Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Midwestern Prediction*

*This post was pre-written before my departure.

(Summer night, Michigan, May 2008)

I'm somewhere deep in the heartland of America right now. 

Five things I'm definitely not doing:

1. Eating deep-fried cheese.
2. Mall-walking.
3. Sitting in a speedboat.
4. Drinking beer.
5. Buying holiday decorations at Frankenmuth Christmas Village.

Four things I might be doing:

2. Watching Luca play with all his curly-headed cousins.
3. Browsing through 19th century tomes with my dad at John King Books.
4. Rocking on a porch swing at my mom's house and marvelling at the white nights of summer.
Two things I hope I've done:

1. Successfully persuaded one and all to come visit us in California.
2. Remembered that when it comes to family dynamics, I can be right or I can be happy, and being right is overrated. 

Home on Thursday.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Stories from the Heartland*

*This post was pre-written before my departure.

I am deep into my Midwestern odyssey right about now, so in my absence, I thought I'd provide you with a few of my favorite socially conscious Middle American novels. 

1.  Babbit (1922) by Sinclair Lewis
I read "Babbit" ages ago and still can't get its hapless protagonist out of my head. Everyone has a Babbit in their lives; he's that annoying combination of ignorance and optimism, the guy who always follows the herd but remains convinced he leads the pack. Funny thing is, you can't help but sympathize with the schmuck. He's an archetypal character, most recently revived (I think) by Ricky Gervais in "The Office." A midlife crisis forces Babbit to confront the pressures of provincial fervor, conformism and materialism head-on, resulting in a personal awakening...or not. 

2. The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) by Booth Tarkington
At its heart, a tale of a prominent Midwestern family in decline, it offers a perspective on the rapid industrial rise of America as seen through the eyes of George Amberson Minafer, a selfish, spoiled heir who is unable -- or unwilling -- to face progress. Yes, the movie is a masterpiece, but I think the book is just as satisfying.

3. Jennie Gerhardt (1911) by Theodore Dreiser
Jennie's life resonated with me; at the time I read this book, I had just moved to Manhattan after college and was working at an ad agency and supporting myself for the first time. I remember feeling anguished over her tragic circumstances and the unfairness of what life was like for a girl my age a mere 80 years earlier. 

4. An American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser
So much has been written about this book and I'll just say this: it changed me. Clyde Griffiths is like every American: he wants the girl, the money and the lifestyle to go with it. Unfortunately, he lives in a society that is prejudiced, insular and unfair, making it next to impossible for him to achieve these goals. By the time he commits his great crime, you almost forgive him for it, knowing the struggles and tragedies of his life as intimately as you do. 

Note on Dreiser: 
I know some people are anti-Dreiser because they feel his prose is clunky and mechanical. He has been called "one of the worst greatest writers in America." To me, however, you don't read Dreiser for the prose, you read him because his unerring journalist's eye gives you a searing glimpse into the dark side of human nature at the turn of the 20th century. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

To Babbitland

Today Luca and I fly to Michigan to meet my mother, sisters and a gaggle of offspring at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Open since 1887, cars are still banned from the island (transportation is via horse and carriage or bicycle) and access is only by ferry boat or plane. 
(Image from here)

I was there once before and the atmosphere of the hotel reminded me of "The Road to Wellville" by T. C. Boyle.
(image from the film adaptation, 1994)

I couldn't help but envision it at the turn of the 20th century when Michigan was a magnet for the health-conscious and well-heeled capitalists flocked to the Grand Hotel to enjoy its cool breezes, socialize with the Middle American elite and stroll along the world's longest front porch -- 660 feet -- known as  "Flirtation Walk."
(The hotel in 1890)

My mother has twice reminded me that I must dress for dinner as evening wear is required in all areas of the hotel. "Dresses or pantsuits for ladies," the website primly asserts. I hope an embroidered silk kurta will pass muster in the dining room. I'm not really a pantsuit kind of gal.

Listen to this astounding fact. During the 2008 summer season, the Grand Hotel served 83,000 pounds of prime rib, 23,500 pounds of ham, 83,500 pounds of potatoes and 6,500 pounds of pecans. 

Oh, and Mackinac Island is famous for its homemade fudge; you can't walk more than ten feet without seeing a "Free Samples" sign. 

My trainer is going to kill me.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

My Dutch Afternoon

The light was just right. I was running in and out of the house fixing drinks for friends (iced Lillet, ginger ale, slice of orange) when suddenly a beam landed on the dining room table with an unearthly glow.
I was transported into an Old Master painting. For a few brief moments, I heard nothing and saw nothing but those flowers.

Then the reverie broke, but wanting to remember the moment, I snapped it. 

The particulars: Saturday, 6:30pm, west-facing window, a languid Hollywood sun sinking down over the Capitol Records tower and a vase of peonies and roses taking their final bow, an act I would have completely missed had the sun not drawn attention to it. 

"I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers," remarked Claude Monet.

So inspiring.

On the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt said, "I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalog: "no good in a bed but fine up against a wall."

I think I love that quote even more.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Naked Penguins

The world's most venerated paperback company has introduced design-it-yourself book covers. (Well, they've been out for a while...am I the only one who hasn't seen this?)
Knowing how highly I value a well-designed cover (see my post on Megan Wilson), I was initially taken aback. I prize vintage Penguins and have collected a stack over the years. But with good old self-deprecating charm, they actually address this very issue on their blog (yes, Penguin has a blog. Blogs are the new black.)

In their words:

According to consumer research conducted on what factors matter to people when they decide whether or not to pick up a book in a bookshop, the cover design comes out as most important. So this might be the stupidest thing we've ever done. 

According to the website, "the covers are art-quality paper and hold ink, paint, pencil and glue and come shrink-wrapped so the paper doesn't get dirty."

Apparently, it's all the rage with rock bands.

Beck drew a cover for "The Lost Estate" by Henri-Alain Fournier...

Ryan Adams painted Bram Stoker's "Dracula."

Dragonette illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll.

And Razorlight scribbled F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" (it's a scribbled betting slip from a horse race in Tokyo.)
My initial hesitancy was soothed by the fact that Penguin clearly realizes their idea is slightly heretical, as evidenced by the following tongue-in-cheek comment: "Frame it, read it, give it as a gift or hide it away on a shelf at home" (italics mine). 

You can buy them here.

Yes, no or maybe so?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Portrait of a Lady

Yesterday morning I was presented with this gorgeous surprise via email.
It's my house and it was created for me by blogger/artiste extraordinaire Patricia Von Essche of PVE Design. (Check out her profile photo. It's Rembrandt meets Avedon.) To say I was beside myself grossly understates my reaction.

Readers, she has captured its very soul. As all of you know, every home has a distinct personality. Whether you live in an achingly hip loft in Manhattan, a mews house in London or an English Tudor in Ohio, all you have to do is look and listen and its nature will be revealed. 

(As an example, my uncle Otto lives on the coast of Norway in a funny little peaked-roof cottage built centuries ago by a very short sea captain -- as evidenced by the forehead-bruising thresholds. Over the years, the floorboards have warped so that walking from room to room feels like a rough sea crossing. Coincidence? I think not.)

I've only lived in my house for a mere 18 months, but that's been more than enough to get to know its singular persona. 

Here are the stats: 

1. Undeniably female. Matronly. 
2. Short and plump (she prefers the term "well-nourished").
3. Overly fond of candied marzipan, princess cake and Dubonnet (not in that order).
4. Keen bridge player.
5. Prone to splurging on peonies.
5. Treasures her privacy.
6. Enjoys light gossip,  theosophy lectures and a good Easter parade.

I see all of this when I look at Patricia's artwork. I really do. Thank you, Patricia, for your shining talent and your generosity of spirit. I shall smile every time I gaze at it.

Now that you know about my dwelling, I should very much like to know about yours.  Come on, don't be shy.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Home Alone

This Saturday, something momentous occurred. The Divine Italian left for a week in Europe and The Little Prince had a 24 hour sleepover, which meant: empty house! Don't get me wrong, of course I pined for them horribly, but I haven't had a night to myself in I can't remember how long.

Darlings, it was heavenly.

Lest you think there was any "Risky Business" sliding around in socks and underwear, let me emphatically assure you there was not. 

But it did get quite wild.

1. I put in my favorite Noel Coward CD and brazenly turned up the volume.
2. I resolutely attacked the dreaded kitchen junk drawer. And won.
3. I willfully threw away a stack of old magazines that I had sworn I would read.
4. I rearranged my scarves.
5. I sauntered from room to room, dithered, vacillated and stared at nothing in particular. 

(I know, I know, you've gone positively weak in the knees, haven't you?)

But the undisputed highlight of the evening was watching "Women in Love", Ken Russell's 1969 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's 1920 classic novel. I've been waiting to unleash it from its little Netflix envelope for practically ever, but it's not The Divine Italian's oeuvre. (He still hasn't forgiven me for making him sit through "Howard's End.")

Have you seen it? If not, I highly recommend that you do. Not only does Russell visually capture the lush lyricism of Lawrence's prose, the film is gorgeous and sexy and bohemian and a must for anyone who appreciates color and design. 

Some personal highlights follow.

Jennie Linden's outfit reminded me of Sonia Delaunay's paintings in the 1920's, which were noted for their geometric abstractions.

("Electric Prisms", 1914)

Delaunay also designed clothes, a few sketches of which can be seen here.
I've always been fascinated by Sonia. When I pulled up this photo of her on the Internet, I was struck by the realization that her outfit......is almost identical to the one which Glenda Jackson wears in the film's opening.
In terms of production design, the ramshackle cottage that Alan Bates lives in struck me as very John Derian-like (in the best possible way).
Here's Derian's apartment as featured in Elle Decor in March 2006.

The reds and blues of the set design also brought to mind John Robshaw's Kalil bedding which I seriously am coveting. I may have to stop by Living Room, one of my favorite local haunts, because they carry his line.
The homespun furnishings also reminded me of a display I saw recently at Dan Marty's showroom.

When this outfit popped up onscreen (the one in the middle, worn by Eleanor Bron), three words popped into my head: Dries. Van. Noten.

Here are three photos from Van Noten's past runway shows (not sure which season.) The feeling is the same, don't you think?  Lots of vibrant prints, colors, unusual fabrics and layering.

Here, his coat exactly picks up the peacocky hue of the cape in the movie.

Another example of Dries' multilayered, non-matching approach. Not for everyone, I know, but definitely for me. 

In this scene, I was floored by the jolt of color coming from Glenda's mango-colored dress when set against the mauve bricks and green gate. I think the colors are so striking together, another example of the brilliant art direction of the movie.

The palette reminded me of Farrow and Ball's "Rosslyn Papers" wallpaper in the following two colorways.

I must say, I finally understood the appeal of Oliver Reed in this movie. It's those naughty eyes. But in this luncheon scene, it was his jacket which held my gaze.

Isn't it the spitting image of this 19th century French chair upholstered in Peter Dunham's velvet Almont Stripe? Available at 1st Dibs.
Last but not least, there was the legendary naked wrestling scene between Oliver and Alan Bates. When they finally collapsed onto the floor, I gasped, not because of the scene's undeniable homoeroticism, but because...
...that rug was almost the spitting image of the one I snapped on Friday from Fort Street Studios! 

Oh, what a movie. Oh, what a night.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How To Woo a Room

My living room has been in a sulk lately. It's had to sit through one too many NBA playoff games (don't ask) and yesterday I looked at it and I swear it was in a total state of depression. The furniture had lost its sparkle, the artwork looked apathetic and even the books were in a slump.
I sensed it desperately needed to feel like the center of attention again. Playing second fiddle to a bunch of tall men in shorts had really worked a number on its self-esteem. It had so much love to give, but it had fallen prey to a mean case of the blues. 

I needed to go Oprah on it.

I had some friends coming over the next day for tea and had originally planned to hang out in the kitchen with them, but that was before I realized I had a room in crisis.

This morning, I baked a batch of pumpkin bread and while its spicy scent was filling the house, I began my good-karma assault on the living room. I turned on some music, plumped cushions, opened curtains and windows, lit a scented candle, did some rearranging and brought in a vase of fresh flowers. I could almost feel the room stirring back to life.

I put together a tea tray with all the accoutrements, and when I set it down in the living room...

...I swear the red leather wing chair suddenly sat up straighter and the low-slung tufted duo craned their necks forward to get a closer look. The room felt sassy and rife with confidence, just the way I remembered it. 
I had scarcely set the tray down when the doorbell rang and within moments, the room was filled with boisterous chatter about life, kids, husbands and school fundraising (which, FYI, is the Energizer Bunny of topics: it just keeps on going and going and going). It took three hours of drinking, eating and laughing, but by golly, that room was fully back to life when we finally finished the last drop of Earl Grey.

Moral of the story: Most living rooms have a feminine soul. This means they are usually high-maintenance and like to be lavished with attention. Never take them for granted. Live in them, laugh in them, entertain in them and above all, be happy in them and they will repay you tenfold. And if you must watch TV in them, turn on Fox Sports and ESPN at your peril.  

Monday, June 8, 2009

My Saturday Night Fever

Saturday, 7:30 pm
Dusk had fallen on The Kenmore Arms. The cats were gamboling in their playroom (someday to be redecorated and known as "Husband's Office"), the house was fully secured, and Piero and Luca were making ice cream sundaes and getting ready to watch a classic road trip movie starring Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters and countless others.
(Give up? "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad  World." 
Perfect for seven year-olds and everyone else too.)

I was supposed to be joining them. But I couldn't stop obsessing about the troublesome (to me) wall of my dining room. 
For the longest time now, I have been meaning to take down that painting and hang an assemblage of framed photographs on either side of the french doors. You know, something along the lines of this.

I wanted it to look artful but not necessarily perfect, because I like things a little bit "laissez-faire." And it needed to look good now, but still allow for space in case I wanted to hang more photos later. (The old "room to grow" scenario.)

In terms of subject matter, I had decided to buck the precept that one doesn't hang personal photos in dining rooms. I was indeed going to do just that because I wanted to eat in a room surrounded by books and friends and stories and laughter and past experiences. I had the books...
...now I just needed to to put up all the others.

I had spent most of the previous day buying an assortment of dark frames and printing out photos. As you can see below, I had arrived at the crucial stage.

Hammering in the first nail was intimidating, I have to admit. It was a freshly-painted wall and all I could think was, "What if I make a mistake?" 

Thank God for this tutorial I found on Apartment Therapy. It saved me. 
Basically, I just started with a "keystone" picture and then hung everything else off of it, either higher or lower. Pretty soon, I was on a roll. I decided not to worry about any extra holes in the walls as I could always bring in my painter to touch up the wall later. 

Ethel Merman was screeching away in the next room...
...but I was deep in concentration and heard nothing but the rat-a-tat of my hammer and nails. When I finally got the last photo up, I couldn't bear to take a full look at my finished work so I turned off the lights and hurried up to bed.

Sunday, 7am
When I opened my eyes the next morning, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. If the wall looked terrible, I didn't know if I had the energy to re-do it. So I sent The Divine Italian down first. Sly boy, he refused to comment and said I should see it for myself.

So I steeled myself...and it was actually okay.
(Left side of wall)

I still need to buy some velcro dots to stick onto the undersides of the frames so they don't wobble when the doors are opened and closed (or, God forbid, we have an earthquake), but I'm pretty happy with the results.
(Right side of wall)

Here you can see the full view. I deliberately chose photos with a simple subject matter: a secret hedgerow, some prayer flags, a bowl of flower soup, an ashram sign, some faces near and dear...
...and the effect is exactly what I wanted, a slightly random compilation of images linked together by a common thread -- our lives.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Are You An Eccentric?

(Juliet Bewicke, Northumberland, England, 
photographed by Tim Walker)

I'm willing to bet that you are. At least I hope so. I much prefer people who stray from the flock rather than cling to the status quo, don't you?

Come on, let's find out.

I discovered this quiz on the ever-fascinating Tavarua The Traveler's blog and was immediately enthralled. Apparently if you have five or more of the following characteristics, you qualify. (Yes, yes, I realize that some of the attributes are highly flattering, but try to answer impartially anyway.)

1. Nonconforming attitude
2. Creative
3. Strongly motivated by curiosity
4. Idealistic
5. Happy obsession with a hobby or hobbies
6. Knew very early in their childhood they were different from others
7. Usually the eldest or only child
8. Opinionated and outspoken
9. Noncompetitive; not in need of reassurance or reinforcement from society
10. Unusual living or eating habits
11. Not interested in the opinions or company of others
12. Mischievous sense of humor
13. Highly intelligent
14. Not a good speller
15. Usually single

Did you escape unscathed? Please tell me you didn't.

So many people I wish I could have met -- Edith Sitwell, Cecil Beaton, Ottoline Morrell, Diana Vreeland, Paul Bowles, Winston Churchill and Isabella Blow, to name just a few -- would have run low on ink before they were done checking off everything on this list. 

According to author David Weeks, "Eccentrics live longer and are happier than the rest of us. It's a combination of an optimistic outlook and low stress. Eccentrics don't give a hoot what the rest of the world thinks of them. In fact, eccentrics revel in the fact that they make people laugh. I think we can all learn a lot from them about holding on to the dreams and curiosity we had as children."

Hurray. Weird is good.
(Boat in library, Northumberland, England, 
photographed by Tim Walker)

Are you a black sheep? Were you raised by one? I really, really want to know.


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