In my senior year of high school, my friend Laura and I would take our lunch break at a nearby cafe called the Vienna Confectionery, located on Roosevelt Ave in Seattle. It was a lovely little European place with little tables, frothy coffee drinks and vintage jazz wafting in the air along with the smell of fresh baked bread and salted butter. We always ordered the same thing: a pot of black tea (in silver teapots) and biscuits. Sometimes I'd splurge and get soup.
None of the other alternative kids seemed to haunt this locale, just myself and Laura, which was fine by me, as we always got first class service from the couple of twentysomething waitresses who worked there, and it allowed us to chat them up if it was slow during the lunch hour. They didn't seem to mind that we ordered so meagerly, and they always asked me about my clothes, which were usually vintage finds or hand sewn by myself; Hot Topic did not yet exist.
Laura usually had to rush through lunch to run back to school for fourth period, but I could take my time. I had been an honor student up until my senior year and managed to pull enough credits to allow me to take half days in my senior year, so essentially school was over by lunch for me. I'd often sit for an extra few minutes, slowly buttering my warm, fresh bread and dipping it into my tea, slowly swaying along to Cab Calloway, the coils of the day unwinding themselves from my gut. Roosevelt High School in the 80s was not the easiest place to attend, with the abominable bussing system filling the halls with perpetually pissed off kids from the Central District who targeted the freaks like me for full on body attacks to relieve their stress. I didn't exactly blame them, but getting tossed down the stairs or getting my hair pulled on a daily basis wasn't exactly a ball.
Laura and I made friends with the staff there, and sometimes at night I'd get my dad to take me there for dinner. They had a wicked borscht and a heavenly goulash, and if I had a few extra bucks, I'd buy a bunch of cherry cordials, which my best friend Keri and I would attempt to stuff ourselves to get a buzz, but often wound up nauseated from too much chocolate. The owner worked at nights, and was an older chef from Vienna who married a woman from Seattle and started the cafe with her. Shortly thereafter, I guess the married dissolved, but they continued to run the cafe. With my dad being a natural chatterbox (its genetic I guess) and my gothic, over-the-top fashion statements, we naturally drew his attention, and got pretty friendly with him. He once made a comment about my meager little lunches during the day, and with a wink said, "maybe a job will open up, Julie. I always need kitchen help, you could make a little extra money. You kids like money, right?"
Teenagers in Seattle in the 1980s had limited options for jobs. There were coveted ones, like working at a record or vintage clothing store. There were things like telemarketing, or babysitting, neither of which appealed to me. And then there was restaurant and coffee shop work. Seeing as I couldn't cover enough hours to work somewhere like Last Exit or my favorite place, the B & O Espresso, my only real option was starting ground zero as a dishwasher. It wasn't glamorous, but I would get a paycheck and a meal out of it, and you couldn't get much better than a cute little cafe. Plus, they'd train me to barista, and in Seattle, that'll take you anywhere.
A few weeks after David made that comment, a part time dishwashing job came up on the weekends, and I asked if I could apply. David said not only could I apply, if I could show up the following Sunday evening, the job was mine. The pay was awful, but I did get a share of the nightly tips, a free dinner, and all the coffee I could humanly consume. This sounded absolutely perfect to me.
I spent that weekend doing most of what I normally did, which was ditch my books at the house Friday, wolf down a plate of food, kiss my dad goodbye and disappear into the misty Seattle night for 48 hours to return home disheveled, like a tiny human smear, to crawl into bed and set the alarm for first period Monday morning. However, this time around I decided to spend the day Sunday at my friend Kathe's house, keep my nose clean. She lived fairly close to the cafe and I didn't want to be late to my first day of work.
We hung out and played records that afternoon, but at about four o'clock, I could feel my nerves kick in. I'd never worked a real job before, and I didn't know how busy the night would get or how hard would it be. Kate could sense I was getting a little tense, and naturally recommended I loosen up, I was practically hunching up with anxiety.
"Dude, you totally, like totally, need a hit," she dug into her leather jacket and pulled out a little pipe and handed it to me. It already had a little half burned bud in it.
"I dunno, Kate. I don't wanna come off as stupid on my first day," I eyed the bud. It looked pretty dry.
"It's pretty mild, a hit will calm you down. Everything is going to be fine, its not like its rocket science or anything. You stick dishes in a washer and turn it on, and you put them away. You already do that at home. C'mon, jesus," she handed me a lighter. I sighed. Well, she totally had a point. I sat up, shrugged and took a hit and passed it to her. I hardly harshed out, it definitely seemed pretty weak weed.
I checked the clock and realized I needed to get my coat on and get to walking. As I pulled the second sleeve on, another wave of nerves washed over me. God dammit! I must have looked pretty stressed, before I even had finished zipping up my coat, Kathe had the pipe up in my face. I took an enormous toke, and felt like my lungs would scorch. She laughed at me and popped a lifesaver in my mouth, which I nearly spit out in a fit of coughing.
I must have speed walked to the cafe in nervous energy, as I showed up ten minutes early. David wasn't yet in but the cook, a big strapping Bavarian woman, gave me a big smile as she tossed me my apron and had me follow her to the back. My two favorite servers were working, Wendy and Amy, and were busily setting the tables. Behind the bar was Stewart, the head server, cleaning glasses. He nodded at me, stone faced. Stewart wasn't exactly a sunny person. I nodded back.
As the cook showed me how the night's schedule was set and where everything was located, I could feel the buzz causing a little bit of a cognitive disruption, but it wasn't too serious and I could follow her quick patter. But it was a little more than I had expected from that dried up little green ball in Kate's pipe, and I wondered if it was possibly a bad idea to get stoned beforehand, especially as Stewart eyed me with a little suspicion as I fiddled with some of the silverware.
"Nerves, I presume?" I couldn't tell if it was just him being tall or if I sensed him talking down at me.
"It's my first job," I clanked the spoons and it startled me a bit. He sniffed.
"Just pay attention and follow direction," was his dry response. He handed me a wine glass and I put it on the shelf. He spun around and bumped into Wendy. She mumbled something and pushed past him. "You're not even supposed to be here tonight," he snarled at her.
"Well, I'm here, get over it," she snipped and went into the kitchen. I noticed Stewart's fist clench, release, clench. He was murdering the towel in his hand. The door jingled and the first customers of the evening had arrived. I was officially on the clock.
The first hour was relatively uneventful; the place filled up mostly with neighborhood regulars, upper class couples enjoying a low-key evening with a light meal and a pinot noir. David eventually showed, like an explosion, greeting customers like he always did, with big guffaws and clasped handshakes, an occasional European kiss to the ladies. He made his way towards the kitchen, patting Amy on the shoulder as he past her. Stewart, who had pretty much been behind bar all evening, stepped into David's path, clearly tense. "David, you didn't tell me Wendy was on tonight," could hear him say. "We didn't need her tonight. It doesn't make sense to have her here."
David shrugged. "Stewart, its fine. Its a busy night, just chill out."
Stewart's jaw tightened and I could see the muscles pop in his neck. "I'm the head server, she doesn't respect that David. She has no respect. I can't work with her."
David put his hand on Stewart's shoulder. "You're both good employees, you need to work together, okay? Are you okay, Stu?"
"Fine," Stewart was clearly seething. Or was he clearly seething? I was still a little high and couldn't tell if he was being normal or not. David patted Stewart's shoulder and pushed past him to me, patted my shoulder and said good evening, then headed into the kitchen.
At that very moment, Wendy came around the counter with a full tray of dirty dishes. Stewart was standing directly in her path, stock still. Wendy rolled her eyes and lightly pushed at him, mumbling "C'mon Stu, these are heavy."
Everything suddenly went slow motion. Lifting that towel murdering hand, Stewart flung it forward and into the tray of dishes, knocking it high into the air as cutlery rained down clattering onto the counter, plates and tureens following suit, amazingly unbroken as they bounced to the floor, brown goulash gravy splattering along floor. Wendy's eyes widened as Stewart swung back again, making for Wendy's face with the back of his hand. She responded with catlike movement and grabbed at his wrist before he made contact, and down they went, right at my feet, wreathing as Wendy blocked blow after blow, screeching "What the FUCK, Stu, what the FUCK!".
From behind me, David and the cook burst forth, slamming me into the dishwasher as they tackled Stewart and wrestled him off Wendy. I could hear gasps and shuffling of customers, Amy expertly telling people things were being handled, please sit down, its okay sir, we got this. David had Stewart's thin arms locked into his beefy ones and lifted Stewart onto his feet as the cook helped Wendy up. Stewart tried to kick at Wendy, and David body slammed him into the bar.
"Are you off your meds or something?" David bellowed. Stewart made a kind of weird growl noise. His face was the color of boiled blood sausage, and his eyes were glassy.
"She doesn't respect me, dammit," Stewart managed to sputter. Wendy had gathered her composure, her face also red. "You're fucking crazy, Stu," was all she could say.
"I fucking hate you!" he screeched, and with that, David dragged him out from behind the bar and out the door. The cafe was dead quiet, save for Billie Holiday softly warbling from the speakers above my head.
As the cook and Amy assured the customers that everything would be okay, Wendy asked me to help her clean up the mess and we quietly worked together, my little stoner head making flip flops all the while. Did that actually just happen? Is this normal? Am I handling this normal? Would this have happened if I wasn't high? Did I make this happen? Does this always happen? Can anyone hear me thinking?
"Sorry Jules, he's crazy, I knew he'd snap eventually. This must the worst first day of work ever," she shook her head as she handed me a couple of plates. "Its normally not like this."
"You okay?" I asked her. Amy came around the corner and asked the same thing. Wendy nodded. David re-emerged from outside, alone. "He's gone for good," was all he said, tight lipped, as he and the cook slipped back to the kitchen, muttering to each other.
I loaded up the dishwasher, flipped the switch and spun around to lean back on the counter and drew in a deep breath. I looked around as the cafe slowly returned to normal, then looked at the clock. It was six thirty. My first 90 minutes of joining the work force... I have what, forty more years of this shit?
Like they say, you never forget your first.
Last weekend, I had a long conversation with a very nice lady named Nancy. She spoke about her son at great length, and she asked me to speak about my father, which I did despite getting pretty choked up. There were wonderful, and terrible, parallels to their lives and deaths - they both died about same time, both young, both musicians and artists. Like her, I wound up inheriting my father's legacy, managing his art and works and things. And she said something very interesting: "When your heart is so scarred, its sometimes hard to see what is right in front of you."
I think the time of Thanksgiving is perfect to meditate on this, what she said, because there was a strange, deep resonance to this comment, and I knew it was worth thinking about.
In my mind's eye, I see a human heart made of clay, deep grooves dug in vertical lines throughout its surface. Little trenches, where the daily battles take place. Constant little wars. Constant sandbagging. You want this war to end, but nobody is giving up. And because you don't know the enemy, everyone is a potential foe, every word a potential grenade.
What are you protecting? I ask that, to myself. Who are you protecting? I would imagine I am protecting what is mine: the memories, stories, the moments, surprisingly precious and fragile, sometimes faded and washed out, sometimes bright and vibrant. I don't want these to degrade. I would love to share them with the world, but there is that fear that if I let them free to fly, they'll never return, never be the same. They'll no longer be Mine.
But more importantly, What are you keeping out?
The heart is no more the size of a fist. Its finite. It can only handle so much before it breaks. It has four chambers working in unison, filling and emptying from birth til death. It thumps like a living drum. I think of a medicine drum, keeping beat with the Other. The heart races, skips, bursts - even when we're still, its always dancing. Even the most scarred of hearts keeps a beat.
If you've ever had your heart broken, you know that horrible feeling, that pain that shoots like a bolt through the heart and into the ether. True heartbreak is a pain like no other. Those who have lived through it, through the loss of love, of a friend, companion, family member, even the very land they call home, its a process, a path where every step, every beat, is agony, leaden. Color can literally drain from life. Sometimes you feel like a bit of your soul has been torn away, fluttering off like a scrap of tissue. When you're in the thick of it, you don't know if it'll ever end.
People who've endured heartbreak don't realize how brave they are to walk through that fire and come out the other side. It's a birthing rite. What we fear, I think, is to let more love in. The enemy in this war, I think, is love itself. Can I endure another heartbreak? Well, yes, I think, but we have to view our hearts a little bit differently. It's not an isolated entity; its designed to move, move blood through the body, to nourish the entire being. On a higher level, I think we are all connected, all these little beaters beating together, making this celestial song. The heart is not meant to be a warground, to be shut up and away from the world, fought over.
I think when Nancy said what she said, what she meant was that in the act of protecting the heart, we miss the very medicine to initiate the peace process. We don't see that white flag, we turn from the olive branch handed to us.
What if the love is poisoned? Well, in the body, our system is cleverly designed to process poisons through the liver and kidneys, driven by the beat of the heart. And the blood is cleansed. And yes, there will be people and things that will hurt you, test you, but there is also an abundance of love out there meant to nourish you, and the war can end, if you trust the strength of the heart.
So on Thanksgiving, instead of preparing for war, I think instead of releasing the dove. Someone might say a thoughtless comment at dinner, or I might notice an injustice on the wet, cold streets as I pass by on the way to my sister's lovely house. Lay down your rifle! Sit with it a second, notice the heart is still beating, still keeping time with the song all the other beaters - including those who are scarred or poisoned - play. Notice the warmth in your chest.
I think about my dad, the friends and family that are gone. The illness I've endured over the years, and the illness people I care about are enduring now. All the things that broke my heart, that started all the trench building. I can feel the poison, the pain, its there, but when I let the love in, it seems to neutralizing it, takes the sting out. The love comes in many forms: a funny story, a wagging tail of a dog, dew drops on a leaf. A really great piece of pie. Dad loved pie.
The irony of it all is when we protect our hearts, we are keeping out the very thing that heals it. And Nancy is right: its often right there, in front of you.
Last year, my friend Sandi came by the gallery (Krab Jab) during an opening of an art show. She mentioned she recently snagged her dream job, working as an art director for Valve Software, which is a renowned game company here in Seattle. Sandi has an impressive rap sheet of direction jobs with game companies, so I wasn't completely surprised of her new job, but I was intrigued by her giddy excitement over her first project there.
I was aware of the game DOTA 2, although honestly, I haven't played much by the way of online games in a long time. She told me she was directing the new iteration, which was very special (at the time she couldn't say why; we now know its because it was designed by the great Richard Garfield, the designer of Magic: the Gathering). She told me she was recruiting "traditional" artists; artists and illustrators that tend to work in traditional media vs digital. She asked me for Tenaya Sims' contact info, as well as a list of local traditional artists that might want a gig in gaming, and she chatted up my biz partner Kyle Abernethy, who is also a traditional painter. I was just standing there, thinking. After she left, I texted her.
"Hey Sandi," I said, "Can I give this a shot? You can say no."
Sandi has art directed me before; she was one of my directors back in the Magic days. She is also a friend, and knows I tend to get sick or swamped a lot, so I'm a risk on that level. I'm also not an A List talent, like Tenaya, Howard Lyons, or Bastien Lecouff Deharme. But over the last 20 years I have polished up my skills - after all, Tenaya Sims and David Gray are two of my mentors. I can't be ALL bad.
"Just easy ones," I added. "No people. Objects. Things that are boring."
"Okay, let's do it," she texted back.
I originally asked for one assignment, but wound up with a small group of them. The first thing I noticed with this assignment was the sheer load of sketching to be done. This isn't a big deal or unusual, but I realized pretty quickly that digital sketching really comes in handy at this point, especially when the game team wants things sketched at various angles. I suck at working digitally. I have ALWAYS sucked at it, which is embarrassing as I used to work for Adobe Systems for several years.
One of the cards I was assigned had an object at an angle that was particularly challenging, as I was making up the design of the object altogether and it was rather detailed. Without a 3D modeling app, it was a difficult task, and we agreed that while they approved my design, it would be far easier if the actual art was done by an inhouse designer. This was a huge relief.
That left me with two pieces, one called "Healing Salve", and the other called "Traveler's Cloak". The Salve piece was already in the game, they just wanted the art reimagined, with a more interesting background. I sent in a color sketch of the salve bottle hanging from a string, along with various herbs, which was approved pretty quickly. It was a basic, simple still life, although all the elements were referenced off photos or the game itself.
Traveler's was a little more challenging; how do you paint a cloak on its own, in an appropriate background? The descriptor was also odd: "dusty" was a key word. At the same time, they wanted some bling with it. Dusty and blingy. Gotcha.
One of my biggest challenges on this game was having to work back and forth with their team on concepts, with Sandi as advocate. When working traditionally, in oil, its not easy to go in and change a composition or color on the fly or "try something" on a whim. This is pretty easy digitally, but you really have to be on the same page early on with traditional mediums like oil or watercolor. You also have to be ready to ditch your great ideas for the decisions of the team or director; you may think something looks awesome, but the team might see it otherwise. I do recall this from my experience in gaming and illustration, but the twinge of egotistical opposition still crops up nonetheless. Sandi was pretty easy to work with, but there were times when she had to change course on me, and I had to just suck it up.
My nerves also got the best of me; I saw what some of the artists were turning in for the game and it was pretty epic stuff. Most people nowadays know me as a curator or gallery owner, not a painter, so the pressure to succeed was weighing heavy on me. I'd sit, painting with David Gray, and spend a chunk of my time just fretting over everything. He'd tell me to just work, get over it. I was completely freezing up.
I imagined Sandi regretting ever bringing me on board, which added to my nerves. I'm slow, I'm old school, I'm not that good. On the one hand, I was having a blast painting all those birch trees, but the insecurity would seep in and ruin it all. Then I'd just stop and sit there. This is not professional behavior, this is amateur hour.
I did get the work in, just under the wire, and it was approved, which again was a relief. Since we were all under NDA contracts, we weren't allowed to show the art until the game released, and it was put on hold for nearly a year, but DOTA2: Artifact is finally out there. I am indebted to Sandra Everingham for taking a risk on me, and its exciting to be a part of a really cool game. Mostly though, I realized the ghosts of insecurity do the illustrator absolutely no good. Just do your best. That's all. Derp.
At least back in the 70s, the concept of a babysitter was pretty simple: you had to have a pulse.
Because my dad was a musician, for the most part he was around the house during the day, and my mom at home at night. But every once in a while they would need to leave us kids in the care of someone, and for the most part, Grandma was the first choice. They could dump us off at Grandma's indefinitely; after all she had the extra bedroom that was once an uncle's should my parents stay out all night, which occurred sometimes if they both went to a rock show or something. We loved Grandma's house. Grandma let us eat sugar by the spoonfuls, she had a Hammond organ that I relentlessly played Chopsticks on, a creek behind her place with tadpoles to collect, and its where Grandpa taught me chess and how to smoke a pipe on the rare occasion he wasn't out golfing or watching football.
Grandma and Grandpa were still relatively young (I didn't think so then, but they were in their 40s) and often traveled or had evening plans, so on the occasion we couldn't go there, my parents had to find alternatives. Now, I need to explain my parents a little here... my dad was a rock musician, and the first of his peers to become a parent. When his bandmates were doing whatever young 20 year old guys do when they don't have a real job and want to be musical gods in a lumberjack town like Seattle, my dad was home changing diapers, picking up Barbies and Playdough stuck to the carpet, and begging God for 20 minutes of sleep, locked in the bathroom away from the screeching. My mom was the primary breadwinner, scoring glamorous jobs in the world of office administration. They were young and hip but saddled down with two small children, one of which had chronic health problems (surprisingly, not me). If my dad got sick, or they had the chance to get out together, their only prerogative for a caregiver was that he or she knew how to work a phone, had two arms, and was conscious. Beyond that, it was pretty much Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Most of the help was culled from the local music scene. I have early memories of KOL rock DJ Burl Barer being stuck managing my ass for a few hours at a time. Burl was my dad's band manager, and he and his then-wife Britt often took the reigns for my parents, usually in the daytime. Burl was physically there, made sure we didn't drink poison or stab family pets but other than that, he kept himself busy with whatever busy DJs do when tethered to small children as a favor, but would rather be somewhere else. Britt was more attentive, but as a health food fanatic I recall dreading when the pair of them showed up; she inevitably had some kind of nine-grain, tofu infused granola crap with her we would be forced to eat. Mostly though, I recall them using our kitchen table to canoodle, under the assumption small children don't get what goes on, nor have any kind of hearing capacity. Now mom knows why dinner post-Barers was usually some kind of oppositional trial with me.
Another memorable babysitter was a lady named Suupi, her real name Jean Christensen. She was a tall lady, and worked as a stage manager and befriended my dad. Suupi was a lady wrestler from a family of notable wrestlers, but also worked as a seamstress in the rock world, christened "Suupi" by the great Alice Cooper after she designed his trademark eye makeup.
Tiny children were foreign to Suupi; we were underfoot and moved fast. I recall one day she came over to tend to us kids while my dad suffered the flu and my mom was at work. My sister and I were in the tiny kitchen of our crappy Mercer Island bungalow as Suupi was boiling water, something equally foreign to her. My sister was maybe 10 months old and not quite walking, and scooted around in one of those (now illegal) toddler walkers, those wheeled things that when combined with the mind of a 10 month old, makes for a parental challenge. I was sitting on the ground, drawing.
Oh, and off to the side of the kitchen stood an open door to the basement cellar. Yeah, you know where this is going.
Perhaps a demon from the depths of Hell called out to Robyn, lovingly nicknamed Baby Kong by family friends. Who knows what compelled her to spin around and beeline for the cellar door, but I looked up as she skidded into her 180 and tore for the cellar. I don't know what held my tongue for the first couple of seconds, but I just sat and watched until she reached the threshold, then calmly alerted Suupi, "Thoopee, Wobbin's goin' down tha stare-ers."
Suupi spun around just as Robyn tipped over the edge and I could hear the rhythmic wumpwumpwump of the walker hitting every step. It was momentarily quiet before the final WUMP and Suupi screamed at the exact moment Robyn's little muffled wail traveled up from the dark abyss below. I went back to my drawing.
All this screaming alerted my dad from his death bed and he stumbled into the kitchen like a snotty tornado, bloodshot eyes wide open. What the hell?? He looked at me, then caught a glimpse of Suupi, still screaming, racing down the stairs. He sighed and followed her down. A few moments later they brought Kong back up, a gigantic goose egg on her forehead. Suupi was a blubbering mess, and asked to go home. She never came back.
Despite her vows to never care for children again, Suupi did wind up marrying Andre the Giant a few years later. She told me that despite that horror show, she always loved the name Robyn and named their daughter Robin after my sister. To note, Robin grew up without a scratch.
Some of my favorite babysitting moments were with my dad's bandmates; often dad had to drag one or both of us to practice if he couldn't find any local kids to watch us. Musicians are basically gigantic children, and I was fortunate to have these uncles often willing to stop what they were doing to toss me up in the air, or give me drumsticks and let me smash things. Playing catch, tag, or tickle fests were common, and they never tired of the millionth crappy Knock Knock joke a four year old could cough up on repetition. The practice studio was a place of wonder, so many knobs to turn, cables to plug/unplug, pedals to step on, strings to pluck! My dad would play Bad Cop and tell me to sit tight in the corner and draw for a while so they could work, but the guys never seemed to mind whenever my energy could no longer contain itself and I would jump up and juggernaut into a set of lanky legs for an impromptu wrestle match.
There was only one babysitter I was not fond of, a neighbor lady named Bonnie. Bonnie was in her late twenties, did not seem to have a job of note and was terribly obese. Bonnie was unkempt and slow; I've never met anyone who seemed permanently stuck in slow motion. Her favorite word was "bummer". Everything was a "bummer".
Bonnie did not own a comb. I don't mean metaphorically, either. She had long, frizzy brown hair that was not quite one enormous dreadlock. I had never met an adult with hair so bad. It bothered my little sister so much that one evening Robyn emerged from our bathroom with a wide-toothed comb in hand, determined to take a shot at Bonnie's mop. Bonnie's sloth-like protests were no match for Baby Kong, who lept up onto the arm of the couch and attacked Bonnie's head with the comb. Bonnie could not reach for the comb as it plunged into her hair with the force of a freight train. My mouth dropped open at the site of the comb AND my sister's hand getting caught in the hair like a greasy web, my sister tearing and yanking away, Bonnie's slurring "heeeeeyyyyyy, oowwwwwwww", and finally hearing the snap of plastic as the comb actually broke in two. My sister was able to get her hand out, but the comb was forever lost, like the Titanic to the Atlantic. I doubt James Cameron could even imagine a resurrection scenario for that poor comb.
I had the regular stream of teen babysitters, some better than others (I loved the one who let me crank call people). I was fortunate that most of my babysitters were simply well intended goofballs, but the 1970s gave way to the sobering reality that kids really do need more than a toilet and a bed to crash on. Nowadays, "safety" is the calling card of the parent. As it should be. However, I can "safely" say that you will never read stories anything like this from the future blogs of today's children. And that's kind of a shame.
Seven years ago I had emergency surgery to relieve a condition called spinal stenosis. This is when the discs in your spine collapse inward rather than outward (which is normally a bulging disc). Two of mine, up in the cervical area, had collapsed onto the spinal cord and I started losing my motor skills, slowly at first, then suddenly really rapidly. My spine surgeon estimated full paralysis within two months if I didn't get the surgery - not something you want to hear - so in I went for a double spine fusion three days after diagnosis.
Despite a mishap with the Mayfield clamp - that's a clamp that screws into your skull to hold you still, and one of the screws slipped and mashed up a muscle in my head - the surgery was successful. I was told I was wheeled out of the recovery room demanding my two deflated discs in a mason jar.
I recall being in a lot of pain despite a morphine drip, and I couldn't walk. I was told this would subside within a day, but something was clearly wrong, and within a short time I discovered I couldn't move my right side. Even my face was slack. Naturally I freaked out, and meanwhile the pain in my neck and head intensified, and soon after my room was swarmed with doctors and nurses and I was hustled into ICU. It appeared that my brain and spinal cord were swelling - we didn't know it at the time, but I had Addison's Disease and this was the result of an adrenal crisis. Basically, my brain was bursting.
The doctors responded swiftly and within a few days I regained my mobility and the swelling was under control. I was able to learn how to walk with a walker and I was happily discharged, although my doctors were a little bewildered with my unusually slow recovery. Normally people are back to normal within a couple weeks, but it took me over a month, and even then, I was having inflammation problems. One of my doctors wised up and did a cortisol test - I scored 0. Several additional tests later, the diagnosis of Addison's was laid on me. Yay.
I was finally able to go back to work that December at Krab Jab Studio, and we had an upcoming art show opening. I'm used to these kinds of events, which can bring in a lot of people, and I was looking forward to it, like I always do. I was tired and a bit forgetful, not a big deal, even understandable. However, I was a little bit perplexed at some odd interactions cropping up suddenly.
Artists were dropping by to say hi, or drop off art, and I simply had no idea who they were when they came calling. At first I thought maybe I was just tired, but it kept happening, and then it was happening at roller derby practice, which I was coaching at the time. I was mixing up skaters, and without seeing their jersey numbers I was having a hard time figuring out who was who. Then it started happening all over the place: people would say hi or smile at me, strangers, and I couldn't figure out who they were. A few folks called me on it ("Julie, what's with the stinkeye? Are you mad at me?").
It came to a head at the art opening. We had our usual crowd, and many of them were regulars. My job is to greet people, chat, talk about the art, introduce the artist to people. But this time something was clearly wrong. I was introducing myself to friends, I was brushing past regular buyers without acknowledgement. I had no trouble recognizing my studio mates, but everyone else -- without a clear identifier (a signature hat, hair color, voice), I was lost.
I spent the latter part of the evening hiding in a corner, mortified.
Turns out the brain swell did some damage - I had developed what is called prosopagnosia, or face blindness. The lower right side of my brain took the brunt of the swelling, and that's where facial recognition is located. For some reason people I knew prior to the surgery I had no problem recognizing, but anyone I met afterwards, or if I didn't know them very well before the surgery, my brain just couldn't figure out who they were. I couldn't even drum up their image in my memory, their face would be a smear. As an artist, this was particularly distressing.
After the opening, I became very anxious and avoided as much social interaction as possible. I was really embarrassed I couldn't recall people, and I'm such an easy read, it seemed like every interaction I had with someone was awkward. Are you a stranger or friend? I was repelled by people coming up to me, I dreaded any kind of interaction at this point. I was pretty useless as a coach, so I quit derby completely. I didn't want to go out, not even to my beloved art studio.
As a social person, I was becoming miserable with the isolation. This wasn't me at all! I sat one day, staring at photographs of my friends, and suddenly a thought hit me: I have been approaching this all wrong. Sure, everyone is a stranger until we establish our relationship, but it goes the other way, too: what if I approach everyone as a friend? If they actually are a friend, we're already on good turf. If they are a stranger, well, now I have a new friend. This might be a good strategy.
I realized that just asking people how things are going gives me enough clues to figure out who they are. I learned I can recognize voices and physical tics and movements. I started working a little harder to note details of everyone I meet: do they have a favorite hat or coat? Do they have piercings, or moles? What is the shape of their brows? If something looks familiar to me, I start working through my database of details, hemming them together until I can "recognize" the person, all the while cheerfully asking them what they're up to or how are they doing. Most of the time this works and I can figure out who I'm talking to within a few seconds, but it did take practice. At first it would take a couple minutes and sometimes I'd finally have to ask who I was talking to, but that doesn't happen as much these days.
When I'm tired, its worse, and in situations with a lot of people I do get overwhelmed and easily confused, but now I just laugh it off. Oddly, the face blindness forced me to be even more social and friendly and the result is making a lot more acquaintances than I've ever had in my life. I smile more at people and say hi more. I have more interesting conversations with people. My friendliness often pays itself forward, and I have good daily interactions, sometimes with benefits (a free coffee here, a helping hand there). Sometimes I get a cold response from a stranger, but I shrug those off. Their loss.
A stranger is a stranger until they're a friend. Its funny how a little break in the brain actually adds value, rather than detracts. At first this was horrible, but it forced me to really look at how people interact with each other, it pulled the rug out from under me and I had to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. What a gift!
The other night, I was watching VH1’s Best Of series, and they were reviewing the year of 1976. I was pretty young back then but we did have a TV and I was a voracious viewer at that age. So when they showcased the Captain and Tenille Variety Show, you can bet that I have a few episodes of that piece of Americana tucked back in the recesses of my cluttered mind. It also dislodged an old memory of mine.
I simply loved the Captain and Tenille show, but more so, I was mesmerized by how beautiful I thought Tenille was. She was everything a woman needed to be in a nice, neat, homogenized package. Blonde, big eyed, dazzling teeth, not-to-curvy body, complete with a microphone permanently welded to her right hand. And that voice! She clearly was a superstar in my tiny, impressionable eyes. By second grade, I am pretty sure I aspired to be just like her. I say “pretty sure” only because I aspired to be a lot of things during that year, like a flying monkey, Princess Leia, and a World Overlord, to name but a few. I was a very indecisive child when it came to what I wanted to be when I grew up.
When I was seven, my parents split up and my father was banished to live in my grandparent’s attic. We would see him on weekends over at my grandparents house, which we often enjoyed, for their house was a bit of a Funplex for us. There was a manmade creek behind their house, stocked (not purposely, I’m sure) full of tadpoles just begging to be caught in old jars, a breezeway on the second floor that we often tied sheets to the railing and swung off of, a la Tarzan, and my grandma’s lamp made of a gumball machine, with real gumballs inside it. My father’s attic room was a place of wonder, with its steeply angled, raw ceiling, bare lightbulb and dark wooden paneled walls, it screamed “secret hideout” to us kids, and was a favorite place of ours to cuddle up to read stories with him (we slept in the guest room downstairs). Despite my anxiety over my parents’ split, I really enjoyed visiting on the weekends.
One Sunday, before we were shuttled back home, my father was in the bathroom fiddling with his hair. He pulled out a pair of scissors and did a quick trim on himself. My father prided himself on the fact that he could cut and style his own hair, perfecting the “windblown feather” cut to a T. I watched him with great interest until he was satisfied with his trim. He looked over to me.
“What do you think?” he asked. Since his hair was only transformed by a mere centimeter, it looked almost the same as before, but I told him it looked good.
Then a thought occurred to me: if my daddy can cut hair, maybe he could cut my hair too. Maybe…just like… TENILLE.
“Daddy, can you cut my hair too?” I asked him. He thought a second and smiled.
“Of course I can! How would you like it?”
“Like Tenille,” I gushed. He furrowed his brow, no doubt reviewing the database of faces in his mind.
“How is her hair, Jules?” he asked me. I was incredulous. How could he not know? Everyone knows Tenille. My dad was a musician, a rock musician at that, didn’t he know her?
“Like this” I pantomimed around my head a rough estimate of a longish bowlcut with feathered bangs. His brows remained furrowed as he watched me. I suspect my voguing routine made no sense to him, and in hindsight, he should have chosen that moment to back out, but my dad was an adventurer, and more so, wanted to please his darling children in any way he could. He shook his head.
“Round in the back,” I said. He nodded. I happily went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet while my dad draped a towel around me. He carefully combed out my very long, straight, almond hued hair with his little black utilitarian comb, snipped a couple practice snips in the air, then began to work on my transformation from average second grader to Diva.
Although he was to my back, I could tell he was getting frustrated with his work. He’d snip a few times, pause then grunt in apparent disapproval before snipping again. I noticed my head was feeling lighter and lighter, and with a little trepidation I noticed the sound of the shears getting closer and closer to my ears.
“It’s just not even,” I heard my dad grumbling to himself.
“Is it looking good, Daddy?” I asked, hesitation hovering in my squeaky voice.
“It will, Jules. I just have to fix some things,” he replied. Snip snip.
“Okay,” he said, stepping back, “I think we’ve got it. Want to see your new ‘do, Miss Tenille?”
I clapped my hands together, excited. He dusted off my neck – hey, how come I feel air on my neck? – and helped me off the toilet. I looked down and froze.
There was a haphazard pile of hair on the floor, enough to make a wig. I was puzzled, and then put my hand to my head and noticed that I could barely grab a handful in my tiny fist. Panic gripped me before I even had a chance to look into the mirror. I had well-oiled waterworks and already my brain was calling in the troops to kick-start my tear ducts into full throttle. I finally made myself look at my reflection.
I could see my dad standing behind me, a weak, worried smile on his face, eyebrows lifted practically up to his hairline. Directly below him stood one of Fagin’s street urchins, a little boy in a yellow shirt, hair chopped in a variety of lengths, the longest of which was maybe two inches. It looked as if a lawnmower attacked my cranium. I took a big, deep breath and screeched.
“I DON’T LOOK LIKE TENILLE! I LOOK HORRIBLE! DADDY, WHAT DID YOU DO?” A deep, primal wail rolled up my windpipe and I began to weep. I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore, and even if I tried, my vision was obscured by large tears forming and splattering down my face.
“I did what you asked me to,” my dad said, “you don’t like it?”
“I – asked – you – to – round – the - baaaaackk,” I sobbed, “not – cut – it – all – offffff!”
“I’m sorry honey, I misunderstood,” my dad apologized. Even now I find his apology lame. How could he NOT realize he had royally screwed up? Why didn’t he put down those scissors when he first sensed this was way over his head? Was it pride? Or retardedness?
For the first time, I demanded I go home that very instant. My dad meekly complied and piled us kids into the car. I did not let up on my howling, so many tears escaped my eyes I’m sure I must have dehydrated myself in the process. I remember one point looking up, my eye peeking through my fingers, to see my little sister staring back at me, her mouth partly open, silent and looking thoroughly stunned. Her eyes said it all: Holy Crap, what happened to my big sister’s head?
I think the reality of the measure of his screw up came when my mother opened the door, heard my crying and looked down at me.
“Oh my God, David, what did you do to her?” my mom was incredulous.
“She asked me to cut her hair, so I did,” said my dad.
“Not like this! I wanted hair like Tenille,” I interjected.
“David, she’s seven years old and you’re the adult,” my mom snapped at him. “I don’t think anyone would want this kind of haircut, you butchered her hair! What were you thinking?”
My dad sheepishly responded, “I thought I could do it, I’m really good with hair.”
“David, just because you cut your hair in one kind of style doesn’t mean you’re a qualified hair dresser. It’s one thing to trim her bangs but Jesus, this is unreal. Just promise me you never ever touch a hair on her head, at least without talking to me!”
And with that, my mom ushered us in, grabbed our overnight bags, and slammed the door. My dad was in deep doodoo.
“You can’t go to school like this tomorrow, I gotta think,” my mom said more to herself than me. The thought of going to school like this, a school in which I already was on the brink of being a social pariah, set me into another wave of sobbing. My mom grabbed the phone and started making phone calls. She called her friend Penny, a hairdresser, and begged her to please see me after hours that evening, it was an emergency.
“David tried to cut her hair,” I heard my mom explain, ”and I think a blind man with epilepsy could have done a better job. You will not believe this.”
Penny agreed, and I was whisked off to her hair studio. Penny took one look and stifled a laugh, covered her mouth, inspected my head, shook her curly mane slowly back and forth.
“Wow,” was all she said.
“Can you fix it?” my mom asked. Penny thought for a minute.
“There are so many lengths on her head, it’s going to be a challenge. It almost would be easier to shave her down and start over, but we can’t do that, can we?” she kneeled down to me and smiled. “I’ll take care of you honey, don’t worry. We’ll fix this all up.”
Penny worked on me for over an hour. She managed to get my hair into a sort of feathered-boy-pixie-cut thing – way before Meg Ryan’s famous shag – and told my mom to both never let my dad cut his children’s hair, and for her to bring me back in each month so she could continue grooming my hair. It took over six months to work it into a short bob with bangs.
I only had one picture taken of me in second grade, and that was my class picture. I hate that picture, I had that terrible short haircut and coupled with my Goodwill welfare getup, I truly looked pathetic. Thankfully the kids never teased me about it – even they could tell that something tragic occurred to my once-beautiful long tresses, and there’s only so much bullying a child can take, the haircut was punishment enough. I never forgave my dad for that episode, and we chose never to discuss the matter ever again, although Penny took joy in ribbing my father over his hair cutting skills for many years afterwards. My dad got the hint and his scissors never snip snipped another head ever again.
It was a warm afternoon; the air hung heavily, a perfumed curtain of honeysuckle and rose and freshly cut grass. The sun was still high and contemplating its evening plunge into the nether, but the season was Summer, and it still had many hours to wile under the domed sky before its perfervid bedding behind the horizon.
Little dewdrops glistened on the child’s brow as she strolled down the sidewalk in a careless amble. If she was overheated, she took no notice. Her hands absentmindedly tugged and crumpled her white cotton skirt’s hem, leaving light marks of dirt and oil behind. Her feet moved slowly and methodically, one lazy step at a time, and her eyes squinted and trained upon the strip of lawn beside her. The grass glowed a brilliant green in the sun, the nooks and crannies exposed within each clump of grass. This particular stretch of lawn was blemished with crabgrass and clover. While not the prettiest bit of green earth, for her, it was ideal. She stopped abruptly and knelt down.
Her little thin hands grazed the blades of grass and clover, probing here and there in an earnest search that would have even the conquistadors of yore garner her respect in her thoroughness. Her face was so close to the ground her shadow partially obscured the light, and she frowned at this dilemma. Still her hands searched amongst the weeds and grass, through the chickweed and crabgrass and clover until finally – ah! – her full lips curled ever so slightly at the edges. Her thumb and forefinger plucked her discovery from the safety of its roots and she raised the stem of the clover up to her face for a closer inspection.
Yes. All four leaves were present, despite a split in one of the lower quadrant leaves. A sense of accomplishment washed over her like a cold spring shower and she stood up, her knees dimpled with the imprint of the sidewalk’s concrete. She looked first up, then down the sidewalk for any witnesses, and assured of her solitude, raised her hand up to the sky, to the sun, and watched the beams of light stream between the four petals like white hot rivers. The sun christened the clover with a halo, and she smiled, its first and only convert.
She had looked for this clover her whole life.
With luck in hand, she strode confidently down the sidewalk, unable to contain herself. Her smile was a rainbow, her eyes were stars. But soon, past the chalk hopscotch grid drawn in yellow and orange, past the overlapping ridge in the sidewalk caused by an massive oak root bursting forth, past the purple and white house with the gingerbread shutters in which a nice old lady passed the time tending her garden and her Bible, past the mailbox, her eyes are cast downward and once again the nagging urge overcame her. She looked at her clover, its stem already bruised from her fingers clutching it too hard. She wondered if her good fortune could beget more good fortune.
Her grubby left hand still clutching the clover, she knelt next to a small patch of unkempt grass on the easement of an equally unkempt house of dirty white clapboard and overgrown dogwoods surrounding its stoop. Her right hand lifted up a large wad of chickweed to reveal a struggling patch of clover, some of which was yellowed from the lack of sunlight. An old and ragged bit of clover caught her eye, and with surgical precision she pinched its head clean off its mother stem and looked it over. One of its leaves looked as if a very tiny cat had clawed the edges many years ago, leaving dried tatters behind. But despite the bedraggled leaf, the other three were quite sound. She gasped aloud.
She jumped up and giddily spun in place, her skirt lifting and pin wheeling around her. She drew both pregnant hands together and tucked them under her chin and cawed to the sky. The world tipped and reeled around her and she caught air as she fell backward onto the easement, padded by the ample chickweed and moss. Quite unhurt, she giggled to herself as she clasped her clovers like two jewel encrusted scepters, one for each hand.
She lay there for a time, motionless, listening to the birds coo and twitter, feeling a bead of perspiration drip from the pool in the curve of her throat around to the back of her neck before slithering into the nest of green beneath her. Several strands of hair stuck to her forehead and the heat seemed to beat upon her little body with intensity, but she gave no care. Her lazy smile drizzled itself across her dirt stained cheeks, her skin browned by the sun and the humid earth, interrupted only by the flush of health under her deeply fringed eyes. A lace of daisies crowned her dirty summer hair, each thick tendril entangled with the moss encircling her head. She was a Queen, Queen of the earth, of the summer haze, Queen of the dust and the ants and the flowers and the trees, Queen of the cracked sidewalks, the ones that broke the backs of so many mothers. Anointed with the dappling sunbeams that jittered and pranced about her, she arose at last, ordained.
She walked slowly, carefully, her gaze focused on the treasures set firmly in her two tiny fists. She did not trip, did not stumble; she knew this sidewalk almost as keenly as her own mother, had traveled its broken and worn causeway her whole life, every day, from the moment she could totter and teeter on her two clumsy feet. She walked as if she was carrying a pyramid of eggs, yet her heart was not tense with worry but light and carefree. She passed under yet another old oak tree – several dotted the easements, providing a canopy of green shade – and as she emerged from its webbed and mottled shade, she heard a familiar buzzing sound in her right ear. Unafraid of flying insects, she paused and sought out the owner of the beating wings, and watched with delight as a graceful golden striped honeybee lit upon her right hand, just below her thumb and under the umbrella of clover. It tapped her skin with its black legs as if it were divining for a water well, and spun slowly in a circle. She watched with curiosity as it traveled down to her wrist, carefully feeling its way with its quivering antennae. It paused, lifted its head as if to gaze at her, then in one swift movement it plunged its abdominal spike deep into her skin, barbing her with its hollow stinger. She startled.
As the venom pumped rhythmically into her veins, the bee raised its wings and beat them viciously into the air, pulling away from her skin, simultaneously tearing apart its own body as the stinger held firm upon the swelling of her wound. It departed as mysteriously as it appeared to her, and she dropped the clover, the clawed-up one, from her left hand as the shock of attack left her and the biting pain dug in. Although she had never been stung, she had seen her mother carefully scrape the stinger off her younger sister’s leg last summer, never flinching as her sister wiggled and howled in terror and agony. Now it was her turn to nurse the wound, and to scrape away the pumping sack and its stabbing lance from her wrist, leaving behind a tiny red pinprick set upon a raised lump of white, angry flesh. She mused to herself the tragedy and senselessness of the act. She briefly wondered where the bee had gone to, if it had made for the safety of its hive, tasting the airways it traveled homeward bound, to beat and crawl its way back into the nest, carried by its comrades as it buzzed and twittered its last farewell. She could not fathom why such a gentle creature as a honeybee would attack her without provocation, her mind too young and inexperienced to come up with as convincing a list as the world weary soul could muster. She was fortunate; eagerly does one drink the wine of experience, to know all there is to know, only to find it brings one nothing but suffering. She was still ignorant, a child.
She gasped: her clover! She looked anxiously about her, but it did not lie upon the gray cement. The easement near her feet was riddled with grass clippings and shadow, and she felt the strangling pressure of alarm building within her chest and she knelt down and grazed her fingers across the tips of the grass blades. Green upon green, it was quite impossible to see such a tiny, unassuming little clover, and she could practically taste the salty tears riding up into her eyes and eyelids. Had she been a less determined child, she should have sat herself on the bumpy cement and cried for herself. Instead, she dashed the waterworks from her eyes with her free, uninjured hand and leaned deep and squinted hard.
She drilled her vision into the earth, and it paid off in time. Her eye caught sight of the tattered leaf belonging to her clover as it perched quite comfortably upon a dandelion leaf, itself the victim of a push mower blade. Gingerly she grasped its bruised and limp stem, slowly exhaling as she did, her heart still pounced and beating itself upon her ribs with great impetus. She raised herself back upon her two feet, looking at her treasures with relief, the sting almost a thing of the past despite the undeniable swelling pronounced against the wrist bone. All was not lost.
Her smile now recovered, she continued her journey upon the cement brook that would lead her to a hive of her own, shuttered by yellow painted shingles and peeling white window trim. She had a pressing book, a gift from an elderly aunt, half its pages filled with bluebells and honeysuckle and the furry yellow dandelion heads from the lawnmower clippings she liked to sift through in the compost bin. She had a special page, a page still empty, right in the middle of her book, for her two jewels. She had waited a long time to add to this page, and she sucked on her lower lip in anticipation. It was Coronation Day, and there was much to be done for this special occasion. Dollies and bears were to be brushed and lined up according to size and rank. Lemonade was to be served in pink plastic teacups. The duvet cover was to be spread and smoothed, and Mommy was to be summoned for this occasion, for it was best if the moment were shared with another.
She daydreamed of what dress she should wear: the yellow one with the pinafore, or the green one with polka dots? She did not notice the light tickle upon her skin, the sweet touch like the curious fingers of a sylphic breeze, until it went from a light caress to a stabbing pain and she cried aloud. Another honeybee, perhaps the sister of the first, had landed upon her left wrist and violently plunged her stinger deep into the skin, a cascade of venom and pain following. The child’s urge was to wave her hand about wildly, tossing the bee this way and that until it was flung up into the ether, but instead, she raised her wrist to her eyes. The bee was still lodged into her skin, stumbling this way and that in an effort to dislodge itself, no doubt signing its own death warrant in the process.
Acting quickly, she placed her other clover into her left hand, leaving her right hand free to perform an emergency rescue towards her assailant. With the steeled nerves of a surgeon, she carefully slid her pinky finger under the belly of the bee, it responding by biting her fingertip with its slender mandibles. Using her nail she gingerly pushed against the pierced flesh, lifting upwards to unhook the little insect. It took a few tries before it finally extricated itself from the whitening wound, and with several anxious flutters the bee flew off, intact, saved by a compassion it could never understand.
The pain thundered through her, drawing moisture to her eye, but she was tough as radishes and held back the torrent of tears with the perseverance of a wooden-shod girl sealing a crumbling dike with her one finger. She looked at her two identical wounds, fresh and ripe as they were with nerve-wracked venom. Her hands shook with the adrenalin, her own body’s antivenom, her hand still clutching the clovers. She opened her skirt pocket with her fingers and watched the two clovers tumble inside, and only when she was assured their safekeeping did she let go of her pocket and clasp her hands together and to her breast. She could feel them throbbing against her warm wet skin where her collar was unbuttoned. She suddenly became aware of the heat, of the sweat, of the heavy air and the limpness of everything around her. She looked about her for a moment, and with the exception of the crickets whirring, it was still and quiet. She smirked coyly herself, an explanation unfurling its banner within her mind and quenching her spirit with its draught like a cold honey mead.
A Queen does not like another Queen in her midst…
,I won't go into too much about Addison's Disease; Google it and you'll get a plethora of information, far more than I could really spend all day typing about. In a nutshell, its a rare adrenal disease, usually caused by autoimmune factors, that atrophies the exterior cortex of the adrenal gland (the interior is where adrenaline is made, the exterior makes cortisol, aldosterone, and a certain amount of sex hormones).
By rare, I mean really rare: 1 in 100,000, to be exact. You have a better shot at ALS than Addison's. I was lucky at at the disease lottery about 7 years ago, when I was diagnosed after having an Addisonian Crisis post-surgery that paralyzed me, swelled my brain and landed me in Neuro ICU at Harborview in Seattle (a well known hellhole of a hospital, but they have a great neurology dept). Fortunately I was shot up with insane amounts of dexamethasone, mostly to get my brain under control and my life was saved, along with most of the brain (the only damage was to the area of the brain that remembers faces, which is why I am friendly to everybody I see.).
Fast forward to now... I have awesome doctors, a good support system, and I'm pretty good at recognizing when I'm slipping into failure, which usually means I have to take huge doses of two kinds of steroids (called "stress dosing"). I have to take steroids every day to stay alive, like clockwork. That's not drama, that's just life. If I don't take them, after a few days of what looks just like narcotics withdrawal, either my heart will just stop, or I will fall into a coma, THEN my heart will stop. While this is going down, my mind will go crazy: with lack of cortisol, psychosis is common. Its a really fucking ugly way to die, if its slow. You can only hope you go really fast. Trust me, I don't forget to take my medicine.
They tell you ("they" being doctors) that if the disease is controlled you have a shot at normal mortality rates. Hey, awesome! However, us Addisonians know this is total bullshit. You can live a long, full happy life if the following happens:
-you never, ever have anything stressful ever happen to you,
-you never, ever get a "domino disease" (AD often gives way to other diseases like diabetes, Hashimoto's, etc),
-you never get in a traumatic accident,
-you never catch a cold, flu, stomach bug, or pneumonia.
With my support groups, I get to watch several people of all ages (children, teens, adults) die every month, every year, from complications of this disease. Sometimes I can't stand checking in with my support groups, especially during flu season. Reading that a six year old kid picked up a stomach bug, and three hours later he's on a life support machine, fighting for his life, God, it kills your soul. Another symptom of adrenal failure is hopeless depression; you have to remember its part of the disease, its not real life. We have to do welfare checks on each other all the time, and suicide rates with AD is really high. The easiest way to kill yourself is to stop taking your steroids and wait.
I am fortunate in that I'm a naturally sunny person and have a pretty good outlook on life - if I'm feeling bummed out, I run through a checklist of symptoms, and usually a bump of steroids will right all the wrongs I'm feeling within a couple hours.
We don't have a whole lot of people in our groups that are over 60 years old; in fact, the average age of death seems to be about 45-50. I'm smack in the middle of that, and I've thought a lot about mortality and this disease. Of course my plan is to live forever, and be a crazy old lady with a million cats. If anything, my goal is to drive my husband of 20+ years into insanity for many many more anniversaries.
But I know that all it takes is one bad taco to send me off to ER and cardiac arrest. One misplaced sneeze by one of my customers. One really shitty day full of rain and angst. I have to hope that the people around me respond correctly to my symptoms, especially if I can't think straight or I'm having problems staying conscious, its really important to have people advocate for you when you can't, and I can't have their fear interfere with my care response. I can't have my own fear get in the way, either. You can't play games with this disease, there is no wait-and-see.
A couple years ago in order to be proactive, I started getting my business organized, and last year I started the process of Swedish Death Cleaning (basically clean out your basement). The Will was written, and the Living Will created. I started working out a plan to allow me more time to paint, and a list of what paintings I need to work on (this is why I no longer take on commissions like I used to). I started telling more people to go to hell - not because I'm mean, but if your problems and needs take up my time but in the bigger picture mean nothing, fuck you. My clock is ticking. So is yours.
Energy is a rare commodity with Addison's, and I'm often having to sit things out because of exhaustion, which makes me super anxious. Tick, tick, tick! That crocodile with the alarm clock is always swimming behind me, just a teeny bit closer, and days like today - the bad ones - I can almost feel its breath on my heels. Today was a bad day. My heart was acting weird, I was sick to my stomach and lost a lot of fluid, my temp was low and I was shivering and sweating, too sick to paint, much less anything else. I got really sleepy at one point and truly was afraid if I fell asleep I'd never wake up. I wound up taking fludrocortisone on top of normal stress dosing - my heart flutters and dropping temp cued me that aldosterone was too low - and a few hours later felt much better, but who knows what could have happened had I just gone to sleep. And in my mind, all this does is instill the persistence of living.
People love talking of death when its only an ideation; they sure clam up when its reality. When I talk to other Addisonians about it, its very matter-of-fact, almost banal. Its also funny. You make a lot of jokes about being sick and dying and hospitals. Morbid humor is second nature. You laugh more, because what else are you left with? Even when I am in agony and in the hospital, I'll still find things that are funny, I'll still poke fun at the situation.
I recently had a dream in which I was talking to a spirit. I made the mistake of asking if I was gonna die soon, and he thought about it for a moment, and told me now's the time to work my shit out. I got really upset, but then thought, well, shouldn't I work my shit out? "Soon" can be tomorrow, or a year, or five years. Why sit around like everyone else? And if my shit's all worked out and I'm still here... make more shit. Rinse, repeat.
Having your mortality cut with a hot blade can be really depressing and scary, and yes, it scares me. I'd like to beat the system, make it to 50, past 50, to 60 and beyond. But let me tell you a quick story that pretty much nails my point in: about five years ago, a friend from college developed a rare, deadly cancer and was given a few months at best. She told me it was oddly the best thing to happen to her. She quit her job, and she and her boyfriend traveled the country, and she rode horses in the wilderness, which she loved. She started painting and drawing again, and she made sure to tell me I was an inspiration to her. She was so fearless, lived so big, I could only watch in utter awe. She outlived her prognosis by several months and died very gracefully. It really isn't the amount of time, its about what you do with it, how you live it. Not every day is going to be fireworks and parades, but if my intention is to live as best as I can for the moment I am in, I'll be okay.
Somehow my business partner and I were chatting about dating as teenagers, and he mentioned going to his Prom with his girlfriend as a "couple of losers". He asked me if I went to mine.
I took a deep breath, and he knew this wasn't going to be a "yes" or "no" answer, so he strapped in and ordered a proverbial drink for himself.
I had always wanted to go to Prom, "Pretty in Pink" style. I had gone to all the other dances, like Tolo and Homecoming, but senior prom night was the Mt Everest of dances, and I had already started work on my dress months before the event. There was this vintage shop on Roosevelt Ave near my high school, and they had stunning dresses from the early 20th Century. There was one there that was from 1919 in black silk, high waisted and tiered with jet beading. I saved my money for months for that thing, which was nothing to sniff at considering my addiction to records, vintage clothing, and speed (yes, yes, that's another story... Kyle ordered another drink for that one later). Once I had saved up the money and bought the dress, the girl who worked at the shop helped me redesign and sew the dress so it was a sleeveless and a little bit more form fitting, and she showed me how to stabilize the beading. It was a blessed project for the winter months, and I'd sit up at night maniacally sewing away, imagining how wonderful prom was going to be in this dress, how awesome it was going to photograph. The only thing I was missing was a date.
As spring approached, the date problem was starting to become a worry. While my best friend offered to take me, I was kinda holding out for a real date, not a mercy one, plus my best friend Keri was a vampire and she scared people (she didn't go to school, had her own apartment, slept during the day and was best known for floating down Broadway at wee hours of the night). My prospects were limited at my high school, although my English study partner sheepishly asked me to go with him. I respectfully turned him down: I actually was concerned he'd be made fun of for going with me, since he and I were polar opposites and his friends were pretty conservative, and I was a weirdo. Plus, truly, I had the dress to think of. My date had to match the dress.
Like magic, I was romantically stalked by a local musician-turned-drug-dealer and huzzah, I had the date thing nailed! He worked well with the dress, too, since he styled himself LA goth and wore more makeup than me and already owned a tux jacket with skeleton hand lapels, and wore a top hat. My only problem was, well, he was a lot older than me and unlike me, did not fantasize about the perfect Prom photo. I had my work cut out for me, and only a month to turn him.
While I was working on wearing him down by being the perfect girlfriend, I had acquired the perfect Fluevog shoes (pointy black leather ankle boots), got myself a black rose head piece and my father gifted me with the most beautiful black velvet capelet. I took to dressing up in my prom outfit on many speedy nights, working out photo poses and the perfect beehive (takes 1.5 cans of Aquanet, for the record). Once the date was announced, I got my tickets and called my boyfriend to work out the details.
"No fucking way," he said flatly. "That's retarded. Not going."
"We can just go in and get the picture done, we don't even need to dance or anything," my little heart was breaking!
"Date is no good," he was eating something so I heard a lot of mush noise between syllables, "Shelly's birthday is that night and she made me promise to go. Everyone wants MDA, so I gotta go. Get Keri to take you. Gotta go take a shit babe, see ya later." click, beeeeeeepppp. I just stared at my phone and one big fat tear rolled down my cheek. What was the point of this boyfriend thing? Don't guys understand why they were invented? What about my fucking dress???
I took the bus to Broadway and met Keri at Charlie's, our favorite restaurant to sit for hours. As we took turns dumping Charlie's Famous Colored Sugar Crystals into our bottomless coffee mugs, I relayed my dilemma. She looked concerned but nonplussed, then finally annoyed.
"Guys are dicks, you know that," she took a deep drag off her cigarette, cradled between her skeletal fingers. I just sighed. I wouldn't get very far complaining to Keri, seeing as she was a lesbian and she and I had been a couple for a long while, until my prom dream burned that avenue down like a bad fever. She only tolerated Sean (the boyfriend) because he ran the best designer drugs in Seattle at the time, and she got them through me. ("I'll have another drink," says Kyle)
At about this moment, an acquaintance of mine was cutting through the restaurant towards the back bar. In seeing me, he veered over to say hello. His name was David and he was a local weed dealer, a New Wave hippie guy, really goofy and friendly, like you'd imagine a weed dealer to be. He was probably in his early 20s and he was truly nice, and his big friendly smile dropped when he saw how crestfallen I was. He sat with us and listened to me whine about Sean refusing to take me to the dance, and gave me a big hug. "I'll take you, sweetie, and I'll even dance if you want. We'll have fun, fuck Sean, okay? C'mon, smile! Hey, I never went to my prom, this will be fun. I'll wear whatever you want," he gave me the chuck-on-the-chin and after writing his phone number on my hand, he gave me a big hug and trotted out to the bar. Keri rolled her eyes and lit another cigarette. I just stared at the digits on my hand, a slow smile creeping onto my face. My date with the dress was back on.
David and I chatted a few times on the phone over the next couple weeks, mostly working out the details of where to meet up and what he was going to wear. He seemed genuinely into it, and whether he had any other motive beyond just taking a goth chick to her prom, I wouldn't know. I nonchalantly mentioned to Sean that he needn't worry about taking me after all, and he just shrugged. "Dave's a nice guy," was all he said. Trust me, I Seinfelded the crap out of that comment for days, but finally figured it didn't matter, Senior Prom was only days away!
Friday before school, I laid out my dress near my bed and stared at it lovingly. You and me and Coconut trees and Cut-out stars, we'll make such a pretty picture. I happily trotted off to school, bumping into my English study partner in the hallway. He told me that another girl was going with him, and I was happy to hear it, and he said maybe we could get our pics taken, both couples, and I thought that was a grand idea. I passed by my friend Eowyn and asked her what her plans were that Saturday, as she was boycotting the dance. She wasn't sure, but since she also knew David, suggested maybe we all could meet later on? Again, I thought that was a grand idea, since she lived near Broadway and as her parents were often never home, her place was a great crash pad.
After school I raced home so I could admire at my dress again. While fixing myself a snack, the phone rang. It was David.
"Bad news, sweetie," his voice sounded weird, and wherever he was calling from, there was a lot of background noise. Uh oh.
"I'm in jail."
I asked him to repeat himself. He cleared his throat.
"I'm in jail, sweetie, I sold weed to a cop. This is my one phone call and I feel so terrible, I don't know when I will be released. I wanted you to know right away. I'm so sorry!! I had flowers for you, and--"
I hung up. I dropped my plate into the sink, walked passed my befuddled dad, wordlessly up the stairs, and slammed my door. My dress faced me like a scorned lover, and I snatched it up, tossed it into the closet, flopped onto my bed and sobbed, then fell asleep.
This could have been the end of my story, but no. I was plucky, and after a good long slumber I awoke with fresh determination. My dad had already left for a show -- my dad was a rock musician and played gigs on weekends -- so I helped myself to the dinner he left me and called Eowyn. "Plans changed," I said. "Meet me on Broadway tomorrow night. I'm going to make Sean take me, you'll have to help me."
I didn't tell my dad that my date was in jail; I didn't think that would go over real well. I did tell him that I was meeting my date for dinner on Capitol Hill before the dance, which made no sense since I lived in the University district and my high school was just up the street, but my dad learned early on it was pointless to question me on my idiosyncrasies, and just nodded. He had another gig that night so we agreed I could spend the night at Eowyn's and he gave me $20 for dinner, then gave me a big hug. "Just try to be ready before I leave, I want to see how you look," he said.
There's nothing quite like dressing up for an actual occasion. Its sort of ritualistic, from the laying out of the clothing, to the bathing, plucking, blow drying, powdering, lacing, teasing, combing, spraying. I took my time getting myself put together, dialing Sean's number every half hour. It would just ring and ring, and I figured he was either sleeping or doing whatever drug dealers do when their girlfriends aren't around. No matter, I knew that he would be up on Broadway later on, sitting on a staircase next to the 7-Eleven.
I did a final check in the mirror at the house and satisfied, I waltzed down the stairs so my dad could see me before leaving. He got all misty eyed and grabbed the camera, only to realize he forgot to put film in it. He cursed a couple times, then laughed. "They take pictures at these things, right?" he asked. Yeah, Dad, don't worry, I said. "This David better treat you well, okay? Don't drink anything weird, okay? Have fun, and oh, bring an umbrella, it might rain," my dad said before giving me a kiss and heading out the door.
I grabbed my capelet and looked out the window; the weather seemed clear, so I decided the umbrella was unnecessary. I walked up the street to the bus stops on 45th and 1st ("the Ave" to the locals) to catch a #7 bus to Broadway. I didn't anticipate that a fancy dressed goth teen with an impossibly huge black beehive 'do would get unwanted attention, but of course that's exactly what I was greeted with as soon as I reached the intersection. I knew most of the kids around there, the punk rock kids and metal heads that lolled about near the bus stops, record stores and the post office, and for the most part the ribbing was intended to relieve boredom on their part, and they all thought I was a snob (which is partly true; I was originally an "Ave Rat" but found Broadway to be more interesting to hang out at, Broadway had dancing and prettier boys and girls). I put on my headphones and sunglasses and patiently waited for the bus, wrapped in a protective scowl, Love and Rockets blasting in my ears.
I made it to Broadway by mid evening, hopping off on the north end near the Deluxe. Eowyn lived around the corner, and I met her at her house and did a quick primp before we both started off to the main drag. I explained to her that I knew Sean would be there, and maybe once he saw how fabulous the dress looked, he might be inclined to come back to the dance with me. If that didn't take, I had a $20. He could be bribed.
The usual suspects were standing around the corner of Broadway and East Harrison; it was a pit stop for drug dealing, and Sean was usually smack dab in the middle of it all. That evening it seemed particularly crowded and as we approached, I started to feel a little bit sick. I felt every muscle in my neck tense as I strolled up to Sean and tapped his arm, and he spun around and looked surprised, then irritated. "Why are you up here?" he asked. He didn't seem to take any notice of the dress.
I told him David was in jail and prom was in an hour. "Well, that really sucks," he said. "For you, I mean. I got Shelly's birthday party to go to, the cab is on its way."
I told him it would mean so much if he'd just consider going first, with me. "I worked so hard on this dress, you're my boyfriend, couldn't you just do this for me, just once?"
He started to laugh and shook his head. "I'm not changing my plans over a fucking dress, Julie."
I burst into tears. "What am I supposed to do, then?"
By this time, a little circle formed around us, and the cab pulled up, the back door opened and sitting inside was this Shelly and her friend. I heard Shelly's friend mumble "Oh my God, really?" as she beckoned my boyfriend inside with haste. He looked around at the amused, gathering crowd and me crying, and exploded.
"I told you no, and no and no, fuck, I said no, stop being such a bitch about it, I don't care, I'm going, get the fuck out of my way, go home, I don't care, Jesus!" And with that he stepped into the cab. Shelly and her friend were cackling at the scene before them. I followed Sean to the curb.
"Can I at least come with you?" I squeaked out.
"Not invited," he slammed the cab door in my face.
One would think this episode would incur empathy from witnesses, but alas, you do not understand the hearts and minds of intoxicated, bored teenagers. As Sean's cab sped off and I was left there in a puddle of mascara, I immediately heard a wave of "stop being a bitch" bounce around me like a bad street version of the movie Carrie. Eowyn gently grabbed my elbow to lead me off and away from the jackasses taunting me, assuring me things would be okay. As we started across the street, two local street kids pushed passed the others. One of them, this older punk guy named Derek, backhanded several of the taunters in my honor. Most of the younger kids were afraid of Derek, who was a well known neighborhood junkie and although skinny, was incredibly tall and impervious to pain, making him imposing. He was madly in love with Eowyn and did everything he could to impress her, including making the attempt to salvage my street integrity.
The other kid was a shorter skinny punk kid named Ben. Put that name on the back burner for a moment.
Derek rushed up to us and grabbed my other arm, which was a little bit startling and I jumped. He asked if I was okay, and before I could say anything, started laying in on what assholes those people were, glancing over to Eowyn from time to time to assess her response.
"Get lost, Derek," Eowyn said flatly. He was unflappable.
"I can buy you two booze," he said. He was 24.
Eowyn sighed. I sniffled.
"Okay," she stopped us and gestured for my little clutch I was carrying. I pulled out the $20 and she shoved it into Derek's hand. "If you get us something, that would be great. But you need to leave us alone, okay?" He practically jumped up and down, grabbed Ben's arm and ran back to the 7-Eleven. "You know he'll short change you," she said to me. I shrugged.
Derek came back a few minutes later with a bag containing two bottles of grape Mad Dog 20/20. I noticed Ben was holding another bag, and pretty much figured out I just bought them both their evening spirits. Derek handed me a wad of bills and told me I looked pretty. I feebly smiled back, and Eowyn snatched the bag and directed me onward like a rag doll.
We sat at Eowyn's for a while, guzzling the Mad Dog while I intermittently sobbed, gulped and hiccuped. She wasn't a big talker and I didn't really want to talk, so we listened to music for a little while. After about a half hour I started to get really tipsy and also really angry. I don't remember much after that except that I think I needed some fresh air, and stepped outside. I found myself wandering, Mad Dog in hand, down the street aimlessly. After a few minutes, it started to drizzle, not enough to be rain but just enough to cause my beehive to transform into a wasp nest. Fuck, great, I thought.
Then I tripped over the pointy tip of my Fluevogs. I didn't fall down, but it was just enough to scrape the topside of the leather and damage the tip. Fuck, great, I thought.
I continued my stumble, heading southwards. I passed the market, with its huge glass windows, and glanced over to see my reflection stare back, a girl with a lopsided, melted updo, black lines of mascara streaked down her cheeks, smeared red lipstick, capelet askew off one shoulder, bottle of shitty booze in one hand and a broken shoe on her foot. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand, smearing my lipstick worse. Fuck, great, I thought. Well, the dress still looked okay. I looked away and kept walking.
I wandered down Harvard Ave for a few blocks, and as I passed by Harrison, I heard someone call out something, and I looked up. Down the block, on the north side of the 7-Eleven there was a concrete slab that served as a bench. Sitting on it was that punk kid Ben, and he was apparently yelling something at me. I couldn't understand him, so I slowly turned east and walked up to him. He patiently waited.
"I was saying, you look sad," he repeated himself. "And also, can you share? I'm all out." I looked at the Mad Dog in my hand, shrugged and gave it to him. He snatched it up, mumbled a thanks and quickly looked around before swigging. I noticed he had a cane in his other hand and I pointed to it, I think I drunkenly inquired about it.
"Oh yeah, this is Big Ben's," he was referring to another local punk who resembled Lou Ferrigno. "I'm holding it for him." He tapped the ground with it, then pointed at me with it. "You," he said, "are unhappy. You need to tell me all about what's wrong. Come sit over here and tell me your troubles."
I sat on the bench next to him and immediately started some kind of girlish babble. He signaled for me to shut up, looked around again, smiled then patted his knee. "I'll hear you better," he said. He was clearly flirting but I took it with a grain of salt; Ben was known to be a flirt and had pretty much dated or hooked up with every high school girl I knew, except me. He was very charming though, and even surly Keri had a soft spot for him. He didn't think much of Sean and had made that clear to me on multiple occasions in the past. And at that point, on that evening, I wasn't thinking much of Sean either. I promptly sat on Ben's knee.
"Guys are dicks," I said. "They sure are," he agreed. "I hate guys," I said. "As you should," said Ben. I laughed. "I have always hated you," I booped his nose. He grabbed my booping hand and said, "Well, okay, that can change, right? Its loud out here, let's go to my house and you can tell me all about that."
Ben picked me up and I wrapped my arm around him so I wouldn't fall down and we started down the street, when suddenly I heard "YOU GET OFF HER RIGHT NOW!". I turn my head to see my friend Eowyn marching down the street toward us. She grabbed my arm and started yelling at Ben, something about being a dirty dog. "Julie wants to come with me, right?" he asked me, a big grin on his face. "Yep," I said, then hiccuped.
"She's drunk, she doesn't know what she's doing, you damn asshole," Eowyn hissed at Ben and yanked at my arm. Ben yanked back on my other arm and I was now a pinata. Back and forth they argued, and back and forth I went, both of them pulling with greater and greater force until I think I said "I'm going to throw up", and Ben let go. He put his hands up in mock defeat and backed away, still grinning, cane still in hand. "You win," he said to Eowyn. "You know where to find me," he said to me and winked, then turned to join a small group of his friends that had gathered to watch this spectacle. Eowyn grabbed me around the waist and steered me down the street, grumbling. I was pretty much out of steam and let her lead me home.
I don't remember anything else except Eowyn had carefully removed and hung up my dress before putting me to bed. When I woke up it was miraculously unscathed. In borrowed clothes I went home, carrying my dress carefully with me. Once home, I hung it at the back of my closet, blew it a kiss, then gobbled up a handful of aspirin.
The following Monday, I bumped into my English study partner at school.
"Where were you?" he asked me. "I had hoped we'd get a picture or something, or maybe dance? What happened?"
I gave him a long, quiet look, then shook my head.
"I should have said yes," I said to him. "I'm sorry I didn't. I hope you had fun."
A few weeks later, I sat down next to my study partner in class, and he tapped my arm. He handed me a picture of him and his date at the prom.
"I thought you might want this," he said. I looked at it for a long time, at the vase of roses on a pedestal next to him and his date, the black and white checkerboard floor. He sported a sharp looking tux and red tie and his date wore a crepe pink dress. "Thanks, Jovy," I said.
"It would have been fun with you, you know," he gave my arm a quick squeeze. He knew how much work I put into my dress, I had been talking about it to him all year and he had patiently listened to me describe the beading process and how to make bodice alterations, and I realized right then and there that it wasn't that guys are dicks. I was the dick.
Hey, Kyle, hey, wake up!
I need to add here, I thanked my friend Eowyn a few years later for tearing me off of Ben that night. I was drunk and stupid, and I would have regretted going home with him, not because I had a boyfriend I was mad at, but because a year later I bumped into Ben at The Underground, a dance club in Seattle. Had I gone home with Ben on Prom Night, I would have been too embarrassed to say hello that evening, and we would not have repeated that entire scenario a second time around, and this time there was no Eowyn to save me from my foolish decisions. However, this time around, I took him home with me and 30 years later, he's still here.
About a week ago, I drafted up a post about my most recent painting, "St Thecla and the Deer", which is currently in France for the Chimeria event, which opens early October. The painting was created specifically for this event, which is themed by life-affirming mythology. I was given permission to pursue a Christian subject, and I believe I was the only artist to do so, but only because my case for St Thecla was so impassioned.
However, the post I wrote up was blighted by frustration, like a bad Irish potato. I won't deny that the painting was probably one of my most frustrating creations and even my humanist friends pondered whether it was cursed. Everything that could go wrong certainly did so. But I came at it with a sense of blame, fingering every nearby element as to why things went wrong, when, in actuality, the problem lay in the painting's intent.
Let's start with the initial intent: St Thecla herself. St Thecla was an early Christian, a follower of St Paul. A member of the noble class in Turkey, Thecla overheard St Paul's gospel as she sat by a window in her home. Overcome by the Holy Spirit, she was so moved by the gospel of Christ that she denounced her engagement (she was a young girl with a hefty dowry) and chose instead to follow St Paul and the path of Christ. Her mother, furious, sent the authorities after her, and Thecla was arrested, her punishment being death by mauling of beasts. However, upon being thrust into a local coliseum ring, the female lions amongst the group of animals made a ring around her, protecting her, and her life was spared.
Thecla was not a wilting flower; being very beautiful, she was often accosted by men during her wanderings, and had no problem staving them off on her own, with little help from St Paul or her other companions. Intelligent, well spoken, and deeply committed to the cause of Christianity, St Paul assigned her an Abbey and she became the first Abbess. In her 80s, her Abbey was attacked by marauding Arabs, and she was able to stave them off and save the Abbey.
She was a popular saint up until the 10/11th centuries, when the Church felt she was an inappropriate female saint (versus, say, the Virgin Mary). She was too autonomous and headstrong of a figure, they felt, a poor role model for the weaker vessel, and she was wiped from Western gospels. If it weren't for the Orthodox church, she'd be a blip in Christian lore, but she remained a strong and steady saint in the eastern church, and in the last 50 years her cult has grown.
In Christian symbolism, the deer represents chastity. St Thecla took an oath of chastity, even cut off her hair as a symbolic gesture.
My painting represents the moment Thecla recognizes her calling. She holds a fallow deer in a field, with birch trees in the background and a large, looming cloud. She's mostly in shadow, the sunlight creeping up from behind her. Birch trees are not indigenous to Turkey, but I find them mysterious and interesting and fun to paint. There are brambles in the horizon that look a little like razor wire, representing her hardships to come, and the cloud veils the future. Her dress pattern vaguely resembles the female reproductive organs - I noticed this as I was painting it, it wasn't intended at first. All the things she sheds in life- marriage, children, dowry, family ties - these things were all that mattered to a young affluent woman of her culture, and she shed them all to serve the gospel of Christ. All the things that make her a pretty portrait are just an illusion. I intended to make the deer the most realistic part of the painting, even though it was the actual symbolic figure, in order to drive home the head-flip of fantasy and reality.
So this, in a nutshell, was the original intent of the painting.
I now see that the painting process was riddled with problems because my own state of mind was elsewhere, and that manifested as compositional mistakes, color palette problems, value issues, and finally actual weirdness like my brushes going missing (they were in a traveling case, and the thing disappeared for weeks, and popped back up literally an hour after completing the painting, in a bizarre location nowhere near my studio). The painting should have taken a few weeks to paint at the most, but it took nearly six months. While I was painting, I was dealing with the feels of closing my longtime gallery, detoxing off a medication I'd been on for years, having an Addisonian Crisis and hospitalized (adrenal failure), ending my tenure as a curator, moving my painting studio, fighting with the IRS over tax returns, and finding out our building was being sold. I also realized I couldn't travel to Sedan, France, to the opening of Chimeria, as my health won't allow it.
The frustration, disappointment, and sadness veiled the clear path of creation, making the painting process a very rocky road. My mind buzzed the entire time I worked. I made the weirdest rookie mistakes again and again, often winding up sanding down the results and starting over. The fact that the painting came together at all is a miracle, and really came down to the last few painting sessions, the last few glazes. In hindsight I can see all the missteps, but while I was in the thick of it, I was blinded by the things swirling around me, completely unable to connect with the painting until the very end.
Many of the things plaguing me at the time have since resolved themselves, or I've come to terms with. For me, the lesson of St Thecla was the reminder that there is a Bigger Picture; the tornadoes of Now don't represent the totality of a weather system, and even they have an expiration date. There's nothing wrong with disappointment or sadness, frustration, resentment: they're just feelings. But they can manifest themselves into a reality, gunking things up, especially if they manifest into the creative process. As I channeled all this into the painting sessions, I gave myself a far worse time than it could have been. And much worse, I missed out on the relationship I could have built with this painting.