Friday, December 25, 2009

A Major Change

"I'm changing my major to art."

Look up these five words and you'll find they roughly translate into "I'm going to make no money."

Just what every parent with a kid in college wants to hear.

"It doesn't matter- just so long as they're happy, healthy, have ten fingers and ten toes..."

Yeah, but couldn't five of those fingers be pushing around numbers on a spread sheet instead of paint on a canvas? Wouldn't six figures bring you closer to health and happiness?

My parents silently accepted my proclamation, although I'm certain these questions, among others, were swirling around in their heads. I had entered Penn State as a pre-veterinary major, and here I was, in the middle of my first term, being lured by the sirens of the art world. You can count on a siren for a romantic notion or two, but you won't see too many of them forking over the rent money. My education, room and board were being completely subsidized at the time so I didn't understand the satisfaction of security, nor was I planning on worrying about it anytime soon. Tomorrow was another day, and frankly, my dear, I didn't give a damn about the details.

As a child, when asked what I wanted to be when I would grow up, I would answer, "A ballerina or a veterinarian." Considering that there are more than six degrees of separation between toe shoes and a terrier's testicles, you could say that I hadn't as yet made up my mind. Careful not to be blatantly discouraging, but doubting my commitment to the veterinary cause, my mother would say, "You know, Joan - you have to do more than love them. You have to clean up after them, too."

You also have to make it through your first term of classes.

Penn State's sprawling campus and enrollment of 40,000 did not intimidate the small town girl, but disappointing test grades and a handful of teeth-baring pre-veterinary majors proved to be more than an annoyance. They were driven and ruthless right out of the gate; I now admire their single-minded passion, but I was not up for the fight at the time. This particular dog-eat-dog world would not work for me.

An elective course in graphic art led me to the dark side. My Darth Vader came in the form of a charismatic printmaking instructor I met while struggling through the land of press type and cut and paste. Looking to increase his own enrollment, he convinced me to take a course in "intaglio" or metal plate printmaking. I took the bait and entered the print shop...

... and left four years later with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in printmaking. Armed with academic idealism and a reasonable amount of artistic knowledge, I landed back at my parents' home. My own collegiate experience had been quite the bipolar ride; I had spent hours laboring over lithographic stones and zinc plates yet managed to shape my social persona as well. It was not all work and no play for Joan, and she did not emerge a dull girl. Who better to light the fires of future students? A position as a printmaking professor at a university my objective, I set about applying to graduate schools in pursuit of a Master's degree. Giving in to immature confidence, I targeted only two schools and was accepted by neither. On to Plan B.

Plan B was intended to be implemented for the short term; I never imagined it could span two decades. I took a job as a hostess in "Wanda's on the Park", a restaurant in the Wilkes-Barre Sheraton Hotel, looking forward to saving some money and reapplying to graduate schools the following year. Waitressing at a favorite lunch spot followed and soon I was up to my neck in dishes and double shifts. By chance, I encountered a Penn State alumnus on her way to New York and in need of a roommate, so off I went to the Big Apple, with my Master's Degree a dot in the rear view mirror.

Sharing a duplex with four other women, I secured a server position at the Plaza Hotel's Palm Court. Although more glamorous than a luncheonette, I'm sure that my parents had doubts about their four year college investment being used to artfully place a piece of cake on a plate. How about that dollop of whipped cream with three strawberries as a garnish? Now, that was worth something.

Twelve years passed in the big city, and I found myself married and looking for a house. Once settled in upstate New York, I began to look for waitressing work. Though kept alive, my creative pursuits had never generated much income. "Good evening. Would you care for something to drink?"

My skills in the hospitality business, though not my vision of a career, have served me well. (Get it?) These days my plate-toting is limited to my own dinner and a few private parties. I have yet to stumble upon my big artistic break or institute the mechanism to make it happen and I'm sorry to say that my parents will never see an artistic economic return on their tuition dollars. House portraits and pet portraits have generated a lot of interest and little cash flow. "She's so talented; if only she could find her niche.", my father would say.

Though Mom and Dad may have had reservations about my choices, they rarely voiced negative opinions. They listened as I ran on about the exquisite nature of lithography limestones quarried from a singular source in France. My ink-stained hands were the color of a mechanic's, yet it was unlikely that they would earn me as much. Keeping quiet, my parents let me find my own unconventional way.

Easter of 2005 was the last time they visited my home; two months later my mother would enter a nursing home with dementia. As I prepared dinner in the kitchen, my father surfed through the televison channels and landed on a religious drama. When the image of a young boy hammering hieroglyphics into a stone appeared, Dad casually remarked, "There's Joan in college."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Santa Has Left the Building

Two nights ago I made an honest attempt to catch Clint Eastwood's latest film, "Invictus", at the Regal Cinemas in the Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall. Running about 15 minutes late (not bad for "Joan Standard Time"), I arrived at the theater to find a long ticket line standing between me and the movie. Deciding that I should see this particular story from the beginning, I aborted my original plan and took a stroll around the mall. After about ten minutes of dodging kiosk salesmen and stray children, I started to head back to my car and towards a glass of wine at one of my favorite restaurants.

Before leaving the mall, I caught sight of a poster that read "Paws and Claus. Pet portraits with Santa. Mondays 6-9". Housebound by the recent cold snap, Ms. Grace was in need of an outing and a trip to the mall seemed just the ticket. I'd bring my Heidi Klum back the next night for her very own photo shoot. Now, back to that cabernet.

We arrived at the mall at about 8:15 on Monday and jogged through the parking lot to the mall entrance. The photos were being taken at the opposite end of the building, so we made our way through the waves of holiday shoppers, only to find that Santa had finished his shift at 8:00. "I'm sorry- there was a typo on the advertisement. You can bring her back tomorrow morning, if you'd like. We could fit her in before it gets too busy with the kids." Thanking the very nice young woman behind the counter, I knew that I would not be back the next day. I had brought my own camera, so I figured I'd grab a few shots of Grace amid the holiday decorations while she socialized with the shoppers. Our mission would be accomplished.

We got about twenty feet away from the photo studio when we were stopped by a baby-faced security guard who informed me that only certified therapy dogs were allowed in the mall. I explained that we had missed the Santa shoot and that we had to walk back through the building to the car. With sheepish authority, he advised me to avoid the food court. "We had an incident today with a small dog-someone had an allergic reaction." I thought to myself that said reaction was more than likely due to MSG infested Chinese takeout, but I held my tongue and politely went on my way.

At the risk of sounding like yet another overly infatuated parent, I can't get over the effect my dog has on people. Whether it was her goofy grin or the showgirl swish of her hindquarters, she captured the attention of countless passers-by. Undoubtedly, a dog out doing her holiday shopping might prompt a second glance, but the hugs and kisses bestowed upon Gracie as she continued along her promenade appeared to be the product of her own brand of magic. I kept my eye out for the next authority figure who would bust us as I allowed Grace her share of the limelight. She was in dog heaven.

We made a quick stop at Petco's treat bar where I filled a bag of mixed biscuits while Gracie cleaned the floor and grabbed a cookie or two out of the bins. A few more petting sessions and a display of tricks for the cashier and we were on our way back home.

Craving a cup of coffee, I turned into Dunkin' Donuts. As I reached onto the floor for my purse, I looked into the store window and saw a familiar character in a red suit. Santa! I hurriedly unzipped my camera case, grabbed Gracie's leash and jumped out of the car just as he was walking out the door. "Santa! May I take a picture of you with my dog?" As calmly as any man capable of delivering millions of presents in one evening while at the helm of eight tiny reindeer, he said, "Why of course."

He handed me his card, which identified him as a "real beard Santa", available for private and corporate parties, holiday parades and Christmas Eve. Apparently a distinction has been made between the St. Nicks who sport their own growth and those who don prosthetic fuzz; this fellow was the jolliest of natural specimens.

After taking some quick shots, Santa asked if I would snap a few on his disposable camera. I obliged as he explained that his stepfather was battling cancer and he was sure that the photo would cheer up his mother. Popping Gracie back in the car, I thanked Santa, wished him well and went inside to grab my coffee. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I smiled as I saw Santa on his cellphone, standing next to his minivan.

Ho, Ho, Ho. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Twisted Sister

A third grader bowed his head in an attempt to hide the tears as they spilled beneath his horn-rimmed glasses. His apparent plight caught the eye of his teacher, who quietly asked him what was causing his distress. She might have expected him to complain about homework, a test score, or a class bully. Instead, he looked up at her and proclaimed with a sigh,


I'm pretty sure he would have preferred the bully.

My mother relayed this story to me, and although it sounds like one of those "cat in the microwave" urban myths, I always thought it would make a great first scene in the independent film of my life. Whether or not this actually took place, the foundation of an eight year old boy was severely shaken the day I was born.

Wayne was a wonderful child who followed all the rules. He did what was asked of him and took exceptional care of his belongings. When walking up the street to visit his grandmother, he could be trusted to safely avoid the dangers of the road by adhering to the grass along the edges. No need to worry about this kid. But look out for number two.

I took it upon myself to cover all the bases Wayne had missed with his good behavior. I whined, I cried and threw fiery tantrums. My father fenced in our entire yard, as I could disappear before the hat dropped. Having yet to learn respect for the possessions of others, I was the terror of the toy box. The human equivalent of an untrained puppy, platoons of my brother's plastic soldiers fell victim to my teething jaws and I was incredibly difficult to housebreak. I preferred the feel of a clean diaper but was resistant to toilet training, so I often took it upon myself to empty out the contents behind the downstairs couch. More often than not, it was my brother who would make a gruesome discovery while playing with his friends. Yep, I was a real princess.

The gap in our ages made it unlikely that we would be the best of friends during our formative years. We travelled in our respective circles and he was simply my older brother while I was his pain-in-the-ass little sister. Passing years brought differing opinions and heated arguments often ending in accusations of favoritism; although neither of us had ever wanted for anything, it was clear that I was "Daddy's little girl".

We managed our aging parents' care with minimal contact. Only the rare special event would find us back home at the same time. Throughout my mother's nursing home tenure and my father's cancer, decisions were questioned and tensions mounted. Dad quietly wished that we would somehow mend our fences, but he wasted no time on fruitless peace-making measures.

As we tag-teamed our visits to watch over Dad in his final weeks, the tide unexpectedly turned. Sweet little singing birds did not pull back the curtains to reveal a pot of golden friendship at the end of a glistening rainbow, but we could clearly see the benefits of compromise. We helped each other through my father's passing and seamlessly joined forces as we faced the aftermath of his life. I never would have imagined a "feel good" Hollywood ending for this independent film and I can't explain how I let it come about. Dad tried to tell me that I would need my brother, but I had so often refused to listen. I guess I'll just assume that the bug up my ass had affected my hearing.

Watch out for those bugs.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

"So they sold the house up on the corner, and you'll never guess who bought it."

I shuffled through my list of improbable or fascinating potential inhabitants, and since it was unlikely that either Britney Spears or Bill Clinton would relocate to Trucksville, Pa., I came up blank.

"A gay couple."

Definitely not on my list, I quipped, "Well Dad, their yard will always look nice."

Having learned that an old man's mind should be allowed to open at its own pace, I withheld my views on acceptance and tolerance. With the exception of a few years in an apartment in the nearby town of Forty-Fort and a stint in the war, he had spent his entire life on the same block. He could admit change or quietly live alongside it with benign indifference. I decided to leave it up to him.

Nine years have passed since Wade Shaw and Jim Hawk took up residence on Vonderheid St., causing not even the slightest stir. A close knit community, I was fortunate to have my father surrounded by wonderful friends as I tried to manage his care from 3 hours away. Watchful eyes surveyed the house, monitoring the safety of the lonely old man within. Wade and Jim joined the team, sending down food and paying friendly visits. Sexual orientation was not at the table as my father and Wade would trade car stories and discuss the history of the local yokels. Just two regular guys "shooting the shit", as Dad would so elegantly say.

Firmly believing that no one should be alone on the holidays, Wade and Jim welcomed my father to their table, where he was treated to the warmth of family and the comfort of delicious food. I began a tradition of taking Dad up on Christmas Eve, as he was reticent to go alone after Mom's death. We shared laughs, exchanged presents, and gave new meaning to "Dad's night out with the boys".

My father didn't understand that being gay is not a choice. He was a "man's man" and held on tight to decades-old beliefs. Oftentimes, I would find myself wincing at my father's point of view on certain subjects, but he was remarkably low key in his assessment of his neighbors' lifestyle. As we walked back down to his house after a Christmas Eve visit, he started to speak and I fully expected a long overdue defamation. Instead he said, "Did you notice that those guys wear shorts and barefeet even in the winter? Now, that's pretty weird."

"Yeah," I answered. "That's pretty weird."