The six-year-old has some advice for everyone. He also drew this picture of me:
The six-year-old has some advice for everyone. He also drew this picture of me:
“I take the opportunity each day offers.”
I usually feel a tremendous letdown the morning after Christmas — major “What next?” pangs — but this morning the sun came out so we walked our cranky selves down to the beach and made a bunch of driftwood sculptures. (This afternoon we might watch Rivers and Tides.)
6-year-old was getting hangry at the pizza joint so I suggested we draw each other’s portraits. He wins again.
Sometimes when the 6-year-old and I get mad at each other we just pass notes back and forth under his bedroom door.
When you have kids you always find all this weird half-finished stuff lying around the house. (Half-finished drawings, half-finished bananas, etc.) I found this comic on the kitchen table, drawn by Owen at age 5. (“Julese” is his 3-year-old brother, Jules.) Drawn in a comic book notebook by The Unemployed Philsopher’s Guild.
The 5-year-old and I made a zine of our trip to Cleveland with grandpa’s newspapers (and other assorted print items).
Back at home, we made copies for the grandparents:
One of the most important points of Steal Like An Artist is that you don’t get to pick your actual genealogy, but you can, and must, establish your own artistic genealogy.
Seneca said it better than I did a couple thousand years ago:
We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become.
“I’m one of your children,” Philip Glass once said to John Cage, “whether you like it or not.” Glass writes a lot about lineage in Words Without Music:
I sometimes hear about work described in terms of ‘originality’ or ‘breakthrough,’ but my personal experience is quite different. For me music has always been about lineage. The past is reinvented and becomes the future. But the lineage is everything.”
(Glass talks a lot more about lineage at the beginning of this interview.)
There are many ways to discover and construct your own lineage. The easiest is what Alan Jacobs calls “swimming upstream.” You pick some artist or writer you love, and you find out who influenced them. From The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction:
We can turn our temporal attention upstream rather than downstream—toward what preceded Tolkien or Austen or whomever rather than what succeeded them. After all, Austen became the Austen we know largely through her reading—something that is true of almost all writers… If you imitate them in that sense—not by trying to write what they wrote but to read what they read—you’ll find your horizons expanding, your mind stretching, your resources of knowledge coming near their limits…
“I am very influenced by the people who influenced my influences,” says the musician M. Ward, “and I am influenced even more by the people who influenced them.”
Sometimes with an older artist you can swim both upstream and downstream.
When my 5-year-old got obsessed with Kraftwerk, I didn’t quite realize just how perfect of a wormhole they would be into 20th-21st century music. When reading their biographies, he learned that “Autobahn” is a pun on The Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and the 1-2-3-4 countdown in “Showroom Dummies” comes from The Ramones, so he wanted to hear their songs. Later, he found out that “Planet Rock” takes the beat from “Numbers” and the synth line from “Trans Europe Express,” so he’s been playing that track over and over. He’d never heard rap music before, so now I’m (carefully) picking out some early hip-hop for him.
At some point, I’m guessing he’ll leap to another tree (eventually you find that they all have the same roots), but for now, it’s fun to watch him explore the branches of this one…
Last night I was picking through my stack and started composer Philip Glass’s memoir, Words Without Music. I wound up reading over 50 pages before I passed out. (That’s a lot: I’m a slow reader, especially at 10PM.)
Glass writes about working in his father’s record store and how formative it was for him. His father began as a car mechanic without any formal education, then moved to fixing car radios, then to selling records with a little bench for repairing radios in the back. He wanted to understand why some records sold and why some didn’t, so he’d take home modern classical music and try to figure out what was wrong with it. Instead of diagnosing it, he fell in love with much of it, and started foisting it on his customers. Glass says his dad would come home late, around 9 o’clock, and then start listening to records from 10 to midnight. Glass would sneak downstairs without his father knowing and listen along.
One time Glass ordered four copies of a particularly obscure classical album for the shop. His father got mad at him, but Philip convinced the old man to keep them on the shelves and to let him know when the last one sold. Several years later, his father called and said he’d just sold the last one. “I can sell anything,” his father said, “if I have enough time.”
In an obituary of professional hoaxer Alan Abel, Margalit Fox notes that Abel’s father kept a general store, which is where Abel said he learned the art of hucksterism: “He’d put ‘Limit — Two to a Customer’ in front of the things that wouldn’t sell,” Abel said, “and they’d be gone in a minute.”
In Tamara Shopsin’s memoirs, Mumbai New York Scranton and Arbitrary Stupid Goal, she writes a lot about her experiences growing up with her brothers and sisters in their parents’ grocery store and restaurant. (They now run it.) Her work is filled with the unconventional practice and wisdom of her father. (See my post, “Something to look forward to.”)
I try to let my kids spend a lot of time in my studio, so I’m attracted to these kinds of stories. Some of my fondest childhood memories are going to visit my parents in their offices. My parents had a lot of night meetings — my dad was a 4-H agent and my mom was a guidance counselor and school administrator — so I spent a lot of time in abandoned offices, poking around on typewriters and playing with copy machines and raiding office supply closets.
In How Children Learn, John Holt writes about how important it is to let our children into our everyday worlds and our work:
If we give them access to enough of the world, including our own lives and work in that world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to us and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than we could make for them.
He laments — and he died 33 years ago — how many of us don’t actually do work that means anything to children (“What do people do all day?”):
[H]ow much children must have learned from watching people do real work, in the days when a child could see people doing real work. It is not so easy to manage this now. So much of the so-called work done in our society is not work at all, certainly not as a child could understand it… It is in every way useful for children to see adults doing real work and, wherever possible, to be able to help them.
I’m thankful to do work that my sons can not only understand, but can emulate.
Every day is “take your kid to work” day around here. Sometimes that’s a burden, sometimes it’s bliss, but it’s always full of meaning.
The art of contextomy: you cut some words off a pizza box, tape them to the cover of your diary, and they become an imperative. A commandment!
Speaking of diaries, the 5-year-old’s diary is becoming way cooler than mine:
A follower on Instagram asked me how they should get their kid to keep a diary. I think in most situations, the most important thing is to model for your kids what you’d like them to do, first. Owen sees me cutting things up and glueing them into my diary every morning, and he always wants to look at my notebook, so one day I (as casually as possible) asked him if he’d like his own special notebook to keep a diary in. That’s how he got started. So: model, see if there’s interest, and then offer up the time, space, and materials.
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