When I was a kid I loved Garfield. I was still a little too young to truly love Calvin and Hobbes and to get which Far Sides it was okay not to get. So, Garfield was it. These days I prefer Garfield Minus Garfield. Turning John Arbuckle into a depressed, nearly psychotic lonely man is hilarious and it highlights the fact that regular Garfield just wasn’t that funny. I honestly can’t tell you what it is that I liked about the strip. Garfield’s sarcasm perhaps? He views himself as the hero surrounded by idiots? It’s full of jokes about Mondays and coffee and lasagna, not exactly the stuff of fifth grade, but I still thought it was awesome.
I used to love drawing him, though. I would practice all the time and try to mimic the way Jim Davis drew him. I had all of the Garfield collections and I studied his change in his appearance over time. He looked so different in the early versions. I used to practice drawing him and preferred the later versions of Garfield for my drawings.
One of these drawings found its way to my mom’s work and that’s how I started trading Garfield drawings with Mark.
My mother worked part time at The Strong Museum in Rochester (it’s now called The Strong Museum of Play, which I find to be an odd name switch). At first she worked at the front as a greeter. Then she worked in the gift shop. She took several smoke breaks in the back and became friends with a lot of the guards and maintenance workers. I remember her friend Jamil who was always really nice to me. He was missing his bottom front teeth. My mom said he didn’t care because it actually helped him play the trumpet better. (That’s the excuse I remember her giving me though I’m not sure in hindsight if it makes any sense.) There was Jermaine who did Taekwondo. “Jermaine was in a tournament this weekend and he busted some guy’s face!” my mom said. I was impressed. I mean it wasn’t Karate but still. I remember him as kind of mild and quiet but also pretty squarely built, so, I could see it. And then there was Mark who turned out to be really good at drawing.
I don’t know how Mark and I started exchanging drawings through my mom but we did. She must have shown people at work a drawing I had done or maybe I showed them myself on one of the Saturdays when my dad and I would go into work and have lunch with her in the back break room.
Mark’s drawings were awesome. He didn’t necessarily draw Garfield but he drew a cartoon cat that looked totally professional to me. One of them was simply entitled “Fat Cat” and he drew this huge cat sitting in a broken wheelbarrow and he had roll after roll of fat. It was the coolest. “How is this guy not a pro?” I thought. “Why is he a guard at a museum? He should have his own comic strip!”
I sent back the best that I could, the best drawing of Garfield that I could muster to be worthy of the exchange. We went back and forth a few times.
Alright, why am I telling you this?
I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I’ve been reading The Artist’s Way. I don’t generally announce reading self help books about finding my inner artist. I’ve picked this book up and put it down several times over the past decade since I first got it. I always was turned off by all the God and Great Creator stuff but I must need it now because it’s sticking. I think it’s the morning pages, where you write three pages of whatever comes to mind, longhand, every morning right after you wake up. Morning pages are the best meditation I’ve done. I’ve tried traditional meditation but I always find myself thinking “am I doing this right?” then “let that thought pass” then “okay, did I let that thought pass right?” Morning pages, though, take care of the errant thoughts running through my head. Instead of closing my eyes and breathing and letting them pass, I find writing them all down just flushes them. It’s great.
Anyway, it was by doing morning pages and some of the exercises in the book that I remembered Mark and this weird thing that I did once.
I remember that I was at the museum and Mark came over to talk to my mom and me to say hi and I ran outside and hid behind the wall. I remember looking back through the front doors to see if he was still there. I checked a few times before he walked away.
After he left, I came back to my mom’s desk. “Why did you run away, sweetie?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. And I really didn’t.
The simple answer is social anxiety, I guess. But it’s something a bit more than that. I felt really vulnerable having shared something and having him share something back. I didn’t know what I could say to him. I didn’t want to ruin this connection.
I think that vulnerability is present any time you make something. I’m older now but I don’t think I’m less afraid, I’m just better at managing the fear. Anytime I write something, pretty much anything – even an email or a facebook status – I think “who could hate this?” Every time I step on stage to do improv or every time I step up to a microphone to tell a story, I feel it. I know no one will hate me. The world won’t end. I’m not that important. But the fear is there, like a little light that’s dimmed but not extinguished, that little part of me that wants to run and hide because I might ruin something.
I don’t know what happened to Mark but he had a talent. What’s that part of the Calvin Coolidge quote? “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.” But what did Vonnegut say? “Practicing an art, no matter how well or how badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake… Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
No matter what, those drawings meant something to me. I remember them over twenty-five years later. When you make something it has that kind of power. It might only be powerful for one person but what’s wrong with that?