Paint the Town Burnt Siena

I’ve always wondered if I’d like to paint, even though I can’t draw worth a darn.  When I was a kid I went through a paint-by-numbers phase, daubing my way across a marked canvas.  My paintings looked fine until I smeared my thumb (or more often, my forearm) across the bottom of the canvas, or until I misread the numbers on the diagram and wound up painting the sea orange or ran out of tub #13 while there were still many spaces on the canvas designated that color.  Then a couple of years ago, I started seeing ads for places where the customers painted and snacked.  It sounded corny, but enticing–and, best of all for someone who is as self-critical as I can be–low risk.

I was able to convince Dave that this was worth exploring, so I made reservations for two at The Paint Bar for Friday night.  According to the website, we would be able to drink, snack, and paint.

“I wonder if it’ll be like Bob Ross?” I said.  Bob Ross had a how-to-paint show on PBS in the 80s where he painted various scenes, incredibly fast.

“Oh, the happy little trees guy,” said Dave.  “I liked Capt. Bob: Drawing from Nature.”

“Never heard of him.”

“His show was on Sunday mornings, Channel 5.   He did pencil drawings of things like cats and horses.”

“You drew along?  I usually just ate a sandwich or did the dishes.”

“Most of the time.”  Dave likes to draw and is pretty good at it.  Sonny gets all of his art skills from Dave, that’s for sure.   “I remember Capt. Bob had a sea chanty for his theme song…”  Dave started humming something vaguely nautical.

“And here we are,” I said.

The Paint Bar was a storefront, brightly lit, with stools flanking long tables covered with butcher’s paper.  Instead of a placemat and silverware, each place setting had an easel with a blank canvas, a paper plate, a red Solo cup half-filled with water, and a rubberbanded bunch of paintbrushes.  There was a bar where you could get beverages, chips, and candy at the front, and a small stage at the back.   We were first to arrive, so we were put in the seats closest to the stage.  We hung up our coats and put on sturdy paint-spattered aprons.  I regretted my princess sleeves.  The stage had a standing easel, a big paper pad, and an example  of the picture we were to paint, “Tuscan Hills.”  A landscape with hills, fields, trees, a couple of little houses, and many flowers.   We visited the bar, acquiring glasses of Malbec and Chardonnay, and sipped a bit, waiting for things to get started.   Soon every seat was filled.

The first part of the process was loading our palettes (the paper plates) with acrylic paint.  “Acrylic is great!” chirped our instructor.  “It dries fast, and it’s nontoxic, so if you accidentally drink your water–though please don’t, that’s for the paintbrushes–you won’t die!  But it will stain your clothes, so if you have long sleeves” (did her eyes flick towards me, with my princess sleeves?)  “try to roll them up.”   (princess sleeves don’t roll up, unfortunately, unless you take them all the way to the shoulder, so I just resolved to be as careful as I could)

At the very back of the room was a paint buffet with plastic pump bottles of various colors.  A sheet directed us to put nine colors on our palettes with specific amounts (nine pumps of white, three of dark green, two of bright red, one of black, etc.).  Not an encouraging start for me, as I couldn’t figure out how to get all of the colors onto my plate/palette without them running into each other.  I wasn’t one of those kids who couldn’t stand to have peas touch the pork chops, but I did eat my meat and veg separately rather than mixing them all together, and I felt disturbed when I looked down at my palette and saw the  yellow brown and the brown brown and the dark blue all touching each other.   Our instructor told us not to worry about this, that the paints were all about to get up in each others’ business, basically.

Then she put the music on–singing along and even dancing in the aisles is encouraged, though we mostly sang–and led us through the process of painting Tuscan Hills.   We made reference dots, outlined our hills, picked up two or three colors with our brushes, did big sweeps and crosshatches and gallery-wrapped the edges…all kinds of stuff.  She taught us to make trees.  You make a line and then smudge around it and then put on other colors, and if you’re somebody who is not me, this turns out to look like a tree.  Dave turned out to be very good at trees, which was fortunate, since the painting featured many trees.  My trees…I think even Bob Ross would have been hard put to call them happy, but I did rock at crosshatching.  At least comparatively to tree-painting.

A couple of cups of Malbec and many tunes later, I had a painting (admittedly, just a copy of a pretty basic painting) and a feeling about painting in general, which was: this was fun, but it’s probably not going to be a hobby thing for me.  But I had a ton of fun figuring that out.

The paintings weren’t dry as we carried them to the car, which was parked across the street.  We waited for the light to change, holding our canvases with the painted side facing out.  The traffic raced by, viewing our work at 40 MPH.  I was reminded of Sonny bringing home pictures he’d drawn in school, always held out proudly, unselfconsciously, to show me what he’d made.   I felt a bit weirder, exhibitionist, but the Malbec helped me not to care too much.  Once we got home, we put our artwork on music stands to finish drying.  Capone the cat sniffed at them and tried to claw at mine, but only a little.   Then he turned his attention to chasing my princess sleeves–which, I’m happy to report, survived two hours of painting without a drip or smudge.


The List

How we ended up trying The Brook Kitchen was the Friday night traffic on Route 28, which was especially horrible.   Backups at every traffic light; it had taken us almost 20 minutes to drive a mile and a half.  Dave’s blood sugar was crashing.

“I don’t think I can make it all the way to 18,” he said.  We were almost at the commuter rail station, about seven miles from Route 18, our dinner destination for the evening.   The crossing lights flashed red as the train arrived, another delay.

“Want to try Lynnwood, then?”  The pizza place was a right turn and a couple of hundred yards away.

Dave right-turned-on-red with alacrity.  I felt happy to have had the idea.  Plan B, not always the worst plan.

Friday night dinner out is still the ritual, even with Sonny off at college.  It’s a hard habit to break.  Rituals are always lurking for us.  I’m not sure if it’s a spectrum thing or not, but for our family it seems to be:  once, twice, always.  We do at least change up the Friday night restaurants.  That’s not always easy, constrained as we we are by our shy palates.  When Sonny’s around, burgers or pizzas or chicken tenders are menu mandatories.   Dave’s easier; he just wants the restaurant to have meat of some kind.  Me?  I can usually find something, but I joke (not really a joke) that every restaurant should be required to offer a grilled cheese sandwich.  Throughout my childhood and until I was about 25, I would always order grilled cheese if given the option.   It’s hard to mess up a grilled cheese.

Lynnwood is one of those restaurants that probably used to be somebody’s house.   They have pizza and drinks, that’s it.   Cheap wine and domestic non-craft beer go surprisingly well with the crispy, small pizzas, served piping hot on a metal pan, with paper plates, paper napkins, no silverware.  Red-and-white-checked oilcloth covering the tables.  Takes a while to get your pizza because it’s so busy, but totally worth the wait.

Evidently everybody else in town had the same thought.  The pizza place’s two parking lots were full.

“Back to plan A,” I said.  “Unless you want to try Lucky Lou Lou’s…”

“Ha ha,” said Dave.  “We’ll wave at it as we pass by.”   So we headed again for Route 18–this time going a back way that would be longer, but with less annoying traffic.

Lucky Lou Lou’s was about on about Plan F or G of a restaurant that we have patronized sporadically for years.  Some of the plans involved name changes.  First it was Deann’s.   Sonny loved Deann’s because there was a movie-style popcorn machine by the front entrance.  The hostess would scoop popcorn with a wooden bowl and set it on your table.  As we scanned the menu, we’d race to the bottom of the popcorn bowl.  Deann’s made a pretty good grilled cheese sandwich as well as Sonny’s favorite, the bacon cheeseburger.  One wall had photographs of the staff with a legend on each that showed how long each employee had been working at the restaurant.   Then Deann’s became the Halfway Cafe.  Plan B, just a few tweaks.  Same popcorn, same decor–heavy wooden booths painted a dark brown, a bar in the back, a game room with a couple of arcade machines off to the side.  At some point the employee photographs disappeared.  Similar menu, generic American of burgers, meatloaf, chicken, fish and chips, mac and cheese, etc.

Then one day a couple of years ago Halfway Cafe moved to Plan C.  The hostess scooped the popcorn into the bowl, walked us to a booth, and cleared her throat.  “We have a new menu,” she said.   “Please ask the waiter if you have any questions.”   The new menu featured enthusiastic descriptions of the dishes.  (Usually a mistake, in my opinion–it’s always a pity when the dish doesn’t taste as good as the description.)   Gnocchi, gazpacho, pumpkin ravioli, scallops.  Grilled cheese sandwiches were gone.  A bad sign.   The next time we returned: a new menu again.   Then a year ago, yet another new menu, but without fanfare, no explanations proffered.  And a little sign on the wall once adorned with employees’ photos, saying “Coming soon: Lucky Lou Lou’s.”

We went to Lucky Lou Lou’s once.  No popcorn machine.  No grilled cheese.   Blaring music, a vaguely southern menu featuring things like fried pickles and waffles, and sad, slow waiters.   As we left, the three of us agreed: Lucky Lou Lou’s was off the list.  Even creatures of habit such as we have to draw the line somewhere.  Sonny was the most reluctant.  He doesn’t like to give up on things, even when they aren’t working anymore, even when they’ve become pathetic and frustrating.

Dave and I got ready to wave and pass by, but we saw a different name, a different sign.  The Brook Kitchen.  “Wow!” I said.  “Lucky Lou Lou’s is no more.”

Route 18 was still many miles away.  Dave’s stomach was growling audibly.  “What do you think?” he said.

“Why not?” I said, and we turned the car.   Plan C.

There was plenty of space in the lot, not the best sign, but my worries vanished as we entered.  There was a lovely large bar under a high ceiling so the room feels spacious and grand, the old booths refinished and moved farther apart so they don’t loom, TVs for the sports types but not loud or intrusive, and best of all: a grilled cheese sandwich on the menu.  It was a short menu, not particularly poetic.   I had a burger and sweet potato fries, which were excellent.   The popcorn machine seemed permanently retired, but I didn’t miss it.  I can’t wait to tell Sonny that The Brook has made its way back onto the list.  I just hope that they stick with this plan.  How to figure out when your makeover’s done and it’s time to just be?  That’s a hard one.

Girls Night Off…

One of the things I planned to do once Sonny had flown The Nest was ramp up my social life.   Spend more time doing stuff with friends.   When Sonny was born we moved from an apartment in the city to a house in the suburbs, and a long, although slow, decline in our social lives began.  My old friends had been a walk or a couple of stops on the T away; now I had to drive at least a half hour to see them.  Then Sonny was diagnosed as on the autism spectrum.  Suddenly my life was overflowing with therapists and appointments.

Sonny’s birth coincided almost exactly with Sex in the City and the chick lit craze.  Stories about women and their friendships were everywhere.  Drive into the city to meet my friends? Too often I would make plan and someone in the house would immediately start running a fever, or a pipe would burst, etc.  Make plan, insert catastrophe.   I’d back out and not reschedule.  I rationalized that in any case, I didn’t have the time or the budget anymore for nights out.  But I had cable and a library card.  I settled for envying the SITC girls and their sisters on the page.

“Sometimes I miss your chick lit phase,” Dave says.  “It made for easy birthday presents.  All I had to do was look for a trade paperback with a pastel cover and a graphic of a shoe.”

“I miss your ducks,” I say, although that’s not quite the case.  We’ve been giving each other presents for 23 years and have both run through the easy ones.   I had a couple of bookshelves’ worth of pastel paperbacks, and Dave had about the same number of wooden ducks.   Ducks all over the damn place for a while, there.

Anyway, in my chick lit days, I spent an awful lot of time doing pink-tinged Walter Mitty-style fantasizing.  As I scrubbed the bathtub, I wished for the candle-flanked, petal-filled baths of the heroines–assuredly scrubbed by their cleaners while the women worked at their fabulous publishing (or advertising or journalism) jobs.   As I said goodbye to my parking-lot friends on the last day of soccer season, knowing that was the last time we’d see each other, I wanted the chick lit girl’s three close, perennially available friends/frenemies (always, always the friends were grouped in fours).  While the mac and cheese  bubbled on the stove and Sonny scratched on with his homework,  I pictured myself at brunch, sipping Bloody Marys and nibbling at egg-white omelets.  On my plastic chair in the cafetorium, waiting for the first-grade chorus to line up, I imagined myself instead in a plush seat in a dark theater, the curtain about to rise.

This did not make my life any more tolerable or fun.  One day at the library, as per usual I was scanning a book jacket that mentioned shopping, handbags, and friendship.  Instead of putting it on the pile and heading to the checkout desk, I found myself setting it back on the shelf and walking away.   That was it for me and chick lit.

For years afterward I felt ashamed of my fantasies and envy, and I wondered if I’d been so caught up in these characters’ imaginary friendships that I’d forgotten how to make close real-life friends of my own.  (Though lots of my online friends seem to feel they had a hard time with real-life friendships after motherhood, I was surprised and relieved to discover.)   I speculated, too, whether discovering that I was on the spectrum myself had undermined my confidence about making friends.  At the back of my mind, I still was curious about chick-lit-style social circles.   So I was ecstatic when the women in my singing group decided to start having girls’ nights.  Sure, it’s the wrong number of women (five!), the clothes are not fabulously designer, we can only manage to meet every six or severn weeks, and we’re typically out of the restaurant by nine-thirty p.m. at the latest.  But it’s close enough for jazz, as they say.

Tonight, snow has taken over the role of the sick child/busted pipe.   We’re having a blizzard on girls’ night.  We’re smarter these days and already scheduled a backup date a couple of weeks from now.  The chick-lit heroines don’t let plot complications sunder their friendships–maybe they taught me something after all.

The Joyful Opposition

Dave and I went out for coffee this morning at Montilio’s, a bakery/pizza place.  Ten o’clock: too early for pizza, but just the right time for something sweet to go with a coffee.   The display cases featured an impressive array of treats.  Croissants, muffins, cookies, cakes, tarts, cupcakes, and–as today is the Super Bowl!–many football-themed cakes and cookies.   The servers, used to customers dealing with sensory overload, waited patiently for our decision.

Dave ordered a Bismarck, while I got an eclair–part of my ongoing intensive preparation for our trip to Paris.  (My hope that French pastry sticking to my ribs will help French verbs stick in my brain.  Who’s to say I’m wrong about that?)  The eclairs were next to the Bismarcks in the display case, and the two pastries looked a bit like one another, both being comprised of two pieces of dough with a filling between them.  The eclair was shorter, with a thin strip of chocolate icing on top, while the Bismarck had a fine topping of filling piped in waves, like a child’s drawing of a lake.

We grabbed a table for two at the back of the shop.  It was one of those moments when I was aware of Sonny’s absence.  Not missing him, exactly, just that feeling of difference when I choose the smaller table.  When Sonny’s with us we sit at a table for four and pile  our coats on the fourth chair.  Sonny would have less difficulty with ordering.  He knows he wants milk and a cookie, preferably chocolate chip.

Dave and I contemplated our pastries, which looked a lot bigger on the plates than they had in the case.  I cut my eclair in half.   A couple nearby was discussing flavors and frostings with a wedding consultant, and a mom with teenage daughters in tow was refereeing an argument of some kind.

“So, did you see the news about the appellate court decision?”  And we were off into our new, seemingly inescapable, ritual, complaining about the new administration in Washington and the horrible things happening in the world.   Every conversation with other adults over the past several months has drifted at some point into Trump territory.  Politics is the new weather, and it’s as exhausting, disheartening, and inescapable as a heat wave or an ice storm, or that winter a couple of years back where nine feet of snow fell in little more than a month.

Sonny was in high school then, and his response moved from childhood (yay! school’s been cancelled) to adolescent (I’m bored and want to see my friends) to adult (ugh, now I have to shovel more snow).   “I wish there wasn’t snow today,” he would say, in the same way as he used to say, “I wish there wasn’t math homework.”    It generated the same response from me: “Well, there is.  Now take out your long division sheet/pick up the snow shovel and get to work.”  Sonny would angrily flip open his homework folder on the dining room table, and I would sit beside him, doing some of my own work, taking Sonny through the steps when he needed help.  (At least those steps that I remembered.  Finding out I’d forgotten how to do long division was humiliating, but we figured it out together.)   Capone, always looking to be in the middle of a rumble,  lay on the table batting at the pencils as we wrote, butting his head between Sonny and his book, swishing his tail to knock erasers and loose papers to the floor.   And when we shoveled, he yowled at us from the sun porch windows.

That terrible winter I awoke one day to another foot of snow on the driveway.  Sonny and I went out to shovel.  The sheet of snow, not a footprint on it, sparkled in the morning sun, and on gazing at it I experienced a moment of hatred that left me hunched over the shovel, feeling as if I was going to be sick.  Then we started shoveling.  We pushed that snow around and made little hills where we wanted it to be, and there was a sort of exhilaration as the driveway took back its shape.  Joy in the battle, maybe.

The pastries decreased in size as Dave and I found better things to talk about: sports, friends, schedules for the upcoming week, sports, movies, sports.  The chocolate and custard and pate a choux melted in my mouth, a sweet counterpoint to the bitterness of the coffee.  Conversations all around, the scent of bread baking, people walking in hunched against the cold outside,  relaxing in the warmth and light of the shop.

We got a to-go box for the pastries and headed for the car.   As I put on my seatbelt, I realized that I was feeling happy, even with all of the insanity, even with the battles I’m afraid are coming.   I wish I had a to-go box for joy.  I have a feeling I’m going to need it.