Tried to accomplish four Inktober prompts in this illustration — days 20 through 23. Inspiration for the piece comes from reading the poetry of Li Po.
Enjoy — and keep inking!
Tried to accomplish four Inktober prompts in this illustration — days 20 through 23. Inspiration for the piece comes from reading the poetry of Li Po.
Enjoy — and keep inking!
Inktober’s rules are simple: draw something in ink each day for the month of October, post it online, hashtag it, and repeat. So, if I draw three panels in a single day, does that make up for two missed days?
Ever watch those drawing challenges? Do a drawing or illustration in 10 minute, 1 minute, and 10 seconds. My self-imposed challenge for day 15 was two hours.
The prompt that day was “legend.” The inspiration: two-fold. One, I revived a cartoon character I created long, long ago. Two, an homage to Starchild, created by James A. Owen.
The big challenge for me is that a two-hour block of time is a lavish luxury for me. It means I can not begin until the work day is done, household chores completed, and kidlingers in bed. Mostly.
Before I finished the inking process, one of the kidlingers reminded me that within the two-hour window I stopped twice. Once to spend 15 minutes brewing a pot of tea for the night owls of the household. And once to re-tuck a younger kidlinger into bed.
Hope you enjoy the results of day 15 of Inktober.
If your brain operated like a digital video camera, the playback video would take 300 years to watch. Think about that for a moment. The capacity of the human brain to store data would take almost four lifetimes to view if it were a film. With all that data, how does anyone organize it?
Note-taking is a practice. Maybe an art form. Possibly a lost art form. Here are some handwritten scrawls I found in my notebooks:
Some of these are quotes, paraphrases and scribblings in the fashion, or after the manner, of a commonplace book.
From time to time I review these notes and weigh their merit. How does the old expression go? Eat the meat and spit out the bone and gristle. Or, as I suggested earlier, thistles and wild flowers. Some ideas are rubbish. A couple of these notes I have considered off and on during the last couple years. One of these big ideas is productivity and time management. Another concept that captivates my thoughts is guiding principles.
Many business books explore the topics of productivity, time management and purpose. A lot of business books seem full of great ideas. Some are useful. But after a few critical passes a lot of these business and marketing books melt away like cotton candy. Nothing left but a stale after taste.
One such business book offers the thesis that leaders should ask why their company does what they do. This starts out well. Purpose is offered. But not principles. Is a purpose-driven company wrong? No. Everything has a purpose. But what about a plan? Is it Benjamin Franklin who wrote: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail? Many business leaders implement ideas suggested in books without considering the consequences. Is purpose and plan interchangeable? What about a triumvirate of purpose, plan and principles? Plans change. Marketplace adaptation and other factors. Purpose is shifted due to internal and external needs. Principles. Principles are value statements. They are core business doctrines.
Many years ago, possibly fifteen years, I read that an international news magazine avoided presenting their news on their web site because the editorial leadership found no reason for it. (Keep in mind this was before the disruption of mobile phones and social media.) The subscriber-based magazine found no need to compete with itself on two platforms: print and digital. When the global market crashed in 2008, a lot of magazines and newspapers ended publication. Permanently. But this international news magazine increased its circulation during that time period. Their guiding principles were not compromised in spite of competition rushing to publish content online free of charge. To paraphrase their mission: you’ve seen the news, now read the story. The editors did not ask, why aren’t we on the internet like everyone else? When the time was right, when the method fit their mission, then they provided content online, in audio and video, on a mobile app as well as their legacy product — a weekly printed magazine.
One of those handwritten notes mentioned earlier was a quote from David Allen. He pioneered a system called getting things done (or GTD). The method offers a plan of how to get stuff out of your head and in to action. The goal is productivity. Each task should have three general responses: do, delegate or defer. Decisions are based on variables like time, energy, resource and others. While listening to one of his GTD audio podcasts I noted: “Your head is a crappy office. . .” A cluttered mind is a cluttered life. One of the practices of the GTD system is to unclutter your mind by capturing data outside the head. Whether you write notes or lists on paper with pencil or pen or email or text message yourself, the goal is to clear the mind. A clear mind provides space for planning, examining purpose and establishing principles.
In the first draft of this piece (which was crafted nearly two months ago), I wrote: “A clear mind provides space for meaningful purposeful actions.” In the margin I noted: “What does this mean? Define the term meaningful. Define purposeful. Rewrite this line. Be clear, direct and to the point. No room for squishy platitudes.”
This is an example of why it is essential to re-examine the notes and ideas presented. A noble task is to live an examined life. The amount of data in a human brain is expansive. If your brain operated like a digital video camera, the playback video would take 300 years to view. Ultimately, how does an individual bring order to the chaos from the stream of cerebral activity?
An acquaintance, many years ago, mentioned that keeping a diary or journal was useless if you did not review it periodically. In other words, it is a good discipline to glance at the rearview mirror of commonplace books, diaries and journals before returning your focus to the front windshield and the task at hand.
What are the names of the flowers and blossoms that edge the late August roadsides of rural Wisconsin? Cornflower? Goldenrod? Queen Anne’s lace? Or wild carrot? Maybe this is botanical contrafact. Same road progression along corn and soybean fields, but new melodies and arrangements of purple, white and yellow. Weeds and wild flowers remixed along country roads.
The expression “gathering the flowers” originated from a Latin phrase, florilegium. The idea and practice of gathering flowers was to record quotations, excerpts and selections of literature, sketches and observations. Often religious and/or philosophical. These thoughts and ideas collected in a common place provided a field of potential cross pollination. Hence the term commonplace books from the Latin “loci communes.”
But tonight the poetry of Li Po, commonplace books and conversation at the dinner table collided. It is a practice in my home to share dinner together with the entire family. Good food and lively conversation abound. Tonight the topics included rhetoric definitions, friendship, loyalty, virtue, astronomy, Taoism, Christianity, providence of God, Li Po, coffee, heavy metal music, hairless rabbits and so on. Weeds and wild flowers distinguished throughout the animated discussion.
After the conversation subsided, the table cleared and dished washed, I reflected on a poem by Li Po. In the poem he referred to himself and a hermit friend as “mountain flowers.” Remixing gathering flowers and mountain flowers intrigued me. One of the children placed John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Art Tatum records on the stereo.
John Coltrane’s “26 2.” Charlie Parker’s chord progression from “Confirmation” reimagined with Coltrane’s melody and arrangement. Later, I borrowed Li Po’s four-line structure and motif and added my own melody, images and theme. Gathering flowers and blossoms. Poetic contrafact.
 Discovering Jazz, Episode 46, Stolen Chord Sequences (Jazz Contrafacts), accessed September 7, 2019. https://player.fm/series/discovering-jazz-2150622/archives-episode-46-stolen-chord-sequences-jazz-contrafacts
 “Florilegium – gathering literary flowers,” August 27, 2019. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2019/08/27/florilegium-gathering-literary-flowers/
 Loci communes: Not an easy Google search, but an example of its usage is here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Loci-communes-rerum-theologicarum. Additionally, here are some Latin root words that make up Loci communes.
 Commonplace books is a subject explored here. “Best reads of 2014 (or what I found in my notebook),” December 31, 2014. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2014/12/31/best-reads-of-2014-or-what-i-found-in-my-notebook/
Ever have one of those moments when you realize you are not what you claimed or thought you were? Where an illusion of yourself, either self-imagined or externally imposed, dissipates.
Well, an interesting thing happened to me on the way to the Intermodal Station. While I had thirty minutes to spend, I lost my way through the labyrinthian shelves of Downtown Books in search of a Latin dictionary. Instead, I found a used English dictionary.
Knowing that half of the English language is built on the foundation of Latin, I found a delicious word: florilegium. Culling flowers is the literal definition. But “a volume of writings” reminded me of something else. The idea of gathering literary flowers or collecting the flowers of one’s reading. Somewhere between the Middle Ages and Renaissance the practice of writing quotes and excerpts from other texts began. Later it manifested itself in European culture as commonplace books.
For years I considered myself a modernist of sorts. Writing down quotes, excerpts and notes on or from influential artists like Jackson Pollock, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, and Ezra Pound. But there I was, standing in Downtown Books searching a dictionary for English words with the Latin root word “loci.”
When did this happen? When did I begin act and resemble a classicalist? Maybe this is part of the great conversation. Connecting the dots. Reading the ancient writers. Comparing them to modern literature. Maybe this is part of gathering literary flowers. Legacy informing legacy.
I boarded the train. Found a seat. Opened a copy of Gary Snyder’s Left Out in the Rain. And gazed out the window at the setting sun.
Relocating to Wisconsin was done with such haste that I am still discovering unopened boxes of items. Some items I have not seen in years. One such discovery was a series of old sketchbooks.
A five-minute sketch of a landscape painting on display at an art museum. The composition captured, but not the details.
A loose sketch of a production of Shakespeare in the Park.
A 30-minute sketch of a roommate reading a magazine. That was back in the days before mobile phones, tablets and laptop computers.
When I flipped through the pages of these sketchbooks there was a mixture of despair and some other unnamed emotion. Is it possible to name every emotion? Is it necessary to catalog everything in the cosmos in hopes of gaining understanding? Or knowledge? Or wisdom? But I digress.
Each sketch had a story. The night at a downtown pub when I learned I was no good at billiards. After the first game, I enjoyed the rest of the evening by doing sketches. I remember the show at the art museum and the artist represented. The friends who invited me to see Shakespeare in the Park. And the rare moment a very charismatic roommate sat on the couch before jetting off to a concert or movie or date or some other activity.
A sketch is an exercise that precedes a painting. But these sketches never received the intended painting. Reportedly, Thomas More’s poems for Epigrammata began as a Latin translation exercise. If I view these sketches as lost paintings, I despair. But if I view these sketches as exercises, I am gratified.
The practice of sketching is an exercise and preliminary draft of an art object. Even today, I still sketch ideas and images. For example, I was asked to create a logo design for a business event.
After some discussion the request included the city skyline of Milwaukee.
Once a plan was in place, I quickly moved to a digital rendering of the logo design and colors. Securing a piece of stock illustration, I customized the vector image and crafted a logotype used to promote and represent the business event.
The pace of work is so fast, months go by without me realizing the value of the brand created. What took hours over the span of a few days, was on display on the front page of the newspaper and behind a representative from the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago.
A few small three-inch square pen sketches became a huge display banner at a business event in Milwaukee. The practice of sketching is twofold: exercise and exhibit. The path to the 2019 Economic Forecast event logo and banner was a thousand unseen sketches. Page after page. Year after year. A lot of practice pieces that remain lost from view. But without them the objects that are visible would not have been created.
Have you ever wondered how fast you read? A stack of reading material on the nightstand begged for my attention. I considered how long it would take me to get through it.
Curious, I took an online test to find out. I selected a blog post from a published poet/essayist and took the reading test. The results disappointed me. It took me less than two minutes to read a blog post with more than 300 words. According to a Forbes article, the average adult reads 300 words a minute.
Test two. I selected the nut graph of a Slate.com article. Again, below average reading speed. Test three. Selected another blog post. This time from a professional blogger. I received an above average reading speed. Test four (and five). Two different New Yorker articles selected. I read the opening paragraphs. Two different writers. One wrote a news piece. One a literary critique. The results varied. The critique results were below average and the news piece was above average.
I turned my attention to the text read. Using an online app I graded the passages read. The Slate.com article received a good readability rating. The professional blogger article earned an okay readability score. The literary critique received a poor readability grade. The news piece received a score worse than the literary critique.
The app rates the difficulty of a text. The readability grade based upon passive voice, adverbs, phrases with simpler alternatives, and sentences that are hard or very hard to read. In other words, difficult sentences that included compound or compound/complex sentence structures.
What I have noticed is that numbers (and analysis), abstract ideas and foreign words slow me down. There is so much I desire to read, but time limitations prevent the volume of literature I seek to explore. So, I have to be selective in my reading habits. And this reminds me of something Annie Dillard wrote:
“He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.”
Discovered an old portfolio during spring cleaning. The book predates the iPod. Or, for those readers under the age of 20, the iPhone or Twitter. The design samples were probably created using an old Macintosh Quadra series. Or maybe a Macintosh LC II with an integrated Sony Trinitron display screen. Aldus PageMaker 5.0 was the software used for digital design page layout. Or maybe Adobe PageMaker 6.0 or QuarkXPress 3. Either way, the software had to be installed using removable media — 3.5″ floppy disks. No internet connection on the machines — unless you were an art director or lead graphic designer. Projects and tasks did not flood your email inbox. They were assigned by paper envelope work orders or creative briefs or landline telephone.
Each portfolio sample was mounted on black core matboard with spray adhesive. It was not that I did not own a classic black leather portfolio case with two handles and black filler pages and acetate covers. I did — and still do. But I remember being advised by someone in an ad agency to present work on boards. That way a client may spread the design samples out on a conference room table for a better examination.
Back in the early days of the digital revolution in design, a commercial artist needed to include a spectrum of work: page layout, photography, product design, illustration, package design, logo, branding, infographics and so on. As design technology advanced, the pervading question asked was, can you draw? A senior graphic designer at the ad agency where I interned had boxes and boxes of drawings for advertising campaigns. The paste-up boards featured his illustrations on the bottom layer with an acetate overlay for text and a top layer had written mechanical instructions for the printer. One of my goals as a young graphic designer — improve my illustrations skills.
The hardware and software during that period were rather primitive by today’s standards. Much of graphic design tasks veered toward desktop publishing. That consisted of typesetting blocks of text around images in a page layout. The cathode ray tube display screen became more of a designer’s interface than a drafting or light table. Within in years, the tactile connection between commercial artist and the art object were severed indefinitely.
Whether spoken or internalize, the mantra of young graphic designers in those days was adapt or die. The desire to rapidly assimilate to the new tech outweighed the intellect to consider the consequences. In the mid to late 90s I recall young designers often took full-time jobs in construction or sales to pay off student loans. The pay was better than design jobs. But when they tried to return to a career in graphic design a few years latter the advances in hardware and software were too much. For those of us desiring to be an art director in five years, creative director in ten and partner in 15 to 20 years, we took the low wages with the long term goal in mind.
There were no web sites in the mid 1990s where designers could download a free vector-based template of a t-shirt or book cover in order to showcase custom designs. I created all my own templates. Often on a rented Mac computer at Kinko’s that charged by the hour. Now the question remains. Do I recycle these samples? or store them in a museum — in the early period of digital revolution in design wing of the museum?
How many books did you read last year? According to some reports, one in four Americans did not read a single book in the last twelve months. Three out of the four who did read in the last year read only one book. But the reports are even more dismal when a distinction is made between any books and books of literature. For example, books on business, cooking, gardening or self-help are in a different category from books of literature. Further, books on business and marketing by Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin or Simon Sinek are not considered literary works. Books by Dante, Plato and Shakespeare are works of high literature. Books of literature by American authors include Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost and Thornton Wilder.
My own reading pattern shadows the national trend. This discourages me. Years ago I read more than 50 books a year. In addition to that, I used to read several literary journals, magazines and newspapers on the bus ride to the office each day. It was a delicious and robust period of time. But life interrupted this reading regimen. A dream job, mega commute, cross-country move, career change, new job at a legacy media organization, and more commuting disrupted my reading habits.
It is a struggle for me to completely read one single book from cover to cover. The desk in front of the window holds eight books. I may have to return all these to the public library partially read. Or renew them. The library must be weary of me renewing a copy of a theological book. I must have renewed it several times over the last few months. One report I read stated the reason people do not read books is due to their busy work/life balance.
The interruption to the reading habit is due in part to the daily commute. 90 minutes a day spent traveling from home to work. Public transit would be nice. However, no public transit system services the rural communities surrounded by cultivated fields and farmland. Travel accounts for more than 15 days of my time each year. And then there are the long hours of production work. The job is mentally demanding. My fatigued mind only desires to turn on the record player and go to sleep when I return home.
Most Americans spend more than two hours each day on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. That equals more than 40 days a year. From an economic stand point that seems like a lot of wasted productivity. What that means in practical terms is that my social media feeds are on life support. I do not spend time on Facebook or Twitter at all. LinkedIn occasionally. And I deleted my Instagram account. Eliminating social media activity allowed me to reclaim some of the time lost to commuting and work.
A second action put into practice during the last few years included reading great books of literature. Mostly. Plato’s The Republic, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglas, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are some of the books read during the last year and a half. The classical education curriculum of my children helped me form a list of great books to read. I added a few books to the list to include Asian and Near Eastern studies. I explored Basho’s The Narrow Road, an anthology of Rumi, Hafix and Lalla, and Ryokan’s Sky Above, Great Wind. Most recently I attempted to read and compare three different translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. An ambitious task that I failed. Ended up focusing on selected cantos for comparison before the books were shuffled back to the public library.
Why is reading books, especially, great books, important? The virtue of being well-read is the goal. Do not leave it up to the academics and professionals to read great books. C. S. Lewis wrote that “the simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” He continued by encouraging readers to acquire firsthand knowledge of the source material rather than to rely on secondhand commentary. Being a well-read individual has the potential to foster a civilized society. But you must be vigilant, designate time, pick up a book and read it cover to cover.
Poems well composed haunt readers. Like the ache of an old injury during inclement weather. Good poems never quite disappear. They remain. Like a stubborn clump of April snow and ice on the corner of the street that refuses to melt. Here are five reflections on poems that continue to sparkle and shine throughout the year. At least in my mind.
The May 2011 edition of Poetry magazine featured a Dana Gioia poem with a haunting opening line:
“So this is where the children come to die, . . .”
How can you not keep reading this poem? It is so good. So rich. Later in the poem the speaker says, “but there are poems we do not choose to write.” From the first line of the poem to the last line, “Special Treatments Ward” is an exceptional work.
Poetry continues the Great Conversation. What is truth? How do we know it? Who are we and how should we live? Often reserved for philosophers, these questions are the result of friction from winds of poetry. What came first? Philosophy? Or Poetry? Since Theogony pre-dates many philosophical writings, I submit that poetry came first. Poetry is the wind that troubles the water.
On a gray, stormy afternoon, I retreated to the public library in Racine. A book of translations of Han Shan needed to be renewed for the fourth or fifth time. And the children needed to get out of the apartment. Besides, the more you check out books of poetry the more funding the library gets based on your activity and/or interest in certain subjects. Or so I am led to believe by local librarians.
I was introduced to the Cold Mountain poems during one of the library’s writers groups. Since then I have read and studied several books of translations from Wang Wei, Ryokan, Basho and others.
During the last few years, I find my writings turning toward dialogues with these poets. Here is a poem from Han Shan, a Taoist/Buddhist hermit, as translated by Red Pine:
Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change
A quick read reveals a surface feast of images and imagination — the woods, the cliffs, soft grass and Heaven and Earth. After reading and thinking about this poem for several months there are questions that come to mind. Is the An Lu-shan Rebellion referred to in the third line? Is there a reference to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara? Heaven means the emperor. Earth means the empire. Is the last line political? Or philosophical? What do I say to Han Shan? Why did you flee? What and/or who did you leave behind?
Elsewhere in the world, at that same time Han Shan wrote this poem, Beowulf was composed. Charles Martel expanded the Frankish Empire. Three hundred years later The Song of Roland would commemorate one of the battles.
On a stormy afternoon, twelve- to eighteen-foot waves batter the rocky Lake Michigan shoreline. The world through literature expands and contracts with each line of poetry read.
I like how Dick Allen stated this suggestion:
“Think of books of poetry the way you think of music CDs. A CD may have 12–15 songs on it. A small book of poetry may have 30–50 poems in it. Just as good songs will be played over, so good poems will be read over and over.”
Like a single track on an album, I return to a poem by Anna Akhmatova. A Russian poem about an English play — Hamlet. The line that gets me every time I read it is:
“It was the sort of thing that princes always say.”
To me it is a catchy phrase that I want to play over and over again on the stereo. At full volume. Until it drives the neighbors in the apartment across the hall crazy.
In Sam Hamill’s notes regarding his translation of a Tu Fu poem he wrote about the mingled joy and deep resignation expressed in the work.
“What is implied in the original, . . . is the notion that somehow, . . . he will not waste away sitting before the wine jug. . . . [Tu Fu] asks the question every poet asks under such circumstances: Why do we do it?”
Indeed. Why do we do it? Why read poems? In an old literary journal? Why read a poem more than 1000 years old? Or older? Why write poetry? Some may desire to write poetry in order to express themselves. I thought that was me. But not so much anymore. I write poetry in response to Wang Wei. Or Anna Akhmatova. Or Ghalib. Or Dana Gioia. My modern-day peasant efforts are to continue the Great Conversation. One line at a time.
Edited, condensed and updated from three previous blog posts: National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part one, National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part two, National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part three