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Be Sloppy: Origins

Dead Snakes
Saturday morning, pastries spread on a table, nametags inscribed and stuck to breasts. Thea, Jane, Chris. Nice to meet you. We hold cups of chain coffee and discuss the things we know we have in common: architecture, modern houses, art.

Our host counts heads. He tells us we're heading through his yard, past makeshift fountains made from water pumps and barrels holding overflow from last night's rainstorm, into the neighboring driveway to Charley's house out back. Everyone here knows Charley by just one name: Madonna, Cher, Charley. To our host, he was a good friend; he wishes they'd had more time together, before. Before? Well. Our feet squish in the grass. I skirt a dead garter snake on the driveway and warn the woman behind me (her nametag reads "Meg") of its presence: "Dead snake..." She hops over it nimbly. We're all so excited. Nimble. Dead snakes are nothing. There are no bad omens in dead snakes. ("Watch where you walk.")

We're heading to Charley's house.

Charley and Edie
"Charley Harper (1922 – 2007) was a Cincinnati-based American Modernist artist. He was best known for his highly stylized wildlife prints, posters and book illustrations. While at the [Art Academy of Cincinnati], Charley met fellow artist Edie Mckee (1922 - 2010), whom he would marry shortly after graduation in 1947." (Wikipedia)

"With Charley’s scholarship and Edie’s car, the newly-married couple spent six months on an extended honeymoon. They painted, sketched and photographed throughout the West and South. They even met Edward Weston and his cats in California. The trip inspired both of them throughout their careers." ("Charlie and Edie," Codex 99)

"'We took four months, camping often to make the money last, absorbing the feel of the vast landscapes of the plains, the Rockies, the desert. I had begun to lose interest in realism after several years of preoccupation with it. I felt fettered by the laws of perspective and shading and decided that the constant attempt to create the illusion of three dimensions on the two-dimensional plane was limiting.'" (Charley's Story)

"In 1958 the Harpers built a mid-century modern home in the middle of the woods in Finneytown. Cutting edge by the day’s standards, lean and spare like his artwork, the home was a laboratory in nature, the perfect setting for Charley’s observations and research." (Nina Kieffer, House Trends)

"'I'm the world's worst bird watcher. That's my dirty little secret.'" (Charley Harper interview with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

"The house tells the story of their relationship and the decades that followed: honeymoon mementos; Edie’s studio downstairs; a giant image of one of Charley’s famous ladybugs. One of the house’s most striking features is the giant glass window set that offers an uninhibited view of the wilderness beyond." (Zachary Petit, A-line Magazine)

Two year ago, almost to the day, I picked up a book of Charley Harper's illustrations at The Strand in New York. Charley Harper had long been a presence in my life; the cardinals in the background, hung on people's walls, adorning their bookshelves and their coffee mugs. I'd been eyeing the book for months if not years, but hadn't been able to afford it until that moment. That very moment.

In that book, between colorful shapes and lines and circles representing the entire animal kingdom, I spotted a picture of Charley standing next to a wooden fence in paint smeared pants, green hostas and buckeyes and maples at his back. His hand is to his eyes, he's looking up, as if the photographer instructed the self-described world's worst birdwatcher to pretend he'd spotted a bird.

He's smiling.

I saw that picture and said to J: I want to live in Charley Harper's house. 

That Saturday we found a house for sale down the hill from the Harpers' house in Cincinnati, a house with windows overlooking the wildnerness behind it (the email I sent to my mom with a link to the house is titled "THE HOUSE OF OUR DREAMS"); by the following Wednesday we'd put an offer on it. That August we moved into our new home. I looked at the cardinals frolicking in the wilderness outside our giant windows and remarked that they might be relatives of the cardinals Charley once drew. 

The house of our dreams.

And Then We Met the Architect
Rudy Hermes was dressed in khakis, perched on a chair in Charley's studio, waiting for our questions. On the table before him was a placard showing the house he'd designed for an architecture competition that won him a trip around the world, as well as a case displaying the Ford Times illustrations he worked on with Charley.

"'Keep it simple,'" Charley had instructed Rudy when he'd asked him to design their house on a lot in these steep forested hills. Rudy tapped one of the illustrations in the case: "That's the one I originally did for Charley, but we never did a budget to see if it would work."

"Did anyone ever ask you to do one of these after this came out?" 


"Well I'll take one." I asked him if he was still working, but he tapped his knee and explained that since its replacement he hadn't really been able to work the way he wanted to. 

And so I thanked him for the work he had done. Told him that if he hadn't built this house for Charley, and if we hadn't seen a picture of it in that book, we wouldn't be where we are now. "And we're so happy," I concluded, "so thank you for making that possible." 

He smiled.

A List of Things I Meant Note in Charley and Edie Harper's House (But Didn't)

  1. What radio station the little boombox was tuned to in Charley's studio. 
  2. What books had bookmarks in them and where. And why.
  3. What they kept on their bedside tables.
  4. What the ceilings were made of. How they cleaned the tops of their windows.
  5. Where Edie preferred to sit: outside or in; upstairs or down.

A List of Things I Did Note

  1. The bits of shell and rock and wood collected in a planter near the doorway.
  2. The rubber waders and fishing net, empty and unused, leaned up against the rear of the house.
  3. The plants and tools resting on a wooden shelf out back, tools for poking in the dirt, excavating.
  4. The look on Edie's face in her portrait hung next to Charley's in the downstairs gallery: knowing, confident, appreciating, discerning.
  5. The glass ornaments strung from every window: ladybugs, birds.
  6. The lids to ice cream pots used by Charley for paint palettes.
  7. The sketches of cardinals on tracing paper pinned to the underside of his shelves.
  8. The cushioned bench next to the window within arm's reach of the desk in the studio; how easy the window looked to open and let the breeze in.
  9. The low branches visible just outside, good for watching how birds flew, and perched, and landed.
  10. The framed reminder above the stairs to his studio basement: "Be Sloppy." (It was J who pointed out the one below it, the one we presumed was Edie's reminder: "You Are.")

Is Cleanliness Next to Charleyness?
I came home and started to clean my house, suddenly aware of how it might look to other people if I were to suddenly die.

"I wonder if he left his studio that night saying 'you know, I should really clean up this desk tomorrow.' And then never got the chance."

Then I remembered the framed reminder: "Be Sloppy." And considered for a moment putting everything back the way it was. 

I know he wasn't talking about housekeeping, but rather about being loose and free with your art. I know he wasn't talking about chores, but process. But there's something in the mantra of "Be Sloppy" that can be extended to other moments of life: the moments when you judge yourself too harshly, when you're stuck, when you're afraid that you'll make mistakes or not do something properly, so you don't do it at all. When you've found yourself suddenly too rigid, too "fettered by the laws of perspective," too bound by expectations that you never venture to veer off the path, outside of the lines. When you're too busy subsisting, toeing the line, obeying laws of shading to realize you'd rather be elsewhere. Doing other things. When you are so busy looking at the road ahead that you nearly step on the dead snake right there under foot. Be Sloppy. 

You Are.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


Sunday Zen


Summer Is Ready When You Are


"I see all these, like, sixteen year olds, and I'm, like, you have NO IDEA. This is the soundtrack of my FRESHMAN YEAR DORM ROOM."

We're at The Breeders show in Newport, KY, a "hometown" warmup gig for LSXX: their Last Splash 20th anniversary tour. A girl who appears to be in her early twenties leans shy against the sink in a blue skirt, out of the way of the woman dismissing clueless sixteen year olds. 

"I cried, like, three times during Drivin' on 9." In one of the stalls, someone had written they lyrics to Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" on the wall in cursive with a Sharpie. "Like, what would these kids know?"

"We're so OLD!"

"I'm 36, I got you."


"You're all so young with the threes in your ages. I've got a four." And back on stage in the old church, prepping for their encore, the Deal sisters & co., with fives now in their ages, transcended all of those expectations that come with numbers.

I'm with these women who by shouting out numbers stake their claim on having "been there" way back when, and yet I'm not: last night I realized what feelings are wasted on us when we're 17. I don't think I was ready for this album back then. I wasn't there. Twenty years later, I had finally arrived to the point where I was ready, just in time. I finally got it, for the first time. 


The picture I took at The Breeders show last night: Kelley smiling, Jo posing, Kim obscured from view by a pole and Jim by the drum kit, Carrie fiddling, Mike (Kelley's partner in the amazing R.Ring) taking it all in from the wings.

A second later I was asked by a staff member to put my camera away: the band asked that there be no photography without a pass, which I didn't realize when I took the picture, so I won't post it here. (Future advice: add "NO PHOTOGRAPHY" to your "NO AUDIO/VIDEO RECORDING" sign and your staff won't have to spend the night getting people to put away their camera phones. Which should be kept in pockets anyway; it was a great show without those glowing interferences. I normally allow myself three photos at the beginning before enjoying the rest of the show. But I digress.)

In lieu of photographic adornments I'll say this: wow. Like, WOW. Seeing The Breeders live again for the first time since 1994 reminded me what musically creative women those are up there on that stage. They had always been female icons to me; I wouldn't have been in a band in college if it weren't for Kim Deal (and certainly we never would have covered "Caribou" if it weren't for her). But their creativity was something I hadn't fully grasped, or wasn't yet ready to grasp, until I saw the whole album played through live like that. You don't hear this stuff come out of just anyone. Go and listen to Last Splash again, all the way through: it's sonically unpredictable and beautiful. It's hard and soft, it's country and it's rock. It's Ohio and England and '90s and now and feminist and still transcendent of gender and time and place.

And all of it up on that stage last night was in its right place, and executed really, really well. And I was finally in my right place. 

Leaning up against a wall of an old church with a beer in one hand, watching the crowd of Daytonites and Cincinnatians and Kentuckians FULLY into it, feeling seventeen again, feeling all of nearly thirty-seven, and this line from "Saints" finally made real sense to me: Summer is ready when you are.

(cross-posted from Tumblr)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


Combatting a Vast Expanse of Surfaces

Our Internet has become something different from what we ever imagined it to be: a feeding trough instead of a roundtable.
--Why we badly need a slower Internet (and fewer lists)

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about why we need the Slow Web, a movement towards creating less content with greater substance. After the piece was published yesterday, Brian Bailey, founder of Uncommon in Common, a site focused on cultivating a slower web, reached out to me with a few links to his site, including their wonderful genesis mission statement: A community of possibilities.

Let's pause for a second while you add that to your Instapaper.

I think it's interesting that I hadn't yet come across this site, and I think it's indicative of one of the major problems of the fast web; as I described it in an email to Brian: [the internet has become] a vast expanse of surfaces, too many points in need of excavation.

By creating more and more web and links and lists, we're reducing visibility. Fogging up the lens with content. A more carefully considered web would allow us to see bigger ideas more clearly, would encourage us to create these bigger ideas in the first place rather than just linking to the smaller ones. Part of this could be voluntarily stepping back from the internet for a while, resisting the urge to refresh refresh refresh all day. (Hey, I'm guilty of this too. Probably more guilty than most.) Another part is taking a pause before we share something on social networking sites.

For years J has been encouraging me to share less. That it's okay to just live without documenting. And in those moments when I find myself without my phone, staring at a beautiful sight, hearing something that's bigger than me, uncapturable, I try to remember to take a deep breath and hold on tightly to that moment in my mind. Where have all these precious, personal moments gone? Floating down the rapids of social media like sticks and leaves, to be crushed against the rocks.

This isn't to say I'm giving up Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr (god, it's exhausting just writing those all out, remembering how many passwords I need to remember to access what I'm meant to be remembering). There is value and carefully considered content in those places too. But it's about being more careful with our content, with our creation, with our sharing, with what we choose to take in: perhaps investing more time in something, but with fewer words expended. Perhaps expending just as many words, but less often. 

Or just taking a deep breath and holding on tightly to a moment in your mind.

I look forward to learning more from the people who are already investing themselves in this movement. Brian's statement also includes a great list of further reading at the bottom, all of which I fully intend to read. Later, in a comfortable chair, away from my desk. To be considered carefully. You might want to stop hitting refresh for a while and do the same.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


Yesterday still lies in the cracks between floorboards.

I was fortunate enough to get to meet the great Latvian poet Imants Ziedonis sometime around 2002, in the basement of the Dailes Theatre. Over the joyful pump of dueling accordions celebrating the birthday of his wife, an actress in the theater, I shook his hand. I told him I had to remind myself to use the formal "Jūs" with him; he said not to worry about it, that he wasn't so formal himself. He told me the story of how he once went to speak to some children at a school. One boy said to him, "but wait, you're not dead?" And he said, "no, I don't think so." And the boy said "how strange, I thought we only read dead people in school!"

Imants Ziedonis passed away today at the age of 79, long after they started studying him in schools.

After his death had been announced, the following was posted on his Twitter account:

Grīdas dēļu šķirbās vēl guļ vakardiena. Viena nopūta dus trauku dvielī, un viens lamu vārds dus pavarda pelnos.

Translation: Yesterday still lies in the cracks between floorboards. One sigh rests in a dish towel, and one curse word rests in the fireplace ashes.

He always did write my favorite words. Rest In Peace, Ziedonis, wherever your words may fall.

(photo by Uldis Grasis)

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