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.


The Glamorous Life

Yes, Sheila E. was singing about me.

Fifth graders I will convince that being a writer is cooler than being a heart surgeon: 2

Loads of laundry I wash per week: 7

Loads of clean laundry in residence on our guest room bed: 7

So, Thursday is Career Day for the fifth graders at my kids’ school. Guess who’s representing the “Artist” category? C’est moi.

The super-organized, kind school counselor has followed up with me… twice. Whether she did this with everyone or only the ditzy writer-y types, I’m not sure. But I’m really going over what nuggets of wisdom I can pass along to inspire the artistically-inclined ones to come over to the dark side. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Freelance writers can wear whatever they like and work wherever they like.

What I want them to envision: Me, sitting at an outdoor cafe in Paris in the springtime, the color of my laptop matched perfectly to the shade of my strappy high heels. I am wearing an Anthropologie-inspired dress in an effortless, detached way, and my light-as-baby’s-breath scarf is being swept up in the wind. I have perfect posture. My agent will meet me in an hour to beg me for something, anything, because everyone is awaiting my next bestseller.

The reality: Me, slumping at the desk in ten-year-old pajamas and a bathrobe, taking breaks every now and then to check out the “Wonderwall” and notice the dust bunnies that my imaginary maid never seems to vacuum up.

2. Being a writer is a calling. It chooses you.

What I want them to envision: God lining up the writers of the world and doing some sort of knighting ritual that bestows us all with excellent word choice and endless amounts of inspiration.

The reality: When people started talking about e-mail and the Information Superhighway in college, I thought they were nuts. Although I had no inclination for techie things, my lack of vision eliminated me from the pool of 401K superheroes who laughed all the way to the bank when they fooled us all about the world coming to an end because of the “Y2K problem.” In addition, it took me too many years (but thankfully, I finally got it) to figure out that in choosing a partner, long hair and the whole “Artist” title meant “broke.”

3. Interviewing and writing about people is fascinating.

What I want them to envision: Me (in a tailored Tahari suit) sitting down to loaded nachos on the Isle of Capri with Eric Clapton, or the President, or no, someone they’d know, like Adele or Flo Rida.

The reality: It really is fascinating. I have met the most amazing people, from a chainsaw sculptor to a couple with two kids with cystic fibrosis who started a local road race to raise funds. For one story, I met a gracious family whose kids got backpacks filled with food so they wouldn’t go hungry over the weekend. The little kindergartner was sitting on the front porch, coloring in a coloring book… and all he had was a pencil. I gave him a pen I kept in my purse that had blue, green, red and black ink and I’ve wished several times over the years that I’d kept the directions and driven back with a pack of crayons.

All these lives, and all these people who allow me to listen to them. And then I get to write about it. How lucky am I?