Sunday, May 29, 2011

Never say never

     Sunset magazine published an article in this month’s issue about Benicia and as a result this weekend has been exceptionally busy. People from all over the Bay Area have come to check out this no longer well-kept secret. Benicia is unique, the downtown is surrounded by water on three sides and there is history to discover in the old buildings. My sister’s gallery is in the heart of downtown next to the community garden, across from the Union Hotel. The foot traffic jumped from a few lost bikers before the article to a stream of people who are actually interested in art. And the quality of the questions people asked took a dramatic leap toward intelligence.  From “Hey, I drank too much beer to ride home can I use your bathroom?” to “What medium did you use to create this effect?” Talking to people was suddenly fun again. Thanks Sunset.

     Last weekend a total of three visitors showed up, two who were friends (thanks for coming Joy and David, you made my day). Unfortunately the long hours between visitors plunged me into narcolepsy. Boredom expands time choking inertia like scum on a stagnant pond. I must have had expectations, clearly unreasonable ones for an art gallery needing patrons who did not reek of beer. I told my sister I quit, but I’ll give it another weekend with this many interesting people walking through.  The photos are my sister’s work.  It’s a great little gallery in a recently discovered town.  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

For the love of dogs

     Each weekend this summer I’ll be keeping my sister’s gallery open in downtown Benicia while she's at art festivals. So far people have only come in once or twice a day. A few have looked around as if they are lost and asked “Is this an art gallery?” as they plot their escape.  Just shoot me if I ever say I’m opening a gallery. It might just be the fastest way to go broke and the most impossible idea ever for actually selling artwork. I get why the high end places slap a glass of hard liquor in potential art buyer’s hands. I have some paintings of dogs on the walls that I’d like very much to sell. And commissions are great so I’ll gladly paint anyone’s dog.  I used to be criticized for it when I worked in a large art museum. One curator asked in a tone that was so pinched she could have said it with her sphincter, “Catherine, are you still painting people’s pets for money?” I am stunned by mean people. I took my usual fallback position by remaining mute.  Up until that moment I’d been having a pretty good day. It’s amazing how quickly one demoralizing comment can strangle the soul and plunge the meek into despair.

      Over the years I’ve thought of no less than 5,000 scathingly witty comebacks that did not spring to mind that moment. According to the ideals touted by the museum elite artists are supposed to be pure and only paint from some higher inspiration akin to a burning bush, but I don’t subscribe. Practice is practice and I am self-taught. As I was learning the craft the subjective irrelevance of the subject, when I needed money, didn’t faze me in the least. The theory that it takes 10,000 hours to be good at something is probably true. In the long run it served me better to move a paint brush than stand in a museum with white gloves on kissing curatorial ass. Picasso would roll over if he knew I produced paintings in his style that matched the chair rail in a restaurant.  
      I took her point seriously though.  Ever since she asked that scathing question I have preserved the provenance of my true artistic work with one simple technique.  My signature is on the paintings that are from my heart. But when I painted something purely for the almighty dollar, I signed her name on it.

Monday, May 16, 2011


     Watching the slow, demoralizing process of dementia take my Mother’s mind has brought enough heartache over the last ten years to drown in a lake of tears. It is a horrible thing when life is so cruel, but through all the ups and downs it has also brought us closer together. Sometimes I need a well of patience to answer the same questions all day long, but then she had to manufacture a geyser of love and tolerance to handle my teenage years.  In lucid moments, when her memory first started to go, she had days when she was fully aware of the inescapable condition creeping up on her. The awareness that she would eventually lose control of her mind and body filled her with terror. And those were the hardest times. I hid my tears and hugged her often. I promised her she would come to no harm. She’s unaware of her condition now and that’s a small blessing for an independent, adventurous woman who is sliding into total helplessness.  

     Once in a long while a cog in the slipping gears of her mind catches and she remembers something of our shared history, although she rarely recognizes me anymore. I had been warned that people with Alzheimer’s become testy, lose their sense of humor and eventually shriek like gibbons when asked to do something simple, like bathe. But Mom is still cooperative and hilarious. In the worst of the transition from consciousness to her current child-like state she announced “I can’t believe a word I say anymore!”  But no matter how bad her day is, a simple act of kindness has always brought her back. A few days ago she was leaning over on the couch wide eyed; unable to sit straight because she couldn’t figure out which way was up. I took her hand and told her what a good Mom she has been. She smiled, sat up and said “Do you really think so? That’s nice of you, but did I have children?”

     Later, when I was on hold with the phone company and she understood I was annoyed she decided to do something about it. She marched in and out of the room in different hats announcing “Now I’m a cowboy”, “Now I’m a clown.” And once she had me laughing she crept down the hall whispering, “I’m going to go scare your Dad!”

     It amazes me that her mind rarely recalls her past, but still has the capacity to give and receive joy and kindness.  She is no longer the whole person I used to know, but remarkably the best part of her still shines and for now that’s enough. 
     The pictures were actually one of Mom's ideas, she asked me to make silly faces with her in the mirror.   

Monday, May 9, 2011

Back in the U.S.

      Excess is customary in the land where the trappings of wealth signify worth. How did America corner the world market on stuff? Being relatively bottom rung in earnings I can’t afford a home, but have managed to live just fine without one. Crewing on sailboats, finding great, but inexpensive hotels in foreign countries and trading work or paintings for rooms is working out well for me. Walking into Whole Foods in Redondo Beach slapped me with the disparity between the wealthy and everyone else. My fondest moments, where I felt truly alive and connected, have often been with people who had nothing left to lose. I’m not slamming the finer things in life because eating well is a good thing and having stuff is fun, but in the grocery aisle with so many products to choose from, my brain went numb. A grocery store in a small town in Mexico was easy. What they have is what you are going to eat and the options are usually limited to one choice per item.
     Very soon grocery stores in America will lose their grandeur. As I settle back into my role as caretaker for my Mom over the next few months I will regain the ability to make lightning fast choices in grocery aisles. Honey smooth or creamy? With or without a chunk of bees wax? In a tube, a jar or a plastic bear? From an organic farm or wild bees, maybe imported or the sale brand? Wow, even water comes in fifty nine forms.
      The magazines at the counter with all the famous people I didn’t recognize held me spellbound. What is the fascination with rich, popular strangers? Didn’t we jointly kill Princess Diana one tabloid at a time with our need to consume her photos? So who is still buying this crap? And isn’t much of the current violence in Mexico the direct result of America’s appetite for mood altering drugs? That is a choice I can easily make, just holler HELL NO. Without a market for illegal drugs there will no longer be a reason to produce them. In my time in Mexico I never heard one disparaging remark about Americans or felt any animosity towards me. What if no one bought drugs and used the money to take vacations? Try somewhere warm where people actually like us. Baja California Sur is safe and beautiful. Maybe the U.S. Government could give up the war on drugs and start subsidizing drug free vacations. It could be so much fun no one would ever need to get high again.  


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Espiritu Santo

       Going on a tour has always been a last resort. I am sure there will be ugly name tags and droning guides herding people like sheep. I’ve avoided packaged sightseeing, with a few exceptions, like caves I’d still be lost in if it weren’t for a guide. Tours in New Zealand at least involved the possibility of injury, meaning they were truly adventurous, since law suits are unheard of.
     Sadly I’d missed my chance to visit Espiritu Santo twice in a month. The island, only a few miles from the city of La Paz, is protected. Fish thrive where fishing is no longer allowed. Seals, whales, sharks and dolphins tend to hang around where the fish congregate. I signed up for a tour as there was just no other way to get there. It seemed silly, having sailed the length of Baja to get so close and miss going. And I wouldn’t actually have to tell anyone I went on a tour.
     But I hadn’t thought it through. Mexico is more like New Zealand than the United States. The boat driver never told anyone to sit down and life jackets were quickly discarded, after all they are hot and make ugly tan lines. I had no idea what I’d signed up for though. I mean who the hell goes on a tour without asking what they are paying for well in advance? When ceviche, marlin, shrimp cocktails and sandwiches were laid out on a table under umbrellas on a lovely beach I actually wondered if any of it was meant for me. Most people spoke no English and not being willing to sound like a just another dope on a tour I didn’t ask questions. Instead I acted like the family dog, running here and there just because everyone else did. When the driver, Alberto, waved me over to the table I got it that I was actually included in the feast. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for something I had paid for, but just didn’t know it. 

     We had already circled the island, flying at top speed through narrow arches and roaring into caves to stop just short of colliding with a stone wall in the dark. Alberto had more than a few impressive maneuvers to scare people back into their life jackets.  He handled the boat with the skill of an astronaut on re-entry in a busted shuttle.
      Before lunch we had been given snorkel gear and encouraged to jump in the water with a colony of sea lions. Burbling shrieks emitting from snorkels instantly signaled close encounters. It is wholly intimidating to be in the ocean with creatures larger than yourself with teeth like, well, lions. But this crowd of seals did not behave aggressively, that day anyway. At least five other tours showed up while we were there, pitching humans into the water with the simple instruction, “Let the seals come to you.” Okay, good advice, although chasing a bull sea lion twice my size into his harem had never been on my agenda. And come to you they do, they sidled up and peered in my mask. Their whiskers tickled. Three females swam in circles around me while a large male charged back and forth, just out of petting range, like a jealous lover. There was nothing I could do to let him know I'm not really into seals as he blew bubbles at me, which apparently means “Back OFF!” in sea lion. 


     Dolphins leapt around us and the boat gently rocked when whales raised their enormous flukes, then sounded nearby. Geologically Espiritu Santo is a barren record of the infinitely slow process of upheaval. Sculpted stone forms bizarre contours in a wide spectrum of contrasting earth tones. A sparse gnarly tree cleaved to a vertical cliff with the tenacity of an untethered rock climber.

     Raul had arranged for the tour and I didn’t ask him for details in advance because everything else he had steered me to had been great. He did mention the tour would be back at 6:00 that evening, which is all I knew. At 7:00 we were still following a pair of whales south of La Paz. The tour held me spellbound for nine and a half breathe taking hours and permanently changed my mind about going on tours.