I am an artist, teacher, writer, husband, dad, believer, dreamer, thinker, seeker who lives in Mid Missouri. This blog, which I began in 2009, records words and images that contain my reflections on my experiences in this life.
Please browse the various areas in the menu above – my adventures in China and at Ox-bow have been pretty important to who I have become. Additionally, my heart attack was a watershed event that produced radical changes in my art and life.
I wanted to give a general overview of what’s been going on with me health-wise.
I have a lung disease.
It’s been making things hard for me for a while – beginning in June of 2019. That’s when an epic case of Viral Pneumonia hit me hard. We tried a number of things to kick it, and eventually a short run of steroids seemed to do it. But during that Viral Pneumonia my primary care Doctor ordered a CT to check for blood clots in my lungs (my sister had a lot of clots and died of a pulmonary embolism, so it was a fear for me).
The CT didn’t show clots… but it did show damaged lung tissue. Blood work was ordered. A culture of a series of my nasty phlegm nuggets was done. Over the months I’ve had dozens of tests. I had a bout of aspergillus that made it hard to see the underlying cause of things.
The last few months (August through October) have seen a steep downturn. My ability to get oxygen into my body has been really hurt. Without supplemental oxygen I am able to maintain an oxygen saturation of about 87%. I’ve seen it go lower than 79% at times. Normally, the average person is able to maintain 98 or 99 percent oxygen saturation almost all the time. Once you get below 91 or 90 percent your body can’t maintain itself properly; the fall-off is steep.
What began as intermittent exhaustion and strange bouts of breathlessness solidified into constant problem by August. I have worked out almost every day since my heart attack (Feb 2016), but I have not been able to do “normal” workouts since the beginning of August. Basically, I “earn” the same amount of heart-rate elevation and physical exertion just trying to get around the house and walk to my classroom as I used to get doing a full on hour at the gym. This is because I’ve apparently lost 15 or 20 percent of my lung capacity (according to the Pulmonary Function Tests I’ve had). Activities that used to barely register as effort at all are now breath-busters. I’m on oxygen all night long (5 liters pushed through my CPAP) and 30 to 40 percent of the day using my portable oxygen condenser.
I was given an initial diagnosis of Interstitial Lung Disease, which basically has two primary causes – either autoimmune or environmental.
The doctors on my Pulmonary team ordered CT scans that showed them two things: first, the “changes” to my lung tissue are continuing but, second, there seems to be no permanent damage at this point. The main issue with Interstitial Lung Disease is the scarring that can happen. Once lung tissue scars, that’s it; it’s basically permanent. But when the cause is environmental, and if the scarring has not yet taken effect, the situation can be reversed.
My doctors decided that a Bronchial Biopsy was necessary. I had a Lung Lavage during the same procedure (I encourage you to Google what a Lung Lavage entails… the more intense variations are something else). Unfortunately during this biopsy/lavage procedure part of my right lung collapsed. I spent the next 30 hours in the hospital to provide therapy to my lung and make sure that I healed from the collapse and the biopsy.
So what’s next? My doctors will look at the biopsy and lavage analysis to chart a course forward. My condition looks like a cross between Interstitial Lung Disease and Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis. I hope to learn more this week and trust that a course of treatment will manifest.
As it stands now I feel like about 50% of the person I was last semester. Doing everything – sleeping, getting around, parenting, teaching – is hard. I’m thankful for the support around me, good health insurance, good doctors at all levels (especially my Cardiologist and my Primary Care doctor who believed me when I said things were different with this).
On this day 20 years ago I was in the House of Blues in Chicago, having walked just a few blocks from my dorm on Michigan Avenue (It’s now classroom space, not dorms, but I kept my elevator floor sign before the demolition started).
I’d only been in the city a short time. This was my first trip out for a concert – OK, sure; lame choice. From my room across from the Art Institute it was just a short walk west, then north over the river, toward the “corn cob towers.” Just a few years later they’d be featured on the iconic Wilco record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If only I’d been to see them that night.
Yngwie was effervescent and shrill that night. Loping around the stage, posing before his stack of Marshall amps, and gratuitously clanging his numerous bracelets and bangles against the neck/fret board of his trusty Strat.
He was bursting from his leather? vinyl? spandex? pants. He was in full hair-band-era-cry. Hair teased so high, chest exposed by some combination of V-neck shirt or vest or Pirate jerkin… who knew?
In any case it was glorious. Furious. SO. LOUD. Riotous and ridiculous and raw. He gave his all, flinging guitar picks and sweat with abandon. My ears RANG for hours after, and were even stunned the next morning. It was epic. I can still recall the feel of the cool midnight air chilling me as I rushed back to my dorm room for a smoke and a reprise of Rising Force.
Normally on my birthday I try to take some time to myself for reflection, good food, and maybe some limited frivolity with friends. This year I wanted to try something different.
Parenting is hard. The logistics of family life is hard. Everyone is in different emotional and physical states. So while I do take my kiddos out for play in the park and do other things very frequently, it’s been a long time since I got one-on-one time with each of the kids.
About 9am on my birthday, I got started. CaiQun and I visited B&B Bagels, just about the best real bagels west of the Mississippi. She loves her plain bagel with plain cream cheese… to each their own, right? Then we went to look at LEGOs and talk about building things. It was a sweet time with a daughter who often has to shout at home to be heard, but who is quiet and calm when she gets some quality time one-on-one.
Next it was Miranda’s turn. She has been asking to go to the Library for some new books about cats and baking, two of her passions. She’s been watching some of the baking shows available on Netflix and has gotten the basic concepts down. She wanted to get more focused understanding (she often over-applies sugars and under-applies flour!), so we searched for some books (“No, daddy, ADULT baking books!”). I steered her away from volumes on French Cooking (talk about delusions of grandeur), but she settled on some good stuff. Then we got her some frosting application bags. Needless to say she’s been very pro-dad for the last 24 hours!
It was now a bit after lunch time, so I decided to take FangFang out for a meal at Panera, one of her favorites. She got mac&cheese and a fruity drink while I opted for a large salad. We chatted a lot about food, food-eating techniques (“I like to double-fist it!” she exclaimed), and potential future meals we might have. This is a girl who definitely likes to eat. After that we had a fun walk around the mall, observing and commenting on many things.
Last but not least was Atticus. He is so excited about all things water these days… and often we come into a bathroom or walk past the cat dishes to see that he has flooded a portion of the room. I knew this caring, curious boy would love some time on a local river in one of the several nature preserves that dot Mid-Missouri.
Capen Park, which is a section of the Grindstone Nature Area, features a nice cliff climb that even little kids can do and access to the river for exploration. It was great to be able to give my boy 2+ hours of self-directed play on the water and rocks.
It was a FULL day – basically 9am to 4pm of consistent activity. I think I’ll hold onto these memories to help me through rough patches… hell, even today I called them up to help me regulate when the kiddos were having some fits.
I’m sad a lot these days. All things are stranger and harder than I thought they would be. But I am blessed and fortunate. A day like this one, taking the kiddos out on individual dad-dates, was really necessary. It was good for my heart and it was good for theirs, too. Each of them has talked to me about their special time. Glad to know I can still do something right.
Now if I could just feel as triumphant as Atticus does here, spreading his arms out at the top of the cliff…
I definitely won’t wait until my next birthday to do this again. A good start to #43.
The notion of coram deo is a theological and para-theological idea that has been held forth at various times. I’ve even got a pastor friend who has a church named Coram Deo. Essentially, the Latin phrase means “in the presence of God” or “before the face of God.”
Well, I guess some would argue that we’re all always in the presence of the divine, but even the bible says that no one has ever seen God (Exodus 33:20). Elsewhere, however, we note a caveat:
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” – 1 John 4:12
If we love, we see God. Divine love is manifest in that seeing.
I decided to do a little survey of my studio. Who is here? In loving, where do I see God?
I have a lot more faces and visages and signifiers of people in my studio. These suffice.
Look around… see who you love and who loves you. In acknowledging them – in believing that they are real – you make divine love real. When we don’t believe that others are real – that their desires, experiences, or feelings are somehow not like ours – we dehumanize them. We de-divine their reality. They are miracles. We are privileged to be in the presence of other motes of matter that catch the divine light.
Last month marked ten years of writing posts and posting pictures here. In most ways this site has become my de facto artist website rather than a space to post observations and non-art stuff. Kind of lame, I know. But I’ve had a personal website (and domain) for almost 22 years and I have administered it in a lot of different ways. But at some point – particularly after getting deep into full time teaching – I decided to lay aside HTML and CSS and private hosting.
I still have all of those older versions of my websites. Sometimes I browse them from their resting places inside my hard drives. I think about the effort and consideration that went into them. Thankfully I never committed the Geocities and Angelfire design atrocities… maybe WordPress is just the more contemporary version of those gaudy old things, I don’t know.
I have not written much in 2019. It has been a hard, strange year – emotionally, professionally, physically.
Physically, I have been sick and run down a lot this year. The medications I take to manage my heart disease are rough, and they constrain my metabolism and energy level; I have fallen asleep without wanting to a number of times this year. Though I work out every single day, my endurance seems to be sliding lower and lower. Normally I teach a course or two over the summer, but the reality is that I know I couldn’t keep up with that at this point. There’s more to say… but I won’t.
Professionally, while I’m not sure exactly where my artwork is going, I have a good body of work underway and am getting it out for people to see. I was recently promoted to Full Teaching Professor, which is the terminal rank in the Teaching Line. It took nine years to achieve. I feel secure and thankful for Mizzou, but there are a lot of pressures that rest on the shoulders of professors in a time when Universities are trying to do more with less. As someone who understands the importance of mental and physical health, well, those pressures can be life-threatening. I know that being an educator is not just time spent with students. If it were, I think I’d generally feel much better. God knows that I am still encouraged by being in the classroom – each and every time.
Emotionally, I don’t think I am the same after the heart attack. My general affect, emotional intelligence, and responses were dulled significantly. After two years it seemed that I had returned to normal. But have I? In 2012 I had a pretty major crisis of faith – one that corresponded with the onset of depression. There were other factors during the period of time between 2012 and 2015… then 2016 came with the death of my sister and my cardiac arrest mere days later. There have been a number of other things in the 3 and half years since then that have made impacts as well. Perhaps I am being changed by the medications and the inertia of routines… At least I am getting joy from working on LEGOs with my kids.
The exhibition features older work based in personal and spiritual conflict. One such piece is from 2001, created along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan amid the reverie of a pre-social-media world. A number of the large drawings were begun in 2006 and 2007 behind the apartment we rented on Elmwood Avenue in Evanston, Illinois. Little did I know then that those works would find their completion more than a decade later in Mid Missouri after many iterations.
All of the works represent my ongoing attempt to picture the impossible spaces created by our collective unwillingness to constrain power, war, greed, consumerism, and ignorance – in ourselves and in society at large. Whether using documentary photos and videos or inventing from the history of the human form as a zone of violent incidence, I attempt to make plain the foolishness of conflict, oppression, and war.
At the reception event for this exhibition, I gave a talk and took questions from the audience. I present that talk here as a video, which features many images of the works on display and a number of photos taken during the reception event.
Here you can watch the video I’ve uploaded to YouTube. I’d love to hear any thoughts or questions you have – hell, I’ll even respond with more details if you ask me any!
The recent work coming out of my color drawing students is phenomenal. They are thinking around my assignments, participating with the materials, and generally making leaps and bounds into understanding the physical properties of pastel and colored pencil (among other things).
Here are just a few of their amazing works this semester.
The last few weeks have been pretty intense. Sickness, heavy schedules to manage, deadlines to meet, presentations to give, paintings to complete and ship out… I’ve been overloaded.
Last week, though, I decided to step away from my “responsibilities” for a few hours and work with my oldest kiddo to make a new birdhouse/birdfeeder.
She created the designs for the outside and made the primary choices for how the finished house would look. We talked about how birds would access the house, where food would be, and how we would like to be able to see the ornithological engagement from the comfort of our living room.
Next came the fabrication. I handled the big saw cutting to assure the pieces were proper size, and then I cut the angles for the pentagonal house to fit together. Miranda did some of the chop saw work and she absolutely doing the gluing and brad gunning. She wanted to get her very own brad gun (Alison said no)!
After everything was settled and we gave it a night to dry, we put it in place. It’s an epic birdhouse/feeder combo just right for the Ballou Homestead.
I am sure we’ll get some great bird visitors over to Miranda’s construction soon – maybe even a couple will stay. In any case, however, I know it was a few hours better spent in making memories and helping Miranda grow more confident with ideas, creativity, and tool use than it would have been in filling out forms or doing some administrative task.
Every artist needs a person out there in the world who believes in them, no matter what. I know I have a few people like this. I’m very thankful for them. But there’s one guy… he’s like my very own Sam Elliott.
Geo knows just when to email, just how to make a comment, and just the right moment to send support. He’s got a sixth sense for these things. He’s uncommon. He understands the artist’s mindset; hell, he is an artist (a woodcarver of great skill).
And just like The Stranger in The Big Lebowski, Geo has phenomenal advice, otherworldly commentary, and a poetic pace to his missives. We often correspond in waves of evocative side-speak, like two mystics shouting across The Void. Of course, we are mystics (at our best). And there is a void – the vast gulf of internet tubes, and years, and pastel dust, and bricks, and wood shavings.
And Hair. We are of the International Brotherhood of Longhairs. As I wrote back in 2014, Geo has a great mound of flowing gray hair. Soon mine will be as gray as his is. We share the hair. Hair Share.
Recently I received a wonderful package from Geo. It was a real-honest-to-goodness-Geo-original carving. It was a portrait of me based on a drawing I made on the outside of a box full of broken glass! Geo saw it, and he made it real, physical, a true bas-relief of wooden Ballou!
Here it is, in all of its glory:
New office, you say? Yes. I have taken on the job of Director of Undergraduate Studies for Art, a position which involves advising, guiding, and in many other ways aiding our hundreds of undergraduates through their academic careers. It’s been a wild transition to go from only teaching to teaching AND being a go-to administrator of Undergraduate Studies. Luckily I have many helpers, including the amazing Deborah, several folx in the Dean’s office, and Geo.
With their help I’ll do my best to do my duty for God and country… and those undergraduates who need some direction. I can tell that I’ll be memorizing the entire University of Missouri course listing… whew.
With all of this in mind it’s good to know that Geo is there. He’s holding it down for all of us erstwhile hippies, for all us wandering faithful, for all those who receive the scapular.
The Stranger: Take it easy, Dude.
The Dude: Oh yeah!
The Stranger: I know that you will.
The Dude: Yeah, well – the Dude abides. [Exits with beers in hand]
The Stranger: [to the camera] The Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.
As we close out 2018 it’s essential that we make lists. MUST. MAKE. LISTS. I’m just kidding. Most lists suck and aren’t particularly illuminating beyond their constructor’s interests. Which is fine. Interest is good. Passion for interests is good… but some pseudo-official “best of” list doesn’t really offer much of anything to anyone.
SO. In lieu of any of that, I wanted to throw out a few of my favorite God Hammers. This isn’t about 2018 in the least… well, it is in the sense that 2018 is when I thought about all of this. The catalyst was the phenomenal limited series podcast by Josh Clark called The End of the World with Josh Clark. You should fire up your chosen pod-reception devices and take it in, because it’s a nice overview of a lot of apocalyptic intensity (follow Josh on Twitter here). I have read/listened to/otherwise become aware of most of what Josh talks about in this series, but his delivery and perspective add to the information in subtle, thoughtful ways. While I was listening, I thought, “Damn, we are gonna need the threat of an Extinction Level Event to get humanity to cooperate on these serious issues… maybe we need a Hammer…”
A Hammer of the Gods, eh? A Hammer of God? A Divine Hammer? Well, let’s see… Here are a few.
1 – The Hammer of the Gods by Steven Davis, 1985.
I was passionate about Zeppelin in my teen years. Among my earliest memories is my dad playing Zeppelin while I clung to his huge Panasonic Thruster floor speakers as a 3 or 4 year old. From age 13 to 18 or so I had those speakers in my room on the second floor of our now-destroyed homestead on Wolcott Hill Road in Camden, NY. That’s where I listened – even after my mom threw out my Zeppelin cassettes.
I was both curious and afraid to read the story behind the Mighty Zepp. Would their debauchery be too much for me? I listened to key tracks while reading the book and found that the context and back-story brought more mystery to the songs rather than diminish it. Ultimately the cacophonous roar of their hammer would fade… yet its ring still permeates music and performance of stardom.
2 – Divine Hammer – from the album Last Splash by The Breeders, 1993.
“I’m just looking for a faith Waiting to be followed. It disappears this near. You’re the rod, I’m water! I’m just looking for One Divine Hammer!”
The Deal twins…. Kim and Kelley, alcohol and heroin, chunky bass and crunching guitars. This album is one of the main sounds of my high school years. There are very few things that remind me of smoking and – momentarily – make me want a smoke, but one is the opening of this album… Watch this document of early 90’s slacker-cool:
Now we arrive at the real deal, a novel by one of the great artist-scientists of the 20th century, Arthur C. Clarke. I read this shortly after high school while working a job cleaning mall parking lots in the middle of the night – the perfect time for existential dread. Here’s the basic run down: A big space rock is going to hit us. If we don’t cooperate there won’t be any earth – or life for that matter – to continue our petty squabbles about. We figure something out, but the religious nuts mess up the plan… so our hero has to step in with a fun little last minute intervention to save humanity.
There you have it. The Hammer of metal excess. The Hammer of doubt-laced-seeking. The Hammer of an indifferent cosmos. Go listen to Josh tell you all about the End of the World, and feel free to round our your experience with one of the items listed above. You’ll enjoy it.