I think that even as a child it was difficult for me to pass by a pencil and a piece of paper without using one to make some marks on the other. Before long, the “marks” had turned into stick figures. That phase was a brief one because I soon learned to draw realistic images of people and animals, and recognizable reproductions of cartoon characters. I found real pleasure in looking carefully at some object or figure and then capturing it on paper. I began to explore other media including acrylic and learned to draw images on glass using sandblasting and air brushing techniques that I taught to myself.
A decade ago when we moved into the Brentwood neighborhood where we live, I was pleased to discover that my neighbors had formed a good community with encouraging levels of fellowship and interaction. In particular, I discovered one neighbor, Cheryl Ortiz, to be a remarkable human being. Cheryl is an oversized spirit living inside a small body. She is a professional dancer, who has appeared on Broadway. Cheryl is a specialist in movement therapies and the activities director at Cortona Park Senior Living. Cheryl is passionately involved in getting Cortona Park residents involved in whatever physical or creative activities she can devise. I’ve always been willing to do whatever I could to help others, so I told Cheryl that, if possible, I wanted to help with the seniors at Cortona Park in some way. She asked me what I could do.
“Well, I can kind of draw,” I said. I admitted that I was not a professional artist but would be able to share with her people the fundamentals of basic composition, showing them how to draw landscapes with mountains, oceans, trees, and birds.
Cheryl was immediately attracted by the possibility of me sharing my drawing skills and artistic passion with her people, so she scheduled a session and invited Cortona residents to come develop their drawing skills. She created a sign-up sheet labeled “Art & Drawing with Danny.” A half-dozen residents came to the first class.
I spent some time learning what they wanted to do and investigating their individual skill-levels. Some of them were novices and had brought with them a sense that they probably couldn’t learn to draw. We attacked that attitude head-on and I shared with them my tagline, “Anybody can draw.” I continued meeting with them every Tuesday afternoon for a few months. We began with pencil drawings, but I eventually brought some canvases and acrylic paints with me, and we explored the world of color painting.
They enjoyed our sessions together. For one thing, any creative act is positive and affirming. Those seniors were discovering hidden talents and taking previously unsuspected pleasure from creating art. Beyond that, however, social interactions are at their best when people join in some creative effort. The sessions were scheduled to last for an hour, but it was often difficult for us to quit on time. By the time we finished the last class, Cheryl was amazed at what my participants had been able to do.
One of our residents continued coming to the class in spite of the fact that her husband was dying. Cheryl said that the woman didn’t participate in any of the other activities but couldn’t wait for my art class.
She drew a horse that was her pride and joy. She was unhappy about the eyes, however, and asked me to make them look more natural. I fixed the eyes, then put the picture in a nice frame, and gave it to Cheryl to deliver to the woman. When the woman saw her finished painting, she was so moved that she began crying, and Cheryl said she started bawling along with her. The next day the woman’s husband passed away, and Cheryl said that the picture had provided a few moments of sunshine in a dark period of time in the woman’s life. “That kind of treasure cannot be purchased,” Cheryl said later.
The sessions were good for the residents, but they turned out to be wonderful for me. It was satisfying at an indescribable level to watch the light shine in the eyes of these elderly people and to see beaming smiles come on their faces as they engaged in the acts of exploration and creativity that are usually associated with childhood and youth. For another thing, I had the encouraging and even heart-warming realization that, in spite of the continual pain and a disability that was slowing me down, these people were worse off than me with health issues more serious than my own, and yet they were engaging in life with laughter and good humor.
We moved to Brentwood 25 years ago in response to the Loma Prieta earthquake. I was a professional restoration and waterproofing specialist working for a company called Urban Waterproofing. I was watching the World Series when things in the Bay Area began to fall apart. My first thought was how terrible the event was for the people living in the area. My second thought could have been about how good the disaster might be for my business, but the thought never occurred to me until a week or two later when someone made me an offer to move to the Bay Area that I couldn’t refuse. I was a specialist on damage repair, concrete restoration, and epoxy injection — just those skills that were required to minimize the damage that had occurred in buildings in the earthquake zone. The problem was that cracks had compromised the structural integrity of hundreds or perhaps thousands of Bay Area structures. Water is ultimately the universal solvent, and those cracks would become areas of weakness through which water could penetrate to the underlying material causing rot, decay, corrosion, and innumerable other forms of deterioration, weakening the building, and leading to eventual collapse.
We moved to Pacifica. The Bay Area seemed a wonderful counterpoint to the frantic and false Southern California lifestyle. I appreciated the fact that the pace of life was slower and that people seemed more friendly and genuine. I can imagine that the earthquake might have fostered some social renewal. The period of recovery from Loma Prieta-type-catastrophes typically bring people together. A powerful sense of shared misery can drive people together to provide mutual assistance. People helped each other freely with no expectation of reward or repayment. They learned the old truth that we need each other.
Life was good. For 18 years I enjoyed getting out to job sites, hanging around with my fellow workers, and feeling that I really was making the world a better place by helping maintain the good life for other people. However, in September 2011, I experienced an event that had an effect upon me as a human being equivalent to the effect of Loma Prieta upon the Bay Area society.
My 10-year-old had been amusing our dog by throwing a ball on the roof of our house and then watching him chase it as it rolled off. The ball got stuck so my daughter asked me to retrieve it for her. As I stretched along the edge of the roof, I placed my hand for support upon a tile, which suddenly gave way, causing me to fall headlong to the ground. The impact caused temporary loss of consciousness and pain in my left hip.
I was never one to baby myself and returned to work the next day. The discomfort in my hip never went away, however, and after 11 months I realized that it probably wasn’t going to recover on its own, so I finally went to a doctor. X-rays subsequently revealed that the fall had actually torn pieces off my hip sending fragments into surrounding muscles. They attempted to correct the problem with surgery, and I went back to work. However, the symptoms persisted and another surgery was recommended. In retrospect, I should have simply put up with the discomfort because the operation damaged some nerves in one of my legs, causing lameness and creating an incessant pain in that leg that has been a constant companion since the moment I awakened in the recovery room. Pain is now simply a reality that I must live with; a “friend” that has come and taken up its residence with me. Some days are better than others; no day is pain free.
Work was out of the question, so I took an early retirement. My last day of work was February 2012. I had always considered my Urban Waterproofing employer to be a wonderful company to work for, but following the accident, I discovered the stunning extent to which they would go to care for their people. I learned that they had taken out an insurance policy for me, which was not an unheard of thing for a company to do. However, what was unheard of was that they had named me and not themselves as the beneficiary. As a result, I will receive 60 percent of my salary until the year 2025. Because of their amazing generosity, I only have to worry about managing my pain and not trying to figure out how to pay my bills.
My life had been bound up in my job. I was well-liked at my company and enjoyed going to work each morning. Retirement was tough; I had to redefine myself — create new definitions of who I am and what my life was all about. Retirement was especially rough for a naturally active person like myself. It had always been tough for me to just sit down.
But my active lifestyle that included golfing, boating, and wakeboarding had come to an end. The transition was tough. Some days the challenge of the semi-invalid lifestyle that I had been reduced to seems impossible. Fortunately, my family “stepped up to the plate” and helped me get through those dark months. My wife, Cindi, and two daughters Danielle and Alison, provided wonderful support in helping me understand what I was going through and what was required of me.
I finally made the transition and came to a place of calm acceptance. When you quit fighting against it, suffering creates a wonderful by-product in bringing a new clarity about the realities of life. I’ve learned the essential lesson that there is more to life than work and cars. I always got along well with others, but people have come to play a much more important role in my life. Some days are better than others, of course, and I sometimes feel like lashing out at the constant pain and the serious limitations that I’m living under. However, most of the time I’ve learned not only to accept the hand that I’ve been dealt, but actually to embrace my changed circumstances — to enjoy the slower pace of life. I’m finding positive values in my negative circumstances. For one thing, I have more time to spend with my daughters. I now drive them to school everyday and have time to talk to them about their lives. I can stop and really listen to what they say.
I’ve come to a new awareness of the presence of God, and a firm conviction that things just don’t happen by accident — that our lives have meaning and purpose and wonderful results can come out of bad events. In fact, some of the best things can come out of the worst circumstances.
Life throws you curves, but the Panda proves that you can sometimes knock one out of the park even if it isn’t in the strike zone.