Saturday, March 13, 2010

What an Odd Thing, the Safety Pin

In my last post, I wrote about my antique tobacco box, which I use to store safety pins. Hundreds and hundreds of safety pins. My dry cleaners uses three for every article of clothing -- two to attach it to the hanger, and one to attach the tag. I don't like to waste perfectly good things, so I dutifully keep all of them.

Maybe I could return them every few months, like the wire hangers? Or maybe I could donate them somewhere. A colleague from a former job used to make cool bracelets out of pins. Like this one I found on the internet:

Thinking about pins made me realize how much we take for granted these seemingly simple, everyday objects. I got to wondering about the history of this handy little tool, so I did some research.

A New Yorker named Walter Hunt is credited with the invention of the safety pin, which he apparently invented in a couple of hours in 1849 to pay off a $15 debt. He sold the patent, #6281, for $400. Just in case you are dying to see it, here is his original patent, courtesy of the U.S. Patent Office:

But safety pins date back at least to ancient Greece. According to The Big Site of Amazing Facts, "Homer tells us that a dozen safety pins were presented to Penelope, the wife of Odysseus by her suitors, suggesting that the Greeks considered pins fitting gifts, even for royalty. Presumably, almost all early Greeks used safety pins to fasten their tunics, since the button wasn’t to arrive from Asia Minor until considerably later."

This site which also explains the history of the term "pin money":

"But for centuries, metal pins remained rare and costly items reserved for the rich....When the term originated in the fourteenth century, “pin money” was just that, for at the time, pins were expensive enough to be real items in the budget. By custom, a husband would present his wife on the first or second of January with enough money to buy her pins for the year. “Pin money” went by the boards in the nineteenth century, when mass-production made pins the inexpensive purchase they are today."

So there you have it. Everything you never wanted to know about saftey pins! Read more!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Antique Tobacco Tin

Once, when I was in my late teens or early twenties, quite out of the blue, my Aunt sent me this charming little Russian tobacco tin. I have no idea why. I didn't know my aunt well. She was my father's older sister and lived in another state. We saw her a few times during my childhood, when we took family road trips to visit my grandmother in Texas. She came with her kids to visit us a few times in Colorado.

My aunt always seemed like a breed apart. Her husband and sons were spectacularly handsome. They had the easy-going, debonair manner of the wealthy, like Cary Grant in a 1950s romantic comedy. Uncle B. was one of the principal citizens of their mid-sized city, where he owned several thriving businesses. To my childish eyes, they were like royalty. Their homes -- they moved whenever my aunt wanted a new place to decorate --seemed so enormous, so sophisticated and modern. I had never known people who had professional decorators choose their furniture and knickknacks. Everything in my aunt's homes matched -- even the antique books on the shelves, which were purchased not for their contents, but their covers. Recently, I saw one of the houses that had so impressed me. It was a nice mid-century ranch, decently sized, but, as I can now see, nothing special.

My aunt was fun and funny, with a big laugh just like her mother. But as I got older, I began to dislike her. I understand now that I was shaped by my mother's own dislike for her sister-in-law. Maybe it was jealousy -- Aunt G. was beautiful, thin, and rich. But more importantly, mom resented that dad's family always treated her as an outsider, never as one of the family.

Aunt G. passed away a few years ago. Her husband of 65 years, who had lived in the same town his entire life, remarried less than a year later and moved to the coast with his new wife. Oddly, the new wife shared my aunt's first name.

In the years since she died, I've learned more about my aunt's early life. Like my father, she was raised by a mother who, in the vein of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, was not "a mother woman." She was old enough to be aware that her father was a drunk and drug addict, to feel the sting when he abandoned the family, to know the scandal of having a divorced mother.

I had known this part of the story, in the abstract sort way you come to piece things together in a family that doesn't talk about its secrets and shames.

But I recently learned there was much more to Aunt G's life. In the early 1940s, when she was just 20 or so, she fell and love and married. Like most men of his generation, her husband joined the service in World War II. Trained as a pilot, he was sent to Europe when Aunt G. was pregnant with their first child. Her husband was shot down, captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. But Aunt G. didn't know that for months. The records reported him as MIA. Newly married and pregnant with her first child, Aunt G. lived alone in a tiny apartment over a garage, pining away for her lost husband. Their baby was a year and a half old when he finally came home.

So, this little box holds more than just safety pins. Now, about the box itself, or where my aunt got it, I know next to nothing. It is Russian. I can't read most of the words on it, but I do recognize the word tobacco. And the year 1842. It's a pretty little object, a good receptacle for safety pins. And a nice reminder of an aunt I hardly knew. Read more!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Book Notes--Pillars of the Earth

I've always known Ken Follett as the author of suspense thrillers -- not my favorite genre -- so when I was casting about for a comfortable read, I was dubious when a friend recommended Pillars of the Earth. But, I was looking for a good yarn to while away a wintry weekend by the fire, so I decided to give it a try.

The setting intrigued me. The novel spans several decades in 12th century England. It follows the stories of peasants, monks, masons, knights, bishops and kings whose lives intersect in one way or another as a great cathedral is built in the fictional village of Kingsbridge.

The novel draws a rich, detailed portrait of a time when life was nasty, brutish, and short. Powerful men rape, massacre and plunder with impunity; starving children are left in the forest to die by parents who cannot feed them; and grossly disfigured outlaws kill for a pair of leather boots or a bag of turnips.

Spoiler alert: Below there be plot points!

The first half centers on Tom Builder, a down-on-his-luck stone mason struggling to feed his starving family. In the forest, he meets three people who will shape his life: Ellen, the bewitching and fierce woman of the forest; Philip, the new Prior of Kingsbridge who will one day hire Tom as the Master Builder of the new cathedral; and William Hamleigh, who will become Earl, terrorizing all who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in his path.

We meet Tom and his family on the road, as they tramp from town to town, seeking work and bread. This stolid but intelligent man is a compelling character, especially after he meets Ellen, a rumored witch who lives in a cave and becomes Tom's common-law wife after his first wife dies in childbirth. Tom works his way, literally, into the job of building the cathedral, impressing Father Philip with his knowledge of stone and his patient, unflappable manner.

Philip is the core of the novel, touching the lives of everyone, even Thomas Becket, whose murder he witnesses in the final chapters of the book. Philip is pious and proud, ambitious and humble. His compassion and intelligence enable him to expand Kingsbridge from a village to a thriving city, and along the way, to help other characters achieve their destinies.

When the story centers on the lives of ordinary people -- even ordinary people who go on to do extraordinary things -- it is at its best. But hovering on the periphery are tales of royal intrigue, which at times threaten to take over the book. In these episodes, I found my attention waning. I preferred the company of Tom and Ellen, struggling to hold their odd family together, or of Philip as he frets about how to fend off the machinations of the slimy Bishop Waleran. I like characters who jump off the page and become alive in my mind. When the book diverged from their stories, especially in the end, with the murder of Beckett, I found myself skipping pages -- something I very rarely do.

I was also less enthralled by the story of Aliena and Richard, a brother and sister who are forced from their castle by the evil, sadistic William Hamleigh. William glories in rape and pillage. The first such scene, when William rapes 14-year-old Aliena in front of her brother, is graphic but probably necessarily so. This scene establishes William's character and Aliena's motives for becoming so fiercely independent. But by the second, third, or fourth graphic rape scene, in which one tunic after another is ripped, revealing yet another pair of large, heaving, usually teenaged breasts, and after we're told over and over that William can't get it up without the thrill of violence, it all starts to get tiresome and exploitative.

I also found my attention waning in the latter half of the book, which focuses more on Aliena and Jack, Tom Builder's son. Their romance is interesting enough at first, but it soon becomes repetitive. So too do the pages and pages explaining medieval construction techniques.

Clearly, Follett did a great deal of research about how cathedrals were built -- including the transition from the romanesque half-circle arches to the pointed, gothic ones, and the development of flying buttresses, which Jack virtually invents. There's little I love more than visiting medieval cathedrals, standing in their cool, vast interiors, marveling at their size and grandeur, wondering how they could have been built all those centuries ago. So, while reading this book, I enjoyed learning more about how it was done. To a point. But the book would be stronger if some of the scenes describing the building process had been edited out.

In the end, Pillars of the Earth is longer than it needs to be. The novel impressively manages a long span of time, and a wide range of characters and points of view. But I wonder if its wide scope saps some of its emotional strength. When Tom died, I was surprised at how little I felt the loss. As I thought about it, I realized that we had long since left his story behind. While at first felt his emotions as he lived through travails and triumphs, later it seemed like we were being TOLD about his experiences rather than living them along with him. One truism we hold as writers is "Show Don't Tell." I wonder if the wide scope of a book like this makes that goal more difficult?

At any rate, I did get my pleasant weekend of reading in, and while these characters don't live for me as some of my favorites do (such as Gus in Lonesome Dove), I'm looking forward to the mini-series, which has apparently just finished filming and will be released later this year.

After reading the book, I did a little research. It seems that Salisbury Cathedral was one of Follett's inspirations. So, I award Pillars of the Earth 3.5 (out of 5) Salisbury Cathedrals

Read more!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

My Favorite Gift -- An Empty Box

Tomorrow we're taking down the Christmas tree and putting all the ornaments away for another year. Among the gifts I will pack up is a tiny empty box that gets a prominent spot under the tree or on the mantel every year. It's a three-inch red and white polka dotted cube, with a tag that reads "To Frankie, Love Mother" in my mother's hand. I don't remember what small gift it once held -- probably something mom picked up at a yard sale or an antique mall, or maybe a little jar of jam or something similar. I don't even know why I originally kept it. It probably just got packed up at some point with all of the gift bags and bows. But after mom died almost a decade ago, this bit of emphemera suddently became important. Each year, I have a gift from my mom under my tree. It makes me smile and it makes me sad, the blend of emotions we all have to get used to after we lose someone we loved. Read more!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Japanese Screens

We recently attended an exhibit of Japanese screens that was jointly presented by the St. Louis Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. There is something so ethereal and delicate about these screens, which were meant to be both utilitarian and works of fine art. The fragile paper, the subtle colors, the brush calligraphy that freezes words as if they were birds hanging on air -- it evokes a peaceful feeling in me that I can't quite name or define.

I don't know much about Japanese screens, but I'm eager to learn more. The image below, a detail from a six-panel screen called Pheasant and Pine by Kano Koi, adorns the cover of the catalog, which is available at both museums. We bought it because it not only has all of the screens in the exhibit, but seems thorough in its discussion of this art form.

On the surface, my two favorite works in the show are quite different from one another. The first is by Tosa Mitsuoki (Japanese, 1617-1691) and is called Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maple with Poem Slips. The poems appear to be painted on little strips of paper that seem to flutter in the breeze. This picture, from the Art Institute, hardly does it justice. But if you go to their website, there is a better copy, one that you can zoom in on to see details. Both trees are simply gorgeous.

This screen has another image on the back, which was not visible in the display. I wish it had been reflected in a mirror or something, since it is a grove of bamboo, one of my favorite plants.

My second favorite work was a twentieth-century take on the centuries-old screen tradition. These two screens are part of 1990 work called Mountain Lake Screen Tachi by Okura Jiro.
The original work spanned more than 120 feet on 16 screens, creating a wall or mountain effect, or possibly a golden city. The gold leaf is applied on rough-hewn walnut boards, sometimes quite loosely, so that pieces of it sparkle and blow in the air. It's really quite lovely and impressive, both for its size and beauty, and for showing that this ancient art still lives and continues to grow.

I found this picture of the screens in their outdoor setting, but even this photo does not capture the impressive size of the screens, which seem to tower over you like golden mountains.

The Mountain Lake website says, "The focus of Okura’s workshops developed out of his own deep respect for natural materials, especially wood. This respect is based on an understanding of the relationship between nature as an environment of material substance with physical location, and as a concept of pure space. For Okura, substance and space acquire a sense of plenitude when the self grasps this relationship, which wood (or any other natural material) can symbolize if treated properly. Okura’s ideas, which are expressed by his treatment of wood, are manifested in Eastern belief systems through ritual practices that allow for chance and indeterminacy in the processing of materials."

The exhibit also made note of my architectural hero, Frank Lloyd Wright, crediting him with shaping "Americans’ visions of the screen format." The show had a large-scale photograph of his bedroom in his home and studio, Taliesin, circa 1909, with a Japanese screen embedded in the wall. This room no longer exists in this form, having been destroyed in one of the two fires that consumed much of Taliesin earlier in the century. So, it was fun and surprising to come across this image in the exhibit.

Read more!

Addams Family Musical -- A Review (Plus Tee Shirts)

UPDATE 12/30/09: The Producers must have read my review! The Addams Family Musical is undergoing substantial revisions. Here's a link to the story in the New York Times:

They're creepy and they're kooky
Mysterious and spooky
They're all together ooky
The Addams Family

Frink and I went to Chicago last weekend. On Saturday night, we saw The Addams Family Musical,a new show in pre-Broadway tryouts. Before even seeing the play, I went straight to the goodie counter where a cadre of busy clerks were selling over-priced souvenirs, from posters to mugs to note pads to tee-shirts, all branded with the show's logo and catch phrases, or with reproductions of the original Charles Addams cartoons.

I wasn't shopping for myself: My niece is wild about theater and was Elphaba-green with envy that I got to see this show. So, I bought her this shirt for Christmas. Now, you can't buy one kid a souvenir and not get anything for her siblings. So I also got shirts for her brother and sister. The theater had a HUGE array of merchandise. If only they had put as much thought into the musical!

The Addams Family has some of the most inspired casting imaginable. Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia. Nathan Lane as Gomez. It should have been a hoot. Unfortunately, it was dreadful. And not in the mysterious and spooky sense of the word. Now, I’m the first to admit that what I want from a Broadway musical may differ from the average theater-goer’s expectations. I’m not a big fan of huge, razzle-dazzle sets and million-dollar spectacles (I may be the only person in America who didn’t like Wicked.)

What I do expect is at least one of the following: an involving story, characters I care about (or at least enjoy watching), some memorable tunes, or some zippy dance numbers that are fun to watch. The Addams Family didn't live up on any front. The story was trite, the songs so-so, and the characters flatter than their images on the tee shirts. The sets, however, were very nice.

In interviews, the producers have said that they ignored the television series and movies, drawing their inspiration from the original New Yorker cartoons. They didn't quite follow through on that approach, but even if they had, I’m not sure it was a wise choice. According to Wikipedia, "Addams' original cartoons were one-panel gags, and he never developed any of the characters or even gave them names until the sitcom was being developed.”

If Pixar has taught me anything, it’s that the story has to come first. With a good story, everything else is gravy. But this story had no main course. It was simplistic and sit-commish, without the sly sophistication of the original cartoons or the winking humor of the TV show. In the play, Wednesday has been aged from 7 to 18. She has met a “normal” boy, and guess whose family is coming to dinner? The Normals (aka Beinecke's) are just what you would expect – staid, uptight, needing to be shaken up. On cue, Pugsley inadvertently gives one of Grandmama's potions to Mrs. Normal and chaos ensues. Or at least it's supposed to.

A good story also needs memorable characters. I don’t care how you get me involved in the characters—make me identify or empathize with them, envy them, hate them, laugh at the them, or fear them. Just make me care enough to spend two hours in their company. Wednesday is written as any stock rebellious teen (although she keeps stridently reminding us that she is wild and crazy.) Fester, who sounds and acts just like the TV actor, serves the unenviable role of a Greek chorus explaining the all-too-obvious plot, although he does have a few inspired moments. (His love song to the moon was a high point.) The actress playing Mrs. Normal/Beineke was affecting, even in a clichéd part, and her voice was terrific. Terrance Mann as Mr. Normal/Beineke was also memorabe. But the principals are given such a poor story line that a few strong performances aren’t enough to salvage the evening.

Bebe Neuwirth is one of my favorite actresses. Best known for the deadpan monotone of Lilith on Fraser she is a terrifically talented and renowned Broadway star. I've always wanted to see her in a musical. I was thrilled when I heard that she was cast as Morticia. She has the figure, the dancing chops, and the dry wit to suit the part. But she is constrained, literally and figuratively, in this show. For most of the play she is strait-jacketed by the tight gown she has to wear to carry off Morticia’s nipping walk. When the gown does come off, in a tango with Gomez, I was momentarily aroused, thinking that finally we would get to see Neuwirth do her stuff. But even the tango was a let-down. It should have been the climax of the show, the sizzling, passionate reunion of lovers temporarily parted by misunderstanding. Instead, the choreography was woefully clichéd, with Morticia at one point even playing the bull goring Gomez’s red cape. It also doesn't help that her character's big story line is a mid-life fear that she has lost her mojo.

Lane’s Gomez has a bit more to work with, including a few zingy one-liners. But the story is so slight and the music and lyrics so lackluster that even this talented star goes to waste.

The lack of story or characters wouldn't matter if the songs had been memorable. Many successful muscials have thin stories. Spamalot doesn’t have much of a plot or characters, but the music is fabulously hum-worthy. And hilarious. The Addams Family had a few okay numbers--Act One's "Full Disclosure" was memorable, and Morticia's "Second Banana" was ok, but several verged on being tedious, and at least one made me wince.

One reason Spamalot is successful is that it smacks you across the face like a wet perch with reminders of the movie. By deliberately avoiding callbacks to a beloved show, The Addams Family loses much of its appeal. (And in fact, despite the producer’s stated intentions, the musical did refer to the TV series and movies. Lane’s Spanish accent is patterned on the movies’ Raul Julia. Lurch grunts just like the original actor. Gomez and Morticia duel with swords and he swoons when she speaks French. And so on.)

At one point a snippet of the TV theme song plays as the cast gathers around a Victorian sofa in a tableau patterned on the TV show’s opening montage. It was telling that this was one of the most well-received bits in the show. When those few bars of music started playing,the audience broke into applause, and the energy in the theater soared. Unfortunately, it soon died down again.

The Addams Family is in previews in Chicago before heading to New York. I hope they will find a way to retool the show before moving it to Broadway.

And I hope the kids like the tee shirts! Read more!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Tiny Christmas Miracle

About three weeks or so ago, Frink's mom lost her wedding ring, along with her engagement ring, to which it was connected. Frink's mom is very thin, and it's been cold out. She thought she lost it while Christmas shopping. She had been trying on gloves at J.C. Penney, so she thought maybe it had come off in one of the gloves. She went back to the store and looked in all of the gloves, not once but twice, and called them a couple of times. She tore her house apart, and her purse, and the car. All to no avail. The ring was gone. Her husband, Frink's dad, made funny "jokes" about how much it was going to cost to replace it. Repeatedly.

Anyway, on Christmas morning, after the breakfast had been eaten, the stockings unpacked, and all the gifts unwrapped, a couple of us were cleaning up all the gift wrap. I saw something sparkling on the carpet. I thought someone had lost an earring. I picked it up. And miracle of miracles, it was the ring! Frink's mom had vacuumed that rug many times since she had lost the ring, including just the day before. So we surmised that it must have come off when she was wrapping presents.

She burst into tears when I gave it to her, and she had to sit down because we were afraid she was going to pass out, she was shaking so hard.

It was the best Christmas present ever!
Read more!