My life, more specifically, my gifts, interests, talents, and abilities are like a box of crayons. And I got a painful demotion at work a few days ago. What does one have to do with the other? I’m not sure, but if you’ll come with me down a few lines, maybe we’ll figure it out.
By the way. This crayon thing is one of my favorite original thoughts. Or analogies. Or metaphors. Whatever it is, I’ve come to love it as a particularly clear lens through which I view my life. Especially lately. Like the last few days. As I share I it here, I hope maybe it will make some sense to you.
Crayons. Crayola Crayons. Binney & Smith Crayola Crayons. These little wax tools of color and creativity (now with politically correct names, by the way) have been around for more than 100 years and were original inductees into the National Toy Hall of Fame. What? You didn’t know there was a National Toy Hall of Fame? Glad I could broaden your horizons. Take a look. I guarantee at least one smile from your click-trip to the top Toyland. And it’s perfectly fitting that I write today about crayons, these classic toys, on this the eve of my semi-annual visit to one of the largest antique toy shows in the nation. Yep, I will have some fun tomorrow in St. Charles, Illinois.
Webster says a crayon is “a small stick of chalk, charcoal, or colored wax, used for drawing, coloring, or writing.” Certainly they have been that for me as a little boy, for me as a high school art student, for me on occasion throughout adulthood, for my children, and now for their children. Crayons are used by little ones for their first artistic expression and by professional artists. Quite the invention.
These simple, inexpensive wax rods were created for little uninhibited freeform kiddo hands to bring color to where there is none. Sometimes to where color has been prohibited by family decree…like a living room wall, a dresser, or bathroom floor. Guilty, guilty, and guilty. It’s easy to own my own artistically inspired mistakes 50 years later. Mom’s gone…she can’t get me now. But you really don’t know where my crayons have been lately, do you?
Truthfully, now, I’m more of an arms dealer than a soldier in the battle to spread some electric lime and fuzzy wuzzy color under cover, altering the backdrop of this gray world. Today, I can secretly equip several willing little grandchild recruits to do my good work. And now I have access to the big guns….crayons, yes, for the smaller troops. Mainly because they sometimes like to eat the jazzberry jam and laser lemon ones. Who could blame them? But I also have, yes…Sharpies…as dangerous as their weapon-like name…same colors, but brighter and permanent. I have big pointy ones, and I’m bad.
Yet while these young burnt sienna/desert sand stormtroopers are willing to color-mark-march to any place, I still can’t get the little boys to take off their shirts and run with me around the house. I feel lost. But I’ll keep trying. I’ve come to realize I’m too mushy to be a good drill instructor anyway. You just can’t tell the recruit he’s a maggot when you can’t keep a straight face. He just won’t buy it. Their shirts stay on and I freeze alone. Tough being me.
Coloring books. So innocent sounding. Crayons and coloring books go together like hermit crabs and surf bathrooms. Yet conspiracy theorists suggest that coloring books were invented after crayons with the overriding goal to suppress this accessible-to-the-masses potentially unlimited creativity. Can’t have that, now can we? “Color books” as my mom called them, have the secretly evil design to keep the crayons off the living room closet doors everyone sees when they enter the house and on the blah gray newsprint color book pages. I know, I know. Those boring pages have colorful enticing covers featuring Quickdraw McGraw, Secret Squirrel, and Daniel Boone (hey, you pick your color books, I’ll pick mine). And inside there are indeed images…colorless images. Images with big thick outlines.
Sly trickery! All carefully set up to trap me, a creative child, to color inside the lines of someone else’s image. What? (Okay, here’s where the plot thickens. Hang on). Sorry. This is still America. It just ain’t right. Now all that’s bad enough, but that colorful cover is also there to shove me again, this time to not only stay within those lines with my crayons, but to choose the same doggone colors as on the cover. No!!!!! So, among other variations, my Daniel Boone wore a midnight blue coonskin cap, nicely accessorized with a lime green canteen and purple pizzazz flintlock rifle. Snappy and stylish, especially for Kentucky bear hunting. Oh come on, there ain’t no bears in Kentucky. Just so you know, this is a strategic paragraph in what I’m trying say here today. No, not the art about the bears. Might want to read it again. I’ll wait.
So for the last 53 years or so, you could always find crayons near me, in my home somewhere. Always. I used them, my kids used them, and my grandkids use them now. We drew with them, chewed on them, colored with them, stepped on them, melted them together to make swirly hardened color puddles, and we threw them at each other like they were little rainbow missiles.
As I progressed in my artistic journey, like any budding Picasso I became particular about my tools. Developed brand loyalty, as it were. For me, it was Binney & Smith’s Crayola Crayons. My brand. They recently changed the corporation’s name to just “Crayola.” I don’t want you to think you’re getting some knock-off on your next crayon run to Target. You probably need a set with mauvelous, neon carrot, piggy pink, unmellow yellow, macaroni and cheese (not kidding), and mango tango colors. Go now. They’re going to be popular.
Hmmm. Maybe that’s nothing to do with art. I feel the same way about Q-Tips. Got to be real Johnson & Johnson Q-Tips. No Wal-Mart or Target brands get anywhere near my ears. Won’t even use them to clean my car air vents. But wait, I have used Q-Tips as art tools…fuzzy little paint-delivery surrogates. Huh. I’m funny. Not funny, ha ha, though I can be. Nope. Funny weird. Deal with it. Back to crayons.
Through the years, Crayola Crayons have usually been sold in packages of 8, 16, 24, 48, 64, 96, and 120. I’m a box of 120. Yep. Each of these boxes feature more and more colors, more and more choices, more and more options and a not very good sharpener. I never really counted them, but I have a lot of interests, so for the sake of argument, let’s say I think of myself as a box of 120 Crayola Crayons. Each of these colors represents some interest, talent, gift, ability, or skill I have as a person. I carry them around every day, everywhere I go, hoping I can use them. When I use them, I feel good and those around me that see and benefit from them often feel good, too. It’s an atomic tangerine and blizzard blue love fest.
It’s different for each person I know, but my crayon box includes colors like writing, drawing, entrepreneurial interests, imagining, painting, banjo, juggling, cars, ancestry, magic, teaching, meeting my family’s needs, communication skills, scooters, just figuring things out, ukulele, motorcycles, acting, restoring things, public speaking, making dull things interesting, tinkering, entertaining, laughing, helping, modifying, thinking, building, creating, did I say writing?, lots more, I don’t know. In a perfect world, I would have a job that uses a lot of those crayons. It would not be some color book job with boundary lines to keep within, but a wide white empty paper. I would arrive and choose which colors to use, first on one task, then another. It would be a job where the others there and I could just use our own crayons or share with each other for even better results. Possible? Yes.
Twenty years ago I took a job at a company. Even at the first interview, I saw it would be a challenge to generate interest and fulfillment in the place, to use very many colors in my box of crayons. But to strongly use the “For the good of my family” crayon, I took the job.
I arrived to work with my box of 120 crayons in April 1993. In my training, they effectively told me to take my box of 120 crayons home. They gave me a box of two. Said that’s all I would need to color in their coloring book. Sadness doesn’t cover what I felt as I saw my box of crayons dismissed as unneeded. Yes, the real message was that most of who I was then…and am now…was not needed, wanted, or valued. Not some bad thing…just not a good fit. Wasn’t then, isn’t now.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve fought hard to get back some crayons there, to color with different hues. And I have managed to get a few, true enough, and I used them with my best efforts. Mostly though, I have been a misfit there for a long time. For a variety of reasons, real and imagined I would say, I’m left now six years from retirement with just one broken crayon to use, demoted a few days ago to a job several levels below the one I had. It stings, but in some strange way, it’s a relief.
I’m not blameless to be sure and there’s no need to plead my case here. Truth is I’ve known this was coming for a year with little I could do about it. I’m just thinking about my box of crayons, color books, and conspiracy theories today. In the end, though, once I get past the initial feelings of humiliation and betrayal of this, the first demotion in my life, when the dust settles, I actually lost very little. Overall, of the box of 120 crayons that is me, I was only allowed to use two or three anyway. Now I have one. Not much difference. Most of me still remains unvalued and underutilized. The heart of the matter is what if anything I will do about it. I can choose. I have that freedom. But do I have the guts?
You know, I have experienced some roles that used my whole box of crayons so I know it’s possible. Most recently, teaching public speaking at Purdue fully engaged me in a way I never imagined. My writing is another of the tasks that causes me to break out all my crayons. This year, acting has been an exciting way to open up the box. Doing these things is exhilarating for me, fulfilling, affirming. Exactly opposite the feelings I get thinking about the next six years using one gray crayon. My worst fear is that failing to use more of who I am lessens me in some profound and permanent way.
Yet I am 56, almost 57 years old. So what? It’s time to re-think some things, that’s what. I can grin and bear it, make no change and lumber on for six years until I have company medical benefits. Or not. I did write recently about wanting to be off the script. For most of the last 20 years, I was on their script and had many good reasons to color on with a limited set of crayons. Yet I always found a way to use more of them outside of work. These days, I have far fewer good reasons to ignore my full complement of crayons.
I am weary of coloring inside the lines of an image someone else drew contained in a color book that is not mine. I know work is work, honorable, noble and often just hard. I do not regret what I have done there and I appreciate the rewards I have received. Yet I also know who I am and have learned more and more about the strengths and talents God has given me. It is against God’s design not to use them. And it is especially painful to have them belittled.
Tonight, I noticed Crayola has a new 150-crayon telescoping tower with all the regulars plus glitter and neon colors. Even more colors. Different kinds of colors. Looks like a rocket. I like that. I have some thinking to do. In the meantime, I won’t let being told I’m slower and not as effective make much difference. Blast off!
Monday I start working with my banjo teacher for the sole purpose to learn the song “Wagon Wheel.” My son Jonathan and I are going to record it over Christmas break. I’ve already booked the recording studio. Though I wasn’t planning to tackle another acting role this year, I was just asked to appear in a Christmas play called “Twist-A-Carol” in a piece about a holiday party in a Victorian morgue and the incredible Dr. Seuss in another. Perfect. And I’m looking into some boxing lessons to exercise and take out some aggression at the same time. I’m excited about getting back in the saddle on my fatherlyFIRE book project. Tomorrow, I’ll go to the toy show for some fun, have a couple of Chicago style hot dogs from Scooby’s Red Hots and do some research on Captain Action, a toy that will become the title of a chapter in fatherlyFIRE. Hope you’ll read it. There’s a link to the blog that will become my book at the right. Oh, and I might go ahead with a needed hip replacement before the end of the year. That ought to do it.
This bad ass is not ready to be put out to pasture.