I have always cherished science fiction. Not just Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Not just Star Trek and Star Wars. But all of it. Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon, Brick Bradford, Galaxy Quest, Mars Attacks, and E.T.
Space is important to me. I feel like all of mankind will be a failure as a species if they don’t start moving out amongst the stars.
It’s not just that I am ensorcelled by the magical adventures that space-travel stories mixed with a romantic view of facing existential danger with a smile and a ray-gun can provide.
I watched with wide 12-year-old eyes when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon for the very first time.
That was all the way back in 1969!
I am disappointed that my George-Jetson expectations of life in 2021 have not even remotely been met.
Sure, computers are great. But where are the flying cars? The fishbowl helmets for walking on the Moon? Personal jetpacks to get to school and back?
It isn’t the dreamers, it’s the doers that have let me down.
And I know we could well run the risk of meeting something out there that might want to eat us.
But are we truly alive anymore if we are afraid to risk death in the face of Space Exploration and Discovery? We are not immortal. We need to achieve things that outlast us to justify our existence.
So, come on, people! Let’s make the world over again and start building cities on Mars.
Let’s start building what we have dreamt of rather than hiding from what we fear!
This particular Iowa trip has me thinking hard about mortality and the cold harsh wind that blows toward us from the future. My cousin’s only son lost his battle with depression, and his family finally came to terms with the loss. But the sadness is past. The responsibilities of the living is what remains.
I was born while Eisenhower was President. I was alive and aware when Kennedy was assassinated and when men first walked on the moon. I was teaching in a classroom when the first teacher in space was killed on the exploding space shuttle. And I was also in the classroom when the twin towers fell on 9-11. It is an important part of the responsibilities I have for being alive to keep that past alive too.
My mother’s knickknack shelf.
The reason we collect and care about little extraneous things like porcelain eggs, angels, fine blue china plates, and the California Raisins singing I Heard It Through the Grapevine is because those little, otherwise unimportant things connect us to memories of important times and places and people. We keep old photographs around, many of them black and white, for the same reasons.
The fiction I write is not contemporary. It is mostly historical fiction. It is set in a recent past where the Beatles and the Eagles provided the sound track to our lives. It does not cross the border into the 21st Century. The part of my writing that is not about the past is science fiction set in the far future, entirely in the universe of my imagination. It is my duty to connect the past to the future.
And I share that duty with everyone who is alive. My great grandparents and grandparents are now gone from this world. But their horse-and-buggy memories about life on the farm before electric lights and cars… with humorous outhouse stories thrown in for comic relief… are in me too. I am steeped in the past in so many ways… And I must not fail to pass that finely brewed essence on to my children and anyone young who will listen. It is a grave responsibility. And it is possible to reach the grave without having fulfilled that important purpose.
In times of great sadness and loss we must think about how life goes on. There has to be a will to carry on and deliver the past to the future. Every story-teller carries that burden, whether in large or small packages. And there is no guarantee that tomorrow will even arrive. So here is my duty for the day. One more window has been opened.
If there is a Church of Sacred Landscapes then Bob Ross is its Jesus Christ. That is not a sacrilegious statement of bizarre cult-mindedness. Painting is a religion that has its tenets. And Bob Ross explained to us the will of God on his painting show on PBS. All the illustrations used in this post come from the Facebook page Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. All the wisdom comes from things the Master said on the show.
Bob Ross was the prophet of the paintbrush. He would present us with a lightly prepared canvas at the beginning of the show and then proceed on camera to take his brush and palette knife, and all his paints, and create a piece of the world before our very eyes. And he was not Picasso or Van Gogh or even Norman Rockwell. He was not a talented artist, but rather a very practiced one who knew all the tricks and shortcuts to sofa painting, the art of knocking out scene after scene after scene. He could make his little piece of the world in only half an hour, and he made it obvious how we could do the same. His work was not gallery quality… but his teachings were Jesus-worthy.
His work was natural, flowing, and realistic in the random complexity it presented. He took standard paintbrush strokes and pallet knife tricks and made them dance across the canvas to make happy little trees.
His painting methods presented us with a philosophy of life and a method of dealing with whatever mistakes we might make.
And of course, any good religion must take into account the existence of evil.
Bob Ross tells us that evil is necessary as a contrast to what is good and what is true. We need the dark. But we don’t have to embrace it. Bob’s paintings were never about the dark bits. He always gravitated towards the light.
Of course, sometimes you have to beat back the darkness. A good artist takes care of his tools.
Bob Ross admonishes us to look and to learn and love what we see. The man radiated a calm, gentle nature that makes him a natural leader. His simple, countrified wisdom resonates because we need calm and pastoral peace in our lives. It is one of the main reasons mankind needs religion.
So I definitely think we ought to consider building a Bob-Rossian Church of the Sacred Landscapes. We have our prophet. The man has passed away, yet he is risen to paint again endlessly on YouTube.
And if you are willing to try… Bob Ross will smile upon you.
Grandpa and Grandma Aldrich lived on the family farm outside of town, a little more than two miles from the tiny farm town of Rowan, Iowa. I walked it more than once. It was faster to walk the railroad tracks between the two places. About a mile and three quarters as the crow flies… three hours as the boy investigates the critters in the weeds, throws rocks at dragonflies, and listens to the birdsong along the way. But the point is, my maternal grandparents lived close enough to have a profound influence on my young life. Much of what they loved became what I love. And every Saturday night, they loved to watch the Lawrence Welk Show. And that show had highlights that we longed to see again and again… on a show that never really went into reruns. We lived to see Jo Ann Castle play the old rinky-tink piano, Bobby and Cissy doing a dance routine, and most of all… the lovely Lennon Sisters.
I always wanted to be the things they wished me to be in the song “May You Always”. I wanted to “walk in sunshine” and “live with laughter”. They presented a world of possibilities all clean and good and wholesome. As a young boy who hated girls, I had a secret crush on Janet Lennon who was the youngest, though a decade older than me, and on Peggy Lennon, the one with the exotic Asian eyes. They sang to me and spoke directly to my heart.
You have to believe in something when you are young. The world can present you with so many dark and hurtful experiences, that you simply have to have something to hang onto and keep you from being blighted and crippled by the pain. For me, it often came in the form of a lovely and simple lyric sung by the lovely Lennon Sisters. When you are faced with hard choices… especially in those dark moments when you think about ending it all because it is all just too much to bear, the things stored in those special pockets of your heart are the only things that can save you. For me, one of those things will always be the music of the Lennon Sisters… especially when watched on the old black and white TV in the farmhouse where my grandparents lived, and helped to raise me, every Saturday night in the 1960’s.
You know what a contradiction is, don’t you? It is whatever comes out of your wife’s mouth whenever you make a statement asserting that whatever you said is factually true. She will promptly and always explain to you how wrong you are… loudly… and in great detail. No matter if you happen to be provably right or not.
What’s that, you say? I’m wrong about that too? Of course, I am, dear. I only deserve the catfood cookies.
The fact is, if you raise your hand and give the teacher the correct answer often enough, you get a certain reputation amongst your classmates. Instead of continuing to call you, “dumbhead,” or “stupidhead,” or the simplified form of “caca-poo-poo-head” like they endearingly call everybody else, they begin calling you pejoratives like “Einstein,” or “Brainiac,” or “Supernerd, taah tah taaah!” And they begin pointing out in detail everything that is wrong about you. How you dress… how you talk… especially how you laugh. You have become the enemy. You must be contradicted.
“You are wrong, Mickey!”
“So, I get to be Dumbhead again?”
“No. you are still “Supernerd, taah tah taaah!” But you are wrong. We all think so, so that must be right.”
The truth is, Life itself is a contradiction. Considering the violence and hostility of the physical universe towards life, it is a miracle that anything at all is alive in the universe. The chaos of everything guarantees that if you are born into the miracle of life, then at some point, caused by a nearly infinite variety of possible aids to chaos, you will die. Order is whittled away into chaos. Civilizations fall eventually. Things die all the time.
But if all order must, by physical laws of the universe, be broken down into chaos, then, how is it that we have any order at all in the first place? Where does order come from? I’d give you a possible answer. But I would just be contradicted by the majority
Except for fundamentalist Christians who would say, “Let me think for a moment about why you are still wrong… and then I’ll tell you what I think the Bible says about why you are actually still wrong.”
One thing about being “only book-smart, but without common sense” that makes being contradicted all the time worth it, is that the more challenged the answers you come up with are, the more deeply you dig into them, and the more of a real-world understanding of why I am wrong about everything begins to make a bit more sense. Or not. Because I’m probably wrong in your estimation anyway.
The year in which I lost my father has been a truly ghastly ghoul of a year. I could spend time listing all the things that went wrong for me personally, but that would be a very long list for no real gain in wisdom. I need to take some time just now to reflect on some very hard lessons we have been given by this year to deal with in a way that we might potentially learn from.
There is a chance I may live out the rest of this year and reach 2021. But it is not guaranteed. The pandemic virus, Covid 19, is an insidious destroyer of organs, attacking lungs, heart, and brain, causing blood clots and complications long after the initial infection has passed. The way it strikes people, randomly cruel to one, and presenting no symptoms to the next, has guaranteed it would be almost impossible to control, if we were even trying to control it. And we are dually blessed with an incompetent and corrupt presidential administration that couldn’t care any less if I lived even if they stood to make money off my demise. Like the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death of the Middle Ages, this virus is restructuring our economy and changing our world in ways no one has as yet accurately foreseen.
I have not, as yet, survived this pandemic. I have multiple risk factors that make it dangerously likely that at some point I will have to discover the hard way whether I can survive an infection or not. My middle child of the three came home infected in August from his job as a jailor for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office. I managed to avoid infection then until he tested negative again, unless I had it as a symptomless carrier during our summer quarantine. Only time will tell. I have not had an antibody test. I haven’t suffered any Covid aftereffects either.
My father did not die of Covid. Parkinson’s Disease like Michael J. Fox and Mohammed Ali had was ultimately what robbed him of memories, the ability to talk, and eventually the abilities to eat and breathe. The “good news” is, I have Parkinson’s symptoms myself, and am merely waiting for a safer time to see the doctor to get it diagnosed. There is more than merely one way that my life could end before 2021 arrives.
But my father led a good life. And he passed a good life on to me. He taught me self-reliance and a respect for hard work in a way only a former farm boy and Navy Seaman could. He taught me to lay shingles as we re-roofed both our house in Rowan and our stable-turned-car-garage also in our little Iowan farm town. He taught me love classical music, especially Beethoven and Mozart, as well as Ravel, Chopin, Vivaldi, and… he always argued… John Philip Sousa. And he started his own Great American Novel. I had to sneak into his closet when I was eleven to read it. It was only about the first third of a novel written all in pencil and kept in a gray binder under the winter clothes in the box on the floor at the back of his walk-in closet. It was called Prairie Moon. It was about a very stubborn and self-reliant pioneer named Ed Adems who built himself a sod hut in the Iowa grasslands of the 1870s. So, I guess, he also taught me to be a self-published novelist. I have at this point published eighteen novels and books, with numbers nineteen and twenty already at least halfway finished.
I hope you listened to the Mozart Requiem while you read this post. I listened to it while I wrote it. A requiem is a Mass for the repose of the dead. We honor them and remember their goodness and light while we commit them to their eternal sleep, even if we are atheists. Because there is a next life for them, no matter what you believe. They live it through us. My father lives in me. And as my hold on life gets weaker and more tenuous, I will live in my children. I have tried to teach them as my father taught me.
And as we put to rest the terrible year of 2020, hopefully there was some good in it too to carry on into 2021 and beyond. And, Dad, you kept all your promises. If you ever failed me, I do not remember it. And I pray that, having kept most of my promises to my children too… at least so far… I will pass on the light for generations yet to be born. You are a part of that too. God bless you, I love you, Amen.
What’s the real reason behind the choices I make as an artist? For instance, why didn’t I do this photo of the artwork over again when the wind warped the bottom left corner. That answer is simple. I was taking this picture with natural sunlight. And once the wind started messing up my pictures, it only got worse. This was the first and best of five attempts. And, while it doesn’t show up here, I did several photo-shop manipulations of this picture, including shrinking the girl’s head. The original was done from a couple of models I got consent from when I worked at a daycare center in Iowa City where I went to college. The boy was eight years old in the summer of 1980. The girl was six, but I used a photo of a girl I went to second grade with, so the head was also eight. They represent David Copperfield and Emily, Pegotty’s niece from the Dickens novel. I had to read the book for my Master’s Exam which I took instead of writing a thesis. The picture is about how I saw myself and my world in that timeless novel.
This picture won a blue ribbon in the art competition at the Wright County Fair in 1979. It is a colored-pencil cartoon situation right out of a Jay Ward, Dudley Do-Right cartoon. I used a picture from a Canadian travel ad for the Mountie. The Indian sidekick is a modified version of Little Beaver, Red Ryder’s sidekick. The villain and the girl were basically Snidely Whiplash and Nell from the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, but made to look slightly more realistic… but only very slightly.
Actually, I lied a bit about the blue ribbon. I got the purple Grand Champion ribbon for this picture. I had entered it solely because two years before I saw how easy it would be to win a purple ribbon looking at the pictures that won it, and I wanted to win the purple ribbon. Sorry I lied, but the real reason for this picture is that I wanted to win that ribbon.
This painting, from the 1990s, was an attempt to make sofa art to sell in my sister-in-law’s home décor store. So, the real reason for this painting’s existence is greed. But since I ended up putting so many hours into it that I couldn’t justify selling it for twenty dollars in a store that went out of business because nobody ever shopped there, I got far more value out of it by keeping it and enjoying it myself. It was inspired by numerous paintings of Native Americans done by white people on display in Love’s Travel Stops across Texas in the 1990s.
This picture, “That Night in Saqqara,” is about youth versus age, thinking about death, immortality, and being afraid of any or all of it. The model for the Mummy is Boris Karloff who was so nice to pose for a production still from his movie that I could draw him long after he was actually dead. The boy was a seventh-grader in 1983 who did not actually pose for this without a shirt on or with an actual Ankh life-symbol around his neck. The Pharaoh in the tomb-mural in the background was from National Geographic Magazine, and I think was supposed to be Tutankhamun, but I could be wrong. I am old and I mix up lots of things I once clearly knew. That’s what mummified brains have to be like, apparently.
The reason I had to create this artwork was because I was increasingly falling victim to illness, especially arthritis, and I was constantly thinking about what it would be like to die alone, entombed in a two-bedroom apartment on North Stewart Street in Cotulla, Texas. This was well before I met and married my wife, who is now my wife of 25 years.
I wish I had answers. I woke up with a slight sore throat this morning. I have a cough that comes and goes. That is nothing new for me and my allergies this time of year. Still… it might be COVID. I could be dead before the end of the week. My power to affect anything in the world right now is very limited. I have to wait in Texas until early voting starts on October 13th, a very ominously-numbered day. I still have to finish and publish book number 18. And I feel like it is a very good novel. But I may be too ill to write that last chapter today. And it would be a shame to leave this world without finishing it.
We must never give up hope.
We must remember where we came from.
And look for new dawns more than colorful sunsets.
The thing about being an artist that I can’t seem to really explain, if I even am one, is “Why?” I mean why am I an artist? I am not a camera. You look at my imperfect drawings, and you can see it is a drawing. Even if I did photo-realistic drawings, I would still have to wonder “Why?” Why go to all that work if we have cameras for that?
And if we draw something that never was, but might have been… if only we were made like gods and could control everything around us completely… why is that worth doing? Just to see things through my eyes? I have weird eyes. They see skateboards with flaming Bart Simpsons on them saying, “Eat my shorts!” What is the value of that?
Perhaps this sort of “Seeing through someone else’s eyes” gives us a perspective that we could get no other way. I know I love art museums, art books, and art collections even more than I like looking at my own art. I love looking at the world as other people see it.
Maybe artwork, in one form or another is the closest we can come to truly sharing what’s inside us with other human beings, mind to mind, heart to heart, liver of blood-curdling revelation to liver of blood-curdling revelation… wait, you mean not everyone has a liver like that?
So, not everyone lives life the way I do, or knows what I know, or remembers the sweet, sad things I remember, or sees things the way I see them. Is that, then, the reason why for being an artist? Or cartoonist if you believe that I am not a real artist?
If I truly am an artist… and I am not convinced that I truly am, then I don’t answer the why questions. It is the job of the scientist to do that. I only ask the questions. And I do it by drawing the next inexplicable thing.