Art and Pain

I just spent five days in Mexico City (I know. Seriously though, the trips will be winding down soon). My friend Sheila and I saw a lot of art. Of course this means that we went to Casa Azul, the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Frida Kahlo has become such a ubiquitous art presence that I don’t know if I can say anything at all new about her. But her work is sublime, and she created it while in intense physical pain. I can relate to that.

I’m not going to say that my situation compares equally to Frida’s. She survived polio; she was impaled on a piece of metal when she was eighteen; she had her leg amputated due to gangrene later in life. Any one of those things would be agonizing to endure. She survived all three, and crammed more vibrant life into her short years on this planet than most of us ever will.

Frida's Support and Prosthetic Devices Casa Azul Coyoacán, Mexico City.
A Selection of Frida Kahlo’s Support and Prosthetic Devices
Casa Azul
Coyoacán, Mexico City

I contracted juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) when I was fifteen years old. I am reluctant to write about it because I sometimes think it will affect my ability to get employment, or to get insurance. Back in my twenties, when I was trying to buy my own coverage, an agent physically backed away from me when I mentioned my condition. Like it was catching. “Oh no,” he said, “that’s like cancer or AIDS. We can’t insure you.” I also tried to buy coverage through an artist coalition plan. I was denied with no explanation. Getting independent coverage was okay the past couple years, but it is becoming difficult again. That’s another messed up topic for another time.

But anyway. I have known pain and physical limitation since my mid-teens. The carefree part of my youth was very brief. In the exhibit of Frida’s wardrobe at Casa Azul, the person who wrote the label text talked about how Frida’s chosen Tehuana style of dress focused on her upper body, drawing attention away from her weakened legs. This observation struck me, because I do that too. I am fiercely protective of my lower body. If my knees are threatened, I am capable of screaming and thrashing like a wild animal. I am normally pretty cautious and even-keeled. But I am also holding a lot of pent up something.

High school was rough after I contracted JRA. I needed to have fluid regularly drained from my knees, and was subsequently on crutches a lot. I fatigued easily. The onset period of the disease is acute, and sometimes even my ribs were affected, so it hurt even to breathe. I would occasionally scream myself to sleep. Scream until I was exhausted. My mother would sit by my bed and hold my hand.

I still had dreams for my future, though. When I was starting to think about college, my guidance counselor advised me to stick close to home, and not to challenge myself too much. “That big university? So much walking? You don’t want to do that.” That was the first time I wanted to tell an adult to go to hell. I was far too timid at that age to be so outspoken; but I did ignore her lousy advice.

I went to high school in a strongly evangelical Christian suburb of Chicago. I considered myself a born again Christian for a while. Every year, I would draw a huge fantastical allegorical piece for the annual student art show. These pieces were crammed full of weird creatures and suffering humans, and I made up all sorts of completely random references to Bible verses. I even made a legend of what all the images meant for the piece in my senior show, and hung it next to my work. I bet it was every bit as convoluted and tedious as it sounds to me now.

Because of this tedious allegorical habit, I was profiled in the local paper my senior year. The reporter was really interested in my “suffering,” and I was happy to oblige because it was always on my mind. I remember that the headline of the piece was “Graduate Prays for Dry Weather.” Probably weird stuff like that is another reason I hesitate to talk about JRA and how it influences my work. But I have to admit that it does.

I think that knowing prolonged pain makes you introspective in a very particular way. You also need to be keenly observant of the outside world, because you face threats that others may not comprehend. You plan things around your pain. You think about cause and effect a lot. You have a strong desire to believe that things can get better.

At this point, pain has integrated itself into my life both by attenuation and habit. If it were to all suddenly vanish, it would be weird. I might think I was Super Woman. I might just fall over, because I wouldn’t know how to hold myself together without all that tense caution. I’d feel like a jellyfish or a butterfly. Frantic and fluid.

I sometimes wonder whether I’m actually grateful for the pain. Not sure about that yet. But I do know that it is what I have to work with.

GBH at SPX 2016

The Floor at SPX 2016
The Floor at SPX 2016

Once again, I’m writing about my art stuff while being overwhelmed by what’s going on in this country. The first presidential debate (I’m terrified), the multi-prison strike in the south, the North Dakota Pipeline, the protests in Charlotte, and pretty much everything going on in Chicago. My art does talk about pertinent issues, I hope in an engaging and non-dogmatic way. I make video for social justice campaigns. I try to engage people in civil conversations about the challenges we currently face. Is it enough? Does it matter? It’s never enough. And it does matter. I never know if I’m doing this exactly right, but I will keep doing it.

Last week I went to Small Press Expo,  a comics convention in Bethesda, Maryland. Bethesda is near Washington DC, so I was thinking a lot about the state of the country while roaming aisles full of independent pop fiction with pictures. Since I was there for the full weekend, I was able to attend several panel discussions featuring people whose work have had a profound affect on me and on my own work.

Panel discussions with creative people are sort of weird. It’s kind of like writing an artist statement: “here, please put into words that which you are compelled to make art about because it is impossible for you to put it into words.” And okay, in this case I don’t really care; because I am content to merely gaze upon the revered creators for a time, and to see that they are human. That’s what this was for me.

Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco is a pioneer of comics journalism, which seems like an absurd concept and it is, maybe. But it’s also a beautiful and intensely personal way to contemplate world events. I could go on about his work (I own most if not all of it), but you should really just look at it yourself.

It struck me how he talked about journalism (which he studied). In his book called Journalism, and also on the panel, he maintains that it is impossible to remain completely objective. He covers a lot of war zones, and conflict aftermath. He includes himself as a character in his stories. He shows how he interacts with those whom he interviews, how sometimes he acts as a message carrier between members of refugee families who are caught in different cities. Because he is human.

Hearing him speak on this panel, I was impressed by how composed and sweet he seems. A gentle soul who has seen a lot of shit. From where I was sitting I could not detect anything coming out of his mouth that was not genuine. SWOON.

The Hernandez Brothers
The Hernandez Brothers

The Hernandez Brothers have always had underground fame, but lately they’re enjoying a resurgence in popularity. They were pretty much the darlings of this event. Even though I’m a huge fan, I always forget which brother writes and draws which part of the story – Locas or Palomar –  because I think of it as all one universe. I guess I’m not a very good FanGirl.

During this panel I learned (or was reminded) that Jaime, the guy on the left, draws and writes the Locas part of the story; and Gilbert, in the middle, writes and draws Palomar. Both parts are exquisite and profoundly perceptive, especially when it comes to the experience of women. I have always loved them for this.

Gilbert is the more talkative brother; in fact he dominated the panel. It was interesting, but a lot about comics biz stuff, which doesn’t really interest me although maybe it should. The few times Jaime spoke I related immediately: “I feel more like a writer who can draw, than an artist. I don’t enjoy doing commissioned illustrations, because if there isn’t a story behind them, they feel dead. I feel like I’m giving someone an incomplete work. Like I’m getting away with something.” EXACTLY.

I also discovered that the Hernandez Brothers are not yet published in Mexico. That seems absurd to me. I’m sure it has to do with money for translation (apparently neither of them speaks Spanish) and other publishing nonsense, but still. It gave me a bit of perspective.

I appreciated Joe, Jaime and Gilbert from afar. I did FanGirl the Hernandez Brothers at CAKE a couple years ago; it was dumb and awkward and I am not sure I see the point. Like I can’t see the point of an artist statement.

I will continue to buy these guys’ stuff, and hopefully one day I’ll be on a panel with them and then I’ll have drinks with them later and refuse to let them pay for anything. “Your money’s no good here, Sacco! Put away that wallet, Jaime! Barkeep – another round!” I’m sure that would be a fitting tribute.

Long Weekend in the Capital

Today is the last day of my long weekend trip to Small Press Expo 2016. SPX ended yesterday, but I have spent a couple days wandering around Washington DC, and staying at the Hostel on K and 11th Streets. Right now I’m waiting for my Chicago-bound train in an Irish pub near Union Station, and a couple politico types are sitting next to me, talking about counting votes.  I don’t know which votes and for what, but I guess it could be important.

I’m thinking about a lot of stuff. I could easily write an entire post about SPX and my comic-related ambitions; staying at a hostel instead of using AirBnB; the general DC experience… but I think I’ll just start writing about everything and see where I get.

Train Experience

I took Amtrak (again), the Capitol Limited line, on Wednesday so I could get into DC on Thursday and spend Friday wandering around before the conference on Saturday. The train got stuck behind some track maintenance on the way in, eventually making us over three hours late.

I think this was less than an hour before the tunnel adventure.

Many people missed connecting trains. I don’t know how and/or if Amtrak gives people travel vouchers or reimbursements. I do know that after reading a bunch of Amtrak reviews, I decided it was in my best interest to never plan anything time dependent on the day I am supposed to arrive, especially on the east coast lines, which have to deal with more freight train priority and train traffic in general. This trip confirmed my decision.

So I was okay, if annoyed. Mostly because we waited most of the time in a dark tunnel. We couldn’t see anything outside the windows, and there was no coverage for anyone’s phone.  Also (perhaps most grievously) because we were in Maryland, they couldn’t serve alcohol until 4pm – which was around the time we finally rolled onto the station.

This trip wasn't as scenic as the last one, but still some cool views.
This trip wasn’t as scenic as the last one, but still some cool views.

People got a bit punchy. Some people tried using their phones as makeshift flashlights to see if they could tell what was outside. “Where are we?” “We’re in a god damn TUNNEL! I want the hell out of this tunnel or I’m gonna flip the hell OUT!” Luckily no one quite flipped. They finally gave us some modest snacks for our “patience.”

I have one more brief train trip this year, but after that I think I’m gonna hang up on Amtrak for a while.

DC Experience

I didn’t have a heck of a lot of time, so I decided to wander around the Smithsonian during the day and then take a tacky bus tour at night. I gotta admit, I sorta dig the double decker city bus tours. I know they’re kind of horrible, but at least they stick to the downtown, which is the part of every city that’s mostly for tourists anyway.

Some disturbing sculpture in the yard at the Hirschhorn.
Some disturbing sculpture in the yard at the Hirschhorn.

I took a great bus tour last year in San Francisco. The guide talked like a local about every  landmark, including a long diatribe against the San Fran DMV (which I really doubt was on the official list of sites). He went on for quite a while about their inconvenient hours and lousy service and the fact that there was only ONE DAMN OFFICE to serve the entire SF metro area. He had been very nice to let me ride before paying, because his card reader wasn’t working and he needed to wait until we had a stronger signal at the last stop. When we reached the last tour stop, he disappeared immediately, making it impossible for me to pay him. So yeah – that trip would be a hard one to beat.

I am ready to be an unapologetic tourist.
I am ready to be an unapologetic tourist.

My DC bus guide was a very young man, rather fratboy in appearance. I try not to judge. But honestly he sucked as a tour guide, and insisted on fist-pumping everyone when we got off the bus to take a closer look at various monuments. The one thing he did that I liked was telling us to yell whenever we went under a bridge. The bridges – as well as the branches from the tree-lined streets – felt pretty close to the head, so yelling was sort of a natural thing to do anyway. The concrete underpasses amplified our cries. I like to think of people sitting outside on the balconies of their swank condos lining the highway, hearing the periodic distant laments of the bus tourists on our way to and from the photo-ops. Maybe this guide was more of a Dada scholar than I give him credit for.

Sort of a voyeuristic view of the White House.
Sort of a voyeuristic view of the White House.

I know that I only took one bus tour, didn’t go inside any official buildings, and really didn’t see any of the neighborhoods. I did have dinner with a friend near Eastern Market. That was nice, but I’ll respect his privacy and leave it at that. However, I have to say that overall, DC reminds me of my first impression of Hollywood. Like, that’s it? It looks so much more important in the photos. The whole thing feels like a façade to me. Go figure.

This was one of my first views of our capitol. Sadly - this photo represents both Washington DC and many other cities in this country right now.
This was one of my first views of our capital. Sadly , this photo represents both Washington DC and many other cities in this country right now.

Every night that I have been here, I have stopped to have a drink at a touristy place called Cap City Brewery. It’s a chain. But it is near the hostel and it has a big bar that you can sit at as a single person and drink or talk as you choose, and I respect that. One night I sat next to a very profo looking guy in the whitest and most pressed shirt I think I have ever seen in my life. Seriously the thing glowed in the dark. We spoke a few times and he ended up buying me a drink.

He was cagey about what he was doing in the city, but eventually admitted he was a telecommunications professional, in town meeting with elected officials. I WAS DRINKING A BEER BOUGHT BY A LOBBYIST. I told him I was in town for a comic book convention. Every person I met in DC, when I told them that, they seemed absolutely delighted. My friend with the shirt was no exception. I told him about being an artist and everything, and he said, “I envy you, in a way.” Well I’ll bet.  I wonder what “way” he meant. After a very pleasant conversation, he had a few I guess obligatory but at least brief questions about “why isn’t your boyfriend here,” and “what are you doing later,” but he accepted my polite refusals pretty quickly and got an Uber.

As he left, he said, “You’ve made this night a pleasure for me.” And I think he meant it, in not a creepy way. I get this kind of thing a lot. I’m glad people like talking to me, but I do wish more people could learn how to create their own fairy dust once in a while. It ain’t that hard.

Hostel Experience

They don’t call them “youth” hostels anymore, if they ever did really. I’ve stayed at hostels in maybe three or four cities in the last few years, and although they do mostly serve younger people, there is a pretty decent age range overall. Especially in DC, it seems. I saw many people my age and older, and some of them perhaps in town on official business. A lot of them were probably staying in the single or double occupancy rooms. I like to go as cheap as possible, so I stayed in the ten bed female dorm for forty bucks a night. This means I got to stay four nights in downtown Washington DC for just a little more than one night of the “discount” hotel price for one night in Bumhole Bethesda. I have no problem with that.

I lived in a co-op household for four years . I shared living space and household responsibilities with about twelve other people, none of whom I knew very well when we moved in; and for the most part I l really liked it. So hostels are old hat for me. I like the communal breakfast, I like that we bus our own dishes into the kitchen, I like that more than half of the guests are international. You can’t drink alcohol on the premises, but Cap City was a block away, so whatever.

I know that Air BnB exists. I have never used it. It might be like ride sharing, where I avoid it for a long time, but then use it once and realize how convenient it is and use it all the time (I am ashamed of that). But maybe not, too. Air BnB has helped expedite gentrification in Chicago and many other cities, as landlords realize they can make much more money renting to travelers for a few nights, than they can renting to residents for longer term. Along with the luxury condo glut, AirBnB is one more step in the transformation of cities into short term destinations and not homes. I don’t want to be part of that.

So my train departs in a couple hours, and if I leave the pub now I bet I could get back to Union Station in time to get the spotty wifi to work long enough to post this blog, and still catch my train. I’ll leave my thoughts about SPX for next week.

For now – if you have been thinking about travel? Do it. It will give you a lot to think about.

Old Woman Yells at Cloud

I’m not feeling really smart today, so I’m going to harp on a pet peeve. This is probably going to be an entry where I come off as out of touch, and maybe a bit poorly read in current cultural trends. So be it.

I am annoyed by what I call Heavy Reference Culture.

By Heavy Reference Culture, I mean cultural items that are constructed primarily and painstakingly out of references to other cultural items that have come before.

I know that ALL work draws on work that came before, whether it’s the Bible or The Simpsons. The stories that are important to you will always shape how you see the world. But when both creation and discussion of a work center more around the references than the actual content or artistry, I start to see a problem. If you’re taking more notes in film class than you are writing your own observations on human interaction, I start to see a problem.

My most recent example would be Stranger Things. I enjoyed Season One, and as someone who was roughly the age of the series’ young protagonists in the eighties, I also enjoyed the obvious references to films that were pivotal at that time. Casting Winona Ryder as the mother works for me too.

But the directors of Stranger Things did not grow up during the eighties. It’s not even their own nostalgia. I have a vague idea that this sort of displaced nostalgia is a trend among youth today, and okay fine. But reference-packing in general has been more and more of a thing since Quentin Tarantino, and I really don’t get it.

It also seems like the main practitioners of Heavy Reference Culture are always guys. Many times, this approach appears to be a one-upping game to see which writer can cram the most call-outs into any one work. And then talk about it endlessly. It bores the piss out of me.

I’ve always been exceptionally behind the times when it comes to popular culture, and nevertheless I am still able to enjoy a lot of Heavy Reference Culture pieces on their own merits. But… do they have their own merits? Or are they just a very technically proficient rehash? This is my main question.

I grew up a long time ago. I don’t know what it’s like to come of age in a world that is saturated with media images from all times and cultures, probably flattening into equal importance or unimportance.  Maybe this media is so pervasive that it seems to be the same as human interaction. So maybe that’s part of it.

But still. Every time I read a laudatory article on some new film that references this or pays tribute to that, I think, really; would it kill you to come up with something original?



I’m really productive lately. It’s partly because of the whims of nature and an upturn in my creative cycle. The creative cycle involves long periods of research, dormancy and tons of regular work, most of which is very bad. But my recent productivity also involves having the time to do all of this.

I’ve gone on about my relative good fortune before, so I’ll skip that for now. Recently I’ve been thinking about other, similarly profound and overarching things that affect my productivity. (I’d like to use another word, because productivity sounds too much like factory work. Maybe I’ll come back to that.)

Recently I met with a group of women artists around my same age, and we discussed doing a group show. I realized that I am the only one of us who doesn’t have children. It’s not something I think about a lot, or at all, really; but occasionally I acknowledge to myself that there is an enormous life experience called parenthood that I have no part in.

It’s tricky to write about this. I’m a woman who has always known, with great certainty, that I don’t want children. I also affirm that good education, affordable, accessible childcare and generous maternal AND paternal leave are bedrocks of a civil society, and I would be delighted if a good chunk of my tax money would go toward all that. I mean, DUH. But I also know that not everyone needs to be a parent, directly. I think it’s probably best that not everyone is.

I’ve read many articles (though not much feminist theory, so maybe I need to do that?) over the years by women who choose not to have children, and I have yet to read something that doesn’t have have a tinge of apology, regret or sometimes even hostility. It’s weird. Several years ago, I was hired to do some animation work by a woman who made a documentary about herself and other women who chose to be childless. Much of the footage I saw had that same sort of weird awkwardness – apology, defiance, I don’t know what all. And then shortly after the film was finished, the director announced she was pregnant. Well okay then.

I don’t tell that story to be judgemental. It’s just part of this mystery to me. I know there are many other women out there like me – I am friends with a lot of them – but I have yet to read a well articulated piece about it. Maybe it’s because the women who choose to write about it are trying to justify their choice to themselves? Who knows.

I have always needed a great deal of time to myself, and I have been profoundly fortunate to be able to indulge that need for most of my life. I’m the youngest; I never had childcare duty.  As I got older, I admired some of my friends who were the oldest in their families, because they seemed to have their act together. They could plan things well. They spoke with authority. Eventually I connected those traits with their family responsibility, and I wanted to find out more about it.

Partly because of this, I babysat a handful of times for friends of our family. That did not last long. I saw that childcare involved putting someone else’s immediate needs before my own, and I was not interested in that at all.

So now I sound like an asshole. Could be true, I guess; but then it’s a good thing I’m not a parent.

People may see a dissonance between that early realization, and my current dedication to various just causes and the creation of a more equitable society. I don’t see a dissonance. Maybe this is just how I, personally, express my concern for future generations. And anyway, making videos for this or that campaign is not the same thing as parenting. In case I needed to say that. We’ve all got different energy for different things.

I just realized it’s Labor Day. So I’d like to salute all the unacknowledged labor that parents put in on a daily basis. It’s not that I don’t respect it; I just know it’s not for me. My part in the future lies in other areas.



I’m writing this after a long weekend at an art festival in Chicago. It’s the only one I participate in, because it’s one of the few festivals that still focuses on art and community, not beer and cover bands. The organizers keep it artist-centered, including things like the very affordable entry fee and helpful roaming festival staff who have come to my rescue more than once over the three years I have participated.

Before I go on I want to clarify that this entry is not meant as a complaint. I really love doing this festival, I am grateful for all of my opportunities, and I also love doing the “live art” thing that I’m going to talk about later. I am more putting this experience into context with the working reality that artists (and people in general) face.

For months now, I have been able to focus mainly on my art because of an outside circumstance that I had nothing to do with creating. Let’s call it Providence. I won’t go into details because I don’t want to, but I feel it is necessary to mention it because that is the first thing I would want to know if I were viewing my recent productivity level from the outside. “What the HELL? Does she have a JOB?” Good question. Yes and no. Right now my ability to focus on art is amazing, but like everything, that will change. So I am doing all that I can to take advantage of my current situation while it lasts.

That’s a long preamble to my point, which is that it remains incredibly difficult to make a living as an artist. I sure as hell am not doing it. Right now I am engaged in “building my brand,” I guess. Pretty much every art show and project I have done for the last several years has been, in economic terms anyway, more about marketing than about actually making a living.

You could argue that I am just a bad businessperson. And you would be right. But there is more than that involved here.

About a week ago, I went to a local bar after stretching three six foot square canvases for a new project (actually my friend stretched them, but even just watching her was exhausting). I was into my second mimosa when I started chatting with a guy who wanted to see my art and said he was a recruiter. I guess I should have stopped right there. But he reeled me in by saying that my website and work was a lot better than he had expected (I know what he means) and feigning interest in how I make a living.

I really didn’t have an answer for him except that “I don’t make a living as an artist, yet anyway.” Then he launched into recruiter mode. He kept saying, “I’m not an artist, but…” which I guess he thought excused all his lame clueless ideas. In artistic terms, anyway. The “best” example of this is when he suggested that I make prints of the collages that I construct out of old drawings, paintings and trash. Prints. Which cost money to make, when part of the point of those collages is that they are essentially free material for me. Flat prints, when another main point of my collage work is that it is a physical, textural object in this flat digital world.

Reader, I came closer to instigating a bar brawl than I ever have before. Especially as he accused me of being a “snob” when I suggested that making prints of that work was wayyyy beside the point. “Don’t you want to share your work with more people?” I just – I really can’t even begin with this line of reasoning. Also, like all recruiters, he was one of those people who don’t have a conversation so much as wait for you to catch your breath, so they can continue making a preconceived point that completely disregards your input. So I had two more mimosas and listened politely as he rambled on with his business ideas. I probably could have easily pushed him off his chair, but I restrained myself.

Anyway, yeah I’m being a hater. And we were at a bar, not a business meeting. He does have a point though, in that I have pretty much zero business plan for my work, for the comic, for anything. I am not being realistic.

So another buried point that I would like to make, is that of what activities human beings choose to do, and why, and what circumstances influence those choices. The great majority of us, Providence notwithstanding, have to work to make money to support ourselves. When you’re talking about something like art, personal vision and choice is the product that is being sold. The “work” part of it becomes romanticized and mythologized. I was talking at my festival booth this weekend to some amazing young gallerists I know. “Yeah,” I said, “I’ll see you later – I’m gonna go do this live art thing from 4 to 7.” They laughed. “Live art – you mean, working?”

So yeah, those gallerists GET IT. The “Live Art” phenomenon I guess is a way to make static art into something fun you can do at events. And honestly, I like it because many times I get antsy hanging around at parties or whatever when I could be working on my art. Best of both worlds! At this event, I was painting on one of those recently-stretched large canvases next to my friend Juan-Carlos, who quietly and methodically set up a table. Then he drew squares on it with charcoal. He mixed up some brown-black dirt stuff and silently began making small bricks out of it, and placed them within the squares. He did this the whole time I was there painting, and he drew quite a crowd.

Apparently someone asked him what he was making. Juan-Carlos shrugged and said, “it’s not about the product, it’s about the work.” I guess the guy muttered something under his breath about “communists!” and slunk away.

I love Juan-Carlos.

In conclusion, because I have to conclude sometime before I go off and work on another awesome project I am not making any money from: I have always been amazed at people’s ability to create and discover, and dismayed at how those abilities are corralled and sometimes killed by the necessity of making a living. Some of us have been able to thwart that system, at least for a time. I do think that economic necessity has helped to spur some great innovation, but I also think that people in general deserve the time and space to make choices based on other parameters. Without people thinking we are stupid.

I think survival mode may be killing us.

Why Take the Train?


I am nearing the end of an epic 3 week trip with Amtrak (FYI: they are not paying me or giving me discounts for writing this). Several months in, I am still trying to figure out exactly what to do with this blog; but my general rule for now is to write what I feel like writing about. So I will write about why I chose to take the train, and why I will likely do it again.

It’s Not a Plane

I go through phases of paranoia for various things, and right now I have a vague paranoia of flying. You can quote all the safety statistics you want. Like my boyfriend says: “I never said it was a logical fear.” Also, you have the airport lines and the security and all the current cost cuts that make planes feel more and more like a flying Greyhound Bus. So, if you’ve got the time, I think the train can be a viable option.

However Though

Be aware: while taking the train CAN be cheaper than flying, that’s definitely not the rule. It also takes, obviously, way way longer to get where you’re going. This trip, I bought coach passage on three of Amtrak’s most scenic routes (and one blah one) for a total of just under five hundred dollars. That’s pretty good, I think. It also ended up being roughly five full days of travel, and I can’t really sleep in the coach seats. So it can be an endurance test as well.


Comfort is Relative

So yeah, the seats. Coach seats are huge – like the size of first class plane seats, maybe even bigger – and they recline back pretty far AND have a little footrest you can extend. And on the scenic routes there is a lounge car with bigger windows, tables and outward-facing seats. You can purchase sleeper cars or “roommettes” (yeah what?) for more money. Like WAY more money. I would have paid several THOUSAND dollars for sleeping accommodations on the routes I took this trip. Oh, I guess you also get food included with the sleeping cars and it’s vaguely better than the stuff they serve otherwise. I mean maybe? It didn’t really look like it.

The food on the train is priced how you would expect it to be priced for a captive audience. There is also a dining car with sit down hot meals, but it didn’t really interest me. You can also take a bunch of your own food. I did that initially, but by the third trip I just didn’t feel like carrying all that around anymore. Turkey sandwiches and beer for me!

And also: regardless of whether you can sleep in the seats, it is essential that you take a neck pillow and some sort of blanket. They can sometimes go crazy with the air conditioning, and really, you need the neck pillow. Just trust me.


People Talk to Each Other

People talk about the Echo Chamber a lot right now, especially during this election season. When you travel the slow way through such a great expanse of territory, you’re going to meet a lot of different people. I hung out with a lot of different folks, and occasionally we even talked about the upcoming election. We kept it civil. I heard opinions and thoughts I had not considered before. It was refreshing.

One night on the Zephyr, I hung out for several hours with two young people in their mid twenties. We rambled about all sorts of stuff, and had some meaningful conversations about generational divides. The young woman asked me if I ever got resentful of Millennials and their fancy cameras calling themselves videographers after doing it for like a month. I said yeah sometimes, but people who are new to it can also bring fresh ideas; and I told her a few stories that illustrated that.

Later I sat silent and listened to her and the young man talk about growing up with the internet. Once she shared how excited she was to discover this “hot coffee dispensing machine” at one of the train stops. It was totally new to her, the idea that you could get one cup of hot coffee out of a machine. “Like a Starbucks only a machine. The coffee isn’t very good but it’s cool.” I realized, again, how different generations have totally different points of reference.


It’s Sort of Old School

Amtrak currently has this seventies patina that I kind of enjoy. Like flying, it can also remind one of a Greyhound Bus at times… but I think in a more charming way? I assume they are running on a pretty tight staff, so stuff like cleaning the bathrooms doesn’t happen very often. But yeah, get over it. The staff I have encountered are funny and sweet and long suffering. One cafe attendant played loud gospel in his car at all times, and sang along with it. I didn’t mind (he was a good singer). Another cafe guy announced some sort of bingo game for free non-alcoholic beverages down in the cafe car (he said he got lonely). He said “Spell my name, Alberto, with items you have with you.” So, A for aspirin, L for lipstick, B for bum knee – people got creative.

I ate once in the cafe car and met the young daughter of the assistant conductor. She was maybe eight years old, an outspoken tomboy, wearing a cardboard conductor hat like a Burger King crown. She really latched onto this charming young rock climbing guy sitting behind her. They had the type of stream of consciousness conversation that can happen between a chill adult and smart kid. She kept telling Rock Climber that he should get a job on the train. “You get all your meals for free!” She picked up her dessert. “You get cheesecake!” When her father and his colleagues came down for their meals, the topic turned to politics. The daughter kept coming up with made-up candidates and saying who she would vote for. She said, “If you were running, and you were running, and Sylvester the Cat were running, I would totally vote for… not the human.” I gave her internal spirit fingers on that one.

Sometimes people along the route wave to the train. That’s cute. We also got mooned several times. The first time I saw it was on the Empire Builder, the route that goes along the northern part of the country from Chicago to Portland. Two older dudes were in a boat in the middle of a mountain lake. One guy was standing up with his back to us, bending over slightly, pants down. His friend sat, holding his fishing pole, laughing his head off. The whole picturesque scene could have been painted by Norman Rockwell (and I wish it had been). I thought it was adorable.

On some of the trains, Amtrak partners with the Park Service to provide historic narration and even entertainment in the lounge car. On the Empire Builder, we had an acoustic country trio playing some really nice tunes. On the eastbound route of the Zephyr, we had a fantastic narrator named Jack. Jack must have been about eighty years old, with solid historical knowledge, firm opinions and a perfect Western grandpa deadpan delivery. He warned us about the possibility of moonings:  “Every now and then you’ll see someone showing us his backside. But it’s a little chilly for that kind of activity today.”

That's Jack on the left.
That’s Jack on the left.

You Look Out the Window At Your Country

I’ve done a fair amount of traveling outside of this country, but not a lot within the borders. For various reasons, now seems like the right time for me to do that.

I told my young train companions that I liked looking out the windows at the country. The young woman piped up immediately: “But that just makes me angry though! Because I want to get out and wander around. And really see it.”

She’s right. And I think I might do more of that.

Daring and Paranoid

A beautiful nonfunctioning fountain. Plus symmetrical fire extinguishers.
A beautiful nonfunctioning fountain. Plus symmetrical fire extinguishers.

It honestly feels more and more stupid to write about art or vacations or anything other than desperate measures right now. But I have a blog and a deadline and other people are writing about desperation a lot better than I am; so I guess I’ll talk about California, because it’s nice here.

I’m staying with friends in Half Moon Bay, a community about 45 minutes outside of San Francisco. The place is in a collection of really charming, refreshingly non-uniform houses that look like they were thrown against the side of the hill and stuck there. It’s an easy ten minute walk to the ocean. The GD ocean.

Whatever, the Pacific.
Whatever, the Pacific.

Anyway it’s an “easy” walk if your knees are good. Mine aren’t, so this morning I gingerly made my way down the winding, steep incline, past the charming houses which are lousy with aloe plants and lemon trees, myself awkwardly weaving back and forth across the streets with a distinctive halting, cautious gait that must make the causal observer assume I am hobbling to safety after surviving alien abduction. Now I am at a cute cafe.

Nature here is pretty aggressive. You get the impression that if anything happened to the people, Nature would easily reclaim the place after a long weekend. The laid back California lifestyle is a stark contrast to the evidence of constant natural upheaval. Earthquakes, landslides, the tide. Maybe the calm attitude and the wild nature is a necessary yin and yang kind of thing. Maybe people here are just at peace with forces greater than themselves, because the terrible is so beautiful.

Downtown San Francisco seems to be just itching for a fight it can’t win. I am no structural engineer, but it sure doesn’t look to me like any part of that city was designed to withstand earthquakes. Chicago has gargoyles hanging off of buildings, San Francisco has buildings hanging off of cliffs. The highways here are like ribbons thrown into the air. Apparently some of them were designed by a race car driver. Really it looks like the earth opened its mouth and ate the city in 1906, and after a few years people shrugged and came back and rebuilt the city among the very teeth of the planet.

It’s possible we just thirst for danger.

I’m not sure whether I am getting more paranoid or more daring with age. I remember a certain confidence of youth, when I did stupid things either because I lacked a real concept of mortality or I had complete trust in my caretakers. Now I have a better understanding of both mortality and the limited control we all have over our circumstances. So paranoia is one option, but so is shrugging your shoulders and building a home in the mouth of the beast that birthed you.

I’m sure I could work this back around to the upcoming election, but I’ll let you do that on your own. Daring and paranoid are words and ideas that are going to stick with me for months to come.

Necessary Work


I started my train trip a few days ago, and I spent the last two nights “sleeping” in a reclined coach seat on an Amtrak train. Yesterday I arrived in Portland, where an old friend took me in and set me up in the quaintest (seriously the absolute quaintest) little guest cottage on her neighbors’ property.

I am writing this in the early morning while sitting on the cottage porch. Earlier I said hello to the goats and the guinea hen, all of whom were completely unimpressed with me. The garden in front of the cottage, like the cottage itself, is neat as a pin and well-appointed, without being ostentatious. The people who own the farm have already been up for hours. One of them even made me a nice cappuccino and brought it to my door.

I grew up in Idaho. I didn’t live on a farm, but plenty of my friends had a rural existence; this environment feels familiar and comfortable to me. It is a little like going back in my own timeline. So I think it makes me more reflective even than rural environments generally do for most people.

I get a solid and comforting peace when observing necessary work being done. It helps that it’s a perfect day, and I’m not the one doing the work and worrying about  funding, preparation and potential pitfalls. From here it looks organized and satisfying.

When I look at this neat and orderly farm, and listen to the animals (human animals too) contentedly going about their business, it’s hard to imagine horror going on anywhere in the world.

I really think that everybody everywhere just wants to do their necessary work. We do way too much unnecessary, destructive  work. I hope we can figure that out.

Yep. Goin’ On A Trip.

I recently set up a three week train trip, where I will meander across a large part of the country and visit friends all along the way.


I’ll be purposefully vague about how I am affording this (even though it is costing a lot less than I expected), basically because I don’t want to go into it. Suffice it to say it fell into my lap. I didn’t earn it. I have the time because I’m a freelancer with pretty much zero responsibilities for family or a regular gig.

Weird? Very weird. I want to acknowledge that while many people would love to do something like this, it’s simply not possible for most regular working people. So there will be no travel shame here.

That said – whoa, I am really looking forward to this. I have wanderlust. I got to travel on my parents’ dime a lot when I was younger; then I was out on my own and way too broke, and sad about it. Now I am more wily and a lot more spontaneous (and lucky), and back on the road again.

I have been a big fan of international travel. I like going to other countries mostly to see other ways of living. Recently I’ve realized that my own country is pretty gigantic, and there are still different ways of living right here. Maybe not for long. So I’m focusing for a while on running around the U.S. and looking at it.

I mostly prefer traveling alone. It really brings out your character in its purest form. I’m not saying I always like what I see, but that’s part of the point. It becomes clear what you need to work on.

This train trip idea started because I have not been able to get an artist’s residency. So I’m like, screw it – I’ll do my own. I’ll have a lot of time on the train to do research, write and draw. On one of my stops, I am spending a week doing nothing but hanging out and writing.

We’ll see how this goes. I think it’ll be great.