Monday, February 13, 2012

Flying Solo on Valentine's Day

As one who is perennially single, I like to think I've achieved a certain level of aplomb and savoir faire about flying solo. There is one time of the year, however, universally acknowledged to be a big fuck-you to the large and ever-growing singles community: Valentine's Day.

You may be perfectly fine with sitting at home watching Downton Abbey any other night of the year, but Valentine's is supposed to be the day that someone surprises you with flowers, diamonds hewed from the blood of African workers, and, of course, mediocre-quality chocolates vulgarly adorned.

Now, I will say nothing against flowers any day of the year, and indeed I think there need to be a lot more flowers in all of our lives. But do you really want the rest of that? Complete with some mouth-breather to be your significant other? I think not.

So here are some few suggestions for the holiday for those of us who have chosen to eschew the mouth-breathers.

  1. Party up. My most recent, and best-loved, Valentine's Day was spent in the company of two dear friends watching Shakespeare and wearing a faaabulous dress. Gently feel out your single friends for plans and then do something fun. Sound pretty simple? It is.
  2. Pick up a bottle of prosecco. There is something depressing about buying chocolates for one's self at this time of year, but buying booze is just like buying toilet paper, isn't it? For an elegant, depraved touch, enjoy your bubbly in the am rather than pm. It was good enough for Noel Coward, after all; when asked why he took champagne for breakfast, his careless reply was, “Doesn't everyone?”

  3. Buy yourself a plant. Not flowers, a real, breathing plant (though something with flowers would be lovely). Perhaps this is the time to take up the luxury of raising orchids, or the day to put a little flowering chive by your front stoop. Spending time with green things is one of the most cheerful things I know, and long after the vulgar long-stems of others are in the trash can, your plant will be rewarding your care and attention.
  4. Dress up and cook yourself a swell dinner. Wait, you thought this was the evening for yoga pants and a pint of Haagen Dasz? For shame! Dressing nicely makes any occasion feel festive. Add a pretty ruffly apron and work that domestic magic. Recommendations include vibrant shrimp soft tacos; eggplant lasagne; crab pasta; a huge dinner salad with, perhaps, fresh artichoke, heart of palm, and anything else you fancy; and a basil lime sorbet.
  5. Put on some swinging music. Good mood music for the day includes Cole Porter, Lady Gaga, Bellowhead, or Les Chauds Lapins.
  6. Make a valentine for someone or anyone. No, don't make one for yourself, the whole concept there will just depress you. A major part of the frustration with Valentine's Day is not having a recipient for our affections. But what about your mom, your sister, your best friend? Hell, if you're strapped for people to love, drop a tiny homemade valentine in the tip jar at your coffee shop. The barista is a very important person in our lives!
  7. Masturbate. I really can't fathom how many prissy guides out there leave this out. They'll give advice like “pamper yourself” or “buy yourself a present,” but it all has to be above the waist? Retire to bed early with a naughty novel and some lavender oil.  I'd recommend Michelle Slung's Slow Hand: Women Writing Erotica.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Happy Birthday, John Ruskin!

Anyone who knows me very well knows my peculiar fondness for John Ruskin. My first dissertation chapter didn't really come alive until I found The Ethics of the Dust
, and for that alone, I will always be grateful to him.

Recently, I've been trying to learn to draw decently, and, naturally enough, I turned to Ruskin, whose Elements of Drawing
is available on Amazon for the Kindle quite cheaply (or you can read it for free at Project Gutenberg). To begin with, there is some of the usual pontificating. As I quite enjoy Victorian pontificating, that did not deter me in the least. At length, I began the first exercise.

It was a square. Not a cube, just a square, shaded evenly. In the second lesson, however, Ruskin, admitting that such work is “tiresome,” suggested that I turn to botanical prints to copy them. He recommends Baxter's 1834 illustrations, and I therefore dutifully looked them up. Unfortunately, Ruskin advices using a pencil first, then going over the whole with ink. As I am in possession of some India ink and a dip pen, I promptly drowned the whole with black on account of accidentally using a too-thickly cut pen. Not precisely a success.

Ruskin is a big fan of copying: in his introduction he suggests that children should be given books with illustrations by Cruikshank to copy. Personally I think suggesting Cruikshank is absolutely cracked—but Rackham would be a wonderful substitute, as he does a lot with very little color and works creatively with lines.
The Rackham Original
My clumsy copy

Not daunted by my first failure, I decided to learn more about the book itself. In this way, I stumbled across something very special—the Ashmolean's Elements of Drawing site. Here I discovered videos of drawing lessons all taken from Ruskin's teaching methods. Stephen Farthing, who presents these lessons, does not, thank heavens, start with the shaded squares, but rather with the outline of a leaf. This exercise is heavily Ruskinian, suggesting you use tracing paper to compare and correct your drawing. The idea is not, as so many modern instructors might suggest, to give your “interpretation” of a leaf, but rather to convey, as accurately as possible, the actual leaf.

I find this helpful and interesting simply because modern instruction has taken a path away from copying, tracing, and sheer draftsman's accuracy to convey a more liberal aim for drawing. At the same time, our desire remains the same: to convey an idea visually. I don't mean, you must understand, to suggest that basic representation is the primary function of drawing. But I do believe that is a part of our experience and ought, probably, to be part of our training.

Is this a boring way to learn to draw? Absolutely! But drawing (or the kind of drawing of which Ruskin approves) is a skill just like speaking another language or playing a musical instrument. These are the verbs to be recited, the scales to be repeated. Eventually, it pays off. I think. I hope.