The Battle of the Sexes Rages On

I hope you had a great 4th of July.

I did.

I began by working on my latest masterpiece, an epic self-portrait installation. Things went so well, I would have blown a trumpet out the window if I'd had one. Then a friend of mine stopped by for lunch. At first the scene in my lair seemed downright pastoral: I fried up some grilled cheese sandwiches while he read to me aloud from a book by Charles Bukowski.

We sat on bar stools and ate at my kitchen counter, equipped with our bare hands and a bottle of ketchup. As we gobbled down our glorious repast, we talked about art, life, and the world situation.

Eventually I got bored and changed the subject. "Enough about art, life, and the world situation. Let's talk about me."

 He took a bite of his sandwich, chewed, and swallowed before he replied. "What about you?"

"If someone asked you to describe me in one sentence, what would you say?"

His face assumed the guarded expression he wears when I ask him things like "Do I look fatter than when I first met you?" and "Do you think I'm a genius?"

He said nothing.

"Come on," I said. "Be honest: I can take it."

He continued his silence for another half minute. Then his big blue eyes brightened, and a grin invaded his visage. He leaned forward and said in a voice filled with self-confidence, "I'd say you're a slice of life."

Score one for his team.

An Unwitting Accomplice

I recently got back from trying to see an admission-only, fabulously amazing art exhibition.

I say "trying" because the place was jammed with people taking selfies in front of the artwork.

I felt very annoyed. It's not that I'm averse to selfies...I mean, most of my creative endeavors are one big selfie. But I paid a hefty admission price to see the show, and instead of being able to lose myself in the real-time, orgasmic experience of viewing the masterpieces in person, I ended up being distracted by flashes from cameras, or accidentally getting in people's way as they snapped their photographs.

Usually when people are taking photos, I stay out of their way until they're done. I don't like being in pictures unless my hair and makeup is perfect and the lighting makes me look young as springtime. Which is basically never. But finally I just went ahead and walked in front of their cameras, since it seemed to be my only choice if I wanted to see the art.

I suspect pictures of the back of my head are now trending on social media.

Which I guess makes me part of the problem.

Flower Girl

It's springtime, and love is in the air.

There was a time, a couple of springtimes ago, when people seemed to be finding their soulmates everywhere. Love bloomed on the Internet, in bars, at bus stops, at church, at the grocery store, at sports events...just about anywhere you can think of.

And then there were the ones who couldn't even find anyone to date, let alone fall in love with.

One of the lonely ones was an acquaintance of mine, a winsome but complicated female. I noticed her moping on a bench in Mears Park as I shuffled my bones to the gym.

"Hi," I said to her. "How are you?"

"I've been better," she said.

"Why? What's up?"

She stared at me gloomily. "Two people I know just got engaged."

"What's wrong with that?"

She rolled her eyes. "They've only been dating a couple of months, but they said they knew immediately knew they were soulmates and they should spend the rest of their lives together."

"Cool."

 Her voice cracked with emotion."Everyone's finding their soulmates except me." She looked at the ground. "I'm so depressed."

"Maybe you're just hungry," I said. "Let's grab a burger somewhere."

"I don't have any money."

"I'll treat. I just sold a painting." I gestured in the direction of a nearby eatery. "Come on."

She pulled herself to her feet.

We both ordered burgers with caramelized onions. As she wolfed down her last bite, she smiled.

I smiled back at her. "Feeling better?"

"I guess so. But still, how come so many people are finding their soulmates so easily, everywhere they go, and I'm still alone?"

"Some people are common as lawn daisies," I said. "They have many soulmates to choose from. But you, you're mysterious and rare."

"Me?"

"Yes. If you were a flower, you'd be a ghost orchid."

She furrowed her brow. "What's a ghost orchid?"

I nodded wisely. "See what I mean?"

Flirting Inside the Box

Why, oh WHY do I answer the phone? I suppose it's because someday you might call. But today it was my friend K. (not her real initial), telephoning to give me advice I didn't ask for.

"Hi," K. said."I love your blog, except there's a problem with it: you spend too much time talking about relationships. You sound like a flibbertigibbet."

"I do?"

"Yes, and it's a shame, because you're a serious, committed painter. You need to share more about your artistic process."

"I'll think about it," I said. "Maybe next week, when I'll have more time."

"You need to begin right now. Take the phone with you into your studio and talk to me about what you're doing."

"Okay." I sauntered into my studio, put the phone on a worktable, and switched the phone to speaker mode. "I'm now in my studio. As you know, I usually use water-soluble oil paint because I can no longer tolerate the fumes from traditional oils unless I have really good ventilation. But today the weather is so nice, I have the windows open, and I awoke gripped by a desire to paint with traditional oils, like I used to in my wild youth."

"Good," she said. "Continue."

"Now I'm opening the metal box housing my traditional oils." I sighed and clasped my hands to my heart. "There they are, forty-two tubes of paint." I giggled. "Oddly enough, forty-two is the exact number of men I ..." I clapped my hands over my mouth. "Oh whoops, I almost slipped back into talking like a flibbertigibbet."

"Yup," she said. "You did. But you stopped just in time."

"Okay, back to my serious oil painting session. Now I'm looking inside the box, studying each of tube of individual paint. There they are, all the big players from my early life as a painter." I sat on a folding chair, leaned my elbow on the table, and removed a tube from the box. "PRUSSIAN BLUE. He was a military type, not my usual kind, but opposites attract. His emotional range was rigid but exciting. When I was around him, I marched to a monochrome beat. PRUSSIAN BLUE takes forever to dry, and I mean forever. I still have some paintings done with PRUSSIAN BLUE which are tender to the touch...I think that means he's still carrying a secret torch for me, which is why I keep him in a fireproof box."

I picked up another tube."CADMIUM YELLOW. He was a cad (duh) and an outlaw. The only reason I even have this paint is because he was given to me by an elderly oil painter whose mind was crumbling. Possibly her time with cadmium and her crumbling mind were connected. I'll bet it was worth it, though...that woman loved miscreant types. Alas, the tube is empty, so I'll never know."

I returned both tubes to the box and leaned over to survey the rest."BRIGHT RED. There is no such thing as BRIGHT RED. BRIGHT RED is clearly a fake name, and I never trusted BRIGHT RED enough to use him." I cleared my throat. "PERMANENT GREEN LIGHT. Our relationship was more friendship than passion, but sometimes a lack of passion is allowable if a relationship holds up in other respects. For example, PERMANENT GREEN LIGHT was always there for me in ways FLAKE WHITE never was."

Looking closer into the box I gasped. "Omigod. I think ULTRAMARINE VIOLET is having a fling with ALIZARIN CRIMSON...they're stuck together like mating houseflies. But at least those two are still with me, even though they're cheaters, unlike ROSE MADDER, who's gone missing...a fact which doesn't surprise me, since ROSE MADDER is known to be a fugitive color."

My friend interrupted me. "Okay, you can stop now."

"Why? I'm just getting started."

"You're incorrigible," she said.

"Yes," I said,"and I plan to stay that way."

It's Not My Fault; She Started It.

I've got a favorite coffeehouse in every corner of Minneapolis-Saint Paul. I'm kind of like the proverbial sailor who's got a sweetheart in every port.

While running errands in Edina on a gloomy, wind-howling morning, I ducked into my go-to caffeine paramour and ordered a cup of dark roast.

Behind me in line, a young mother inspected cartons of milk on display in a cooler. Her child, a girl of around four, tried to capture my attention by playing peek-a-boo, singing little songs, and twirling around in circles. I smiled an acknowledgment but basically ignored the tyke.

After I paid the barista, I picked up my coffee and looked around for a table.

The little girl said to me, "You look like a witch."

I had no quarrel with the child's assessment of my appearance. That day, garbed in all-black attire and pointy-toed boots, I indeed looked like a Halloween ornament.

"I'm not a witch," I said.

Overhearing the conversation, the young mother looked at me, eyes wide and a blush creeping into her cheeks. "I am so sorry."

"That's okay," I said. "I do look like a witch. In fact, I consider it a compliment to be mistaken for one. Witches are very powerful beings. I knew a witch once and she took being a witch very seriously. She was always attending workshops to learn new skills because she considered witchcraft her calling. I understand about callings because surrealistic painting is my calling. Interestingly enough, I listed Surrealism as my religion on Facebook... "

"Have a nice day," the mother said to me. She handed the barista money, put her purchase into a tote-bag, grabbed the kid's hand, and high-tailed it out of the coffeehouse.

I took a sip of my coffee, wondering for the millionth time why I keep living in Minnesota: everybody seems to think I talk too much.

Attack of the Giant Fawlture

On the morning of my first day of elementary school, uneasiness rattled my soul. Going to school symbolized my launch into the outside world; I worried I wouldn't measure up to the competition.

As I circled our cozy apartment in my red buckle shoes, spouting misgivings and general malaise, my mother offered no solace. "You'll be fine," she said. "Go tell your father breakfast is ready."

I found my father in the bathroom, shaving his face. A biology professor, his emotional remoteness was matched only by his ability to be counted on during existential crises.

"Daddy?" I said.

"What-ee?" he said.

I climbed up on the sink. "What if I turn out to be a fawlture in life?"

He continued to shave his face, keeping his eyes on his reflection in the mirror. "I think you mean 'failure'."

I'd been teaching myself to read, with uneven results, and indeed I meant "failure"... but to admit I'd failed to properly pronounce the word "failure" would prove that I'd already reached the fate I feared.

"No, I mean fawlture," I said.

He peered at me sideways. "Nancy, I promise you will never be a fawlture in life."

And I wasn't.

Coitus Interruptus

To be an older woman is to experience increasing levels of invisibility. Although I still garner occasional attention, thanks to my sartorial choices and my tendency to talk a lot, I've noticed that things have gotten quieter with each passing decade.

Except sometimes I underestimate my anonymity.

On a bone-chilling night last winter, I trudged home from a grocery run. It was late, almost midnight. Behind me, in a little cart I bought at Office Max for $15, I hauled two bags of victuals I'd purchased at Lund's. Despite the shivery cold, my head was free of any covering: my parka hood had slipped down, but I felt too weary to pull it back up.

Suddenly I spotted movement in the shadows. As I peered into the gloom, I realized I was witnessing a young couple copulating against the side of a building.

My first impulse was to retreat and rethink my route, but that would have added extra time to my journey, and the night was very cold.

I decided to sneak past them.

Sneaking past represented a bit of a challenge. The margin of the sidewalk wending past the pair was cluttered with snow piles, construction signs, and other odds and ends of urban life. But as my therapist recently pointed out (in a good way): I like a challenge. I put my head down, kept my eyes on the ground, and adopted the demeanor of someone skirting a pair of lawn ornaments.

Just when I thought I'd cleared the scene and could make a break for my doorway, the lovers ceased moving. The woman called out, "I like your hair."

I glanced to confirm she was talking to me; both were looking my direction with happy grins. The man nodded approval; he also liked my hair.

"Thanks," I said.

And then they went back to what they were doing, and I went back to walking home, secure in the knowledge I haven't quite disappeared yet.

The Walls Have Ears

I sometimes find myself malingering in the frozen foods aisle at Trader Joe's. Occasionally, if I'm feeling reckless, I even buy stuff which isn't on my grocery list.

As I hovered over the desserts section, eyeing a couple of treats, a millennial buddy bounced up and gave me a high-five. "Hey, Nancy-pantsy, what's happening?"

I shrugged. "Not much, except I can't decide which flavor of sorbet to buy. I'm kind of in the mood for lemon, but raspberry matches my lipstick."

"Get both of them."

“Good idea." I leaned on the handle of my cart. "So, what's new with you?"

Her face widened into a happy grin. "I'm really psyched. I just bought a manual typewriter."

"Great," I said.

"I found it online."

I nodded. "Somehow I guessed brick and mortar wasn't involved, but thanks for clarifying that."

She rolled her eyes heavenward in an attitude of ecstasy. "I love it. The clickety-clack of the keys makes me feel like I'm actually accomplishing something, even when I'm not."

"Manual typewriters have their charms," I said.

"You have one, right?"

I shook my head. "I used to, a long time ago, but not any more."

"Omigod, what happened to it?"

"I don't remember. I think I either gave it to Goodwill or traded it in for my first computer."

Her face registered primordial horror. “What? I'd never expect you, of all people, to succumb to the tyranny of technology."

"I didn't succumb to anything," I said. "At least nothing related to this topic."

 "Then why did you get rid of such a magical piece of machinery?"

I kept my voice level as I replied. "The neighbors complained about the noise. They said it kept them up at night."

Just Do What You Can

The first time I gave a slide show and talk about my artwork, I developed psychosomatic laryngitis a few days before my speech. My then-boyfriend, an actor, told me such incidents were common in theatre, a variety of stage fright. He taught me how to project sounds from my mouth by pressing hard on my diaphragm and exhaling loudly, resulting in a faint but intelligible "voice". He assured me that by combining abdominal thumping and a microphone, I'd be able to make myself heard.

 The class was an art appreciation class at the University of Minnesota, over 200 people. As I stood high on an elevated stage and surveyed the crowd filling the auditorium, I held the mike close to my face and explained why my voice was so weird. Some of the audience nodded in sympathy, but the rest kept their eyes on the floor. When I asked how many were artists, only a few raised their hands. Most were middle-aged and wore the exhausted expressions of working students.

My paintings from that time period were very straightforward; I hadn't yet evolved into my current surrealistic style. All I wanted to do was paint pictures and sell them so I could make a living doing my art. The crowd seemed to enjoy the landscape paintings, street scenes, and still lifes projected onto the movie screen during my talk.

Toward the end of my lecture, I showed a slide of a cow, explaining that I'd noticed the cow during a road trip through Wisconsin and decided to paint a picture of it.

A man in the second row raised his hand.

 I gestured in his direction. "Yes?"

 He stood up and spoke loudly. "Why did you paint a cow? Why not a horse?"  The expression on his face was kind; I could tell that the question was an honest question.

I pondered for a moment, and then asked in my teeny voice, "Why would I paint a horse?"

The man's response boomed up to me and ricocheted around the auditorium. "Because the horse, he is a noble beast, the king of the pasture."

I leaned forward and croaked brokenly into the microphone. "But the cow, she is out standing in her field."

The man thought for a moment. "Ah." He smiled, nodded and sat down.

In a small way, I think I changed the world that day.

Mine is Bigger Than Yours

Woe to anyone who tries to figure out my taste in movies based on the collection I store upstairs in a cardboard box. Many of them are culled from the free piles of apartment buildings where I've lived, or else I found them in a secondhand store, or else I got them as a gift from people who don't really know me (like Secret Santas).

I was watching one of those movies on a throwaway night last December. One of the main characters remarked (ruefully) that her life was very small. It got me thinking about my own earthly trajectory, which could look teeny to an outsider. I'm not prone to shark-cage diving or bungee jumping. I don't remedy failed love affairs with transcontinental jaunts. I've never been the captain of a space ship or discovered a rare species of tree snail. I've never even made my own pasta.

To the naked eye, it would appear that I have a very small life.

But the naked eye can't see the rollicking joyride of pure imagination going on inside my head. I'm usually on some wild adventure to locations which make terre firma seem shabby indeed.

Our mercantile culture strives to turn make magic into a commodity. I'm guilty of that myself, and it's led to some dark, soul-searching moments (as well as some stilted, rotten art). But in the end, when I can't seem to figure anything out, I throw up my hands and go back to painting and writing and doing whatever humble, money-generating things it takes to keep my little ship afloat.

Wave to me when I sail past...

Snow Job

My phone rang while I was adjusting one of my easels, a lightweight thing which collapses at odd moments for no particular reason. Despite almost tripping over my model's feet (in other words my own feet, since I was painting a self-portrait), I managed to run to my living space and grab the phone before it kicked into voicemail. "Hello?"

 "May I speak with Nancy?" The voice on the line was male, the kind of baritone which usually emanates from leading men in chick flicks

"This is Nancy," I said, fluttering my eyelashes at myself in the mirror above the phone.

It turned out that the caller was a telemarketer. He'd telephoned to try to sell me something I had no intention of purchasing. I listened to his entire sales pitch, though; I didn't want him to stop sending that delicious voice in my direction. When he finished his spiel I said, "Sorry, I can't afford it. But thanks anyway."

His tone turned sympathetic. "Hey, are you getting blasted by the weather?"

I looked out the window. Snow was swirling in all directions, buffeted by the cruel, icy wind, but the last thing I wanted was for a dreamboat telemarketer to feel sorry for me. "No."

"I thought the entire Midwest was getting pummeled."

"Not us. Minnesota isn't really the Midwest." I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my head. "Why do you ask? Are you getting blasted by the weather?"

"I'm in L.A.," he said. His voice was smug.

"Oh, I used to live there," I said in a breezy contralto. "L.A. gets blasted by other stuff, like earthquakes and smog and traffic jams."

His tone grew serious. "I know.  I can see Hollywood Boulevard from my window, and it's gridlock because of some big film premiere."

"Traffic is never a problem here," I said. "Minnesotans are very efficient." I leaned forward for a better view of 4th Street, where cars were snarled in the snowstorm, spinning their wheels as they tried to inch forward. 

"I still can't believe you didn't get hit by that storm. The news said Minnesota has blizzard conditions."

"Maybe somewhere in Minnesota, but not where I live. Today is sunny, and the sky is blue as a picture postcard."

"I thought California owned the sun," the telemarketer said.

"We have a different sun here," I said. "It's because we're so isolated."

"But sunny or not, Minnesota is so cold. How can you stand it?""

"I live in St. Paul. It's warmer here because of the river." I stood up."Well, I should go. There are lots of parties going on tonight, and I'm invited to all of them."

After I hung up the phone, I sat for awhile gazing out my window at the bleak winter cityscape, trying to remember why I moved back to Minnesota from Los Angeles. Yeah, L.A. was expensive and polluted, and the earthquake threat was scary...but the weather was perfect almost every day.

Suddenly I remembered the problem with Los Angeles: everybody was always trying so hard to impress everyone else, I could never tell whether people were lying or telling the truth.

I hate it when that happens.

Gaggle, 2013, oil on canvas, 12" diameter

Gaggle, 2013, oil on canvas, 12" diameter

Baby Talk

Do you ever ponder the puzzle of your personality?

I do.

While I was rummaging in a cupboard today, looking for the circus peanuts I hid from myself last Halloween, I located a new source of information about what makes me tick: my baby book! The slim volume was wrapped in tissue paper and nestled next to some photo albums. It's a pretty pink satin thing with ribbons and bows, and the title reads The Story of Our Baby. My mother handed it to me several years ago and said, "Take this. It's yours." I brought it home and immediately lost it in my lair before I had a chance to read it.

When I found the book today, I flipped through it in idle curiosity. My mother was a biologist, and most of her entries read more like notes from a science project than chronicles of human life. Just when I was about to stow the book away and move on to my next destination, some passages caught my eye. Etched in my mother's sensible cursive were smatterings of tales from my infancy and toddlerhood. I'll spare you the details, but here are some highlights: on Christmas I was more interested in the tree than the gifts. Many of my favorite playmates were boys. I adored coloring books. And on my 4th birthday, my mother wrote, "Mamma expected 9 and 15 showed up. Seems Nancy had invited the whole neighborhood."

Those tiny portraits of me, penned by a mother who wasn't given to flights of fancy, tell me more about myself than all those free online personality tests I took earlier today.

(But just in case you're wondering: I passed the "Are You Neurotic?" personality test with flying colors; the wardrobe evaluation pegged my age as 18; the food questionnaire said I'm an easygoing forager; the "How Picky Are You in Love?" quiz advised me to raise my standards; and the "How Effectively Do You Spend Your Time?" survey told me to turn off my computer and go PAINT.)

GOODBYE...

Tabula Rasa, 2016, oil on canvas

Tabula Rasa, 2016, oil on canvas