Potato People and Why I Wear Dresses To This Day

My daughter's artwork, age 3 (left) and age 4 (right). At right, we (I'm the one with black hair) are going to visit my son at school.

Potato people pictures our family was depicted in: 127-ish

Dresses I wore between 2000 and 2006: 1

Dresses I wear now: 17

The truth hurts. And when you are a main subject of an artist’s body of work, you must face certain truths on a daily basis.

My daughter is an artist to the core. While my son spent the first 10 years of his life never alighting in one place for more than 2.3 seconds, my daughter has a calm, artistic nature; an “observe and record” sort of personality.

We have plastic bins full of her artwork and notebooks full of early attempts at cursive. Two-year-old, very controlled attempts at cursive. (My son drew a line across a page and called it a day.)

From her very early art pieces, we noticed trends… certain truths about ourselves we may never have noticed without the black-and-white proof in front of us.

1. The Potato People. Early on, our family members were depicted as Potato People in various poses on many different pages. We were like slightly off-kilter eggs with sticklike appendages. After my daughter drew the first few Potato People pictures at maybe age 2 1/2 or 3, my husband picked up on a disturbing issue: my son, my daughter and I were upright, active potato people waving our arms and moving about the page.

My husband? He was a lumpy, lying-down Potato Person paying homage to one of those Salvador Dali liquified clocks. He looked as if he needed a pump or two of air before he could stand again. Never, not once, was he a standing-up Potato Person, even after he mentioned this concerning issue to my daughter. Her pencil kept getting to his illustration and lumpifying him.

Maybe I should backtrack and tell you something about my husband: he is one of the most hyper, active people I know. For the first five years of our relationship, he never sat down. Not once.

In the early stages of our courtship, we stayed up very, very late. As the clock hit 2, and then 3 a.m., my husband would still be regaling me with awesome stories. And I would “uh-huh” between snores. The unwavering energy level in those early days should have been a red flag. Until our children were born, his energy level was super-hard-core.

But the truth came out a few months after the Potato People series of drawings. The family sat down to watch several months of home videos. I started noticing a weird trend I had never noticed in real life: my husband was lying down in every single video.

There he was, lying down on a Saturday morning, on the carpet in the family room as the kids rolled cars over him.

There he was, lying down as my daughter whacked him with a wooden train.

There he was, lying down while the kids piled on top of him, screaming.

Our pint-sized family chronicler had hit on something we never would have noticed otherwise. I came to think of my over-achieving, hyper, do-stuff-all-the-time husband as Mr. Closet Coach Potato.

2. Skirting the issue. A while after the Potato People incident, my daughter’s drawings took on more sophistication, with full outfits and hairstyles and proportional appendages. The men had spiky hair and sometimes ties, and the women wore appropriate accessories, like glasses or earrings.

It took several drawings in this era of her work for me to notice that all other women were wearing skirts or dresses, but I was always, always wearing pants. Maybe jeans, maybe capri pants, perhaps even shorts. But never, ever a piece of feminine attire.

“Why does every other woman wear a dress in your pictures, but I don’t?” I asked my daughter one day.

“Mommy,” she sighed. “You never, ever wear dresses.”

I started thinking about it and concluded she was right. I spent the bulk of my day crawling around on the floor, an activity not conducive to wrap dresses and heels. It didn’t explain why every other non-dress-wearing female we knew got cute clothes in my daughter’s artwork, but it did force me to make the transition out of sweatpants and t-shirts with holes in them. My husband started a design school fund for her shortly after that conversation.

3. No detail is too small. Shortly after my daughter started adding elaborate details to her drawings, details we hadn’t noticed before began cropping up. She drew my mom with earrings and glasses, but I lacked either. My husband got three-day stubble in a less-than-flattering portrait, and in one detailed drawing of the preschool playground where we were supposedly visiting, she posted a sign (misspelled) “Grow ups can go in the sad.” It was a form of protest: there was a sand pit, but they wouldn’t allow the kids to enter it, because they might get sandy (??). A future of social activism for our artist daughter, perhaps?

When she got to kindergarten, both she and I had a rough transition. I thought I was good with it. I was proud of her growing independence, and she was certainly academically ready. But she had some difficult times that fall… I did, too. My son was in school for two years before my daughter headed to kindergarten, and we had become best buddies. We checked the rounders at Target, went for coffee at Starbucks and colored pictures after lunches at home watching, “The Little Mermaid.”

When my husband and I went in for a conference mid-year, the teacher pulled out a large sheet of paper.

“I think this says it all,” she said, unfolding the manilla masterpiece.

The class had been asked to draw the classroom, adding details where needed. The other kids finished in two days. Our daughter was still working on hers a month later. Each day, she grabbed stolen moments to sketch in the calendar board (with the exact number of squares), the tables (both round and square) and the kitchen center. My husband and I were silent, looking at each tiny, architectural detail.

My daughter is 9 years old now. She is going through a manga-ish phase, with people’s eyes resembling bush babies’. She says interesting things, like, “Subtraction and division make me think of wintertime.”

The lesson I have learned from living with an artist: aesthetics are important. Keeping yourself and your house clean are paramount. Wear dresses at all available opportunities. And never, ever lounge on the living room floor. You will be forever immortalized as a lumpy Potato Person.

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Manners Maketh Me Happy

A reward for allergy sufferers... truth and beauty.

Times I have mistakenly prompted an adult to say “thank you” (after years of reminding my children): 2

Times I have watched children order their parents to do things for them: 1,746

Times “being real” is used as an excuse for not being polite: 7,954

I had a really cute professor of Psychology when I was in college. The class was “Personality,” and we did things like analyze our dreams and watch “Harold and Maude” and read The Tao of Pooh. Truly, heading to class each Tuesday and Thursday was an absolute dream. There were office hours with girls (even a few guys!) lining the hallways, waiting to talk to this guru, a true Cult of Personality.

Cool Professor Dude said one thing that stuck with me: “Being nice is highly over-rated.”

Word. As a college student, I thought that truer words had never been spoken.

Now that I’m old, I heartily disagree.

I get what he was saying. I do. But I think we’re at a point where being nice is highly under-rated.

Last week, I called our homeowners’ insurance office; we had to re-do our policy, and we had a few questions. I left a message.

Later that day, the phone rang, and I could see it was the insurance office calling.

“Hello?”

[Butt-dialing-style background noise. Two women discussing something. Rustling.]

“Hello?”

[More background stuff. Candy eating? Nail filing? Talk of what’s for dinner?]

“Heeeeelllllooo?”

Pause. “Ma’am? You’re just going to have to hold on for a minute.”

Huh?

Let me remind you: she called me. I can’t believe it took me that long to hang up, but I was in shock, like when someone says something mean and you think of a great come-back late at night after everyone’s asleep.

She did not call back until three days later.

I usually try to give people the benefit of the doubt. Who knows what’s going on in peoples’ lives? When they cut me off in traffic, I reason that their grandmother might have just died. Or if a clerk is rude at the store, perhaps the person in his line five minutes earlier ranted at him, leaving him rattled and touchy.

But I also find that “being real” has taken the place of good manners. Reality TV and “getting in touch with our true selves” trump good manners, and I have to say that I miss the “pleases” and “thank yous,” the being stoic when life hands you lemons or deals you a bum set of cards.

We went to see Hunger Games in the theater yesterday. I loved reading the trilogy; I loved the writing. I love how Effie Trinkett’s PR/Capitol Mouthpiece character is such a great foil for Katniss. And obviously, manners rank low on the totem pole as you are considering your possible demise. But as a commentary on where manners fit in in our society, Effie scolds Katniss after Katniss may have ticked off some sponsor-types at the Games: “Manners! Manners!” she reminds Katniss.

Ridiculous, we’re supposed to think. In the case of The Hunger Games, perhaps manners are ridiculous. Truth and honor and courage… all noble things. But in our non-Hunger Games world, I’d love it if people could add in a little kindness… and some pleases and thank yous.

One thing my old professor might be discouraged to discover: the proof is in the pudding. He was a really nice guy.

Respect the Digits

Every finger's worst enemy: my husband.

Times my husband has almost lost a finger: at least 5

Age at which I taught my children my cell phone number in case of a finger emergency: 7 months

Miles away of the nearest urgent care: 4

My husband wants to lose a finger. In the 16 1/2 years I have known him, there is way too much evidence to support this fact.

I grew up with a sister. Boys were mystical creatures to me; they took joy in burping and ran out in front of cars and showed off abrasions, contusions and broken limbs like badges of honor. I mean, I got hurt as a kid, but more because of wacky luck or poor coordination… not risk-taking.

So I got a call yesterday:

“Hello?”

“Hey.”

“Heeyyy… what’s up?” (My husband does not tend to call from work for idle chit-chat.)

“Soooo. I thought I should tell you: I almost cut my finger off today.”

“Again?”

“Yeah.”

“Which tool did it this time?”

“Scissors.”

“Scissors? Like, scalpel-ish scissors?”

“No. Just regular ones… I was opening a box.”

Yeah. I’ve opened lots of boxes. I still have all elements of my fingers intact. Him, not so much. He spent part of the day at two different urgent cares, one with a doctor who wanted to pull the (large) flap of skin back apart to put stitches in it. My husband said, Ummm, no.

This is not the first time I have received a call like that. He likes to build things and nail and screw and cut and hammer and saw and demolish things. Each activity involves potential injury.

I got back from writing group about a month ago, and my husband walked up to me with a large bandage around a different finger. He had bashed it really hard with a hammer. Nerves don’t work the same way when they get flattened.

Before we got married, he was detailing a car, and a piece of metal sliced up into a different finger. That one required surgery and resulted in forever-after wonky fingernail growth.

One time, when our son was a year old, my sister came over to babysit so my husband and I could go on a hot date to the local Mexican restaurant. We really didn’t get out much, so I was more excited than that particular activity probably warranted. My husband went outside to cut a few more pieces of wood for our fireplace so my sister and our son could be nice and toasty warm while we were gone.

Another finger almost severed.

Note to all axe-wielders out there: holding the piece of wood you are about to cut necessitates moving one’s hand as the axe is lowered.

Luckily for us, we had a babysitter! (But no dinner.) We spent that evening at the emergency room.

An interesting fact about my husband: he has a genetic adaptation probably passed down from other crazy pioneer-type folk in his family tree… he is a Super-Healer.

You know those sped-up movies of seedlings growing or the sun coming up in the sky and then setting really fast? My husband’s skin is like that. He even has an annoying way of getting a mosquito bite right now and by this second, it’s not even there anymore. (Someday I will post a super-sized photo of my three-week-long, elephant-man-style mosquito bites. I did not acquire this genetic mutation from my ancestors.)

So last night, about three hours after the doctor squished his skin all back together and wrapped it in neon green gauze, my husband was itching to get that stuff off. The doctor said to leave it on for three days, but my husband was having none of it. His skin was on super-speed to get healed, and that gauze was only hindering its process.

After yesterday, there is both good news and bad news. The good: my husband is up-to-date on his tetanus shot. The bad: I thought he was safe at work and that these injuries occurred only at home. Our kids know my cell phone number; now I have to teach it to his co-worker.

In the Land of Lemonade Stands

Do not forget the cups.

Weeks in the summer: 11

Cups of lemonade sold (to non-our-street-dwellers) at a typical stand: 5

Cups of lemonade drunk by neighbor kids and mine: 46

I don’t remember the last time I was bored.

It was probably in late 2000, when I was on bed rest with my son and everyone at work forgot I existed and I kept turning on TLC’s “A Baby Story” and coming to the conclusion that I’d already seen that particular episode… usually where someone was having a water birth with 25 members of their extended family watching.

My kids get bored on a fairly regular basis. This may mean that I have failed as a parent and that they will end up in therapy talking about how I didn’t give them tools to create a rich and fulfilling life.

They are out of school this week for Spring Break. Spring Break is also known as Pre-Summer for those of us who spend lots of time with our kids. It’s a reminder of the first few weeks of summer, when they yell at each other, “Nuh-uh! You are the one who never holds open the door for me!” And “All I want to do is play with her, but she won’t do everything I tell her to!”

They also say things like, “I’m bored.”

I remember saying that to my mom and dodging out of the way afterwards, because she often looked like she wanted to slap me. Sometimes I even said it when there were friends readily available to me, and we were both (or all) bored. My mom practiced her eye roll on those days.

Usually, those of us in the depths of boredom would loll about on the floor, the ennui draining all lifeforce out of us.

Then, we would invariably pop up and say, “I know! Let’s sew strange monster creatures out of felt!” And we would go and cut out lots of different colors of felt and sketch out weird monster things and get all excited for an hour or so. Until we remembered that we couldn’t sew.

Then we would be bored again. Lolling. Thrashing. Cursing of the skies.

But the sky would make us think about the creek running through my front yard, and we would step into our flip flops and start out on an adventure of mapping the creek, which involved lots of mud and rocks and sticks and climbing and getting very muddy. Afterwards, we would go inside and drip all manner of mud up the staircase and take a shower, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the top of our lungs. (I still know all the words very well because of our practice sessions.)

It was difficult to be bored after wading in the creek for hours and getting clean and having sung very loudly. So I would ask my mom if my friend could stay for dinner, and my mom would pretend that she wanted me to give her more notice, but really she didn’t care. And we would eat lots of food and be happy until the next day when we would forget how to be productive again.

My kids spend time outside playing every single day. Unless it is 34 degrees, and hail the size of turnips is pinging off the metal roof of our front porch.

Most days, they find something to do with other bored neighbor kids. On other days, they amble up to me and say, “There’s nothing to doooooo,” and my eyes roll around in my head.

That’s when I yell out, “Potions!”

Or “Lemonade stand!”

Or even, dangit, “Hostage crisis!”

1. Potions. My kids might have outgrown Potions; we’ll see when the weather gets a little warmer. A neighbor dad used to bring a big, orange Home Depot pail over to our driveway (our driveway, you’ll note), and about seven kids would go to town, filling the bucket with water, dirt, pieces of grass, dead beetles, pom-pom streamer vinyl and other things large, scary birds might collect to feather their nests. You might think this game would wrap up in about 10 minutes. You would be wrong. Hours, I tell you. Hours. Of. Fun.

2. Lemonade stand. I send the kiddos out early in the day to proclaim lemonade stand time in the afternoon to the neighbor kids. Then we deranged, puppet loving parents bake brownies or chocolate chip cookies or lemon bars and seal them in sandwich bags. I whip out a can of frozen Minute Maid lemonade concentrate and fill a pitcher. I usually forget the cups and have to run up to the grocery store. Sucker. Then the kids proceed to make signs, set up the table and put out their wares. The brownies melt in the sun, the chocolate chips leak all over the sandwich bags, and the ice only lasts in the cooler for a half hour at a time, because someone usually leaves the cooler open. The lemonade gets a lot of traffic. From our kids. The people who drive by our street on a normal day must decide to take a different route home, because no one stops or sees the kids yelling.

The pattern of happiness goes something like this:

“Mo-om! No one is coming to our lemonade stand!”

“I bet they will soon. It’s getting later in the afternoon. Why don’t you have a cookie?”

Silence. Chewing.

“Come on, everyone! Let’s go advertise for our stand! We’ve got lemonade to sell, people!”

Sugar low. Sugar high. Crash. Repeat. Pack up for dinner. My work here is done.

3. Hostage crisis. This is not in any way similar to Jimmy Carter’s hostage crisis. I don’t know exactly what goes on in this one, but it requires lots of yelling, rolling around on the grass and taking people to jail, which is interestingly in the same locale as the grass-rolling-around place. Poison has been mentioned. As I said earlier: therapy may be in our little darlings’ futures.

4. Police. All children ride bikes up and down the street, with utter disregard for one another’s limbs. Chasing after another kid on a bike making siren noises is what is known as “Police.” I think of it as “Potential Death Game.”

The ways this is wrong and scary: riding forwards but looking backwards, shrieking and hurtling towards stationary objects like mailboxes, veering sharply left or right when your pursuer is not skilled in defensive driving techniques.

When the Police game begins, I yell, “OK! Time to go inside and be bored for a while!”

At least with boredom, you get to keep all of your limbs. Just so you can loll about on them for another day.

Performance Anxiety and Redemption

Should an upcoming race require therapy?

Time on yesteray’s half-marathon: 1:56 (a PR by one minute!)

Years ago I ran a half-marathon: 6

Years I can now subtract from my age: 6 (I am not growing old, just improving like a fine wine)

Hello, darkness, my old friend.

I am not a person who thrives on racing. I love to run, but (don’t tell anyone)… races stress me out.

No one cares whether I do well. If I didn’t finish a race or bombed or peeled off down another street to IHOP for a pit stop, I am not an elite racer; no one would notice. My mom would probably be very excited that I had come to my senses and given up a silly hobby that will inevitably wreck my knees or hips. (Never mind that she has several friends who are lifelong non-exercisers who are having their hips replaced.)

Although I love running, races tend to bring out my dark side, like if I were crashed out in the wilderness somewhere, and cannibalism suddenly seemed like a nifty idea.

Before last year’s marathon, we did all of our miles; we followed the training plan to a “T.” I still arrived at race day with an overwhelming sense of dread. Maybe I wouldn’t finish. Maybe I would be one of those people they carried away on a stretcher. Maybe I would cry and have to walk and get annoyed at my running partner for her boundless energy at mile 23.

Yeah. That happened.

They say that you should do things that scare you. I agree… but you may not like what you find.

Underneath the positive mask you wear for your adoring public, there may be an evil beast that says mean things to you like when you are trying on bathing suits in bad lighting in the springtime. Things like, “You look like a pile of Pillsbury crescent roll dough.” Or when you are about to speak in front of a crowded roomful of people: “There is an accounting seminar on H143 quarterly closing, and the people in this room would rather hear about that than what you are about to say.”

You might think I’m a coward. But this year, I went for a more reasonable goal: the half-marathon. Yes, I’ve run them before. Yes, I know I can finish one. Yes, we were as trained as we could be. We ran 11, 12 and 13-milers for fun… for weeks before our race. We talked and laughed and didn’t get nervous.

When the evening before race day arrived, I was nervous. But only in the way that made me lay out each item, set the alarm clock and maybe keep waking up to make sure I didn’t miss it.

Race morning dawned, and the weather was cool but not cold. Parking was easy. Bathrooms were inside an arena, not port-a-johns sitting in mud. I wasn’t nursing any injury, and my stomach was fine.

I jogged over the start line and loved the way the day felt. I ran–fast for me–and even tried to hold back so I didn’t run out of steam. The memory of bonking in the marathon was still fresh enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth. By mile 11, I was still wondering how much I should hold back. And then I realized: I was almost there.

No cannibalism thoughts (the guy in front of me with change jingling in his fanny pack was a little annoying, though), no growing awareness of my own mortality, no hateful thoughts about the limitations of my aging body.

How refreshing.

Maybe I’m a coward, but I would run 20 more races like yesterday’s before I’d run another horrible, disappointing marathon. I’ve seen the evil beast lurking deep down inside, and I am not fond of her. I’ll take the sunny-side-up version, the one who smiles in the face of slight discomfort. The one who looks like she’s having the time of her life as she crosses the line at mile 13.1.

Me. Having fun.