Color Blind Artist

What color is this? How about that? What color are my eyes?

Always the same reaction. People want to test you. Suddenly you’re a lab rat for them to quiz about your color perception. “I can see color.” I always tell them. Color blindness does not mean I don’t see color, it just means I can’t see the normal spectrum. It’s a difficult concept for people to wrap their minds around.

“Deuteranopia” or “Red-Green” color blindness is actually split into 2 groups, dichromats and anomalous. The dichromats are lacking the green perceiving cone altogether. In the eye there are 3 cones, red, green and blue sensitive. Each receives or is sensitive to different parts of the color spectrum. The anomalous have a “shifted” perception or weakened perception in one of the cones. This is the category into which I fall. Something like 1% of the male population has this particular deficiency. The bottom line is that I see color, but less of it. In my world there are something like 50,000 different shades of color whereas in most people’s there are up to a million. This causes trouble in distinguishing certain colors that others can see quite easily.

No one ever noticed or told me I was color blind until after High School. I don’t know how it was overlooked, but perhaps growing up in a family of 7 kids made it easier to “miss” the details of what was going on with any particular one of us. I happened to be number 6 out of 7 and smack in the middle of a group of 4 boys born a year apart. We were “Irish Quadruplets” as they used to call them. Children born about as close together as humanly possible from the same mother. 2 of my brothers are 11 months apart. We were viewed as a single unit known as “the boys.” As it turned out, I was not only color-blind but very regular blind too. It was discovered that I needed corrective lenses in the 3rd grade. I realized later why I could never hit anything when I went hunting squab with my siblings. Not only could I not see the birds, even if I could have seen them they probably would have blended into the foliage.

So what better career for me than becoming a professional Artist? Nothing could have been a more challenging career choice than the single one in which I was handicapped. I’d decided this when I was about 5 years old. I found if I stayed inside and did artwork, that was a viable excuse for not running with the pack. It gave me an excuse to be “apart” and not do all the things my brothers seemed to love far more than I. Wrestling, fighting, hunting and generally being boys was easily avoided and sanctioned by my mother if I were being “creative.” I loved the time apart or talking to my Mother about Art, life, feelings. Drawing initially brought me joy and peace.  As I developed as an artist it brought me an identity and self esteem. It was a good excuse for being “different.” I knew I would be an Artist when I grew up.

It was about the same time or even a bit earlier that I had realized I didn’t feel like a boy. Something didn’t match in how I felt. Initially I began trying on my mother’s things but ran into quite a bit of ridicule and harassment from my brothers for it. After a few humiliating moments I learned to hide it. From the age of about 4 or 5 until I was 18 I didn’t tell a soul. I even had a name for my female self. At around age six I began to self identify as “Jennifer,” not Jerry.  I would imagine magically waking up one day as a girl rather than a boy. I prayed to my Catholic God for deliverance while at the same time fearing his judgement. As an altar boy in a large Irish Catholic family I knew our God was watching for any misbehavior. I felt with some certainty that cross-dressing as I occasionally did would land my soul in purgatory. I did my best to not feel as I felt. I became a very good mimic. I learned through trial and error what was “acceptable” boy behavior and what was not. My life became very complicated requiring constant vigilance. I snuck my Mom’s clothes into my room and back while my family watched the Wonderful World of Disney. They watched Pluto, Donald and Mickey cavort on the television while I sorted out how to put on on bras, girdles and nylons.

I ignored the clues that I was color blind whenever possible. There had been signs, but I guess I just didn’t realize or didn’t want to know what they meant. Denial was a close friend of the family so this was not much of a stretch. “Why are you wearing 2 different color socks?” My siblings or schoolmates would ask. ” I like them that way.” I’d answer. Later, when I began playing with make-up it was “why are your lips pink?” I had wiped the lipstick off or so I thought. The leftover color invisible to me but not to my color aware siblings. I learned to scrub my lips more thoroughly afterwards. In Driver’s Ed I thought the “green” light looked white and wondered why they didn’t make it a brighter more vibrant shade. Sunsets had no pink but tones of peach instead. I was never able to see the green flash at sunset that the others pointed to when the sun dipped below the horizon. Maybe I didn’t want to know because I WAS going to be an Artist no matter what AND a woman. This square peg WAS going to fit in that round hole.

In Art school fortunately my school was more focused on concept than fundamentals. In the 80’s the cutting edge of Art was “performance”. I was busy getting naked and writhing in tire treads rather than studying color theory. I  coincidentally had a friend in college who was involved in color vision research and he tested me as part of his Master’s research. He was particularly interested in me because I was “anomalous” rather than a “dichromat.” Dichromats essentially have the same color vision as a ground squirrel. That is to say they only see about 256 colors. 8% of the male population are color-blind but only 1% are anomalous. In addition I had 2 other siblings that were anomalous too. We were a very interesting study in the inherited trait of color-deficiency. I visited him off and on for months joining his collection of squirrels, mice and even monkeys they were using for color research. I was paid $5.00 an hour for my contributions. That was better then I made waiting tables at the time and easier than nude modeling.  After the tests were done there was no doubt I was color-deficient, but continued to believe I would somehow make a career of Art. I had already done 3 years of Art School by then and didn’t have the time or finances to shift gears and choose another major. Since my major had been declared I would have had to reapply for admission all over again. My drawing skills were among the top of my class and I hoped that would carry me into a paying job somehow. It had to.

I found animation and started in the Graduate Animation program at UCLA. Character Animators drew in pencil. Color was not critical because it was all about motion. If I could draw a character over and over again and make it move, that’s all I needed. Animation positions proved to be highly competitive and it took me years to get a job in the field. In the mean-time I had to survive with the positions I could find. I had taken side jobs and done internships as a graphic designer for an Ad Agency but that direction had been a wake-up call. Selecting colors out of a Pantone book and creating harmonious colored designs was incredibly challenging. I spent many a extra hours stressing over colors I couldn’t even see. Imagine doing a press check on a printed piece trying to advise a printer wether the print is too cyan or too magenta when you can’t see what’s actually going on? Ad Designers argued over exactly which shade of mauve or turquoise went together best. It was pure hell for me. I knew I couldn’t fool them very long. What was I going to do? Fortunately a fellow waiter had a screen print business and he really liked the freelance work I’d been doing for him. He offered me a full-time a job as a screen-print designer and I left 10 years in the service industry behind. I was sick of serving people food and was thrilled to be getting paid to create. Screen printing was technical and required an understanding of color, but it was nowhere near as obsessive about color as advertising had been. I still often had to approve colors that I couldn’t really distinguish but I learned to look for other clues that I could see. Color value, lightness, saturation levels etc. I worked with the color-vision I had and also took subtle cues from the printer or client. I began to realize I was heading down a problematic path. How secure could I feel when I knew that I had a serious handicap in my chosen field. I knew better than to mention it to anyone. I had learned early that when you told someone about a weakness they would use it against you. I felt that if I shared my secret with anyone I would be fired and never be able to work as an Artist again. No one could recommend a color-blind print designer. But no one found out. To be sure there were some very anxious moments trying to explain a weird color choice or why I missed a color match.  After all, I was the master of keeping secrets. My transgender issue had been buried early and I had learned to camouflage it well. Instead of being the feminine boy I had started as, I had transformed along the way into a tough athletic adult. I was tall, strong and quite hairy. I even grew a full beard for a while. I knew how to keep a vulnerability hidden. All seemed okay or at least I had done a good job of fooling myself it was. I was extremely lonely but I had a job and was going to school. My life was ostensibly “heading somewhere.”

Cracks began to show more and more. I had moved into my van to be alone. I feared others getting too close. I thought if anyone “knew” who I really was I would be ostracized, ridiculed and shamed. I began to feel terrible. The isolation of living in my van only accentuated my feelings of being “strange.” “Normal” people who lived in homes would often look at me with thinly veiled distaste. No one wants a man living in his van outside their house! Who could blame them? I had a Dark blue 1967 Chevy van with white spoke rims. I would have been hard-pressed to find a creepier looking car. I rolled up and people hurried their children in the house. My female peers scurried past when I parked near school. I would even hear them say things like “Ewwwww… can you imagine going out in THAT car?” I searched for a place where I could avoid this judgement. I began to park near a large military cemetery on Veteran Blvd. I figured the dead wouldn’t judge me. We became silent neighbors. I spent days off work drawing and painting inside my van or in a chair on the sidewalk adjacent to  forest of white grave stones while my 20 something peers partied and drove around in their  “beemers” or convertible white Volkswagen cabriolets bopping to the “Go-Gos.” I was circling the drain. I began to think it wouldn’t matter to anyone if I existed at all.  began to believe my place was among the dead.

Then she arrived. Someone who just “liked” me. A cheerful ray of sunshine peeking into my dark corner. Even her name sounded fun. I dodged her at first as I had so many women before. I let no one close but she wouldn’t see the flashing warning signs. The neon sign over me said “troubled” but she thought it said, “interesting.” She began to leave me little treats in the wheel-well of my car with a note on my window showing where to find it. Her persistence was irresistible. When my van broke down and I needed a place to stay over night, she offered her couch. When she came out of her room wearing a see-through nightgown to say goodnight my resistance buckled. I moved from the couch to her bed and never left. Her sunshine lifted me out of my darkness. It’s warmth melted my fear.  I thought maybe I can be what she needed. Maybe I could let go of my strange past and embrace the simple joy I had found. We frolicked, made love and played in the sun. We went to movies on bicycles, traveled to Alaska camping all the way. I learned to embrace the wonder and joy of life. We were like 2 large golden retrievers bounding from one adventure to the next. Her wild reckless abandon a refreshing break from my careful lonely introspection.

I gave her what I thought she wanted, but I was still struggling. I feared sharing my weaknesses. A childhood of having my hands held to the fire had taught me well. Trust no one… but I wanted and needed to reveal my true self. I proposed and we married. I felt happy and more secure than I had in years. Slowly I began occasionally “borrowing” her clothes. I felt guilty for it but couldn’t resist the way I felt when cross dressed. It somehow made me feel whole. Over the next few months I borrowed her things more and more often. Then I began to purchase a few things of my own hiding them carefully. As my female self blossomed I began to imagine she might actually embrace the “whole” me. Maybe she would understand how much i wanted to be a woman. I even hoped maybe I was just the kind of partner she actually wanted. Perhaps we could work something out? She was my best friend my play companion and lover. How could she not get it? Finally I left some of my women’s clothes and a wig in a dresser drawer for her to find. I was too afraid to come out more directly. I felt badly for being such a coward, but my shame was very powerful and I would literally shake with fear at the thought of telling anyone. My survival skills were well honed.

“Whose are these?” she asked holding up the collection of lingerie and feminine things. “Mine.” I said like the 4 year old who had been caught many years before. “Yours?” she said incredulously. “What do you mean?” “You WEAR these?” she asked her eyes widening and jaw dropping open. “Yeah.” I said timidly sensing it wasn’t going well. “You wear women’s clothes??” She said now beginning to cry. “Um… Yeah.” I said now even more quietly.”No!” she said her voice rising. “No!” You would have thought I had told her I was a zombie who ate children. “Sorry.” I apologized. “I’m a cross-dresser.” This during a time when cross-dressers were freaks you might see on a talk show or possibly along some seedy street in San Francisco or New York. Lou Reed sang about them. Andy Warhol put them in his weird movies and hung out with them at degenerate Artist parties. Decent “normal” men didn’t wear women’s clothes. “Why?” she asked now in full hysterics sitting down on our bed near the dresser where my offending clothes had been discovered. “I don’t really know.” I said now shaking my face burning with humiliation and embarrassment. “I’ve always wanted to be a girl, I guess.” Her eyes managed to get even wider as her mouth deformed into a silent scream. Her hand went over her mouth. She fell down on the bed crying. “No, no, no…!” I sat next to her on the bed not sure what to do. Touch her or should I not now that I had been revealed to be a monster? I felt horrible. I wanted to take it all back. “Rewind.” I thought. “Undo.” Thinking the computer command, but I couldn’t of course. My “big” secret was out. I put a hand on her back as she sobbed into the bed. I sat there apologizing. “I’m sorry.” “So sorry honey.” I knew I was a freak and here it had been confirmed once again. I had let her down. Her life was ruined because I wore bras and heels.

We went into counseling and agreed I would try and “control” my need to feel feminine. As long as my wife didn’t ever see my alter ego, it was “out of sight, out of mind.” A few months later as things settled into an uncomfortable peace she broached the subject of wanting children. ” I’m not sure I’d make a good father”  was my reply.  Frankly, I didn’t think someone who wanted to be a woman would make the best father material. She began to cry and after a few days of back and forth discussion I finally conceded. “At least one of us can live their dream.” I said reluctantly. She promised my needs would be addressed sometime after the children were born.

My son came first, my wife getting pregnant a few months after our discussion. At 10 lbs. 13 oz., he came into the world a large, healthy baby. My life and my priorities instantly changed forever. Witnessing his birth and that of my daughter later were the two most profound events of my life. When my son was born I immediately knew I was in love. We stayed in our small 1 bedroom apartment for the first 3 years of his life but I knew I needed to provide more. Santa Monica was no place in my mind to bring up a child. Fortunately and somewhat miraculously I landed a job in nearby Santa Barbara doing skateboard graphics. It was 90 miles North but a world away in lifestyle. It a was small, affluent coastal town with lots of open space, but we did one better. We found the Santa Ynez Valley and moved into a 3 bedroom house with a big yard and fruit trees in the tiny town of Buellton. Our culture shock could not have been more extreme.

Buellton had a population of less than 3,000 and the population was predominantly white and middle class. It’s nearby neighbor, Solvang a well-known kitschy Danish village down the road and slightly more affluent. We went from Santa Monica’s Latino dominated graffiti covered urban parks to Hans Christian Andersen Playground with ducks and turtles swimming in the pond. My Hollywood transgender friends and Artists help us make the big move from 28th street to “Thumbelina Lane.” We arrived in a Semi truck provided by the skateboard company driven by a tatted up Harley biker. The Semi-trailer sported the image of a giant skull ripping through it’s side. The tall vehicle tore at the liquid amber trees lining the street as we pulled up. My new neighbor and coincidentally town Mayor walked up to my Transgender friend and introduced himself. “You must be Mrs. Mahoney” he said greeting her. “No” she replied in a deep male voice pointing to my wife across the drive way.  “She’s over there.” We were the extremely odd new neighbors who had indeed arrived from another world.

My new job entailed creating graphics for skateboards, t-shirts, stickers, embroidery etc. Everything a Skateboard Company and it’s team of pro-skateboarders need to create their image and brand. I hit the ground running. My little family had now let go of all ties in Santa Monica to move to the idyllic little hamlet and I did not want to let them down. I saw my young son making new friends in the beautiful bucolic rural surroundings. My soul rejoiced and I was deeply thankful to the universe for providing this escape from the rough future Santa Monica had promised.  At the same time I feared losing my new position. Not only was the job demanding everything of me creatively it involved some very technical color adjustments for different printed materials. Screen printing on wood was different than screen printing on cotton or vinyl sticker material.  Embroidered items required colored thread to be specified while some decks were done by infusing the wood with dye in a 4 color-process sublimation method. Some things were done in house and some at outside printers. Each item had to be designed, color separated, print colors specified and print order given for each different process. Sometimes I would stare at color swatches willing my eyes to see the varying shades they could not. I attempted to keep all printing and design within my color spectrum or “gamut.” I struggled and stressed every day for 9 hours a day 5 days a week while at home my son and wife were strolling the green hills and tree lined streets of the pretty little town with new friends and my newly born daughter.

Miraculously the job went on for 5 years before something snapped. During that time I had not only proved myself capable of the job but ironically became the color “expert.” My handicap had caused me to become so paranoid and meticulous that when I encountered colors that I couldn’t see on the computer I learned to identify them by numeric values. My attention to these values allowed me to nail colors more accurately in 4 color-process printing. I had found a laborious work-around but continued feeling vulnerable and insecure.

In the mean time I had let go of all my Transgender friends and support back in LA. My wife didn’t like it and I had my hands full anyway raising small children. I was a doting and devoted nurturing parent and adored my children. I spent all my time when I wasn’t working with them until they went to bed each day. My female life only existed in the hours after my wife and kids had gone to sleep. I still had a collection of clothes and a spare room to keep them and dress. I had grown quite a bit of body hair during my 30’s while the hair on my head had begun to recede. Looking in the mirror the concept of becoming female seemed as distant as it could possibly be. I was a large hairy, balding color blind man who wanted to be a smooth elegant female color capable Artist. I couldn’t have selected a less likely dream had I tried. I was doing my best but my wife could tell I wasn’t happy. As it turned out she wasn’t either.

I found out about the affair the day after Father’s Day. I’d noticed my wife was looking quite a bit more polished recently. She’d gone a few shades lighter with her hair, lost some weight and was dressing nicer. Our kids were 2 and 5 so I assumed she was just feeling better because she had more time. She dropped the bomb by abruptly saying she was “leaving me.” I asked if there was someone else, but she assured me there wasn’t. I couldn’t understand it. I had been so preoccupied with the kids and work I hadn’t noticed how little time we’d been spending together or how distant we’d become. I had left my secure job just recently to start an animation business with another artist. We’d landed a music video right out of the gate and had been busy up to 18 hours a day in production. After she gave me the shocking news she quickly left for a seminar one of her wealthy clients was giving at a local University. As the kids had gotten older she’s begun to work again as a masseuse and fitness trainer. It was great to have some help supporting the family since my new business’s income was going to be hit or miss.

Something didn’t sit right with me the way she’d been so flippant about leaving. As I sat at home I began to reflect on things that I had been feeling but not acknowledging. There had been something eating at me for months but I had just buried it as I had learned so well to do. My life of not acknowledging my needs had enabled me to ignore or disregard my emotions to the point that I hardly knew what I felt or who I was. My body hadn’t forgotten though. I was showing signs of auto immune problems from the stress. My skin was breaking out in purple blotchy Psoriasis and my hair was coming out in clumps. My body ached and I was constantly exhausted. I was 35 years old but felt 70. As I pondered my wife’s actions I recalled how she’d been keeping a diary in the last year or so. I realized that only people with secrets or unexpressed feelings keep diaries. I decided to look for it and went into our room to search for a likely hiding place. My eyes went to her dresser. I don’t know why, but I just knew it was there. I opened the 3rd drawer down in the 5 drawer piece. The diary lay there as if she meant for me to find it. Perhaps this was some kind of cosmic payback for when I left the clothes in my dresser a few years earlier.

The diary was a history of her affair with one of her wealthy clients. He was a famous author who lived in a huge mansion on a large property in the nicest part of Santa Barbara. My wife had first been hired as a masseuse for the man’s wife and then for them both. The job had expanded into massage and fitness training for them both but the wife had slowly quit while the author had continued. About a month before my wife’s announcement she had become a full-time employee of the author’s book franchise, collecting a paycheck and benefits like any other employee. Her job was ostensibly to provide fitness instruction and massage to the other eight or nine employees as well as the author himself. What the diary revealed was that the job was a front for their affair. The author and my wife had been having appointments for sex rather than exercise or massage. Liasons had occurred all around me for the last year sometimes even while I was in the room next door with my children. There was nothing held back, not even her hatred and disgust for me and my “perversion” of cross-dressing. “I wish he were dead.” she wrote.

I saw red. Something snapped inside me and all I could see was violence towards the man who I felt had broken my little family. I dropped the diary on the bed and walked out of the house and got in my car. I hardly remember the drive to the campus and only fragments of the walk from the parking lot to the seminar. My wife ran up to me grabbing me by the arm. “What are you doing here?” she screamed. “Your storm has arrived.” I told her. I shook her off and kept walking now pushing through a crowd saying “Where is he?” “Where’s the SOB author?” People grabbed at me and attempted to stop me but I pushed them harshly away. I kept moving forward as the crowd gathered and more and more hands tried to stop me. Suddenly the author was in front of me. He was the picture of success. White hair with a few grays at the temples. He was  in his mid 50’s about 6 feet and probably 30 lbs. overweight. I knew him from dinner parties and little soirees he had invited us to. My children even played with his son occasionally but now I saw him as an adversary and a villain instead of a friendly benefactor. He was walking towards me with a concerned look.

A few minutes later I was handcuffed in the back of a campus police car. I had apparently chased the author around the area after taking a swing and only landing a glancing blow. I had finally been corralled and cuffed by a few Campus Cops who had been called to the scene after I had arrived looking deranged and calling for the author’s head. I sat feeling ashamed, broken and defeated. My life seemed in ruins. My wife had left me for a wealthy man and my family was permanently broken. I had no idea what the legal ramifications would be, but knew it couldn’t be good. Very likely I would be transferred to the regular police and booked. It all seemed to have been like a set of dominoes that had begun falling the day I met my wife. An irreversible series of events driven by my inability to just own my differences or follow my path without fear. I had known this day of reckoning would arrive and it had. Retribution and ruin, not for what I couldn’t see, but for what I hadn’t allowed others to.

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