(In advance of starting questions and answers, I want to say two things about Flutters from Side Street. In the end, it’s about humility, cultivating it in myself and in the public sphere, and about resisting making ad hominem characterizations and giving credence to those made in our public domain.)
Q: You say in the introduction that your book has 225 drawings selected from several thousand, how did you choose the ones you included?
George: I wanted to present a variety similar to what one might see coming into Side Street day after day. There are events represented such as a First Friday art reception, a Kids’ Day, and a book reading and signing; the passings of people such as Gordon Parks, Katherine Hepburn, Ronald Reagan, and Molly Ivens; a smattering of humor; vignettes about animals, people, and sometimes me; images of intriguing people such as Amelia Earhart, Wendell Berry, Susan Butcher, John and Bobby Kennedy in profile, John Muir, and Che Guevara; and drawings with commentaries relating to cultural events and the administrations of three presidents.
Q: There’s variety, still a variety of your drawings and commentaries are political and weighted toward federal government issues. Why is that?
George: First, I find national issues such as Clinton’s lying, 9/11, the wars started under Bush, the election of our first black president, and NSA surveillance compelling, but this doesn’t answer your question. There’s two reasons, one I understand and one I don’t. I discuss my focus on the federal government in the final section — “Beliefs and Values” — of Flutters. In short, my answer is that it’s at the national level that so many of the crucial decisions of our times need to be made. This part I understand. The part I don’t is why I’ve had a critical focus on the federal government as far back as I remember.
In my elementary school we began each day in class standing, facing the flag, with our right hands held over our hearts, solemnly reciting in unison the Pledge of Allegiance. By the time I reached fourth grade, these words felt sacred. That year Congress inserted “under God” changing what had been sacred. By my senior year of high school,1958, Castro was leading rebel forces through mountainous regions of Cuba in route to Havana and the overthrow of the dictator Batista. Castro, leading a people’s revolution against a dictator, was hailed a hero in the American press. I wore army fatigue pants and cap to school and stayed abreast of the news. After the revolt succeeded, Castro, on behalf of the Cuban people, began nationalizing U.S. owned companies and properties and the U.S. government, politicians, and press dropped their support like a hot potato. I, however, didn’t. He was doing what he had vowed to do during the revolt. Again, I critiqued my government.
We had a peacetime draft throughout this period and until mid-1964. I thought it unfairly targeted the poor and black youth. Also, I understood that people serving in the military were subject to its code of justice, but I thought as citizens they ultimately should have access to civilian courts to be tried by their peers. So I was opposed to the draft and to serving in the military. I applied for conscientious objector status and was rejected. At twenty-two, I was ordered to report for physical examination and failed to appear, followed by an order to report for induction and failed to appear, followed by an arrest and court appearance. I pled guilty and ended up incarcerated for sixteen months.
I guess I’ve always had this bent of mind. I didn’t have much way of expressing it in intervening years until drink boards at Side Street became my voice.
Q: How long have you been drawing?
George: It’s pretty much occurred here at Side Street with dry erase pens. I took life drawing and design classes one semester at the University of Texas. I did all right in them but flunked everything else and dropped out of college. I was seventeen then, a long sixty years ago. I don’t know why I thought I could draw on white boards but I started at Side Street and it took off from there.
Q: I’ve read that drawing for you is like therapy; how so?
George: Drawing, along with accompanying writing, results in self realization. Not all the drawings, perhaps not even most of them, contribute to this process…I don’t know… it seems to be going on beneath the surface all the time. I’m unaware of it happening until suddenly, an insight slaps me. The insights are unintended and sometimes unwanted, but I appreciate, and are often humbled, by them. In fact, this process is the focus of the short last section of the book — Reflections from a Morning Walk to Work.
Q: What do you tell people who ask why they should buy your book?
George: The value of a specific book to a specific person depends on the person’s values and point of view so If asked by someone why they should buy Flutters from Side Street, I’d try to find out where we have interests in common and work from there.
At the outset, I figured the primary market would be current patrons of Side Street who feel an affiliation with the cafe, Deborah, or me. They purchase a memorabilia as well as a book. These are most of the buyers to date. Prior patrons who have moved away comprise a secondary market; having twenty-seven years of operation, there’s a lot of these and some will buy the book when they learn it’s available.
I gave an advance copy to former governor Tony Knowles. He responded with an enthusiastic and glowing assessment that’s on the dust cover. I sent Bill Moyers a copy and in a personal note he describes Flutters as a “powerful and compelling collection.” Knowles and Moyers, their adult lives stretch back to the Vietnam war period that informs many of the opinions I express in Flutters; its images and words tap into their experiences more deeply than they will with younger people.
However, younger readers may find the relevance of Flutters to current affairs engaging. In the book, I foreshadow an emerging oppressive state: the NSA, empowered with advances in surveillance technology has transformed into a new and improved tool of oppression, checks and balances built into our federal system are eroding, and widespread fear is purveyed under the umbrella of national security. The speed of change has accelerated under Trump’s presidency: he has been brash and erratic both in international and domestic affairs. Nationalism is championed while longstanding alliances are abandoned; institutions of government are degraded; group hatred is targeted and fomented; early in his presidency he toyed with sending troops to Chicago to quell local crime; congress, for long transformed from a deliberative body into a cesspool of party politics, is becoming an arm of the executive; it’s too early to tell but the appointment of judges may politicalize the court system compromising it as a check on the executive and legislative branches; and, the press is branded as the enemy of the people.
Flutters from Side Street is neither a call to action nor an action plan; the advice I offer is to alter our ad hominem mindset and focus on our common ground. This is key to the longterm success of any endeavor to counter what is happening. I do see actions implied from what is presented, like retrieving the power to declare war from the president and encasing in congress and curtailing in law with penalties NSA’s domestic surveillance and its international offensive cyber war faring without congressional authorization.
Q: You have titled this book Volume One, when will you publish the next volume?
George: Honestly, “volume one” in the title is a bit gimmicky. At about the time Klaus, my publisher, and I were setting the title, someone borrowed Bob Dylan’s Chronicles from me and as I was pulling it from the book shelve I noticed its full title is Chronicles, Volume One. I thought: I’d like Flutters to have that additional weight. As stated in my “Afterword”, I am working on a second volume; this one was twenty years in the making. I hope Volume Two comes faster.