Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

Camelot? Yes, Camelot

In my last post I talked about making mistakes, and although I don’t intend for my errant ways to become a habitual topic on this blog, I would like this morning to present you with an example of sloppy decision-making.

When I dreamed up this idea of Facelife I first came up with the quest of meeting all my neighbors and then I came up with the name, which I thought was a funny reaction to Facebook and to what is lacking in online social media, namely facetime; society functions better when we, in addition to choosing our friends as we do online, also have to learn to coexist peacefully with the more random assortment of folks near whom we happen to live in our community.

In naming my endeavor, the responsible route would have been for me to consider the name for a while, weigh the pros and cons, and decide, ultimately, if this would be a name I was willing to stick with. If Mark Zuckerberg, for example, decided that he didn’t like the ring of “Facebook” and decided, today, to rename it “Zuckerbook,” pandemonium would ensue.

My neighbor-meeting project has no ambition or possibility of becoming the type of cultural and business phenomenon that Facebook has become, but I should have treated it with the same kind of care at its inception, because renaming things in mid-stream is bad form. But, it turns out I don’t like the ring of “Facelife.” I don’t want something I’ve done to have a reactionary title. (Last year, I purchased a web domain called “jamezon.com” before dumping it for similar reasons and moving forward with the better-named “jimpublic.com,” and I should have kept that lesson in mind.)

As I’ve been chatting with neighbors and learning more about this community, I’ve learned that the neighborhood’s nickname is “Camelot,” which I should have deduced on my own since the name of each street here has an Arthurian regality to it. So, henceforth, my quest is now called Camelot! I won’t be going back and re-writing history in old posts, but I have re-named this category on the blog, and the term “Facelife” will cease to issue from my lips.

To Camelot!

Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

Screwing Up, Over and Over Again

If I ever decide to write a blog devoted to my screw-ups I have an overabundance of material to work with. I could begin with my decision on Monday to write down as much as I could remember of my conversation with Marge so I could share it with you, as a kind of character sketch to accompany her portrait. Because we had such a nice, long chat, I was concerned that I might mess up some of the facts, so, like a diligent journalist, I submitted a draft of my story to her for fact-checking.

After delivering it to Marge, who received it with alarm at having possibly anyone read what she had to say to me, I realized that I was a jackass. Conversations are generally understood to be meant for those involved, and I had done the equivalent of revealing a hidden tape-recorder to my new acquaintance, which could not have been great for her trust in me. I spent the rest of the evening, all that night, and the next morning preoccupied with the guilt of having been a jerk to a senior. And the following morning, seeing her in her yard after I had dropped off JPG at school, I pulled up, rolled down my window, and told her to disregard the story. I apologized for the invasion of her privacy, and told her that I’ll just stick to chatting and drawing.

I think it turned out okay. She didn’t mind what I had written and, anyway, was way more interested in talking to JPS, who was groggy in the back seat. Don’t you love how seniors adore children! Seeing her affection for my kids helps keep things in perspective during the many times a day that those guys drive me nutty.

I lack the gift of playing out scenarios to test them for potential problems, and I’m only a little less bad at identifying my screw-ups as they occur in social situations. Usually I just go for it and stand prepared to apologize, which I end up doing quite a bit and which can’t be good for the image I’d rather project as a man who knows what he’s doing and stands behind it, no regrets.

Fortunately there is an area of my life about which I am resolved and confident–my artwork. But I screw that up all the time, too. However, one thing about art that makes it better than life is that when I screw up a drawing, nobody gets hurt but me. And it does hurt. I get frustrated at my feeble skills and then take a minute before I start another drawing, wondering how I’ll manage to make it any good after all the botched versions leading up to it. I present you a case study below.

4 Erins, each screwed up

I spent twice as much time failing to get a likeness of Erin as I did eventually finishing the drawing. I would draw, realize it was awful, get angry, leave the table all flushed with hopelessness, and then return to start the cycle anew. Drawing a young woman has its challenges, because every line has the potential to age her by decades. Erin, who is probably a couple years younger than I am, kept turning out looking like a wizened, mature woman from the Rex Morgan comic strip. The woman in the upper right looks okay, just not like Erin. I especially marvel at the version of Erin as Abe Lincoln.

So, I share this with you as evidence that one success is usually the outcome of many failures, and that the cliches about never giving up are good advice.

At Home

Painting at the Elementary School (Year 1 of 9)

Elementary Hall Art 1

With JPG in 3rd grade and JPS not starting kindergarten for another two years, the Public family is looking at eight more years of involvement with our lovely neighborhood elementary school. Last year was our first year in this community, and my wife and I volunteered throughout the school year and over the summer, assisting with field trips and parties, teaching a few art lessons, making props for the talent show, and, finally, painting five inspirational-type words in the hallways, as you can see above and below.

Kindness, Respect, Attitude, Honesty, Responsibility.

If, during each of the nine total years that we’ll be a part of the school, I spend a day or two adding some painted flourishes to it, I’m hoping it will be an all-out public school spectacle by the time we’ve moved on to middle school.

So, I am finding ways to merge my missions of being an artist and doing something worthwhile in the community. Volunteerism is an excellent way to achieve this goal. And, when one volunteers for her community the effort is never fully given away because, as a member of the community, she receives the benefit of the work along with everyone else. The same goes for making drawings of my neighbors and giving them the original artwork: we both win in that exchange because, as it has been through centuries of human society, the gesture of gift-giving enriches the relationship that is being established.

Elementary Hall Art 2
Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

Neighbor, August 23, 2011

110823 jim public neighbor

Facelife has begun!

On Monday morning it was not yet 90 degrees and there were some clouds in the sky. “The sooner I start this, the better,” I thought, and I recalled that I had seen a retired-age woman working in the yard of the house where I had planned on beginning the neighbor-meeting campaign, which meant that she might be home during the day. So, before I had time to think about what I was going to say, I approached the door and rang the bell, relieved that it was too late to worry about whether or not to go through with this.

The woman opened her door and I introduced myself as Jim who is trying to meet everyone in the neighborhood. After a few seconds, when she seemed comfortable with the idea that I had just come by for a chat, she stepped onto the porch and we began a visit that was to last for the next 45 minutes. I thought about the piece of door-to-door soliciting advice that warns about people who would take up too much of your time talking if you let them, and we laughed when I shared with her that this admonition was the very thing I was hoping for.

Marge is very nice. I took my kids over there yesterday to say hello, and she gave them some books, lollipops, and a ceramic Casper the Friendly Ghost that goes in a flower pot. We talked about knowing one’s neighbors and how it can improve our quality of life. She told me a story from her childhood about an old Jewish man they called the Sheeny (she never knew what the spelling was supposed to be) Man who came through the street once a week collecting old tires and other castoffs. She said that when he came through, rather than chasing him off with a brandished stick, she and her siblings would run inside to her parents shouting, “The Sheeny Man’s here! What can we give him!” I like that little story. Having a sense of community forces each of us to judge less and accept more.

I feel good about this first door-knocking! We’ve chatted a few times over the past few days. I hope I don’t have to endure too many shoo offs and/or language barriers before I find more folks who are up for a neighborly chat. I gotta say, I’m a little high right now. The social beast in me, for the first time in a long time, is patting its great belly, eyes half opened, smiling, sated.

Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

The Public Family, August 22, 2011

110823 The Publics

That’s me and JPW, the tall ones in the back. JPS is the short one with the silly grin, and JPG is showing us her demure smile.

So, Facelife continues to come together. I have always hated approaching people without having anything to offer. This has been a problem for me in dealing with the gatekeepers of the art world, and in fact it is my experience in the arts that informs my distaste for having little or nothing to offer to someone. Artists want other people to show their work and help them to be successful. We hang around receptions and weasel our way into parties and dinners so that eventually our big break will happen. Hanging around artists for long enough, one starts to feel that they see you and everyone else as potential ladder rungs that they may step on as they climb to art-stardom. I’m all done with that.

Which is one of the reasons why I’m focusing on my community and not on my superiors among the cultural scene. So, back to Facelife, when I introduce myself to the people in my neighborhood, I want to have something real to offer them as a gesture of goodwill. I also seek a life in which the facts of daily living and the less tangible world of art can blend into one. And, I have stumbled upon just the thing to unify art and life! With the permission of each person/household I meet, I’ll snap a photo of them, make a drawing, scan it for my records and my blog, and give the drawing to the subjects as a gift.

As I try to build my audience through my blog and other activities in the community and on the web, I’ll be showing these drawings and sharing a little about the characters in them as I get to know the people around here. I feel that giving the original drawings back to the people who made them possible is the neighborly thing to do; it’s a gesture that I hope will embody my appreciation for the role that they play in this Facelife experience.

The above drawing of the Publics is a prototype. Mine is the first of the 227 homes in the neighborhood to be represented on this blog.

At Home

Reading, Crying

082211 JPG reading to Jim and JPS

Yesterday was the last day of summer vacation. In one hour I will be dragging what I hope will be two very chipper children from their beds, 2 1/2 hours before the time they awoke just yesterday. JPW, my wife, would have preferred that I had started channeling them into the straight and narrow in anticipation of today’s abrupt return to school-year reality, but I opted for the opposite approach, which means that my kids and I languished in bed until after 9am these past few days, and no Saxon math or piano practice occurred.

While this description of summer’s final weekend may reek of sloth, I counter it by sharing with you just how much reading went down over those same two days. JPS, being a few months shy of 4-years-old, doesn’t “read” much yet, though he can sound out many one-syllable, single-vowel words, a fact that makes his parents both proud and eager for the day a few years hence when all four of us can enjoy an afternoon of quiet reading, each with his or her own book. JPG, on the other hand, is reading well ahead of her age level, which is to be expected of any child whose parents’ dirty-hippy tendencies have steered her from the screen to the page. I maintain that if you take 100 3-year-olds, curb their consumption of television and computers, and replace that time with one-on-one reading instruction, while modeling the behavior as an adult who reads for leisure, two years later you will end up with just shy of 100 5-year-olds who read well and often, leaving an allowance for the few kids who will have learning disabilities and will need continued practice and guidance to catch up with their peers.

As the summer heat pounded outside, we didn’t leave the house much this weekend. JPG was content to read her mom’s Archie comics by the dozen, but I needed a way to pass the time that could engage all three of us. She and I had three chapters of Wilson Rawls’s Summer of the Monkeys to finish, so I gathered us in the living room and read aloud, which doubly pleased my daughter, because she not only loves being read to but has also been promised that when I finish reading Summer to her I will begin the long postponed reading of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The reading was going as well as I could have hoped. JPS brought in his monkey and woobie and lay around with his finger in his mouth, as he has always done when he’s resting or mentally checking out for a bit. He even chimed in with a few pertinent questions, such as, “Is Jay Berry a boy or a girl?” and “Who’s the girl?” before returning his finger to his mouth and rolling his eyes back into snuggle-coma position.

But, good things can’t last forever, and I had anticipated that I would be the weak link in our quiet afternoon of story time. For those of you who haven’t read Summer of the Monkeys, first, I recommend it as a great book for upper elementary age people, and second, I’ll say that it’s a crier. I knew what was coming, having read it when I was about JPG’s age, but as the book built to its climax and even as it coasted through the denouement, I was finally overcome.

I get emotional while I read books aloud to my daughter. Usually we are reading stories that are legitimately tearful at times, but I think there’s something in the act itself of dad-reading-to-daughter that pre-loads my tear ducts and sets my lower lip aquiver. I like to think that this routine display of an adult male’s emotions lends depth and intensity to the reading, but it’s more likely that it’s just irritating for my listener to have to endure so many pauses during key scenes as the reader stabilizes his breathing and tries to force the croaks out of his voice. I suspect that these often lengthy pauses in fact destroy the pace of the story and lead to attention drift in the listener. But yesterday we found a solution.

When the weeping was too distracting and I had to tell my audience, “Sorry: this book makes my cry,” JPG offered to take over and do the reading herself. The poor kid was ready to get this show back on the road. I was grateful, and as I calmed myself with sips of afternoon coffee, I listened to her read several pages. She’s a good little reader, but very fast and not terribly articulate in her delivery, as all little kids are, so I’m looking forward to a new routine of passing future books to her when I reach troublesome waters and need a few minutes to steady myself. I could use the break, and she could use the practice.

Later, before bedtime, I read the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to her, which is my favorite of the series for its sensitive and accurate portrayal of early adolescence. It was the Potter novel that, for me, after J.K. had already upped the stakes with Prisoner of Askaban, made it clear that these books were the real thing, not mere escapism, but a microcosm of human life. And, I’m glad that I can pass over the book to JPG when I need a moment, because just reading Goblet to myself makes me heave and splutter.

Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

Nancy

Yesterday ended the Public family’s epic month of vacationing, and we now look ahead to 3rd grade starting in a few days for JPG and pre-K for JPS a few weeks further. As we were getting settled on the plane which was to rend us from Salk Lake City, and as we were just tasting the first bitter notes of acceptance that travel season was indeed over, something unexpected and very nice happened: the woman who was to take the seat to my right extended her hand and introduced herself, “I’m Nancy.”

I’ve made small talk on airplanes over the years, and I’ve done my fair share of burying my nose in a book, but I’ve never been so directly and pleasantly addressed by the person who was to spend the duration just inches away from me. I would have bet money that any chit-chat with my fellow passengers would have begun with a bemoaning of the summer heat. “I’m Nancy,” with an extended hand, is a reminder that in all things simple directness is not only the easy way, but the most effective.

She was very nice. In fact, I recognized her from our flight four days prior to Salt Lake from Denver, the inverse of the journey at hand. I didn’t remember the tall, suited 19-year-old young man seated in front of her, Nancy’s second oldest son, whom she had been escorting from Minneapolis to Salt Lake for his mission (or mish, as those of us who have spent the last 1.6 decades in close contact with Utah and their famed religion sometimes call it) to the Philippines. As we talked, we learned that her son and my near-4-year-old son both have hearing loss of different kinds: her son has eustachian tube issues that have left his ear drums perforated–something they are hoping to correct after he returns in two years–and JPS has neurological hearing loss, which cannot be corrected surgically but has been very effectively treated, so far, with an excellent pair of cute little green hearing aids and a few incredible speech therapists.

She talked some about raising 6 kids–all boys but the youngest–and I talked about being an artist and stay-home parent. I had accidentally brought my five most recent paintings on paper to Utah in my large sketchbook, so I pulled them out and did a little show and tell. It was fun. This is the kind of thing I live for. Meeting a kind stranger, talking a little, and, as the icing on the social cake, showing some artwork. I like to think that showing one’s artwork to strangers is a good thing, because most people seem not to have much contact with art or the makers of it. But, what was so nice about the whole experience is that the 90 minutes we spent next to each other were so warmly colored by the way she initiated it.

It’s so easy to despair about the state of humanity; every day offers too much evidence that we humans are a sorry lot. In fact, two nights before the flight, we were playing a game at my brother- and sister-in-law’s house, and to the question, “Which animal/insect do you find most disgusting?” I answered, “Humans.” It was for laughs, but there was some truth to it, too. One of the things I hope to get from Facelife is a counter to that tendency to see the worst in people. We’re complicated, full of goodness and badness, and I think that if you seek the good in people you’ll find it. I’m hoping to.

As you know, it’s still terribly hot, so I have yet to knock on my first door of the Facelife campaign. But, what a timely and inspiring moment I had on that flight! Being on the receiving end of what I’m setting out to do, and being greeted by someone in such an open manner, have gotten me more excited about meeting lots of strangers. If I can pull it off like Nancy did, it will turn out to be a simple task.

And, I should mention, as we talked on the plane, I regretted my answer to that disgusting animal question. I should have said bagworms.

World, Meet Jimmy

The Hyper-Local Artist

I’ve stated that I am a hyper-local artist, and I see two aspects of what this means.

First, I am a geographically local artist, a person who does creative work in my suburban neighborhood and attempts to connect the work to the life of the neighborhood. True, I am still in the planning stages of the Facelife door-knocking campaign, which I’ll be starting as soon as it’s under 100 degrees by 5pm, probably next week if we’re lucky. My daughter JPG starts school next Tuesday, which seems as good a time as any for me to start my own autumn adventure.

Because Art refers to a broad, shape-shifting array of activities, artists have perfect freedom to give whatever form they want to their practices. My own values of community living, grassroots engagement, and making affordable artwork all feed into this hyper-local shape I’m giving to my practice. At this point I know what I think is important to leading a worthwhile life and I have a good idea of the kinds of artwork I want to do, but as I proceed with my values guiding me, my oeuvre could look and sound and feel like pretty much anything, and I love the sense of adventure in that.

Next, I’m a local artist on the web. Because of its virtual nature, the web is simultaneously vast and local because all web content is a mere URL (and maybe a password) away. As I do what I do here, my goal is to reach out to my geographical neighbors here in Garland and to my virtual neighbors here on the web. Reaching out to fellow internet-users is a big challenge obviously, because my web content comprises a near-undetectable trace of all the information on the web. But, as anyone who has started a business from scratch will tell you, of course it’s all hard work, and it may all come to nothing, forcing me to seek a living elsewhere. At this early stage of my conquest I am still full of optimism that persistence will win the day for Jim Public, that as I pound the cement pavement outside my front door and the digital pavement beyond my computer monitor, I will nurture this thing and make something that is meaningful to enough people that I will earn the privilege to keep doing it.

There was an article this summer on Glasstire, the Texas-based art site, that discusses the lack of urban density in DFW and the impact of this lack on the art scene. The author suggests that it takes geographical and social density to create the kind of energy that gives spark to a vital art scene, and that Dallas’s art scene isn’t so vital because the city and its inhabitants are too thinly and broadly spread. Reading that article was a signal moment for me. I think it was the tipping point that helped me to gather my ideas about what I want to do as an artist and put those ideas into action, rather than tuck them away in the corner of my mind labeled “crazy” and continue pushing for a more conventional art career of making expensive artwork and wiggling through the social channels to get it seen by the right people so that the wealthy can fee secure in bestowing a purchase on this youngish, strange artist among many young, strange artists.

I believe that by going hyper-local, both in the neighborhood and on the web, I can make artwork that means something to people and that makes me the kind of modest living that will let me keep doing this. And don’t mistake my talk of making a living for a call to support you local artists or whatever. An artist is owed nothing by his community, and you should feel no obligation to support him just because he’s locally-based and engaged in some socially special activity. Art is like anything else: if you like what I do and you want some of it, you can choose to buy some. It is my job, the artist’s job, to make something that people care about, not the public’s job to care about what the artist is up to.

That said, talk to y’all next time!

World, Meet Jimmy

Ready for the Small Time

August has truly been a summer travel extravaganza for the Public family. During the weeks prior to our camping in the New Mexico mountains we spent 5 days each in Austin and Tulsa. Then after one day of recovery from New Mexico (and Carlsbad Caverns, which was beautiful both underground in the caves and on top of the mesa looking out over a hundred miles of desert disrupted by the sudden majesty of the Guadalupe Mountains) the four of us headed to DFW airport for our final summer trip to Salt Lake City. Salt Lake in the summer is so absurdly beautiful that it exists outside of my personal conception of time and space. Living as I have in Oklahoma, Texas, and southern Nevada, I cannot conceive of summer as being anything but mostly miserable outside. So, while our yard in Garland now has a fault-line of dry earth stretching across it, baked by intense heat and drought, the yards here in Utah are lush and dewy, water flowing copiously through the city’s network of streams and channels. It’s way refreshing.

On the plane heading out here, I opted out of sliding my credit card for $6 worth of Direct TV programming, but I did get to watch a handful of ads promoting the upcoming fall season of mostly reality programming. The X Factor and one of those Top Chef type shows both caught my attention. The bevy of talent-seeking programming is a sign of the times, obviously. The internet and our growing capacity for narcissism are part of this trend in which many of us can seek, if we choose to, our fame and fortune and vindicate our latent certainty that each of us has something special to offer the world. I am totally part of this trend.

However, I don’t want to be the next Kelly Clarkson or celebrity chef. My ego craves recognition, but my quality of life requires that I spend much of my time with loved ones, or reading, or making stuff. To be a superstar you have to make sacrifices; to make millions demands more than I’m willing to give. But, I do want to use the contemporary media landscape to transform myself into a ministar. To hell with megastardom: I’m aiming for a middle-class living here.

For me, choosing to be a visual artist is about working hard to make up new content all the time, to find an audience for it, and to make enough money that I don’t have to get a day job. It’s a lifestyle about maximizing work time, because the work is its own reward. So, if I can create interesting content and make it available in different formats for the enjoyment, edification, and purchase of a relatively small number of people in my local and internet communities, and I can pay my bills, then I have a the life I want.

The internet has the potential to redistribute stardom into a scenario in which the are many more of us making a far more reasonable amount of money. I love Gaga, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and a lot of other arena acts that have monopolized stardom in recent decades; I want those crazy fame-seekers to continue to blow our minds and make piles of cash. There is no Gaga without a heavy revenue stream to support the operation. On the other hand, and on the other end of the income spectrum, I’m eager to take my place among the broad, diverse scene of cultural acts who pull in an annual haul somewhere in the mid-five-figures. This would constitute a huge success for me and my endeavor.

The X Factor talent series, and those like it, represents one phase of the transition toward everyone having the opportunity to be famous entertainers. What people like me are shooting for is the next extension of that trend, toward a cultural landscape in which thousands of small acts work hard to make their art and to build their audience so we can make are modest living doing what we love.

Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

Everything’s Hot But My Feet

Vacation has a way of stretching out the mind. I’ve just spent the last week in a re-purposed Girl Scouts camp in central New Mexico. My household met up with most of my wife’s siblings and parents for 6 days of camping, and it was quite the bevy of cousins, uncles, in-laws and so on. JPW, my wife, brewed a 54-bottle batch of homemade root beer, which was not only delicious but perhaps mildly alcoholic, as I was pleased to hear from my mother-in-law, whose tongue never touches booze and seems well qualified to make that call.

The site was remote enough that my phone had apparently been discharged for several days before I wondered where it was. Obviously, there was no wi-fi for the bloggers among us on the mountain. Without the satellites and towers to keep me connected to this beloved digital world, and without my computer or studio to fill my days with habitual tasks, I had a lot of time to fill my lungs with piney air and reflect on the state of my life; and, while I could fill untold numbers of posts with these reflections, I’m going to exercise some discipline and tact and just share a little of what my idle mind turned up last week.

It’s been a few weeks since I dreamed up the Facelife project, and I’ve got to say I’m getting some cold feet. Maybe it’s like my granddad, Pappy, told me in the moments before I surprised my bride with a self-penned serenade on our wedding day, which is that the panic helps you to be alert and ready to perform well. Pappy spent decades in front of audiences, leading choirs and directing musicals in northeast Oklahoma, so I think he was no stranger to these jitters. When the Facelife endeavor starts, what I will be doing is something of a performance, as I approach the front door of stranger after stranger and try to introduce myself as a normal dude who’s trying to do something interesting in the neighborhood. What I fear is that, no matter how sincere and prepared I am, my neighbors will see me as too weird, possibly too threatening, for their taste, in which case I will transform from a benign, anonymous guy in the neighborhood into a definite weirdo who should be avoided.

The optimist in me says that many people will think what I’m doing is mildly interesting and then go back to their Vizios and forget about me. Then, the next largest group will like the idea of my knocking doors and introducing myself, busting down a little of the isolation we suburbanites often feel from each other. I hope to strike up some acquaintances and, if I’m lucky, maybe a decent friendship with members of this nice group, but I’m not planning on the latter; we’ll just see what happens. Then, finally, the smallest group will be the few whom I freak out by my forwardness. Like I said, I’m not planning on knocking the “No Soliciting” homes, but I must assume that eventually I’ll run into a feisty, proprietary libertarian who will brandish me off her land.

I’m considering saying something like this:

Hi. My name’s Jim. I live here in the neighborhood, a couple streets over. (I’ll offer my hand if they come out to greet me.) I’m trying to meet everyone in the neighborhood. (And if they don’t have anything to say at this point, or if no turn of conversation presents itself, I’ll say:) I’m writing a blog about the experience of meeting all of my neighbors, and I’d like to invite you to read it sometime. (Leave card with info. And if I feel the conversation needs to end, I’ll bid them good evening:) Have a good evening. I’ll see you around.

If you have any ideas for improving this pitch, bring them on. Pretend I just knocked on your door and gave you this introduction. Are you annoyed? Alarmed? Pleased?