Sometimes I get a birthday gift right. Like the time I found an ink-drawn Dr. Gonzo, clutching a briefcase full of drugs in one hand and a pencil-thin cigarette holder in the other, tiptoeing across a plain white canvas in a Calgary movie-poster shop.
“Perfect!” I proclaimed, thinking of my sister who loves Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and whose birthday was five months away, leaving me time to get it framed. Birthday gift gold.
Other times I get a birthday gift wrong. Like the time I chose a year of financial distress to buy the same sister an $80 pepper mill. My smile faded fast when I could not detect hers in the squinty-eyed-and-curled-lip expression with which she greeted her superfluous new kitchen accessory. Then, there was the $20 Brazilian tea gourd and bombilla – think short drumstick resting in a coconut that has been hollowed out by a wolverine – that I thought my oldest son would love but whose thick Turkish-coffee-meets-green-tea brew made him throw up before swearing he would never drink from it again. And there was the electronic drum kit, purchased at an outlet mall in what can only be described as a moment of manic desperation, twelve hours before my younger son’s birthday party and for a price 10 times what any sane parent would spend on a nine-year-old.
“He’ll love it,” drawled the salesman, delighted to be unloading the floor model he had been trying to get rid of for months.
He did not, and barely a year later, the kit ended up on Kijiji for an amount I should have spent on the gift in the first place.
I found myself in that same desperate state in September when my boyfriend’s birthday was two days away, and I had nothing.
“He is a painter,” I told my assistant, Colette, during our weekly Zoom meeting. Okay, my boyfriend once pulled some high school artwork out from under his bed, and because it was better than anything I could produce, I pronounced it a sign of talent and reason to begin a new hobby. His reaction was a derisive laugh and, “Yeah, I don’t think so.” However, I did not want to split hairs, so I left it at, “He is a painter.”
Colette immediately went to her keyboard.
“Here you go,” she announced. “Paint night. That’s N-I-T-E. At a local pub. You learn how to paint a specific painting.” She looked at me and smiled. “Drinking and painting – sounds like fun!”
It did sound like fun. Decent pub. Cool-looking painting of a lighthouse on a rock, surrounded by splashing water and seagulls, and with a dripping-down-the-canvas effect that added a modern touch. I briefly wondered if Brock would enjoy this, given his replies to my various suggestions over our two-year relationship that he start painting again. Replies like, “Nah, I’m not that interested,” and “I’m not good enough to make it a hobby,” and “No, I don’t want to.” Thankfully, I am rarely deterred by someone’s wishes for themselves, especially when I am in a time crunch and fresh out of other ideas. I entered my credit card and clicked Check Out.
That could be why I sensed “Pepper Mill 2” when Brock opened his card, read the piece of paper tucked inside, and decided to forego a big smile and enthusiastic, “Thank you! This is great!” for a snort of surprise and flat, “Okay.”
I did what any caring gift giver would do, and was pleased it only took a few minutes of psychological manipulation to convince Brock that this was the best gift ever. A few weeks later, we were off to Paint Nite.
It is bad enough when someone unwraps a birthday gift gone wrong. It is worse when the gift is not a pepper mill that can go in the cupboard and be forgotten, but an event that requires your attendance and will serve up a minute-by-minute reminder of how badly you screwed up. It did not take long to get my first dose of, “What was I thinking?”
We arrived at a strip-mall pub with $7 pints and a sale on chicken wings, to find a group of 10 women, drinking wine and joking about husbands, hot flashes, and potty training. Paint Nite was definitely “girls’ night”, not “date night”. It didn’t seem to bother Brock, God bless him. Instead, he left me to handle the chit chat and made a b-line to peer at the lighthouse painting that was perched on an easel at the front of the room.
“That isn’t the same painting pictured on the website,” Brock said sternly as we sat down in front of our little canvases.
I looked at the painting. “Looks the same to me.”
“It isn’t,” Brock replied, and because he is an introverted analyzer with superior attention to detail, and I am an extroverted promoter who would not notice if a piece of furniture disappeared from my living room, I had to trust him. He gave me another serious look. “It’s nowhere near as good.”
Now he turned his skeptical gaze onto our young and bubbly instructor as she made her way to the front of the room. She was trying to tuck a strand of unkempt hair back into the messy ponytail that flopped from the back of her head while regaling us with how happy she was to be out of the house and away from her four-year-old son.
“I love him,” she laughed a bit too enthusiastically. “But, it’s good to get away for a night!” This was punctuated with a laugh. “I hope he and my husband don’t kill each other! Hahaha!” We ladies laughed in the only way we know how when it is possible a joke is hiding a nervous breakdown.
Not possessing enough estrogen to spot the humour, let alone the emotional distress disguised as humour, and still peering at the painting behind our instructor, Brock leaned over to me, and whispered, “I don’t think she’s much of a painter.”
Nodding at his concern and deciding I should take it seriously, I whispered back, “I’m ordering food.”
“How are you going to eat and paint?” Brock asked.
“It’s okay,” I answered, unwilling to admit poor planning on top of poor gift picking. “I’ll have a steak.”
I placed my order, missing the instructor’s explanation of the brushes and paints, and then turned to my canvas.
“Step 1!” our instructor called enthusiastically.
The first step in our lighthouse masterpiece was to wash our canvas in off-white, a shade that required a careful mixing on our paper-salad-plate-come-palette of white and one bead of grey delicately plucked with our tiniest brush.
“No problem,” I thought, and then immediately lost control of my brush and dropped a thousand beads of grey into the white. It was charcoal. I grabbed the bottle of white and poured more in. I mixed with my brush. Lighter, but still charcoal. All around me, I could hear brushes washing canvases.
“Almost time for Step 2!”
I stopped mixing and started washing. Okay, not exactly what I had pictured in my head. More dirty-laundry-water-white than off-white. However, not bad. Not bad at all. I smiled, delivering the final flourish. Maybe I’m the painter. Then I looked at Brock’s.
Brock had ignored our instructor’s direction to wash the entire canvas in one colour and instead used two tones to create a moody sky over tranquil water. The man who banishes his art to the floor beneath his bed had expertly wielded his brush in such a way as to give the viewer a sense of motion, as though faint clouds moved over the sea, blown by the breath of God.
“Can’t paint? My ass,” I thought.
Our instructor, whose painting on display was looking more like something you would buy from your neighbour’s kid for no other reason than you knew you would see him again, wandered over for a look. Her smile froze in place while she stared at Brock’s canvas.
“You took a different approach!” she finally said.
“Different approach?” I thought, incredulous. “Lady, are you seeing what I’m seeing? Someone phone the Louvre!”
There was no time to quibble. Before we knew it, she was back at the front of the room describing her method for completing Step 2, and the waitress was delivering my steak. I had to turn to the table behind me to eat my first few bites and missed the explanation. What I did catch was Brock muttering to himself, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
I pushed a chunk of steak into one cheek. “What doesn’t make any sense?”
“What she just told us,” Brock answered. “About the rock and the lighthouse. I don’t like her technique.”
In response, I chewed, thinking the steak was pretty good and eyeing it while I considered what was more pressing, another bite of steak, getting some techniques from Brock, or diving into Step 2.
Brock had started mixing paint on his paper salad plate. Watching him manoeuvre his brush with the confident ease of Bob Ross – “Today, we’re making indigo!” – I realized we were operating on different planes. I was putting coloured blobs on a white canvas while Brock was marrying imagination with technique to birth truth, goodness, and beauty out of chaos.
I decided to leave him to it and cut into my steak one more time before diving back into my artwork.
“Is that a smiley face?” Brock asked as we neared the finish.
“Those are seagulls, Brock,” I answered, thinking people with talent should consider the feelings of those with no talent and work on phrasing their questions more delicately.
At the end of the night, I took stock of my creation and thought it might get a gold star if we were in a public-school kindergarten class. And I mean really public. I knew Brock had blown everyone out of the water, including our instructor, when she came over and said, “Well, Brock, that’s interesting!”
Maybe Paint Nite was not such a bad birthday gift after all. I mean, I did get fodder for this story and many a dinner party and card night when I will tell friends and family about the lighthouse while Brock, a good sport who is always relieved to be dating an extrovert, sits back and laughs at all the right places.
I have come to realize that Dr. Gonzos are few and far between, while Brazilian gourds and over-priced pepper mills are everywhere. Maybe the experience is what makes for birthday gold. At the very least, you get a story to tell.
For this one, I will leave out most of the part when I brought the lighthouse home and showed it to my not-so-gull-able son, Julian.
“Why is there a smiley face on it?”