Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Earle's perspective

My buddy Rich has asked me several times how I can be taking this so well. He and I have talked about my handling of the Gabriel situation and if my previous excursion into this realm has granted me some coping tools for this go-round. I'm not saying I'm Mr "Even Keel" all the time but I seem to be able to handle this pretty well. Part of me knows I have to be strong for Beth but I think another part has realized we have almost no effect concerning situations like this. I love Gabriel and hope he outlives both of his folks but I realize his is a special life that looks different than the rest of ours. The rest of us, the non-mixers see life as a journey with multiple vantage points, a few traffic jams, some tunnels and maybe a couple of accidents but we always arrive at our final destination, we always make it to Grandma's for Christmas. The mixers though; that is what they call Gabriel and his fellow HLHS peers because their physiology differs so significantly from ours. They have oxygenated and deoxygenated blood mixing in every artery and vein and feed their metabolism in a different manner than the rest of us. Some of them don't even get on the freeway, none of them experiences the certainty of life of a non-mixer. I understand this and am OK that my son is going to lead a very different life with different expectations, experiences, opportunities and timelines.  I'm fortunate enough to be in this position thanks to my pre-Gabriel primer that allowed me to directly confront and contemplate mortality and sanity. Following is an essay on the experience I wrote for the biennial publication The Artist's Book Yearbook 2012/2013. Some of you are aware of the events and a few have read the essay but many probably have not as the publication is intended for a rather esoteric audience.

So, thank-you to my friend Larry Gardner for editorial assistance and to Sarah Bodman for publishing.

Originally published:
The Artist's Book Yearbook 2012/2013
Impact Press
Bristol, UK 2011

So I died and that changed everything...

In 2008 I drowned…,

 I was resuscitated and after much introspection and critical evaluation of my life as a former US Marine and the lead instructor of the Boise Fire Department Dive Team, I came to the absolute conclusion that I am an artist “The artist’s life…” society’s perspective either conjures up an idyllic romanticized free spirit or a self-destructive tortured soul. Neither description fits the personalities of any of the artists I know. The path of the working artist is instead one of the most self-disciplined and complex undertakings I have ever experienced. The dichotomies of an artist’s career are monumental. The conceptual, the creative process the study of art all exist in a fluid stasis buoying the artist and their vision. The disharmony of marketing, valuation, self-promotion, and politicking constantly attempt to scuttle the artist’s desire and drive. 

The German artist Joseph Beuys melded many of these disparate components into the Beuys brand creating an artist’s personae in which almost any action or thought originating from him became art. Beuys blurred fact and fiction by using the experiences of his life to create the Beuys myth. While serving with the Luftwaffe in WWII his Stuka was shot down on the Eastern Front. Near death he was found by Nomadic Tartars, his body packed in felt and fat and rescued from sure death. The resulting myth has been challenged as having never occurred. The crash is documented fact but some reports contend that he was found by a German patrol and his entire recovery and convalescence occurred in a hospital. Nevertheless, the crash and the war were life-altering occurrences for Beuys.  Whether the encasement of his body in primitive packing was simply a metaphor for his rebirth as an artist and insulation from the horrors of war is irrelevant. Beuys saw an opportunity and grabbed it; the controversy surrounding his claims only served to further advertise and perpetuate the myth. 

Similarly, my drowning significantly changed my life. I have read accounts of Beuys' experiencing depression at various points in his life and I believe he probably suffered from PTSD, which hadn’t been recognized or labeled yet. In hindsight I’m quite confident I experienced PTSD following my near death experience. I was an emotional and psychological mess for months afterward and deeply affected for more than a year. Prior to the event I was emotionally open with my wife and children but guarded in most all other situations and relationships. To a degree my occupational history as a fire engine captain and an emergency medical technician necessitated this detachment. I was also the lead instructor for our dive rescue team and had served a decade in the U.S. Marine Corps, half of that as a Reconnaissance Marine. None of these jobs were well suited to emotional candor.

About 6 years ago I returned to the university to finish a degree I started years ago. Initially, articulating as a biology major, I realized over the years that I am a right brain individual and as I have always appreciated art I therefore took all my upper division electives in art or art history courses. One of the courses was a bookarts class from the late Tom Trusky. He ignited a passion within me as an artist. I created projects for his courses and dabbled a bit on the side but “controlled” this urge much as I did my emotions. 

At specific times with the correct people I could release artistically but control was always required. Even with the right people I was still guarded, not always comfortable with the emotional laissez-faire attitude of my artist friends. A particularly “messy” situation occurred when a talented illustrator friend showed me a recent work – a  nude of herself huddled in the corner of a barn, a cathartic painting to help her deal with sexual abuse as a young girl. Oh, man, I was uncomfortable! This was inappropriate... you don't show people everything! 

I have loved to cook my entire life. When leaving high school I toyed with the idea of culinary school instead of the Marines, but I had to prove I was a MAN! I reflect back now and realize how I had to constantly prove myself as a man, as tough. Now I can see how thoroughly I was overcompensating to suppress the creative, the emotions of the artist. 

After I drowned I was forced to finally deal with that person and realize who “I” was. I had taught many classes on cold-water near drowning (a drowning which has been reversed via resuscitative efforts). The texts state some patients have been submerged (dead) for more than an hour and been successfully resuscitated with no neurological deficits. None of the books or studies mentioned anything about the emotional and psychological impact on the victim. After my drowning I knew things were not right with me that in fact I would never be the same.  I felt confused and overwhelmed. I could empathize with a pregnant woman at the end of her third trimester bursting into tears for any reason, whether happy, sad, or merely observing the color of a car. That’s a great way to make tough firemen very uncomfortable! When they stopped by to check on their buddy I’d burst into tears because they were being so thoughtful and sensitive. I couldn’t make a single decision. I would lose my temper at the drop of a hat. And I kept experiencing heart palpitations. With the palpitations I would often feel an anxiousness which escalated until every physical and emotional component of my being felt taut and ready to snap. My heart would race I would feel strung out at first then experience a pleasant euphoria, similar to the buzzed sensation felt after drinking several cocktails. I was losing my mind. Some friends placed me in touch with a psychologist. She assured me I was normal and it was not unexpected that I would be a wreck after this type of event. She believed I was experiencing random adrenalin dumps. My adrenal system was basically out of whack because it had been dumping adrenalin constantly for several minutes while I was under the ice and now it was trying to recalibrate. I have also since discovered that heart attack survivors suffer some of the very same psychological symptoms I dealt with.  The body’s chemistry is altered while it goes without oxygen. On the cellular level this hypoxia affects the victim’s psychological and emotional perception (I would have loved to have known that at the time!) One of the few things I did know was that I had no business working on a Fire Engine solving other people's problems, let alone acting as Captain making life and death decisions. Hell, I couldn’t even decide what shirt I was going to wear without breaking into tears.  The Department mercifully gave me several months off to sort things out. 

Time at home though wasn't cutting it with an infant and a pre-schooler demanding attention, a wife who couldn't deal with my constantly fluctuating emotions and well-intentioned friends calling and stopping by. I needed some quiet time. My in-laws in North Florida agreed to watch the kids for a week while I spent time in a condo at the beach, some of it alone, some with my wife. I used the time to think, write, sketch and walk. 

One afternoon, I packed a small backpack with my sketchbook, a couple of beers and headed for the dunes several miles down the beach.  The temperature was near freezing with a light breeze blowing.  The white sand beaches of the gulf coast glinted under a cloudless sky lit by a magnificently bright sun, the light blue of the sky meeting the deep azure water at a sparkling horizon. Simply breathtaking, this must be the type of weather and the time of year when the advertising shots are photographed as the scenery is incredible and no one is on the beach. This was just what I needed, serenity, albeit a little cool, and miles of beach.  I walked down to the waters edge, right to the surf line where the waves crash onto the beach, soaking the sand and hardening it into an easier walking surface. I trudged along the beach, head down eyes searching the ground for an interesting shell or rock delivered by the last wave. I glanced up and looked at the condos on the left of the beach, miles of condos lining the sand bluffs just above the high-water line.  I cast a quick glance to the right, out to sea, marveling at the beauty of the water. When I lifted my gaze and looked ahead, the brightness of the sun assailed my eyes, the light reflecting off the distant sand forced my gaze to return to the ground in front of me. I realized at that moment I was visualizing a metaphor of life. Most of us trudge along on the common ground, on the path most familiar. A couple of steps left result in a more strenuous trek through the soft, deep sand, distanced from the surf with little possibility of finding seashells.  A little farther left and I could walk on the boardwalk and avoid most all strenuous effort, but distance myself even more from the surf. Farther left on the other side of the condos was the sidewalk, a nice easy walk but adjacent to the street and pollution, the noise of traffic muffling the sound of the surf.  A no risk option was to sit inside a condo and warily watch other people on the beach or maybe just watch a television show with a beach scene. The other extreme lay to the right, shed your clothes, wade into the surf and swim. To follow one of the other paths meant to leave the one I currently followed and drastically alter my perspective and experiences. Better to stay in the now, with the familiar, just trudge along with your head down, glancing ahead furtively, not daring to look too far ahead. 

 I considered my life in regard to the familiar path.  I had stumbled along from one thing to another with some success but had never formulated a master plan. I joined the Corps out of high school because all males in my paternal family served in the military. I signed up for the infantry because if you're going to be a Marine you might as well go all the way and join the infantry.  I volunteered for Recon following the same line of logic. Not having another plan, I decided to make a career of the Marines. I immediately observed that military life is much better as an officer.  I left active duty to attend college, serve in the reserves, attain my degree, and return to active duty. Fortunately I met my future wife during college and knowing that military service and marriage rarely mesh elected to remain in the reserves in lieu of returning to active duty. We were both full-time students, with full time jobs; our life was hectic and crazy.  We decided that I would get a decent paying job, put her through school, then we would flip flop and I would finish school.  My only stipulation was that it had to be a job that didn't suck. Firefighting was a paramilitary occupation that fit with my thought process at the time. I became a firefighter and enjoyed the training, the occupation and the camaraderie. It was similar to the military in that it was not an environment in which you could let your guard down and be a creative person. The kitchen, however, is one area where firefighters do tolerate creativity. I experienced true joy being creative in the kitchen and having it appreciated, (although I did have to tone down the presentation). Reflecting back, I realize how many times throughout both occupations my creativity had manifested itself. 

In recon I created new tactics or improved existing ones. Often I created work where nothing had existed before; a cold weather operating procedure for patrolling on skis, an introductory guide for Marines who would be training with the French Foreign Legion at their Jungle Commando Course in French Guyana. While training with the Legion I took photos, sketched their obstacle courses and man-trap exhibits, I kept a journal, drew maps and afterward assembled all the work into a primer. As a dive instructor with the Fire Department I formulated several new procedures and strategies for diving in environments poorly covered by other manuals. The deeper I dug into my life, the more I realized what I was supposed to do. 

When I finally reached the dunes I sketched and wrote a bit of prose about the sea oat. Sea oats are small plants that form the base for all the natural sand dunes on the Gulf Coast. The sea oat grows and thrives in the harsh environment of the beach, catching the blowing sand in its leaves to form the foundation upon which the wind eventually piles up a dune. One small plant and minute grains of sand team up to build enormous, protective, beautiful dunes. One sketch and a note embodied my birth as an artist. I was ecstatic.

 I felt as though a light shined directly on me or maybe emanated from me. I glowed with that revelatory awareness that comes from a life altering epiphany. I couldn't wait to get back to the condo and call my wife; I think I skipped most of the way back.
I called my Beth on the phone and told her “I'm supposed to be an artist.”
“What kind of artist?” she asked.
“I don’t know, it doesn't matter.” I replied “I'm an artist, isn't that wonderful; I've thought about it all day and that is who I am! I’ve always been one I just didn’t know it…” I rambled on excitedly citing the aforementioned examples of my artistic denial.

She started to cry…. “Haven’t you ever heard the term 'starving artist'? You have two kids, what are we going to do? You don’t even know what kind of art!” 

In my state of elation I realized I had forgotten to tell her the entire plan. I said I wasn't quitting my job as a fireman any time soon. I knew there would need to be some overlap until I could support my family as an artist. Somewhat reassured she said she would try and support me if that's what I thought I should do.

I felt free and released from bondage; I talked about my ideas freely and passionately. I cried in front of people and was OK with it. 

Unfortunately several months later I had to return to work as a Firefighter, EMT and rescue diver.  I didn't want to go back; I didn't want to re-bottle my emotions. I didn't want to deal with death and suffering anymore. That was a dark time, but I had to go back I had to support my family.  I decided to come clean, though, so I advised the other firefighters that I now felt different and spoke openly of what had occurred to me, including all of the emotionally messy stuff.  I did have to stifle some of my emotions because a firefighter helping a person has to keep some emotional distance from the situation. Since my return, several of the guys have attended my openings and exhibits, and at one residency the Engine and Ladder Truck Companies that covered that district stopped by.  I think most of the guys accepted the new me and some are even proud to have an artist in the department. 

Subsequently, I left the dive team and moved to one of our slowest fire stations.  I’m still proud of the profession and enjoy helping people but every day spent in the Fire Station is one not spent in the studio; every fire manual read, medical class attended or report written is art history, theory or method not studied. This train of thought haunted me for the first year after I returned to work which in turn lead to a heavy guilt trip. I became depressed when reading artist bios at exhibits, in catalogues, or periodicals. Each time I read about their MFA's and their quantity of exhibits I thought about the years I had squandered not studying or practicing art. One particular day I was reading bios when I was struck by the similarities between the mentioned artists instead of the dissimilarities between them and myself. I had a different perspective due to my training and experience, different than almost every artist in the world! Marine and Firefighter artists do exist (in small numbers) but most all I am aware of constrain themselves to classical media depicting their respective professions.  Few pursue contemporary art. I further evaluated my “education.”  A Reconnaissance Marine’s job is to observe, analyze and report as accurately as possible via photography, sketching and narrative. In Recon I quickly learned that perspective guides perception and our perception had to match reality as closely as possible. Some people are better at this than others, being able to distance themselves from their own personal biases due to their experiences. Firefighting likewise contains art training primarily in the areas of problem solving and critical thinking. As an artist I wrestle with the best means to convey my thoughts, to get the image or concept out of my head and deliver it to the viewer. The medium and the perspective considered within the frame of art history. Firefighting echoes these intellectual patterns; what kind of a situation do I have? What resources do I need? Am I evaluating this from the correct perspective? All of these questions weighed within the frame of what has and has not worked in the past. The ability to evaluate a given situation from multiple perspectives is a trait many artists possess but is quite difficult for many people to grasp. I was always intrigued by how many of my co-workers could not tolerate a difference of opinion or a change in our culture.

 I wasn’t aware at the time that I was flirting with semiotics, basically the manner by which we define, associate and label… our perception. My art is dominated by my fascination with how we see things and classify them. I often work in the book arts but like many contemporary artists move throughout various media and have trouble answering when people inquire what type of artist I am, maybe I should answer “visual semiologist?”

I wouldn’t recommend my career path in place of an MFA but it is what has created who I am and therefore influences my art and my perspective. I'm content with myself now; I have a better idea of who I am and what I'm supposed to be.  I still deal with some issues of PTSD part of which I'm sure result from balancing two disparate occupations. The example of Joseph Beuys has inspired me to capitalize on this incongruity and use all my personal experiences as a means to further myself as an artist. I doubt my personal myth building will reach the scale of Beuys but perhaps it can assist my career as an artist. Or, maybe I never will support my family with my art, but I still get to create art, and my family is tended to. I now know who I am though – I’m an artist.

The following passage is the text used to complete the previous “word sketch” for a friend’s artist's book composed of self-portraits of artists. Lisa Cheney-Jorgensen is the artist and has served as muse for not only this endeavor but Immigrant Shadows as well.

Jan. 2 of 2008 I was conducting a training dive under the ice with the Boise Fire Department. I sucked the AGA full face mask to my face when I ran out of air.  I didn’t verbally communicate the problem as that would use precious air that I wished to conserve while I solved the problem.  I had complete confidence I would simply change over the redundant supply valve, breathe off my pony bottle and then announce that I was aborting the dive.  I attempted to manipulate the RSV, for about 20 seconds to no avail. I grabbed my redundant 2nd stage regulator ensuring it was still underneath my neck.  I removed my AGA mask and pinched my nose so I wouldn’t inhale any water from the involuntary gasping that would occur when the cold water hit my face.  I placed the second stage regulator in my mouth.  I cleared the regulator & attempted to breathe and met complete resistance.  At this point, I realized that things were very bad.  What I did next was a bit unorthodox and harkens back to my USMC dive training.  I reached behind my head to ensure the pony bottle was on.  I immediately recognized the needlessness of my actions and discontinued.  I had settled down to the bottom of the pond I swam upwards to the bottom of the ice where I placed my right hand against the bottom of the ice and began to fin as vigorously as possible.  I streamlined my body, pointed my left arm in the direction I thought was shore & optimistically visualized my right hand disappearing out of the ice at any moment.  After finning awhile, I began to gasp compulsively and felt an overwhelming urge to remove the regulator from my mouth.  I realized I wasn’t going to make it back to shore.  At this point my thinking became muddled. I fixated on communicating with shore & telling them I needed help.  Voice communications were out so I attempted line pull signals but the slack in the line was significant due to my problem-solving and finning. Before I could achieve tension in the line I realized I was losing consciousness. I was losing my peripheral vision and blackness was enclosing upon me. The emotional panicy portion of my mind believed the regulator I was clenching between my teeth was the reason for my bodies lack of air and screamed at me over and over to remove the regulator and take a big breath. The logical component of my mind realized the regulator was keeping water out of my lungs and had to stay in place.  I placed the heel of my hand against my regulator to hold it in my mouth and pinched my nose with my thumb and forefinger and focused on not aspirating water.  I chanted the mantra to myself, “Don’t aspirate, don’t aspirate, don’t aspirate, don’t aspirate…” 

until I lost consciousness by suffocating myself to death.

Earle’s artwork can be viewed at earleswope.com. He is also currently at work on an artist’s book that delves into his entire experience; that book, The Earle Swope Experience will be available in the fall of 2011.
POST: vignette which plays the film POST: PTSD the musical


Norma from Idaho said...

There isn't much that a person can say after reading this powerful revelation. It takes my breath away, even though I was aware of the story before.

Norma from Idaho said...

There isn't much that a person can say after reading this powerful revelation. It takes my breath away, even though I was aware of the story before.