Blast from the Past Public Service Announcement: Walk It Off

It turns out that critical and demanding parents of past generations may have had a better plan for raising kids. When Dad told you to sit up straight at the dinner table, to redo a shoddy job, and to pay attention when he spoke to you, he wasn’t a callous dictator. He had your best interests in mind. When Mom told you to stop whining, to continue taking lessons you hated, and to consider the good aspects of your mean Uncle Earl’s character, she showered favors upon you.

My harsh grandmother once upbraided a five-year-old for whining about itchy chicken pox scabs. She barked, “If that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you, count yourself a lucky little man!” Back then one learned at an early age that life was tough, much was expected, and that true self-worth came from achieving legitimate goals. Participation trophies didn’t matter. Quitting was for sissies. Emotions could and should be stuffed during hard times.

An article in Scientific American reported that today’s college students fall prey to depression more often than students did in the past. The writer gave partial blame to social media, to a lack of exercise, and to less time spent in direct contact with friends and family. But the writer put greater culpability on three false assumptions commonly held by the I-generation: emotions are the best guides when making choices and taking action; difficulties weaken rather than strengthen the survivor; people are all good or all evil (no shades of gray).

Unconscious and environmental triggers shift and change emotions constantly. Using them as guides is like chasing butterflies: they may look pretty dancing in the sunlight but won’t take you anywhere. A life directed by the vagaries of emotion becomes aimless and futile.

Folks who believe that difficult situations drain their resources see themselves as increasingly powerless victims. Children need to be taught that stressors, if met with determination and a problem-solving attitude, give the survivor a sense of resiliency. They learn that their limits of power, stamina and patience stretch further than anticipated.

A black and white view of the social world leads to frequent moments of outrage and disillusion. Heroes slip and fall all the time. No one can pass a purity test if scrutinized closely. Folks who judge others gain the satisfaction of occupying the moral high ground, but discover that their dug-in position isolates them. Fear of falling from their apparent state of grace makes them defensive and inflexible. The judgmental cannot see their faults and make necessary adjustments when clouds of self-glory obscure their vision.

The three false assumptions lead to more misery than a lifetime spent trying to prove one’s worth to demanding parents. A higher standard pulls you up. Soft comforts and hollow praise let you slide down into mush.

A blast from the past PSA: Walk it off. Rub some dirt on it. Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. Who told you that life was fair? Wipe that look off your face. Are you going to leave the house wearing that? You’ll thank me one day. You won’t win any prizes with that attitude. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Be careful what you wish for. Take it like a man. Take it like a woman. Don’t let me down (again). The world doesn’t owe you a living. Is that the best you can do? What makes you think you’re so important? If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Then punch life in the nose.

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Homecoming

 

 

 

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Homecoming, graphite and colored pencil (in progress).

 

1989

I took a trip to visit a gallery in Wilmington, Delaware to show my dealer new work and discuss an upcoming show.  I sidetracked to visit a grad school friend and didn’t return home until sunset.  My wife Judy and daughter Annie happened to be outside when I pulled in.  Annie was about 18 months old.

She had fine golden brown hair, and the setting sun crowned her with a shimmering halo as she ran to greet me.  I knelt down, swept her into my arms and carried her back to Judy.

Judy always said that our girl was happy when she was with either of her parents, but loved having all three of us together.  Then all was well in her world.

Alan came along in 1990.  He was a happy baby who smiled and cooed when he woke up from a nap.  He began to explore as soon as he could crawl.  We would put him on the carpet in the living room while we ate supper, and after five or ten minutes I’d get up to find him in the bathroom.  He liked to lay under the sink and stare up at the shiny pipes.

1992

We bought a house in Winter Park in a working class neighborhood.  We’d been living in a tiny rental house in an iffy neighborhood on the south side of Orlando.  Judy and I gave the kids a tour, showed them their bedroom and an addition at the back designated as their play room.  They both looked excited as if they had discovered possibilities for new adventures, and Alan began to run from one end of the house to the other.  He had so much more space now and wanted to extend himself back and forth across it.

A few years later we took Annie and Alan out for a treat. Annie had recently turned six and had just performed in her first dance recital.  A drug store near an Italian ice stand sold toys, so we bought the kids ice cream and little stuffed animals.  Alan chose a panda bear,  and that night he held it tightly in his hand as he fell asleep.

1991

Judy and I slumped exhausted after a long day.  Annie chattered and chased fire flies. Alan, who was teething at the time, sat on a blanket on our front lawn.  He kept crawling to the edge to search for something to stick in his mouth, and I kept vigilant watch to prevent him from gnawing on a twig or a stray piece of gravel.

A fiftyish woman and her husband passed by on their evening stroll. We didn’t know them and exchanged perfunctory greetings.  Folks in the neighborhood held back from getting acquainted as the four of us lived in a rental in a college town–we wouldn’t be there for long.  The couple nearly reached the next yard, but the woman turned back to study our little family.  Her expression turned rueful, perhaps bitter, and she said, “Some day you’re going to look back and realize that these are the best days of your lives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Projects

“It was the worst of weeks; it was the best of weeks.”

Max Ernst collage          He Didn’t See It Coming (acrylic, 2017)

The past few weeks I’ve been working feverishly on two contrasting projects: a power point presentation meant to summarize and explain my work and creative process; developing kids craft projects for an Easter egg hunt at Winter Park Presbyterian Church.

Paper Bag Puppets                                   Build-A-Bunny

On the one hand I referenced avant garde 20th century artists, outlined their influence on my work, and discussed three phases in my career. I matched images of my pictures to images by Max Ernst, Hannah Hoch, Balthus, Stanley Spencer and Philip Evergood and hoped that the comparisons weren’t too presumptuous. And then I wrote a text that to tie everything together in what I hope will be a digestible portion lasting no more than 20 minutes.

On the other hand, I designed paper bag puppets, crayon resist drawings, and a collage drawing of a bunny holding an egg. And once I decided that kids from 5 to ten might want to do these projects, my wife and I spent hours cutting up color shapes (bunny noses, ears, legs, etc.) from construction paper.

Both projects have been equally time consuming and wearying, and I’m not sure, in the end, which will provide the most enrichment. But the goal of both is to get folks, college students and kindergarteners alike, to imagine new possibilities.

I first saw this week’s efforts as an exercise in cognitive dissonance, of contrasting tasks that warred against each other.  But now it seems that one was the flip side of the other.

 

“Great Grandma Died. She Got Better”

My wife’s grandmother died in the winter of 1990 after a slow decline. Our daughter, Annie, was a few months shy of her second birthday.  Judy and I brought her to a small, dark church in Reading to meet relatives who’d never had a chance to see her in the flesh.  We figured that Annie wouldn’t understand the proceedings and be affected, and that the sight of her might dispel some of the gloom.  Relatives filtered in before the service began, and I attended to Annie as folks made their introductions and chatted together in small groups.

I took Annie back to Judy’s parents before the minister made his appearance as we didn’t think that she could make it through the service without causing a disruption.  Annie rarely made a commotion in public, but liked to socialize with anyone sitting near her.  She peeped over the tops of booths in restaurants and once charmed a complete stranger into handing us ten bucks.  He told us to buy a gift for our little darling.  Judy and I imagined her crawling along a pew to canvas mourners for their time and attention.

We had a snack and played on the carpet with dolls and stuffed animals. Judy and her parents came home, and Annie seemed unfazed by her glimpse of death and bereavement.  But she must have absorbed some understanding of the seriousness of a funeral.  A few days later she asked Judy, “What happened to Great Grandma Alma?”  Judy told her that Alma had died.  Annie grew somber and quietly asked her mother, “Are you going to die?”  My wife made a quick decision.  She knew that Annie’s understanding of time, at that stage in her development, probably stretched forward about two weeks.  She could understand and anticipate upcoming events only if they occurred within a short span.  So Judy said, “No, Annie.  I’m not going to die.”  Then she asked, “Am I going to die?”  “No, Annie, you’re not going to die,” my wife reassured her.

That spring we drove to Judy’s parents for Easter.  Judy’s other grandmother, Lily, attended the family dinner.  Someone must have told my daughter that the elderly woman with white hair was her great grandmother.

Annie had developed considerable language skills by that age, but did not know that “great grandmother” could refer to more than one person.  During a lull in the conversation, Annie got her mother’s attention and pointed at Lily.  Annie said, “Great Grandma died.  She got better.”

 

 

Endurance

August 24-25

I wanted to run the 440, but my ninth grade track coach rightly judged that I was too slow for a race that was essentially a one lap sprint.  I didn’t have a fast twitch muscle in my body, and my flat feet produced a lot of drag.  He pegged me for the 880, two laps around the track.  In my early races I gave in to adrenaline bursts during the first three hundred yards, and started out way too fast. By the time I hit the halfway mark in the second lap I usually had nothing left in the tank.  I eventually figured out that placing in a race was a matter of accepting my limitations and level of endurance, of initially holding down my pace so that I could finish with a kick.

Tonight I sat in my driveway, smoked a cigar and drank about an inch of bourbon from a mug.  It’s wise to take an easy pace when smoking a stogie and drinking booze, and I stretched my performance to an hour and fifteen minutes.  While I sat and puffed and sipped, I realized that any success in my professional life came down to endurance.

When I paint a painting I take my time as I know that I’m not a sprinter when it comes to making art.  I have to contemplate, redirect, and rethink my way through the creative process.  When I teach I have to get to know my students and adjust my approach accordingly.  Some students resist instruction and require dogged persistence (I repeat, come at them again from another angle, persuade and encourage until something good starts to happen.).  Some need to left alone until they’re ready to hear what I have to say.  My attitude, which I have to maintain through four months, has to be one of persistently renewed good will.

The rewarding things in my personal life also benefitted from accepting the requirements of endurance.  I am not a naturally kind and patient man, and I married a sweet woman who, for some unknown reason, believed in me.  We’re celebrating our 33rd anniversary today because she persisted in her faith in me, and because I’ve attempted to live up to her expectations.  I still fail often, but realize that continual effort to return her kindness is the only true gift I can give her.

Parenting is nothing but an exercise in persistence.  Each child comes with unique personality traits that must be shunted into positive forms.  “Shunting” means patiently redirecting behavior until they become functional human beings.  (The real trick is to do this without squashing a child’s innate qualities.)  It takes endurance to be a shepherd, to be a patient guide for 18 or 20 years.

Now that I’m approaching sixty, I’m starting to see that the end years require even more patience.  As my joints creak and my energy wanes, it takes more effort to get through a week of cares and duties.  I may have another twenty years on this planet, and each one will most likely bring new challenges that I will face with diminishing capabilities.  I hope I have the endurance to run my race to the end with a semblance of dignity and decency.  I don’t want to face my last hours and minutes recounting all the times I could have done things better if I’d only had another ounce of kindness, if I’d only persisted in trying just a bit longer.

Little Kid Surprises

In 1998 I stumbled into a part time job teaching art ed at a charter school in Micanopy, Florida.  I taught kindergarten, first and second grade students to use their imaginations while painting, drawing, and making rudimentary prints and collages.  I don’t remember many of the lessons that I taught, but I do recall the many times my kids surprised me.  What I learned was that each one of them was very aware and thoughtful, that they were busy soaking in impressions and information from the environment around  them, and that they understood much more about their lives than I would have expected.

Ronny was undersized for a kindergartner.   The staff wondered whether his mother had lied about his age when she enrolled him in school.  He had the cherubic face of an innocent young child but showed a precocious curiosity about the opposite sex.  When a girl got permission to go to the bathroom I had to keep an eye on him.  If I didn’t he would follow them into the restroom in hopes, perhaps, of seeing something unusual.  He also liked to defy me in little ways to test my reaction.  If I told everyone to get up off the carpet and find a seat at a table he would put his hands on his hips and give me a challenging look.  If he refused to comply I simply picked him up, tucked him under one arm, and hauled him to a chair.  He didn’t mind.  I got the impression that he liked the attention.

James did damage.  He would watch me carefully, and the moment I was distracted he would drift off to the side and break a piece of equipment or hurt another boy.  When I located him again he would be slowly walking away from a collapsed painting rack or a boy who was doubled over in pain.  One day we had a fire drill, and he intentionally lagged behind everyone.  I put a two fingers on his shoulder and gave him a gentle push forward.  He flopped on the ground, pointed at me and cried out in fake pain.  None of the other teachers bought his act, and no one accused me of hitting him.  One of the aides had noted his penchant for trickery and sadism and predicted a future in crime for the him.  One day his father came in for a visit, and all the teachers cringed.  We were used to having parents blame us for the bad behavior of their children.  (One mother had even defended her little boy after he attempted to bite a teacher.)  James’ Dad told us that his son was reacting badly to his parents’ recent divorce, and that he was aware that his son was acting up at school.  He apologized for James and promised to take him in hand.  He was as good as his word, and James calmed down considerably and began to make good progress.  He gradually became a much more motivated kid who no longer attempted to make the rest of the world as miserable as he was.

Shandra transferred to Micanopy about half way through the year.  We heard that the school she had formerly attended had been rough, and that her parents wanted to give her a better chance of getting a good education by moving her to Micanopy.  The first day I had her in class she stirred up a minor ruckus.  Jim came up to me and showed me a cut on his palm.  He said that Shandra had stabbed him with a pair of blunt scissors.  I asked her if she had done that, and she said, “He ain’t hurt.  He ain’t bleeding.”  I told her that she couldn’t stab other students or hurt them in any way.  She stuck out her lip and glared at me.  I told her that everyone in class had a pair of scissors, and that she didn’t have fight to get her share of supplies.  Her shoulders dropped and her expression changed.  She learned eventually that the art room was a safe place and began to enjoy the class.  She became very frank and open with me as the year went on, and once explained to me why she had an urgent need to use the bathroom.  She said, “My butt itches and I have to scratch it.”  I stood aside and waved my arm toward the bathroom door in silent acknowledgment that having an itchy butt was a very good restroom excuse.  I reminded her to wash her hands before she came back.

Mary’s social life was a concern of mine.  She walked up to me one morning and demanded that I take action as her advocate.  Rachel had promised to sit next to her while they painted, and now she was sitting by Charlotte instead.  Mary insisted that it was my job to make Rachel sit beside her and didn’t accept my explanation that mandated seating arrangements weren’t in my lesson plan.  According to her the world had to be fair and true, and everyone had to honor prior agreements.  And she was determined and sure that it was my solemn duty to make it so.

Abdul would look up at me with adoration at random moments, would throw his arms around my hips and give me a big hug.  I couldn’t figure out what came over him as I had not done anything extraordinary to earn that much affection.  But I would give him a pat on the head and wait for him to release me.  He seemed to become overwhelmed at times by a wave of love that needed immediate expression.

Some of the kids felt that my marriage vows were not that important.  One boy in first grade gave me his mother’s phone number when he came by my table at a school festival.  He  said, “You really should call this number,” as Mom stood a few feet behind him and blushed.  She seemed oddly willing to entertain the possibility of a relationship of some sort, and I hemmed and hawed until I managed to thank him for the number and to say that I would take his advice into account.  The children called me Mr. Dennis or Mr. D., and another teacher named Derry was called Mrs. D.  She was divorced, and we were on friendly but professional terms.  One day a group of children began to point at Mr. and Mrs. D as we did our playground duty, and they suggested that the two of us make the obvious move of getting married.  Then we would become a unit:  Mr. and Mrs. D.  I was embarrassed once again, but Derry gave me a strange look that definitely was not an outright dismissal of the idea.  Who knew that tentative opportunities for infidelity could be brokered by little kids?

A first grade girl named Sharon sat down at my table at the same festival where I had been given a mother’s phone number.  We weren’t in class and felt relaxed with each others’ company, and she began to tell me about her life.  Her mother was a single mom who worked at a local motel out by Interstate 95.  She worked double shifts some days as a maid and was often away from home.  Sharon told me that she couldn’t stay long at the festival because of her Mom’s schedule, and that she was lonely.  She looked down at the ground.  Her speech was simple and direct, and it eloquently told me that she was a very sad little girl who was looking for more love and attention.  She had appeared to me before that to be a dull, callous child.  But I learned during our five minute conversation that she was a sensitive person who saw her world without any illusions:  life was hard and showed no signs of getting better.  She accepted this with philosophical detachment, but seemed relieved that she could tell someone how she felt.

I decided after my year at Micanopy to give up my ambition of becoming an elementary school teacher.  I realized that I was much better suited for dealing with adults, and that the strain of learning how to react calmly to the irrational and unpredictable behavior of little kids was a bit too much for me.  But I knew that my year’s glimpse of teaching them had been a gift, and that each child I met was precious and had the potential to do wonderful things with his or her life.