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A couple days ago I posted a larger copy of this picture, and promised I’d explain it in the near future. I used to do something similar with another painting I did. It was a lovely painting of Holsteins in a Gothic cathedral, and when I asked my students what they thought it meant just about anything might come back. Some were very troubled by what they saw as sacrilege–cows? in church? What could I have been thinking? To them, the picture was blasphemous, a fist in the eye of all they held holiest.

Others saw it as a commentary on religion. To them, the cows meant placidly accepting the message offered, chewing it over…and over…and over…like a cud. To them, the picture was social commentary on the failed spirituality in our religious institutions.

Which group was right? Neither. And both. Here’s how that picture happened: I was driving a forage harvest truck for my dad one summer. We were harvesting for a dairy. It was a slow, slow process that day, and I had a lot of time between picking up loads. I found myself looking into the barn where the cows lived between milkings.

This barn had skylights–something I haven’t seen in many barns–and the early afternoon sun slanted down in rays, illuminating the black and white Holsteins in a gentle golden glow. I found myself thinking of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and the Nativity paintings of the Renaissance, with their classical settings, rich, warm colors, and soft, deep shadows.

Suddenly the barn wasn’t just a barn: I saw the high roofs, the open beams, and the struts and bracing overlaid with the arches and buttresses of classical and Gothic architecture. I saw the cows as organic shapes, contrasting with the visual logic of the simple, sunlit barn interior. I grabbed my notebook and a pencil, swung down out of my truck, and ventured into the alley between the twin mangers.

I gathered up some of the sweet-smelling hay, mounded it up into a seat in one of the mangers, and started to sketch the beams and rafters. Because I was concentrating, it took me a while to realize that something was breathing on the back of my neck. Actually, it took a large, slimy drop of saliva. I jumped and turned around–and there behind me was a crowd of cows, peering over my shoulder, watching me draw.

I had never seen cows at such an angle before–from below, and just in front. As I looked, one of the cows took another step forward, stretched her nose out, and sniffed. I reached through the fence. The cows stepped back. I pulled my hand back, turned back around, and went back to drawing. But this time I drew the cows across the way.

A warm, moist puff of air alerted me to my audience again. I turned, slowly, this time, and found myself eye to eye with several cows. And I began to look–really, really look, there in that quiet barn. The cows looked back. I started to sketch, quick little thumbnails of cows from a point of view new to me–nearly under the animals, but at peace, all of us mildly interested in each other. I sketched legs, feet, noses, eyes, eyelashes, the high arching curves of eyelids, ears, udders, bellies. Eventually I heard a horn blow out in the field, gathered up my pencil and paper, and stood slowly. The cows stepped back. The spell was broken. Life went on.

Two years later, in the midst of a Chicago winter, I found myself remembering that warm, placid afternoon, the gentleness of the moment, the golden, glowing tranquility, and I wanted to capture that. Conveying a feeling like that is not easy; I found myself resorting to the symbolic body the cows had first reminded me of–Renaissance Nativity paintings.

I began borrowing from religious imagery, creating an environment for my cows. And then I created the cows themselves, drawing in their peaceful, gentle eyes, their long sweeping lashes, their delicate ankles, their jaunty registration tags and bands.

I was seeking to capture a peaceful summer afternoon, but somehow a lot of other things got into that painting. My ambivalence about organized religion and the almost mystical connection I felt with some kinds of animals made their way into that painting through the symbols I chose. I hadn’t intended to paint about those things; but I ended up painting about them, anyway. The language of symbolism is like that–and in the end, the most important message is not what the writer or artist intended, but what the reader or viewer perceives. And that’s out of my control.

I can’t tell you what this picture should mean to you; that depends on how you read the symbols. What I can tell you is what I was thinking.

I was thinking about my family, how its public image survived by isolating its members both from each other and from the larger world, and how our religious practice factored into that. I pulled images from traditional art and illustrations, and put them together into something new. If you’re familiar with those things, you’ll recognize most of these elements. Many of them come from conventional religous paintings. But in this context, they take on a whole new meaning–and that meaning is determined both by the painting, and by what you see in it.

There’s just one last thing I’d like to tell you about this painting. I started it when I was in the midst of discovering the truth about my family history, and how child molestation, secrecy, and religion combined to create an incredibly destructive force. In my need to come to grips with my life I created a whole series of sketches. This was one of them.

But they hurt too much; I packed them away and got on with the business of survival. And then, years later, I found them again. I looked at the sketches. “I can do something amazing with these, now,” I thought. Before, all I could see was the pain in them, and it had swamped me. Now, I set to work not on re-drawing them–the whole series has survived intact in terms of symbolism, figures, and colors–but on teasing out the beauty in them. I was painting my pain, but doing it with the intention of finding beauty in it.

The result is a series of pictures that are at once lovely and troubling. I love the colors, shapes, and patterns in “Blest Be The Ties”–and I find the children, isolated on their sheer wall, trapped in their best clothes, heartbreaking. I find the dancing figures at the top infuriating–and lovely. I find the angel puzzling. And that’s the power of symbols. It’s impossible to reduce them to a one to one correspondence; what the painter paints may not be what she intends to paint, and what the viewer sees may be something else altogether. The meaning can only be a shifting, evolving thing that painter, society, and viewer create among them.

So what do you see? And what does that say about me–and about you?

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Here is one of the pictures from my painted journal, Secret History. I should explain that I am less a fine artist than I am an illustrator; my work in general tends to inhabit a no-man’s-land between the world of words and the world of images. When I write, I record pictures in words; when I paint, I tell stories in colors and symbols. So–here’s a painted story, but before I tell you mine, I’m interested to hear yours. What do you see in this picture? (If you need to see details, you can double-click for a larger image.) Talk amongst yourselves….

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Here’s a little story for you. It’s based on fact, but it’s been folded, spindled, and mutilated nearly beyond recognition. Enjoy!

It all started the summer the rancher I worked for, Joe, decided he needed a new bull. He wanted a Semental, a hybrid of several older strains that supposedly combined all their best qualities. He had Hereford bulls for the older cows, Angus bulls, which produced smaller calves, for the heifers, and for a while he had flirted with the a few Charolais bulls, until it turned out that not only could they jump like deer, but the long-legged calves were too big for many of the Hereford cows to deliver safely. After one devastating winter when cows were dying left and right, taking their beautiful, long-legged taffy-colored calves with them, he opted for the heavy, placid, stocky Semental strain.

While bulls have a bad reputation—and in some cases it is richly deserved—under most circumstances I have found them predictable, reasonable animals, though I knew better than to trust them. After all, something that weighs more than half a ton can inflict considerable pain in even a fleeting moment of pique. In general, though, if you feed them well, don’t grab them in unseemly places, and don’t block their access to cows you will get along fine. With most of them, most of the time, that is.

When Dad and I left for the cattle auction late that summer to buy the new bull I had no idea that Casanova—which is who we would be bringing home, though we didn’t know that until much later—would be any different. He looked like your average thickheaded premium bull: heavy muscles, stocky legs, impressive equipment, blunt face covered with wavy white hair. He was an investment.

The handler led him around the show pen while the auctioneer reeled off his pedigree.

“Do I hear ten, ten, ten anybody give me ten?”

Dad raised his hand.

“Eleven, eleven, eleven…”

Another hand drifted up across the ring.

“Twelve, twelve…”

Dad’s hand lifted.

In the end, Casanova went home with us. Dad backed our truck up to the loading chute. The auction yard hands opened the gate at the bottom and flicked Casanova’s back with their whips. He turned slowly, hooves thudding on the boards. Our Australian Shepherd/Cattle Dog mix darted into the chute and nipped at his heels. Casanova swung his head ponderously, but the chute was too narrow—something our smart if cowardly dog had been banking on. What he hadn’t banked on was Casanova’s determination. The heavy swinging head hit the timbers lining the chute. One plate-sized cloven hoof lifted and came down on the bottom timber. Another rose and stepped on the next.

“Damn, he’s climbin’ the wall!” yelled a cowboy.

“Toby, get outa there,” Dad snapped at our dog. Toby, shocked by Casanova’s unprecedented athleticism, darted out of the chute and scrambled into the truck cab, where he sat grinning and panting behind the wheel.

Cowboys and ranchers came running, whips in hand. By this time Casanova’s face hung overhead like a placid white moon, his front hooves balanced on the top timber. The timber creaked, then cracked.

The whips rose and fell, slashing at his tender nose. He shook his head and snorted, puzzled. Finally the head turned. The hooves slid off the timber, and Casanova crashed down into the chute. Toby leaped out of the truck and darted for his heels again. “Get back,” Dad snarled. Toby veered off course and scampered back to his observation post in the cab.

Men lined the chute, climbing the timbers to reach over and flick Casanova’s back and hindquarters. He lifted a heavy foot, then another and plodded up the cleated, manure-smeared ramp and into our truck, then stood, placid brown eyes peering inquiringly through the slats. Casanova might be dynamite with the ladies, I decided, but he was clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

“Welp, better get this bull home to the cows,” Dad joked. “Thanks for the help.” The cowboys, ranchers, and auction hands were already striding back to the ring. We pulled out onto the narrow, twisting strip of blacktop that climbed the steep hills out of town and wound through the rolling wheatfields and sagebrush-choked gullies toward the ranch.

Dad drove smoothly, gliding gently around corners, slipping to a stop at the junctions, ever-mindful of Casanova the Investment balancing in back.

Thump. The truck shuddered. I twisted and peered out the tiny back window that looked into the truck bed. A massive cloven hoof rested on the bottom slat. As I watched the truck shuddered again, and another hoof appeared on the slat above the first.

“He’s climbing out, Dad,” I shouted. The auction yard with its helpful whips was far away. So were the loading chutes. If Casanova actually scaled the sides of the truck, as he clearly intended, we were lost.

The first hoof disappeared, then reappeared a board higher. The truck shuddered again. Dad stomped on the brake. I swung out my door as the truck slowed, grabbed the frame, planted one foot on the running board, and looked up. Casanova peered down at me over the cab. As I watched one hoof appeared on the top slat.

“He’s coming over,” I shouted.

“No he’s not,” Dad gritted. “Sit down and hold on.”

I did.

Dad jerked the wheel. The truck slewed across the road. He jerked it back and we slid the other way. There was a mighty crash in back. The cab shook. “That’s taught him,” Dad grinned. We started for home again. Thump. One hoof appeared in the window. Thump. The other joined it. Dad’s lips tightened. “Brace yourself.” I grabbed Toby and braced my feet. Dad slammed on the brakes. Casanova crashed down again. Dad drove on. The hoof appeared again. Dad slammed on the brakes, veered over the center line and then back, Casanova thudded down again, and home we went, lurching and swerving, and Casanova singlemindedly pursuing his dreams of Freedom.

At home we backed up to the loading chute. I opened my door and swung out. “Move it, Bodie,” Dad yelled, even though I was already running. I scrambled up the heavy, creosote-soaked timbers, dropped into the chute, yanked back the bolt holding the box bed door shut, and jumped back out of the chute. Dad climbed up onto the truck cab, whip in hand. Casanova eyed him appraisingly. Dad flicked his whip. Casanova stood stolidly, then slowly turned and ambled down the chute and out into the holding pen. He headed straight for the water tank, where he dropped his head and slurped. White foam drifted on the water’s green surface. The float dropped. Water ran. Dad swiped the sweat off his forehead.

“Welp, we got him here,” he panted. “You girls get him out with the cows before he tries climbin’ the fence again. He’ll be fine once he sees the cows.” Bulls are simple creatures, after all.

I found Pam and we saddled up, opened the gates to the pasture, and flicked Casanova to get him moving. We let our horses slouch along behind him, flicking him occasionally to remind him that he had somewhere he needed to be, but not often enough to make him mad. Casanova might be dumb, but boy, was he ever big. We followed his square, muscular backside until he had spotted a group of cows, then turned and rode back home, thinking our troubles were over.

Ranching’s busy work, and given the normal bull’s to-do list—find cows, find grass, find water—we figured we could leave Casanova unsupervised for a few days. What else could he want? True Love, as it turned out. Casanova had a romantic soul. It would have been all right, had he found romance at home. But like Gauguin, Casanova yearned after the exotic. He lusted after strange women in his heart, which, as everyone knows, always leads to trouble.

A few days later a neighboring rancher called.

“Hey,” he said. “Nice bull you got.”

“Yeah. He’s registered Semental. When did you see him?”

“Right now. He’s in with my cows.”

“You sure?”

“I think he’s yours—come look when you got a minute. Take your time, though. No rush.”

We rushed. Every cow Casanova seduced at the neighbor’s was a calf that we wouldn’t take to market.

Sure enough, it was Casanova, looking goofily at the neighbor’s cows. As we watched he mounted one and pumped contentedly. Dad’s lips tightened.

“You girls get him home,” he snapped.

Pam and I rode over that afternoon with cattle whips and drove Casanova home, where he stood surrounded by timothy grass, water, and willing prime registered Hereford cows, looking forlorn.

The next morning the neighbor called again. And the next. And the next.

“You wanna buy a bull?” Dad asked him, half in jest.

“Hell, why should I?” he laughed.

Dad’s lips tightened again. Pam and I rode over and drove Casanova home.

The next morning the neighbor called…

A month later we drove the truck over to the neighbor’s, loaded Casanova from the neighbor’s chute, and Dad drove lurching and swerving back to town, where Casanova went back up on the auction block and Dad replaced him with a less handsome but more reliable Family Man type bull, one blind to the blandishments of the neighbors’ cows, one who would remain true to our herd.

While I was having to drive Casanova home every morning I considered him a pedigreed pain in the neck and a prime registered screw-up. Sometimes, though, particularly late at night, I can understand what drove him, and I feel a wry admiration. He refused to settle. He knew what he wanted and he went after it. He didn’t let fences, or inconvenience, or disapproval stand in his way. He had a dream, and he fought for it.

When we’re children we all want to be brain surgeons, painters, astronauts, presidents, queen of England, writers, sculptors. And then we grow up, and become technicians, clerks, hacks. Does anyone fantasize about selling insurance? We let our dreams die. We settle.

And sometimes rightly so. One must eat. Artistic and literary endeavor feed my soul, but my son needs cereal and bananas, too. Dreams don’t build good bones. I think of Joshua Reynolds, who dreamed of painting sweeping historical grandeur and ended by painting chubby ladies dressed up as Aphrodite. He became rich—one of the few painters ever to do so—and funneled his creativity into experimenting with fruits in his paints. On the other hand there’s William Blake, who hated Reynolds for his success—and blindly pursued his dream of excellence into starvation. There’s got to be a balance.

How do you know when it’s time to stop striving, stop jumping the fence, and settle into bovine contentment? I’m not even sure I want to—maybe, like Ulysses, and like Casanova, it’s my nature “to strive to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Perhaps I’ll be jumping fences throughout my life and into a cranky old age. Perhaps I will die, feeling that I have never really lived, or never really achieved the thing of which I wanted to be capable. Maybe, like Casanova, I will never get to live my dreams. But maybe that’s not important. Maybe it’s not the cows in the next pasture, but the act of jumping the fence that’s important, the striving, and not the succeeding, that feeds my soul.

I suspect that, like Casanova, I’ll never settle. Oh, from time to time maybe I’ll let them throw a quick rope on me and lead me home. I’ll stay there long enough to let everybody get some sleep—and then knock up a few cows on my way to the fence again, in pursuit of the siren cows beyond the horizon.

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It’s brand new, and still shiny. We’re still picking up nails, razor-blading paint off windows, and buying that nice hydrangea plant to put beside the door. In other words, not quite done, but done enough to move in, as long as nobody’s too picky about working plumbing. So–welcome, pull up a chair, let me pour you a cup of coffee, and let’s talk about what we’re doing here. First, is your coffee the way you like it? Strong enough? Got enough cream and sugar? We good? Ok, let me call the dog, and let’s get started.

(opens door) “Here boy…come here…somebody wants to see you…good boy!”

I know what your first question will be, so let’s just get it out of the way. What’s with the magic dog? And why does he get to be my own personal mascot, and the mark for everything I do that involves ink and/or bytes, and something to stick it/them to?

It wasn’t my first choice. I wanted something dignified. Something noble, somthing to inspire respect, and if not respect, fear. But when I was a kid we had this dog. This dog was smart, and a little bit sneaky, and a little bit cowardly, but mostly smart, and intensely loyal and protective. And he could smile.

When I started writing children’s books, he started sneaking into them. I wrote about a lady fixing up a broken car. He snuck into the junkyard. You can’t see him, but I knew he was there, bugging the heck out of Rex, the junkyard dog. When I wrote a book about dinosaurs there he was, barking furiously at them– from a safe distance.

I gave him his own book, thinking that would keep him busy while I worked on my first novel. No soap. First thing I knew there he was, trotting through the middle of the action, doing unseemly things with inappropriate people. And he’d developed Magical Powers.  The second novel was no better. He’s there–this time as a central character. And he’s achieved something like demigod status.

When I set up my CafePress store he trotted in the door, found a corner, and curled up for a snooze. When the CafeePress store gave birth to a small publishing operation he was right there, crowding through the door before I could even get it all the way open. The Magic Dog is as much a part of things as I am. Everything we do gets his seal of approval–and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So let’s talk about the layout. We have all kinds of art, clothing, and housewares over at CafePress. Here, we have books. Some of them are mine, and I’ll be talking about them. From time to time we’ll get some from other people. We’ll talk about what we like and what we don’t (although we’ll always give your cheek a quick tongue swipe before you go). And we’ll throw around ideas for making the books better. We’re not mean, but we’re old friends, and old friends know that they have to be honest. Kind, but honest.

So–have you finished your coffee? You ready to start? I’ll go first.

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