Another Month, Another Post

Figured maybe I should check in again as it’s been over a month. You’d think with all this “down time” I’d have more time to write blog posts, but if anything I’m as busy as ever, maybe more so. Working from home means not having clear boundaries of when you’re “on” and “off”, so I find myself doing job-related tasks at all hours, and answering e-mails well into the night, when before I’d have put them off until I got to the office.

The good news is that, so far, I still have a job. VCU is dancing around the idea of furloughs, but at this point nothing’s decided yet. This is good as a lot of other universities are having a much harder time of it. Still plenty of time for things to get worse, though, so I won’t jinx it, but as I told Grace the other day, we have it better than a lot of folks. We’re in a house, not an apartment, so we’re able to maintain a safe distance from other folks. We have the five of us, so no one’s miserably lonely. We all get along with each other, so there’s none of the violence or other ugliness we’re hearing about in some households. And for now at least we’re set on food. with plenty of experience at making our own meals, unlike a lot of friends who before this were eating out several times a week and “cooking” frozen dinners if anything.

I did get around to one half-forgotten “to-do” item, exhuming some of my old articles from the “Mr Kiss-Kiss Bang-Bang” James Bond fan site and giving them a new home here on the blog. Of course in the process I nearly broke the whole blog because I was so rusty at such things. Long story, but happy ending, so I’ll spare you.

I’m also coming along with the guitar, which is astonishing given how many failed attempts I’ve had at learning it in the last 25 years. Laura pointed me to a deal at Fender Play, where I got 3 months of free lessons, and it’s worked for me where several books and DVD courses couldn’t. I think what turned the tide was the freedom to pick up the instrument at all hours of the day, where before I was always either at work or committed to some weekend thing or other, and at night I didn’t want to make noise. Having time and access has been a big help. I’m still somewhere on the upper side of “absolute beginner” but at least I’ve learned some chords and the ability to change from one to the next (if awkwardly), plus a bit about musical notation and theory. So if nothing else I’ll come out of this isolation thing with a new skill. Yay.

The university’s hoping to start phasing the campus back into operation as we near August. It’s dependent on a lot of things, and not helped by Virginia’s dismal failure to get this situation under control. Less than 30% of Virginians stayed home as instructed, and most of them aren’t wearing masks when they do go out (and they tend to travel out of their home county, so it’s not like it’s a run to the grocery store). Not enough people are being tested, not even if they have symptoms and ask for it, so even though we know the infection rate’s going up, we really have no idea by how much. Now Virginia Beach has opened back up, so folks are flocking here from New York and other COVID hot spots. What could go wrong?

Anyway, we’re looking forward to a quiet Memorial Day weekend, with some yard projects on the schedule and whatever else appeals. And we’ll probably spend a few more hours at that great new American Pastime, making masks.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

It occurred to me it’s been a while since I posted here, so on the off chance anyone’s keeping up, I thought I’d add a post to say I’m still among the living, as is the rest of the family, thankfully.

This past Monday marked one full month since my last day at the office, which is officially the longest period I’ve been away, including my honeymoon and family leave for each of the kids. After the first week or so, the days started to blend together, so it’s hard to keep track of the day of the week or the calendar date. Or to care, really. I was corresponding with a friend out West and mentioned the state of the weather, adding “not that it matters.”

Since starting the “work at home” plan, I’ve been through my birthday as well as Jason’s, and Easter. I fully expect to spend Mother’s Day and maybe Father’s Day in isolation, as well. The boys’ Scoutmaster is posting updates and reminders about Summer Camp scheduled for July, but if it actually happens I’ll be shocked. It’s pretty weird after being a slave to the calendar and clock for so long to find myself five weeks into a mushy limbo where time means nothing and there’s no point in trying to plan anything.

I’m determined not to let this time go to waste, though, so I’m catching up on my reading and taking guitar lessons on Fender Play. We’ve also done some home improvement projects that were on the back burner for a long time. I need to churn out some art projects, as well. But it’s not like I have nothing to do: if anything, I’m spending more time on my day job now than when I had an office to go to.

I thought I’d try to focus on more pleasant things here, so now just for fun I’ll share some photos taken on our BSA troop’s last camping trip (for the foreseeable future) in February. We went to D.C. and after decades of visits, I finally got around to going up in the Washington Monument for the first time. Here’s a view looking East to the Capitol dome.

Another looking North to the White (orange?) House:

Then West to the Lincoln Memorial:

…and South to the Jefferson Memorial, and Virginia.

It was a neat experience seeing the city from that height, and strange to think that the entire experience may be off-limits for the foreseeable future: walking past throngs on the Mall, taking a ride up in a crowded elevator, jostling shoulder to shoulder with 20 or so people to stare out of windows from a confined space. Heck, just driving somewhere outside of my neighborhood.

If there’s an upside to this self-isolation mess, it’s been spending time with Laura and the kids. Luckily for us, we all like each other. My “commute” now involves going upstairs to the guest room, all my lunches are spent the kitchen table with the family and if I don’t want to take a shower until mid-morning, no one complains. Well, almost no one.

I’ve no doubt we’ll get through this all somehow, though what life will be like on the other side of it, no one can say. As of right now, I’m expecting to be housebound until mid-June at least. By then it might even be a pleasure to see that empty calendar start filling up again. If it happens.

Self-Isolation, One Week In

Well, I did make it past Wednesday and the big work project: everyone’s up and running with Zoom at VCU, so I can start breathing again. I’ve actually been impressed with how pleasant everyone’s been in such stressful conditions, in a weird way, this seems to be bringing out the best in people.

I’m impressed with the governor of Ohio for taking an aggressive stance on the virus and shutting things down fairly early in the game. Apparently he had a task force in the wings since January with a clear plan on what steps to take, when. And he even appointed an actual physician to head it up, imagine that. It’s been impressive to see people take decisive action on the state, local and even personal level, especially given the total vacuum of leadership in Washington, which follows the “Four Stage Strategy” from “Yes Minister.”

Our own governor’s attitude seems to be “we don’t have that many cases here, so we’re still good.” Never mind that they’re only allowing tests for a select few. But hey, if you don’t test, you can’t test positive, right?

On Thursday, Laura, Grace and I took a walk around the neighborhood just to be out of the house. It was weird seeing so many driveways full of cars on a weekday afternoon. A few folks were out doing yard work or sprucing up their houses; we waved from a safe distance.

Today, I took Laura to Costco in my first car trip in over a week. Milk, meats and other items were being rationed, toilet paper and some cleaning supplies just plain gone, folks in masks and gloves. A weird experience.

So far I’m doing pretty well with the new normal, but it probably helps that “social distancing” has been a way of life for me pretty much as long as I’ve been around.

Life During Plague Times

I’m writing this on Day Three of my self-isolation in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Laura and the kids and I are hunkered down for at least the next couple of weeks.

It’s a Monday and my first official day of telework, though I’ve really been at it since Saturday. In fact, I didn’t have much of a weekend at all. VCU made the decision to extend Spring Break another week and switch to exclusively online instruction starting 3/24, which puts me in the hot seat as the university’s Zoom account administrator. We’d already set the wheels in motion to move to an enterprise plan — thank God — extending licenses to all faculty, staff and students, but it was all supposed to kick in this Wednesday. Missed it by *that* much. So I’m doing what I can to keep people happy until then. And there’s a lot of people at VCU.

Keeping so busy might be a blessing, though, because the new reality is only sinking in at random moments. And it’s weird. I don’t remember feeling this strange since 9/11 when all of life turned upside down, knowing the towers were gone, hearing no planes in the air, not being able to find an American flag in any store anywhere. Luckily we’re well stocked on toilet paper and soap and food, so I’m not having to fight off crowds in the stores. Or go anywhere else for that matter.

We’ve built a pretty insular society as it is, all of us in our little tech-driven bubbles watching and listening to whatever we’re into and ignoring everyone else, “Socializing” virtually through facebook and what not. But it’s different when you HAVE to do it, instead of choosing to.

Anyway, I’ll try to look at it as a gift: more time to spend with the kids, time to read or work on projects, maybe time for Scott to teach me guitar.

But not til after Wednesday, if I live that long.

Vampire (Likeness) Hunting

Looking for another project to test out my new set of pen nibs and brushes, I decided to attempt a caricature of an old favorite TV character; Dark Shadows’ resident vampire, Barnabas Collins. Rather appropriately, it ended up being a pain in the neck.

First, I had to find a reference photo of actor Jonathan Frid made up as Barnabas (just as an aside, it’s depressing how a Google image search for “Barnabas Collins” turns up so many pictures of Johnny Depp). Interestingly, Frid manages to look quite remarkably different from various angles and over the course of the series, which didn’t make my job any easier. I ended up deciding I liked the eyes in this headshot, which somehow for me capture Barnabas’ twin qualities of menace and suffering:

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best image as it’s kind of washed out and light on details (which is part of what makes it cool, too, ’cause it looks like it was taken in Barnabas’ original time period). Anyway, since what drew me in were the eyes, I chose to accentuate them in the caricature, and make them larger than life. Which is fine, only somehow over the course of the project, I kept adjusting everything else in relation to the eyes, obsessing over the nose, the mouth, etc, each in isolation, until I ended up with something that didn’t look at all like what I’d intended, because I failed to step back and look at how all the elements connected. Then when it came time to apply the inks, I was so focused on how to hold the nib pen that I didn’t focus my gaze on more than a couple millimeters of the image at a time. It didn’t help that I’d for some reason determined I was going to churn out the whole thing, start to finish, in a couple hours time. And here’s what that gets you:

Not so bad maybe for an image that says “generic vampire” — or “creepy dude” since there’s no fangs on display — but not what I’d hoped for. I was pretty happy with the “fog” effect a #6 “shader” brush got me (especially since it just kind of “happened” in the moment), and the cloak came out pretty well, but I was not pleased, overall. Laura snapped a photo of it almost as soon as I made the last stroke and pasted it to Facebook (ugh) asking friends, “What should go on the tombstone?” She got some interesting responses, but a more pertinent question for me was, “Who is it supposed to be?”

And so I learned my first two lessons: first, don’t rush a project, because that will never end well, and second, always take time to step back and look at the whole picture; don’t get lost in the details.

So almost immediately I started over. Usually I just move on from my artistic failures and shove them in a drawer (or the trash), but for whatever reason, this time I was determined to try a do-over. So I traced over the figure and started from scratch on the head, adding a couple more reference photos to the mix and watching a couple episodes of the show on Amazon Prime (always fun).

This time I was a lot happier with the results.

Or anyway, I was temporarily happy, until I came back the next day and decided I had drawn former CBS News anchor Dan Rather. I snapped the photo above and pulled it on my PC, and somehow just seeing the image in a different scale, on a screen instead of paper, brought all the problems into focus. I’ve often seen it suggested that you should hold your drawings up to a mirror to find the problems; now I know seeing it in a different scale can help, too.

So lesson #3: check your work in a mirror and view it a different scale before you commit to ink.

Anyway, I decided my revised Barnabas looked way too healthy for a 100-something-year-old vampire. His face was too full and well-fed. Also, there was too much forehead showing below those stylish bangs. So I went into Photoshop, lowered his forehead (which also meant widening the top of his head) and pulled the sides of his jaws closer together, accentuating the gaunt cheekbones. I also decided to give more of an angle to the nose. This got me a lot closer to where I wanted to be.

The difference is more obvious if you see the faces next to each other:

One thing I struggle with is drawing faces as they are, as opposed to the “idealized” or stylized generic faces I taught myself to draw as a kid, when I basically just cribbed from comic books. Whenever pencil hits paper, muscle memory takes hold of my wrist and people start looking like superheroes. In real life, people don’t always have perfectly symmetrical faces, straight noses, lantern jaws, eyes that line up, Ken doll hairlines, etc. It’s the little idiosyncrasies that define us and make one person distinct from another, and the art of capturing likenesses is to find those things and put them on the page. Ian Fleming once wrote that ” The difference between a good golf shot and a bad one is the same difference between a beautiful and a plain woman – a matter of millimetres.” The things that make us recognize a specific person out of millions are often tiny details.

So anyway, now I have an image that’s more or less what I was shooting for. The problem is it only exists as a Photoshop file, so if I ever want a paper copy, I’ve got to go through all that inking a third time. It ain’t likely.

The real kicker is that I’m not even sure you could call this a “caricature.” It’s a comic-book like drawing, but is it exaggerated? Whimsical? It’s a more-or-less “realistic” head on a dwarfish body. Neither fish nor foul.

Just to prove I can never leave anything alone, a couple days later I pulled out my Kindle Fire and used my stylus to try a more cartoonish approach, using the “Medibang Paint” app. I have to say I’m probably most satisfied with that version, since it doesn’t even try to be “realistic.” I like that it’s limited to a minimum of linework, though honestly, having spent so much time wrestling with Mr Frid’s features earlier probably made it a lot easier to reduce them to just a few angles and curves. The cool part is that there’s just enough there to suggest “Barnabas,” and the viewer can do the rest of the work.

Of course, your mileage may vary, and in a week’s time, I may dislike this one as much as the others.