Sunday, February 21, 2010

Coming to Terms

Mark Velasquez
(Somewhere over Nevada, 2010)

My last eight days had been spent in sheer exhilaration. Though the last year has been admittedly remarkable in regards to just about every aspect of my life, the previous week still would probably win out for the largest amount of concentrated overall fun. I had been in New York City at dance parties, visited long desired museums, and met my artistic and musical heroes who volunteered their cell phone numbers. I spent time with dear friends, experienced more than my fair share of laughter and drunken hours, and above all, engaged in a much needed lack of responsibility. This made what my brother affectionately refers to as the "Year of Mark 2.0" seem to be an almost real and tangible thing. So here I was, not twenty four hours after returning to Santa Maria and reality, with an eighteen year old girl whose doctors give at most five years to live, crying in my arms on my faded second-hand couch while I attempted to answer her unanswerable questions about the fairness of life.

I've only known Jenna for a little over three months, but in that time she has shown me her joy, passion, and sweetness while never holding back the honesty of her flaws, fears, and regrettable past deeds. We spent a fun afternoon catching up and sharing photos, taking in a late lunch and frozen yogurt. We joked, discussed future plans, just hung out. It was nice. Having suffered with her illness for most of her life, she is strong and brave in a way most people will never have to experience until they are frail and grey. On this day however, she either finally felt comfortable enough with me or was too emotionally tired to contain her tears anymore.

Personally, I've almost completely suppressed my ability to cry in any real world setting. It takes a corny or courageous plot point of some artificial entertainment source to finally let me allow myself the five second burst of tears I manage to eek out from time to time. After such an emotionally charged previous week, on the plane ride back I could sense a good fifteen second cry coming soon. With Jenna in my arms I really wanted to cry, especially in those long moments of silence when the only sound in the room was her quiet sobbing muffled by my t-shirt and the bumping old-school jams of low-riders cruising by. But I didn't and still haven't.

I supposed I could talk at length about her horrific personal ordeals with men, the boxes of mandatory pills doctors have prescribed, her past experiences living in a wheel chair and now with the occasional use of a cane. There is too much to tell and I've put off writing about it for weeks. I want to share these stories, show the life that she has given me permission to display, but frankly, I'm not yet ready for all that. It is still too new to me and I don't yet know how to feel about it. Maybe these paragraphs are the first steps on that road.

Jenna and I have many plans for the future, both creatively and socially, for as long as her health holds up. I want to show her things that I think she might enjoy or find important. The questions she's asked about life being fair, about the how's and why's of things, can only be answered with the same directness my parents thankfully gave me: That's just the way it is. Life isn't fair, bad things happen to good people, and things might not ever get better. All we can do is live for the moment, take as much pleasure in life as possible without hurting others in the process, and hope that the memories we leave behind give comfort in some way to others when we're gone. The hardest thing for me is that I want to convince her that these hard lessons get easier to accept as time goes by, but sadly she doesn't have the amount of time it takes to come to terms with all of it, and that's the most unfair thing of all.
mark velasquez

The doctors say her physiology is that of someone in their sixties, and at the rate she's going she will have a fatal heart-attack before the age of twenty-three. Doctors have been wrong before. Unfortunately, no amount of prayer, luck, homeopathy or goodwill can make a difference in how to deal with such a situation the way acceptance can. Just thinking about Jenna can keep me up at night, filling me with sadness, hope, anger, regret, and joy. In the brief time I've known her I already feel changed, and for that I can't thank her enough. Maybe some day all of this will make sense, but the real tragedy is that deep down I know it never, ever will.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Art Appreciation

Mark Velasquez photography

Neff, Noah and I braved the snow to attend the Brooklyn Museum's Kiki Smith opening on Friday. Neff got in due to Noah's extra ticket while I was left to my own devices. Using my fake, photoshopped "press pass", which I had created to finagle my way into the Michael Jackson trial back in 2005, I easily convinced the matrons manning the front counter that I should be given entrance, and tada! Lamb ball hors d'oeuvres for me and free beer for my cohorts.

We saw the show, shmoozed with various friends and acquaintances, and of course I had my photo taken with Kiki, trying not to act like a silly school girl meeting one of the Jonas Brothers. I was pleased to see children at the show, a rare sight in the New York City area on a whole, let alone in an art world setting. There was a stroller here and there amidst the large-headed sculptures while Obama-voting parents held their toddlers up to the chine-collé prints, hoping to pass their love for this work onto the next generation.

In one of the rooms, we spied a boy of about seven or eight sitting on the floor of the crowded gallery amidst all the mingling adults. He had taken a liking to one of Smith's sculptures hanging from the ceiling and was intent on drawing it in this little book. Neff, Noah and I all were intrigued to see the kid in action, but before I could take a photo of him in the cramped space he was bolting up to proudly show his dad, an artist Noah turned out to know personally.
Mark Velasquez photography
About half an hour later we were done exploring the museum and were headed off to find some dinner and a well-needed drink, hopping into a quick-filling elevator. The last people to get in were the little boy who had been drawing and his parents. We stood fairly quiet in the elevator as the boy reviewed his night's work, clearly seeming disappointed. Finally he looked to his dad and said, loud enough for all of us to hear, "It took me so much time and I got such little pictures!" At this point we all smiled, and Noah commented on the boy's frustration for all of us, saying sympathetically, "Now you're thinking like an artist."

It was a light, fun moment that unfortunately illustrated a real frustration for creative people, whether they haven't reached double digits or are collecting social security. We all easily saw ourselves in that boy's disappointing realization, when this thing you start out doing for fun finally begins to feel like it is real work and thus less enjoyable.

This week spent in New York has been truly great in so many unnameable ways. Thankfully, in the last four years I've come full circle in my sensibilities, from entirely forsaking the art world and what it stands for to relenting passed the self-deprecating concept that there might actually be a place in there somehow for me. Either way, I'm ready for the next step, excited to get back to work, and look forward to the challenges from new realizations to come.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

June 25, 2009: The Breaking Point

Onikaa Strikes Again!!!  (Grand Ledge, MI, 2009)
("Onikaa Strikes Back!"2009)

It was the twenty-eighth day of what was beginning to feel like my never-ending cross country trip. I was leaving East Lansing, Michigan, pleasantly impressed with my model and host, Onikaa. She had proven to not only be as insane a model as she had promised, but also a wonderful host. In the one night I was there, she provided a great home-cooked meal, lively entertainment with her family and friends, and a fair amount of alcohol. Of course I hadn't slept very well on the floor of her spare room, but as usual by 9AM I was back on that ceaseless road. It was only a day after I had infamously been detained at the US/Canadian border, though so much had transpired since then that the incident already seemed like ancient history.

The level of exhaustion I had willingly pushed myself to at that point was as maddening as it was humorous. Still I continued, meeting necessary deadlines to fit the schedules of those left on my itinerary. All I could think about was home, my own bed, and not having the uncertainty of where I might lay my head that night. Choosing to listen to the radio, I welcomed the irregular DJs and weird local commercials that would keep me more focused than the drone of a familiar iPod playlist. The rest of Michigan didn't take too long, the northern tip of Indiana was pretty painless, and I was so groggy that the traffic of Chicago seemed like a pleasant break from the constantly shifting scenery. It also felt good later that day to cross Wisconsin and Minnesota off my list of states never visited, though I'll freely admit that I'm unable to remember anything specific about either one. I felt a constant rush against time, and afraid to risk slowing down for fear of losing what momentum I had left.

My main memory of that day was the endless entertainment reports. First was the report of the passing of Farrah Fawcett, then an hour later the all consuming media blitz reporting the death of Michael Jackson. Though I'd been the happiest and chubbiest Mexican kid on my block to wear a single white glove in the mid-80s, my current burnt out state left me feeling more surprised than disappointed, focused more on the task at hand than Pop Culture's loss. Almost immediately after hearing the news, as I put more and more tired miles behind me, I received modern society's version of a public eulogy: the dirty text-messaged joke. Some were just about Jackson, others wittily tried to incorporate Farrah's loss to colon cancer as well. I'm usually a loyal fan of a good off-colored joke, but given my emotional state at the time I could only think "ooh, too soon."

By nightfall I was almost falling asleep at the wheel. Then, like a shock to my system, an intriguing sign caught my eye: The Corn Palace. I had reached Mitchell, South Dakota, almost blindly breezing passed it as I had everywhere else that day, but my curiosity was piqued. I had heard of this legendary home of "Corn-as-Art" for years, and though I surely could have rested conformably on my death bed having never visited, I was glad for the excuse to stop. In my haze I almost missed the exit, having to dangerously skirt across several lanes at once to safely clear the off-ramp. The Corn Palace, surrounded on all four sides by its entertaining corn husk mosaics of historic sites, was a pleasant ten minute deviation that woke me up enough to carry on for a few more desperate hours.
Mark Velasquez,Santa Maria,Katie West,photography,art,woman,women

By this time it was after 11PM and my sore body's only goal was to cover as much ground as possible while maintaining my sanity. During the entire trip I was averaging about 4 hours of sleep a night, some in hotel rooms and nice spare rooms, but many more in strangers' makeshift guest areas. One night it would be a mattress on the floor, the next a sunken velvet couch or a small child's bed. The funniest part was that I inflicted all of this upon myself. As I look back on it many months later, I must admit I really, truly enjoyed the experience, though at the time I might not have agreed. But 1:30AM, I was done. Still an hour outside of my intended destination of Rapid City, the site of Mount Rushmore, my vehicle was the only light in a far-reaching black horizon. I had covered about twenty percent of the length of the country in one day under the strain of exhaustion, and I didn't know how much more I could take. Finally, like a beacon of hope, I was greeted by a closed gas station's illuminated marquee as I sped over a slight grade. In what felt like an eternity, I slowly pulled alongside the building to check the security of the surrounds, decided I didn't care, parked, threw my seat back, and fell asleep immediately.

I awoke in what felt like just a few minutes, my whole body aching and unexpectedly shivering. In my sleep I must have covered myself with the thin, white robe worn by my models during breaks from physically revealing photo shoots, but it just wasn't enough to keep me warm. With my eyes throbbing and head spinning, I couldn't understand why the sun had already begun to rise over the flat landscape. It appeared to be one of the loveliest sights I had witnessed in years, or at least that was the perception through my sore, crusted-over eyes.

Reacting solely through force of habit, I reached to the open camera bag on my passenger seat and blindly slipped my hand through the camera strap, knowing what I needed was attached to it. I clumsily reached to open the driver's side door, falling out onto the asphalt in the cold morning air like a bumbling drunk, instinctively slinging my camera over my shoulder in one fluid motion for its protection. Attempting to stand like a baby fawn on newborn legs, I inadvertently slammed my face into the thick layer of dust that had been building up on my truck for weeks. Steadying myself as best I could, I awkwardly took two more steps toward the back of the vehicle, again losing my balance and hitting the side of the dirty truck. I remember sorely leaning there for a moment, actively seeking muscle memories to relearn the concept of bipedal stability, wiping my eyes in a desperate attempt for any sort of clarity. When I finally reached the back bumper, I placed a precarious knee for balance and fired my camera wildly at the sunrise, adjusting the zoom lens to shoot as wide a scene as possible in a vain attempt to capture anything worthwhile.

Once my brain registered some unknown feeling of accomplishment, I stumbled back, swinging my camera back into its bag. I fell back into the comparative warmth of the truck's cab and onto the still-reclined seat, slamming the door behind me. Reaching for my cell phone to check the always important time, I saw it was already 5:17AM, which for some reason led me to briefly whimper unintelligibly. It was at that moment I made the unusual decision to allow myself to fall back asleep, which I did for a necessary and undisturbed four hours. It was that simple, and I felt relieved.

I knew finally that I had reached my physical breaking point, but I was also thankfully aware that it could only get better. When I did eventually wake up hours later I felt ready to finish what I had started weeks before. I had seen so much and traveled so far, but I was ready to be done. It was the beginning of the end and I was finally on my way home.