The Jersey Owl

The Jersey OwlThe more I read about owls the more I realize how paranoid white people have always been.  In European and English cultures, owls are almost always associated with witchcraft  or some other nefarious practice.  Maybe it is the eyes; they’ve always weirded people out. The eyes that Athena found “burning with inner light,’ freaked out  the civilized types.

I must admit, when I found the down-covered screech owl, I was intrigued because I thought owls were mysterious and weird.  I was 13 years old and not a popular kid.  I was an ill-tempered little fucker and I didn’t have many friends; mostly art-kids and the  other weirdos like me who hung around the pet store and drew pictures.  I was 13 when I found him and my sister named him Oliver. That summer he ate his weight in cicadas and eventually mice.  He was not a friendly pet, in fact not really a pet at all, but an orphan.  He was a gray screech owl and when he shed his down and his plumage filled in he was a beautiful bird; odd in all of the ways that I myself was.

I didn’t tell my friends about it at first, for fear it might get out and somebody would rat me out to the game warden.  He eventually got used to me and associated me with food .  He would fly to my fist when I had a mouse for him and as far as teaching him to hunt, there was not much need to.  The first time Oliver saw a mouse he knew it was food and from the time he could fly he was an excellent hunter .  I told a few of my  friends and they would ring  the doorbell at all hours day and night to bring Oliver a mouse or a big bug.   I would leave his pen open and let him fly around the basement and watch him and make drawings when he was still.  Once in a while, I’d catch some flack from my mother if he’d shit on her neat stacks of laundry. Owl shit is nasty and the pellets he would disgorge everyday, containing the bones and fur of the last unlucky rodent, were no treat for my mom either.

I was an indifferent student.  I didn’t like high school and thought, for the most part, my teachers were  idiots; the rare exception being an English teacher named Bill Leeberg who sought to excite us about books and reading and literature.  He would dress up like a baseball player and recite Casey at the Bat and his enthusiasm was infectious.  He had a way of letting us know that books and stories had something vital about life to tell us.  He was special.  Another good one was Sr. Michelene.  One time she caught us sleeping through one of her explanations of political science and she told us to close our books.  She looked us in the eyes and told us that some point we should decide who we wanted to be in the world.  She said, “Really decide now f you’re going to be one of those passive idiots who goes out into the world and collects a paycheck and then goes home and bitches at the TV set about the way things are.  Don’t let your life just happen to you.”

I thought, “Wow.”  Somebody finally told me something that actually means something.  From then on, I listened to her and was better for it.  She unknowingly nurtured the otherness in me.  And I’m grateful for it.  And for her.

The rest of my high school years were spent getting into petty trouble and fighting with the assistant principal who was a slovenly little douchebag who spit when he talked.  I had a core of friends who were talented in music or art and we  hung out going to movies, caddying for money at the golf course and getting into trouble.  I started drawing all the time and began to figure out that this was my hammer and nails.

In the Malay language, owls are called burung hantu, which means, literally, “ghost bird.”

Published in: on July 31, 2009 at 11:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Strange Angel

The Strange Angel

Owls are odd birds and there are  a zillion species of them.  In every culture, they are fraught with  symbolism.  It is said the the Caesars, Augustus and Julius’s deaths were foretold by owls in ancient Rome. The Romans, of course, believed the worst in everything, also claiming that owls were evil and sucked the blood of infants.  In The Old Testament, owls are linked inextricably with evil, witchcraft, and all other vestiges of paganism.

The Greeks went a little easier on owls.  In Greek mythology, Athene, or Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, banished the prankster crow in favor of an owl, in the belief that this bird could see through darkness and that their huge eyes contained an inner light.  The truth is, owls see only a little better than you and I.  What they do better than anything is HEAR.  They hunt by sound; they can hear a mouse get a hard-on.  They can also fly almost silently because their feathers are billowed; almost downlike and extremely quiet.  They are also not terribly bright.  They look smart, but they’re about as smart as every other bird with a brain the size of a pea, which is  not very.  They’re excellent hunters and are especially a scourge in the rodent world.

In Native American cultures, the Apache believe they are harbingers of death and bring unworthy spirits to the Underworld.  Whereas, the Hopi believe burrowing owls are protectors of the spirits of the dead because they live underground, as do  a great many species of owls .

I had a screech owl when I was in high school and went broke buying mice for him.  He had a big wooden box to live in with a perch and the unlucky rodent would be tossed in and no mouse ever made it to the four corners of the box.  Oliver made short work of mice in my mother’s basement; I often let Oliver out to fly around the dark basement and he, in two days, would rid the basement of any  mouse seeking to nest there. He was a grey screech owl,  about the size of a beer can,  who would cackle and make the eeriest sounds you could imagine.  He did not hoot and most owls don’t.  Many people mistake the cooing of mourning doves with owls.  Many Owls don’t make any sounds at all.

Barn owls are found everywhere and are forever tainted  by the  poems of a couple candy-ass English poets, Blair and Wordsworth, who continually rendered them as “birds of Doom,” even though they’re the best friends farmers ever had, subsisting entirely on harmful rodents.

In every culture, owls  are metaphors for something.  In my life an owl provided me with an escape from being like everyone else and taught me to listen and how to wait, and most importantly, how to search.

Published in: on July 28, 2009 at 11:49 pm  Comments (1)  

The Queen of Pink Acid

elephantWhen I was a senior in high school, my girlfriend, Denise, got her hands on a shit-ton of pink mescaline. She was a pretty girl with huge brown eyes who had an immense appetite for life.  I had never done mescaline before and the night I decided to try it with my friends she had to work.  She worked at a geriatric home in Wheaton and used to go to work tripping.   She was gentle and careful and with a head full of mesc was really easily entertained by the senile old folks.  Me and my friends each ate a micro-dot of this stuff and decided to go see The Omen, which was a horror movie; nothing like a scary movie when you’re tripping.  About 10 minutes into the experience I turned to my friends and told them nothing was happening except I was vaguely giggly, so I demanded another microdot.  Well, an hour later we went to the movie and it was really boring for the first five minutes until Damien, the son of the Devil, is having his birthday party. And right when I was starting to peak, Damien’s nanny hangs herself.  FUCK.  And then it just got more weird; with Damien trying to whack his mother, Lee Remmick, and poor Lee (already in Traction) getting tossed ass-over-teakettle out the 20th-story hospital room and landing on the roof of an ambulance–or through the roof, I should say. We laughed our asses off and stayed for the next show as well just to catch the hanging nanny scene again.

Mescaline was like acid-lite; not crazy powerful, no hallucinations or anything, but the stuff made you see lights and was very retinal, in that you’d see little light trails.  It also made everything funny and was a natural aphrodisiac that made girls as horny as bag of rabbits.

If you could sleep on the shit you had whack-job dreams that were wonderfully vivid in that you could remember them; or at least I could.  Tripping at school was way too dangerous, in that you felt like everyone was watching you and everyone was, because you’d be sporting a smile bigger than Curly Howard’s ass-crack and no matter what anyone told you, it was funny.  “Hey, Tony. They just blew up an orphanage”  would be a laugh-riot, or “Tony…. you’re failing three subjects…”; sheer fucking lunacy.  It also made awful  shitty dreck like Castenada seem deep and The Lord of the Rings became a great moral tale.  It also made Euro-rock bearable, which was the particular taste of my friends.  You could spend hours trying to figure out asinine shit like the real words to Louie, Louie.  Mescaline made these things not only bearable, but entertaining.

I can remember listening to a pert and perfect redhead babble gerbil-like indecipherable horseshit about Nostradamus while waiting for the mescaline to carbonate her hormones.  It was a long fucking night; one of many listening to idiotic “profound” ‘shroom and acid-raps that eventually became as boring as church.  But the dreams (I still remember some of them). . .I’m glad I don’t do drugs anymore.  And you should be too.

Published in: on July 23, 2009 at 1:46 am  Comments (1)  

The Emperor’s Bird

You listen for trains
and hope for birds. . .

The Emperor's Bird
I’ve been watching Kurosawa movies again just to be awed.  Ran, with its beautiful, bow and arrow battle over the temple where the emperor sits, resigned to whatever his fate is; there is this code of honor that Samurai have as warriors that is awe-inspiring.  I’m going to Japan in a few weeks and would like to know more history.  The Samurai and Ronin stories are really cool.

In the backdrop of this learning, the Bravo people are in town “auditioning” young artists for their ‘reality tv” series.  It had to happen.  The squirrels and douchebags that degrade, debase and otherwise belittle other professions or non-professions found the perfect petri dish of incompetence with which to collaborate–The “art world!’

I tell young artists that come here and work here the same thing:  If you don’t absolutely have to be an artist, find something else to do.  This is a vocation (notice I didn’t say “career”) for people who have no choice.  Don’t foul the water by “dabbling.”  I hate hobbyists.  You want a hobby, Snapper-head?  Collect fucking stamps.  This is a vocation; the closest thing I have to anything resembling a faith.

We become artists to speak to the future and to engage the world and enter the world in a meaningful way.  If something in this life is worth doing, it is worth doing full-on and all out.  You don’t sell yourself as an artist to be on TV and to be condescended to by assholes like Simon Cowell,  or whomever will be his weasel equivalent in this circle-jerk.  In ancient Japan, if you cocked off to a Samurai, he would cut more holes in you than you could bleed out of.

In Chicago, 1,400 mouth-breathers showed up to audition for this thing.  Every dickhead with a snot-ring,  pink hair and questionable hygiene stood in line to be appraised by some TV creature, or worse; some TV creature’s assistant.  They got treated like simpletons and asked to sign an odious agreement that included a gag order. . .like fight club.  They don’t want you talking about “Reality TV: ArtWorld Douche-Bags: the Series,” or whatever they’re calling it.  Defenders of this horseshit point to the careers of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood from American Idol who got large and lucrative recording contracts.  Fair enough.  Both of these women can sing.  But could either of them write a song like Angel from Montgomerey?  No. That took a John Prine, who isn’t exactly camera friendly.  What I’m getting at is that this will be largely cosmetic,  like every other goddamn thing on television.

This is being produced by Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex in the City fame or, as I liked to call it, “The Four Annoying Sluts from New York” show.  These were the wenches responsible for the popularity of “cosmopolitans,” wherein you fuck up perfectly good vodka by putting cranberry juice in it.  It was also a show that didn’t resemble a single interesting woman that I know.  Four dopey narcissists getting together every week to talk a lot of bullshit nobody but them gives a fuck about.  These are the women most men run like hell from.  Well, in her infinite wisdom she decided to cull some diamonds from the rough of the art world.  Is she a collector?  No.  She is an “enthusiast”– whatever the fuck that is.

I’m all for artists getting a career.  I employ five of them and have employed many over the years.  Nothing is more exciting than watching another artists’ curiosity harden into a vision.  It is a sacred thing; and it isn’t entertainment.  It is a vocation. It isn’t a living; it is a life.

Published in: on July 20, 2009 at 6:47 pm  Comments (1)  

Bird of the Falling Planets

Bird Of The Falling Planets

In the Haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson, as well as other Japanese monks, there are sometimes passages about death. In fact, on their death-beds, most Haiku monks wrote “Death Poems” and many of them are haunting and beautiful and not at all sad. . .on the contrary. . .more often they are sublime affirmations of life.  The Chinese and Koreans also write death poems.  It is an ancient custom in Japan for literate persons to write a “jisei” on their death beds.

Poetry in Japan goes hand in hand with religious practice.  Haiku poets were almost always monks.  The poems were rooted in nature and emotionally neutral, with the spirituality of Shinto and Buddhist teachings being a thematically unifying element.

After the passing of my father I wrote about 50 Haiku.  They were, in my mind, his death poems.  My father wasn’t much on poetry, though for some reason he could recite The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by heart. I think maybe it was a sailor thing.

Many “jisei” are written before ceremonial Seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide).  In fact, Yukio Mishima, the great Japanese writer and playwright, wrote one before committing Seppuku.

I’ve written about 40 death poems, in case at the moment of the “big Adios,” I’m not feeling it.  I didn’t write them out of any morbid notion; just curiosity and the idea of being able to exercise an economy of words and emotions at the wet-ass hour.  I like this one:

Glad Reunion:
Me, Red Birds, White Flowers
And Falling Planets.

I always loved that the Japanese pared down the human experience to the idea that we are part of nature; no bigger in the universe than rocks, birds or flowers.  ‘m not a Buddhist, but of all of the religions (and I adhere to none of them)  they seem the most sane.  This one is funny too:

A bath when you’re born
A bath when you die
How Stupid.
– Unknown

I’m going to Japan in a couple of weeks.  I’m not sure what I am looking for; I just know I need to go there.  I’ve been reading Haiku most of my life.  I know about Edo (What Tokyo used to be called), I know about the gardens and temples, I know Ronin stories and the code of the Samurai, the honor. . . I’ve read the tale of Genji.

I’m 50 years old.  It is time to see an older world.

Published in: on July 17, 2009 at 10:13 am  Comments (1)  
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The Forbidden Cardinal

“Life’s good. . . and not fair at all. . .”–Lou Reed

The Forbidden Cardinal


My back yard gets no shortage of cardinals, male and female.  All you have to do is put out black sunflower seeds in the feeder and they’re on it like white on Richie Daley.  Though the red males are the ones people “ooh” and “ahh” over, I’ve always thought the females were the real beauties.  Sometimes they look almost gold-yellow in the sunlight with rough russet-patches of red here and there. . . they’re lovely.

I made a yellow Cardinal as I was listening to the radio; a lot of stuff about Michael Jackson.  I was in New York when the news of his death broke and I thought about how much I loved the Jackson 5 as a kid.  We were the same age and I always felt like he never got to  grow into a fully-formed man.  There is a Jeff Koons sculpture of Jackson that portrays him and his chimpanzee, Bubbles, which now seems prescient; Michael Jackson as a kitschy, cultural fetish-object.  It feels like he never stood a chance; that he was infantile by cultural definition and walking around dressed like Captain Crunch as a grown man, his last  moments of grace being the phenomenon of “Thriller”, 25 years ago.  He seemed a confused man sexually and  racially and who became the butt of cruel jokes most often levied by black comedians like Chris Rock and Sinbad.   Of course, Jackson’s predilection for companionship with young children was troubling and always suspect, but there is a case to be made that  this man was never allowed entry into the adult world and was most comfortable being a child.  How many adults do you know of, that need a giraffe of their own?

The memorial  was weird and other-worldly, and in some cases bordered on the pornography of grief with self-serving “testimonials” bordering on the grotesque and politically opportune.  It made me think about how rare talent like Jackson’s is.  He could sing, he could dance, and he could craft a song like nobody else.  He was a genius at what he did, and he never stood a chance.

My friend Steve Griff died a year ago.  He wasn’t famous.  He spent most of his adult life working a mind-numbing and mundane job as a baker at Nabisco.  He was an immensely talented artist whose gifts were discovered mostly after his death.  He spent most of his adult life battling an addiction that eventually killed him.  It was hard for Steve; he had 7 years clean and was making the best work of his life.  He’d retired from Nabisco and finally had some time to make the marvelous drawings he made.  And then his addiction resurfaced and it killed him. He was one of the kindest people I ever knew.  He loved New Orleans and was to be part of the Biennial crew that accompanied me there.  Before he left my studio every Sunday he would smile his lop-sided smile and tell me, “Tread lightly, brother, you and me are already on our 9th life.”  He never stood a chance.

I learned a long time ago that there was no right or wrong way to grieve.  And that life isn’t so much determined by the right and wrong, so much as it is the consequences.

Published in: on July 13, 2009 at 10:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Green Jay

“Every angel is terrible. . .” – Rilke
The Green Jay

When I was a kid I used to charm my mother with stories I’d make up  in order to get a cookie out of her. I would give her a baggie full of Cheerios and tell her they were “Donut Seeds,” and that if she gave me a cookie, I’d let her have a whole bag of them.  Such a deal.  I would also tell her that there were special bluejays that were actually green that talked; but only to me.

My mother was charmed by me.  The nuns, however, were not.  I often told them that they looked like monsters and drew unflattering pictures of them being attacked by eagles and small aircrafts.  In third grade, a particularly nasty bride-of-Christ took umbrage at the fact that I refused to work in my phonetics workbook and I told the old bitch that I thought it was for retards and kids who couldn’t read yet.  I’d been reading since I was four; my mother taught me.  In fact, in third grade I was reading THE GRADUATE, trying to find the part where Ben bones Mrs. Robinson.  The nuns, of course, took the book away from me and sent me home to my mother.  They insisted that I go see the child psychologist  at Loyola.  I remember my mother taking me there and when we got there and saw a sign reading “Psychotherapy,” and I turned to my mother and asked her who was getting their head examined, her or me?  The nuns held me back and I had to do third grade again  with the same psychotic bitch I’d had the first time.  The drawings continued, including one of her eating the convent poodle which I thought, at the time, to be my best work.

They moved me from Sister Laureen’s class to Sister Dominia’s class.  Sister Dominia was slightly nicer and liked my drawings of birds.  She would hang them on the blackboard and let me do whatever the fuck I wanted during phonetics.  She also didn’t insist on my joining Cub Scouts like all the other dickheads in the class who came to school  dressed in their dark blue uniforms looking like assholes.  Sister Dominia asked me why I didn’t join Cub Scouts and I told her I didn’t want to be like everyone else, and she said, “Good for you.”  That was the first time I ever actually learned anything in school.

From then on it was differen.  When I wanted to ignore the world around me, I would draw birds   and monsters and naked girls.  I made my own little world and was very happy to be there.  Still am.

Published in: on July 4, 2009 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

The King of August

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds. —Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Wallace Stevens

August Blackbird

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a bartender, a man named Mr. Fowler used to come in everyday and drink draft beer and quietly watch the ball game in the afternoon.  He would doodle on napkins making symbols from the hobo alphabet.  He had ridden the rails in the ’30’s and ’40’s and he was the one who introduced me to the hobo alphabet. He had some amazing stories about what he had seen in those years during The Depression.   One of the more resonant stories was one about him and his fellow travelers being run out of town and forced to sleep in the meadow in the August heat.  He remembered the music of the field birds being the only thing he could enjoy and he and the other jobless men,  filthy and hungry, sitting for what seemed like hours in the field, listening to songbirds until they felt like they, themselves, could take flight.  It was an amazing story, backed up by Mr. Fowler’s uncanny ability to imitate bird calls.  He could identify birds by sound and mimic them, even well into his seventies.  I think riding trains was maybe the only way people who had nothing could take flight.

My friend, Steve Earle, and I have talked about red-winged blackbirds before.  Many years ago, I was making etchings of birds and I’d done a red-wing and just for the hell of it, I sent him one, and he called me a little while later and told me that the red-winged blackbird was the first thing he had ever killed.  When we are kids, at some point we realize the horrible power we have over other living things.  Steve won’t even kill bugs anymore.  When he goes fishing,  he is content to merely humiliate the trout.  He throws them back now.  I think we reach a certain state of grace when we tire of extinguishing life, no matter how seemingly insignificant. I used to kill spiders and now I just chase the fuckers out of the house with a newspaper.

Published in: on July 1, 2009 at 6:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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