Saturday, June 13, 2015

What I Said at the Funeral: Talking About (Life and) Death as a Non-Believer

Below is the text of remarks I made at my grandmother's funeral last week. The subject is a little more personal than what I usually include on this blog, but a lot of people told me afterward that what I said meant something to them, and a few asked for the text. And it may be useful as an example for other people in a similar position to mine.

So I want to talk a little bit about the idea of gifts, in a couple of different senses of that word. But before I start I want everyone to do something with me. Close your eyes... and take a deep breath.

[give everyone time to do this. Do it yourself]

Like probably everyone in this room I have been the recipient of gifts of one sort or another from Helen Nelson. On the one hand she sent me twenty dollar checks every year on my birthday and Christmas when I was a kid… and those were certainly gifts… but that's not really what I'm talking about. She also made me a very finely crafted needlepoint Christmas stocking when I was very small, along with all her grandchildren, and, eventually her own adult kids as well. And maybe that gets a little closer to what I mean.

I've been aware for many years of some of my deep debt to my grandfather Harold. As a minister he spent his life getting up in front of groups of people once a week to talk about stories, to tell stories, to interpret them, to ruminate on how they might help us think about how we ought to live our lives and how we ought to treat one another and to consider what in life is really important. He did it as a preacher, I try to do it as an author and cartoonist, but I'm very aware that in some small way it's a similar vocation, and it's a gift that came to me, at least in part, through him.

It's only in the last few years that I've begun to realize that I probably received a similar gift through Helen. She was a craftsperson and an artist in her way as well, as evidenced by her needlepoint work, which was very fine. But she was also an appreciator and curator of fine objects more generally. Some of my strongest memories of visiting the home she kept in Morris, Illinois are of the arrangement of the space itself and of the objects in it. For one thing it was very clean. No house I live in will probably ever be that clean and orderly. But it was also very thoughtfully and carefully arranged. I remember the commemorative plates arranged on the walls, the finely crafted spoons she had collected on travels in Norway and Sweden, and the little porcelain Hummel figures arranged on the end tables on either end of the couch. I loved those little figures. I related them to my own small toy figures, even then: my GI Joe and Star Wars figures. It was puzzling to me in a way, because they were clearly not meant to be played with – that would have been a very bad idea, and anyway their limbs didn't move and they couldn't hold a gun, so how fun could it really be? But they were clearly vehicles for a kind of storytelling and they were objects of beauty, carefully arranged.

My mother's house is similarly carefully curated. The kinds of objects are different, but the impulse is much the same. Both natural and crafted objects of meaning and beauty, thoughtfully arranged. The same impulse shapes the spaces in my house. And it's not an accident. You could say this sensibility is a gift that my mother and I received from my grandmother. But the truth is she got it herself from her own mother. One of my own most beautiful, most prized objects is the crocheted bedspread on my bed, made with meticulous care, by hand, by Helen's mother, Cecilia. This kind of gift has come
through her, perhaps, more than from her. Where did she get it? How far back do we go?

And that brings us to the next, much larger sense of the word 'gift'. And it is all of this: the air you just breathed in and the sky and the light coming in the windows, and the thoughts in your head and the people sitting around you. The grass and the trees outside, the sound of the traffic. It is, on the one hand, life. Everything. Yourself.

It is so huge that it can be hard to really take in, or appreciate. And sometimes it doesn't feel like much of a gift. There were times in Helen's life when she probably struggled to appreciate it. She had dark moments when she was a child. I remember a story from later in her life, at a transitional time when Harold talked about sitting down to balance the checkbook, and she got so frustrated that she ended up throwing it at him across the table and stomping off. It can be hard to appreciate at times. This gift we have is impossibly huge. But it's worth trying to wrap your head around it once in a while. And it is, for me, all the more profound because it is a gift with no giver. It is simply the universe, doing its thing.

The universe is made up of stuff. Dirt and ice and gases and dust. Stars and galaxies. And some of that stuff is us. We are made of the same material as everything else. We're only different in that we are aware of ourselves, and of the other stuff moving around us. We can feel it and see it and smell it and we can think about it, and talk about how weird it is. We can tell stories about it. We are aware. That is the gift. Our awareness. Our ability to take it in. We, in a sense, are a gift that the universe has given to itself.

So what does all of this have to do with Helen, and what we are all doing here? I've been using the word 'gift'… but 'gift ' isn't a perfect word. It's a very good one, it gets very close to the mark, for example, a gift isn't something you earn or deserve and neither is all of this. But the word 'gift' falls short in one important respect, which is that we don't get to keep this thing. It is only lent. We borrow it for a while, and then we have to give it back. You might say my grandmother has been giving it back slowly, little by little for several years. But that process was made complete a few days ago. What was lent has been returned. She got to hang onto it for 94 years, so it's hard to complain about that. And she had a remarkably full life.

As far as I can tell, the universe doesn't care if you say thank you, or are properly grateful. But I am human, and for me it feels very important to say thank you when I am given a gift. And to keep on saying it every time you think of how great it is, if the giver is around. And if you are only borrowing the thing, to express your gratitude again when the time comes to give it back. And that's what we are doing here, today.

So, on behalf of myself, and of my grandmother, and of the people who got to share a little in the gift of her life, to the universe:

Thank You.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

How skateboarding is (not at all) like comics

The interview I did last Winter with Marc Sobel that just ran at the Comics Journal was pretty epic at nearly 40 pages, typed up. But there was some stuff that got cut – in particular the part where he asked me about skateboarding. In general I don't cross my work with skating much, but the index in the new book has four citations for it. So here's the outtake (photos by Tim Pigott/SuchLuck):
no-comply off a loading dock
Sobel: I know both from other interviews you’ve done and also looking at some of the strips that are in your new book, that you were – or maybe still are – big into skateboarding?
Nilsen: I’m probably more into skateboarding than I am into comics, actually.
Sobel: Oh, really?
Nilsen: Weirdly enough, yeah. (laughs)
Sobel: Can you tell me a little bit about how that interest developed?
Nilsen: It developed because of Back to the Future. (laughs)
Sobel: Oh, really?
Nilsen: So I was in 6th or 7th grade when Back to the Future came out, and my friend and I saw it, and we were immediately enchanted by Michael J. Fox and his skateboard. And it was a moment where skateboarding was beginning to come back after being dead for a while. Skateboarding was a huge thing that suddenly happened when I was in junior high. All my friends had skateboards.
I think it appealed to me as a kid who wasn’t really interested in organized sports. Also, skateboarding has always had a very creative strain; it’s a sport but it’s kind of a weird artsy thing as well. There’s always been a creative aspect to it that’s been important. At that time, it was definitely connected to punk rock, which also was interesting to me.  
When I first started, skateboarding was controlled by a small handful of big companies, but within a couple years, skateboarders themselves started forming new companies, and there was a real proliferation of 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids, doing all their own graphics for their boards, and there was a real strong, snot-nosed creativity that was happening. I don’t know how to describe it to somebody who wasn’t involved in it, but there was a real sense that suddenly the lunatics were running the asylum, and it was super fun. They were doing these ad campaigns that were sniping at each other, like David trying to take down Goliath, and there was a lot of parody, and swiping. There was this trend of taking logos and imagery from popular culture and recasting them within the skateboard world. It was this really fun, fertile explosion of weird creativity within graphics.  And there were a few artists that have come out of that... Ed Templeton is somebody who is recognized as an actual artist. Spike Jonze came out of that moment, too. But there was just this real irreverent ‘fuck you’ attitude that I really responded to.
And also just great art. People were making really weird, interesting stuff. I think part of the thing is that the board itself, the bottom of your skateboard is where the graphics go, and they are therefore immediately destroyed, so there’s this constant recycling of images and demand for new ones, and there’s very little preciousness with them.
Beyond that, there was also definitely a connection to graffiti, which now I’m not that interested in, but when I was a kid, I really liked that connection. Now it drives me crazy, but the conceptual goofiness, I just really loved.
Also, I connect it to comics in a way, because there was a very high-brow/low-brow tension, in the same way I think there is with comics. It was an art form for mass culture, or middle-brow/low-brow culture, but people had ideas, and were pushing the limits. So, you could make an argument that it got very conceptual and Duchampian or something. (laughs)  And there’s the sense that nobody was paying attention. There was no money it; no museums cared or anything. It was just happening unto itself.  
So, in that sense, when I started doing comics, I was doing self-publishing, and it felt very similar, if on a much smaller scale.
Sobel:  A lot of what you’re describing sounds very similar to how the Hernandez brothers talk about their punk experience as teenagers.  
Nilsen: Oh, yeah. Skateboarding culture was very explicitly still connected to punk back then... When I started, the older generation of skaters were those people. They probably were contemporaries of the Hernandez brothers, Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye… They all had skated in the late 70s, early 80s, which was the last time it had been a big deal.  Punk was a huge thing in skateboarding at that time. Everything had skulls all over it. (laughs)
Sobel: Do you still have a connection to skateboarding?
Nilsen: Oh yeah, I still skateboard. I went skateboarding yesterday. I’m an old man, but I’ve been doing it for almost thirty years. There’s no reason for me to give it up, I need to get exercise somehow. (laughs)
It’s something that I’m actually good at and get pleasure from, and it’s still a creative outlet. There’s just nothing like it. It’s just fun. It feels good.  So I’ll do it as long as my body will allow me to.

Sobel: When I look at your books, I don’t necessarily see an obvious influence from skateboarding culture.  
Nilsen: Right.
Sobel: Do you see it in your work?
Nilsen: No. There would be no reason for me to include it, except if I’m drawing something that happened to me skateboarding. It’s a little hard to point to the literal, particular connections, except to say that, that’s the kind of drawing I was doing. I learned to draw the figure partly by drawing skateboarders. When I was in high school, my notebooks were filled with drawings of people skateboarding. Which is a good way to learn to understand gesture, and momentum, and the weight of the figure. I wanted to get those drawings just right, because it was like the next best thing to actually skating. If I was sitting in class, I could get a little of the feeling of going skating by just drawing somebody.
But I think the influence is not concrete. It’s much more the sense of that DIY ethic, and not taking yourself too seriously. Those are the things I think I probably took from it more than anything else.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Helen Lucille Fevold Nelson 1921-2015

Summer Tour Dates

D+Q just announced dates for Marc Bell and my tour in Minneapolis and up the West Coast. I'm also doing a talk at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago on July 1st (somehow I got invited despite indicting their reason for being in my book's title) and of course I'll be at Autoptic back here in Minneapolis August 8th and 9th. If you're in one of these cities, come say hi. I'm really looking forward to reading from the book, and last time I toured with Marc his slide reading was epic.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Conversation Gardening 022-025

Conversation Gardening
(I'm not accepting new questions, by the way. I still have a big pile to do and am moving. pretty. slowly. through them)

An Interview

Last week an interview I did with Marc Sobel went up at The Comics Journal site. It's probably the most in-depth interview I've done to date. We talked for something like four hours on two occasions and covered a lot of stuff I care about, but don't have a chance to cover all that often... machines for making meaning, the nature of storytelling, Roy Lichtenstein. Here's an excerpt:

Sobel: What kind of religious upbringing did you have?
Nilsen: My grandfather – my mother’s father – was a Lutheran minister as was her brother, so she grew up in the Church. As kids, we didn’t go to church with regularity, but we would go occasionally. The thing is that my step-dad was an atheist, and my dad was sort of an agnostic with atheist tendencies, so we were always encouraged to think about and question things. None of it ever stuck. (laughs)
I am very interested in religion, though. If you read my books, it’s obviously a big part of my work. I think about what my grandfather did in relation to what I do, and I feel like there are actually a lot of similarities. Every week he got up in front of an audience and talked about stories. He retold stories, and talked about what they were about, why they were important, what we could take away from them, and about how we should live our lives and treat other people. I feel like that’s kind of what I do, too. I tell new stories, but I am also very interested in interpreting old ones and finding meaning in them, or playing with the meaning in them.

More here