Saturday, March 1, 2014

Laundry for Giants and other Domestic Fails

I consider myself a pretty great mom, but I stink to high heaven at most mom jobs. 

Despite the fact that I am a full time pencil portrait artist and you would think I'd have some sort of pride in the appearance of my home (or myself... apologies for anyone who has seen me at Jewel), I just don't.  I've never been into decorating my house unless it’s Christmas.  Hang onto your Santa hat, then.  Otherwise, not so much.

A neighbor helpfully pointed out that my walls were all boring white several years after we moved in and I sort of wanted to pinch her, but she had a point. I don’t have a knack for knick-knack whatnot.  I notice my friends’ lovely homes and I notice when mine is messy, but I just don’t care that much unless we’re having company.  Then I run around panicking over all the weird piles of stuff everywhere and wishing that things matched or had less stains. 

I also hate grocery shopping and making dinner because I’m the opposite of a multi-tasker.  I’m a one thing at a time-er until I get distracted by something else, then I’m all about that thing, whether or not dinner is or should be in the oven.  I postpone shopping until we are out of everything and I have to listen to the nonstop sad sighs of everyone standing in front of open cupboards and fridge searching for anything worth eating. 

When I can’t take the audible hunger pangs anymore, I stomp around in search of my coupon holder, wasting at least an hour going through three months worth of newspaper coupons so I can save us about $4.50.  My husband and sons enjoy my victim mentality and show their support by rolling their eyes at each other (I see them).  Sometimes I make a big show of going through all the sales flyers so that I can price match at Wal-Mart.  When I brag about how I scored a disinterested cashier who allowed me to name any outlandishly low competitor price I want, it hurts my feelings when Joe informs me this is really a form of stealing.  Wal-mart is an evil empire!  I am the good guy, Joe.  Living with a Libra is hard for a morally ambiguous Gemini.

 When I get around to making dinner, the following usually occur:

1.       I break something, spill something or burn myself
a.       I scream bloody murder
b.      Joe asks if I’m okay in a genuinely concerned manner. 
c.       I respond by refusing to answer while banging pans around and power-sulking.

2.       I forget to start cooking something or stop cooking something
a.     I holler-announce my mistake in an overly dramatic way with lots of swears, such as “SHIT!  I forgot to turn the OVEN ON” or “GREAT, the pork chops are cremated again.”
b.     Joe sweetly reminds me that he enjoys burnt food (he actually does), all is not lost and nobody else cares about the exact timing of dinner. 
c.     Nobody recognizes how close I come to not swearing and hollering for once, and how DISAPPOINTING that is.

I love cooking!

3.       I feed everyone else something different than what I eat
a.     By the time I’ve got the manly meal on the table, everyone else starts eating while I’m still microwaving my sad girl meal
b.     Everyone is done before I am
c.     I eat Max’s leftovers
d.     I am disgusted with myself

4.       I feed myself the same thing as the rest of the family
a.     I attempt to serve myself a somewhat more girly portion than my three over 6' tall men, which is probably still a generous man portion in most households.
b.     Joey and I begin an unofficial wolfing contest and finish in a tie, or I am a close second
c.     Repeat 3c
d.     Repeat 3d

Everyone around here wants dinner every damn day and I can't remember to take something out of the freezer at a reasonable time and/or BUY food that counts as dinner.  Plus all the burning and forgetting and injuries...  it's stressful. When Joe makes dinner, he has a real recipe and premeasures all of his ingredients in adorable little ceramic containers, keeping his work area neat and tidy.  When he's finished, it hardly ever looks like someone dropped an even messier kitchen on top of ours from a great height.  He is calm and happy as he accomplishes his successful cooking goals instructed by his beloved cooking shows. 

Joe's a project manager and I am a neurotic flibbertigibbet artist, so it all sort of makes sense, and yet it feels like the girl version of emasculation. 
It may not be very 2014, but I can’t help but feel this household stuff is supposed to be traditionally more in my lane, right?  If I could only remember to do stuff and swear less and stop demanding pronouncements of gratitude from everyone who lives here.

I shine in one glorious household chore; I can wash the bejeesus out of clothes for giants. 

I have at least 7 distinct hot/cold/light/dark categories, each containing at least one overflowing load on laundry day, because I procrastinate at least two weeks between laundry marathons.  Consequently, we all own an extraordinary amount of underpants.  After I've dumped hampers on the floor to sort, the pile is the size of a kitchen stove. 

Unlike my usual, cheap, half-ass efforts, I buy actual name brand detergent and use both fabric softener and multiple dryer sheets.  When the dryer stops, I lay every item in a basket carefully so that everything is nice and smooth when it comes time for my mom to do all my folding for me.  God bless my mommy.

Close, but not quite.
My husband is 6’8, Joey is 6’5 and Max is 6’1.  Joe and Joey have disproportionately long torsos and a passion for t-shirts and sweatshirts.  I try to find tall sizes when I can, but I cannot dry any of their shirts.  Ever.  Otherwise they will go right ahead and wear the resulting short shirts around the house with an inch or two of belly hanging out.  This is disturbing.  So I must take every shirt made out of any sort of jersey or stretchy cotton (t-shirt, sweatshirt, long sleeve, etc.) out of the washer and complete the following:

1.     Place arms into shirt and stretch wide-ways and then flap to shake out rumples.

2.      Fold the shirt in half long ways and roll the collar a few times so I don't stretch the head hole into a girly boat-neck effect.

3.     Step on the bottom of the damp shirt (preferably with bare or sock feet instead of dirty running shoes... lesson learned) and pull in an upward row fashion as far as shirt will allow to hopefully cover the entirety of Joe giganticness.

4.     Flap shirt to shake out up and down stretch rumples

5.     Hang shirt on hanger to dry on rod above washer and dryer.  We don't have a laundry room and steps 1-4 are performed on a step stool.

6.     Repeat for each of the 50 shirts that the Joes have fouled in a two week period. 

Honestly, it is a lengthy labor of love keeping my big boys clothed, fed and reasonably safe from tripping over my shoes in every room of our home.  I insisted that Joey start doing his own laundry this year, and when I saw him taking his clothes out of the dryer, one by one, laying them carefully into a basket, I could have cried. 

It’s all such a challenge for me, as I keep reminding everyone, but it’s worth it.  Especially when my three adorable, funny, sweet boys refuse to complain about the crunchy rice, the mushy green beans, the burnt chops.  "It's not my favorite," is the most brutal criticism Joe musters.

Despite my shitty household skills, I’m not afraid to take the cover off the furnace and start poking around to see why it isn’t turning on.  When there was a MASSIVE beehive outside Joey’s second floor window.  Joe said, “Damn, look at that thing! We’ll need to call someone.”  I marched upstairs with a towel around my arm and hit it with Max's hockey stick a bunch of times, and then shot it with bee killer juice after it fell on the ground.  Joe would prefer to write a check rather than risk bee stings or electrocution.  I hate paying for anything. 

I may stink at the girl stuff, but I can be just a little bit of a bad ass when I'm not sobbing somewhere because someone hurt my feelings. Hell, I'm pretty brave when it comes to fixing things, or killing things or other traditional male household jobs like being rude to salespeople. 

Except for lawn mowing and garbage toting… someone with a penis is definitely doing all that. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

High School Hero...

When I was 12, I loved Donny Nelson.  I wasn't the only one.  He was funny, charismatic and ridiculously handsome in that sudden, surprising way that some boys were in junior high… manly and confident while the rest of us were flopping around in a confused pile of hormones. Donny strode through school hallways with his shoulders thrown back, booming voiced, never doubting that things would go his way. I didn’t know then what Don had gone through as a child with his alcoholic mother.  Later I heard through the grapevine what he endured as an adult. 

Hang in there, baby.
Curly hair products are
coming in 10 years.

With my bad glasses, hair that refused to feather like Farrah’s and my loud, hopeful laugh, I was star struck when this larger than life boy chose me for a friend.  Donny was an equal opportunity lightning bolt, striking up friendships with an interesting assortment of kids.

Didn't mind hanging out
with frizzy haired nerds.
We drifted apart in high school when Donny became Warren Township High School’s star quarterback, surrounded by athletes and prom queens.  We were still friendly and I cried on his shoulder when his father died our freshman year.  Our bond had been forged as kids, singing dopey old songs for hours – me on piano, Donny on guitar.  We sang “My Blue Heaven” at the top of our lungs while walking from my house to his grandparents.  We threw a rock through a neighborhood window and hid in the woods from the angry victim.  At 13, I got into some serious trouble with Donny involving alcohol, a beach and the hospital.  He always deflected any blame, regardless of it being all his idea.  He wasn’t interested in a quiet life; he wanted action.

Don’s college football career ended abruptly when a neck injury left his right arm numb.  When he recovered, he joined the Marines.  During boot camp, an accidental blow to the head left him with the same numbness and he was discharged.  Determined, he joined the police force. 

He married Sheryl Corder, one of the loveliest girls in school whose shiny hair was a feathered masterpiece. She planned our ten year high school reunion - a perfect three day extravaganza that cost us relatively little because of Sheryl’s tireless fund raising.  In the book of alumni bios that she compiled, hers was the longest… a small town Hollywood fairytale about marrying the football star turned police officer, a new baby boy, and happily ever afters.  I was a little jealous that she’d been chosen by the boy who had been a comet in my life, that she was so amazingly perfect. 

Just months after the reunion, when Sheryl and Don’s son, little Donny, was six months old, Sheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Shortly after, she underwent a double mastectomy, then ovarian surgery.   Just days after her surgery, Don pulled his squad car over to assist a fellow officer with a routine stop.  A passing driver dozing at the wheel veered, striking Don as he stood next to the stopped vehicle.  The impact broke both Don’s legs and six ribs, bruised his lung, separated his shoulder and sent him flying 55 feet into the middle of the road.  He was flown to a hospital in Milwaukee on a Flight for Life helicopter.  Don’s frightened sister, Kim, picked up his recovering wife and took her to the hospital to wait through his seven hour surgery.

After he was out of danger, Don’s doctor told him the difficult news that he wouldn’t walk for six months.  Within a year, he might be able to overcome a limp. 

Don told them he was leaving, that day, with crutches.  And did.

Neither of the recovering new parents could care for little Donny, so Sheryl’s mother took the baby home with her each night and brought him back in the morning, caring for all three of them.  Don worked relentlessly on his rehabilitation and walked without crutches within two months. 

As they were fighting their individual fights, Don and Sheryl traveled to California to visit friends.  Before the trip, Sheryl had shaved her remaining hair and was wearing a wig.  “In the land of fruits and nuts,” Don joked, “Sheryl could go ahead and walk around bald.”  Pausing, he added, with pride, “She had such a beautiful head.  She could pull it off.  She looked great.”

Don ignored the advice of his doctors, pushing limits, and returned to work as a dispatcher.  Unhappy on the sidelines at a desk, he insisted he was ready, and returned to active duty only four months and 12 days after he was told he wouldn’t even walk for six.  His legs were never right, but boredom was worse than pain.

Four years later, things were looking up.  Sheryl had been healthy and little Donny was growing like a weed, the spitting image of his mother.  Don had a mole removed from his chest that indicated melanoma.  The next day, Sheryl’s cancer was back.

“You always have to one-up me,” Don accused her.  “I get hit by a car, you get cancer.  I get cancer, you get it twice.  Knock it off.”

Don’s brush with cancer was over quickly after a minor operation.  Sheryl’s road was steeper and they prepared again for battle.

On the 4th of July, Don was golfing with a group of detectives.  He drove his golf cart down an incline approaching a tunnel and started to slide.  Trying to regain control, Don braked hard and when the golf cart hit dry ground, it flipped.  Don tried to bail out and the canopy of the cart struck him in the back of the neck. 

“That was The Crippler.”  Don told me, using his favorite term to distinguish between his accidents.  “The moment it happened, I told the guys I knew my neck was broken.  It hurt and I couldn’t move anything.  So that was my second Flight for Life helicopter ride.  I have Flight for Life frequent flier miles.” 

Between rounds of chemotherapy, Sheryl visited Don during his four months of hospitalization. 

He was paralyzed from the shoulders down. 

“After my legs were broken,” Don told me, grinning, “Donny would jump on me and Sheryl would freak out.  But I’d tell her, hey, it’s not like he can break them again.  There are steel pins in there.  After I broke my neck, there was a bracket in there.  Let him jump. It won’t break again.”

Don's buddy

Don gave motivational speeches for patients treated by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.  “It doesn't matter how you got here.  It may not feel fair, but pissing and moaning isn’t going to make anything better. You can sit around feeling sorry for yourself, or you can start thinking about what you’re going to do next,” he told his fellow patients.  Don was selected to give a private showing to Christopher Reeves of their new robotic therapy developed for spinal cord patients.  Don and his sister were able to meet Christopher and spend some time with him just days before he died.  Don’s tough love approach inspired spinal cord patients and his sessions were full of laughter.  He was paid multiple times to speak to therapists in training.

 Don and Sheryl fought their battles valiantly side by side.  Two years after Don’s crippling accident, Sheryl died, at 34 years old, leaving her quadriplegic husband to take care of seven year old Donny. 

Don felt that his son had been as well prepared as possible for the loss of his beautiful mother after so many years of hospitals.  Every word Don spoke about his son was with pride in his toughness.  And yet it is hard for any father, let alone a severely injured one, to replace a mother’s tender touch.  “Sometimes he wants his mom,” Don told me in a rare vulnerable moment. “And all he has is me.  We do the best we can do and most of the time it is enough.”

When little Donny began playing his father’s beloved football, Don considered coaching but figured he couldn’t until he saw a documentary of Knute Rockne coaching from a wheelchair. “So I figured, what the hell?” Don laughed.  He volunteered to coach his son’s football team.  For ten years, Don was the heart and soul of our home town youth football organization, serving as president and resident hard ass.  He asked me to draw a portrait of his son and himself in their Warren uniforms.

“I do feel that everything that happens is a necessary step to the next thing,” Don stressed, “but I don’t know why Sheryl’s death had to be a part of the mix.   As far as the shit I’ve gone through, now I’m a stay at home dad.  I don’t have to work anymore.  I’ve been to Vegas a bunch with good friends, traveled more than I ever did before I was injured.  I figure I owe it to Sheryl, to Donny and myself to live every day to the fullest.  I’ve always seen my brothers and sister saving, waiting to enjoy life in retirement.  You just don’t know how much time you have.  You shouldn’t be reckless, but you need to live for now.” 

As our 20 year high school reunion approached, I had heard bits and pieces of Don’s story, but I’d lost touch with him.  I had thought about trying to reach out.  But what would I say to my lost friend in his wheelchair?  What would I say about Sheryl after all these years? 

Beautiful Sheryl
In her honor, Don planned the reunion and we reconnected as if no time at all had passed.  He invited my family to his big parties, full of all the friends he’d kept from our childhood.  I was floored at how little he’d changed, despite everything he’d been through.  He held court as always, telling stories in his commanding voice peppered with loud guffaws.  Don suggested that I draw memorial portraits of Sheryl's yearbook photo and a few other classmates who we’d lost for the reunion book.  I had just lost my job and he wanted to give my brand new portrait business some exposure.  Over the following years, he was always promoting me, ordering portraits, recommending me.  He supported his friends fiercely.

Yet Don is an acquired taste. 

When my husband first met him, he found Don to be a bit of a know-it-all.  Don states his opinions as fact, loudly debating any disagreement.  It can be abrasive, but there is always an edge of affection and humor there.  I was touched that such a large group of high school guys would stay so close, like family, for more than 25 years - vacationing together, hanging out weekly.  The more time I spent with them, the tighter their bond seemed.   Don doesn’t let you in deep, but he shows you in many ways that he cares.  He’s heroic with a little devil thrown in… on the football field, in his commitment to his family, in his arguably courageous attitude to not let anything get him down.  I can’t imagine going through the shit storm that Don has and still wake up each day, eager to make it a great one.  He’s a smart ass, he’s arrogant, he’s bossy.  He’s also unwaveringly loyal and passionate about making the most out of life. 

Don believed, with all his heart, that he would walk again.  He believed that everything happens for a reason.  When the reason continually evaded him, when his body repeatedly betrayed him, his positive attitude began to flicker, to fade.  After such a long, long battle, wouldn’t you feel angry?  Wouldn’t you just get tired? 

He began to push family and friends away, lashing out in anger, then trying to joke it off.  He moved to Vegas with his son in late 2013, living the last days of his life in the place he loved with the boy who had become a young man, and who, like his father, has faced far, far too much adversity.

At Don’s memorial, he wore our high school’s Blue Devils jersey.  I should have expected it, but I didn’t, and it tore every one of us up.  It took us all back to those swaggering days when he was so very alive.  I was overcome with guilt for letting him push me away.  I loved him and I always had.  Why didn’t I understand that he was angry and lonely?  Why didn’t I reach out to him more?

I remember nagging Don about his biography for the 20th reunion book.  Stubborn as ever, he refused to write anything. 

“You’re planning the whole thing!” I argued with him.  “You need to put something.  Besides, who has more interesting stuff to say than you?”

“Okay,” he smiled, “just write, ’You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’”

So we did. 

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.