Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Joy of Crayons

There’s nothing like a new box of crayons. Their smell – the sharp, new tips – the bright colors that just cry out to be used. I bet my feelings about new crayons are influenced by the fact that I got new ones every year for the start of school, so now they are wrapped up in the emotion and excitement of new teachers, new paper and pencils, a new desk, and new things to learn.

I watched some kids color this week, or more correctly, I watched the kids and their parents color. It seems like the parents get more into the coloring than the kids do, as if they’ve been dying for an excuse to get creative. I mean, here their kid is with a new box of crayons and a fresh coloring book, and the parent just HAS to color that tree green, or that flower red.

As I watched the coloring, I realized that one of my biggest art “revelations” involved coloring. My mom was an art teacher, so of course she never encouraged me to “stay in the lines;” she was prone to give me a blank piece of paper instead of a coloring book, to inspire more creativity.

The revelation came when I was pretty young. In a coloring book I was coloring a scene of girls sitting on a beach in bathing suits under an umbrella that I filled in with primary colors, and Mom decided to “help” me for a bit, as grownups do. I watched as she picked up a red crayon, held it above the page, and gently shaded a blotch of red on one of the girls’ bare shoulders. “She’s been sitting on the beach too long,” Mom explained. I remember staring at the sunburn Mom had given the girl, suddenly struck by the fact that there was more to this coloring book than just filling in the pictures. They could be my own, more than ever now. A blank sky could be filled with birds or a sunset or a hot air balloon. A field could hold cows or flowers or a picnic basket and blanket. I can’t help but see that very moment as when the world of Art was opened to me, truly. All by a little shade of red on a girl’s shoulder.

So if you have a little time, why don’t you “help” your kids with their coloring books. Show them what is possible. Or if they’re not around, grab a piece of blank paper from your printer and draw a little something. I know you want to.

Monday, July 19, 2010

When in doubt, bake.

“When in doubt, bake.” I spoke these words to my husband on Sunday afternoon, to explain the batch of brownies I had just put into the oven. They were already filling our downstairs with the smell of sweet cocoa, and I realized at that moment that I tend to bake whenever I need to feel grounded, or when I have a few spare hours and can't figure out what I feel like doing.

My sentimental mood was probably instigated by the Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie Marathon that I stumbled upon, and after three straight movies I was ready to get off the couch but retain my feeling of nostalgia. I found myself flipping through my recipe box, with one eye on the next movie, searching for something sweet.

I had no chocolate chips in the pantry, so “Johnny’s Brownies” were the perfect recipe that afternoon. In my Mom’s cursive writing, it was written on a yellowed index card and had a big red checkmark next to the title, which indicated that it had been tried successfully. Who knows what the original title of the recipe had been; over the years it became “Johnny’s Brownies” because my uncle liked them so much in 9th grade. At least that’s what it says in the corner of the card: “Favorite 9th Grade Recipes – Johnny.” In fact, all of my family’s recipes have notes like that, indicating the date the dish was made (my grandma’s recipes list dates from the ‘40s), what should be done differently next time (“Try it cooler – 400° is too hot!”), and often a note of the occasion for which the dish was made (“Shannon’s Graduation Open House,” “Sheila’s Bridal Shower,” etc.)

I like the precision of baking; I’m not one to make up my own recipes or throw in different ingredients. And there is pleasure in leveling off a cup of flour and knowing I’m doing it exactly the way my Great Grandmother did. I roll our pie crusts with the rolling pin my mom used to make peach pies in the summer and cut-out sugar cookies every Christmas. Even the ingredients are comfortable: the small round can of baking powder fits perfectly into my hand; I can’t open a bottle of vanilla without pausing to inhale. These recipes, these routines, put me in sync with all the women before me – down to the bare essentials. It’s no wonder, then, why I find myself baking, often.

Below is the recipe for brownies that I made on Sunday, while George laid nearby on our rug with the rooster on it. These don’t need any icing. And the batter is great. Mom taught me to scoop the batter into the dish with a spoon so that you intentionally cannot get it all out of the bowl. Then after it’s in the oven, use a spatula to get out the rest, so you can lick it off. It’s best that way. I think I bake for the doughs and batters instead of the final product!

Johnny’s Brownies
Cream together:
1 cup shortening
2 cups sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
Add 4 eggs and beat.
Sift together:
1 1/3 cups flour
1 cup cocoa
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
Add and mix well. Bake at 350° in greased cookie sheet 20 min – or deeper pan for 40 min. Cool and frost.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Battle Scars

It is Tour de France time again, and every morning I’m glued to the TV as long as possible before I have to go to work, then I turn on my computer to see the live stream of who wins each stage. And they still amaze me – these guys who bike across France, up and down mountains, crashing and recovering, sometimes riding on in spite of gashed elbows and broken bones.

Since I’m not much of a sporting-type, I don’t have many battle scars or markings of bravery. The only real injury I’ve ever had (knock on wood, please) was from doing the jitterbug on a concrete stage in Branson for a year, two shows a day, when I got tendonitis in my wrist. I have to admit it’s a little fun telling people that my occasional wrist brace is from a jitterbug injury.

The scar I’ve had for the longest time is from when I was 3 years old or so, and there was a flat round barbecue grill base sitting on our front porch, just sitting there enticingly with no grill and no stand. For some reason I played inside it with my kitten, and when I got up I cut my ankle on the metal piece that stuck up to hold the missing grill. I went to the emergency room for that one, and it is still prominent on my ankle, complete with little spidery stitch marks.

I also have a scar on my shin from a curling iron. A strange location, yes, but it’s from sitting on the floor in my dorm room in college, trying in vain to do something with my hair. I remember the skin kind of melting away in slow motion as the hot metal hit my leg.

My only true sports scar is from tennis, on the back of my right shoulder. How, you wonder, did I get a tennis scar there? My friend and I were playing doubles with two guys, and I dove for a backhand in an attempt to impress our opponents. I assure you I was very impressive, since I didn’t intend to actually dive. But I don’t have to tell anyone that.

So, I watch the Tour de France every year with awe, as the cyclists ride along with blood-covered faces and ripped jerseys, across the mountains in 90 degree heat, while I watch from my air-conditioned living room on our overstuffed sofa with George. Do you think Lance Armstrong would be impressed by my tennis scar?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Less is More

As often as possible, I take George in the car with me, which isn’t easy now that it’s hot outside. In the winter he can sit in the car and wait for me wherever I go, but now we’re limited to air-conditioned travels through the Starbucks drive-thru and shopping trips to Home Depot. Riding in the shopping cart, he gets attention from all the customers and salespeople who sweet-talk him and pet him. (He can’t just be on a leash because he would happily pee on things.)

I can take George with me because he is an only-dog – if I had more than one, I know I wouldn’t be so quick to take them with me. But because he is by himself, we go to the park and on trips and to people’s houses and to the mountains, all because it’s easy to load him up and go.

Like George, I was an only dog/child. (?) I remember my mom telling me that she liked having only one child because it meant we could do more. She could afford more, therefore we went on trips together and I had experiences and opportunities that I never would have had if I had siblings. And Mom and I were so close that it’s hard to imagine the different relationship we might have had if there were someone else in the house.

Going through life as an only child, I often received criticism or assumptions from people with siblings. “Weren’t you lonely?” No, I’m actually more secure doing things by myself than most people seem to be. “Didn’t you miss having brothers or sisters?” Nope, except when my Mom died. Then, I could have used someone nearby to share what I was going through. “I bet you were spoiled!” Well, I don’t think so, but it depends on your definition of the word. Yes, Mom’s attention was focused on me because I was her only child, but I definitely didn’t always get what I wanted!

For this post, I looked up statistics regarding only children, and I found that my experience was comparable to the average only child: I did well in school, felt comfortable with adults, and easily enjoyed time to myself. While I wasn’t as social as those with siblings (like first-borns), I had the same amount of close friends as most people. And while I wasn’t involved in as many social groups or clubs, I was often a leader in those I did join. It’s always strange to me when I read statistics and see that I fit right in. The non-conformist in me wants to rebel.

My husband and I plan to have only one child, for many reasons. And I have to admit that I like the idea of having only one to focus on, having only one child to take places, having only one so we can do more, have more, be more. I can just see us now, jumping into the car with George, on the way to Starbucks, or Home Depot, or beyond. Christmas in Hawaii? Summers in Europe? Or just quiet nights at home, with us all doing our own separate things. Less is more, right, more or less?