WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT HITLER, NAPOLEON, THE REIGN OF TERROR, MAO, KIM JONG IL, THE SPANISH INQUISTION, CANCER, WORLD WAR ONE AND ALL ITS UNPLEASANTNESS, AND MILLARD FILLMORE?
I thought this was going to be an easy talk.
I was going to talk about getting leukemia.
I was going to talk about how after my diagnosis, I retired from Wieden+Kennedy after 22 years—because I didn’t want "Here lies the guy who did that ‘Bo Knows’ commercial" as my epitaph—and jumped into the art world as a self-proclaimed fake artist; or, as I like to say, I went from a career of selling things people don’t need to making things they don’t want.
I was going to talk about how it didn’t matter if I sucked as a fake artist because I had a pretty good chance of being dead before any critic’s words could hurt my feelings.
And, as I’ve done before, I was going to talk about how Hitler Saved My Life.
Yes, of course, the least nice man in history had significant help from the incredibly nice Brian Druker and Gleevec.
Yes, Hitler makes an unlikely savior and as such raises pesky ethical questions, but this was art and Der Fuehrer and a few of his cronies responsible for WWII and its unpleasantness formed the basis of my first art show, Goring’s Lunch.
It featured such pieces as the Hitlermobile, Goring’s Lunch, Himmler’s Homework, Goebbels’s Chair, Heydrich’s Skateboard, Rohm’s Roses, Stalin’s Toy and many offensive others.
Willamette Week named it one of the best shows of 2005. The Hitlermobile and Rohm’s Roses were selected for the 2006 Northwest Biennial. My son and daughter’s school asked me to "do something like my Hitler art but without Hitler to raise money for the school."
Not everyone was pleased. At the opening of Goring’s Lunch someone told my daughter Hallie, "Your dad has some serious issues." Someone else said he was going to buy the whole show so he could burn it.
And that someone else was a good friend.
The Northwest Biennial received so many complaints they ha d to hand employees "talking points" about the Hitlermobile and Rohm’s Roses. I offered to come up to Tacoma and cover both with Hello Kitty stickers.
But it was a good story. Or at least Esquire thought so. They published it in 2005.
Not everyone was pleased. Two advertisers in the issue asked for their money back.
I went on to make more shows about history’s bullies: Napoléon 1769 à 2005, Mao Home & Garden, Bad People Have to Eat Too and Marie Antoinette and Others.
I call my work absurd realism. Others called it perverse whimsy. And still others called it a "black hole sucking the life out of everything."
But a really, really smart philosophy professor said my work teaches us how to deal with monsters, be it a Hitler or a deadly disease.
Or, as my mom put it, "Son, what does all this hullabaloo about Hitler mean?"
Well Mom, as you know I grew up a 98-pound weakling.
In elementary school, Johnny Trasnosky beat me up religiously.
In junior high school, Phil Keller took over for Johnny Trasnosky.
In high school, Bob Newell replaced Phil Keller.
Somewhere between Bob Newell pummelings, I came to the conclusion, despite my best efforts and a modest weight gain, that I would always remain low on the he-man food chain.
Trouble was, I really wanted to fight back. I’d pray every night, "Dear Jesus, please help me kick Bob Newell’s ass. Amen."
It didn’t work. Maybe Bob Newell prayed harder.
"Dear Jesus, please help me kick Jim Riswold’s ass even more than I did today. Amen."
Somewhere, during Bob Newell’s answered prayers, a couple things happened. I read some authors called Ionesco, Swift and Voltaire; and, I learned some new words like satire, sarcasm, sardonic wit and hubris. And, I discovered the absurdist wit of Monty Python.
I did some funny math—I have always been funny with math—and learned something from this strange tonic of rhinoceroses, modest proposals, best of all possible worlds and very funny jokes about the very unfunny Spanish Inquisition.
I learned to laugh at the bad guy.
And, I’ll let you in on a little secret: bad guys don’t like to be laughed at; that’s part of what makes them bad guys. Bad guys take themselves so seriously.
However, we are told not to laugh at these people. Mocking them, laughing at them, satirizing them, we are told, trivializes their crimes. Obviously, I disagree. I would argue that only speaking about the Hitlers of the world in deadly serious tones actually pays the fools the reverence they so crave.
They don’t mind being called monsters, but they sure don’t like being called fools.
Voltaire said, "I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’"
Research says some good may come of doing so. Once I started mocking Bob Newell and his pugilist ways, he soon lost interest in beating me to a pulp.
Go figure. But I think he stopped his bullying because I no longer paid him the reverence of fear.
Yes, it all would have made for an interesting, if not slightly offensive, story. Fake art saved my life. It would be perfect for the Do Lectures.
Until I got cancer again.
I thought cancer was like dessert: you only got one. I thought wrong.
My second bout with cancer started innocently enough with 18-gauge needles shoved up my ass.
It would prove to be a trifle compared to—how shall I put this—the adventures me and my ass and the rest of me would experience over the next few days. Those adventures would include, but were far from limited to, two trips to the ER—one of which included a three-and-a-half-hour stay on the floor of the ER—vomiting on a beautiful woman, a lost dog, Schrödinger’s Cat, two strains of e coli, near asphyxiation, lots of blood, cribbage, Keith Richards, a four-day hospital stay with a hillbilly roommate who liked his TV loud and his belching louder, being spoon-fed oatmeal by a beautiful woman clad only in panties and six-inch heels—yes, the same one I had vomited on earlier—and the start of my second tussle with cancer.
It officially started on my fourth day in the hospital when Brian told me, "You have prostate cancer."
In case you were wondering, only 1 percent of prostate biopsy patients get an infection. But as my good friend, Melanie Myers, told me, "You’ll do anything for attention."
Others told me not worry. "My dad had prostate cancer and he still plays tennis." "Prostate cancer is low-rent cancer." I even convinced myself, "You beat leukemia; this will be a piece of Adolf ’n’ Eva’s Wedding Cake."
It was decided that the best course of treatment would be to have my prostate removed. Surgery was scheduled for February 23. It was supposed to be a relatively simple surgery involving the da Vinci robot. Four little scars, some unpleasant, but short-term, side effects such as temporary urinary incontinence and impotence (in the latter’s case, temporary meaning anywhere from three to 18 months), and me would be out of the hospital in a day.
But not before a going-away party was thrown for my prostate.
Anyway, back to the relatively simple surgery.
Things did not go according to plan.
I had, to put it mildly, surgical complications.
Like almost dying.
The night after the relatively surgery, I wake in the middle of the night in the worst pain I have ever experienced.
My abdomen is the size of a few footballs.
My blood pressure is in the low 50s over something.
My heart rate is 170 something.
They race me to the ICU.
I am bleeding internally. A lot.
Worst thing, I have to give up a hospital room so fancy it should be featured in Better Homes and Gardens.
Long gross story short: The next 12 hours of my life include IVs, transfusions, injections, PIC lines, oxygen masks, a whole lot of morphine that does nothing for the pain, hearing things like "I can't get a pulse," an overeager cleaning lady, my parents in tears, the general chaos that goes on in the ICU trying to prevent someone such as myself from lapsing into a coma and a urology student who comes into my room and decides to fiddle with my catheter.
The fiddling hurts and I not-so-politely tell the student, "I’m trying to lapse into a coma and you’re giving me a hand job?"
Anyway, after all this, they decide to send me back into surgery.
They remove nine liters of blood from my abdomen.
They save my life.
A vein had been cut.
I spend another week in the hospital feasting on Popsicles and morphine while recovering from the second surgery. My body is a collection of unsightly bruises, staples, scars, tubes, bandages, catheters and piping-hot bags of piss. A friend says I look like I swallowed a grenade.
I cheer myself up by reading about the carnage of World War One.
I learned July 1, 1916 was the first day of the Battle of the Somme. That day is the bloodiest day in Britain’s history. The British Army suffers 57,470 casualties, including 19,420 dead. Most of those casualties came in the first hour of the battle. This is what happens when old generals and old tactics send young men charging unprotected into modern weapons, such as entrenched machine guns and relentless artillery fire.
I learned 20,000,000 horses died during World War One. So did a whole bunch of cows, camels, chickens, pigs and sheep. Apparently, animals fare just as bad, if not worse, as young men against machine guns.
I learned about the disillusionment of the common soldier. On March 3, 1916, during the Battle of Verdun German Expressionist painter Franz Marc wrote, "For days I have seen nothing but the most terrible things that can be painted from a human mind." The next day he was dead.
We’ve learned to make jokes about the French Army. Here’s one: What do you call 100,000 Frenchmen with their hands up? The French Army. I learned 1,397,800 French soldiers died and 4,266,000 were wounded in World War One. There is a good reason the French are war adverse.
I learned about the Christmas Truce of 1914. German and British soldiers along the Western Front put down their weapons, climbed out of their miserable trenches, met in no man’s land and sang Christmas carols, played soccer, exchanged gifts and drank beer. A German wrote, "How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of love, managed bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time."
The next day, the British High Command said anybody doing any thing like that again would be court martialed.
I leave the hospital a mess, both physically and mentally, albeit a well-versed-about-World-War-One mess. All that cheery reading leads to images that will form the basis of my upcoming show about World War One called The War to End All Wars That Fucked Up and Didn’t End All Wars, including Im Westen Nicht Neus (That’s German for All Quiet on the Western Front), L’Quest Rien de Nouveau (That’s French for All Quiet on the Western Front), Britain 1 Germany Nil, Don’t Shoot; I’m a Cow, French Bread Artillery and Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy.
Despite World War One’s best intentions, things get worse when I wake up one morning after my piping-hot bag of piss breaks during the night and I am lying in a pool of my own urine and blood.
I lose it. This is not what I signed up for. Brian and other friends calm me down. I deal with it by having my good photographer and better friend, Ray Gordon, shoot my body in all its brokenness.
In other words, I tell cancer the bully to go fuck himself. I lose the fear of what has happened to my body. I lose my fear of the side effects of temporary, hopefully very temporary, urinary incontinence and impotence. I lose my fear of the much longer recovery coming my way because of the second surgery.
I lose my fear of cancer. Hell, let’s go for a trifecta; bring on a third!
It also gives me optimism. It gives me the hope that my story and photos will give prostate cancer the attention it lacks but deserves. Maybe it will get a baseball bat in its own, special color. Trust me, it is not a second-rate cancer. It can rob a man both mentally and physically of his sexuality just as breast cancer can a woman’s.
It gives me the justified belief that just as unbelievably upside-down extraordinary as my biopsy and surgery were, my sexual recovery will be every bit as right-side-up extraordinary. In fact, I expect nothing less than to utter "Millard Fillmore" and get an erection the size of his home state of New York.
It would only be fair.
All together with me, please.
I think it moved.