Finding out from a key player and trusted friend on the management side that the marketing department where I worked in Philadelphia was not fulfilling expectations didn’t surprise me. There were great people on the team, who were doing some decent work, but on the whole, it often felt like something was awry. I’ve always sensed that sort of thing “in my bones.” I see it in the vacuousness and assumption of those who consider themselves immune or above reality somehow.
Or perhaps it was my dissatisfaction at the time, wrought by the struggle to stay engaged with the incremental tasks falling on my plate with unamusing regularity. To tell the truth, I didn’t really belong in the investments game at all.
To continue working at Van Kampen, we all had to pass a test conducted by the Municipal Bond School. I sat through the hourlong presentaton desperately trying to absorb information about bond funds and found it so boring and foreign that I knew passing the test would be, for me, nearly impossible. Fortunately, one of my co-workers recognized my state of mind and made it clear that it would be fine if I copied off her answers. That’s what I did, and passed the test. Such are the struggles of a person with my brand of artistic ADHD in the workplace. I was just trying to survive.
Laws and details
As a graphic designer in marketing, I didn’t really need to be a municipal bond expert, but it did make sense to me that the investment industry had standards. The financial laws required us all to be certified, so I was grateful to get help on the test so that I would not fail the test and lose my job. I returned to the office with the pale countenance of a sinner spared the guillotine, but my neck was possibly on the line in other ways.
Principle among those perceptions was the claim that I was “undisciplined.” I’d heard similar complaints from the boss during my year in Admissions work for Luther College. That boss complained that my head was not in the game, yet I nailed my quota and said a happy “fuck you” upon leaving that position for the job at Van Kampen. Yet here I was fighting new niggling notions that my head was where it should be. It was doubly hard fighting those feelings after cheating to pass Municipal Bond test.
Some of the negativity toward me came from a third-party source, a frequent print vendor named Scott who openly criticized the artwork I’d created for the VKM corporate brochure printed by his company. Scott was a particularly particular man, a lover of clean registration and such. To research the brochure paintings, I’d busted my butt trying to find decent visual resources upon which to base the art. I dug through every photo and design book I could find to create collage images about everything from Real Estate to Public Finance. But worse than that, the only resource I had available to paint portraits of the company directors were small 2″ X 3″ black and white photos taken at some fast photo place. I did my best, but the portraits weren’t great.
I understood what Scott was trying to tell me: “Pay attention to your craft.” That’s the same thing my father often said about my work. I respected the advice from both men. My dad wanted me to succeed in life. Scott wanted me to do things right because it reflected on his work. I also understood that he was a refined gay man who appreciated everything from fine food to the arts. He told me that anything sloppy-looking really irked him. I did get it, and deep down I figured he was right about my lax propensity to focus on detail at times. But I’d produced the best work I could with the resources available, and felt like that wasn’t fully recognized. My father and Scott had that in common.
The happy screw-up
It wasn’t all bad news at the workplace. I wrote to Linda, “I had a ‘job description’ interview and it was encouraging. They like what I’m doing even though I screw up once in a while. I’m (oddly) proud of screwing up in some ways…I usually just screw up by being late with a project. These people think everything has to be done yesterday.”
Later in life, I’d experience a similar environment while working as an associate creative director. We were constantly under pressure to pump things out on tight timetables. That led to mistakes resulting from proofreading errors and mailing goofups, reprints, and other expensive outcomes. Our team would often mutter, “Always time to do it fast––never time to do it right.”
I’ve always been goal-oriented, and have come through under pressure many times. Despite what some thought about my work, I knew that it was the final outcome that matters most. If a mistake happens along the way, you learn from it, and it doesn’t have to define you. And like my former elder girlfriend told me, “It’s all in the recovery.”
I’d also already learned quite a bit about budgeting time from the sport of running. How to set goals, hit markers along the way, and achieve results. While some luck plays a part in all sports, you can’t win many races if you don’t have a strategy and execute it somehow. I also developed considerable powers of concentration, persistence, and endurance––well beyond the typical human capacity to perform under stress. Running mile after mile at 5:00 mile pace takes both association and disassociation. You have to associate with the physical feedback you’re getting and in some way disassociate yourself from the pain you might be feeling. We had a saying for that in college running: “It’s only temporary.”
What I still lacked in the professional world was patience and the will to apply that principle across all endeavors, especially in situations where I got bored. So I’d get careless at times, and that’s the death of any workplace reputation.
I vented about the judgmental atmosphere in my journal, especially after overhearing a female co-worker utter a personal insult about my looks and dress, stating, “As homely as he is, he seems to get dates.” That was an ironic coming from her. She was as physically plain as a house mouse, and about as interesting in terms of personality. Yet I never said that to anyone out loud.
Of course I knew that on some days I was not God’s gift to good looks. Skinny, haggard runners are a pretty homely-looking lot at times. That said, it still hurts to hear someone say bad things about you. I’d certainly been insulted before, including the day that a Kaneland high school track teammate walked up to me at a meet and said, without any apparent cause, “You know what, Cudworth? You’re a real hayseed.”
Hayseed: a person from the country, especially a simple, unsophisticated one.
He was absolutely right about calling me a hayseed. He was also entirely wrong as well. Because while I was a scroungy kid who loved crawling around the woods looking for birds, I also had a growing life list of 250 species, and regularly turned that knowledge into works of art that I sold and made money. So sophistication is always a relative term. What I should have said to him on that day was a pithy and terse retort, such as, “And you’re a prick.” But he caught me so much by surprise with his random insult, that I accepted it at face value. Plus, I think he was looking for a fight, so I kept my mouth shut, and wisely so.
The saving grace in all of my hayseed homeliness was Linda, who did accept me for who I was. The fact that I was thrashing around, seemingly trying to avoid her love had more to do with my own pursuit of self-actualization. I was also trying not to hurt her with my lack of solidity, because I knew that the longer the relationship went on, the more it would hurt to break up.
I know that I told her how I truly felt because I wrote her a letter on December 5 of 1981 that read: “I’m so young, why do I push myself to such mean extremes? The simple truth is that I have no faith, in God or myself. I have no faith. (and I noted in the margins…”I take this back, partly…I have faith in a plan, a set of goals for me by God’s plan.) I have genius. I have motivation. But I don’t have the gratitude which comes with accepting fate and mortality. If you can teach or help me to gain––somehow open me up to the possibilities of eternity and everything before it, I will be indebted, and you will be married to a great man. You will be a great woman, I see it.”
Just like preparing in training for a big race, I was building a base for our relationship even while making mistakes along the way. I was trying hard to clear through the thickets of my own inner conflictedness, and lust in particular. I included this confession in a letter to her: “Lust traps me in the shower; however, also sneaks up on my loins in the most impractical and annoying places, record stores, grocery shopping, work. Lust to me is life’s rust. It burns and erodes me slowly but wholly; keeping me from strength by patching up its naughty, raunchy, funky, distracting, handiwork, rots my brain!”
But then I wrote: “Yes I do, I love you. I swear on the billions of Gideon’s slapped out there in hotels. You got to forgive me though. I am an artist. I am supremely, if fatally, married to that pursuit. I think you understand. You have hit the spot many times, and said you love me.”
I quoted an article that I’d seen. “I read something yesterday that describes how I feel. I need to feel available to the world,” says Dudley Moore, and being married, he says, has dechanneled that need, at times.” I concluded, “Yet I know that being married will solve, will change, the way I look at many things.”Then I copied some lyrics from a Joni Mitchell song that we both knew.
“Where, as a child, I saw it face to face
now I only know it in part.
Fractions in me
of faith and hope and love
and of these three
love’s the greatest beauty….” –Joni Mitchell