The Mask, Part 4: Wear Your Characters' Skins

In my recent posts I stated my belief that we all have multiple personalities inside us, and each personality has its own set of skills and talents. By wearing a Mask we can tap into our inner stockbroker, our inner rock star, our inner healer. And then we can USE their skills.

The principle applies universally, but for creative people, and more narrowly writers, it’s a boon to be able to tap into these different voices and people. If you’re a writer you can BECOME each different character in your novels, short stories, and scripts; and the character that you become then write the stories for you, by reacting, thinking, talking, and feeling each in his or her individual ways.

You need to draft a short story, screenplay scene, or novel chapter, and you can’t overcome the tyranny of the blank page? Put on the Mask of one of the characters involved in the action. This may be a T-shirt, a bonnet, an unlit cigarette dangling from your lips, a pair of oversized sunglasses. Or a posture: slouched, stiff, defensive, preening, slutty. Or a speech pattern or language tic: a few threatening words spoken slowly through clenched teeth, a fake-Serbian accent, or, like, a burst of Valley-Girl Speak.

By wearing their Masks you become Hannibal Lecter, Hamlet, Harry Potter, or Hermione. The characters have their own paradigm, their own agendas; they’ll act and react within the scene or chapter, doing and saying whatever is logical and organic to them. Then you won’t write the scene as much as you’ll take dictation from your characters.

After you finish writing, wear the Mask of the Literary Agent and sell your masterpiece for a million bucks. Just don’t forget to mention me when you give your Nobel Prize speech, all right?

The Mask, Part 3: Put on those glasses!

In my recent posts I stated that you have multiple personalities inside you, and all it takes is a Mask for you to tap into each personality. It may be better for you to rein in most of these personalities most of the time, but having them dormant inside you is better than not having them altogether. The multiple personalities really mean multiple energies and skills, and you have at least two good ways to put them to good use: You can sublimate (that is, gather, condense, and transform) these energies into a unified whole that is your individuality; or you can actually let them loose as needed.

We’ll leave sublimation out of the discussion and let loose instead.

A petty bureaucrat is refusing to stamp a form? Tap into your slick-lawyer persona. A peculiar smirk and a few words, well chosen and delivered with just the right mixture of charm and threat, will get the bureaucrat to stamp the form almost despite himself.

You need to learn the basics of a foreign language before being posted abroad? Trigger your inner chameleon. Wear a metaphorical kimono to learn Japanese, or metaphorical lederhosen to learn German. Go to the language classes as if in the skin of a German. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak a word of German to begin with. You’ll learn faster if you wear a German Mask.

You need to walk past a group of pumped-up street toughs? Inside yourself there’s a powerful martial artist. You don’t need to physically fight the toughs; just give them a little hint of that energy of yours, and they’ll let you through. At a glance they know the difference between an easy mark and someone they’d rather not mess with. A truly skilful martial artist actually never gets into fights: he or she moves with a steady posture that isn’t necessarily bellicose, and potential adversaries give up the fight before it starts.

Remember, the Mask may be a bodily tic, a single word, a tone of voice, a piece of clothing… or just the THOUGHT of that word or hat or tic or what you will. Ultimately you don’t even need to put on that infamous shirt to become a pimp or fanatic; any one trigger will do, including a single thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before I conclude this series, I’d like to tell my writer friends how they can use the Mask in their work.

 

The Mask, Part 2: Do NOT put on that shirt!

In my recent post I stated that Multiple Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of every human being, and I promised to tell you how to trigger each of your inner personalities.

Have you ever had the creeps just touching a shirt in a clothing store, or simply looking at it in a window? The creeps is a strong negative reaction you can’t quite fully understand or articulate. You might say the shirt is very ugly, but that doesn’t explain the strength of your reaction. What harm is there in an inert shirt, hanging at a safe distance? In the shirt itself, none. In the energies that the shirt evokes in your psyche, however, there’s tremendous POTENTIAL harm. That shirt is a Mask, and you’re afraid of it, afraid of the behaviors it’d trigger if you wore it. Deep down you know that, were you to put that shirt on, you’d become a pimp, a murderer, a pedophile, a religious fanatic, a retard. You know you have these personalities inside you, and most of the time you really don’t want them to come out at all.

The Mask, symbolized by that shirt, is an extremely powerful trigger.

The Mask is many things. It can be a literal mask, like those used in sacred ceremonies in aboriginal cultures, or those we wear at costume parties and at Carnival time. Face paint is a version of this mask; and make-up is a version of face paint. Ergo, when you put make-up on you’re engaging in the same ritual as the aboriginal in the Amazon jungle who covers his face in red pigment: You’re summoning a different part of yourself to come to the fore.

The Mask can be a piece of clothing as simple as a tie, or as elaborate as a theatrical getup that takes an hour to assemble before each performance. Go through your wardrobe and imagine how you really feel when you wear jeans and a T-shirt, as opposed to a slinky black dress, as opposed to a pantsuit, as opposed to a cashmere sweater, as opposed to a halter top. Or take two T-shirts, one red, one black. Aren’t you two different people when you wear one or the other? Perhaps very slightly different in this case, but different nevertheless.

The Mask can be a gesture, a little tic of body language: shrug your shoulders, and suddenly you’re a Jewish mother harping about her wayward son. Thrust your chest outward, and suddenly you’re a preening bodybuilder. Let your head hang down and sideways, and suddenly you’re a sad-sack loser with a victim mentality. The gesture invites a certain voice, an attitude, a way of behaving. All you need is ONE LITTLE TRIGGER, and an entire personality emerges.

The Mask can be something you do with your voice: a few words spoken high up in your voice, a growl, a four-letter word shouted with a nasal twang. And off you go, a new person altogether: a Brooklyn hoodlum, a priest with a secret past, a madam in a bordello in Berlin, circa 1923. A single word said with the right accent or tone of voice: that’s all it takes!

Charlie Chaplin was pottering around the movie set when he put on a small bowler hat and oversized shoes, picked up a cane… and, bingo! The Tramp was born whole, the gait, the personality, all gestures, attitudes, and reactions flowing naturally from the peculiar outfit that Chaplin had put on.

Javier Bardem played an evil psychopath in “No Country for Old Men,” the film made by the Coen brothers based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. I read an interview with him in which he said the set hairdresser gave him a haircut… whereupon he became the psychopath he was meant to play. Bangs, that’s all it took! He couldn’t have played Prince Charming with those bangs. Or an action hero. Or a university professor. (Actually, I know a professor or three who have bangs, but this only proves the point.)

Look at a group photo of college students from about 1975. Those long fuzzy beards, those thick glasses with heavy frames, those broad-collared polyester shirts? They were “personalities,” not simple accoutrements. The personalities were triggered, intimately, directly, inevitably, by the accoutrements. Take one of those guys from that photo. Give him a shave, get him to wear contact lenses and a black linen shirt: He won’t be the same guy. He won’t talk the same way, pursue the same interests, or hang around with the same old gang.

You have the Brooklyn hoodlum and the madam and all the other crazies inside you. Most of the time you keep them quiet, deep within yourself. But part of the time you want them to come out; or you NEED them to come out; or you know they’ll do great harm but you’ll let them come out anyway; or you’ll yield to them and claim to be an unwilling victim. “I couldn’t help it!” In short, need, want, obligation, oversight, or compulsion might all cause one of those crazies to pop out of you and do his song-and-dance.

Since the crazies will come out anyway, how can you use their energies and skills constructively? Stay tuned!

The Mask, Part 1: You Are Many

It’s an undeniable biographical fact that you’ve had the experience of becoming a different person just because you put on a striped shirt, or a knit tie with a ketchup splotch, or a fancy new pair of eyeglasses. Or because you got a new haircut, or because you shaved that beard you had worn for twenty years. Or because you talked to a Norwegian tourist at a street corner and, almost unwillingly, you started imitating her accent. Then you weren’t “you” anymore, but a completely different person with a whole other inner life.

Inside you there are dozens of different personalities raring to come out. And all it takes for any of them to take over your life is a simple trigger that I'll call the Mask: a shirt, a tie, a word said with a funny accent. In this series of blog entries we’ll look at how Multiple Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of every human being, and how the Mask is an effective way for you to tap into all your personalities and their respective talents and strengths.

We don’t talk to our bankers in the exact same way we talk to our infant daughters. We behave one way in the shower, another in public; one way at mass on Sunday morning, another watching Monday Night Football; one way with our wives, another with our mothers-in-law. We change our minds over time, according to context and to specific needs and wants. We change our body language, our tone of voice, our discourse—all those things that are visible and audible to the world. But we also "wear" different priorities, beliefs, convictions, and many characteristics that aren’t so immediately obvious.

Let’s take as axiomatic (and that means, “so obvious we don’t need to argue about it!”) that we all have many sides to our personalities… which is just another way of saying we have many personalities. Out of our inner multitute, a certain unity arises, highly complex, complicated even, full of contradictions and paradoxes, messy—but unified all the same. You may be a rock star singing in the shower and a sniveling beggar asking your banker for a line of credit. And yet the star and the beggar both are YOU, absolutely and totally the same “you” and not two different people.

This paradoxical version of the Multiple-Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of a human being. There are risks and dangers to it, of course. But it’s truly innate, inevitable, and desirable. You don’t want to talk to your banker the way you sing in the shower—trust me on this. You’re much better off if you’re able to change your posture, your tone of voice, your "everything."

In the next post I’ll tell you how.

Working on yourself, part 4: The one-man band

In my recent posts I introduced the concept of working on yourself in order to dissipate your fears and fulfill your talents, and I suggested that the attitude you bring to the task determines whether you’re in fact working on yourself or just floundering, skating, coasting, retreating, or otherwise going backward rather than forward. Then I proposed that you build a team to help you work on yourself, and I finished my last post with a riddle: Who's the most important member of a one-man band?

A one-man band traditionally is a musician who plays several instruments at the same time, often accompanying himself while singing. The archetypical one-man band is a guy playing the guitar, with a harmonica affixed to his head and ready for hands-off playing, and a tambourine tied to his leg.

In the one-man band, the most important member is the man—that is, the guy at the center of the whole enterprise. The guitar, the harmonica, the tambourine, and anything else that comprises the band are all secondary.

The members of my team are like the guitar, the harmonica, and the tambourine of a one-man band. They each make a different kind of music, with their own individual voices. But without my own efforts at unifying their voices into a harmonious whole, we might as well call the whole concert off.

There are risks and dangers in every situation, and working on yourself with the help of a team is no exception, however competent and helpful your team members may be. I see two main risks in working with a team. There’s a scene in “Casablanca” that bugs the heck out of me every time I watch it. Ingrid Bergman, who plays Ilsa, cuddles with Humphrey Bogart, who plays Rick. She’s freaking out about their adulterous relationship and the war in the background.

ILSA
Oh, I don’t know what’s right any longer.
You’ll have to think for both of us, for all of us.


RICK
All right, I will.


That’s perverted! That’s morally wrong! That’s just plain ugly! The thing in this life is to think for yourself, to make your own choices, and to live with the consequences of your choices. That’s the very definition of freedom. In a tyranny—like the very Nazism of which Ilsa is a victim—other people think for you, make decisions for you, impose their decisions on you. Ilsa’s pleading for Rick to think for her is a submission to tyranny. And Rick’s accepting to do it is, shall we say, counterproductive. It infantilizes Ilsa, makes her handicapped and dependent. It’s no solution to the problem. It is the problem!

It’s the same thing when you work on yourself with the help of a team. You risk being tempted to let other people “think for you.” You risk falling under the spell of someone who appears superior to you in some way, and this simply serves to make you inferior. It doesn't matter how brilliant your team members may be: In the end, you gotta think for yourself and make your own decisions.

The second main risk in working with a team is dispersion, or the contrary of integration. We all have many aspects to our personalities, many talents and possibilities lying within. To develop these talents is one thing; to have all talents collaborate to make you whole is another thing. If the team is working to make you whole, that’s great. But if the team is pulling you apart—or, more precisely, if you’re letting the team pull you apart—then you need to rethink your strategies. Fire the guitar player, chuck the harmonica, dump the tambourine, and sing a cappella, naked and all alone in the world. In other words, quit the one-man band and become a “one-man.”


Working on yourself, part 3: The Team

In my recent posts I introduced the concept of working on yourself in order to dissipate your fears and fulfill your talents, and I suggested that the attitude you bring to the task determines whether you’re in fact working on yourself or just floundering, skating, coasting, retreating, or otherwise going backward rather than forward.

What about building a team to help you? Most people have their own informal circle of friends, advisers, teachers, and partners, but it could be useful to bring a little discipline to the team.

A good “ear” is essential: someone who can listen to anything you want to say without judgment or censorship, perhaps even without actually giving advice. My friends Debby and Ed are very much like that. With them I can say any absurd thing about myself and about other people, reveal my foibles and weaknesses, and kvetch about petty concerns without their giving me a hard time about it. Debby and I usually start laughing within sixty seconds of any of our phone calls. Ed understands me so well I sometimes don’t have to say anything whatsoever. I think my thought, he thinks his absolute agreement, and we take another sip of coffee. If you don’t have one or two (or ten) friends like Debby and Ed, you might want to pay a professional to play the role of non-judgmental ear.

Your team might have a teacher or two. I had a singing teacher for 20 years from whom I took occasional but regular lessons in my trips to New York, until he passed away recently as a very youthful 97-year-old. Voice is identity: You are your voice, and to change your voice is to change yourself. Some of the sounds my teacher persuaded me to produce—enormous, vibrant, powerful—seemed to belong to someone very different from my everyday "me." My singing teacher pointed the way to a world of inner possibilities, and although he isn’t around any more I’m still learning his wonderful lessons.

Your team might have a non-doctor healer, someone with fine hands and the ability to speak to a non-verbal part of you—an osteopath, Alexander teacher, massage therapist, acupuncturist, you name it. Over the years I’ve had some memorable sessions with a cranio-sacral osteopath in Paris who wraps his soft hands around my skull and makes my brain and my mind go on a trip to the other side of the moon.

Your team might include someone who knows about symbols, numbers, dreams, words, metaphors, archetypes—in short, someone who helps you interpret the stories your unconscious tells yourself. My expert is a German-Swiss woman who’s a veritable encyclopedia of symbology. She’s a literal translator, preparing French versions of German texts about Carl Jung’s work, but she’s also a metaphorical translator. I dream in a convoluted language called Pedronics, she translates it into crystalline French, and I go home understanding myself rather more clearly.

A good team is dynamic: It changes with time. You might need a member of your team for years, another for months, yet another for a single encounter. You might learn a tremendous amount from someone in your team, and at some point you might need to stop seeing him or her: the task is done, or you’ve changed a lot and your team member hasn’t followed along… or you realize you’ve been mistaken about this person’s merits all along. You might need to fire team members, to replace a member who goes missing like my singing teacher, to open up the team or to streamline it.

I finish this post with a riddle that hints at the subject of my next one:

Who's the most important member of a one-man band?

Working on yourself, part 2: In the bodega of life

Suppose you start studying a new skill. For the sake of argument, let’s say you take up cordon-bleu cooking, learning to prepare elaborate meals for yourself, your family, and your friends. The apparent subject matter of your studies is “food.” Choosing and buying ingredients, setting up menus, practicing techniques, everything you study revolves around food.

Well, that’s an illusion.

If you’re a really good student, everything you study revolves around yourself. How do you interact with your cooking teacher? What kind of listener are you? Do you tend to jump to conclusions and start preparing a dish even before the teacher finished explaining things? And when there’s a little accident in the school kitchen, how do you react to it? Do you get angry when a colleague takes your wooden spoon without asking for permission? Or are you afraid of conflict, so you make nice-nice with absolutely everyone in school, including the notorious child molester?

That’s what you are studying at all times: your own reactions and behaviors, your assumptions, your habits. If while learning how to cook you learn something about yourself—and, better still, if you change some of your psychic energies from negative to positive, from destructive to constructive—then you are working on yourself.

It may be counterintuitive to many people, but you actually learn anything faster and better if you pay attention to your own self first and foremost, and to the subject being studied only secondarily, be it cordon-bleu cooking, trigonometry, or sanskrit. There’s a fine line between self-awareness and self-absorption, of course, but navigating that particular zone also is an integral part of working on yourself.

The principle applies universally. That’s why doing even seemingly banal things like calling a friend on the phone or going around the corner to the bodega to buy a pack of bananas can be called “working on yourself.” When you pursue any one activity mindlessly, you’re letting your psychic energies dissipate and stagnate. When you enter any one activity with a mixture of curiosity and commitment, you’re renewing and refreshing your psychic energies.

Some tasks you face when working on yourself are huge—patching a troubled marriage, for instance, or coming to terms with disease. Others are much smaller. The idea is for you to become good at working on yourself regardless of the task. Start small if you need to, and hone your skills by opening up your curiosity about yourself and your commitment to the here and now, in the bodega and beyond.

And while you’re at it, get some Häagen-Dazs to go with those bananas.

Working on yourself, part 1: Call your mother!

Life is a never-ending exploration of your identity, your capabilities, your talents. But life is also a study of your blind spots, your emotional issues, your foibles, and—let’s just say it out loud—your problems. To work on yourself is to deepen your talents and lessen your problems; it is to tame your fears and fulfill your destiny.

Working on yourself can take many forms, such as psychotherapy, exercise, and meditation. Each of these ways is a universe all by itself. Not only there are dozens of different ways of working on yourself; there are dozens of different forms of psychotherapy, exercise, meditation, and so on. In fact, your first duty when you set out to work on yourself is to determine how best to do it. One of my favorite proverbs says, “Reptilian heaven is mammalian hell.” The snake loves the swamp, the kitty cat hates it. Would you benefit from lying on a psychoanalyst’s couch four days a week for ten or fifteen years? For some people that’s heaven, for others, hell. If Freud isn’t for you, there’s always Lacan, Jung, Rogers, Klein, Erickson, Gonzales, and a stadium-full of others. (You’ve never heard of Gonzales? He’s an excellent therapist. Muy rápido, señor.)

Taking ballroom-dance lessons is a way of working on yourself. If, like many guys, you are deathly afraid of dancing, lessons become an arena in which you face and conquer your fears. Learning a foreign language can become a way of working on yourself too. Even the weekly phone call to your mother can be a way of working on yourself. “Taming your fears,” remember? That’s the name of the game.

Working on yourself may be painful at times, and perhaps inevitably so. But once you engage in the process to the full, you might come to see that working on yourself is the most satisfying thing there is, a never-ending festival of adventures and discoveries. Shedding fears, developing talents, affirming yourself: you can do it every day, all day long, and you can call it “life.”

In my next post I’ll explain why the same activity, depending on how you do it, can amount to “working on yourself” or “wasting your time.” This applies to all activities, including reading someone’s blog on the Internet.

The Naked Beginner bids momentary adieu

Okay, Mr. Naked Beginner here has just shown you a few aspects of his evolution as a self-taught artist. Wait, wait—I’m referring to myself in the third person. That’s a sure sign of delusional megalomania. Let me start again: In the past few weeks I showed you a few aspects of my evolution as a self-taught artist. Before I turn my blogging attention to other subjects, I thought it’d be useful for me to encapsulate some of the lessons I’ve learned in my explorations.

  1. Fear is the king and queen of our psyches, and facing and taming our fears is our mission in this life. We might readily agree that the fear of death shapes a lot of the things we do in life. But in truth there are a thousand fears inside us, some big, some small, and they ALL shape who we are—including the fear of handling a crayon, for instance.
  2. It doesn’t matter what triggered your fears to begin with, in what context they arose, or who gave you the fears. It’s up to YOU to deal with them, right here, right now. And many of your fears are wholly of your own manufacturing anyway.
  3. The fear gamut runs from reasonable apprehension of real dangers, to irrational phobias of inexistent dangers. It doesn’t really matter how irrational, how petty some of your fears might be: they are fears nevertheless, and they handicap you in some way or other. If you’re afraid of handling a pencil or a paintbrush, that fear plays a little role in your overall emotional make-up even if you have no practical reason ever to handle a paintbrush. This doesn’t mean you SHOULD paint; it means it may be healthy for you to let go of the fear, whether you paint or not.
  4. It’s very easy to be unaware of your own fears. It makes perfect sense: Since it can be scary to acknowledge a fear, it’s convenient to deny you have it. “I’m not afraid of cats, I just don’t like them very much.” “I’m not afraid of learning foreign languages, I just have no need of them.” “I’m not afraid of art, I just don’t have any talent for it.”
  5. It’s very easy not to see, not to feel, not to observe. There’s too much information out there, and we’d go psychotic trying to absorb all of it. But in a bid to retain our sanity, we tend to stop seeing, feeling, and observing. It’s quite the balancing act, to be open to the world but not overwhelmed by it. It takes a steady center within yourself.
  6. Exploring, learning, and growing never stop, from the day you're born onward. You can embrace it or shy away from it. You choose!

In a few months I'm likely to come back to the subject of my artistic education. Right now I leave you with a before-and-after comparison, showing where I started as an artist and where I got after a few months of exploration.

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Matisse tries to resist the Naked Beginner

In my artistic explorations, I alternated between working outside (in museums and other public spaces such as parks, parties, and concerts) and working at home, where I often copied faces from art books. I did a dozen Van Goghs, a dozen Picassos, a dozen Rembrandts, a dozen Murillos… It was a wonderful education, and also a wonderful psychological process: to enter another artist’s mind for a moment, to see the world with different eyes, to be in Arles or Spain or 17th-century Holland.

1303411-1575756-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1575755-thumbnail.jpgSome artists were much easier than others to explore. I tried to enter Henri Matisse’s mind, and for some reason I couldn’t find my way in. My first few sketches were so awkward that I knew I hadn’t gained any insight upon Matisse’s perspective. I stayed outside him, I struggled, I remained my own little self. I almost became a stick artist again.

 
I think I had some hostility toward Matisse. I’d look at his drawings and say to myself, “What’s the big deal? Why these fat thighs? Can’t the guy draw, for chrissakes?”

1303411-1575758-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1575757-thumbnail.jpgNeedless to say, this wasn’t a judgment of Matisse’s skills—it was a reflection of my own blindness, my own handicaps. One day I decided to draw one of his women with a brush pen instead of a pencil. The pen “required” that I use simplified gestures and lines, not worrying too much about detail or, for that matter, anatomy. With the brush pen the name of the game is “flow.” And I finally “got” Matisse, “got” how freely he worked, how sensuous his figures were, how much depth there was to his simple lines.

I had been looking at his drawings with false suppositions about form, shape, volume, and so on. Maybe Matisse didn’t “need” to think about form and shape, since he’d moved on to the very essence of things!

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My little Matisse reproductions aren’t straightforward. I put something of myself in them, in particular by coloring drawings that were originally in black and white. To do an exact Matisse seems both impossible and a waste of time, since—well, since the original is already “there.” But a Pedro-ized Matisse? That seemed more interesting to me.

After doing a couple dozen Matisse-inspired drawings, I thought I’d honor the great man by doing a portrait of him, from a photo in one of my wife’s art books.

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The taboos within

At every juncture in my art education, I’ve had to acknowledge the role that fear played in determining my behaviors. For about 35 years I didn’t draw altogether, and if I’m really honest with myself, then I’d have to admit the ultimate reason for not drawing was that I was afraid of it: Afraid of going wrong, not being good, not being talented; afraid of other people’s judgments; afraid of not controlling what would come OUT of it, as if the pencil risked unleashing some innermost perversion that I wasn’t even aware of.

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Yeah, weird. But the only thing is that most people have plenty of fears exactly like mine. And “most people” kinda includes you, dear reader! A hundred fears, big and small, lurk inside us, making us do strange things at work and at home, creating compensating mechanisms, giving us health problems.

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It’s good to acknowledge these fears and overcome them, as much as possible.

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At first I was afraid of drawing altogether. Then I was afraid of using color in my drawings. Then I was afraid of drawing anything other than human faces. The latter happened in part because when I started drawing, I had decided to offer a daily portrait to my night person, and I had somehow determined that a portrait meant “a human face.” Mental rigidity, pure and simple! To draw an animal was a sort of breakthrough, a deep "letting go." It felt both transgressive and sacred, as if I was going through some sort of rite of initiation.

I know, I know, these are just little drawing of kitty cats and puppy dogs and tweety birds. What can I say? Van Gogh was crazy, too.

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Faces and hearts

As part of my self-education in art, I copied faces from magazines, photographs from ads and articles. Celebrities depicted in magazines and newspapers are sometimes photographed very skillfully. And the celebrities themselves display an intensity of personality, a sparkle, sometimes depths of suffering. One of the reasons these public figures speak to our imagination is because they have the ability to appear greater than us, as if they contained each of us in some way.

1303411-1575810-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1575811-thumbnail.jpgEvery day, as I looked for a photo to reproduce, I’d leaf through a magazine until someone’s face said to me, “I’m interesting and expressive, and you’d enjoy studying me and drawing me. You’ll even learn something about yourself if you do this.” In magazines, it was mostly men’s faces that spoke to me like this. The men were depicted in action, or expressing a strong emotion, their faces creased with lines and bumps, showing a lot of wear and tear—in other words, showing signs of life.

1303411-1575813-thumbnail.jpgAnd the women? Almost without exception, they were made up so that that their skin showed nothing but a single smooth surface. No lines, no creases, no signs of strong emotion; sometimes, no sign of emotion altogether, only an empty placidity, the eyes vacant, not even a trace of a smile. The lighting was such there no shadows appeared upon their faces. The women were photographed not as multidimensional human beings, but as icons of supposed beauty. They’d come across as “beautiful,” or “pretty,” or “handsome,” or “desirable,” or any variation on this single aspect of femininity; but rarely did they come across as “thought-provoking,” “hurt,” “funny,” “powerful,” “scary,” "ugly as sin." More often than not, there was no joy in drawing them.

Okay, folks. Who's going to write in with names for all these faces? Here are a few hints. One is a playright, one is a Hollywood megastar, one is an Australian actor who's also done good in Hollywood. One is the greatest prestidigitator in the world, and also a successful character actor. And two are sportsmen caught in a doping scandal. Names, I want names!

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A splash of red can kill you

During my first few months exploring art, I drew everything exclusively in pencil, black only; most often I used a 4B or 5B pencil. There was a good and a bad reason for me to do this. The good one was a thorough sense of discipline, my saying to myself, “Let's get the hang of this wonderful basic medium here.” The bad one? “I'm afraid of color!” Or, to put it more concretely, “I’m afraid of not knowing what to do and how to do it, I’m afraid of missing out on important stuff, I’m afraid of being revealed as an ignoramus and a fraud. I want my Mommy!”

1303411-1591289-thumbnail.jpgBut eventually I faced my fear. When I finished doing an entire black-pencil sketchbook for my beloved night person, I started experimenting with colors. My wife gave me a useful piece of advice: “Use one color only at first, just to get the feel of it.” So I did: drawings in olive, in red, in brown, simple stuff like that. Then I started using two or more colors together.

 

1303411-1591290-thumbnail.jpgMy first color breakthrough was drawing a flower—not from a live flower, but from a photo by Irving Penn, simply because that's what I had at hand at the time. I started experimenting, did some perfectly awkward things. But that's the thing: a prerequisite to learning well and quickly is not being afraid of making mistakes, of going wrong. You need to suspend aesthetic judgments for a while—perhaps even forever, if these judgments are imposed from a polluted source, such as people's inane ideas of right and wrong. Or your own inane ideas!

 

It's not as if we ought to lead our lives with NO notion of right and wrong; on the contrary. But we need to be on the lookout for misconceived and fixed notions of which we aren't even aware. Every day, all day long, we're better off thinking or saying to ourselves, “Maybe I'm wrong, but this is how I see it.” This makes it easier to change our minds once new evidence comes into view. And by new evidence I mean "reality."

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Who's worrying about you anyway?

1303411-1585457-thumbnail.jpgFor a few months I kept doing gesture and contour drawings of people and objects in public spaces. I went to a concert of Ron Carter, the great jazz bassist, and even while he played I sketched him, his guitarist colleague, and members of the public. I attended an informal play and sketched the heads, faces, and backs of theatergoers sitting near me. At a big party for my father-in-law's 70th birthday I drew guys dancing, guys laughing, guys asleep after drinking a few too many... Sitting at sidewalk cafes I drew passersby and fellow coffee drinkers. On occasion I rode the métro with a little notebook and discreetly sketched passengers.

Social convention would tell us that sketching people without their permission is a no-no, an invasion of privacy. So far I haven't had any problems with my public sketching. Either nobody noticed it; or if anyone noticed no one was bothered by it; or if anyone was bothered no one told me. It was another interesting lesson, to see that social settings afford a certain leeway of action; you can do more things in public than you normally assume. Another lesson, another liberation: shackles are self-imposed, including those of social behavior.

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 From the point of view of craft, sketching people in public is interesting because most of the time you need to finish the sketch within seconds of starting, before someone moves and the "pose" is lost. The brain, eye, hand, and heart all come together, and for ten seconds you're in the moment, intensely alert, concentrated. Little by little this attitude becomes your habit, and you remain always in the moment.

 There's been an unexpected benefit to my sketching: It seems to me that as I become more observant, I also become more appreciative of people. When you pay attention and really look, people turn out to be quite fascinating. Everyone has a certain presence or energy; everyone has lived and suffered; everyone has something to offer to this world.

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Fear is a choice you make

I live about a twenty-minute walk from the Pompidou Center in Paris, and for a few years now I've been a member—meaning I can go in for free all year long! One of my Sunday pleasures is to stroll through the Marais on my way to the Pompidou, sit at the cafe inside it reading or writing for a while, then spend some time looking at the permanent collection or whichever temporary exhibits are up on that day.

Recently I attended a retrospective of Alberto Giacometti, the great Swiss sculptor famous above all for his very elongated figures. As it happens, some time ago—I think about three years—there was another Giacometti show at the Pompidou, focusing on his drawings and sketches. The show included some very expressive portraits that Giacometti had drawn with cheapo ballpoint pens, those same pens that you and I use to jot down a shopping list or write a check. Looking at the sketches I had though, "I wish I could do this too." And the thought was wistful, tinged with envy and perhaps even a touch of bitterness. The day after I saw the show I bought myself a dozen ballpoint pens (red, blue, black, and green) and a notebook, and I put them all away in a hidden corner of my workspace.

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I wasn't ready.

 

But when the time finally came for me to start drawing, one of the things that got me going was the memory of Giacometti's ballpoint sketches, and the wistful yearning they had triggered. So you can imagine how happy I was to go visit a new Giacometti show, notebook and pencil in hand. This time I was “doing,” instead of “wishing I could do it.” Two very different attitudes, one sad, one happy; one envious, one celebratory; one handicapping, the other enabling. It doesn't matter if I can't begin to draw as well as the great masters; what really matters is that I'm not afraid of drawing anymore; I'm not envious, I'm not jealous, I'm not self-defeating!

 

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Needless to say, I could have been drawing all my life. There wasn't a single GOOD reason for me not to draw, only a misconception I had created about myself and my capabilities or lack thereof.

 

 

 

 
Drawing is a wonderful thing. But dispelling a burdesome misconception about yourself is even more wonderful.

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Big little kid lost in the museum

As part of my self-education in art I attended art shows with a notebook in hand, like a kid on a school trip, and I sketched small reproductions of paintings and sculptures that my eyes were attracted to.

1303411-1575696-thumbnail.jpgThe Metropolitan in New York City put together all its Dutch paintings in one show, more than two hundred pictures of astounding quality: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and their peers. It was a little strange, walking the rooms and looking at the paintings not with the awed eyes of an art lover, but with the no less awed but somewhat sober eyes of a craftsman. As I stood there sketching, it may have appeared to an observer that I was missing out on the emotional response to the works. That's not how it felt to me at all; in fact,  I was truly seeing things for the first time, truly observing, taking in, admiring, and appreciating the sights in front of me. It was a highly emotional experience, but if I had gone berserk with emotion... I wouldn't be able to draw a thing! So I kind of “sublimated” the emotion, kept it in, swallowed it and put it back out as a drawing. It was no less emotional an experience, and in fact it was a rather more multi-dimensional experience than many previous visits to the museum.

1303411-1575698-thumbnail.jpgThere's a certain skill in standing in front of a masterpiece in a crowded room and focusing yourself for the minute or two that it takes to do a basic little sketch. You can't be too bothered by the people around you; you can't worry about what they're thinking and feeling about you. From time to time I could tell that someone was looking over my shoulder and glancing over my drawing. Did the person like my drawing or dislike it? Was the person annoyed that I was standing there? I didn't give it much thought, because I was invested primarily in the process of sketching, not the process of worrying about what other people were thinking of me! So, part of the fun is in occupying a crowded little space for however long you need to, not bump into people, not let people bump into you... look and sketch... and move on. I stayed in the Met show for about ninety minutes, and I did 15 or 18 sketches of varying degrees of skill, from the blobby to the surprisingly adept.

1303411-1575697-thumbnail.jpgI’m not saying my sketches were great; the experience, the discovery, the learning all were.

1303411-1575695-thumbnail.jpgI went to the Louvre a few times too, and drew mostly sculptures in the huge inner gardens. The Louvre is a magnificent museum, but let me confess a dark secret: sometimes I find it a chore visiting it. I think it displays some of its art in a haughty manner that alienates the viewer, while the Met in New York consider its visitors as friends worthy of attention and comfort. There are rooms in the Louvre packed to the gills with paintings of historical merit but—to my eyes—little artistic beauty; those rooms are archival, showing you bits of French or European history while squashing you as an individual, as a human being. In those rooms I feel like the museum is saying to me, “You ignoramus. Look at these big, big paintings. Monarchs. Military campaigns. Generals. This is true greatness. You, on the other hand, you're so little you could disappear right now and nothing in the world would change. Au revoir, little person! Come again if you dare!” The paintings are way up on huge walls, too many busy images displayed too close together. I don't get the same feeling at the Met. It's more democratic, more person-oriented instead of archive-oriented. The Met says, “Hey, guys! Swing right in and share in all this beauty! Don't care for historical stuff? Not to worry! Next gallery is full of treats for the modern eye!”

You art lovers out there—what about if you help me change my mind by sharing your positive experiences of the Louvre with us?

The Naked Beginner returns

A few months ago I posted a series of entries about my passage from stick-figure artist to wide-eyed beginner. I'd like to tell you a bit more about my artistic education and its psychological and emotional implications. The first two exercises that I practiced were called gesture drawing and contour drawing, both of which demanded that I look away from the paper in which I was drawing, keeping my eyes “locked” onto the object I was drawing and let feeling alone, not vision, guide my hand's path on the paper. After I got the hang of not looking at the paper as I drew, I started mixing looking and not looking.

I practiced the exercises in a number of different settings, some public, some private. Every night I'd do a drawing on a sketchbook dedicated to my night person, preparing myself to sleep, to dream, to shift my energies from the quotidian to the spectral (that means, from the sometimes petty preoccupations of daily life to the more fluid energies of the subconscious...).

1303411-1573485-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1573486-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1573487-thumbnail.jpgOn that sketchbook I started copying faces from the art books I had lying around the house. My wife studied art in college, and over the years she collected a series of books, some about art history, others about aspects of craft, others still purveys of great masters. As an art lover I too had bought a few art books. And you know what? I had never properly read the majority of art books in our modest library. To some degree the books made me feel bad about myself: bad for buying too many books, buying expensive books, buying books that I didn't read... I finally started reading the books, looking closely at some of the images, then reproducing a few. A bonus side-effect to my art education: my library doesn’t make me feel bad anymore!

1303411-1573489-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1573488-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1573491-thumbnail.jpgI began filling in huge gaps in my knowledge of art history, and of history itself. I read a biography of Rodin. I read Gauguin's notebooks. And I drew faces: from Velasquez, Murillo, Picasso, Rembrandt, Fra Angelico, and a dozen others. The faces taught me a lot. You look closely, really closely, for twenty minutes or thirty minutes, and the face becomes a person; you invent a whole story for that face, and you begin to empathize with someone who has been dead for hundreds of years. A sparkle in someone's eyes, a shade of sadness, a mysterious smile... (Double-clicking the thumbnail images will magnify them and give you a microscopic view of my handiwork. It's kinda neat!)

A well-trained artist might find my sketches very basic, perhaps even full of unpardonable flaws. But, hey! A few weeks before I didn't believe I could draw altogether. You can imagine how happy my night person was with my offerings! It felt to me that I had entered a heightened state of creativity and awareness, of risk-taking, of permanent learning and discovery. I highly recommend the process and the state that comes with it. You know what is required? A sheet of paper and a pencil. If you don't have art books lying around the house, a magazine or a newspaper. Don't have those either? Look in the mirror and draw yourself!

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Okay, you blog readers out there. Who's going to recognize these images and tell us exactly where they come from? Show us what you know, and we'll reward you with a virtual pat on the back.

You have no manners (and neither have I), part 6: Seven Pointers

We’ve been looking at how our sense of propriety, also known as “manners,” affects touch, language, food, and pretty much everything else we do. Now it’s time to make that famous list of pointers where we try to be intelligent and practical-minded.

  1. I’ve often asked Americans to explain the rules of baseball to me. Everyone has always failed—the game is so deeply ingrained in their unconscious that they can’t verbalize the rules in a coherent and comprehensive order. Your sense of propriety is the same: it develops so early in life that you won’t be able to fully grasp it intellectually; it’s a nearly biological reflex by now. You take an awful lot of your tribe's customs for granted!
  2. There are very few absolute propriety values, shared by all nations, cultures, and tribes. You should never assume a trait of yours is shared by all, or that it should be shared by all.
  3. Looking at people from a culture different from yours, you might think that their manners are crazy, absurd, and unhealthy; and you might wonder why on Earth don’t they give it all up already. First, manners arise for reasons that at the outset may be quite logical. Second, those crazy people aren’t aware of their craziness, and in fact they don’t even consider themselves crazy—not in the least. Third, to them you’re just as crazy, absurd, and unhealthy. So… why don’t you give it all up already?
  4. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In other words, adapt the mores of the culture you visit or the country you move to. In France, say “Bonjour, Madame,” every time you enter the bakery—every single time, always! Entering a Catholic church, uncover your head—always! Entering a synagogue, cover your head—always!
  5. Clashes of manners are inevitable. An overly sensitive introvert meets a brash extravert. The introvert finds the loudmouth extremely rude and insensitive. But the extravert considers the introvert terribly stifling. Whose manners ought to change, to accommodate the needs of the other? Oftentimes there are no fair solutions.
  6. Although we learn most of our manners intuitively, from a very early age, we can also learn new behaviors as grownups. It takes discipline, sensitiveness, and imagination. But, most of all, it takes a little “distance,” the capacity to leave your own certainties at the door.
  7. When someone invites you to dinner, ask what’s on the menu before you say “yes.”

 

You have no manners (and neither have I), part 5: Mangia, mangia!

As we have seen already, our deeply held feelings of propriety include matters of language and matters of physical contact (for instance, in the form of handshakes, kisses, and hugs in social settings). Today I have one word for you: Food.

Much of what we eat and how we eat is socially determined, from a very early age. If you grow up in a culture where drinking milk is considered healthy, you may find it very hard to actually believe that milk is bad for you—as it is indeed, if not for you personally, then for a great number of adults who can't quite digest milk and yet continue to drink it. If you come from an Asian culture—Japan, for instance—you might find the idea of drinking milk absolutely revolting, and you might find it hard to imagine why on Earth some people would even think of drinking glasses and glasses of the stuff.

You see, the beliefs are so deeply held that we can't quite grasp them; we can't question them; and we can't imagine that other people might see things differently.

Our beliefs about food go well beyond nutritional matters; they include matters of hospitality, of times and spaces shared together. Someone might think like this: Everyone knows meat is an essential part of one's diet. Meat is good for me. I like meat. Meat is good for you. You should like meat. You must like meat. You have no choice but to like meat. I'm going to serve you meat, and if you don't eat it you're not only crazy but rude as well, since you're telling me that I'm wrong to like meat. Mangia, mangia!

In 1988 I went to Berlin for the first time, when the Wall still divided the city. I stayed with a friend of mine for a week, a Brazilian of German descent whom I knew from our shared adolescence in São Paulo. A friend of his—a purely German woman—heard about my presence in the city, and she decided to invite me for dinner. She didn't tell me this, but she wanted to show the distinguished guest something typical of her land. Off I went to her home. Ten or twelve people met: friends of hers, friends of my friends, the sort of incoherent assembly that comes together once and once only. The centerpiece of the meal was a German delicacy, which my hostess had prepared at great cost to her: Eisbein. That's pig's knee. Yes, the knee of a humongous pig, served whole on a plate, with bones, gristle, ligaments, tendons, fat, and a little bit of meat hidden behind the rest of the pig's anatomy.

Each guest was served an entire knee. Plus trimmings, of course—potatoes, cabbage, and whatnot.

I sat looking at it for a long time. It was impossible, this late in the game, for me to pretend I was a vegetarian, or a vegan, or a fish eater, or a monk from a strange sect that only ate pasta and ice cream. No. I had to eat the pig. It had been prepared especially for me, lovingly, by a dedicated German hostess who had gone out of her way to welcome me, a complete stranger, into the bosom of her home.

It wasn't dinner, it was vivisection. The pig looked so pig-like you could hear its squeals. You know what it said? It didn’t say, “Hello, Pedro, I'm delighted to be eaten by you. I'll do my best to go down your throat smoothly. Trust me, we're on the same side here.” No. It said, “I’m a pig, for goodness’ sake. I should be playing in mud right now. If you eat me you’re nothing but a blue-eyed devil.”

After the longest time I took a thin slice of meat from one side of the knee, removed the fat and other anatomic paraphernalia as well as I could, and ate a small forkful of it. One of the guests, a hearty Pole, turned his attention to me. “What's your problem?” he asked. “Are you sick, or something?” He had finished his Eisbein already, and on his plate there remained only the bones. He had consumed, devoured, masticated, and sucked off everything else in his sight.

It has been reported that, in certain Arab communities where hospitality is of the utmost importance, a host might KILL you if you refuse his or her hospitality. It was the awareness of this risk that led me to consume a few more forkfuls of that fateful pig.

Where I come from, the pigs are congressmen and senators. We don't eat them, man!

You have no manners (and neither have I), part 4: A Brazilian picks a fight with an Englishwoman in France

My friendly and dedicated correspondent, Lisa Marie (an Englishwoman who lives in France), is at it again. She wrote most thoughtfully about my recent posts on the subject of manners.

And you know what? The Brazilian in me disagrees with the Englishwoman in her, proving that I have no manners whatsoever! My retorts to Lisa Marie's remarks are inside the little boxes.

Hi Pedro,

I've been silently enjoying your posts on politeness. It's such a potentially hilarious subject. I think there are two kinds of behaviours which both fall into the category good manners but are very different. The first are all those culturally specific things that are often absurd (though not always) -- and have to be learned. The second category includes all those ways in which you attend to others to make them feel comfortable, e.g. listening to people until they've finished their desultory sentences, not staring over their shoulder in search of someone more interesting to talk to, not making other people aware of their lack of the first sort of good manners -- like the (probably apocryphal) hostess who drank her finger-bowl to save the blushes of a guest who had just drank his. It is easy to get the two categories muddled because some behaviours fall into both categories, for example -- remembering that guests arriving from far might want to rest and wash before they feel like being chatty and entertaining.

Er... I think both types of behavior you mention are similarly "cultural," speficic to certain groups and having to be learned. Listening to other peope until they finish their sentences, for instance: oftentimes in France and elsewhere, several people in a conversation might talk at the same time, without waiting for other people to finish what they're saying; and for people in such cultures, it's not considered rude in the least to converse in this manner. Indeed, I think ALL social behaviors are culture-specific; if that weren't the case, there would be SOME universal behaviors, and I can't think of even one that happens in all cultures, tribes, social settings, and so on.

I have problems in France with "Bonjour Madame X", to which, as you know the correct reply is "Bonjour Monsieur Y", (rather than plain unadorned "Bonjour" which I would find more natural)."Bonjour Monsieur Y" always makes me feel as if I've become trapped in a language primer and the words always come out of my mouth with audible (to me at any rate) inverted commas. I suppose any formulaic exchange learned later than childhood will always feel like an exercise in role-playing.

I think one can learn to absorb behaviors -- and make them become "natural" -- at any point in one's life, not in childhood alone; it's just that some things learned in childhood are more deeply rooted than others. Also, I somehow suspect that there are people in all groups who feel unhappy with the behaviors imposed by the traditions of the group. I'm sure there are Brazilians who don't like the cheek-kissing thingy, even though they grew up with it, and Frenchmen who are impatient with the "Bonjour, Madame" thingy.

Someone (Paul Theroux?) wrote 'The Japanese have so perfected good manners to the point that they have become almost indistinguishable from rudeness.'

Funny. And astute, I think. 

Your hypothetical American sins by ignorance (bad manners category 1). Your hypothetical baker is arrogant -- despising his customer as a barbarian just because he cannot imitate his (the baker's) local customs inferring thereby that he (the baker) would fare better if suddenly whisked accross the Atlantic -- but he only commits bad manners category 2 if the American becomes aware of the baker's mépris.

Warm beer is the result of incompetence. English real ale should be served at (cold) cellar temperature but not refrigerated.

Sure, sure. But for a Texan who ALWAYS drinks beer ABSOLUTELY FREEZING-COLD (and any other beverages that he perceives as beer-like), real ale served at cellar temperature will appear WARM, therefore WRONG. The guy doesn't know the difference between real ale and lager, doesn't know about the gustatory demerits of drinks that are too cold... and he doesn't know he's making tons of assumptions about everything in this world.

PS I forgot to say that "I was only being Brazilian" is not an excuse I've ever heard before... Do you think the recipient of your Brazilian-ness subsequently felt embarrassed to have reacted as she did? -- how culturally insensitive!

If that woman regretted flinching at my Brazilian-ness, she certainly hasn't sent me a telegram about it -- yet!

PPS The possibilities for painful embarrassment are endless. I haven't even begun to bang on about tertiary embarassment -- that's when you feel embarrassed on someone else's behalf because they miraculously fail to feel as embarassed as you feel they ought. Perhaps that's an English thing... 

Aha! The truth comes out! I knew most of the things you think, say, and feel arise from the assumptions you learned as a child in England!

Warm regards from the the patch of Brazilian jungle near the Bastille, Paris.

-- Pedro