Sunday, December 20, 2015

Brain Surgery

I'm bringing this blog out of retirement for one last post, to apprise those of you interested in my recent near death experience. May it answer the questions that felt too invasive to ask.

During my first night in Los Angeles I turned in my sleep and felt the room roll beyond my eyelids. Laying on the yet unfurnished floor of my new apartment, I assumed the fumes from the recent carpet cleaning caused the sickening dead weight lurch. A few months later, a swim in my gym’s pool was cut short by spiraling nausea. Passing mentions to the doctor were waived off after basic neurological exams. Coupled with healthy responses to these basic tests, the temporary nature of the vertigo-like symptoms eliminated them as a serious concern in the eyes of medical professionals. I came to personify the loss of balance by giving these spells a narrative; they were antagonist that came and went, a gift of occasional relief, and as it would turn out, a curse through camouflage. The first headache showed up in the Summer. The pain blossomed, wrapping hot tendrils around every delicate surface of my brain, probing and slicing each tender, blood red alcove. This was a pain that scared my girlfriend awake and sent me to the floor crawling in search of relief. “Allergies” suggested the doctor. “Migraines” thought others. “This is not migraines” I thought, I know people with migraines, and it’s hard to imagine anyone taking a pain like this standing. This was, disrupt your life, pooling in fear of the next attack, pain. This was, look forward to vomiting mid-headache for the thirty seconds of distraction it offers, pain. But then, the headaches were just gone. The blackness you ascribe to agony feels foolish when it seems a distant nightmare by daylight. When the pain was upon me, it felt like it would never leave, and when it was gone, it felt like it’d never been. If you break your arm, you can cradle it; you can position it to bring sharp pain to a dull soreness. I know firsthand, I’ve broken both my arm and my clavicle on separate occasions, and in both cases I walked around for almost a week assuming they weren’t broken, that the pain would pass. And In both cases someone finally noticed the bruised skin, the protruding lump of bone disrupting the continuous smooth forms of an un-shattered human body. They rushed me off for plaster, slings and re-setting. I’ve burned a hand in fire and cut the other with a chainsaw. In all these cases there are balms, positions, pressures, water temperatures, and painkillers that will alleviate the worst of your suffering. This was different, there was no escape. No position, no temperature. Nothing but crawling, writhing, banging, begging desperately and futilely in the hopes that something will give you that momentary relief you find in other injury.
On schedule the next year the pain returned with the season, another quality that would prove deceptive in final diagnosis. Weakened, I finally described in full detail the pain to my doctor- “cluster headaches” she thought, and referred me to a neurologist. The basic neurological exam administered in his office brought similar conclusions- most likely clusters or migraine variant. “We can try a regimen of preventative painkillers, but I’d like to rule some stuff out first.” We tentatively scheduled an MRI but set no date. It seemed to me pointless to rush, I’d as much as been told I’d be saddled with this pain, I’d run the gauntlet, a railroad spike splintering the skull on schedule for an indeterminate number of years. Every couple of months I’d be tortured on the floor of my bedroom, and modern medical science could do nothing. My new insurance would activate in January, so I decided to wait for the MRI.
I met a friend one afternoon in November and as we parted ways, I tripped up the curb and ate shit. Hard. Surprised as I was to be floored by a six inch ledge, I thought it was a freak accident. I stood embarrassed, but thankful no one was around to offer help for the soft scrape on my forehead. My brain delivered the command for my right foot to step forward, and it smashed clumsily into my left ankle. I fell again. Ten minutes of seated recovery passed and I faced the remaining twenty feet to my car. I called schedule my MRI. “Ok, lets see, we have a spot open on Wednesday, February third-” I allowed myself panic for a defense mechanism. My phone calls were frantic. It wasn't possible for me to know what the changes in my physiological routine amounted too, but they were frightening and many. My pulse whirred in my ears, a shoreline of blood surged and fell with the rhythmic patterns of my heart rate. The tide at times rose to a rattle like a washboard pressed to vibrate the walls protecting my eardrums. A pain, a hot needle full of stinging poison rooted through my temple veins every few hours, a slinking criminal in the crawlspace behind my eyes. I was cold and constantly tired. My drawings were suffering and my brain’s communication with my hands was fractured at best. This, in a shortened version, is what I said over the phone to the secretary at the imaging clinic. A few phone calls later another clinic found a space for me days instead of months out. Miserably, I watched the clock from a pathetic, blanket wrapped ball on my living room couch. I hid my fear and my pain when my roommates were around and avoided conversation. And I watched Cheers on Netflix. It was soft and non-abrasive. Two full, infinite days were spent escaping into that Boston bar with my familiar, teasing TV friends.
At the imaging center a stoic Russian radiology technician strapped me in, perfunctory and bored running through the routine setup steps. I knew something was wrong when he tripped mumbling out of his booth raving inarticulately for more tests. He was a step short of panic, and I was giddy to be racing towards diagnosis. They injected me with hot blue gadolinium liquid for contrast and took a second set of brain scans. A neurologist came out of the back and explained that they’d be transferring me to the ER of a bigger hospital, one better equipped to deal with my “abnormality.” No I couldn’t drive, they said, and if I tried they’d have to call the police. I took a cab to the bigger hospital. “Abnormality” is what they called it at the time, but the better name for something like that is giant tumor. A giant tumor was crouching and laying eggs in the fourth ventricle of my brain, restricting blood and fluid from draining into my spinal column, and causing pressure, swelling within the skull, hydrocephalus. I wasn’t allowed to drive, because I should have been in a coma.  Medically speaking, it would make sense for me to be in a coma; if I was lucky the pressure won’t have begun the process of herniation, of crushing my brain down into my spinal column, and leaving me brain dead. That it had been growing gradually for so many years was why I was alive now, and why it was so hard to identify. Medical professionals were fascinated by the rarity of an otherwise healthy twenty four year old with a brain tumor. A doctor called me “unicorn.” Nurses and medical interns pointed towards my sheet-partitioned ER stall to whisper “interesting case.”
From my angled vantage point of the busy ER hallway I saw nurses grab each other’s butts and joke about their proximity to the end of shift. It was strange realizing this was a normal day for them. A tired woman my own age looked worn out while she clumsily dug an IV needle into my wrist. Stream after stream of blood dripped onto my hospital bed while she patted down the mess with a wet nap. My long standing phobia of needles was underplayed in the lead heavy haze of pain and fear that settled and choked my ER bed. The young nurse’s night ended and a mothering nurse with a strange name replaced her. She dumped a drug called mannitol through my IV tube. Interested medical professionals explained on several separate occasions the details about the medicine’s crystalline structure, and how it drew pressure from my brain to reduce swelling before surgery. I remember having to pee a lot, and I wondered if it was just mannitol or also somehow relieved brain fluid in all that cloudy urine. “So there will be surgery?” I appreciated how fast things were moving. I was relieved this saga was preparing a conclusion. I let my Mom and my Dad know via text. And my girlfriend. “They are not equipped for the surgery here, we’re transferring you to another hospital.” My mom said she was flying out to LA. I was embarrassed and thought it unnecessary, but I knew there was no stopping her. My girlfriend was coming over to the hospital. I also thought this was unnecessary but it felt wrong to turn her away. In the meantime, I told everyone to wait until I transferred so that they wouldn’t have to join me in my cross-town musical chairs. “The other hospital will have a bed for you in an hour or two.” The nurse pushed a needle into my second bottle of mannitol. “Brain surgery is always risky, but you’re going to a great hospital, where you'll get the best shot at a successful operation.” Then they sent in an insurance representative to sign waivers and discuss my will. Eight hours later I was still cramping in that same temporary hospital bed. I grew sick overhearing the parade of moaning, lung hacking, frantic, foreign language pleas thrown as grotesque shadow puppet silhouettes against my sheet partition. I hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours now, and I was desperately impatient to force resolution on this trail. Enough time spent waiting alone even encouraged me look forward to the company of pity offered by my Mother and girlfriend. What promised embarrassment before now offered comfort in the wake of my new found weakness.
The transport nurse in the ambulance had a lot more to say about mannitol. He seconded the notion of "unicorn" and had a passion for medical trivia. The “fascinating not deadly” attitude toward my tumor helped relieve the fear which, according to him, appeared non-existent. My forced calm, the self defensive posturing appeared to him deadpan. He said so as he wished me luck on my surgery and left.
Cedars Sinai’s ICU looks like the advanced rehabilitation chamber from a hoverboard future, a sleek combination of modernism and disguised medical technology. The effect leaves the impression that one’s recovery might take place while floating in gentle, teal healing liquid, and not bleeding face down on an operating table. Mom, my girlfriend, one of my good friends, and even my Uncle Bart, wandered into the ICU some hours later with clothes and some comics. Surgery was a day or so away, apparently a good sign indicating others would be dead sooner without attention. Everyone came back the night before my morning surgery.
At some point I alerted the nurse to pain, and the conversation in my room stopped. More of the light narcotic painkillers that had worked before, and she left the room. Thirty minutes passed: hell fire, swirling, stinging clouds of killing force. No one but my girlfriend had ever seen me during this part; I was upset that the room full of people would have to weather the show. The self consciousness melted to leave new, fresh stacks of pain. In the trail runs on my bedroom floor, I wondered why one could stay conscious through that level of pain. The humiliation of being stripped and cleaned in front of an audience was unnoticed through the now disorienting hurricane. A dam burst. All the furious, sharp edged cavalry of the blackest hell stormed my pitiful fortress. Armed, steel edged torrents tore through every vessel and capillary of my brain. I now wondered why one could experience this level of pain and be alive. The experience of “me” dissolved into a deafening black tempest. All I knew was the pain, tearing pink irreplaceable chunks from my very being. Cold compresses melted against the raging heat of my forehead. I groped for pack after pack, incinerating them and tossing them into lukewarm puddles. I whispered for painkillers; blind to the near to lethal amount of morphine already coursing unfelt. Reaching wildly, I loved to find the pressure of each squeezing hand. I could tell which of my friends or family I caught by the texture of their skin, the length of their hands, the hardness with which they allowed themselves to cup my shaking fingers. The touch was my only connection to the world beyond my shuttering confusion. Trapped inside myself, I screamed unheard for a mercy I thought would never come. Sputtering, I gave in- a torture victim ready to betray their country, to reveal treasonous secrets in exchange for the pardon of death. I begged in a whisper for euthanasia. I begged for the hungry shark pressure of that pardoning poison. Even through the pain I heard the room grow quiet in the weight of these request. Guilt. Then once again the knives edge of human pain. The anesthesia forced me beneath the rapids and I wasn’t sure if I was being dragged under the current of sleep, or that of death.
I woke in the ICU to silence. Profound, meaningful silence. Late college, I had a conversation: I described to my friends the stress, the “growing noise” in my head. “Don’t you miss the time before that noise? The pressure we feel? Don’t you miss when things were quiet?” There was a mixed, non-committal response. My friends were being difficult. We were all experiencing the stress, the internal, emotional pressure. Only while floating in that pristine, postoperative stillness, did I understand the non-answers. The rushing pressure, a swarm of angry bees practiced a growing fury within the delicate lining of my skull for so many years. So gradual was the rising tide of that swarm that even this horror grew invisible. The absence hurled me into shocking contrast. Soak, milk white serenity. This was most people's always. Now, silence too was mine. Pushing a path through anesthetic haze, I found friends and family waiting. I told them I had to pee, and they told me I was already going. The catheter hurt on the way out. My vulnerability, my feebleness astounded me. A babying indignity darkened my joy for safety. The relief of knowing I wouldn't have to face it alone was almost as moving as the silence itself. For almost a week I failed to walk unaided, and I spent the night vomiting anesthetic. But, the swarm lay weightless and dead on the floor of my skull, and the darkness was passed. 


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Up to the Present, and Goodbye: LA Part 3 of 3

Sixteen plus years of school had conditioned me to consider time in semesters. Despite even my "Winter Break," this concept of the yearly calender, for the first time in memory, began to dissolve. The unsettling shift in worldview presented what I assume is a more adult look at work life. Monotony came in layers- there was no change of classes, no spring break or summer vacation, and uniquely in LA, there was no change of season. Warm-hot to mild-warm was the daily range, another unchanging and uniform new feature that made time feel stagnant. Everyday we worked at the same desk, had one of the same few lunch options, and wore the same weather appropriate short sleeves. Time felt endless and static, not unpleasant but just motionless, unchanging. I sometimes thought that if purgatory existed, I was wrapped in its neutral embrace. I was trapped in the cyclical, ever pumping machine of the entertainment industry- always changing yet always the same, always in motion and always in balance. Escapism found an important place in my life for the first time since the gloomy middle school days.

Color keys for an upcoming short I'm making.

I mentioned before the Egyptian Theater in regards to the Chuck Jones event.
The chaos of that first week helped me overlook the specifics, but I owe the place now a more thorough description. Its roots reach deep, to a soil that nourished the prehistoric, grandiose days of classic Hollywood. In 1922 it was opened as a large one-screen movie house, the main stage nestled in its throne beyond the majestic, retro, Egyptian themed facade. Two story tall rod iron gates open to a courtyard discretely sheltered from the onslaught of sidewalk tourist traffic on Hollywood Boulevard. Deep, past rows of palm tress and faded frescoes of Egyptian pharaohs, lives, beyond the hieroglyph decorated columns, the box-office alcove. A humble lobby lies beyond with the familiar creek of old carpeted floorboards. Theaters were simple in those days, to the right a lounge hallway with couches and restrooms, to the left a one register concession stand, and straight ahead a wrap around entrance, through glass doors, to the main attraction: one goliath theater. Heavy, dark red curtains line hundreds of feet to drape the edges of the theater in dense elegance. Tall, narrow, couch filled hallways converge on either side of the theater into the main area. Overhead, sophisticated balcony seating expands upward, meeting with the ceiling, where a gold scarab beetle looms huge in symmetrical relief. I've included below a reference picture which does no justice to the sense of scale or history one feels in the theater. It was more than even all this charm that sold me on my annual membership to the Egyptian. The most important feature of a movie theater are the movies. The Egyptian is a vintage theater, its catalog a carefully curated slice of the best the one hundred plus years of cinema has to offer.  There's an entire month dedicated to one of the most whimsical and unique filmmakers to ever live, one of my personal favorites- Hayo Miyazaki. The expanded menu may include in any given month: Spartacus, Barry Lyndon, Akira, Fritz the Cat, the Monty Python films, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Its a Wonderful Life- not to mention late night triple features like the Indiana Jones Trilogy and the 1930's, Boris Karloff Frankenstein series.

The Egyptian.

The tea kettle gift which saw me through so many long nights.
The finishing touches on our living room came in the form of framed pulp movie posters.

Cosmos wrapped around this time and the studio downsized. A still undiagnosed and ever worsening series of headaches, combined with the abject terror of my name on the list of newly unemployed, brought further sweetness to all that movie escapism. The sugar for the bittersweet pill of production's end and layoff is the premiere party. Cosmos premiered on the rooftop, poolside sky lounge of the W Hotel in Hollywood. The lobby of the hotel looks like the shooting location for a luxury liquor ad. Marble columns spilling onto marble floors, spiraling, free hanging staircases, hip minimalist furniture, a long elegant fireplace, and tailored suits swilling expensive scotch helped this commoner feel happily out of place. And yet the exclusive roof lounge is the locked cabinet even above that top shelf  liquor. Operated elevators gave passage through a cushioned, red-tinted portal room. A long palatial hallway stood in expert symmetry, pointing us towards the reflected half circle of moonlight on the marble floor at the end of the dark passage. Outside, another series of winding archways led us past rooms of patterned divans and carpets seemingly looted from a Sultan's harem room. Finally we emerged into the balmy, star laden lounge. Crowds were a mixed bunch, ranging from high powered network executives, celebrity cast, crew, and friends- Bill Nye, Seth McFarlene, Carl Sagan's widow and producer Anne Druyan- to us mousy bunch of scared employees trying not to get in the way.  We steered clear of those higher echelon operators to enjoy the catering and open bar. All too soon the night was over and I returned home, where I would suffer unemployment and extremely painful headaches.

Cosmos Party.

Kayla and I on a weekend vacation at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

Painting for a friend.

Deli Bus concept painting for Nick Pitch. 

My roommate/pal Uriah and I steering the fourth of July grill.

A cool project beckoned, so I powered through the incredible stress of what will hopefully turn out to be my only freelance experience. NBC's Community was putting together a one time special animated episode, a parody of old the G.I. Joe Saturday morning cartoons. Although a product I'm happy to have my name on, the production of this episode, normally live action show, was hectic at best and an outright madhouse the rest of the time. Returning to the hunt I pitched a show and was invited to meet in the hallowed halls of Nickelodeon, took storyboarding and writing tests for Cartoon Network, and cast my line with  minimal nibbles at a few other prominent studios. Always looming was the unfulfilled possibility of career advancement- consideration for directing a web series, storyboarding on an up and coming TV show, apprenticeships for high positions at major studios- and always shattered dreams. The electricity of modern life leads one in unemployment through twilight crawls in the mud of internet research. Your schedule becomes nocturnal, and your focus scattered between the thousand gleaming hooks just out of reach. I was always one late morning call away from incredible hope, followed by another with magnificently destroyed expectations. Rejection finds a permanent home, a passing discomfort taken like the daily dull stig of insulin. As shame demands during the late morning calls I'd pretend to have been awake for hours, running errands and making appointments. This particular proposal was finally an actual offer in place of the usual vague promise. This was however, a lateral move instead of an advancement, a shift to design from animation, but it was a job at least. Life boats found a home for friends of the sinking Cosmos ship, and they invited me to join them. Design was half the stress and work of animation for the same pay, and I got to spend several months working alongside friends. Bojack Horseman gets good, with a slow gradient, around episode six. Six through twelve are fantastic, so if you want to watch my debut into character design, give the show at least that much time before you dismiss it as crude and tired.

Some animation I did from the G.I. Joe themed Community episode.

 A sampling of designs I did on season one of Bojack.
Alex and the studio's fat Godzilla.

The giant studio robot.

Bojack was coming to an end, it was time to regroup, finish some personal projects, and get to the bottom of my headaches. I turned down outside freelance and studio offers and planned to return to work on season two after a long Summer hiatus. Several of my first mornings on break were spent in what was now unending agony: writhing, dizzy, unrelenting pain that woke me up early and wouldn't let up for caffine, darkness, rest, pain relievers, or fresh air. I made my third investigatory trip to the doctors and explained my desperation. We delved deeper into the possible causes and I dropped my lifelong instinct to play down my symptoms and my pain. The doctor asked if I had been going to bed at midnight or later- I had been going to bed around five. She asked if I worked long hours without rest, and if I had been doing so for a prolonged period of time- twelve to sixteen hours a day between personal work, studio jobs, and previously, eighteen credits worth of classes. This had been going on since I started my senior film two years before, and although I got more nightly hours of sleep now, I still worked too long and too late. The answer was simply exhaustion. I would try an earlier sleep schedule for the next several weeks, and if the problem persisted, I had the neurologist's card. The pain receded slowly over the weeks until it was an occasional, curable headache. Recovered, and with savings enough to manage my cheap living expenses, I refused all work to put check marks on my to-do list. Alex and company headed north to draw some nature. I pretended stalwart as Alex led me on the second of many exhausting outdoor adventures. We hugged the foggy, jagged, redwood striped sea cliffs of Big Sur. Serene, curving hills of the Pacific Coast highway held us in the astonished, vibrating silence a country drive. My thirst for nature was met with waves of mammoth forest trunks and trickling, gem colored leaves.

Kayla and her big tree.

Alex and I amoung the trees.

Tree Sketches

Alex, myself, and many other crew members at the Bojack Horseman, Microsoft lounge premiere. Featuring Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul (the voice of Todd on the show and the host of the party).

Long lunches back in LA became spitball sessions amoungst creative friends. I developed favorite spots and became a waive-to regular at all the local winners. Mucho Mas is a winding, colossal tavern ripped from the nestled wooded hunting lodges of the Germanic Middle ages. Its also a fairly unfrequented secret in a strange corner of this neck of the woods, There I'd talk sit for hours and enjoy the best Mexican Food I've had in LA.

The ambiance inspired both my returning patronage and this moving digital painting.

A gouache painting featuring Kayla the clerk.

Landscape Studies

My now favorite ramen house opened a few stores over from our local drawing meetup spot, the Republic of Pie. A few kind yelp reviews later and our apatizers are on the house. During the times when the headaches allowed my occasional nocturnal relapse, we'd head to the North Hollywood diner for pie a la mode or the four am trucker's breakfast special.  My history with diners might have already revealed that divey and kitsch are forever at home with me. The place is a twenty four hour diner open consecutively since nineteen fifty six, without even a key to the front door. Densely pattered and dimly lit, it falls into my cozy collection of charming old weirdo diners. Wall to wall black and white, autographed photos of bygone celebrities and stained glass windows accompany the fifties long counter vibe for a great hangout spot. This whole part of town must have agreed on a cult, B movie basement vibe, because down the street a painted shack laid in wait to amaze me. The third of many exhausting Alex hikes was a Sunday bike ride. LA is divided by and surrounded by Mountain ranges. Head too far in any direction and you could find yourself at the ocean, the mountains, the forest, the dessert, the factories, or even the ski slopes if you were dedicated to getting lost. Alex lives south of the mid-city range and I live north, aka the valley. One day I took the subway down to his place for a bike ride along the LA "river," which is that concrete channel from the chase sequence in Terminator 2. What resulted was an devastating climb around the mountain range, past the curving roads concealing major movie studios, and the heavily trafficked remainder of the fifteen mile urban trek. The silver lining for the tiring journey was, as I finally neared home, the discovery of the often overlooked shack. Outside cheesy pulp movie paintings adorned the cheap looking structure that inside turned out to be a movie haven. Downstairs a hidden basement space of layered posters and discount bins flooded the eye. Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee feels like the fanatic collection of a movie obsessed genius-lunatic. Tightly packed shelves of VHS tapes span titles obscure and acclaimed dating back to the eighteen nineties. DVD's and Blue rays are kept in the back storage, accessible through a huge laminated wall catalog of cover sleeves. There are VHS and DVD players for rent, and a lifetime membership is only fifteen bucks. Things of this sort have occupied my leisurely recoperation this Summer. The weeks between then and now were filled with my preferred, movie and TV flavored entertainment. A proscenium dipping into the dark, magical recesses of the Hollywood mountains, the Hollywood Bowl, housed an incredible Simpson's firework extravaganza. Art house film lectures featured my long list of favorite directors discussing their recent works. The micro animation competition, Loop de Loop, featured some of my recent works and treated its audiences to free beer in the screening room of LA's biggest comic shop and on the lawn of Nickelodeon Studios. I topped it all off with a graveyard showing of Rosemary's Baby, and cartoonist-comedian tag team stand up performances. I returned to work this week on season two of Bojack, with high hopes to transition to storyboard artist by Thanksgiving. Kayla works alongside me, having passed the design test and the final threshold to enter the industry.

I'm quite proud of the new Bart Simpson shirt

These are two of my recent submissions for the Loop de Loop competetion:

"Block" theme, also screened at Animation Block Party in New York.

"Childhood" theme, screened at Nickelodean.

Screening on the Nick lawn.

The Simpson's Hollywood Bowl extravaganza.

This is where I leave you. This is where I agonize over the wrap-up sentences that serve the chapter ends of so many seminal events. May you have as much entertainment in the places and people described as I had pride in knowing this small audience cared. May the past few years of blogs have allowed some vicarious enjoyment of my experience. And finally, may this  have proven a geuine sample of an artist's life, or at least a genuine sample of the human experience. Thank you all for reading, farewell.


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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Settling In: LA Part 2 of 3

Settling in: LA Part 2 of 3.

A shift of tide is at first imperceptible. Retrospect observes the collected shades that all at once allow you notice the passing of months and years. My shift was the loss of that new car smell. LA all at once left the realm of the fresh and entered the realm of the familiar. The Chuck Jones retrospective marked the end of those first crucial days in LA. It marked the separation between the first endless week and the year that has passed as quickly since. Now I stretched my legs and began to explore the city.

I finally finished that childhood quarter map.

Our first Thanksgiving spread, complete with cactus.

 The arrival of "the familiar" brought with it the comforts of ritual. One thousand plus movies had collected in an online list. Recommendations from friends, family, best-of compilations, awards nominations, and pop culture references helped grow the list to the mountainous que that it is today. An online number generator selected between one and one thousand, I found that number on the movie list, and Netflix delivered the DVD. Each Wednesday night the roommates and I gathered around a communally prepared meal, and basked in the unpredictable excitement of a randomly chosen film. Movie theater rules applied- no talking, no laptops, no phones, no lights, no pause breaks. We watched with the absorbed respect of a theater audience, from the comfort our living room's tiny auditorium. Thursday nights were spent at drawing club. Comic artists, toy makers, storyboarders, amateurs, concept painters, and practical effects gurus made up the odd collection of industry adjacent artists.Our meeting spot was the Republic of Pie, which holds every bit of majesty such a title implies. It was one of those unexplainable structures larger inside than out. The Republic of Pie opened into a tall, couch filled lounge connecting to deeper caverns by narrow hallways. Walls of windows into the the kitchen interrupted the lounge, and ran alongside long glass cases of pies, which then became the order counter, which flowed to the barista station, and emptied like a river delta into the main lounge. An amphitheater of couches, bars, and tables surround the one step main stage- complete with the additional nooks and alcoves necessary for a good coffee house. A rotation of live music played to the college students, writers, and loafers that kept the place abuzz at all open hours. Past the main room lies a final, low slung, cave. The back room was insulated by the heavy density of antique furniture and the dim, warm glow of low lighting. At a long table, in this furthest crevice did I spend my Thursday nights. I'd soon come to call this eclectic group of artists my new friends. They'd take me to their favorite city spots on weekends. Little Tokyo consisted of an outdoor square surrounded by floors of spiraling balconies. Costumed high schoolers loitered in front of Japanese comic shops dressed like cartoon characters. Inks and sketching pens could be bought cheap next door to intricate geometric pastries resembling neatly wrapped presents. The menu at the top floor ramen house was ordered by level of spice. Our roommate Uriah is one of those skinny guys that could put away a Cadillac. He also has a Texas bred resistance to spice. Groups of onlookers argued in foreign tongues about Uriah's chances in the curry challenge. Both a spice and quantity challenge, the ramen was a hearty cauldron's worth of scorching pepper broth. Boiling, evil snarls of noodle water bubbled from the enormous bowl. Meanwhile, burly, pink faced, viking-shaped men dropped like flies around us, forfeiting the challenge. Uriah's skin took on the color spectrum as he pushed on. Three quarters through the bowl Uriah excused himself to return a solid gallon of liquid to the restaurant's porcelain. There were no rules up front about such a stipulation, and we pressed him to further damage his stomach. With doubly burning throat, he choked down the remainder of the hellwater. Uriah then took his rightful seat on the throne of fame.

Uriah's hall of fame polaroid.

I took some liberties with a subway sketch.

Sometime's we'd visit mom and pop bakeries and gourmet coffee shops. Suspended glass bowls, interconnected by means of weaving tubes, pumped carefully measured bursts of ground espresso blends. Equipment hissed and shrouded one side of the counter in steam. The rich, dark liquid spiraled from three sets of glass tubes into the final basin of Dr. Frankenstein's chemistry set. Finely crafted froth was sculpted with care by these coffee artisans. Our drinks looked like magazine spreads and tasted like wildflowers, but I'll take a cup of diner black any day. There's a strip of old Burbank with year round Halloween stores to cater to the costumed obsessed culture of LA. Room after room of gothic books and dense costumes  awaited past the blackout window drapes. Down the road, charming wooden houses were converted to blocks of vintage clothing and boutiques. Italian bistros offered seating sections within enormous, side laying wine barrels. The novelty soda shop supplied my fix for cane sugar favorites in glass bottles. And there were always new delicious and bizarre attempts to flavor pops things like cotton candy and apple pie. There's a strip of old Pasadena with brick walkways through the unadorned, crisp three story simplicity of a mid sized 1920's town square.  Slaters 50/50 offers intricately crafted burgers and pop rock milkshakes. Work in Hollywood meant lunch outings under modernist paintings, featuring tiny sculptural dishes as expensive as they are delicious. Most of this junk food was portioned out for special occasions. Produce in LA was fresh, abundant, and cheap compared to NYC. The grocery store across from the apartment reflected this. Neon Spanish signs labeled the departments, which themed like a village marketplace under individual tiled awnings. Palm trees sprouted from various sections to complete the ambiance.

Animation inspired by my grocery store's lush bakery.

I continue to get mileage out of this suit, here I am at work on Cosmos.

 I put great effort into keep myself focused on the eccentric, fun aspects of the city, lest I slip into my native cynicism. Even with all the activity, it became impossible to overlook the sprawl and desperation of the place.

Sketches from the plane.
Subway sketches

The plane ride into California showed me the truth of what the path by roads hoped to hide. Descent towards LAX showed passing patches of red mountains and arid brown vegetation that clung to life. I waited for green, for the type of climate to support the rows of trees and golf courses proudly displayed on television. From the ground, the strategically planned lawns and palm trees disguised the fact that the green never really showed up. LA is the only landscape I've ever seen which the city planning wears a mask. It continually reminded me of the simultaneous and contradictory notion always in effect: It was both the prettiest and ugliest place I'd ever been. The street, elevation, and time of day dictated the coin toss. But, it was more than the duality of the terrain itself that built in me a sense of dread.  Every town has a handful of construction workers, janitors and baristas that hate their jobs. This city is the only place I know of where the construction workers, janitors, and baristas felt promised something more. A glaze of naive optimism coats the newcomer. Then, the pained smile of pretended optimism takes its place. Eventually, in the final stage of indoctrination, they form camps. The first camp is camp crazy. Almost everyone here is a little cracked. Some are out and out disabled. Even the most highly functioning, intelligent people eventually reveal the chinks in their own armor. There was a study done on a group of mice that were electroshocked. One group was shocked at regular intervals, after a sound cue. Another was shocked at random, sometimes in conjunction with the sound cue, sometimes without warning. Lets call them group B. The stress and unpredictability of the shock rendered the B mice anxious and unstable, shortening their lives. Even shocking B less often than the control group did little to correct their health. This is life in LA. We are all group B. An endless series of disappointments, even among the occasionally successful, take their tole on the human psyche. Never have a been in a place where so many dazed lunatics wander the streets and eat toothpaste on the floor of public libraries. Nor have I been in a place were so many well spoken professionals break into delusion and hysteria over some unpredictable, obscure topic. Otherworldly vibes support conversations that don't track, and I've come to give the phenomena nicknames like sunshine poisoning and California sickness.

Sketches of Californians.

 We are all of us, running from the drifting shade of that storm cloud insanity. Many take refuge in camp two- the jaded. When energy and expectation is gone, you may drop the front of optimism for one of bitterness. This is my leaning, which, however unpopular, allows the wearer to keep their full sanity. Balancing optimism and disappointment is a trying exercise, relenting notions of meritocracy, it is much easier to keep your wits about you. Finally, there are the people who refuse to be bitter or delusional, cracked or cynical. The third camp is a large one- those who leave, who give up. Never have I existed in a place so surrounded by broken dreams. For those who can afford it, the landscape itself, which hopes to be more than a dessert, achieves its goal in lucky patches. Tired cliches about the city full of "fakes" has more to do with the way people falsely cling to hope than the bleached blonde insincerity with which the city is labeled. I've heard far less from pompous big shots than from overcompensating hopefuls. Distribution of success is simply too one sided to represent the city's temperament. The sprawl of highways and dessert plants, neon all night dinners, seven elevens, rotating, star shaped bowling alley signs, and tropically decorated apartment complexes push everyone into their own spotlit islands. We all live impossibly far away from each other and everything. There is too much road to light all of the street by night. All destinations sit alone behind some huge, empty parking lot and its single, flickering, streetlamp. It is both a vibrant and lonely place, the stark black of night made more apparent by that incredible brightness of day. My best efforts to capture the alien tone of this planet are summarized in this painting of my neighborhood liquor store:

This isolated, glowing, liquor store clown, although huge in scale, is tiny and endlessly buzzing against the infinite expanse of desert night. At once he is tragic, funny, strange, and deeply fascinating.

Some animation I did on Cosmos.

It was time for a break from LA.

Film festivals often pay some combination of room and board, offering what amounts to an extremely cheap vacation. This usually requires you win a prize in the festival, and luckily, that hard fought senior film of mine had done just that. There were even options. The dust had not altogether settled from the jump to LA, and a trip to Romania seemed exhausting on my tight work schedule. So off I went to South Dakota. Rural and cold felt inviting after all that brightness. It was impossible to overlook the change in light from the moment I left the Sioux Falls airport. Even in sunshine the world outside of LA sat under a heavy lidded dimmer. Values of day and night existed in the soft grey scale I grew up in, instead the harsh, film noir contrast of California . Light felt smoother, rounded, and less urgent. Student festival volunteers hailed with a "Walzel" sign, then drove me through rainy, brown Winter hills. It was good to feel cold again. Films played to a handful of festival goers nestled in the small auditorium of the town college. The theater and surrounding community gave the cozy impression of wrapped layers, huddled in shelter against the cold hardened rain.  Filmmakers answered questions and were awarded handmade prizes from the comfort of the assembled living room at the front of the stage. Dinner was at the Festival Curator's home. The cottage like two story lived on a wet, curbless, tree lined street. There the transition from asphalt to yard was blurred by leaves and soft, sloping transition of the old road. Groups of filmmakers talked, scattered on the carpeted living room floor of the old house. Stew and other such warm foods complimented the selection of Autumn beers. The days we spent at nearby attractions. Cross boarder drives featured native american soap stone carvers, and blue plate specials at Midwestern dinners. Art museums were stocked with community art, and the Interactive Science Center featured a full scale, robotic T-Rex. The festival and my trip came soon to an end. I returned glad to have been out of the sun for a while.

Drawing at the rock quarry in South Dakota. 

Sketches from a Minnesota diner.

Minnesota diner pie.

Sketches from the plane ride home.

I still escaped whenever possible. Holidays marked my return to Texas, for one of the most happily uneventful visits in recent memory. I hid what were ongoing and then worsening daily headaches. A long Winter vacation allowed a road trip north to the pointed desert spikes of the Devil's Punchbowl. What I thought was going to be a dainty nature hike quickly turned into a dangerous rock climb. This was the first in a long line of underestimations in the boundless energy of my friend Alex. Highlighting the climb was a swing across a collapsing dirt path on the weak, overhanging root formation. We narrowly cleared the sliding, 30 foot drop over the up-angled knife rocks below. Past the remainder of the valley's crater, I collapsed in the back seat of the car. Bumping, disturbed sleep jostled me through sleepy thoughts of "home." Brooklyn had now worn off, and a life in Texas felt a lifetime ago. Complaints and all, LA is where I now placed those thoughts of "home."

Alex, a tiny speck, at the Devil's Punchbowl.

A painting for an X-files show.

Part 3 of 3 next week.

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