Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spring Tidings

This photo illustrates two things:

1. I am a slob.

2. It's spring!

Friday afternoon. I came upstairs after work and noticed some of the clothes I had tossed on the end of the bed this week. (I get slobbier as the week progresses.) Now, you might see nothing but a total mess. But what struck me was the colors of these clothes, the sherbety palette of peach and lime and white that spells spring.

This has been one of those gorgeous, phenomenal, long-lasting springs. No late frosts, no heavy storms. All the varieties of blooming trees are overlapping. Every street is awash in lilacs and wisteria, redbuds and dogwoods, the last blooms of the cherry trees and the ornamental pears. Flowering trees are one of the reasons I know there is a god. Who else could invent such a glorious thing?

On the off chance that you don't love looking at pictures of my dirty laundry, here are some of the spring sights from my neighborhood.

This dogwood is in our front yard.

And these are some tulips and daffodils in our yard.

This is the house across the street:

We call this Azalea House. This picture doesn't do it justice. On both sides of their drive and in front of the house they have huge azaleas in different colors.

Some tulips up the block.
This is the first year I've noticed this wisteria. The young couple who own the home were out front working in the yard. They said it was three years old. We had late frosts the first two years. There was a frost a couple of weeks ago, but they put a tent and 1500 watts of light over it to keep it safe. It was worth it!

Someone had these two baskets of daffodil bulbs out front with a "free, plant ASAP" sign on them. It's the wrong time of year, but we're going to put them into the ground in the front yard. Hope some of them make it!

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Terrible Faux Pas

This is the story of three gifts.

As I write my memoir, I have been struggling to understand my mother's depression and the seething anger that percolated beneath the surface of our family when I was growing up.

Recently, I called my older sister, hoping she might be able to fill in some of the gaps.

“Do you think dad had an affair?” I asked, not expecting an affirmative answer, but not at all surprised when it came.


“What makes you think so?”

“I saw them kissing.”

“Was it Evelyn?”

“Yes. It was when mom took you to the hospital in Denver.” When I was six or seven that is, when I got my doll, Orangeeta.

I suppose I have always wondered about dad and Evelyn, although I rarely allowed these thoughts to become active. Evelyn was a beautiful blonde in her twenties who lived with her parents across the street. I remember a huge smile and bubbly laugh, tight stirrup pants and sweaters. She and my father would go skiing together – my mother never learned to ski - and my father always seemed younger when she was around. Dad liked to joke and be the life of the party, and Evelyn provided an enthusiastic audience.

Somehow it never occurred to me to consider how mom must have felt about this woman. I naively assumed that Evelyn was equally a friend of my mother. Once, when I was 8 or so, I used my allowance to buy mom a picture frame for her birthday. Mom seemed to like it, but her smile froze when I explained that I had chosen the frame because the model in the cardboard picture looked like Evelyn. I was hurt and puzzled when mom shakily asked why I would give her such a thing.

Now, after having experienced the crushing rejection of my own husband’s affair with a woman he found more attractive, I can begin to understand the source of my mother’s pain and bitterness. Later, Evelyn married and moved to Houston, where she and her husband, a professor, were murdered in their bed by a disgruntled graduate student. How did my father grieve this loss? What looks and unspoken words passed between my parents when they heard this news? Whatever they were, my parents kept them private, their arguments, if not their hostility, buried well beneath the surface.

Although I'm sure mom didn't keep score, in my mind, the other gift offsets the terrible faux pas of presenting my mother with a likeness of her husband's pretty mistress.

This gift is also a picture, a cheesy bas relief of a colonial style kitchen, molded in plastic copper. I seem to remember spending 49 cents on it at the five and dime on Main Street when I was quite young. (Allowances were much smaller in those days.) When mom opened the present, I could tell not only that she liked it, but that she was visibly touched.

Much later, when I was an adult, she told me that this tacky picture was one of her favorite gifts. She said that even when I was a little girl, it showed that I paid attention, that I understood her style, and tastes.

This ticky tacky plastic picture hangs in my kitchen. It doesn't match anything, but it reminds me of my mother and the prized gift she once gave to me.
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Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Tale of Two Chapels

On our recent road trip to visit my great-aunt and see a Frank Lloyd Wright tower, Frink and I also toured two spectacular chapels designed by architect E. Fay Jones. Jones was an apprentice of Wright's who worked primarily in the Ozarks. I wasn't surprised to learn that when he was a high school student, Jones designed tree houses. Tall and narrow, his chapels soar among the trees, bringing the forest inside through walls of windows. With their dramatic, exposed trusses crisscrossing across their ceilings, these light and airy chapels look like they were designed by wood elves. At any moment I expected Galadriel or Legolas to come gliding in.

The more famous of the two is Thorncrown Chapel, near Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The members of the American Institute of Architects voted it their 4th favorite building in America. From a structural standpoint, Thorncrown is probably the more spectacular of the two chapels. And yet, we enjoyed our visit to The Mildred B. Memorial Cooper Chapel in Bella Vista, Arkansas more.

Even though the chapel is a mere quarter of a mile from a shopping center, the town feels far away. We parked in the little lot in the woods and walked down a tree-lined path to the chapel. We were the only people there, and it was utterly quiet. When we opened the heavy door and entered, we were enveloped by the serenity and simple beauty of the chapel, a gothic cathedral with all its walls replaced by glass. We sat in the pews and admired the soaring arches and the light flowing through the windows (although it was a cloudy, winter day). Even though we were there to admire the architecture, it was an extremely spiritual experience. The architecture itself inspired awe and quiet contemplation.

Our subjective experience of Thorncrown was different, and I've spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint exactly why. The building itself is stunning. And yet, from the moment we approached the chapel, the experience felt less satisfying. First, there was the tall blue sign right near the door telling us to be seated in the chapel. It felt more like an order than an invitation. What's more, the sign stuck out jarringly in our pictures of the building. (We turned it sideways so we snap a couple of sign-free photos.)

When we entered, there was a staff member sitting near the door in a folding chair. Although she was friendly and welcoming, the mere presence of a monitor felt a little oppressive. I completely understand the desire to protect this architectural masterpiece, and to encourage respect for a place of worship. As someone who loves to visit cathedrals, I am often appalled at how rude and disrepectful other tourists can be, taking photos when explicitly told not to, imposing on people's prayers and contemplation by talking loudly, and wearing inappropriate clothing.

But the fact is, the entire time we were in the Cooper chapel, we whispered and were respectful, even though we were entirely alone, and even though there are no regular religious services conducted there to our knowledge. The building itself inspired our awe and respect. At Thorncrown, it was as if our "best behavoir" was not demanded by the spirituality of the space itself, but by the presence of the hostess, who seemed not so much guarding the chapel or welcoming guests, but maintaining a certain sanctity. It didn't help that she was one of those ostentatiously serene people who make you wonder exactly where the line is between sanctity and sanctimonius. She stressed that the chapel was an active place of worship and that "we don't want to be known as a wedding chapel" (a statement belied by their website, which prominently promotes Thorncrown as a wedding chapel.) The didactic impression was reinforced by the chapel's brochure. I didn't save it, but as I recall it was a bit insistent in its Christianity and its stressing of how spiritual the chapel is. It was ironic: When we were left alone to experience the chapel on our own terms, the feeling was one of incredbile spirituality. When we were told how spiritual the place was, the experience was precisely the opposite.

No doubt, devout Christians would probably have a different perspective on this. But for us, appreciation of a beautiful building is itself a kind of sanctity. Jones certainly knew this. Writing about Thorncrown, he wrote that “I saw opportunity here to create architecture. The distinction I am making is that all building isn’t architecture, just as all writing isn’t literature or poetry, even though the spelling, grammar, and syntax might be correct. There is something in architecture that touches people in a special way, and I hoped to do that with this chapel.”

Cooper acknowledges the "special way" the architect and his building touch you by inviting you to visit it as a structure. There is a path the winds through the forest so you can admire the chapel from every angle. Cooper seems to be saying, "I don't care what brought you here. Enjoy it." Thorncrown seemed to say, "I'm glad you're here. Now be spiritual." Even though Thorncrown's website touts the awards and accolades the building has earned, we felt a little guilty being there for the architecture, almost like our mere presence defiled the place.

Perhaps if we hadn't just visited Cooper a few hours before, we wouldn't have noticed a thing uninviting about Thorncrown. And in seeking to explore and explain the source of our different feelings in visiting these two chapels, I have probably exaggerated and overstated the case a bit. Thorncrown Chapel is an astonishingly lovely place, and we plan to return often to experience it in different seasons. If you're ever in Arkansas, I hope you'll get the chance to visit both of these amazing works of art.

Here's a Wikipedia Commons photo of Thorncrown in the flush green of summer (and without the attendant sitting in the entryway).

Mildred B. Coooper Memorial Chapel
Thorncrown Chapel
E. Fay Jones on Wikipedia Read more!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Wright Stuff

Today's post is in honor of Frank Lloyd Wright, who died 50 years ago today. Frink and I are mad about Frank. If this were a perfect world, the object accompanying this post would be our very own Frank Lloyd Wright house (especially this one); but, sadly our budget only extends far enough to cover a shelf full of books about the architect and a few reproduction presentation drawings, lamps, vases, and tchotskies.

One of my favorite pieces is this lamp, a knock-off of a lamp that appears in various Wright structures, including his own home, Taliesen. I love the mini-cantilevers and the warmth of the wood.

Our Frank obsession began over a decade ago, before we were even a couple. We were office mates in grad school, and one year we both had plans to visit friends in D.C. We decided to carpool. As we were passing through Pennsylvania, I glanced at the map and saw a little red label marked “Fallingwater.”

“Isn’t that the house built over a waterfall?” I asked.“I didn’t know that was around here.”

Frink and I had both seen pictures of Fallingwater so we took a detour to see it. It was a life-changing exper
ience. All the pictures in the world cannot do justice to the beauty of this building (although these paintings, by Spanish artist FĂ©lix de la Concha come close). At first, you’re struck by the sheer audacity of the design. Who but Frank would stand looking at this hilly, rocky, site on a creek and think, to heck with the view -- My house will be the view! Mere mortals would situate the house so that it looks at the waterfall. But I? I shall make the house part of the waterfall!

As you study the house, other features start to come into focus--the way the cantilever floats above the cascade, the way the line between inside and outside is erased by mitered windows and the stairs that lead from the living room into the water. That visit started our education in all things Wright. We began touring other major homes, especially the Dana-Thomas home in Springfield, Illinois, which we visited half a dozen times before it was shamefully closed by the disgraced. disgraceful ex-governor Blagojevitch.

I especially love the "Usonians" designed for teachers, artists, professors and other regular working folk. These small homes show that it is possible to design houses that have a small footprint and yet are beautiful, serene, and inspiring. Most of the Usonians have red concrete floors, expansive floor-to-ceiling windows that bring the outside in, and ingenious (if sometimes uncomfortable) built-in furniture that makes use of every inch of space with warm wood that doubles as art.

Several Usonians are available as overnight rentals. When we stay in them, we rarely leave the house (except to take photos from the outside.) We move from room to room, looking at the angles -- every perspective offers a new surprise -- and watching the play of light and shadows as the sunlight streaming through the clerstory windows changes through the course of the day. As Frink says, being in a Frank Lloyd Wright home makes you want to live a better life. Certainly, it would make you live a more pared down one. Except for the houses built for wealthy clients, Wright's homes don't have room for a lot of junk.

Our obsession with Frank has educated our eyes and as taught us to see buildings in a new way. As the years have passed, we've become huge fans of mid-century modern buildings and we've discovered the work of other architects. Two favorites are Santiago Calatrava and E.Fay Jones. How can you not love a museum that looks like it's going to fly away on its (movable!) wings? (This photo is from Wikipedia Commons; ours didn't do it justice.)

And how about a chapel in the forest that looks like it was designed by elves? We just toured this E. Fay Jones building, the Mildred B. Cooper chapel. It's not far from another Jones chapel, Thorncrown, which is on the list of the 100 best buildings in America, but I like this one better. We had horrible light during our visit, which was in winter. We plan to go back when the trees have leafed out.

Wright homes you can stay in:

Penfield House

Muirhead House

Bernard Schwartz House

Haynes House

The Seth Peterson Cottage (we haven't stayed here yet; they book about a year in advance.)

Update: Here's an interesting brief tribute to FLW.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Preserver of Posterity or Pack-rat?

Putting together my recent post about my small collection of Barbie doll clothes got me thinking about what you do with things like these. I have a shoebox filled with the Barbie clothes my mother made for me some 40-odd years ago, along with several doll dresses and a tiny quilt sewn by my grandmother (just like the full-size ones she made for her children's beds.) I even have a red & white cap and skirt my great-grandmother knitted for my mom when she was a little girl.

I didn't give them to my nieces when they were young enough to actually play with them because they're just too precious and delicate. I suppose I'll give them to the girls when they grow up and have daughters...but of course, the doll clothes will be even older and more delicate then, and those children won't be able to play with them either. So what do you do with things like these?

It seems downright wrong to get rid of such family heirlooms. So, after I took the photos for this post, I put them back in their shoebox in the linen closet. And there they will sit, rarely seeing the light of day, except when they will be passed on so they can inhabit another generation's closets. Which doesn't seem quite right either.

Frink says I should put them on the cat. But I'm pretty sure one of the reasons Frink loves me is precisely because I'm not the kind of person who dresses the cats. (Even though, perversely, I love the website Stuff on My Cat.)

Anyone out there have any better ideas? Read more!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Art of Dressing Barbie

My mother was an excellent seamstress, a skill I never had the talent, interest, or patience to acquire. (It took me all year and many tantrums to finish the gathered apron in my junior high home-ec class, when all the other girls finished that, the peasant blouse, and the gathered skirt to boot.) My mother, though, could turn a bolt of cloth into anything, from a fitted suit with flattering darts and covered buttons to pleated draperies and matching bedspreads.

But mom's special talent -- or at least the one I valued most when I was a child -- was Barbie doll clothes. My sisters and I had the most fashionable Barbies in town, outfitted in exquisite hand-sequined gowns, sleek satin sheaths, and hand-knit sweaters fastened with buttons no bigger than a lentil. She even made plaid pajamas and a robe for Ken. (This was long before Barbie dumped Ken for an Australian surfer dude, who wouldn't be caught dead in flannel pjs.)

My Barbie’s favorite party gown was a blue strapless number with scalloped flounces held up with tiny rosebuds. If the evening was chilly, she could throw on the matching satin-lined coat, which closed with miniature pearl buttons. (I got rid of my Barbies years ago, so my nieces gave me one from their vast collection to model the dress, which, like most of the other clothes, is now sadly worse for the wear.)

I always felt smugly sorry for my friends, whose Barbies had to wear ill-fitting, poorly-stitched store-bought clothes. Later, after my mother began selling some of her creations, other girls in town also could dress their Barbies in hand-made originals.

Mom sold the outfits so she could buy my father gifts with her own money. These gifts were usually things like
boxes of chocolate covered cherries (dad's favorite candy) or bottles of Old Spice, but sometimes she used her earnings to buy him original oil paintings. I have one of these paintings, a landscape by Colorado artist Lyman Byxby. Mom paid $40 for it. My sister has the other paintings, including my favorite, a bold, abstract city scape. I wonder how many tiny dresses, how many hours spent cutting and stitching, these paintings represent.

For much of my life, I was dismissive of my mother's talents. I could justify my behavior by claiming that I saw her skills as mere "women's work" at a time when I was all about rebelling against the status quo in general and my family in particular. And there is some truth to that. But this explanation feels a bit too easy, a bit too neat. The messy reality is that for most of my life I was not a nice person.
I was self-centered and tempermental, a bridezilla without the excuse of a wedding. And my mother was the most frequent target of my anger.

Even in Baby Boomer America, the land of perpetual adolescence, it took me longer than most to grow up. Looking back at the younger me isn't easy, and as I write my memoir, I often find myself sinking into depression. But these well-used doll clothes have made me feel a bit better. They have reminded me of several long-forgotten conversations I had with my mother. I don't remember the details, but I do remember letting her know how much I cherished the doll clothes, the fanciful birthday cakes, and the other things she made for me. And for that I am very grateful.
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