I could write about all my current troubles, fears and woes. Maybe they'll match yours. Maybe not.
I took my dogs for a walk today. It was unseasonably warm, sunny, and beautiful out. Other people were out, walking their dogs or jogging. We would wave and smile and stay the mandatory six feet from each other. All I could think of was how can there be such a terrible world situation going on, and yet, its so lovely right now?.
Today is Naw Ruz, the Persian New Year, and Baha'i's all over the world celebrate this first day of the year by gathering together. I logged onto Zoom and joined a group of Baha'is in St Louis; I met some of them while on pilgrimage in Haifa in November, and really looked forward to seeing their faces again. We read prayers, some members sang songs. There was an underlying feeling of sadness during this celebration, but at the same time it was really good to connect, even if it was virtual. I really felt energized after the gathering, and called my mother-in-law to check in on her, and was happy to hear she is well and safe.
I've been boiling potatoes. I don't know why, but the simple act of cutting up and boiling potatoes made me happy. I am grateful that something so simple and understated can pull me away from the fear, the sorrow, the anxiety that is swirling around our every moment. Boiling potatoes for dinner is giving me a bit of space inside my head, a moment of respite, allowing me to think of all the good things happening right this moment. My dogs are playing with each other, my husband is talking to his mom, the smell of rosemary is filling up my house, the sun is setting in spectacular fashion. Right now, these are just as real as anything else, and strangely far more powerful, poignant.
Mitragyna speciosa, better known as "kratom" is a species of tree that originates from Indonesia and is related to the coffee plant. Its leaves have been used for countless years for its medicinal properties, mostly in conjunction with energy and feelings of wellbeing.
The most common consumption of kratom is as a tea or in a capsule. Its dried, ground and sold as a greenish powder. Kratom generally comes in three strains, based on the vein coloring of the leaf: green, red, and white. The average dosage of kratom is about a teaspoon at a time, but each person needs to find their "sweet spot" dose. Unlike most drugs or supplements, more isn't better with kratom: too much and you're in for a nasty bellyache. Its actually better to be frugal.
Different strains of kratom have different effects on the mind/body, and are often broken down into three categories: slow, medium, and fast. "Slow" strains tend to have a calming effect. "Medium" tends to lower anxiety and increases non-physical productivity, and "fast" tends to improve physical productivity output.
There's a massive controversy about kratom right now; ironically, although not a narcotic, it "tricks" the brain into thinking its receiving a narcotic substance. This has made it a cost-effective, natural way to detox off narcotics for addicts and while this seems like a miracle solution to the opioid crisis, its not being championed. Theories abound about the possibility that much like cannabis, kratom is not something a pharmaceutical company can profit from nor control, and because the average "kick" time using kratom for an addict is about 7 days, recovery treatment centers aren't exactly championing it either. 7 days of kratom costs a user about $32, give or take. Additionally, its not an addictive substance, although if used regularly, one can build up a tolerance to a strain and the effects are slightly diminished. This is often remedied by switching around to different strains in round-robin fashion, or just simply stop using it for a little while.
Some folks use it to help with chronic pain, and that's where I come in. Its not a painkiller; its a supplement to help manage pain. I found that certain slow strains (for me, the white variety) will tamp down the intensity of pain, particularly neuralgia. Kratom comes on slowly; in fact, you kind of don't realize you're feeling the effects at first. Unlike THC in cannabis (which I have tried for pain management and migraine), its psychotropic effects are not mind-altering, and I don't feel sleepy like a narcotic would make you feel. Its very much like coffee or black tea, or a very mild sedative, in its effects. I often feel very upbeat after about 20 minutes of drinking the tea, and for the pain, its still there but doesn't seem to bother me as much. If there was tension or anxiety in my body, kratom helps lower it a bit. Additionally, slow and medium strains of kratom give me a little burst of energy, the type that allows me to complete a task or focus on something for a few hours. Unlike coffee, I don't feel a comedown quite the same way; its slower and more natural to the rhythm of how your body will slow down or tire. I don't experience a "crash".
Because of my Addison's Disease, energy management on a daily level is monitored and often frugal, since I don't have cortisol or aldosterone production and have to fully rely on steroids to get me through the rigors of the day. Kratom doesn't seem to interfere with this, nor does it seem to sap out or stress my system the way that caffeine can. I only drink one or two small cups of kratom tea a day (one in the morning, one in mid afternoon), which is about a teaspoon of the powder in each cup, and that's all I really need. Some people are fine with just one dose a day, or even every other day. I like the little bursts of energy, otherwise I often don't even need it daily, just when my neuralgia is acting up. Honestly, its kind of a chill supplement in comparison to its robust cousin, the coffee bean.
I do have to take narcotics to manage pain, especially if its really bad, and kratom helps reduce the need to take them. I really like that. Kratom is my first go-to for the nerve pain, and often is enough (combined with rest and other things to help get the nerves to calm down).
Like any substance, one needs to educate themselves on it, its effects, how to ingest it, and of course, find reputable places to get them (I really trust the website "Happy Hippo" and their products have been really good). I have noticed doctors freak out about kratom, mostly because they know so little about it, but I do think its important to discuss it with your doctor if you want to use it as a supplement, and I don't know how it affects children under 18. However, for myself, I've been pleasantly surprised with kratom and its relative safety thus far. I don't think its fair to demonize this tree leaf, or to fear it; its really worth learning more about.
I have been fortuitous to meet major influencers in my life, while they were still alive. Granted, most of those meetings were fleeting, much like how you meet a celebrity at a comic book convention (which I've actually never done, despite all the conventions I've been to). I did stand in line to meet my favorite TV Show host when I was seven: it was the clown J.P. Patches, and I had stood in line for over an hour, which is about an eternity for a small kid. By the time it was my turn to sit on his knee and get my picture taken with him, I was so tired, over stimulated and generally cranky that I couldn't say much more than "hi", and I think I may have burst into tears soon afterwards, as my auntie chose not to purchase the photo I had taken with him.
Fortunately I have not cried during my meetings since then, although I did have an Addisonian attack while sitting with the artist Brian Froud, and had to spend the remainder of the day drinking water and stress dosing steroids to get my nerves under control. Brian is one of two celebrities that have struck me totally dumb (and that's not easy to do); the other was the director John Waters.
While I think it's important to tell a celebrity or influencer that you admire them or their work, I've also discovered that sometimes this isn't when the real meaty connections happen. I actually find these moments kind of a massive letdown, I think because its sealed with the typical autograph or photo op, and I just feel like its phony: I'm getting this pretend souvenir of us being all buddy-buddy, a superficial connection, knowing I'm just another face, another blip on the radar. This might be why I actually avoid meeting people I admire at places like a show, convention, or whatnot. I just feel dumb. Plus, being me, I've made some horrid faux pas in front of celebrities - and while yes, that will get you remembered, its not exactly how you want to be imbedded in their memory.
Honestly, I don't waste my time chasing these people, and here's why: Life is full of twists, and sometimes things flip on you in a really wonderful way.
Not long ago I sat and chatted for nearly an hour with a very quirky art collector; we talked about collecting art, how to properly frame art, and he excitedly told me about how much he loved painting and wanted to work as big as possible. He spoke with big sweeping gestures, which I found delightful, he was absolutely animated and charged up. He was maybe in his early 50s, had a nose ring (which isn't too weird in Seattle), and very chiseled features, and I guessed maybe 20 years ago he would have been kind of a scenester, if he was local. Finally, I asked him his name (I talk to anybody, for hours; I also have face blindness so half the time I don't even recognize my own friends). He got a little fidgety and embarrassed, then spit it out. Holy crap, I thought to myself, I've been talking with a member of one of my favorite bands ever, about my favorite subject, and totally didn't realize it was him. I actually chose not to flip out; instead, I introduced myself and continued the conversation, which he happily obliged. It wasn't quite how I ever thought I'd meet this guy, but it was even better.
A few years ago, at a convention after-party, I found myself sitting at a table with an illustrator celebrity, sort of by accident. As we didn't really know each other, we were polite, and he was a bit reserved because, well, he's famous. His entourage (yeah, even illustrators have entourages) was scattered around him, and everyone had been doing shots so there was a lot of, uh, liquored up energy about us.
An old illustrator buddy of mine sat down with us, of whom this famous guy knew, and he immediately perked up at the sight of a familiar face. My buddy said to this famous guy, "You know, Jules and I go back over 20 years! Back in the old Magic Alpha days! I can't believe its been that long."
The guy's jaw dropped and he looked at me, incredulous. First, he couldn't believe I was that old, but he then said, "Wait, you're Julie from Magic? Wow, I didn't make that connection, I loved your cards, I used to play in high school and hoped I could be a card artist someday, I was such a fan."
I did not expect that at all! We wound up hanging out talking about art until five in the morning, eventually ditching his entourage and even our mutual friend, thanks to that ice breaker. It never dawned on me that an internationally revered artist could like my work and have it inspire him. He's way, way more talented than me, I almost felt like an idiot when he gushed over my work, but again, a lovely twist.
That actually lines up with something I feel pretty strongly about: making honest, inspired connections with people. Most famous people start out like we all start out; those we admire are just as people-y as we are. Despite having prosopagnosia, I have a razor-sharp memory for stories and odd little details. I may not remember a face, but I actually do remember many of my encounters with people, and the stories they tell me. I think our stories are really what life is all about. I know I may never have a deep, connective conversation with my idols (I'm holding out for my White Whale, the great Alan Lee), but I've had the most wonderful moments with people, ordinary people -- and we all know that the Universe is a funny thing: that little girl crying on the lap of a clown grows up to paint trading cards that a high school kid collects -- trading cards influenced by the music she listened to, of a band that had a guy with a nose ring as a member. That kid grows up and paints iconic book covers that win awards and inspires thousands more kids to pursue their dreams. We're all connected, you see, and often just the smallest word, smile, conversation, or act can trigger a lifetime of events, even far out into the future. We're all made of the same stardust, and I'm ironically reminded on a regular basis that whether a person is of a celebrity status or just quietly living life on the outer fringes, we're constantly influencing each other in weird roundabout ways.
I like to use my dad as a classic example of someone who had no idea the impact he made on many people. He wasn't famous, and often lamented on his musical failures. However, he didn't know that his music influenced many many people, even on the other side of the world, including famous people, like Julian Cope. He would have been shocked to see that his memorial service was so packed, people flowed outside and they had to set up speakers so those on the outside of the building could hear the service. He didn't realize that the skinny little kids that frequented his music store, the ones he'd chat up as they "tested" instruments and talked about the local music scene, would grow up to form the band that his daughter painted cards listening to, including that one guy with the nose ring.
Yesterday, I went with my sister to pick up my four year old nephew from his daycare. When we walked in, the kids were sitting at their little tables eating orange wedges. One of the teachers explained they had just returned from a trip to a local park.
While my sister hustled her kid into his coat, a few of the children excitedly explained to me their adventure on the metro bus, which they took to get to the park. For some of them, it was the first time they'd ridden on a bus.
"We had to hold hands together, so we wouldn't get lost"
"I got to sit at the back!"
"I could see out the window, we were high up!"
"It was bumpy"
One little voice piped up after another, between fistfuls of pulpy orange. This was clearly the highlight of the day, the bus ride. Of course, being about 45 years older than them, I've ridden them plenty, and believe me, I don't get quite so excited about boarding public transportation, but listening to this chorus of kids made me realize how even the most mundane things in life were novel at some point in time. And even a little exciting.
To a three year old, the world is pretty big and new. I think this is why they crave a basic schedule; there's a lot of information being tossed at them to process and learn. Even their brains and bodies are new, growing, changing. I would suspect that the natural inclination for a preschooler is to be wary, confused, and anxious, but if you really watch them, most of them are curious and enthusiastic. They are really invested in the present moment; they have to be, its part of our human survival. Distraction can literally kill us.
After talking to the kids, I wondered to myself, at what point do we just take everything around us for granted? Have I gone Life Blind? Later on in the day, when I was driving home, I thought about this and really made the effort to engage myself in the drive. I did have the radio on, but I really made the effort to pay attention to the ride, how the wheel felt in my hands, how fluidly the car moved. I had to drive along the Seattle waterfront, and the scenery was enjoyable, the setting sun casting long blue shadows against golden piers poking out of the water. I noted that normally, while I was driving, my mind would be running along, thinking about my errands, what to make for dinner, how the next day was going to run. I compared the overall feeling between my normal experience and this current driving experience and came to the conclusion that I'm chronically cheating myself. In an attempt to get ahead in life, think myself through it, I'm completely missing out. Oh, and I was clearly a better driver this go around.
Playing with my nephew, I'm reminded of how regimented my brain is, despite all my years of experience and knowledge. He often changes gears, bends rules, goes with the flow; his games often make little sense beyond just being fun. He comes at everything with literally everything he's got, although he doesn't realize it. In playing with him, I noticed that overall, he's just enjoying hanging out with Auntie, regardless of the activity. It's me that attaches the concepts of "quality" to the block of time, not him.
So really, in listening to the three and four year olds, I myself realized I'm making judgements about the quality of daily activities: is it worth my attention? I somehow came to a conclusion that the crap flying around in my brain is far superior than what is going on around me, even if the crap in my brain makes me anxious. In doing "boring" things, like driving, riding a bus, whatever, I choose to distract myself, tune out, until something I deem "quality" kicks in. In the bigger picture, however, that negates huge chunks of my life where I'm tucked away in my brain, living in a fabricated, virtual world, and as my drive proved, or playing with my nephew proved, I've missed out on a lot, even if its just subtle things like noticing the quality of light from a sunset or just the feeling of being together and enjoying company.
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!