March 13, 2011

spending the night in powells

well! achewood still hasn’t updated, and neither have i. hello again.
yesterday i hopped onto the 4 wearing the gropius bow tie and tennant jacket, all packed up for an afternoon of working at powells on w burnside. i found a spot in the cafe, right in the middle of the cluster. i don’t know if it was being tired, or wearing the bow tie out into town for the first time, but it was difficult to concentrate and i managed only a few pages of sketches before i got self-conscious enough to pack it up and flee to the more sheltered parts of the store. i headed up to the pearl room and plopped down in front of the biographies.
i put the sketchbook on the shelf by my knees and started reading from simon callow’s welles biography the road to xanadu. i flipped to the part on war of the worlds and admired a couple hirschfeld drawings of the fat man, still feeling pretty uncomfortable in my own skin (it is one thing to be a dapper superhero at work but another to be alone in the world feeling that you may just look ridiculous). after twenty minutes i put the book away, did a bit more poking about, and left to go to work. it was a long night; the bow tie was well received as always (bow ties are reliable for this); by the end i was near the point of collapse. i got a ride home from one of the chefs and when i opened my bag i saw that my sketchbook was nowhere to be found. it had been a new sketchbook, so i wasn’t too bothered – three pages of doodles is not a great loss – and i made a note to call the store in the morning to check for it, and buy a new sketchbook if it was gone. then i went to bed.
when you’re exhausted, every dream feels like a fever dream: i went through scenarios of calling the store and getting nothing, and when i awoke i faced the prospect with a decent sense of dread, having been through it subconsciously a few times already. i put on a pot of tea and cursed daylight savings for robbing me of an hour and then dialed the number. eventually the call was routed to the manager; i explained around what time i’d been in, what section he should search, and gave him my information. an hour later i was on the 4 again to go see an old friend for coffee; while the bus bounced and hummed along the phone rang and the manager told me that he hadn’t seen it in their lost and found or in the section on welles. i thought, goodbye little sketchbook, i hardly knew ye…
i switched busses at the hawthorne bridge and headed for the art supply store. they were closed, so i went to meet my friend instead. after we went our separate ways i marched in, threw down a tenner, and departed with a replacement sketchbook under my arm. there was one more thing to do.
i hopped on another bus and soon the tall grey business world of downtown portland rose up before me, and i walked to the city of books. this time there was no pretense of stopping for coffee or playing on the internet; this time i was on a mission. treasure hunting in a bookstore is fun, because while there are a multitude of books around, you are only looking for one of them, with no guarantee it is there at all. i marched up to the pearl room and for a few minutes was unable even to find the right aisle – where was orson? – my eyes scanning everywhere for that particular shade of black amongst so many others.
and then i found the section, and there it was. right where i’d left it. pushed up nicely into the folds of the shelf, probably by a patron. thoughts of some tired and annoyed employees patrolling every damn corridor of that massive store looking for out-of-place books seemed so foolish to me now. i picked it up and looked at the few pages of sketches, like helpless pets who’d spent the night out in the cold. i may have patted it, i don’t remember exactly. then i tucked it firmly under an arm and marched out of the store, like a specter come to claim their last earthly possession before departing forever.

February 20, 2011

aaaand we’re back

cup of coffee, blueberry/blackberry scone, jazz samba. it’s a fine day for starting again.
the hardest thing these days is turning off the urge to multitask. my brain running three or four processes at once has long been my m.o.; now i just want to practice being where i am.
i had given up and moved on. this blog was a rock in my mind that i was content to walk away from in favor of other projects, other mediums; sitting down at a computer and free-associating got old quick. i could never stop the urge to write entries based on preconceived titles, to fake some cheap and tired wisdom. that was what i expected of myself and the habit i’d built over time.
the tradeoff is scary: giving up what you know you can do for things you know you might be able to do, but not without a good deal of embarrassment and clumsiness and generally poor execution; the early steps of anything new. between that and the sheer ease with which i get distracted, the prospect of ‘making it’ as i’ve come to hold in my mind has looked grim. in my daily writing i’ve learned the value of pushing through hard spots and seen the satisfaction that comes from working through a cold start in spite of not wanting to. but multitasking, itself a minion of the Lord Trying Always To Be Elsewhere and Do More Than I Can In A Day, remains. my recent preoccupation – or sideways flight – into a game approach has yielded one definitive truth thus far: life does not resemble a game so much as an office job, where most of the time is unremarkable and repetitive. setting out first thing in the morning with goals like have an epic day are fun in theory but largely impossible to execute, and are rather exhausting to attempt anyway. working within smaller, mundane confines is our lot.
today was like any other day.
and then i checked achewood.
for the last several years chris onstad’s work on achewood has served as an example of what is possible in comics, both in terms of quality of writing and the endless possibilities of what can be said and done. over the course of nine years he produced an incredible variety of stories, in a manner that could perpetuate itself forever. the world of achewood was not limited by sequence or consistency or continuity, or any other marks of a small perspective. it simply went anywhere and everywhere, one small and absurd and wonderful step at a time.
last year, achewood began to slow and slow until it came to a full stop early this year. it seemed that onstad had broken down under the mental pressure of his legacy, that he had lost faith in his powers. in the dry month of january checking for new strips became more and more a futile act of self-deception. it was over. what hurt was not that it had ended, but that it had ended with its author in defeat. storylines lay open and unfinished, and there was not even a farewell-and-thank-you to signify that the end had come. just silence. it shouldn’t have ended like this, not after all this time.
i felt despondent; if the price of making something like achewood was the mental collapse of a man, what hope was there for the rest of us?
i was on the verge of composing a eulogy for the strip as one might do for a friend who died too soon; the energy of all the life they had still to live screaming out like a siren of all things wrong in the world. forever a bitter taste.
and then, today.
achewood has returned.
only time will tell if it regains its former speed and strength, but this much is certain: i could have asked for no better sign this morning that today, always today, is a fine day to start fresh, and make what was so wrong right again.

February 4, 2011

let’s play a game

jane mcgonigal writes that the four defining traits of a game are:

a goal
a feedback system
voluntary participation

the premise of her book reality is broken is that games provide us with something we’re missing from our everyday lives, but that if approached correctly (this is the game designer angle) we can implement the lessons of games to whatever end we like. i am on board so far. (note: i have a bad habit of taking something and spreading it around too generally; it’s the same tendency that lets us fixate on some floating, context-free aphorism and apply it to every part of our lives. is there a word for taking a good idea and trying to make it apply to more things than it actually does?)
she opens with this beautiful definition: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. it is easy to see how this can be useful. early in her book mcgonigal hit me with the first real perspective-shift that games teach us: we don’t want to succeed so much as we want to work our asses off in the service of something we choose, not that was chosen for us. games mean designating obstacles that have little to do with necessity (a big reason no one has fun going to their jobs). and we don’t even want to win or arrive or master or whatever; we just want a challenge that is doable.
think about it: when you beat the game, the game is over. tetris is a nice example of an enduring game because, strictly speaking, it can’t be beaten. you can only do as well as you can before you are inevitably overrun and die (this, again, is a metaphor i like a little too much). but i digress.
i have yet to get to the part of the book where she speaks to the hows of applying game-logic and design to real-world issues, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to begin getting there on your own. so, taking the above four as a framework, i’m trying to create a game construct to feed into accomplishing the things that make me feel, er, accomplished, writing and drawing and such. first, a goal: to make x amount of output on any given day. next, the rules. here is where it can get fun, and while normally i scoff at the idea of formal rules, it’s different when you impose simple, strict limitations on yourself. the more you know yourself, the better game you can devise. the wisdom goes that you want to make it hard based on your current abilities, so you are neither bored nor so frustrated that you quit (think of how many times you have resisted the idea of doing something not because you thought you couldn’t do it, but because you knew that you could it without effort, and how dull is that?), and as you – yes i will say this – level up, the goals become harder. hooray.
a feedback system is trickier in the real world to establish, especially alone; just like playing games alone is less fun than playing with others. so you enlist other people to hold you to task, or compete, or whatever. and voluntary participation: you are here because you choose to be. because it’s fun.
it this goes well i may extend the game construct to other things in life; right now i’m just excited to see how it changes my approach to making things. updates to come.

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February 4, 2011

and it keeps coming til the day it stops

it’s almost 3 in the morning and my brain won’t stop spinning. over the last four days ideas and lines and titles have flashed through my mind and seconds later the process is bollocksed because the moment you start to think this is what i’m going to do then it’s tainted and you don’t do it. you see a flash of something you could capture, and nine times out of ten the infant thought comes packaged with a good reason you should let it die. i cannot tell you how many time between then and now i felt like writing, much as i am now, and it could have come out any number of ways. only difference is i did it this time, but minutes ago i was clenching my eyes, thinking just sleep, just sleep, just sleep.
when i had the freakout it spoke mostly to paring down, to starting again, call it what you like. to regenerate. the language of doctor who has seeped into my being to the point that i have written outlines of what i don’t like about my current incarnation, who i want to be in future versions, and so on. that show. they make it look so simple, to go up in a ball of light and fire and there you are. the same, but not. you’re still you, yeah, any of your mates would say so; but oh, to have it be that easy. a quick regeneration and you’re free to discover yourself all over again, none of the work and the daily pour through the habits you’ve spent a lifetime building because you didn’t know better, or because it was the best you could do at the time. a crash is necessary, but it’s not enough. you still walk away yourself.

January 28, 2011

take your plane and steer it into the ground

it’s like january has been the process of learning how to do january. i have a calendar on my wall full of x’s for the days i’ve written, and a book of scribbles that show where those days went. before january i was all set to roll into the year like a straight shot, overconfident like i sometimes am and even then lying to myself only a little bit when i notched out each days’ work as part of a larger build towards Something. the last week has been the low part of a cycle i have gone through god knows how many times, when things don’t work. it’s not even that they don’t work so much as you just lose focus and soon your hands are in too many projects and that bilbo baggins image of thinly-spread butter is coming into your head at least once a day. check yo self.
bad days, really bad days, are always better than those low level, in between days where you’re still humming along in a broken routine, but it hasn’t gotten bad enough that you stop for maintenance. part of growing older is you learn to see the patterns more quickly and when you feel yourself in a loop you take that fucker and drive it straight into the ground, because a crash is a beautiful thing sometimes and then you’ve got to do something other than just keep going. one of the strange things about being yourself is just being so bored and so tired of your own mind that blowing shit up, in some juvenile metaphorical sense, sounds like the best idea ever. when you have the attention span of a wikipedia jumper and read only the first fifteen pages from each of the ten books you’re juggling, it’s time to crash land.
what does that mean. for one thing i am aware of my own need to clean up my writings to a certain external standard, and i may stop doing that. it rarely feels natural to mouth off at such length as this; i’d use twitter more if it didn’t feel like yelling at actors on a screen. but the way thoughts come out, and the way the good, unavoidable certainties come out, is like this: in colorful disarray. in poetry, if i may use a word i used to frown at. so whatever. that was january.

January 27, 2011

a special kind of crazy

i am anxious about time.

some mornings i rise at 8:30 and some a little before 11; whatever the time, i sit down to write for an hour, using a sand timer, an lp, and lots and lots of tea. and in the middle of it i am usually shaking with mild panic about where it’s all heading, and by the end i feel that satisfaction that can only be won through having done it long enough, from warming up and getting through a rough patch. and then it’s over.
this morning ritual is constant; without it i’d probably go mad in no time. but transitioning from the morning to the rest of the day is where things go wrong: it doesn’t matter when i begin; when the hour is up, i immediately want to reclaim it. something about being properly productive makes you feel, somewhere in your head, that you should get the time back because you used it so well. perhaps it is akin to that somewhat perverse thought you have after someone you love has died; you’ve bonded with your friends, learned the importance of honesty and¬†companionship, and you have a moment where you think, i’ve learned the lesson. can i have them back now?
any pocket of time, well used or wasted, makes me fixate on the clock. no amount of rational awareness of the ‘illusion’ of time can stop me from this anxiety. a clock is ticking somewhere, and it is the sound of terror.
after a bit of analysis, i realize that this can never be overcome directly; no amount of productivity will ever be Enough to quell the fear that comes when the day wanes. it’s just there. life is moving toward its end – slow as it may feel – but all the same, it’s there (as this fact is universal, i feel like it shouldn’t bother me as much as it does. surely other people have found some way to live with it). it is vague and unhelpful to focus on ‘just doing what you want to do’ (try staying up til all hours some night because it ‘felt like the thing to do’ and tell me how great you feel the next day), and going clock-free doesn’t stop the clocks in your mind.
what does it take? how can we be satisfied?
no answers. the best i can do is to work day in, day out and make little tweaks based on each day’s experience. working on things does not give you answers, but it does teach you tricks. learning your own special brand of crazy so you can better trick yourself into circumventing it is worth a lot.

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January 14, 2011

where do we go from here?

i haven’t been writing blogs lately because i haven’t had much to say, and that is the truth. i have been writing daily but most of it has been the same old business and i don’t need to post any more of that online, giving voice to my fears and tired mantras. i’ve been writing, and working, and trying to get things sorted out as much as i realistically can.
i’ve pushed through enough different approaches and lived enough cycles of self-deceiving ‘planning stages’ to know that the best way to learn/grow/etc is to just start working and learn by error and feel, but even that basic nugget carries its own bag of sabotaging tricks. my history is against me; i was always good at slipping into borrowed voices and making a passable effort, coming up with something that would be good enough. i don’t suffer from lack of ideas. when i try to put it to myself as plainly as i can, it comes down to having infinite options and paths before me, and not knowing which one is truest to take. and that is a hard question, one i know can’t be answered any way but through trial and error.
so today was spent writing down ideas and working out panels for new comics, but the truth is most of the time was spent trying to ignore that part of my brain that screamed at me that it was all shit, was hopeless, and that i’d never make it. based on experience, those voices get the loudest when they’re feeling threatened. so i take it as a good sign. i also know they will never ever go away.
it feels very shallow and solipsistic to get worked up about such things, when there are people facing far more difficult and legitimate problems everywhere; the question of what i should make and how to make art that is mine feels really indulgent and pretentious. it is a luxury to even have the sort of calm that allows such considerations to exist. but that’s my life, that’s where i am right now. i started today, and it is the hardest thing not to look at what little i’ve done and discount it, setting myself back to square one, again and again and again.

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January 6, 2011

dreams they complicate my life

today i woke up from a nightmare with the following line in my head: nowadays most people look forward to the zombie apocalypse. i wrote it down a few times in a few different ways, and then went to record the rest of the dream details in my pac-man moleskine before they evaporated. outside it was grey.
these days thoughts on the zombie apocalypse seem to veer between charged enthusiasm and boredom. it is a tired idea; every film has been made, every possible concept and twist explored. the only recent ones to offer any fresh perspective have been zombieland, shaun of the dead, and 28 days later – the first two thankfully finding a little humor in the horror of it all (i feel more and more certain that the difference between the two is a matter of degrees). 28 days later, to its immense credit, at least showed how everyday people are impacted by such events. but i digress.
culturally, the idea of a zombie apocalypse has been embraced in a weird mad max sort of way; people stock up on goggles, websites selling zombie-killing merchandise exist (google zombie tools if you don’t believe me – these are real weapons that you can buy for a lot of money), and it’s all become very romantic and video-gamey. fine. whatever. from a storytelling perspective, monsters are a fantastic symbolic device: zombies representing our cultural decay, our estrangement from one another; vampires standing in for our lust and darker natures, etc. it can be argued that every monster in buffy was a teenage angst made manifest. i enjoy a good monster story as much as anyone for the way they hit us on a visceral level, the subtext buried nicely under a rush of adrenaline.
but there is something missing from this picture.
as my dream faded, i was left with this feeling in my gut: people assume that zombies are just zombies, as if they were always that, plucked out of thin air like the creatures who wander onscreen in the beginning of a video game. this is the dominant perception despite the knowledge that in all zombie lore, this is not so: zombies come from somewhere (though where the First Zombie came from is another matter, and more of a bizarrely metaphysical discussion than i care to get into). before all hell broke loose, every zombie was someone’s brother or sister or lover or best mate, and there was probably a lot of chaos and confusion before the dust had settled. someone has to have their life ripped apart before the funland can exist. the world may have gone to hell, but someone’s little life went there first.

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December 28, 2010

kid alpha

before sitting down to write each morning, i click on the electric kettle and look through my shelf of LPs for a soundtrack to that days’ work. i largely go on instinct; the weather has a lot to do with it as well. i don’t like to overanalyse the particulars.
today my hand fell upon radiohead’s kid a. i put it on.
listening to an album i’ve listened to so many times got me thinking about the first time i ever heard it. it was back in 2000 or 2001, when i was attending the evergreen state college. it was being played in a small room; not a dorm room, but some kind of commons-room, or the room where you went to check out av equipment. there were three other people in the room, and as i stood there i became aware of what was on the stereo. i knew that kid a had come out but i hadn’t bought it yet; when i registered what i was hearing part of me wanted to flee to avoid spoiling it until i could really have it to myself.
sitting here nine years later, with the same sounds flowing through my sennheisers, i thought about how the recording had not changed one bit. only i had changed. i am helpless to even attempt to try and retrace the steps of my relationship with that record. i went from practically worshipful to yeah, i love that record!, with less and less feeling each time i uttered it. i remember another moment in my school days – it had to be six months or so from that first exposure – that i performed ‘how to disappear completely’ at an open mic. i haven’t thought about that night in almost a decade.
while i listened and wrote, an idea for a story popped into my head: what if there were a device that let you listen to your now-favorite albums again for the first time? i know i would be sorely tempted to use such a device if it existed. but there’s a price to pay: maybe it has to perform some kind of partial mindwipe to accomplish it; what would be affected by such an action? how many neurons have been touched and shaped by an album that you’ve lived with for a decade? who would you be if all that got taken away?
would it be worth it?

December 26, 2010

no future

the heartbeat of the time lord goes rat-a-tat-tat, four by four: the drumming, the endless drumming. so too have i noticed fours creeping into my timeline. four days between each itch telling me that it’s time to up and put something on the internet again. four days between tinnitus episodes. four days in september. three has cornered the market for too long.
the idea has been kicking around my head for a little bit that if you meet me once, you might never meet that version of me again. imagine: two people meet and fall in love in one breathless weekend abroad, and when one finally comes to visit it is awkward and the whole thing seems a terrible mistake. meeting people once is dubious. first impressions are such strange psychological imprints: they can be overwritten, but why do they exist in the first place? come on science, gimme something.
so too are things never settled until you ship them to the publishers, or hit send, or whatever. consider: you don’t think what you’re doing in this moment is important, or at least, there isn’t a lot of weight on it. quite right. tangent over to consider how much you look down upon yourself in the past; the things you said to that girl, the small decision you made that no one else saw. only you knew what it meant. i often feel a strange disconnect with my past selves, but at the time it was hopefully the best i could muster. it is worth keeping in mind that in the future this moment is also history (if future me is reading this, hello).
it feels uncharitable to take such a critical view. much of my life has been spent giving undue concern to future-present times, attempts to act accordingly to arrive at predetermined goals. consider the analogy of the man at the end of his life. when he looks back does he see the events of his life as inevitable, or does he see how things could have been different save for all the small particulars? i think of that beautiful quote from douglas adams: i may not have gone where i intended to go, but i think i have ended up where i needed to be.
it is easy to look at the past as a fixed thing, as if the things we see always were and would always have been just so, as if their hardened, finished forms existed from the beginning. this is the view that you get from outside. but ask anyone who has every made something big and unwieldy – or better yet, make something like that yourself – and discover how uncertain every step of it was, how different it ended up, how it was anything but solid. it was more like a jar of chemicals that could have combined in any number of ways, maybe exploded, maybe sat there still and lifeless. but they were loose and fluid and could just have easily never have existed. if we’d met at a different time, so would we have been different people. history books cast everything in stone, but that does history a disservice.
over and over in my notes it has been popping up: no future, no future, no future. it sounds like the nihilistic scribblings of a young john connor in the second film, but it means something different to me. to me it means don’t think about the future, think about where you are. do something clever, or do something fun, but do it right now. you can’t do the future.