Tuesday, July 4, 2017

How Do You Start Drawing Again?

In a small child's life, soon after bawling, squalling, and crawling are established, along comes scrawling. (Which often includes some crayon-eating and paint-sipping.)
Colors zigzag across paper and books and possibly walls up to a 3-foot height. If you're lucky and careful, those little hands never grab hold of a permanent-ink Sharpie.
Then the child's drawings start resembling things. She churns out self-portraits, parents, siblings, houses, trees, the sun, and pets. 
After that, most kids go on to fill reams of paper for the next few years, scrubbing their way through multiple 64-crayon boxes. 
Sophie, age 5, with one of her many horse pictures.

But at some point, a lot of these furiously drawing kids just...stop. They put down their crayons and Magic Markers (and this was true long before laptops, cell phones, and tablets). They may pick them up again, but often only to do homework and other assigned tasks.
Anecdotally, it's said that if you ask kindergartners "how many of you can draw?" all the kids raise their hands. Ask a few years later, and very few will tentatively admit that they can...a bit.
I suppose this decline is due to growing self-consciousness; kids are forever policing one another's behavior as well as watching for any sign that a peer thinks he or she is "better" than everybody else. 
So I was no different from most other kids when I was little in that I loved to draw, and though by mid-elementary years I wouldn't dare raise my hand for fear of being mocked, I still drew--a lot. I drew just because I liked to, but also discovered that drawing provided an enchanted shield that fended off bullying and teasing.  Kids might pick on you or shun you, but when they saw you could draw a little, they'd be a little nicer to you...for a while, anyway.
Tiger, lioness, lion by yours truly, age 5
or 6. The start of a wildlife encyclopedia
I intended to write and illustrate, though
I wearied of the task by page 3.
The animal kingdom is rather large.
Drawing helped me endure the first and only summer day camp I attended when I was about five years old. At that age, I didn't feel particularly bad about myself. I had a few playmates, and I went to a few birthday parties. Life was good.
But then my parents decided to sign me up for a day camp. No doubt they thought it would be a super treat for me, especially as Mom was busy with my newborn baby brother that summer. 

Unfortunately, I started camp a few days after it had officially begun. 
And that was plenty of time for the other little girls to have formed friendships .
When I appeared on the scene, they all closed ranks--all except one slightly plump girl who was ostracized because she was sturdily built. She and I became friends and stuck together most of the time. 
My popularity wasn't exactly improved by my fear of going underwater during swimming lessons (I prayed for rain every single morning). My outsider status was further cemented when we took a trip to Carvel's Ice Cream Shop and (a) everybody else ordered chocolate and I got vanilla, and (b) I bit off the end of my cone to eat the ice cream from the bottom up, which someone had told me was a cool thing to do, but was actually just a really stupid and messy thing to do.
Though I don't think these events explain why my only friend turned on me the very last day, singing a taunting anthem along with the other girls and bidding me farewell with the remark, "I hate you. I was only pretending to like you."
But there was that day, that one solitary day, when it did rain. 
At first, there was just enough sunshine for us to indulge in some archery (real arrows and big stuffed targets--I'm surprised there weren't eyes being put out right and left). For some weird reason, I was top-notch at archery, landing that sucker smack dab in the middle of the target every time.  
As Pigpen says in A Charlie Brown Christmas, "Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn't it?"
It did...for a few minutes.  
Then, blissfully, it began to rain. Buckets.  We were hustled indoors. Paper and crayons and pencils were doled out. And we drew.  
Before too long, a girl spotted my paper. "Hey, that's good!" she said loudly. Other kids clustered around. Soon I was drawing cats and dogs for them.
This won me a whole day or two of respect. But memories are brief at age five, and life reverted to its usual focus of trying to remain invisible. Fortunately, the whole horrible experience of being sent to Kid Siberia for the summer would soon end.  My mom recalls that on the last day, I stepped into the house and stated, "The hell with that."
Throughout the rest of my school years, I continued to draw, putting art teachers through grueling tests of patience in middle school as I created an endless stream of horses. In college, friends found the animals I drew amusing (bless you, AΔΦ brothers and sisters) with the exception of one (non-AΔΦ) male housemate who chastised me for not taking art "seriously" and "wasting" any ability I might have.*
[*Editor's note: I have found some of the "serious" art I produced in art classes. Believe me when I say that no talent was wasted in the production of these works, nor will successive generations be deprived of scintillating artistic scope and vision. Unless you think a badly drawn deer standing on a snowy hill in front of a barn surrounded by a landscape experiencing a completely different season is Art for the Ages.]
After college, I noodled about taking a few cartooning classes in New York City after my editorial-assistant job wrapped up at 5 p.m. (Weirdly, the art director made it her business to say sneeringly almost every Wednesday, "Off to your...[pause] cartooooning class now?"). 
Gradually, though, pens and pencils were set aside. Paper stayed bound in its notebooks. The birth of my daughter reignited some drawing energy (we spent many happy hours filling yards of paper with horses), but outside of our home, being an adult able to draw a little was Frowned Upon in our co-op preschool.
So scary! (source)
It would be Off-Putting, you see, to draw when children were looking on. These fragile souls might be so humbled and threatened by the sight of an adult drawing, they might never, ever pick up a crayon again. (One young mom, whom we dubbed The Young Child-Rearing Expert, made sure to say VERY LOUDLY, while praising another young mom's husband's interactions with the kids and glaring at me, "It's not like he draws a giraffe that the kids see and know they can't replicate. He doesn't intimidate them.")
Clearly, being able to draw googly-eyed animals doesn't inoculate one from condemnation in adulthood the way it does when you're a kid.

Then, when my daughter was in elementary school and I inadvertently doodled something one day, a friend exclaimed, "I didn't know you could draw!" To my surprise, this jolted me; it felt as if I'd abandoned some key element that had formed me, like growing up in a foreign country and not telling any of my new acquaintances.
Now that I'm older than most dirt, the desire to fill up paper with pictures is tugging at my sleeve again. 

Today, there are no preschoolers swarming around me who might give up illustrious dreams of art school and the National Portrait Gallery because I drew a giraffe. 

There are no sneering art directors. 

There are no mean kids like the one in middle school who teased me daily until her friends pointed out that I could draw horses. ("Well..." she said grudgingly, and then, pointing to the line I drew under a horse, added triumphantly, "but she's not very good at ground.")
No, now I just have to contend with what's on my desk: jars of pencils and empty sheets of paper, and a wall as intimidating as Becher's Brook in the Grand National steeplechase. Written on this wall is something to the effect of "what is the purpose of doing this? is there an end goal? what is the point?" 
I'm realizing that the past two decades have required a lot of getting-things-done both at home and at work (this kind of goes with the territory of Being a Grown-Up) and that I have to go back to my earliest years as well as my daughter's childhood to relocate that lovely feeling of just doing something for no reason at all...not to get fit, or clean something, or finish a writing job, or the like. It's harder than I'd thought it would be.
In the midst of all this self-scrutiny, though, I've been stumbling upon little messages left and right. For starters, I discovered that my shelves held a copy of Drawbreakers (Klutz Press), a doodling book filled with ridiculous things like a leopard to daub with your own pattern and a photo of a fishing rod and line clearly pulling something in--but it's up to you to draw the "something." 
Then I was reading Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley and came upon this paragraph, which describes the narrator visiting Kal, a tattoo artist who sits down to design an image with him and says, "Let's Draw":
I smile the way I did as a child when receiving a fresh box of sixty-four Crayola crayons-unabashedly, showing all my teeth. I remember how much I used to love to draw, and I wonder why I don't do it anymore.  I write, I guess. I draw with words. But when I see Kal's pad and charcoal, I'm overwhelmed with the feeling that it's not the same.
And then there was this imperative, from Lynda Barry in What It Is:
To all the kids who quit drawing...come back!
Finally, I came across the transcript of an NPR interview with Mo Willems of Pigeon fame, who sounds as if he wouldn't lend much credence to the advice of The Young Child-Rearing Expert in the preschool co-op:
One of the interesting things about cartooning and doodling and drawing is that people stop when they decide they're not good at it. Nobody stops playing basketball when they realize they're not going to become a professional. The same thing should apply to cartooning....One of the biggest reasons children stop drawing is that they see that adults don't do it, Willems says. When he goes into classrooms, he says, teachers often ask him to get the kids to draw. But when he does, many of the teachers don't participate.  "Well, now the kids realize that this is just a baby activity," he says. He reminds us that parents are actually cool in kids' eyes — for a while — and kids want to imitate what they do.
I guess I can draw a conclusion from all this. 

Go sharpen those pencils!  

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Rueing Rhubarb, Stewing Rhubarb

Thumper and Tiffany (at right).
I should hate rhubarb.  I really should. It is probably the wicked plant that did in my lovable pet bunny rabbit, Tiffany.

Tiffany was a big, friendly white rabbit with brown ears, a rakish brown patch on one eye, and a sprinkling of brown spots on his back. Yes, his back.  Tiffany was named Tiffany when I thought he was a girl.

When Thumper, my female Dutch rabbit, gave birth to four little bunnies, it was a major clue that Tiffany must be a boy rabbit.

His hefty size and pleasant nature should have been a tip-off.   Buck rabbits tend to be more easygoing, while does are a bit more wary and territorial. Thumper was downright aggressive--she growled, attacked my gloved hand, and pivoted to keep me in her line of sight when I had to reach inside her cage.  The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog had nothing on her.

Tiffany, on the other hand, was a doofus. Which was probably why he nibbled on a toxic plant in the first place. Wild rabbits would know better than to dine on rhubarb leaves. But I was in my early teens  and didn't know any more than he did about rhubarb.  I had never tasted rhubarb pie; I couldn't even describe what rhubarb was. But a rhubarb plant was growing in the fenced pool area, where I often set the rabbits free to romp, and I should've educated myself about poisonous plants before letting Tiffany loose in there.

Though maybe it was the rhododendrons he ate, in which case I am still responsible for his demise, but I can at least love rhubarb without any pangs of guilt.

Because if no deceased rabbits are involved, rhubarb is simply splendid. It grows easily, is one of the first vegetables in the garden to spring to life after winter, and can be transformed into tartly sweet pies, jams, jellies, coffeecakes, compotes, chutneys, syrups, and wine.

We have several rhubarb patches in the yard, though one of them is now consigned to be For Decoration Only. That's because last year, when the resident teen tripped over a bucket of motor oil drained from her truck, the patch was inundated with the nasty runoff.

Rhubarb flowers
This year, somebody else nearly backed over the plants; for weeks, they stood in a shrieking row at the lip of the deep tire rut, looking like Victorian ladies who've seen a mouse.  They will be allowed to live out their lives in peace, flowering at will and flaunting giant green leaves.

The first of this year's crop, taken from the stress- and oil-free patches, made its way into a chicken-rhubarb dish. The next harvest became an upside-down rhubarb coffeecake, using this recipe from The New York Times:

When I got to work on that recipe, at first I thought, well, how fussy. "Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper," it said.  "Butter the paper and sides of the pan. Wrap two layers of foil under the pan, and place it on a buttered baking sheet."

This was a cake I was making, I thought. I'm not roasting plutonium. I decided my grandmother's reliable springform pan wasn't going to leak, so I ignored the layers of containment. (I also used regular flour instead of cake flour, because I didn't have cake flour.)

Well.  The harsh fumes surging from the kitchen told me that there was a reason for all the containment, actually. The cake calls for a thick sugary syrup that's poured into the pan first, then topped with the rhubarb mixture and finally the batter. That syrup? It likes to ooze out of the pan and across the cookie sheet and onto the oven floor, it turns out.

A quick clean-up of the oven floor and replacement of the cookie sheet with a sturdy rimmed baking sheet saved the cake, which turned out delicious, despite missing its layer of caramelized syrup. I'm still wondering how the cake would have any of this glaze on it at all, even if you swathe it in layers of foil, because wouldn't that process just yield a delicious cake along with a pile of gooey foil? I guess this calls for making another cake.

Other great rhubarb recipes that are mainstays at our house:

Rhubarb Pecan Cake, page 44, Bundt Cake Bliss
Rhubarb Crisp Pie, page 51, Pies and Tarts (Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library)
Strawberry Rhubarb Crunch, page 25 (and just about every other recipe), The Joy of Rhubarb

And don't forget we Washingtonians live in the nation's leading rhubarb-producing state, and you can even visit Sumner, the rhubarb pie capital, to enjoy the Rhubarb Festival.

Old willow ware viewed through windows in rhubarb leaf chewed by slugs.
Which apparently can eat rhubarb leaves without harm.