Since you’re reading this post, you can thank the geeks who created the ARPANET, the first system of networked computers in the world. I’m geeking out on this story. In fact, I found out that the computer room with the original equipment is still set up in a room at UCLA, only 12 miles from my house. I smell a road trip.
More geekery, sure. Why not? I was turned on to this book from an article I read about this fascinating man and his adventures since being diagnosed with ALS. The robotics book was written in 1984, so of course some of it is dated. But it’s written in a very accessible way and I had a hard time putting it down in the first chapters. If you’re into this kind of geekery, pick up a copy.
Jenni and I were reminded of this book on an episode of Ted Lasso. I haven’t read it for at least 15 years, so I’m picking it up again because, yes, I do read actual novels and fiction. I’m not just a robot, you know.
It feels weird to do one of those “How my year went” kind of posts. Mostly because December didn’t go too well. I was completely overwhelmed with work and our beloved dog, Quincy, passed away very suddenly. I also broke my toeagain, which is break number two in 2021.
I’d much rather look ahead to 2022 and all the possibilities for good things just sitting out there in their respective future months, waiting for me to pick them up.
Quote of the Moment
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life. And if that doesn’t work out for you, Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life. ”
What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part IV
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and start with Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.
Part IV: The First Lesson
Since this series is called What I Learned…, I figure I should probably get around to that soon. Maybe the first lesson I should share is don’t title a blog post series being about lessons until you have a better idea of what those lessons are. But, I titled it and here we are, which explains why this post took so long to write. I originally decided to frame my experiences on Blue’s Clues within lessons for some reason, so I’ll stick with that.
Let’s start off with a lesson that should be obvious because it’s actually in the show’s theme song. Somehow it’s one that I’ve needed to relearn (repeatedly) over the years.
Because you’re really smart
Before I get into what this lesson is about, you’ll need some background on what I actually did on the show from day to day.
As a storyboard artist, my job was to break down scripts into visual chunks. The storyboards would be used all the way through production so the animation, design, and art departments could work their magic.
Even though the test I did to get hired was drawn by hand on paper, the storyboards we made for the show were mostly digital. Rather than draw Blue, Steve, or backgrounds over and over again, we accessed huge drives that stored their images in all kinds of positions. It was a big time saver, which – when creating a weekly TV show with tight deadlines – is something you want to do as much as possible.
The things we would draw were new characters or objects that we might not have on hand. Then we would scan those in and create the scene in Photoshop. Once we had the scene set up, we imported the script, inserted images, and wrote stage direction in Quark. It was a consistent format that the rest of the team could easily follow. Here’s an example from the first episode that I ever worked on, Blue’s Play:
We had to figure out how to fit everything into the shot, keeping in mind the scale of the characters, objects, and backgrounds. Sometimes things didn’t work out the way the script was written and we had to make changes along the way. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make all those decisions all by my lonesome. Each episode’s director would sketch small thumbnails to demonstrate how they wanted to set up a shot. Sometimes they would hire me on the side to create them, which was sort of like doing two storyboards, but I loved the work.
We had several meetings throughout preproduction on an episode. There were meetings to go over the script, review storyboards, and revisions for each. Additionally, I would sit down with each episode’s director multiple times as we walked through every scene together – mostly verbally, sometimes physically.
We were serious about getting work done in the meetings, but that didn’t stop things from taking a turn into deep discussions of Bert and Ernie’s relationship on Sesame Street, or how that Talking Heads song would fit perfectly into this skidoo sequence. Pop culture, world events, Homer Simpson, and even religion often spilled into our discussions. Shared cultural references were peppered into the show as little Easter eggs that sometimes only we (subversively and proudly) noticed on airing.
The Art and Design departments would use our storyboards, working from our loose sketches to create new characters or backgrounds. Sometimes a small drawing I did for a storyboard would wind up on the show almost exactly as I designed it, which was always fun to see.
But I don’t feel really smart
For anyone to participate in creating Blue’s Clues, you of course had to be creative. You also needed an innate sense of comic timing, a childlike ability to be silly and sweet, and be highly intelligent. When I say anyone, I mean everyone, from the Executive Producers to the Administrative Assistants. In fact, that was one of the best things about my time on the show. Every single person I worked with at Blue’s Clues had those qualities in spades. It could be an adventure just walking to the breakroom for a coffee.
At the time, when I marveled at the amazing team of creatives and their wonderful qualities, I always excluded one person from that consideration. That unfortunate person was me.
I often showed up to story meetings with a knotted stomach. Mostly I saw myself as a backward country bumpkin who somehow managed to slip unnoticed into a Long Island Gatsby soiree. I was working with smart, worldly people who had been to Wesleyan, Rhode Island School of Design, and NYU. I hadn’t even finished college. I wasn’t smart, I reckoned, I just barely squeaked by on charm and banter. I told myself that I would never be on their level, no matter how hard I tried.
Of course, none of that was true. The longer I worked on the show and the more I got to know my coworkers, the less I felt like an outsider. I had to work hard to remember the times that our animation director would refer to me as “brilliant,” or when I could turn a table full of people into hysterics with a simple one-liner. I was complimented. I was promoted, I got salary increases and invitations to work on special projects. The minimizing of my talent and intelligence had been completely fabricated in my own head.
I chatted with my peers on the show and after a while, I learned that a lot of the ones I greatly admired felt the same way as me. Somehow, alongside the immensely creative work we were putting into the world, we felt like phonies. It’s ironic that we were working so hard to foster a sense of self-worth in preschool kids, but as adults, we often struggled to maintain that in ourselves.
I invented imposter syndrome
Okay, I didn’t really. I think it’s been around for a few millennia. But I certainly invented some brand new ways of experiencing imposter syndrome, even in the bright light of evidence that I was doing just fine.
You’d think in the half-century I’ve been on this planet that I would only need to learn this lesson once. In fact, I’ve had to relearn it just about every time I embark on a new project or work with new people. I’m getting better at recognizing it earlier, but sometimes it still sneaks up and nips at my ankles.
If there’s anything I would change about my time working on Blue’s Clues, it would be my perception of myself and my worth to the team. Not overly adjusting upwards to the point of arrogance, just tweaked a couple of notches higher so I could digest my sushi during a meeting.
In Part V, I’ll share another important lesson I learned on the show: When an opportunity comes up to do more, take it.
Tune in next week for the continuation of What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues!
I continue to be overwhelmed with screen printing projects. I’m making slow progress up T-shirt mountain and hopefully, by the holidays I’ll have summited. I think I just need a break to reorganize the shop and get re-motivated to start hustling again.
I am still fascinated both by web development and robotics. I’m working on those things as much as I possibly can, whenever I can. One of the pitfalls of working from home is that I can get distracted by shiny objects very easily.
Our oldest flew the coop once again. It’s good to see him in his own space once more, I think it will be really good for him to be living with his peers instead of a loud and crazy family. While we all miss him, it’s also nice for Jenni to have her office back. Let the reorganization commence!
I continue to write things and amazingly, people even read the things. My Grammarly extension is getting a workout. And on that note…
I didn’t write a single line of code in all of October. It’s really gnawing at me. I’ve just been overwhelmed with screen printing projects and I’m not even close to seeing daylight. Good news/bad news.
I think I need to take Helga to the doctor. Her battery keeps dying and she has a flat spot in her acceleration. A hitch in her giddy-up. As much as I love doing the work myself, I just don’t have the time or the space lately to do things right. But, I really want her to keep running. I found a place in Manhattan Beach that specializes in air-cooled VWs. It might be time for a trip.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and start with Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.
First: a word from our sponsor, Privilege
Before I move on to Part IV, I want to talk about something that’s been gnawing at me since I started writing this series.
I considered it a privilege to work on such a special show with an amazing team of talented people. But that’s not the privilege I want to talk about.
If you read Part I, you heard me say a lot about how I worked hard, stayed determined, and wrangled my way into jobs and circumstances where I otherwise might not have been granted access very easily. All of that is true, of course. However, I also had things going for me that were inherently and firmly in place long before I tried to achieve my dream.
I was raised in the 1970s as a white male in a middle-class, Christian, American family. That means that I saw myself and my family reflected in the TV shows I watched and the ads I saw. We were the default, as far as society was concerned. I never knew about white or male privilege because I lived it. I was on the inside, and you can’t see the rest of the forest when you’re surrounded by all the same trees.
For many years I considered myself enlightened simply because I was conscious of the wrongs perpetrated in history, especially against people of color and women. I still had a lot to learn.
I also grew up in a household that championed the independence of women in society. I can give you a perfect example of how different it was back then. When my mother went to get a part-time job in 1983, her boss asked her if she had her husband’s permission. That’s changed, but there are workplace paradigms still in place today (unequal pay is an obvious one).
Growing up I never understood that girls were raised, sometimes in very subtle ways, to be subservient to males. We still live in a society where men expect to be in charge. If they find themselves in a situation where they’re not in charge, they will find a way to subvert the female leadership and “make things right.” I’ve seen it happen many times. Sometimes it’s not even an overt act. It’s not immediately obvious to the men that that’s what they’re doing, but they are.
I also never understood the fear of getting gas late at night alone or going into a public restroom in a badly lit area. Even being the lone female in a crowd of rowdy dudes is a danger that I never considered.
I never understood what it was like for a woman to apply or interview for a job. Over the years, I’ve learned about the subtle ways hiring managers make it more challenging for women than they do for men.
I also never considered myself racist. And even though I hated racism itself, I had no idea what being Asian, Jewish or a person of color was like, apart from what was represented on TV. I didn’t know about the experience of being a black man in a suburban store. I recently learned how many black men are conscious of not appearing threatening or making sure they’re being accommodating, just to avoid suspicion of being a danger to the white customers. Growing up, I never gave a thought to the fact that Band-Aids were made for white skin and how that affects the mental well-being of black kids growing up in a white world.
Now, I can imagine that the simple fact of your race not being represented in simple ways must change the very basis of how you think about the world. The overtly racist ways of white supremacists are obviously hard to deal with. I can only imagine how the subtle, quieter ways are just as hard.
I’ve talked a lot in my series about motivating myself to get to the next step in my career. That’s my experience as someone who has always had a lot of privilege. You can’t just hand a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking to a marginalized person and expect that they’ll suddenly overcome all their issues. It doesn’t work that way. Someone who grew up in poverty doesn’t necessarily believe that a better life is right around the corner if only they could just think better. Sometimes it’s a matter of survival first, motivational posters later.
I’ve seen perfectly competent and personable individuals turned down for jobs because of race, gender, age, disability, and even weight. Yes, it’s against the law. Yes, it still happens. Everyone in those situations knows why, but no one talks about it. The privileged can compartmentalize their shame and move on without much trouble. I’ve been complicit in some of those situations simply because I didn’t speak up. Being a silent witness doesn’t make me any less guilty.
Over the years, I’ve learned more about what privilege means. As a trans/non-binary person, I’ve also experienced firsthand some of the non-inclusivity and fear that comes from being in certain situations. That experience has helped me understand a lot about what other marginalized people go through.
My privilege doesn’t take away from my hard work. I did work hard and I did achieve the things I wanted because I stuck to it and didn’t give up. I had an incredibly supportive family. Acknowledging my privilege is important to understand the context in which this series is set.
I hope you’ll keep reading.
Next Up: Part IV
Next week, I’ll show up with Part IV, where I’ll talk about the juicy details of what it was like on the inside of Blue’s Clues. The stars, the writers, the meetings, and the day-to-day experience of creating a TV show for kids.
What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part III
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and start with Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.
Part III: Okay, I’m here. Now what?
I still remember my first day walking into The Viacom Building at 1515 Broadway. I felt like a country mouse. Taking the N train from Queens and navigating Manhattan was pretty easy, but I had no idea what working in an animation studio would be like. Thankfully my boss, Nancy, was friendly and made a big effort to make me feel welcome before I even got there.
When I got off the elevator at the 46th floor, I was worried that I was in the wrong place. It looked like a storage space, or my old art school. Later on I learned that sometimes new shows got placed into less-than-optimal spaces in case they didn’t catch on. Blue’s Clues was into its third season, very much a hit, and we soon moved up the street to swanky new digs (more on that later).
Nancy and I met up and she took me to meet my fellow storyboard artists, Kevin Cardinali and David Levy. Even though the furniture and walls were lacking in style, the equipment was all top notch. I was surprised to learn that the storyboards were mostly compiled in the computer, and everyone had two monitors (two!). Back then they used behemoth CRTs, emitting their special rays from the tubes inside. It’s a wonder that anyone over the age of 25 can still see.
Nancy then led me to a conference room where we crashed the Animation Department’s weekly meeting. It was a little intimidating to be introduced to the group, mostly because I realized that I was wearing a striped shirt and khakis. What was I thinking? I’ll never know. No one harassed me for it or threw anything heavy at me, so I took that as a testament to the friendliness of the crew. These people were the lifeblood of the show, so their opinions meant the world to me.
I can’t remember if I met the creators of the show or Steve Burns that day or later. I was mostly trying to keep myself from peeing my pants and wondering if I would fit in. Any moment, I expected someone to come out of a room, point at me and shout, “That one! That’s the imposter!” Security would escort me off the premises and that would be the end of my career in animation, before it even got started.
Today, I can gladly report that did not happen. I just met a bunch of informal, friendly, and sometimes weird artists – at least as weird as me, so I increasingly felt like I would fit in just fine.
D.J. in Wonderland
First of all, it’s New York City. Love it or hate it, nothing compares to the experience. The difference between living in NYC and being a tourist is kind of like looking at a bottle of whiskey and getting drunk on a bottle of whiskey. I got drunk on NYC. I love living in big cities and NYC is the big city. It’s not for everyone. It’s gritty. It’s loud. You learn quickly how to dodge taxi cabs. But hey, you want a coffee? Its right over there. A slice of pizza? Take your pick, which corner? Want to pick up a book or a funky old lamp? No problem. NYC has you covered, my friend. Also, the diversity of people just can’t be compared with anywhere else. And who’s taking the subway? Everyone. Lawyers, actors, bakers, construction workers, homeless people. It’s the great common denominator of life in New York.
Working in the Viacom building was not boring, either. It was MTV HQ, and on any given day walking through the lobby, I would see actors and musicians from my favorite bands. There was a coffee bar in the main lobby and a company cafeteria called the Lodge on a 4th floor enclosed terrace. As a teen, I had been glued to MTV all day, every day. In 1999, I still had my MTV geek card glued to my forehead. One day while waiting for coffee I turned around and saw MTV VJ Alan Hunter standing behind me. Suddenly, I was thirteen again and I couldn’t manage to say a word.
The Lodge was more of the same. You never knew who would be waiting in line with you while you picked up your stir fry, pizza, pasta, or whatever special they were creating that day. The only way you could get in was by swiping your building badge, which also served as a way to pay for your food – the money came right out of your paycheck. After only a week, I felt like a veteran when I helped Dan Schneider figure out how to fix his key card at the entrance. I was in ’80s heaven.
I also learned to avoid leaving the building around 4:00 PM. That was when Carson Daly was hosting Total Request Live and Times Square was wall-to-wall teens. We could hear the screams on the 46th floor.
Time to make the storyboards
Sometimes it was easy to forget that I was actually hired to do a job and not gawk at celebrities all day. It was time to get down to business and do the work.
Somehow I quickly went from writing a few things to writing all of the things. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration (I didn’t write any of the books above, for example). In September, despite the sudden influx of screen printing jobs, I managed to gain four new writing clients. It’s all technical writing, mostly articles for WordPress users. I’ll take it. I love writing, and writing about something I know, like web development, is fun.
The ivy from our neighbor’s fence is taking over our yard again. It happens so fast. It’s like a plot line in Stranger Things. I’m worried it’s going to get the dog one day. Time for a little trim…
What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part II
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and Read Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.
Part II: I Got the Job!
Getting in: The Dark Horse
Previously on WILFWOBC, we learned that I desperately wanted a career in animation, yet somehow managed to find myself in the U.S. Air Force.
It was the sort of plan that friends and family members did not exactly understand or support. Sometimes even I couldn’t see where things were headed, exactly. I would be loading cargo onto a C-5 Galaxy somewhere in the world and suddenly take stock in my situation. On one hand I would be in awe of where I was and what I was doing and on the other hand be wondering how the hell this made any sense for my future in animation.
I just had to hang in there and trust that I had known what I was doing when I signed up.
As it turned out, four years went by pretty fast. Somewhere in between assignments, I even managed to get married. Jenni and I eloped in Las Vegas and spent our first two years of marriage living in a cozy German apartment. I was only 22 years old, and as much as I loved our time in Germany, I was getting itchy to continue my noble quest to become an animator.
In September of 1994, I was honorably discharged and we moved to Chicago where I had started my education in art. I was ready to get back to school and my G.I. Bill was burning a hole in my pocket. It was an exciting time. That is, until I discovered that my old college didn’t accept the G.I. Bill.
If you’re thinking that I might have wanted to check into that before joining up four years previously, you’re correct. What I lacked in checking details, I made up for with blind enthusiasm. I just started making art and tried to think of a new plan.
Spoiler: I never did make it back to school and to this day I still don’t have any kind of degree. When a prospective employer asked, I would deflect the conversation and talk about my experience in the military. It worked many times over the years.
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
Learning about babies and animation at the same time
Over the next five years, Jenni and I had moved back to Phoenix, she birthed two beautiful babies, and I worked in several jobs that had very little to do with animation. How’s that plan coming along? I would ask myself almost daily. I was happy in my personal life, yet massively frustrated in my career movement.
We lived in a tiny apartment, had almost no money to our names, and I had no idea what I was doing. I did know that I wanted to make animated films. One day, I realized that I could still do that without getting hired somewhere. I studied books, analyzed films and learned the mechanics of 2D animation.
This was the 90s, so there were no affordable animation programs for the home computer. But I soon realized that making films in the computer was the way to go. First I would animate frame-by-frame using the old school method of pencil and light table. Then I devised a system using Corel PhotoPaint where I would scan my drawings and assemble them into GIFs or AVI files. It was crude, but it did the job.
Looking back later, I would realize that I didn’t achieve the things I wanted in spite of having a family and very little money. I achieved them because of those things. Nothing motivated me more than trying to show my kids what was possible, and no one encouraged me more than my wife.I was extremely fortunate.
I entered my first film in a NYC animation festival and waited. At the same time, I was applying to studios like crazy. I would send out portfolios, some of them several times to the same person, every three months. I agonized over them. Sometimes I never heard back. Sometimes I got encouraging notes from HR or directors. A few times I got back tests to do storyboards. I was winging the whole thing, but at least I was moving forward.
I also spent a lot of time in the forums at a site called Animation World Network. In the late ’90s, it was my social media. I talked to other animators, both fledgling and pro. I got feedback, advice, and even managed to give some advice and how-to info. It was a hugely valuable resource and, as we’ll see later, was the linchpin in getting a job.
Okay, now we talk about Blue’s Clues.
In late 1998, I saw an ad for a little show on Nickelodeon called Blue’s Clues. They were looking for a storyboard artist and I seemed to fit the qualifications (except for that whole degree thing, but, well, you know). I had never heard of the show (we couldn’t afford cable), so we got some videos of the first season. After we started watching, the first thing Jenni said was, “That’s like your art!” She was right. Aside from the animated characters, there was a scene where Steve was sitting in his Thinking Chair with his Handy Dandy Notebook open, and images were floating above his head. It was almost as if I had made the little drawings myself, in my own style. One of my first film experiments had been a combination of live action (my son) and animation. The show was everything I wanted to work on. Great art, fun music, and a show for kids that I could get behind wholeheartedly.
I immediately sent in my portfolio and resume and sat in my own Thinking Chair to wait.
It didn’t take long for a test to arrive in the mail. Nancy, the lead storyboard artist who was doing the hiring, wanted me to get it back to her as soon as possible because the producers needed to make a decision. It suddenly occurred to me that the studio was in New York City. I told Jenni that maybe there was no point in doing a test for a position that was all the way across the country. The other tests I was doing were for jobs in Los Angeles, which seemed more reasonable. I was already getting discouraged and I had barely cracked open the test. She cut off that line of thinking right away and convinced me that I needed to do the test anyway.
Jenni took the kids out so I could focus, and I dove into the script.
It all happened so fast.
After I mailed in my storyboard test, it was hard to focus on anything else. I went back to work at the sign shop where I had managed to talk my way into a graphic design job. It was good to be getting paid for creating art, and at least I was in the neighborhood of where I wanted to be. I still had my eye on animation.
A week later, Nancy emailed. She wanted to set up a phone interview with her and one of the producers. Even though I wouldn’t be seen and only heard (thankfully this was pre-Zoom era), I was more nervous than I had been since the 8th grade talent show. Nancy and Wendy were both friendly and it felt more like chatting than a formal interview. Then the $600,000,000 question came up: Will you be able to relocate quickly if offered the position?
Without hesitating, I said that of course, it would be no problem. In reality, I had no way of knowing what the hell I was doing or how it was going to work. I wanted the job so bad, I decided to leap and hope the net would appear.
The next day at work, I got a call from Nancy. She said that I had been the “dark horse,” because the other candidates already lived in NYC. She had been pulling for me, because we had chatted in the AWN forums and she remembered my film. Somehow the producer also liked what I had to say on the phone. Then she offered me the job, and the salary was double what I was making at the sign shop. After I accepted and hung up, it took all my strength to get up and tell my boss that I to run a quick errand. I got in my car, drove around the corner, and screamed.
I gave my notice at work. At the time, my friend was looking for a job and he was able to fill my spot quickly. After that, everything seemed to happen in a blur. Jenni and I had to figure out how we were going to make a move from Phoenix to NYC with two little kids. It was going to be a challenge, but we were too excited to worry about the exact how of things. Like Steve sings:
“You know what to do! Sit down in our Thinking Chair And think, think, think! ‘Cause when we use our minds, And take a step at a time, We can do anything…“
It happened. I was in. After I arrived in NYC, everything changed. Not only the new job and a career in animation, but the perspective I gained from experiences working with some of the most talented artists, actors, musicians and writers in the world. From the moment I walked in the door, I knew it was going to be an amazing time.
What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part I
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. Maybe you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, that’s okay. You can catch up on the show’s Wikipedia page. It was an immensely popular cultural phenomenon in the U.S. in the 1990s. I worked on the show from 1999 – 2002 doing storyboards, animation and voice over work. This year (2021) being the 25th anniversary of the show, I thought it would be fun to talk about my time there and what I learned being part of the team.
This is a long story. I have a lot to say and it’s a fascinating tale that sometimes I can’t believe I lived. It’s all true, as much as my memory will allow, anyway. I broke this up into parts. One, to make it easier on you to read and two, to make it easier on me to write well.
With a quick look back, it could seem like an easy, natural step in my life and career to have worked on Blue’s Clues. Sometimes I can forget that I didn’t just walk into Nickelodeon one day and start working. It was a long, challenging road to get into the animation industry and I had no idea what was in front of me, or even possible. Let’s start before the beginning, before anyone had ever even heard of a skidoo-ing blue puppy.
In 1990, I was accepted to a private art school in Chicago. I had never taken an art class in high school, but I created hundreds of drawings and paintings on my own. One night, after seeing The Little Mermaid premier, I was overcome by an intense desire to become an animator. The movie captivated me like no other animated film ever had. The animation was fluid and beautiful, the songs were amazing and the story kept me hooked from beginning to end. I spent the rest of the night fantasizing that I could work on something so incredible. The only thing standing in my way was that I had no clue as to how I could become an animator.
I had been yawning my way through community college with no real direction and I certainly had no connections to anyone in the animation or film industry. This being 1989, there was no email, social media or even internet I could use to find a contact. Living in Phoenix, I couldn’t just drive over to the Disney studios on any given Wednesday and simply knock on the door. I had to get resourceful.
At the time, I worked in a movie theater tearing tickets and cleaning up during the credits. Instead of watching the whole movie over again (which I did later anyway), all I had to do was wait for the end of The Little Mermaid and write down the name of a producer, find an address in Burbank and take a shot at asking, “How can I become an animator?”
I believe it was Disney producer John Musker who wrote back to me, giving me some advice on a path and three top schools where I should apply. The best choice for me was the American Academy of Art in Chicago. I could live with my recently-widowed grandfather and we could help each other out – he would give me a roof over my head and I would supply some much-needed company and help around the house.
I was accepted on my hastily-prepared portfolio and essay, and I soon headed to the snowy Midwest. Going to that school was the first time I worked with peers on art projects and learned real fundamentals, outside of Stan Lee’s Learn to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (a method I still stand by for young artists). Unfortunately, towards the end of my first semester, the school administration started asking me annoying little questions like how are you going to pay for next semester? They were annoying only because I had no clue. I had got in on some of my parents’ money and a small student loan. Those options were no longer available, so once again I had to get resourceful.
At 19, I wasn’t qualified for anything other than retail or restaurant work. Working at minimum wage would take me so long to save up for school that I could only picture myself as old and wrinkled, sitting in a classroom and repeatedly asking the professor to speak up. In hindsight, that’s a very unrealistic outlook but at 19 it was the only future I could imagine, complete with dystopian 1984-style jumpsuits and cubicles.
My answer came in the form of the the G.I Bill. I would contribute $1200 and in return the government would give me $24,000 in money for school. The tiniest little wrinkle was that in order to collect it, I had to serve four years active duty in the military. Hmm. It certainly wasn’t my original plan. In fact, when a friend had previously joined the Air Force, I swore off ever joining the military in any form whatsoever. Joining the military was for other people, not me. Never, no way.
Then I thought about my potentially perpetual floor-mopping future and I joined the U.S. Air Force.
It seemed like I was light years away from my animation dreams. But I had a plan. Sort of.
It was 1999 and I had just temporarily moved into my Uncle John’s studio apartment in New York City. He very generously let me stay with him while I found an apartment for my family. After several years of trying to break into the animation industry, I had just accepted my dream job at Nickelodeon. Jenni and our two babies were packing up our home in Phoenix and I had to find a place for us, fast.
My uncle and I were getting reacquainted after many years. He had just learned that I was a vegetarian, and was grilling me on the why’s and wherefore’s of abstaining from a carnivorous diet. In contrast, John was a lifelong chain smoker and loved rich meat dishes. We both hailed from Omaha, Nebraska, that gloriously flat land teaming with beef, corn and ham. I was the odd one in my family (in many ways, but we’ll stick to diet for now). It seemed that everyone on my father’s side started smoking young and couldn’t resist a juicy steak or burger. For John to learn that I no longer ate meat of any kind, it was hard to comprehend. In true pragmatic, midwestern fashion he assumed that I might be trying to achieve some sort of immortality.
To put this in better perspective, my grandfather died of a massive coronary in his early 40s. My own father has suffered several heart attacks, multiple bypasses, stents and, like many people over 40, takes blood thinners to keep the arteries from blocking. My Uncle John himself developed advanced heart disease, eventually required a heart transplant and sadly passed away a few years ago in his 60s.
With both sides of my family steeped in heart disease lore, my genetics say that if I follow the same path as my ancestors, I will suffer the same result. It’s guaranteed. So I work hard to go in the opposite direction. I haven’t eaten meat since 1993 and I haven’t touched dairy since 2001. I don’t smoke, either, but I do drive too fast and I love my bourbon (not at the same time, of course). I’ve been known to consume large quantities of French fries and chocolate. I’m not infallible to the lure of gastronomic decadence.
I am far from immortal and I have no desire to live in this form forever – especially sans chocolate. While I eat pretty well and get regular exercise, I have no illusions that I am making Death twiddle its thumbs waiting for me to kick.
Living to infinity is not the point.
See, I didn’t expect to feel this good in my 50s. My observations of older family members growing up is that “Getting old is hell!” – a direct quote from my grandmother in her 80s. I had always assumed that what happens to you after 30 is that you start sliding down a steep slope into decay. At some point I made a conscious decision that shuffling around the mall in support hose would not be my fate.
I know I’m going to die. I’m not afraid of dying. What strikes ugly fear into my hammering vegan heart is the prospect of suffering through preventable disease. I don’t want my kids (or my wife) to worry about how long I’ll be with them, or put aside their lives so they can care for me in my old age. Or my middle age, for that matter.
I’m going to do everything I can to avoid spending my later years farting in an overstuffed chair watching reruns of Friends. I want to do things, not watching them being done.
Yes, I’m going to die anyway. But I’m not going without a fight.