Sunday, June 20, 2010

Highlight of Youth

Last night I was talking to my friend Rocki on the telephone. She reminded me of a dress I made out of a lot of decks of playing cards. I must have been about 24 or 25 years old. My costume won first place at a Halloween ball held at The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Connecticut, which is the nations first and oldest continuously running art museum. After the party ended I cut the bottom off my dress, made a short skirt to dance in, and went to a bar where I won a second place prize for best costume which was a $50 gift certificate to a restaurant. At the museum I won a classy glass vase, hand blown, which several months later my cat knocked off my kitchen table. A grievous loss.

But I remembered the glory of making a costume. The fun, the anticipation, the spot light being on you as you stepped out into a crowd of strangers.

Today my step-daughter is coming over to my home to work on a costume she wants to wear to an anime convention. I don't quite understand the allure of her design. She wants to be a robot from a famous anime cartoon. There is quite a lot of cardboard involved and foam. What she wants her father's help with is retractable wings. They are going to have to invent a pulley system and skeleton to rest on her back. The robot will be so large that it can't fit through a doorway, it has to be assembled in the room that it is meant to be seen in. Convention centers are large anyway. She has visions of simply standing still and everyone taking her picture. One of the design problems the father-daughter team has to figure out is how to make her robot walk. Her boots don't really move at the ankle. In pictures of the robot it is red, with a gold face, and a lot of spikes coming out from it all over.

I wish her well and hope she can make an imposing costume. But as I remember, with snug satisfaction, was that my costume was a sexy costume. I had a bustier bra that I sewed the playing cards onto. I made a skirt out of cards that were connected to each other with little bits of wire. I made a hat rise high above my head, it was a house of cards, all delicately stacked, and glued together. The house of cards was created on a platform that I then pinned to a wig. The wig sat snugly on my head. When I tilted my head the house of cards tilted but didn't fall off.

I would love to make another card dress for this year's Halloween. It is a nonsense activity, fun for the sake of having fun, and something I feel is sorely missing from my life.

I arrange my life around writing my book. I try to leave my mornings free so that I can do this activity. It requires peace of mind and determination. Usually, before I write, I don't want to write. It is work, it is not fun (well, it is fun sometimes when I get going) but for the most part it is a serious endeavor that when it is done well, it leaves me exhausted and drained. If I've written well I usually need time to recover before going on to any other sort of activity.

Last night Rocki told me that in her head she has the plot lines for four novels. But will her novels ever get written? She has been working on one particular one for over twenty years. She says that when she works on writing, she gets distracted by other pursuits. She wants to read a book. She wants to practice the guitar. She wants to do some stretching and karate practice. And then there is the problem that working at the computer is uncomfortable and makes her body ache. Bad chair is my guess.

So I tell Rocki that she has to make a plan and stick with it every day. Every day my number one concern is writing. I wake up, and to shake the effects of the medication that I've taken the night before I need an hour to an hour and a half. During this time I skim around the internet, taking in news stories, both the serious on the BBC and the silly on gossip sites. I read favorite blogs and answer emails. I drink coffee constantly to help me clear my mind from sleep and the drugs. And then, when I've got energy and focus, I turn away from the allure of the internet and I get down to business. I write. And I time myself. The least that I write for is one hour. The most is five hours. I write until I can't stand it. I am exhausted quicker than most would think. After all, I have a mental illness that affects brain function. I don't have mental endurance like people have mental endurance who aren't mentally ill. I've met mentally ill people who have much more endurance than I have. There are schizophrenic people who can work an eight hour work day. When I got sick my mind became very weak. This is different from having a weak personality. A weak mind gets fatigued and can't think straight after a while. Cognitive functions don't function. You turn into a ghost. I can go as far as to lose the ability to talk and move. Oh cognitive functions are very important. Losing them means disability. Losing a lot of them means gross disability.

For instance, having a weak mind was why I couldn't go to art school for more than one semester. This is what I learned about myself while I was at art school.

I was undeniably creative. In order to get into art school I made drawings, every day, for several months. This is like starting from zero. I had no drawings made in high school, I had no drawings made for my own pleasure - I had never really drawn for fun since I was a four feet high midget in kindergarten. My whole life as a child and a teen I had been undeniably academic in my pursuits. Reading, writing, and arithmetic. But then after I got out of the Institute for Living (the psychiatric hospital) I had this job at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and there I looked at art and lectured about art and learned about art history and became, as a whole, jealous of artists who created art. So when I went into my interview with the associate dean of the University of Hartford School of Art I asked her if a person who had as little experience as I did making art (I showed her my drawings - she called them primitive), could ever hope for admittance into the school. What I did not foresee was that during our discussion about art and working at the museum I showed a passion for art that was rare amongst the students that she had interviewed. Most of the students had been making art their whole lives, but did they know how to talk about art? "You will make a wonderful conceptual artist" the associate dean of the art school told me. And then, on the spot, not only did she accept my portfolio of drawings, but she accepted me into the art school, and incredibly, she discussed potential places I could go for my master's degree in art. When I walked out of that interview, in the car parking lot, I was suddenly overcome with dizziness. In my wildest dreams I could not have foreseen the outcome of the innocent interview, my testing of the waters.

For my first semester I signed up for a course in art history (slides shown in the dark with the teacher talking while you took notes - critical papers written at home), an introductory course in graphic design, a course in art theory, and beginning drawing from life. All the courses except for the drawing course were classroom courses well under two hours in length where maybe a little bit of work was done in class, but mostly, class time was made up of discussion and you did your artwork as homework outside of class. We brought finished projects into class and everyone had something new and different to show off. Then we had critiques of one another, discussion, and an elaboration of instruction by the teacher as to what the next project would be. Classes that were under two hours long seemed to be the perfect length for me. And I liked doing work at home and surprising the other students and my teachers with my creations. I was innovative, I always got top grades. Part of my secret to working at home; I liked to create art in my underwear, partially or fully nude. I had never done homework before undressed, but something about art school freed me up. And ever since art school I have made art with my clothing on. But as a student nudity was inexplicably a part of the process of doing my homework.

The drawing course was a studio course and was about three hours long, with a five or ten minute break in-between. In the studio course everything artistic was done on the premises, the students were arranged in a circle around the object that we were to draw and the teacher watched and commented while you drew. Students looked at what other students did. But most of all, during the class on drawing, you concentrated on the object in front of you. You studied its lines, its positive and negative space, and you tried hard to reproduce what you saw with your eyes on your paper. In this class, my weak brain failed me. I could not match the intensity of my fellow students, who all had brains without major illness. I could not concentrate on an object, or series of objects for a three hour or more block of time. And when I forced myself to do so, to stick with it and get the drawings done come Hell or High Water, I became suicidal. That was my brain's default setting for being overworked. Inevitably, every time I left the drawing class I wanted to go kill myself. I am not a glutton for punishment. I saw what trying to draw constantly for three hours was doing to me, and while I was pissed off for being so flawed a human being, a tiny part of me was scared. It doesn't feel nice to be suicidal. It was ludicrous but it was obvious to me what was happening - the simple cause and effect phenomena. The teacher would have never believed me if I told him the way it was. So I dropped the class with no explanation. I had to save myself, as much as possible, from the experience of feeling suicidal. And in the shuffling of paperwork, nobody from the school wanted to know why I dropped the class.

But what I understood, with foresight, was that in order to graduate from art school there were many mandatory studio classes that an enrolled student had to take. Painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, and ceramics were all classes that I must dabble in and I must have the experience of making the different types of artwork in a studio class. But I judged, in advance, that because of my illness I would prove again and again to be unfit to take these long in length classes. I did not have the focus that came more naturally to the other students. And if I forced my focus my brain gave me the sick reality of what it feels like when one is at the end of their rope. Doing homework at home, in little fits of starts and stops, I could accomplish. Maybe the more relaxed environment of being by myself, away from the critical eye of the teacher and other students aided me as well. But it was clear that in art school there were two types of classes, and one type of class I could not preform in. It took me one semester of art school to realize that I could never finish art school. I refused to put myself in a position where I might take the threat of suicide too far, after becoming perhaps, too exhausted.

I left art school with all A's. I switched to the University's English department where all classes were no more than two hours in length. And for those rare classes that were longer, you could cheat with your focus, and withdraw it, all the while being physically present. I could be a body in a chair and nothing more. In art school you could never get away with such inactivity.

When I write now-a-days I am somewhat careful not to empty myself out mentally. I stop before the well runs dry. I stop when I could have gone on. And I think that by doing so, I manage to save myself. Suicide still is the default option on my brain when it has been worked too long and too hard. I push myself but rarely, if ever, do I push myself to such discomfort. But it is a strange way to work knowing that if you give it your all, you will be punished and the punishment will be severe.

Lightness comes from doing simple things like coloring my toenails and fingernails. Lightness is watching a movie. Lightness is sitting on a couch and staring out a window. It isn't laziness. It is what I do after I have been very serious with myself and strained my brain, usually either by socializing (which is work - it can be fun but it drains me) or by writing.

I would like to bring the lightness into my life by planning a Halloween costume. It is frivolous. It is silly. It is childish. June is almost used up and there is left July, August, September and October. Four months to make a costume. I was my step-daughter's age when I made my playing card dress. That was almost twenty years ago. I'm tempted to re-live my youth.

My husband is learning the saxophone at the age of 51. I heard him practicing today. His goal is to practice half an hour every day, like when he was a child learning the clarinet. He has a beginner's book and has learned 5 notes. He only practices these 5 notes. Part of me thinks it is a waste of time. But he was so happy, so satisfied to day when he finished practicing. I told him once he learns all his notes and goes through the beginner's book we can get him saxophone lessons.

My life is a never ending pattern of effort, then relax. Effort, relax. Effort, relax. I try to make everything I do have a point to it, or a gain to it. The grown-up woman thinks that making a Halloween costume is a waste of time. Just like I sneered, inside, when my husband bought his saxophone in the antique shop. "You don't know anything about saxophones, it is probably broken" I said. And it was. But we fixed it and now he is playing it. Part of me honestly believes, with utter brutality, that making music is a waste of time because there is no profit in it.

I must try to relax a little more.

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