Monthly Archives: January 2014

Dan Adkins & Another Lesson On Mortality

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08adkinsphotoDan Adkins: March 15, 1937 – May 8, 2013

Here’s the thing, I hadn’t known until today that Dan Adkins, one of my mentors, had died. Stick with me, there’s a lot to this, so let me lay this on you slowly.

Lately you may have noticed a certain pattern in many of my posts; posts written prior to this latest loss. I have been thinking a lot about mortality and old friends. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mortality and the death of many people I have known. Death is not something I generally like to focus on, but lately it’s been rising in my consciousness, I think I was supposed to have been paying attention. The universe, the Gods, have a way of sending us messages if we are smart enough to see them for what they are rather than taking the easy way out and using science as an excuse to ignore such things and foolishly dismiss them as superstition.

Just last night I was getting impatient with a friend who I love very much, but who has a rotten habit of living in a seemingly perpetual state of “one of these days” thinking, not that I’m unfamiliar with that. My grandfather was the king of “one of these days,” or, “I’ll get around to it.” Of course, now, he’s dead. I wonder, with no comic intention, how much he never got around to. I wonder that a lot, and not just about him, but about my friend, other friends, and myself.

I had been pressing my friend to come and see me here, and though I am generally highly emotional, for some reason this particular need to have him here has been pressing heavily on me, far heavier than is logical. Last night, after speaking with him and getting ready for bed I had a panic attack about it, and I realized in an inspired burst of clarity exactly why my emotional reaction is so strong in reaction to his “one of these days” stance–and that of others and myself.

People die. I will die. And it could happen at any given moment. The intimacy with which I understand mortality is something that only comes with facing your own… and that of many others.

Read over my prior blogs, and you will find plenty on that 6 month period when I had not only been diagnosed and treated for cancer, but nearly drowned in Thailand. I had faced my own mortality in a very hard way twice in 6 months. Add to this the gruesomely personal experience I had with my ex-father-in-law’s death, the suicide of my childhood friend Andy, the hanging I witnessed in my backyard, Tom and Leela’s loss, the loss of one of my jamming buddies Joe, the loss of George (who died of the same cancer as myself), the loss of Scott from the Folkatorium, the loss of Phil to obesity, the loss of my grandfather, of Jeffrey Catherine Jones… and so many more. Keep in mind the risk I am under of bloodclot, stroke and cancer… and I think you can see that I have looked into the eyes of death one-on-one.

One of the losses that I feel that lacks the most closure was with Jeffrey Catherine Jones, yes, THE Jeff Jones! I have written an entire unpublished graphic novel about that loss. Catherine was one of my dearest mentors. A few years back I decided to reconnect with her, and I tried, oh how I tried, but nothing much came of it. Then, in the midst of my final efforts to get back in touch with her, to find her, she died! She died before I could say goodbye, she died with our friendship unresolved. This has haunted me for some time.

About a year or so ago I started realizing a certain urgency in all this, and I began reconnecting with people, especially people who were as important to me as Jeffrey Catherine Jones. I reconnected with Frank Thorne, and he said to me over the phone, after I had vanished for almost a decade, “We were really close once.” That hurt, to know that he had missed me in my absence. It also hurt that I was not able to make out how dear Frank felt about me now. He seemed a little upset with some of the changes I have gone through. I simply do not know where we stand now.

Shortly after that I decided to reconnect with another of the great artists who helped form me, who offered support, criticism and encouragement, the great Jim Steranko. Fortunately that conversation went well. Jim was clear in his gracious acceptance of me. He suggested with some urgency that I reconnect with Dan Adkins. I took Jim seriously, did some digging, and found my old rolodex and address book, but could not find Dan’s number anywhere. I wanted to call Dan. Dan, after all, was the end of the line, was as close to Wally Wood as my lineage got. Dan taught P. Craig Russell and Val Mayerik, and Dan learned from Wally, and I learned from Dan, Craig, and Val. But I could not find Dan’s number. I took it for granted that he would be there. Like a fool I figured that “one of these days” I would call Jim and get Dan’s number.

146536dan_adkins_conanIt’s far too late.

I just learned today that while I was one-of-thes-days-ing… Dan died.

Just like Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Dan died, and I never had the chance to reconnect and say goodbye.

And this is entirely my fault. Entirely. And that is a bitter pill to swallow. I’m not sure I ever will swallow it, it will just sit there bitter in the back of my throat. I’ll have to choke on it, forgive myself, and live with the fact that I blew it. I alone blew it.

I met Dan thanks to Val Mayerik. Val took me to Dan’s studio in Reading Pennsylvania many many years ago, decades ago. I had heard a lot about Dan, all of it eccentric, weird, and wholly loveable. A few of the Adkins stories had become legends among his circle, stories that were confirmed in the first hour of our meeting.

I can’t pretend to have known Dan well, but I knew him well enough to love him. Funny thing was, you didn’t have to know Dan well to know way too much information about him. One of the very best stories about him involved a detailed recounting of the way he almost died masturbating. Yeah, you read that right. Everyone I knew knew the story, recounted it, and recounted it in Dan’s voice. He was entirely too easy to imitate. When I went to meet Dan in his wonderland of a little attic studio, he poured over my work and within in a hour of meeting him he said, “Eh… your work reminds me of Vaughn Bode. You like Vaughn Bode? You know how Vaughn Bode died?” I nodded, of course I loved Bode, of course I knew how he died (who didn’t? though Frank Thorne insists the legend of how Bode died is entirely false and the truth is actually somewhat more unpleasant… which is hard to believe considering how unpleasant the legend is). “I almost died like that, you wanna hear about it?” Dan asked. Well, of course I wanted to hear about it. I had heard the story second-hand and had repeated it verbatim myself, but the chance to hear it from the man himself, from the Master, was far too grand to pass up, so I didn’t let on that I knew the story and nodded eagerly. And let Dan tell the story in his own words. As far as I can recall… it went like this…

14adkinsphotoThe first bit of information is to know that however it was that Bode died, it involved masturbation or sex. Dan’s story involved… well… wait for it, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Dan started by telling me that his wife Jeanette (pictured at top and to the left, stunning woman) didn’t approve of pornography, so Dan had pornography on slides that he would view with a slide projector as the slides were easy to hide from her. Dan was in the bathroom sitting on the edge of the tub projecting his porn on the door. At some point in the middle of these… er…uh… proceedings he smelled something burning! In the midst of his… uhm… passion(?) he realized that it was the electrical chord burning. He, pants around his waist, reached down to unplug it, but the part where the chord attached to the plug had melted and when he grabbed it the volt-n-jolt blasted him back into the tub… pants down around his ankles. As he laid akimbo in his tub, pants down around his ankles, he thought, “I coulda died like Vaughn Bode.”

Of course I had many other adventures with Dan, he was possessed of a natural vaudevillian humor that was one part sarcasm, one part exhaustion, one part insight, and one part a shameless knowledge of what was funny. I recall him picking at his food in a dreadful “country cooking” restaurant in a mall, the concerned waiter (flamboyantly gay, and with a runny nose) had become terribly concerned about Dan and his uneaten but incessantly picked at meal. About the fourth time the overly-concerned waiter came over to ask him if he wanted to order something else, an exhausted and depressed Dan just said to him, “Tell you what, I’ll write a book and let you know how it all turned out.” The mystified waiter sniffled twice, turned, and left Dan Adkins alone to pick at his food all he wanted.

Dan was very much a fifties rock sorta guy. Check out those great pics of him in his T-shirt and fabulous hair! And Dan wasn’t just an ordinary rock fan, but a passionate one. He had a wide variety of tastes, and from a wide variety of decades, but he liked his stuff straightforward. God bless him for it, too!

tumblr_m5f3zvvpMe1r93mfqo1_500Dan was one of the classic inkers, as straightforward and classic an artist as the musicians he loved! Dan knew his way around the brush, and his drawing style was simple and spot-on. Not a lot of flash but twelve tons of substance! Dan was an amazing person to show work to. Dan was an amazing person to learn from, and generous, so generous that it brings tears to my eyes. I should have contacted him before he died. He was down, Jim told me his wife had died. Dan deserved better from me.

When I was deep into life as an inker, Dan sent me a couple brushes. Of course I had gone out to see him several times in his studio, but we also corresponded by phone and mail. The brushes Dan sent me were immaculately mounted on cardboard in a side-by-side comparison complete with instructions in perfect and stylish cartoonist handwriting. He was teaching me how to singe the extra hairs from the end of a brush with a lighter. The brushes he sent me, two brand new Winsor Newton Seris 7 #2 brushes, were examples for me to use. One brush had not been treated with a lighter, the other had, and he sent me the two so I could use both of them and understand the difference.

Every time I went to see Dan I walked away with an original or two. Add to this that when he worked for DC Comics on their Olympics-related tie-ins, Dan mailed me a couple lovely drawings, my favorite was of Wonder Woman in a pool swimming laps competitively. It was one helluva a delightful little illustration. Wow… this is hard to write about.

Dan, of course, stepped up to the plate and inked a drawing of my favorite character, Mara, a character of my own creation. If I recall the story correctly Dan had liked the pencils and asked if he could ink it. Of course, of course Dan could ink it.

And now that he’s gone I am filled with regrets, with a total lack of closure, and sense of shame and guilt that will stick. Oh, it will heal, but it will leave a scar, just like the scar left when Jeff Jones died, just like the scar left when the great French director Jean Rollin died without my ever doing the comic that I had agreed to do for him. And I am left feeling a little too ashamed to call Jim Steranko. I have some explaining to do, don’t I, Jim? Your friend, your dear friend deserved better than a “one of these days” from me.

I hope this is the last time I have to live with these sorts of regrets. I hope this is the last time I take anyone for granted and assume that they will be there when it’s convenient for me, and I hope that some of my readers will learn that lesson from me rather than having to learn it the hard way.

People die. One of these days… often before you are ready for it, they will die, and people need to truly understand this.

One of these days, one of these days.

Salmon Falls (Harry Nilsson)

Each drop of rain falls a million times its own length
To crash upon this floor, and with its pain cause life to start anew
Each second fights its way magically through your entire life
Like a salmon traveling upstream to its final destination
And with his goal in sight, life ends – to start anew
Each man lives far beyond his span
And writhes the life of all mankind
And not until his kind has passed will he…
And not until he dies
Each second of your life conclude
And not until it crashes against the Earth
Will a drop of rain have fallen
Not until all men are dead
Will you die
And life will start anew
And you will have traveled a million times your own time
And magically
And magically
Salmon falls

Magically

Why Did I Come To Gainesville?

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(This entry is a continuation of “Why Did I Leave Akron,” which you can read at: https://barefootjustine.com/2014/01/24/why-did-i-leave-akron/)

Lord-Ganesh-9I am often asked, “Why did you come to Gainesville?” or “Why did you choose Gainesville?” Of course I did, in the end, choose Gainesville, but it was not a destination… I didn’t even know there was a Gainesville. As I elaborated on earlier, my ambition was not to get anywhere in particular (though I’d always dreamed of living in a place with palm trees), my ambition was to escape the gravity of Akron.

Up to March of 2012 I had been continuing to live in a foreclosed home… waiting. It was not a home worth fighting for, beautiful as it was, it was situated in a place that was getting more and more dangerously “GHETTO” with every passing year. Still, it had been a home for a very long time, so losing it hurt. I knew, though, that I needed out of Akron, and not simply because of what my doctor had told me, but because the city had become dangerous for anyone, especially for a woman like me.

I had been mugged at gunpoint a mere few blocks from my home, and slowly the predators were learning where I lived. One day, after going out to find two of them leering at me from the corner, waiting for me to walk their way, which I often did (and you can see more of this in my web-comic “Why Justine Is So Scared,” under web-comics). I turned around when I saw them, got in my car and never again walked anywhere in my neighborhood.

I had been working as a cleaning girl, and scraping by… so long as I didn’t have to pay mortgage or rent. I had quit my job at ACME after starting my cleaning service. I was gathering clients, but never enough to make a living of any sort. One of my clients, a couple, had mentioned that they were moving to Florida. Up to that point those two were my favorite clients. I asked them, jokingly, if they needed a live-in cleaning girl. They said, sure, I could go along. We all laughed and I went home.

The next week I asked if they were serious about my going with them. They, as it turned out, had very real need of a third person. You see, he was sick and needed to move to a warmer climate, and she had to stay back in the Akron area until their home sold, primarily to hold down a job. I, of course, was going to be responsible for getting her husband around on errands and doctor appointments, for being around in case of emergencies, cleaning and painting their entire house, and to help get their dogs back and forth to the vet and stuff, and in return for all this I was given an empty room with a deflating inflatable bed in it–you can see what’s coming… right? We came to an agreement, talked out the major potential complications, and I walked away ready to take that leap of faith.

First thing you have to know is that we were not headed to Gainesville, but to Ocala (for Christ’s sake!) I had no connections in FLorida, no work prospects, nothing. I didn’t even have any money to speak of. This was going to be a major leap of faith. In fact, my faith played an important part in all this. I had just converted to Hinduism, and was wholly in love with the religion, the Hindus, and the Temple. before going I expressed my misgivings to one of the most dedicated devotees, who simply said to me, “So long as you have your faith, you will be fine.” Leap of faith indeed. I had the Temple Priest perform a blessing before Ganesh. I had brought in my art, art that I needed to find a publisher for (I never did, but I found something wholly unexpected, as it turned out) and a beautiful ceremony was performed over my work. I had also recently had my murti of Lord Ganesh blessed as well, and it remains one of my most holy objects. I carried that Ganesh with me as a passenger the whole trip.

Barefoot Justine's feet... pretty pink polish.

Barefoot Justine’s feet.

I started selling guitars, or whatever I could do to get some money. In the end I budgeted out what little money I had into envelopes, enough envelopes to help me get by in a bare minimum sort of way for 3 months while I tried to find some way to make a living in Ocala. I sold my car before leaving Akron and packed that money into an envelope so that I could buy a car in Florida. That was it, I packed my stuff in poor old Joe Blue Sky’s house and a storage unit. It was a total do-over on my life, no home, no spouse, no strings, no responsibilities, no prospects, nothing but a no-net reckless free fall towards (fucking)Ocala, and off we went! Oh… yes, indeed, I had gone off barefoot, no shoes! That at least was a divine liberation.

We landed in Ocala, and though I tried to establish myself there over the first two months, nothing there was working. For a start things between me and the couple I had traveled with were uncomfortable. I won’t go into those details, but let’s just say that I began to feel a certain kinship with Cinderella as my inflatable bed began deflating and I realized that I was supposed to be their grateful barefoot maid of all work in exchange for this empty room and leaky inner-tube of a bed. I soon found myself down to one month’s worth of money and absolutely no prospects for work or clients or anything. It was a depserate time, as I also knew that come the end of our agreement in a few months… I was also going to have nowhere to live. Things were looking grim. But at least I wasn’t in Akron!

I was trying all manner of things to get word out and find work. I was trying to find a place to have classes, was trying to find clients for cleaning, was trying to find students for private lessons, was trying all I could think of. At one point I was passing around little portfolios at the local college in an attempt to get a show of my work, an opportunity to lecture or teach… anything. I walked into the gallery at the college and this lovely dark-haired girl jumped up with a huge livewire smile and said, “Where the hell did you come from? RUN!” Meaning, Ocala is not up to you, girl. I had come to realize this, but this girl, this signpost, this Avatar of God, was telling me something very real behind her hip and energetic hotness. I was going on to the copy shop in Ocala after my brief encounter with this tattooed savior. I didn’t know anyone in town, not a soul, but I had talked to this guy at the copy shop a couple of times as he was a fan of the sort of illustration that I do and did. I told him I was getting no play in Ocala, and he said that he loved Ocala, but it wasn’t going to work for me, that I needed to go to Orlando or Gainesville. Well, I knew I didn’t want to be a guppy in the Orlando land of sharks, so I asked him about Gainesville. Basically he told me it was known to be very hip and progressive and that I would do well to look to Gainesville as a better fit for me.

I had nothing else to go by, so I took the copy guy’s advice (I don’t recall his name, but he was wearing a blue vest and an orange name tag, so I figured he was qualified to give far-reaching advice in regards to my future), and I planned a trip to Gainesville.

And that was exactly when the uncomfortable crap between me and the couple I had travelled with started to turn way weird. Things had been deteriorating, but soon they were working together via the phone, creating this paranoiac cabal, planning the strangest passive-aggresive attacks I’ve ever endured. Again, I won’t go into details, but I will tell one classic story. SHE Who Must Be Obeyed had come down from on high (Akron) for a visit and invited me to have dinner with them. I agreed, eating only veggie kabobs, as I was vegetarian at the time. Me, thinking this was some sort of reconciliation or peace treaty, thought nothing of it. The next day around the pool they asked when I was going to pay for the share of vegetable I had eaten during dinner! I think with that little story told, there is no need to go into further details. This was a pettiness of titanic proportions… which ironically matched the titanic proportions of her fat ass. Oh my… I think I just got a tad catty!

I went to Gainesville for the Spring Arts Festival, took one look around and thought, “I could live here!” Of course I had no idea how to make that happen. I had tried to work my way into a similar community in New Hope Pennsylvania, but that had not worked at all. I was wondering how I could possibly find a way to get by in Gainesville before I ran out of the 4 to 6 weeks worth of money I had left before I quite literally was hopelessly penniless. I had researched Gainesville a little and had discovered SAW (The Sequential Artists Workshop) and thought that a place that taught comics might be a good fit for me, the problem was, the comics biz never thought I was much of a fit for them, so my hopes were rather timid. I walked into SAW unannounced off the streets that very day, doing all I could to hold down the stink of desperation that must have been oozing from every pore. Tom Hart (SAW founder and fearless leader) was a bit taken aback at what he later described as “this crazy barefoot woman coming into my school looking for work,” and began working up the right words to tell me that he was running a small school and didn’t really need me. Fortunately, Tom is an insightful guy, and when he looked at my (frankly stunning if not staggering) portfolio–the same portfolio blessed by Lord Ganesh–he saw something in it that most other people have routinely failed to see. Tom saw that I had not only talent, but a very disciplined and professional variety of talent–something rather rare these days in the anything-goes world of contemporary comics. His eye saw not merely an artist, but a professional who could actually function in a classroom setting. Add to this that I had quite a teaching pedigree as well.

Tom said to me, “Let’s get you a class and get some money back in your envelopes.” Which, of course he did. Tom may remember it differently, but he took my class, and after the first session sent me an email that literally said “I am begging you to commit to teaching our first one-year drawing program.” Poor Tom, I don’t think he realized what he was getting himself into. Handful that I may be, at least I deliver!

From that point I began to sleep and see my obligations through in Ocala, but lived for Gainesville. This was when things in Ocala began to get weirder and weirder by extremes.For some strange reason I felt the need to see this agreement I had made with this strange couple through to the end, I think my anger at being in this abusive situation was being overwhelmed by my sense of decency in regards to the responsibility I felt towards this sickly pathetic man and the dogs (who I loved dearly). I also knew that there was nothing in this situation for me. They tried to change their game plan and their passive aggressive bullshit became less harsh, as they realized that at this point they needed me more than I needed them.

I wanted out of their house and into a place in Gainesville, so I began hunting around for a cheap place to live until I could get on my feet. Over the next month or two I was shuttling back and forth between Gainesville and Ocala. Things between the man in Ocala and I were getting very hot and contentious, we were fighting like a couple on the verge of a messy divorce. We were having the kinds of marital battles that I remember seeing on seventies cop shows, problem was… we weren’t married. Unmarried or not, I wanted a fucking divorce! I had just gone through the end of a marriage to someone I loved, so this just plain sucked… sucked like a Yoko Ono record.

By this time I had met Joe Courter through Tom and worked out a deal where I could rent a room in his house super cheap (thank God for Joe!), the problem was, I was still obligated to this Ocala situation for seemingly ever. They had not yet even come close to selling their home, and the deal was that I was to stay with them and care for him until they sold their home.

During one of our laundry outing I had gone to a little spiritual shop outside of Ocala and bought a lovely statue of Ganesh–remover of obstacles, as I had obstacles that needed removed. By now I had scored my room in Gainesville at Joe’s and had started to stay there a couple nights a week, but I was itching to get loose from this Ocala situation, problem was, they had to sell their damn house. The day after I bought that Ganesh I started to notice that the murti was chipped and broken, and intended to take it back the next day. This Ganesh was of profound importance to me, considering what I was up against, and I did not want a chipped and broken Ganesh. This Ganesh had work to do. I had a major obstacle in my life, and it was this awful situation in Ocala, this long and interminable wait for them to sell that damn house in Ohio. How terribly profound and auspicious that on that same day I was to return that Ganesh, I was pulled aside and told that they had sold the house! I was free to go!

And that, is how I cam to be in Gainesville. And by the way, that chipped and broken Ganesh I placed high and in a place of prominence in my room. He stands back there like a sentinel watching all who pass through my door, standing watch over my life, my room, and my dreams.

Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha!

(And remember to read the first half of this saga at: “Why Did I Leave Akron,” which you can read at: https://barefootjustine.com/2014/01/24/why-did-i-leave-akron/)

Forgotten Friend

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5Many years ago, during my first year teaching in South Korea, I landed smack dab in the middle of the expat music scene in Itaewon. There was a bar there that held open mic nights. It was largely patronized by expats, primarily Americans and Canadians, though once in a while I’d meet an Aussie or someone from some other far flung country. The company and conversations were always fascinating. I can think of many people I met there, drinking into the wee hours of the night. I have no idea who the people in the photo above are, but that was a pretty regular scene at the Big Electric Cat where we all gathered to play.

One of the most spectacular people I met there was a 15 year-old Russian born Korean girl who had run away from Russia to Seoul where she was working, without papers, in another expat bar. She was a remarkable girl. We got on really well. Soon after I met her her mother had come, somehow finding her, and took her back to Russia. I missed her. There were lots of incredible encounters with amazing people. I recall talking late with one Aussie, both of us were drinking and talking about our lives prior to Korea… and how those lives had led us there. I don’t recall much about what was said, but I recall one powerful moment. As we hashed over our lives and the reasons we had both ended up in Korea, he said “No one ends up here because everything’s alright back home.” That really stuck with me, because it was true.

I had lots of adventures, gigging illegally in clubs, perhaps one day I’ll tell the story of the bust, the big raid the night before my gig night when “Looney” (as he was known) was taken away, off stage, and put in a Korean jail… and he was there legally on a performers visa… unlike me. But for now I know who and what I want to talk about. I had this friend who I will call “Bryan.”

Bryan became my dearest friend while I was there. He had an enormous smile and an energy that positively cast out in all directions. He was a powerful if not undisciplined performer and songwriter. We had started writing a song together (which eventually appeared on one of my CD’s) but it didn’t go anywhere until I sat down with one aspect of it and used it to write one of my very best songs. A song I started with him in Korea, worked out in the Philippines, then wrapped up back in Korea. Bryan’s energy was almost too intense for me, and even though we both had to teach early in the morning, we often stayed out until 4am. Amazing times. It doesn’t even seem like I lived those times. Wow… it’s all so distant now.

Bryan had once been a member of Blue Man Group, part of the franchise, but he burned out on having to go out night after night and repeat the same formulaic show… and somehow ended up in Korea. To this day I can’t figure how he ended up in Korea, he kept that pretty close to his vest. Honestly, I’m not even sure he ever had papers, and I seem to recall him saying that his documents had been forged. My experiences in Korea were full of that sort of thing.

Bryan was a good friend, the kind that would remember your birthday and make it special. We had a great party the night of my birthday at Bonji, a restaurant and bar where we both gigged illegally… the place that was raided, in fact. I had met Bryan early in my stay in Korea, and I recall him going way the hell out of his way to help me find one of the black market grocery stores that sold American foods that had been stolen or illegally obtained from the military base in Itaewon. I ate a lot of illegal salsa and $6 cans of refried beans thanks to that grocer. In order to get by in Korea you had to KNOW things, like where to get black market food. Bryan knew this, and went through the whole ordeal of changing trains and walking me through the icy cold streets of Korea to find this little market. I thanked him, and he shrugged it off, saying he was just paying it forward. That may sound corny, but us expats relied on that sort of thing from one another to get by. Thanks to Bryan, I treated other expats with the same kindness, going out of my way to help them if they needed it.

We soon became inseparable. Night after night drinking and performing. We were both in bad shape, though were having the times of our lives, hopping from one unlikely club to perform in another. Crazy times.

Bryan had a spot-on sense of humor. One thing he wrote for an expat paper really stuck with me. You first have to understand a few things about the Korean experience before the joke is funny, and one is that there were tons and tons of Canadians working there. The Koreans like the Canadians because Americans are more likely to laugh at management and tell them to fuck off than the Canadians are… hell, I told my bosses to fuck off more than once. Korean culture is very Hierarchical. Bosses are dictators, and Koreans submit, Americans don’t. The other thing you need to know is that there are only 2 spices in Korean cooking, red pepper paste and Spam. At least red papper and Spam are all I could taste… if the dishes didn’t taste like squid. Add to this that the Koreans are obsessed with their food… I mean OBSESSED! Most of us hated the food, many of us pretended to like it just to make our lives easier, even Bryan pretended to like it, but when we were being honest he would tell the truth. The bit he wrote in the expat paper was largely about what brought him to Korea, and I recall him starting off the article with this statement, “I came to Korea for the same reasons everyone comes to Korea, for the food… and to meet Canadians.” It was really the irony of going to Korea to meet Canadians that kept me laughing.

We went out to Insa Dong one afternoon to check out the shops, especially the sprawling mall that sold nothing but musical instruments. Insa Dong was around the corner from one of Korea’s most spectacular palaces. Like most of the palaces there, this one had been burned to the ground by the Japanese, then devotedly rebuilt by the ever-stubborn Koreans. The Japanese had dug terrible scars into the history and people of Korea. There was also a fantastic Buddhist Temple in the same area, and Bryan and I had gone there just to catch our breath and find some quiet in the chaos of Seoul. We had taken off our shoes to enter the temple, and when we came out, Bryan could not find his. It was suggested that since someone had stolen his shoes, that he take any shoes that fit. Bryan wasn’t about to do that, so we started home, him in his socks. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so hard. Funny, but a moment later I found myself laughing ever harder.

Several blocks away, Bryan turned to me and said “I don’t think I was wearing my sneakers…” In other words, he had been looking for the wrong shoes! We, of course, had to backtrack to the temple and sure enough, there they were, Bryan’s shoes. And that, my friends, was the moment when I know I had never laughed harder.

It pained me to leave Bryan after my contract was up, and 6 months later he was the first person I tried to find in Korea when I returned. It’s very difficult finding an expat in Seoul. It takes a lot of tracking and talking, but finally I found out what had happened to him from one of our mutual friends.

I discovered that Bryan had decided to stop taking his meds. I knew this was bad. I had lost one friend to suicide, and another, Phil, to madness. I recall trying so hard to help Phil, but he just wouldn’t stay on his meds. He eventually hurled himself 90 miles per hour down the wrong side of a highway and drove headlong into an elderly couple. He crippled them. I broke off that friendship, realizing the many times I had been in a car with Phil… with him behaving and driving erratically, and it was no good driving myself as twice Phil had knocked my car out of drive, and into neutral, while I was on the highway. He was dangerous to be around. I have a number of other dreadful stories to tell about Phil, but I will spare you the details. I eventually had to cut Phil off.

Years later I tried to help a chronically depressed friend of mine, Meg, but she too would not stay on her meds, and of course she fell apart too. I had learned through Phil and Meg that there is nothing you can do for someone like that, nothing but let them ruin you, too, perhaps even kill you.

Bryan called me after I had been diagnosed with cancer. Yep, he was off his meds and living on the streets, sleeping in the subway stations in Korea as an illegal and, from all I had gathered, turning tricks for wealthy men just to get by. He came over while I was recovering, and I was horribly disturbed by his presence. As powerful as he was in the prime of his personality, he was equally powerful in his collapse. Seeing him chilled me to the bone.

Bryan spent that night in my apartment, up all night, pacing around in the other room… it was profoundly unsettling. I knew I couldn’t deal with this. I gave him fifty bucks when he left the next morning and told him to get something to eat. Additionally I had loaded his backpack with whatever portable snacks I had around. He had been impossible to talk to, like all manics, there was no reasoning with him, and he was utterly convinced that he had thought this through and had made a rational decision to stop working as a teacher and sleep in the subway stations as an illegal. I was furious. I was not only furious, but disturbed, saddened, and scared.

He showed up two days later, was just hanging around outside the apartment waiting on me to come home so he could stay the night or get more money. This had to stop. I was terribly unsettled.

I had cancer, was undergoing radiation treatments, my immune system had broken down. I simply could not physically be around someone who was living that way. Add to this that I had lost Phil and Meg to the same madness, and years before, Andy to suicide. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I could not be around Bryan, it was far too dangerous, and far too disturbing. Encounters with Phil used to unnerve me for days after, and I felt the same sticky sickness having been around Bryan. I had to break it off. It was a torture, having to cut off a friend who had meant so much to me the year before.

I called him and laid it out. He hung up on me. It was the last I ever heard from him. I often wonder what ever became of him.

For weeks after that I suffered over whether or not to turn him over to Interpol. The way he was living was a disaster, and though I knew he would never forgive me, I knew he needed to go home and get it together. At the same time I was recalling my Granny’s deathbed advice, “Be nice to people, try not to hurt anyone, and mind your own business.” The dilemma was… was this any of my business? I found myself trapped in that existential loop. Bryan needed help, I was his only friend. Was it not my duty to help him, even if the help was going to be tough?

I couldn’t answer the question. Everyone around me was convinced that I needed to mind my own business. I was not convinced this was not my business.

I’m still not sure if I made the right decision.

I chose to mind my own business.

Shawn’s Poem About Me… Justine!

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Sweet Justine
by Shawn Allen (shawnallen50.wordpress.com)

Oh my sweet Justine,
always chasing a dream
and trying to put it to paper.
Hey, barefoot Justine,
these streets can be hot and mean.
Oh, sweet Justine.

Sitting alone in the park,
trying to leave just a mark
on the virgin-white page,
to escape from the cage,
and the dogs as they angrily bark.
Don’t they know you can see in the dark?

And the stupid ones point, and they laugh.
Can’t see the whole, just one half
of the things that you are.
Always chasing that star,
and you go where there isn’t a path
and you’ve laid down that dark, heavy staff.

Oh my sweet Justine,
tell me, what’s it all mean?
Don’t you know that they won’t understand?
Hey, barefoot Justine,
kick up your heels, girl, and dance.
Oh, sweet Justine.

And when they close their doors to you,
it’s because you’re already inside.
It’s just envy, you see –
the Justine they won‘t be.
The divine fool they once knew,
that dream they long ago slew,
the truth from which they still hide.

So just smile when they whistle and jeer,
ignore them, turn a deaf ear.
You know what is real,
and the things they can’t feel –
they’re so worried about looking queer.
You are always much more than you appear.

Oh my sweet Justine,
just keep on living the dream
and show them that it can be real.
Hey, barefoot Justine,
just keep on living the dream.
Oh, sweet Justine.

1-20-2014

(I hadn’t known that this poem by Shawn had been written about me until Joe Blue Sky alerted me to it. I found it quite moving, and was tickled to read it. Shawn is one of our mutual friends from Akron.)

Mortality

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I realized today why I have this overwhelming sense that everything is transient. I didn’t used to feel that way. I feared death, like any good neurotic, but for years now I have been plagued with a restlessness that I cannot quiet. Everywhere I “settle” I feel like I’ll have to gather up a little bit of my stuff and get on a plane and go somewhere else.

I have nowhere to go.

I know there are contributing reasons for this sense of transience, beyond the as yet untold core reason, in fact, a multitude of lesser reasons. Consider this, about 9 or 10 years ago I walked away from the only thing I knew to be true about myself, and that was that I was going to be a comic book artist. I had burnt out. Anyone who has seen my body of work understands how that happened… I was insanely prolific. Shortly before that I had lost my sense of certainty regarding my spiritual beliefs. About 7 or 8 years ago I packed what I could fit in a suitcase and a half and left my house for Korea to live for one year. I did that for a second year as well… living out of suitcases, my stuff in storage. After that I went to Chile, also lived there for a brief period. When I returned home, it was to a foreclosing home and an inevitable divorce after twenty years of marriage. Of course after that I went through the BIG transition, meaning even something as simple as my most basic sense of self was not permanent. Since then I have converted to Hinduism AND moved from Ohio to Florida… a lot of my stuff still in storage. All of this combined would leave anyone feeling as though they were not going to be in any one place for long, wouldn’t it? It preys on me. I can’t always focus for the nagging feeling that I’m just passing through.

For years I figured those were the reasons I feel so transient. I had somehow overlooked the core reason I feel so overwhelmed by a haunting feeling of impermanence.

The real reason, I now realize, that I feel as though nothing will last, as though nothing is permanent, is that I had to face my mortality twice in six months. That second year in Korea I was diagnosed with cancer, though everyone who knows me knows this, it had a greater impact than anyone who has not had cancer could ever realize. I remember getting the diagnosis. I don’t remember anything in particular in my mind or heart, I just remember sitting on a chair outside the doctor’s office.

I just sat.

That was it. I sat in that chair. I sat in an oppressive state of numbness, unable to move, not even able to move so much as a thought. I simply was unable to wrap my head around it. I couldn’t feel anything. But I recall that it seemed as though the hospital lights had been lowered on a dimmer, and that though I was in a busy hospital surrounded by people, I felt as if I had been shoved in a muggy little egg, totally isolated. I was facing my mortality in a very big way.

CANCER

Six months later I was in Thailand on a SCUBA diving outing. I had looked over the equipment, and I did not like it. There were leaks in the equipment, as it turns out, more leaks than I had realized. I had pointed these things out to the dive instructor, and he shrugged them off. See, here’s what’s up with that: while I was SCUBA diving in the Philippines I was told over and over and over again by the Australian dive instructors that I needed to relax and stop worrying about everything. Well, the dive instructor thought the gear was fine, this to me seemed like a good place to stop worrying.

Here’s a BIG fucking tip for ya… if you’re worried about your SCUBA gear… stick to that! I learned that day that there is one and only one person between you and drowning while diving… and that is YOU! If you don’t like the gear, don’t go under.

We had gone out on the dive, and it was the most spectacular dive of my life. We came out around a bend that revealed acres of brilliant purple coral. I had NEVER seen anything like it, probably never will. This was the same outing where I saw bioluminescence for the first time–apart from fireflies. Unfortunately I was told to do an emergency ascent because the assistant dive instructor had run out of air, and I was running out of air, too. We emerged to unexpectedly choppy waters, very choppy waters, my vest would NOT inflate properly… it was leaking! And there was no boat! We were stranded in the middle of the choppy waters at sea, me with a leaking gear, and no boat in sight! I honestly thought I was going to die that day… drowning with leaky SCUBA gear on my back! It was hell. I tread water and felt a panic the likes of which you cannot imagine unless you have been stranded in the middle of the ocean with no rescue in sight.

I had just faced my own mortality twice. Add to this that inbetween cancer and nearly drowning, a dear friend of mine back in Akron had died suddenly. It was too much death. After that second year in Korea I endured a few months in Chile before returning to Ohio fatigued beyond the ability to function for six months. Upon returning home I also learned that another friend of mine was dying of that exact same cancer I had! Poor George, he passed, far too young. There but for the grace of God.

“There, but for the Grace of God go you and I
We’re the brightest objects in the sky
Remember, there but for the Grace of God go you and I
Do some good before you say goodbye”
Paul McCartney

Since then I feel as though I’m waiting. I feel like I’m just waiting for something to be over. I feel like at any moment I’m going to have to pack up and start over somewhere else… where I can’t imagine. Nothing has felt permanent for years. I’m restless, and I don’t feel like I can count on anything to last, nothing at all. Now I’m sure others feel this way, but I guarantee… you ain’t really felt it until you’ve stared down your own mortality. That changes everything, absolutely everything.

I am hoping that by thinking this through and spelling it out, perhaps I can look hard at it and begin to feel some peace with it. I would love to look out the windows of my room at the lakehouse and simply feel at home, but I don’t. I am very aware that none of this is going to last, because neither am I.

It’s not all bad, facing your own mortality is one way of opening yourself up to saying “fuck it,” one way to become liberated. Being as aware as I am of the fact that I am terribly mortal, that I will die… I just can’t see spending this life conforming to other people’s ideas about what life or art should be. After all, if I don’t get the life I want NOW… I may never get it. There is some liberation and power in that, in that ability to walk away from their plans for your life, to walk away from their points of view, their expectations, their rules, to instead follow your heart’s desire… but that sort of liberation comes at a very heavy price. I often wonder if the liberation is worth the price I am paying.

I try not to think about it, but it’s there. It’s there in how I almost always feel unsettled, a little in transit, or transition, even. I don’t know how to lose this feeling. I think in order to really live again, I’m going to have to let go and stop feeling this way, but how is that done?

Or perhaps it’s simply enough to once in a while take a kayak out on the lake, lay back and watch the birds overhead as I bob gently on the water… and to be wholly in that moment. Perhaps it’s enough to walk out of my room at night, outside towards the main house, and look out over the lake at the moonlight as it reflects on the lake and think how it’s never been any better than this. Perhaps it’s enough to listen to Harry Nilsson sing “Salmon Falls” and be nowhere else but in that song at that moment. Perhaps knowing what I know about life and death and hoping to forget it and feel settled and secure is far too much to ask for. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect to forget. Perhaps I just need to enjoy the moments as they come and realize that that is enough. Perhaps it’s that simple after all.

Lunch With Margaret & the Invisibles!

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So, I went out today with Margaret Tolbert for lunch… poor as could be, she had to both drive and pay. Sitting in the Indian restaurant with her she handed me her lovely hardback book “Aquiferious,” to look at, and I became madly envious. Imagine… a hardback book with your art in it! HARDBACK! It seemed like a delightful and pride-worthy glory.

We discussed projects and possibilities over chai, that beautiful heavy thick book to my right on the table. After lunch she drove us out to see the sandhill cranes, then on home we went. As I got out of the car she gifted me the lovely hardbound book–that I had so privately envied.

Approaching my room I noticed a box, a heavy little wholly unexpected box, waiting for me.

Puzzled, I took it into my room, having absolutely no idea why I was sent this box. I was expecting nothing. I opened it, and of all the ironies, there in the box were three copies of a brand new hardback (HARDBACK!) collection of the Invisibles from Vertigo at DC Comics! There I was, in hardback on the very day I was so envious of Margaret’s victorious harbound beauty.

Funny how life works in such cosmic symmetries.

Now I’m thinking, screw the hardback books… I want a big fat royalty check!

I guess some people are just never quite content.

(By the way, hardback books or not, I’m still poor and in need of prescriptions, so if anyone out there wants an autographed copy of the book, I have two to spare at cover price of $30.)

Guignol’s Eye View

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Barefoot Justine, Guignol's Eye View

Barefoot Justine, Guignol’s Eye View

Ever wonder what you look like, or even who you are, from another person’s point of view? I do. I, in fact, worry about that far too much. Avoid living like that if at all possible. I can’t, I’m stuck in that place. It’s a heavy burden.

The photo above is me, as seen from a Guignol’s eye view. That is how my dear friend Joe sees me from his Guignol. What, you ask, is a Guignol? Fair enough. And what it is also depends on one’s point of view. To a casual observer the Guignol may merely be two full grown losers wasting hours in front of the TV. Of course it is far more than that. An historical perspective might well help. The Grand Guignol was both a style of theater and a physical theater in Paris France, was founded in 1897 and expired in 1962. The Grand Guignol Theater experience was wholly unique, it was splatter cinema before there was splatter cinema. It was horror, effects, but also comedy and balance. It was spectacular and well ahead of its time.

But that is not the Guignol of which I speak. The Guignol of which I speak is, trust me, far more than two losers wasting away in front of the TV. The Guignol is quite simply… The Idea Place. It is where two friends go to drink from the waters of inspiration, a spring from which flows clarity, support, and healing waters. It is a corner of Maya that has been cleared free of THEIR Maya and has grown large enough to hold our Maya. It is the home to the illusion of our choosing. It is where I returned to drawing after years of wandering, it is where Joe learned to edit and make little films. It is sanity, it is madness, and a hallowed hall of Saints. Among the Saints of the Guignol you will find Ghoulardi and his offspring Hoolihan and Big Chuck; Paul McCartney and Serge Gainsbourg; Brigitte Bardot and Gandalf; Boris Karloff and Jonathan Winters; Jess Franco and Hubert Frank, Harry Nilsson and Badfinger; King Kong and Sorceror’s Apprentice; Ray Harryhausen and Ultraman; Nat King Cole and Soledad Miranda; Claudia Jennings as ‘Gator Bait and the many faces of Sinbad. The Guignol is where all manner of crapulence and indulgence are mandatory. It is where we, The Beard and The Barefoot Girl, go to seek shelter from the downpouring noise of demons demanding submission and conformity. It is an escape from the rat race, from Nike and the Tea Party; from Hip Hop and Garth Brooks; from everything that has gone wrong.

So much has gone wrong. The Guignol is a fortress that keeps them in their handbaskets and allows us to soar! And we soar together over a sea of ideas. The Guignol is home. It is where we can go to seek shelter from the worst of our ordeals, it is sacred and it has been there through bankruptcy, foreclosure, devastating sickness, separations and divorce, through a loss of identity and rebirth, together or apart the Guignol has become a rock, though remains forever fluid as the Tao. The Guignols have been held in a ceramics studio before a massive screen, in an attic, the Guignol expanded to consume the first floor of a house of broken dreams, the Guignol traveled, and even as the founding and only two members were parted by the landmass of a nation… the Guignol remained where it always was. The Guignol remained in that space between two people that would have torn lesser friends apart; not us, not the Guignolites, we held hands across that space and erected a monolith in place of the distance.

And in that photo you see me as Joe sees me. I see beyond me the attic Guignol, a poster of King Kong, off screen above that Brigitte Bardot, the bottom of a lava lamp, a shitty old TV, and many many things that are his, mine and ours. Mostly I see in that photo that I am alive with my dearest of friends in Akron, and he is alive with me in Gainesville. I see that of all the the mires of molasses and miracles of the modern age… two friends can remain together, if they really want it.

And I can see that from Joe’s point of view… I look pretty good.

Follow Up to “Ooh Lala!”

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2841982We all know I’ve already written a piece on my embarrassing encounter with Lala Rukh… so, since I’ve already eaten that crow and offered that apology publicly, let’s talk about something not only more positive, but something that benefits Lala and her lovely book.

For a long time now I have been suffering a minor, let’s say, lack of interest in things. Primarily a lack of interest in anything that required a lot of work on my part for a big gamble on a little return. Nothing quite takes the fizz out of the joy of playing guitar like a few gigs in sports bars. Nothing quite takes the joy out of getting your work published like say… nobody bothering to buy or read it. In the aftermath of that joyless defizzing there came a burning desire to do nothing at all.

That got old.

I have been at a crossroads between bitterness and boredom. One thing I know about myself is that I am not happy unless I am learning, and for many years I learned to draw and learned to play, sing, and write songs. The desire to do those things has diminished, but my need to learn things and be productive had not. Combine this with my rather lackluster skills as a cook. I eat healthy, I cook the things I cook very well, but I never use recipes. I really don’t experiment beyond variations on dishes I already know, but I have always fantasized about learning to cook food from India or Pakistan. The problem with cooking that sort of food is… I was intimidated by the complexities of it all.

Now… mix all that together.

Essentially I needed something productive to do with my time, and since gigging in sports bars and creating ill-conceived esoteric erotic comics that were double-bagged but never read no longer holds any appeal for me… I was out of ideas, until Lala’s lovely book came into my hands. I can say without hyperbole that this book changed my life. Not only has it given me something worthwhile to do, it has finally gotten me over my fears of both cooking in general… AND cooking this favored ethnic cuisine! Her book made this food approachable. Yes, her book has literally been life changing! I LOVE food from this part of the world, and being able to fearlessly cook my own has been a blessing on so many levels… heck, being able to cook anything from a recipe has been a blessing… and ALL thanks to Lala!

I have cooked 4 dishes from her book, and have been as satisfied with those dishes as any song I ever wrote or any page I ever drew. Actually, more pleased, as NOTHING about the results of this food were disappointing… unlike the joy of performing in front of a group of people who would really prefer watching the Cleveland Cavs game on TV… cooking this food had only upsides. The biggest upside was that I got to eat every single bite of it. Yum! So much better than working my way to obscurity and poverty through “labors of love.”

She breaks the recipes down into things that are approachable and completely understandable! There is no guess work, no confusion, no unnecessary complications, nothing but delicious and perfectly spiced foods! Quite honestly, the food I have made myself from her book has been better than most of the food I’ve had in Indian restaurants… except perhaps for the restaurant “Chakra” (which actually served food from Pakistan) that I used to eat at in Korea, though I might actually attest that her recipes are every bit equal to the food served there.

Take, for example, my most recent meals, which consisted of potato ryata and chickpea curry. Not only were both recipes delicious and a breeze to make, they made so much food that I have been able to eat meals from what I made for 5 or 6 days! And all for so little work! Beyond that… there is quite literally nothing in the world I would rather eat than this ethnicity of food.

Dear Lala, well done! Really well, done, your book has not only enriched, but revolutionized, my diet and my life… and I’m not sure one could ask for much more from a cookbook.

Check out her book, “Ooh Lala,” as well as her website http://www.lalacookspunjabi.com