Apr 182014
 

July 15, 1986, I left Australia for what I thought would be a 6 month or one year trip at most, but it ended up being an overseas jaunt that lasted the rest of my life.

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View From the Tower Restaurant, 1986

I’d worked in Sydney animation studios since 1982, saving money for a trip to Japan. By mid 1986, I’d got my passport, bought a Japan rail pass, and after years of dilly-dallying was preparing to finally go. But before I’d bought a plane ticket, Janine Dawson offered me a job in Taiwan at a big animation studio. Despite years of saving, I was still functionally broke, as my limp 1986 Aussie dollars wouldn’t last long against the booming Yen. However, this brief work detour would be a chance to top-up my meagre funds with then-robust US dollars, so I bought a plane ticket to Taiwan instead, planning to catch a ferry to Japan from there when my assignment ended. I sold, tossed, or stored my belongings, let my flat go, and off I went, on a flight to Taipei, via a stopover in Hong Kong.

As I lay down across 6 seats on an almost empty Qantas Jumbo jet out of Sydney, I realised that it was a good news/bad news thing; it was exciting that I was finally on my way! On the other hand, I had no idea of what I was doing.. I pondered this paradox until landing in Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport, which was a bit of a thrill ride, as the Jumbo seemed to slip in between the sky scrapers and apartment balconies (where I swear I could see people eating their dinners) and land almost in the city itself. To underscore my greenhorn traveler status, I was ripped off by the first cab driver I ever hailed abroad, who drove me NOT to the hotel I had pre-paid for in Sydney, but to a crummy hostel, and left in a frenzy of spinning tires. By the time I realised what had happened, I decided to pay for a hostel bunk in a room full of snoring travellers, rather than hail another cab and go through the entire humiliating process again.

The next day, I checked out of the hostel and did some sightseeing before my evening flight, lugging my bags all over town. Suddenly, I realised with horror that I didn’t have my passport!! With my heart in my mouth, I scuttled back to the hostel where thankfully, my passport had been turned in. But what if it had not been? An alternate-universe of misery- where I lost my passport on my very first day abroad -lay down that turnoff, and I’m glad to have missed it. Perhaps it was the stomach churning terror of that moment, or the tropical heat, but I was bathed in sweat, and decided to go to the airport EXTRA early and cool off. Despite this, I almost missed my flight out to Taipei; the departure time on my ticket was wrong. “Quick! You might just make it if you run!” I was hurried from one person barking into a walkie-talkie to the next, through immigration, as I clumsily carried all my bags, there being no time to check them in. Airline employees frantically pointed me to the gate in the distance and cleared my path to the waiting plane, as hot, sweaty and exhausted, I wheeze-thumped my way down the connecting-tube to stagger, flustered and sweat-soaked onto a planeful of faces glaring at me.. I was so glad to make it out of Hong Kong in one piece, that I had a misplaced dread of that town for years. (Much later, I had to do a visa-trip there, and to my surprise found it to be a wonderful place. Which goes to show that state-of-mind influences the impressions of places, as much as vice-versa)..

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Cuckoo’s Nest Studio on Chung Cheng road, XinDian, 1986

Thankfully, my arrival at the other end was smooth, and my friend Janine met me at Taipei airport to ensure I made it to my hotel without incident. The next day, I went to fill out paperwork and get situated at Cuckoo’s Nest, which was perhaps the biggest animation studio in the world at that time. They were doing 13 different series (each having 13 episodes) whereas the Hanna-Barbera studio that I’d worked at in Sydney could handle only one series at a time. I was introduced to the new layout department, and the other foreign supervisors that I’d be working with, but would not start work until the next day. Every expat I ever met who worked at Cuckoo’s Nest back then had the same experience at the end of the first day; while you’re still thoroughly culture shocked and jet-lagged, someone from the studio took you to a seedy place called “snake alley” and made you watch animal torture. For example, I saw a guy literally peel the skin off a live snake, drain all its blood into a shot glass which was then downed with great gusto by another dude, who then set off in search of the nearby red-light district. (A shot of snake blood was the Taiwanese version of Viagra, apparently). I’ve never felt so sorry for a snake in my life. It was a surreal and unsettling David Lynch-style end to my first day. (That’s just how it was in the 1980s.)

My first proper day on the job, another turn off to an alternate-universe- the one where my animation career ends by losing an episode -was only narrowly averted. I’d been given an entire show’s animation layouts to check, and in the pre-digital age, that was about 300 scene-folders full of artwork. I sorted the show into two piles; one big pile placed on the floor and labeled ’scenes ready for animation’, and another small pile labeled ‘scenes to fix’, placed on the small shelf available to me. Then, I was called away for lunch. When I returned, the big pile had been taken away, and I sat down to work through the pile of art-fixes. Pretty soon, a production person came by and asked how it was going (as they do) and left delighted when I told her that most of the scenes were already in animation. Within about 10 minutes though, she came back with a quizzical look on her face, and asked me exactly who’d taken the pile. I said I didn’t know, because they’d taken the labeled pile of scenes when I was at lunch. She went away again, looking confused. I worked some more. She came back again, looking very worried and asked me “where exactly had I placed the pile?” I gestured to the space on the floor.. “You don’t think the cleaners would have..” The production person looked utterly panicked.

We both rushed down the stairs that led to the alleyway outside, and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say we saw a truck with the animation scene-folders being dumped into the back. The core-temperature in my bowels must’ve shot up about 25° in an instant. We rushed over to stop the truck from pulling away, and explain that the stuff on its way to the dump was in fact terribly important to us (though given the quality of the shows we made back then, the dump would have been the right place).. Thankfully, everything was returned undamaged. At every studio I’d worked in before, the cleaning staff was under strict instructions never to touch any artwork at all, on the floor or elsewhere, and I’ve never before or since seen cleaning crew hauling stuff away in the middle of the day, but thats how it was. The humiliating end to my animation career thus dodged, I got back to work.

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Mark Marren Sketching in GongGuan

Taiwan is when many people began calling me ‘Jamie‘ rather than my real name of ‘James’. Someone from the translation department (which was essential for us expat supervisors to communicate with the Taiwanese crew) said my name of James would be too confusing, because it was already associated with the owner of the studio; James Wang. When asked if there  were any other names I was called by, I mentioned that some of my Sydney friends had called me Jimmy, to a gale of embarrassed giggles from the translator. She made it quite clear that ’Jimmy’ was not going to be an acceptable name under any circumstances, and wouldn’t tell me why, no matter how much I asked. (Perhaps someone can tell me if there is a word in Mandarin -or maybe Taiwanese- that sounds like ’Jimi’ but means something filthy, like aardvark penis or whatever? I’ve always wanted to know.) Instead, I chose Jamie because that was what I was called by my family when I was small, and what my mother continued to call me until she died. I never knew this name would stick, but it’s a pleasant reminder of her.

The standard workweek in Taiwan was six days, so only having one day off each week didn’t make for a lot of sightseeing. The entire 5 months that I was working in Taiwan, I probably only ventured out of Taipei about 2 or 3 times. I was exhausted on my one day off, and didn’t have the energy for dealing with transit systems with incomprehensible (to me) signage. So, after a few exceptions, I mostly just wandered around Taipei randomly on my one day off, and the main recreation for we expats were the late night dinners we all went to, in a variety of novelty restaurants.. I met an amazing number of people who became lifelong friends while in Taipei, considering that it was only a 5 month gig. Maybe we were thrown together so quickly by the twin pressure-cookers of work, and culture shock. We’d often joke about our ’tours of duty’ or our time on ’pork chop hill’; combat metaphors where people are thrown together in weird situations to bond under stress. A group of us supervisors went to see the movie ‘Aliens’ with the Taiwanese crew that year, and much of Bill Paxton’s paranoid dialog became our catchphrases; “we’re in some pretty shit now, man!” and the like.

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Culture shock was an almost constant issue. Working six or seven day weeks is stressful under any circumstances, but takes on a surreal quality when you’re in a country where you don’t understand the rules. Sometimes we dealt with this with hilarity, sometimes paranoia. I remember close to midnight, coming back to my hotel after a long day of working. I was tired, and hungry but the hotel restaurant was closed. Nearby, there was a convenience store where I saw the perfect treat to reward myself for busting arse all day; a jelly doughnut. Guilty-pleasure comfort food was just what the doctor ordered to soothe my jangled nerves. I bit into it, but instead of tasty raspberry jam, it was full of cold vegetable curry. BLURG! “What the?!” This small moment of culture shock sums up the way that expectations are often pranked, and depending on the state of your nerves, you might explode in a fit of cursing, sob uncontrollably, or burst out laughing. Eventually, I spent several years straight living in various Asian countries and I got used to being the full-time foreigner relatively quickly, and learned to see that my own expectations and assumptions about a situation needed to adjust, but in Taiwan, I was experiencing it all for the first time, and sometimes the combination of work stress and culture shock was potent.

Taipei had smells that I’d never encountered before, and even the regular smells of a big city; exhaust, trash, and the like, had a tropical pungency and, to a western nose, even some of the food had outrageous smells. There was one particular sour odor, that I’d assumed was the smell of blocked drains, but one day the smell that had haunted me for weeks was coming from my dinner; a famously stinky tofu dish. Taipei was a humid place, and smells of food I was not used to, and exotic spices were everywhere. After a few months of this experience, the tables were turned when we layout supervisors took our department out for dinner. We’d craved some western food, and a pizza night with our co-workers sounded like fun. What we’d not been prepared for was that the smell of the various cheeses, and especially the Parmesan cheese, was difficult to stomach for many of the Taiwanese. Hilariously, one fellow said the Parmesan cheese smelled like baby vomit. I’d never made the comparison before but I realised he was quite right! (Later, when I was working in Japan, I learned that the Japanese also find the aromas of traditional Western foods, specifically cheese and butter, has a very distinctive smell.)

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One time, Joe Sherman and I were having walking along a Taipei river bank in late summer. It had been a pleasant Sunday and a nice warm evening, and we found an outdoor restaurant, so we sat down by the water to eat. Everything was going along swimmingly when our fried chicken arrived and we grabbed chopsticks and tucked in. When Joe bit down on his piece of fried chicken it was rock hard. He pulled it out of his mouth with his chopsticks, and the batter fell away to reveal the grisly image of a battered chicken head, its dead eyes staring up at him reproachfully. He dropped the gruesome morsel: “oh, God WHY?!” The interesting thing about culture shock is that there is a certain amount of it that is specific to the country you’re in (fried chicken heads are not universal, for example) but a great deal of it can be experienced anywhere. This was brought home to me years later when listening to some Japanese friends living in Australia describing the things that drove them crazy about my country. Some were specific complaints that would only happen in Australia, but many were exactly the same things that got my teeth on edge when I was living in their country. Because a certain percentage of the issue is simply a feeling of alienation, of awkwardness, or of feeling clueless.

I spent a fair amount of time in the swarming, raucous Taipei traffic, travelling to and from the studio each day, inside a Taiwanese taxi. They were each uniquely decorated inside, sometimes with mirrored tiles, tassels, or with disco balls and lights, and a few times I rode a cab with a full sound system and karaoke microphone in the back seat. (Taiwan was where I first encountered Karaoke. I did not, and still do not, understand the appeal of caterwauling in public; either doing it myself or paying to hear others. I remember thinking that this was a distinctly Asian phenomenon and that karaoke would never catch on in the west. Oh, how wrong I was; there are now karaoke nights in all the pubs in my own home town.) The traffic could definitely be pretty crazy. There were a lot of motorbikes, scooters and mopeds, frenetically darting about, and people would balance precarious and sometimes dangerous parcels; gas cylinders and the like. Sometimes there would be an entire family piled on one motorbike; Mum, Dad and 2 or 3 kids. Nobody wore helmets and the typical biker might have flip flops as he blasted along. I imagine there must be some atrocious accidents, amongst the careening streams of high speed humanity, but in five months of dealing with that traffic every single day, I never once saw one.

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Joe and I would often share a taxi from the hotel we both stayed at, to Cuckoo’s Nest studio. There was almost a daily ritual where we would pass by a particular doctor’s practice that had incredibly ghastly illuminated signs of the various skin ailments they would treat; ruptured cysts, extreme rashes, and other stomach churning delights. For blocks in advance of this particular intersection of horrors, I would warn Joe: “you know what’s coming up, it always depresses you and gets the day off to a very bad start, so THIS time, don’t look, okay?” There wasn’t one single time that I rode with Joe, that he didn’t swivel his head at the last second to see if the ghastly sign was perhaps a figment of his imagination… With predictable results: “oh God! I can’t believe it! Why would anyone put a sign like that up?!” Cue the culture shock melt-down du jour.

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Ximending shopping district.

When I let Australia, I did not bring a camera and quickly realised that this was a tremendous oversight. So I bought a Nikon FG 20 and Taipei was where I learned how to use it, jamming it into every situation, much to the hilarity of Tony Stacchi my good buddy, then and now. I have hundreds of pics taken in that 5 month period, and I’m glad of all those photos today, and I think even he is too.. Taiwan is not only the place I learned to take photos, it is also the place I learned to SKETCH. Prior to traveling, I had never really sketched from life before. Looking through old piles of drawings from before I left Australia, it never occurred to me to draw something in front of me; there’s no location sketching. I commonly drew caricatures of my pals, or amusing moments that happened at work, but thats about as real as I ever tried to be, yet once I was in an foreign environment, that changed. The influence of other expats around me, who had CalArts or Sheridan on their resumes, played a part. These fellows had fancy book-learning and had acquired the habit of sketching at school. Speaking of that, I remember quite well the first time I was asked about where I went to college to study animation? This was a hilarious idea to me at the time. “You mean, you went to university to learn how to draw Saturday Morning cartoons?” I asked. “Why yes, I have a bachelor of animation from California College of the Arts”, I was earnestly told. I am used to this idea now, but in 1986 it seemed utterly hilarious to me.

I experienced my first earthquake in Taiwan. At dinner earlier that night, we’d talked about ghosts, because it was ’Ghost Month‘ (Chinese Halloween) and when I fell to sleep in my hotel later that same night, I had dreams of poltergeists and the like. Thus, as my bed started to shake, followed by the whole building and the entire city, my mind took a while to adjust to what was happening. Against all the advice that you are told, I got of my bed and chicken-walked over to the window of my eighth story hotel room and looked down at the city. I clearly remember seeing the neon signs on buildings across Taipei sparking off and on- GZZT! GZZT! -as I saw the shockwave move across the city. My mind finally properly awoke, and realised what was happening, and just as I considered that standing near the window of an 8th floor room is about the worst place I could possibly be in an earthquake, the quake stopped, with just the rumbling echoes dying out across the city, and I could still feel the building itself subtly swaying. Not long afterward, we had to go home from work and batten down the hatches when a typhoon hit. Ghosts, Quakes and Typhoons; never a dull moment.

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One thing that I really liked about living in Taiwan was that all the movies were subtitled in both English AND Chinese. This wasn’t the case in most other Asian countries I spent time in, where the only time I could understand a film was when it was shot in English. The grammatical quality of the subtitles were sometimes hilarious, but be that as it may, I could at least understand every movie I went to see, and I saw quite a few in the five months I was there, and was exposed to the wonders of Chinese cinema for the first time. The 1980s was something of a renaissance of Chinese cinema and I loved being at ground zero. A particularly vivid memory is the first time I ever saw a Jackie Chan film. Earlier that same year, I had seen the latest in the Indiana Jones series, supposedly the best thing that Hollywood had on offer at the time, but Jackie Chan’s movie blew that out of the water. I simply could not believe what this guy could do, and could not understand why I had not heard of him before 1986. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since.

My time in Taipei also introduced me to the works of yet another cinema master. Just before we layout Supervisors were ready to leave Taipei, after the TV series layout work was done, we held a brief series of layout classes for the new department. It was while preparing for one of these seminars that I was looking through the Studio’s video library and discovered the films of Hayao Miyazaki. The first Miyazaki film I ever saw was Nausicaä, and I’ll never forget it, even though in this case I saw it in Chinese on a VHS tape at the studio after work one day, and didn’t understand a word. Despite that fact, I watched it utterly enthralled from start to finish. I made a note to track down more of his work and did just that on my next stop: December 14 1986, I left Taiwan from the port city of Keelung, on a ferry To Japan, bound for Tokyo via Okinawa.

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With some choices, you’d end up at the same place later, even if you’d taken the other option, because your life is heading in that general direction anyway. But this trip was a turning point for me, where so much of what came later; key people that I met, lifelong friends that I made, places I worked, relationships I had, and countries I went to, would not have happened if it weren’t for that 5 month trip to Taiwan when I was 22 years old.

Early Lefties

 Posted by on March 31, 2014  Drawings, Lefties
Mar 312014
 

For posterity, here are some of the very first location sketches drawn with my left hand.

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I’d already done a lot of lefty drawing at home, (including some illustrations for my childhood stories on this blog) but had not ventured outside to draw from life until last September, when both Julia and I went drawing for a couple of consecutive weekends at the SF State campus, just a couple of blocks from our apartment. I became fascinated with the Student Center building, which has a sort of Logan’s Run/Epcot feeling to it.

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Then as now, I laboriously did the line drawing on-site and added the washes at home later, with a photo as a memory guide. Comparing these sketches here with some more recent ones, I can clearly see the progression in my left-handed drawing over the last six months, which is gratifying, but I still have a long way to go.

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I really want to loosen up my new drawing arm. I’m either very painstaking, or hilariously sloppy in the way I place the line. I’m getting better, but wrestle with line-control without being too stiff, but I trust that will come as my left hand gets more deft over time.

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This next sketch is of Julia’s Mini-Cooper, drawn last November. We had to drop by her office on an errand one weekend, and both did a spot of drawing afterward. The parking lot is well landscaped and quite pretty, so Julia painted the trees, but I drew her car instead.

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The next pair of sketches were drawn during two visits to Golden Gate Park in January this year. The first trip, myself and Matt Jones had gone to the De Young Museum to see the fantastic David Hockney exhibition, near the end of its San Francisco run. There were Disneyland level crowds, but the show was pretty spectacular and actually worth the effort to see. Best of all, Matt and I were able to fit in a little sketching afterward.

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The very next weekend, I went with Julia back to the exact same spot, but facing the other direction, specifically to sketch the De Young Museum itself, on another beautifully sunny day.

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I am enjoying drawing lately, and once the enjoyment happens you’re away; everything else flows on from that. I’ll have some more recent location sketches to post soon, as soon as I get them scanned.

On Drawing

 Posted by on March 17, 2014  Baker's Dozen, Drawings, Lefties
Mar 172014
 

I have recently been wrestling with re-learning how to draw. The loss of my former ability has led me to reflect on what drawing has meant to me in my 30 year career as a cartoonist, and how and why I came to be so interested in drawing in the first place.

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Back when I was very little, when my active interest in drawing began, there was no ’creative’ person in my family, apart from my Mother who played piano, and certainly nobody that drew. However, my Father enjoyed cartoons, whether in magazines or animated films, and I remember being endlessly fascinated at a very young age by the idle doodles on his desk blotter; silly faces and the like. His younger brothers, my uncles, could be relied upon as a source of cartoon books, comics, Mad magazine, and so forth, and in general, I grew up in an environment appreciative of cartoons. As I got older, I certainly never had to fight anyone to pursue drawing as a career. While many of my colleagues had to battle their families, I’m lucky that my own encouraged my interests.

Drawing became a big part of my life since as far back as 7 or 8 years old. I drew before then, of course, as all children do. I had drawing battles with many of my classmates in 1st and 2nd class, and at that age everyone drew, at least to some degree. But the beginning of my serious interest in drawing dates from the time when most kids were turning away from it, around the age of 8. Children become self conscious at that age and reject anything identified as childish. I too remember self-importantly announcing to my mother that I was too old to lick the excess cake batter from her cooking bowl, much to the great delight of my Father, who licked it clean with great relish (though it is unclear which gave him more glee; the tasty morsel or the crestfallen expression of an 8 year old realising he’d given away the crown jewels?)

I became more intrigued by drawing rather than less, and maybe the solo-escapism of drawing became part of its appeal. When I had turned 7, my family moved to a new town, and I felt disconnected, and again when we moved abroad 3 years later. If this had not happened, would I have clung so determinedly to drawing? This interesting thought was first pointed out to me by my childhood friend Peter Lawlor when we were both adults. As a child, I deeply regretted the family move, but if Peter is right, I may have gotten something wonderful, in addition to his friendship, in return for the brief period of childhood alienation.

After the age of 8, when most classmates lost interest in drawing, the one exception was a boy called Warwick Cook. While I staked out the lowbrow, cartoon end of the drawing spectrum, Warwick was a fully fledged watercolour painter, doing beautiful landscapes of the rugged bush around our town. In my memory, these were very sophisticated paintings for a boy of 9 or 10 and I admired Warwick’s ability a great deal. He really was a remarkable boy; good at sports, a good student and one of those likeable people who can mingle easily with everyone, perhaps because of his easy facility with many different facets of life. Rather than grabbing obsessively onto drawing with both hands as I did, (sometimes to the detriment of other things) it was merely one of many things that he enjoyed.

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Warwick made a great impression on me, but I only have memories of him from 2nd-4th class, because I went abroad in 5th class and he’d moved to a new town later on, when I returned. From mutual friends, I’d hear of Warwick’s exploits during high school, and expected great things from him. Sure enough, many years later, when I began working in animation, Warwick went to study painting at art school in London, and he seemed well on his way. Tragically, he was struck by a tube train in a ghastly accident, when he slipped from a wet and crowded underground railway platform one rainy New Years Eve. I had not seen him for 10 years by then, but keenly felt his loss just the same. Warwick will always stay with me as one of my early inspirations at the dawn of my interest in drawing.

It’s hard to overstate the effect that adult attention can have on a kid, especially when not from family members. When I was 8 years old my parents held a party at our house, and I was introduced to Anne Gunner, a student of Dad’s who herself was an educator; an art teacher. On hearing that I liked to draw, she asked to see my drawings and made an ego-gratifying song-and-dance about whatever crude scribblings I showed her (perhaps even some of those here). I remember that she immediately talked to me as one artist to another. Was this a semi-theatrical show for the benefit of amused adults nearby? Possibly, but the important thing is that her unsolicited attention was like water sprinkled on a flower, and I responded to it. She told me that as an aspiring artist I must absolutely make a portfolio. I had no idea what this was, but earnestly understood it to be of paramount importance.

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So, hilariously, at the age of 8, I gathered together all my drawings and compiled a crude ‘portfolio’, using left-over wallpaper from the renovation of the ’good room’ of our house for the cover. Not clear on what the purpose of such a thing must be, in practice it became a sort of scrapbook; half my own drawings and half whatever interested me at the time, and I carried that thing everywhere. Many of my childhood drawings, including those here, survive to this day mainly because I kept them in that binder, although it was a close thing; a few years later, when my drawings began to markedly improve, I almost threw out these early scribblings in a fit of tween self-consciousness, but I am so glad now that I did not.

A few weeks after meeting Anne Gunner, there was a surprise parcel for me at the front door, even though it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas. She’d sent a huge box of art supplies; crayons, brushes, poster paints, plasticine, and other goodies that lasted me for years, as well as some Walter T. Foster art-instruction books that I still have to this day. I have no idea, where Anne Gunner is now, though I’ve tried searching for her on the web several times, but if I ever did get her contact info, I would like to thank her for taking an interest in a 8-year-old boy and following up with a thoughtful gift that changed his life in a very real way.

Drawing; thinking about it, and consciously trying to get ’better’ by understanding how other people did it, became my focus. I’d always loved animation and attempts to draw famous cartoon characters were there right from the very beginning. Though these scribbles are of Disney characters, the cartoons that played most often on TV were by Warner Bros. and they made me laugh hardest and got most of my attention. It wasn’t only that cartoons were funny, but that mere drawings could move and seem alive was magic to me at that age (and hand-drawn animation has that effect on me even now). I wanted to be able to do that too. There’s something about plucking an idea out of my own mind, shaping it, and making it graphically ’real’ on a piece of paper so that it appears to have a life of its own, that endlessly fascinated me, both then and now, and it’s equally intriguing if someone else does it.

The ability for human beings to do marvelous things in sports, the arts or the sciences; the various ways in which the human mind and body dance together, exerts a fascination over all of us, each to their own preference. But the ability to draw, to capture a personal slice of the world, or a quirky phantasm of the mind, is the particular area of human achievement that intrigues me. Over time, drawing became not only a fascination, but also my chosen means of expression. Where someone else may strum a guitar, kick a ball, or dance to vent their pent up emotions, drawing became my go-to means of expressing the inexpressible.

Why were the drawings in magazines and TV cartoons were so good; ’How come I can’t draw like that?’ Seeing this crude page of bird drawings (an attempt to draw the Warner Brothers’ Chicken Hawk so obsessed with Foghorn Leghorn) brings back a memory of a frustrating day trying to draw beaks; ’How do they make the beaks look so good in cartoons?’ I’m not sure why the inability to do something ’well’ led to the abandonment of certain pursuits (mathematics, sport, getting the girls to like me) whereas, my inability to draw was an obstacle to overcome. I lost interest in many things that I was not good at (that list was long indeed) but drawing held my attention despite the frustration of constant failure. I drew no better than the next child, but stayed with it. Why is that? I have thought about it often, but ultimately, I do not know whether it was circumstantial that I would fall in love with drawing, or inevitable, but love it I do.

People who don’t draw sometimes ask me ’When did you start drawing?’ I answer ’When did you stop?’ because every child draws and I just never stopped. I believe that the amount of time a child spends drawing, and more importantly enjoying drawing, is the key to artistic ability, rather than innate talent, which is a factor too, but not as often as you’d expect. Whether a child enjoys drawing enough to stay with it is not tied to their ability, in the beginning anyway. Looking at drawings by a group of 4 and 5 year olds, it is hard to predict which of the kids will become artists in future, and which will become accountants. At around age 8 or 9, the difference in artistic ability becomes more obvious, but by then, many children have already abandoned drawing. Those who enjoy it, despite the frustration, will keep drawing, and the extra time spent scribbling makes a difference that you can see.

For me, drawing was an interest, an escape, and it even played a part in healing me at times. Being alone, drawing in my room, or figuring out how others did the drawings that amused me in magazines and books, is a constant memory of my childhood. I have a vivid memory of a magazine article about the animation director Chuck Jones I read at around the age of 9. I’d already noticed that his name on the cartoon credits meant something hilarious was about to happen, so this article didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it was full of pictures from the cartoons themselves, and this was more precious to me than gold. In an age when every home was not connected to the internet or a digital printer, we didn’t have access to images whenever we wanted, so an article about cartoons complete with pictures I could cut out and keep was a treasure. Reverently, I glued them into my ’portfolio’.

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Children are very concerned with ’growing up’ and so abandoning drawing can be a self conscious attempt to leave ’childish’ things behind. When we learn to read, we move from picture books, then to picture books with some words, then to story books with spot illustrations, and finally to books that are all text with no pictures at all. Thus, we are culturally conditioned to associate pictures with immaturity. Even my career as a cartoonist is rooted firmly in children’s media; animation is occasionally done for adults, but not very often, so if you want to draw as I do for a living you must make your peace with your role as babysitter.  Even though you could make the case that running around chasing a ball is childish too, the fact that adults stay focused on sports means that children stay with it too, but we have ingrained in us that pictures are for kids.

The fact that our education system doesn’t place much importance on visual skills beyond kindergarten is another reason that many children give up drawing. At a similar age, we are being awarded prizes for academic and athletic achievement, so improvement in those areas (and overcoming the frustrations of your limitations) is rewarded. In my experience that was not the case with drawing, where the rewards were all purely personal.

On the other hand, drawing skill not being rewarded, or even acknowledged by ’the system’ was a large part of its appeal to me as a child. Making pictures was the only thing that gave me pleasure that wasn’t contingent on the opinions of team members, class mates, parents or teachers. After about the age of 10, none of my other classmates drew, so it wasn’t a question of competing or being compared to anyone else. Drawing was something that I could do on my own, free from any judgements or comparisons with others.

In adulthood, when I discovered the camaraderie of the art community on the internet, I wished there’d been such a fantastic resource when I was a child. In a small country town, to have had access to a community of like-minded people around the globe would have been marvelous, it seemed to me. But I’ve come to realize that being left to my own devices was probably just what my frail ego needed. By the time I was about 13, my younger brother Rob too took an interest in drawing. It shames me now to remember that at the time, I found this a source of insecurity rather than joy, as I do now. At that age, I’d finally found a persona and identified myself as ’the kid who drew’ and feared sharing the title, as ridiculous as that now sounds. Thankfully, my shrill note of insecurity passed, Rob continued to draw, and in fact he later went to art school. I’m happy to say that he paints to this day, and we often swap notes about the creative process.

At times, it seemed a disadvantage that my interest in drawing grew in isolation, because I had no one to speak with about my interests. Yet, it was really an amazing advantage, because I had many years to develop my own voice, free of comparisons with others. Eventually, my lifelong interest in drawing led me to do it for a living rather than solely to amuse myself, as I did as a child. By the time I was compared to others, and as a pro-cartoonist it is a fact of life, I’d already built a solid relationship with drawing. Even though I was constantly challenged, and worked daily in the presence of masters whose abilities far overshadow my own, it didn’t change the fact that I love drawing. But if I’d been subjected to the ego acid-bath of this process earlier, my frail adolescent ego may not have survived the competition, and I might have tossed drawing aside, as I did so many other worthy pursuits.

As a pro-cartoonist I was surrounded by other people who drew, and drew astonishingly well. Like it or not, I had to accept that I was no longer ‘special’. But in exchange for this reality-check, I became part of a creative collaboration, which is wonderfully rewarding in another way. I grew to take pleasure in the prowess of others, and seeing those phantoms plucked from other people’s minds and then made ‘real’, via their drawings gave me daily delight. Sometimes, it is hard for a pro to summon up that spirit of pure joy that drawing gave as a child, because the drawings are now tied to budgets and schedules, and generally bogged down in other mundane things, yes, even including the judgements of others that I was blissfully spared as a kid. But I think that my best work as a pro came on those days when I could somehow find that childish, playful joy, and pour it into a picture. That spirit sustains me now that I’m learning to draw again these many years later.

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It is difficult for me to imagine my life over the past 30 years without drawing, which ultimately led me out of my home town, took me around around the world, allowed me to see (and sketch!) many foreign lands, and connects me to so many of my friends today. Animation is at times a topsy-turvy business, and I’ve been at it long enough to have seen the great breathing cycle of the industry expand and contract several times already. It can be nerve wracking, but it’s never felt like the wrong choice. I’ve loved living a life led by drawing, and I sincerely hope to get back at it one day; as a south-paw now that my trusty right hand is kaput.

But what about that alternate-universe version of me pointed out by my childhood friend, Peter? An other James Baker whose Dad did not accept a job in another state, and who may not have been briefly thrown on his own inner resources, and might never have discovered the lifelong joys of drawing? Well, what did HE do for a career for the past 30 years, I wonder?

Yerba Buena

 Posted by on February 28, 2014  Artists, Drawings, Friends, Lefties
Feb 282014
 

Last weekend was a good one for drawing; both doing it ourselves and appreciating drawings done by others. Firstly, on Saturday, Julia and I went to Yerba Buena Gardens to draw:

YerbaBuenaTerrace

I ‘ve sketched here before (a study of the church you see here) but this time I tried an overview. The angle I chose was from the terrace, where there was ample seating in the sunlight, which was needed as it was a chilly day, despite being sunny. The park itself is down below, behind the pond and seagulls, obscured from this angle. So there is some weird foreshortening that my crude left-handed drawing may not convey, but I liked the view of the downtown cityscape.

That same evening we went to the nearby Cartoon Art Museum to hear a fascinating talk on Ronald Searle given by Matt Jones. This was a companion talk to the recent ‘Searle in America‘ show put on at the museum and arranged by Matt. (Julia did a great Searle tribute piece for the fundraiser auction to pay for shipping the Searle art to San Francisco.) Matt had slides of additional Searle artwork that did not make it into the museum show, but will hopefully find a place in the forthcoming BOOK on Searle’s work in the USA, that Matt is compiling now. This will essentially be an expanded and super-deluxe edition of the excellent program guide to the ‘Searle in America’ show (copies are still available at the Cartoon Art Museum). Matt also had some charming stories of how he finally came to befriend his hero, one of the greatest graphic stylists of all time, near the end of Ronald Searle’s long life.

After Matt’s excellent talk was finished, the public-speaker/art-curator extraordinaire met us at a nearby posh Indian restaurant, where we had a splendid evening dining and trading old tales with our pals and colleagues, Wave and Gleb. Sunday, I stayed at home doing watercolour washes on earlier drawings, including some TV sketching that I will post later.

Feb 192014
 

Apart from our recent location sketching, Julia and I have also been sketching from TV shows, and a recent fave is Downton Abbey, starring the wonderful Maggie Smith.
DA_MaggieSmith
In my opinion, she steals every almost episode as the dowager Countess, Lady Grantham. She inflects every line with subtle flaring of nostril, tilt of head or withering of stare, that imbue her character with equal part haughty snottiness, dry humour, and wry wisdom as the scene requires. She is so much fun to watch. This sketch here was my attempt at a straight portrait with my left hand, but my cartoon roots betray me, and try as I might to deliver a faithful representation, my version of Maggie Smith ends up looking like a pug dog in a fur coat.

I know that Downton Abbey is just a glorified soap opera about the priviledged British aristocracy  (written by the real-life Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, no less). So, why should an uncouth Australian like me care two hoots about Lady Rose’s utterly spiffing debutant Ball at Buckingham palace? Or whether Lady Mary can ever live down the beastly scandal of finding a dead Turk in her plush 4-poster bed? A big part of the appeal for me is the beautiful recreation of period detail, which British TV shows do so convincingly, leaving me with a nostalgia for a past that I would have most certainly been shut-out of, had I been there. This fascinated ambivalence is best represented in the show itself by Tom, the lefty Irish Chauffeur, who started out reviling the CrawIeys but is now one of them. Sort of.

I grew-up wondering whether the impoverished Walton family, or the equally desperate Ingals family, could make enough to survive their next winter, but now, for better or worse, I watch each week to see the tribulations of the 1% Crawley family. Will Lord Grantham find enough money to run his 80 room country Mansion and his opulent London Townhouse? Can he keep his pampered family in hot-and-cold running servants, and multiple changes of posh evening wear and diamonds?

I say,  frightfully desperate times, what?

Presidio Sketch Weekend

 Posted by on January 31, 2014  Drawings, Lefties
Jan 312014
 

Here are several sketches done from life, each drawn very slowly in my new left-handed technique, while visiting a very sunny Presidio last weekend with Julia.

presidio_firehouse
Lately I have been trying to draw with my left hand, and I have been doing silly, cartoonish illustrations for the childhood recollections I have been writing. I quite like the effect that the clumsy, left-handed illustrations give; the awkwardness reminds me of the drawings I would do at the very same age I was in the stories themselves. So all in all, I am pleased with how that is going. But my other challenge is to do left-handed life drawing, and this has been a lot harder. While a cartoon often hilariously gains from an awkwardly placed line, in a representational sketch, where the goal is to record something as accurately as possible, clumsy does not cut the mustard. But I soldier onwards, awkwardly (and excruciatingly slowly.)

presidio_cannon
Julia has had a goal of her own to do a plein aire painting each week this year, and that has worked nicely with my own desire to push harder into left-handed drawing territory by attempting representational sketches, so we have been going out drawing as often as we can. So far, we are on track with one on-site drawing day per week this year, and last weekend we actually did two days in a row, both at the Presidio, which turns out to be a wonderful place to sketch. Ample parking (all paid though, sadly) several places to eat, easy-access toilets, and benches to sit on, and most importantly, a wide variety of interesting things to draw. To make it extra special, we were blessed with the most marvelous weather.

presidio_tree
I managed to get the line-work for these 5 sketches mostly completed on location, but did the water colour washes later at home, using a photograph to guide me on the lighting. Some people think using photos is a cheat, but I figure it’s not too bad if the drawing itself was done on the spot, and besides, that’s the best I can manage at present. I need to spend extra time and concentration with the brush versus the pencil, and the chances of spilling something on site, makes the whole thing more pleasant at home, where I can take my time. A LOT of time. Each of these sketches took me WAY longer than they would have normally (5 times longer in fact) but I feel like I am getting somewhere, and I am enjoying the process.

presidio_house
Prior to The Presidio, our favorite outdoor sketching site was Golden Gate Park, between the De Young museum and the Natural History Museum, where there are likewise lots of neat things to draw. I will post my other outdoor scribbles from some of those earlier, away-team missions later, when I’ve had a chance to scan them. This outrageously decent weather wont last forever (and knowing San Francisco, it will fail when Summer swings around) but while it’s sunny and warm, we will try to take advantage of it and go out on location as much as we can.

presidio_buildings
When the weather eventually fails, we’ve promised ourselves that we will maintain our weekly sketch momentum by drawing paused-scenes from movies, so that this sketch-train wont stop.

So hold on tight!

 

BIZARRO Sketch Night

 Posted by on January 16, 2014  Lefties, Updates
Jan 162014
 

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A week ago today, my friend Ben Walker held one of his fun sketch events at 111 Minna Gallery. This time it was BIZARRO SKETCH NIGHT, where all the participants drew 100% with their non-dominant hands. Drawing with my bad hand is something I’ve been getting trying to get used to of late, with mixed success.. So it was great to have some backup.

Bizarro_sketch3

I’ve had Star Wars on the brain lately, probably because of my recent epic blog-post, and all the childhood nostalgia that it brought up. So, continuing in that vein, I drew silly Star Wars scribbles all night, with a particularly belligerent-looking Chewie showing up after I’d had a few Trummer Pilsners. (Wookies are like that.) Matt Jones kept me company with that idea, and did some great Star Wars sketches, like the funny RED Yoda you can see above.

Bizarro_sketch1

It was a surprisingly fun, well attended event, and there were some really great drawings generated. In fact, there were one or two people who drew just as beautifully with their crazy-hand as with their dominant hand (yes, I am looking at YOU, Hoffman, Clark, and Mathot!!) I’ve found that my left hand often produces some surprisingly funny drawings, and I think everyone had fun trying to see what they would come up with too. There were lots of chuckles all round.

Bizarro_sketch4

Thanks very much to Ben and Amanda for arranging this super-fun event, and to all the artists who came and participated, bid on eachother’s drawings, showed me some Bizarro solidarity and inspired me by demonstrating what great cartoons can be done, CRAZY-HANDED. You can read Ben’s own post about the event (with a full list of participating artists) on his blog HERE, and also another account on Steve Moore’s FLIP blog HEREDr Sketchy’s anti-ArtSchool

Jan 072014
 

It’s difficult to preserve memory when your older-self’s revised view constantly overwrites the original impression. How do you file a loving memory of someone you no-longer like? Or childhood memories of wonder, but of things now uncool? Do you owe it to your earlier-self to keep that first impression alive?

One such moment, is a memory of awe and fascination from a lazy summer day in my home town; Boxing Day 1977. The day before, we’d opened presents under our Christmas tree, which was a eucalypt decorated with ornaments and lights (snaffling an Australian-themed Christmas tree was Dad’s own personal tradition). Then we’d had a sunny Christmas lunch outside, under a crabapple tree humming with cicadas. Now Christmas was over, the salvageable wrapping paper was already put away by Mum, and it would be another year before we’d see sweat-soaked Santas in the Australian summer sun, Dad would be complaining about rampant Christmas commercialism again, and the cycle would begin anew.

Hakuna Matata.

My pal Stephen and I sat in my family kitchen thinking of what to do now that Christmas was behind us and we’d “rounded the horn” of the Summer Holidays. As I picked holiday fruitcake out of my braces, Stephen read a movie synopsis from the newspaper about a farmhand from outer-space. I was not like the sophisticated, eyeball-rolling 13 year-olds of today, yet even to me “Luke Skywalker” was the dumbest name I’d ever heard, but a movie with my mates was the best idea I’d heard on that particular Boxing Day, so off we went to watch a new film called STAR WARS.

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In 1977, there weren’t world-wide simultaneous movie releases, and film-prints just crawled from cinema to cinema around the planet, taking 7 months for a mid-year American release to reach my home town. Amazingly, I knew nothing about the cinema sensation of the year, when Stephen and I entered a packed theatre to watch it. First, there was a documentary (an Australian content-quota meant countless naff documentaries) and that night it was about auto-racing and was extra boring, but thankfully the screen went dark when a blown fuse threw the theatre into chaos. We threw lollies at our pal John in the dark, and he lobbed them back at us, while everyone played the fool, rolled Jaffas down the aisle, and called out silly names. After what seemed forever, the power was restored, the audience settled down, the documentary was shelved, and the feature-attraction finally began.

A NEW HOPE
Immediately, I sat up and took notice because Star Wars was way more spectacular than anything I’d ever seen. Without messing about with credits, we were dropped into a budget-blowing opening sequence of battling spaceships, gun fights and robots. I was used to waiting an hour to see anything half as spectacular as the opening shot of this movie. True, Bond films started with action, and that same year, SPY WHO LOVED ME opened with a stuntman skiing off a cliff under a UNION JACK parachute. But first, I’d had to watch Roger Moore’s smirking eyebrow-dance, his alpine snog-sesh, then a cheesy rear-projected ski chase I’d seen before. Star Wars on the other hand, had an opening sequence unlike anything I’d seen, plus aliens and robots, and had the show-stoppingest, climactic action sequence of the year (with Roger Moore’s wrinkly chest nowhere to be seen.)

Seeing Star Wars for the first time at the age of 13 put me in the demographic sweet-spot it was made for, but I remember how much I did not understand in 1977. For example, the movie starts on two robots, then white-armoured troopers arrive, who I thought were robots too. They were led by (I thought) another black-clad robot, using robot-strength to lift a goodie off the deck and bust his neck. I don’t remember when I learned who was a robot and who was human (from a novelisation, I expect) but I watched the movie that first time none the wiser. Unspectacular details also blew my mind in 1977: Aunt Beru serving Luke’s space-lunch with BLUE MILK (Bantha milk perhaps?) WOW. And when Luke slouches off for his teenage-sulk, he stares at a view of not one but two setting suns. WOAH. (I did solo-sulks that year too, but only had the view of Dad’s compost heap at the bottom of our vegetable garden to pose wistfully with.)

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I was floored by Star Wars at 13 years old, but I didn’t see it again before finishing its 1977 run, and in the pre-video age I couldn’t see it whenever I wanted. Thus, for many years, the power of this movie was that it existed largely in my mind, and my life as a day-dreaming fan was under way. I ordered the “Art of Star Wars” book (which eventually fell apart from re-reading) and though I’d already decided on a career in animation, I considered being a movie concept-designer, and drew spaceships and robots in addition to the cartoons I’d drawn for years.

I was too young for 1960s “Beatlemania” (only becoming aware of The Beatles many years after they’d disbanded and John already looked like the Unabomber) but was at ground-zero for its 1970s equivalent; the Star Wars phenomenon. I doubt that a movie will ever have that impact again, simply because the scale of its success was not anticipated. The media-blitz IS anticipated now, and in fact planned for whether we want it or not, and is an attempt to artificially recreate the run-away explosion of interest in (and subsequent consumer purchasing of) Star Wars. Thanks to the media frenzy, there were interviews, behind-the-scenes articles, cultural-theorisings, novelisations, and comics and magazines like never before, and of course, unprecedented merchandising. (That alone left me uninterested. Though I carry the NERD gene, it’s a mutation that leaves me immune to toys).

While awaiting the Star Wars sequel, I sought out director George Lucas’ influences, with mixed results. After wading through LORD OF THE RINGS, a book thicker than our telephone directory, I was outraged to realise by the last chapters that the insufferable band of bloody hobbits, wretched wizards and mincing elves had essentially just decided to do something, and got nowhere near blasted Mordor by the end of the first book. (Structurally the equivalent of Luke Skywalker getting to Mos Eisley; The End.) I hurled the book against the wall in frustration, and never knew what happened next till Peter Jackson ‘read’ the trilogy for me.

EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
When the Star Wars sequel came out a few Christmases later I was 16 years old and a textbook example of a teenage nerd. Reader of comics? CHECK. Animation Aficionado? OF COURSE. Lousy at sports? GUILTY. Lover of sci-fi movies? MAIS OUI. Obsessed with Star Wars? DOUBLE CHECK. Terminally celibate? CHECK and MATE! (Minus the mating part). I’d often imagined what Mr Lucas might do with his next Star Wars film (snort) but EMPIRE STRIKES BACK surpassed all my expectations, and delivered perhaps THE surprise twist of my cinema going life (“His father?! Wha!!”)

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By 1980, I was old enough to baby-sit my siblings and urged Mum & Dad to see the sequel, assuring them it was a masterpiece. While they wasted their date-night seeing MY obsession, we boys teased my 5 year old sister Victoria that she could not be Princess Leia in our Star Wars game (“Aw! I don’t wanna be an Ugnaught!”) Later, the kids were in bed and Mum & Dad retuned. Far from being awestruck, they appeared to give substantially less than even one shit about the movie. When pressed, Mum said, “Well… It’s a bit… LURID, isn’t it, dear.” I was aghast at this tepid reaction, and more so after checking a dictionary;

LURID- Adj: very vivid in color, especially so as to create an unpleasantly harsh or unnatural effect.

What the?! My parents grew up on the serials that inspired Star Wars, but interestingly, the 1970s redo of their childhoods did nothing for them.

Around this time, I learned of a Sydney animation studio and set my sights on getting a job there, gravitating back to my first love of drawing cartoons, but my brain still marinated in a brine of Star Wars, and the obsession strangely broadened my horizons. I read about director George Lucas’ film-maker heroes; about Kurosawa, about John Ford (and others) and when I moved to Sydney to start work, I was finally able to track down their films at art-house and repertory theatres, and learned a lot about cinema history and filmic language. This exciting period is the closest thing I had to film school.

RETURN OF THE JEDI
Christmas of 1983, I was working at Hanna Barbera when RETURN OF THE JEDI arrived in Sydney theatres. I was excited to see how the Star Wars saga wrapped up, and after the previous instalment, my expectations were unbelievably high. Perhaps inevitably, the film itself was anticlimactic. Maybe it was that the Star Wars series was finally (I thought) over? Or was it the failings of the film itself; the unblinking Space Teddy Bears and so on? Perhaps it was because I’d recently been through a lot (Mum died around the previous Christmas). Or simply that I was too old, at the age of 19, and could now see the movie ‘strings and wires’?

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I work within an industry that makes stories for children, and my colleagues and I were called to this life as an extension of our own childhood awe at similar films. In fact, many friends are working on those exact film-series that they loved as children, including Star Wars. “The circle is now complete” (as a certain trouble-maker once said). We Pro-nerds started as child-fans but now make the mind-candy. That must be cool, right? Well, yes and no. We love the process but are now part of the artifice, and no longer feel the magic of these things. Sometimes we must work hard at keeping our pro-present from twisting the feelings of our fan-past.

After a few more years working in Sydney studios in the mid-1980s- a time when it honestly felt that the animation industry was dwindling, and would be dead within 10 years- I travelled while pondering my plan-B career options. I worked for various studios, first in Asia, then in Europe, then the USA, arriving in the very city where the Star Wars movies were made in time for an animation renaissance that revitalised the industry. Before long, I actually worked for George Lucas’ company itself, while he made the first of the Star Wars prequels. I was 35 and despite myself, excited to see what Mr Lucas would do with Star Wars next..

REVENGE OF THE PHANTOM CLONES
..until I saw the movie, that is. While it is very true that STAR WARS changed my life, the PHANTOM MENACE changed it back again, which is perhaps for the best. They are, after all, only movies. A fact that Mr Lucas himself may have forgotten. In 1970s interviews after his Star Wars success, Mr Lucas cited a fun blend of movie serials, comics, and pulp magazines as its foundation. The Joseph Campbell theorising came later, initially offered by others, and George may have gotten drunk on it. When you see yourself as the modern myth-maker laureate, instead of a modern maker of pulp-serials, it’s not surprising that you might forget the essential ingredient of FUN.

Imagine the 1977 Star Wars without Han Solo. Instead, Luke & Obi-Wan are helped by another pontificating Jedi-dude in his spaceship. Structurally, the story would be the same, and I would’ve still loved that version at the age of 13 because, well, I was 13. However, without Han Solo taking the piss out of The Force and the rest of it, anyone older would’ve only had a whiny kid or a pair of ponderous old gits to connect with. To a general audience, Star Wars would’ve been insufferable without Han Solo (and to some extent, The Princess) as the ‘way in’ to the Jedi malarkey. This is essentially what we have in the Star Wars prequels; they are very dour (Yoda used to be a cheeky trickster, remember?) and the only character not bound to Jedi mumbo jumbo is a CGI Rasta duck/rabbit. 13 year olds love it (I would’ve too at that age) but without a likable adult foil the prequels are a ponderous tale about a cult of bearded virgins taking themselves very seriously, and well, if I’d wanted to see that I’d just buy a ticket to Comic Con.

THE NERD APOCALYPSE
Many original-trilogy Star Wars fans have theories about the prequels, and Mr Lucas’ missteps that led him there, and I’m no different. But perhaps the more interesting thing to think about is that WE too lost our perspective? The Phantom Menace is the best value for money ever spent on a movie ticket, because people are still talking about it. What other movie of 1999, or other year for that matter, has given that return on an $8 investment? I myself have participated in many fun geek-out discussions about it, but worry that ‘hating movies’ is the new ‘loving movies’. Fan-love is strong, but has a bitter taste when it curdles, and in the crazy hyperbole of The Internet, many fans even claimed that George Lucas had raped their childhoods.

It was as if the Beatles reformed, but as a polka band, much to the horror of their old fans, who were aghast when the Re-Beatles’ POLKA album found new fans and went triple platinum anyway. The fact that Lucas himself directed the prequels made the anger more intense, and rabid Star Wars fans forgot that these were movies, not holy scriptures, and were supposed to be FUN. Fans complaining that Mr Lucas ruined their childhoods, should relax. If what we fondly remember is a moment in time, and what it meant to us back then, then we still have it.

SW_poster

I saw Star Wars once in 1977 and not again until 1983, and never had a scene-for-scene memory of it, the way some fans do. Yet I had the film indelibly stored inside me anyway, as a collection of memories, feelings and impressions. This, along with photos from magazines, novelisations and comics, became my own personal “Special Edition”, existing only in my head. But if you fetishise the object itself, you are at the mercy of the Nerd/Media complex; that relationship between fans and the companies that own the intellectual properties. When a nerd cherishes an adolescent moment of wonder, the company does too if it centres on a THING that can be sold (and resold) to the nerd.
Q: But what happens if the company (even the original filmmaker) messes with the fetishised object, changing the context of things?
A: Lo, a great wailing and gnashing of teeth that will echo all down the numerous vales of the Internet.

In an old interview with Mr Lucas, he talked of the movie serials he loved as a child, and how surprised he was to later discover that they were actually shoddily made, when he saw them again at film school. For this disconnect to happen, not constantly re-watching the original was a key element in its growth into something else in his mind. As a pro-nerd himself, Mr Lucas processed his disappointment by making something that captured the MEMORY of his beloved serials, but was better made, and STAR WARS was born. For my generation Star Wars was new, and made a huge impression, but my parents saw Star Wars for the slick rehash that it was. Now that I’m middle-aged myself, and neck-deep in rehash after redo, homage after rip-off, ad infinitum, of things I grew up on, I finally understand why Mum & Dad were unimpressed when they saw Empire Strikes Back in 1980. (Verily, I forgive you now, Mum & Dad.)

Keep your cherished childhood impressions free of bitterness by remembering that it’s not only the object (film, book, record or whatever) that you love, but also how old you were, who you were with, the entire place and time itself and your relationship to it. This can never be recreated when simply re-watching that same movie, over and over, but happily, is always part of your internal world, and thus not at the mercy of corporate “re-imaginings” or director’s “re-edits”. Just as Mr Lucas found inspiration for Star Wars in a moment of disappointment with serials from his childhood, hopefully LOADS of material is gestating in the minds of disappointed fans who saw the Star Wars prequels, maybe even a couple that are truly original creations. Cherishing a moment of wonder but then fetishising the film that inspired it is a dead end, but using that feeling to inspire the creation of something new, keeps the flame alive.

If my 13 year old self knew that the two Nerd-Gods of my adolescent world; Walt Disney and George Lucas, would one day be in bed together, my 13 year old brain would be aquiver in febrile anticipation. Now, having been an eager Storm-trooper for both their companies, I’m not so sure. Creatively, it could go either way; bring STAR WARS back to life? Or flog the dead horse into glue? But the fact that Lucasfilm was an Indie film studio, hugely successful yes, but working outside of Hollywood as an independent, means that I was saddened by the Lucas/Disney marriage and to see Lucasfilm consumed.

Hakuna Matata

There are strange moments in Star Wars, viewed now as an adult. If it was intended for children, Luke finding his Aunt and Uncle cooked into beef jerky by Imperial troopers (the only time they ever hit what they aimed at) is a very unsettling image. It was for me, anyway. On the other hand, if it was for grown ups, then Princess Leia’s emotional life is hard to read; she sees her planet and everyone she loved, destroyed, and the next that we see her, she cooly sasses Luke Skywalker for being too short. Smart-arse sociopath? Or still stoned after her visit from the Pusher-Droid™ with the syringe? Her forgetting of Chewie’s Victory Medal (which I was peeved about at 13) could be anti-Wookie racism, but maybe we should give her the benefit of the doubt and chalk it ALL up to her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.. (Verily, I forgive you now, Princess). Seen today, the disco hair in Star Wars roots it firmly in the era of Donna Summer and the special effects that floored a generation no longer seem so special. In fact, how long before Disney reboots the series altogether? Probably as soon as they have episodes 7, 8, and 9 in the can. I hope they tread carefully, lest they start the unholy rehash-backlash Nerd-Apocalypse II. (I might just sit that one out.)

It’s difficult to make sense of a lifetime of impressions of such an iconic and over-watched movie. I have vivid memories of seeing it for the very first time with the wide-eyed awe of a child, and also with the eyes of an adult who’s seen it umpteen times and aware of its limitations. This constant layering of memory- not just of this movie but of everything in our experience- means that, inevitably, we are ALL Lucas-like in our heads; constantly tinkering with the edits of our lives. So how to sum it all up? Maybe the trick to memory is to hold on to multiple versions simultaneously; the current view AND the younger view… By all means have a REVISED edition, and as many alternate versions as you like, but unlike Mr Lucas, don’t make the mistake of ever taking that original CLASSIC version out of circulation.

———

SW_walk

I have kept alight within me many memories of childhood wonder, trying to hold onto them lightly lest they break, or worse, become twisted. In one of them, it is always Boxing Day 1977 and I am just walking out of the Capitol Theatre with my friends Stephen and John, into an Australian summer evening. Like many people, I’m agog at what I just saw up on that movie-screen, but maybe a little more agog than most. With the perspective of time (and a little self-knowledge) I see why that particular 13 year old kid identifies with the story of a dweeb from a small town in the middle of nowhere and his quest for adventure. Of course I was primed to love this movie of fantasy and escapism, and was on the hook from the first frame till the last, and always will be.

Luke Skywalker whined about not going to Toshi Station to pickup those tasty power-converters, and meanwhile, a few galaxies away, 13 year old me whines that I’ll never fly a spaceship, meet a robot or make friends with a giant alien ape. Walking home, I mention to Stephen what a bummer it is that real life is never going to live up to that movie. I say good night, go inside my house, and sit on the couch. A career in animation is a few years away, adventures around the world are further away, and working for George Lucas himself is even further away and, as my mind joyfully races through the galaxies, I stare at the tinfoil STAR over the shedding Christmas tree…

Chook Hunter

 Posted by on October 26, 2013  Baker's Dozen, Family, Lefties, WRITING
Oct 262013
 

My paternal grandfather lives on as a cheery, little hardworking gnome of a man in my memory, yet my favourite photo of him, snapped by a street photographer well before my own Dad was even born, shows an impossibly roguish little bugger in his prime, an antipodean George Raft wearing his hat cocked at a rakish angle with his hands casually in the pocket of his natty 3-piece suit. He could have been a pint-sized gangster cooly crossing the street on his way to a tommy-gun shoot out but what he really was, was a professional jockey during the the Great Depression, and he cut a dashing figure in what must have been otherwise austere times.

dapper_devil

Sometimes, there’s a photo that shows you the other life that an ancestor once had, long before you’d even been thought of, and you realise that, far from being a foregone conclusion, your own life may never have happened at all if that person had done things differently. This is just such a photo, where I for the first time (at the age of 12) saw my Pop as a young whip of a man who could have been a hundred things other than my own beloved grandfather. Thankfully, the very same photo also explains why I am here at all, for how could my Grandma not be dazzled by such a dangerously dashing and dapper little devil.

Years later, by the time of my own adulthood, Pop was almost as wide as he was tall, which wasn’t very. Being a jockey, he only ever came up as far as my own adult chin even on a tall day, and his middle had spread in his old age despite his relentless energy. In my memories of Pop there’s a bustling, happy restlessness; even if he’s sitting in a chair he’s always busy at some task or other. Yes, he could sit on the verandah and ruminate about this and that, as others in the Baker clan are wont to do, but he’d be just as happy with a chainsaw or axe in hand, whipping a little patch of wayward nature into submission. I saw him prune some well-sized and handsome trees into mere nubs over the years, for no other reason, that I could see, than industriousness for its own sake. He was as much a force of diminutive and cheerful energy as a nest full of ants.

When not busily bustling about the place, Pop would sit in a big red plush chair in front of a huge TV set watching the horse races, while simultaneously listening to other races on the radio. When he finally got a colour telly, Pop had the habit of jamming the colour controls all the way up, so that any sporting event became almost abstracted swatches of primary colour. The raucous combination of duelling TV and radio soundtracks, and clashing moving colours was enough to induce seizures in a more delicate soul but that’s the way Pop liked it. If I tried to surreptitiously adjust the colour back down to something approximating the real world when he stepped away to the lav, he would promptly jam the controls back into the fruit salad range when he returned. He didn’t buy a colour telly until late in his life and to get his money’s worth, by gum, he wanted as much colour as he could possibly get out of the flamin’ thing.

Sadly, I inherited none of my grandfather’s horsemanship. In fact, in my whole life I have sat on a horse only twice. The only thing I can say in my own defence is this; twice is exactly two times more than I’d ever seen my Pop on horseback, so there was zero opportunity for his influence. Although his house was full of horse racing paraphernalia, and his framed old photo-finish victories decorated the walls, and he was sure to keep up with the current races themselves, once he retired he never got on horses again, not that I saw anyway.

He was a constantly cheery and impish presence, and it is hard to pin down my earliest memory of my Pop, but perhaps it is from the Christmas when I was 4 years old. We had travelled up to the mainland from Tasmania, where we lived back in the days when my immediate family consisted of only four of us; Dad, Mum, myself and a recently-born Jo, proudly on display for all the Baker mainlanders to see. Pop and Grandma’s clan went on to have a veritable army of grandchildren when my then-young aunts and uncles got to breeding, but back then it was only three; myself and Jo from down south and, not much older than Jo, our cousin Anthony from right there in town. The two wee ones were definitely the stars of that particular tour, leaving me free to explore.

I remember being endlessly fascinated by the property where my Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles lived. Sheds full of implements and contraptions from the olden days, a barn with old farm equipment and the remains of of paddocks as yet not built on. It was a fantastic place for a little boy to ramble about, and back then there was even a rusted and weed-infested old car body to play in (though I know not why, as neither Pop nor Grandma ever drove a car) and the buildings were rife with quirky nooks and crannies, like you’d not find in a ’normal’ house unblessed by bush carpentry.

Pop’s house was built sometime in the 1800s, before his own father (who was long-dead before I was born) bought it to be a place for Pop and he to train horses, just outside the town. In a continuation of that bush tradition whereby the acquisition of a new tool just meant walloping a new nail in the wall to hang it on, and you thumped and banged things together yourself, they expanded the place, and in his youth my own Dad helped improve the house by his own hand even further. Eventually though, their land was swallowed up by the expansion of the town and the rise in council rates prompted them to sell off most of it. When the land was resold and broken up into suburban lots, Grandma and Pop had the most ancient and ramshackle house on the South Hill neighbourhood of my hometown, with only a nearby street named ’Baker Place’ to mark all that they once had.

Needless to say I was fascinated by this place at the age of 4, but more than that, I was drawn to Pop himself;  his chipper energy, his jokey way of talking, and turns-of-phrase from an earlier time. So, while everyone else was inside the house nattering, drinking tea, and paying homage to the latest grandchildren in the kitchen, Pop busied himself about the yard, working in the shed or getting something from the stables, and through it all being dogged by 4-year-old me, as diminutively relentless as himself in my own way; a never-ceasing chatterbox.  In truth, I probably wore him out with my endless questions about this and queries about that, not to mention getting under-foot. I seem to remember his always-jovial banter starting to crack a little when he was eager to just get on with his work, which was bound to be physical.

Decades later, on a trip home to Australia when I stayed with Pop, he proclaimed his simple philosophy that it wasn’t really ’work’ if you sat on your arse to do it. This was cheerfully offered up to his chair-bound animator grandson without even a hint of scorn (well, maybe just a little). Even without jetlag I can sleep quite late, but with it, Pop is likely to have done a day’s industry; pruning trees, mowing the lawn and riding his bicycle to the town TAB and back, before I’d even even gotten out of bed. “Ooh, here he is, ’the Sultan’ is risen!” he chirped with a mock curtsy, as I ambled into the kitchen, sometime after noon. Thus needled, I offered to chop him some wood to prove my mettle, and the axe swung erratically this way and that with much huffing and puffing for such a mediocre pile of wood chips, that I had to laugh, accompanied by gales of leprechaun giggles from old Pop.

chooks

But anyway, I was telling you of a littler, 4 year old me, pestering a much-younger Pop at his work many years earlier: While following him about the place, I had expressed to Pop a 4 year old’s fascination with the chickens to be seen wandering at their leisure and pecking throughout the yard. With a tour de force of misdirection and psychology that would’ve done Tom Sawyer proud, Pop saw a way to lose his tiny escort, and cooked up a deal between he and I, whereby it was promised that if I could only catch one of his chickens, I’d be welcome to take it home with me to Tasmania. Well, this enticing offer did not have to be made twice, for what 4 year old boy can resist the allure of his very own personal chicken? And so, I was off. Pop must have cheerfully congratulated himself for the genius of his ruse, as I was so engrossed in chook-chasing that he had ample time to finish all his errands unmolested any further by me. Pop went into the house for a cup of tea and wait for my 4 year old’s batteries to inevitably run down, long before any of his chooks were nabbed by my little stumpy-legged self.

Pulling someone’s leg is a national pastime in Australia, but what separates a good piss-take from the more common but subpar article is not just the quality of wit itself but a show of genuine affection and a commiserating sense that we are all united in our ridiculousness. Pop was the sort of bloke who could disagree with your philosophy but with such a twinkle of his eye that you’d laugh at yourself and him too. Being led to a good-natured chuckle at one’s own expense is a true gift, and the reason Pop could do it so well was his keen sense of his own foibles. For example, Pop loved to tell with, a gleeful giggle, how wrong he was about Phar Lap, who Pop once rode on that later-famous horse’s first win. It was to be the first win of many, and Phar Lap became the most celebrated horse in the nation, bar none. So, when Pop had said Phar Lap “wouldn’t stay” A more hilariously inaccurate prediction by a young jockey was never made. Which brings me back to how Pop famously also misjudged me as a 4 year old boy. Because far from losing interest in his chooks, I went after them like a tiny heat-seeking missile.

Here’s the thing I learned on that long-ago day; don’t chase the flock, chase the chook. You don’t go after the brown one and then change your mind mid-stream and chase the black one, willy nilly. What an expert chook-chaser does is focus. It took me much trial and error to figure that out, but I give you the hard-won advice now for free; just badger one particular chook till it snaps.

Eventually, I target-locked my sights on a splendid white chook and made it my business to make her life a misery. She gave me a merry tour of the yard; round and round, to and fro, into and out of the sheds and barns, and I fell on my face more than once. But I became that chicken’s own personal Ring Wraith, committed to pursuing her into the next world if needs be. She dashed this way and that, as I harried her around the place. We all know very well that there is nothing so relentless as a 4 year old boy with an obsession, so without an ice cream cone to distract me with, that chook was done for. As soon as she realised this for herself, she stopped her mad dash, and froze, cringing before me, the way a chook will do when its mental circuitry has popped a fuse, for if a chook has a weakest link, it would have to be its brain.

When I finally triumphantly picked up that plump, white, brain-frozen bird, she was almost as big as tiny, 4 year old me. I felt quite the mighty hunter as, proudly, I strode into the kitchen where all the Baker clan were enjoying themselves, smoking, drinking their tea and eating their biscuits. I announced to Pop that I’d caught my chook and was looking forward to taking her home to Tasmania with me, much to the great hilarity of everyone present. Pop too burst out laughing, admitting that he’d never thought in a million years that I would actually catch one of those chickens and had not thought so far ahead as what to do if I did. But now his cunning Tom Sawyer shtick had come home to roost and I wanted my chook.

A splendid white CHOOK

Eventually, it was made clear to me that Pop had been joking. I was devastated, as only a little boy can be. Some attempt was made to explain the logistical impossibility of transporting a terrified chicken across 3 states in our tiny and already over-stuffed Toyota Corolla. I cannot now remember if there was any consolation prize but my guess is that, at the very least, there was a plate of biccies set aside for the thwarted and pouty big game hunter. In subsequent years, Pop himself told this story many times with great hilarity, and genuine surprise and admiration that I relentlessly bagged that chook at the age of 4 and, in the end, Pop’s undeniable pleasure at how I called his bluff and proved him so wrong was all the consolation prize I really needed.

——-

Though descended from a few flavours of whitey, I’m more Irish than anything else. The theme of my ancestry is that everyone married an Irish girl; the German (Pop’s Dad) married an Irish girl, the Scotsman married an Irish girl, the Englishman married an Irish girl and so indeed did the Irishman. Moody Irish souls given to dark thinking roost in both branches of my family-tree, and I feel within myself the potential for destruction in the unchecked morose spirit. But my Pop, Irish on his mother’s side, represents the other Irish stereotype; the cheerful, twinkly eyed, laugh-in-the-face-of-your-problems kind. Or perhaps it was the jolly German in him responsible for these qualities I so fondly remember? In the end, it’s most accurate to say that dear Pop himself was this irrepressible spirit, and I was lucky to have his early example.

It’s said that “a well-balanced Australian has a chip on each shoulder” but my Pop was as well-balanced a man as I’ve ever known, Australian or otherwise, yet had no chips at all, that I could see, even though the hard circumstance of his life could easily have put them there. As with any of his other chores, he industriously brushed them aside and got on with living his life with a playful sense of humour, which is the best survival mechanism there is. (And the more serious your situation, the more healing humour actually becomes, I have found).

So, I am both blessed and grateful, that the tiny, dapper devil of that long-ago street photograph, instead of doing other things, married yet another Irish girl and, unlike the parent who abandoned him in his own childhood, stayed around to enrich the lives of the children he had with her, and the lives of all his many grandchildren, of which I am one.
my grandfather’s hands
Jack Baker
1911-2000

Oct 012013
 

As a child, going to the cinema was special. Seeing even a crummy movie back then was somehow way more fun than seeing an absolutely amazing movie is for me today. Of course, my childhood was in the pre-video era, when perhaps the anticipation of a movie and the fond memories of it afterward were greater than they are now, even though the movies themselves were less spectacular by far. Having no video, I could not replay the movies I liked whenever I wanted. I saw them only once and then they were gone, continuing only in my mind where they often grew over time into something much more fascinating than the movie that inspired them.

These days, we guzzle at the media-trough, day-in day-out, and forget those leaner times. Compared with the children of today I was media malnourished; we didn’t have an X-Box, 100 TV channels or a library of streaming video to choose from at home. There were only two TV channels in my home town, and one of those didn’t broadcast till after lunch, when you’d get hours of boring cricket, and even that would be in black and white. (Australia didn’t get colour TV till about 1975 and my family not till years after that).

So, for colour entertainment, there were really only two ways to go. My very earliest memories of movie-going are of the Drive-In, in a car packed with crying younger siblings. Or, for a more refined viewing experience, there was the Cinema, where on special occasions, Dad would take me on a lad’s night out. In my home town, the movie palace was the old 1920s CAPITOL THEATRE, where Dad watched films when he was growing up, and I experienced a lot of my great movie memories too, including seeing my first JAMES BOND film with Dad. My vivid memories of cinema-going start with DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER at the age of 7 and I had not seen anything like it.

I remember we walked the few blocks to the “THE PICTURES” one summer evening, probably in early 1972. Dad bought our Maltesers, Jaffas and Fantales, we took our seats and when the house lights went down, we watched the cartoon. I get my love of cartoons, which ultimately led me to working in animation myself, from my Dad. My Mum never “got” cartoons. (I am reminded of the time Dad and I laughed so hard at a BUGS BUNNY cartoon on the Telly, that Mum stomped out of the kitchen, mixing bowl still in hand, to see what the hilarity was about. After alternately staring blank-faced at the cartoon, and watching us kack ourselves with laughter, she sighed in resignation to this mystery and went away none the wiser.) Anyway, it saddens me that nowadays cinemas show commercials instead of cartoons, but they were still dependably shown at the cinema when I was little, to our great enjoyment. With any luck the cartoon that day would have been by WARNER BROTHERS (maybe even the beloved Bunny) then after some brief COMING SOON info, the movie itself finally began. I leaned forward to watch…

CRASH! A judo guy is hurled through a window. BASH! A man in dark glasses is choked and gruffly interrogated by a mystery man. Wait, now there’s a pretty lady in a bikini. We finally meet the mystery man; an intense-looking bloke with cranky eyebrows in a polyester safari suit, who inexplicably strangles the friendly bikini lady with her own bikini top. (!?) In the next scene, eyebrows-man is confronted by the bloke he seeks; a smug-looking man flanked by henchmen, their guns understandably leveled at violent eyebrow-man, who suddenly steams fiercely about the place, stabbing the henchmen; THUNK! THUNK! Then, in a scene I remember most vividly, he tosses smug-man into a vat of molten mud. (Wow.) And all of this before the opening titles, which featured a diamond encrusted cat and silhouettes of cavorting and bejeweled naked ladies.

That was a lot to process for someone more used to DOCTOR DOLITTLE (seen on a previous boys’ movie night). Amazingly to me at the time, I soon discovered that the cranky guy with the eyebrows, who single-handedly provoked this non-stop sequence of unexplained violence, was the “goodie” of this movie; James Bond. He was a “real” person but capable of unloading just as much cartoon violence as Bugs Bunny and, unlike the rabbit, when he despatched his foes in outrageous ways, they bled and stayed very dead. This was a new idea.

DAF_Bond

I’m not even sure if Dad himself knew what was in store for us when he bought our tickets. Had he ever seen a Bond movie before? Perhaps not. I seem to remember him squirming uncomfortably in his seat as Sean Connery did his baddie-murdering and lady-strangling. This must have been a much racier evening than Dad had planned for his 7 year old son, who was transfixed in goggle-eyed amazement nevertheless. I had absolutely no idea what it was all about, but unlike DOCTOR DOLITTLE, which has almost evaporated from my memory completely, I sat at the very edge of my seat engrossed in finding out what this naughty fellow got up to next. It was some grownup code that needed deciphering, especially the scenes with pretty ladies that had, to my 7 year old brain, a weird undefinable something extra that I could not fathom..

A much later viewing in my adulthood identified this mystery element as a cheesy, nudge-nudge-wink-wink 1970s kitsch-eroticism, only one notch up the bogus-innuendo scale from Benny Hill. With the easy review-ability of LAZER DISC, I had decided, along with my friend ROBERT, to watch all the Bond movies in order over several days. We both had dim, fond memories of seeing a few of these films in our childhoods, and seeing them ALL seemed a grand idea. However, like an all-you-can-eat challenge at the neighborhood Hof Brau, that once-grand idea soon fills you with regret and nausea when you are at half way, and will ultimately break you completely. Fond memories or not, we simply could not chew our way through all the pap. (For the record, Roger Moore was the greasy plate of macaroni and beef that sent us scuttling to the lavatory).

Seeing these Bond movies again was a revelation. Some were cheesy-but-good, one or two were actually good-good, but the vast majority were just plain silly. As for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, it was revealed to be the most lackluster of Sean Connery’s Bond movies by far. He was beyond his sleek, 1960s, dangerous-panther phase, and had not yet reached his later, 1980s, silver-fox phase. It was those awkward in-between years; his 1970s, bored, toupee-and-girdle phase. The film had little of the danger I had remembered, and was actually tame compared to what children watch today, almost AUSTIN POWERS.

I rather preferred the deadliness of the film I had carried around in my head since childhood, and perhaps that’s the secret to Bond’s success? Maybe this film series lives so vividly because we’ve EACH selected our favourite dishes from the Bond buffet table; the best baddie, best helicopter chase, most vivacious babe, most bruising brawl, greatest gizmo and the best Bond-actor, and assembled in our minds a custom-made, mega-meta-movie platter all along?

So rather than overwrite that old memory of being enthralled at the age of 7, with the unimpeachable evidence that the film is actually pretty shoddy, with a puffy lead actor who barely performs above a yawn, I prefer to keep the thrilling memory of the movie experience I had in my head all those years: Me at the age of 7, with my Dad on a boys night out to see a great movie! Vividly-remembered scenes of James Bond brawling in a swimming pool with not one but TWO kung fu bikini girls, WOW! And that deadly fight in a lift, COOL! What about that stunt with a car going though a skinny alleyway? YEAH! And what’s going on with those two very creepy assassin guys? Hey Dad, maybe we shouldn’t talk about it too much, because Mum wouldn’t “get it”, don’t you think?

It’s the stuff that a cuddly childhood memory is made of.

Dogmatic vs Dogcentric

 Posted by on September 13, 2013  Baker's Dozen, Family, Lefties, WRITING
Sep 132013
 

marie-therese

When I was in grade two of Catholic primary school, we started to take catechism classes where such profound notions as ‘Souls’ and ‘Immortality’ were being bandied about, not to mention the biggies; ‘Heaven’, ‘Hell’ and ‘God’. Both in the classroom and out in the playground, there was much discussion about these concepts and the ground rules that went with them. This was all a part of the build-up to our First Holy Communion.

An old war-hammer dressed in a veil known as Sister MT (who was old enough to have taught when my Dad was a child, in a bygone age) was the person chosen to lead this little group of wide-eyed 8 year olds into the spirit realm. Her prime qualifications for this delicate mission were that she was a nun and breathing. Apart from those two admirable qualities I could not imagine a person less qualified to introduce the subtle and complex world of the afterlife and its mysteries to such an impressionable group of young minds. In today’s lingo we might say that she lacked ‘people skills’ or ‘emotional intelligence’.

It was taken as a given that Heaven existed and was a place that we all wanted to go to, and Sister MT explained that requirement Number One was a soul, no one was getting past the guards into this exclusive paradise without one of those. Thankfully though, we each got kitted out with a soul at birth by the grace of God and not only that, thanks to our parents we were also Baptized which was requirement Number Two. So far so good. But apparently the Baptism wasn’t really sealed until ratified with a new pledge made of our own free will, which brought us to step Number Three; preparations for our First Holy Communion, and where we were on that particular day.

Many people at this point in their spiritual development may wrestle with the exclusivity; what about the un-baptised? the Hindu? the Moslem? Or even what about the Atheists? My mind didn’t stretch that far at the age of 8 partly because I didn’t realize that anyone other than Catholics even existed. I had never met one (that I was aware of anyway). No, the big hurdle for me in this whole HEAVEN caper was, what happens to my dog JOCK?

I remember right there in class counting off all the people I cared about the most, my family, my friend Stephen.. and everyone except my dog Jock were covered by the rules we had learned so far. I was pretty sure that nobody had ever baptized Jock, after all, we had only picked him up at the pound not so long ago, and if they hadn’t baptized him there how was he going to get in to Heaven? Jock may or may not have been my number one favourite person on planet Earth at that time (please don’t force me to pick) but let’s say that if I had to choose 10 people to rescue from the fires of hell then Jock would have DEFINITELY been on the list, and I couldn’t imagine Heaven being heavenly without him.

So, I wanted to find out what I needed to do to get my dog Jock baptized, so I could then get him his communion and he could get to heaven too. I put up my hand and when she stopped to acknowledge me, I asked Sister MT that question. Unfortunately for me, it was not an empathetic, spiritual guru I was talking to that day, it was the angry drill sergeant from ‘Full Metal Jacket’.

The specifics of her actual response escape me now, just as the moment of a bomb detonation later becomes hazy to those who stood at ground zero.. but it was fiery and contemptuous, laced with an undertone of ridicule and an aftertaste of acid. Sister MT made it quite clear that Jock, nor any other dog neither, didn’t have a soul and that as a consequence of this design by The Maker, Jock was denied entry to Heaven.

To say I was ‘stunned’ doesn’t describe it. I was devastated and then crushed, turned inside-out, then peeled like a banana and then after all that yeah, I was stunned… It was a pretty big existential crisis that’s for sure, certainly the first time that some crumminess in my own life was indicative of a system-wide, stacked-deck throughout the entire universe.

I know, I know… I didn’t even think of all the other stuff, like if heaven is full of Sister MT type people do you really want to spend eternity there? That thought did occur to me much later on, but at this point in my life I was operating under the assumption that Heaven was marvelous, we were all going and my dog Jock, who I loved, wasn’t allowed in. To any devout atheists out there, I understand that this Catholic-stuff is hard to grasp but to understand my state of mind back then you need to think of this scenario:

‘Yeah, we are all going to this awesome party, wanna come? No, your best friend isn’t invited. In fact don’t even ask about him, Ok? just asking about him makes us think that you aren’t cool enough to come too and we should invite someone cooler. And by the way, anyone NOT at the party is going to be incinerated… coming?’

Anyway, I no longer remember what exactly happened immediately after this devastating spiritual mauling. I may have tearfully rushed home after that class was done with. Or, I may have stayed in school like a zombie for the rest of the day till all my classes were over… that part I am now unsure of. The sequence of the memories I have left flows like this:

1. I’m at school learning about souls.
2. I am skull-raped by a nun (see above).
3. Next, I am tearfully trudging home like some tiny existential philosopher poet, with the weight of a cruel, twisted universe on his narrow shoulders, each step heavier than the last.

The next well-remembered scene in this tragic screenplay is that I am at home, sitting on our back step, clutching my dog Jock to my sobbing bosom with both arms, bawling and blubbering and rocking him to and fro, as if to shield him from the inky oblivion that was his sole birthright. The only English words that Jock understood apart from his name were ‘sit’ and ‘shake’ but he knew enough body-language to see that something pretty heinous was afoot, and he sat there patiently letting me wail myself into a frenzy, occasionally licking some of the blubber-snot off of my face, and doing what he could to comfort me, wagging his tail and so on.

The scene is touchingly funny to me now, sitting here, writing this and remembering it all from the vantage point of an adult well over 40 years later, and especially from the further distance of being at the atheist-end of the agnostic-spectrum (which is to say that I don’t really know what I believe any more). But I still remember the emotions from that moment, the despair and hopelessness, the anger at the cruel injustice of it all. I was wracked with anguish on that day. Whatever the nun might say, Jock was very much a person to me and I held him to me tightly. So this is how my mother must have seen me from the kitchen window.

She came outside and sat next to me on the back step and tried to get to the bottom of what was going on. Through wrenching, full-body sobs and gasping intakes of air, I tried to explain to her the cruel sham that was going down; The incompetence of the universe, the twisted coldness of it all, I didn’t want to go to heaven if Jock wasn’t going to go too, and the Sister said he couldn’t, and why didn’t God make him with a soul and.. and.. all that stuff… There just wasn’t any way around this problem.

Consider my Mum’s predicament here; she would have been deeply peeved that I had been so callously treated, but she probably didn’t want to openly contradict the nun who had reduced me to tears by saying that my beloved dog would not enter Heaven. Besides which, Mum may have even agreed with Sister MT’s No Pets policy, who can say? At the same time, she was a compassionate person and not too busy to see that a child’s problems are sometimes the very biggest issues of all, such as on that particular day, when the big question was this; do we live in a Just Universe, or not? The little person that I was back then was having his universe cracked open on the back of this very question.

Mum knew that sometimes saying nothing, but just being there with a hug and some simple reassuring sounds, was all that it took to cheer someone up. But if they moved beyond misery to despair and the situation called for something insightful to be said, she was equal to that task too. She reassured me that Jock would indeed be going to Heaven. To which I wailed that the Sister explained the rules and it just wasn’t going to happen. Mum said that the Sister was explaining the rules for HUMAN Heaven, Jock is going to DOG HEAVEN. My blubbering stopped.

Dog Heaven? (Says I). Why yes, it’s right next door to Human Heaven, (Mum says) and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we can visit them, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays the dogs can visit us! (Sundays, everyone has the day off).

All in a trice, the burden was lifted and the universe was a benevolent place once again. We would BOTH go to heaven, one each, side by side! My mind raced with the possibilities.. Why, here at our house, didn’t Jock sleep outside, under the tank-stand while I slept inside the house in my bed? Yet we played together just fine didn’t we? (not to mention the fact that he snuck in my window each night and ACTUALLY slept on my bed, when no one was looking). I felt that a similar arrangement could be possibly figured out in Heaven. Wonderful!

Did my Mum cook up ‘Dog Heaven’ and its universe-changing, philosophical, get-out-of-jail-free card on the spot? Or did we together workshop the concept and all its rules, perhaps over the next few days of excited mother-son conversation? I don’t remember, but thinking about it now, it seems likely, memory is a slippery thing. I only know that in the memory that comes down to me across the years, the metaphysical idea that made me once again happy to live in the universe was hatched right then and there on our back step by my Mum.

This is a bittersweet and happy/sad memory for me. Two of the beings that gave me the most comfort in my childhood are intertwined in this memory, and there are so many layers and threads to it; my feelings from the time and my feelings towards their memory now, based on the fact that these two were both taken away from me, many years before I was done with either of them.. though not before they each gave me so much.

One Year

 Posted by on September 7, 2013  Drawings, Updates
Sep 072013
 

Today marks exactly one year to the day since I posted in this here blog. The first few months of that hiatus were purely due to being very busy at work and therefore having nothing much to show for myself, creatively speaking.

dog_patch

But early last December, I happily broke the sketching-drought with a sketching day with that ever-inspirational fellow, Mr Matt Jones, when we both wandered through the Waterfront and Dogpatch region of San Francisco for a very pleasant afternoon.

old_pier

Then, later in the month, Julia and I went on a road trip with our pal Ted Mathot, specifically to see the MUCHA show (in Cedar Rapids Iowa, of all places). It was a very fun trip, and needless to say seeing the artwork of MUCHA in person was highly inspirational. Eating at a few nice restaurants in Chicago didn’t hurt either, and best of all I did more sketching. The slump was well and truly broken.

croc

In fact, over the Christmas holiday break, I was just about to scan and post the bounty of my recent sketches here in my blog when I was flattened by the ’medical emergency’ that explains the next eight months of my silence here. My mind has been elsewhere for quite some time.

Lincoln

I’m only now getting back on my feet and I still have a long way to go before I’m even close to 100%, but at least I can operate a scanner. So without further ado, here are my Dogpatch doodles and Chicago sketches, the latter done just prior to Christmas at the famous Field Museum (and what a marvelous place it is).

trail

It will be some time before I can draw properly again, so any drawings you see over the next few months will most likely be from the archive, unless I actually like some of the left-handed drawings I have been trying to do, in which case I may post one or two of those. We shall have to see how it goes.

saiga

A recent creative goal, and focus of this blog up till last Christmas, was to do more sketching from life, with an eye to realism (rather than the cartoons that come naturally to me). Now it is time to put that particular creative goal to the side for a little while and concentrate on other things.

hyena

I may do a little writing, so don’t be surprised if that becomes the focus of the blog for a while. I have it in mind to assemble a book of anecdotes from my childhood (I have posted some here before) and there has never been a better time to finish that project than right now.

mandrill

It’s good to be back.