A Life Half-Arsed

Feb 5, 2014 7:10pm

I’ve had a strange and tempestuous relationship with drawing over the last year. From January to June I didn’t really draw at all, though it was on my mind more or less constantly. This was partly because I was preoccupied; I was dealing with major problems with my mind and body, and exercising to improve my cognitive skills, being able to dress myself, or learning to walk again, took most of my attention. Plus, in in the early months, I became exhausted easily and needed to sleep much of the time. With several family members coming to town to help me during that period, I wanted to spend as much of my free time with them as I possibly could.

But I must admit that another reason for not drawing was simply that I was full of anxiety about it, and deeply afraid. Each time I picked up a pencil, whether it was with my right hand or my left, The best I could draw was clumsy squiggles, I would persevere for for a moment or two and then get very depressed. The hand that knew how to draw since childhood was now paralyzed and the hand that was not paralyzed was clumsy and useless. I can honestly never remember a time when I did not draw, right up until 2013. Since early childhood, I drew as all children do, but I began actively thinking about drawing from the age of 7 or 8 years of age, and from that point forward, it was something I became fascinated by, and in the many years since it not only became my living but also a means of escape, of expression, and of identifying myself. “The kid who drew.” But now, a part of me that I valued, that I healed myself with, and traditionally turned to when feeling low, was absolutely dead to me when I needed it the most.

I was afraid of the emotional spiral I might get into if I dwelt too much on it.. One thing I have learned in the last year is that the frightened human mind is quite capable of eating itself alive if you let it. So you must not let it. I was already a physical mess and financial ruin, without being an insufferable self-pitying sad-sack as well. So I did whatever I could to keep my mind occupied, and if there is any advantage to being in such poor physical condition as me, it is having so much physical therapy that there’s a full slate of activity to distract my mind with. I searched about for some other way of expressing myself, and discovered the catharsis of writing. These posts here have been a great help to me. I picked-up my old project of writing down childhood recollections to keep my mind busy, and began posting new stories on my long-dormant blog.

Then something happened with my feeble drawing around September, and it was more an attitude shift than any advances in my skill. The drawings were still unbelievably crude compared to what I used to do, but it didn’t bother me. As is often the case with me, the breakthrough came in a chuckle. A crude little squiggle that I drew amused me, and at that moment, the joy of drawing was ignited, much as it must have been on that first now-forgotten day when I first drew something that made me LAUGH, as a wee child. Now, unattached to any expectation of visual polish, I relish the surprise and exploration of drawing, and I’ve pushed through to the point where I enjoy it again.

A self-caricature of me in my wheelchair, 2013.

It’s as if I’ve gone back to the time when I was 11 to 13 years old. At that age, I was very much into drawing, I loved it and was getting better at it, but it was anybody’s guess if any particular drawing would turn out terribly or turn out great. Sometimes I would do an absolutely brilliant drawing and surprise myself. The very next time that I tried, the drawing would be utter garbage. But the point is that I would sit down with a great sense of anticipation and wonder every time I did a drawing. There was mystery and excitement, and I think I’ve tapped back into that feeling at the moment. All last year I was fighting through the feeling that an important part of me had died when I could no longer draw, but it is coming back, and in a way that I had forgotten; the JOY comes first and the POLISH comes second.

My childish joy at drawing again was recently shared by my cartoonist friends, who’d gathered in solidarity at my plight, at a non-dominant-handed drawing event. It was very fun way for other cartoonists to show their support, and I have a recent POST ABOUT IT on my blog.

After several months of enjoying drawing goofy doodles, I’ve now hit another drawing milestone in that I’m drawing sketches from life again. This takes a lot of effort and perseverance, and I am excruciatingly slow. Part of what makes it so difficult is the simple act of sitting for so long. Since half my body has withered, I now have no bum-cheek on my right side, and while my left bum is still the well-upholstered shelf it ever was (an inheritence from the BAKER side of the clan) my right bum-cheek is so thin it’s like I’m sitting on the very bones of my pelvis. (When I said ‘excruciatingly slow’ earlier I meant it in more ways than one.) I’m now quite literally living a life HALF-ARSED, and can report officially from the half-arsed community that this really is just as bad a way of doing things as you’ve all been led to believe. So, while my gluteus maximus is currently so very minimus, an essential part of my drawing kit these days is a cushion. I have ANOTHER POST where you can read about my recent half-arsed sketching adventures, on my blog.


The rest of my physical situation is more or less the same as it was a few months back; I walk with a cane and leg brace and my right arm is still restricted in its movement. There are subtle improvements month to month, but I need to cast my mind back to a time 2 to 3 months ago to see the change. I’ve often tried to get my therapists to help me guesstimate where I may be a year from now (or even two) but they wouldn’t play that game with me, and would instead go into Yoda-mode; ‘Do not obsess on the details but be in the now’..

If you break your arm or leg, the medicos will tell you how much time it will take you to recover, but with brain injuries and stroke recoveries they quote vague, fortune cookie affirmations. They want to keep you positive but don’t really know concrete answers. Each brain is wired so differently that each case is unique. So they tell me to not put expectations on it, but focus on the therapy. In terms of attitude management, it is great advice, but I must confess that it makes it difficult to plan my future.

At one year out from my stroke, I’ve had to seriously assess my right hand. I laid it on the line for my occupational therapist; vague can-do Mr Miyagi mantras aside, I really valued her assessment of my condition and where I could reasonably expect to go from here. I said that I understood the reasons why the predictions are kept loose and patients are coached in that way (imagine how often their predictions must cause anger, or bitterness in patients) but I said that I really needed to prepare for the rest of my life. She knows what I can do currently, and where I want to be, and has a lot of field-experience with such things. So, what does she think? (I should mention that I really loved all of my therapists, and genuinely feel their care for me).

She stared at the ground for a long time, and I could see that she was choosing her words with great care. Finally, she said that the hard truth is that I will never be able to draw with my right hand with the sensitivity I once did, if I cannot feel. Being able to do any fine motor skill requires tactile feedback from the fingers, and without it, they will always be clumsier than they once were. That assessment would change if feeling ever came back to my hand, which may yet happen, but the chances of my right hand coming back to full dexterity get slimmer by the day, just because of the continuing numbness (other areas of my right side have regained sensation but sadly not my hand.) She said that at one year later, they would expect to see my hand further along than it is. I appreciated this candour. Even though it was a stomach punch that put me on the floor, it was a jab that I’d asked for, and had suspected already for months.

This is not to say that I am giving up on my RIGHT hand, far from it, it is still my PLAN-A. There is quite a lot of emotional stuff simmering just beneath the surface, so even if I do learn to draw competently with my LEFT hand, there will be a hint of sadness if I ever gave up on my old friend, the RIGHT, but I need to explore some PLAN-B options for ways to earn a living..

My best bet at drawing again, in the short term, is to train my LEFT hand to draw, so that’s what I will do. Everyone is chipper about it, but I am facing the possibility that I may not be as good as a true lefty, because of brain wiring we all have, attached to our dominant hand. The other possibility, is that I may eventually draw wonderfully with my LEFT but it may take a long time to train it, to pro standard. One year or five?  And what do I do while retraining for my left-handed PLAN-B?

For that reason I have PLAN-C as well, and I’m looking into my short-term alternate options. I have only ever done animation, since I was 17, so I have to wrack my brains for what else I might possibly do instead. Maybe teaching? I spoke with a career guidance guy who admitted that he had never seen a case like mine. People who normally go to him do so because they do NOT like their jobs, whereas I was as happy as a clam (your typical stroke survivor is well beyond retirement age, so the subject of retraining does not often come up). If I have to, I’ll do anything, but rather than do data entry at a dentist’s office, I think my best bets for something that draws on my 30 years of experience in animation are; (1) Teaching, whether story-boarding or design (and I have some messages in to teacher pals to ask about that) OR (2) some form of writing. This is a longer shot, but would be closer to the kind of problem solving I used to do as a story artist.

More than anything, I hope to go back to my prior life; pre-December 2012. Even the absolute ‘shittiest’ day from that earlier time seems like heaven to me now, and all my energies are focused on getting as back close to it as I possibly can. Bear that perspective in mind as you feel oppressed by your boss, or your ill-fitting shoes, or the IRS bill you got in the mail, or the rude person on the train. That crappy moment may be one that you’ll likewise long-for one day. I am not saying this in a spirit of woe-is-me. Not at all. I know right now, at this very moment, people who have terminal illnesses, medical issues and financial situations that make me exceedingly grateful that my own woes are manageable. I think the point is that stress, fear, embarrassment and anxiety start as outside factors but often become bigger inside our heads than they need to be, and can rule us if we let them. We each have to do some mental and emotional exercises to keep our perspective. This is not simply a case of resignedly saying “it could be a lot worse” but re-connecting with the simple opportunities each of us have each day to make true JOY for ourselves. Because that comes first and improved circumstances second, not the other way around.

I don’t know where the lefty drawings will lead me. I’m not sure if I will ever be ‘good’ enough or fast enough to draw professionally again, but I am enjoying the exploration, and the fact that a part of me feels like it is slowly reconnecting in my head.. So thanks to all of you who gave me drawing supplies, and sketchbooks and so on. I had a slow start using them perhaps, but I am back on track now!

6 thoughts on “A Life Half-Arsed”

  1. JAMES!!!! Mr Inspirational Humble Eloquence!!! You are flying. So great to read this entry.
    Plan D….A YouTube Sensation as a Life coach, stroke recovery therapist, bon vivant, illustrated raconteur!!!

    Definitely you have great facility with writing. No reason why that couldn’t be a source of income. You write me a limerick, poem, super short 30 sec idea and I’ll pay you!! Done deal!!
    February 6, 2014

  2. Dear Boy
    Congratters on your latest piece. From any number of angles, it has to vie with the best so far. I’m more than pleased to endorse all the points made by Phil and Lisa.
    Two books demand to be uttered forthwith (in order of priority):
    1. The case-history of your whole experience from Boxing Day 2012 to the present.
    2. The collection of reminiscent pieces constituting the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sprog.

    Get cracking! Love from me and Wendy,
    February 6, 2014

  3. Once again, a nicely-written update and full of hope. Thanks for sharing. Just keep going Jamie. I’m loving these new lefty drawings, they capture a nice energy that would be hard to pull off with a trained hand. You must unlearn what you have learned and just have fun. Looks like that’s what you’ve figured out with that first drawing that made you chuckle. It might not be coming out polished or how you exactly hoped, but you are drawing, and that…is…awesome!!!
    February 6, 2014

  4. James,….I’ve now taken to printing out your journal entries & putting them inside a real, live folder that I open & re-read from time to time. If you don’t mind, I’m going to print out this one to give to a friend who is having a very bad time at the moment. What you say I think will ‘speak’ to her. Such genuine honesty.
    HOORAY!!! Oh, how wonderful for you to be able to discover that JOY of discovery in drawing TWICE in your lifetime. To capture again that freshness & aliveness of UN-polished drawing. I do school workshops & so often I look at the kids drawings WISHING I had done it!!! I reckon their secret is that they just don’t think when they draw. They just do it, & have fun. Sometimes I get a child who thinks too much & can’t even start their drawing because their mind has already started telling them stories & it paralyses them. “I can’t draw.” is the most challenging thing for me to hear. I’m most fascinated by these kids. Why at such a young age do they think so much? How can I create a space for them to let go of some of those thoughts, or even yse those thoughts, just for the hour, & relax & just play with line, colour, anything.
    There’s no reason why you can’t do ALL your ideas, & more. Teach sometimes, write & consult on stories, publish your kids stories,…& anything else you can think of.
    Have you ever thought of teaching kids?
    I’ll bet you could set a few kids on a path that mightn’t have occurred to them before…there might be a little James Baker out there just waiting for the right person to awaken something in him/her. Just a thought.

    Whatever you decide you’ld like to do will be the right thing, I’m sure, & I’m behind you all the way. Keep going James :) ….even if it is HALF FAST (ahem)
    lots of love & big hugs to you & Julia,
    KEEP MAKING MARKS ON PAPER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    February 9, 2014

  5. Loving the writing Jamie. Your emotional journey is heavy duty. Fist up to you. Left and right fist. Both holding pencils, paints and a shining scepter of story. Artistical emotionality seems to rise again in your path. That Jamie life path. I bow to your journey. When I had my eye operations thing, the constant subtle yearnings for my previous two eye life was the core of the lessons. I felt lotso sadness until I had an emotional breakdown, and gave up that past. Then the day to day realities of it all. An odd sweeping breakthrough came when I entered gratitude for the injury. Acceptance and and letting go. Heavy stuff but maan you live them good signs of that personal heart work in your letters. No choice sometimes. But always a choice to look up instead of down eh? Inspiring and loving to yourself my friend. May all flourish for your body, mind and spirit brother of art. Soon we shall touch again. Frolicking, slightly gay, in the fumbling of the brilliant human folly. Loves. Mike
    February 11, 2014


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