Oct 28, 2011

Haunted Portraits




Haunted paintings where the eyes follow you are pretty cool. So one Halloween about, oh, five or six years ago, I decided (with the help of my sister and our mom) to make a couple portraits as Halloween decorations – complete with moving eyes. We had some old frames in the garage that would be perfect, and this was back when we were really doing elaborate Halloweens at our parent's house.

I figured out how you do it, is just set the eyes back further within a cutout, and for some reason from whatever perspective you view the portrait from it seems like the eyes "follow" you. I actually painted the eyes on a clear piece of plastic (like from a bakery box lid or something handy) and backlit them with white battery-powered twinkly lights, so at night, the eyes also lit up.

The style of these were definitely inspired by my childhood Victorian phase. The three children are a nod to me and my brother and sister.

We actually did these in one day. Because we may decide to whip up a project on the fly every once in a blue moon (or full moon in this case), but we also like instant gratification, so it's not like these are meticulous by any means – just a whimsical way to spend an October day.

But I do love to stare at them every year. And I love how they always return the favor.

Oct 21, 2011

Made All The Children Scream That Day



"Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark" by Alvin Schwartz. Creepy fantastic illustrations by Stephen Gammell.

Every Wednesday at 12:30 I read to Charlie's second grade class for thirty minutes. It's only half an hour, but I always leave story time feeling really happy. The kids just eat it up, and I like seeing all of them get so into it.

Whether it's barely whispering through a really dramatic story or doing a modern take on a classic tale (like adding "dude" to the end of every Frog & Toad dialogue) or letting the kids finish the sentence of the books they all have read at home a million times – from sad stories to funny, I really lay it on thick. When the time is up they always give me some sort of clever group cheer, and often times they intercept me with hugs as I make my way out the door, asking me if I'm coming back next week.

Except for this last Wednesday.

This last Wednesday the cheers and hugs were replaced by, well, a group – scream. This wasn't an ordinary scream, mind you. This was the sound of twenty-five or so seven-year-olds screeching in unison. A scream so earsplitting, so sustaining, so echoing, so just freaking long and loud that I walked out of Cleveland Elementary that day afraid that I was going to look back and see the principal chasing me down the sidewalk – that I would be the first story time parent to get kicked out and asked to never come back.

Let me back up just a moment to say, I love telling stories. I used to think that this was just a character flaw of being too talkative. But then I realized I usually only get really carried away in a conversation when I'm retelling a story. Even in "the real world" I started to figure out that when I'm presenting a concept or idea, no matter how corporate the setting, that everybody still loves a great tale. I can really tell when I'm in the zone when I give myself goosebumps or even feel a little tears just barely starting to accumulate in the back of my eyeballs.

Then when I had my kids, bedtime reading (which frankly, can become mundane really fast, especially when you have to read the same book over and over again) flew by when I really let myself get carried away in the nuances of the story. And of course, the best part of telling stories, from the bedroom to the boardroom, is when your audience is entranced, hanging on every word and transported into this other reality that you are creating.

Now, secretly, this kind of lavish gratitude fulfills I know the creative professional need in me for constant affirmation and love of my "work." Since I recently made the leap from the advertising world to my own business, the client conversations have been more of the one-on-one variety (at least in the short term) and the big board room unveils (think Mad Men) aren't a weekly thing. So I kind of think the seven-year-olds of Charlie's class are in some way serving as a stop-gap audience for me as of late – better yet, one that is guaranteed to be receptive and responsive. Only, their feedback isn't nods or claps but giggles and big-eyes and belly laughs.

You know, except for this last time.

So last Wednesday was the last storytime before an extended fall break, and Halloween, for the class. So of course I had to read them some scary stories! I'm always rushing around right before I have to leave for the school, tearing myself away from my laptop, gathering up the books for that day – but this time I was trying to hunt down Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, an all-time favorite since I was a kid.

But my three-year old has become obsessed with looking at all the creepy ink and watercolor drawings that made that book so enduringly popular. "Scary bat." "Scary house." "Scary arm." "Scary zombie." That's how he "reads" the book to himself. Honestly, if the illustrations of Stephen Gammell weren't black and white they would be downright gory.

So of course, I couldn't find the book. (We found it later crammed under the bed next to an old baggie of Honey Combs and the one missing can't-live-without-it dragon from his collection of like fifteen dragons.) But at the time I was running late, so I made due with a bunch of more "cutesy" Halloween books that I quickly stuffed in my book bag, you know with cheery orange and black age-appropriate illustrations of silly ghosts and sweet witches and little pumpkins who dream of being plucked from the pumpkin patch and transformed into smiling magical jack-o-lanterns. Sigh. They would just have to do in a pinch.

So fast forward to me sitting in the storytelling rocking chair with all the kids sitting crisscross applesauce (that's what they call it now) on the storytelling rug all around me. I've already gone through the silly ghost book, the sweet witch book and am wrapping up the book about the little longing-filled and last-to-be-picked pumpkin who finally gets her wish and is whisked away from the pumpkin patch (to get her face hacked up, but whatever, they don't spin it that way) and "ta da," happy endings for all.

But dang! It's Halloween time. Come on! That is not going to cut it. I could tell some of them were a little disappointed because I had hinted the week prior that I'd be bringing the infamous Scary Stories book. Plus, I still had ten minutes left on my time slot. I couldn't stand it.

I told them that I could maybe remember one of the Scary Stories by heart. It is a tale called The Big Toe. The room got all hushed in anticipation. Some of those kids were downright drooling. A few of them silently mouthed the title to themselves. "the. big. toe."

And to make a big toe story short, I take them through the tale of a boy on a hill with a hoe who finds a big toe, brings it home for dinner, and after going to bed that night is haunted by a visitor. A visitor unseen, but definitely heard, who gets increasingly insistent with a very simple but repetitive inquiry – from front porch to staircase to breathing right above the blanket covered head of the terrified boy – "wheeeeeere's my big toooooe?"

I do admit I embellished a little bit, from the boy's mom grating the yellowed toenail into the evening's stew as seasoning, to describing how when the boy hid under the blanket, his own breath all hot and stifling, makes the blanket billow outward – that is, until the breath of his hovering visitor makes the blanket start indenting inward instead. Oh yeah, you could see the psychology of that tidbit really sinking into their super-absorbent grey matter.

So then I get to the part at the end where you're supposed to wheeze one last "wherrrrre's myyyy biiiigggg toooooeeee?" Then you grab the foot or toe of a kid that's closest to you and shout "you have it!" I probably should have taken a cue from my audience, that the suspense building around the foot of my rocking chair in the middle of a sunny afternoon, though ominously silent, was literally about to drive these kids to madness. And the classic campfire startle-grab ending? Maybe not such a good idea.

Some indicators that my audience was about to come unhinged:
1. several of the girls were all trying to stretch a single cardigan to cover them all like a makeshift tent-slash-canopy, like a shield between my words and their vulnerable little heads

2. several of the boys had literally started creating a silent pyramid, one crawling over another like crabs on a beach trying to keep their pinchers out of the tide

3. a couple of the children had simply removed themselves from the storytime rug, retreating to the back corner of the room

In hindsight I should have just had a funny, anti-climatic ending. Like a cute joke. "Where's my big tooooooe? Oh wait. I have an extra one in my pocket, dude. No worries."

But nope, I grabbed the toe of the little girl closest to me, and trying not to be too disruptive or loud (I mean, sheesh, we are in the middle of a learning establishment in progress here) I sort of faux-shouted at a medium volume – "YOU HAVE IT!"

And then they all went batsh*t crazy.

I have to say, it was probably one of my best storytelling experiences of all time. For about two seconds I was grinning from ear-to-ear. I know I get this from our dad, who could send any sleepover or slumber party into screaming hilarious terrifying hysterics within two minutes of lights-out.

For that one moment it was awesome. Then came the part where the scream didn't stop. I think it had to be a good thirty seconds. The teacher literally had to peel the kids off the ceiling. I had to quickly find a way to console one of the boys who (yes, you can boo me, now) started crying a little. I got him to tell me about his Halloween costume and he quickly dried up and started smiling, okay?

Then I asked one of the other boys who had retreated to the corner (I thought out of fear) to tell me about his Halloween costume, too, and then he informed the entire class that his family doesn't celebrate Halloween. Ack! I high-fived him on the way out the door and said "here's to fall! like leaves and stuff!" Double ack! But surprisingly he also smiled. Dang. This was like total spin control here.

Then I just embarrassedly made my exit, promising the teacher that I'd go back to peaceful, slow, Frog & Toad next week – "dude. croak. yeah, dude." I stepped out into the hallway, my cheeks burning and closed the door on a still-buzzing class that was never in a million years going to be able to focus on the afternoon assignments. I mean I'm supposed to be a teacher's helper, right? Not a riot inciter!

Then I realized how incredibly quiet the hallway of this school was, and knew that every single class in that old-fashioned 1930's schoolhouse heard the infamous scream. I think the class across the hall was actually testing – you know, the one with the open door and all? Man, I hitched my book bag up on my shoulder, and freaking high-tailed it out of there.

I seriously couldn't concentrate the rest of the day. Public school is strict you guys! I actually thought I was going to get a phone call any minute from the principal or the teacher or both, like on speaker phone, disinviting me to ever step foot on campus again! I was so wigged out about it, I even tried to ply info out of Charlie that evening after school. He's the one that helpfully told me (with a cringe) that the fourth graders had been testing across the hall. "Thanks a lot, Charlie. I feel soooo much better."

So, I just ended up sending a note of apology to Charlie's teacher in his backpack the next day. She sent me a nice note back, saying all was good, the children loved the story and that the boy who had started to cry was just really sensitive – to loud noises.

Or at least that was her story. I'm going along with it just to get over it. But if the school institutes a screening process for parent volunteer readers from this day forth I won't be surprised. A smidge proud, though? Yeah, probably. I do hate getting in trouble. It's just a hold-over from my school days. But that scream? As a storyteller – I think it was worth it.

Oct 6, 2011

Our Brother's Hair. Like Samson's.

Photo by Sean Hopkins

From Coney Island, NY to here at home in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma all the way to Port Macquarie, Australia, Donny Vomit is known for his handlebar mustache (and his ability to hammer a nail up his nose). It's his personal brand. And I've often called his mustache his "swagger."

It's not that he couldn't eat light bulbs or breath fire or stick his tongue in a rat trap for the pleasure of a swooning crowd without it, but he just wouldn't do it with the same style.

I think perhaps there has always been some magic in Donny's hair. It sounds weird and a bit awkward to write, there's no poetry really in that phrase, other than I chose to stick the word magic in there. And a bit ironic since he has not a single hair on top of his actual head. But when he was a boy it's what made him look so much like the eighties kids on the screen from Wonder Years' Kevin to E.T.'s Elliot (today you'd probably say Harry Potter, to boot). He was just so freaking cute.

But even Donny who can evade throwing-daggers from hitting is tender bits, who can manuever swallowing-swords as to not puncture his esophagus, and can gracefully juggle chainsaws without lopping off a limb – even he could not avoid the cringingly unavoidable strike of teenagerdom.


Basically when cute just becomes painfully not-cute.

So Donny's wardrobe turned monochromatic, a spectrum of greys and blacks (he didn't own a colored article of clothing until well into his twenties) and he grew his hair out very, very, very long. And to top it all off, he donned a signature vintage top hat from mid high all the way through high school. We'd had this hat in our family for years, a gift to my mom from one of her hippie friends, the story being it came all the way from Woodstock. Donny wore that hat every single day, no matter the season or occasion, until it literally fell apart.

But you know what? We didn't mind. It was cool. Sure, we'd get looks when we'd go to the mall together to go clothes shopping. They have grey and black clothes as JCPenney. My mom says that to this day whenever she sees steampunk kids walking by, she thinks "uh, Donny totally invented that look and you don't even know it." Actually, our mom is probably a second away from actually telling them that out loud at times. Now that would be an embarrassing mall moment.

Truly the only time it was ever a "deal" was the morning when Columbine went down. The phrase "trenchcoat mafia" was all over the morning talk shows and news tickers. I remember our dad calling the house to track down Kathleen and then me at my college apartment in the same town. He was like "somebody stop Donny from going to school today in his trenchcoat, because I'm sure he's completely unaware of what just happened." He was afraid someone would do something really awful to Donny.

Donny, the most nonconfrontational human being in the world.


Who still did jigsaw puzzles with his sisters every weekend.


Who went on family vacations with us, and went to plays and bought souvenirs. Because you can still be a tourist in a black top hat.


You can also still visit your grandma and sit on her flower-couch and smile sweetly if someone pointed a camera at you. Now, your older sister (that would be me) might just still have the pissiest face ever, but that would pass with time, too. Ooh, check out my Doc Martens knock-offs! I was always good at mainstreaming it, and then just mixing it up the tiniest bit. But not good at smiling for pictures.


And you could still be a perfect prom date. All of a sudden your long hair is dashing and handsome.


And then you're over it. And your sisters (both of them) take you to get it all cut off.

Now, if Donny is Samson in this story, I don't want you to think that his two sisters were some sort of harpie-like, pushing-our-hair-agenda, Delilah-type sisters. This was something he wanted to do. We just happened to be supporters. It was probably the year 2000 by this point, the nineties were over, let's just do it bro.

But we didn't chop his locks without some ceremony. The hairstylist actually braided his hair down his back first. Then she cut it off all at once. We put it in a shadowbox. Seriously. After that, you would have thought he was a toddler getting his first cut the way we were just making such a huge deal out of it. We photographed the whole thing as he sat in the hairdresser's chair (of course I couldn't find those photos).

Actually, I couldn't find very many photos at all of Donny in the period between losing his long hair... and growing his mustache. His magic.

Photos by Lisa DiNicola

And now when Donny comes home to visit and we still do jigsaw puzzles and go to the mall, forgoing Hot Topic with a wry isn't-that-nostalgic-smile and heading for the Gap because Donny now wears more colors than black and needs a sweater in a rusty orange or a nice olive green.

And he still gets looks from the little kids and the moms and even the steampunk kids walking by (but their looks are a bit awe inspired), and mom is less tempted to tell them "what's-what" and more likely to just pridefully whisper, "I think they know you're Donny Vomit." And of course we don't mind, either. It's cool.

Coney Island Mermaid Parade with "Legs Malone" aka Donny's nice girl Anna.

Oh, and he still makes a dashing prom date.