At Play with 420 Characters

420 Characters by Lou Beach ★★★★
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011), Kindle eBook with audio selections


“Danny and I stand outside the church, fidget in our muted plaid sport coats. Maybe not muted enough. An old guy in a tuxedo walks up to Danny and hands him some car keys. “What’s this?” says Danny. “Aren’t you the parking valet?” says the guy. “No, I’m the best man.” The guy walks away and we see him later inside. He’s the father of the bride. “Oh, it’s going to be a fun reception,” Danny says, taking out the flask.”

Lou Beach is a well-known artist (but recent discovery to me) who has done many illustrations for clients such as Wired, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (where he was a regular contributor to the Book Review). The bio on his website starts with the following paragraph: “I was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, killed me a bear when I was only three. No, wait..I was born in Germany of Polish parents, came to the US when I was only four, spent my youth in Rochester, New York, riding my bike, building snow forts, throwing chestnuts at the kid down the street. I was a fair student, no great shakes, disappointing several teachers by not realizing my “full potential.”

Right away, you know you’re dealing with a highly creative individual who doesn’t take himself too seriously, especially given the kinds of illustrations which animate his site (see below). I discovered Beach when I was looking up reviews for The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann, offered as a Kindle daily deal one day and landed on the NYT review page featuring one of his gorgeous illustrations. Looking up his blog, I found out he’d published this book, which is a collection of short stories exactly 420 characters long, including punctuation, which he had initially published as his Facebook status updates when the site only allowed that specific amount of text. The kindle edition includes some illustrations and several audio selection read by Dave Alvin, Ian McShane, and Jeff Bridges. As can be expected from this sort of project, the results are a mixed bag. There are some sublime moments, some ho-hum moments, and some head-scratching ‘WTF?’ moments, but undeniably, the man had fun with the form and a reader is bound to find something that appeals. A few examples that worked for me:

The servants seem peculiar lately. The kitchen help, the housekeeper, and the gardener move about in a shuffle, mumbling, glazed. When I confront them they appear startled, as if just awakened. Only Claude, the chauffeur, retains his old demeanour, sneering or scowling, smoking a Gauloises as he leans against the Packard, wiping a long black fender with my cashmere sweater.


A bird lives on my head, nests in my hair, pecks at my scalp. A finch, I believe. When I go out in public I cover it with a hat, so it’s away from prying eyes and cats who would climb my body to catch it. Sometimes on the bus I notice others wearing hats, and if there are seeds or an errant feather on their shoulders, I nod and smile and preen.


I lay the book on the floor, open to the middle. It’s a lovely volume, green leather covers, engraved endpapers. I remove my shoes and step into it up to my ankles, knees, hips, chest, until only my head is showing and the pages spread around me and the words bob up and down and bump into my neck, and the punctuation sticks to my chin and cheeks so I look like I need a shave.


And my favourite:

“Are you my mommy?” said the little blue egg. “No, dear. You are a plastic trinket full of sweets,” said the brown hen. “My baby is over there,” and she pointed to a pink marshmallow chick being torn apart and devoured by a toddler. The hen screamed and woke up, her pillow wet with sweat, the sheets twisted around her legs. “Christ, I hate that dream.” She reached for a smoke.


More stories which weren’t included in the book can be found on his site:


On my mind today

As much as I’m wanting to do all kinds of things today, I’m equally desirous of spending time with my books. I’m more conscious than ever that I’ll have to cut back some on bookish things starting about a month for now to make room for my art classes, and art in general, which I’ve been woefully neglecting along with everything else. My dad offered to pay for my classes this term, which is very generous of him, so I signed up for a class with my favourite teacher Elisabeth for another round of watercolours (she keeps it fresh and new and exciting all the time, what more can one ask for?). I’ll also be taking a day-long painting class during which everyone works on personal projects, which I thought was probably the smart thing to do since I’ve got maybe a dozen canvases at various stage of completion and could certainly use the feedback to get me moving on them. A regular three-hour class is just too short, and the full day is a little too long to be leaving Coco alone, so I’ll probably show up a bit later in the morning (big surprise, right?). Continue reading

A Dying Art?

Apollo’s Angels : A History of Ballet
by Jennifer Homans ★★★★½

I discovered ballet like most little girls, when I saw representations of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake around age 5, which is when I decided that my calling in life was to be a ballerina. Of course, I started taking ballet lessons but there were signs of trouble when I proved to be lacking in discipline and kept missing classes because of various complaints which would never have kept a true disciple away from the barre and teachings of instructors, no matter how strict. And then the crushing blow of being turned down following an audition for the National Ballet School. “Well, what could you expect?” was my mum’s reasonable response to my glum discomfiture. Still, I hung in there for a few years and absorbed all I could from the scary, venerable, and elegant Russian ladies who seemed to have been born in stage makeup and never had a hair out of place. They were ubiquitous at reputable dance academies in those days. Continue reading


Summer Blues

Mimi & Coco: not quite friends yet but we're working on it.

I’m sorry to say I’ve been feeling mostly depressed and low on energy lately. Most of my art classes have ended this week, with my last watercolours class coming on Monday. I have a new painting class starting in July and a drawing class in August but of course there will be less activity over the summer as far as art therapy goes. But then, I always seem to get depressed around this time of year. Everyone seems to have plans and opportunities to get out of the city and the prospect of another lonely birthday looming ahead and seeing everybody outside with friends and family inevitably makes me feel more lonesome than ever, while at the same time being on my own suits me more often than not. There are not a lot of people I feel comfortable reaching out to in “real life”. I’m feeling like a loser again and any time I try to think of my future I get terrified and can’t seem to see anything but bleakness, which doesn’t help matters. In other words, I’m feeling sorry for myself and when I feel like this I just lay low because it’s not the kind of energy I feel I should share with anybody.

I’m thankful to have Coco giving me a compelling reason to get out of the house three times a day. I get to talk to complete strangers because they find him cute and ask questions. Of course I always tell them he’s a rescue dog—I have to say I’m quite proud of doing my part in some small way. My only complaint is that he’s a bit of a whiner and he doesn’t always come when I call him those rare times I let him off leash, so altogether it’s safe to say he’s a dream dog and I pretty well won the dog lottery. I go to dog parks sometimes which is a great social outing for Coco but I mostly feel awkward around the other dog owners and always leaving feeling worse than when I arrived.

I’m considering volunteering for a couple of places; there’s the workshop at the day hospital I used to go to that could use a bit of organizing and I heard of a cat rescue which is nearby and doesn’t require a long commute. I just need to make a few calls and meet people to make it happen, which seems like more than I can handle right now, so all in due time I guess. I’m just waiting for this latest bout of the blues to blow over and in the meantime I’m accumulating lots of material to post both here and on the C365 site which I’ve admittedly neglected lately, along with everything and everyone else. At least I’m not questioning whether or not I ‘deserve’ to keep on living—something that tends to come up around this time every year—especially now that I have my little family of three kidz to look after, which is a pretty good mindspace to be in, all things considered. So yeah, not complaining. It is what it is and like everything else, this too shall pass, right? Right.

Pic by Smiler


Can Creativity Save Lives?

If you’ve been reading me, then you must know I’ve been looking through various name listings lately. I’m looking at “old English names” “Author names” “Artist Names”, etc. for the precious bundle of joy due to arrive here in just 4 or 5 days. Imagine my surprise when I saw listed under “H” in artist names a certain Adolph Hitler. I do recall reading somewhere that he had considered studies in art and architecture. I had never delved too much into the personal history of the man because had never considered him as a human being before—just a scary monster who was best left along with the other underbed dwellers—so the following entry in somehow chilled me to the bone:

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:
Hitler described himself as a painter in the Academic tradition. Most everyone else who’s seen his work has described Hitler’s painting style as either “Bad” or “Extremely bad.”

Date and place of birth: April 20, 1889, Braunau am Inn, Austria

Life: Though he became convinced in his youth that he possessed great artistic talent, very few other people (besides his own mother) felt similarly about Adolf Hitler. He received an “excellent” mark in Art during his final year of formal schooling, but his failure to complete a Leaving Certificate in the U.S. equivalent of high school did him no favors when he first took the exam to enter the prestigious Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien (Academy of Fine Art in Vienna) in 1907. Ostensibly rejecting him for lack of academic skills, the Academy’s admissions department also commented on Hitler’s lack of understanding of human anatomy. Undaunted, Hitler again took the entrance exam in 1908, with similar results. He temporarily refocused on a future in architecture but this, too, did not come to pass due to lack of education. Regrettably, he then embarked upon a well-documented crooked path toward attempted world domination after this final artistic disappointment.

Important works: None of his own. The most important thing Hitler did for art was to spotlight the “Degenerates” – artists whose works were avant garde, or otherwise failed to meet National Socialist arts policies. Of course, he did this for the wrong reasons, wanting to ridicule and ruin talented artists’ careers. No one was more enraged than he when his plan backfired and the public flocked to Degenerate exhibitions.

Date and place of death: April 30, 1945, Berlin (Committed suicide in an underground bunker of the chancellery building.)

Art quotes by Adolph Hitler:

  • All my life I have wanted to be a great painter in oils … As soon as I have carried out my program for Germany, I shall take up painting. I feel that I have it in my soul to become one of the great artists of the age and that future historians will remember me not for what I have done for Germany, but for my art.
  • As for the degenerate artists, I forbid them to force their so-called experiences upon the public. If they do see fields blue, they are deranged, and should go to an asylum. If they only pretend to see them blue, they are criminals, and should go to prison. I will purge the nation of them.
  • My pictures, in the collections which I have bought in the course of years, have never been collected for private purposes, but only for the extension of a gallery in my home town of Linz on Donau. – from Hitler’s Last Will and Testament dated April 29, 1945.

Sources and Further Reading (see original article)

As you may know (or can easily find out by reading a bit more of this blog), I am on a journey of recovery and so far the most effective form of treatment to get me out of a debilitating clinical depression (the state I’m in by default if I’m not being manic) has been to make creativity and creative output the priority in my life, and wanting to share this experience led me to start

So far I’ve been very impressed with the quality of work our collaborators have submitted, and I do want to encourage almost all creative effort at all level of experience, perceived talent or skill. But I have asked myself the question “what if someone starts sending in truly horrible stuff? Will I want to have my name attached to that as an aesthete, as a Creative & Art Director?” So far I haven’t had to deal with this issue. But after reading the above, and especially the excellent New Yorker article called Hitler as Artist (the chilling conclusion addresses an issue I have struggled with for the better part of my life), I’m starting to think I have a strong ethical responsibility if I am to become any kind of authority on Creativity at any point in time.

The moral of the story? Better let people express themselves, however “badly” than brimming their creative impulses and risk them lashing out and becoming mass murderers on a universal scale instead. Sheesh.

Drawing by Adolph Hitler. As much as I hate to say it, I don’t find it so bad and would publish it on the other site if someone sent me something in a similar vein. A most troubling thought, all things considered.


Dark Tunnel

This is not a good place to be. No energy and forces of darkness seem to conspire to keep me that way. People are starting to complain that I’m not posting their stuff on the create site fast enough. I can’t keep up. Barely have time to do my own creative work anymore. Am strongly considering just abandoning the stupid project. Why should I make it my problem to get other people to be more creative when I can barely muster up enough energy to work on my own creative stuff? Doesn’t make sense. Screw it.

Then, as if I needed more problems at this point, an eBay buyer I sent some items to decided to open a dispute claim just for fun, because she hasn’t gotten her package after 4 weeks, even though I specified it could take up to 6 weeks. She thought it would be a good idea to open a dispute with PayPal so they would put a retainer on the funds she paid me just in case, the package doesn’t get to her, just in case, I decide to be unreasonable and refuse to pay her back IF she doesn’t get her package. I sent her nicely written emails, pointing out to her that I’ve been nothing but amenable so far, giving her discounts when I didn’t have to, giving her a shipping service I don’t usually offer just to save her money… do I have the profile of someone who’s out to screw people??

Do I need this crap I ask? Do I need to be making any efforts at all if they’re going to backfire on me? I’m on disability leave precisely because I can’t deal with that kind of stress right now. Takes nothing at all to get me into a tailspin and next thing you know I’m headed for another big crash. Fuck it. I’m giving up. You people can manage just fine without me. You want to be creative? Then just fucking create. With or without me, it ain’t going to make a difference. I’ll give news again when I bloody good and ready to. Till then, I’m checking out.