Up To Speed

Life happens.

As I had promised myself I wouldn’t, I fell off the blogging wagon over the course of the last couple weeks. It sucks, but it’s been unavoidable, as I’ve had to devote more time to press and production on the first Zipper Club book, which should be off to the printers in October and in my hands, ready for shipping come mid to late November. Add to this working odd freelance jobs to pay the bills and finishing the continued slog to finish getting my degree at the end of the year, and well…

Things got busy.

That said, I have been working on several new entries over the course of this time and have gotten to pick at them bit by bit whenever I’ve gotten a free minute to take a breath or scratch my butt, and I aim to get started again, posting 3 to 4 times a week for the foreseeable future now that I’ve gotten myself to be relatively on top of all my craziness.  To further smooth things over, here’s a couple screenshots from my progressing work on the Zipper Club coloring job!

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Thanks as always, folks!

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Behind The Zipper Club – Crafting A Symbol

I realize I’ve been a little more lax on my posts this week, but I’ve been working very hard on research and straightening out information for all of the posts I’ll be throwing up in the coming week as I dive into the events surrounding my second cardiac surgery. The one that turned my life around and has kept me going ever since. Today, after a couple days of conversation with my Zipper Club collaborator, Brenda López, I wanted to share a little something cool we’ve been cooking up on the road to getting the book into everyone’s hands by October/November.

A comic called The Zipper Club has gotten me a fair share of confused looks and cock-eyed stares when I mentioned the fact that it was for kids. People hear a term like “Zipper Club” and apparently their minds go immediately to images of BDSM and squeezing into leather gimp suits. When I tell them the book is for kids, I’ve gotten a couple of audible gasps and menacing glares. With my sense of humor and some of the awful directions in which it leans, initially, I guess that’s a fair judgement for those who know me, (My previous blog entry’s illustration had a pretty horrible gag playing off of a classic Jim Steranko illustrated Incredible Hulk cover, fergodsakes) but some of the clearly judgmental reactions I’ve gotten on occasion have hit me like a punch in the gut.

So, in the interests of keeping the weirdo crowd AND the uptight crowd from getting in an uproar, I figured we would need a plain and simple little piece of iconography to go right there on the cover of our book that will sell people on the title and the good and wholesome messages that Brenda and I are trying our best to convey. The icon idea came to me a lot easier than the cover image did when Brenda and I were knocking our heads together, trying to come up with just the right thing.

It came to me one sleepless night while lying awake in bed. So, I drew it out in a way that only A Badly Drawn Boy could do and came up with this…

That’s the idea, plain and simple. I’ve seen a couple different motifs on the “Zipper Heart” in the last little while, but every one of them I’ve seen so far was the romantic, “Valentine” version of the heart, which is all well, good, and cute, but this book is about the human heart, the strongest muscle in the human body. The point that we want to put across with The Zipper Club is about finding strength, no matter how weak or inferior we feel. To me, that cutesy little of fluff image just didn’t seem to cut the mustard for what we sorely needed.

After finishing the piece, and in the interest of uniformity, and because Brenda is clearly the owner of the more skilled set of hands in our dynamic duo, I passed my design idea onto her, to get her take on it and this was her initial response, nailing it right on the first try.

And for good measure, she shot me a colored version as well…

The colors came out great as well, but we got to thinking that maybe it would look better in a more naturalistic set of tones with a bit more variety to the colors and shades. With that in mind, Brenda’s second attempt knocked it out of the park!

I’m so in love with what Brenda did here, that we’re looking into the idea of putting together Zipper Club related merchandise centered around the design. We’ll start small with t-shirts, but I’m thinking it would be pretty cool to come up with Zipper Heart shaped backpacks and purses and so forth. (That’ll be a ways away, unless some kind soul wants to hit the “Donate” button over there and give us a little cash injection. 😉 ) I’m even thinking very strongly about getting a slightly altered version tattooed under my left collarbone in the not-too-distant. (Sorry, mom.)

Hope you guys dig this little peek into our ongoing artistic process. Brenda and I are having an absolute blast bringing this book around the bend towards home plate. We hope everyone who has and will order a copy will enjoy it as much, and ultimately “get” what we’re trying to say with The Zipper Club. I’m already in the process of writing next year’s annual which will pay off a number of the things that we’re setting up in year one.

The Weight Of A Story

The process of researching my past that’s gone into The Long Odds has provided me a measure of catharsis. In the last month, I’ve spent time researching the whereabouts of my own grave, contacting the doctor who first diagnosed my heart defect (who thought I might have died years ago) , and getting all sorts of emails from old friends I hadn’t heard from in years when that Courier Journal article hit. It’s come to put into perspective the weight of my personal story, which is something I’ve been telling so often over the last 26 years of my life that the story had just become words to me. Something that I would tell people who were just getting to know me, or telling to government officials that I might be talking to on behalf of the American Heart Association. You know how a powerful word or set of words can lose it’s meaning upon too many repetitions?  That’s how my story had begun to feel to me, and for a guy who’s been working to become a career storyteller, that’s not the best thing in the world. The experience of writing all of it out has begun to bring back the power and gravity of everything that I’ve always known, but I guess, somewhat forgotten.

I started learning the importance and the weight that a story can hold at the age of four years old, when my mother, who was desperate to find some way to save my young life and only had a matter of years to do so, began working for the AHA as a volunteer and advocate. She used to be a very nervous public speaker until she began getting out there on the stump on my behalf.  Slowly, after a number of times with telling my story to crowds of people through a stream of tears, she became more confident in the story she told and the power of what she’d had to say. Not long after that, with my mom’s permission, began using me as their poster child for CHD research. I thought it was pretty cool, even if I only had a limited understanding of what exactly was going on.

Now that I’m spending time in my old hometown for a little while, I went to our storage locker a few blocks away from my brother’s apartment to go through some of my old things and see if I could find any old things that could be used to enrich what I’m doing here and I found a whole box full of old AHA campaign fliers from over 20 years ago which centered on my mom and myself. I brought a couple home and scanned them to share here.

What was interesting about finding a huge box full of these cards and fliers was how four year old me, in the world full of medical uncertainty I was born into, and then to see it juxtaposed against the image and words of this flier from four years later…

(The learning to ride a bicycle part? Never really took to that. Still can’t stay balanced on one of those damn things, no matter how I try.)

My time with AHA has continued and increased in the time since both of these pieces were printed. After spending my years growing up letting my mom tell her version of our story and ultimately being the champion of everything that got me where I am today. I got my sense of never giving up from her, no question. I couldn’t be more grateful for the lessons that she, and by extension my work for the AHA has afforded me. In the years since I started out as a poster child for AHA, I’ve gone on trips with them to Washington DC on numerous occasions where I have spoken to members of US Senate, Congress, as well as loads of other government officials on heart related issues for the states of Kentucky and Connecticut where I have held residence. Last year, I actually helped get a law signed in Connecticut that made Pulse Oxymetry screenings mandatory for all newborns in the state. All of that happened on the back of stories like my own and the stories of parents like my mother who spoke on behalf of their small children who would likely have passed away if not for Pulse Ox screenings.

I’m here to tell stories. Whether they are works of slice-of-life fiction like Love Buzz and The Zipper Club, biographical stuff like The Long Odds, or some of the more floaty, weird shit that I’ve been pitching lately with my agent (More on that soon, hopefully).

That my friends, is the importance of story. Everybody has one. Some of us might think they’re more boring or uneventful than others, but I don’t buy that. Unless you’ve lived tied to a chair in a dark room all your life, you have to have done something interesting with your life. Sure, life is boring about 95% of the time. I spend the majority of my time sitting on my ass in front of a computer screen all day. It’s that other 5% of the time that gives us something to talk about. You have to have the awareness to spot the “stories” in your life when they unfold.

Odds are, you’re more interesting than you might think.

THE UNEVENTFUL YEARS (The Cliffsnotes Of An Early Childhood)

This will sound utterly terrible, but I don’t recall a hell of a lot of much importance from the years after my first surgery, leading up to my second. With as much that was at stake in those years, I know my parents have about a thousand stories to tell, but as for me personally, the things I can remember are sparse. With that in mind, and in the interest of skipping through the boring parts, I now present to you the Cliffsnotes version of my life in as close to chronological order as I can muster, from the ages of 1 to 7.5 years old. Basically the verbal equivalent of a montage. Hey, Jesus went from being a baby to 30 years old. I’d like to try and be a little more thorough.

* Began learning to talk around 9 months old, well before I was even able to walk, proving that even at a young age, I was going to be hard to shut up.

* Experienced my first death of a loved one when my Grandfather Foster (or “Fa” as I called him) passed away from lung cancer due to his smoking habit. I was only one or two years at the time and although it’s well-documented that children can’t recall things in their later years from that early in life, I will still swear on a thousand Bibles that I remember crawling into his room and asking him for candy. 

* Became best friends with our three legged black cat, Bart and began my love for damaged but affectionate animals.

* Became a fan of He-Man and the Masters Of The Universe. Had my mother sew me this costume, which won me a costume contest two years in a row at my old day care. 

*Ended up shouting “NINETY NINE CENTS, A DOLLAR CASH, COCAINE!!!” aloud and in the middle of a grocery store, much to my parent’s shock. None of us really know where I may have gotten that line, (although I did watch a lot of TV) and even for the early 1980’s, that’s clearly an incredibly good price for cocaine. I’m only shocked no one in that supermarket tried to take me up on the offer.

* Loudly accused my mother of “throwing me under the table” at an S&S Restaraunt, when she was patting me on the back in an attempt to dislodge a piece of food I had been choking on. 

* My younger brother Alex, who will be expanded upon later in our story, was born on July 25th, 1986. Being a fleshy pink ball of goo clad in a diaper makes for less compelling storytelling than his later years will.

* Developed my first childhood crush (Age 5) on Noel, who I first met in in my time at Prospect Daycare. After inviting me to her birthday party and becoming the first girl I ever met that I didn’t suspect of being covered in horrid, lethal cootie, I spent the better part of a year secretly planning to marry her. (Noel who is now happily married with a child, follows me on Facebook and Twitter, and chances are pretty good that she will more than likely end up reading this burning admission at some point. Hi, Noel!)

* Made my first “best friend” from childhood in the form of Seth Althaus, to whom I ended up taking on an Igor to his Dr. Frankenstein plots to blow up and escape from the walls of the aforementioned Prospect Daycare Center, and with whom I’ve mostly stayed in touch ever since.  

* Got bit on the ass by a goose and have had an irrational hatred for the horrible birds that runs deep to this very day.

* Got a Teddy Ruxpen doll, which would later go on to traumatize my fragile young mind, when one of his animatronic eyeballs caved into, and became trapped inside of his head, leaving the gaping eye hole filled with circuits to shatter my child-like illusion of magic. 

* Became horrified to the point of nightmares by my first encounter with pictures of African Tree Frogs in a nature book. Those horrible red eyes were something that kept me awake at night. 

* Met my lifetime best friend and self-proclaimed “body guard”, Jason Skees after moving into our home in Goshen, Kentucky. 

*Made my first “enemy” out of a kid named Matt, back when enemies meant things like playing pranks and throwing water balloons filled with pee. I don’t recall how we got off to not liking each other to begin with, but that animosity went on for a couple of years at least. (Matt and I later became semi-friendly for a time before he died tragically in a car accident.)

* I discovered my unabashed love for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (More on that in a later post.)

* Completed the childhood “best friend” trifecta when I met Robbie Baar in Kindergarten. 

* Saw my first R-rated movie in the form of Total Recall. I only remember laughing my head off at the lady with the three boobs. (The same reaction I have while watching it to this day.)

Of course, all of these things helped to some degree to form who I am. My awareness of my illness was pretty minimal in those days, and my parents didn’t encourage any sort of measures to keep me from acting like a normal kid. Though I had my limitations, I knew them well enough to take a break when things got too taxing. A lot more can happen in a period of seven and a half years, but the real show is in everything that happened after.

Don’t Dump Sack The Reaper

“I went into the hospital in 1946, with advanced tuberculosis, and altogether I spent three and a half years in the hospital. By the time I got out I had had 10 ribs removed, one lung collapsed, a piece of the other one removed, and there were some severe complications from an experimental drug that was used to keep me alive. During these years I was given up for dead several times. One doctor told me that I could not live, I just didn’t have enough lung capacity, and I should just go home and sit quietly and I would soon be dead. Now, I am blessed with a rotten attitude, and my response to statements of this nature is, Fuck you, no one tells me what to do!”  – Hubert Selby Jr., February 24, 1999, LA Weekly

As we’ve previously determined, death and I have grown to have a complicated relationship.

 

Something unlocked in my head on the day that I learned the full scope of my first years and how close I came to losing it all. There’s a certain perspective that can come with the idea of coming that close to meeting your maker. I’m glad that I didn’t have a clue about it until my teenage years when I was about to become all “dark and brooding” anyway and was able to enjoy a mostly regular childhood. I have my parents, particularly my mother to thank for that. In the face of all that uncertainty and darkness, I’ve grown a pretty good sense of humor about it all. When you come from a background that limits you from certain activities like playing sports or running around rough housing for long periods of time like a normal, growing boy, you can either be depressed about it, or find a way to adapt.

My way of adapting was through humor. As I got older and grew to better understand things, gallows humor became a driving force in my personality. I can’t help it, when it comes to storytelling, I like things on the dark side, because it wouldn’t be a story if “everything stayed okay” all the time.  If you can inject some sort of humor into something horrible or sad, then you’ll make me your biggest fan. Around my teenage years, I began referring to my life past the age of eight when I had my second surgery as “my borrowed time” and it’s been a terminology I’ve stuck with ever since. I used “my borrowed time is now old enough to drink legally” in a speech to some officials of Connecticut government on behalf of the American Heart Association shortly after I turned 29.

I know that in saying things like these that I tread close to the territory of those who paint their finger nails black and expend an alarming effort to avoid contact with direct sunlight, but I assure you, this is not the case.  I have a deep love and passion for life and feel that anyone who worships the idea of dying is wasting their precious and short time here on this planet. The idea of suicide angers me to an unreasonable degree, and I understand that people who feel this way really don’t think that there’s another option for themselves, and while I’m sad for them, I just can’t bring myself to respect that kind of mentality, given my unique place in life and my relationship with defying odds and expectations.  Knowing now, how close I’ve come on repeated occasions to dying adds a degree of preciousness to my life as a whole, as well as the concept of the future for me.  Essentially, since the day I was born, I started living on borrowed time. My borrowed time began extending slowly over all these small periods of time, the time between my birth and first surgery, the matter of years between my first surgery leading up to my second surgery, the time after my second surgery as I began to not just recover, but flourish in ways no one ever expected me to. To this day, I’ve grown up to be thirty years old and counting.  I’m a successful, published writer after pursuing my dream for over a decade, I’m finally getting through college, and I’ve become a massive health nut who works out like a fiend.  All of the limitations I had had placed on me growing up, I’ve gone on to obliterate most of them as time went on.  My relationship with death has informed the way that I live my life and how I will continue to live it until the day that borrowed time finally decides to expire.

Death is not something to be feared. Everybody does it, sometimes it happens to us sooner than we would like. We never know when our time might come, so blah, blah, blah, “YOLO” this, “carpe diem” that. Death is not something to be embraced. Sitting around dwelling on the end as though it were some hot, malnourished guy or girl in skinny jeans with a pallor to their flesh not unlike egg nog, is just as much a waste of time. Have a healthy respect for it. Try not to go careening wrecklessly into it, but don’t deprive yourself of new adventures out of anxiety over it. Try and keep your personal levels of irresponsible stupidity to a minimum. Just know that there’s no reason to fear it.

Know this intimately and you may notice that you tend to care a lot less about the more trivial things in life.

A Little Piece Of Land In Georgia

      Soon after receiving the news of my health situation and rushing me to the specialists at Egleston Hospital (Now known as CHOA) in Atlanta, Georgia, my parents and I reunited for a brief matter of minutes before the decision was made to fast-tracked into a surgical suite. There, I underwent a heart catheterization which showed them the sizable hole in the wall between my two ventricles. At the time, major surgery on newborns was a mostly unheard of idea, so instead, they chose to perform a more temporary measure that commonly helped to buy children a bit more time. The procedure  that involved a small incision just below my left breast and the placement of a surgical grade rubber band around the  in my heart to keep more fluid from escaping than necessary. The hole between my ventricles was big enough that the rush of  blood that was escaping was going fast and with enough force between the two chambers that it could potentially cause a lot of damage if it were to be left to run unchecked.  The entire procedure was never meant to be any sort of remedy to the situation so much as a prophylactic measure to hopefully buy me some chance at a slightly extended future.  The idea was that hopefully with this band, I would live several more years until A) medical science advanced enough to tell doctors how to fix this problem and B) my body had matured and developed enough to withstand the type of surgery that would have entailed.

My stay at Egleston lasted for about six weeks. They performed the surgery when I was 2 days old and afterwards they kept me all that extra time to monitor my medications. I had a lot of trouble with eating at the time and ended up losing two pounds in all my time in the hospital. I went from being the biggest baby in the nursery where I was born to losing a solid 2 pounds in just my first few days. It got to the point that they began adding a special formula to the milk they fed me to give me some extra calories. My entire family remained on pins and needles for the first couple of weeks of my stay. Eventually, my dad ended up needing to go back to work while my mom stayed on maternity leave and my Grandmothers from both sides, Grandmother Foster and Grandmom Ward stayed with my mother and I at the hospital the entire time.

My parents had told me sugar-coated versions of all these facts and stories as I grew up, because I was a curious child who always knew I was different from other kids and wanted to know why.  I knew I had a heart problem and I knew that one day I would need to have another surgery to fix the problem. We just didn’t really talk much about what could happen if I didn’t get the surgery or how dire my situation had been. It’s part of why, despite my particularly extreme circumstances, I feel like I had a relatively happy childhood. I wasn’t abused, I didn’t live in poverty, (although there were some rough times in our later years, but that’s a story for another time) and I never felt unloved in those early years. Even when friction began to build in my parent’s marriage, they managed to keep my brother and I insulated from it.

As a teenager, well beyond the years of my getting through the second surgery and seeing a marked improvement in my health and well-being, I started asking more questions of my parents, who had long since divorced and become more apt to sharing some of the more darkened details of the circumstances of my formative years.  The biggest revelation I had revealed to me was that my grandmother and grandfather, who had bought a cemetery plot for themselves at Brooks Cemetary in Brooks, Georgia, had sent my Aunt Kathy, one of their older daughters out of the hospital on the day they heard the news about my defect diagnosis to buy a small piece of space for my remains to go, in the seemingly very likely event that I passed in the days that followed.  Since my grandparents have passed, we haven’t been able to find record of whether or not that space of land is still sitting there in my name. For all we know it’s been sold off a long time ago and is occupied by some other departed soul. One thing remains for sure, the idea of having a grave site waiting for you practically all of your life can have a, shall we say, dramatic effect on a young man as he grows forward into adulthood.

From The Top

It was early morning, well before the sun was supposed to rise when my grandmother, Norma Foster, awoke to the sound of the ringing phone and the panicky voice of her youngest daughter, my mother, Betsy on the other end.  Betsy was 9 months pregnant and due very soon and was having a little bit of a crisis. Having your first kid, you’re told a lot of things about what the experience will be like (i.e. PAINFUL!) When she had begun having contractions, she wasn’t sure if it was serious, because it wasn’t hurting. The thing about labor pains that no one had gotten around to telling her was that they don’t typically start until the water breaks. Mom wasn’t sure she was if she was in labor or not, so she called her Norma, the mother of five, who managed to provide her with the insight to get moving to the hospital pronto. They arrived at Colosseum Hospital in Macon Georgia and were admitted by 7 AM.

She had wanted to have a natural child birth, but Mom chickened out at the last minute and got an epidural. She describes the rest of her labor as “uneventful”, aside from squeezing my dad’s arm and yelling at him when he made mention of wanting to go out and take a smoke break in the middle. Other than that, no big problems, complications, or traumas, and I was born at 1:15 PM on September 5th, 1982, measuring in at 21.25 inches long and weighing 8.6 pounds. My parents had chosen to name me Samuel Allen Ward III after my father and his father before him.

My mother, Betsy Foster, and father, Allen Ward, had been happily married for about 3 years before I came along. Allen, named in long form after his own father, Samuel Allen Ward Sr., won the naming rights on their first born and decided to stick with tradition, thus naming me Samuel Allen Ward III. Once that was settled upon, they needed to figure out something to call me,  being that Sam and Allen had both been claimed by Samuel Allen Ward Sr. and Jr. respectively. Fortunately, my mom had the bright idea of simply splitting the “Allen” in half, where they got “Len”, the name I’ve gone by in one form or another across the span of my entire life, as opposed to making me go by something like “Lil’ Sam” or “Lil’ Allen” for the rest of my life.

By all accounts, I was born a pretty healthy looking kid, the biggest one in the nursery at the time, with wide brown eyes and an exceptionally long neck that jokingly earned me the nickname of “E.T.”. The problems didn’t start until the next day when nurses informed my parents that they had placed me into an incubator because they couldn’t regulate my temperature and had no idea what was going on. These kinds of things were common in many newborns at times and easily fixable. My parents initially thought nothing of it and just assumed to wait it out while I “cooked”.

It soon came to be found that the problem wasn’t as minor as they’d thought, thanks to the worries of a keen ears of Dr. Minor C. Vernon, (Awesomest name ever!) who noticed a faint murmur in my heart beat, I was put under another series of tests which confirmed there to be a problem in the plumbing of my heart. Dr. Vernon had been on vacation in the days previous after my birth and came into my mom’s room with a sense of alarm in his tone, telling my mother that they were going to need to take me to Egleston Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. It turned out that there was a sizable hole in between the left and right ventricles of my heart, which caused the muscles in the left ventricular chamber to pump the blood into the rest of my system at a very weak rate. The medical name for the condition is an endocardial cushion defect with a hypoplastic left ventricle, and it’s a condition that in it’s time, was so rare and dangerous that practically every child who’d been diagnosed with it had died, including a young girl named Lindsay, who ended up being my roommate at Egleston and passed away at the age of six due to her heart’s advanced damage and the fact that at the time, the medical procedures to fix the condition hadn’t been invented yet. If that Dr. Vernon hadn’t come back to work that day, if he hadn’t given my heart and my problems a second look, this story would have ended a lot differently. In a rush, I was taken from my parents and fast tracked via ambulance to the children’s hospital as my parents watched the ambulance drive away.