Coloring Within the Lines

Although home improvement projects can be welcome distractions, they can prove equally as daunting.  I find great pleasure in ripping things out and knocking other things down, creating cataclysmic change that renders my husband speechless for a day, or so.  A dainty little chainsaw is right in my wheelhouse: oh, the projects that could be embarked upon with one of those!  I will have to contain my enthusiasm for this coveted instrument of destruction.

My next most favorite angel of change is paint.  Miracles can be performed with a gallon of color and a roller, and I haven’t been forbidden from using this medium, yet, so the continued potential is limitless.  When we moved into our house eight years ago, it was all about the paint.  The living and dining areas were romper-room yellow, the hallways were powder blue, and everything else was a suffocating flesh color.  The tile in our bathroom was teal, a popular shade in the fifties apparently, which made you feel like you were trapped inside a Tiffany box, distorting your reflection, a healthy pink tinged with a corpse-like cerulean.  A few coats of primer and a soothing wash of beige was all this little place needed to erase the geriatric carnival feel and replace it with a calm repose.

I turned my attention to the exterior, and the aged red brick ranch needed a face lift.  I bought brushes and rollers and paint trays, and a huge drum of high quality white paint, an exhilarating action because big purchases mean big change, and this was going to be great, I could feel it.  The first area I tackled was the stucco part around the front door and kitchen window, this was my warm up area.  I took down the shutters and there was an awful lot of dirt, dust and bugs and such that I did not have time to clean off, so I hurriedly painted over them before anyone had a chance to tell me I had to power wash or something crazy like that.

Things were shaping up nicely and this whole house painting thing was proving to be quite a breeze. Day two was as sunny and warm as day one, perfect conditions for a makeover.  The Sherwin Williams helper guy had advised me to roll at least two coats of primer before the actual layers of paint, which was about the silliest suggestion I had ever heard.  I laughed and patted his well-meaning shoulder, That’s not happening, I told him.  He persisted, telling me that if I didn’t prime the paint would peel and chip and all sorts of horrible things would happen, but I was familiar with this sales tactic and was not going to budge.  A woman whose credit card has her husband’s name on it is a notorious pushover for upgrades and non-essential purchases, warranties and add-ons, but I was not going to fall into that stereotype; this guy did not know who he was dealing with, apparently.

As I rolled the first few blotchy stripes of white onto the ruddy brick, the thrill of transformation nearly overwhelmed me.  Up and down and then at diagonals I worked the same four-foot square, throwing tiny drops of white in every direction as I rolled, splatters dotting everything, the porch, the sidewalk, my legs and arms, my hair, the shrubbery.  After an hour of labor intensive re-creation, my arms ached and the heavy, sodden roller slipped from my grasp, landing on the sidewalk with a soft squish.  It’s a good thing I had so many other things to clean up, I thought to myself, otherwise this little mishap would be upsetting.

I stepped back to examine my progress, and it was not impressive.  My eyes scanned the length of our little house and the thought of painting its entirety was suddenly overwhelming.  Brick is porous and drinks paint exhaustively, the divots and crevices, the mortar and irregular textures, all compounded the complexity of the project.  The longer I looked, the bigger it grew, the foundation and it’s redness stretching and expanding like an inflamed rash across the yard and into the sky.  Perhaps that sales guy at Sherwin Williams was onto something with the primer suggestion. I did what any defeated visionary would do: I abandoned the project until my inspiration returned.

Every day for weeks the pure white four-foot square by the front door challenged me, gloating in its triumph, until a tall, slight boy with a curly mop of dark hair and an innocent smile knocked on the door.   Justin Something, he introduced himself, and in naive upspeak he pitched himself as the leader of a crew of experienced young students painting houses for college cash.  For a deal too good to be true, he made an offer I couldn’t refuse, and one week later Justin and his smile and his workers appeared and started prepping. For two days they taped and tarped, but mostly walked around aimlessly, dragging ladders around and drop cloths, back and forth, back and forth, then rest, then lunch, then dragging stuff around again.  Not a brush or roller did I see for those two days.

By day three, the team was reduced by half and only three showed to amble around my back and front yard in a purposeless stupor.  The following day another neglected to show, and Justin was dispirited, betrayed, his poor boyish charm clouded by confusion, and under this cumulus the painting began.  They didn’t get very far, and they didn’t seem to know what they were doing; painting brick is like dancing in quicksand and these boys, understandably, were not enjoying themselves.  It was July and the insufferable heat and humidity was unforgiving in its grip on Saint Louis.  Day five saw Justin’s team reduced by another and my four-foot square started grinning at me, again. It was the end of the week and our little house’s transformation was supposed to have been completed, and from what I saw they had a good 99.5% to go.  The temperature sailed past one hundred degrees and the sun was determined to beat these two weary painters with soft private school palms and naive university minds into submission.

Justin gave his crew of one the weekend off and he started painting on his own in a comical attempt to make up lost time.  He climbed the ladder like it was made of string and suspended in the air over a sea of man eating sharks, white knuckling the sturdy metal rails with a terrified grimace.  It took him ten minutes to reach the top, about fifteen feet, and ten seconds to realize that he had left everything he needed on the ground below.  One by one, he brought each item to rest on the shelf at the top of the ladder: the tape, scissors, a paint brush, gallon of paint, paper towels.  By the time he had all that he felt he needed, it was time for a long, well-deserved lunch.  And this is how it went for Justin from eight in the morning until eight at night, all weekend.  I watched him in the way one would watch a city person try to light a fire with a flint stone, only to set themselves alight, and not the huge pile of wood in front of them, every time.  Monday rolled around and Justin had no helpers.

By the time our house was finished, I was weary of him.  He had painted everything:  the sidewalk, the deck, the windows, the gutters, the flashing, the front door, the driveway, my husband’s car; nothing was spared from Justin’s splashes and splatters, his fallen brushes and rollers, his spilled buckets and cups, his drips and drops.  The yard and the plants were covered in a fine film of white, our entire acre suffocating under the carelessness of one boy.  In his defense, Justin did offer to de-film the car if I would present a bottle of denatured alcohol, but somehow that seemed like a horrible idea.  He thanked us for our business and our patience, he flashed his sweet smile and bounced his curls around playfully, and I fought an intense desire to smack his pink cheeks with a rubber glove.

I had forgotten about Justin.  As the landscaping matured it had covered all of my reminders of him, until last weekend when my dad and I ripped it all up.  Revealed was the story of the epic painting mission of a boy from Texas, oozing with cuteness and hope, squashed by reality and incompetence.  As I surveyed the dots and slashes of white on black shutters and gutters, even the leftover strips of tape that nobody bothered to remove and that withstood several years of storms and temperatures, I started to laugh.  The four foot square that started the whole mess was staring at me, again, reminding me of my own painting adventures and inability to properly plan, organize, lead, and set realistic expectations.  Perhaps I hired that Justin seeing something familiar behind his smile and beyond his curls that we both had in common, and perhaps it was our shared inability to color within the lines.

Out of Bounds

A good player does not necessarily make a good coach, just as a good coach does not necessarily make a good referee.  I played lacrosse in high school and college and currently coach a JVC team for a lovely and civilized private school just down the road, and we have a great time.  We work on skills, we learn drills, we perfect plays, we grudgingly condition, we tease one another, we laugh a lot, and we are undefeated.

I have a tendency to overcommit, in ability, time, energy, interest, whatever.  Things I enjoy seem easier and closer, whereas things that I do not seem to be the opposite, and reality does not always follow these seems of mine.  In fact, oftentimes, I find myself in situations that I’d much rather not be in, doing things that I have no business doing.  Which leads me back to last week where I was asked to help officiate an eighth grade girls lacrosse game, and I happily agreed to be a second referee in a match that turned out to be unexpectedly competitive.

Being an enforcer of rules is not exactly a natural position for me, as I am a firm believer that generally there are just too many rules, most of which do nothing but hassle good people who normally make responsible decisions.  Rules encourage people to explore beyond them, to look for loopholes, they become benchmarks to work around, something to keep attorneys busy (I may or may not be projecting here).  Those who think we are under-ruled are the same who constantly propose new ones, and who insist on enforcing obsolete ones, and these are the most annoying people on the planet, and the world would be a much happier place if they would all go away and live on an island together where they could boss one another around endlessly.

I was determined to defy my rebellious and opinionated nature and to be the best referee that I could possibly be.  Who knows?  Maybe this could be the beginning of a lifelong career, traveling all over the world as a black and white striped portable judge and jury with a monogrammed silver whistle and a closet full of pressed identical track suits.  Maybe I could become so good that I could predict offenses a split second before they happened, and my razor sharp eye would pick up every infraction no matter how far away down the field.  I’d just sit in a chair reclined on the sidelines with one eye open, emitting a varying crescendo of chirrups and doling out yellow cards, free shots and turnovers.  But as I researched this science of field policing, I began to realize that I just may have over-committed myself.

I sensed my limitations closing in on me.  The rules are complicated and there are a lot of them, and they are accompanied by various sounds and gestures, an animated shorthand that enables you to communicate wordlessly, but as a talker I found this daunting.  All of this is designed to keep the girls safe, or so the enforcers say, but players still occasionally get hurt and it frequently has nothing to do with a rule infraction or ill intentions.  Feeling overwhelmed, I narrowed down the five most important, or most frequently called offenses, and wrote them out on an index card that I studied and repeated, and at the game I clutched it in my hand to reference, just in case.  I tried to remember other referees and their demeanors that I could perhaps channel.  I confessed to the main referee that I was out of my element, and offered her a preemptive apology.

The game began without incident, and as it rolled along I sprinted dutifully up and down the field, clutching my index card, never taking my eye off the ball.  I remembered the girls names, I studied their styles, I winced when they slashed and gasped when they crashed their sticks and the real referee, Shorty, was a busy bee; thankfully, she didn’t need my help.  I fought the urge to cheer when the draw was won, when a great shot was taken, and when the goalies made a save.  I clutched my whistle tightly as I ran, never missing a beat, watching every ball roll out of bounds and brought back in by the faster player, and if Shorty didn’t call it, who was I to argue?  I was the supportive referee, new-age with a Tony Robbins flair, encouraging players to be their best and congratulating them when they were, instead of focusing on the negatives.  I saw the three seconds, the shooting spaces, the face cradles, the empty cross checks, the cross in the sphere, the out of bounds, the restraining and holding, and the pushing, but it just never seemed right to blow the whistle and stop such marvelous action, that was Shorty’s job, and if she didn’t call it, well I certainly wasn’t going to second guess the pro.

The heckling occurred in the second half with three minutes left and the score tied, 11 – 11.  A dad in the bleachers yelled, Out of bounds, ref!, as if I didn’t know that.  Of course I knew, I was standing right there, I’m not blind.  A blind ref would make even less sense than one with anarchic tendencies and authority issues.  Why stop a perfectly good run for accidentally stepping six inches beyond an arbitrary white line?  It didn’t make sense to me.  Shorty smiled and laughed continuously and blew her whistle with precision, but mine was just ornamental.  She was the professional enforcer, and if I had been half as zealous, we would have been there for hours;  I had to counter balance.

Lacrosse is a marvelous sport that is fast and graceful, and is a joy to watch when well-played.  The game ended in overtime and half the parents were pissed, the other half were elated.  I thanked Shorty for her hard work and dedication, I thanked the coaches and the told all the girls what a wonderful job they did on the field, and then I ran up the hill to the parking lot as quickly as I could.  Parents do crazy things, I know, because I am one, and I wasn’t convinced that something wouldn’t be thrown at me.  I waved casually to the remaining spectators as I raced across the track in the opposite direction of the bleachers.  I got in the car and locked the door, then sank into the seat as a wave of nausea rolled through me from head to toe.  I unclenched my hand and peeled from my palm the worthless and soggy sheet of rules that I had so carefully crafted and threw it on the floor.  Then I made a mental note to cross officiant off the list of potential mid-life careers for me, not that I needed this experience to come to that conclusion, but sometimes the not-so-subtle reminders of our limitations help to redirect us to more gratifying pastures.

Rabbit People

Growing up, everybody had a pet.  There were cat and dog people, reptile and fish people, bird people (an odd group), and some people had hamsters or guinea pigs.   We were also constantly out catching things, like turtles and salamanders and worm snakes, and making them cozy little nests that we would craft in shoeboxes and aquariums.  Sometimes our beloved pets would deliver us prizes, little half-alive things of one species or another that we would try in vain to resuscitate and nurse back to health, only to be dropped on the veterinarian’s counter the next morning, tears rolling down our cheeks, please please save our field mouse, Oscar, we love him so.  The vet would reassure us that he would indeed do his best and then would whisk the box into the back room and Oscar would never be seen again.  Only the dogs and cats seemed to have any sort of longevity; everything else was either buried in the back yard, flushed down the toilet, or dropped off at the vet for eternity.  And all the while, I never, ever met any rabbit people.

I’m sure there are lots of reasons why rabbits were not popular pets, I am acutely aware of some of them now, but I’m guessing that reason number one is that most of us grew up thinking that rabbits were not for companionship, they were for wearing: rabbit lined gloves, earmuffs, collars and cuffs and scarves, how warm and wonderful!  For Christmas one year my parents gave me a gray and white rabbit coat that was so luxuriously soft that I felt like a movie star when I wore it, and so I wore it year-round.  Oh, how I loved that coat.  It was the warmest, most marvelous thing I had ever set my sticky seven-year old hands on.  There were two round fur puff-balls attached to either end of a string that when pulled would tighten the hood around your face and made you look like a Pomeranian, or you could whack your sister in the back of the head with them when she rode in the front seat on the way home from school, and infuriate her.  There was a valuable degree of entertainment and whimsical justice attached to the memories of that coat which provided an early appreciation of rabbit.

My husband had read that rabbits were allergen-free, low maintenance, ahem, trainable, kid friendly and had medium lifespans, all of which made them a perfect match for us, and it was on one cold Easter morning that we joined the shadow ranks of the rabbit people.  They were hatched at a friendly farm not far away, and they were Holland Lops, sweet and luxurious little designer bunnies.  The girls’ love for these furry little things was immediate and they were petted and rubbed and held and fed and loved and dropped and dressed up, and not one peep ever was uttered in either protest or acceptance.  Not a sound they made, they just sat in your lap for hours twitching their noses and nothing else, like a toy, only warm.  And, they even lived outside in a cozy little hutch: the perfect pet.

For such timid animals, rabbits are freakishly strong and aggressive. And sneaky and fast. And very high maintenance.  No matter how well we secured the hutch, they frequently managed to escape.  They have bionic rabbit fingers that unfold from their paws at night and make them able to achieve unbelievable feats of lock picking and latch flipping.  Since we were not forewarned of this proclivity, we found their escapes incredibly vexing.  Making the situation worse, the bunnies would break out and cavort with the raggedy wild rabbits who eagerly shared their wood ticks and botfly larvae in the honeysuckle with them.  It became a routine occurrence to glance into the back yard and see two small black and white fur balls darting around  at dusk (a perilous time for a prey animal to go for a run) with two panicked girls in hot pursuit, screaming and crying and flailing their arms.  

Catching a rabbit is incredibly difficult and requires either one generic predator, or a team of patient, energetic and agile humans.  For the latter, it goes something like this:

You get close, but most of the time not close enough.  You try to reason with it but its brain is about the size of a bitten off pencil eraser, and it just watches you, warily, in that weird sideways rabbity way, munching grass and mocking you. You crouch low, two feet away, cooing, Here sweet bunny here sweet bunny bunny bunny, kissing at the air until your lips are numb and dry, presenting a bouquet of fresh parsley until your arm falls asleep, and you feel stupid, and you hate your husband for buying the damn bunnies, and you’re terrified you won’t catch them before the sun sets, and your children are crying. You reach out gently so the rabbit can sniff your hand and recognize you as the one who feeds it, not the one who feeds on it. And in an instant, you grab it, lightening fast, but the rabbit wriggles away, magically, leaving you with a silky haunting on your palms and fingertips that lets you know that for an instant you had held it, and then lost it, again. The rabbit watches from the other eye from a safer distance now, perhaps four feet away. This can go on for hours until you feel you just may go insane, or cry, and you can only hope that you’ve worn it out enough for someone else to get their hands on it.  And deep down, a deeply-conflicted part of you, sees them as part of a wonderful, luxuriously soft, winter coat.

It was a frequent scenario in the Hereford backyard and so became a chief source of exercise for our family and friends, but it was just a matter of time until those bunnies found themselves on the wrong side of the honeysuckle when the sun went down.

Losing a pet is heartbreaking, indeed; finding it’s bits and parts scattered about the yard is nothing less than traumatic, for most. For others, who shall remain nameless, those who are more opportunistic and have a unique ability to compartmentalize, may take the finding of a rabbit paw as a sign of fortuitousness, like stumbling across a four-leaf clover in a field, a totemistic discovery to be kept in the garage for good luck. As most of us cried over and mourned the violent demise of our sweet little bunnies, the lone socio-optimist was planning on researching local taxidermists with a specialty in key chains. Luckily, none were found before said opportunist was shamed into properly disposing of said paw before it could be discovered by a curious child.  And oddly enough, as the resident fur advocate, whose first material love was a rabbit coat, I was deeply saddened by the loss of those sweet little bunnies, and most definitely not the one with the foot.

I learned a lot in the world of rabbit people:  that they are stranger than bird people, firstly; that it is way more poop cleaning than I ever wanted or expected to be committed to, secondly;  and lastly, that maybe my parents were onto something when they gave me a coat instead of a pet those many years ago;  or maybe not.  That coat outlived the rabbits by years and provided inestimable comfort, sure.  It didn’t require any level of maintenance at all, and it didn’t have bugs or diseases or medical issues.  It didn’t run away; and it never left me.  It didn’t have to live in an apartment outside braving the elements, and it couldn’t be eaten by a predator (although our dog was highly intrigued by it).  No, it was hung reverently in the closet next to my mother’s coat cousins, who were also its betters, and whom I’m sure it admired, like a commoner sitting next to kings and queens.

But caring for these peculiar creatures reminded me that you can find love in unexpected places, that bonding with an animal is something so very special, that no matter what it is, rodent or perhaps reptile, that it can lead you to to experience a deep joy that just can’t be found in something without a heartbeat.  The memories are richer, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes hilarious or tragic, but there is a fragile balance in life that is simply not quite understood without a sense of inter-connectedness, and sometimes even loss.  Our pets teach us a lot about ourselves and about others, and although I wasn’t always excited about the botfly extractions, the cage cleaning, nail trimming, ear treating, gland clearing, pricey small-pet vet visiting, they were still absolutely perfect in a perfectly flawed kind of way.  Oh, yes, and luxuriously soft.