Can and can’t

I wish I’d managed to push back in the moment, but somehow I just couldn’t pull together something quickly enough that would have sunk into little self-doubting ears. It broke my heart though. She seems a little young for the “creativity slump,”* but there are late bloomers and early birds in all things.

Does an uncontested statement like this begin it?

Then again, I know so, so many grown-up artists who struggle with this very thing. People who are fabulously successful and established in the illustration world will walk away from a table full of not-quite-there-yet ideas and say over a midday coffee, “I can’t draw.” They’ll think it to themselves as they try to find something to send to the editor at the end of the day. They’ll think it when they see someone else’s masterful solutions. They’ll think it if they get a weird email from an art director.

But “can’t” is a dangerous word. For one thing, it’s inaccurate — the fact that you are drawing anything at all disproves it. “Can” and “can’t” refer to rudimentary ability.

What this little girl — and many grown-ups — mean when they say “can’t” is actually something very different. They mean, “I am not making GOOD drawings when I draw,” which is something equally dangerous, if not completely irrelevant.

It’s weird — just an hour before this happened I had taken a picture of something this girl had drawn and sent it to Anthony because I loved it so much. I wish I had remembered this in the moment, so I could talk to her about it. So I could say, yes I have seen your drawings! I think they are expressive and alive and really tell good stories!

I am thinking of writing a quick note to this gal to explain about can / can’t, and maybe mention Ben Shahn or some of Picasso’s drawings, and Who Gets To Decide What Is Good, and To Be Drawing Means You Are Doing Good Drawing.

This will all probably end up expanded into a feature, like the Fennel Story, but for now I wanted to make a point. It all starts with drawing.

*(Here’s a great resource to combat this slump, which I wish I had read before I heard her “can’t” — I will hereafter and commit it to memory.)

Of owls and podcasts

Oh hey — I’m an illustrator, remember? Sheesh, I scarcely have with all the STUFF that’s been going on. Thanks for listening. (Or ignoring, if that’s your jam. No worries.)

I’ve been working on a project with a friend of mine, who is making a thing that sorely needs to exist and I am super pumped that she is building it.

It’s hard to succinctly explain what it is, exactly, because the thing about new innovations is that the good ones fill a very specific need. And often they are so specific that explanations are clunky and fall short.

It is an aggregate for podcasts. Or rather, for the extra stuff that goes with a podcast.

By way of sideways explanation: there is a podcast, “the Hilarious World of Depression.” It was recommended to me by Meg Hunt while I was working on this project. It — the podcast — is amazing. I feel particularly “hooked” as a long time public radio fan, because the first guest is our heart’s own Peter Sagal.

I want to know everything about this show, about the things Sagal talks about in this episode, related blog entires. I want to know what else the people who are listening to this are listening to, and if news related to this podcast pops up I want to know that too.

I got hooked with Serial in the same way. I think a lot of folks did.

It’s like: I want the DVD extras to this podcast. And I’d like them all in one box. And even better if I could combine that all in one place, rather than jumping around between Stitcher, Audible, NPR1, and my (outdated, no longer actively updated) iTunes playlists (which means, for me, jumping between devices as well.) — which is the way I cobble together my podcast consumption.

…Because, if it were all in one place, then I could have a context for the thing I am about to tell you. I maybe wouldn’t even tell you, here, but rather I would just tell it to the in-app social thing, and then have that point back to my own blog entires that explain the events I refer to.

Instead I’m going through this elaborate backstory, otherwise it’s going to seem too vaguebook-y, too disconnected.

Pause.

THIS is the thing that my friend is building. A place where all of this can take place. Where all the STUFF that a podcast builds — tangental interest, blogs that reference the episode, as well as websites and such related to the podcast itself — can just flow into one big basket. Where you can talk to other users — not just an Amazon recommendation algorithm, but actual interaction with other human beings.

I am drawing some owls for it, it is going beta soon, and I hope it really takes off because I am tired of stumbling upon perfect audio illustrations of things that I feel and then having to build an entire world to explain it to someone.

In the meantime, take a breath.

This is the whole reason I am writing all this.

Here’s what struck me:

There is a moment in this episode where Sagal describes how going through a Major Awful Event dulls the other events in his life that seemed awful.

“…It also makes the other problems I’ve had seem really minor…I see all of the things that I used to obsess about and worry about — my place in hierarchies, the number of feathers I had accumulated in my cap from day to day — is utterly meaningless. Completely meaningless and not worth worrying about, because I’ve got something really serious I need to worry about.”

THIS.

THIS is something that I have felt firsthand since the 3 months of cancer, since my brother-in-law’s leg abscess, since my roommate’s heart attacks and subsequent quadruple bypass, since my no-cause eviction.

The truth of this is so real for me. It reminds me of the end of Tig Nataro’s monologue about having cancer. Because what is a bee joke to the (let’s face it) superlative nature of all this tragedy? It is so absurd that one can’t help but laugh — not because “or else we’d cry,” not because “the tears are all used up,” (there’s ALWAYS more,) but because it really is unreal. If I wrote a book right now about how things have lined up since last April an editor would send it back saying, “you are beating a dead horse, this is overkill. Try to pull it back. We’d like to see some subtly.”

I would have too.

And there certainly have been quieter, better things, and that’s what I’m spending a lot of my time doing — rooting around in the debris looking for those things, so that the narrative isn’t JUST overkill. So that the story I eventually tell is nuanced, so that it does have subtly, so that it doesn’t leave a metallic taste in your mouth like the one I’ve got. So you’d come to me for other stories. So people who go through stuff can find it and say, oh, you too? Sweet. Also, I like how that turned out for you. Or, I’m so glad I didn’t have to go through that, too. Or, I like how you managed to find meaning in all mess. Maybe I can too.

Or even just, I like that part where you just walk through the field of golden weeds and feel the wind in your hair.

Often right now when people talk to me my eyes glaze over. Or I seem like I’m on another planet. I am. It is the planet called I Have Something Serious I Need To Worry About, and I can’t be bothered by problems outside that sphere right now. Even big ones like The State Of Our Failing Nation.

Let me live on that planet. For one thing, if you pull me off too soon it isn’t going to go well for either of us. And also, finding lotuses in the manure is tricky business, and it’s something I do want to do. I’m not leaving this cesspool until I find the lotuses, damn it, because otherwise the whole experience will be filed in the THAT WAS TERRIBLE file of my brain, rather than the WOW ISN’T IT INTERESTING HOW ALL THIS LINED UP, or, GOSH I NEVER COULD HAVE IMAGINED THINGS WOULD HAVE TURNED OUT SO WELL files. I’d much rather the story live there.

Hell, I’d settle for: THAT WAS A CONSTRUCTIVE TIME IN OUR LIFE.

Anyway. 

The app is called Knolo, and I drew a bunch of owls for it. I will be hanging them up prettily in the galleries here soon, but she is currently, as of press time, best displayed on the Facebook page, which is also where you can sign up to be a beta tester.

Moving

The man at the corner bodega called me by name yesterday, and I am a little heartbroken that it’s happened three months before we’re going to move out of this neighborhood.

I’ve lived on this corner about three years. That’s not a long time relatively speaking, but a lot happened during those years.

I was informed a week again that a long-dreaded / long-awaited renovation project will be happening to the house I live in, and it will come in the form of a no-fault eviction in June.
This is, sadly, the best of all possible scenarios, but it is still a cessation, an uprooting, and those are two things I was hoping wouldn’t meet me after last year. But as we have been waiting for a long time to learn the real mechanics of this project, in some ways it’s a relief. Now it’s tangible, actionable. We can finally make plans.
Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.
I am trying not to be totally shattered by this. I’ve been remarkably resilient in the face of death, then a near-death leading to a more complicated grieving, and other heavy things. This though, this is something like my Achilles heal. As long as I have a safe, pleasant place to come back to I can endure great bleakness — and it seems we are not even to have that.
A strange tinge is added to this as this is the very same house that my friend who died lived in, the house he and I became friends in, the house where his daughter was born. (Literally. In the bathroom.) So many key pictures that get shared around our circle were taken in this house, on our porch, in our yard. A new one I’d never seen before went around minutes before I got the notice from our landlord.
I am doing that haggard thing of inventorying everything we own and weighing all options — because really so many options are on the table right now for us. But when I walk into the bathroom and see the shelves he put up and I go to pieces. Because HE put them up, and he’s dead. And soon we’ll walk away from this place and walk away some of the last things he touched, and that will be hard.
I find a voice inside me asking heartbreaking real questions.
Will his spirit be able to find us in a new house?
They are questions that don’t have answers.
I have so many questions that don’t have answers right now.

 I’m trying to shed a brighter light of some of these things. The corner bodega for instance. I get sad to think I will leave it behind — an independent business! Run by a first-generation Asian man whose name probably isn’t “John,” but who goes by that name, whose store we refer to as “John’s”. He carries the butter I like. He sells individual batteries and postage stamps. He thankfully carries Pepto Bismol, which is the thing I always think about when I walk back from there; remember that time when I ran over here and bought some Pepto so Travis could get home? We did a good job that day. 

We’ll be leaving John’s I sigh.

Then another part of me says: remember when he was robbed at gunpoint when your in-laws were in town?

And I think…yeah. I guess leaving that isn’t so bad.

Snippets of spring are coming and the house is shining with hope and potential like everything does to a gardener this time of year.

And I find myself wanting to spend as much time as possible in this house that I love and isn’t mine.

I find myself feeling as I did last year when we knew we had weeks, not years, left with this person. Whatever we got was special, sacred, worth while. I find myself thinking the same things I did that year: make the most of this. This may be all we have.

It was bracing and exhilarating then. Now as I shop for replacements on Craigslist, finding few in our budget, wondering seriously if that’s it for Portland, for us, for everything — it doesn’t feel exhilarating. It feels exhausting.

We find one out of thousands that works for the budget and it turns out they don’t allow cats. Or there’s one with a sunroom but no yard. Or there’s one that is perfect — so perfect that if I’d encountered it a year or two down the road, when we are a bit more above water, I would offer to buy it. And it is just too expensive. Not extreamely so, but just enough. Just enough for my fingers to brush up against it. Beyond my grasp.

I prick out seedlings and prep my starts because that’s what a gardner does this time of year, knowing full well that I have no where to put mature plants in April and May. That I may never have a place to put them, and may have to put my tools in storage somewhere, or sell them.

In better times it’s a mark of hope and resilience. Sometimes right now it feels like a kind of futility, like the band playing on the deck of the Titanic. Let there be beauty and light, even in the face of the swirling inevitable. Is it brave? Is it foolhardy? It depends on how much sleep you’ve had.
However. Isn’t it all inevitable, and isn’t it all just for a brief lark in the end? When I can get truly big picture about this I can regain my three months of cancer perspective and feel it is Correct and Right and Just to tend to my little seedlings, and give them every chance they’ve got.
Then I go to the grocery store and see a man walking around with mud spattered jeans and I am shattered. What will I be doing in April or May? What will happen to us?

Scenes from Winter (Tough Times Never Last)

It’s the part of winter that feels like it’s ALWAYS been winter,
She said.

reminding me of when someone else told me,

“I’m in the part of pregnancy that feels like I’ve always been pregnant.”

Endurance
and grinding toil
and holding out
and waiting
waiting waiting.

Even when we reach the destination it can seem too little too late.

Or too much.

It’s been hard, hard, hard for me. Since December.

I could attribute it to legitimate national causes, but actually it’s interpersonal.

A lot of things happened this winter. A lot of things have BEEN happening, of course. But since December a lot of other things happened. Things with close friends — friends who didn’t die and so I cannot freely tell the stories. Not directly anyway.

I will say that one was a brush with death. A major one. A narrow escape. On the tail end of a tragedy we very narrowly escaped another one.

This was actually the THIRD major medical crisis since April, the third time someone I am extremely close to could have died, or almost died. (Or did die, as with Travis.)

Three brushes with death in nine months is rather a lot for a person not living in an active war-zone.

There were other things, too.

These things didn’t happen to me, but came blasting through me. And a month later I washed up on shore, caught up with my external self, and was filled with wonder and sorrow and, for the first time, felt the sharp pang of despair.

I’ve found myself doing things I’d never, ever done before even in my darkest times — finding myself unable to get out of bed, succumbing to numerous strange bodily ailments, feeling no hunger whatsoever, and unable to draw anything, which for me is very, very strange indeed.

I find that I am so disconnected that I scarcely know what I think about the whole thing when I am at my best, and when I am at my worst I am merely blinded by anger, or sometimes sorrow, often fear, and am petrified with dread. (About what has already happened, what MIGHT have happened, and what MIGHT HAPPEN in the coming days.)

These feelings sync up so nicely with the political situation that I often don’t explain it, I just meet others’ bleak outlook with my own and we can carry on nicely.

Or at least, nicely enough.

Lately though ‘nicely enough’ hasn’t been enough. Because there are times when it becomes downright…heavy.

In despair, I talk to Anthony. Because what is a gentle soul supposed to do in times like this?

I am feeling left behind — like if I don’t muster up and do Something About This now I will be irrelevant — because living in such politically significant times yet NOT doing overtly political work is almost like treason. Like you don’t deserve to live where you already are. Like your existence is out of place.

The pace of life is increasing, and I am unwilling or unable to keep up at that speed. “Trying” leaves me exhausted and disconnected, more than I already am.

Anthony reminded me that to preserve the sense of calm in a state of chaos is no cowardly act. Could be considered revolutionary. To be “left behind” in this case might mean one remains unique, interesting, striking, worth hearing. To be different is still useful. Like a breath of fresh air.

At the very least, it means the things that truly interest me are not crowded. Chummy and comfortable is the line outside the Aladdin theatre in the light rain a few weeks ago, presenting my phone eTicket for the first time and for the first time entering this building. To see Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform for the first time with my own eyes.

The founder of the group, Joseph Shabalala, had a series of recurring dreams over a period of six months in 1964, featuring a choir singing in perfect harmony. It was a beautiful sound — very close to the traditional isicathamiya harmonies that he was already performing with his choir at the time — but it was somehow softer, filled with more love, more beauty. He restructured the choir, bringing in some relatives of his (family voices after all blend in ways that friends’ voices cannot.) He strove to teach his choir the harmonies he’d heard in his dream.

I first learned about them on Sesame Street. I have always loved their sound, have always found it soothing, and the recordings of theirs have been a great harbor of solace for me during all these days of turmoil.

We love them and clap so much.

Because they are so different.

Because they are so themselves.

The motions they do during their songs which seems so…right somehow. There is a great general showmanship to their motions onstage, which is a blend of vaudeville and something deeper. To say “childlike” is patronizing and colonial — and anyway it doesn’t capture it. It’s…deeper. Richer. It’s a cultural inheritance where movement and song were never sundered from one another, where people’s spirits were never subjugated to the extent that they internalized “what will people think of me?” as we have in the West.

At intermission everyone seems to be talking more with their hands.

There is a kind of warm-spirit awakened by this music. The family in my row shares handfulls of carmel corn with me.

There was something very moving about hearing dream-gentle sounds from a place that has seen apartheid.

It made me hope that perhaps there is still room for gentle wanderers after all.

This is the song I have had stuck in my head for the past few days, and I find it very soothing.

Tough times

never last

(but) strong

people do

Painter’s Way

I have written before about the Oregon Country Fair, but I haven’t written much about the PEOPLE. The community of gentle, wonderful people that make the thing possible. It’s a large group of people I feel deeply connected to, although I’ve only had the pleasure of their company a scant 5 years (and really, 3 of those were by proxy.)

I suppose that isn’t a long time, but something wonderful happens when you spend 170 consecutive hours with folks, shouldering the heavy burden that the recyclables are — sliding through the mud, directing a fleet of ancient trucks, repairing those trucks, watching the trucks slide into the mud, lifting things, laying hands on every single piece of glass, plastic and aluminum — both returnable and not — that is thrown into barrels (and NOT thrown into barrels, thank you very much.) We call the people who work at OCF “family”, because it’s completely how it feels. Sleep deprivation, filth, discomfort, giving comfort, laughs, food, tears, etc — it all leads to an incredible bond.

We call our elders…”elders”, because it is respectful and because it is a nod to cultures who treat age with a respect that is sometimes lost in the youth-obsessed mainstream. One of our elders began to rapidly lose his battle with cancer recently. We had been kept abreast of events to keep in our thoughts –treatments, chemotherapy, analysis, waiting, accepting.

When further treatments were proposed he opted not to deny the inevitable but rather to embrace it. He did so in a way I have never seen anyone do, but in a way that I want to be a model for my own life, should such be my lot.

Through the listserv and Facebook, it was announced that Mr. Painter would be having a farewell send-off. A celebration of life.

 

The local core members — along with the family — mobilized as only they know how. People were called. Roles were assigned. camping-canopies were dug out of garages, outdoor heaters were found, as were an army of mix-match plastic chairs — as the house could only accommodate so many. And the prospective visiting list was over 200 strong. Casseroles were made. A sign up sheet was made, so each person who wanted one could have their moment.

I have often had examples of how to live, but this was the first I’d really had of how to die. It was the most simple thing, yet the most profound thing.

Pictures began to pop up on the Facebook group, and the look in the man’s eyes is something I find difficult to describe, for it is something I haven’t seen before. The earnest, joyful face of a man who is having it his own way, fading peacefully at home, surrounded by a sea of loved ones. Young and old, time-worn and new, everyone who could make it did.

From his recliner in the center of the room, bolstered by pillows and warmed by a crocheted blanket someone had made, again and again his pure, open face of surprise, delight, at each new familiar face (and perhaps even some less familiar ones, still offering joy, still offering gratitude for having known him, spoken with him). Here a person kneeling in front of him, leaning in. There a person sitting on a stool laughing with him. There a person showing him a collage they put together, or a painting they painted in his honor. Each holding his hand — save the crew member who skyped in from Japan.

We are not as close to him as many are, and we opted to let those who needed it have their time. But I have been following it all on Facebook because it is beautiful, and makes me swell with gratitude that I know such decent, wonderful people.

 

 

 

Visiting hours closed over the weekend, but for a week after the goodbye party updates ripples of warmth and beauty continued to surge through my feed. Pictures from when he was young. Pictures of people visiting with him. Pictures of flowers. Messages from crew members. More casseroles. A recipe for a depression-era raison cake that was a favorite of his. Updates about the man himself, so many including the words, “he is lucid, happy, and pain-free.” One update described how he woke to see the sunrise , and expressed his wish to be reborn as a night-blooming cactus.

He breathed his last Feb 2 — almost two years after he shared his diagnosis with us. At that time he said that, untreated, the doctors gave him four months. He opted for treatment so he could go on his own terms.

What a note to leave on. We should all be so lucky to have the grace to recognize the end when we see it, and to greet it surrounding by flowers, love, and smiling faces.

What’s in a user image?

I have been using Mr. Stargazer as my user image for a long time. I couldn’t remember how long until I had to dig around for the original file in my archive-drive, and found him in the folder labeled…2010. Good God.

It’s not that I feel a particularly VISUAL affinity to the guy, it’s just that at the time I didn’t have a lot of featured faces in my work aside from him, and I liked his wistfulness, his gazing upward towards the heavens seemed hopeful to me. He was also one of the first finished paintings that I sold immediately upon unveiling him to the internet, so that felt like a sign of good luck.

I am also the sort of person that only changes their user image once every five years or so — at least on Facebook, which is the only place I use a picture of my own face. (It feels weird to use a photograph on my “official illustration business” social media things, as an illustrator).  I have so few pictures of my face — I don’t have a particularly photo-happy group of friends — and I’m not big on “selfies”.

I never really gave my choice of the Official Face Of Simply Kumquat much thought until that Newsweek thing happened, and I started talking more with my fellow civic minded lady-illustrators. The topic of user images came up in many of these discussions. Does a person “present” as male or female, and why? Do you use a user-image that represents you, or an entity that the industry wants to hire?

There’s a lot of stories about authors using initials, because J. K. Rowling sounds less telling than Joanne Rowling, I guess. Did you know her pen name for adults is currently “Robert Galbraith”? Not Rose, Rachel, Rebecca, or even Robin, which could maybe go either way. Robert.

On the one hand, I get it, because she’s not in the business of Changing The Knee-Jerk Reaction Of The Masses, she’s in the business of selling books. And the name “J. K. Rowling” is inextricably bound to the writing of children’s fiction, just like the name Lemony Snicket. The difference here is David Handler can use his own name when writing books for grownups, whereas Ms. Rowling has opted to adopt a pseudonym that will hide her inconvenient gender from the eyes of people who think women can’t write serious books.

This idea was further brought to my attention by this Op-Ed in the New York Times, which influenced this self-portrait of mine very heavily.

I am kind of straddling both worlds here, according to that article. My limbs, rather than being entwined like supple vines, are pointy and stick out at angles. But I suppose am looking dreamily into space — partly because of the real logistic difficulty of eyeballs through refracted eyeglasses as I was exploring a bit in those sketches there, and partly because it isn’t about YOU, it’s about what’s out there.

I am somewhat androgynous as far as humans go — so I realize this picture isn’t really all that gender-y anyway, and may not even warrant this entire conversation. But I wanted to mention it because I was thinking about all this as I was painting it, and all the placements here are intentional (just like any painting).

At least my user image no longer sports a beard, so it’s more clear who we’re dealing with when you get emails from me. That’s the hope, anyhow.

#ShellNo

Yesterday morning I put on my big sun hat and went up to St. John’s to watch the Greenpeace protest. It was with an equal blend of civic duty and curiosity. I brought a big jug of ice water and finished my morning coffee there as I marveled at the people’s pluck. All of this was going down — fittingly — in front of the Water Pollution Control Laboratory.

From where I sat on the bank it was impossible to really see the climbers, though variation in their set up was apparent. Some clearly had platforms, much to my relief (the scant coverage I had glanced at led one to believe they were just free-floating up there, dangling bodily in space).

Luke Strandquist, a Greenpeace activist interviewed by our local CBS affiliate (from his cell phone, whilst dangling from the bridge,) indicated everyone involved was an experienced climber. Some of them had hammocks, some had platforms and some were just on chairs.

I’m not entirely sure how their resupply-ing was accomplished — I know they themselves had supplies in their gear, but there was also talk on Twitter of their being resupplied in some mysterious capacity. Which is a good thing, because while you can compact calories to a certain extent, water is very heavy, and goes very quickly on a hot day like that.

From afar of course, they just looked like beautiful flags, flapping silently in the wind. Hues nicely contrasting with the pale green of the bridge, yet catching the light to offset the dark underside of the bridge, forest park, and the petroleum industry. Honestly during this quiet morning it felt not like a protest but like a Jean-Claude and Cristo installation, all silky fabric reacting to the wind. Mimicking the hypnotic movement of the water.

I was particularly interested in the network of safety cables (and, of course, the big boat-deterring cable). All support cables were attached to the underside of the bridge, so removal from the upper deck was impossible. (You couldn’t just “cut them down”, as many counter-protesters frothily demanded). I watched the climbers raise this cable many times to accommodate tugboats and barges, lowering it again once the boats passed under.  All watercraft gave a toot of their horn — either in solidarity or merely indicating they wished to pass by.  Of course by and large the dangling protesters were far too high up to interfere with most water traffic — there was only one boat they wanted to stop, and it was too tall to pass below.

I was there morning to late afternoon — arriving after the boat had been turned around the first time, and leaving just before the police really started to exert force to make way for the boat’s eventual departure. The bridge was still open, and traffic was relatively light on highway 30 opposite, and every so often a car or truck would blare its horn as it passed overhead. The people on shore would cheer and clap. The kayakers would whoop in salute.

Kayak numbers varied wildly while I was there. Visitor numbers varied wildly as well. It was a relatively quiet time down at the bridge. Every so often a chant would start from somewhere, and it would ring out weakly over the water, and then die out.

If anything it really brought home the drudgery that can be holding out. Waiting for the inevitable.

I was only there for five hours, and of course got to leave once I felt uncomfortable — when my water ran out and my shade disappeared. The protesters held out for just about forty hours, in direct sunlight, during the hottest day Portland has seen this year.

That's in the shade, mind you. That’s in the shade, mind you.

It is, of course, futile to attempt to stop something so vast as a federally sanctioned multinational oil conglomerate with thirteen brave mountaineers, but I don’t think that was the point of this protest. Delaying the ship was, of course, intensely gratifying — and it was incredible to see the sort of ferocity that people express themselves out here. But the larger point was to get attention for the cause, and to once again call upon that most effective symbolism for environmental destruction — the human wall.

It was with a feeling of inevitability that, just in time for the prime time news block (so cynical!) Portland Police closed the St. John’s bridge to all traffic and successfully removed two protestors — lowering them like spiders into the waiting arms of the coastguard flotilla.

These two had dangled above the deepest part of the channel, and their removal cleared a tiny space for Fennica to squeeze under. It was at this point that the kayakers redoubled their efforts, launching into the river faster than the coastguard motorboats could arrest them. I know at least three personally who were in boats, out there in the fray, and countless others watching live from shore, or from the floating fishing docks out in the water.

The rest of Portland watched from home — both via live footage from our local television stations and via Twitter, in my case following both the #shellno hashtag and the unofficial PDX police scanner.

Fennica was escorted out to the Columbia river with what looked like 11 coast guard boats. One for each of the remaining Greenpeace activists.

Later, on Facebook, I saw something posted by Travis Wittwer, a scoutmaster with the 55th Cascadia Scout Group . It was getting passed around on Twitter, and is something I relate to very strongly:

Took my sons to St. Johns bridge to witness the #shellno protest. I wanted my sons to see of what people are capable. 

On way there, I briefed them on the situation and the sides. They had emotional opinions, but are neither educated enough in this area, nor mature from years of experience to make a decision that is sustainable. I suggested that they go and witness and watch. They did not need to come to an opinion on the protest. 

I wanted them to see the people. Think about how much planning and personal conviction is needed. And to be in awe of people. 

While there, we would find a spot and sit and just watch and listen. Sometimes nothing seem to happen, and that is good–I want my sons to experience the pause and length of what the activists are doing. To hear it relayed or to see a photo is not the same as to be there, watching the banners wave in the wind, wondering what is going through the minds of the men and women hanging from the bridge, in the water, or lending support. 

I wanted my sons to see a polite and peaceful protest that displays passion for an idea, a belief. This is something different than blasting a hole in the ship.

Truthiness

Listening to the This American Life RETRACTION show, because that’s what I do when I’m painting fairly jolly narrative pictures. It’s all about balance.

Thinking a lot about fact and fiction (not fact vs. fiction — an important distinction I think).

It’s something I meant to look into more carefully at the time that I first heard this story, but I haven’t yet. It’s something my brain lazily plays with every day as I move through the world and do my work.

One of the biggest advantages of illustration, I think, is that you can explore all the things that a person cannot photograph (or photograph beautifully). This includes concrete things (like internal organs or microbes interacting with enzymes) and non-concrete things (like feelings and impulses and what a song might taste like.)

I am very drawn to reportage — it’s what happens when you grow up blogging, I think — and most of what I’ve been doing this week is pulling together my emails and notes from my trip to LA so I can tell you all about them. I don’t know that I’m going to give you the complete day-by-day rundown, but I saw some great things, and the reason I saw those things is a great story on its own, so I am trying to frame the story around that. Because when I present what I saw to strangers, that’s what it becomes: a story.

As I do this I am also making some quickies to go with the story. Many of those things are simply drawing the things that wouldn’t photographs well. Concrete things. The patio I enjoyed so much at my AirBnB. The big aquarium at Union Station.

Within that, of course, there are many tweaks in the “reality” fabric, which is why they’ll work better as illustrations, for my purposes. Angles that are impossible in real life without special equipment, that can bring in important elements like the spanish style red tile roof.

The other reason I am compelled to share my trip is how neatly it seemed to fall into place. There are things that happened on my trip which worked out so well that it seem seemed, frankly, paranormal. These things did happen, though at times they will seem like I am doctoring them up for spice.

One thing in particular — a circle of transit hell I was plunged into for several hours one late late night — will not have unblinking absolute accuracy because I was a little drunk and when you’re exhausted in a strange city it’s really hard to keep North and South straight. The trains were allegedly arriving on incorrect tracks, heading in wrong directions, and I wasn’t fact checking the trains for the first hour that I waited. But the gist is real. It’s a story that I will tell, here, because as a story it will work out just fine. However, if I were to draft a terse letter to LA Transit — which I am still considering — I’d want my facts clearer before I began pointing fingers.

He said / she said is not really something the illustrator usually needs to struggle with, it would seem. Who really cares if it was the red or the purple line I was waiting for?

But integrity and truthfulness and trustworthiness suddenly matter a great deal when an INCIDENT occurs. A man is beaten by police, and eye witness manages to catch it on videotape. Who do we believe more? The uniformed officers who all back up one another’s story that the INCIDENT did not occur? Or the anonymous guy who might look borderline — and who does not manage win the hearts and minds of the white jury — but who nevertheless was able to capture video footage of the INCIDENT occurring.

Which story is true?

That story was told to us, a smallish audience on May 2nd — the second official day of Manifest:Justice — in a dreamy remix-y monologue brilliantly by Roger Guenveur Smith, who for three years has been performing a one man show about Rodney King.

(This is an excerpt from a different performance of the same show, just to give you a taste. More about this piece here.)

He tells the story in a different way every time — it has footholds, but is essentially improv — and so there was never a bracket around his performance that claimed to be true, or false. The actual beat-by-beat story of what really happened has maybe never seen the light of day, because of who got to tell it in the end. It was like looking through murky water, a negative-space drawing of an INCIDENT, rather than a photograph or even a clear line drawing.

In this performance the performer never said: this happened, then this, then this.

But the story unfolded, crafted carefully, speaking as an outsider ABOUT Rodney King but never AS Rodney King. The feelings we were left with were raw, intense, sad, as though we had just lived a story rather than seen it second hand. There was no distance between us and what might have happened. It was powerful, and a woman who lived in the neighborhood — that is to say, who very probably lived this story — stood up and said to him: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Whereas, Mike Daisey puts together a show, writing as one might write an essay, and performs it as though it were fact. Tight line drawings and focused (albeit carefully cropped) photographs. And we also feel something, but because it is in first person, because he says I saw this, then this, then this — we feel betrayed when we find out it was crafted carefully to twist our emotions a certain way.

Documentary does this — particularly political documentaries that have an agenda.

Radiolab faced this with a story I still cannot listen to because of how upset the interviewee became, and how upset it all made me. In that case, all I could think was: who cares what is true. It does not give you the right to be so cold to this woman, and to her family, and to the generations of people who have lived under the shadow of this. Your “reporting” has turned you into monsters. Human decency in this case urges you to back down. (More about the fallout from this here and here.)

I recently read “How It Went Down” by Kekla Magoon, a good one for this troubled time, and does a nice job of presenting the problem with truths and witnesses and the clash of culture that seems to rise up when we start to try and get the story straight. What time I caught my Uber to the bookstore is not that important. Whether the boy was holding a candy bar or a gun might not be that important, since it doesn’t change the fact that the boy is dead. Particularly if you know that boy and that boy looks like your own boy at home, or the boys you see playing outside your home. But to the people who don’t look like that boy, what he was carrying seems to matter a great deal, because it changes how we feel about him, and whether or not we deem his life was worth justice. (And THAT ugly truth is one that is very hard to look at indeed.)

Whether we convict the man who shot him is something I think is very important. And the people who decide that are handed not a straight yarn, but rather a big box of tangled strings that represents each witness’s version of the story. It seems truth becomes very, very important in this case. But whose truth? Which one?

All these things rattle in my brain when I pull together stories.

I have no answers to these things, but they bubble up and I think about them a lot as I work out what to mention, when to mention, what to paint and what to skip.

I will leave you with one last thing. It was something I first heard on another This American Life episode, Studs Terkel pointing out something very nuanced about oral histories. I will copy from the transcript here but I also encourage you to listen to the segment, as it is well put together and the moment I am referencing here is not long into the piece.

“…Are they telling the truth, these oral historians? The question is as academic as the day Pontius Pilate asked it, his philosophy not quite washing out his guilt.

It’s the question Pa Joad asked of Preacher Casy, when the ragged man, in a tranchant camp poured out his California agony in the novel Grapes of Wrath. Pa said, “Suppose he’s telling the truth, that fellow?” The preacher answered, “He’s telling the truth, all right. The truth for him. He wasn’t making nothing up.” “How about us?” Tom Joad demanded. “Is that the truth for us?” “I don’t know,” said Casy. I suspect the preacher spoke for those whose voices you hear, in their rememberings are their truths. The precise fact, or the precise date, is of small consequence. It’s simply an attempt to get the story of a holocaust, known as the Great Depression, from an improvised battalion of survivors.”