James Gets Naked

I did a very daring thing last night.

I have a friend – Dick Greene – who teaches art.  I’ve taken his classes in the past and he is an extraordinary teacher.  Everybody learns and grows in his classes.  His specialty, though, is his ability to take novices and those who believe they have no artistic ability and have then creating good work – work that excites them and about which they are proud – by the end of a single session.

I know of several local exhibited artists who began their artistic lives in my friend’s classes and  I’ve gone to show openings on a number of occasions where he has been acknowledged by the artist and afforded the respect only a true mentor receives.  In short:  Dick Greene is a brilliant, life changing force in the San Diego art world.

Dick is in the third month of an art program with half a dozen students.  They meet once a week for three hours and work on everything from drawing to pastels to acrylics and watercolors.  They are building toward a group show that will open next month.  Last night was important to this class:  it was their introduction to live figure drawing.

Working with a live model is so important in art, even if the finished product is stylized, abstract or non-photographic.  A live model affords the artist the opportunity to see light and shadow, figure and ground and to return to it over and over as he or she creates.

Scientifically, the artist creates an optical illusion.  He or she takes a 3-dimensional object – a plate of fruit, a landscape or a person – and creates a two-dimensional version that has the illusion of 3, with depth, perspective, light and shadow.  While you can approximate that illusion working from a two-dimensional subject – say, a photograph –  the process and end result are almost always improved by working with a live subject.

One day Dick asked me, almost in passing, if I’d consider modelling for his class.  I knew he meant modelling nude because that’s they way it’s done.

“Me?,” I asked, “Why would you want a 60+ sorta flabby guy in front of your class?  Why not go for youth and beauty?”

He was reassuring.  The class was about drawing real people and I fit that bill.  Plus I was within the budget; instead of the fees charged by a professional model, I would be . . . free.

Still, there was that nudity thing.   I’m not particularly shy.  In fact, short of exhibitionism, I’m probably the least bashful person I know.  I’m a regular gym-rat and so am at least momentarily naked in front of others almost every day.  The showers at my gym are the type we had in High School, open, with no privacy, so you get used to soaping up while in conversation about last night’s Padres’ game or the latest Wall Street scandal.  It’s no big deal.

But here, I’d be naked and intensely studied for a couple of hours.  All eyes would be on me.  How could I not be self-conscious?  How could I not be nervous?  What if (heaven forbid) I became excited?  Or what if the room was cold or I got scared and my precious privates retreated in terror?  I kept picturing the Seinfeld episode where George goes skinny dipping with his date and experiences shrinkage!

I realized that my self-talk was just worry, and worry is something I’ve promised myself not to do.  It is the anticipation, visualization and subconscious planning for an undesirable result.  Anybody who wants to have a happy, moderately successful life has to find a way to extinguish or at least manage worry or much of what is attempted will fail.

So, after that nano-second of doubt and insecurity, I agreed.

Yesterday afternoon, Dick ran me through the six poses he wanted for the evening and gave me some tips on how to hold my hands, how to stay still, where to cast my eyes and so on.  Hands are very hard to draw, so he wanted me to keep my fingers together as much as possible as if they were in mittens, and he wanted me to help short-circuit the student’s natural tendency to obsess on facial details by turning my head to the side or up.    Afterwards I ran home and showered.  I wanted to be absolutely certain I was clean, clean, clean.

I knew all of the students, which was probably helpful in my feeling comfortable.  Still, I did have that moment of panic during Dick’s opening comments – when I was fully clothed – realizing that all of these people whom I see regularly will now know what’s underneath the fabric.

At the appropriate time, Dick asked me to take my place on the stage and ‘get ready,’ then turned to continue his comments to the group.  They were focused on him, not me, so I was disrobing before the backs of their heads, thank goodness!  And, the first pose was me lying down on a sheepskin with my back facing the group, so that was a relief.  By the time we got to pose two, I was no longer nervous and we didn’t get to full frontal nudity until pose three.  By then I might as well have been a maniquin.  The group was so deeply into their work, into shadow and light and line, that they paid only clinical, glancing attention to me.

The class ran a little long and ended with me wearing striped socks and a Mardi Gras mask – again, devices to eliminate the tendency to obsess on facial details and feet, both hard to draw.  By then I was chatting with the class and commenting on the work I could see developing out of the corner of my eye.

All of the work that was done last night was wonderful and some of it was extraordinary.  Most of the time I could recognize my physique if not my face and I was tickled at how flattering the students had been.  This was a great experience!

And that’s the point.  We spend so much time not doing, not moving outside our comfort zones, clinging to our routines and habits.  I think all of this clinging is motivated by one of two things:  pride or fear.  Either I’m tickled pink with my routines and see no reason to attempt the uncomfortable or I’m afraid that I might look silly or fail if I did.  My momentary reluctance was caused by the latter, particularly not wanting to look silly (and you can’t be any more silly than naked!).  Pushing that irrational fear aside and saying ‘Yes,’ resulted in a great growing experience for me – a stretch.  I hope next time you are confronted with a interesting but uncomfortable opportunity you also say ‘Yes.’  Say ‘Yes’ to life!


Statin Dump

I think we’ve all gone a little crazy over cholesterol.  A naturally occurring part of our perfectly designed human bodies, it has become the grand boogeyman of ill-health.  And I just don’t buy it. Like the appendix, it is there for a damn good reason.  Unlike the appendix, we actually know what that damn good reason is:

We routinely get tiny tears in the walls of our blood vessels.  A burst of exertion or spike in blood pressure can cause them, and they are just a part of life.  When they occur, LDL, the ‘bad’ cholesterol rushes in to save the day.  It is a less dense  version of cholesterol and it quickly sticks to the newly formed lesion, keeping it from rupturing.  Because it is gooey, like well worked chewing gum, other stuff sticks to it, notably more LDL cholesterol.  Over time, this glob of gunk can build up eventually blocking the flow of blood and, whamo – you have a heart attack or stroke.

HDL, the ‘good’ cholesterol is more dense, less sticky.  It scavenges the blood system looking for deposits of LDL cholesterol and acts like a concrete mason with a trowel, smoothing off the sticky sludge and making it less likely to clump and clog.

To keep the two kinds of cholesterol straight in my mind, I think:  LDL = Lousey, HDL = Happy;  but that further emphasizes the notion that one is ‘good’ and the other is ‘bad.’

They’re both good.  They are a great team!  And we need both of them working in healthy levels to keep our veins and vessels from tearing open every time we get excited.  To simply define cholesterol as evil and declare the less of it the better is an overreaction to say the least.   Sure, too much LDL cholesterol galumphing through your body, sticking to itself is not a good thing; but some is great!

A while back, the pharmaceutical industry came to us with Statins – a new class of drug that worked to lower cholesterol levels.  Statin drugs have been wildly popular and prescriptions have been written by the truckload.   I once heard a Cardiologist declare that, in his opinion, everyone should be on a Statin! When I mentioned that to my own beloved Md, he said, ‘He might be right.’  So our medical community is pretty well united in embracing these drugs.

Still, a nagging thought is stuck in my brain like LDL cholesterol on an arterial wall:  Cholesterol is natural.  Statin drugs are not.  Hmmmm.

Last summer I had a routine Lipid Panel done.  It measures cholesterol and triglycerides and other fatty substances in the blood.  My total Cholesterol was a healthy 195 but my LDL and Triglycerides were on the high end of normal.  My doctor declared that I had breached the Triglyceride threshold that Kaiser Permanente computers had set for Statin therapy and started to write me a prescription.  I stopped him.  No way.  Uh-uh.  I was proud of my Cholesterol number and was not going to put that foreign substance in my body.  We argued a bit.  Finally we made a deal.  I would work on diet and exercise for six months and we’d retest.  If I was still over the edge, I’d take the Statin.

In December when the test was run again, my Cholesterol had actually dropped below 190 but Triglycerides were still on the high side of normal.  I’d lost the bet.  And I filled the prescription that day.

Here’s the thing:  since December I’ve been . . . sluggish.  That’s the only word for it.  It has been most noticeable when I try to write or create anything.  Normally, writing is an effortless joy for me.  But, for the last four months, it has been difficult.  I’ve spent whole days writing a simple blog post!  I had about decided that I’d gone over the hump of old age, that my brain was now shot and it would only get worse with the years – time for the rocking chair and the afghan.

But then, a few weeks back, I saw my doctor again.  We did another Lipid Panel to see how the Statin was working.  My numbers were off the scale . . . in the good direction.  As I sat at my computer looking at them I was horrified!  I had no Cholesterol at all . . . or very little.  LDL and Triglycerides were bumping the bottom of the scale and total Cholesterol had dropped to 120.

I started Googling for information about Low Cholesterol.  I found an article citing a couple of studies that linked Statins to decreased energy, depression and increased incidence of death from unnatural causes (i.e. suicide).  Though nobody is really sure, speculation is that a certain level of cholesterol is necessary for proper neural function, that low levels interfere with production of serotonin in the brain.  The studies were small and controversial.  They weren’t the mammoth undertakings that cause the FDA to sit up and take notice.  But I noticed.  Finally I realized that the onset of my own sluggishness coincided with the beginning of my Statin therapy.

For me, no amount of preventative therapy to control a naturally occurring substance in my body is worth being slow and stupid.  So, I quit taking the stuff.  In three days I felt like myself again.

Now hear this:  I am not a doctor.  I’m not even a scientist.  I don’t pretend to know or understand the complexities of the human body or how the balance of Cholesterol in the body is controlled.  Following my example would be worse than foolhardy; it would be stupid!  But I know this:  I feel better in subtle but significant ways when not taking the drug.  My total Cholesterol has never been high and my LDL and Triglycerides were always in the normal range, though near the top.  Your situation may be different.  I knew a man in Georgia years ago whose body just manufactured cholesterol.  He could become a fat fee vegan and he’d still be through the roof.  He is someone who should never go off his Statin.  You may be too.  But if you’re on a Statin and your thinking processes seem slower than normal, (I’m just sayin’)  talk with your doctor.