Space Aliens and Ghost Elephants

I started these drawings by applying irregular patterns of color to rough-textured paper, erasing lighter areas that caught my eye, and adding additional tones and colors. I didn’t have anything in mind but soon saw figures, plants, animals, rocks, bricks emerging out of the confusion.

sketchbook page
Alien Invasion: Crisis at the Border

I saw Louise Brooks (silent film star) first, and she seemed to be fighting a collection of blobs. The blobs coalesced into a knobby-headed alien with six fingers on his hand. Geometric shapes turned into bricks turned into a broken wall. I morphed an upright arm and hand into a cactus, and the fake crisis at the border came together.

Now that I’ve looked at this again, I wonder if the space alien and Louise are really doing a tango in the ruins of a Spanish mission. Perhaps the title should be, “Mission Impossible”.

Crossing the Atlas Mountains: Hannibal’s Doom

Not sure about the progression of this one. The reclining foreground figure showed up early, as did the pile of rocks (mountains?). The lady didn’t want to develop a proper head, and the odd fingers showed up. A snake leapt forward to bite the hand, and a shadowy figure behind the foreground figure.

Thoughts of Cleopatra and oases danced in my head, but the ghost elephants in the background didn’t fit. Then I thought of Hannibal shipping his elephants from Northern Africa into Europe to do battle with the Romans. I imagined them crossing the North African Atlas Mountains (near the Mediterranean shore ) as a prelude to their Alp-crossing expedition. The hand-headed lady and snake became omens of ill fortune.

The technique of finding imagery from random marks comes from Max Ernst, the German-American Surrealist. He used to paint watery oils on a canvas, press it to another canvas, and twist them. He pulled them apart and used the odd blobs on each to suggest animals, buildings, geological formations.


Creeping Superiority and Silent Compassion

I’ve noticed a sense of superiority creeping in at odd times. When teaching, frustration can lead to lapses. I lapse by seeing myself as separate from students: their subpar performances have nothing to do with me. While I’ve done my best to help them, my ability and work ethic would never allow me to slide to their level of mediocrity.

But smugness quickly comes back to haunt. When I take a day off or when the creative fires smolder to ash and embers, I start to wonder if I’ve become lazy, dull, and complacent like some of my students. My behavior reminds me of the slacker dude who always showed up late and without necessary supplies. He meant well but didn’t have much self-discipline. And Mary started off strong and got an A at midterm, but slacked off and earned a low C for her final. She saw no need to climb another mountain after she reached a summit at the eight week mark. Might I start a similar downward glide? Superiority is a fragile state stressful to maintain.

I’ve been on the other end. Misfortune strikes, and I see strangers, relatives and friends look down at me with pity and detachment. Seeing me suffer causes them discomfort, but the pain can be eased by building an invisible wall. The bricks are the following thoughts: that could never happen to me; he must have done something to deserve that; some folks are born unlucky; my will is too strong to ever let that happen to me; I’d figure a way out; it’s probably not as bad as it looks; I’ve been through worse; he must of done something horrible in another life.

Detached superiority provides armor to shield ourselves from participating in suffering. We secretly fear that tragedy might be catching and hope that the formula, avoidance = protection, is true.

Sometimes nothing can be done to alleviate suffering, and sometimes the victim rejects noblesse oblige assistance. Then the would-be good Samaritan can, with fairly good conscience, escape from further effort.

But another possibility for providing aid exists. One can abide in another’s suffering and share pain. Silence at these times helps considerably. Folks in anguish do not want to ponder the diagnoses and may not be ready to hear a complicated plan to change their fortunes. What they need, often without knowing it, is a nonjudgmental companion who is willing to lie down with them in misery. Passive acceptance isn’t the ultimate goal, but first waves of grief and despair must be endured before actions can be taken.

The comforter ends up shedding the armor of detachment and superiority. This takes courage and willingness to suffer. This frightens most people away, and I’ve been one of them on more than a few occasions. But folks who take the risk live broader, more knowledgeable lives. Some glow with a survivor’s joy. They’ve walked through hell with a friend and returned with the wounded in tow.

Booth Shot Lincoln

Booth Shot Lincoln, color pencil, 6×8″.

The actor emptied a pistol into Lincoln’s skull to save the Confederacy. “Sic semper tyrannis!” he cried.

Twelve days later, soldiers in blue surrounded the barn where he hid. They set the building afire to drive him out. Booth refused to surrender and aimed his rifle at his tormentors. Boston Corbett hit the assassin in the neck with a shot fired through a gap in the boards. The soldiers lay Booth beneath a locust tree where he languished until dawn.

No one reported a final speech.

Three Loud Bangs

Judy and I jumped when a bolt of lightning exploded nearby. She screamed, and I raised hands to shelter my head. I thought in that split second that the incredibly loud bang had popped just above my ears.

The wind whipped around the house and torrents poured down. The gutters overflowed, and the driving rain turned the front yard magnolia into a greenish gray blur.

The storm calmed after fifteen minutes of rage but made an unexpected return a few minutes later. The interference in the atmosphere disrupted the last words of the Downton Abbey dowager as the series drew to a close. The sun peeped out an hour later, and the air conditioner clicked on to counter the steam heat creeping inside.

We turned on 60 Minutes after supper. The show was a repeat, so we decided to watch the second half of an episode of Doc Martin. (I had fallen asleep halfway through my last attempt.) We managed to view one scene when a loud bang sounded from behind the house. The TV cut out, and the lights quit. A lingering green glow lit the sky in the west window for a few seconds.

The lights came back on. But I said, “Wait for it,” and the back up transformer blew. Darkness. I stumbled around looking for hurricane lanterns and ran face first into my bedroom door. I called out to Judy, “I’m okay.”

We lit the living room with two lanterns. I ventured outside in stocking feet to survey lights on/lights off in the neighborhood. The neighbors to the west had power, but a strip of houses heading north hunkered dark and sullen. Judy called Duke Energy and found out that crews had been sent to restore service to 1000 people.

I carefully returned to my bedroom and found my baritone uke in the closet. I strummed some folk tunes, and Judy sang along. That killed about fifteen minutes. We considered watching something on Judy’s laptop, but I felt lethargic and sank deeper into my seat. She could if she wanted, but I didn’t give a damn.

We opened the front door to catch a breeze and heard frogs chirruping outside. Closed my eyes and decided to find out how it felt to just wait. My anxieties chose to visit, but I didn’t mind them all that much. They were like relatives at a reunion, the ones with whom you don’t volunteer to sit. They annoy, but the irritation carries the minor key comfort of familiarity.

Judy decided to load a DVD on her laptop. And while she waited for it to boot, I heard odd noises in the drainage ditch out back. Looked out the window and saw men with poles and lights fussing near an oak. Chain saw noises, men shouting. A branch fell. The men clustered under the tree and poked long yellow poles upward.

They mucked around another ten minutes, then the lights flashed on in the house. I heard a printer in my bedroom come to life unbidden like it always does after an outage. The clocks blinked. The air conditioner clicked on.

I shut the front door and settled into my recliner. We restarted the interrupted Doc Martin episode, and I finally saw Aunt Ruth come to terms with the son of a former lover. A little girl got a proper diagnosis. Al and Morwenna discussed Al’s penchant for failing in business. Louisa broached the possibility of becoming a child therapist. And Martin was rude.


Persephone ascended steep stairs to return home.

She trailed plumes of Sulphur; charcoal-smirched dress

Clung to calves; soiled feet blackened Mother’s clean path.

Demeter offered daughter soft white robes,

Dried herbs, sandalwood, and a soaking bath.

Persephone shed the stain of dark souls

Wailing for mercy in the red glow pit.

Dawn rose sweetly, pink clouds, etcetera.

Kidnapped bride opened window to fresh breeze

And turned peach, green, carmine, and daffodil.


Memorial for a Man

Dave Barry made the observation that men are quite simple. A woman might ask a man who appears lost in thought to describe his ruminations. The man could answer, “Baseball,” and the woman would assume that “baseball” meant a philosophical analysis of sport as a metaphor for the ups and downs and chance happenings of life. But the man just meant that he had been thinking about baseball.

This simplicity seems to influence obituaries for married men. The mourning family describes the departed father’s education, work, and perhaps his faithfulness. They almost always say, “He was a good provider.” The language comes across as halting and flat, as if the family had more to say but couldn’t come up with additional descriptive adjectives. Dad had been such a simple creature that few words leapt to mind when the awkward task presented itself.

Or perhaps mourning families are afraid to say too much. Dad might have been a faithful provider who occasionally disappeared for weekend benders: good guy but a raging drunk when the mood struck him. Or Pops may have had a snap temper, a heavy hand at discipline time, and a penchant for flirting with the ladies. Not that bad of a guy, but should we mention that almost-fling he had with his secretary?

I heard a man eulogized by three sons at a memorial yesterday, and they ran through the usual list. Dad taught them how to work hard. Dad was a tough discipliner who always reassured a punished child that he was still loved. Dad loved Mom. I could tell that they wanted to say more but couldn’t find the right words. They were thinking about Dad in the same way they thought about baseball.

But another image of the man emerged from the proceedings. Family and friends had entered the sanctuary with long faces and heavy hearts. But they walked into the reception in a lighter mood. They sat at tables, ate a lot of food, and little kids ran and played. They appeared to draw closer to each other in their celebration of a man’s life, and they did it with good spirits and tender care for each other.

So, the man’s true memorial is the love that he nurtured and spread during his life. He no longer draws breath, but his influence carries on in expanding waves of decency and goodness.

What more is there to say?

Zombie Final Critique

Dusk fell, and shadowed figures staggered across the quad. Their dull, downturned faces reflected greenish light from their smart phones. I stepped around zombie students who strayed unwittingly across my path, but needn’t have feared for my brains. They had no interest in the contents of my mind and took no notice of me. They muttered, instead, to acknowledge the hectoring voices calling to them from the digital beyond.

I fumbled for my keys when I discovered a locked classroom door and trembled at the thought of what might lurk inside. Professors preceding me often left the room in a state of horror with oozing supply carts, easels besmirched by charred black ash, random scatterings of masking tape marking unknown crime scenes, trash cans effusing toxic fumes, and suspiciously heavy wooden boxes large enough to serve as double coffins. Tonight, however, the room had an air of unnatural tidiness and a hush like that of a funeral parlor before a viewing.

I moved a few easels away from the critique wall, wrote instructions on the board, and waited for the Inevitable to arrive. A Drawing II student entered first, however, and we engaged in a friendly conversation. She hadn’t been infected yet. But students from Drawing I entered in dribbles, one, two at a time, and took seats on stools hidden in shadowed recesses far from the critique wall. I gestured and told them to come nearer. They reluctantly advanced but refused to come into the light. They took their places at the edge of darkness, pulled out phones and listlessly stared at their screens.

I began the critique after nine out of ten had arrived. (The missing zombie habitually arrived a half hour late.) I told the students to volunteer two by two to pin drawings to the wall. No one moved. They fumbled with their drawings and moaned but wouldn’t stand. I pointed to Melissa and Tom and said, “You guys just volunteered.

The class remained silent when I invited students to make comments and ask questions about the drawings on display. I prodded them with talking points, but they continued to play possum. I said, “I can wait a long time for you all to say something.” But they merely rolled their eyes and slumped further down on their stools. The undead have all eternity at their disposal, and they knew that I was more desperate to leave than they were.

“Next two,” I relented.

The critique ended early with nearly nothing of help or interest said. I gave back portfolios and told them their final grades. They lurched out the door with nary a backward glance. One left her final drawing on a stage in the center of the room. She had copied the “Mona Lisa” and converted it into a selfie of a tattooed, cross-eyed woman sticking out her tongue: Leonardo’s masterpiece transformed into an embodiment of mindlessness.

I gingerly picked up the drawing and deposited it in a hidden corner. I washed my hands to ward off infection, and turned out the lights.