Happy trees

By Bob Ross Incorporated, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1632503

On a cold evening, a few weeks ago, I turned on the television and was pleasantly surprised to find there’s a whole channel devoted to The Joy of Painting, a show which originally ran its 31 seasons from 1983-1994. Most of the episodes showcase the soothing voice and sweeping brushstrokes of Bob Ross, complete with his distinctive, permed afro which was just as wispy as the clouds he would often paint.


In the episode I settled in to watch, Bob was painting a pair of purple mountains in the background with a river snaking its way in front. The water reflected the mountains in reverse and there were trees jutting up all along the riverbank. The serene scene, along with Bob’s mellow voice, made me nestle deeper into the sofa under a blanket.


I found out later that Bob enjoyed painting landscapes which included mountains because of the decades he had spent staring at snowy peaks. Though he was born in Florida, Bob spent 20 years in the Air Force most of which was served in Alaska. It’s comical to think of soft-spoken Bob Ross as a sergeant, barking orders to men in his division as they scrubbed the latrine and re-made their beds. He said that once he left the military, he never wanted to scream at people again.


Besides his afro and painting style, Bob Ross was known for his chatter during the episodes. One of his most famous quotes goes something like, “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.” But there are other Bob Ross quotes I find even more profound:

“Go out on a limb—that’s where the fruit is.”

“You need the dark in order to show the light.”

“In nature, dead trees are just as normal as live trees.”


Critics might categorize his 30,000+ paintings as nothing more than “hotel art,” but you can’t deny his appeal. When he stepped up to a blank canvas and showed all of the possibilities available to someone with a palette of colors with exotic names like Prussian Blue, Sap Green, Cadmium Yellow, Midnight Black, Dark Sienna, and Van Dyke Brown, and then you watched him make quick crisscross motions which materialized into sky and long, slender lines which became tree branches, it’s hard not to be impressed. By the time the 30-minute episode was over, Bob had created something unique. He had taken a scene from his imagination with bits thrown in from memory, and then those of us watching from home could see on the screen what he had formally only seen inside his mind.


Speaking as someone who isn’t particularly gifted in the painting department, I connect to Bob Ross and his statements about creating art in a non-paintbrush-related way. I see the title of his television program as a call to change our outlook on life. I’m never going to be the host of The Joy of Painting, but, with the right attitude, I could be the star of my own show with names like The Joy of Emptying the Dishwasher or The Joy of Rolling the Trashcans Down the Driveway. I can and should find joy in what I do today and tomorrow and the next day. It’s like Bob said, “Isn’t it fantastic that you can change your mind and create all these happy things?”

Like a child

I work at a preschool a couple of days a week. I know that these kids ranging from one to five-years old will eventually grow up to be adults with jobs and receding hairlines and mortgages and wrinkles and car payments, but right now they’re just as quirky as can be, and I adore them.


It’s crazy to me that every grown-up—every accountant, cashier, librarian, car mechanic, U.S. senator…everyone—started off as a weird, funny kid. They all had a favorite thing that held no real value but meant the world to them. Maybe it was a lovingly shredded baby blanket or a ratty stuffed animal or book they demanded to have read to them so frequently that it had to be taped and re-taped back together again. As a toddler, each of them probably had a day where they just wanted to carry around this one matchbox car or tube of chapstick or empty tissue box, and if someone tried to peel it from their chubby little fingers, they would howl and carry on like it was the end of days. They all refused to eat some type of food which they would eventually tolerate if not grow to like. (It’s curious how often those same kids who turn up their noses at broccoli try to eat the dryer lint they just fished out of the trashcan.)


For about an hour of the time I’m working at preschool, I sit in a big playroom and watch classes of kids cycle through. It’s meant to be a break for their teachers and an opportunity for the kids to practice sharing and cleaning up and, most importantly, learn through playtime. They are absolutely fascinating to observe. I love to see how they work together or play alone. As long as they’re being kind and thoughtful, there’s no wrong way to build with blocks or play in the kitchen center or line up the Fisher-Price animals.


When our youngest son Ezra was around 7 or 8, anytime we were on a family trip and we had to stay in a hotel, Ezra would get so excited when he saw the room had a desk. He would instantly want to play “Office.” We would unplug the desk phone (so no random calls would be placed) and line up to talk to the “Office Man.” Ezra would ask us, “What’s your problem?” and we would make up some dilemma. It was amazing. This same kid who struggled to tie his own shoes (assuming he could find them first) was solving problems like it was his full-time job (which, according to him—Office Man—it was). Lost dog? Office Man would call up somebody who could find that dog in no time. Feeling under the weather? Office Man would find medicine (which looked a lot like torn-up pieces of hotel stationery) that would cure you in an instant.


Unfortunately, this hotel-office-vacation game, along with so many of the things we enjoyed when we’re younger, fails to captivate us in the same way when we get older. We become too mature, too sophisticated, and too busy for such childishness. Maybe that’s one of the best things about being around young children. Even though I’m absolutely in the adult phase of my life, I can still pretend and play. I can lose myself in a silly game. For a few precious moments, I can recapture the feeling of being a child, care-free and quirky and limited only by the boundlessness of my imagination.