A Question of Perception

I was in the checkout line at a grocery store today and the man standing behind me said, "Hi. How is your day going?"

"Fine," I said. "How is your day going?"

"Horrible," he said. "I have to work tonight and I hate my job. It's the most boring job in the world." 

"Sorry to hear it," I said.

 "Do you know how boring my job is?" he said.

"No," I said.

"My job is as boring as watching paint dry," he said.

"I love my job," I said. "It's the most exciting thing in the world I can think of to do."

"What do you do for a job?" he said.

"I watch paint dry," I said.

[This blog post originally appeared on October 20, 2014.]


A Day in the Life of a Serious Artist

It all started when I ran to the grocery store to buy the biggest chocolate Easter rabbit I could find. I wanted the chocolate rabbit to give to a friend of mine as an Easter gift. The only rabbit I could find was three feet tall, which wasn’t as big as I was looking for. I wanted a six-foot chocolate rabbit, or actually 6’7” so it would be taller than my friend. Still, I bought the 3 -foot chocolate rabbit and put it in my cart. Then my eyes were caught by an impulse item, one of those eggs which hatch when you put it in water. I returned to the cashier and bought the little egg.

I forgot about the egg until two days later, when I was engrossed in launching ships into the art world. By “launching ships” I mean sending out work samples of my art along with pitch letters, query letters, completed grant applications, etc etc. Launching ships into the art world is considered a masochistic endeavor by many artists, and indeed it kind of is, but sometimes the ships return laden with prizes and money! And yes, although sometimes they sink, I love the fact that underwater sea creatures then get to enjoy my art.

Since launching ships can be a bit of a burnout, even for me, I took a lot of teeny breaks. During one of those breaks I remembered about the little egg and decided to put it in a goldfish bowl and hatch it. Please do not be horrified…no goldfish were harmed, only the giant rubber bands which I usually store in the goldfish bowl but dumped out in order to fill the fishbowl with enough water to accommodate the hatching of the egg.

An hour later, the little creature hadn’t hatched. I tried to read the instructions, but the price tag obscured them. Suddenly I worried I’d drowned the creature, so I cracked open the egg to save the creature’s life, which was of course ridiculous because it wasn’t really alive, only a tiny bit of plastic with the face of an angel or cupid or something. After my relief at saving the creature’s life had waned, even though I didn’t really save its life, I realized the egg hadn’t hatched by itself, and that might be a bad sign regarding my ship-launching.

But then I checked my horoscope and it said that my astrological sun sign is very dynamic and known for taking the initiative and making things happen. Which was a good sign regarding my ship-launching. However, my horoscope noted that my rising sign dislikes chaos, and my moon sign is a dreamy procrastinator, so I realized that even if all my ships returned laden with career gems, the path to success would still be fraught with peril.

At this point I realized I couldn’t figure anything out, so I decided I may as well give up and go paint.

And that is how I became a serious artist.

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It’s Always Summer on the Internet

One of the perks of living in a trendy part of town is the surfeit of spontaneous visitors who swing by my place because they happen to be in my neighborhood doing something else.

One bitterly-cold afternoon last February, a painter friend of mine buzzed me from downstairs. He’d been running errands near my loft and had some time left on his parking meter. As he stepped through my door, I said, “Sorry I don’t have any fun snacks to offer you. Travel has been so hazardous during this horrible winter, I haven’t made it to the grocery store lately.”

“You never have fun snacks,” he said, “even in balmy weather.” He put his briefcase on a chair and took off his coat.

“That’s because any time I have snacks around I can’t sleep until I’ve eaten every last one of them,” I said.

“I’m not arguing with you,” he said. “I’m just stating a fact. ”

“How about a cup of coffee?”

“Sure.”

As I busied myself making coffee, he rustled around my lair, peering out windows, opening and closing his briefcase, and peeking inside the books strewn on tables and chairs.

After I’d brewed a couple of fragrant cups of java, we headed into my studio to critique my latest paintings.

He nodded astutely at the sight of my semi-nude gray-hair self-portraits. “You’re doing your best work ever.”

Although he always claims I’m doing my best work ever, I chose to believe him. Possibly life is linear…who am I to know?

Suddenly he glanced out the window and jumped to his feet, almost capsizing his coffee.“Oh no. I just saw a snowflake.”

“Omigod. I forgot about today’s apocalyptic snowstorm,” I said.

“I’d better get going. ” He jammed his arms into his overcoat sleeves and popped on his fedora. Rushing to the door, he waved goodbye.

“Call me when you get home so I’ll know that you’re safe,” I said.

I watched from the window as he ran up the alley, hurtled himself into his car, and floored it.

“I hope he’ll be okay,” I said aloud, putting my hands to the sides of my face and making my mouth into the shape of an “O”.

You see, although he only lives a few blocks from me, the weather people had predicted a bombcyclone-thundersnow thingee, and I feared for his life. I had no idea what I’d do if he didn’t call and say he got home safely…there’s no way I was going out into that blizzard to rescue anybody.

After he left, I sat on my red metal folding chair and gazed out the window. Through the gathering twilight and tumult of thunderbombsnowflakes, I saw struggling pedestrians and idling, angry automobiles. I sighed and said aloud, “Oh, why am I here?”

When I asked that question I meant why am I here in Minnesota, not why am I here in general, but my late-afternoon brain, which had wandered off to wherever it goes when it’s not under strict supervision, rushed back to answer my question.

“You’re not here for any reason except to eat, propogate and die,” my brain said. “That’s the meaning of life.”

“I didn’t ask for the meaning of life,” I said to my brain. “I asked why I’m in Minnesota.”

“The answer to that question is the same as the answer to the other one.”

“No one asked for your opinion,” I said to my brain.

“Then who were you talking to, if not me?”

“I was talking to the Universe, you silly creature. If I’d been talking to you, that would be like talking to myself, and why would I ask myself a question since I already know the answer?”

Just then the phone rang. I assumed it was the Universe calling, so I answered immediately.

“Hi. I got home alright.” Indeed it was the Universe, masquerading as my painter friend. “Oh, I forgot to tell you something.”

“What?” I said.

“I left a pizza in your freezer.”

“Thanks,” I said, hanging up the phone.

“Well, that takes care of eating,” my brain said. “Now you have to work on the other two things.”

“I’m not taking orders from you,” I said to my brain. “I’m the boss here, not you.”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” my brain said.

“Then who were you talking to, if not me?”

“I was talking to the Universe, you silly creature,” my brain said. “If I’d been talking to you, that would be like talking to myself, and why would I talk to myself when I can talk to you?”

“That makes no sense at all,” I said.

“You’re not making sense either,” my brain said.

…and that’s pretty much how things have been going around here lately…

The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits

If you’ve talked to me for more than 5 minutes during the past 2 years, you know that in 2016 I developed an allergy to hair color products.

Since some of my readers have never met me, I should explain that I’m no longer in the first bloom of youth and have been coloring my hair since I turned 35, even though then I had no gray hair. My natural hair color at age 35 could be described as “blah”, and since I’m such an exciting and surreal person, the “blah” hair color felt like false advertising. Over the years, thanks to many trips to hair stylists, my disheveled locks have ranged in color from pickup-truck red to Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show magenta to sultry-older-woman black-orchid-brown.

The allergy first manifested itself in November of 2016, shortly after the U.S. Presidential election. At first I assumed the rash and fluid sacs sprouting over my face and scalp were caused by stress, but after my initial terror about the new presidency subsided, and a new-normal existential despair settled in, my head still itched and my face still burned with on-and-off pustules and crusting.

I was a mess.

Whenever ailments hang around for more than 2 weeks, I head for the nearest doctor. Or the nearest doctor in my insurance network, anyway. The doctor I chose was an allergy specialist known for his expertise, kindness and empathy. After shining a special light all over my head and peering into my ears, he gazed into my eyes and said, “You’re allergic to hair color products.”

Under normal circumstances I would have said, “Thank you, doctor. I’m so relieved I don’t have bubonic plague/scabies/syphilis/leprosy/cooties.”

But instead I wailed “NOOOOOO!!!!!”

“Yes,” he said. “If you want to get better, you have to stop coloring your hair.”

“But if I don’t color my hair, it will be gray,” I said, “and I’m not a gray-hair kind of person.”

“I understand,” he said. “It will be a big change for you. When you look in the mirror, you’ll have identity issues. I’m so sorry.”

Pictured: a detail from one of my sketchbooks.

Pictured: a detail from one of my sketchbooks.

When I told my friends I had to go gray, the ones who know me best reacted with hugs and tragic expressions. My more distant buddies were nonplussed at my upset, saying things like “We all get old, Nancy, even you.” Several acquaintances decamped after realizing all I was ever going to talk about for the next 2-20 years was my gray hair trauma. I got lots of advice on dealing with what they call “the skunk line”, which happens when you have sultry-older-woman black-orchid- brown hair and suddenly stop coloring it while your gray hair grows in.

I could go on and on about the things I did to cope with this tragedy, but trust me: I left no stone unturned. (Yes, I tried coloring my hair with Koolaid/coffee/coffee grounds/tea/tea leaves/beet juice/carrot juice/food coloring/vegan hair dyes/sage/prayer/creative visualization/etc., but nothing worked.)

Some of my much-younger friends said. “You need to rock your gray hair, like Emmylou Harris…or Kiki Smith…or Cher wearing a wig”. My older, shamelessly-grizzled friends said (in gentle, crone-like voices), “Instead of being upset, you need to get curious about your gray-hair journey.” My punk-rock buddies said I should shave my head, thus avoiding the grow-out skunk line.

The idea of parading around like a version of Emmylou, Kiki or Cher did not appeal to me. I AM NANCY ROBINSON, and therefore a rockstar in my own right.

Anyone suggesting I shave my head has never seen my ears, which are so Doctor-Spocky it confirms my suspicions that I’m a creature from outer space.

So I decided to opt for the journey, which in my case meant wandering around the Internet late at night, typing stuff into Google like “I fucking hate my gray hair HELP what should I do, HELP HELP?”.

Sometime around 2 a.m. during the darkest part of the 2017 winter, my journey on the Internet reached a Wikipedia page for The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, who had a lot more identity issues than I ever will.

“Enough is enough,” I said to myself. “You need to take your journey into the studio and paint pictures of yourself with gray hair.”

Here’s the first one, from 2017, when I explored my fear of becoming invisible.

Self-portrait with Gray Hair, 2017, oil on canvas, 40” x 30”

Self-portrait with Gray Hair, 2017, oil on canvas, 40” x 30”

I wasn’t sure I should share my story with the Internet. It occurred to me I should be cool about the whole thing and pretend I grew my gray hair out purposely. But the trouble with acting cool is: I always forget that’s what I’m supposed to be doing and accidentally end up being myself.

But I guess that’s why you like me.

Sometimes I think It Might Be My Fault Everything Turned Out the Way It Did.

On an achingly-lovely late-summer day, I headed to the post office to mail a letter. As usual, silly me, I neglected to notice the time was noon, i.e. lunchtime.

The queue at the post office stretched all the way out the door and into the beige-and-gray lobby. At least fifteen people were in line ahead of me.

Achingly-lovely late-summer days always fill me with unattainable yearnings. As I stood in the post office line, I longed to go home. Not home to my apartment, but home to my PLANET…the planet I got kidnapped from by earthlings when I was a baby.

The problem is, and always has been: I don’t know what or where my planet might be.

As I surveyed the lobby, I imagined my planet’s corridors would be painted in bright tropical colors, not sombre beige and gray. Cheerful robots bearing free foot-long hot dogs and gooey blueberry pie would roam the perimeters. And people would act like I do, talking too much and saying silly things, not quietly waiting in line.

Filled with sudden hope, I scanned the crowd and listened for signs that someone else was a visitor from my planet.

At the counter, a postal worker queried a man with a pile of paper-wrapped parcels, “Do these packages contain anything dangerous or explosive?”

“Only if you consider satire dangerous and explosive,” the man said.

Underneath my purple hair extensions, my ears perked up. That sounded like something I might say. As the postal worker viewed the man with the kind of puzzled expression I’m all too familiar with, I considered breaking rank, running over to the man, and shouting, “Take me home with you!”

But I didn’t.

You see, I needed to mail my letter, and I didn’t want to lose my place in line.

The Secret To Getting Everything You Want…Sort Of

Do you have a pet peeve? I don't. Actually, I don't have any kind of pet...I'm too busy and lazy to take care of a pet. Pet peeves are especially difficult to feed and clothe, unless you're the chronically-angry type. I'm too busy and lazy to be a chronically-angry type. Plus, I have this problem with staying organized and focused, and pet peeves require a great deal of focus and organization. In order to keep the pet peeve fed, especially during dry spells when everything's going really well and nothing annoying is happening, it’s necessary to go out and look for trouble…and I already have too many to-do items on my daily list.

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Another strategy, if a pet peeve has gone into temporary dormancy, is to generate new pet peeves, at which point there’s a whole squirming litter of them, and it’s been my experience that it’s hard to farm out extra pet peeves to friends and family.

When I mentioned to an acquaintance of mine that I have no pet peeves, he remarked, “Yes you do!”

“Like what?” I said.

“Building construction.”

I thanked him for his input and went home to brood on the subject, which was difficult to do because of all the noise from the renovation of some nearby former art studios which were being converted into luxury apartments.

I decided the best plan was to take the bus to Minneapolis. Taking the bus to Minneapolis gives me the illusion of traveling somewhere else, possibly because I am traveling somewhere else. During the three blocks I was alone on the bus, I decided that building construction doesn’t qualify as a pet peeve. Pet peeves are things which only annoy certain people, not everyone. Pet peeves indicate some sort of grudge or neurosis.

I racked my brain, trying to think of something to develop a pet peeve about, something maladjusted and specific to me. All I could come up with are the kinds of things which anyone in their right mind would hate, like being called “ma’am”…or getting grossed out when people clip their toenails on public transportation…or becoming allergic to hair dye and having to go gray whether you want to or not.

Just as I was about to give up finding a pet peeve to claim for my own, a woman got on the bus. She expertly navigated paying her fare and getting seated, all while talking loudly on her cellphone.

As I listened to the woman’s conversation, I realized she was having success in every area of life where I wasn’t doing too well.

I got so envious and crabby overhearing all the good things happening to the woman and not to me, I realized I’d just developed a bona fide PET PEEVE!

My pet peeve: strangers who talk on cellphones in public, and their lives are better than mine.

For the next few miles, I explored my wonderful new feelings of resentment. I felt like I finally had something worthwhile to contribute to the global community. But then, after we crossed the achingly-lovely Mississippi River and stopped near the Guthrie Theatre, the woman got off the bus. As I watched her, something inside me snapped. I realized the woman was probably an actress rehearsing a part in a play, and the whole cellphone call was a hoax.

Just like that, my pet peeve evaporated, and my naturally-sunny personality kicked in. I found myself making mental lists of the ways I could be proactive about procuring the goodies the woman was pretending to have while she talked on her phone. I got off at the next stop and headed back to my studio…and ever since, my entire life has been an ongoing, raving success.

The trouble is, I still don’t have a pet peeve.

To Bee or Not to Bee?

When my  friend The Gardener waxed eloquent about watching bumblebees cavort in his magnificent  garden, I said in my most-wistful City Rat voice, "I wish I was a bumblebee flying around a beautiful garden."

"If I looked out my window and saw a 125-pound bumblebee flying around my garden, I'd be really worried," he replied.

Nevermind.

Finally I Get to be Right About Something

My late mother used to say outrageous things, great sweeping remarks about the nature of life in general. I’d tell her she was wrong, and she’d argue she was right… and much to my dismay, she always turned out to be right.

Except about one thing: my mother told me you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

I usually don’t have flies in my loft. I have other annoying creatures, both human and non-human, but not flies. Something changed, though, when I awoke one morning with the thought in my head that I should eat more fresh fruit.

Ignoring my own advice to never go grocery shopping while hungry, I threw on some clothes and rushed to a nearby food market. The moment I walked into the place, a shelf groaning with organic strawberries caught my eye. The winsome fruit was exactly the shade of alizarin crimson I favor in oil paint, hair, wine…and strawberries.

I grabbed a pound of the berries and headed toward the checkout counter.

As soon as I got home, I washed some berries and popped them into my mouth. They tasted so good, I gave my reflection in the mirror a double thumbs up. I put the remaining berries in my refrigerator to feast upon later.

Several hours later, after a satisfying session of painting, I took a break for a snack. When I opened the refrigerator door, clouds of fruit flies flew out and converged upon my kitchen counter, which held the remains of my previous night’s party. The unwashed wine glasses especially attracted the tiny, winged vermin.

I ran a sink full of hot water and liquid soap, plunging the wine glasses into lavender-scented suds. Most of the fruit flies perished immediately. A few of them escaped, so I rolled up a copy of The New York Times and taped it into place, fashioning a deadly artisanal swatter.

Then I marched the uneaten fruit to the dumpster outside.

The next few days were hellish. Every time I thought I’d killed the last of the fruit flies, a new batch would appear. I put out a little dish of honey, thinking the vermin would get stuck in it and I could squish them to death, but they ignored the honey. All they wanted to do was hover around my head, making it difficult to do anything constructive.

It was time for a fruit fly trap.

If I’d lived near a cute little hardware store, I’d have gone there to ask if they had any fruit fly traps. But all the cute little hardware stores have been gentrified out of my neighborhood, so I had to go shopping online.

Oddly enough, no one had fruit fly traps for sale online, but I found lots of DIY hacks. Several involved filling a shallow container with apple cider vinegar and squirting a dab of dishwashing liquid into the vinegar.

Luckily I had all the required supplies in my loft, so I made a fruit fly trap and put it on the kitchen counter.

Within two hours, 43 fruit flies had drowned.

Three days, later, the infestation was over.

The possibility that my mother was wrong about other things besides how to catch flies has opened up a whole new world of potentials. For example, what if it’s not true that the early bird gets the worm? What if it’s not true that if you make your own bed, you have to lie in it?

What if it’s not true that it’s a man’s world and nobody can ever change it?

Hmmnn…