Friday, January 30, 2009

Shameless self-promo

Hey all, here are some of the fruits of my painting labors for the past few months. I wish I could say I whipped these out in a couple of weeks (and in reality, the hours invested would amount to far less than that span of time)…but the blocks of time that I can carve out and justify for painting are just not as frequent as I’d like them to be.

I also did a commissioned piece in the fall, which I didn't show here because I didn't like it as well as these two; they were simply for sheer enjoyment. I'm partial to the cow. I love cows. Aren’t they beautiful? And so expressive? Whoever coined the many unkind phrases about cows, especially those sayings that connote cows with unattractiveness, must have never had the opportunity to gaze into a bovine face and study its depth and loveliness.

However, I digress. The real point was supposed to be that I will work for commissions. And very, very reasonably, I might add—I’ll paint just about anything for less than ONE MILLION DOLLARS. (This stated with my pinky in the corner of my mouth…) (Ha ha ha ha.) Okay, in truth, I work for a fraction of that—truly, a fraction. As in, about 1/20,000 of that amount. Seriously. I’m going to tool around and paint stuff anyway, so I might as well be painting something for you. Right?

Food for thought—or some “cud” for you to chew on. Happy weekend.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A truly tender heart

I forget, sometimes, how powerful words really are.

Recently—say, in the past 4 months—my little boy and the old cat I’ve had for years have begun to be friends. Actual friends. I knew we were on our way when Sam gave Marcus a barely detectable head-butt on the shoulder well over a year ago. Their camaraderie has slowly but surely grown, and now, I am somewhat happy to report that the cat will try to jump on my son’s tiny lap just as readily as he will try leaping upon my own.

However. That happy little pal-ship brings its own annoyances. Whereas once, the kid and I could play happily on the floor and the mere presence of the boy would ward off the attention-seeking feline, these days we’re utterly at the cat’s mercy. Any Duplo, car, fire truck or train activity is accompanied by much purring, butting, and furry walk-throughs. It’s sweet and charming—but mostly, it just gets on your nerves after a bit.

Since the kid is one of us now, he too grows weary of the cat’s constant need for petting and warm laps. And today, as he sat on the couch, Sam once again leaped up and attempted to move in for a warm seat right next to Marcus. And my little boy, normally tolerant and loving with the cat, decided he was not in the mood. He pushed the cat away, not gently, and I chided him a bit.

“Honey, be nice to Kitty. He just wants to be close to you.”

“I don’t want him up here.” He continued to nudge the cat away with his foot.

“But he wants to be close to you; he loves you.” By now, the cat had been encouraged right off the couch and had given up; he was wandering toward the doorway, escaping no doubt to his favorite spot on the dining room floor next to the heater vent.

“Okay,” said Marcus. He scooted over a bit and made a space next to him on the couch. “He can come up here. Here, Kitty.” But the cat had left.

“He gave up, Honey. He went out to the other room; he’s sad and lonely. He doesn’t think you want him. He’ll be out there on the cold, hard floor.” I was half kidding, because Todd and I play this guilt game all the time with each other; we often remind each other of Sam's glory days, and how his role of lap-cat has slipped significantly since the boy arrived in our lives.

I looked over at Marcus as I finished speaking, and noticed that his mouth had an odd little twist to it. He blinked a couple times before I realized that look—the very same one that I wear when I’m holding back tears. And then, the floodgates burst. His eyes squeezed shut and sobs sprang forth—real sobs, heartfelt, broken cries—and he threw himself face down into the corner of the couch, weeping.

“Oh, Honey, I didn’t mean to make you cry. Kitty’s okay. He’s fine. He’s in his favorite spot. You don’t have to let him up if you don’t want to.” My calming logic made no impact whatsoever; I was still speaking to a small back that was wracked with sobs. “Do you want me to go get Kitty and bring him in here so he can sit with us?”

“Yes.” Sniff. Sniff again.

“Okay.” I did just that, went and found the old crotchety cat and carried him in so he could sit with us on the couch. We petted him, stroked him, scratched behind his ears—we generally made a big fuss over the beast. And my son’s tears dried, and the cat purred, and all was well again.

I must remember how tender-hearted is my sweet boy. And somehow, I must think of a way to keep him from the cruelty of the world—especially the cruelty of children. Is that possible?


Monday, January 26, 2009

From the hip

I usually draft a post and re-read it several times before I actually go public. I don't sit around obsessing over it, or changing it twenty times, but I try to make sure there are no glaring errors and that the thoughts presented can actually hold water.

I'm not doing that tonight. I'm just typing from the hip. I'm sad. Another person who's been a fixture in my life, my family's life, has lost his battle with the "c" word. Another great one has passed from among us. There was no miracle. There was suffering, and waiting, and much prayer, but he has succumbed nonetheless.

The past couple of years have brought about a landslide of losses for my family, big ones that leave unsightly gashes in the side of the mountain. I suppose it comes to this, for everyone who lives a reasonably long life—this growing certainty that you are a shrinking percentage of the population. It's never easy to lose a loved one; perhaps the loss is even more difficult to comprehend and accept when the person who is taken leaves a legacy of hope, patience, strength, and courage. This fellow who ultimately lost his battle won many, many skirmishes. He smiled when others would have frowned, pressed on when many would have given in. He seized every moment he was given, grasping its hand and pumping it up and down with genuine joy. He inspired me, and all who knew him.

I must remember his example when I'm feeling sorry for myself, feeling defeated by what is likely a small matter in the big picture—I must embrace this glorious, wonderful gift of life and never depreciate it with petty pouting. I must take this loss, although it is the latest in a long list of losses, and I must hold it up to the light so it takes on a soft, warm glow—the glow of the man whose memory it represents. I must be thankful.

If I do all that, it will be the least of what I can do. Because, you see, I am here to do those things.


(Another thing I must do? I must re-read The Reason for God by Timothy Keller*. I recommend it to everyone. To those who believe in our savior, it will strengthen your faith. And those of you who just aren't sure, but can't deny that no one leaves this spinning blue orb in quite the same form they had when they inhabited it? I especially recommend it to you.)

*Thanks for sharing that book, DK!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

That big ol' fancy inauguration

Wasn’t it pretty? And so touching? All those starry-eyed people, screaming and chanting for their favorite superstar? I mean, their new president?

There were highlights—I was fortunate enough to catch one of those: the beautiful musical quartet that performed “Simple Gifts.” What an amazing gift that truly was, sandwiched among so many ceremonial displays and double-speak. I guess I did get tearful, after all, during all the hoopla.

I don’t mean to be such a cynic. I don’t want to be that way. Honestly, I didn’t watch much of the day’s events; when I did, the thing that blew me away was the sheer number of humans who’d flooded that great city just to be there for such a monumental day.

But now the new guy’s moved in, and he’s signing liberal papers so fast that the ink isn’t yet dry before the order’s been hurried off his desk. Abortion rights and funds increased, prisons closed… (Hey, did you buy a firearm yet, or ammo that isn’t numbered?) If Great Britain is any indication of where we’re headed, then Sharia law is coming soon (see here),
and also here). We can even look for the food police (see here).

I wonder what the future holds for our country. I will be praying for this new administration, of course—we’re instructed to do that, even if/especially when we don’t agree with everything they do. I urge you to do the same. Go here if you need some starters.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Suddenly un-busy

Winter is pretty detestable to me, albeit picturesque at times, and each cold season seems longer to me than the last. Yet, winter has a way of reminding me how utterly at the mercy of the elements we all are…and bringing home the value of taking time to do nothing.

For example, last Wednesday was shaping up to be a busy one. We had a regular day of errands, Todd was working as usual, and we were to convene at home for a quick, earlier-than-usual dinner and then rush out the door to a variety of church events beginning at 6. Wet snow was spitting on the little guy and me as we groceried and made other quick stops; after we’d gotten back home, I had begun preparing the meal when I noticed it was snowing more purposefully. Lots of snow. And the snow was beginning to pile up.

I checked the news, saw various watches and warnings flashing across the screen, was overwhelmed with cancellations and doomsday predictions of bad roads and colder temps. Then I checked email, and there was a note from a church person: Everything is cancelled for tonight. Everything. Kid stuff, singing stuff, teenager stuff—all kaput. I confirmed this with the department where I’d been planning to participate that evening, found out the alternate practice time that had been scheduled, and scribbled it on the calendar. Just that quickly, we were in for the night.

Where there’d been busy-ness, there was suddenly free time. In a block of hours that had been completely accounted for, there was now the promise of relaxation, an early bed, coziness instead of mad dashing from car to building to car again. No plan, no agenda—instead, we were given a newly discovered time to breathe and be thankful.

Why does it take a snowstorm to ground us in the values of simplicity? None of the things we do here at our house are inherently bad things; they’re innocent and worthwhile activities. There’s nothing wrong with singing in a choir or attending kids club or playing hoops with some middle schoolers. Still, all those worthwhile pastimes can overtake you if you let them. Suddenly, you’re not being civil to each other, and you’re living in chaos and gulping your meals and tripping over clutter and dirty dishes and forgetting to feed the cat. It just happens, because those are all effects of the cause of over-busyness.

On that snowy, un-busy night, calm was reclaimed. We drank tea, and watched the fluffy whiteness envelop our home, the street, the cars parked resignedly there. No one was going anywhere. And in truth, no one really minded.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Beatin' that dead equine-omy

So, I’m watching the economy as it crumbles. And I’m thinking some pretty deep thoughts—deep for me, at least.
"Free enterprise will work if you will."
-Ray Kroc (founder, McDonald’s restaurant)

Hmmm. Does anyone still embrace that philosophy today? It would seem that the biggest, wealthiest corporate types don’t often represent that sort of thinking in American society. I’m trying to drum up some positive examples of leadership in our country, some folks who continued to believe in working hard to succeed even when scams were running rampant at every level of business… but the only examples I can think of are the schmucks who are stammering excuses when asked to account for bailout bucks. It’s no wonder the kids are confused about right and wrong, when there’s such a paucity of moral heroes to look to for guidance.

Oddly enough, our iffy economy isn’t hurting everybody; sales of SPAM are strong. Not strong enough to float Hormel, but hey, every sale counts. (See this story.) That got me thinking about how in tough times, people go for the cheapest stuff—food and otherwise. Fast food is probably not feeling the pinch of shut wallets as much as classy, fancy (read: expensive) restaurants are. Might the same be true of goods? Are necessary purchases being made, but on tighter budgets? Perhaps the lesser-known brand, in many cases lower-quality item is the one leaving the shelf, for significantly less money… and isn’t that sort of the opposite of what capitalism is supposed to do? It seems to me that the idea of free trade would spur better products and raise them to the top. For example, cars right now: the more efficient, longer-lasting versions that people can afford are faring much better than their gas-sucking, rust-bucket competition. If what’s happening with food is happening in other sectors, I fear our capitalism is floundering.

And why is the government trying to save everyone? After all, isn't the general concept of capitalism based on the premise that not everyone will succeed? That the best will survive and others will fail, or try again and be improved by the competition? Todd and I were discussing the many annoyances of packaging around Christmas (as many of you were, I'm sure--especially those of you with small children), and it occurred to both of us that the ridiculous level of detail given to packaging today is likely thanks to our competitive market. Back in the day, you just bought your flour out of a barrel at the general store, and then maybe some hot shot started to bag his own brand with a recognizable color or image. And his brand never had weevils. And the other fellow tried that, too, but the first guy just had a better product, and he succeeded and eventually put the other guy out of the flour business--or bought him out and employed him. Who knows. The point is, better products that resulted from competition (and perhaps from flashy packaging) is what built this goofy society with all its bells and whistles. Every great invention was created because someone could do something better, or faster, or cheaper, or all three. If we get away from the very bare bones of competitive free trade, we abandon a valuable part of our history.

Additionally, the husband and I are watching home mortgage rates to see if we can swing a refinanced loan for a shorter term. Except guess what happened to the closing costs and fees in the past couple of years? Yep, they shot up. Way up. It feels as if we—the responsible borrowers who took what we could afford, paid on time, and never got a second adjustable rate mortgage—are now being punished while others who bought 3 times the house on less income are being saved from themselves with amazing deals, rates, and debt forgiveness. You think Obama’s planning to save us? Think again.

In sum? America is rewarding and furthering greed, indirectly lowering our standards on much of the stuff we purchase, discouraging the building blocks of our economy by trying to save bad businessmen, and enabling some individuals who had already proven they couldn’t handle the debt they had before they ever took on the biggest debt of their lives.

It’s a really good thing I’m not bitter about all this.

Friday, January 9, 2009

It gets me, every time it hits me

In the past ten years or so, I’ve undergone some pretty major changes in my life. Moving to the ‘Burgh, switching careers, getting back to church, getting married, having a child… It’s enough to make your head spin. Until you wonder what the next ten years might hold. Those last three changes were the biggies for sure. You can change homes and jobs over and over again and still feel the same inside. But you’d be hard-pressed to embrace Christianity, join your life with another person, or become a parent without being altered forever. And those types of monumental changes are the ones that cause you to re-examine your life, yourself, your pursuits and interests, your hobbies and habits all with new eyes.

I guess I started to ponder the things that I surrounded myself with after being at our church for a couple of years. By then, the husband and I knew we were committed to this path, that we’d be staying the course, and that it would require some changes in the way we lived and spent time. We went through books and magazines we’d accumulated, through artwork and collections in general, and we began to sort out the not-so-wholesome things and remove them from our midst.

Some things were easy to toss; others, not so. (Of course, I had no trouble making “toss” recommendations to my husband. Tee hee hee.) But as time passed, we freed ourselves of the items that didn’t feel quite right anymore. There wasn’t a huge amount of undesirables that were sent away, but it was enough that we felt we’d made the effort. Whew, we were good people again.

And then, we decided to try to reproduce. Pregnancy resulted. Then childbirth.

An entirely new level of sorting began. And I’m not talking just about childproofing our house and placing breakable items on high shelves; I’m talking about reconsidering just about every material possession that had come into our home. Any piece that had been riding on the fence as far as acceptability suddenly fell off and hit the ground. And mostly, it was music choices—often from years before we’d married.

Music was hard for me. I love music. Music has shaped who I am and how I handle stress, has maybe even affected how I relate to people and how I form thoughts. And it’s so deeply connected to times in my life, to periods of growth, to experiences that I both cherish and shudder to recall—as it is for all of us. It’s ingrained in my memories of life. To toss out certain pieces of music felt like tossing out a piece of myself.

I got rid of a few CDs and a lot of cassettes (remember those?) that had seen a lot of wear, but not so much recently for a variety of reasons. And I tried to kindle self-interest in good Christian music, and some pop music that was harmless and somewhat palatable. I really did try. And I found a handful of choices that I’ve continued to enjoy since then, music that is both quality listening and has nothing questionable about it; music that causes me absolutely no qualms when my little son listens to it.

But I never really got into a lot of that type of music. And I will confess; I squirreled away part of my old CD collection, locked it in the dark recesses of the stereo cupboard. And I’ll tell you this, too: the local rock ‘n roll station still has a place on my car’s programmed radio channels, even though the DJs are often foul-mouthed and utterly inappropriate for adults, let alone for kids. And I’ll tell you why this is so—and it gets me, every time it hits me—I’ve got a rock ‘n roll heart. (Thanks, Clapton.)

I still hold Led Zeppelin dear. I can’t help it. They are simply genius. They are so talented, so diverse, so amazingly capable of expressing, in guitar licks and melodies, music that matches every one of my moods. I know, I know—some of their songs are about subjects that I hope never to tackle with my kid. I know some of them are overtly flirting with undertones I should eschew. I know. But Page’s handiwork, oh my. And Plant’s voice, from gravely murmuring to heartfelt shrieking, covers it all. Those guys blow me away. And I felt a little pang in my heart when I sold one of my Red Hot Chili Peppers albums. I am fully cognizant that those silly boys, in younger years, performed part of a concert wearing only socks on certain appendages. That’s bizarre, and kind of sick, and probably illegal. I know that. But no one plays the bass like Flea. No one.

I mean, it’s not a big shock, the subject matter of some of these songs. One definition of the very phrase “rock and roll” is a thinly veiled reference to a certain act—did you know that? (Read more here.) I believe it was a phrase among the African-American community in the 50s, possibly earlier. BUT I also know that some of that music is about the same stuff all music is about: love, longing, joy, playful fun, feeling pain and loneliness and melancholia.

So, the other day, when Marcus asked specifically to hear a song with just drums, I dug into the lower shelf of the CD collection and pulled out “Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreax” by none other than Led Z. It’s super-heavy on drums, has some great drum solos, and features a heavy guitar as well. Did my little boy like it? At first. Then he grew tired of it, and told me quite clearly when he’d heard enough. So I stopped it—and forced him instead to listen to part of “Fool in the Rain.” Amazing song, with incredibly complex time changes throughout… I dare you to sit still while you listen. He liked it all right. And then we turned on WQED radio again.

And I don’t care. I’m not sorry. I cannot turn away from true musicality even when some of the related material delves into less savory territory—I can’t do it. I won’t do it. I will not forsake great art and a trip to the museum simply because there are a few paintings of nudes mixed in, and I will not forsake all great rock music in spite of the fact that some of the artists dally in some questionable lyrics. Now, hear me: if the lyrics are awful? Disgusting? If they incite killing or violence or senseless uprisings or sacrilege? Of course I’ll turn them off, ban them from my collection. I don’t want anything in our home that encourages or leaves doors open for the enemy of man.

But I will also pull out a song with all drums when the occasion calls for it. Oh, I’ll keep some good gospel mixes in the cupboard, even though I’ll likely give away a lot of the more “pop-py” stuff if it comes my way. The classical greats will always have a place in our home, along with some cool jazz, some oldies… and they'll coexist with some wonderful rockin’ tunes. I can love Jesus and still love some rock ‘n roll. Both of them move me; One, to be a better person, and the other? To move myself off the couch.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The great (if somewhat “dandy”) outdoors

A few weeks before Christmas, the kid and I ventured to the new L. L. Bean store at the mall nearby. (Yes, the same increasingly upscale mall I wrote about here.) We went in search of a very handy, utterly pragmatic wind-up flashlight for Todd/Daddy.

The store was beautiful, lots and lots of wood but not all of it spotless; there were a few carefully chosen pieces with wear and character. It was huge, two stories, with a giant staircase in the middle, incredibly high ceilings (so as to easily accommodate standing kayaks, of course), little training areas and small classrooms tucked away, and lots of trademark pine and sage greens, perhaps to fool the shopper into feeling as if he or she is actually in the great outdoors.

The entire staff was impeccably mannered, eager to assist but never fawning or stalking the customer. Everything was so neat, so tidy, so utterly organized and shiny. We wandered for a few minutes, found what we’d been seeking, looked around at the overpriced clothes upstairs, and picked out some adorable doggy slippers for my boy to purchase with some early Christmas money he’d received.

It was lovely, and just a little bit intimidating. I tried to figure out my discomfort as we left the store, bag in hand, and were bid farewell by the friendly and courteous greeter who was stationed at the door. I love the outdoors, love fresh air and sunshine and stretching my legs on a grassy slope while the breeze blows my hair. I should feel at ease in a place that sells all this gear. I don’t ski, or kayak, but it shouldn’t matter—Bean has always been about fun and practicality outside.

And it still is. It’s a great company. The stuff is high quality, and works, and lasts. I want no beef with Bean.

But it’s this whole outdoorsy “lifestyle” that’s turning me off. With all the giant outdoor stores springing up—Cabela’s, Gander Mountain, Sportsman’s Warehouse—it feels as if I am being sold a shopping experience, a whole package deal in which I buy the stuff and then live the life. And that smacks of lies to me.

I remember hearing about the original Bean store in New England from a friend who had the pleasure of visiting it yearly while visiting family up north. Her descriptions of the place didn’t ring true while I walked through this newest store. Where were the real woodsmen and women? Why wasn’t anyone wearing a coat that didn’t match the rest of the outfit? How come no one was clumping around in work boots? I wonder what would happen at that pretty, spotless store if a guy who owned a couple of those infamous Labs came in and had dog poo on his shoe… Would he be asked to leave? Would the other customers be offended? And are people who love the outdoors always so well-heeled? I thought they could be gruff, perhaps even sloppy. I didn’t know they all were clean shaven and colored their hair. Not ones shopper even raised his or her voice. Aren't people who love being outside ever loud? The true outdoorsmen and women I’ve known didn’t look like any of those shoppers, at Bean or at many of the other stores.

And the stores themselves: must they be so ginormous? Cabela’s alone must take up such a huge chunk of acreage that many of the animals the place claims to love and protect were likely put out of their homes. The parking lot alone is the size of a huge meadow. Bean wasn’t a store of that scale, but still…

I wonder what has become of all the real outdoor people. I know Orvis and Bass Pro and the like have been appealing to the upper crust of sportsmen for many years, but it feels like a wave of falsification is taking place in this world that I hold dear. The Great Outdoors is great—it doesn’t need to be billed as an amusement park so that every yuppie within driving range can visit it, be impressed, and mark it off their list of “to-do’s in this lifetime.” I am sad that even the natural realm has become yet another mark of materialism in our messed-up world.

Yes, the stores are interesting and amazing—but not nearly as much so as the real thing. The shopping for gadgets and garments shouldn’t be the experience; the outdoor experience itself should be the experience. Perhaps someday, if we keep building these monstrosities, the shopping experience will be the only one that remains.