Monday
Feb092009

Made in America


Our dining table was made by hand from a single plank of thick pine by an anonymous Yankee at least 200 years ago. It eventually, as all things inevitably must, washed up on Craigslist where I stumbled across it. I then managed to convince Denyse to drive extremely far in the middle of a snow storm to help me collect it in a rented car that was so small that we had to slide it between the front seats to get it home. Luckily, my table was made in a rare style that I believe antiquarians would call “Early American Tinker Toy”, with peggish legs that can be put in and out of place easily (but sometimes with a bit of squeaky twisting), otherwise Denyse would have had to lie down between them  in the back of the car on the way home, which would have made it much more difficult for her to push cookies into my mouth and to distract me from the cars that kept sliding of the road in front of us as I drove home at 32 miles per hour in a blinding sleet. I love that it has no nails or glue. When we set it up in our dining room I looked at TC and said: “This thing will last forever”. Still raw from the recent loss of his prized but wrecked-with-petrified-cheese toaster oven, he nodded sadly, eyes closed. 

I like to imagine my great great great great great (great? great? great?) grandfather having made a table just like this one. He lived for quite some time in a cave, according to the Scituate Rhode Island history books, which also claim that he “fought off wolves” (the original tenants of said cave, I’m guessing) and walked into town for flour and whiskey monthly. On one of these walks he convinced a neighboring girl from a nice family to marry him and move into his cave with him, so obviously he must have had a very nice table, and since we know that he wasn’t into nails or glue (see “lived in cave”, above), it was probably a lot like mine. 

This is the most amazing thing, to me, about being an American: That each and every one of us can trace ourselves, through one branch of family or another, to someone who was exceptionally brave in the face of poverty, wilderness, or war. One of your relatives, odds would have it, made their own dining table, chopped their own wood, grew their own food, walked miles into town for hootch and other necessities on a semi-regularly basis, and managed to avoid being eaten by bears or wolves while doing so at least long enough to procreate. Another of your sturdy lineage likely grew entirely self reliant through the Great Depression, sewed all of her own clothes, mangled a chicken or two by hand, brewed her own moonshine, and survived long enough to humiliate you by wringing out her tea bag and putting it back into her purse during your wedding reception. Things have gotten much more convenient, to be sure. My mother certainly doesn’t have to make her own liquor. She does so anyway, with mixed and sometimes permanent results, but you get the point. We all have it somewhere within us, as my niece would say, to DEAL. To make do. To get by with what we’ve got. We all have that in common.

My grandmother, an American by choice rather than by birth, makes an annual batch of baklava with a nut-grinder that has survived three wars, fifty-five christmas cookie seasons, 7 daughter in laws, and a (alleged) clepto-maniac next door neighbor without as much as dulled blades.  My uncle has his grandmothers blender, which I covet to the point of threatening, unless he leaves it to me, to announce at his funeral that he regularly wore womens underpants. He and his blender will likely survive me, but I need to cover my bases. You could make a soup out of forks with that thing. So why is it that I have just thrown out a toaster oven that was just a few years old? 

They have this stuff because it was meant to last a lifetime. Their generation survived the last miserable round of depression and recession, and forever afterwards made careful purchases. They bought things that were meant to last forever. Its these things that, especially lately, I am obsessed with: Those american brands that grew out of and long survived eras of depression and woe, that survived wars and natural disasters and a population that consumed nut-grinders at a rate of one per half century, and they are still here today. How Inspiring.

My list of favorites is as follows.... and I would really love to hear your favorites too.

 

SEES CANDIES

I first came to love Sees Candies shortly after moving back to California at the age of 23.  A San Francisco Icon, Sees has a kiosk at the airport there. I became so accustomed to eating a half a box of dark chocolate caramels between unboarding and baggage claim that it got to the point that the sound of any pilots voice announcing any descent into any city would make me drool a little bit.  My favorite thing about Sees is that it was a company born during the depression, yet thrived. There is always a place in the budget for chocolate, I suppose.

 

 

FRYE BOOTS

(pictured above) I have had two pairs of Frye boots in my lifetime, both continue to look better with age. Some of their styles are made overseas, but the classic Campus and harness styles are still made here in the US.  I am not sure what it is about these boots. Western without being country, bold without insisting upon themselves. They hold their own in almost every social situation. I've wore them to dinner in Mexico, drinks in the West Village, and while shopping for a vintage cowboy shirt in Santa Fe, and never once felt like an imposter. I felt that way even before I knew that these boots were worn by both Union and Confederate soldiers during the civil war, and by those wagon train wives and their families when they pushed west. They are truly a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll... but aren't we all?


PENDLETON BLANKETS

I have always loved Pendleton blankets, even more so now that I have seen their recent special edition design based on a painting by  American artist Fritz Scholder. These blankets are incredibly warm, really beautiful, and come on about a million patterns and colors. The baby blankets make an especially wonderful gift. Fritz Scholders amazing paintings are on display in both NY and DC this winer, and really worth the trek.


KITCHENAID STAND MIXER

My Kitchenaid mixer is not only the prettiest thing about my kitchen, its also the most useful tool I own. With it I can make pizza dough or bread without taking my rings off, thanks to the dough hook that kneads and kneads and kneads..... And these things do last forever. I gave my sister a vintage one and it works perfectly, even though the guy I bought it from claims it sat in his garage for twenty years “makin’ spiders happy”.


 

Tuesday
Feb032009

Having Heros

Painting by Maira KalmanIt is, in my opinion, so important to have heros. 

I have been trying and trying to find the right words to describe my feelings about the inauguration of Barrack Obama, and how honored I was to be there.

And how it felt like being in a room with a million people who were all in a state of inspiration.

And how thankful I am to have a friend like Vince, who has known me since I was a grubby toddler, who invited me to join him at an event that could not have been imagined by any american generation other than his own, or realized without the help of any other generation than my own....

and was coming up with nothing. 

Leave it to my hero, Maira Kalman, to paint a perfect picture of everything I was trying to say. Kalman has long been a hero of mine, a self taught author and humorist and artist. It turns out that she was there too, and by the looks of her painting above, she and I had the same amazing view during the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Which means that I was sharing air space with Maira Kalman and Bruce Springsteen at the same time. Which is just absolutely too much for me to comprehend.

I know, I have said this before, but isn't it amazing when you see a piece of art for the first time, and you are struck with the sense that at least one person understands you completely? See more of Mairas art from her trip to DC here, and even buy limited edition prints at the gallery that represents her here. And buy her book, The Principles of Uncertainty, almost everywhere else.

 

 

Monday
Jan262009

Taking The Plunge

When I was very young and too far away from my future to even guess what it would hold, A very wise and well-lived woman gave me excellent advice. She told me that no matter what I did or did not do, there would only be two things that I or any other woman would never, ever regret: "A swim, and a baby". I understood the swim part perfectly. I grew up in a damp swimsuit, and knew that late afternoon sun and finally-dry-again hair could trick you into thinking that you did not need another jump-in, when in fact you always do. I had learned long before that if I jumped in with the faith that once I was underwater, the reason I jumped would be clear, and so there was no point in arguing with myself. 

For almost two decades I have shared that advice within the private confines of every "should-I-or-shouldnt-I"  conversation that has presented itself, with an assuredness that I am sure, at times, was a little annoying to my friends who were facing the important, life-changing decision to have children. My faith in this advice has been unwavering, unbending, and, apart from my commitment to swimming in anything, conveniently untested. I finally must admit that now that its me in the should-i-or-shoudnt-i spot, that faith is a little shaky. Not surprising. It is rare that I have faith in anything (which is too bad, because having faith in something is a very good thing, if only because it provides a rest from over-thinking and indecision). Lately I have been feeling the need for a little more than blind faith to push me past this very comfortable stage of my life, a little more faith that having a baby or two will not leave me in a state of regret...  And this, in a very roundabout way, is why I agreed to jump into the ocean at Coney Island on New Years Day. Because sometimes you have to test faith in order to renew it. 

But wait, lets back up. Regret might be too strong a word. Its really more of an anxiety about the idea that my life will be irreversibly altered and filled with many many new opportunities to make terrible mistakes, just when I feel like I have finally gotten the hang of things. My swimsuit and my hair are dry, so to speak. I have glamorous, confident friends who argue that a baby will ruin them because they will no longer be able to dress up and stay out late and travel on a moments notice to exotic places. In contrast, a baby would actually justify my ideal evening routines, which last night involved eating an entire bag of chocolate covered peanut butter filled pretzels while watching The Biggest Loser. And it would be nice, for a change, to blame someone else for the food stains on my clothing, especially if it was someone who could not verbalize a defense. But even so, I'm good at my life right now. I'm a pretty good cook, a pretty good friend, I love my husband and my dog and my cat and when I am in my kitchen and my dog is sleeping on his little rug under my feet and music is playing.. things feel pretty complete. Why muss that up?

And then, of course, there is the issue of my devoted husband, to whom I give too little credit.  TC finds himself reminding me, far too often, that I am no longer going it alone. This is taking some getting used to on my part. New Years Day was no exception. When I imagined TC's reaction to my wanting to join the Polar Bear Club at their annual Coney Island swim on New Years Day, I pictured him being supportive and perhaps coming along as a spectator, not being crazy enough to jump in with me. Crazy was my hobby, not his. And besides, I already had definite plans to borrow the extremely warm muppet-like fur lined knee length four inch thick warm-up jacket that he had worn between practice laps as a competitive swimmer in college, and now hung in our closet. I also planned to use his thermos, which is better than mine, and was counting on him, post swim, to order my favorite wonton soup from Grand Sezchuan, and to reward my bravery by giving me the corner of the sofa and the remote control for the day if not the week. But when I saw myself in the water, I saw myself alone. I always see myself alone. So, when he jumped at the chance to join me (and our very adventurous friend Stephen, who had first broached the idea) I was a bit floored. I think my first words were: "OK. but I get to wear the jacket." 

TC not only gave me the jacket, but he let me wear the pair of sheepskin boots that we share when we take turns walking the dog. I had my warmer than warm manitoba mittens, a very good hat, and a huge thermos of hot coffee. Under another layer of fleece tights and a wool undershirt, I wore a bikini. When we stepped out into the bright cold (sunny, but 18 degrees f)  New Years morning, I looked at TC and Stephen. They looked sporty and well layered, almost as though they were headed out for an apres ski fondue. I was taking no chances, making no allowances for fashion, and as a result looked like I had woken up in the coat closet the morning after an ill-fated party at the Notre Dame swim teams squalid off campus house and made a run for it.... but not without stopping for coffee.

The most surprising thing, upon reaching the pre-swim party on the Coney Island boardwalk, was that so many other people were there. I had pictured dozens of people running into and out of the water - not hundreds. There was live music and a wide variety of costumes, a "strong man" demonstration and much beating of bared chests. An adorable troupe of water ballerinas in big flowery bathing caps and goggles fluttered about, giggling to stay warm, while a group of burly bearded men, one of them holding an enormous american flag waving madly in the wind, passed around a teensy flask. This was not at all what I had expected. I guess I had pictured a dozen or so sturdy old men, espousing the health benefits and logic of cold water swims. Isn’t that what I always see on TV on New Years Day? Instead, the costumes and mock-pageantry made it suddenly apparent that everyone agreed that this was a seriously insane thing to do. And yet, we were all giddy. Everyone seemed so different, but everyone seemed to belong. It was so cold that it hurt a little to inhale, and my speech was impaired by a frozen chin. Loud music was being played for people who were dancing to stay warm, I just jumped up and down, and panicked a little inside.

When the happy mob finally moved onto the beach and the countdown began to the 1pm call to jump in the water, we made a plan. Genuinely afraid of losing sight of each other and the pile of warm clothing we would be leaving on the beach, we mapped out our route. We were maybe fifty feet away from the water, and directly between the large burly team with their american flag and a very permanent looking wooden lifeguard stand, and decided that it would be those two things that we looked for when coming out of the water.  Confident that we would be able to beeline in and out, we shed our clothes and, when the buzzer rang, ran straight into the ocean. 

TC was in the water first, almost completely submerged.  He was turned around and dashing past me before I was knee deep in the water, and then gone, engulfed by the screaming crowd that was still rushing towards the surf. Stephen and I were in and out almost as quickly. The water, which was about 41 degrees, didn't feel too bad. The air, on the other hand, was bitter. I had no shoes on (it was enough of an effort to have to find a bathing suit in January with a hangover, I gave up on the water shoes) and my feet began to ache immediately. I looked at Stephen. His eyes were very, very wide. And panicked. He had just realized, moments before I would, that the wooden lifeguard stand had been moved. "WHY??" he screamed at me from mere inches away, his eyes wild, "WHY WOULD THEY MOVE THE STAND??" It wasn't a rhetorical question as much as it was a demand for a new plan, ideally set forth by whoever had moved the stand. We were suddenly completely disoriented, standing on a very crowded beach that looked the same for a hundred feet in each direction, packed solid with cold, wet, and equally disoriented people. We ran a few feet in one direction, then a few feet in another, and then back again. We were not calm, nor were we able to think constructively. As many times as I told myself that I needed a new plan, that thought process was interrupted by a part of my body screaming at me to make it warm. Each time Stephen and I collided, which is what happens when you run in tiny circles with a friend and you are both in shock, we would repeat-scream at each-other. WHY?? WHY DID THEY MOVE THE STAND??   or "$%@!". That was it. I believe I had opportunity to repeat these two phrases five, maybe six times before I turned around for just a minute and lost sight of Stephen completely, and found myself alone. With no one to scream at. My entire body was bright red, except for my hands, which were a sickly grey-blue, and my feet, which hurt too much to look at. I could not think what direction, other than towards the water, I should run. I was completely and utterly incapacitated, and knew, based on the expressions of almost every member of the confused and panicked mob I was a part of, that I was not the only one. And here is where I will admit, ashamedly, that I was not thinking about TC at all. In fact, when a small opening between bodies allowed for a split second glimpse of him, it registered as an illusion. 

It was actually the long coat that caught my attention, flapping in the wind high above the crowd. He stood, bright pink and shaking, and wearing only his tiny wet Speedo (his old college racing suits are so miniscule that when we had a housekeeper she would put them away in my fancy underwear drawer) and bright orange water shoes. I knew that he could not see me, his glasses were off and his eyes were closed against the cold. He was stretched tall, with his arms high above him, each of his hands clenched tightly around the the end of a sleeve of the jacket, its gold fur lining bright against the grey sky. It flapped and waved like a huge flag, as he must have known it would, and while I couldn't hear him I could tell by the way his mouth moved that he was shouting my name as loudly as he possibly could. When I reached him he was so cold that he could not manage to put the jacket around me, much less get himself dressed in the warm clothing that lay in piles next to his feet. He had been standing there for many long minutes, which each must have felt like hours, and rather than taking even a moment to put his wool sweater and mittens and long underwear, much less to steal my sheepskin boots, he had turned himself into a bright pink flag bearing human beacon. There's my guy. And there's my faith. 

This years Polar Bear Club swim turned out to be the coldest on record. This winter, in general, has been a harsh one in New York. Everyone is looking forward to summer, a little more than usual. After a very subdued holiday season in a city that is just coming down from a five year fiscal high and has a pretty serious hangover, that plunge on New Years Day at Coney Island felt like the beginning of something great. Terrifying and unpredictable, but truly great. TC and I spent another very cold day outside together last weekend at the inauguration of Barack Obama, standing again with a mob of other cold, giddy, and determined people, this time more than a million. Both events left us with a similar feeling, a remembered sense that none of us are in this alone, and that a dry swimsuit is highly overrated.

from top left, me and the jacket, pre swim, front and back, Coney Island swimmers, and Stephen, me and TC

 

Sunday
Dec282008

New Years Eggnog

As a child in Vermont I often spent New Years Eve at the home of my grandparents. Theirs was a fabulously kitschy circa 70s alpine chalet on the backside of a small, burly ski hill called Jay Peak. There was always heaps of snow on the ground during the holidays back then. My grandmother would put on her dirndl and stand ballerina-still by the fireplace, looking as though the small but lovely party had planned itself, perhaps while she was out roasting sausages while on skis. My grandfather would make and serve eggnog from a big crystal punch bowl placed in a position of honor where his large leather chair usually sat. I remember a wool plaid vest on him, I think. It may have looked Epcot Perfect upon arrival, but somebody always went off the road on the way home. I partly blame the eggnog.

Driving down their icy mountain and up to the top of ours late at night with my mother after a few servings of that eggnog was always harrowing. This was a long time ago, remember, before Mothers Against Drunk Driving brought to our nations attention the fact that while we might have thought the opposite, alcohol made us into terrible and unsafe drivers. In those days it wasn't even illegal. Really, really studid, but not illegal.  It didn't help that we rarely had enough gas to get all the way home, much less to burn while spinning our wheels trying to back out of snowbanks, or that my mothers exchanges with her brother and parents usually put her in the mood to storm out early and then to drive too fast. I should mention here that she is an extremely skilled person when it comes to getting herself out of snowbanks. I have seen her correct an upended honda civic without putting out her cigarette or turning down the radio more than once. Really spectacular. That didn't calm me much though, on those evenings. I was forever telling my uncle to follow us down the hill and keep his eyes open for our tail lights in the deep snow along the 7 mile drive home, which I think he would have always done anyway. Eventually we would get to the bottom of the mountain and turn left to climb up our hill, and he would keep right and find his way to the top of his. Once his headlights had disappeared from our rear view mirror along with the last lights of the houses in the valley, I would watch our gas gauge without blinking. When and if we did run out of gas, I was always a little relieved. Walking was extremely safe, considering. and running out of gas, it turned out, was always much better than worrying about running out of gas. The odds of another car passing us on that road was next to none, and the quiet stillness once the sound of our engine died and we coasted to a stop was the most peaceful sound I can remember. We ran out of gas on summer nights too, but summer forests are filled with noise. In the winter they are silent, even though they are full of life. I would hear very faint feathery sounds and imagine that they belonged to the rabbits with their thick winter coats and broad furry feet bounding across the top of the thick snow silently. If I walked slowly enough along the long dirt road my mothers strong, tall, and sometimes angry strides would put her through the front door a solid twenty minutes before me, which meant that by the time I got home the whole evening would have been balled up and forgotten along with whatever she had used to start what was now a lovely roaring fire.

In later years we moved to town, within downhill coasting distance of everyone we were related to. Sobriety behind the wheel was actively enforced, even in our town where pubs outnumbered graduating eighth graders. I learned to drive, more or less, and how to get myself out of snowbanks. My mother still doesn't trust me to drive in Vermont in the wintertime, even though during college I routinely managed a mile long driveway uphill in reverse on snowy days because my $900 car was rear wheel drive and had better traction that way. The last time I visited her during the winter we drove up that same mountain road that once led to my grandparents house to have dinner. She would not allow me to drive her car, and did not want to drive herself after having had a few drinks, so we took my rental with its terrible slippery little tires. Apparently her fear of me damaging her beloved winter worthy car was a far worse imagined fate than dying together in mine. I gave her one last pleading look in the driveway, promising to drive very carefully if she would reconsider. "Absolutely not." she said, folding her hands across her lap and nestling stubbornly into the passenger seat "and please don't go off the road, I didn't bring my mittens." 

Last night I threw a party and at the very last minute, decided to make eggnog and put on my grandmothers dirndl. Both were a hit, although my grandmother was a smaller woman than I am and the laced up bodice was so tight across my chest that my vision was affected. The outfit looked better on her than it did on me, better in her little snowy chalet than in my post modern loft. Once the eggnog was served though, the evening felt quite complete. My uncle was kind enough to scan and send me his favorite recipe from my grandmothers old copy of Joy of Cooking, he has also carried on the eggnog tradition in past seasons. I have always suspected that my grandfather used Peach Brandy in his recipe, so I instead used this version, which is fortunately available to us all via epicurious. Family members approved and those who had driven to my party knew well enough to stop after one cup. My husband, who did not head my many warnings about the hidden evils of such an angelic looking beverage, had a bit too much of the stuff that he was supposed to be stirring. It didn't stop him from having some of the leftovers today, and he is presently collapsed on the couch, having renamed the beverage Napping Sauce.

Monday
Dec152008

My Favorite Finds at New York City Craft Fairs

Buttercup Cluster Ring, rose gold with diamondsThese last few weekends have included a few trips out to Brooklyn, where just about every designer seems to be hosting a studio /sample sale with homemade cookies and wine. Claudia and I visited the Brooklyn Flea's Holiday Fair, Gifted, where I discovered the most beautiful jewelry line, by a lovely woman named Katie Diamond. Anyone hoping for something sparkly this holiday season should direct their loved ones her way, this stuff is seriously gorgeous. Katie's things are a bargain considering, but still pretty costly, so its worth noting that her prices at the Gifted Fair, which ends this coming Saturday, are considerably discounted.

Layla Tunic, from their fall collection

Another major find was Layla, who I have been looking for ever since I spotted Lotta Jansdotter wearing one of their tunics and couldn't stop obsessing. I still feel guilty about asking her more questions about where she got it that about the brand new baby she was holding. Sorry Lotta. This has to be one of the most wearable clothing brands out there right now.

by Davina Zagury

I also got to see more work by a photographer who completely haunts me: Davina Zagury. Davina will photograph your child, your pet, or you. She is one of those rare photographers whose work captures a place and moment in time perfectly. I love the way her subjects appear so unguarded and genuine. She is also bound for major fame, so spending $400 right now for a private sitting (she sells gift certificates!) seems like an incredible investment to me. 

Nine Cakes mini cupcakes in display

Yesterdays Bust Magazine Craft Fair was full fo the usual suspects, plus a few more that were new to me, including Nine Cakes, an adorable little bakery in Brooklyn that makes sets of tiny cupcakes and specialty cakes to order. Seriously adorable, check out her Flickr photostream for some serious inspiration and her website for ordering details.

Squid Fire Lunch Bag

Also present was one of my absolute favorites, Squidfire. This stuff speaks for itself. Seriously hysterical.