Jan 2, 2016 8:10pm– When I was 48, I turned 96 years old. From someone who ran on a treadmill a few times a week and regularly walked miles across town, I became a doddering and feeble geezer overnight. Paralysed, confused and unbalanced, I struggled with the simplest of tasks, both mental and physical. Three years of exercise and physical therapy have improved my age discrepancy slightly, from 48/96 to 51/80, and I’m hoping that my real age and virtual age will again align sometime, but at the current rate of improvement it will possibly be around 60/60.
Even after my 3rd STROKE-iversary (on Boxing Day 2015) I am still not yet used to my situation, because my transition from middle aged to elderly has been so sudden. When walking through a mall during some recent pre-Christmas shopping I accidentally caught sight of myself in a shop window, and the lopsided and shuffling old man that I saw reflected there did not match the image of myself that I still carry in my mind’s eye. Of course, this disconnect happens to all of us as we age, and the middle-age that I’m at now is where we first begin to experience it, but in my case that shift has been dramatic rather than gradual.
It is still a profoundly weird experience to be living inside a body that doesn’t do what I ask of it. Many muscles are still asleep and don’t respond to my requests at all. Others respond, but sluggishly or not in the way I expect. It often feels like a malicious imp is countermanding my own commands but I bumble and stumble around as best I can. My sense of balance is better than it used to be but only because in the past few years I’ve learned to compensate visually for my onboard balance system being broken. I’ve always been a late bloomer. When everyone else could ride a bike in kindergarten I didn’t learn till I was 10. I didn’t learn to swim till I was 17 and while many people started shagging in their teens, my own furtive fornicating fumblings didn’t begin until my twenties, and I still can’t drive a car. When I noticed this late-starting pattern many years ago I consoled myself that my old age too would happen later in life, but wouldn’t you know it, the one area in which I’m ahead of the curve is decrepitude.
As I shuffle awkwardly through a two-handed world with only one functioning hand, I find that my nemesis is packaging of all kinds, with a particular loathing of child proofing. Pill bottles and Ziplock plastic bags fight me but I’m proud to say that I can now open a can of cat food with one arm. As I dawdle with my cane across the threshold of self-closing bathroom doors I’m often caught like a mouse in a slow-closing trap. Very occasionally, mini ordeals such as these will cause me to howl in frustration, but thankfully that is very rarely and only when I’m completely alone. Mostly, I see the comedy in my situation and a lifetime of being a cartoonist has trained me well me in this.
Preparing to ride the train not long ago, I positioned myself on the platform where the train door would open when the train finally arrived. I hoped to enter as quickly as possible and take a disabled seat, as I dread being on my feet when the train lurches forward, but as I made a beeline for the disabled bench a pregnant woman and a dude on crutches were equally focussed on the same goal. It was like the climactic three-way showdown of THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY. As The Pregnant, The Injured, and The Crippled sized up the situation it was an amusing impasse, with nobody clear on who took priority in this gimpy game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Thankfully a shootout was averted when able bodied-passengers surrendered their seats. By the way, an interesting variant on this situation is when spry old ladies already occupy the elderly/disabled bench when I enter the train/bus. Based on such situations I’ve been in so far, elderly able-bodied women trump younger feeble-bodied dudes, sometimes with a “don’t even try it” glare to underline their premier status.
Till recently, my right leg was stiff as a plank and didn’t flex and I walked like a pirate with a wooden leg, but in the last six months I’ve gained the ability to flex my knee a little due to Botox injections in both my leg and my arm in 2015. At first, the Botox seemed to have no effect on my spastic muscles, but after multiple extra injections in my thigh, my knee finally relaxed a bit. This is potentially an exciting breakthrough. I still have to fight against some spasticity and quickly tire in this struggle, but I’m optimistic that over time I will get a smoother walking motion. Back when I first began working in animation learning the positions of a walk-cycle was an early professional focus- how the back-most foot pushes off and the front-most foot arcs and connects- and I’m back at trying to master this motion again, but in the first person this time, much as I must have done as an infant. It is a common motion, so common that we all do it twice with every step we’ve taken since we were toddlers. I’m not even able to guestimate how many times I’d already effortlessly made the manoeuvre before Boxing Day 2012, but I now struggle with this elaborate coordination of multiple muscles being turned on and off in sequence. I hold the ideal walk pattern in my mind’s eye to coordinate my palsied muscles via imperfect neural connections, hoping to perform this elaborate ballet of mind and sinew. Interestingly, I heard one of my physical therapists explain to a colleague that I have unusual powers of visualisation, making it easy to explain certain movements and principles which are normally difficult to explain to patients who’ve never considered the mechanics of human walking since they were a 2 year old. 30 year animation career for the win.
It is still unclear if I’ll ever be able to resume that career I loved, but I’m trying my best to make it possible. In addition to my physical therapy chores, I spend a lot of time trying to train my left hand to draw, and made significant progress in this regard in 2015. The left-handed drawings I do now don’t look like my old right-handed drawings, which I can live with, but in order to re-enter a career as a professional artist I need to draw faster. Drawing speed is perhaps the second most important requirement for what I used to do professionally, and it is still unclear if I’ll ever get that speed and dexterity back. After focusing on analog sketches and watercolours for the first 2 years of my drawing training, I’ve recently been trying to make artwork digitally. It goes slowly but there is significant progress, and I try my best to get my drawing speed up, so if an art gig finally eventuates I can rise to the occasion. Even if I’m never a pro artist again it’s still very important to me to be able to draw and make visual art. I’ve self-identified as someone who draws since I was a small boy, and a life that does not contain it in some form would be hard for me to bear. My current hope is that my right arm can one day serve me as my left arm once did; to stabilise a check I’m signing, a sketchbook I’m drawing in, or to hit the OPTION key on my computer, and so on. So far, it’s only marginally useful in these simple tasks because of violent tremors and a complete lack of spatial awareness (a real 6th sense that we all of us normally have is ’proprioception’, now totally lacking on my right side). Unlike my leg, my arm has not yet responded to the Botox injections, but more are scheduled for 2016 and I’m hopeful that it too will become more cooperative in time.
So the ongoing big IF is still how I will ever earn a living again. If not as a cartoonist, then what? Many people have suggested teaching and I’ve actually gone to speak to several classes at media colleges, but so far at least, there is no prospect of supporting myself financially that way. Part of the trouble is the drawing speed issue that I mentioned earlier. Online schools would need me to sketch redline draw-overs on the students homework in REAL TIME (via a web interface) and my dexterity and speed are simply not there yet, but hopefully I will get there soon. Another quirk is more logistical/bureaucratic. The rules of the meagre disability allowance I survive on now are very quirky, such that I can lose the disability allowance completely if I earn 50% of the dollar amount I get for my monthly check. Seems a counter-intuitive way of DIScouraging work, doesn’t it? I called Social Security to double-check I had not read misunderstood the phrasing of the rules on the Social Security website, but confirmed that yes indeed, that is the case. Nevertheless, I’m committed to trying to find employment anyway, but it does put some pressure on me to find a volume of work that would offset the loss of my disability check. Most of my friends who teach are doing so part time, and those opportunities are out there, but they don’t offer enough compensation to risk losing my disability allowance. ‘Let’s see how it goes’ part time gigs don’t really cut it.
This year a personal goal is to write some material that will work as professional writing samples. I’ve been writing and drawing anyway, simply to prevent myself from going mental, but I hope to advance my writing to some kind of ‘next level’ by writing a screenplay and a manuscript for a childrens ‘chapter book’. Julia gave me a wonderful Christmas present in line with this goal; a gift voucher to a college that specialises in teaching writing, and after I figure out which of their many courses best suits me, I’ll take one. When I was 17/18 years old, I began to figure out the way to get people to pay me for drawing. That was not initially an easy thing to do either, yet I somehow learned to navigate that world. If I cast my mind back to the early years of my animation career, before I had any connections, reputation or experience, it was a time of spotty employment and I imagine it must be the same trying to be paid to write. It is a more crowded field, because many more people attempt to be writers than cartoonists, but it is worth a shot.
Wish me luck!
4 thoughts on “80 @ 51”
I do wish you luck. As someone who never knew what they wanted to do in life, I am awestruck by your calling at such an early age. I know Julie was the same way. I hope you find a way to channel your creativity and talent. Your drive is there and hopefully the love and support of your friends and family will keep your head up.
Lots of love, Jamie and Julia! Thanks for the update. I think of you and your recovery often and always fondly. -Amb
Luck to you, my friend. And BTW we just watched “Inside Out” and saw your name near the top of the credits … and don’t mind telling you, Chris and I both hated it. Because we really don’t like crying in each other’s presence.
I have faith that you will make a living in some capacity as a writer, James. You truly have a gift!