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It's a Friday night, more than thirty-five years ago, and I'm sitting on the green cracked vinyl sofa in our basement, anxiously waiting for a beam of light to shine through the windows and onto the wall above our old TV. My twelve-year-old body is exhausted from five straight days of learning, chasing young love, and hours upon hours of swim team practice, but I don't dare fall asleep. Tonight is the night I've waited for all week.
It seems like forever, then at last! The headlights of Dad's car herald his arrival home.
My mom and sister have gone to bed, and finally I hear my father's heavy footsteps coming down the basement stairs. We share our tired smiles as he takes up his position on the maroon shag carpeting and our midnight 'Creature Feature' begins. It's here in this room, with Godzilla on the tube, that the two most influential characters in my life lie spread out before me. The first is my superhero as well as the most brilliant man I will ever know. He's gotten comfortable after a long day, whittled down to his boxer shorts, a rumpled dress shirt, and loosened tie. With a cigarette in one hand, a pen in the other, he's drawing the second character: a short, little bald guy with a big nose—Ziggy.
It doesn't matter that the movie completely sucks or that my dad and I are so physically beat we'll never see the end of the show. No, those things don't matter. What does is that this is our time, and we both know how much it means to each other without ever having to say so.
I fight the urge to sleep while the great man in his underwear works long into the night, drawing beneath the television's projection of one classic character as he continues to create another. Ultimately, as Godzilla wreaks chaos on Tokyo, my tired eyes fix upon the steady stream of smoke from Dad's burning Kool menthol gracefully meandering up, up, and away, taking my consciousness along with it.
As I fall asleep, I don't think about the funny little character he draws by night. I haven't yet experienced the pressures of syndication deadlines, and I don't know that Ziggy has only recently entered the world in eighteen newspapers and is struggling to survive. All I know is that these brief, special times Dad and I spend together make everything else that's taking place in our respective worlds stop, so that he might share this part of his life with me.
We often shared another ritual, one memory that I treasure to this day. Many weekends, Dad and I would go to breakfast at our local Big Boy restaurant. It was here, again, that Ziggy always joined us. We both knew the routine. As soon as the server brought Dad his first cup of coffee and he lit his first cigarette, we turned over our placemats to play our SAVE ZIGGY! game.
At the time I never imagined it would ultimately become an example of art imitating life.
This game of ours always began the same. Dad would draw a picture of Ziggy happily strolling along, unaware of some horrible misfortune about to befall him. Ziggy might be zooming off a cliff, walking unknowingly into an open manhole, or oblivious to a meteor plummeting head-on his way. After Ziggy had been drawn into one of these dire circumstances, Dad would flip the placemat around, hand me his pen, and say, 'Tommy, it's time for you to SAVE ZIGGY!'
The game had only two rules: I could not use my first idea, and I could not use any obvious solution. Consequently, I would always come to Ziggy's rescue by drawing upon some of the most elaborately creative strategies a twelve-year-old boy could imagine. I had no idea that what seemed like just a game to me was actually my father's contrived training exercise in creative problem solving.
I recall one specific occasion when Dad and I were at our favorite Big Boy restaurant, playing our game of SAVE ZIGGY! On this particular morning, instead of coming up with some creative solution to rescue Ziggy, I attempted to draw a perfect Ziggy to impress my dad. When I proudly turned the placemat around to show him, he blew out the smoke of his cigarette between him and the drawing, shook his head, and said, 'You're pootzelling too much, Tom!'
At first I feared this might become some segue into a good old father-son talk referring to all the time I'd been spending lately in the shower, but much to my relief, he instead told me a story about his days in art school as a student.
Dad had an old Russian art teacher he really admired. One time in drawing class his instructor walked around behind the students, looking over their shoulders, watching them work. When he came to Dad, he walked right past him with hardly a glance. Although Dad was never arrogant about his abilities, he did believe himself to be a much better artist than the person next to him, who was getting all of the teacher's attention. Now this amply bothered Dad so that he worked and reworked his own drawing, trying to emulate the style of his teacher, hoping to gain his attention and approval.
The teacher finally came to Dad's easel. As my father looked up expectantly, the teacher ripped Dad's drawing from his pad, threw it to the floor, and yelled, 'Stop pootzelling, Vilson!'
To which Dad replied, 'Huh?'
In his thick Russian accent, the teacher told him, 'Is not vat you draw, Vilson. Is not how vell you draw. Is vhere you draw from that makes difference.'
Dad went on to tell me that the teacher defined 'pootzelling' as trying too hard to create something into what it really is not, and in so doing, sacrificing that something's originality, its true character. Dad said that people can 'pootzel' in life as well as in art.
I might've only been a kid, but I got the point.
When the server finally arrived with my usual plate of chocolate chip pancakes, instead of picking up the placemat as I always did to preserve our sketches, I left it on the table so that the plate would cover what no longer held any pride for me but something I was instead ashamed to have drawn.
The lesson that my father served up, and that Ziggy has always personified, has been an important guidepost for me over the years: it's okay to be imperfect as long as we honor our true character instead of trying to live up to some preconceived image or perceived expectation of being someone other than who we really are. That's far easier said than done, yet my father lived it by example, personally and professionally, and Ziggy has reinforced this truth since he was brought to life many decades ago.
Dad believed that anything we can imagine creating, we are capable of achieving, as long as it's conceived in an inspired moment and carried by our passion within. In addition to creating one of the world's most successful and beloved cartoon characters, Dad was one of the earliest and most innovative pioneers in the industry of modern character licensing. Through his association with American Greetings Corporation, he founded Those Characters From Cleveland, the character licensing company responsible for creating, developing, and licensing such well-known properties as Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears, and many others.
Even so, the greatness of the man in my mind comes not only from his spectacular accomplishments, but also because he embraced life with a rare zest for living and gave the best of himself to the world—and his family.
©2009. Tom Wilson. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Zig-zagging. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442