My greatest weakness is…

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:fr. La ori...
La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:fr. La originala priskribo estas: Six fromages (du centre, puis dans le sens des aiguilles d'une montre) : Valençay, Ossau Iraty, Bleu d'Auvergne, Époisses, Cœur de Neuchatel, Saint-félicien. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was talking to a friend who’s a doctor who admitted he can’t be safely left near any large container of ice cream. It’s all or nothing.

Made me think what my weakness(es) might be.

Sadly, it’s a long-ish list, including:

Tabletop. Anything used to set a table, from bowls to linens to candlesticks. Yes, yes, all of it! I love to set a pretty table and entertain, so I collect anything charming in aid of same. Jose threatens often to de-bowl me as I keep bringing them into our small apartment.

Antiques. Specifically, jewelry, textiles, prints. Anything from 1860 and earlier, and 18th century and older is a big draw, if more difficult to find here in the New World.  We live in a one bedroom apartment, with very limited space to add anything new. But (yes, I admit) we also have a garage. And a storage locker. OK, several storage lockers. Small ones.

Scarves. As someone who loves to travel and pack lightly, scarves are a fab way to make the same outfit look different every day, doubling as shawls or even sarongs when necessary, adding warmth and style.

Almost anything French. My new hip even has a ceramic head made in France. Chic! Having lived in Paris for a year and traveled to France many times, j’adore les choses francaises. These include everything from my polka-dot apron and mini-juicer, both bought in Paris, to a funky little Art Deco perpetual calendar to my super well-cut black cotton jacket whose elegant proportions are so utterly not made in China.

If you’ve never heard the late, exquisite chanteuse Barbara or the raspy Mano Solo, check them out.

— Cheese. Speaking of things French. My friend who loves ice cream went into a little lusty haze as he began rhyming off some of his favorite French cheeses: Brie, Camembert. I’d add Cantal, Roquefort, Gouda, Cheddar, fresh creamy Mozzarrella. Yum!

— Beer. As a Canadian, this is a legitimate weakness, as some great brews come from my home and native land. If you ever get to Quebec, try to find this gorgeous apricot tinged ale. Love Magic Hat No. 9, Hoegaarden and Blue Moon (even though it’s really made by a major manufacturer of really bad beer, Coors.)

Jewelry. Thank heaven for a husband who indulges me! I buy a ring to mark major life moments, like the silver one I bought at Saks when I sold my first book and a gold ring, with the impression of an ancient Greek coin, bought from a local designer, when it was published. I love wearing my Deco earrings from the LA flea market, my pottery ring from Mesilla, NM and my pendant charms found in Atlanta.

‘Fess up, mes cher(e)s…what are some of your weaknesses?

Why Old Things Have Such Power

Ru Ware Bowl Stand Detail of Glaze/Crazing, Vi...
Image via Wikipedia

I’m no fan of things that are made of plastic or chrome, things that buzz and beep and demand my constant attention, let alone charge cords and batteries. I use them because they’re useful. They make work easier.

But I much prefer objects with patina, provenance, crazing, chips. Made of wood and stone and glass and porcelain, often worn smooth by others’ hands, cradled 100 or 200 or 500 years ago by someone long gone.

I admit it without embarrassment — buying antiques also allows me to own crystal and silver and beautifully made objects that don’t carry today’s retail prices.

I recently leafed through several worn black leather photo albums from 1912, awed by the women in their bonnets and boots, the men standing proudly beside the very latest in technology — a hand-cranked car, an airplane.

What were their lives like? How did their air smell? What music did they enjoy?

When I drink from a tea bowl from 1780 or sit on a chair made in 1850, I’m intimately connected to history. I’m a part of it — as we all are — but attaching myself, physically and emotionally, only to the shiny and new, is too seductive. It de facto erases the past; an “old” cellphone may be barely six months past its date of production.

I’m drawn, inexorably, to antiques, to items that have passed through history, whether from a distant farmhouse or shed or a merchant’s home or a trader or a teacher. I like the fact they are memento mori, the implicit reminder we’re all just passing through, borrowing — for a few decades — the objects we allow to define us and our taste to others.

For now I’ll enjoy them: rush-seated painted chairs; early gilt frames with bubbled glass; botanical prints; heavy silver forks and light-as-a-feather coin silver spoons; hand-woven rugs and linens. My most recent antiquing trip yielded terrific finds, from a large ironstone pitcher ($16) to a swath of mustard-colored charmeuse silk ($10.)

One of my latest acquisitions, found in Port Hope, Ontario, is a black painted wooden folk art horse, about a foot high and a foot long, beautifully hand-carved, standing on a base painted with the words “Souvenir de”.

That’s it.

A memory of….what? Did his creator lose interest? Forget? Die?

I love this omission. It gives me something to wonder about.

TapTapTapTapTap — Ding! The Return Of Typewriters

Typewriter adler3
Image via Wikipedia

Typewriters are back!

Not only are they back, but hipster kids newly discovering the joys of a Smith Corona (not some obscure beer) or Olivetti (not an olive oil!) are even holding type-ins to celebrate these quaint, sturdy little writing machines, reports The New York Times:

“Can I touch it?” a young woman asked. Permission granted, she poked two buttons at once. The machine jammed. She recoiled as if it had bitten her.

“I’m in love with all of them,” said Louis Smith, 28, a lanky drummer from Williamsburg. Five minutes later, he had bought a dark blue 1968 Smith Corona Galaxie II for $150. “It’s about permanence, not being able to hit delete,” he explained. “You have to have some conviction in your thoughts. And that’s my whole philosophy of typewriters.”

Whether he knew it or not, Mr. Smith had joined a growing movement. Manual typewriters aren’t going gently into the good night of the digital era. The machines have been attracting fresh converts, many too young to be nostalgic for spooled ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and corrective fluid. And unlike the typists of yore, these folks aren’t clacking away in solitude.

They’re fetishizing old Underwoods, Smith Coronas and Remingtons, recognizing them as well designed, functional and beautiful machines, swapping them and showing them off to friends. At a series of events called “type-ins,” they’ve been gathering in bars and bookstores to flaunt a sort of post-digital style and gravitas, tapping out letters to send via snail mail and competing to see who can bang away the fastest.

As someone old enough to have begun her journalism career working on a typewriter, I remember well the joys and frustrations — fingers covered in Wite-out! No delete key! Physical cutting and pasting! — that went along with it.

My first typewriter was a lightweight correspondent’s model with its own vinyl shoulder carrying case, a Hermes Baby. My lifelong dream was to file from exotic locales and, for decades, this was the tool to use! I loved its turquoise letters and drop-proof metal casing. As long as I had the essentials — paper and a fresh ribbon — I could write anywhere, anytime, knowing, and feeling a cool sort of kinship with, all the others before me who had filed their dispatches in similar fashion.

The part I miss the most?

That delicious Ding! when you hit the end of a line.

Not to mention the delicious crunch-and-toss of every offending page that just wasn’t good enough.

How Our Stuff Defines Us

Tie dye dresses drying
Mom loves textiles, color, antiques....Image via Wikipedia

A few days ago, I sat in a room in a nursing home with my mother, sorting through boxes of her belongings, from books on theology to a black lace merry widow corset.

When you move into one room, you’re quickly forced to shed about 95% of the belongings that have defined you, and your taste, your memories and history. If, as many of us do, we acquire and keep objects and clothes and shoes and accessories, we choose and keep them for a reason, maybe several.

Often reasons quite unknown to anyone else.

Everything I pulled out for our mutual decision making made me wonder — who is this woman?

At least she’s still alive and we had a chance to make those decisions, however wrenching, together.

I learned more about my Mom in those four hours than in the past, very private, four decades as we went through it all:

Those impossibly soft red leather Cossack-style boots? (That didn’t — damn! — fit me.) Bought in London. She once tucked a pack of cigarettes into the the top of one.

That black and white Marimekko print gown? Worn to the open house when she moved into her Toronto home 20 years ago.

The tie-dyed Indian cotton dress? She designed it while traveling there.

That corset? My mom was one confident hottie! I wish I had the nerve, and the figure, to rock a black lace Merry Widow…

The battered paperback book by Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian liberation theologist? Autographed to her. Good thing I hadn’t tossed it in our purging.

Not to mention love letters, recent ones, from Australia, New York and beyond. Good work, Mom!

I fly home to New York in two days, with a new, painful and acute sense of how much stuff I own, and how much if it I have to get rid of, now! I cannot imagine my sweetie having to go through it, box by box, trunk by trunk, and make any sense of it without me there: photos, letters, books.

Why am I clinging to it?

Am I still me without it?

Then what?

Have you ever had to sort, purge and toss out a lot of your stuff? Or someone else’s?

What was it like?

The Stuff We Inherit, From Chairs To Pistols — Then What?

Image representing eBay as depicted in CrunchBase
One solution...Image via CrunchBase

What do you with your family’s stuff if you inherit some decent things and have to go through it all?

Sell it — on Ebay? Craigslist?  At auction? Donate it to Goodwill?

An intriguing new book, “Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family’s past, One Chair, Pistol and Pickle Fork at a Time”, delves into the subject. Lisa Tracy, a journalist, auctioned off many of these objects in 2003.

From The New York Times:

She still regrets aspects of the sale; prices were mostly a few hundred dollars. During the auction, she had hoped to tell buyers about the back stories: how her grandparents entertained on the Canton rose-medallion plates and collected wooden chests while posted with the American military in China and the Philippines, and how the protruding hardware on one trunk always snagged the clothing of anyone walking past.

But as Ms. Tracy approached successful bidders in the parking lot after the sale, they brushed her off politely. “I was so dashed by that,” she said during a recent interview at a Manhattan coffee shop. “But I realized people wanted to start investing their own stories in the pieces, about how they got it at this auction.”

Her book is part of a minitrend of literary memoirs based on longtime possessions. Last year the antiques restorer Maryalice Huggins’s “Aesop’s Mirror: A Love Story” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) described her inconclusive research into the origins of a gilded mirror dripping with high-relief fruit. In August Farrar, Straus will publish the British ceramist Edmund de Waal’s “Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss,” about his inherited collection of some 360 Japanese ivory carvings that were smuggled to safety during the Holocaust.

From Random House’s website:

After their mother’s death, Lisa Tracy and her sister, Jeanne, are left to contend with several households’ worth of furniture and memorabilia, much of it accumulated during their family’s many decades of military service in far-flung outposts from the American frontier to the World War Two–era Pacific. In this engaging and deeply moving book, Tracy chronicles the wondrous interior life of those possessions and discovers that the roots of our passion for acquisition often lie not in shallow materialism but in our desire to possess the most treasured commodity of all: a connection to the past.

What starts as an exercise in information gathering designed to boost the estate’s resale value at auction evolves into a quest that takes Lisa Tracy from her New Jersey home to the Philippines and, ultimately, back to the town where she grew up. These travels open her eyes to a rich family history characterized by duty, hardship, honor, and devotion—qualities embodied in the very items she intends to sell. Here is an inventory unlike any other: silver gewgaws, dueling pistols that once belonged to Aaron Burr (no, not those pistols), a stately storage chest from Boxer Rebellion–era China, providentially recovered family documents, even a chair in which George Washington may or may not have sat—each piece cherished and passed down to Lisa’s generation as an emblem of who her forebears were, what they had done, and where they had been. Each is cataloged here with all the richness and intimacy that only a family member could bring to the endeavor.

As someone unreasonably passionate about antiques, I get it. I love feeling connected to the past whenever I use my brass push-up candlesticks or sit on my 19th-century rush-seated painted chairs or use my 18th. century teapot — $3.50 in an upstate junk shop. I wear antique shawls and, as I write, a pair of green glass Deco-era drop earrings I found in an L.A. flea market for $40. My computer desk is covered with pale green ticking bought in the Paris flea market.

Worn and beautiful, well-made old things comfort and soothe me in a way no slick, shiny modern thing (OK, except my Itouch and Mac) can match.

I bought all of it.

We have very few inherited pieces, for a variety of reasons.

What objects have you inherited that you cherish — or couldn’t wait to dump?

Patina — The Beauty Of The Weathered And Worn

patina Some things are best enjoyed shiny and new: electronics, cookware, lingerie. When it comes to decorative and functional objects, patina rules. Patina is the change in appearance that occurs after years, decades, centuries — even millenia — of use. It comes with delicious names: craquelure, foxing, crazing, all of which denote what is, in effect, decay and ruin of the orginal, but a ruin that shows its age. Some can be repaired or restored and some must be left alone — like the paint on good, old furniture — to retain its commercial value.

I love patina. It reminds me that whatever objects I own today once belonged to someone 60 or 160 or 300 years ago. It passed through their hands as it will pass through mine. Shiny new stuff is so deeply seductive because it’s yours alone. But only for a while.  Patina is a sort of memento mori, a reminder of life’s transience and the urgency of appreciating its beauty, now, in whatever form I can discover it.

These three images are from my home. The gilt frame is probably 19th. century, 1860s to 1880s, maybe earlier. The chair, one of three I bought at a country auction in Nova Scotia, with rush seats, even earlier. The teapot, a gift from a friend who is equally enamored of fine old things, was found at a Connecticut estate sale, also 19th. century.

patina2

patina1

One of my favorite books, a real inspiration if you, too, love patina is The Well-Worn Interior, with images from Ireland, England, France — and  Manhattan’s East Village, with an apartment interior of delicious decay. Drayton Hall, a house built in 1738 near Charleston, South Carolina remains one of the U.S.’s finest examples of simple, understated elegance. I still remember the sense of stillness and light inside its enormous bare rooms.

If you crave athenticity in re-creating a historic interior, here’s a helpful site.