Thursday, June 30, 2011

A different kind of painting

Our recent adventures have taken us into and around the city of Pittsburgh, and the boy and I have rediscovered some of our favorite fountains.

One sits in the outdoor courtyard that lies between the Carnegie Museums of Art and of Natural History. The terraced space has small trees, lots of tables and chairs, and a crashing, thunderous wall of water on one side. Gallon after gallon falls from the top of the wall into a long, shallow pool. Because of the force of water impacting water, this one is quite splashy; to stand near it is to ensure wet feet and face. Aaah.

Another great fountain lies next to the BNY Mellon Building (this used to be called One Mellon Center), on the side next to the USX Tower. There's a lovely little park there, with several bench-laden walkways both sunny and shaded to accommodate foot traffic. The fountain sits in a bright, open area; it looks simple enough, a circular ground-level design with large steps that mimic the slight hill upon which it sits. Standing off-center inside the circle are four tall obelisks, notched on top, and water pours from each and intersects with other waters on the way down. It is deceptively uncomplicated, but intricate and painstakingly planned upon closer inspection. The off-center forms, the notches to facilitate water breakage, the placement in full sun, all make it a hugely successful design. During lunch hour, you'll be lucky to find a bench near this beauty, so I must not be the only one who admires it.

But the crowing glory, my friends? The show-stopper? That would be the fountain at PPG Plaza.

This one, too, might not grab your attention at first. It's a bunch of jets set right into sidewalk level on the large plaza floor. If you happen upon it when the jets are on low power, it will look like a series of baby fountains spurting from the concrete, surrounding a stumpy Washington monument-wannabe. But oh, when it's in full power, the scene is quite different. The jets are amazingly strong, and those cute little waterfalls suddenly grow until they tower over your head, reaching heights up to 15 or more feet. The monument in the center of the jets is a safe haven, misty and dreamy but somewhat protected from direct sprays.

What makes this one most special is that it's interactive, and the actors are children. Any visiting kid, of any age, size, or color, can walk and run right through the whole sopping scene. The constant accompaniment to the splashing, arching, spraying waters is the unrestrained screams and giggles of every dripping child there. It is the perfect summer symphony, a glorious cacophony of delight and joy. Conversation close to the fountain is absolutely drowned, and no one minds. Shouts mingle with the sounds of small, slapping feet, and the water rises, rises, rises as do the shrieks of glee. Rainbows dance everywhere, the shiny black glass of the surrounding towers gleams in a wavy sea of reflections, and it is impossible not to grin like a fool in the midst of it all.

Have you taken any time lately to really appreciate the miracle of water? Its existence, its necessity for sustenance, its power to heal and amaze? Yes, I know, it can flood, too–it can cause damage and death and destruction. It deserves our respect. But I just want to think about the good things it does right now.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The perils of childhood summers

We signed up for beginner sessions at the pool a few weeks ago, and then the lessons began this past Monday. There we all stood, a bevy of parents, grandparents, and swimsuit-clad kids of all ages. The perky, tanned lifeguards called out names and got everyone into the proper groupings, and the guardians and younger siblings made their way to spots in the grass or shade, where we plunked down to observe the swimmers-in-training.

It's funny how you can bury a memory, and then years later it all comes back with unsettling clarity. It's the swimming lessons' fault. My kid hates them. He needs them, I know. It is essential that he learn to swim. Crucial. Absolutely a must. But it's not fun. Not yet, anyway.

I didn't fully recollect how much I, too, used to hate swimming lessons until the second day of this week, when my sweet son pleaded silently with me from the pool, his face distorted by the telltale pre-cry grimace. I spoke to him over the fence, as close as I was permitted to get. He had to be tough, I said; he just needed to do his best. It was okay if it wasn't perfect. It would get easier. Etc. Etc. In vain. He heard not a word through his misery. I gave up after a minute and returned, guilt-stricken, to my safe spot in the shade.

The next day, I stayed farther away. When he looked my way repeatedly, I looked down at the notebook in my hands, adding imaginary items to my grocery list so he knew without a doubt that I wouldn't save him and let him out of the lesson commitment. This morning, after he'd played the tears card in the car before the lesson began, I went farther; I sat behind a huge mountain of a man after my son entered the pool, thus totally obliterating the kid's view of me. He seemed to give up after a bit, according to a classmate's grandpa who was keeping watch as he sat next to me, and by the end of class my boy was actually trying to retrieve a ring from under water. This is big for us, believe me. Ring retrieval is an enormous step.

Now, we have a few days off from lessons, and I pray that his ring-seeking moment of bravery will not be forgotten over the long weekend. The point of this post, though, is not how my boy hates swimming; it's the fact that my vicarious suffering has brought back to me memories of my own early days at the "big pool." The sad truth is that I recognized that dripping, grimacing face of his, and it was my face. From many years back.

My teacher was not a cute, brown-skinned teenager. My teacher was Miss Betty. She was ancient to us kids, but old even by the standards of most adults. Her hair was frizzy and white, and when she instructed the older kids and was submerged, I'm pretty certain she wore an old rubbery swim-cap. Her requisite blue suit was stretched over her doughy flesh, and I don't recall that she was actually tanned even though she had reportedly life-guarded since birth; she must have been an advocate of sunscreen even back in the day. Or, her weary pigment had just given up.

Miss Betty had about as many soft, fuzzy edges as a box. Her voice was not an encouraging coo—it was more of a bark. She had no tolerance for fear, and she accepted no excuses. When she said blow bubbles, by God you blew bubbles. Even if you filled the pool with snot as you wept openly. There we stood, a row of horrified 6-year-olds, our blue lips quivering (the lessons always happened in the morning, early in the summer when the water was still barely 75 degrees), and Betty made us blow, and float, and kick until we could barely move our frozen limbs.

For many of us not raised near a ready supply of deep water, the idea of putting your face under water it not appealing. The very sensation of water rushing around one's head, up one's nose, into one's ears is pretty frightening. Doing this under duress while a crabby old lady hollers at your from above the water's surface or, worse yet, "helps" you to do these things, is pretty traumatizing. At several points my terrified, oxygen-deprived young brain was convinced that Betty would let me drown. She never did.

In fact, not only did she manage to pass me on to the next level, turtle-floating and bubble-blowing in adequate fashion, but she also delivered artificial respiration successfully to an infant a few years later, thus saving a baby from drowning. She may not have been heavy on charm, but she knew her stuff, that Betty.

So, I know there is hope for my boy. I can still side-stroke myself to safety these days thanks to her Betty's stubborn efforts, and I do go under the surface willingly, not just when forced to do so. But my heart breaks a little when I imagine the thoughts that must be going through my little guy's head. I keep reassuring him that the guards know what they're doing, that they all started out the same way that he is starting, the same way that I started. It does get easier. I can't assure him that it will ever be easy—that might be a lie. But easier? Yes.

Happily, I can still say with certainty that Dory was right: "Just keep swimming." I just wish we could skip this part of the learning experience.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A "felt" melmoir

I've been absent from the internet for several days, not because I chose to step away, and not because my child and our hectic summer schedule kept me from writing... Nope. I was absent because Verizon stinks. I really can't say quite enough bad things about them right now. I will tell the entire frustrating story some other time, when it's less fresh and I am less tempted to write bad words in this family-friendly venue, but OH will I tell it. V is going D O W N .

This little anecdote, however, has nothing to do with poor customer service or the sad, isolated, out-of-touch existence that has been mine of late. This has to do with pool.

Not the pool. Just pool. As in pool table.

At one point in my youth, I believe when I was in middle school, my parents came to the decision that we could use a pool table in our dining room.

I still can't quite believe this happened, looking back. Right there. In our dining room. In lieu of a dining table. Granted, we never used the dining table except when we had company—meals were always eaten at the kitchen table—but still. I am truly surprised that my mother agreed to it. We must have obtained the table for a steal or for free, and I believe its presence preceded the spacious, old wooden table and chairs that now adorn the dining room. But I am still shocked when I recall the large, green felt reality of that big ol' table.

It was odd, being able to stroll into your own dining room and break up the set. Most of the sticks were frankly too long to use effectively in the room, as I recall; depending on the location of the ball, there was often not enough space to really take the shot properly because the back of your stick banged into the wall behind it. But it mattered not: I was a shrimp, the youngest, and I preferred the short, wimpy stick. I think we all fought over that stick when the shot really mattered, because it was the only stick guaranteed to fit inside the available space.

At any time, my sisters and I could wander in and chalk a stick, break, and start whacking balls into holes. I distinctly remember one snowy day when the morning dawned impassable and school was canceled, but by mid-day it was quite harmless. Family friends of ours came over with their two sons, and we spent the afternoon smacking the cue into stripes and solids alike, having a rip-roaring good time as the frigid wind blew outside. It was a blast. I don't recall being very good, but I was definitely a better pool player then than I am now. If we'd kept the table, I might have actually started applying logic; perhaps geometry could have been useful for something.

Alas, the pool table was a short-lived phenomenon at our home. Perhaps my mother finally demanded that it go. Perhaps my father grew weary of the endless cracking sounds that emanated from the heart of our home. Maybe, just maybe, the novelty wore off and we needed another table to set papers on. For whatever reason, without too much argument as I can recall, the table went away and was replaced by a more appropriate, far more boring table. It's odd; I recall neither the installation of nor the removal of the pool table, even though the room in which it dwelt was not large and the doorways to and from quite narrow and unforgiving. It must have been a battle getting it into and out of there, but in my mind, the table just appeared. And then disappeared. It's funny what a mind chooses to remember.

Oh, well. Just another quirky snapshot from my past. Have any of those yourself?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Winding down and shifting gears

We're in the last week of school here; some districts have already finished for the year. It's exciting and also hard to believe. My little guy will be a first grader—egads!—and we'll be spending lots more time playing and less time hurrying to get somewhere on time. At least that's the plan. I am eager to spend more time with my sweet little boy.

It's hard to find balance, though. I'll go from having too much time alone to being deprived of it altogether. I don't know how often I'll be blogging, let alone painting. Unless I can turn the kid on to painting, too—I do have multiple easels, and he's loaded with tempera thanks to a generous Christmas gift from pals. A family plein air session, anyone? Todd did go to Art Institute... but seems less inclined to do old-fashioned paper-and-canvas art unless it's sketching. He's just too good at that Adobe Creative Suite.

So, I won't bid you adieu, but I will say that my posts for the new couple of months are likely to be hit or miss. This is the last painting* I will finish while the kiddo is institutionalized. It's the entryway for a building on my church's campus. For me, this door signifies my stepping into the world of choir rehearsal. I pull that handle, mount the steps inside, and join a throng of voices raised in worship. We'll have the summer off, so perhaps I can see this doorway hanging in my home, and be reminded to revisit my arpeggios occasionally. (Not that we sing those at rehearsal. There's no time! We get right down to business, man! God's praises won't wait for warm-ups!)

Have a great kick-off to the summer season. Remember, the whole point is to do less. It's perfectly okay to achieve mind-liberating, creativity-feeding boredom.

* Thanks to Rick C. for the great photo source!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Not-so-great expectations

Earlier this week, after the kid was sleeping, the husband and I sat down to chat about what sort of house we'd like to find. We are sort of looking, now that we've been pre-approved for the loan, but we aren't finding our dream or anything that even resembles it. And we don't have a lot of time to take advantage of the window of opportunity that summer permits.

Just like any house hunters, we have a little list in our heads of all the must-haves, followed closely by the nice-to-haves. What seems to occur, though, is that as I look at what's really, truly available on the market and in our price range, I start to adjust my happy little list. My husband, however, does not.

I suppose it could be a matter of faith. If we trust God to deliver what we need, then the right house will either pop up or it won't. If we're meant to move, then the place will be in the right location, the right distance from town, the right school. I shouldn't need to fret about any of it. And honestly, I'm not fretting. I like where we live. If I didn't dislike close neighbors, yappy dogs, loud vehicles, and bus traffic, and if I didn't still believe that our society is doomed to collapse pretty darned soon, then I'd just sit tight here and be thankful for what we have. I really am thankful; it's a great place.

My actual conundrum is the fact that I am a giver-upper. I don't cling to ideals. I don't cling to anything. I am as changeable as a June weather system. In the midst of our lively conversation (translation: rather hostile volley of words), it became clear to me that my husband thinks I am a bit of a flibbertegibbet. That I hurry through things, longing more to finish and accomplish the task than to do it well.

The reason that hurt was because he's right. And he is the exact opposite, painstakingly researching, studying, sketching, idealizing (IMHO, of course) before even approaching the road to be taken. Which is why he's better at doing home projects, why he's superior at remodels, why the garden that he built last year looks so nice.

The problem is that other than that garden, I'm usually the driving force behind major changes in our lives. And remember, the garden came to be when I went back to work for that awful year of dad-stays-at-home-with-the-boy. It was a matter of survival, and we got through it, but by no means was I the only one going crazy. I think the garden helped my spouse to make it through the year.

I stand firm that we may not have gotten married yet, let alone purchased any homes, if I hadn't been my flibbertegibbet self and gotten the silly notion in my head about the importance of emotional commitment and then property ownership. We may not even have a child yet. Well, we might have gotten around to that, since I am married to a man. 'Nuf said.

I don't mean to expose too much insider information here; that's not what this blog is supposed to be about. I guess I am just wondering where other people stand on ideals and must-haves. Is the rest of the world as movable and wishy-washy as I am, because it's necessary to bend your own rules sometimes? Is it right to expect to find exactly the right thing? Does stepping away a little bit mean that you're giving up? That you don't have enough faith in God to deliver? Or is it just a healthy realization that adults can't wear rose-colored glasses and still reach goals?

I was reading another blog, written by a woman who'd lost a child suddenly, and she commented that some of the best advice she received was simply that as time goes by, you expect less. You don't expect to ever feel the same way that you did when your child was living. You don't expect, anymore, to see her sweet face in the morning. You don't expect others to understand your suffering. You lower your expectations. And I fear that perhaps, on a much more shallow level, that's what I've begun to do with my life.

Things don't go as you'd hoped with your home, your family, the economy, and you adjust your expectations. Jobs are lost, and once again you re-set your list of what you'd been ready to experience. Relationships disappoint, people let you down, you don't set the world on fire by 30... and all along, you are constantly rewriting that list in your mind.

Did I just describe most people? Or only myself? How firmly should we stick to that list we made? Is saving considerable money worth giving up on a lot of what you'd hoped to find? And would anyone ever do anything if they waited for the list to be completely fulfilled?

Too many questions, I know. But I welcome your feedback.

-Pessimist Mel

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The real me

Yesterday, I found myself near a department store. So, I decided to head in and abuse myself until I felt really depressed.

Well, that wasn't how it started out—but that's pretty much how it ended.

I made the mistake of doing a little spontaneous swimsuit shopping. Foolish, I know. That sort of adventure requires preparation, the pumping up of one's ego, a salad for breakfast to alleviate guilt, etc. But I broke all the rules because, by golly, the suits were all 50% off. Unfortunately, that was 50% off of the price, not the size of my thighs.

(If you're one of the two guys who actually read this, I apologize. I think a guy can relate if he thinks of areas of his body that haven't held up too well over the years, or of tasks that used to be easy that now require real effort. I'll try not to be too graphic or girly. I'm not a terribly girly girl, anyway, so I think you'll be safe.)

It began innocently enough, with simple purchase pursuits like toilet paper and sunscreen. And then. There they were, in all their stretchy, bright-colored glory. Animal prints, pink hyacinths, little skirty bottoms that one might believe could hide flaws. They hung enticingly, just the styles I'd been admiring in a magazine recently, with adjustable straps and reinforced tummies and all those wonderful extras that would turn me into a model. I couldn't help myself; I slipped into the happy world of what I look like in my mind. I grabbed an assortment of tops and bottoms and carried them with misguided hope to the dressing room.

Oh. My. Goodness. The first top was too small, which squeezed certain areas painfully until I feared I'd be unable to remove the article. I tried the other, and it was too large and turned the same aforementioned areas into ridiculously unflattering, saggy triangles. All through this painful process, I couldn't help noticing that my arms are really quite dimply and white. And round. And that there are parts of the lower arm that appear to be nearly detached because of the way they function independently from the rest of my upper torso.

But oh, that's just above the waist. Below was even worse. More fishy whiteness, more dimpling and orange peels where there should be none, more bulgy parts that refused to stay hidden smoothly under spandex. Why are all the modern, fashionable waistbands right at the plumpest part of my waist? In my mind, I'm still a slender, wasp-waisted gal... Where is that girl now? Oh, that's right. Over 40, had a baby, can't stop eating mac and cheese, etc.

The rear view was too upsetting to discuss. I realize I could amend some of this with harder exercise and more eating discipline, but honestly, it would require a lifestyle choice and self-centered approach that I just can't imagine happening right now. I have a 6-year-old, I can't justify the cost of joining a gym or hiring a trainer, and I already feel as if I've given up so much with the whole prediabetes issue that I'm just not willing to give any more.

The solution? I'll wear my old suit, which sports an old-lady skirt, and I'll wear my cute little cover-up I bought on super-clearance last fall, and I'll stop looking in 3-way mirrors under fluorescent lighting. Even if I get thinner and more fit, I can't ever match the image of me that I carry in my own mind. The idealistic vision that can't be found anymore. The imaginary Mel. I don't believe it's possible to regain that fresh face, the wide-open eyes, the tight neck skin, the hairless chin.

I'll do what I can. I don't look that bad, truly; I won't sit around beating myself up. Even as I left the dressing room, I saw far chubbier women shopping nearby and they weren't one bit worried about their thighs. I know I'm thinner than I was before my son was born, and I know I'm healthier than I used to be, too. And thank goodness I don't live at a beach where people hang out in swimsuits all the time. That's unsanitary, anyway. Right?

Still, it's a sobering moment, when you face the real you in a harsh reflection, and that real you confronts the happy younger you that lives cluelessly in your mind. Hey, little girl, says nowadays me. Hey, step aside or I'll sit on you. This is my house now. Move it, you bag o' bones.

Damn, I miss that bony kid. Or at least I miss her outward appearance. Now, pass me that big bathing dress and a bag of chips, okay?