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