Ok, so I’ll admit it: I have a bad habit. My wife, Nan, knows, and when I’m indulging in it, she leaves the room. My kids know, and either shame me relentlessly or avoid the subject altogether. Times we were all together in a car, say, on a road trip, when the mood struck me, they would immediately put their earbuds in. A few friends know. Well, ex-friends, mostly. I’d love to say that with maturity, I’ve outgrown it, but feel it’s my duty to report that I once again indulged in it last night.

However, what do you know? This time, so did my wife, Nan, her friend, Kathy, and perhaps five hundred other enthusiastic participants in Breckinridge, Colorado’s Riverwalk Performing Arts Center, watching, singing along with, and at times on our feet and dancing along with Dancing Dream, an excellent ABBA tribute band based out of New York City, here to support the mission of the Domus Pacis Family Respite organization, which offers individuals who are on a challenging medical journey a homelike environment that encourages interaction with other family members and caregivers in a comfortable and peaceful surrounding.

If you, like me, love quality musicianship, pitch-perfect harmonization, and watching two beautiful women dancing in spandex outfits, Dancing Dream’s like a dream come true; the next best thing to the real thing.

It’s funny, though. When I opened my laptop this morning, a few hours later than typical during these writing seasons (it’s nearly 6 am), it was my intention to copy and paste a post I’d written years ago that tied my love of ABBA to something more relevant to the main thrust of this blog endeavor- some element of the creative process.

Not that ABBA isn’t relevant to, well, at least my creative process, at times – music, especially music involving amazing rhythm and harmony, is usually being fed to me via my Bose bluetooth headphones, times I’m really riding the wave, creatively. As for harmony, it’s nearly a curse: no matter how insubstantial or unrelated to my life the song’s subject matter – like Dancing Dream’s closing number last night, Dancing Queen – if the song has great vocal harmony or vocal/instrumental harmony like Boston’s More Than A Feeling, yeah, you bet, I’m feeling it.

See, I have over three hundred blog posts floating in hibernation from my first attempt at writing a blog in 2013 – 14. This morning, I typed “ABBA” into Blogger’s search engine, but it didn’t find any mention of the band, and I concluded that the post was one of the dozens that I didn’t simply hibernate, but deleted at some point later in 2014. Maybe the NSA still has them, but what they contained, perhaps chiefly the ABBA post, were things I had concluded, wisely or not, to blot from history. 

Which ties into another bad habit, begun in the junior year of high school, which dogged me for decades.

No, it didn’t have anything to do with smoking in the boy’s room, not brushing my teeth, or even reading in the dark (although here I go again, writing in the dark).

The habit had to do with my artwork. At the outset of the school year, my high school art teacher, Floyd Tunson, gave me a large, gessoed, blank, stretched canvas – eight feet by four – in hopes that I’d paint something that would go in the Young People’s Art Exhibit at the Fine Arts Center, our local art museum, which took place toward the end of the school year. Back then, the concurrent city-wide junior high and high school shows were something the Fine Arts Center devoted a considerable amount of space to showcase, and I can tell you that for me and many others my age, it was a big dang deal. Speaking for myself, it was no less important at that age than the thought of showing my work is today, decades later, if the memory of my internal gauge of motivation and drive serves. 

At some point that year, I decided I wanted to take the painting, which had only been touched by a thin layer of dust, home to work on in private. Perhaps that was the first mistake. I didn’t want anyone to see the painting in progress. I probably had a premonition that it would be pretty bad, and I didn’t want anyone to see just how bad. So, while by day, in class, I worked on this art project and that, the elephant in the room was that there was an elephant-sized blank canvas in the room at home, untouched.

With pressure within mounting and the date of the exhibit drawing near, I finally began to work on the painting after school one day. As feared, each stroke I made on the canvas seemed the polar opposite of what I had intended, and as the evidence of my reverse Midas’ Touch accumulated, the level of my dismay rose accordingly. 

It was as if I were late for an appointment, driving further from my intended destination on a highway in an unfamiliar city with no idea where I was or if I could turn around. With every mile of unfamiliar landmarks I passed, the realization of what I needed to do became clearer. 

Tunson would periodically ask me how the painting was coming, and I think I probably left the impression that all was well. But all was not well, and so, with the exhibit just days away, I looked straight at the canvas and the incontrovertible mess I had made. Glancing at the rapidly dwindling amount of sand in the timer and feeling the mounting pressure needing a release, I did the only thing I felt would alleviate the situation. I flipped the stretcher on its back, pulled out the staples, folded the canvas up as compactly as I could, and threw it away. Burning it up and burying the ashes was what I wanted to do, though. I would have nothing to exhibit in the show that year.

In college, most of what I made survived a similar fate, although the bad habit continued whenever I wasn’t able to produce what I saw in my mind’s eye, or in an art book. Rather than simply painting over or rubbing out a ‘bad’ section, I would destroy all evidence. As with my ABBA post and a number of other posts I was highly embarrassed I’d ever subjected anyone to, I would wipe all memory of it from the face of the earth, leaving only a smoking hole in the ground where there had once stood an easel and a promising canvas. “What happened to that painting you were working on?” my painting instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago might have asked me, had he been the least bit engaged in the class. 

In time, I developed a pattern vis a vis my artwork whereby, if I was unhappy with the direction it was going and couldn’t imagine how to get it back on course, I would brusquely concede to the canvas and, rather than simply setting it aside for a while or scraping off and painting over, would simply destroy all physical evidence. While this wasn’t, thankfully, too common of an occurrence, 

it typically coincided with the pieces where I was pushing the envelope and venturing outside of my familiar home turf. 

The stuff I was left with, however accomplished it may have looked to others, was, by default, the safest – the things, by and large, I already knew how to do before picking up the charcoal stick or the paint brush. It was as if I’d learned how to say a few phrases in a foreign tongue and then stopped expanding my vocabulary. To other’s ears, my limited alien speech would pass for something more than I, and at times only I, realized it was: stunted. Ingrown. I’d like to think that, sooner or later, I was going to have to deal with the problem head on, but after years of repeating the same behavior, it began to look like that might never happen.

While my ABBA habit isn’t shared, at least openly, by many, knowing me, knowing you, I think abandoning one’s creative work is more the rule than the exception. I wonder about you – did you ever abandon your love for painting or writing or playing piano? Did you ever tell yourself, “That’s not me” not because the fledgling creative practice looked, well, just like that – like a fledgling bird? You know – all awkward and ugly and temporarily unable to fly? 

It wasn’t until I started my custom props business in 1998, many years after acquiring the bad habit of destroying my more creative work, that my problematic penchant and I faced each other.

It was during the first year of my business that I was handed a project which, about halfway through, brought me face to face with my nemesis yet again.

By now, the channel I had carved when at such points of creative impasse was deep; the nonchalance with which I could make a piece of art disappear didn’t make me bat an eye, like a veteran mafia hit man.

I remember the day quite vividly. It was early summer and the sun was shining brightly outside the studio’s open casement windows. Also perfect was the display I had been working on for over a month. As I transitioned from building the structure of the display to painting its surface, little birds were fluttering into the studio’s open door and landing on my shoulder and small, cute woodland creatures, typically scarce in our parts by day, were singing along with them in a happy kingdom sort of way.

Then, a cloud passed overhead, darkening the land, and a chill wind blew in. The music stopped and all the animals scurried or flew away, leaving me nearly alone – just me and my long time nemesis, my Waterloo, shame. The paint I was applying was following that old familiar pattern. I knew what it needed to look like, and it wasn’t this. I tried varying the colors. No go. As minutes became hours – hours that felt like years – the piece went from bad to worse. It was terrible. 

What made matters infinitely worse, this time, was that I was creating this piece for a client, and had already been paid a deposit for half of the project. The check had been deposited weeks prior. Weeks where it had been transformed into food and mortgage and utilities payments. Payments that would soon be due again (compounded by the fact that the same was true of Nan). Hard place, may I introduce you to rock?

I put down the brush, closed up the studio, and walked back to the house to get a glass of water and to pout in view of my wife. Passing through the house, I was spotted by her, and she asked me how it was going. I just shook my head in a kind of “please, just leave me to die” sort of way. Really, I wanted to send out a distress call: S.O.S!

Wisely, Nan left me to brood. I sat down on the front porch swing with a glass of water and felt for all the world like Mohammed Ali sitting in the corner of the ring after the first few rounds of his rumble with George Forman – only Ali, at least, had tasted victory many times in the past. For me, all seemed lost. It was hopeless. There were no thoughts of getting someone else to finish the project for me; as with most I would take on, I couldn’t afford that option. And soon enough the problem would be my family’s. Questions began to filter into my mind. Why did I choose this stupid job, anyway? How can I get out of finishing this project? 

It was then that Nan and I began to rob banks to augment our income.

Kidding. Our income augments our bank robbing.

Later that day, as in a dream, I found myself back in the studio with brush in hand, going where no man, it felt, had gone before. For sure, this one hadn’t – I’d never ventured this far into what I felt was a foregone conclusion before in my life. Yet as time passed, I found that, strangely and wonderfully, I was beginning to make something halfway decent. Ok, maybe at first it was only 10% decent, I don’t want to lie. But there was no doubt about it. The toxic wasteland of a painting was being covered over by fresh new layers of pigment. Unheard of. A brave, new world! Time began to compress, as it does whenever one is ‘in the zone’. But it’s not an uncomfortable compression – it’s exactly what John Cleese was talking about in his speech about creating the optimal conditions for creativity to occur, transcribed in yesterday’s post

I really knew I was out of the woods at last when a bird came out of the trees and landed on my shoulder.

I’d like to say that old habits die easily, but as you well know, they don’t. They’re like Bruce Willis or the Energizer bunny. Having defeated mine once, however, the second time was just a smidge easier. In time, I realized what most artists, it seems, know instinctively, but which I had to learn only after years of habit that had hardened into something like an old oil paint tube. It’s a contention of mine, much deeper than any bad habit, that I hope never to abandon:

There’s nothing – no, not one thing, that can’t be reclaimed – that can’t be transformed into something richer and fuller.

Why, ABBA itself, the original members, have been working on new material, after decades of leaving the spotlight. Can’t wait.

Back to my art journey: fast forward a decade, and I’m working on another display for a client, one calling for subdued, refined off-whites to fit the cultivated nature of a rotunda in a historic building on the college campus where I then worked. This time, not only do I begin the underpainting with the ‘wrong’ colors – gaudy, bright ones – but I’m doing so on purpose, and, more to the point, in full view of others’ eyes. A few brave souls hesitantly ask how things are going. I know they think I’m either color blind or turpentine-addled to be laying down such vibrant tracks, but I tell them it’s ok. 

It’s taken me plenty of time to get to this point in my unfinished state. I may not have been here before, exactly, but I do know with the certainty of faith where I’m headed, and know further that I want just a hint of ‘all that jazz’, like the odd paths I’ve taken from time to time in life, to remain visible – a muted yet immutable witness to the journey, when all is said and done.

I’ve finally faced my Waterloo. Only, I’m the one defeating my own bad habit. 

More often than not, that is.

To wit, a few summers ago, I was working diligently on a 8′ x 8′ panel for weeks before abandoning it. 

No, ‘abandon’ is too benign a word – I literally took a hammer to it (and about four other large panels I could easily have resurrected). Not angrily, mind you, although Nan was a bit rankled. We’ll see if this blog post stands the test of time, or if it suffers a similar fate.

I’m the only one for whom the wholesale destruction, leaving only the following photographic evidence of the piece, felt good. Felt justified, in fact. I felt that the work was too self-conscious. As if every mark was made not because it was the right thing to do, but because it looked like the right thing to do. 

Hand’s down, there’s a big difference. A subject for another day.