Learning To Love You More




Assignment #14
Write your life story in less than a day.

Paul Arensmeyer
Houston, Texas USA



I'm the middle child, and like most middle children I'm the "best adjusted" child.
Born in 1960 in the same small farming and ranching town that my dad was born in, and that my mom had lived in since she was a pre-teenager, I grew up a kid who didn't know much about the non-rural world. Culturally the depth of my experience was country and top-40 music, paintings on saw blades and dead animal skulls, high school sports and 100 ways to cook beef. Where we lived people would purchase tickets weeks in advance, get all dressed up, and drive 60 miles for movies like "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Sound of Music." That was high culture.
I wasn't a "geek", or a "wimp" or a "nerd" really, but I was a completely non-athletic kid, which to other people somehow meant that I at least had geekish, wimpish and sometimes nerdish qualities. Fortunately, I was also a smart kid, and had the social skills (and sometimes bullshitting talent) to fit into pretty much any group of kids. I fit in with the smart kids, with the church kids, with the stoners and, for the most part, with the jocks. I wasn't a perfect fit in any of those groups, but I was a nice enough kid that all of those groups accepted me. I learned early on that my rabid sense of humor humor made up for the fact that I couldn't catch or throw, and to always have friends who were bigger than me, to bail me out of the trouble my smart mouth often got me into. When hanging with the stoners, I had a nose for taking my leave just before trouble hit. I wasn't an athlete, I wasn't motivated to excel in school, I stayed out of serious trouble, I was an average kid. When I was a senior in high school my class voted me "Class Comedian", an award that comes with neither a letterman's jacket nor scholarship potential, but that showed that my classmates respected me for what I was.
My grandma was my best friend, and I was her favorite as well. In fact, even though she's been dead for 11 years now, she's still high on my list of favorite people. From the time I was old enough to go "uptown" by myself until the day I graduated high school, I stopped by my grandma's office (she was the secretary at an insurance agency) every day after school. She had a stroke the year after I graduated college and never spoke or walked again, but still lived another 12 years. I admired her for the way she realized that even though she was unable to communicate normally or live independently, her body was still strong and healthy, and that she actually learned to be happy with her new life. She was very happy for 11.5 of those 12 years, and although getting one or two words out in a row was a rare and major achievement, she could still let you know that she was proud of you, or that you needed a haircut or should stop biting your nails.
Like most stroke victims, she often had no control over her emotions. I lived 700 miles away and only got to see her a couple times a year and the hardest part of those visits was always leaving. On every trip "home" I would visit her daily, and the last thing I would do before I left town was stop in to say goodbye to her. After several days of good visits, the image I always left town with was of her weeping loudly because I was leaving again. On one trip I told her that, and asked her to try hard to not cry when I left so that I could remember her smiling instead. She never cried when I said goodbye again.
Just a couple weeks before she died it became clear to everyone who had learned her new way of communicating that she had decided she'd lived as an invalid long enough. She was a little restless those last two weeks, but died in her sleep without so much as a muscle twitch. I love the fact that she died so effortlessly.
From junior high through high school and my first two summers home from college, I spent most of the time I wasn't in school working in my parents' hardware store. At the store I wore plaid polyester pants and very thin, short-sleeved "uniform" shirts that always made me look even skinnier than I was, and were a major source of insecurity when working at the store. The greatest skills I developed working at the store were the ability to figure out how use tools and build or fix pretty much anything (Both masculine skills in most people's eyes.) and how to deal with difficult people.
By the time I was 15 or 16 I had learned how to somehow charm those customers that the other employees dreaded. I worked on them until weren't just nice to me, but asked for me when they came in the store. Somehow I had become the one they trusted to figure out what was wrong with the pump on the horse trough, or why the paint they put on two months ago was peeling off already. It wasn't because I was a cute kid, adolescence wasn't kind to me and at that age I wasn't cute at all. I think it was mostly learning not to let their difficult sides ruffle my feathers, and appealing to their pain-in-the-ass side in a way that made them see how unnecessary it was to be difficult.
My favorite job at the store was washing the windows on the 3rd of July. The small town we lived in had a huge 4th of July celebration which started with a parade - mostly floats made out of chicken-wire stuffed with Kleenex and spray painted, along with a very rural assortment of farm animals in costume, tractors and combines decorated with crepe paper, antique cars and kids pulling their pets in wagons. The parade went up Main Street, turned around and came back again. Everyone said it was so you could see both sides of the floats, but it was also a way to make the parade last longer than 20-30 minutes. The day also included a professional rodeo, a demolition derby, and a pretty large fireworks display for such a small town. For people who had moved away from town, July 4 was annually the favorite time to come back and visit. Our store was on Main Street and I loved watching traffic pour into town on the 3rd. Washing the store's windows was always my excuse to be out on the street observing all the activity. Obviously my parents knew that it didn't take any longer to wash the windows on July 3 as it did any other day, but they always accepted the fact that on the 3rd it would take all afternoon.
My least favorite job at the store was watching kids from the nearby reservation to make sure they didn't steal anything. They didn't come in too often, the reservation was 70 miles away, but when they did I always had to put on a jacket (to hide my "uniform" shirt) and "discreetly" follow them around the store. What I hated most was when they would look at me and say, "I'm not going to steal anything." Because I was a kid and they were kids I felt like a big loser every time I had to do this job.
I was in eighth grade when I tried my first beer. Some kid had found a 12 pack of Oly out by one of his dad's wheat fields. The can's were faded, obviously they'd been out there a while, but we were stupid, and it was beer, so we drank it anyway. Oly doesn't taste very good when its fresh, this beer was just plain skunky.
I didn't have another beer until I was a sophomore in high school. Through all the rest of high school I drank every weekend that I wasn't grounded for drinking. We drank weeknights sometimes too, (which was a bigger deal in the early 70's than it is today) and just once I went to school after drinking at lunch. Teachers in small towns know every kid too well for any kid to go unnoticed when they're drunk at school. It was a very unpleasant afternoon.
When it came time to start thinking about what happens after high school a very persistent thought came from somewhere deep in my brain: "Get out of this state..." It wasn't that I didn't like where I grew up, in fact my plan was to get a business degree and come back and officially take over the hardware store. (That plan lasted until about halfway through my first semester at college.) Somehow my young brain, which at that point was not known for being a font of common sense, knew that if I went somewhere alone, without other kids from high school and far enough from my family that I couldn't come home every weekend, I'd be better off.
My parents weren't wealthy ranchers, but they still made too much to allow me to get financial aid, so the only way they would agree to pay out of state tuition was if I went to a Lutheran university. There was one Lutheran university that was the standard choice in our part of the world. I picked a different one.
I suppose if I tried really hard I could remember what classes I took my first year of college, but I doubt I could tell you much that I learned in them. What I did learn that year was that I had grown up in a very sheltered place. I found out who the Talking Heads and Rush and Skynard (among others) are. I found out that I dressed like a farm boy and that some people actually thought about what they wore. I learned that it was possible to smoke pot every day without anyone noticing and that in a city it was easier to buy beer when you're under-age. I discovered that there was life beyond the rural place I was from, and that there was even more life beyond the U.S. I saw my first prostitute. I met my first black person, Jewish person, and person who was from another country. I discovered that freeways had more than two lanes and that the tallest building in many places wasn't the grain elevator. Most importantly I learned that I could never live in a rural town again, but that there was still much to respect about that lifestyle.
That year I met my "second" family, a cousin of my mom's, her husband and their three kids who range from 1 to 6 years older than me. For most of my young adulthood this "aunt and uncle", as I called them, were closer to me than my own parents, and their kids are, to this day, closer to me than my own siblings. Mom's cousin was just going back to get her degree at the university, her husband ran the radio station there. The greatest accomplishment of his career was building a small, college radio station into one of the strongest National Public Radio broadcasters in the nation.
These were people I had never met but who instantly welcomed me and made me part of their family. It took a short while before we formed a bond that actually felt like family, but from the first time we met I knew I was welcome in their home anytime I needed to get off campus.
They are a true family family. They have a bond that not many families have. Obviously they have disagreements, some short lived, some that have existed for years, but they're a tight unit in spite of those and genuinely enjoy each other whenever they're together, which is often.
Both parents died this year. She died in July after a short but brutal bout with cancer; he died in December from sheer sadness. Although it's sad, and really hard on their kids and grandchildren (and me), there's a romantic beauty in knowing they were so in love after being together for 47 years that one couldn't live without the other.
I didn't get serious about college until my Junior year, when I realized that there were a lot of interesting things to learn in the world, and that I should take advantage of the fact that I was at a very expensive, liberal arts university, to soak some of that learning up. I also realized - or maybe someone yelled it at me - that I could probably find a better job if I got to work and tried to pull my GPA up above 2.25.
The university was an alcohol free campus which seemed to be perfectly fine with most of the student body. I lived on campus my first two years and was regularly appearing in front of the "peer review board" for getting caught with pot and/or alcohol on campus. Obviously that nuisance was gone when I moved off campus, but at the beginning of my senior year I was called in and told that the university had been watching me and a number of other students - most of whom were my friends - and were confident that they had identified every student at the university - both on campus and off - who sold drugs. The message was that if we didn't curb our drug using habits the university would call the police on the students who were dealing and expel any of us they could. It seemed obvious that the university was also trying to avoid the embarrassment of having students involved in drug busts, but I appreciated the warning... and quickly found non-students to buy my drugs from. I continued picking mushrooms on the 3rd and 5th fairways of the campus golf course as no one had mentioned that being a problem.
(If I appear to be glorifying my alcohol and drug use, bear with me. The snowball will hit the wall soon enough.)
I got serious about studying my last two years at college and graduated with a GPA of 3.25 which is pretty good considering it was a full grade point lower at the end of my sophomore year. Graduating college was a fun time full of positive energy and a true feeling of accomplishment. Of course my parents were delighted, their middle child... the one who showed the most promise of success, graduating from a respected, liberal arts college in just four years. I graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration / Marketing and a minor in Norwegian Language. (How's that for practical. Even Norwegians would ask "why would someone who doesn't live in Norway want to learn Norwegian?")
The year after I graduated from college I met a guy who was an art student. We got to be good friends and every month we would go to gallery openings. I didn't know crap about what I was looking at, I just went because he was so interested in it and I was trying to figure out why. At that point I was one of those people who stood in galleries and said things like "I could make that." Or "Where would you put it?" Things started catching my attention pretty quickly though, and I started looking harder at the work and forming my own, more intelligent, opinions about it.
Another place we would go together was the coolest industrial surplus store in the world. At first I would just tag along, then I started buying things once in a while - having no idea what I was going to do with them - and eventually I started making little sculptures and big pieces of jewelry in my basement. Being a business guy and not an artist, I was terrified to tell anyone they were mine. I was just a guy gluing things together in my basement. I was having a good time doing it, but they were not to be taken seriously.
Once in awhile I would like one enough to take it upstairs and put it on a wall. If someone asked who made one I would make something up like "A guy I know at work" or something like that. If they asked the artists name I would pretend I hadn't heard the question, or find some other such dodge. Once an art friend commented, "its good composition but lousy craftsmanship". Even I knew that good craftsmanship was easier to learn than good composition, so the comment was hugely encouraging.
Where I grew up most smart boys who didn't want their dad's farm, ranch or store, went to college, got a business degree and went into the corporate world. In the 70's and 80's, nothing in rural America - at least nothing I encountered - encouraged youth to look to their creative sides when considering a career path.
The early 80's were the days when 256K was an amazingly fast processing speed and no one could imagine filling up a 20MB hard drive. The first computer I bought was the second model of the Compaq Portable. It came with two floppy drives and I thought I was a pioneer when I replaced one of them with a 10MB hard drive. The amazing Compaq Portable was bigger and heavier than a sewing machine, yet those of us who owned them lugged them around proudly.
The market was rapidly filling up with recent college graduates who were writing custom software for small businesses. I started one such company with two partners who I'd gone to school with and we plotted making millions and retiring early. We might have actually survived until retirement had we not been such cocky boys; we rented a brand new waterfront office and bought a company sailboat. We had frequent parties for our college buddies both in the office and on the boat. We all rented overly expensive apartments and bought new cars. We hired women to work at the front desk because of their appearance instead of their ability.
Just over a year into it, I realized I hated writing software. Interacting with a machine most of the day was not my style at all. About that time a large statewide association called and asked if we could write software to manage their annual trade show and bring a system on-site for registering printing computer generated (dot-matrix) name badges for 10,000 trade show attendees over 3 days. The project immediately caught my attention as something more people oriented than writing software so I took it on.
The other partners were doubtful that much money could be made offering computer services to the convention and trade show industry, so when I insisted on pursuing that market they demanded that we set it up as an independent branch of the company, and put full responsibility for its success or failure on my shoulders. About three years later, when the main branch of the company starting faltering, I sold my division to a large trade show services contractor and negotiated myself a pretty sweet salary for a guy in his mid-20's and went to work running "my" company for someone else.
When the sale happened I was 26. At 28 I had three personal revelations: that other people seemed to like me better than I did; that I needed to get honest with myself about my sexuality; and that my drinking habits were quite different from most people's. Clearly my 28th was a big year for me. I consider it the year I officially became an adult.
The first revelation, that other people liked me better than I did, came about as a result of suddenly noticing that my peers had respect for me both as a professional and as a friend... more respect than I had for myself in either area. I started looking at why others might like me better than I did, and actively trying to develop a more positive but still realistic self-image. I looked at what made me uncomfortable, insecure or uncertain, and at how I dealt with those situations. I created exercises for myself to force myself into situations I found uncomfortable and to learn deal with them better. One was "Go to a bar you've never been to before and play darts - which you're not very good at - with total strangers and be comfortable enough that you can relax and throw half-way decent darts." (Sort of sounds like something you might find on "Learning to Love You More, doesn't it?) Some of the exercises worked better than others (throwing darts with strangers was one of the best) but overall they helped me be more comfortable with myself, and not worry so much about what other people were thinking.
My sexuality was something I'd been increasingly aware of over the past three or four years and had been acting on for about two. I could write pages about my coming out process and although its definitely part of my history, most parts of it are things you can read in thousands of other queer stories. All I really need to say to be able to move on from this point in the story, is that what I really needed here was another form of the same exercise: figuring out who I was, working on what I could (which did not include the fact that I'm queer) and learning to accept, become comfortable with, and love the rest.
My drinking habits were a part of me that I could work on. I came from one of those families whose alcoholism skipped a generation now and then. It skipped my parents, my brother and I were both fair game. (Being adopted, my sister was relatively safe.) As soon as my drinking started to go awry, I knew what was coming. When denial set in I knew it was denial. Like a good alcoholic I ignored the things I knew were clear warnings and just kept drinking. When I finally had an incident that embarrassed me into deciding to get help I was drinking a six-pack of beer in the car on my way home from work every night, and a fifth of gin after I got home. I got a sponsor, found a couple AA meetings I liked, and quit drinking. Sounds too simple? It was. This topic will come up again later...
When I'd been sober about six months I met my first boyfriend. Besides being sober himself, he was a drug and alcohol counselor who worked with kids. Being pretty new to being gay, and even newer to being comfortable with it, I was a painfully slow mover when it came to dating. When we first met I took one look at him and decided he was one of the most attractive men I'd ever met. My second thought was that he was too attractive and masculine to be interested in me, but he still seemed like a hell of a nice guy so I decided to not even think about trying to "get" him and just try to make friends with him. After about three months of spending most of our free time together he had to stop the car one night and say "Look, I'm trying to date you and you don't even seem to notice." I'd so thoroughly convinced myself that I couldn't have him that I honestly hadn't noticed that he was interested in me.
Even though we spent more and more time together we still kept our own apartments. We started dating in May and that Christmas I gave him a bunch of things that I had at my apartment that I missed having when I was at his. After pulling about half of the objects out of the box he stopped and said "Obviously you're not even close to wanting to move in together." He was right, the thought hadn't even entered my mind.
We did move in together later that year and were together for just over 5 years. He's still one of my dearest friends, I often wish I had met him later - when I was older and more emotionally prepared for a relationship.
(I guess at this point the "boyfriend" would be considered a "Partner" by most definitions - but since I've always been resistant to using other people's terms I always used his name instead of a label.)
Business took off and I was racing around the country with a truckload of computers always close behind me, doing more and more technical jobs for larger and larger conventions in more and more cities. The services we were providing were cutting edge for their time, and our competitors were few but very much on their toes. We all provided very reliable services to our clients so our way of competing with each other became thinking creatively, watching new technology for things we could turn into services we could teach or customers to rely on.
One of our strategies was to target high-tech conventions; medical, engineering, computer related etc. both because they were more open to trying new technology and because they had bigger budgets. It also meant much more traveling and working with clients who were more and more corporate. My partner was at home and I rarely was. I had been "making things" this whole time, and my interest in that was constantly growing, as was my satisfaction with what I was making. (I still hadn't brought myself to calling them "art" or myself an "artist" though.) The more my interest in my "hobby" grew, the more that contributed to my increasing dissatisfaction with what little personal life my career was allowing me to have.
When I decided to follow the company and move, I also decided that life in a new city had to include the resolve to be completely true to myself. Being sober I'd developed a much clearer view of who I was, and starting life in a new city seemed the perfect opportunity to completely leave behind the parts of me I'd outgrown (but can still be hard to let go of) and to develop the new parts of me that were emerging.
Shortly after the move the co-worker I worked with the most on the road moved on to another job and was replaced by someone who from the very start was clearly the exact opposite of me. Although he was just in his early 30's he was a true southern style "good ‘ol boy." He was also a fundamentalist Christian and a devoted Rush Limbaugh follower. I knew enough to keep my spiritual and political views to myself, he was intent on pushing his at every available opportunity. For several months I'd been toying with the idea of just plain walking away from the convention and trade show business, and from corporate life altogether. My new traveling partner was all I needed to make me take the step.
The day I quit that job was also the last time I wore a tie.
This is a cameo appearance by Sandy Roumagoux, a very cool artist from Newport, Oregon who shares my birthday. The first thing that made me certain that Sandy and I would become good friends is that her laugh is every bit as loud as mine, and she unleashes it as frequently as I do.
I'd been making enough money that I had plenty stockpiled to keep myself funded for awhile which was a good thing since even though I had a plan, I knew that there were huge holes in it. My plan was to find a way to make a living in the art world. The holes came from the fact that I had no art education, and my only experience with galleries was from buying from them. What encouraged me most was that breaks and coincidences came my way at a rate that made me confident that even if my plan was sketchy, it seemed as if I were meant to achieve my goal.
I'm going to fast forward through about 15 months worth of events here: Through an AA friend who knew I had experience in events I was asked to volunteer to start up a new art-related fundraiser for the city's AIDS organization. Working on that gave me a different level of contact with the gallery owners in town, I was quickly on very comfortable and friendly terms with several of them. The AIDS event was more successful than anyone expected it to be (in fact it celebrated its 10th anniversary two years ago) which prompted a Political Action Committee fighting a right-wing attack on gay rights to give me a contract to organize their biggest fundraiser of the campaign, from conception to clean-up. The art community was very involved in this political campaign so doing this event put me in even closer contact with gallery owners, artists and collectors. After I had finished the political project I went to three gallery owners and told them each that when they needed extra help I would like to help just to get some experience and some insight into how galleries work. I approached a fourth gallery owner and told her I would help her install her exhibitions so that I could learn the nuances of art installation. All four of these galleries called me fairly often to do various kinds of work from packing art to helping artists with their work. Besides getting to know gallery owners better, I was also getting a crash course in how galleries operate.
In 1990 I met the man who has been the biggest single influence on my career in the arts. Although he died in 1995, I still consider him my mentor.
He owned one of the most established galleries in the city and although it was certainly important to him to show a profit that he could live on, his primary mission was to educate the public and expand the arts in the city. One of the first things I noticed about him was that he always had time to stop and talk to gallery visitors about the work he was showing and the artists who created it. Whether he thought you might buy something or not, he made it a point to give every person who walked into his gallery the time they needed.
He was both a champion of local artists in all stages of their careers, and at that time the only dealer who was consistently bringing cutting edge contemporary art from outside the region into the city. Locally he represented some of the most established artists as well as promising young talent. For artists he was the most sought after gallery in town, but even those artists who didn't succeed in getting his attention didn't see his gallery as an intimidating or exclusive place.
The first time he really saw my sculpture he looked at them and asked, "who made these?" When I told him I did he looked at me and said, "You don't make art." I briefly ran through my history of making things and admitted that some of the things he'd asked about in my apartment on previous visits were actually mine, that I had attributed them to fictional people because I wasn't confident in them. His answer to that was "But those weren't very good. These are." I told him that since bailing on my convention/trade show career I'd had more time to focus on my work and had found that for me the key element in making sculpture was "knowing when to stop." He asked me to bring them all to his gallery so he could spend more time with them, which I immediately did. About a week later he called me and asked me to come by the gallery and there, in the gallery he typically reserved for introducing new artists, were fourteen of my pieces, on the wall and perfectly lit. When I pointed out that one was hanging upside down he answered, "I know. I'll turn it over if you want me to, but I like it better that way."
He was one of two dealers in the city who not only noticed my genuine enthusiasm for art, but also recognized the fact that I had the potential to contribute to the local art scene in ways that extended beyond making my own art, and were very generous in helping me build on that potential. He talked to me at length about things like the importance of educating the public, even at the risk of sales, of promoting artists careers beyond his gallery and this city, and about being as loyal to artists as you would expect them to be to you.
As a person who had considerable influence on, and enjoyed the complete respect of, many wealthy but conservative people in the city, he chose to be very public about the fact that he had AIDS and made it one of his missions to make people realize that good people get AIDS and thus help de-stigmatize AIDS and the people who had it. In the mid 80's, when fear of AIDS was at its peak, he would often wear a t-shirt he'd made that said "Queer with AIDS" to work.
He came to work with an IV pump on his belt, he came to work with failing eyesight, he came to work with waning energy, but no matter how bad or weak he felt, no matter how much he may have rather been sitting at his chair with his head on his desk, he always maintained a visible and active presence in the gallery. When people asked about his eyes he would often make some joke about things that are rumored to make a man go blind, then talk to them about AIDS and CMV. He was truly an activist in every aspect of his life.
Besides the strong interest he took in me, and in my future in the arts, we also became close personal friends. In spite of that, I still kept him on a pedestal, which I didn't completely realize until his health declined and I was told that he had listed me as one of about 10 people whom he was comfortable with as a caregiver once he became unable to take care of himself. When that time came and I started spending every Friday at home with him, I had to make a conscious effort to keep in mind that I was there because he saw me as a peer. I also had to realize that it was OK for part of him to remain on the pedestal I'd put up for him.
For the last seven months of his life, I spent every Friday with him at home, mostly sitting side by side on the sofa in his living room having quiet conversations about a huge variety of things. Those Fridays sometimes had unpleasant moments, and the conclusion of those months was heartbreakingly sad, but other than having him alive, I can't think of anything I would trade for the experience of those months. They were both beautiful and rewarding. I found that I fell in love with him as a dying man as much as I'd come to love him as a healthy man. He died on June 21, 1995. It had clearly been time for him to go for well over a week, I believe he had it in his mind to die on the Summer Solstice and hung on until then.
I didn't fully realize what a positive influence he had been on me until he was gone. Immediately after his death I went through a period of several weeks where I didn't want to be around people, didn't want to make art, didn't want to do most of the things that had become part of my life over the past few years. On a particularly mopey day something made me sit up and realize that I could either continue to feel sorry for myself, or I could take advantage of all the things I had learned from him, and the confidence he had given me in my talent as an artist, my eye for interesting and quality work from other artists, and my potential to make real and valuable contributions to the health of the arts community. The values he taught me, and the joy he found in art, artists, and arts supporters are to this day hugely motivating and inspiring to me. I still think about him often, and when considering what my best course of action might be I often try to imagine what he would do.
Everyone deserves a mentor of that quality. I'm constantly grateful that I have him.
The other gallery owner that showed early faith and confidence in me was the one who I had approached about learning how to install exhibitions. She was also a leader in the local art scene, and opened the first gallery in what is now known as the city's gallery district.
The first time we met we both had a sense that we would be good friends. Her gallery was small, she had just one employee, and focused on promoting emerging local talent. In the early days her gallery was known as an "anything goes" gallery, a place to be surprised month after month. Like all businesses, hers grew up, and by the time I met her she was widely respected as a leader in the arts and as someone who could be counted on to lend both her gallery and her absolutely endless energy for any of the many social causes she took an interest in. Her profit margin was always pretty darned low, but her generosity was boundless, sometimes to a fault.
Shortly after I started helping her hang shows, she started calling me more and more often for other kinds of help around the gallery. About a year after we met she offered me a full time job, which I gladly took. During the approximately five years I worked for her she gradually entrusted more and more of her business to me, to the point where people often mistook me for her business partner. We became such good friends, and developed such a naturally comfortable relationship that often people who didn't know her husband would mistake me for her personal partner as well.
Although we now live a couple thousand miles away from each other, she continues to be one of my closest personal friends and one of my most proactive professional supporters.
Her gallery also gave me a platform to demonstrate my own commitment and skills to the art community and I was soon recognized as a genuine and hard-working member of that community. I started curating exhibitions, both for the gallery and independently for other venues and organizations and enjoyed much pubic attention and support for those shows. I also worked harder than ever on my own sculpture and became an artist with a very respectable following of collectors, as well as one who was recognized and respected by other artists in the region.
Back to my personal life: While my professional life has been unfolding beautifully over the past few pages my personal life and habits have been posturing themselves to attempt to hand me equally large setbacks.
Sometime in between managing the AIDS benefit and the political benefit, I started drinking again. For quite a while it was so controlled and infrequent that I honestly can't remember exactly when it was that I started again.
At the same time, both my partner and I had come to realize that the things that made us a couple 5 years ago had been mostly gone for about a year. We both knew it, we didn't talk about it, and because we both felt a great deal of love and respect for the other, we avoided what we knew and stayed together out of fear of hurting the other. The reality was that at that point in our lives the best thing either of us could have done for the other was to let go, which we both finally did.
One thing I learned about myself through this split was that I had pretty heavily relied on the fact that I lived with a drug and alcohol counselor to keep me sober. It wasn't at all that he constantly counseled me; he was good at not being the professional with me. The reality was that I stayed sober because I had a babysitter. Shortly after he moved out I not only started drinking regularly again, but also discovered crystal meth. The very first time I tried it I knew I had found my drug, and over the next five years it ate at me to the point that had I not had such true and loyal friends who bailed me out of situation after situation, I would have lost everything.
The habits I developed while using meth were neither attractive nor healthy, and it was just a matter of time before it was obvious to both my friends and colleagues that the drug was in control. I was completely unreliable. People never knew what to expect from me as far as public behavior. I weighed just 125 pounds and I was always either amped to the point that I looked as if I were going to explode, or beat down to the point where you thought I might fall asleep while talking to you.
It often amazes me that my friends in the art community not only stuck by me (in spite of the fact that they were often embarrassed by me) but also that a small group of them eventually sat me down and firmly told me it was time to stop, and offered unconditional support in my efforts to do so.
Having come so close to trashing my life made me completely committed to learning to live without drugs. Having failed in my first attempt made me realize that commitment was nothing if I didn't have a healthy fear of drugs, and a firm realization that staying clean would take both constant work and fundamental changes to my lifestyle.
I spent the next year focusing on myself. I got a part-time job that I never had to think about when I wasn't actually at it, and supplemented my income installing exhibitions for a small museum in town, one of the galleries and a number of private and corporate collectors. Mostly though, I focused on learning to live without drugs on a day-to-day basis and developing skills to insure that I would never again need a chemical crutch to deal with plain old living. Fortunately, the state had an excellent public health care system and I found that I could get all the professional help I needed without worrying about the cost. I took full advantage of that.
I also spent much time in my studio and found that without meth my patience for process and careful craftsmanship was much greater than it had been before. Although my work maintained the same relaxed, rough minimalism that had always given it its charm, I was able to control my work in a way that benefited my work without the control being visible. I started taking more risks, increased my scale, and found much deeper pleasure in my art making. As I became more spiritually connected to myself and the world around me, I also became more spiritually connected to my work.
About six months into that year one of my strongest supporters handed me a flier about a new national program that placing people with no background in the non-profit art world into non-profit organizations with the goal of mentoring new leadership for the arts. The mentorships were to last one year.
Both in spite of my recent run in with drugs, and because of it, I had an amazing network of friends and supporters, people with whom I had real and very personal history. I also had a huge network of friends in the art world and a healthy local collector base. I enjoyed much respect in the community and was seen as one of the city's strongest advocates. I sat on a number of boards and committees that made important decisions that affected the long-term health of the arts. Thinking about leaving all of that wasn't easy. It would mean leaving my comfort zone and going to a place where no one knew who I was or what I'd accomplished.
On the other hand, this seemed like a good time for me to take a major growth step and this program seemed like an excellent opportunity to do it. The more I thought about it the more I felt it was the right thing to do. When my friends all encouraged me to go for it I knew it was the right thing to do.
I got very excited about it, spent several weeks writing and re-writing my application, sought much feedback from people about what I'd written, proudly sent in my application, and waited.
The notification date on the flier came and went and I didn't hear a word. A few weeks later, I called about it and was told no decisions had been made. A few weeks after that I was told that the program had just hired a new administrator and was waiting until she settled in to make any decisions. About a month after that I received a call telling me that the program had lost a major funder and was scaling back. With each conversation my enthusiasm waned and within a few months I had pretty much forgotten about the opportunity and was continuing my life in a holding pattern that was getting more and more frustrating.
A full year after I so confidently sent in my application, the program's administrator called and with no foreplay at all asked if I would like to spend six months at a non-profit that for years had been one I'd kept a close eye on because of their incredible longevity and the consistent quality of their programming. I responded by asking if I had to answer today.
The rest of the day was spent spinning mental wheels. After having lost my enthusiasm for the opportunity and writing off the question of moving, I was suddenly presented with the opportunity of moving to a place 3,000 miles away where I didn't know a soul. Late in the afternoon I thought about my two closest friends, and what a severe ass kicking they would give me if I didn't jump and take advantage of the opportunity. I made up my mind to go and before the end of the day called back and accepted. This was March, the program started in September.
Motivated by renewed excitement, and by the fact that I had much to do, my life immediately flew into high gear. I had a solo show schedule for May and the new optimism I felt clearly showed in my work. My show sold exceptionally well and my dealer, who had been a close friend for years, made extra efforts to get money from sales into my pocket as quickly as he could.
So that we could meet in person before we started working together, and to give me an advance taste of the non-profit world, my new employers flew me to a national conference of an organization for visual arts non-profits. The flight was on June 21, 2000, the fifth anniversary of my mentor's death. Flying across the country gave me much time to again think about him and the fact that had it not been for his influence on my life, I would not be going on this trip, or be heading off to this new opportunity.
Once word got out that I was leaving, I was swamped by community support. The most amazing example was a bingo party that friends threw for me at the gallery I'd worked at. Bingo cards cost just $10.00 and you could play on the same card all night. That's a pretty cheap fundraiser, but the gallery was packed and the evening raised over $3,000.00. My friends had made sure I was financially set for the move.
(I'm having a fabulous time reminiscing here, but the reality of this assignment's 24 hour time limit is setting in, so I'd best be less eloquent from here out and stick a little closer to facts.)
My best queer "girlfriend" came with me on the 3,000 mile drive, the trip was an adventure not only because I was excited about the destination and what it held for me, but also because there's nothing like a long road trip through new places with someone who your comfortable enough with to talk when you want to and ride in silence with when you need to. We took a full week for the drive, which gave us plenty of time to take side trips and do whatever the heck we wanted to. It was the perfect end to my summer.
I arrived in my new home (for now) in the middle of one of the worst heat streaks they'd had in years - in a place that was notorious for heat and humidity. The temperature the first week I was there ranged from 105 to 110, with nearly 100% humidity. It was the beginning of Labor Day weekend. I had three full days to sweat before I could start my new job. This city was not saying, "Welcome."
What did say "Welcome!" was the new job. The organization was exceptional in so many ways: the staff it maintained, the role it played both locally and nationally, the artists it brought in, its Board of Directors, the respect it held within the community. (Not sure why I'm using the past tense here, I guess its because these are impressions that are over two years old, but are still how I feel about the organization today.) What was especially welcome was the way the staff instantly took me in and respected me as a co-worker and not a "student."
Most impressive was the woman who was my primary "mentor" there. This woman was suddenly sharing her tiny office with a total stranger - and not a quiet one at that - knowing that he would be there for six whole months! That takes courage! More importantly, she very quickly accepted me as somewhat of a partner in her job, and entrusted me with much responsibility.
Halfway through my six months, the program's primary funder, who had been keeping a very close eye on the program, saw that it was working well, and that funding it for just six months would have been a waste of money. To make sure the program accomplished what it was meant to, they pumped in enough money to fund the mentorships for a full year.
Besides spending a year immersed in the workings of a very established, successful organization, the program also had funding to send me to a number of national conferences around the country, and on one trip, which I could design myself to learn more about part of the art world that interested me. Through all of this, I can't imagine a better "crash-course" in the workings of the non-profit art world.
For me, the program was a complete success. I came out of that year completely committed to working in the non-profit world and to the importance of national dialog in keeping non-profits healthy.
When the year was over the money was gone (my salary never came out of the organization's budget, it was paid by the mentorship program) and it was time to go. I decided to stay where I was geographically, took another "holding pattern" job, and started looking for an arts job here. I kept very involved with the organization though, and it wasn't long before some staff changes allowed them to bring me back on board, which is where I am today.
My 24 hours aren't quite up yet, so here are a few other facts that didn't get in to the main story: I took piano lessons through most of elementary school and junior high. In college we had to take four PE classes, I took two golf classes, a bowling class, and a dance class, which I quit because I'm just not a graceful person but it showed up on my transcript as a "pass" anyway. I've been in seven auto accidents; four of them while I was driving and it was my fault. One of those nobody knows about. I got my first bicycle for Christmas and cried because it was winter and you couldn't ride a bike in so much snow and I didn't know how to ride a bike anyway AND because my brother got a train set, which he could play with immediately. In second grade I was the last kid in my class to get "Citizen of the Week" and that was only because a friend followed me all week to make sure I behaved. The first man I had sex with was a bicycle courier from a city with lots of hills - he had incredible legs. The last man I had sex with just left a couple hours ago. I once got arrested for stealing a carton of cigarettes and because I didn't have an ID with me had to spend 14 hours in jail until they could positively determine that I wasn't wanted for anything else. The closest I ever came to playing organized sports was being the manager of the wrestling team. The last "girlfriend" I had was in college. We'd been dating for several months when I realized she was dating my roommate. They got married, then divorced. The most beautiful thing I've experienced so far was being with my best friends when they had their baby. He was huge and they finally did a c-section so I didn't get to see the actual birth, but I was still very much a part of the whole experience and I'll always be grateful to them for sharing that with me. At 42 most people guess I'm 36. I still think I'm anywhere between 12 and 33. My first job out of college was selling copiers. My customers often commented that they chose to buy a copier from me because I was the only salesman who never talked trash about the competitors. The only thing I've ever won in a raffle was a pair of avocado colored salt and pepper shakers - the great big one's you keep on your stove - and a matching grease strainer. The most money I've ever won was $300.00 in a duck race a couple years ago in the town I grew up in. When I was probably 4 or 5 the girl next door and I used to make parade floats in our wagons out of stuff we found around the house. I suppose my parents never took pictures of these because it was sort of a girly thing to do, but now I wish they would have because they were the first found objects sculpture I made. I made my first pot roast tonight and it was pretty good. When I was 38 I paid to have my hair colored bright green. I'm the only alumni from the university I went to who didn't graduate from their fine arts program but has had a solo exhibition in their gallery.