My story begins on a Friday night at Godfather's Pizza in Omaha, Nebraska. The year was 1984 and I was in 2nd grade. I loved Godfather's Pizza and was happy to be there with my family. My brother and I played Pac-Man on one of those little seated arcade box things while we waited for our pepperoni-only pizza.
The second the pizza arrived, we ran back to the table and started to eat. I got about half way through a slice when I started to feel sick. It hit me fast and I knew I was going to throw up. Throwing up was already listed as my least favorite thing in the world And my biggest fear. I panicked and tried to ignore the feelings...the acid in the throat and all those lovely things that come with nausea. I looked at my parents and, as parents, they knew what was about to happen. My dad quickly grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of the booth. We got as far as the next booth and out it came. I threw up. The two women at this particularly unfortunate booth looked at me in disgust (or so I thought at the time), and the contents of my little stomach fell all over the legs of the high chair of their baby.
My dad, thoroughly annoyed, said a quick sorry, and continued to pull me towards the front door. We passed the register and he motioned to the girl at the front to clean up my mess. Out the door we went and I threw up a little more in the bushes. My dad appeared impatient and grossed-out throughout the entire event.
I was mortified. I cried and wouldn't go back inside out of embarrassment. My mom came out and held my hand while we waited for my dad to get my brother, pay for the food, and get in the car so we could leave. I was never the same from that moment on.
Who knows why some kids are so traumatized by certain events that would be benign to another? I know if this had happened to my brother, he wouldn't even remember the story today. To me, it was pivotal. I couldn't sleep that night. I was sad and uncomfortable in my mind. I always slept with this one very soft Native American patterned blanket. My brother and I named it the Uff Blanket because the fuzz that we could easily pick off of the blanket were called "uffies". That's "uffy" if we're talking one small, singular fuzz ball. The semantics of the Uff and all its components were truly intricate and complicated, but you get the idea.
The uffies had been important to our family for a few years already. It comforted my brother to put uffies up his nose while he took naps. These small balls of blanket fuzz would casually balance at the end of his nostril while sleeping. Usually he would pick only one nostril to insert the fuzz. They are so lightweight that they would gently sway with the breeze of his inhalations and exhalations. My mom remembers he would also balance uffies on the top of his nose, and even sometimes insert them carefully in his ears.
Anyway, back to THE NIGHT. While I was trying to sleep, I was picking at the uff blanket with fervor. Nervousness became a part of my life that night. I was so upset that I ended up forming a ball a little larger than a golf ball out of the uffies. It probably took me a good four hours.
I was not cured of my discomfort the next day. In fact, I was so horrified that I did not eat in a restaurant again until I was in 11th grade. That was nine years. Every time my family decided to go to a restaurant, they would have to gently break the news to me. I remember taking deep breaths upon hearing it was a restaurant night, and immediately I would try to focus all my energy on not throwing up. Once we arrived at a restaurant, I would sit, drink water, and furiously draw on the napkins trying to get any thought of throwing up out of my head. I had panic attacks every time I would attempt to put something in my mouth in a restaurant, so I eventually gave up. And then I would refuse to glance up to even see the food on the table. The smells of the food would sicken me. No amount of concentrating on other things entirely worked to dampen the bad thoughts.
My brother figured out that me even hearing the words “throw up” or “vomit” would cause my gag reflex to kick in. So I of course heard those words a great deal. Luckily, I could eat in the cafeteria at school, but only if it was food brought from home. My main goal at the cafeteria however was to make sure I never witnessed someone else throwing up. And kids throw up a lot. So that wasn’t easy. To this day, I am unusually sensitive to anticipating when a human being is going to throw up, and I will bolt out of a place if it appears to be imminent.
Every night of my life from 2nd grade to 11th grade, I would add to the Uff Ball in bed.
I even persuaded my best friend Connie to make her own Uff ball, but I think it was out of a pure competitive spirit that I wish I did not have....it was a, 'My uff ball is bigger than your uff ball' type of thing. She gave up "uff ball making" after that one slumber party and very kindly allowed me to add her mini uff ball to mine. It is nice to think that her tiny addition is still buried deep and safe inside my little universe of fuzz.
So this just continued. My mom at some point informed me that children who do things like this (she called it “collecting lint”) were often times RETARDED. That was her word and I apologize for using it today; that word wasn’t really offensive back then, though I do remember her sort of whispering it rather than actually SAYING it. I was a sharp little kid, but for a while there, I was convinced that I really must be retarded if I did things like this, and I somehow decided I was completely ok with the notion.
And it continued. I learned at some point I was not at all retarded, but the term most used to describe me became WEIRD. My grandma and my mom are the only people besides me to have added to the Uff Ball, most of my family members are “pickers” of some sort. The first time I heard of Star Trek was when people told me my Uff Ball looked like a tribble. And it looks EXACTLY like a damn tribble.
So, I had a jerky boyfriend towards the end of high school (the only asshole boyfriend I have ever had.) He made fun of me for not eating in restaurants. I did not tell him about the Uff Ball. Finally, after enough ridicule and total lack of understanding, I ate some Chicken Crispers at a Chili's in Grapevine, Texas. What a way to end a nine-year hiatus, with some Chili's Chicken Crispers. Anyway, sometimes it really does take a jerk to make things happen. He did cure me of the fear of throwing up in public, so I guess he was good for something. I only lapsed back into my fear of restaurants a couple of times since then and now my panic attacks are of an entirely different nature.
The Uff Ball was neglected like an old stuffed animal. It was stuck in the back of my closet and there it stayed. I went to college and started making obsessive paintings. Paintings with thousands of tiny concentric circles on top of more tiny concentric circles on top of more and more and more concentric circles. My professor looked at them, looked at me and asked, "Have you ever done anything else that might be considered obsessive?" I said, "I don't think so," and then paused and slowly said, "Well I did form a ball of fuzz out of pieces of a blanket for most of my life, is that the kind of thing you mean?" He told me to bring it in so he could see it. He then told me it was beautiful. For a short moment, I thought it was art and included it in an installation I made for a group exhibition. It was in a university gallery with many exits. For 5 nights in a row I worried that someone would steal it, so the next morning I drove 2 hours to pull it from the show and take it home where it belonged.
I work on the Uff Ball when all is not right, but it stays out of my hands for the most part these days. I do, however, proudly display it front and center in my house and still consider it to be the best thing I've ever made. It feels like a kid to me. I judge people who come to my house by whether or not they notice and/or ask me about the Uff Ball. It hurts me profoundly when someone is a bit repelled by it.
The blanket is barely holding together and is marred with hundreds of holes, but it seems like its mass will be just enough to last me until the end of my days. Everything that’s happened to me has happened in these sort of parentheses surrounded by the moments I’m with the blanket and my Uff Ball. My love for these two objects is stronger than I could ever explain. This is a closeness. This is a friend. This is alienation and obsession. This is the genesis and the physical embodiment of who I would become as both a person and an artist. This is patience and Will and deep sadness. It’s also love and creation and solace. It is mania as much as it is necessity. And the Uff Ball smells incredible, of clean laundry and me and of time.