Thursday, November 29, 2012

Boys and Girls: Drooling and Ruling

What are little boys made of?
Slugs and snails
And puppy-dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
That's what little girls are made of.

So. My kids are fitting into gender stereotypes obnoxiously well. Boy loves tractors above all things, except dinosaurs and sharks. Girl loves to accessorize. Boy goes on a murderous rampage, followed by Girl, who comes along asking if you’re okay and if she can help you. Boy will make monster sounds and punch you. Girl will kiss it all better. Boy plays in the dirt and mud gleefully while Girl watches disdainfully from a distance. Boy inhales food “cookie monster style” while Girl takes dainty bites and spends an hour eating. Boy throws a toy and stomps on it with wild villainous laughter. Girl picks it up carefully and clasps it lovingly to her chest. When Boy wants to play with you, your toy better be ready for Battle Royale with his toy. When Girl wants to play with you, your toy better be ready for a calm, happy heart-to-heart with her toy. When Boy coughs, he opens his cavernous mouth to its maximum and sticks his tongue way out, but when Girl coughs, she covers her mouth delicately with her miniature hand. Boy loves cars. Girl loves horses. Boy loves blue. Girl loves pink.

Seriously, kids? Seriously?? Try to think outside the box for once! It’s not like we’ve taught you to be this way. Did we?? If anything, we’ve tried teaching the opposite, especially regarding the Rambo-boy behavior, cuz it’s abrasive; and also especially regarding the Girlie Princess stuff, because it makes us both uncomfortable. I wasn't a girlie girl, and Dooley isn't a chauvinist mans-man. But for reals. It's like my kids studied the following illustration for what kind of things they could be into. To a T. I must admit, I am somehow morbidly proud when I'm told that Tuesday is SUCH a girl, and Dirt is SUCH a boy, but also, weirdly embarrassed, as though I have failed in teaching my children equality or something.

To our darling Girl: We didn’t teach you to recoil at the touch of grass or sand as an infant. We didn’t teach you to freak the fork out when your hands get dirty, or to be a whiny little drama queen about everything, or to have the attitude of a 13-year-old by the tender age of 2. You actually throw your head back and run to your room, flailing your cute little arms, to slam the door and cry when we tell you no. Seriously. You throw the most cliché tantrums of all time, flinging yourself to the ground to sob into the carpet while kicking your adorable tiny legs. At least try to be creative. Sheeesh. I will say, however, my favorite was when I told you to stop playing and eat your dinner, and you abruptly stopped, lowered your head, stared at me sternly and said, “I’m laughing. Okay?!” then got right back to playing, leaving me stunned and amused simultaneously. 

To our precious Boy: We didn’t teach you how to make gun sounds. We didn’t teach you that violence is awesome. We didn’t teach you to break everything you touch. We didn’t teach you to get all bashful about hugging and kissing. We didn’t teach you to only like animals that are predators. We didn’t’ teach you about “girl slime”. We didn’t teach you that only boys could play with Buzz Lightyear. We also didn’t teach you to play with your little boy bits all the time. Seriously. We didn't teach you that you absolutely had to see the snot in the kleenex after blowing your nose. There is a slight possibility that we may have reinforced the notion that farts and burps were funny, and that poops were to be admired, but that’s neither here nor there…
Dirt was a sweet and mellow baby, and gradually morphed into the loud, adorable 3 ½-year-old monster that he is now. He can still be really cuddly and affectionate, nestling his cute giant self into my lap and squeezing me around the neck with a double-armed vice grip and saying “I love you Mama”, for no reason. Tuesday was a more demanding baby, and has morphed into a classic 2-year-old and a fiercely opinionated, independent little girl. “Let me do it!” is her screeching mantra. She hardly ever wants to cuddle. But then she can be sooooo amazingly sweet, stroking my face and hair with her teeny tiny fingers and smiling when she sighs, “Mama…I wuv you…sooo much!” Melt melt melt.

So yes, there are exceptions to the standard boy-girl stuff. Tuesday happily plays with the same “boy” toys as her older brother—possibly because we limit the number of creepy dolls or frilly ponies that she has. Tuesday tries to be scary and fierce with her brother when he is storming the house, roaring like a dinosaur; she makes the cutest little wrinkle-nosed monster face, but the sound she emits definitely rivals Dirt’s ear-splitting monster shrieks. Also, Dirt can be really sweet and gentle with the cat, and will even kiss our boo-boos all better just like his little sister. Sometimes. After he’s inflicted them. 

They do have some commonalities as well. They both take pleasure in blasting out my ears with their screaming. Both are stubborn and loud. They both enjoy trains and yes, high heels. Both love dancing and singing. Both love being naked. Both hate having their faces wiped off. Both are goofy attention-hungry hams.

I’m sure a lot of this behavior is standard 2-4-year-old stuff, but I am often surprised (and irritated!) by how naturally they fall into these gender roles. Don’t get me wrong, I totally think it’s super cute when Tuesday is being all nurturing and Dirt is being all rough-and-tumble, but I wonder how much I’m unknowingly infusing them with these societal norms. I don’t at all like when Dirt is being violent or when Tuesday is being prissy, but then I think about how I get excited with them over things like tractors and sparkly tutus, and I totally use a different voice—a big tough man voice and then an animated girlie voice—without even thinking about it. And of course I think it’s cute to dress Tuesday in frilly things on occasion, and don’t at all discourage Dirt’s love of boy things. But. STILL. It’s interesting being in the middle of it, raising both a boy who can be brutish and a girl who can be prissy, despite the fact that those characteristics are not at all instilled by their parental units. That we know of.

I am curious, though...How are other people’s little girls and boys the same and/or different? We basically raised ours the same, but they are night and day. Do other people see differences in their kids that could be traced to infancy? How big of a role do most parents play in selecting their childrens' clothes and toys and the colors of their belongings? Obviously retailers play a major part simply by producing boy and girl things according to popular culture, but I always wonder which came first. Do most girls innately want all things pink and frilly, or do they want all things pink and frilly because they're encouraged to like all things pink and frilly? Same question for boys with blue and manly stuff. The one that concerns me more than the material is this: Do we treat them differently without realizing it? Guess it comes down to your standard nature v. nurture. 

I found a brief but interesting article on the subject, if you care to read a more scientific spin on the subject: Pink Brain, Blue Brain. It makes me feel better about the fact that both kids are getting new tractors for Christmas. And little guitars...but now I feel guilty for getting Dirt a blue one and Tuesday a purple one with (*horrified gasp!*) flowers on it! For shame.

Raising an Equality-Minded Male is another good article.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Artsy Fartsy: How to Paint a Horse...and a Dresser

As many of you know, kids take over your life. Having kids is no small change. My plans certainly never involved working at a daycare or in a restaurant, yet these proved to be the most kid-convenient occupations, to enable me to be with them more than I am away from them, and to avoid paying for stupidly expensive full-time childcare. Presently the hubby earns enough money that I can stay home full-time—a blessing and a curse—and supplement his income by watching the neighbor’s kids three days a week. This neighbor arrangement is coming to a close soon—a relief and a disappointment—so I need to make a little money some other way: Art!

Over the last few years I have dreaded being asked about how much I’ve been painting; since the kids came along I’ve done next to nothing other than change diapers. It’s impossible to get any painting done with needy babies and toddlers everywhere. I know, I know, there’s just two of them, but I never could figure it out.

I am thrilled to say that I am finally getting back into painting, now that my offspring are independent enough to be left to their own devices, at least in part. I am also trying to make a once a week painting day, where the kids go to daycare. Of course it’s really hard not to spend my one day of freedom sleeping for six hours, or getting six hours of massage, or going grocery shopping alone (joy of joys!), but I have forced myself to be productive on occasion, and it feels good to actually produce art again. 

First it was a mural in a restaurant downtown, which not only got me a break from the kids, but got me out of the house, out of ruralville, and made me some decent money. Then there were a few commissions for friends and family. And then I did an abstract a la Mark Rothko, just to tie in the colors in my living room. By Christmas I hope to have two more pieces finished, and having completed the three others in the relatively recent past, I am encouraged. I always worry that I will “lose it”, and while I probably haven’t made progress by letting my ability stagnate, it’s nice to know that at the very least, I can pick up where I left off.

I get major artist’s block sometimes though. I have one painting that I started literally two years ago that I am just stuck on, not knowing what to do next; it’s not done but it’s close…yet something is just wrong. Of course it doesn’t help that it’s a portrait of my grandparents intended for my grandmother, so I am extra picky about the facial features. The idea of working on it again gives me mega anxiety, but I have to finish it.

Just having completed several paintings recently loosens my brain freeze by re-infusing confidence. I also can only seem to finish things if I have a legit deadline. I was up until the wee hours of the morning tweaking the last two paintings I finished, the night before they were “due”, just like in college (*wist*). Another new way I get back into the groove of painting, which I just discovered, is by repainting furniture and other wooden knick-knacks. I was obsessed, for about a week, with painting over all kinds of things in our house, since successfully shabby-chic-ing an old dresser. I did a two mirrors, a candleholder, and a lampshade. It’s kind of like free-writing for the author. It’s also another means of procrastination, which I have learned is a key step in my artistic process. Seriously.

I got a fabulous little cabinet for my artist's table: my Craigslist alternative to a taboret. It actually has tiny wooden wheels on it, which would be great, if I had a real studio, other than my dining room--one with non-carpeted floors. I felt this a necessary (and time-consuming) step in the horse painting process, because I come up with all kinds of outlandish things to procrastinate. I will clean things that have never been cleaned and repaint entire walls and baseboards before I actually put brush to canvas. It’s weird. There have been times when I was free of the kids for the sole purpose of painting, and spend hours doing unnecessary chores and zoning out in front of the TV, psyching myself up, and may end up only spending one good hour working on my art before I have to go get the kids. But once I get in the zone, with my music and, let’s be honest, a beer or two, it is grrrrrreeeeat.

I just finished a rather large horse portrait: 24X48”, in oil. It was brought to my attention that my process might make interesting blog fodder, so the following is my attempt at recounting its development. I should have taken notes to capture more details, but I didn't, so this is just the basics. I’m not going to get too involved in the technicalities either, sparing those of you who’d be like: WTF?

But first, a shortened version of my daily process: 

Get set up: brushes out, oil and paint thinner open by palette. Unload dishwasher. Stare at painting. "Dialog" with painting. Go get a snack. Stare at painting while eating. Check facebook. Dip brush in paint; make one brushstroke on canvas. Stare at painting. Go get drink. Stare at painting while drinking. Make another brushstroke. Almost put paint brush in beverage. Watch three hours of television. Stare at painting. Make two more brushstrokes. Take a shower. Stare at painting. A few more brush strokes. Thirty minutes of devoted painting. Dialog with painting. Get another drink. Stare at painting while drinking. Vacuum entire house. Check facebook. Watch another hour of television. Stare at painting. A few more brushstrokes. You get the idea.

Or, if I try to paint when the kids are home, it’s more like this:

Get set up: brushes out, oil and paint thinner open by palette. Tell children not to touch. Stare at painting. "Dialog" with painting. Tell children not to touch. Go get a snack. Get the kids the same snack. Stare at painting while eating. Check facebook. Yell at kids to stop fighting. Dip brush in paint; make one brushstroke on canvas. Yell louder at kids to stop fighting. Stare at painting. Go get drink. Get drinks for the kids (not the same as mine). Turn on a movie for the kids. Stare at painting while drinking. Almost make another brushstroke, but must run back to children to check on loud thump and screaming. Stare at painting. Make two more brushstrokes. Tell children not to touch. Tell children not to touch again. Tell children not to touch again. Stare at painting. A few more brush strokes. Spend 30 minutes helping the kids do their own painting. Get another drink. Clean up kids’ mess. Stare at painting while drinking. Check facebook. Stare at painting. One…more…brushstroke…

It's a time consuming process, as you may or may not understand. But here's more specifics on the process:

1.      Pick the image. [I know many artists prefer to work purely from their imaginations, a skill I lack and super duper envy. Sometimes I feel like creativity is my greatest deficiency as an artist. I used to be annoyingly perfectionist, and am always trying to break away from a slavish reproduction of photographs with looser brushstrokes and inspired use of unexpected color. In this case, I chose a photograph from a little photo shoot we had with the subject of the painting: a Clydesdale cross named Diesel. I looked for an image with interesting light, shadows, and composition, considering the size and shape of my canvas options. [I hate stretching canvases. Hate. It. So I cheat and buy them.]

2.      Sketch the image on the canvas. [My process changes every time. Sometimes I start right off with paint and skip the pencil/charcoal. I can’t explain why I choose whatever route I choose with each painting, but for this one, I felt like I wanted  an actual sketch before the underpainting. This time I had to sketch it twice, because the first time the image was too far down the canvas (on the left). The second time I sketched with charcoal so I could see it better (on the right).]

3.      Underpainting. [Usually one color of paint, thinned out using turpenoid (turpentine paint thinner alternative) and/or linseed oil. I like using a reddish brown ("venetian red"?) for the underpainting, just cuz it feels all Italian and old-mastery. In this case it was a dominant color anyhow. I also used some blue for the dark areas, and the charcoal sketch mixed with the paint for the dark lines (unintentional, but it worked). The lighter areas are just the white canvas coming through. In other paintings, I've used blue or purple (purple was the underpainting color for the dog wearing the red hat, above), depending on what the main color in the painting, or I pick a complimentary color to the dominant one, since it is not always completely covered up in the end.]

4. I'm done with numbering the steps. It's not that simple.

You may notice that the shape of his face changes a little in each picture. I really struggled with the placement of the nostril, and the mouth/jaw region. Anyone familiar with horses knows that they have individually distinctive features, and this had to look like Diesel. As you can see, the nostrils on the left are too close together, and on the right they're too far apart. I think I found a happy medium in the end.

At some point in all my paintings, I wonder when I should stop. Normally it's not as early as the underpainting, but Dooley liked it so much in this phase that he begged me not to work on it anymore, as I have a tendency to overwork things. So I let the painting sit for a month. Or so. Finally I got back to work on actual painting, starting with the background. I often struggle with backgrounds in portraits, and this was no different. In the two paintings above, I went the abstract route, with solid colors or patterns. I decided to go with a western-y landscape: yellowish prairie grass and a smidge of purple mountains. Typically I hate doing landscape. Trees are really hard for me. I can't find the line between roughly suggesting leaves and painstakingly rendering each leaf, which would suuuuuuuuck. Same goes for grass. I had to stop myself from overworking the grass, because, trust me, it ends up looking terrible if you focus too much on specific blades of grass. I also started building up and developing the horse himself, trying to retain the roughness and movement of the underpainting. The image on the right is almost done; having these side by side, you can see how it's different than the underpainting horse on the left.

So after that point I did the annoying thing that I always do, which is unnecessary tweaking until 2am. I had a particularly memorable struggle with the hair. I wanted it to show more movement and length than in the photo, but got carried away at first. The initial result was so cheesy and wavy that I could only akin it to it to the illustrations on the cover of a romance novel—horsey porn hair. I had to repaint the sky a time or two to get rid of it, quickly and furiously (no time to take a photo…sorry), and then was careful to repaint rogue strands sparingly, and to make them messier. But hair is like grass and trees: annoying to paint.

People always ask me how long a painting took me, and I always intend to keep track on the next painting I do so I have a clue the next time someone asks me that question. So guess what I did? Not keep track. If I had to guess, I'd say it was a total of somewhere between 6 and 40 hours, but probably more like 12.8. I don't know. Here is a picture of the finished product, with really terrible resolution, cuz you know what else I forgot to do? Take a quality photo of the finished product before handing it over. 


Friday, November 23, 2012

Don't Eat the Soap (Or Do...I've Checked Out)

WOOOOO FRIDAY NIGHT!!!!! It’s a wild one here, let me tell you. The hubby is working all night, and I am left alone with the small wild things, hugging a box of Kleenex for my boundless congestion, attempting undies on the girl for the first time, watching Bob the Builder for the millionth time, and sword-fighting the cat. 

That last bit needs an explanation, does it? So here I am, lying on the dirty floor, trying to ignore how badly it needs to be vacuumed while struggling with some fancy stretches for my lower back, which is jacked up for some unknown reason (read: inactivity?). Then, low and behold, a friendly cat is all up in my grill, and a nice wooden sword next to him. It. Was. Epic.

Also, I bought Tuesday some cute little girl underpants (we will never ever never ever call them panties cuz it's a creepy word, even at my age) and she is super jazzed to wear them. Why not tonight? She turned two in August and is aware of passing #2 and has shown interest in the potty. Aren’t those the signs? Strangely enough, I already forgot how potty training transpired with Dirt, who will be four in March, and potty training feels new all over again. Anyway, there are three pairs of cute little girl underpants that were already christened. She was very upset each time, which I think is a good sign…or is it?

I know all you kid-free party animals are sooooo jealous of my rock and roll lifestyle. Just think: if you can dream it, you can achieve it. (Just as I write this, the boy gleefully yells, “Mom! Come see my big poop and wipe my butt!” For reals. Only a little ironic.) Woooooo Friday!

I let the kids play mostly unsupervised while I was writing the other night. I found Tuesday with marker all over her face, arms, and hands. And teeth. Then I found Dirt, fully clothed, sitting in the bathroom sink—which was full of water. The very best part was that he had ingested hand soap, and was blowing bubbles with his mouth and laughing. Only when I made the mistake of asking him how the soap tasted did he start freaking out about it, screaming like a pig and sticking his tongue out, greatly distressed.

Sometimes (or always. whatevs.) I get so tired of the constant policing of motherhood that I check out and let them run amuck while I sit on the computer as if I wasn’t surrounded by utter chaos. (La la la I can’t hear you!) At this very moment I am ignoring the fact that I hear the clamor of children on kitchen counters, opening cabinets—don’t worry they’re very agile—like squishy nudist panthers. Oh, now I hear dishes, or perhaps glasses…Tuesday says she’s making coffee…hmmmm. Dare I go investigate? They sound happy; I’d hate to rain on their parade of playtime camaraderie. But things keep falling. I hear the falling. What items are they digging out of cabinets and throwing to the ground? Nothing breakable…yet…UGH…FINE!!!! So I finally got my lazy arse up, and they’re merely building Tupperware towers. Making a grand mess, but harmless. 

Whenever I'm in another room, I fear the anarchy and destruction I will discover when I go to see what the kids have been doing, unsupervised. Recently, I was en route to catch them in an assumed act of terror, and Dirt met me in the hallway, barring my passage. Then he pulled me by the hand in the opposite direction, saying, "You don't see in there!" When I inevitably did see, after all the building concern, it was nothing—just that they had knocked a lampshade off the lamp—and he immediately said he was sorry and repeatedly told me that they had made several attempts to fix it. It was adorable, even though he was grinning like crazy, as if the lampshade was a cover for something else. Something else that I never found.

Here's the girl in the shiny shoes at least.
When I leave them alone for mommy-free amusement, they often turn to the aforementioned sink time, and I end up having to mop up water all over the counter and floor. Or they take out all my shoes and bras—and I mean all of them—and for someone that defaults to the same three pairs of shoes and the same three bras all the time, I sure own a lots and lots of both. So that equals a huge mess. It also equals hilarity, when they’re staggering about in mismatched high heels, clutching various bras to their chests…regretfully the only pictures I have of this event might be verging on inappropriate (my children are seldom dressed). The part their daddy really appreciates is when the boy hangs a scarf over his head as “long girl hair” and then proudly struts around in my shiny shoes, saying “I’m a pretty girl!”

Seriously though. I get so tired of making constant reprimands. I can’t fight them on Every. Little. Thing. All. The. Time. It really is tiresome saying NO every freaking second of my life. So I allow-slash-ignore the insanity and let them have a crazyball. If it were up to my wonderful mother-in-law, every minute would be Crazyball time, because she is the epitome of wild, fun, indulgent grandmother, and we all love her to bits. What “we” love to bits slightly less is the cleaning up after Nana-induced Crazyball time, or listening to Nana-amplified Crazyball time. My children love screaming. It is ear-splitting. They scream more when excited. They are excited by their Nana, who also loves screaming. It's hilarious and terrifying all at once, the crazy happy cyclone of noise that can occur.

On another note, guess what? I am mostly done with Christmas shopping!!! Before Thanksgiving! My mom made me go shopping with her, and we were Christmas shopping rock stars, even though I was snorfy mucusface all day. So the good news is no last-minute shopping; the bad news is, I have a month to reconsider my purchases and then buy supplemental ones to make the doubtful originals better. 

Christmas shopping gives me great anxiety, and not necessarily just because of the large-ish lump of money one must fritter away, but because I never know what to get anyone. I feel like it’s wasteful on both the giving and receiving ends, because the gifter is throwing away money on some random crap that the giftee doesn’t even want or need, and as a result, the former is broke and the latter has an excess of random crap that they don’t want or need, but they keep it forever out of guilt. I know this because I am a crap collector. I can’t get rid of anything, no matter how ugly or useless, especially if my uncle’s brother’s girlfriend’s mom gave it to me for Christmas, because then it has tremendous sentimental value, and what if I see them again in eight years and I’m not still visibly treasuring it for all the world to see? That would be atrocious. 

Once in a long while I find something that I know the giftee will like, and in that rare occasion, I do enjoy giving gifts…but usually it’s just like, “Well, I gotta get something…here, have this gallon of mouthwash! It’s Iceburg Blue!” I feel like I need to offer an apology along with the gift. Am I alone in this?

New Year New Me: Pony Progress

Today I thought I’d mix up my morning “internesting” ritual (coffee and computer time, usually comfortably nested on the couch); I brought ...