Inspired by the unusual prompt on the last page of Amherst’s alumni magazine, I took a stab at composing a poem on the fly, and voila! Out poured something the judges found half-way decent. I would recommend the exercise to anyone who enjoys wordsmithing, it felt like doing a cross word, minus the boxes.
Here is a link: http://amhrst.is/BackPageContest-Summer17. (Scroll down a bit for the poem.)
Every closet reaches its existential tipping point. Mine did so yesterday, when in a fit of domestic restlessness, I counted my dresses. There were northward of 50. Okay, 65 to be exact, if we include tennis dresses and my mother-in-law’s culotted thing with the pink and orange daisies on it that brings to mind a Beatles album cover (Sgt. Pepper) during the height of the Flower Power era.
Even for a countess or a rock star, of which I am neither, 65 is an astounding number. Ridiculous. Embarrassing. Absurd. Like Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” or Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.”
But hang on. If you, like me, are somewhere in middle age, and if you, like me, aren’t ruthless with culling and purging your wardrobe, you too might be flabbergasted by just how many frocks lurk, at this very moment, unseen, in your closet, or seen so frequently as to become invisible, like the doorknob to your bedroom, or the hooks that hold your pajamas.
This begs the existential question: Like that proverbial tree in the forest, or Bertrand Russell’s infuriating table, if a Dolce & Gabbana little black dress hangs in a closet unworn, year after passing year, with nary a dreamy soirée to attend, does it really exist? Even more dispiriting, what is the point of owning such a dress, if not to wear it?
Thus did my innocent gesture of counting my dresses lead to an existential crisis. But during one of my innumerable nocturnal hot-flash-induced moments of lying awake clarity–have you not heard, Menopause is the new Meditating?–I decided I was grown up enough to handle it. Or, at the very least, desperate enough to draw succor from some handy clichés. Crisis is the same Chinese character for Opportunity, for instance.
65 Dresses hanging in my closet is my admittedly champagne problem.
But I am not going to worry, because, as the diagram suggests, I Can DO Something.
A Month of Dresses.
But there are still melting snow banks outside. I am thinking May. Unless I dig out lots of tights and boots, then maybe April.
And feel free to join me.
The LONG extra snowy winter of 2015 afforded me ample opportunity to observe our two cats’ effect on people, esp. on my husband Jigger. This essay just won an Honorable Mention in the 2016 Writers-Editors Network International Writing Competition. Not exactly a Pulitzer, but we take what we can get!
To Please Spouse, Be Catty
Last night during a shoveling break from winter storm Juno, my husband Jigger stood in our kitchen with his arms outstretched like a scarecrow. Then he twirled his wrists in a circular motion and uttered some soothing incantations.
This exercise was meant to restore calm after a long stressful day, and I smiled as I watched him from my vantage point at the counter, where I engaged in one of my own blizzard coping strategies – making weird soup (in this case minestrone with parsnips, white beans, and apples).
Jigger’s novel pose and gentle words pleased me, for they are a departure from his normally serious, purposeful demeanor. Besides, shoveling heroic amounts of snow, not to mention spending 30 years behind a desk, exacts the predictable toll on his 50-year old, 6-foot frame.
But his was no restorative yoga pose. Like his reserved and hearty Norwegian forebears, Jigger is stoic, dogged, and suspicious of anything too cushy. (He’s never proclaimed, “yoga is for sissies,” but my wifely ESP detects that message loud and clear.) To wit, Jig’s idea of recreation is rowing 25 miles of open ocean, alone, or competing in grueling randonée ski races in subzero temps (although he eschews the spandex that the really serious competitors sport as they race full-tilt uphill as much as downhill on skinny skis, since spandex is for sissies, too).
In Jigger’s mind, shoveling, even for 90 minutes, is nothing. Like walking. No big deal. The stretching spectacle I witnessed was not for his well-being. It was for our cats.
I’ve had cats my whole life and thought I understood their pros and cons as well as any feline fan. But as I stood there regarding Jigger and his cat ministrations, entire new dimensions of psychological and emotional prowess possessed by these eight-pound creatures of flesh, fur, and personality were on display. (I wonder whether Chan Marshall had this in mind when she chose her stage name, Cat Power.)
Certainly, the cats of my childhood taught me much. Heidi, my first, was an all-white short-haired model of grace and forbearance who retained a regal but obliging air even as my sister and I dressed her up in our doll clothes, dragged her around the house wrapped burrito-style in our blue blanket, or “helped” her master her gymnastics front flip maneuver off the back porch.
She taught us how to vent and gracefully receive punishment when, domino-style, an exasperated swat that started from my mother to me, cascaded into one from me to my sister, and then from my sister to Heidi. Miraculously Heidi held on to her dignity and composure throughout this ordeal.
Alas, she also taught us about the cycle of life and how to grieve when we found a sullied pile of her fur in our back yard, one particularly dry year when coyotes came down from the foothills in search of food. Though Heidi had achieved octogenarian status in cat years, my sister and I were devastated to learn that she did not in fact possess eight more lives.
Jigger, on the other hand, never had a cat until we brought home two from the animal shelter when we were first married. Maxine and Willy, a tabby sister and brother, were our “demo” kids, little furry balls whom we hoped would teach us as a young couple how to take care of living things. They were immediately a big hit in our close-knit neighborhood, so much so that we named them after two brothers next door, Max and Willy.
One Thanksgiving, while we were out of town and Willy the cat was grazed by a car, Willy the boy’s mom didn’t hesitate to interrupt her own family holiday to spend half the weekend at the vet. When Willy the cat, who miraculously wasn’t seriously hurt (despite his dangerous penchant for chasing cars on “his” street), wanted to rest in our new baby’s crib until we returned, Willy the boy’s mom readily obliged him, checking in on him throughout the weekend.
Jigger was impressed by this, of course. But it was mostly admiration for the mom, versus concern for the cat. Or so it seemed to me.
At the time, he was in the midst of starting a company; we were spending date nights at Home Depot and re-shingling our house ourselves; not to mention getting accustomed to life as parents of human offspring with the arrival of our first son. Particularly late at night, when Maxine and Willy crowded his desk and inspected his paperwork as he tried to pay bills, Jigger would mutter under his breath, “fucking cats.”
My husband is not a beast. He’s just not a cat person, I thought at the time.
Two cats, two boys, two companies, two houses, and two decades later, things are different.
Now Jigger stands in the kitchen twirling fleece banners on the end of sticks for our two cats, Marco and Harley, who are suffering a severe bout of cabin fever during yet another blizzard. (Controversial as it is, we are proponents of indoor-outdoor cats, but winters in New England, particularly this insane one, are undoubtedly tricky.)
No one asked Jigger to do this. Our boys are away at school, after being at home with the cats all day I have begun to tune them out, but Jigger senses the second he walks in the door that they are edgy and bug-eyed with their pent-up energy. A little cat calisthenics is just the trick. Like a conductor, he waves his batons in the air, tantalizing the cats to jump ever higher to snare the flying fabric in their claws.
“That’s it boys. You got it. Show me what you can do,” he cajoles.
Marco, black and white with a swirl pattern on his cheek that makes him look like he’s perpetually smiling, stops his jumping, and beams at Jigger expectantly, all but saying, “Aren’t you proud of me, and please scruff my neck in appreciation now.”
Harley, who is arrestingly black and resembles a sleek puma, briefly flashes his liquid amber eyes Jigger’s way, but then just as quickly reverts to his characteristic aloof, “I’m way too cool to seek your approval” mode. Playing right into his hand (paw?) Jigger bends down and gives Harley some additional private words of encouragement and an extra scratch behind the ear.
Over candlelight dinner the human/feline communion continues. Each cat takes turns jumping up into Jigger’s lap, to be petted, stroked, and spoken to lovingly. “Hello little silly boy. Are you happy? Life is good to you. Are you cozy? Make sure you get comfy.”
On the sofa after dinner, the four of us settle in to watch a movie. Each cat vies for his patch of prime real estate, defined as anything touching Jigger, preferably with as much furry cubic footage as possible.
Marco’s favorite position is sitting in Jigger’s lap or the crook of his arm Buddha-like, with his white protruding belly resting atop his extended hind legs, which he looks like he wishes would reach the coffee table like Jigger’s. If Harley beats him to this cozy nook, Marco retreats to his other customary high-rent district perch: extending his entire bulk lengthwise along the back of the sofa directly behind and above Jigger’s shoulders. Draping a fully extended forearm and paw, Marilyn Monroe-like from the spine of the sofa down toward Jigger’s head and occasionally flicking a lock of his hair, completes Marco’s pose.
Bedtime brings yet more jockeying for Jigger. Within seconds of his head hitting the pillow, Jigger can count on a fur foot warmer (Harley) and neck muffler (Marco). Sweet nothings ensue. “You’ve got to get comfy. Prrrrrrrrrrrrrrr (from cat and husband). You’ve got it made, don’t you?” When I try to get a hug (or more) in edgewise, I often get a mouthful of fur thanks to these trusty bodyguards.
Jealousy is not the right word here, but envy is a part of it. Wordlessly, these cats seem to “get” Jigger and he gets them. Their displays of affection for each other are spontaneous, effortless, and adorable. The joy this man provides these cats, and vice versa, is unmistakable, and the positive circle of affection in this love triangle repeats itself daily. No planning, calendar clearing, or negotiating required.
Am I imagining it, or are these cats modeling purrrrfect loving behavior?
Before I married him, Jigger’s quick mind, ready laugh, and stunning sculpted back muscles were the first things that occurred to me when I thought of him. After 21 years of marriage– a marriage I believe we would both describe as happy—terms like dutiful, responsible, stoic, provider, father, and entrepreneur are the first that spring to mind. While this evolution (or is it a devolution) of descriptors is perhaps all too predictable, and natural even, in a relationship of such length, should it be?
On this snow day, when the Governor declared a state of emergency and encouraged all non-necessary workers to stay home, I wasn’t surprised in the least when Jigger donned his ski goggles and gaiters, and armed with his laptop in backpack and shovel in hand, waded out into the drifts to walk to work and tunnel his way into an otherwise empty office building. But what might have happened had I draped myself fetchingly on the couch and implored him to pet me?
Just as I shudder to think of how some of Jigger’s knee-jerk impressions of me have changed over the years–carefree California Girl to nagging nearly Yankee Wife?–who’s to say that Jigger wants to be inextricably saddled with or identified by his middle-age attributes and grown-up responsibilities? I can’t help but think he’d prefer to be petted, pampered, and whispered sweet nothings. Or dispensing such affections.
Have I lost my mind, or is treating my husband like a cat, or how he treats the cats, the key to a loving relationship?
As far as Marco and Harley are concerned, Jigger is a rock star–an enchanter, a warm lap, a best bud, a soothing voice, an expansive chest to snuggle on or a dependable pair of feet to affectionately nudge. A veritable port in a storm.
And for Jigger, the cats are similarly best buds, snuggle aids, and worshippers of his powers who rush to greet him with unabashed pleasure the minute he walks in the door. They don’t assault him with a To Do list, ask any questions, or vent about their day. They merely adore.
This long winter filled with interminable snowstorms has given me ample time to study how our cats and Jigger treat one another with love. Not just any kind of love, but a very specific one I aim to emulate.
I could say that I am striving to practice a more non-judgmental, unconditional, uncomplicated, pure love. But those are lofty words that can easily set me up for failure. Instead I’ve set myself an entirely achievable goal.
I’m working on becoming more catty.
Though it’s a temporal impossibility, I could easily swear that Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Donna Tart either visited Nathaniel Gould’s 18th-century Salem wood shop, or PEM’s current exhibit on it before she wrote her blockbuster, The Goldfinch.
But timelines don’t lie.
Based on a recent discovery of three business ledgers in the Massachusetts Historical Society archives, we now know that Gould’s shop produced more than 3,000 pieces of furniture for more than 500 customers from 1758 – 1781.
“In Plain Site: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould, ” (on exhibit now through March 29) vividly depicts why American Decorative Art Curator Dean Thomas Lahikainen considers this savvy entrepreneur and astute businessman, “one of early America’s most important furniture makers.”
Donna Tart has been a writer for some time, but the book that built her career was published in 2013, nearly two years before “In Plain Sight,” opened, and a good two and a half centuries after Gould’s heyday.
So what does a best-selling 21st-century author have to do with an 18th-century Salem furniture maker?
I’ll get to that in a minute.
After pulling open the doors to the exhibit, even my untrained eye, more accustomed to scrutinizing furniture offerings from Pottery Barn and Ikea, could detect something ethereal, and majestic about the exquisitely wrought chest-on-chests, tables and chairs on display. Gould’s 18th-century customers may have had rudimentary ideas about indoor plumbing and democracy, but they had unquestionably refined taste in furniture.
The creative curators at PEM made it easy for me to vividly experience the backstory to these inanimate decorative objects—how they were ordered, made, and used by the more prosperous members of early New England society. I was pleased and not surprised to learn that Captain Jeremiah Lee was among Gould’s customers. I happen to live down the street from the Captain’s house, which we proudly refer to as the Lee Mansion, in Old Town, Marblehead. I’ve worked in its fastidiously laid-out gardens, toured its rooms, and sipped cocktails in the lavish front hall with its rare hand-painted English wall-paper. (http://www.marbleheadmuseum.org/saving-the-lee-mansion/lee-mansion-wallpaper-conservation).
Glancing at a John Singleton Copley portrait of Lee, turning his white stocking-ed calf just so on his sumptuous tapestry, it took zero leap of imagination to picture any of Gould’s pieces looking perfectly at home in any of the Lee Mansion’s rooms.
In fact, immediately after writing this I thrilled to notice that the cover photo of the January/February issue of PEM’s connections magazine depicts a gleaming Gould chest sitting in none other than the upstairs hallway of the Lee Mansion, in front of the famed wallpaper!
Forgive me, but we Marbleheaders must grab these small world 18th-century antiquity moments where we can.
In fact, I experienced a second such moment while reading a receipt from an entry in one of Gould’s faded manila ledgers meticulously documenting orders in antiquated quill penmanship:
“Captain Joseph Cabot ordered 48 pieces of furniture from Gould in 1768 when he married Rebecca Orne of Salem.”
It was impossible for me to read this without recalling that my sons swung on the swing sets in Orne Park, learned how to hit a tennis ball on Marblehead’s Orne public court, and went through grade school with Orne classmates and a teacher. In fact, the Orne sisters we know bear a striking resemblance to the woman depicted in one of the exhibit’s interactive video loops demonstrating how Gould chests were typically used by his clients, namely to store linens. Though she’s filmed from behind, slipping a neatly folded sheet (or tablecloth?) into the chest’s drawer, her white cap and period dress are dead ringers for the very outfits we’ve seen the Orne girls don for historic reenactments around town.
Next time I see them I must remember to ask whether they have any Gould furniture in their house.
After my Marblehead ah-has, my interactive, multi-sensory furniture appreciation and education continued: I sniffed a sample of cedar, and learned that its pungent scent was particularly good at deterring insects, thereby making cedar desks the export of choice for customers living in the Caribbean. I felt keen appreciation for Gould’s furniture accents such as hand-carved shells, open fans, and spiraling finials by physically running my fingers over the grooves of a carved shell. I delighted in having my attention drawn to specific carving details with names so vivid they were impossible to mistake: the key hole and owl’s eye splats on the backs of the chairs, the fluted pie crust edge of a table.
My Pottery Barn/Ikea eyes missed nothing! But I can’t give all the credit for this feat to PEM curators, talented as they are.
My secret weapon that enabled me to relish “In Plain Sight”?
I had read The Goldfinch.
Over the course of her 771-page sprawling novel, Tart’s characters lurch, swerve, suffer and swoon in an impressive array of settings–each wildly divergent, but all meticulously observed and realized. Without giving anything away, one of the most evocative and memorable of these settings is a wood shop, located in the basement of an antique store in lower Manhattan.
As I strolled through the Gould exhibit, recollections and images of Tart’s workshop filled my head:
” … the workshop was so rich and magical: a treasure cave, bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside, with the light filtering down from the high windows, fretwork and filigree, mysterious tools that I didn’t know the names of, and the sharp, intriguing smells of varnish and beeswax. … looking down at the labyrinth at the foot of the stairs, blonde wood like honey, dark wood like poured molasses, gleams of brass and gilt and silver in the weak light. As with Noah’s Ark, each species of furniture was ranked with its own kind: chairs with chairs, settees with settees; clocks with clocks, desks and cabinets and highboys standing in stiff ranks opposite. Dining tables, in the middle, formed narrow, maze-like paths to be edged around. At the back of the room a wall of tarnished old mirrors, hung frame to frame, glowed with the silvered light of old ballrooms and candlelit salons.”
Can’t you just see captains Joseph Cabot and Jeremiah Lee scrutinizing one of Gould’s specimens in just such a setting? Given the size of their tabs–according to the ledgers, 8 chairs with carved backs cost 14 pounds or the equivalent of $52,000 today–the furniture maker would have been hard-pressed to shoo his illustrious clients out until they were good and ready. And to judge by the exhibition’s explanatory notes, they had no shortage of decisions to make.
“Gould’s ledgers reveal many options clients could choose from, including desks, chests of drawers, chairs and beds and other pieces such as cradles, coffins, and fire screens. A client first selected a form and primary wood. After that came decisions on leg and foot style and degree of carved ornamentation.”
When Tart describes a piece of furniture in her book’s workshop, she chooses images that would be all too familiar to Gould’s sea-faring clients. Of a Japanned chest, she writes,
“It was a beauty, a prize for a retired sea-captain’s home in backwater Boston: scrimshaw and cowrie shells, Old Testament samplers cross-stitched by unmarried sisters, the smell of whale oil burning in the evenings, the stillness of growing old.”
Gould, all 500 of his clients, and yours truly may object to Tart’s choice of the adjective “backwater” to describe our beloved Boston, but it’s hard not to fall under her spell when she trains her Pulitzer eye for detail on the wonders of a wood shop.
” .. jars of pigment arranged like potions in an apothecary; ocherous earths, poisonous greens, powders of charcoal and burnt bone.”
” .. mixing rabbit-skin glue, sorting through boxes of drawer fittings (“the fiddly bits”) or sometimes just watching him turn chair legs on a lathe.”
I can imagine Nathaniel Gould growing positively weepy-eyed over Tart’s main character’s loving description of the education he received from his woodworking mentor:
“After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents–“sometimes, when you’re not sure what you have it’s easiest just to take a sniff”–spicy mahogany, dusty- smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood. Saws and counter-sinks, rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitre-blocks. I learned about veneers and gilding, what a mortise and tenon was, the difference between ebonized wood and true ebony, between Newport and Connecticut and Philadelphia crest rails, how the blocky design and close-cropped top of one Chippendale bureau rendered it inferior to another bracket-foot of the same vintage with its fluted quarter columns and what he liked to call the “exalted” proportions of the drawer ratio.”
The Gould exhibit has a dedicated display helpfully explaining just what constitutes “exalted ” drawer proportions. It’s just one of many glorious behind-the-scenes lessons I might have missed were it not for the (unwitting) prepping I did by reading The Goldfinch.
Tart’s blockbuster has rightly drawn attention to the tiny Dutch masterpiece of the forlorn chained yellow bird from which the novel derives its name. The painting, by Carel Fabritius is back in the Hague after hanging in the Frick last year, where lines to see it were out the door. (see Lisa Kosan’s blog post, http://connected.pem.org/the-girl-the-bird-the-rv-and-me/.)
But if you don’t have any plans to visit the Hague, taking in Nathaniel Gould exhibit will give you plenty of Goldfinch moments, not to mention make you feel as though you’re looking at stunning pieces of furniture with heightened 3D powers of observation.
Read The Goldfinch, and you won’t miss a thing “In Plain Sight.”