and sparkly and longer than my brother’s icicle. The 2 longest icicles had been broken off the roof of my grandparents’ house and given to us by an adolescent neighbor boy that did odd jobs for my grandparents. I had held it up to the brilliant sky and admired the refractions and the sunlight trapped in it. It was a thing of power and beauty. I gave it a lick with my tongue. “Let’s check on the pond,” I said to my brother. The pond was down the hill, on the other side of the house.
I also remember reciting an “oral report” that I had carefully composed about this experience several years later in elementary school (4th or 5th grade?). Our class was graded on the sophistication of the vocabulary words we used in these weekly reports. I used dramatic phrases like “as I slid down into the murky depths…,” as I bounced up and down nervously on the balls of my feet while synchronously bouncing the fingertips of both hands off each other. I’m sure my performance was hypnotic, but not for the right reasons.
My brother and I had been sent down to my grandparents’ house from my parents’ house to fetch a can of beans. We all lived out in the country on an old estate, with no visible neighbors. Our mission was immediately forgotten upon the gift of the icicles. Thus armed, we turned towards the pond. Was it frozen over yet?
So I lay down in the snow on the edge of the pond, and stuck my icicle in the water. The slush curled back from the thrust, revealing for a moment the cold, brackish, dark water underneath. I smelled the cold, black water, my icicle slipped out of my glove, I made a grab for my beautiful icicle, then I slipped into the pond after it.
I came up for air once, trying in a level-headed way to swim towards my red-faced brother, whose screams I could not hear, then was pulled under and saw the fish. I was told later that my grandparents, drawn my brother’s hysterical sirens, came running out of the house in their bathrobes and fished me out, then my grandfather resuscitated me. I remember opening my eyes under a heap of quilts, seeing a blurry circle of worried faces around me. I was told to drink a glass of revolting, brandy-laced warm milk, or “the doctor will pump your stomach out.” My brother, 3 years old, was left outside, alone in the snow, just outside the door, while this was going on.
Decades later, the sensations remaining in my alligator brain from this experience are the shock and dismay of first sliding into that dank, unreflective water, then the jolt of regaining consciousness later. And the loss of my beautiful icicle.
It was an innocuous, very small, stagnant pond in which this drama occurred. No one has ever remarked on its beauty, for it has none, and it does not care. It quietly gurgles on to this day. Without memory or feeling or even art to it. Just frogs.
I’ve recently discovered online jigsaw puzzles. They are a great way to relax, so I made one of my kitty, Eadweard. You can play it, too. You can also make your OWN puzzle with your own photo, which you might find even more enjoyable. It’s ridiculously easy to do on that website, so no excuses.
Go here to play my puzzle, and let me know what you think.
One of my favorite bosses once accused me of being a little “zany,” and at times I suppose I am, however one of the things on my serious side is choral music. I have loved singing with choirs since I was a kid. The feelings that are generated while standing shoulder to shoulder with singers on either side run very deep.
When I was a kid, my brother and I would make a big deal about making a hike up the ridge to visit the “springhouse” deep in the greenly moving, tall woods. I suppose this was our well, but not too clear on this. We’d pack a snack of raisins and candy or something to sustain us on our journey (it really wasn’t THAT far away). It was a small, decaying clapboard structure with a door held shut by a simple hook and eye.
When one lifted the hook and swung open the creaky door and peered inside (after the daddy long-legs scrambled over each other to get out of the way, clumsily and annoyed) over the ripply surface of the dark, bottomless water would puff a mysterious, woodsy, minty smell, cool air would caress your face, and you could hear a faint gurgling. We’d stare in, silently and reverently, for a couple minutes, then close the door, and, spiritually refreshed, make our way back down the ridge.
This springhouse experience is how I would describe my feeling of singing in choir. That gentle stirring of cool, dark, fresh, sweet water deep inside.
I also enjoy creating my own multi-harmonied improvisations which you can listen to here.
So I’m beginning an archive here to which I will add, from time to time, as they occur to me, some recordings of choral music that I love. Enjoy!
This is an email I composed immediately after the 2005 Hurricane Rita evacuation. I was exhausted. The evacuation was horrendously mismanaged. Some lost their lives on their arduous routes out of the city of Houston if they didn’t leave far enough in advance.Since Rita, which was not a direct hit, there’s been other hurricanes, most notably Ike (2008) and Harvey (2017), that have grievously impacted my former community.
Saturday, September 24, 2005
This is a “pre-positioned” email. In other words, I’m writing this before I am able to send it, as the house that is sheltering me is not wired for the internet. This is much like the relief forces that were “pre-positioned” (in the words of Houston Mayor Bill White and Texas Governor Rick Perry) to alleviate suffering post-Hurricane Rita. But for some reason, no politician in charge had the foresight to “pre-position” relief agencies along the evacuation routes taken by the 2.8 million that were asked to leave Galveston and Houston, and, like us, were forced to either drive continuously for 24 to 34 hours to reach safe destinations, or forced by the hundreds to stop at the side of the road in the 104 degree heat, out of gas or broken down, many seen with babies on their hips and small children and animals.
On the road to Palestine
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
We leave at 5 p.m. from Galveston to travel I-45 to my husband’s Aunt Ruth’s house in Palestine, TX. The sun sets. At 3 a.m. we had only gotten as far as FM 1960, a little north of downtown Houston. The bright streetlights bathe the congested freeway and service road with surreal yellow light, illuminating all manner of vehicles bumper to bumper as far as the eye can see, all inching their way out of town, all carrying their most valued possessions.
Earlier, we had passed a huge trailer transporting Arabian horses, and a pickup carrying birds in birdcages. We rarely go faster than 5 mph. My husband is driving our Toyota Tacoma truck with our computers and financial records and extra containers of gas, and I am driving our Camry with our 12-year-old son and two corgis. We are separated before we reach Beltway 8. He stops to call me from a Mobil station, as I am the only one with a cell phone.
It’s a bumpy ride, and we are still driving
Thursday, September 22, 2005
The sun rises again. We are still driving. A sharp pain cruises down my right leg. I haven’t taken my shoes off since I left home. We listen on the radio as, incredibly, Mayor Bill White is still urging people to leave town. But the contra-lane is not opened up till 3 p.m. By then, it’s too late for many people. The freeways and service roads are fatally choked with traffic.
It was surrealistic to witness such a scene, even more so to be a part of it. After 20 hours of driving and knowing the hurricane was gaining on us (the hurricane is moving 14 miles an hour; we are hardly moving at all), everyone starts falling asleep and bumping into each other. Someone in the middle lane bumps into the car in front. The front car doesn’t even acknowledge it. Later I bump into my husband’s truck in front of me. An hour later outside of Huntsville, someone bumps into me. We pull over to the side, there is no significant damage to my bumper – “I fell asleep…”, the other driver says – we shake hands and move on.
Two minutes later, my husband falls asleep and his radiator rams into the trailer-hitch of the pickup truck in front of him. The people of the rear-ended truck (who turn out to be Christian missionaries) load our stuff into their truck, our computers into the back of my car, and my son and our two corgis into their van, and, leaving our totaled little truck on the side of the road, our now 3-vehicle caravan continues onward to Palestine, TX.
We call Aunt Ruth and tell her we are almost there. We’ve been calling her every 4 hours or so and telling her this. We really believe that this has to break up soon.
We lose track of our child and dogs for 6 hours
The sun sets again. It becomes very hard to see. People are pulling off to the side of the road in droves to get some sleep. My car and the missionaries’ truck ahead of me become separated from the missionaries’ van containing my son and dogs (they were leading) and our cell phone service has shut down. The driver of the truck with my husband as a passenger pulls over; I pull over. The driver walks back to my car. I roll my window down. He asks, “Did you see the van? We’ve lost sight of the van!” So we head off towards Palestine again, hoping that we all know we are supposed to meet up there.
During the next six anxious hours on the dark road, my bloodshot eyes are riveted on the tail lights of the truck driven by a stranger with my husband as passenger, and worrying about the lost van with the other strangers carrying my son and dogs. I don’t even know their last names!
The adrenalin this fear produces keeps me awake until our cell phones connect in Palestine and we are finally reunited at Applebee’s and proceed on to Aunt Ruth’s house. We call her. She is awake.
We’re almost there, Aunt Ruth!
Friday, September 23, 2005
Aunt Ruth has been waiting for us for two days, for the duration of a trip that normally would take about four or five hours. We had left at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, an hour before mandatory evacuation of Galveston Island was announced, already exhausted after spending all day strenuously boarding up our home and packing our valuables and hauling them out to the vehicles and upstairs. We arrive at Aunt Ruth’s at 12 midnight on Friday.
We thanked the strangers, who are now our friends, who gave us the lift, and they told us they would drive on to Tyler, TX, [which was hit by the storm on Saturday, the 24th]. We don’t know how to contact them (they have my business card), hopefully they will call us and let us know how they are doing. Palestine only had rain and some wind.
By the way, Aunt Ruth was quick to correct our pronunciation of “Palestine”. She said, ” ‘Pal-eh-STEEN’ is in Texas. ‘Pal-eh-STAHN’ is in the Middle East!”
Saturday, September 24, 2005
We took two naps Friday, and two naps today. I’ve drank gallons of fluid to rehydrate. Yesterday night Aunt Ruth took us to eat at Applebee’s and we feasted on steaks, shrimp, potatoes and vegetables, the first sit-down meal we’ve had in three days.
From the parking lot, we could see the calm, lenticular clouds of the hurricane, quietly stacked like a pile of pancakes, belying its ferocity as it raged through Southeast Texas.
On our trip, we had only stopped briefly for two bathroom breaks. We were fortunate to find a convenience store that had remained open, so we stopped there on the way up, and on the way back. Many other stores were boarded up. We stopped at a Kroger, and the manager stood behind the locked glass door and shook his head as I pleaded entry. For two days, we had eaten only cereal and rolls my husband had made a few days before. I had been afraid to drink much because I knew there would be few, if any, bathrooms along the way. People relieved themselves in parking lots. I had carefully nursed a 2-liter Sprite for 31 hours. We kept thinking, just a little further, and we would arrive. We never dreamed that we would just be driving…and driving…and driving.
Yesterday morning, we microwaved pizza my husband had packed in the cooler, then slept most of the rest of the day.
I have been unable to reach most of my friends by cell phone – I’m hoping I can find a hotspot somewhere in Palestine tomorrow so I can send this email!
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
One week later, we make it back home in 4 hours
I am sitting in the coolness of my home in Galveston. Our power is on, our water is drinkable. We have not had any damage, other than a chink in the fence and plant matter strewn everywhere. We left Palestine at 10 a.m. today and arrived in Galveston at 2:30 p.m. – a normal drive time. There were no hotspots in Palestine to use my laptop; there were laptops very considerately set up in Palestine Public Library for refugees’ use, so we were able to at least check our email and send short replies.
Our windows are still boarded up, and black plastic trash bags containing our most precious belongings clog up the house. A Bird-of-Paradise plant that my husband has had for years greeted us with it’s very first bloom! We are glad to be home. The corgis are glad to be home too. Our son is back on my husband’s computer playing computer games. He returns to school tomorrow, and soccer practice tomorrow night.
We are glad to have a home to return to, but we are unhappy with the lack of evacuation preparedness exhibited by authorities. We are also unhappy that we were charged $500 for a routine tow and storage of my husband’s truck during the hurricane, but very grateful to the others who stepped forward to help. Our hearts go out to those who now have no home, or who became ill during that long drive, or who lost family members during this extended brutal summer.
We are also glad and grateful to have family, friends and associates like you all to return to. So many have lost their entire communities. Our relationships make our work and recreation meaningful. We are glad you are there.