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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Thanks, we already ate

You can get the impression, as a reader of this blog, that I am awash in leisure time. This page, for instance was done at Legacy Village, our neighborhood "lifestyle center" (read: shopping). And the children took allowance money they had not quite earned (unless it could be argued that they deserve to be paid simply for putting up with their parents, in which case ...), and I took my Moleskine, and there we spent a couple of happy hours.

I do not feel like a person awash in leisure time. I feel like a woman who has become unreasonably obsessive about using non-work hours in her own way. I don't need a lot of high-level entertainment, but I do demand time to draw, to write, to read, to walk, and to spend with the birds. I hoard it, and at this point in my life it ALL comes before Swiffing the kitchen floor.

But back to Legacy Village.

So the kids wandered off to see what the fashion world had to say to them, and I sat on a bench drawing. After a while, I was joined by a Russian couple who had a baby and very young toddler in a double stroller. Soft breeze, warm sun. The babies were content as babies can be. I was a little surprised they plopped themselves on the bench across from me, because it meant that I would be constantly looking past them, in what surely must have felt like looking right AT them, and that must have felt weird. Aren't all young parents a little paranoid about the glances of strangers?

If they found my sketching unsettling, however, it didn't last long. Soon this old woman with a camera hanging around her neck came doddering up. She made a point of stopping in front of the stroller, and smiling at the babies. She was eating an ice cream cone, and she chuckled and said something like, "I feel kinda bad, with the ice cream." The parents made noncommittal noises that sure sounded like, "that's nice, dear, now go away." But she was not to be shooed. "I feel kinda bad with this ice cream cone on front of the kids, heh heh."

Good grief, I thought. If you feel bad, then STOP STANDING IN FRONT OF THE CHILDREN AND GO EAT YOUR ICE CREAM CONE WHERE THEY CAN'T SEE IT. But of course, then I felt bad, because this old soul seemed more than anything to simply want a conversation.

She wasn't getting it from the Russians.

"They probably want ice cream," she continued. The parents didn't say much.

"You can have the rest of it if you want it," she told them.
The mother laughed. She thought the woman was kidding.

"You want the rest of it?" The scoop of ice cream was gone on top, and a bite or two had been taken from the cone itself.

Finally the couple realized she was not speaking rhetorically, and they answered in tandem. No, they said. No thank you.

She took a couple of steps toward me, and struck up a short conversation, as I knew she would.

"Are you an architect?" she asked me.

I was just happy not to have to decline the ice cream.

Saturday, April 29, 2006


The thing on the left of this page is an early twentieth century Texaco gas pump. It was on display in the "museum" at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, which we visited in Phoenix. We were there as part of a corporate event for Best Western hotels. The event involved some of us -- though not me -- getting into the driver's seat of a stock car and following professional drivers doing laps around the track at sort of high speeds. After that, we walked over to a go-cart track and did some laps that way. I liked the carts. I didn't like the claustrophobic helmets and anti-burn jackets we had to wear.

The things on the right are beauty products I bought earlier that same the day at Macy's, when my children persuaded me to have my face re-done by Nick, the manager at the Benefit counter. I'm really regretting I didn't sketch Nick; as soon as I get better at quick-sketching people, I'll turn it on strangers more often.

Nick was intriguing for his mix of frankly gay-seeming femininty, outgoing nature, and a kind of appealing conservatism. He noticed a gold cross I wore on a chain around my neck, and startled me by saying, "Are you Catholic?" I said "yes" sort of hesitantly, and he said, "Me too." Then he went into a short monologue about why being Catholic is cool. He told us about the church he attends regularly, with its Spanish-speaking services.

He asked the girls (who by now felt as if they were his best friends) whether they played instruments. Nick very assertively ventured that everyone should play an instrument. He told us he played violin, viola, bass and maybe the harp. He said he practices one of them every day. He also told us that he'd had a career as a child/young adult actor and that it put him through college. He'd been in several episodes of the old TV series "Alf," he said (as one of the friends of one of the children), and that he was an extra in "Schindler's List," and he mentioned a Lifetime Television for Women movie he was in a few years back.

Nick told us all this while brushing my face with various liquid colors and assessing my problem areas. "Are you Nordic?" he asked, frowning for a minute. I copped to the Swedish on one side and asked how he knew. "Your eyes." He meant the dark circles that have plagued me since childhood. He claimed that the little pot of cream in the light green container would "take care of your problem." (It hasn't, and it won't, and I knew it but bought it anyway.)

The strange thing about Nick is that he seemed very wise for his age, which looked to be 17 at the youngest and 32 at the most, and he seemed to have had a lot of interesting experiences -- the kind that would make one wonder how he ended up at the Benefit counter at Macy's, to be honest. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

After he was done playing with maybe a dozen products on my face, he separated them into items he recommended I buy and those he thought I could really do without. This is a very calculated approach. It says, "I'm looking out for you," and "I'm not selling snake oil," and the predictable result was that I still spent too much money.

I thought about Nick later, as we were on our way to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, and it occurred to me that maybe he hadn't given up his acting career after all. He had a certain too-good-to-be-true quality that I associate with people who cast a look at the lives they've led and decide it couldn't hurt to embellish. They become adept at, shall we say, the application of makeup.

It's unlikely we will ever meet Nick again. Because I liked his pride-in-Catholicism and his forceful advice to my children about playing an instrument, and a few other things I didn't bother to mention here, I think I'll choose to believe in the face I saw, right up close, as he tried to improve mine.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Weeping cherry

One of the benefits of going on vacation to a warm climate in April is that it is very likely that when you get back to your not-so-warm climate, everything will have changed. We left Cleveland for Phoenix just before Easter, when the wind was warming but the ravages of even our mild winter still had influence over the land. We returned to find the lawn exhaling and the trees warming to green. And of course the weeping cherry tree at the corner of the house - where once again I hang a hummingbird feeder that will not attract hummingbirds -- had begun to bloom. Now, all along the lovely boulevard that drew us to this neighborhood, the trees are in blossom. It won't last long, I know, and then we'll be on the next phase -- to summer. It's so good to catch the moment in sketch, and to do the proper noticing.

"Blossom," by the way, is an excellent word. I like "flower," too, but mostly because when I was a kid there was a dachshund at the local florist shop, and her name was Flower. Blossom stands on its own as one of the great words.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Taliesen West

On the strength of a hearty recommendation from my friend Ellen, we put a trip to Taliesen West on our Phoenix agenda. Taliesen West is Frank Lloyd Wright's western outpost, and a school for architects. It's built in desert hills. We took the 90-minute tour (delivered by a lovely young guide named Ana). The tour teaches about Wright's philosophies, and what I came away with was how, for very bright people, there seem to be no intellectually idle moments. Everything is thought out, every action taken with a purpose.

Something about this little motorbike parked in back of the main building caught my eye, so of course I had to draw it.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Squaw Pique

Our last morning in Phoenix, I took a book out by the pool. The pool is part of the hotel, which itself practically stands in the shadow of Squaw Peak, part of the Phoenix mountain range. I give you Squaw Peak above.

So there I was in my poolside chair with Greg Maguire's "Wicked" in my lap when a tanned, white-haired, distinguished-looking man asked if he could share my spot under the umbrella. "I want to be by my girl but I want to be out of the sun," he said. He nodded in the direction of a woman sunning herself in a nearby chaise, who paid no attention to him.

Something about him - his size and carriage, maybe, and the timbre of his voice, reminded me of my father. I told him I'd be happy to share the shade, and went back to my book, but before I could get two paragraphs in, he asked, "On vacation?"

I told him we were visiting from Ohio.
He said he was from near Washington, D.C.
"On vacation?" I asked.
He was visiting his son and his grandchildren, he told me. Another son had flown in from Seattle, and the daughter - "my girl" - had come in from Pennsylvania. He bragged on the daughter for minutes on end: her job, how a certain gazillionaire software mogul had offered her a job, how she'd worked overseas for a dozen years and how she was making lots of money.

"We all came in to celebrate my birthday tomorrow," he said.
"How nice," I told him. "Happy birthday."
"Yep," he continued. "My wife was supposed to come too."
He paused.
"Instead, she left me."

It was instantly apparent that this was a fresh development.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "When did this happen?"

"The 11th," he said, indicating some nine days earlier. He had probably been telling this story for nine days straight, and it was likely he would be telling it for at least the foreseeable nine.

"That's a hard thing," I said, but he seemed not to really hear me.
Then he looked at me. "Thirty-seven f'ing years," he said. (I abbreviate the profanity for the sake of webtiquette, but he himself let it rip.)
"Yep," he added for emphasis. "Thirty-seven f'ing years."

I noticed that he was paging through a magazine now. Forbes. He began flipping the pages rhythmically. "Thirty-seven years." Flip. "Thirty-seven." Flip. "Thirty-seven." Flip. The repetition was almost maniacal.

The daughter was still on the lounge chair, on her stomach. If she heard her father talking to a stranger about her mother's sudden announcement, she didn't show it.

After a while, he changed the subject. He told me about his years as a college football player, and of the career that followed. He told me what his company gave him as a retirement incentive ($750 k), then he bragged a little more about his daughter, "my girl." He'd dropped some other detail about her fabulous career, then he poked himself in the chest and said, "MY girl."
I smiled.
"MY girl," he two or three more times. The implication seemed to be "NOT her mother's daughter," though he might have just been fanning his tail feathers.

"This afternoon," he told me, "we're all going to get a family portrait taken. It was her mother's idea, for my birthday. It was the one thing she wanted to give me for my birthday. So we're going to do it anyway."

"That's a nice gift." My tepid responses were aimed at letting him talk without really saying anything. I had the impression that he didn't much care who he was talking to or what I might have to say.

After a while, he tapped my arm and whispered, "I was giving her $8,000 a month. EIGHT THOUSAND."
"When you were married?" I asked.
"Yep," he said. "But no more. I see the lawyer when I get home."
He went back to his Forbes. "No-more." Flip. "No-more." Flip. "No-more."

Over time, he told me what he could of the story. To hear him tell it, there were no warnings. For thirty-seven years, there were no warnings. For thirty-seven years, he gave her a nice allowance and bought her a million-dollar house, only to be told quite suddenly that she would not be accompanying him to Phoenix for the birthday party and the family portrait, but that she would be leaving him.

"What do women want?" he asked.
"It depends on the woman," I told him. I rather hoped he would ask for more detail. I had this stupid idea that I might be able to speak on behalf of a certain kind of woman, and to tell of needs that go beyond fat monthly allowances and fancy houses. Whatever I might have managed would have sounded awful and trite, and perhaps to his wounded heart it would have sounded punitive, too.

As it happened, he didn't ask me what I meant by "it depends on the woman."

A little while later, he said, "in thirty-seven years, I never raised a hand to her." I could manage only the barest nod at this.

Later still, after some moments of silence between us, he turned to me and asked, "How do you start dating at 67 years old?"
I laughed. "You'll figure it out."
"I'm not ready," he said, and I was starting to feel horrible for him again.
Then he added, "But in about three weeks, I'm going to want to get laid."

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Rooster Cogburn's Ostrich Ranch

OK, it is true that I'm still high from the Xanax/Ambien combination I take for long plane rides, and it is also true that I'm deliriously happy to be home.
And yet our recent trip to Arizona contained some of the most interesting experiences, and I'm so glad I'll be able to share some with you, beginning with the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch, located near Picacho Peak, off Route 10 between Phoenix (where we stayed) and Tuscon (where we visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum). We passed this enormous sign for the ostrich ranch on the way down and determined we must make a pilgrimage on the way back.

You park in a lot, then enter a fenced area where you pay a $2 per person admission and grab a cup of ostrich feed. Now it's true that there are also deer on this ranch, and the kids thought the deer were "so cute," but I was of a mind to investigate the ostriches, since I've seen none outside their natural habitat, which is to say in the business world.

Posted signs advise you to toss handfuls of feed in little dishes along the fence that keeps humans one one side and these big, gangly, Spielbergesque creatures on the other side. But the sign also says that the brave might want to hand-feed. I was warned that ostriches DO bite, but they don't have teeth.

Of coure, I was thinking, I've held a hawk that could rip a vein right out of my arm with a single talon without even thinking twice. How hard could this overgrown chicken peck me?

Hard. Really hard. I could still feel the echo of the beak in my palm when we left twenty minutes later.
And yet I have to say, there's something about being in the presence of something that large and seemingly so ... well, stupid. And ugly. And kind of pretty.

We saw one squat down and push out an egg, then she stood up and nosed it around a bit as it trying to figure out what it was.
My only regret is that we left without buying one of the cheesily painted hollowed-out ostrich eggs. It would have made a perfect gift.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Imperfect solutions

Shooting a sketchbook page with my digital camera is my imperfect solution to a scannerless vacation in Phoenix, but I thought it might be better than nothing. A friend from work email-nagged me that it had been FOUR DAYS since my last post, and that was more than I could stand.

We're staying at a Best Western, and my rendering of the inn's pool is just the tiniest bit better than this scan shows, I think, but you get the idea of how we spent some of our Easter Sunday.

I have not actually been in this pool yet. That would involve a bathing suit. I have been slathering myself with sunless tanner and working up to the idea of a bathing suit. I have also been walking 3 miles every morning, but I could be walking 7 miles every morning and it's not going to significantly change my attitude about bathing suits before Saturday, when we come home.

Like shooting a sketchbook page with a digital camera, exercise is an imperfect solution. But it's the only one I've got.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Market day

Doing this picture made me think of a really cool little watercolor that hangs in my brother Mark's place. That painting was something done, if memory serves, by a friend of his in Jamaica. The painting shows dancers in brilliant dresses swirling around on a green of some sort. There's a real feeling of motion and festivity. Great color and mood.

It was fun for me to try to capture the color and bustle of the West Side Market as it felt last Saturday when I was down there buying my sea bass and cheese. (New York cheddar - still a hunk left in the fridge.) I don't think I quite got it, because I edited out background people to keep the design from getting too confused, but when I look at it I still feel the sunny nature of the morning there.

Now we're off to Phoenix and environs for a week of cacti and red rocks. I'll be out of scanner range, but I'll have two sketchbooks, a Micron and my watercolor field kit. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Small miracle

True story.
I planted hyacinth bulbs years ago around this gangly tree in our front yard. The tree functions mostly to hold up the bird feeder. The hyacinths grew in nicely the first year or two, but they've been looking a little scraggly ever since. Bulbs get old. They produce less enthusiastic flowers from year to year.

So the other night, I decided to take pen and pad outside and sit beneath the tree and really look at these hyacinths, because I'll probably yank out the bulbs and put some fresh ones in this fall. It was getting late to sketch. The sun was listing toward the horizon. I sat there sketching and noticing the shapes of the blossoms on the different colors of hyacinth and trying not to be too anal about the drawing itself.

My neighbor's car pulled in the driveway next door. Honestly, this gave me some trepidation, because I was aware that I probably looked a little weird, sitting there by the base of the tree. My neighbor got out of the car, but we didn't say hello. I've only had a conversation or two with his wife in the two years they've lived there. Our dog got loose one day and was torturing the guy with canine enthusiasm while he was shoveling his driveway, and when I approached to collect the dog, calling "Sorry! Sorry!" all the way, my neighbor completely ignored me and just kept shoveling. So I figured he didn't want anything to do with me or us, and especially with the dog, and in my mind I sort of wrote him off as a dog-hating, unfriendly guy.

Anyway, there I was, sitting awkwardly with my pad and my pen and my hyacinths (emitting the best blossom fragrance short of lilacs), and waiting for the neighbor to slip inside his house, when he spoke.

"Well," he said, "I don't know what you're doing, but you sure have a nice night for it."
I was so stunned I almost forgot to answer.
"Oh, I'm just studying my flowers here," I said.
"You're an artist." He didn't ask this, he stated it.
"Not much of one," I replied.
He laughed.
"You like to draw, I bet," he said.
"I do."
"Maybe you like to paint," he said.
"A little," I said.
Then he laughed, just a little, and we said good night to each other, and he went into the house.
That was it.

My husband once told me that he thought I had it wrong about the neighbor - that he wasn't unfriendly, just shy. But I didn't really listen. For some dumb reason, it was easier for me to think of him as stand-offish.

I've long known that a dog on a leash can be a great social lubricant. The cuter the dog, the easier it is to find yourself in long conversations with strangers.
Sketchbooks aren't quite so powerful, but they do have a similarly disarming quality. Take one out into the world - or even into your front yard - and anything can happen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


There's nothing like the neighborhood around the West Side Market on a cold, crisp, bright spring day. The area still has enough architectural integrity to feel solid and vital, even though you'll also see a burned-out building and graffiti. And if you wander the backstreets a little, you'll find green space and birds and vistas. If you look up you'll see the white undersides of lake gulls flashing in the sun.

I wandered around West 22nd Street, which winds back into a bluff overlooking the flats. There's an old Hungarian Catholic church on the corner, and an apartment building that might or might not be related to the church, and little triangle of grass. Just beyond the green space and its chain-link fence is a drop-off. Beyond that, a rapid-transit viaduct runs by, almost close enough to touch. It was frigid -- too cold to draw on site for a wimp like me -- but I snapped a couple of photos. I'll have more drawings from this trip.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Sketch soup

I don't love fast sketching so much because I like to end up with something that looks like a little drawing, whereas fast sketches look like musical scales sound. Here's the thing: If you don't practice fast sketching technique, you can't sketch fast, and if you can't sketch fast, you're really limited in what you can capture in a sketchbook. Or it makes you reliant on photo sourcing.

I pulled some quickie sketches from my book that were done over the last week. We have decent orchestra seats, but I realize that I could take my book every time and still see pretty much the same people doing the same thing. (Hey! Someone should suggest to the conductor that he, y' know, switch everyone around from performance to performance to give the audience something new to look at!).
(Yes, of course I'm kidding.)
I took the book to the West Side Market, too, a place so fast-paced and busy that it almost paralyzed me till I found a seat on the heater in the balcony. I ran into poet George Bilgere and friends up there. I had 3 pounds of sea bass in a bag with me. There's something about running into a poet while you're holding a bag of $19-a-pound fish that is just too bourgeoise to admit to, which is why I feel compelled to admit to it.

And then of course I did a few sketches at my kid's roundball game. I had to put the pen down to applaud. But they lost, so I unfortunately I didn't have to put it down as often as I would have liked.

Friday, April 07, 2006


When I was a kid we took a couple of vacations down south, and during one of those I first laid eyes on what I believe was called the southern back-scratcher, or maybe it was a more derogatory name, like the "hillbilly back-scratcher." The stuff of cheesy gift shops. It was a small dried-out corn cob stuck to a wooden handle.

Cheesy or not, it delighted me, since the human body wasn't designed quite as perfectly as I would have liked. The cob brought a person one step closer to self-sufficiency. Sort of. If you had a killer itch, you could reach it, and it would go away.

It was weird, though, to discover that the cob couldn't compete with the nicely manicured nails of Mom, or whoever might be willing to deliver your itch relief. Unlike the human body, the cob WAS perfectly designed, in a way. It did its job, and it didn't require anything in return. But it lacked je n'est ce quoi. (Pretty sure I spelled that wrong, former French majors.)

I haven't seen one of those cobs in years. Today when I feel an itch on my back, I grab the pasta spoon, which is just about perfectly designed for snatching up wet spaghetti and surprisingly well suited to relieving an itch in the middle-back. Then I put it directly in the dishwasher, in case you were wondering.

But I'd still rather have the perfection of a good-natured hand attached to another imperfect human body.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Different and available

The first rule of the wandering sketchbook journalist is this: Draw what's different.
The second rule is this: If nothing different presents itself, draw what's available.

One cold February day that did not seem to lend itself to hanging around outside to do landscapes, I gathered the two most unusual things available and sketched them. One was a dessicated pod that had fallen from what I think was a sycamore tree at Huntington Beach. The other was a mouse that had been left as a gift to me by our cat Elliot. Truthfully, I kind of liked the page that resulted from my little pen-and-watercolor study, and I'd been tempted to posted it a couple of times except that -- well, it has a dead mouse on it.

This morning at 5:30, just after the alarm, I'm lying in bed, thinking about how I really like to post something new every day if I can, and how I didn't finish what I was working on yesterday. I'm going through old sketchbooks in my mind, wondering whether there's anything I wouldn't hate for the world to see. I did some quick sketches at the orchestra concert Saturday night, for instance. Hmmn. I think briefly about my dead-mouse sketch, then remember how my children declared me thoroughly weird when I picked up the specimen and laid it down before me on the coffee table and began drawing. I mentioned the practices of John James Audubon in my own defense, but it fell on deaf ears.

No, I decide, I cannot post a page that includes a dead mouse. I will look again at the orchestra sketches.

I throw my legs over the side of the bed and get up. I am walking to the bathroom when my left foot grazes something small and damp. It yields unpleasantly to my toes. I turn on the light to find -- you guessed it.

I can only assume Audubon himself wanted to weigh in on today's post.
Anyway: Yes, I stand by my decision. On that day in February, a seed pod and a dead mouse were different.
And they were available.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

You've got me on my knees

This would have been in the mid to late 70s. For some reason, my brother Greg had his drum kit set up in our living room next to the piano. Maybe it was in transit. It belonged in the so-called soundproof room in th basement (decidedly not soundproof), but there it was, on Mom's nice sage carpet. It is as inexplicable to me now as was the brief but sudden softening of Greg's generalized sibling animosity toward me.

Something propelled me to the piano. Well, I mean Greg did, I'm sure. I just can't remember how. He might have simply asked me if I could play the part of "Layla" that comes after the bridge - the soft piano solo. So I sat down and did my best to find the chords. It took me a while; I was all about reading music, and we didn't have the sheet music. I remember him saying, "You've almost got it," or "that's sort of right" -- something mildly encouraging.

And then, after a while, he added the drums.

I can't tell you how odd this collaboration was. For whatever reason, Greg was working hard to set aside whatever thoughts he carried around about me and to make the song work. He really wanted it to come out right. And it did. Sort of. I'm sure a recording of it, if there was one, would prove me wildly wrong, but in my head -- in my memory of playing "Layla" that day with my brother in the formal living room -- everything sounded pretty good.

"Layla" came on the radio yesterday. Whenever I hear it, I remember how my heart took flight during those few bars of collaboration. I remember how good it felt to have his approval.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

System failures

Sunday morning is when I go to the raptor center to work a little bit and to commune with the birds. Today I had to beg off because of illness (appropriate drugs have since been secured; first doses taken; pain persists), and I missed seeing the baby great horned owl that was brought to the center after perhaps being tossed about by a storm. (You often can't tell.) Laura, who runs the place, found the original nest, but it proved a sad discovery: another baby, this one dead. Now Laura is hoping to find another owl nest with babies about the same age, so this nestling has a shot at the life she deserves. This blows my mind. I love the idea of foster parenting in this way, though it's hard to imagine the luck it would take to find a nest with an opening.

Oddly enough, though, I was on the way to the drugtore when there in the middle of one lane on a busy street, I saw a red-tail hawk picking at the remains of a squashed squirrel. I whirled the car around to get another look, by which time the hawk had dragged its find up onto a nearby lawn. It was bold and big, and if you can get over the cruelty of nature part, it was astonishing and beautiful, too.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Begging your forgiveness

This sketch is sorry.

It apologizes for its mishandled values (although it hopes you understand the limits of its culpability, and has a strong desire for you to consider who might actually be at fault for the overly vivid dirt in the garden around the sculpture).

This sketch regrets its overworked nature; it wanted to be loose and minimal when it grew up, but like many of us, it lost its focus along the way. It hopes you understand.

It is willing to acknowledge a few of its own virtues. Clean color in the sky, for instance. Decent, if not perfect, composition.

But frankly, it had hoped to achieve a bit more. So it has asked me to convey to you, the viewer, its sincerest regrets for whatever disappointments it brings to you as you look at it.

And it hopes you understand that it really couldn't help things.
It was someone else's fault.