Updates and Upgrades

The house I share with my wife and two children will be one hundred years old next year.

We’ve done our best to update, improve and maintain our home—a luxury in an American city where housing prices are escalating quarterly, I admit, and a benefit we’re happy to acknowledge even as the weight of ownership bears down us from time to time—but the eye, as they say, does not lie:

It is a ramshackle bungalow that went through an unfortunate 1970s-era remodel.

The project this season, beyond the typical amazing work my wife does with the landscaping, is to re-side the upper unit, place new windows, re-do the gutter system, replace the front door, touch up paint.

Nothing flashy or even exciting.

It is exciting to us, though. Fundamental improvements—foundational upgrades—make our house much more of a home, and this work supports our contention that if we take care of our house, it will take care of us.

In fact a lot of my work, be it creative, spiritual, professional, familial, has been in this same space the past two or three years. Hard labor, lots of heavy lifting. Nothing flashy, nothing exciting. Nothing that is going to upend or revolutionize. But important. Necessary and essential.

The house reflects that, I suppose. As above, so below. Within, without. All of that.

Art and Spirit - A Vamp on Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, writing of his conversion to Catholicism in The Seven Storey Mountain, underscores his realization that the creating of art is a contemplative act as one of the primary reasons he converted to Catholicism.

He thanks his study of William Blake’s poetry for this realization; specifically how ‘Blake rejected literalism and naturalism in lieu of the mystical and the supernatural.’ Merton expanded this reflection to the people in his life, especially his own father:

“I had learned from my own father that it was almost blasphemy to regard the function of art as merely to reproduce some kind of a sensible pleasure or, at best, to stir the emotions to a transitory thrill. I had always understood that art was contemplation, and that it involved the action of the highest faculties of man.”

The artistic process, as Merton sees it, is integrally entwined with the artist’s spiritual practice. The artistic process IS the artist’s spiritual practice.

This sentiment, the conjoining of the artistic and the spiritual, has always made ready sense to me, and although I do a poor job of synthesizing the two regularly, the devotion that creating art requires draws on the same soul-source that my spiritual practice (a practice that is admittedly loose and haphazard) also employs.

I can’t at this point separate the two practices.

To vamp on Merton’s ideas, though, I would add a couple of clarifications/realizations.

One: thanks to good old American commodification, we often expect a product from art, a ware that can be sold to the world as some end-result of our artistic efforts. Although I respond to this like any American would (maybe MY novel will be discovered, and I’ll make a gazillion dollars) this notion is demeaning to the act of creating art as a spiritual practice where the art is as much in the doing as it is in the artifact being made.

Two: Merton’s own vision of having once wanted to be known and validated as a novelist—a desperate validation I am familiar with—portrays art as a singular, myopic act. As a younger man, I often held in great esteem those writers who sacrificed family, health, sanity for the pursuance of their art. Merton, who eventually lived a monastic life away from the temptations and the messiness of day to day America, is making art sound like a singular process when it is multi-faceted, raggedy, personal and public – much like the pursuance of spiritual matters.

These ideas—that artistic and spiritual work must produce something, that there is only one God, one religion, one way at the exclusion of all else—reduces and diminishes the many routes, the many small acts, that we all have available to us to go beyond the literal world before us and enter into the mystical, the supernatural.

The Spiritual Life Made Manifest - Larry Gordon, In Memoriam

Larry Gordon was a pivotal innovator in the southern California surf culture of the late-1950s and earl- 1960s. He was also my uncle. Along with Floyd Smith (also my uncle - San Diego was a small town back then, if you can believe that) Gordon and Smith developed some of the first foam and resin surfboards, which, to make a long story very short, transformed the sport.   

He was also a man of deep Christian faith. Although he and I never aligned on the specifics of our belief systems, we did have many interesting discussions--and arguments--about the nature of living as a spiritual person.  

Larry Gordon was diagnosed with Parkinson's over ten years before his death. How he conducted himself--with strength and with dignity--during an illness that mocked that strength and spit on that dignity is one of the most profound models of how to live one's belief's that I have seen. 

Below is a piece I wrote for my aunt and cousins when my Uncle Larry passed away a couple weeks ago. I find it interesting that despite the religious ideas that he and I used to talk about, it was his actions as a father that have left the deepest impression. 

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According to the writer Adam Gopnik, we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.

Larry Gordon--my Uncle Larry--was that contrarian figure who was drawn to faith while practicing faith. He lived by his beliefs, and those beliefs lived in him, infusing everything from surfing to running a business. But it was Uncle Larry’s practice of faith as a father that has left the deepest impression on me.

I have the bad habit of realizing life-lessons long after they’re applicable. Sometimes I find myself mimicking my role models without realizing who those role models are. And although I’m a terrible surfer, a poor scientist, a distracted searcher of spiritual truths, Larry Gordon is a role model for the kind of dad I want to be.

My own father left when I was six. It seemed at that time as though the world of my childhood was divided between those children whose dads had stayed and those whose dads had left. There is in this an uncomfortable feeling of exposure, that you are somehow undeserving, that you are somehow to blame, that the absence you feel so acutely is a detectable flaw in you or on you.

During that tenuous time just after my dad left, perhaps sensing that I needed guidance, the Gordon family took me to their church and included me in their community. And what lingers more than anything else about that time was how being accepted by a family where the father was present and engaged, where the father wanted nothing more than to be right there with his wife and his children, was quietly powerful and beautiful and something that I desperately needed to experience.

I couldn’t have a father like Larry, but I can try to be a father like him. Or, to put it in a way that Uncle Larry might appreciate, I will be the dad I would have wanted whether my own children like it or not.

Make no mistake, I fail more often than I succeed. I’m frequently humbled. I spend much of my parenting time practicing doubt.

In my better moments, though, I try emulate Larry, and the example he established: let your beliefs guide you, seize each swell as a new possibility, be there in the moment, be present, whether you’re stoked or whether you fall, and always, always be ready to paddle out one more time no matter what the ocean throws at you. 

Although I certainly have doubts about my own performance as a parent, thanks to his example, I have absolute faith that the act of being a good father can be done and it can be done gloriously.

When the Drummer Wants to Be the Singer

No one wants to be Ringo.

It’s nothing against Ringo, per se (although Ringo gets a lot of crap for not being as good a musician as the rest of the Fab Four—and while I admit I once thought this, too—I now recognize that his unique, melodic drumming was the perfect compliment to the Beatles’ music). And it’s not really even about the Beatles and their media-fabricated ‘personalities’ – smart, sarcastic John; romantic, dreamy Paul; quiet, spiritual George.

It’s about the role of the drummer.

So let’s pretend that our complex, individual and multi-faceted lives can be distilled into the configuration of the classic four-piece rock band. In that archetypal arrangement, the drummer is the worker, the drone, the time-keeper (the job is different if you’re drumming for Jimi Hendrix or if you play jazz, and there are hundreds of exceptions, but we’re talking about the rule here – in rock music, drummers keep time). On stage, the drummer is pushed back behind the band, and although s/he has the capacity to be the loudest and most distracting member, s/he is the one whose presence you’re made aware of by her or his absence.

In other words you should only notice a good drummer when the music demands that you do. More than anyone else on that stage, the drummer’s job is to maintain the song’s structure, its volume and its speed, while the other members are free to emote, to solo, and to stand in the blare and brightness at the center of attention. As the drummer you are in the ultimate support role.

This is why drummers want to be singers. Why be a support player when you could be the star?

Ego, though, is a quirky, fickle and demanding little beast. Using myself as an example, I often have two conflicting narratives running inside my head at the same time:

I’m better than this; I’m not good enough for this.

I’ve centered my spiritual work of late on my ego. I’m one of those people who denies the insistence and existence of his own ego because I sense that being ego-driven is spiritually stifling, but then I unconsciously operate out of my own self-interest despite myself. One of the most valuable recent lessons has been realizing how much I pin on outcomes. How much of my life I put on hold until X or Y is accomplished. Right now, I’m having to wrestle with my career goals (goals I didn’t even know I had) while at the same time nurturing my creative and familial needs.

What role does ego play in this? What role should ego play in this? I don’t know anything more than I can’t change and grow without some ego-investment. I can’t write books or contribute to my family without some sense of ego-investment. I’m beginning to equate being egoless with being fearless -- being fearless doesn’t mean we live without fear; it means we acknowledge the fear and do what we must. Is it the same with ego? That rather than negate ego, we should acknowledge our ego-involvement, recognize ego’s role in what we’re doing, and then act?

Going back to the rock band, and to the Beatles, and to the roles we all ultimately play in the stage production of our lives. We’re all here to serve the music. Yeah, we also back up the other members in our band, and yes we also perform to the crowd, but ultimately, it’s the music that we serve. Ego becomes a problem when we fixate on the attention that the singer is getting, or when we obsess about the crowd’s reaction. But when we focus on the music, on the music-making, ego finds its rightful size and role and context.

 

Influences - JM DeMatteis

Many geeks will tell you (and many non-geeks should learn) that the 1980s were a vibrant era for the comic book form.

Lucky for me (and the world, too, I reckon), I was an impressionable teenager building the foundation of my writerly self at the time.

And I happened to collect comics.

In the 1980s, both mainstream and independent comic book publishers were pushing the medium to tell complex stories, sometimes with superheroes and sometimes not, typically pairing innovative story-telling with stunning, genre-busting art work. (The first painted comics—as opposed to the historical pencil/ink creations—began appearing in the mid-1980s.)

There was a wondrous, ground-breaking series hitting shelves every week. Maybe it’s nostalgia speaking, but to someone who favored comic books to almost any other art form, the 1980s were a comic book renaissance.

One writer, though, was the writer I needed during that tumultuous time of my life. While my peers were discovering punk rock and ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ I was discovering the writing of JM DeMatteis.

What sets DeMatteis apart from the likes of Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman is the raw, personal and spiritual bent DeMatteis brings to his scripts. Reading into comments I’ve absorbed from DeMatteis, as well as the works themselves, he takes on each creative project with ideas in mind but without knowing where precisely the project will take him. That’s a risky artistic stance in a deadline-driven medium like comic books, and I have to guess DeMatteis has endured his share of sleepless nights while serving his muse.

Put simply: this honest, vulnerable, authentic approach to his artistic process is as risky as it is inspiring.

DeMatteis wrote several influential works in the 1980s, but the ones that made the deepest impression were Blood: A Tale, Moonshadow, his runs on Forever People and Doctor Fate, and his Martian Manhunter miniseries. Blood for its depiction of the spiritual searcher in a world where fallible humans write the scriptures, Forever People for its emphasis on the importance of owning the family you find, Doctor Fate for its contemplation of past lives and the soul-connections we have with our fellow wanderers, and Martian Manhunter for its gravitas and lyricism.

Each of the above works, as disparate as they may be, asks a spiritually-rooted question, almost like a koan. One of my favorite sequences in Blood: A Tale is when the protagonist vampire is transported to modern day New York and embodies the life of a wayward, disenfranchised artist-type who never executes his dreams. I read and re-read this sequence with all the solemnity a seventeen year old can muster. (And I must say that as a forty-plus-year-old, the sequence is frightening for how it accurately captures parts of my current existence.)

Moonshadow, though, was my ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ I read the collected graphic novel the summer of 1989 when I was waiting to finally jettison for college. The confluence between DeMatteis’ words and Jon J Muth’s art is one of the exceptional collaborations in comics. And Muth’s image of the seeker treading the tight-rope is one of those indelible images of the creative and spiritual life that I will carry with me forever.

It’s that perfect.

DeMatteis’ great strength as a writer is that he knows how to pose a fraught, complicated and lovely question, even in the supposedly base medium of comic books. He doesn’t expect to find the answers (art should never presume to know the answers, anyway), but instinctively, he and the visual artists with whom he has worked know that if the question is posed in just the right way, the answer is inherent in the spiritual and artistic journey itself, not in the end of a comic’s run or in the meeting of a deadline.

These many years later, with a literature degree or two shoved into my back pocket, I can appreciate the contradiction in finding the beautiful and the profound in the 'trashy' 'pop-culture' world of comic books. I love capital L Literature as much as the next English major. But we expect to find big ideas in dusty texts. We don't expect them in a medium supposedly aimed at children and adolescents. That element of surprise, of catching you sideways, is what I still love about reading comic books. 

Grace in the low places. Profundity in the seemingly mundane. DeMatteis' work embodies this aesthetic better than any other comic book writer working today.