Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Be Positive, Sarah Jessica!

As I was sulking in my hot tent during the worst art show ever last weekend, I tried to think positively for once instead of crying and/or complaining. I didn't cry, but it was impossible not to complain.

Custer's Last Stand in Evanston, IL might have been an actual art show at one time, but apparently it is officially a flea market now.  I was across from a jewelry stand (big surprise) where EVERYTHING was $5, even the fancy plastic insect keychains. The jewelry drunks were actual drunks this time because it was a street fair, which means beer is fair game at 10 am.  I had another jeweler next to me whose $20 earrings were pretty steep compared to the five buck table, so I felt sorry for her.

The whole sweaty, hot show was more about beer, food and weird music than about art of any kind.  At one point, a native American group about ten feet away from me was pounding the living shit out of their drums while yodel-hollering at the top of their lungs.  I don't mean to be disrespectful, I'm all for cultural experiences.  But it was mind-numbingly loud and repetitive.  I could barely converse with any of the four serious potential customers who entered my booth all day.  Plus, the native American fellows kept demanding that the onlookers dance with them.  "DANCE!  IT'S AN EASY DANCE!  YOU CAN DO IT!!"  All white people deserve to pay for what happened to the people who lived here first.  Apparently it was my turn to take one for the team.

As the crapfest nature of the show began to dawn on us, several shell-shocked artists wandered around quizzing each other in a panic.  "Have you done this show before?  Is it always this bad? Good Lord, this is HORRENDOUS."  We were all first time dumb-dumbs.

Now's about the time that I feel power-sorry for myself and begin dramatically announcing to my husband Joe and my mom that I need a real job while probably crying.  This hasn't been working very well and they don't seem to enjoy it, so I decided to give myself a break.  I was not going to get worked up about it.  It wasn't my fault.  I'd chosen this show because another artist recommended it.  She stopped at my booth briefly to bitch about her spot and to share that she was never doing this show again, which made me really want to push her.  One of those playground girl-pushes where the other girl sits down hard and bites her tongue while I run away.

Instead, I worked hard on my drawing, tried to yell-chat over the tribal music in a non-frightening way with the occasional visitor.  Plus, I stayed very busy fending off weird old guys.

Weird old guy number one was a neighboring artist.  He was the most harmless one of the bunch, and the most freaked out.  He'd traveled pretty far to attend this popsicle stand of a show and kept drifting into my booth, smoking and worry-staring at me.  He was sort of a bug-eyed guy and maybe couldn't help looking weird, but I'd had about enough of, "Hey, how's it going?  Anytime the shoppers want to show up, it's fine with me, heh heh. How are things???"  I eventually yelled at him a little and he left me alone.

Weird old guy number two made plates out of melted pop cans with Jesus and whatnot on them.  He was very proud of his plates and kept coming in my booth to announce that if he doesn't do $4000 in a show it's not worth it.  WHO in the hell is buying $4K of Jesus plates?  I'm rather proud of some of my stuff, but I've never, ever sold that much in one show.  Jesus plate guy had a rather unusual face.  That wasn't holding him back from chatting me up and telling me I look like Sarah Jessica Parker. 

Homely or sexy?  Weird old guy #2 says... both.

Yeah, I know.  When I bartended, I got it all the time.  We both have long faces, big chins and long noses. A lovely combination. I'd rather resemble her from the neck down than the neck up, but c'est la vie.  I tried to make a joke about having her horse face and weird guy #2 agreed, "Yeah, she is kind of homely.  But there's something about her that guys find pretty sexy."  Um, ew and EW.  Stop calling me homely while hitting on me.  You and your pop can plates can shut up.  Later, he told me that he was going to have the Native Americans dedicate a song to me.  That's pretty funny, I'll give him that one.  I considered having the $5 jewelry guys protect me, but luckily, Jesus Plates packed up and left early on Sunday.  This required him to cart his crap the equivalent of three city blocks UP A HILL to his car.  The show was that bad.

The weirdest and oldest guy (somewhere in his 80's, I'd guess) at first seemed harmless with his straw hat, bowtie and fluffy foo-foo dog in his arms.  He had nothing to do other than hang around and decide whether to unload his lifetime supply of crazy on me.  I heard about his dog's breast cancer and the girl who he'd like me to draw but can't because they are from another time.  This time around, she's too young and being programmed to stay away from him.  He was the strangest combination of flirty and gay I've ever seen.  I think he may have been as confused inside as I felt listening to him.  He kept leering at me while spinning his crazy story web and listing all the astrological signs he was most compatible with.  I thought he would never, ever, ever leave.

The grand finale was waiting in my car for 45 minutes while bored volunteers weakly begged the throngs of drunk people to clear out of the art area of the street fair so we could drive our cars in.  I had taken a cue from Jesus Plates and tore down my stuff early.  I happened to be standing right near the exit pass chick when she got the okay to start handing them out, so I was FIRST in line.  Yay!  The guy at the gate saw my magic blue ticket and let me right in, where I drove one inch every few minutes through the crowd until another volunteer ran at me in mid conniption screaming at me to stop.  His walkie talkie was screeching "All the artists KNOW they CAN'T drive into the area until ALL the pedestrians have LEFT."  I got the impression that this was specifically for me to hear, but too bad, the gate guy let me in.  Conniption guy made me pull over so I could helplessly watch people ignore his pleas to walk on the sidewalk for 45 minutes. When I FINALLY got to move up, all sorts of cars were pouring in ahead of me from the side gates and I nearly lost my shit. 

My assigned spot was under some train tracks in an area that would make a perfect movie setting for a homeless drug deal and/or assault.  Because of the tracks, there was a huge bottle neck in my area that shouldn't have been a problem if I'd been FIRST like I was SUPPOSED TO BE.  Fortunately, I chose this spot for myself from an online map, so I can't be mad at anyone but me.  Apparently, I forgot what the railroad symbol looks like.

Actual online map where I picked my crappy spot.

That was really the only time I got upset. I screamed the f-word and the cop on a segway right next to me laughed a little.  It was sort of funny, really. See?  This is a brand new attitude for me. 

Since I had been away from Joe all Father's Day weekend, he took Monday off.  Instead of letting me pamper him, he suggested that we go through my display, which has been looking shoddier and shoddier, causing me to complain about it a lot.  He helped me redesign the whole thing and I'm really excited for this weekend's show in Arlington Heights.  And Joe gets to feel hopeful that he'll hear a little less complaining, at least about my crappy display.

See what happens when I try to stay positive?  Okay, sort of positive.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ode to Joe, or how I used to be an idiot

When I first met my husband, I had been dating Lucifer on and off for five years.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him, the prince of darkness?

Actually, that guy - let’s call him Dick - was just a screwed up kid who was the product of bad circumstances or rotten genes or whatever bad Zodiac sign makes you an asshole. In any case, he had a string of bad luck that led him right to me, where I was patiently waiting for a total jerk to treat me like crap.  The table was nicely laid for my trailer trash romance.   

Dick stole wallets out of people’s cars.  Dick wanted me to do stuff I didn’t want to do.  Dick adored his deaf mother, hated his stepfather and slept in their cold basement on a mattress on the cement floor.  Most of all, Dick wanted the life he’d envisioned at college before he’d lost his scholarship; he wanted to make something of himself and didn’t know how.  Anyone who had more than he did –more money, a car, a better place to live – made him mad. 

Growing up, I believed that I had the perfect family and regularly announced how lucky I was.  I reminded my friend Vicki about that a few years ago and she admitted that she’d thought I was a little off my rocker.  In retrospect, we had a lot of love in my family with a big side order of weird stuff, like everyone else.  But my parents often declared that we were lucky to be us, and I believed every word. 

When greedy, manipulative Dick came along, I felt sorry for him and figured I had a surplus of love to share.  Plus Dick had one of those Superman clefts in his chin. 

I shouldn’t go too far into the Dick stuff when this story is actually a Father's Day fairy tale about my husband Joe and how he saved me.  But you can’t entirely appreciate Joe’s rescue unless you get a good whiff of what a kiss-ass mess I was.  I would fake-cry on a daily basis to stave off Dick’s verbal abuse. I did what Dick asked, or implied, even when I knew I shouldn’t.  I drove my first new car into the ground, driving 60 miles round trip on a near-daily basis to Dick’s dumpy house, carting him around wherever he demanded like I was Morgan Freeman.   

When I playfully tried on Dick’s jeans one day, they were almost too tight.  His lean angry frame was no match for my Swedish expanse and that’s just bad news for an insecure girl.  His jeans were like his affection… confining and humiliating.

I rarely share exactly how bad it got with Dick, despite my usual habit of over-sharing.  I won’t tell you either, but it was bad.  I’ve spent half a lifetime cringing.

When Joe and I met at MicroAge, my first job out of college, Joe couldn’t believe I was dating such a jackass.  I couldn't believe that my advertising degree had only landed me a job at the 90's equivalent of Best Buy.  Joe was the new service guy, and he was a piece of work – 6 foot 8 inches of big brown plastic glasses and twanging nerves like a child’s toy guitar.  He had a constant rocking motion that I initially mistook for more nervous stuff, but that's just Joe.  He rocked his crib across the room as a baby. 

My fabulous coworker and beloved friend, Mary Ellen, got a kick out of him.  Joe took one look at M.E. and me with our snarky laughs and our constant commentary and thought, “Those two will be my best friends or they’ll ruin my life.”  Not to worry - we adopted Joe as our gigantic girlfriend and dragged him out for beers and girl talk regularly. He hadn’t had much luck with the ladies.  Like a dog hit by a newspaper too many times, Joe just wasn’t sure how to make a move.

One night at the bar after work, it was just Joe and I telling stories the way new friends do.  Joe told about the time he flipped off his mom at 16 and got caught by his dad.  Instead of berating Joe, his dad talked to him about maturity and good choices.  He told Joe that he loved him and that he was proud of him.  Ninety minutes later, his mother returned from the hospital to tell Joe and his younger brother and sister that their father was gone.  A sudden heart attack had ripped their world apart.  And that brief father/son conversation was suddenly a precious, unexpected good-bye.

It was such a deeply personal story and Joe told it with such trust and honesty, it made me cry.  I started to fall for him a little.  We made a couple friend-dates to watch movies like Turner and Hooch on his brand new VCR.  I patted myself on the back for spending charitable quality time with my lonely girlfriend, Joe.  One time, I had to leave in a hurry to pick up my mother from somewhere and Joe stopped me at the door.

“I’ll kick myself if I don’t ask you what I’ve been wanting to ask you all week,” Joe said, looking down into my eyes.  My uh-oh alarm went off immediately.  Things had taken a friendship U-turn. 

“Can I kiss you?” Joe asked softly, hopefully.

Oh no.  I was still slumming it with Dick and somehow never saw this coming. With a stunned, frozen smile, I apologized if I’d given him the wrong impression, embarrassing us both with all sorts of demeaning, “let’s be friends” crap.  Yet another newspaper spank for my sweet, funny Joe.  He muttered something or other about oh well, gave it a try, and I left.  Standing in the doorway, Joe half-grinned farewell at me with a forced “no big deal” look on his face.  He was crushed, and the memory of his face just destroys me. 

We spent the next seven months enthusiastically avoiding each other, which was tough in an office of 18 employees.  We were a pathetic pair of freaked out individuals, much to M.E.’s inconvenience.  Slowly, we got over it and cautiously warmed up to each other again.

It was finally over with Dick when he gave me not one, but two porcelain dolls for my 25th birthday.  After I opened the first, I saw the second, same-sized package and felt actual fear. 

He thought I could start a doll COLLECTION. 

Insert creepy horror movie music here.
I hate dolls.  Not to mention, I was 25, not seven. He might as well have taken those dead-eyed dolls and beat me over the head with them.  He didn’t know me, he didn’t love me, and he represented everything that was wrong with me and insecure women like me.  I'd wasted FIVE YEARS with him.  Enough. He could shove those dolls up his ass sideways.

From then on, I was going to date whoever I wanted.  This went badly.  Joe got to hear all about it since he had regained girlfriend status.  He couldn’t believe I was dating more tools, while ignoring my obvious future husband every day for almost a year.  He needed me to get past his nervousness and see him.  Joe was hilarious; he’s the funniest person I know – and I like to think that I know funny.  Unlike the stud he is now, back then he was a bit desperate and he wore suspenders.  I was confused.  Besides, he wasn’t an asshole and that meant he was not for me.

Over the next twenty years, I would learn that Joe tends to be right about most things.  You may have a different opinion, but Joe sure as hell can back his up, so you’d better be sure of yours.

The tide finally turned when Joe invented a girlfriend.  He mentioned her here and there, quite convincingly.  I was outraged.  He knew he had me hooked when I casually asked him what was up with that tramp.  After work at the bar, M.E. began a cunning campaign of encouraging him and then encouraging me to give us a try.  “He loves you,” she slurred in my equally drunken ear one night.  “Go for it,” she told him another, toasting her own brilliance with our beer aquariums.

Thus bolstered, Joe gave me a handwritten manifesto on goldenrod notebook paper, written with so much certainty that we were right for each other, so much emotion and hope, I would have been heartless to turn him down.  I read it, gave a half-ass rebuttal and gave in.  We kissed for the first time in his pickup truck, a bit self-consciously, but with promise. 

“I’ll hurt you,” I told him.  “I’m not interested in anything serious.”

“That’s okay,” he said, happily. “It’s worth it.”

I was such a bitch.  I tried to train him to be a jerk, telling him to stop saying so many nice things, that he missed me, couldn’t wait to see me.  I pushed his buttons and pushed him away.  I refused to go to one of his beloved softball playoff games because I’d felt like he’d been too clingy and went out with a friend instead, where I talked about Joe incessantly. 

“It sort of sounds like you would rather have gone to his game,” she observed with irritation.  And suddenly I couldn’t get to the game fast enough.  Ditching the friend, I giggled over how surprised Joe would be.  I’d been resisting so hard, this was the first time I was making a clear gesture in return.  As I snuck up to the field, delighted with my own stealth, Joe was standing at the fence, anxiously watching for me.  He rushed to wrap me in his big arms and hugged me hard.

“Hey!” I snapped, annoyed. “Why were you looking for me?  I told you we’d spent ENOUGH time together this week.  You were supposed to be SURPRISED.”

“I am surprised,” Joe said tenderly.  “Things like this never happen to me.  But I always hope.” 

That was the beginning of the end of me being an idiot... in love, anyway.  Even though I felt the pull toward something right, I kept waffling, resisting, unsure.

“Sleep with him!” my mother helpfully suggested, thankfully not in front of my dad.

And then I finally tumbled over the cusp of friendship into love, where Joe had been waiting since the first day we met.

We couldn’t wait for the rest of our lives to start. From then on, Joe has made me laugh every day for 20 years and sometimes it feels like a soul-transforming laugh… where you feel so much joy you can’t even believe that you’re laughing that hard, that life is this good, that this man is so damn sweet and funny.  M.E. was our maid of honor. 

I would have married Dick if he’d asked.  I’d been hinting about moving in. I was so ready to be a wife and a mother, I would have put up with just about anything in order to make it happen.  It was true love that was hard to accept.  I had to stop focusing on all the things I thought Joe wasn’t and embrace all the wonderful things that he is.

When I have a headache, Joe gently rubs my head with his big hands. He makes fart noises when I bend over. He pays the bills because he knows money stuff freaks me out. No matter how bad I look, Joe makes lewd suggestions that make me feel beautiful.  He told me I should draw for a living instead of finding another corporate job to worry and worry over.

And when I put his gigantic jeans on, they fall down around me and I finally have all the room in the world to be me.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A bad sports mom gets a hug from Lepoleon

I met Lepoleon Swopes through Joey’s 3rd grade football team.  I fell in love with him and he made me wish I were cooler, as many people do.

Especially in the first years of drawing full time after getting canned from my corporate job, I tried to draw my pencil portraits in public whenever possible, hoping to attract new customers.  I probably should have drawn the line at my kids’ sports games, but I’m a shameless capitalist.  Plus, as much as I want to be a supportive mom and lovingly stare at my sons as they do everything, there can be a lot of down time before your young kids get in on the team action.

Mostly, I’m not a big sports fan, anyway.  Don’t even get me started on baseball when nothing happens until all of a sudden a kid makes a mistake and everyone is rounding the bases, rubbing the poor kid’s nose in it and later discussing how everything would have been okay if that one damn kid had caught/hit/thrown the ball better.  My feelings are officially hurt for every kid who screws up and I’m just too sensitive for baseball. Except for tee-ball when everyone gets a turn and we cheer for everything and everyone.  That’s my kind of competition.

Football was easier on my emotions because I couldn’t tell what was happening.  Plus, I loved seeing my Joey in his first set of football pads.  With a 6’8 father and a sturdy Swedish mother, Joey was always tall for his age and built like a truck.  When he first put on those big shoulder pads, his already over-sized, Baby Huey frame was thrust into the future, time travel to his looming manhood.  My baby suddenly looked so huge and tough, and he knew it.  

Watching football requires a gene that I lack. Joey is on the offensive line and locating him in the pile of flailing kids was impossible to my untrained eye.  I’d watch for awhile, then give up and draw.  On the way home, my husband Joe would accusingly ask, “Did you see that block Joey made in the second quarter when the score was this and the play was that?”  I can’t fake it with Joe.  He knows. 

At one of Joey’s football games, another mom was sitting nearby with her girls.  They were actually watching the game while I was drawing without even pretending to pay attention.  They chatted with me a bit about my work and I ended up doing a memorial portrait and prayer cards for their uncle, Chester Swopes.  I thought Chester was quite handsome and I was thrilled to add his portrait to my portfolio.

Someone once emailed me, “I don’t see any dark skinned people on your web site.”  This was embarrassing and true; almost all my clients check the Caucasian census box.  I got a little overly excited when Chester Swopes’ lovely niece, Jacqueline, asked me to draw him.  I was honored and proudly displayed his portrait at my shows.  I was hoping he’d be a handsome lure to a better melting pot of work.

The real prize in drawing Chester, was meeting his brother, Lepoleon.

Lepoleon called me on the phone to tell me how much he enjoyed his little brother’s portrait and I was instantly smitten.  He had a melodic, lilting voice full of warmth, as if he was always on the verge of telling the punchline of a joke.  

There is something about an elderly black man that humbles me.  I always think to myself - here is someone who has experienced things that I couldn’t begin to understand. 

In a rich voice straight out of the movies,  Lepoleon praised my portrait of his brother and told me what a wonderful person Chester was, a leader in his community and church.  Lepoleon was so proud of his brother and seemed to let that pride wash over me too, making me feel like he’d been rooting for me to do a good job.  He said that it seemed like I knew what I was doing and that he hoped I could help him with another project.  Lepoleon explained that he had a drawing of his grandfather that a young girl had drawn for him.  It needed some work and he hoped that I would be willing to take a stab at it. 

I couldn’t wait to meet him, and when Lepoleon came over with his drawing, I couldn’t get enough of him.  He was a wiry little man with a rubbery, animated face and eyes that snap and spark.  He could have been 60, he could have been 80, in that ageless way some people have.  He would rub his dry hands together slowly while he talked, rocking a little bit and revving up his story.  I was transfixed.  I wanted to be about five years old and climb into his lap while he talked.  Of course it would have startled and crushed him if I'd actually done it, but you know what I mean.  I loved him and I wanted him to love me because I’m just inappropriate and greedy that way.

Lepoleon had never met his grandfather and there were no photographs of him in existence.  In anticipation of an upcoming family reunion, Lepoleon was gathering photos for a family tree.  Wouldn’t it be a fine surprise for his family to include a drawing of his grandfather?  The girl who had attempted the drawing was a fledgling artist in the family.  One of Lepoleon’s cousins remembered their grandfather well, and said that the girl’s drawing was a close resemblance.  But the eyes were wrong and it was a little rough. 

I worked on the drawing while Lepoleon leaned over my shoulder, giving me instruction.  I felt like a police sketch artist.  As I would add a wrinkle here, an adjustment there, Lepoleon would make rumbling pleased noises and say, “Nooowwww, we’re gettin’ somewhere.  Now, I’m seein’ him.” 

When we were through, Lepoleon sat back with a slow, big grin.  “Well what do you know,” he said softly, with a little catch in his voice.  “There’s my grand-dad.  I’ve never seen him before.” 

I don’t know that I’ve ever had a more rewarding moment as an artist. 

Later, Lepoleon decided to bring me a photo of his grandmother to add to the drawing of his grandfather. 

“Wow,” I said, surprised by the stern looking woman.  “She looks like she had a lot on her mind.”

“Well, I 'spect she sure did,” Lepoleon agreed.  “She had herself eleven kids!” 

“Maybe she was thinking about all that laundry,” I guessed.  Lepoleon laughed and hopefully decided I was hilarious.  I drew his grandmother separately and then digitally put them together for his family tree. 

Lepoleon was delighted when he came to pick up his family masterpiece.  “Everyone is going to be so surprised… they’ll get such a big kick out of this,” he said with extra warmth and asked me what he owed.  He paid me from a big wad of cash in his fanny pack. 

“Wow!” I gasped playfully, “You’re loaded.” 

He chuckled and said it was money from his shop.  “I’m a barber,” he said with a little pride and maybe a little fatigue.  I don’t think I could have pictured a better job for him.  I wished I could sit in the corner of his shop and listen to the exchanges that must go on… all the talk that’s so full of history and culture and connection and laughter.  White people don’t ever seem to connect in the joyful way that black people do.  I know you’re not supposed to say black, but I think black people are so much cooler than white people.  White people don’t see each other and think, “Hey, awesome!  White guy!”  We think, his car is better.  Or my car is better.  We are idiots.

We are not cool.
“I’m so glad you’re happy,” I told Lepoleon, feeling a little shy and choked up.  “I loved drawing for you.”

“Oh honey, I love you, too,” he said, and he gave me a tight hug.  I’m a big hugger, as you know, but this was different and special and unexpected… this loving hug that reached across culture and generations and my sheltered upbringing. It was just so touching to me.

Every time I’m finished with a project that has involved a few meetings, especially when the subject is so important, it’s hard.  We look at each other and think, “Well, what now?  Is this good-bye?”  There’s emotion there, sometimes.  A connection.  And then it is over and we move on with our lives.  I told Lepoleon to please come back and tell me all about the reunion.  I didn't want him to go.

I wish I could give an afternoon with Lepoleon to everyone I know.  He would make you smile and want to be a little kinder, because you'd want to make him proud.