Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Working A 100th Birthday Party for an Amazing Lady

I don't normally blog about individual events I've worked. But this one was a first-ever for me. I've drawn at countless sweet 16 parties, quite a handful of parties for people turning 40, 50, or 60 . . . but this past week I worked my very first birthday event for a newly minted centenarian. And I wasn't sure what to expect. By the time a person gets that up in years, odds are that they aren't as spry as they used to be. I even assumed I probably wouldn't get a chance at drawing the guest of honor. For many seniors, the eyesight fails, energy is in short supply, and the enthusiasm for getting a silly picture drawn fades away. At the parties I have attended for very elderly people, the birthday boy or girl has stayed put, let the youngsters mingle at what ends up more a family reunion than a birthday celebration, and contained their "partying" to a scoop of ice cream, eaten very slowly.

But Lilyan did not fit that mold, not by a long shot. She soaked up the sun and nice weather for a while outside and then came indoors, where I had been busily drawing her extended family. Many had flown in from New York or Los Angeles, and one couple had come from Washington D.C. for just the one day! Finally Lilyan herself sat for me and was a very pleasant, expert model. I was a little intimidated as I looked at someone who'd been born in 1914, who had seen so many things and meant so much to so many people--now I had to represent her with a few lines on paper? Erk! She smiled graciously and giggled when she saw it, remarking that I even got her leopard-print shirt. I asked if I could take a picture of her with her caricature, and, turning around, I saw nearly a dozen cameras raised, doing just that. This lady is loved.

After I'd drawn a few more of the cousins and aunts, the professional photographer there had a neat idea and herded everyone outside for a "family caricature photo." Someone kindly texted me their phone version of that scene--what a lot of great faces!

This party was unusual in more ways than one, though. People in the party caricature business (just like the average caterer or photo-booth operator) often have to sit through a lot of "typical" parties with dance lighting, speakers blaring the latest hits by Miley Cyrus or the Black-Eyed Peas, a party food buffet, and semi-drunk guests doing the Cha-Cha-Slide. Some crowds at these events don't seem like they're having a good time so much as they are conforming to a predetermined mold of what they think having a good time looks like. Dancing to the same pop music, wearing the same party clothes, telling the caricature artist "Hey, SHE doesn't have a moustache!" Parties like that are not my favorite type of working environment.

Lilyan's 100th was, thankfully, a really refreshing change from that kind of thing.

There was a piano in the front room where most of the party guests gathered (and where I was set up). Instead of booking a party DJ, the family had hired a pianist, who entertained us with his repertoire of elegant songs (including half my favorites from Phantom and Les Mis) while people chatted and ate crepes made by a private chef. Someone told me that the piano was, in fact, owned by Lilyan herself. She had played all her life. Sure enough, before too long, Lilyan's children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren nudged her into taking a seat in front of the ivories. And she was stunning! She expertly ran through a classical piece (I regret, my knowledge of composers and song titles is lacking, I do not know which tune she played, but it was complicated and she played it beautifully). Her family applauded and several shouted "Encore! Encore!" . . . to which she quickly hammered out a whimsical bit of the William Tell Overture and then took her leave of the bench.

This job sometimes lets me into the very important, very touching moments in people's lives. I am not a sappy person by nature, but I'd have to be made of rock to not be moved by some of the things I've witnessed at really special events. Sure, I don't know the folks there personally, I'm not in the family, but if you draw a bunch of people for a couple hours, you get a feel for them. I have felt way more invested in the emotional goings-on at some events than I have been with the 2-dimensional personalities on reality shows. I was able to work one graduation party because I'd had my flu shot; the graduate's immune system had been compromised by cancer treatments, but he was finally feeling well enough for a party! At a 50th wedding anniversary once, the 80-year-old bride snuck off and came back wearing her original wedding dress. Now, at this party, I was getting choked up watching a well-loved matriarch dance her fingers across the piano keys, a skill she probably first learned when Hoover was in office.

After she played, one of Lilyan's grandsons gave a short speech about the odds of reaching 100 years old (in the U.S., the centenarians number around 1.73 in 10,000) and told everyone to be ready for Lilyan's 110th birthday, since once a person reaches 100, the odds of them reaching "super-centenarian" status are only 1 in 1,000--and she's already overcome odds larger than that! He asked the birthday girl to reveal what the secret to living to 100 was, and she replied "No!  If I tell you then EVERYONE will live to 100."

I looked up some of that data. According to a 2011 report by the UK's department of work and pensions, for women born in 1914, the odds of reaching 100 were just 1.2% (far better than men, who were calculated to have a .3% chance). But with rising life expectancies and better medical technology, those numbers went up and up as the years went on.  for an "average" woman my age (I was born in 1973), the chances or reaching 100 were predicted as a remarkable 20%! That surprised me. I sure hope that, if I make it that far, I end up like Lilyan. Rather than taking over for a song or two at the piano, maybe I could take over from the party artist and draw a caricature or two!  (NOTE TO MY GRANDKIDS WHO ARE READING THIS IN 2073: BE SURE TO HIRE A CARICATURE ARTIST FOR MY PARTY . . . BUT NOT ONE THAT'S WAY BETTER THAN ME, BECAUSE I DON'T WANT THEM SHOWING ME UP.)

They say you can keep any skill that you do on a very regular basis. And I have always assumed I would draw caricatures or the rest of my life, in some way or another. (Colleagues of mine have joked that the retirement plan for caricature artists is "dying in the chair.") But seeing a very capable 100-year-old piano player really made me wonder how such skills take root, how they can stay in the brain for so long . . . then I realized I was approaching the question from the wrong angle. Playing the piano, or any instrument, wasn't just a benefit of a fit mind, it was a means to achieving a fit mind.

The Obligatory Little Bit of Science Googling

A quick search at PubMed yields plenty of papers (or at least abstracts--I am blocked by paywalls and don't have the time to read 50 pages of data anyway) that argue the merits of musical training for the brain. From one such paper, published in peer-reviewed journal Neuroscientist by Catherine Wan and Gottfried Schlaug: "Playing an instrument, for example, requires a host of skills, including reading a complex symbolic system (musical notation) and translating it into sequential, bimanual motor activity dependent on multi-sensory feedback; developing fine motor skills coupled with metric precision; memorizing long musical passages; and improvising within given musical parameters. Indeed, research over the past 2 decades has demonstrated that intense musical training can result in plastic changes in the developing brain as well as the adult brain."

In other words, playing the piano might help you keep your brain working. But read that description again: fine motor skills, improvising within given parameters, reading a complex symbolic system and translating it into activity . . . doesn't that sound like what a caricature artist (or any artist) does? This of course made me wonder how my job, as a quick-sketch artist, might benefit my brain's plasticity. My initial searches have not yet turned up any real data on that particular question, but that doesn't mean some team of researchers hasn't tackled it. That only means I need to spend more time wading through the links about art therapies for brain disorders and how artists' insights have led to neurological discoveries. Those things are interesting too, mind you, but there are only so many hours in a day. Let's hope my job really does improve my brain fitness, so that I can eventually write about every topic I'd like to investigate. 

Until next week, my friends!

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