Monday, September 16, 2013

Wicked Tales from the Wonderful World of Daycare (Ode to Raquel)

I was a very lucky new mommy back in my corporate days. 

1. I had an easy, good baby who was a great sleeper
2. My boss/dad let me bring my newborn to work
3. My next door neighbor was a licensed daycare provider.

Seriously, as my beloved sister-friend Vicki likes to say, sometimes it seems like I was born with a horseshoe up my ass. 

Here I come, better entertain me!
But good luck tends to run out eventually.  My next door neighbor had the nerve to retire and baby Joey was getting very demanding while I was working, expecting me to actually interact with his gigantic headed self instead of allowing me to shuffle him from activity to activity like baby circuit training… Gymini to bouncy seat to jumper with a bumper.  As much as I’m sure my dad’s other employees enjoyed the distraction of Joey wandering around the office in his walker, pulling papers off desks, it was time to find a new solution.

Enter Raquel, patron saint of daycare and margaritas.

Raquel was an in-house nanny for a work buddy of my husband Joe.  After her second daughter was born, Raquel decided to start a daycare in her own home.  Joey was her very first customer and he loved her dearly, almost as much as Joe and I did.

Raquel told us when Joey was ready for potty training and trained him in a day or two.  She gladly kept Joey overnight when we wanted to have a mental health getaway.  She gently guided us in the right direction with each new milestone.  She was stern with the children in her care when they were stinkers and laughed at them when they threw fits.  She never turned away a kid with a fever or cough or runny nose, each kid was like her own.  She had dance parties and races and went for walks with her slew of happy little kids whose variety looked like the old Benetton ads.  She gave thoughtful gifts to every child each birthday and Christmas and attended our family parties as an adopted Zumpano.  When Max came into the picture, Raquel’s husband Jeff looked in his baby face and said with pride, “I can tell he's really smart.”  They were like family and we thanked our lucky stars for them.  When I started my pencil portrait side business in earnest, Raquel ordered a family portrait and we laughed at how bald pale Jeff turned out looking like a ghost haunting the rest of the family.

There it goes.  Missed it AGAIN.

In our massive school district, kindergarten was half day, which caused a problem.  Raquel had been a convenient distance from our first little house, but when we moved to our current home, it was a long round trip.  We enrolled Joey in Kindercare, which bussed him to and from his school.  Max stayed at Raquel’s and Joe and I split the pick up and drop offs.  Joe was calm and organized while I panicked, rushing from Raquel's to catch the Chicago train taking me to my new job which would eventually fire me... the cartoon catapult that launched me into fulltime artistry. 

Eventually Max joined Joey at KinderCare and I cried, knowing I would miss seeing Raquel’s smiling face every day until summer.

We adjusted to KinderCare and our boys found new friends and favorite teachers.  Their best KinderCare friends were Jimmy and Tommy.  Jimmy’s birthday was one day before Joey’s and Tommy was a little older than Max.  The four of them were a perfect blend, adoring each other in the sweetest little boy way possible.  They were a wrestling pile of giggles and secrets and games.  I became friends with Jimmy and Tommy’s mother, Lisa, the way you do with the parents of your kids’ friends.  Convenience led to real closeness with Lisa.  We told each other everything - our pasts with tough fathers, our dreams of writing, our fears.  We admitted our parental shortcomings and we forgave each other’s kids their faults.  We sat at McDonald’s play land for hours and hours, allowing the kids to buy desserts so we could talk longer when they tired of germy plastic climbing.  When Lisa told me she didn’t know how they would afford full time KinderCare costs over the summer, I told her about our magic Raquel, who didn’t charge us a fraction of what she should have.  As Lisa lived in Round Lake, the trip would be even longer for her.  So we allowed them to drop J & T at our house each morning and pick them up from our house in the evening.  Every other Friday, we would keep all four kids overnight or Lisa would pick all four up so each couple could have a date night.  It was heaven.

Except that Lisa hated Raquel.

I was shocked as J & T started to say rude things about Raquel.  Lisa would criticize Raquel for disciplining her boys and blew silly things, like Raquel playfully whacking her daughter on the butt with a flip flop, out of proportion.  When Tommy wore the same unwashed white t-shirt for several days, Lisa was pissed when Raquel washed it.  Lisa was permissive to an extreme and her boys misbehaved at her house.  At mine, they listened to rules and followed our lead.  Lisa was starting to officially weird me out.  When she called me at 5 am on a Saturday morning to accompany her to the emergency room to have a catheter re-inserted, I was disturbed.  She wasn’t working at the time, I was only able to sleep in on weekends and I love sleep.  Clearly she felt close to me after four years of friendship, but as I squeezed her hand during the uncomfortable procedure (for both of us), the ER trip was more of Lisa than I expected or wanted to see. 

On the last day of summer, it was my turn to pick up the boys.  J & T bragged to my boys that they NEVER had to see Raquel again and that their mommy didn’t like her.  I stopped the car, turned around and barked at them that Raquel was our family and I DID NOT want to hear one more bad word. 

The next day while my boys were at school, DCFS showed up at Raquel’s. 

We were so furious, so betrayed, so shocked that a family that we trusted to appreciate Raquel’s generosity would turn on her and on us.  The DCFS agent told Raquel that the call had come from Round Lake… Raquel only knew one family from there.  I called Lisa in shock and anger, demanding an explanation.  Lisa stammered denials and finally blurted out that she didn’t need a friend like me, hanging up like a coward.

She never allowed the boys to see each other again. 

Joey and Jimmy were best friends from ages 4 – 8.  They were inseparable.  Joey wrote letter after letter to Jimmy, confused and hurt by the lack of response, asking who Jimmy’s best friend was now.  Hurting for him, I sent Lisa pleading emails and tried to appeal to J & T’s father, suggesting that just the dads and boys get together.  He seemed open to that, but called back to say that Lisa felt we should go our separate ways, obvious embarrassment in his voice. 

I’ve never been so angry or disappointed in a friend.  I couldn’t sleep and I still think about it more than I should.  I opened my heart, my home, my family to Lisa.  Raquel was a huge help to them financially; they would have been in trouble without her.  Lisa thanked her with a slap in the face out of pure spite and maliciousness.

Fortunately, everything worked out fine for Raquel - she didn’t give a shit about stupid old Lisa.  Ten years later, Raquel is still the daily salvation of grateful families with small children.  She rescued me when I foolishly attempted to step into her shoes and care for my brand new nephew, becoming dear to Joe's sister and her family as well. 

We attended Michele’s QuinceaƱera as a family this year, and it was wild to see Raquel’s adorable nieces all grown up… gorgeous young women who remembered Joey and Max who had been too little to return the favor.  Joey and Max tower over Raquel and they happily hugged her without teenage restraint.  The room was filled with Raquel’s family from Mexico and with a few adopted families like ours who she has embraced with so much love and laughter.  As our gift, I drew a portrait of Michele in her fancy dress. 

If you’ve ever received a portrait gift from me, you know I really, really love you.  (Not that I don't love you if you haven't... calm down. )  It’s a personal gift that I only feel comfortable sharing with those who know it comes from my heart.  And my heart is full whenever I think of Raquel and her dear family.

Margaritas soon, Raquel??


Wendy Zumpano

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Why I have been a crappy blogger.

I don't have a 401K!!!
There is a certain time of year when I am more freaked out than usual.  Every since I got fired from my corporate job for calling my boss a liar (accurately), I’ve been trying to build my pencil portrait business.  It isn't always a cake walk convincing people to remember me, find some photos, part with their cash, etc. etc.   Especially in late winter/early spring when the holidays are over and no Mother’s Day flowers are blooming yet, I have been a complete basket case.  As my pencil portrait projects dwindle, I throw myself into dramatic poses and cry, “I need a real job!” 
But I don’t want a real job.

I am not built for stress of any kind.  If you know me personally, you know I don’t have any coping skills.  Crying at work is embarrassing.  Plus I love to sleep in and stay up late.  In addition, I enjoy wine and cheez-its to a degree that interferes with my ability to concentrate on spreadsheets or wear real pants with zippers.

My mother has been the lucky soul who gets to hear me whining regularly about a real job.  My mom hangs out with me while I draw, so where would this new job situation leave her and our movie watching requirements?  This was a concern.

My mom wasn't the only one I assaulted with my nonstop complaining.   At my father's retirement party, a good friend from my real job days tried to shut me up by asking if I wanted to test his company's software from home.  I jumped at the chance to fill in my slow times with something else to do other than weeping.  I wasn’t sure what testing software meant, and it turned out to be exponentially more complicated than I expected.  Because I’m so visual and picky, I enjoy criticizing the hard work of others more than I should.  Just ask my poor kids about my “helpful” suggestions about their handwriting. 

Software testing was also more time consuming than I anticipated.  Consequently, I have now built up quite a backlog of portrait orders… similar to the kind of work pile I accumulate at Christmas!  I have lots of work to do for the side job, lots of work to do for my clients.  I can’t even tell you what a blessed relief it is not to lay in my bed at night and worry about bringing in enough cash to keep my gigantic sons fed and college bound.  Sandwiches and college cost money.

I have to get two grocery carts at Mariano's.
Things have actually improved enough financially that my husband Joe and I purchased a cargo van to hold all my art crap.  Most art shows begin with the sweaty, annoying job of cramming bins and tents and bags and whatnot into our Durango until there is absolutely no rear window visibility and I am the only human that can fit into it unless we strap some crap to the roof.  When Joe helps me with this chore, he usually smacks his freakishly tall head into the garage door or pinches his fingers and makes me feel all guilty with his cries of pain and swearing.  Sympathetically, I usually decide to get huffy and irritated and behave like I am a put-upon victim of hard labor. Joe kept insisting that we purchase a trailer so we wouldn’t have to load and unload everything each time.  I was afraid of driving with a trailer, as I envisioned playing crack the whip.  Remember that game when you’d run around in zig-zags holding hands and the kid at the end of the line/whip would get flung into a wall or hurled into a bush?  Backing up with a trailer is unpredictable.  No thank you on the trailer.

A van was not only the solution to the art storage/schlep issue, it also solved the three drivers / two vehicles problem.  My older son, King Joey, usually gets what he wants because he is adorable.  Since he got his license, I have no car ever.  I’d walk out the door to go to a doctor’s appointment or to take Max somewhere and there would be no car in the driveway.  You’d think I’d remember that I have no car.  You’d think I’d remember lots of things. 

I HIGHLY recommend that you visit John the Van Man if you have any van needs.  We were blown away by the way we were treated. 

Here’s my rockin' new art love van!


My friend Pat O’Malley suggested that I decorate it and apparently spent quite a bit of time Photoshopping my photo onto it like it was a ReMax van.  Very funny.  Almost as funny as how much time I just spent going back through Facebook trying to find it.  I have no idea where he found that photo of me, it doesn't even look familiar.  That's almost my actual phone number, too.


Then he must have thought more about it and had even more Photoshop time on his hands, because he came up with this:
Even more fabulous TA-DAAAAA!!!  And much less predator-like.

COME ON.  That is amazing!  I have several reactions to this suggestion.  First of all, why in the hell didn’t I think of that?  I have a degree in advertising for cripes sake.   Secondly, that is quite a bit of Photoshop work on Pat’s part.   He had to go sniffing around my portraits on my website and cut and paste them onto my  van photo.  He even has my SIGNATURE on my van door.  I am very excited about this idea and will probably talk about it and think about it for quite some time before I do anything about it because I’m more about talk than I am about action, unfortunately.

Okay, now you are up to date on why I haven’t been writing this blog.  I have NO BUSINESS writing in it right now.  But I miss writing it and I hope someone has missed reading it.   I have a great portrait story I have been dying to tell you, but I felt like I had to explain my blog famine first. 

I’m really going to get some work done now.  Or maybe look at Facebook for an hour or three.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Dangers of Yell-telling

It has taken a very long time, but I am officially facing the fact that I have an embarrassing chronic condition that affects my life and the people around me. 

I have a million stories!
And they are all equally LOUD.
I am too damn loud when I tell a story.

When I was a kid, I used to sit at the dinner table and tell what I believed were hilarious/fascinating stories from my day at school that required much gesturing and flailing around.  My father would wince and calmly say, in a deliberately low voice, “We’re right here.  Can you tone it down?”  Anyone in my Bunko group has witnessed this phenomenon repeatedly, usually when I have accidentally hit someone or spilled wine, although there are a couple other yellers, which doesn’t make me any quieter. 

Any kind of a negative reaction to my tail-wagging loud story-telling triggers my other wretched affliction about which I have regularly blogged or shared directly to your face or on the phone or in the street to a stranger.

I am hopelessly oversensitive.

The combination of the way I like to yell a story and my big fat easily hurt feelings has yielded many unfortunate circumstances.

  1. Shame.  Receiving an “N” for “needs improvement” on all grade school report cards in any category relating to self control, behavior or generally keeping my yap shut. 
  2. Getting shushed.  I have a dear friend who regularly shushes me at parties.  In small groups, if she is sitting near me, she touches my hand or my leg under the table which is code for, “You are interrupting again.  Why are you so loud?  For the love of God, shut up and let someone else talk.”  Once we were drinking wine on my friend Lauri’s deck and I was telling an admittedly inappropriate story.  I was enjoying the crap out of telling the story and hollering the funnier parts.

    SHHHHHH!!!!” my friend hissed at me from across the table, “The whole neighborhood does NOT need to hear about that.”  The funny thing was, I’d mentioned to Lauri about 15 minutes before the shushing that our friend always shushes me.  I glared at Lauri and mentally texted her, “SEE??!!” Lauri made a sympathetic face that did not disguise the fact that she enjoyed the entire exchange.  I sulked like a big baby for the rest of the evening and eventually had to go into the kitchen to cry because I probably had too much wine.  Another friend followed me into the kitchen to witness my humiliation.  The memory of this whole episode gives me a stomachache.  Wine clearly exacerbates both of my conditions.
  3. Panic. I’ve seen certain family members’ faces begin to change when trapped by my stories at a party, eyes darting around for an escape.
  4. Official complaints. Joe and I recently went out with two other couples for a birthday dinner at a fabulous restaurant called Ad-lib Geocafe. Guess what? I was yelling a story again. In my defense, I have no sense of anyone around me when I am yell-telling a story. We were all having a grand old time and unfortunately, the shusher was not there to assist. “Excuse me,” interrupted a grumpy fellow patron, “but my husband and I are trying to have a romantic evening. Could you keep it down?” Yikes. We giggled our apologies and she returned to her seat, TWO tables away, BEHIND me. My voice wasn’t even aimed in her direction. We all agreed that they should have stayed home if silence was key to their romance, but we all knew I’d gotten an N for self control again. How ladylike.
  5. Dismissal. A manager of Giordano’s in Rosemont asked my college roommates and me to leave because they were “closing” even though other patrons hadn’t received their food yet.
  6. Dirty looks. Just the other day, Vicki and I were in Kenosha celebrating our friend Kim’s birthday at the Tilted Kilt. I thought the Tilted Kilt would be entertaining, but I found it disturbing. All that waitress cleavage and bare belly walking and/or jiggling around was sort of creepy and out of place with our club sandwiches and mom selves. Vicki and Kim and I have been friends for more than 30 years and needless to say, I’m never on my best behavior with them. Proceed with the yell-telling! I am often made aware of my volume when someone at another table makes direct eye contact with me. The person looks pointedly at me while experiencing some combination of amusement and/or disgust. This is embarrassing and alerts me to my loudness. “Ugh!” I said to Vicki and Kim in a much lower voice, “I’m getting the stink eye! Switch seats with me.” We switched so there were only backs facing me. I revved back into my story and within a few seconds, someone TURNED COMPLETELY AROUND to see what in the hell was causing such a ruckus. DAMN IT! I switched seats again so that I was facing the back, empty corner of the restaurant.

    I whined about being a constant freak in public while telling stories and my best friends covered me with their warm friendship acceptance blankets. They told me that they loved my stories and didn’t care what anyone else thought. Although Vicki did remind me that I got shushed at her gigantic spin class, even though the fans, bikes and instructor should have been loud enough to drown me out. Reassured by my wonderful friends, I proceeded to imitate the way that I meow at my dog and the crazy way he reacts. Kim sighed and said, “Well, maybe I can see why people are giving you looks. You’re making some REALLY weird faces.” Suddenly I could see myself from the outside in and imagined my reaction if I saw some grown woman contorting her face and loudly meowing at a restaurant. We all threw our heads back and laughed, LOUD.

Oh well.  Go ahead and stare, glare or shush.  Hurt feelings be damned, you know I’m yelling the next story anyway. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Truth about Stephen and Henry

I haven’t written a blog post in forever because I’ve been crazy busy and there hasn’t been anything juicy to complain about.  Maybe I’ve turned a corner?  Instead, I’m inspired to write about some very special boys named Henry.

When my sister in law, Karen, was pregnant with her first baby, I was over the moon.  I freaking love babies.  We had a baby shower at my house, and in an effort to one-up myself, I also offered to take care of the new baby when Karen returned to work.  I’d been fired from my corporate job, I was home drawing full time and my mother was with me almost every day.  I would be great at it!  I am the Cesar Millan of soothing crabby babies at parties.  I happily ignored the alarm on my mother’s face when I announced that we were now a pencil portrait/daycare biz. 
I am not a morning person, but I was excited to hold baby Henry in my arms at 6:30 am when my brother in law, Alan, dropped him off for the first time.  At the end of the day, I made dinner while snuggling my nephew at the same time like an old pro.  When I handed him back, I put dinner on the table and excused myself to go upstairs so I could dramatically throw myself on my bed and sob uncontrollably for five solid minutes.  Over the following weeks I heard the same thing from all my friends… “What in the hell were you thinking?”

My sainted mother holding Henry
while I am weeping somewhere.
I had completely forgotten how hard new babies are.  God bless you if you’ve got one, it’s a nonstop job.  I had a business to run, a messy house to sort of clean, my own kids who needed me.  I had bitten off way more than I could chew.  My mother was a godsend, helping with Henry like he was her own.  I made it a month before Karen looked at me with concern and asked, “How are you?”  I burst into tears when I admitted I couldn’t handle it.  Karen cried with me as we agreed that babies were harder than either of us expected.  I had wanted to show Karen and Alan how much I loved them, to forge a close family bond that I crave so much.  Instead I disrupted things and stressed them out.  They were hesitant at first about my recommendation of our amazing sitter, Raquel, who cared for my boys when I worked out of the home.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief when they fell in love with her, too. 

Babies are hard work, but toddlers can be even more demanding.  And when Henry didn’t reach expected milestones, his attentive, intelligent parents worried and researched and faced the diagnosis they had feared.  Henry is autistic.  Their immediate and constant call to arms for every possible resource and piece of information to help their son has been nothing short of stellar.  No matter how often I tell them how impressed I am, how lucky Henry is, there’s always doubt in their voices.  Is it enough?  Will he go to public school?  Will he be okay?
There is no more room in here.

As if there wasn’t enough on their plates, my highly educated, overworked in-laws unexpectedly added another baby boy to the family almost exactly a year later.  Surprise!!!  Here you go again. Now at 5 and 4 years old, Henry and Mitchell are adorable together and I bet it has helped Henry immensely to have a ready friend, even if Mitchell is usually running the show.

When I was recently asked by a wonderful repeat client to draw a portrait for her son’s high school graduation, she attached a story to the email she sent with his photo, called “The Truth about Stephen Henry.”  As I settled in to read about my new subject, I discovered that Stephen had more in common with my nephew than a name.

Stephen’s mother Maureen chalked up some of his unusual baby behavior to quirkiness.  But other worries she shared with their pediatrician, hoping for guidance.  “Stephen doesn’t want me to rock him to sleep.  He’d rather lie on the floor and rock himself.  He cries uncontrollably when he hears sounds, or when he has to wear certain clothing.  And the babble talk he had before age 2 has disappeared.”  The doctor listened to Stephen's chest and checked his ears and pronounced him healthy.  He told Maureen, “So, he’s independent, so what?  Nothing wrong with that. He doesn’t like to wear clothes?  I don’t like to wear a tie.  Stop comparing him to other children, he’ll catch up.”

But Maureen knew something was wrong.  At a preschool parent-teacher conference, she sat in a preschool chair with her husband, rocked by a wave of denial and relief when they heard the word “autism”.  Relief that someone had taken Stephen’s struggles seriously.  Denial that it had to be something else.  Evaluation after evaluation, they heard the same curse, the same condemnation. 

So they went to work.

They made three decisions early on; to learn as much as they could, to never remain silent, and to lean on other parents of autistic children in support groups.  They read every book, searched every internet site, attended every conference.  They told everyone, “Stephen Henry has autism.  We’re not sure what that means exactly, but we know it is serious and we are telling you now because we know we will need your understanding and support.”  Not a single person ever turned them down, or turned away.  Not family, friends, bosses, or co-workers who helped pick up the slack so they could take Stephen to his twice weekly therapy sessions.

They learned that autism is a developmental disability which inhibits social behavior and affects a child’s language and ability to learn.  There is no known cause and there is no cure.  The rise of autism in California by 200% in the last five years has been described as “alarming”, “explosive” and “epidemic”.  It seems everyone is touched by autism, by children we love and who are loved by people we know.

Maureen and her family stayed positive and refused to be discouraged. Wonderful teachers fought for Stephen every step of the way, while others shook their heads in doubt.  As I read Maureen’s story, I felt triumphant that Stephen is graduating from public high school next month.  I drew his graduation portrait with pride, honored to help celebrate his success. 
I shared Stephen Henry’s story with Karen and Alan, thinking it was so inspirational that they’d be wowed by my awesomeness (which is my admittedly ridiculous hope about every move I make).  Recently, I asked Alan at lunch if I could write about his Henry in my blog about Stephen Henry.  He said it was fine and that people without an autistic child find stories like theirs inspirational. 
“For me,” Alan said quietly, “it’s a glimpse of the very hard road that we have ahead of us.” 

I want to believe it will get easier and easier for Karen and Alan and Henry; he’s made such terrific progress.  Mitchell is more of a handful these days than his easy-going, sweet, big brother.  They work so hard to do all the right things and to give their boys everything they need to thrive.  It’s the not knowing what’s coming next that is the hardest. Life with young kids is an alternating climb through grueling and wonderful terrain in the easiest circumstances.  They post smiling pictures of their happy boys and links to stories about autism that are both hopeful and heart-wrenching, listing feelings of parents with special needs children.  Fear, loneliness, inadequacy.

I am tempted to try and pretend that Max was enough of a stinker as a little kid that I have some idea of what it might be like to face a real parenting challenge.  Those who saw a three year old Max in action might even agree.  But it’s almost embarrassing to have had it so easy when others have such a different, frightening road.  It's not fair.

I hope Karen and Alan and Henry and Mitchell know that we are always here for them, even if I don’t reach out as often as I should.  And while the hard road Stephen Henry travelled may be daunting, I know our Henry will achieve amazing things, too, because he has wonderful parents and professionals fighting for him. 

He’s off to kindergarten this year, if Mitchell can bear to let him go.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Dinner with Skip

On Saturday night, Joe and I joined my parents and my dad's best buddy Skip for dinner.  We got stuck at a table under a speaker in the bar section of the restaurant and the entire evening went like this:

Waitress:  Would you like a side dish with your ribs?
My Dad:  What?
My Dad:  A what?
My Mom: (blocks my dad's menu as she reaches across him to rearrange their water glasses, maybe to avoid spillage, maybe to stake out more personal water territory.)
My Dad: (trying to see around my mom's arm) Scalloped potatoes.
Waitress:  What?

My dad has come a long way.  He was a very intense person for most of his life and rather terrifying to a frizzy-haired chubby girl with purple glasses and a full-time outside voice at the dinner table.  I worked for him and with him for many years and after so many years of being in tense situations with him, it's a joy to see him throw back his head and laugh, hard, with his good friend. 

Hey, let's hang out here
for six hours! 
As I may have already bragged to you, my dad designed the moving walkway, like the one at O'Hare.  My son Max chose to do his science fair project on the moving walkway as a tribute to his Papa.  I enthusiastically supported this choice until I realized an experiment involving a walkway would require an actual walkway.  Three round trips to the Milwaukee airport later, I was thinking maybe he could have watered plants with 7-Up and coffee for the science fair like his brilliant father, Big Joe.  Or my choice of testing the flame resistance of pajamas by lighting them on fire.  But I digress...

My dad has invented all sorts of stuff and he knows how everything works.  His friend Skip has known him for about 30 years, and as the owner of an auto service business, he's no slouch in the smarts dept either.

Skip is a great big man with a bigger laugh and personality to match.  I started working for my father when I was 14 and it seemed like Skip was around from the beginning.  He was close friends with my dad’s former boss, who owned the machine shop where my dad first started his business.

“Your dad came striding into the coffee room one day with a briefcase in one hand and a cigar in the other,” Skip once told me conspiratorially.  “Your dad told me he needed some help with that old Toyota Corolla he had.  He started telling me about the alignment being off and went into a long technical diatribe about his assessment of what was going on based on the angles of oversteering or understeering.”

My father is a technical person and when it comes to fixing things, he’s the king.  He kept my mother’s clothes dryer running for over 30 years, replacing every single part, which eventually required some serious appliance store detective work. “If you don’t want to know how a clock works,” I overheard someone once say, ”don’t ask him what time it is.”  I knew exactly what Skip was talking about.

“Your dad may have understood the physics behind it all, but he had no goddamn business telling me how to fix cars.” Skip barked with assurance.  “I told him, ‘Dan, just give me the keys to that shitbox and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.’  Now at the time, I didn’t know him that well.

“Your dad…  was…pissed.”

No.  Really?  My dad?

Skip laughed.  “Your dad stood real still and stared at me.  He hollered that his car may be a shitbox but he needed it fixed, and he slammed out of there.  I couldn’t believe he’d yelled at me like that and I just sat there for a minute, stunned.  I stewed about it for a bit and got more and more ticked off.  I took off running for his office and I slammed his door behind me just as hard as he’d slammed the other one. Your dad was on the phone and glared at me while he ended his call.

“I said to him, ‘Hey, look, asshole, I don’t care if you drive a Toyota or a Mercedes or a Rolls Royce, they’re all shitboxes to me!  They all have engines, they all have brakes, I don’t care if they have tits, I still have to figure out what’s wrong.  Just give me the goddamn keys to that shitbox and I’ll fix it!”

My dad looked at Skip in surprise, leaned back and roared with laughter.  “Yeah, I guess you’re right about that,” he told Skip, wiping his eyes and handing him the keys.  When my dad's brilliant mind hadn't realized the problem was a flat tire, a beautiful, twisted, Scotch-infused friendship was born.

We had a fleet of limping cars, thanks to putting two kids through college while my dad was struggling to keep his computer consulting business afloat in the choppy waters of nonstop changing technology.  My dad developed software to help run Skip's business and their friendship grew. During all the years I worked for my dad, Skip treated me like family.  He always called me “sweetie” and told me jokes that were consistently foul and occasionally hilarious.  I felt a special connection to him.

When Skip heard that I had been fired from my corporate job, he wanted to help because he’s a fixer, like my dad. He called me out of the blue, asking me exactly what had happened so that he could use some connections to fight for the job I was supposed to get.  I was touched.  By that time, I was committed to trying to build my pencil portrait art career and I’d probably dodged a bullet by not starting a demanding, technical career.  I was coming to terms with how severely my ADD compromises my ability to make it out of the house with keys and clothes on.

So Skip ordered a portrait instead.

He told me all about his long distance relationship with the love of his life.  He'd had a rough road, unlucky in love, with nonstop challenges around every turn.  When he and Teresa reconnected through email, after knowing each other for years, life felt complete.  With demanding careers, they traveled together and Skip visited Teresa in Arkansas whenever he could, eventually buying a beautiful house together.

During one trip, Skip was driving back to Teresa after visiting his son. On a dark, overcast night, he came upon a dump truck, parked in the middle of a little country road. "The guy’s story was that he’d stopped to talk to someone," Skip explained, "but I believe he’d gotten out to take a pee. The truck's tail lights were so dirty that you could only see a faint glow.  When I came over the rise, I couldn’t see a thing until I was right on top of it.  I swerved to the left to try and get around it and didn’t make it.”

Skip hit the back of the dump truck going about 50 mph driving Teresa’s little Honda Accord.  Being a big guy at 6’4, Skip’s knee was only about an inch from the dashboard and the impact forced his femur out the back of his pelvis, smashing his sciatic nerve.

“I had to stay in Arkansas,” Skip told me, “I was going to be bedridden for months.  I couldn’t walk at all.  Teresa saw me through it all, the hospitalization, the surgery, taking me to physical therapy three times a week for the better part of a year.  She cared for me constantly, bathing me, making sure I took medication.  One time I developed blood clots and she rushed me to the hospital.  She was my nurse and my salvation.”

Skip suffers from permanent nerve damage, causing numbness and cramping.  “I can’t feel my foot touch the gas pedal,” he says. “You know that tingling feeling you get when your foot falls asleep?  It feels like that all the time, like pins and needles.  It gets to the point where I can’t stand it.  I can’t walk more than half a mile.”

Still, Skip is stunned by his good fortune, that he’s alive, that he has this amazing woman by his side. Since he couldn't help me with my corporate job, he ordered a portrait celebrating their first ten years together, a collage of their favorite places they've visited.  He wanted a special gift to show Teresa how much she meant to him.

It was the largest, most detailed portrait I'd drawn back then, and I was so grateful for the work - especially for somebody I loved.  When I delivered the finished portrait to him, Skip gave me such a warm, wonderful, fatherly hug.  He told me that I was talented, that he was proud of me.  He'd wanted to help me, but I was so glad I made him happy too.  They hung it in their office, over their computers... a sweet reminder of how they fell in love through emails. 

It looks like I forgot to sign it, though.   

Solving the world's problems one beverage at a time.
Over dinner, my dad showed Skip his photo retirement book I'd put together with messages from colleagues, clients, family and a few friends.  Workaholics don't have a lot of time for friends.  Skip has a two page spread in the book with great photo of them in Arkansas and a long funny story about my dad fixing a problem.  He and Skip happily share war stories about their businesses, the state of the country and the times they've injured themselves.  At one point, my dad was joking about the time he ripped his entire rotator cuff off his shoulder while stubbornly trying to start a power washer.  He said it was tricky getting used to using his left hand for bathroom hygiene, if you know what I mean.  

Skip, not missing a  beat, said "I'm surprised you didn't invent a machine for that.  Like maybe a corncob and a drill?"  It took us all a solid minute or so to stop laughing, wiping our eyes and sighing with appreciation.  Joe had never met Skip before and he got a huge kick out of seeing them swap puns and stories and hugs and laughter.  Everyone deserves to really be known by a good friend and I'm so deeply grateful that my dad has Skip in his life.

Wendy Zumpano

Friday, January 11, 2013

I'd rather be procrasti-snuggling

Look away!  I'm so ashamed.
I considered making a list of resolutions as my first blog topic of 2013, but I've procrastinated too long.  Plus I would forget about them and make myself feel bad when I blow them all off later.  One resolution would unfortunately be, once again, to control my Facebook game playing.  I stayed away for quite awhile with impressive and uncharacteristic restraint.  But over break I allowed myself some wine, Cheez-its and Bejeweled. And by some I mean a lot.  Honestly, that combination is my own patented brand of crack.  If my husband Joe didn't announce it was time for bed, I would burn through an alarming amount of Cheez-its.

Which of course leads us to diet and exercise and self control and all those other annoying resolution-type spankings that I will spare myself.

My son Max has enthusiastically inherited my love of procrastination.  For the most part, he does his homework right after school like I've Nazi-drilled into his blond head in high-stepping upstairs fashion.  He always comes in my room to say hello before he gets started and we lay on my bed and talk about his day.  That boy is the best snuggler ever, and he knows it.  Snuggling is my kryptonite.  Plus, that kid can stretch out a story.  Eventually I call him on his stalling tactics.  He calls it procrasti-snuggling. 

Speaking of stalling, it's time to apply to art shows.  Mostly, my job as a pencil portrait artist is a lovely trifecta of comfy pants, working on the computer and drawing someone's special something while watching trash TV.  It is a delicious life and I'm grateful for it.  Because most of my days are very much the same comfortable routine, when I have to do something different and slightly more challenging, I am outraged.  I stomp around and dramatically announce how much I do NOT want to do whatever it is while Joe tries to ignore me.  Such as:

  1. Prepare for a show and count inventory of prints, mats and frames.  I wouldn't have to do this if I were more organized.  But I'm not.
  2. Pack up all my crap for a show and go set it up somewhere while sweating/freezing/worrying whether it will be worth said time/sweat/shivers.
  3. Pay my sales taxes or do anything money related.
  4. Make adjustments to a finished portrait when my client gives me helpful feedback like "Why is my dad so fat in this drawing?  I mean, I know he's fat, but could you make him less fat?  On second thought, here's a different photo of him."  Grrrr.
  5. Apply to art shows.

When I first got canned from my corporate job, and decided to give my drawing hobby a full-time go, I started out doing little craft shows near my home in the far north Chicago suburbs.  Little by little I improved my display and applied to fancier shows.  I've dipped my toe into fine art fairs for the last few years.  I still feel like I don't know what the hell I'm doing. 

Some of my fellow fine art exhibitors have displays that looks like freaking galleries.  Carpets on the floor, beautiful polished wooden display racks, walls like a museum.  I'm rocking some white mesh walls that cost me $750 five or more years ago.  They are getting dirty and dingy.  I used to have my portraits in plastic, dinged up frames.  Now I use frames with real glass in them, even if some of them are still rather dinged up.  If I want to run with the fine art crowd, I really need to step up my game.

Fine art shows require photos of your work and a photo of your set up so a jury of artists can decide whether you're up to snuff.  I've drawn a lot of stuff so I have to figure out which portraits to submit.  Most of my portraits are of other people's stuff so do I submit portraits of adorable kids or of my Chicago scenes that are more marketable?  What are these jury people going to like better?  I DON'T KNOW

I keep forgetting to take photos of my booth when I'm actually working, so all my booth photos have been taken in my driveway or yard on consistently overcast days, accompanied by my very best bitching and whining while setting it all up.  Fortunately I have some beginner's Photoshop skills, so I can play around with the photo and try to improve it.  Here's this year's driveway photo:

If only I could Photoshop the scuffs off the walls in my house.

I am worried about this photo.  I have no fancy carpeting.  The frames are different types/sizes.  Does that matter???   Oh worra worra.

Now I need to review the spreadsheet of art shows that I look at every year.  Good shows are getting more and more expensive... up to $600, plus an application fee, just to show up.  If it pours rain or nobody shows up or a twister comes and mangles all my stuff, too bad for me, it's still $600+.  I used to sign up for shows willy-nilly and as the booth fees came due, Joe would have a mild conniption.

Whenever Joe would question the art show fees racking up on my business credit card (a new one at 0% every 18 months or so), I would get all defensive and freaked out, proclaiming my need for some sort of marketing.  How are people going to hire me to draw their cats and/or chubby family members if they can't find me anywhere?

The key to managing Joe's stress level is preparation and communication.  We sit down together now and review my choices and he sometimes suggests a more aggressive schedule than I'd choose on my own.  He's helped me at some of the busier shows and he knows that they're more expensive for a reason.  But damn, it's hard to know which shows are the right ones to choose.

That time is now.  Like right now while I'm procrasti-blogging.  Most of the fine art shows I've done have been Amdur Productions shows and the deadline is midnight TONIGHT.  Way to stall!  Max would be proud. Joe is working from home today, but he has meetings nonstop.  We'll figure it out, we always do.  I'll panic about the money and he will be level-headed and encouraging and help me choose some portrait images.  I'll worry that I won't be accepted... I'll cringe about the money.  I'll feel panicked about my booth photo. I'll announce that I need a corporate job again with a regular paycheck.

Becoming a professional full time artist has been a step at a time.  Applying to shows, paying thousands of dollars in booth fees, schlepping my Durango full of art stuff out into the elements... it's all the stuff I hate doing because I'm lazy. But, the unpleasant work is what makes the stories happen. All the sweet stories behind the portraits that make it all worthwhile.  Portraits of families, precious young faces, weathered beloved ones, bright eyes peeking out of fur.  Homes full of memories, moments in time when it's all going by so fast.

People are so full of love and they want to show it in amazing ways and I get to be a part of it.  That's worth putting on pants with an actual zipper and getting some work done.

But maybe a little procrasti-snuggling with Max first.

Wendy Zumpano