Odd Mood 

I haven't been feeling well for most of the day. A sort of faint queasy feeling settled in the upper part of my stomach, and, only now, at the end of the day, is it starting to go away. I think this feeling might be the cause of the odd mood I am in currently. Well, actually, that and the thoughts I have been having about one of my assignments for figure drawing class. Let me explain.

I admire my figure drawing instructor tremendously. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but my overall opinion of community college instructors as a whole is that generally they are a mixed bag of the merely competent, the mostly mediocre, or the frankly terrible.

For example, in my first pass through this very community college ten years ago, I had a writing 121 instructor who refused to grade anything seriously. One of his more memorable assignments required us to find and stare at a spider's web for ten minutes and then write about the feelings inspired by that experience. Being a serious student and simply grateful to be in college in the first place, I followed his instructions. I found and stared at a spiderweb, and I felt like a total jackass. The only thoughts this was inspiring in me were about how incredibly dumb and pointless this was.

On the day assignments were due in this class, each student would read his or her two page essay aloud, while the instructor silently nodded and sat as a houseplant. His most common response was a rather cryptic, "good contact." And, typically, one student or another would wind up gushing about their feelings concerning spider webs in a far too personal way which was also revealing more about themselves than they realized. In a normal world, this should have embarrassed them tremendously. But, when you stepped in that writing class, you quickly found you were no longer in a normal world. Clearly, we were not being prepared to research or write the argumentative essays that the rest of undergraduate college was going to demand from us. Thesis statements? Building an argument based upon scholarly evidence? Thinking critically about arguments in class? Forget about it.

Suffice it to say, my large experience of college instructors has run the gamut, from community college to graduate school. My figure drawing instructor is one of the best. Not only is she scarily talented at painting and drawing in general, but she is super smart, and has fantastic teaching skills.

In any event, our latest assignment is to examine the "geological strata" of our lives and draw the things that have the most meaning to us as we have grown into the people we are now. Dividing our drawing paper into sections which might represent our childhood, teenage years, adulthood, we will bring to our portrait drawing experience the spirit of ourselves beyond our actual image. Yes, I know it sounds just as "ooga booga" as the staring at the spiderweb exercise ten years ago, but I think the difference lies in the fact that the writing class should have been teaching us concrete writing skills that would help us clearly communicate our ideas to others, while the drawing class is all about developing our self-expression.

And it is this "geologic strata" assignment that put me in the odd mood. I've been toying with some ideas in my sketchbook already. Initially, I think most people think about the objects that they had while they were growing up, like a favorite teddy-bear, a bike, or a videogame. Anyway, this was how the instructor was describing it. Later when I was working on ideas for it, what stood out for me most were not the things I owned, but the places I have been, the things I was doing, and, not least of all, a few very important people in my life.

In this vein, I was trying to remember the child I was in the late seventies. I know as one gets older, nostalgia has a tendency to color perception to the point where the facts matter much less than the personal narrative one slowly builds as they live their lives. Even with this in mind, this period seems unique.

My mother was still very young during this period, in her twenties. The "adults" in my memory of then were younger than I am now (seems odd to think of it now). And as young people are, they were are still very idealistic about changing the world. And, most of them were the spiritual version of hippies, much less into drugs and rock and roll than the ones seen now in popular movies and memory. And, I was absorbing all of this in. The idealism, the art, the youth, and the sense that the world would soon be changed into a paradise of happiness. The world, or rather my world, seemed full of a kind of hope that had less conflict between people, and had more honest, practical, emotional connection instead.

Of course, the world was changing. This was the era before the personal computer, before the arcades I would fall in love during my teenage years, and before the terror of nuclear war that seemed so present during the eighties. The electronic age had yet to reach my part of the world. Maybe it hadn't yet arrived for us since, we were also so desperately poor. So I guess I'm seeing this part of childhood as a more artistic and human world between people than the one we have now, which admittedly has its nice features, but also feels like it is missing something.

Hence, the odd mood that I mentioned at the beginning. The tragedy of my above description is that it does not really come close to accurately describing the half hidden moods, unconscious memories, and emotions that drift around these thoughts like a misty fog. Describing an emotion, especially one as inchoate as this one, is like describing the color green. How do you do it?

17 April 2009

Homework and Worry about the Future 

I slept in this morning until about 11:00 a.m. or so, and sufficiently rested, I eventually went to the school's design lab to work on homework. I hate driving the hour it takes me to get there, but really, I had no choice. While I do have the software I need to make my little designs, I don't have the nice selection of typefaces that the school does, nor do I have the hundreds of dollars to buy the decent and legal typefaces that is required for professional work. Of course, I wish I did. Money sure is nice. It's still green, right?

I came back home, and while I had every intention of working on my projects more, I just couldn't find the energy. In fact, I was surprised that I got as much work done this afternoon as I did. The calculations just underneath the surface of consciousness were telling me that I could get the rest of my work done tomorrow with no problems. Tomorrow might tell a different story.

Still, especially with the economy the way it is, I remain uncertain about my ability to do a design job with the skills I am learning. Yeah, I get decent grades, but so do the hundreds of other students that have also been processed through the program I am taking, not to mention the thousands through all of the design programs in the state. College do a great job of exploiting hope.

Young people have a knack for envisioning themselves as masters of the universe. Not being a young person anymore, and now more intimately acquainted with failure, I am beginning to see the compromises that life forces people to make as they strive after the model of living provided by the larger culture.

I started to see this during my undergraduate days as an English major. Nearly every student in that program wanted to become a famous writer, but they rarely spoke about it. Instead, they talked about jobs teaching or becoming librarians. And when you think about the amount of English majors who are currently in or have ever been to college, and you compare that to the amount of English majors who become and stay teachers or librarians, you can get easily depressed. Less than 1%? Less than .5%? So, what becomes of those students who envision themselves as potential famous authors, and just a handful of years later, wind up working as a secretary in some office, or driving a truck at some warehouse job? Do they take up writing as a hobby? And when that fails to take them anywhere signficant, then what? The emotional realities of failure can burrow deep into your soul and burn slowly and painfully.

The same kind of process can happen in any of the so-called "creative" fields. I've traded my English major status for the small promise of becoming a commercial artist, but really it is the same thing. I suppose that it is possible that I could make a career out of design somehow, but knowing how life works, it is much more likely that I could become the operator of a postcard mailing machine, attaching barcodes to thousands of postcards at a time. Or something like it.

In each class I take, I do my very best to absorb the lessons as the instructors give them, but there is one class I am taking that is above the rest. It is my figure drawing class. I enjoy that class very, very much. Even if I got a 'C' in that class, I wouldn't really care that much, especially if I felt that I learned something and pushed myself a little. I can't explain it. Maybe it is the instructor (whom I really admire), or perhaps it is the subject matter itself. Maybe it is the fact that I am creating art for myself rather than trying to meet some commercial need with my design projects. Whatever it is, it makes this term enjoyable. While I'm not the best student in that class (I am one of the better ones, I must say), I am fairly positive that no one can surpass me in enthusiasm for the knowledge it offers. I'd write more, but it is time for bed and I am getting tired.

12 April 2009

My Day 

Did not get a whole heck of a lot of sleep last night, maybe 4 or 5 hours, but it is my own fault for staying up a bit later than I should have, and then for not being able to fall asleep due my worrying about waking up on time at 6:00am. I worried for nothing. The dogs who live behind my place woke me up with their pathetic and insistent barking. When I had my fill of mean thoughts about little dogs, I dragged myself out of bed and steeled myself against the rest of the day.

After fighting through the typical morning traffic on the bridge into town, I made it to school and my morning design class with enough time to print out my homework and mount it on a 10x13" piece of matte board. The class, one long critique of said homework, was more than a bit boring, but then, of course, this is not surprising. The instructor has everyone gather in one large group to review everyone's individual work and make comments. If it is not your turn for the review, or worse yet, if your critique happened to be at the beginning of class, you silently sit with feigning as much interest as feasible in the instructor's comments on someone else's work, trying not to stare at the clock too much.

This particular homework was typography created for a movie about the "angel of death," who for some reason, is reaping an errant soul in an all night cafe. The instructor refused to give us any detail about the movie, arguing that "sometimes, in the real world, you have a project dumped in your lap, a project about which you know very little and must complete in a matter of hours." Yet, I'm very suspicious that one could ever know so little about a design project, especially when money is involved. People (read: clients) get really weird when it comes to money. Furthermore, the so-called "real world," in my opinion, has more flexibility and fluidity than the instructor can or cares to acknowledge.

The instructor was sick this morning and starting to lose his voice. Consequently, my review, which came in the last third of the total projects, consisted of little more than his choosing which design out of the three I created that I should continue with. Truthfully, I didn't expect much more than that. I've been through this process before and knew what to expect from this instructor.

The second class was a figure drawing class in the afternoon that was much more interesting. This is one of the very few classes I've ever taken where I am not as focused on getting a good grade as much as I am focused on trying to master the artistic techniques and the knowledge that will set my artwork a step ahead of the rest. Unlike the first figure drawing class I ever took, many of my fellow students happen to be very good. One student in particular has a mastery of the subject that inspires a tremendous amount of jealousy in the rest of us, but he is a nice enough person, even with his young man's tendency to devolve in a restrained fit of silly laughter about some guy's witticism about being "stoned," or "farting."

I suppose Graduate School, and the personal fiasco I experienced there, has made me realize how competitive the wider world can be. You might be the big fish in your particular pond, but that doesn't mean you still won't get eaten if you somehow manage to make it into the lake.

In any case, after class, I had a chance to talk one-on-one with the instructor about my artwork. I prefer to work with a drawing easel instead of the benches or horses that some of the other student's use. I turned my easel around toward the front of the class and waited for the instructor to finish talking to the model and then another student with the daily student question, "what is the homework." (Most instructors have a daily answer, "Check your syllabus.")

Now, in case you didn't already know, insecurity might as well be my middle name. In this regard, most of my conversation with the art instructor consisted of my asking if I "was on the right track," or if there was a technique or medium that was off limits for our various homework assignments. The answers, essentially, were: yes, I was on the right track, color is off limits, and I should try to experiment more with line variation, gestural strokes, and generally just loosening up.

Ironically, my versions of the quick warm up sketches we do during the first five or ten minutes of class look so much more polished that the one longer drawing I've made which we work on for more than an hour and half. My first quick three minute sketch has a vitality and fun to it that makes my longer drawing look like a complicated math problem that I've managed to get the wrong answer to. One looks good enough to frame, and the other looks like a decorated turd.

Conversation over, I eventually wended my way back to my car and, for the second time that day, fought through the bridge traffic to get home and rest. Since I have all of Tuesday to work on the homework that is due on Wednesday, I made a conscious decision to take the rest of the night off. I finally watched the series finale of the "Life on Mars" television program that had been previously recorded. I must admit that I was a little sad to see the show was over. While I found the science fiction element of the whole show more than a bit silly, the period police drama was highly entertaining. They should have had more of that. The final resolution to the mystery of what was happening to the main character was a bit of a let down. However, seeing as how the show had been cancelled, I am glad that they had enough time to at least resolve all of the loose ends rather than just having the show disappear.

Even though it probably doesn't seem like I did a lot today when you look at it objectively, it certainly feels like I accomplished a lot. The two hours I spend commuting on these school days are draining; plus, my shoulders hurt from all of the drawing I did, and my feet were practically killing me. I'm am so out of shape it is not funny. When I finally made it to my car on the other side of campus, I just had to sit behind the wheel for a couple of minutes to catch my breath. I think I needed the rest tonight.

06 April 2009

The End of a Laptop 

A little over a year ago, I got a really nice laptop computer. Although Windows Vista was annoyingly fussy to work with compared to XP, it was still a great computer for doing my design homework, its original and intended purpose upon purchase. But, of course, it was also great for listening to the music and podcasts I downloaded from Itunes, for playing games like World of Warcraft, and for surfing through the many blogs that I read, some with an illustration or art theme, but most of them not.

And yet, during the Summer of 2008, I made a critical mistake that I am sure is not an infrequent one among fellow laptop users. During an afternoon computer surfing session, I found it necessary to attend to the natural biological result of having had a soda or two. I gently placed the nice laptop on the drafting table that I use for doing my art/design homework, and left the two cats sleeping on my bed unattended. I returned to the room just in time to see one of those cats, the particularly clumsy one, sniffing the laptop's monitor and nudging the computer towards the floor. My heart immediately leapt into my throat and I frantically threw myself at the drafting table to try and catch it as it fell, but the computer smacked the ground with a thud that broke my heart while the cat furiously scampered off the drafting table to hide under the bed.

Normally, my emotions, if not numbed to depression, are kept beneath the waves of myself as much as I can manage, my face normally the visage of stoicism. But this moment filled me with several strong emotions: anger at the cat for being merely a cat, rage at myself for being so careless as to leave the computer in such a perilous condition, panic at the thought that the computer may not work, and despair at the amount of money it cost to purchase and my inability to afford another. Plus, I also felt several undefined emotions that clashed against each other second to second giving me that light-chested feeling one feels in a crisis. Yet, I discovered soon enough that, while the hinge of the computer was indeed broken, the computer overall was still as operable as before. I thought I would be able to replace the hinge myself, but gave up trying when I found I could not get the speaker cover off to access it. The last thing I wanted was to damage the computer again in a misguided attempt to fix it.

For the next several months, I used the nice computer as before, except that I had to take special care to not exacerbate the broken hinge. I took an almost excessive and ritualistic care when I opened the laptop, making sure that I did not damage the hinge anymore. The only possible thing that I might have neglected during this broken hinge period was some magic incantation imploring the gods of electricity and pixels to have mercy on my computer and its mechanical injury. And everything went well until Spring Break when the monitor finally refused to light up. The darkness in the absence of the electric glow I expected seemed to seep out of the monitor and directly fill my chest with dark forebodings, some of those same panicked emotions that I felt that previous summer.

After extensive research checking on official repair service providers, one of which had recently gone out of business just a few months ago, my laptop ended up a Radio Shack, where an affable guy who seems to know how to replace parts but not diagnose problems attempted to fix the monitor as best he could. Unfortunately, even after a couple of hundred dollars, he was at a loss. My already tremendous distress was gradually building. The cost of the projected repairs was slowly closing in on the price of new laptop. Money is a constant source of worry to me as I never seem to have any. This was becoming one of those lose/lose dilemmas where a choice has to be made, but as each result is markedly unpleasant, one tries to put off said choice for as long as possible.

Things became even more stressful when school started up again and the computer lab was not open long enough for me to get my homework done. I utilized the available lab time as much as I possibly could, but only got about one-third of my current project done. Even when the lab monitor said that we had an extra hour beyond normal closing time to work, I still wasn't done.

And, just to make things absolutely terrifying, the instructor who assigned this particular project is very inflexible when it comes to due dates and seems to enjoy handing out 'F' grades under the mistaken view that somehow an 'F' will motivate students to perform better. Yet, for me, an 'F' is the torpedo of despair that can sink a student under a fresh sea of depression. (I could say much more about my feelings regarding this instructor and my view of his misguided teaching philosophies, but it might be wiser to let that go unsaid. My goal, when I think of this class, is to duck my head and get through it as best as I can. I don't want burden myself by dwelling on the unpleasant aspects of it for too long.)

Too soon, the last of the school's computer lab hours flew by, and I was still not finished with the project. Thankfully, my parents, whose generosity I constantly worry about stretching, came to my rescue by purchasing me a decent computer on the low end of the price scale so I could finish my school projects without having to cope with lab time shortages, the extra time and gasoline costs associated with commuting, and the few instructors impervious to the reality of students' various problems and their serious needs.

I am now working on the new laptop and am grateful for every minute I have with it. Should it be necessary to jump through a plate glass window to somehow protect it from falling off a table, I will do it and do it without thought or question. It is a rather sad fact of being poor to realize that your means of livelihood depends on just a few material things that can easily be damaged or lost somehow. I could cite a few examples that come to mind, but the ones that seem most insistent are the ones that pertain specifically to me. My school program unofficially requires expensive software and electronics: a DSLR camera, a computer, and a suite of software. This program is my last best chance for a lower-middle class life, my ultimate (and I hope realistic) goal. Without them or the assistance of my parents, my only safety net, I could easily be homeless, fighting for meager chances at an unskilled job, looking for work in a marketplace where the unemployment rate is at 10% or more. Not pleasant prospects at all.

It has been said by a few other people that I am rather resourceful in the face of problems; and, they have further said, considering my background, the limited successes I have thus far achieved are remarkable. This may very well be the case. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of energy to be resourceful and fight through a lot of these challenges. I am afraid that, at some point, I will run out of that energy and be left with nothing except the experiences of someone who has tried and failed.

04 April 2009