Then we could have them, and we didn’t want them. Because why would you want someone to call you at home, and see you when you’d just gotten out of the shower? The videophone was strictly for corporate meetings. Then last Fall my friend Devon was on the phone with her boyfriend, and suddenly I realized she was showing him the costume project we were working on, live. Video phones had arrived.
Since I’ve never had a phone that could Facetime and now for the last nine months I haven’t had a phone at all, I promptly forgot about Facetiming.
Until I saw this lady on the U-Bahn, doing something that clearly wasn’t a phone call. I realized I recognized the posture and gestures, that I’d been seeing people doing something like this for the last year or so. A new thing added to the human family of communication behaviors, Facetiming with headphones.
More animated, more involved, more private than a phone call.
She never noticed me drawing; she was in another world. It makes sense, as a communication tool, the same way Skyping as a thing you plan, make a date for, makes sense. You can do it on the subway, you can talk to your girlfriend who’s trying on a dress or to your kids at home and walk them through starting dinner.
Thomas Edison would be proud.
I hadn’t done a large, detailed embroidery piece in a while, so I decided to do a botanical.
And then I got interested in weeds, and prickly plants. I chose a thistle specifically, because it’s the symbol of Scotland, where my amazing mom was born, because they are beautiful and because some are poisonous, some nutritious.
Plus, thistles are the favorite food of the world’s only adorable depressive, Eeyore.
The last year has made me think a lot about how we judge people’s “undesirable” qualities. One of my beloved ex-boyfriends was here visiting in September, and I was telling him about some horrible thing I used to do when I was using. “I’m glad I didn’t know you then. I don’t think we would have been friends.” “I wasn’t nice“, I said ruefully. “I can’t imagine that.”, he said.
I was glad he considered niceness such a natural part of my character now, since becoming nicer has been one of my primary goals for the last twenty-seven years. But what he said made me sad. It seemed like a disservice to the incredible people who were brave enough and injudicious enough to love me when I wasn’t nice. There were a lot of them, and they saved my life a thousand times.
My oldest and dearest friend Victoria has known me at depth and loved me since I was an enraged, bitter, foulmouthed, shoplifting eight-year-old. She has loved me through her 21st birthday, when I did so many drugs the paramedics had to revive me before I could go to her party, even though I promised I wouldn’t be high on her birthday.
She loved me enough to say to me, in her maid of honor dress, in the fairy-tale carriage on the way to the church, “You don’t have to go through with this, you know.”
Does someone like me deserve a friend that good? I was a terrible girlfriend to good boys; I hit at least three of my boyfriends that I can remember, and I think I cheated on every single one. Usually with their best friends. I lied endlessly to my mother, whose shelter and protection was the only thing that kept me alive in an absurdly high-risk lifestyle, and crept into her bedroom to steal from her purse at night. I disappointed my teachers, whose guidance was the central force in my development as an artist.
I gave the boy I should have married drugs that killed him, and I still miss him every day.
I broke the heart of another boy who wanted to marry me, and I still miss him every day, though he lives happily with his wife in Seattle, doing martial arts with his kids and restoring their Victorian. I betrayed the trust of doctors and therapists who tried to care for me. I stole food and booze every single day for years. I had sex with underage boys and girls and gave them drugs and alcohol. I hurt the people I loved the most on a daily basis, for years.
And the really fucked up thing is, it didn’t all stop when I got sober.
I didn’t stop cheating on my boyfriends til I was over a year sober; I haven’t hit anyone since I got sober, but at four years sober I grabbed my first husband and threw him up against the fridge. It took me years to stop stealing small bits of food. I ran up credit cards and had to spend years paying them off with Consumer Credit Counseling.
My own brother has a daughter I’ve never met, because he stopped speaking to me back in ’98.
I can’r really blame him. I was a terrifying, nightmare sister, and it takes a rare family member to truly accept that someone you have known from babyhood can change. I lied to my editor on Star Trek, who I worshipped, because my crippling depression meant I was constantly running behind on my deadlines. I had to file bankruptcy in the early aughts because of my IRS debt. I was a verbal abuser and a bully to both my first and second husbands; I used compulsive shopping to medicate the pain of the relationships til sometimes we barely had money for food.
And my flashing furious temper cost me the friendship of a man who was one of the little brothers I always wanted; no amends I made could fix the relationship, and it is the greatest loss of my adult life. That’s something I’ve learned, going around to stores in New York to pay them back for things I stole and finding the owner changed: sometimes you can’t make amends. Some things you can’t fix.
But you can try. I have three jobs in life, since January 27, 1989. Wake up in the morning and try to stay sober that day, try to be a goddam better person that day, and then maybe make some art if I can. It gets easier to do better. My role models help. The vast majority of my friends and partners have always been much better, gentler people than me; it’s aspirational selection. I love niceness. I have a good boy fetish, not a bad boy fetish.
I have managed to spend five years with my third husband without ever belittling, shaming or abusing him. I have never even raised my voice or used hurtful language to him. I have managed to be kind and reliable to my friends consistently for years. I have learned to pay my bills (mostly) and show up on time for jobs (mostly). I just don’t go to the supermarket or the post office on the couple days a month when I can’t be trusted not to be a fucking rude bitch, because I’m tired of having to go back and apologize later.
I’ve come to believe you don’t have to be good to deserve to live; you just have to want to be better enough to try.
Right now another young man who’s like a little brother to me is in trouble back in the Bay. He’s in the community stockade for his bad behaviour. I wish I could be there, to love him even if he’s done shitty things.
I wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t loved me even though I did questionable things. I don’t discard David Bowie because he slept with fifteen-year-old groupies or said reckless things about Hitler.
Arthur Chu, a writer I like a lot, recently said some good things about the imperfection of people.
He talks about how Janus-like our qualities are; how the worst things we do are sometimes part of the best of who we are.
My mom, whose wisdom I value more than anyone’s in the world, said something interesting to me about all the things that are fucked up about me.
She didn’t say it like that, of course, but she said those obsessive, difficult, compulsive, aggressive traits that have bought me so much trouble were also strengths that carried me through the terrible, exhausting move to Berlin and the crazy housing search.
I heard someone else refer to the unpleasant qualities of the alcoholic/addict personality as a survival tool kit for dysfunctional family living. The tools may not be very desirable or attractive in adult life, but it can be hard to shake the ones that continue to serve you. I try to remember that all I can do is keep growing.
And I remind myself, I was being the very best that I could be with the self I had at that moment.
I once had dinner at Chez Panisse with my second husband; I had nettle pasta and he had long-cooked beef ragout, the gristle softened into gelatin. Here in Berlin, I had nettle soup again, made of weeds gathered by the road in Friedrichshain. Weeds have their uses, and their beauty; tonight I have been clean and sober 27 years.
Are you a well-paid tech worker who is sick of barely getting by in SF, New York or DC? Do you have a spouse who has health problems and doesn’t earn much money?
Are you exhausted from working 70-hour weeks and being constantly on call? Is your spouse sick of doing battle with the health insurance company over enormous copays and treatments they refuse to pay for? Do you feel like you can’t afford to have kids, even though you’d like to?
If that sounds like you, Berlin is your best shot at a decent life, maybe the kind of life your parents had. You might still have a chance at the American dream, in Germany.
Next, ask yourself some important questions.
Do you care about owning a house? Most Berliners rent for their entire lives.
Do you like public transport? You can certainly have a car in Berlin, but it is very difficult and expensive to get a driver’s license if your license is from a state that doesn’t have the wonderful reciprocity deal. Plus, the superb transit is really one of the defining characteristics of life here.
Are you ok with a life of modest expectations? This isn’t really a culture about getting rich or having huge successes. It’s about security, stability, and straightforwardness.
Speaking of that, are you ok with people telling you exactly what they think? Occasionally very rudely? A total stranger told me I was “doing it wrong” today, because of the way I was pulling my little shopping trolley.
Can you follow rules without losing a lot of energy over “why” and “that’s stupid”? There are a lot of rules in Germany. Most of them boil down to, “Be responsible for your own actions and don’t make life harder for your fellow humans”, but you still have to know them all.
Are you a good recycler? The recycling here is CRAY. I only recycle because my friends have kids, but 18 years in California, and especially Berkeley, trained me to separate and sort. Good thing, cause they are SO serious about it here.
We’ll close Part 1 with the most useful thing you can do if you are planning a move here.
Step 1: Learn some fucking German.
I had never been to Germany and did not know a single word of German except zeitgeist and schadenfreude. All the blog posts I read said that it was no worries, everyone speaks English in Berlin. This may be true if you spend all your time talking to expats in expat neighborhoods like Prenzlauerberg and work for a tech company whose HR department will manage every detail of your move.
But if you are moving yourself on a shoestring or limited resources, you will be well served to learn a bunch of basic words, like the word for apartment. Because trust, MOST people you will encounter in the process of setting up a life here do not speak English.
Some followers of my work may be surprised that I can draw a horse. A horse is an extremely difficult thing to draw; the famous British equine painter George Stubbs once said that if you can draw a horse, you can draw anything.
Actually, from age seven to age 13, I didn’t draw a single human. All I drew were horses.
I was one of those little girls who both loved horses and was lucky enough to be around them. We had a ramshackle country house in Maine with a barn where we spent every August, and I spent July at riding camp for several years. In Maine we rented a horse for the month, and I took care of it.
I wanted to be a champion rider, at first, maybe on the USET, and then I discovered that I really preferred to ride my pony bareback, with a hackamore, rambling in the woods and fields and beaches. I didn’t actually ever want to learn any kind of rigorous discipline besides drawing.
During this period, I figured my commercial art career would be as horse book illustrator.
Because my father wrote books and knew tons of people in publishing, I actually got to go to Mr. Savitt’s farm and meet him.
This was akin to the time I got to meet Jack Kirby at San Diego just a year before his death.
Studying Sam Savitt’s books was the beginning of my process of obsessive study and learning around drawing.
Rich Rudish, who did several books with wildly popular horse book author Marguerite Henry, was an idol of mine as well. He was a superb draughtsman with a particularly wonderful talent for the dished faces of Arabians.
Looking him up for this article I learned he created Rainbow Brite for Hallmark in 1986!
He sculpted the famous model of Henry’s Sham for Breyer. It is still one of the most beautiful Breyers ever made, I think. (I hope to build a stable for my dollhouse next year and house some of my Classic Breyers in it, so my action figures can go riding!)
I also liked Henry’s longtime collaborator, Wesley Dennis, though I felt his drawing skills weren’t as solid as Savitt’s. I dreamed of having a working relationship with an author like Henry. I didn’t want to write my own stories; I just wanted to draw the pictures.
A great role model was Rosa Bonheur, the most famous female painter of the nineteenth century, who dressed à la garçonne (in men’s clothing), and kept lions for pets. I felt her brio and power like a lifeline.
She was proof that women could make art that was as bold and fearless as men’s. I didn’t want to draw anything fragile or weak- I wanted my work to be a true draughtsman’s, absolutely grounded in anatomy and technical knowledge.
Here is her masterpiece, The Horse Fair.
By seventeen my career plans had changed, and all I wanted in the world was to draw comics.
But you keep the skills learned as a child forever. I remember sitting on the hallway floor in the old Marvel offices with my friend Chris Claremont in ’86. We were talking with Bill Sienkiewicz, who was at the height of his stardom, and the subject of horses came up. So I taught Bill Sam Savitt’s technique for drawing the horse, there in the hallway at 387.
This Moon Knight page is from before he met me! Look at where the browband of the bridle is! Absolutely shocking 😉
Knowing how to draw a horse gave me the understanding to draw cats and dogs and goats and deer as well. And I do love to draw a goat. Especially baby goats.
I don’t have cause to draw horses very often anymore, and that’s too bad.
Maybe I’ll find a portrait client here in Berlin who wants a picture with their horse, or their goat!
Who knew a work party could be fun?!?
The food was scrumptious and there was amazing music.
The hubby wore the Lip Service Step In Time steampunk suit I got him last winter, pants and tailcoat of copper with black plaid and a waistcoat of black and bronze plaid, with a black silk Pierre Cardin tie I got him at Ross and a black-on-black pinstripe shirt. He looked amazing. I wore a purple lace 50s style dress from eShakti, a teal burnout velvet kimono with a huge blue fur collar, masses of blue and violet hair flowers and jewelry, and turquoise fishnet stockings. Cause I’m so subtle.
I had a wonderful time drawing our tablemates and the musicians. We just had such a good time. It’s so ridiculously good living here, I feel like we won the lottery, and I’m so, so grateful. I think how happy I am shows in my work. There’s been some talk recently about the whole starving/suffering artist thing and what a crock of shit it is. I can’t say strongly enough that I believe artists work best when they have health insurance, medical care and affordable housing.
“I got into therapy and I got on a pill, and what I discovered was getting help didn’t make me less creative. What was making me less creative was being a depressed crazy person. Figuring out how to be happy and have fun with the kids again, how to have fun with my life and work, actually made me a better writer, not a worse writer.” – Joe HIll
The couple in the picture is very dear to me; they gave me sanctuary when I was homeless during the Great Recession and cared for me during my own post-horrible-divorce Great Depression.
They came up with the pose, which they sat for in their library; they’re wearing their wedding clothes. There are all kinds of meaningful and special objects, with many funny stories, on the shelves behind them.
I once jumped out of an airplane with these two!
I went to Neil Girling‘s house for one last cocktail hour to varnish them and he was kind enough to photograph them for me.
They are both paintings of extremely good, smart, talented and ridiculously beautiful people who I love deeply, and I had a glorious time painting them. They are two of my four final finished works from my last month in the Bay Area and I am very proud of them; I hope you like them!