The Holiday Curse

— Sep 30, 2014 1:36am

Not long after I wrote my last update in JUNE, Julia and I attended the Story Department Wrap Party for one of the last films I worked on before my stroke, INSIDE OUT, which will come out next year. The party wasn’t one of those fancy black tie affairs, but an informal and very pleasant night of socialising with my old colleagues, that required me to navigate a lot of tricky winding steps up to the venue, then come back down those same rickety stairs in the dark a few hours later, after I’d had a skin full of booze and was even more wobbly on my pins than usual. Such real-world situations as these present a special type of physical therapy: CROWDED MALL THERAPY: will I be able to navigate that bustling crowd of bag-toting shoppers? EGG NOGG THERAPY: How will I manage walking downhill at night after a few Egg Noggs? Let’s find out shall we?

An exciting recent development has been a few chances to write professionally. I’ve found that writing, both here and on my blog, has given me a great deal of comfort during this difficult time, but now I have been making myself useful by wring on some projects. In some cases, they are the personal projects of friends, and don’t represent any income, but give me a chance to practice writing screenplays professionally, as well as work creatively with pals, which is always uplifting. However, around about June of this year, I was contacted by someone that I’d met many years ago at Comic-Con, who wanted me to do some writing for Disney TV. It was a small project, just some development for TV show ideas, but it was very fun just the same, and I am optimistic that this may turn into something more in time.

In JULY, my old pal Phil, who himself has been going through his own medical ordeals of late, invited me and his friend Mike to accompany him on a Northern California road trip in his brand-new Airstream trailer. One of those sleek silvery luxury numbers. This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to get away from the grind and head to Lake Tahoe. My last attempt at a getaway was last December, when Julia and I tried to escape the drudgery of my medical woes and attempt a New Years trip to Napa Valley. Only to both catch a fearsome cold within mere hours of checking in, and spend the entire trip confined to our hotel room as sick as dogs. Unfortunately, the HOLIDAY CURSE continued on the ‘Boy’s Trip’ to Lake Tahoe, when the hitch between Phil’s Land Rover and the Airstream trailer came loose and the trip was cut short. Nobody was hurt, but the potential for utter disaster was definitely there. Thankfully, we were only driving a few miles an hour, as we were on a narrow and very winding country road. However, the spot where we’d stopped to re-hitch the trailer was on a bend, and we worried that we might not be seen by on coming traffic. Being the least able bodied of the 3 of us, and utterly useless in the physical labor part of the mission, I went back down the road a way, to wave a pillow-case and flag cars and warn them to slow down when taking the next turn.

When confronted by the sight of a gimpy bloke with a walking-cane on a back country road and frantically waving a pillow-case with his one good arm, 90% of drivers know that something must be wrong and stop to enquire if they can help. Hilariously though, a few did the exact opposite, and FLOORED it! Lord knows what they were thinking; that I was attempting to carjack them with my pillow case? Or that I was scamming them, and my gimpy gang would hobble out menacingly from behind a rock? Or that whatever problem this particular gimp was in, they wanted no part of it? So off they sped, in a frenzy of screeching wheels to watch that evening’s ‘Survivor Island’.

Thankfully, we DID receive some help, and one fellow offered us flares to place on the road. I got the impression they’d been in his car for years unused, and being able to actually use them in a bona fide emergency gave him a lot of satisfaction. Finally, the trailer was re-hitched, and we managed to limp to a pleasant trailer park near a river, and although it was tempting to spend the weekend relaxing there, we ended up hiring a tow truck to tow the trailer back to the Bay Area. Last I heard, poor Phil was still dealing with both the Airstream dealership and the Land Rover dealership, each denying any responsibility at all, even though they’d each previously said that the combination of the two was safe. The tow truck driver that got us home, an expert on hitches I’d assume, said the hitch was fundamentally flawed.

Later that same month, I had yet another attempt at a holiday. My brother Jo, and his wife Priscilla and their kids had very generously invited both Julia and I, and my Dad and his wife Wendy, to attend a vacation in Mexico where they’d used their timeshare points to swap for a week in nice resort by the beach. Since my stroke, I’d not travelled by plane anywhere, so this was to be something of a landmark trip for me, and Dad & Wendy used this mini family reunion as the first leg of a multi-month trip to connect with those of us Bakers living in the USA, and then head on to meet even more family living in Europe. Unfortunately, about a week before we were due to fly to Mexico, I came down with what appeared to be a severe case of flu. The day before we were due to fly, I was feeling so miserable that it was touch-and-go whether we would cancel the trip.

The morning of our departure though, I felt substantially better, perhaps a shot of family-reunion-adrenalin had kicked in, and we decided to fly after all. I managed quite well through San Francisco airport and boarding the plane and even the flight itself. As soon as we arrived in Mexico, however, and they popped the door open and that hot Mexican air found my feeble Celtic body, I was overwhelmingly sick again. The process of getting off the plane, getting our bags, getting to the hotel and checking in, waiting in a crowded lobby that was not air-conditioned, was utterly exhausting, and I began to melt. By the time I’d had a shower and later hobbled to dinner with my family, I was about as wretched a human being as you could ever hope to meet.

The very next day, a doctor came to the hotel and diagnosed me with a bad case of bronchitis, and put me on and a round of antibiotics that thankfully did start to make me feel better (though I wouldn’t be completely healed until another month and an additional round of antibiotics). In terms of being a restful vacation and sightseeing trip, for me, the trip to Mexico was an utter failure, but I don’t regret going. If it was a choice between staying in San Francisco sick in bed, or going to Mexico and being sick in bed, but spending the evenings with my family members who I so rarely see, going to Mexico was the better option. A few days later, while still doing our best to try and relax, we got more bad news when Julia found out that her entire division of Disney interactive in Palo Alto was being closed and she was losing her job.

When we came back to San Francisco, the inevitable happened, and poor Julia got sick herself, and had to cancel some painting workshops she’d wished to attend. Truthfully, even now, two months, later she is still recovering, and has an evil-sounding cough. Whatever we both caught, was it was incredibly tenacious. It’s times like these, where bad luck seems to dog us at every turn, that we sometimes feel a curse is afoot. After Napa, Tahoe and Mexico, I’m afraid of what will happen on our next attempt to unwind. If you see a mushroom cloud on the horizon this Christmas, don’t be alarmed. It will just be us on holiday again.

Perhaps the highlight of AUGUST was the wedding of our friends Ben and Amanda, which was held at Stern Grove, a beautiful little park not far from our apartment. The reception was actually held within a pretty little building that I had previously sketched earlier this year, so Julia and I decided to give them that sketch of the building where they’d held their wedding, nicely framed, as a wedding present. Ben & Amanda’s wedding was very distinctively arranged and a lot of fun to attend.

Dad & Wendy’s travels brought them back this way in SEPTEMBER, after their visits to family in Europe. Coincidentally, Julia’s father and stepmother were in town, and the six of us got together. Unfortunately, the bad luck struck again when I had my bag stolen when we all relaxed at a cafe in the Chrissy Fields district, and I wasn’t as attentive of my belongings as I should have been.. For the past two years, I’ve constantly been in the care of people who care about me and have my best interests at heart, so I’ve lost my street smarts. With my mind on other things of late, I’ve forgotten that when in a public place you need to watch out for your personal effects. I’d only walked away from my bag for 2 or 3 minutes before I realised I’d left it back at the table, but by the time Julia dashed back there to retrieve it, the bag had gone.

It was a trendy shoulder bag Julia had bought for me. In fact, several people had stopped me in the street to ask me about it, so I’m sure that thief had expected a laptop, iPad, or iPhone to be within, but the most valuable thing inside it was the monogrammed handmade leatherbound sketchbook that Julia had given me for Christmas. It contained several months worth of my left-handed sketches. I feel sure that that the thief would’ve immediately tossed this away as useless, but this loving gift from Julia was priceless to me. It contained all my left-handed sketches I had done while on our ill-fated holiday in Mexico, a bunch of nerdy tribute sketches to Doctor Who, and a sketch of a rusty old car. Julia later went back to the spot where the bag went missing, and spent several hours plastering the neighbourhood with REWARD fliers, but the very next day, those flyers had been taken down, whether by an OCD neighbour or the thief himself who can say?

Many years ago, when travelling in Peru, I likewise lost a valuable sketchbook containing several years of travel sketches, when a bag of was stolen from my hotel room as I slept. In that case, the theft caused me to lose the momentum of sketching, but this time, I’m determined to get back in the saddle and keep drawing. Several of my friends have made this a lot easier by sending me beautiful replacement sketchbooks as encouragement, and I am committed to filling those up. Every few days, I discover yet another missing document or object that was in the bag, and have to go through the process of replacing them. Such as my cheque-book and Social Security card (in my bag as ID for a recent job) which necessitated that I get some identity theft protection on the recommendation of my bank.

The theft was such a shame, because otherwise, the visit by Dad & Wendy, and Julia’s parents, had been going very well. We’d spent about five days together in which the weather had been absolutely beautiful and culminated in seeing Dad & Wendy off on their Cruise back to Sydney. By a remarkable coincidence, the ship that they sailed in was part of the same shipping line that our family had used in 1974, to travel between Sydney and Southampton. Back then, it was known as Chandris Lines, after several mergers and corporate takeovers, it’s now called Century Cruises, but the logo is still the same: a white X on a blue field. They no longer offer passenger services, those were phased out when airline ticket prices came down in the 1970s and people started to travel more commonly by air. They just ply the cruise trade nowadays.

The day we took Dad & Wendy down to Pier 35 to check their baggage onto the ship, the process was a shambles. I’m not exactly sure what the problem was, perhaps the shipping line had not assigned enough porters, nor a baggage supervisor, but he outcome was that it was utter bedlam as we tried to check in their bags. If you remember those chaotic times at an airport getting onto a flight, where they’re only checking in 200 passengers, try to imagine the same thing with 1800 passengers and their baggage. After enough voices were raised, we managed to get Dad & Wendy’s bags checked in, and went to have a surprisingly pleasant meal at nearby Pier 39. Then we said goodbye to the world travellers and saw them onto their ship, and watched the ship depart. It was a spectacular sight, seeing it travel across the bay and out under the Golden Gate Bridge for the 24 day voyage across the Pacific to Sydney. I have no idea if Dad & Wendy could see us standing at the end of Pier 39 to wave them off. We couldn’t see them, as the passengers on the deck were simply too far away to make out, but I hope they have a fun voyage home!

In addition to my writing jobs earlier in the year, some of my old animation pals have recently called me in to do a little bit of what you’d call ‘story consulting’. Back in the days when I could still draw at professional speed, I was essentially paid to draw, and my ideas were for free, but recently, I’ve been paid to consult on story ideas entirely verbally. I have no idea where any of this will lead. I’ve spent 30 years establishing contacts and a reputation as a professional artist, and it remains to be seen whether I can reinvent myself in such a way that I can still make a living in the industry I love, even though I no longer draw, but I am excited to try and find out. In order to do this job, I needed to ride the BART, which is the main train line that connects San Francisco with the rest of the Bay Area. I have ridden public transport a little bit since my stroke, but not during rush hour, though I had to do that to get to work on time. I used to ride the BART every single day, like any half-bored commuter, but now it’s a roller coaster ride fraught with drama.

For example, I timed the opening and closing of the train doors at about 15 seconds. If you’ve seen the way I am today, it takes me about 8 seconds simply to sit down or get up out of my chair. 99% of people are very considerate when they see someone shuffling towards them with a walking-cane and immediately vacate their chair for the geezer, but these days, most people within a bus or train have their head buried in their iPad or iPhone. When you’ve only got 15 seconds to get in and take your seat before the train lurches forward, and you’re a slow moving badly balanced human being, with only one hand able to hold on and support yourself, but that one usable hand is already in use holding your cane, it doesn’t leave much time to ask a person to get out of the disabled chair, before you are potentially lurched onto your arse when the train takes off. Nor the reverse situation; getting out of the gimp-seat once the train has stopped moving, and hobble out of the door before the onrushing passengers. So far, it has all happened without incident, as long as I take care to ride the train at the tail end of rush-hour, when it’s not as busy.

This chance to work again and feel useful (after two years of feeling anything but) was immensely gratifying to me. At the moment, the work is very sporadic and certainly nothing I could live on, and I get by on a monthly Social Security disability check, and report my additional income to the Social Security office. There is a grace period of 9 months where I can begin to earn income but still retain the entire Social Security payment. Then, there is an incredibly bizarre Kafka-esque bureaucratic Catch-22, whereby if I start to earn more than $1000 per month, I will lose my $2000 per month Social Security check. This sounded like a mistake, and I called Social Security Disability to double check that I had not read it wrong, but that is indeed the way it is, which seems like an amazing incentive NOT to go out and find work, but I am determined to try anyway.

Physically, my condition is very similar to how it has been, and any improvements in my walking or the flexibility of my arm, are very subtle at this stage. I’m still experiencing the strange combination of numbness and pain. I’ve asked my medical care givers how this is even possible, and they explain that the numbness is only on the surface of the skin and the outer muscles, whereas the pain is coming from deep within the joints themselves, and they happen on different nerve tracks. So my touch sensitivity is kaput but my pain receptors are working. (Oh good; my own body is as capable of hollowly ironic Catch-22s as the Social Security office.) My right hand continues to tingle, and my hope is that this is caused by nerve connections being reestablished. In terms of any real feeling, although I have no touch-sensation, I can feel temperature in my right hand. When I wash the dishes, I can feel the warm water, and more recently that ability to sense heat and cold has gotten so sensitive that I am able to feel the warmth of a person’s skin when I shake their hand, without feeling the hand itself (and yes, that feels very strange). It would make an immense difference to me if I could get even a little bit of touch sensation back in my hand, and I remain hopeful that it will come back in time.

Recently, Julia and I attended an advance screening of one of the last feature films that I’ll possibly ever work on as a story artist, called The Boxtrolls, and it just opened in the USA. I worked on it from 2008 till 2012, off and on, but because all the work was in the early part of the process and the final film changed quite a bit after I left, I have nothing in the final film or ART OF book. Thus my final credit was “additional storyboards by”. This is one of the downsides to working on films at the front end; you often end up with not much to show for yourself when the film comes out, but it is a very fun phase to work in nevertheless. This very quirky movie is perhaps not the sort of thing that will be a worldwide Pixar-style smash hit, but it is a wonderful film nevertheless and I was very gratified to finally see it.

I’ve gained a lot of solace from other people who’ve gone through what I’m going through. Firstly, in the very early days of my ordeal, an old friend of many years volunteered that he too had endured a stroke years earlier, but had managed to keep it secret from many of his friends, including me. I was immediately reassured that this quagmire IS surmountable. Earlier this year, my occupational therapist introduced me to another person who’d had a stroke. I’d already attended several stroke survivor support groups, but far from finding the experience to be supportive, I found it to be thoroughly depressing. However, the idea of bonding with people who been through the same experience does have an appeal to me, and my therapist felt that meeting such people would be therapeutic, so she introduced me to Robbie, a fellow very much like me; a creative person disabled by a stroke. Within a few minutes of meeting, we realised that we’d both worked for the same company many years ago, and though we’d never previously met, we shared quite a few friends. Like me, there’d been a snafu with his insurance, leaving him horribly in debt. There are so many similarities between our two stories that it’s amazing.

In Robbie’s case, his affected side is the left, rather than the right, as with me. We are mirror images of each other, and often joke that if we were lashed together we’d have the makings of one functional human being between us. Like me, losing his manual dexterity has affected Robbie’s livelihood, because he was a carpenter, specifically a movie set builder and model maker. Julia and I recently attended a wonderful benefit auction staged by Robbie’s friends to raise money for his medical costs, and held in the place he once worked, and Robbie attended the auction in person. He is a better man than I. When a similar auction was held for me in 2012, it was relatively soon after returning home from hospital, and I was still physically frail, and didn’t go. Apart from physical frailty, I admit that I was was afraid of breaking down emotionally too, but now regret not attending. So it was very cathartic to attend a similar auction for another person going through the same ordeal as myself, and see how marvellously moving it is that his community reached out to help pick him up.
Sometimes it feels as though the uppercuts are the only thing keeping me on my feet. Given the recent disastrous attempts at vacations, the illnesses, and disaster narrowly averted, smashed car windows, thefts, and job losses, in my moments of weakness and self pity, I wonder if there is a curse afoot, feeling that Fate has been cruel to us. I’d fire my Guardian Angel if only the lousy bum ever showed up for work. In his absence, Karma, the Universe, Luck and divine intervention have not been working in my favour either. The only thing that has consistently been there for me is my community; my friends, my family and loved ones. You have all been wonderful through all of these ordeals, and this support continues to keep me buoyed up. If I ever get back up on my feet, that will be the reason why.

7 thoughts on “The Holiday Curse”

  1. Thanks for the update.
    Sending a heart seems too trite for what I want to say, but I’m doing it anyway. I’m so happy to hear you’re receiving freelance work for your writing as well as your film ideas.
    Lots of love to you both!

  2. Hey James!!! Amongst all the crap you have to endure, you still seem to wear a stoic’s brow! Losing that sketch book is dreadful!!!! What a painful blow. The bastard!! It will be nice if this thief starts selling your sketches on line and your leftie art takes over the art world….then you and your work get rightfully reunited…that’s a narrative I would love to see play out.

    And hurray for family and friends! You deserve them!! And story work suits you down to the ground. Very cool that you’re getting yourself back into the workplace! Amazing to know that you’re tackling the commute! Sheesh, an Olympic effort.
    You remain as inspirational as ever with these postings James!

    (Still haven’t caught Box Trolls but going to try today.) Big hugs from London
    Phil and Lisa
    — Philip Vallentin, September 30, 2014

  3. Hi Jamie.
    Hang in there. It’s fantastic that you’ve been writing, and I loved seeing the scketches you did at Stern Grove, especially the one with the trees reflecting in the pool- beautiful and alive, and so much wonderful Jamie-style in it.

    I’m sending positive thoughts, for the perfect type, amount and payment of a job, less pain and more pleasure, and many moments grounded in the beauty of the present moment. I will hold you in my thoughts, as well as Julia for her being well and finding good employment as well. You will both get through this, and have an amazing holiday at some point, and it will be SO good.

    I just started back in my sketchbook today after 47 days of emotional stormy weather, and even though it was rubbish, it felt great. Thank you for the post, always a pleasure to read, even with all your stormy weather.
    Much Love xox

  4. Glad to hear you’re doing consulting – we have a project being reviewed by financiers. We’re not holding our collective breath, but we have you in mind for a little consulting if the money comes through.

    Re: your Karma, hey, a good Friend of mine said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!”

    And you know, another thing: the James Baker touch is very much apparent in your left-handed drawings. They’re not what your left brain considers “up to scratch” but don’t sell yourself short. Let your right brain do some decision making, especially as it applies to the pride you can take in your work!

  5. I’m very grateful that you’ve kept up these journal entries. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if all our friends did that on a regular basis? I know more about what’s going on with you, Jamie, than I do about a lot of our other friends. Thank you for the honest, naked and often hilarious truths that you share with all of us. MUCH love to you…

  6. Hi James, I’ve only got around to reading your post now. I’m so sorry to hear all your trials & tribulations!! It certainly MUST feel like your Guardian Angels are asleep on the job or something. Uncanny. Well, I certainly hope that what it really means is “that’s the last bit of yuk stuff out of the way”, & I truly hope Julia starts to feel better soon, & things start looking up. They say the only certainty in life is change, so with that in mind, I hope things change SOON!!

    That’s terrific about the work! Even though you’re a terrfic artist, you’re a terrific storyteller & ideas person…& your great drawing skills translated your stories & ideas beautifully. Personally I really like your lefty drawings very much, if not more than your previous right-handed drawings, but it’s you that’s really the hero I reckon. Drawn or written or spoken, doesn’t matter, your talent is you, your way of seeing the world, communicating it. That’s priceless, & I think a lot of people see it too.

    Keep going James. I’m barracking for you all the way…I love reading your journal entries & how life is for you. The ups & downs. Just love it. You’re one of my heros.
    Lots of love & big hugs to you both, xxxooo

  7. I’m well behind Janine and the rest of this bunch of loving well-wishers in reading – and very greatly appreciating – this piece; and I’m glad to endorse all these others’ encouraging reactions. Wen and I remember with great fondness our happy meetings in Mexico and San Francisco; and yours and dear Julia’s being there to see us onto our ship far, far outweighed the irritation of the absolute shambles (agreed) of getting our bags aboard. Once aboard ourselves, we found the whole thing magic from start to finish.
    We continue to find these think/feeling pieces of yours magical too; keep them up and publish the collected works to a wider (nay, worldwide) readership. And good luck with the various foreshadowed enterprises. Love to you and Julia from Wen and me


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