Saturday, September 15, 2012

Onward and Upward

Another bike ride today. 26 miles. Season total 443. 500 is looking very possible!

9/11: Never Forget, But Stop Dwelling

from The Onion
I never expect to get much love for the position I've taken over the last several years on the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Let's make it clear: I believe we should never forget (as if anyone could). However, I also believe there's a difference between dignified remembrance and spineless, self-indulgent emotionalism (which The Onion brilliantly spoofs in the picture here).

As I have mentioned in previous posts (often with plenty of vitriol), I believe that 11 years, a million memorials, and two wars should have sated our need to sentimentalize the attacks. By now, we should be able to look at them in a far more rational manner and bring a shred of dignity to our feelings about them.

This kind of shift in viewing tragedy of any kind is how we learn from tragedy. I have found that when I look back on the attacks I have a change of mind about some of the decisions we made as a country. While I was never in favor of the war on Iraq and never believed there were weapons of mass destruction there, I was completely gung-ho about attacking Afghanistan. I did have some questions about whether an all-out invasion was the right route, but I wholeheartedly supported Bush in his plans. Looking back now, with a more rational mindset, I think it's hard to think I was right. It's hard to justify the invasion. Of course, I don't blame Bush and I still believe taking the Taliban out was the right thing to do. My rethinking here is that - in retrospect - the full-scale invasion as the means of taking out the Taliban was clearly about a sensible and effective as using a baseball bat to swat a fly in a china shop.

Naturally, I can't make any point of this kind around the anniversary of the attacks without provoking a flood of outraged emotion. Nevertheless, I still believe that rather than continuing to enshrine 9-11 and its aftermath in a halo of immaculate holiness we should step back and learn from it. What have I learned? Rash emotional responses are rarely the best ones. Examples: the invasion we used to eliminate the Taliban, the ridiculous war in Iraq which ballooned our debt, and the way many people gleefully supported the Patriot Act even though it blatantly pissed on the fundamental American rights our founding fathers fought and died for. These were all terrible mistakes that cannot be justified by anything. No, not even the 9-11 attacks. And we made them by shutting off our brains and letting emotion and anger carry us away (of course, many US citizens' brains are pretty much in the power-off position as a rule, but that's another post).

To illustrate this, I would point to the group of loonies in the Mideast who are over-reacting to a video made by a bigoted US citizen. Many US citizens who are appalled at this disgustingly emotional and irrational response should take a much closer look at it, because it's exactly the same mindset many of them had (and unfortunately still have) to 9-11. It's a sort of 'anything goes as long as it's in the name of 9-11' mentality. Just change one word and you have 'anything goes as long as long as it's in the name of Allah'. Just as this mentality is leading some misguided people in other countries to acts of violence, it led the US into two disastrous wars while abandoning the principles that supposedly made the US better than the terrorists who attacked us.

But maybe there's hope. This past week, NBC broke from the herd in a very important - and potentially constructive - way. While every other network mechanically catered to the rank sentimentality of their viewers by once again re-airing footage from 9-11, NBC did not. In fact, they went way over to the other side and aired an interview with one of the reliably air-headed Kardashian tramps. While I will never celebrate the promotion of such non-entities, I applaud NBC's decision to get off the treadmill of wallowing in an incredibly tragic moment in our history. Of course, they took a lot of flack for it, just as anyone does who dares to suggest we stop wallowing in 9-11. My hope is that NBC's decision will inspire the other networks to stop milking this when the time comes next year.

That's why I posted this pic from The Onion. It does a great job of satirizing the ridiculous level of hysterical emotion that still surrounds this tragic event in US history. Unfortunately, the real tragedy at this point is that until the US stops engaging in self-indulgent pity parties every September 11th, we'll be incapable of remembering 9-11 - and those who died on that day - in a dignified manner. Worse, we won't learn any of the important lessons 9-11 has to teach us.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Staycation Success

To sum up: I kept very busy the first several days of this third Pete Retreat, but then I took it easy on the last day. After all, time off is supposed to be a mental break!

On Wednesday, I went into the city and had fun. Went shopping at an independent record store and spent an hour exploring the dusty shelves of a used book dealer. Then took the el to River North for gallery hopping. Gretchen joined me here. Unfortunately, the artist whose work I went to view turned out to be much less impressive 'in the flesh'. I often find that photos of art often do not accurately represent them. There is always some distortion. Perhaps an impasto technique the camera can't capture or the colors are faded compared to the actual piece. There's always something.

In this case, the artist in question uses metallic paint sparingly on his canvases. This did not show up in the photos I had seen. Personal taste: I dislike metallic paints, as I it makes a work look glitzy in a cheap way (sort of on a par with black velvet art). There was another artist at the gallery whose work I liked, but it doesn't fit with my sense of what I want to buy. So there seems little point in doing more than just appreciating it.

We ended up going to another gallery, that was about 'crafts' rather than painting. Here I found some really exciting work. In fact, there were five artists that jumped out at me and none of them were painters. One worked in fiber/paper, while the others worked in ceramics to fashion vessels, vases, and wall decorations. Although they had very different approaches, what they had in common was an element of nature as basic inspiration yet, despite this starting point, they abstract the inspiration rather than directly reproduce it.

Positively, it wasn't until after I had homed in on which works I liked on a gut level that I realized it was all part of the same aesthetic I respond to when I look at paintings. Also positive was that this aesthetic spoke to me in forms of art beyond painting. This taught me that I can have a much more varied and rich collection by including pieces from multiple traditions. I'm definitely figuring things out!

After gallery hopping, Gretchen and I sat outside and drank too much while people watching. We also got a chance to talk tons and peruse the free Chicago art scene magazines we had picked up. It was a beautiful day, and we just relaxed until it was time to head up north for dinner with Gretchen's partner Camilo. Then Gretchen gave me the tour of the commune she lives in, providing encouraging feedback on my vase picture, and showed me her reel. A long, busy, and fun day.

After all this activity, I decided to have a slowed down kind of day yesterday. I did a 22 mile bike ride (see prior post), practiced piano, did a little writing, and shopped for art supplies and music. At the art supply store, I got extra oil pastels. I never knew this, but the crayons also come in a large size, and I realized these would be useful for the same reason I bought extra large tubes of white and black oils when I was painting. You know you're going to use it, so buying the small tubes is just inefficient. So, now, I'm equipped for more work!

I had lunch with my friend Paul, but he had to beat the rush hour so I wasn't able to get him to sit for me. (Maybe the fact I told him I had no idea whether the output was going to be any good scared him off!). Then Jimmy returned and we went out for dinner to celebrate his homecoming. I got to show him the photos I took of the works I was interested in.

All in all, I feel rested but also that I accomplished something meaningful in this time off. Best part is...I still have three more days to play!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Past 400!

22 mile ride this morning, which takes me to 417 for the season. There were oceans of wildflowers on one stretch of the trail, especially goldenrod. Took a few pics. You can click either picture to make it bigger, but the second one is especially large.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Deja Vu

I could not get my blue-ray of Shaolin (the movie I started to watch two nights ago) to work. Concerning! So, on a whim, I decided to rewatch this old favorite. I'm not big on romance movies, but Deja Vu overcame all my objections to the genre the first time I saw it at the (sadly gone) Fine Arts theatre in Chicago.

No spoilers! Deja Vu is a love story through and through, but it's really about how we make big choices in life. The story concerns a woman named Dana who's in a lukewarm, comfortable engagement. While in Jerusalem on business, she crosses paths with an older woman who relates a fascinating, but sad, tale of how decades ago she met the love of her life but that they did not act on their immediate awareness of their connection. She hands Dana a ruby pin her long-lost love had made for her. After they part, Dana realizes she still has the woman's pin. She tries to locate the woman in Paris without success and ends up - on a whim - in Dover. There she meets a stranger (Sean) with whom she has an instant, unexplainable, and overpowering attraction. Like the woman Dana met, she knows Sean is the love of her life. Even odder, he feels the exact same way about her. The rest of the movie is about how Dana and Sean decide whether to give into this amazing connection or to remain in their comfortable lives.

I was swept into and off with this movie in a way that rarely happens anymore, largely thanks to the absolutely phenomenal acting. I also enjoyed the cinema verite approach, where the actors seem to be improvising their rather deep conversations about life and love, passed up chances, and lost connections. One of the other strengths of the movie is that the story does not obsess about the attraction between the two leads. Are they or aren't they in love? Does he want her as much as she want him? All that neurotic nonsense is bypassed as the film quickly establishes the love is real and reciprocated. This leaves the movie to focus on the implications of acting on such emotions. Through the conversations the characters have with each other, we see relationships that represent the warmth and happiness of long-term commitment and others that embody the freedom and adventure of following the moment. The downsides of both lifestyles are also presented.

And there are no easy answers. This isn't a movie about cutesy Reese Witherspoon who just don't realize she's in love with a douchebag when sweet little Luke/Owen Wilson is right there in front of her (or vice versa with some other himbo and American sweetheart of the moment). Dana and Sean are not the 'good guys' stuck in lives with obviously bad partners. They are in committed adult lives, and it's easy to see why they like those lives and people. However, it's clear that those lives fall woefully short of the connection they have found with each other.

This is the most powerful choice the writers/director made in Deja Vu: there is no easy answers here...and, more importantly, no guarantees. This creates a great deal of suspense, because there is no feeling from the movie that if Dana and Sean end up together that they must be happy or that they will not regret the choice. The film certainly sets us up to want these two characters to be together, but this is because we are caught up in the romance and connection that seem to be pushing them together. Jaglom and his wife (and lead actress) wrote this film to never give us any sense of security. Deja Vu promises no 'happy ever after'; there is a choice to be made and no guarantees that what the characters choose will outweigh what they must give up by choosing it. The only certain thing is that whatever choice they make will affect them for the rest of their lives. Even at the very end of the movie, when Dana has a conversation with her father (such conversations usually providing the audience with permission to expect a 'happy ever after'), his last words to her are charged with double meaning.

Aside from the fantastic story, acting, and direction (be prepared to look past some rough editing likely necessitated by the cinema verite approach), Deja Vu appeals to me because the characters are all very intelligent, successful people who are past their twenties. These are adults: established, with deep connections to the people in their lives, a firm sense of themselves, and solid direction. This exponentially increases the gravity of Dana and Sean's choice and the risks they run by 'jumping into life'. This isn't about the right prom date or 'do I get the guy/girl'. This about being faced with the pain and excitement of a life-altering experience, and having to decide whether to embrace or reject it.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Staycation: Day 1 Results

Day 1 was definitely a success; I was relaxed and happy without turning into a slothful heap.  I'm up to item 9 on my list from the prior post. However, since I've checked off the majority of the list I think I'm free to blow off the rest and do whatever I want. Clearly I spent more than ten minutes in a rational manner, and I must give myself props for completing the heinous task of cleaning my desk

What I'm most happy about, though, is that I finally started drawing again! I set myself very low goals: I was just going to do some contour drawings to get back into it. I was not trying to create anything 'good'. So I just took a newsprint pad, a black wax pastel crayon, and wandered around the house drawing any random subject matter.  Since I was just retraining my eye, the actual subject matter was beside the point. I drew a candlestick, then a dish hanging on the wall, and then a bit of drape. I even drew it all on one sheet, creating an interesting - if odd - still life of sorts. I drew my cat (and the less said about that the better). Then I wandered into the entry way and drew a plant in the garden. It was so process-oriented that it hardly felt creative, but it was what I needed to do.

Blue Vase, 2012 Peter Cholewinski
Oil pastel on newsprint, 9 x 12"
Then I started drawing a blue glass vase on a table in the entryway and...for some reason I suddenly got really into what I was doing! The light reflecting on the glass, the different shades of blue, the curves of the vase...it all just sparked something in me. I completed the picture and ran to my study to get my oil pastels so I could add color. I did a foreground, the background, and made a full-on picture. The whole thing took maybe twenty minutes and...I'm happy with it! Here it is (click the picture if you want to see it bigger).

Now, I'm not posting this because it's brilliant. The composition is totally off (no space at the top and too much at the bottom). The treatment of the vase is not accurate enough to be representational, yet it's not abstract enough to provide any psychological depth. The line separating the background from the table the vase is sitting on is way too harsh (even after I softened it) and distracts from the vase itself. The foreground is too flat (another color and technique in there would have broken it up nicely). Even so, I'm happy with this picture. I like that it just sorta 'happened'. I like the roughness and looseness of the approach (largely a result of the fact that it was too spontaneous for me to realize I was actually doing something creative). Best of all, I like the colors and the layering of tones.

I have little to no experience using pastel crayons, nor did I 'follow the rules' while doing the contour drawing that started this. However, that's not relevant. What matters is that I'm learning and, if I keep at it, I will only improve from here. The main things I learned are that subject matter with color is what fires me up and that I like pastel crayons as a tool. They allow a degree of immediacy I haven't experienced even in oil painting.

I hope I stick with this; the feeling of release I had when I was done and my hands were smeared with color was almost euphoric.

Staycation: 'Ten Minutes in a Rational Manner'

As the official start of my third Pete Retreat (the Staycation), I allowed myself to veg most of the day. I watched Dynasty on YouTube (Alexis is plotting with Rashid Ahmed to ruin Blake's China Seas oil deal!), caught up on Facebook, did a mini chest work-out, and generally wasted time around the house. Not very productive, but it was good to mellow out.

Later, I went to dinner with a fairly new friend. We drove there in his Thunderbird convertible. It was a beautiful sunny day, and it felt fantastic to fly down back roads from Sugar Grove to Geneva with the top down! Especially important bit of enjoyment since summer is winding down; won't be too many more days like this to revel in.

Dinner was great. Good food, good cocktails, and a long conversation about nothing ordinary, just about life and what matters in it. It definitely helped that we're just starting to become better friends. This means that all my favorite 'stories' - which my longer term friends have already heard - are brand spanking new! Sweeeeet!

Came back home and called Jim to find he'd arrived safe and sound at the hotel. Then I ate microwaved Matt's chocolate chip cookies and tried to watch a movie. Unfortunately, I selected a movie with subtitles (I can't stand dubbing), and I was way too tired for that. So I went to bed, feeling like I'd kicked off this rather unconventional Pete Retreat in good form. Not bad!

But this morning, I decided I needed to ensure I was making good use of my time off. In Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, after a very serious scandal almost ruins the family, Mr. Bennet admonishes one of his 'very silly' younger daughters: "No, Kitty, I have at last learnt to be cautious, and you will feel the effects of it...You are never to stir out of doors till you can prove that you have spent ten minutes of every day in a rational manner." To make sure I exceed Mr. Bennet's rather low bar of spending ten minutes of each day in a rational manner, I put together a list daily activities that should help me keep focused on the things I wanted to enjoy doing during this Staycation:
  1. feed Fermi
  2. blog
  3. watch Dynasty
  4. clean desk, pay bills (ugh! what could be more rational than this?)
  5. bike
  6. work out or practice martial arts
  7. drawing
  8. piano
  9. writing or reading
  10. whatever else I want to do
  11. meditate
Hopefully this will do the trick. As you can see it is only 8AM, and I am already at point 2 on the list. Not bad.

Now I have to post this so I can watch more Dynasty...I think this is the episode in which Dominique Devereaux comes to Denver!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Just Shy of 400

25 mile ride...no interesting news to report...just a good ride that takes us to 395 miles for the season.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What Do I Want to Collect?

some of Greta Garbo's amazing collection
photo: Billy Cunningham, Architectural Digest
So now that I've decided to be an art collector, the question is what do I want to collect and why?

These are not academic questions. The world of art is vast, and it's important to understand what I want and even more important to be able to talk about why I purchased it. To just randomly buy whatever strikes my fancy at a given moment means that I will end up with a pile of unrelated paintings rather than a collection.

Of course, at bottom, my purchases would always have one thing in common: I liked them. This is bound to provide some sense of unity, but I feel it would only be a very loose sense of unity. It would be like going clothes shopping and just buying whatever looked good. When I go to get dressed, I'd find I have too many blue shirts (because I like blue) or that I can't pair up enough items into good outfits.

So the downside of 'flying blind' in my collecting is that I'm not really being intelligent about my purchases. I would never know if I was buying a painting for a good reason or just because something in the painting struck my whim or was a hot fad. And, as we sometimes learn the hard way in clothes shopping, today's whim/fad is tomorrow's 'what was I thinking?'

Developing a conscious aesthetic or strategy in my purchases has positive side effects beyond avoiding buyer's remorse. For example, as I have begun to think this through, I feel as though it brings me more in touch with my reactions to art in general, especially when I don't like something. Knowing what my cup of tea is helps me check myself to make sure my negative reaction to a work isn't limited to the fact that the piece has a different 'flavor' that what I prefer. This keeps me open.

Mark Rothko painting
photo: Karmic Voyager blog
An example of how this works is when I found an artist whose works I really liked but from whom I must never, ever buy anything. This artist does abstract paintings featuring several large shapes (usually rectangles) in different colors floating against a background using a third color. I liked the artist's work a great deal but will never, ever buy it. Why not?

The works I just described were painted within the last several years, but they strongly resemble the work of Mark Rothko (the picture of his work here was lifted from a post on the blog Karmic Voyager). Now, if I want to buy a work of this kind, why would I buy anything other than an actual Rothko? (Practically speaking, the answer to that question is that I'll never in my wildest dreams be able to afford it...but I digress).

All artists stand on the shoulders of someone (or several someones). However, I distinguish between someone standing on the shoulders of Mark Rothko and reaching for something beyond him or adding something of their own to translate his legacy into something new...versus a person who is regurgitating his vision and style. The latter is not good art (at least not good beyond the decorative sense). If I'm only responding to the work from a decorative standpoint, then I do not need to be paying fine art prices to get something that serves that need.

This is somewhat random smattering of thoughts on this subject, but deciding what I collect and why is necessary both to be a responsible buyer and to truly get the most out of my experience with what I buy (and out of art in general). Going to galleries and museums will help me evolve my thinking.

More on this as I start figuring things out...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Back to Art?

Self-Portrait, 1997 Peter Cholewinski
Oil pastel crayons on paper, 17 x 13"
As I've mentioned on this blog (more than) a few times, I'd gotten away from the arts and being creative several years ago. I've been more focused on athletic stuff: martial arts, swimming, lifting, biking, and trying new things like hiking, kayaking, and rock wall climbing.

This past year, however, I've felt my interest in the arts coming back. It's why I've been playing piano and consistently reading literature again. At the same time, my creativity also seems to be slowly returning. Every so often I feel an urge to draw. Not sure how to describe it; it's like a tingling inside of me when I see certain colors or shapes.

Perhaps part of it is the amount of reading I've been doing about painting and artists over the last year. In any case, I have some ideas about what I'd like to do and how I'd like to do it. So I bought a pad of newsprint and a black wax pastel crayon. I figured I would start with some contour drawing to retrain my eye. Then we'll see where things go.

The picture here is a self-portrait I did back in 1997. It was one of those pictures that just came out of me, and I think it only took twenty minutes to create. It had been a tense day, and the jagged loose technique I used with my oil pastel crayons was just what I needed as a release. While I'm not crazy about how I did the background and the shirt and hair are too flat, the use of color makes this one of my favorite things I've done.

Perhaps this is something to tackle during the Pete Retreat Staycation?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Pete Retreat 3: The Staycation

The last two Pete Retreats were a week alone in a cabin in the Michigan woods. There was no phone or cell service, no internet, no cable (I unplugged the tiny TV and shoved it in the closet anyway), and since it was fall there was no one around. It was a great experience because I had no work commitments, no chance to hang with friends, and no way to entertain myself. There was literally nothing to do...and a whole week of it stretching out in front of me. I ended up slowing my pace way, way down and filling the time with hiking in the woods, making art, writing, reading, and self-reflection.

In September, Jim is going to a conference for about a week.  I usually go with him and bum around whatever city we're in. (In past years, we went to Vegas and Montreal). However, this year, the conference is in San Antonio and...well...sorry San Antonio but I'm just not interested in hanging out alone with you. So I considered going on a Pete Retreat.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of having the house all to myself.  I'd also be able to schedule a long evening or two with some close friends, as opposed to completely sequestering myself. So I decided to take the week off from work and have a Pete Retreat Staycation!

Once the idea had occurred to me, I was in love with it because it fits with something I've come across in my Zen studies. It's encapsulated by the koan Tozan's Sixty Blows from the Mumonkan. This koan is about how we don't need to travel to find rightmindedness; it's inside us all the time. There's no need to journey or go to holy places or seek gurus. We simply need to stop running away from it. The staycation will help me put this concept into action.

So I'm making a list of things I'd like to do during my staycation. I have to be prepared because I will have lots of electronic temptations around me. If I'm not carefeul, the week could easily become a vegfest of truly sloth-like proportions.