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I heard a juicy bit of wisdom about religious communities on a radio story about the new release from Rovio, the makers of the Angry Birds video game for smartphones. Naturally, they are trying to replicate their success. Why is Angry Birds so phenomenally popular? The interviewee said that in addition to having “endearing characters,” it follows the formula known to successful game-makers of all types (in fact, the tag line for the board game Othello was almost exactly this): it is easy to learn but hard to master. So you get right into it, and then you want to keep at it, trying to improve, trying to get a high score or three stars or (in the case of a game like Othello) a strategy that will consistently beat your friends’. It makes it hard to put the phone down. I know this well from personal experience.

Definitely good advice for congregations. Getting acquainted has to be made easy enough that a newcomer can join in without climbing a steep learning curve, and there has to be enough depth (theological, philosophical, social) that people have reason stay for years, and preferably, for generations. And, of course, it also helps to have endearing characters.


. . . which is a good reminder that progress isn’t linear (sigh). I’d learn more, though, if I looked at the previous week’s drawings before I went off to draw some more. They are the best reminders of what I’m doing that is and isn’t working.


With the above drawing, I grabbed my darkest charcoal and avoided getting bogged down in delicate shading. Quick, dark, high-contrast. Seven minutes doesn’t allow for much more (yet–I’m speeding up), which is good; and I know how hard it is for me to sustain energy while getting into detail. On the next drawing, I lost my nerve, used the medium charcoal, and got picky again, and it shows. It’s not a disaster–there is some good light on the thumb and fingers–but all in all the first drawing has more of the energy of the person modeling.

The most alive parts of the above are the elbow and the shadows cast by both arms.  I’m getting less intimidated by the subtlety of the contours of backs.

The first two drawings were on newsprint, but the above and those that follow are on paper with a lot of “bite” and texture. It is more forgiving when I make an unintentionally sharp edge: for example, on a shadow that actually fades into light more gently. On the newsprint, the sharpness will always show, but on this heavier, rougher paper it can be softened.

I don’t pay a lot of attention to composition in these sessions–I go by instinct and I don’t fuss if my composition gets messed up by my miscalculating how long the legs are or some such–but I like the composition on the above. Also, it’s an illustration of the importance of shadows. She would appear to just float if there weren’t those shadows anchoring her to the floor. That’s fine if you don’t want to evoke the space she’s in, but I do. I want to sense as I draw, and I want the viewer to sense, what she is feeling where her hand and arm and side touch the carpet. I didn’t realize that until I wrote it just now.

Back to the dark charcoal on the above, to good effect. I started to draw the face, also; it went all wrong; so I started again in the corner of the paper and drew the one that follows (you can see some of the gone-wrong face in the lower right). What success I had with this was due to keeping in mind what I try to remember when I’m drawing hands and feet: it’s just like the rest of the body, just pay attention and respond to what you see. (To misquote Annie Savoy from Bull Durham: “Drawing is like hitting a baseball. You’ve just got to relax and concentrate.”) There’s a freedom to this drawing that I’ve never achieved in a portrait before.

I’m happy with this last one because the hand and wrist convey a sense of the weight they’re supporting. It’s the first drawing I’ve made that I think is good enough to go into the future exhibit of hands that I sometimes think about putting up in the lobby at church.

Joy asked me recently if I were still finding figure drawing interesting. She knows I can be a little compulsive, and wanted to know if I would stop if I got tired of it. I will, but it’s hard to imagine when that could be. The subject is inexhaustible. Maybe if I were anything like satisfied with my ability to put on paper what I find so captivating, I’d move on to a different one. Maybe.

Today’s model was older than usual, which was a treat. Everyone’s living shows in their skin and faces and the way they hold their bodies, but I love the way experience shows in skin that’s become a little loose and tendons that have become more prominent. Of course, showing that kind of subtlety is beyond me, but it’s a pleasure to try. I’ve also ventured a little ways into the territory of faces in the past month or so, and did that here–with some success in the third drawing below, much less in another that I decided not to even post.



Two poems, a prayer, and a song for this Tuesday, September 11:

“110 Stories,” by John M. Ford

“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust,” by Patrick Murfin

A Prayer, Rev. Molly Housh Gordon

and thanks to N. at UUCPA, who pointed me to the Mary Chapin Carpenter song “Grand Central Station.” Sorry there’s no link, but it’s the first hit on YouTube if you put in the title and singer. I agree with N’s recommendation: don’t watch the pictures, just listen to the song. No doubt you have your own pictures, as we all do who are old enough to remember that bright, beautiful, horror-soaked Tuesday morning.

Tomorrow evening, my family and I will be joining an anniversary celebration that raises some interesting questions. See, the folks we’re toasting have been married to each other twice. They married, divorced several years later, and several years after that, married each other again, on the same date that they were married the first time. So while the date for celebration seems clear, neither they nor anyone else is ever sure what number they’re celebrating. Is it the number of years that have passed since their first wedding? The number of years that have passed since their second wedding? The net number of years they’ve been married?

How one answers might depend on one’s philosophy of life (or possibly just on how many glasses of champagne one has had at the party). Counting only the years since wedding #2 suggests that the first marriage, well, doesn’t count. It’s reminiscent of the don’t-look-back, something-might-be-gaining-on-you approach to the past that I suspect all of us take at times. “Who wants to remember old failures,” we reason, tempted to throw all our imperfect experiences down the memory hole. In contrast, counting the net–all of the years married to each other–says that what matters most is the time spent together, both the happy days and the sad. That’s a nice thought, affirming in a larger sense that the plans we’ve had that didn’t work out quite as we dreamed are not failures. They contribute meaning to our lives.

But what about that time in between? Something in it led to the second, lasting marriage–so surely it’s important too. That way of counting affirms a philosophy that everything in our lives has worth. (“The thing about working with time instead of against it . . . is that nothing is wasted. Even pain counts.” [Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed]) Of course, if we want to take that approach, then maybe we need to go farther back than the first wedding date. Every couple knows that their life together didn’t begin on their wedding day. Nothing in our lives begins on the day we mark it. The first day of school, the first love, the longed-for or hated job, the life-changing discovery made at age 50, all have roots going back to our birth, or even further back than that, past our parents’ births.

I have also been married twice, but more conventionally, to two different people. In a very real sense, the first marriage is an essential ingredient of the second, because everything in my life is an ingredient of my marriage. That’s just a subset of the larger, almost tautological statement: everything in one’s life is an ingredient of one’s life. Some parts of it make happier memories than other parts, but they all made us who we are now.

Of course, if we go too far down that road, we might end up deciding that since all dates are important, we won’t celebrate anniversaries at all. And it would be a shame to lose an excuse to go out to dinner with beloved people and wish them many more years of happy life together.

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