1982: The Face of Pain

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The Face of Pain

In May of 1982 I was part of a Field Training Exercise at Malamute Drop Zone, Fort Richardson, Alaska. I was responsible for managing the Army end of all airlift coming in or out–the Airedales will fly anything, but the user has to make sure it’s ready to go. Because of that assignment, my small detachment was located a few miles away from the main body of the battalion.

Between the length of the initial deployment (I was awake and working for 36+ hours) and the environment (dust combined with wide ranges in temperatures) I came down with a cold… which rapidly turned into pneumonia when I couldn’t get to the aid station right away. It wasn’t until our medic determined that I was running a 103-degree temperature that things started to happen, but I still spent a night in my tent by myself before getting to a doctor.

It was during that night that I saw this creature. Yes, it was a fever-dream but it literally scared the hell out of me. When I was finally able to make noises when moving my lips I asked who he was and he responded “Skaaa, the bringer of pain”

As I said before, I know it was a dream–and I know I have an over-active imagination at times as well… but every time I go through particularly nasty bouts with illness or pain that last for any length of time I can almost see this bundle of spruce sticks over in the corner, eyeing me with malicious glee as he sharpens the skewers, hooks and other implements of his trade.

…pain.

There are two types of posts I make to this blog. The first type is a spontaneous post and usually involves a piece of art. The second type is in essay form, usually 600-1200 words and has been drafted, proof-read edited offline so it comes out exactly right. This post is going to be a mix of both.

While this is not a political blog, and I am not an overly political person I started out with a rant about prescription pain medication. Granted, there is a problem with abuse and diversion in the country but in humanity’s usual mode of over-reaction a lot of deserving people are being not just hurt but permanently damaged.

I was that rarest of anomalies, a drug-free college student in the early 1970s. I didn’t start out with any hard and fast opinions either way, but I made a promise to my girlfriend that I would not indulge, and I kept that promise even though it brought enormous pressure from the other residents of my dorm to include threats of violence. When they finally figured out that (A) I wasn’t a narc and (B) I wasn’t going to cave their attitudes changed and I became the token “straight.” As my good friend The Badger said to me “Deitrick I guess you have character,” and from then on anyone from outside Lathrop Hall risked damage to life and limb if they pushed the drug issue with me.

It’s been that way all my life. I had extremely high security clearances and was selected to control large amounts of money and extremely valuable items of equipment because I have proven myself to be scrupulously honest. When I returned an extra $20 a clerk gave me with change after a purchase she was amazed that I did so, saying, “No one would have ever known” to which I answered, “But I would have”

So, where is this going? Please bear with me.

At the same time that I have been going through life as the living embodiment of Richie Cunningham from Happy Days, I have also been going through sheer physical hell. As the result of a now overwhelmingly disproven SIDS prevention measure known as Thymus Irradiation I was deprived of a healthy immune system. Because of that I have multiple auto-immune problems: advanced rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and multiple skin rashes which are often severe enough to bleed through.

…and did I mention the pain? I don’t have a thesaurus big enough or accurate enough for me to find words to accurately describe the exquisite torture I go through just to get up in the morning. You know that little graph they use to help verbalize pain, the one with the little faces on the number scale? At any given moment I have at least five areas bouncing up at about #7–and there are days when I could tape an extension to the end of that little scale and draw in three additional expressive faces showing pain at level 11 (vomiting) 12 (voiding bowels) and 13 (giving the world the “one finger wave”). I have knuckles that look like walnuts and major joints which possess 20% of the range of motion I had ten years ago. Because of the various non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed to me I’ve gone through pancreatitis twice (usually a one-way trip the first time around). I have gone all the way to “the edge” because of uncontrolled severe pain. The only way I can live anything close to a normal life is by using pain-killers.

OOOOOOHHHH. AHHHHHH. See–already you’re sucking your breath in and looking back over the previous half-dozen paragraphs to see if I ever car-jacked someone or dried a baby off in a microwave. If you use pain medication you are automatically judged as a criminal/addict. Never mind that all these “conditions” are due to massive stupidity on the part of doctors that are all dead now–I am flawed because I need this kind of help. What is bitterly ironic about all of this is the fact that pain-killers don’t really “kill pain.” The pain is still there, but you’re able to ignore it to an extent.

Long term chronic pain acts almost like a disease in and of itself. As your body copes with the overload on your nervous system it changes and adapts–and not in a good way. To take the pressure off of one joint I have to kind of twist in an otherwise unaffected area-–but which now causes more pain because it has been forced into an alignment it wasn’t made for. The longer the pain goes on, the faster and more intense it becomes as well. One doctor explained to me this simplistic but effective manner: it’s like the pain messages have worn a groove they can zip down.

At one time I longed for a device that would allow someone to experience my life for just thirty seconds–a small hand-held device with a push-button on it–but in the end was glad it didn’t exist. I’d be leaving a trail of people collapsed on the floor, covered with vomit with their bladders and bowels voided.

…and contrary to what thoughtless people have said to me, this isn’t a moderate condition that I am “using.”  As you would expect with growing up in Alaska and life as a soldier, I have experienced other periods of severe pain before all of this set in. At age 10 I walked on three broken bones in my foot for a week before getting a cast. I had my left thumb slashed/dislocated in an industrial accident and I took care of it with aspirin and a butterfly closure. Passed gallstones twelve times before the operation with only ibuprofin to ease the pain.  I know what pain is and what I go through daily equals those brief incidents.

Fortunately there are exceptions in the human race, people with unfeigned compassion.  I have two attending doctors now that both deserve sainthood for what they have done for me but in many ways their hands are tied by government rules and regulations that are just not thought out very well by people who know nothing of the science involved to begin with, much less the misery their actions have inflicted.

I make it through each day only because I have a great support system, with my beautiful Saxon princess at the top of the list. As I mentioned there are my two doctors and their staff who regularly save my life through their care and compassion… and there are the members of The Club.

The Club. I am certainly not the only person in this situation and I refer to those friends of mine in similar straits as members of The Club. I can readily pick those individuals out of a crowd–there is particular combination of a dark exhausted look around the eyes, a careful way of walking and an absence of judgment that comes only from countless sleepless nights, regular spasms and chronic joint pain… and the fear that comes with it. It is something that can only be experienced to be understood and it gives you a compassion that nothing else will.

At the outset of this post I said I didn’t know where I was going or what I wanted to accomplish, and I still don’t have a totally cohesive thesis statement to tack onto the introduction. Just do me a favor please. If you know someone in pain-hell, or in your daily activities encounter someone with a cane, moving in an oddly stiff manner or maybe wincing while moving around at a desk or handling objects, please be kind. No matter the kind of life they’ve lived, they’re going straight to heaven because they’ve already lived in hell.

Something Closer to the Right Side….

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Something Closer to the RIght Side....

Even though the precision with which I make my cut-paper sculpts can readily lure me into Left Brain Land, I think I avoided that trap with this piece. It was originally done about ten years ago (close after the “long/skinny” I just posted) but I revised it this last year before giving it to my friend Hank Taylor upon his promotion to colonel.

The bright colors and near-whimsical rendering style are not an exact fit for the intensity and tone of the Normandy invasion but there is still a sense of strong emotion, that butterfly-on-steroids feeling you get in your stomach before making a night equipment jump.

Thank You, Albert Jones (the Inventor of Cardboard!)

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Thank You, Albert Jones  (the inventor of cardboard!)

My children refuse to call me an artist. They tell me that I am a “maker” instead – which I can understand because the trappings of the art world have never meant as much to me as the down-and-dirty “making” part–hence things like large cardboard vehicles.

This was made just a little bit earlier than the Batmobile I showed the other day. History nerds that we are you will note that this is a specific tank–the M3 Grant with a gun in the turret and a larger one on the right side of the hull.

When it was built in the fall of 1991 there was room for me and both boys inside. By the following spring they had grown so much that it had become a single-seater.

Creative Curmudgeon Commentary 3: No Golden Tickets.

 I’ve been teaching since 1988 and during that time I have seen an unfortunate trend growing – the idea of the “golden ticket”. Other than being a major plot point in the sadly misunderstood Arnold Schwarzenegger 1993 action flick ‘The Last Action Hero” a “Golden Ticket” is something – a tool or qualification that will inexplicably grant you incredible success by merely being in your possession. Aladdin’s Lamp. Green Lantern’s ring. An airbrush. A Waccum tablet.

 Or a degree.

 It’s sad because students pass through my classes now with absolutely no desire to actually learn anything. They seem to be there solely to pass the class with as little work and as high a grade as possible in order to check off a box on the way to a degree which they assume automatically qualifies and entitles them to an extremely well-paying job. I can understand being pragmatic about school but I still think it’s sad – they miss so much during school and crash so hard when their entry-level job does not come with a corner office and a six figure salary.

 I worked my way through undergraduate work before there were Pell grants and it took me twelve semesters to earn a Bachelors of Arts (BA) degree in April of 1979. Not many people on either side of my family had earned college degrees, but I felt bad because it was getting a BA instead of a BFA – a bachelor of fine arts that was a bit more specialized and a notch up in status. Unfortunately there were a number of my fellow students and faculty members that made sure I knew the difference. I mean really, really really made sure that there was no question in my mind that a simple BA was just barely above “wash-out”  

 There wasn’t much I could have done differently:

  • I was attending schools located 3000 miles away from my home and support system.
  • I attended three different schools,
  • I made a drastic change in my major (pre-law to art) and then changed my area of emphasis within my major.
  • I was extensively involved with ROTC
  • I took a two year break right half-way through and also went to school part time for three other semesters as well.  
  • I was married for the last two years of school
  • My summers were not available for internships – I worked as a roustabout in an oil field.

 My insecurities were eased a year later when I was working at The U.S. Army Aviation Digest. The officer in charge at TSC (Training Support Command) had seen my work, liked it and invited me down for an afternoon to look around his facility.  This was long before computers or PowerPoints so instructors used slides to accompany lectures – and the slides were produced by a stable full of civilian illustrators at TSC.

  Please excuse the horrible pun but the visit was an illuminating experience for me.  I looked through the building I noticed that there was a common decorating motif in all the artists’ cubicles. Hanging on the walls would be:

  • Sketches and reference material for their current projects
  • An outside “signature piece” –something done outside of work that the artist felt represented their talents better than the little pot-boiler lecture slides they were doing for TSC
  • The artist’s framed diploma.

I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. While close to 100% of the framed diplomas were for BFA degrees, 75% of the artists working in those cubicles were “not-very-good” artists. I won’t say bad – because there were a couple of nicely rendered spots in some of the slide illustrations that people were working on that day, but most of the work there was several levels below what I had been led to expect out of someone holding a BFA degree.

It was my first lesson about golden tickets…

…but you know the door often swings both ways. In our last episode of CCC I talked about not chasing clients and how there are some people who will lead you on for years…and as I inferred this has happened to me. In my case the person in question also suggested that I go back to school and take some figure-drawing lessons. Why the nerve! I was a successful freelance illustrator with an appropriate level of awards and recognition for the stage I was at. I judged the comment to be another one of those Manhattan thumb-to-nose gestures given to”flyover people” and moved on with my career without that client.

…but a decade later the issue came up again, though the second time it was me talking to me.  As I was closing in on 50 I had to admit that my figure drawing needed improving.   I had plenty of tricks to help me get by: I used projectors, I’d ask Lori to “edit” all my faces…I even went so far as to downplay the detail and finish on hardware pieces so those areas wouldn’t overpower my figures – but the fact remained that I wanted to be one of those guys who could sit down and just knock something great out my sketchbook in fifteen minutes

So I sent myself back to school. No, I didn’t take classes, but I set up a figure drawing program to build my skills. For almost ten years I studied, maintained a special reference binder, and drew. Not just lower-case “la-dee-dah” drawing – I DREW!  In addition to any other project I had going on at the time I worked in my sketchbook at least twice a week – sometimes three times – and in the end it paid off as you can see below.

So, again – there are no “golden tickets” in this business. I may joke and tell people that “illustration is all a bunch of cheap tricks – and they all work” but even with the cheap tricks you have to push yourself. On his death bed Michelangelo Buonarroti kept saying “I have so much yet to learn” and he was in his late 80s when he cleaned his brushes for the last time. You have to rid yourself of the idea that there will be a time when you can just “punch a ticket” or coast –

….and if that is too hard to do then I would recommend AFLAC and their great training program.

drawing progress

Raid on Iran Cover Art

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Raid on Iran Cover Art

Even though this was the sixth game cover I produced, it was one of the first to see print. I did a number of covers for Howard Thompson at Metagaming in early 1980 but for various reasons they were either delayed or never saw print…which is disappointing. Howard assigned art as “work-for-hire” and kept all the originals–and I was not consistent at first about documenting my work.

This shows that “movie poster” influence that I came out of undergraduate studies with. It was no accident that the M60 was part of the composition–I was a platoon leader at the time; during the week I was painting this at night but I was with my machine gunners qualifying at the range during day… and I wasn’t going to waste good reference!