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GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL comes with a peculiar burden for me. The before-you-go rigamarole I’m good with. It’s once I’m there, there’s this nagging compulsion to gain Meaningful Experience. Some see time away as a pause in life, but for me it’s the exact opposite. Vacation is the whole point: figuring things out, seeing my people, doing notable shit and bragging about it. I find the prescription to “just relax” more than useless—it’s terrifying (if time off is merely a way to replenish for work, there is no excuse for me at all). Until I kill off my Value-Creating self for good, vacation is my State of Nature.

This orientation puts a lot of pressure on our trips. Fortunately, my Planner In Chief is even more militant on the point. Sarah’s so convinced every trip should be uniquely spectacular that she builds tabbed spreadsheets around potential itineraries and checks to see that hotel rooms are oriented properly toward the sun.

Yet for all this force of will, our most recent getaway is hard to explain. We spent three months mulling plans in endless combinations* involving numerous failed connections with friends and the Internet equivalent of throwing darts at maps. Facing a spring break alone and childless in Minnesota, we pulled a wild card: the remote desert outpost of Tucson, Arizona. We knew no one and had no reference points aside from the band Calexico.

In full Thelma & Louise mode (not sure which I was) on the trail from Phoenix to Tucson, a 120-mile drive on butter-smooth I-10, roads being one of the few public amenities the libertarians will pay for.

The city is ringed by mountains for hiking, solidly in my Worthwhile Activity category. Some downer lady told us all Tucson’s trails were the same, but we found otherwise. The terrain is gorgeous and varied, assuming you have enough water to push a bit farther. We did a dozen miles over two days, stopping constantly to photograph unfamiliar flora for Sarah’s prints.

Feeling spry, I had us take a casual stroll 3,000 feet up the ridge overlooking Sabino Canyon. A mild spring day in Tucson is 90° by 10 a.m. and clouds are notably rare.

Scary Desert Things: bees swarming in and out of underground hives (left) and saguaro needles tough enough to break boot leather (right). One night I took a walk in the desert and suddenly freaked myself out I was going to kick a rattlesnake. Hustling to get back, I walked into a small cactus that jabbed spines about an inch into my leg, one of which still hasn’t come out.

South of Tucson there’s a 300-year-old mission, San Xavier Del Bac. Here familiar Catholic iconography mixes with stylistic influences from the Tohono Odom, Arizona’s original occupants since before Columbus. It’s a great psychedelic miasma. Brilliant, bizarre and humbling (click to enlarge).

As splendid as they are in person, sunsets never hold up on film (er, pixels). But we took like 700 shots anyway.

After a few days of Tucson, we retired to the deep desert 25 miles west of town. There we read, drew, ate watermelon and—against all odds—relaxed. With Sarah blistered and sun-shy after days dragged through desert, there was nothing else to do. Heat is the enforcer.

Valley of the Kachina Dolls at the Heard Musuem in Phoenix, a truly dazzling collection of Southwest Aboriginal art. This was nearby the awesome Bolo Tie exhibit.

The food in Tucson was just… OK we felt; nothing to write home about (or post to Instagram, the modern equivalent). Though much praise was due to the vegetable-oil-fried marvels that were Le Cave’s doughnuts. One day I shall feast on a Pina Colada filled cake.

We came home to find Johanna living La Vida Iowa—art, barbeque, trainspotting, making bookmarks for babies. After days of play among family and friends, our return barely registered for her.

In the end, Tucson felt less like a destination than a disappearance. May need that again sometime. You never know.

>> Roger McGuinn & Calexico – One More Cup of Coffee
>> Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band – Tropical Hot Dog Night

* Our abbreviated list of rejected destinations includes Santa Fe, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Puerto Valljarta, Austin, San Diego, Miami, D.C. and Houston (but only for a second).

 

JOHANNA WILL TALK TO HER GRANDPARENTS only if she can spend the conversation in a laundry basket. She’ll also ask me to carry the basket around the house while she chats, though this I decline to do. Peculiar demands are popping up daily as her Negotiator Gene manifests. I remember wearing my mom out with outlandish requests until she made concessions—things I surely didn’t desire beyond winning her permission—like mixing milk with orange juice or sleeping on the hallway floor.

I admire Jo’s pluck, though my life really needs fewer hoops to jump, not more. Aside from the usual, I’m dogged at the moment by IRS deadlines, mortgage lenders in need of data, and an unholy health care triad that turns every medical transaction into three-dimensional chess. Something as simple as switching to a credit union snarled my routine for weeks. Is this maturity? Entropy? Social decline?

No wonder we end up sick and tired. I awoke last Tuesday with strep throat. With no time or patience to seek treatment, I took some old antibiotics and worked from bed for a day. Just as I was rallying, I got a mysterious case of head-to-toe hives. They didn’t impair me physically or mentally but I looked like a leper (clients I met with were startled and concerned, not reactions I’m going for). I had narrowed the list of causes to synthetic shirts, green peppers or stress before my sister—who spends a large share of her waking hours catering to her own health issues, real and invented—diagnosed it as photosensitivity due to antibiotics.

Those hours spent in my backyard working in the unseasonable March warmth, so peaceful at the time, were inducing a massive auto-immune backlash. It’s mostly cleared up now. But which innocent action will vex me next?

As an enthusiast of obsolete technology, the fake-vintage Instagram photography thing was something I was ready to hate, like neo-antique furniture or retro Ts at Urban Outfitters. But given the lack of settings built into the iPhone camera, the ability to add some filters and flavor to your image is welcome, no matter how faux. Extra irony in these shots I took in Guttenberg, Iowa last weekend with Jo and my grandfather—the site of many childhood memories I know from faded Kodaks.

Scenes from a farm house outside Albert Lea, Minnesota. My pal Lucas’s grandparents, one recently deceased and the other in a nursing home, have left their home on the prairie. But every detail of their existence since 1970 has been immaculately preserved by their descendents down to the glass knickknacks and old-school tool calendars. We wandered the grounds and numerous out-buildings looking for treasure.

Like his grandpa’s vast trove of beer signage, full of bygone logos I drew while Jo embellished.

The Make Sh!t confab is doing paintings with projections in an abandoned gallery space. We clean the squat up at the end of each session and it’s workable for now. As our crew grows and the projects get more ambitious, it’s clear we need permanent space. Fortunately summer’s come a few months early and we can take the party outdoors for a while.

Craig Phillips never lifts a brush yet stays right up in this thing, dispensing sage praise over mugs of bourbon.

I made this poker cheat sheet years ago. Now it’s back for more laughs. In T we trust.

>> P.R.O.; The Identicals – Blacky Joe
>> Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Ballad of the Sin Eater 

MY FRIEND TRAVIS ASKED ME to make something for his art gallery. It’s not exactly a gallery, but an extra room where he has shows. Maybe not “shows” so much as house parties where there’s art. Not having attended before, I can’t even say it’s about art per se. All this will have to be confirmed.

The assignment, dubbed “November 14-20,” is strict yet open-ended: document those days any way I want. And make it fit in a 12-inch cube. We gather on December 8th to see people’s weeks.

My blog, camera, and Facebook are sufficiently snore-inducing chronicles of my comings and goings. Rather than mining or duplicating those efforts, I went non-journalistic and, more importantly to me, non-digital. My unifying principle was Do what I like to do (but usually don’t): draw, collect, and cobble things together using materials and processes I have at hand.

What’s the opposite of a Status Update? I’m going for that.

These seven collages are made from scraps of my days—picked, sketched, assembled, and Xeroxed haphazardly. With some hindsight and luck, maybe they’ll resolve into coherence. Or just as likely not. Which makes them true to life.

>> Elvis Costello – Strict Time

THE MOVEMENT TO OCCUPY FILLINTHESTREET does strike a chord with me. I’d thrill to see our financial overlords brought to account and regulated with extreme prejudice (since Washington can’t fix little stuff like fee gouging though, I’m not holding my breath). True, the overthrow of Capitalism wouldn’t improve my lot much. But I find our unanimous worship of certain über-Capitalists almost more disturbing. It’s not indifference (and certainly not weather) that’s kept me away from the protest. Chalk it up to self-absorption and many small, pleasurable distractions from anger.

1) The distorting effects of 3M Color Transparency Film
2) Great flaming October sunsets
3) Collaborative photo zines documenting the season’s last night bikerides
4) Goats, asses and apples with Evelyn & Marc (who’s blogging again; good on ya!)
5) My inexpensive poster from Puerto Rico w/ extravagant professional frame job
6) Cactuses & Palm Trees; The Sun Says He’s Too Hot – 2011, Sharpie & Crayola marker on manila
7) Melancholy marina fogs over Grand Marais
8 ) Our leaves changed color without regard to the schedule
9) Explorers on the moon under 35-W
10) Hikers with Day-Glo Lichen


>> Tennis – Marathon
>> Built to Spill – Strange
>> Willie Colón – Che Che Cole

 

jnIT’S A TRUISM OF 8TH GRADE ART CLASS (AND EVER SINCE) that sketching faces is the hardest. Which makes sense with the evolution of face perception—how we’re born to read people through their faces, and interpreting expressions successfully has social advantages. When a face is drawn with details awry, even a little bit, it looks instantly, appallingly wrong. You don’t just fail to recognize the likeness, it offends your understanding of people. Or of the person, if you know the face. It’s most disorienting when you’re the person drawn. Portraits have been known to hurt feelings.

This is one of my better self-portraits, and I don’t love it. I over-emphasize eyes. And put them in the wrong places. If my subjects don’t look startled or quizzical, they seem stoned or asleep.

A good time to do portraits is when people’s heads are still, like when making art or playing cards. I drew some friends the other night (all wearing mesh caps as it happened; I wore a Stetson, as seen in Paul’s Witt’s sketch). As usj, nobody was very convinced of the likenesses, though nobody seemed offended.

 

ps

 

>> Black Lips – Don’t Mess Up My Baby
>> Tegan & Sara – You Wouldn’t Like Me
>> Dee Dee Warwick – You’re No Good
>> Small Faces — Song of a Baker

 

THERE’S A SWEET SPOT in Afton State Parkatop a bluff overlooking the St. Croix River, surrounded by blooming prairie, under a lone spreading oak—where we took up residence over Memorial Day weekend. Despite dismal weather predictions, we hiked, climbed, ID’ed plants, hid & sought, played gin-rummy and cribbage, ate ourselves stupid and generally kicked it loose and free. Miraculously, no one got wet.

Credit is due to an amazing blue tarp, loaned to us by neighbors and fashioned into a deluxe canopy by Lucas, an engineering masterwork of found wood, rope and bungie. I was moved to make a drawing of it, which Johanna Crayola’ed with a quickness before I could protest.

Sorry about the fugly likenesses, beautiful people. I only had eyes for our tarp.

>> Zombies – Tell Her No
>> Leonard Cohen – Famous Blue Raincoat

I AM TALKING TO LUNCH LADIES about why their food is less terrible than kids think. I am making up imaginary people to be in fake plays and work at fake companies. I am cruising neighborhoods looking for unprotected wifi networks. I am building (conceptual) platforms for (real) architects. I am repeating the word “debit” until it loses all meaning. I am writing about the peculiar demands of television puppetry. I am making recipes involving Jello sound youthful. I am politely shaking down accounts payable departments and transferring the proceeds to the IRS. I am finding time to tidy up, browse records, ride bike, meet long-lost cousins, even draw and paint. I am trying to allay concern (Sarah’s, my own) about those things I am not currently doing, from fixing our toilet to figuring out our five-year plan. For the moment, it’s working.

>> Hüsker Dü – What’s Going On

>> The Human League – (Keep Feeling) Fascination

LIKE MANY MIGRATORY SPECIES OF THE UPPER MIDWEST, we left home last month for a stay in the Caribbean Archipelago. After leaping snow berms in sandals and light jackets to make our plane, we soon alighted in a 10×10-block finger of land known as Old San Juan, one of the oldest colonial settlements in the hemisphere and port of call to cruise ships the size of mid-sized cities.

The view from our hotel captures the place’s ramshackle charm. The weather was a heavenly 89°, though the guys tarring roof outside our window might have disagreed.

A sketch of the opposite view, including an Art Deco-style bank tower Sarah liked. The light here is a drawer’s dream. Well-delineated forms and textures at any distance.

Streets in this section are paved with blue bricks cut from the ballasts of colonial ships.

The style of the 1940s and 50s lives on, most of it nicely preserved.

Like this restaurant, where we ate as often as we could. Pronounced “May-JOR-ka,” it’s named for a buttery pastry covered in powdered sugar, which is tasty alone or as the casing for a very rich ham sandwich.

I’m totally coffee-crazy and the brew at these old places did not disappoint, served briskly by men in antique waitering attire. They held me to two cups, which is sensible, though I wanted to keep going.

It’s perked in these medieval-looking triple-chamber set ups, seen here at Bombonera, a café across the street. It’s curious how empty of people my pictures are when, in fact, Old San Juan teems.

I’m used to being ignored or even scorned as a tourist. So the hyper-friendliness of Puerto Ricans came as a surprise (said one, “we like to get involved”). Over breakfast at Cafeteria Mallorca, an elderly couple decided to take us on a sight-seeing tour (there was no resisting, and why would we?). Nestor, a retired military torpedo expert, showed us lots of dubious landmarks, including this alley where parts of the ghastly TV show The Flying Nun were filmed.

The smallest house on the U.S. Historic Registry (according to Nestor).

Juan Ponce De León, the first governor of Puerto Rico, appointed by Spain in 1509. He now points at a sports bar called Casa De Sam.

Any direction you walk in Old San Juan, you come to a fort. This is El Morro on the western tip, its wall cradling an old cemetery. Not a bad place to spend eternity.

Descending through a giant corridor in El Morro out into the Atlantic.

Visit the toilets for a surprising view of the ocean.

Sarah amid ancient battlements.

There’s a neighborhood called La Perla, seen here wedged between the city wall and the ocean. The books and people I consulted said it’s a dangerous, drug-ridden barrio that’s best avoided. It’s smaller than a football field and picturesque from afar.

Peeking into La Perla, I saw few people, some cars on blocks, homes without doors or windows, and kids shooting hoops at the Carmelo Anthony Courts.

Looking the other way is San Cristobal, a fort built in 1500 to deflect land and sea attacks, modified in WWII with special towers for spotting German U-boats (visible atop the walls). Below, a crane is hunting for frogs in stiff winds. I sat here in a notch of wall long enough to do a drawing and get really sunburned.

The air conditioners of San Cristobal. This fort was crawling with giant iguanas.

On the third day, we made the short drive to El Yunque, a national rain forest preserve to the east. An entirely unnecessary orientation film is shown at the visitor’s center, narrated with grudging seriousness by Benecio Del Toro (“imagine an earthly paradise born of sun, rain and rock…”). After watching, it was impossible not to chant the park’s name as Benecio did: El JOONK-ay!

Hiking up El Yunque’s mountain was slow-going and felt a little dark and depressing after all the sun. But you eventually get to a tower from which half of Puerto Rico is visible.

Sarah with the town of Luquillo in the distance.

The public beaches at Luquillo were a highlight, sprawling and quiet with ladies mixing wicked pina coladas for a couple bucks. Stray cats came out to greet us. The site of our mountain trek rises in the distance.

The vacation ended on Superbowl Sunday. A fresh wave of hooting Midwesterners washed up at the hotel in their NFL best. Sarah’s feet throbbing, my books burned through, our time was abruptly up.

>> Thirstin’ Howl III – Polo Rican
>> Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine

SAN JUAN-BOUND IN 6 HOURS. BAM! We even get the satisfaction of leaving in a snowstorm. I barely jammed the cars into our ice-choked alley spot; we will avoid the season’s 8th snow emergency but may be clipped by a garbage truck. Jo’s down in Des Moines for a week with her grandma, including tours of a sticker factory and the A.E. Dairy. She probably thinks she got the better vacation.

Sarah’s completing her epic packing routine. I’m stress-testing my laptop bag with art supplies, SPF 110, and my backlog of half-read books.

From last Thursday, a linocut of Justin Bieber in progress. I have no special interest in The Bieb, but was inspired by the loving attention of this artist. The final design is very swamp monster, but it captures some of his essential creepiness. Paul made a cool cut of his dog.

We’d never done this with sleds before, but we’re bound to repeat it.

And a turntable reenactment to send us out. Hasta luego!

>> Twin Sister – All Around And Away We Go
>> X – We’re Having Much More Fun
>> Cambodian outro

JOHANNA’S PORTFOLIO OF WORKS ON PAPER is getting huge. To this unbiased critic, her style gets more fascinating by the week. Click to go big.

Precision trims—no Baby Scissors here.

There are full-on worlds within these, which she’ll happily take you through.

Drawings of People Drawing is a popular sub-genre here.

Another: Drawings Cut Apart and Glued to Other Drawings With a Mixed-media Option.

Letters are just now transforming from cryptic talismans of the adult world into something meaningful.

Jo used to whip all paints to a brown pulp. But now we’re getting how to keep light colors pure, and how you have to add a lot more yellow to change blue than vice-versa. Jo called the shots on this one while I held the brushes.

Kids In a Movie Theater, a preview of her birthday party later this month. 4 years old! And already talking about getting a place of her own. Some kid.

> Love – She Comes in Colors