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!