Your Only Hope

Headlights lit the street beside me, then a car puttered past and turned onto a side street in front of me. The driver braked at the first driveway, reversed course, and halted at the stop sign. The sedan blocked my path, so I stood still and waited for the motorist to figure out where he wanted to go. It turned out that I was the one who was “lost”.

A thirtyish man wearing a white shirt and a dark tie leaned out of the car window, smiled, and said hello. I thought that he would ask for directions, but he said, “I’ve got something for you.” “What?” I demanded suspiciously. (On a dark night, I had encountered few dogwalkers, and that section of the road was dimly lit. There was no one around to witness underhanded deeds.) He held out a thin piece of folded paper and said, “A tract.” I waved him away impatiently. I expect to take a walk in my neighborhood, while minding my own business, without harassment from a fanatic. Then, seeing that I had no intention of taking his pamphlet, he said grimly, “Your only hope is Jesus.” His words sounded like a threat. I expected him to launch into a chapter and verse sermon, but the creep pulled away. I retorted to the receding taillights, “Oh lucky me.”

I hurried home while keeping a watchful eye out for the would-be missionary. Perhaps Jesus would speed my feet safely along the route before the driver turned around and tried to recruit me in cruder ways. “Save me Lord!” I prayed.

I told my wife about the encounter and added that I had had two other mishaps while walking at night. A month before, I had tripped on a raised section of sidewalk and went sprawling into the grass. I skinned a knee and the palms of my hands. A few weeks later, I bumped my head hard on a low hanging tree branch. I had been studying the sidewalk carefully to avoid another spill and failed to consider a threat from above. The resulting tender lump hurt intensely whenever I forgot and scratched my head.

Judy describes herself as a problem solver. She gave me a prescription for preserving my physical and spiritual wellbeing: avoid walking at night. I think that she’s right. Sometimes nature, and God, send signals. Three mishaps in the space of a month constitute an ample warning. Perhaps Jesus is telling me to stay home after dark.

Monster Ball

I’ve been working on a demo drawing for a class at Valencia College. I’m going to have students draw still life objects in black and white. They’ll layer colored pencil over the top. This technique echoes a painting technique used by old master painters such as Velazquez and Rembrandt. They glazed transparent colors over monochrome underpaintings.

Benefits of the technique: the artist can work out light/volume/texture issues before dealing with color; the resulting work looks convincingly three dimensional; the artist can fully explore the potential of using light effects to set a mood.

Drawbacks: the color looks duller; tonal dominance limits the range of colors; as the image ages, the thin layers of color fade.

Hobbema Monet

If you compare a landscape by a Dutch old master to one by Monet, the difference between the two styles becomes obvious. Hobbema followed the glaze-over-a-monochrome underpainting practice, while Monet applied dabs of color directly to his canvases. Monet’s work looks brighter and more colorful but does not create a convincing depiction of three-dimensional forms. And Monet paintings uniformly look cheerful and peaceful. He doesn’t bother to create a range of emotion in his work. Hobbema’s approach allows him to suggest a more complicated and brooding relationship between humankind and nature.

I’ve worked with both techniques and find them rewarding for their own merits. I chose the old master method for my class to give students an easier transition from tonal to color drawing.

I set up a monster ball toy in front of an orange box on my dresser then started with a line drawing. I added crosshatched tones with a soft graphite pencil. I successively applied thin layers of yellow, red, and blue. I adjusted colors and developed details until I got a fairly accurate depiction of the objects’ appearances.

I don’t always enjoy working on demonstrations instead of my own projects. But I found pleasurable moments while working on this drawing. I might use this technique again during busy times as I can finish one of these much faster than a painting.

Birthday Parties Solve All Problems

Ava, my three-year-old granddaughter, loves celebrating birthdays. Her favorite song is “Happy Birthday to You”. She decided, during an extended holiday visit to Orlando, that we should hold a party for all the birthdays coming up during the next two months. Her aunt and uncle baked a cake, we lit candles, and sang. Ava blew out the candles with help from me and her mother.

A few days after Christmas, Ava realized that she and her family would soon return to Qatar. She crawled up on her grandma’s lap the day before departure and whispered, “I want to stay here.” Judy said, “I know,” and brushed Ava’s hair. “We can still talk to each other on the computer,” Judy soothed. But Ava’s sadness deepened. She said, “I want mommy.” Judy said, “She’s feeding Lyla right now. Lyla may be sleeping on her lap.” “Oh,” Ava said.

Then Ava decided that she and grandma would sit on the blue sofa, hold a blanket over their heads, and pretend they flew through outer space. She strapped them in by placing sewing tape across their laps. Alien monsters, a stuffed lamb and doggy, attacked. After first repelling them, Ava offered them sanctuary on board the spaceship.

I eventually joined the crew beneath the blanket. Ava decided that the spaceship also served ice cream. Flavors took the form of colors. Judy got pink ice cream, while I got gray. We licked imaginary cones as we flew through space in a cozy ship.

Ava eventually determined that Judy and I were her children. The spaceship became a bed, and it was time for kids to go to sleep. Her grandparents huddled beneath the blanket and pretended to nod off. Ava brought us toy animals to hold so that we wouldn’t get scared during the night. She gave us Christmas stockings and told us that they were our night lights. Her father arrived halfway through the game. Ava demanded that he go to sleep too. She held up a finger and advised her children: “You don’t have to yell. Use your words and just tell me what you want.”

Mom and baby Lyla emerged from a back bedroom. Ava realized that we would have to say goodbye soon. She ordered us to sit at the dining room table. She wanted to hold another birthday party. She stood on a chair, spread her arms wide, and sang “Happy Birthday”. She cut a cake by drawing a piece of cheese across an empty bowl, passed out invisible slices, and told us to wait for our pieces to cool off. Then she decided that the cake was still baking in an oven. I helped her “remove” it from the back of a chair.

The cake was always too hot or not quite done. We realized that she was trying to cheer us up by sharing something that made her happy. She also was stalling. I cried and laughed at the same time. Ava’s mom and dad teared up. Ava saw all the adults crying. She exclaimed, “What happened?!” Then she doubled down and began the cake cutting procedure again. Birthday parties solve all problems, soothe all sorrows.

Mom finally said, “Okay, Baby. Cut the cake one more time, then we have to go.” Ava gave in once Mom placed shoes on her feet and lifted her off a chair. Ava hugged Judy and me. Mom handed me grandbaby Lyla for one more snuggle. Ava kept saying goodbye as she and her family headed for the rental car parked in the driveway.

After they drove away, Judy and I sat staring at each other. What would we do with ourselves? More crying seemed in order.

Encounters of the Unplanned Kind

As I walk north on Eastbrook Blvd., I hear a woman’s distressed voice rising in pitch and volume. The unintelligible squall comes from a house on the right. I draw nearer and hear, “You cannot tell me that I’m just like Imelda! I’m nothing like her! How could you say that?!” A man, who realizes too late that candor is an unwelcome virtue, says, “Hey…hey…uh…wait…uh…”

I turn a corner and hear a woman’s voice call, “No Skippy! Come back!” A medium-size, tan and white dog gallops toward me. He’s got a happy grin on his face, so I stop and wait. He rushes me with tail wagging. Skippy happily receives pats on his head and chest as I search for the collar. I call out, “I’ve got your dog.” A fortyish, overweight woman scurries up to us. “Thanks,” she puffs. Skippy tries to break away. He’s only gotten a wisp of freedom and can smell more opportunities down the road. His owner sees his intentions, scoops him up, and says, “I better carry him.”

One morning, I see a woman walking a small terrier. She uses a cane, steps gingerly with a limp, and wears a housecoat over pajamas. Slippers cover her feet. Her hair retains its slumber snarl. I yield space by stepping off the sidewalk into a yard. Little dogs bite. The woman glances at me when I say, “Morning.” She suspects that I have an opinion about her appearance. I keep my expression neutral, and she gives me a weary nod.

“Aaaaaah! Aaaahaaaaah!” erupts from a house two doors down from the corner. I listen for a domestic disturbance, but chairs do not crash against walls, bottles remain unbroken, and hands do not strike flesh. It sounds, instead, like someone has reached a high point of frustration. He needs to vent before he explodes like an over pressured steam engine. I reach the next house and listen to a lull of peaceful silence. But at the next driveway, I hear, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” More steam.

I let morning slip into late afternoon before taking my daily walk. A blue pickup truck rounds the corner and slowly, tentatively grinds to a halt on Bougainvillea Drive. The driver parks at the edge of the intersection. Then the truck lurches forward and stops once again. I recognize the vehicle and turn down Viburnum Street. My neighbor Joe, an Iraq veteran who drinks heavily, has nearly made it home. I choose to avoid a stretch of street between his current position and probable destination. I hear the truck’s engine growl, then a snapping noise. Joe cries, “Oh shit!” His truck rumbles down Bougainvillea. I retrace my steps, walk to the spot where the truck had parked, and find a mailbox lying on its side. Its snapped post rises at a slant from a hole. Joe, one block west, backs the pickup into his driveway.

No one at the corner house seems aware of the situation. I consider knocking on the door but walk on. When I return twenty minutes later, I see Joe and another man setting the mailbox upright on a new post in the hole. Two broken half-cylinders of concrete hold it in place. Joe and the man don’t acknowledge me as I walk by, but Joe eventually runs to catch up. He grins sloppily, sticks out his hand for a shake, and says, “Dennis, you’re my best friend!” (I’m not.) “You never mess with me or give me a hard time.” (Live and let live.)

A car comes up behind us. We’re walking down the center, so I say, “We’ve got to get over.” I give him a gentle push to move us out of the way. Joe lurches then wheels around to face the car. “Fuck that! Get out of the way? You don’t know what I carry around in my feet!” Joe staggers and sways as we approach his driveway. His mailbox lies on the ground next to a hole where his post used to stand. I say, “Joe, are you all right?” He squares up, fists clenched and says, “I’m fine!” He waits for me to challenge him then decides to change the subject. “Hey, I’ve got a beehive,” Joe says and points vaguely toward his backyard. I nod. He says, “They’re beautiful and serve a purpose. What paints a better picture than that?” “Sounds great,” I respond. Joe bumps my fist then plows an unsteady path toward his door.

Two Turtles and a Funeral


Cousin came up to me at Dad’s viewing and deadpanned, “It was fun going fishing with Uncle Tommy…except for all the yelling.” (I wondered how candor had slipped through a back door into the room. Vague platitudes and small talk had dominated the proceedings up to that point.) Then Cuz’s brother chimed in: “And the time I caught a turtle and he cut off its head…” My eyes popped, and I said, “He did that to you too?”


The rowboat suddenly looked too small to me. And the shore was far away. Besides that, I couldn’t swim.

My older sister sat between me and Dad, and she had been the one who had lit his fuse. But I knew that I wasn’t safe. Dad didn’t always distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. Kids were kids and were all to blame. Carla and I froze like nestling rabbits. The danger might pass us by if we didn’t move.

We had been fishing on a lake in a little cove. Dad dropped anchor near a patch of lily pads growing along the shore. Carla and I plied bamboo poles rigged with bobbers, lead weights, hooks, and baited worms. The bright sun sparkled off wavelets kicked up by a morning breeze. Sometimes, I couldn’t pick out my white and red bobber in the flickering light.

We saw small, leathery heads pop up out of the water. One ducked beneath the surface, and a wake arrowed toward Carla’s line. The turtle resurfaced, bumped its nose on the float, then dived straight down. Carla got a bite. She pulled up her pole and swung a hooked turtle into the boat. Dad grunted as the turtle clawed at his hands as he labored to remove the barb. He dropped it overboard. Dad said, “If you see a turtle heading for your cork, pull your line out of the water.”

I kept close watch and moved my bobber out of the way whenever a turtle took aim for it. Carla, on the other hand, liked watching the turtles as they sized up the situation and made beelines for her bait. They were so smart! Dad warned her again when she caught a second. He wanted to fish, goddammit, not fight with sharp-clawed turtles.

Carla ignored the warnings and caught a third turtle. Dad snatched up her line and let the turtle dangle above the floorboards. He pulled out a pocketknife, slashed at the extended neck, and decapitated the turtle. I heard a thud as the shelled body hit the bottom of the boat. Dad flung the headless turtle as hard as he could. It skipped two, three times like a stone across the lake before coming to a rest and sinking near a shady bank. He ripped the head off the hook and whipped it into the lily pads.

“There,” he seethed. “Catch another one and see what happens next.”

A Halloween Rat and Its Use in Drawing Classes


“Today, we’re going to use compressed charcoal to draw a rub-out of an animal skull or a giant plastic rat. I started to work on my rat during another class and will continue today. I want to honor my plastic buddy, Mr. Bigglesworth. He was my trustworthy companion when I was a boy. I used to snuggle with him in bed to keep away nightmare monsters. Yeah, Mr. Bigglesworth and I have been through a lot together.”

Mr. Bigglesworth, compressed charcoal, 17×14″, 2022.


“You’ll know that I’m in a bad mood if I bring in my giant Halloween rat and make you draw it. See a rat, watch out!”


“You have a choice of drawing the horse statue, the carved wooden cat, or the Halloween rat…I’m not sure I’d recommend drawing the rat. He has a bad influence on people…I used to hide that rat in my teenage son’s room. He’d open a door on his computer desk or look under his bed, and there it was. I’d hear a loud squeak and think, ‘Mission accomplished!” Got him two or three times, but then he started to expect it…Nothing good lasts forever.”


“I want you to work on that rat until you bring out its inner essence. I want to see beauty shining from the surface of your drawings, the beauty of Ratness. Become one with the rat.”


“You can find wonders and mysteries in almost all subjects. I once painted a landscape of a cinder block house, its driveway, and the backyard tree–a truly mundane subject. But the more I looked at it, the more colors I saw, the more delicate shifts in tone revealed themselves. So today, as you’re drawing the giant black rat, I want you to look carefully at the subtle changes in tone on its claws, on its fat belly. I want you to see the exquisite curves along its back and around the hole where the tail broke off. I want you to look for the magic of light as it crosses over the wrinkles on its snout…Art can be a voyage of discovery. Bon voyage!”

Wishing It Was

I got a sudden attack of nostalgia on Monday. I found myself longing to be a teenager at my parents’ house on a Friday evening. I would have had a supper of fried potatoes and onions, deep-fried fish, and a salad. James Garner would wisecrack while solving a mystery on the Rockford Files. Mom and Dad would be out socializing with family. Pop music would waft from beneath my sister’s closed bedroom door, and my brother would be curled up in a living room chair. School would be over for another week, and while homework duties loomed, they could be left for another day.

As I held a pencil in my hand and felt that wave pass through me, I knew that my moment of sentimentality wasn’t based solely on a good memory. What I longed for was a time when I had fewer responsibilities and knew less. I wanted to be young and naive again, to feel like I had protection from the world. And I wanted to go back to a time when I didn’t know how bad things would get.

And I wanted to be ignorant about family dynamics. Back then, I thought that my family, while turbulent, was fairly normal. We had ugly interludes, but didn’t everyone? And while my cousins seemed happier, more carefree, who knew what went on when no outsiders were present?

I now realize that I was wrong, that what I had as a teenager was a working knowledge of the odd but familiar terrain of our collective domestic dysfunction. I knew how to avoid most conflicts with my parents and how to minimize damage if a set-to erupted. I could read my father’s expressions like a book and see trouble brewing. I knew when to ignore barbs and baited comments from my mother. If the two were in the same room, the situation was trickier of course. Their conflict often generated collateral damage. But I had figured out that keeping silent worked wonders when facing a dual threat. Speaking my mind was rarely a good idea.

In some way, my nostalgia for a Friday night in the early 1970s is just a fantasy. It’s based on wishful thinking, on a lingering desire for what-was to magically drift closer to what-should-have-been. The pain underlying the yearning is grief for lost opportunities. We could have lived in a kinder world inside our home. My parents could have tried harder to put aside their personal grievances for the benefit of their children. But they didn’t.

Longing for something that never was is a fool’s game, of course. It serves no purpose to rewrite history to make it feel better. And it seems particularly stupid to elevate moments when I felt comfortable with a settled state of misery. If I had an actual chance to go back in time, I never would.

I think that I’m still trying to hold onto an image of who I was. Fresh possibilities present themselves now as I’m learning to see my history from another perspective, but I feel like I’m walking into a foreign landscape. In my old world, I knew where the minefields were.

Who Are They Talking To?

I sometimes get students who react badly to just about anything I do or say in class. Even if I ask them an innocuous question (“Howya doin’?”), they snap. They believe that I’m probing for information to be used against them. I understand that they are not really glaring at me. Their hostility is directed at someone who resembles me. Or they’ve made assumptions based on my age and appearance. I look like I fit into a category of people they fear and despise.

I’ve learned to give edgy students space and distance, to interact only when necessary. However, their guards remain up, so they carefully watch me giving personalized instruction. They usually make one of two choices after seeing classmates’ work improve. A hostile student may gradually relax after realizing that I mean no harm, that I’m there to help. They tentatively accept input. Or a hostile student might decide that I’m playing favorites. I’m nice to some students but not to him or her.

Several years ago, one student would lunge forward to cover her drawing whenever I came near. I saw that she dreaded my feedback, so I moved on. One day as I passed by, she complained to another student that I never gave her instruction. I retraced my steps and told her that I simply respected the cues she had given me, that I’d happily tell her what I thought if she’d let me see her work. The student stared at me for a few seconds, then turned away. She couldn’t process the news that her attitude had dictated my responses. Her behavior didn’t change. She still covered her drawings whenever I came around.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that people see me more accurately when I’m present in the moment. When my mind is relatively clear, folks look me in the eye and sometimes smile. I’ve consequently begun to wonder whether hostile students are reacting to more than their preconceived biases. Instead, they might be responding to my mental energy. They sense stormy weather regardless of my external actions.

If, for example, I’m brooding about some past injustice, anger and resentment ooze into the space around me. Instead of misinterpreting my intentions, sensitive hostiles might be responding to subtle signals.

If I engage them in the present moment, then the directness of the interaction weakens their preconceived notions. An open attitude encourages openness.


Carburetor, oil on canvas 18×24″, 2022

My Dad served in the Korean War as a tank mechanic. He spent most of his service on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. His post kept him out of harm’s way and gave him a chance to build confidence in his mechanical and problem-solving skills.

After the war, he worked as a machinist, as a part-time contractor, and as an all-around fix-it man. He did some of the work on our cars and left broken parts lying around the garage.

An art teacher in high school asked us to draw a carburetor. Mr. Wolfe told us that if we could handle that, we could easily draw portraits. I struggled with that exercise but was also struck by how evocative that piece of machinery had been. It had a sense of mystery that traditional still life subjects lacked.

When I began painting still lives shortly after graduating from college, I asked Dad for a carburetor. I put it in a set-up with a pink shirt, a toy pistol, and a shot glass. I thought of the resulting painting as an indirect portrait of Dad. The pink shirt reflected his soft side. (He cried while watching Shirley Temple movies.) The pistol stood in for his hunting rifles. Dad liked drinking Canadian brands of blended whiskey, hence the shot glass.

I’ve recently returned to painting still lives. Dad died a little more than a year ago, and my thoughts have been on him lately. I placed that same carburetor on my dresser top along with two pinecones (Dad was at his most peaceful walking in a forest). The rest of the debris has been acquiring dust in situ for some time now.

Like Dad, I litter dressers with coins, keys, papers, and an odd assortment of things that have no permanent home. Like him (he jumbled tools and supplies in his work storage area), I create things out of cluttered messes. This still life, in some ways, is my way of memorializing him.

Therapy Weather

Self-Portrait 2022, compressed charcoal, 17×14″

I can’t predict what will happen each time I take a seat in the therapist’s office. Making a pre-session forecast is pointless. But having ridden out four months, I no longer dread the next encounter.

But therapy stirs up weather. Our talks have triggered storms that linger for several days. A reversion to numb resignation occasionally follows one of our meetings. Just as the clouds appear to scatter, they gather again to block the sun.

Acute pain, mild discomfort, sadness, and weariness arise at any moment during a session. Or all of the above offer torment during a meeting. I don’t enjoy the strain but am no longer surprised by an abrupt onslaught. Expect the unexpected.

After the last meeting, I walked out feeling tired. The next day, my mind settled into a gray overcast. The knowledge that treatment is a long slog down a muddy path discouraged me.

And I realized that I’m never going to completely get over the root events causing my problems. Memories have formed an enduring scar. Therapy will just make the marks grow fainter and less inflamed. In other words, I can hope to get better but cannot expect full healing.

In order to persist, I tell myself that improvement of any kind offers hope. And I do feel better, less heavy and gloomy.

I talked to Judy over breakfast this morning about the slog and the scar, about feeling like damaged goods. But then a so-what thought popped into my head. I told her, “Everybody’s got something they’re carrying around.” I’m no more cursed than anybody else. She helped by adding, “You didn’t do anything to deserve what happened to you.”