Mining for Truth

This unrelated photo is my way of begging my husband to draw something, anything, for my blog.

Novels I have written: 1

Posts I have written: 50

Articles I have written: I’ve lost count

When I was in middle school and extremely excited about getting to (finally!) wear some makeup, my mom would always meet me at the front door to tell me goodbye.

“You’re going to school like that?”

“Yeeaahh,” I would say, letting my eyes roll up in my head. Mothers. Honestly.

This was her way of drawing my attention to the ridiculous, copious amounts of green eyeshadow I insisted on wearing for at least a year. She was trying to tell me the truth in the way only a mother can.

Later on, in college, I was forced to took a course in philosophy: The Philosophy of Art. We went around and around in circles about truth and beauty and truth and art, and it made my head hurt. I did not go on to become a philosopher.

But I finally got it, years later. All of us: artists, writers, actors… we are all truth-tellers. Amen. End of story. (That class could have been condensed into one concise sentence and saved me a lot of angst.) Obviously, this is the truth as we see it, as we hear it, as we feel it, as we remember it.

As a non-fiction writer, I get to interview people and use their own words to tell the story of their volunteering, disease, job or performance. Truth telling (on my part) is assumed. Truth is the goal.

Writing about my own memories and life is a way to tell about the world as I see it: the truth of my experiences, the interactions I’ve had, the stories I’ve been told.

As a fiction writer, I get the opportunity to climb inside a character and see things from his or her perspective. It’s one reason I love first person narration: as the writer (and reader), you can see all of the flaws in that character’s logic and viewpoint that you may not be able to see as clearly in your own life.

Last night, I was reading out loud to my kids The Hunt for Dark Infinity, the second book in the 13th Reality series by James Dashner.

A bad guy masquerading as a good guy was urging the Realitants to do what he asked… as the spinning, angry noise of things approaching grew louder and louder. And they were still approaching. Still getting louder. And the guy was still talking. And the kids/Realitants were deliberating and arguing.

“It kind of bothers me in books when something bad is about to happen, but there’s a long time between the characters knowing it and anything happening,” my daughter said. “It’s not like real life.”

Impending doom should feel more imminent, not leave you time to tie your shoes in a double knot before you run.

Or maybe it’s like when I was driving in a parking deck one time and went around a corner and my Coke started to spill and a car started coming towards me and instead of worrying about the car, I grabbed my drink to save it from spilling and the whole thing took about two seconds but felt like two hours.

When I sit at the computer to put my thoughts in order, the essence of what happened is the goal: the truth, and if possible, the humor that goes along with it.

Because life is funny, sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes light and fluffy, and sometimes unexpectedly. It’s the reward at the end, the cherry on top, the homemade whipped cream, when you spend your time mining for truth.

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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.

My Sordid Art History

Don't be jealous.

Hours it took to create the masterpiece above: 2

Amount it would sell for on a premium website: $1 million 

Number of art projects I created that were or are on display in my parents’ home: 0

Last night, an artist and friend of mine was gracious enough to invite me to a Sociable Art event at our local wine store. She creates the template artwork, then you re-create the piece using your own blend of colors and take on the shapes themselves.

You may have already read what I wrote about alien feet… there is a reason I have been banned from playing Pictionary.

And naturally, when art is mentioned, my mind jumps back to the wicked cool art project we created in second grade, the clay vase. Mine was so awesome… and askew. I was going to give it to my mom for Mother’s Day. The day finally came for everyone to get the vases back after they had been fired in the kiln. The teacher called out each person’s name: “Jennifer, Jenny, Jen, Michelle, Shelley, Mary Beth, David, David, Michael, David, Dave, Jennifer.”

But she did not call my name.

She didn’t call my name because my vase no longer existed. It had met with a bad fate when the sides of the vase entered the kiln. No one told me I needed an engineering degree to design a darn vase. I never saw my vase again, not even the shards that existed for a brief moment, post-kiln.

My teacher didn’t look very apologetic. Or surprised. She gave me a look like people give grown-ups when they sing Happy Birthday really out of key: a kind of “don’t quit your day job” look.

Since subtraction and reading dumb books with illustrations of kids wearing ’50s-era clothes comprised my day job, I was kind of hoping the art gig would work out.

So anyway, the Clay Vase Episode forever scarred me.

My BFF/running partner and I headed to the wine store: her hoping for a masterpiece to hang in her dining room, me hoping I didn’t cause an international painting incident.

Unlike the way blank paper makes me feel, which is: Look at the possibilities! I can write about anything!, a blank canvas makes me feel, well, blank.

Wine helped.

We all giggled a lot at first, and then, it took every ounce of concentration to outline with paint (!). I didn’t know you could do such a thing. Didn’t the Old Masters use a number 2 pencil? The room got very quiet, full of 13 grown-up, non-artists getting up close and personal with a paintbrush.

The whole process was so calming, like when I used to sit down with my daughter and color in her coloring books. Belle and Ariel and Cinderella and I have planned out and executed some gorgeous outfits, folks.

It was also the time of evening when I tend to collapse on the couch and utter monosyllabic sounds, so I channeled my calm into my color-blending. Who knew that white wine bottles had lots of colors bouncing around? Or that bright, primary colors could blend to become so moody?

Or that so many of the colors could end up on my BFF’s hands and then, as a large red blotch on her face?

Don’t you worry. I won’t be hanging up my writing hat anytime soon.

But the best part of the whole thing is that I feel redeemed. My family didn’t laugh; my husband did not suggest that we use the canvas for a trivet. He also did not challenge me to a game of Pictionary. But when he does, he better watch out.