Who am I Part 2: The Artist Strikes Back
Last time, I described my childhood love for drawing and art, and how it shaped my life. As I began to travel new places and meet new people, I began applying this creative principle to language. It too, helped me imagine new things, and offered me a new way to overcome my disability: by involving others in my imaginative process with wordplay and language. Others could help me become that limitless artist through words!
As for my interest in language, my first principal was Mr. Ruiz, a Mexican-American advocate of Spanish in schools. I was fascinated by Spanish; and learning a foreign language was like drawing to me in many respects. There’s an imaginative and playful aspect to being a wordsmith that I enjoy. And again, that’s something that doesn’t involve my disability; the focus becomes communication, and I love the positive feedback I’d get when speaking a foreign language correctly to a person who spoke it back. Perhaps my struggle to represent my life experience as a disabled person somehow tied into a sympathy and longing to help people overcome linguistic handicaps. And thus began a love affair with language and communication.
Even prior to my experiences taking in little Spanish lessons and storytime with Mr. Ruiz, I knew that my first babysitter was Spanish, a best friend of my mom. And that someday we would go visit her. When I was 9 in Fall 1995, the family vacationed to go see her in Madrid, Spain for 3 weeks. That changed my life forever. I didn’t even know, as a good disabled American boy, that I would ever be able to go overseas. And again, many of the things that American boys only dream about: Castles, knights, and ancient cities, ice cream shops and video arcades on every corner, were real in Madrid. And my parents helped me navigate the landscape in a stroller! So I didn’t even have to worry about my disability.
I spoke Spanish as much as I could, and used hand signals, because I thought people wouldn’t understand my American English, but some did. I drew comics in my spare time, and dreamed of the American West, which was influenced by Spain. Other things I did were: Watch the Spanish version of The Flash on TV, visited castles, watched bullfights on TV (Even though I was told not to; they were too violent.) and other tourist sites; ancient Roman ruins, cathedrals etc. I will always be grateful to my experience in Spain, for the world opened up to me; in fact, I would go so far as to say everything I’ve done is in the hopes of going overseas again, and dreaming as I did in Europe.
When I was 13, I got tired of taking Spanish, and decided to take a “break” and go take German. Like most American boys, back then my knowledge of German culture was limited to bratwurst and World War II. I didn’t know that German, NOT Spanish would become my second language. My first teacher, Mr. Dazer, was a nice guy. All my German teachers were nice. We read German stories, and it being a basic middle school course, he would translate. But, again I found myself enthralled by learning a new culture as he showed us The Brothers Grimm, Max & Moritz, and even snippets of German MTV. Although, I thought my destiny was with Spanish.
Again, at 13, I went to Disney! This time, to the Epcot Center. I went with my Grandpa to a German-styled Biergarten in the park, as part of a Millennium celebration the park had been set up according to different cultures, in the hopes that the 21st century would be one of cultural understanding. The waiters and waitresses were all from German-speaking countries. I spoke a little German to our waiter, and soon the whole kitchen staff was gathered around my table wanting to speak to me, so I promised them I’d learn more German. Again, Disney did not emphasize my disability negatively, or discourage the fact that I wanted to talk to people. It was encouraged.
Now, my two impulses, for exploration and creative power, came together as I learned new languages... specifically German. My thoughts expanded as I learned a new language, my need to explore was unleashed as I brought Germany and it's culture into my surroundings, and in every way my confidence and power to understand in that area increased. What I couldn't get done physically I got done with language and imagination. I brought a new culture, a new country to me, instead of vice versa. And in the age of the internet, it was easy to keep up with.
I soon got into German Rock (Krautrock, sometimes called) and took German all through high school. High school was cool because I had many friends, and I mostly had freedom: I played Dungeons & Dragons. However, when the family divorced in 1997, I noticed my fascination with art dwindle a little; if not turn noticeably darker. (Not worse, just darker.)
But, I was able to keep mostly to my own imagination and share it with my friends. We’d invent games, make little movies, go exploring, and (if I was so lucky) speak a little German…if they could. Again, a lot of it was trying to make real some fantasy I had in my head, whether high-tech Utopia/dystopia or 19thcentury German aristocrat. I even caught up on a semester of high school work I missed when I had scoliosis surgery in 2002. There, I spoke German to the doctors who could, watched Bill Murray comedies, and listened to audio CDs of Bill Cosby and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, which wasn’t yet a movie trilogy. I joked that in the hospital the 9 Tolkien Cds were “my best friends”. Wherever I’ve gone art, culture, and myth “soundtrack” my life; its always been with me!