Adjusting to Sixty

Every day I find out some new aspect to being sixty. Not just the physical aspects – but the social, mental and emotional sides of living at this age. For example, while I was working at the Swanson River oilfield in the summer of 1972 I got hit on the head hard enough to make my knees buckle. I got hit on my head a month ago and the two experiences have been very, very different.

1972: We were pressure testing valves that were to be inserted in a line of tubing being put down a well, the test requiring the use of 36” pipe wrenches. In order to get sufficient force to seal everything off correctly we had to use 48” cheaters – pipes put on the handles of the wrenches to increase leverage so we could make a tighter seal.

Being nineteen and invulnerable – and also of tired & careless because I was working the first overtime of my life I wasn’t wearing my hard hat. You can see the equation working itself out.

(W + M) x E = S + T

W:  36” pipe wrench (with an extension much longer than warranted for)

M:  210-pound young man hanging on one end

E:  An environment covered with oil and water

S: The wrench slipping

T: One tremendous blow to the head.

I got up right away, “shook it off” like nothing had happened then put the wrench down and walked over to the water fountain only to collapse just before reaching it, catching myself n the edges of two barrels located next to the door.

I was a little shaky that night but was just fine the next day.

2013: I either blacked out or “instantly fell asleep” just as I was entering the loo. I had no idea anything was happening until I heard a loud bang and felt the side of my head start to really hurt.  I got up right away – only this time my knees also buckled right away so I got to my bed as soon as possible and spent some time there before trying to go about my regular routine.

What’s it all mean?  While I recognize that I am physically not as capable as I was 39 years ago inside of me is a 20 year old saying “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?” My muscle memory and reflexes still want to follow that old template and it shocks me when I can’t do it. There’s a template in my brain that wants to shift me into “watcher” mode, making sure my wife and children are protected and taken care of. The reality though is that with my age and disability I am the one that has to be watched over with my wife and sons checking on me, following up and making sure that  I “did in fact go to the doctor after all”….

My beautiful Saxon princess is making the transition much better than I am, falling back on the phrase “It is what it is”. Unfortunately I have not been able to be as graceful, falling back on the phrase “it isn’t what I want” but I know that I will eventually make the transition to a life without 36” pipe wrenches with four-foot cheat bars.

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