Wave the #17 Flag

Paint-by-numbers f*ing suck. Who the hell thought this would be a good idea? “Yeah, Jenny. Go to Michael’s! Get a paint-by-number! It’s really calming, and will make you feel like an artist.”
And at first, it did. I would sit at my coffee table with the television on softly, gleefully painting away on Wild Horses. First #59 (Brown). Start with the big spaces first, the instructions said. Do all one color at a time, it told me. So I did, and I felt such pride as I saw the horse’s shoulder and head come together. Then I pulled out the #21 (Black), and continued on with his majestically flowing mane and some rocks. Now for a splash of color, why don’t you focus on #50 (Blue)? Oh, capital idea! That sky really pops now, doesn’t it?
But then I moved on to #17 (White).
I mean, do you people have any idea at all how unsatisfying it is to paint white acrylic paint onto a white piece of canvas board, into tiny little misshapen blobs and narrow slivers that are one-tenth the size of my brush, over and over again? Well I’ll tell you – it’s really unsatisfying. It’s probably exactly how that Greek sissy guy felt as he pushed that boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back down again. Defeated.
It got to the point where I didn’t even give a crap whether I was staying in the lines or not, because who could even tell? And then the stupid purple numbers still showed through the cheap-ass white acrylic paint, which made me even angrier. They didn’t give me enough #17 to do a double coat, dammit! What am I supposed to do – go out and buy one special tiny container of #17?!? They’ll laugh me right out of Home Depot!
Natasha told me that they use paint-by-numbers as art therapy in prisons for the criminally insane because it supposedly calms them down. Well, I’ve seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and now I know what gave Chief the strength to rip that drinking fountain out of the wall, and it wasn’t Juicy Fruit.
Look, in general, I’m a pretty controlled person, but I’m telling you that if the guy who designed Wild Horses walked into my apartment right now, I would swing him around my living room by the legs like a rag doll, watch him smash through the window, and not even bother to look to see if he at least missed the sidewalk. Such is my rage.
But, tempted as I am to just take a giant sponge brush and paint the rest of the canvas #64 (Green), I made you all a promise. I told you and myself that I wouldn’t give up on this. If I quit now, how will you ever trust me again? What will my word mean to you after that betrayal? How will I ever look my 7th grade art teacher in the eye if I run into him in the grocery store, even though I think he might have died a few years ago?
And so I continue. I’m going to take it day by day, because that’s all I can do. One color at a time, like the instructions told me to do. Like everything in life, it’s what you take away from an experience – good or bad – that matters. And I have to admit that this has taught me a lot about myself. I learned that somewhere, deep inside me, lies a pure and untapped pool of hatred. I learned that I hate art. And I hate numbers. And I really hate people who make art with numbers. And I guess this newfound discovery makes the whole experience worthwhile.

Battlefield Earth

I hear a series of explosions.
Gunshots outside my window.
A woman shrieks, but the people around her just scream back, then run away into the darkness.
Sirens lull me to sleep.
I wake to learn that the White Sox have won the Superbowl. The curse of the Bambino has finally been lifted.
Note to local Chicago news reporters: never, ever, hand your microphone to a near-blind drunk man who is currently crowd-surfing in a bar. You will most likely never see that microphone again.

Never Surrender

“You say it’s your birthday? It’s my birthday too, yeah! You say it’s your birthday? Gonna have a goo-“
“Hey, can you hang on?”
“Oh… uh, sure. [humming to self while on hold] Gonna hmm hmm good time. Hmm hmm hmm birthday. Well happy birth…”
“Sorry, I was on the other line with my mom.”
“Oh. No problem. Well, happy birthday, Dr. Greene! I’m working on a special painting for you.”
“Yeah, I read about your Wild Horses. Thought you were auctioning it off on your blog?”
“Oh, you read that? Well, maybe this painting isn’t for you, but if it turns out, I’ll make you one of your own.”
“I was into paint-by-numbers for a while. There was this super cool one I saw at Michael’s a couple years ago, but I didn’t buy it, and then I couldn’t find it again. It was a painting of [deleted], but don’t mention that on your site!”
“Ohmigod! Are you serious? A paint-by-numbers of [deleted]? That’s so awesome! But so what if I mention it?”
“Then everyone will run to Michael’s and it will be sold out again, and I’ll be stuck painting Sad Clown.”
“I kind of like sad clowns. They’re sad, but still look funny. Because that’s their job.”
“Yeah, well, I’m going to Google “paint by numbers” + “[deleted]” to see if I can find one. Hang on – no frickin’ way! They have like three different versions of [deleted]! That’s so awesome! And this one’s only $14.99”
“Cool. See, after I’m done with Wild Horses, I think I want to do something more inspirational. Like, you know that one poster of the kitten hanging from a tree branch, and then it says, ‘Hang in There!’ at the bottom? I love that poster. Because that kitten’s just not gonna give up. He’s gonna hang in there as long as it takes. We could all learn something from that kitten.”
“So it would appear that you like the kitten.”
“What can I say? He’s a trooper. He’s got the-“
“Heart of a champion?”
“Exactly! I wonder if they have that in paint-by-numbers.”
“Yeah, a cat painting would be pretty cool. Not as cool as [deleted], but still pretty cool. Well, I should probably go – I think my mom and my sister were trying to call me again.”
“Okay, good talking to you. And happy birthday!”
“Thanks! Bye.”
As soon as I got off the phone with Dr. Greene, I checked my email and found this: Champ. It’s so nice to be understood.
Update: Sorry Brando and Neil – apparently you both thought I should stop at the mane, but I’ve got to complete this one. I may have given up on dozens of other hobbies, walked away from high-paying jobs, and passed up free coffee samples at the train station, but no one in my family has ever abandoned a paint-by-numbers. It’s just not done where I grew up.
Elapsed Time: 4.25 hours
Of course, I did have the best idea yesterday – I should have done the painting in reverse: black is white, blue is orange, brown is… whatever the opposite of brown is (Where’s my color wheel when I need it?). Then I really would have carved out a niche for myself in the highly competitive paint-by-number art world. I think it would have looked something like this: Shazam!
Oh well, they don’t call me Jenny “I’m a Day Late and a Dollar Short” Amadeo for nothing.

Wild Horses

Looking around my apartment this weekend, I realized that there was a noticeable lack of artwork on my walls. I very much appreciate art, but for some reason rarely purchase it. I think part of it is the whole commitment element of actually nailing into the wall. What if I don’t like it there? Then I have to squirt toothpaste into the hole, which would be fine, if my walls weren’t red. Although I suppose I could switch to cinnamon toothpaste, but that would require a complete shift in everything I believe in.
So I walked to the art gallery down the block from me and took a look at some of their current pieces. They were just lovely – dark, moody photographs and abstract block prints. There were several I would have loved to own, until I saw the price tag of $700 each. Because $700 is the exact figure that triggers the dangerous response in my brain: “But… I could do that myself!”
I’ve been down this road before, so many times, and I have the scars to prove it. I rarely open my hall closet, for fear of stirring up the Ghost of Hobbies Past. The unfinished beaded flowers, the half-complete wool scarves, the never lit sand-candles, the amorphous wood-carvings. Sometimes at night I hear them plotting my revenge, which involves getting me interested in scrapbooking.
But maybe what these projects all lacked was structure. I like structure, even when it comes to art. But how can I, an amateur tap dancer and jug band dropout, create an original piece of artwork that requires minimal artistic talent and is completely structured? Of course: Paint-by-numbers!
I sped to the closest Michael’s Arts & Crafts store I could find, shoving aside a teenage boy who was debating over the 1957 Corvette or the B52 Bomber models, and finally reached an enormous rack of paint-by-number kits. The options were endless – oil or acrylic? Wildlife or landscapes? It was so hard to choose.
But what ultimately drew me to my final selection, aside from the fact that it was in the $3.99 clearance bin, was the complex emotional torment that it captured. It was titled, “Wild Horses,” and initially, I took that title at face value. Okay, I thought, so here are some horses and they’re running around wild. So what? I never was one of those “horse” girls. You know the ones – the fresh-faced girls with freckles and long hair kept in a slightly unkempt braid, oddly sexual posters of silky black horses plastered inside their lockers. No, I was not a “horse” girl. Frankly, I have mixed emotions about horses, so I initially tossed this kit aside and looked at the one with the lighthouses.
However, as I pondered whether swans near watermills or the canals in Venice would look better in my dining room, I found myself glancing back at “Wild Horses.” At first I didn’t know why, but then I realized that as I looked into the eyes of the brown horse in the foreground, I recognized such familiar longing. A yearning for a different life – somewhere far away from the expectations and obligations of the family he had always known. And then I noticed the quiet strength of the white horse, and how tenderly she nuzzled the young colt. Here was a mother who wanted to encourage her son to run and grow, but at the same time felt the ache deep within her belly at her child’s budding independence.
And then there was that other horse who just looked kind of stupid and had hair like Fabio. I might leave him out entirely, or perhaps turn him into a magical unicorn.
As soon as I got home, I told myself that I couldn’t start the painting today, since I’m still in the middle of my Halloween costume project, and my kitchen looks a bit like I just joined some sort of underground militia with spray paint and duct tape and box cutters strewn about. But my unbridled enthusiasm for creating art got the better of me. As soon as I opened up the box and saw the sea of purple numbers, I immediately wished I had chosen the Level 1 painting, which was a hot air balloon. There were only five colors in that kit, while mine, I have since learned, requires that I mix paints together and perfect the “feathering” technique. [Technique? There’s no technique in paint-by-number! Why do you think people buy them?]
Well, no matter. I am up to the challenge. If an 8-year old can do this, than I certainly can. Of course, 8-year olds do have quite keen eyesight, and possess those little hands and nimble fingers so well designed for shelling walnuts and executing detailed feathering techniques.
God, I really hope I can do justice to this work of art. I’m going to give you some updates every so often so you can gauge my progress. If this turns out well, I am considering doing a series of paint-by-numbers for my living room, and will possibly commission a few for the right price.
So here is my first update. Elapsed time: 1.5 hours. At this rate, it will take me approximately 107 hours to complete this painting. Assuming I make the Illinois state minimum wage of $6.50/hour, this painting will ultimately cost me $695.50, plus the $3.99 for the kit, which comes out to a grand total savings of $0.51 as opposed to if I had just purchased that dark, moody photograph that started this whole thing. So you can see that once again the adage holds true: if you want something done right, you’d better do it yourself.

Stairway to… HELL!

“Hey Jenny – the department is trying to pull together a team of people to do the Hustle Up the Hancock thing. You in? It’ll be fun!”
“Mmm… isn’t that when we walk up 94 flights of stairs to the top of the Hancock Building?”
“Yeah – I did it last year in 14 minutes – it was so much fun! I couldn’t feel my knees around the 60th floor, but after that, I just kind of zoned out.”
“Hmm. Well let’s see – we had a fire drill on Monday, and my calves are still killing me from walking down 20 flights of stairs. Something tells me my baboon heart would explode somewhere around the 11th floor.”
“Oh, come on! It’ll be fun!”
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”


Funny thing happened to me on the way to the blog…
On Monday, I posted a seemingly random series of mystery photos, and amidst some of the most brilliantly creative responses I’ve received to date, there arose an unexpected theme:
I suppose if I were a cleverer woman, I might have intentionally constructed this theme in honor of Halloween. But I’m not. Sometimes interesting things happen in the most haphazard of ways. For some reason, the common thread linking these photos became fear, and this got me thinking. It’s almost Halloween, the time when people disguised themselves as the very things that frightened them the most in order to ward off evil spirits. So what is it that we are afraid of? What keeps us awake at night? The unknown. Beasts. Death. Words. Pain. The dark.
But are we born afraid? Is fear driven by nature or nurture, or a combination of both? My own personal fears cross the spectrum of rational to irrational. I worry about getting cancer, but then I also frequently imagine myself falling and smashing all my teeth out. I’m afraid of dying alone, and I also worry about being trapped underwater, maybe in a boat, or maybe in a swimming pool which has suddenly developed an impenetrable surface. Which of these fears is irrational? None of them? All of them?
I suppose that sometimes we’re just too close to what we think torments us to truly understand what we should really be afraid of. A friend and I were talking recently about self-awareness, and how we often feel that we are being overt in our intentions, when in reality they are too subtle for others to even notice. In an enclosed space, a voice always sounds much louder than it really is. Inside my head, everything is amplified.
Perhaps in order to demystify our fears, we just need the right combination of distance and perspective:
The unknown
The dark
Bonus Spooky Halloween Photos!

Mystery Photo Quiz #3

“Since when did your blog become a photoblog? Who do you think you are? Annie Liebowitz?”
“Does she have a blog?”
“I don’t know, but she’s the only photographer I could think of on the fly. Okay, how about this – who do you think you are, Ansel Adams?”
“I don’t think he has a blog either, because I’m pretty sure he’s dead. But since I paid half my rent for a new camera, I need to at least convince myself that this money was better spent on a digital camera than on my 401k. Plus, I guess I’m just feeling more visual than textual lately. You know? Sometimes it’s easier to express yourself in images than in words.”
“I totally know what you mean.”
”You do?”
“No. I just want you to stop talking.”
Okay, so with that, I give you Mystery Photo Quiz #3! Anyone who can guess all of these correctly will win something very, very special: two gently used Siamese cats, litter box trained, and fixed. They both have working claws and teeth, as evidenced by the enormous hole in the back of the shirt I was planning on ironing for work tomorrow, and the half-eaten shoelaces in my new running shoes. Actually, if you even get one answer right, your name will be entered into a sweepstakes to win these two delightful cats (not valid in Maine and Rhode Island, or wherever prohibited). Good luck!

Live Long and Prosper

Okay, so sorry to disappoint, but I’m not really going to a Star Trek Convention (although wow - the blogging opportunities would just be endless). I will, however, be taking my leave soon, to the true final frontier.
Yes, I’m heading up nort’ to Madison, WI to hobnob with the literati at the Wisconsin Book Festival. My friend Jen is doing some readings and speaking in a few high-powered smarty pants discussion panels, so my plan is to put my hair into a disheveled bun, push my glasses down to the end of my nose, sneak into some of the conferences wearing a corduroy blazer with leather patches on the sleeves, and ask questions like:
“Interesting point you make, Ms. Benka, about the symbolism of the decaying topiaries in Mr. Blahdeeblah’s first novella, but really my question is… if you could make out with one poet, living or deceased, would it be Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud, Maya Angelou, or Theodore Geisel? Thank you.”
While I’m at the University, I think I might need to take the opportunity to live out some of my college dreams since I didn’t attend UW-Madison. I should probably make a short list, so I don’t forget any important details:

  1. Buy beanbag chairs at Urban Outfitters
  2. Practice handstands for upside down kegger hits
  3. Memorize Greek alphabet
  4. Start food fight in the quad
  5. Haze a freshman
  6. Paint school spirited, yet still attractive, “W” on cheek for Badgers game
  7. Make Fimo clay beads
  8. Join impromptu drum circle on street
  9. TP the Dean’s house
  10. Make out with Arthur Rimbaud or anyone wearing a Guatemalan sweater

I cannot wait – college kicks ass! See you next week!

No Words, Just Hold Me















Some of you may recall a rough patch I hit earlier this year when, in a span of just two months, a) my apartment was burglarized, b) my dad smashed into my car, c) my storage facility forged one of my checks, and d) half my hard drive on my work laptop was deleted.
Needless to say, I was a bit concerned this morning when I turned on my laptop at work and was met with a blue screen and some sort of FATAL DISK ERROR message, prompting me to scan my hard drive for viruses and/or replace it. I just had it replaced two months ago. Are my hands made of acid? Is it my magnetic personality? Why do I destroy all that I touch? Which one of you gypsy mofos has some sort of grudge against me?
I had to leave the office this afternoon for an off-site meeting, so I don’t yet know if the PC/LAN gods were able to retrieve any of my files from my now corrupt hard drive. I may walk in tomorrow with a clean slate. A fresh, shiny, like-new rehabbed computer sitting on my desk. One that does not contain any of the three thousand files I need in order to complete the nine thousand projects I am currently working on.
Like the trooper that I am, I’m going to look at this as an opportunity. I won’t let the possibility of having to rebuild my entire career from scratch get me down. As my momma always told me, “Jenny, when life hands you lemons, wait until it’s asleep and hit it over the head with a frying pan.”
I never totally understood what she meant by this, but it did teach me the importance of having a lock on the inside of a bedroom door.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I will sleep with the entire IT department of my company if they are able to retrieve even 50% of my hard drive. And that’s got to be worth something these days.
Hard drive retrieved intact! And I didn’t even have to sleep with the entire IT Department! (Come to think of it, perhaps it was this threat alone that made them leap into action.) I did, however, have to make a slightly different commitment as payment for services rendered. On that note, does anyone know where I can get an Uhura costume? Seems I’m accompanying some folks to a Star Trek convention next month.