Saturday, June 13, 2009

Back and Forth (2008)

By Ann Lee

Back and forth, up and down; this summer I am painting a long-neglected outbuilding. Brush stroke by brush stroke, I watch the carefully chosen color cover the white primer. Neither the small electric paint sprayer nor the roller gave me the result I was looking for, so brush stroke by brush stroke I work to curb my irritation with the slow pace and to appreciate the process. Little sound bites invade my thoughts.


Up and down, with each stroke of the small 2” wide brush I imagine a homeowner living in a time when houses were built in seven months not seven days. A time when they only way to paint was brush stroke by brush stroke. As a society we expect, no we demand, that things are done quickly. I wonder what we have lost.

Brush stroke by brush stroke, I recall school required reading that included literature of times long past. I recall literature that spoke of summer vacations spent white washing miles of fence. What child of today would have that patience, that focus? My own patience and focus is tested with the couple of hours a day I have reserved for this task.

Back and forth, up and down; the brush moves across the building as I climb up and down the ladder on an elastic bandaged knee that would have faired better if the building had been blasted with a spray gun. Dragging a bucket up a ladder is testing more than my fortitude, perhaps my sanity.

Brush stroke by brush stroke, I am reminded that half of my friends expect communication by personalized snail mail that takes days to arrive while the other half embraces the Internet and technology, confused when queries are not responded to instantly. Those in the snail mail genre would probably be fascinated by the painting of this building. I was born in a complex era. Stroke by stroke, I try to rationalize why a slow pace may be better. This building was long-neglected and my excuse was of a lack of time. Things to do, people to contact, work to do, the Internet to surf, I embrace technology, irritated with snail mail.

However, I now have time to paint, sip tea, and not worry about the pace that I have chosen for this project. I had always expected to leave Corporate America on my own terms. A reduction in force is what they called it. Corporate restructuring they tell shareholders. Increasing shareholder value is what my brother calls it. Two jobs and a three hour daily commute left no time for outbuildings. One job I left for personal reasons, the other soon after that because of “a reduction in force.”

To get my severance pay, I signed a waiver that I was not let go because of age. I received a federally mandated spreadsheet of the ages of those let go in my department and those remaining. Let go were a 38 year old first time mother who went to human resources and begged to be on the list, a 45 year old, the rest were in their 50s and 60s. Age discrimination had never entered my thoughts before the required waiver. Brush stroke by brush stroke, I focus on the paint filled bristles of the brush.

Up and down, side to side, the brush moves in a controlled rhythm as I try to control my impatience. I contemplate the irony of choosing to paint my building this way. As someone who kept their e-mail always open; expecting and giving immediate, instant responses, the method of painting this structure is the antithesis of my corporate life. And as a single woman in her fifties, I wait for the panic attacks that plagued me in my youth, but they show no signs of appearing.

A time out from the brush to visit my friend. Another displaced employee who is normally frugal, we went downtown to an uptown shoe store. With severance pay and confidence that a new position would easily be obtained, she picked out two pairs of shoes and left the equivalent of one month’s rent on a counter that would have only held the fingerprints of a daydreamer the day before. I think about coping strategies and return to my building.

Up and down, back and forth, for a couple of hours a day, my brush continues to travel across the building as the summer wanes. I am not checking my e-mail as frequently as I had at the beginning of the summer. Roommates suggest that a roller would be more efficient, I tell them this is therapy. Brush stroke by brush stroke, I think about the job boards I have resisted signing up for, the corporate sponsored classes that I am entitled to but have avoided, but mainly I think about former colleagues who are also disenfranchised. I worry about those that are challenged by technology, who have been left behind through their choices. Choices define us and the narrow 2” brush moves effortlessly across the building.
Brush stroke by brush stroke, I now know that the lattes that I buy on impulse when I am driving around will now be purchased only on special occasions. Up and down, back and forth, the brush layers Whispering Pine green over the white primer. I also realize that the primer is not being covered by the green, but is an important part of the process, a silent partner. Life is like the paint on this building, layered. What is underneath is important because the top layer is molded and shaped by the layer underneath it. I am still bothered by the waiver I signed, that I would not claim age discrimination as the reason that I was chosen to be part of the corporate restructuring.

My grandmother was old when she was in her fifties. I do not feel old. Choices. In the waning days of summer, with the building almost complete, I will make sure that there is wood for the winter. I will search for books collected over the years to befriend me over the winter. The next layer will not look the layer it covers, of that I am sure.

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