Binge-ing on culture

Lately I have found myself on a bit of a culture course. And while I’m certainly not complaining, I am amused at how things sometimes come together. The last few weeks are a good example.

One of the advantages of living in a big city is the access to cultural and entertainment venues. And while that is certainly true, it’s also true that making the time, getting the tickets, and all the other requisite details often get in the way of what the city has to offer. Our suburb is twenty miles west of downtown Chicago, and while we have easy access to the city by car or commuter train, it’s more than a run to the grocery for milk.

My binge started with tickets to see The King’s Speech at Chicago Shakespeare. Perhaps you have seen the movie about Prince Albert, the Duke of York and his struggle overcoming a crippling stutter at the same time his brother, the Prince of Wales, was about to abdicate the throne, making Albert the king as Europe was going to war with Hitler. (Talk about pressure!) The play was enjoying critical acclaim at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater. Everything I have seen there has been first-rate and this production did not disappoint, including the appearance of Harry Hadden-Paton, of The Crown and Downton Abbey, as Albert. My husband and I totally enjoyed the evening.

But then, less than a week later, I found myself at Symphony Hall. I am joining a girlfriend this season in a series of five concerts. She has been a subscriber for years, but her partner in this venture decided not to participate this season. The seats are good, and the cost when you subscribe ahead of time is do-able, so of course I said yes. Well, these seats are more than good; they’re in the fourth row. I can watch the violinists finger their instruments. We park in the garage across the street, grab a bite to eat and sit back and enjoy. I may be hooked!

But, wait, there’s more!

My usual cultural destination in the city has always been the Art Institute. (I’ve written about various visits here, including the Thorne Miniature rooms, John Singer Sargent and Gauguin in my Miscellaneous File. ) A year or so ago friends introduced us to a monthly lecture/discussion series at the AI. We are all retired, so when schedules allow we meet there to attend the series and enjoy lunch after. Last Friday was especially appealing, because a new Andy Warhol exhibit has just opened. We met early to see as much of Andy Warhol-From A to B and Back Again as possible before the regular lecture. But we may need to go back, because this is an extensive exhibit that takes the visitor well beyond Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.

And early pen and ink self-portrait of Warhol.

I wish I had done a little AW research before we went (Note to self: next time do a little homework.) Warhol’s much more than just a pop icon of the sixties, although that certainly describes much of his work. Unlike other artists, Warhol began his career doing commercial art. His first commission was drawing shoes for Glamour magazine in the 1950s, followed by work as a shoe designer for manufacturer Israel Miller.

Much of Warhol’s later work continued to be based on commercial art, like the Campbell’s soup cans and the Brillo boxes. He was well known for his silk screen process. Many of those pieces, including the famous and familiar Marilyn Monroe image, were based on commercial photos that he copied and successfully turned into iconic images using a silk screen process. (The Marilyn Monroe image was originally a studio publicity shot for her last movie.) The silk-screened portraits, in fact, became so popular that movie stars, public and private figures came to Warhol for what he referred to as “commercial business.”

In addition to the individual portraits, Warhol often produced multiple versions in one work, sometimes with slight variation in color and/or shading.

This oversized portrait of Mao Zedong (it’s about 125-feet tall) is part of The Art Institute’s permanent collection. The Institute’s archive notes that Warhol’s portrait displays some irreverence towards the image that was widely displayed in China: “Flamboyant brushstrokes compete with the photographic image, forming color splashes on Mao’s clothing. Red rouge and blue eye shadow resemble graffiti.” Some art historians view Warhol’s treatment here as commentary on similarities between Communist propaganda to capitalist advertising media.

Like so many artists, Warhol’s artistic muse went well beyond the canvas. He spent most of his later years exploring videos and movies. Warhol died at only 58, so it’s interesting to speculate on where his art would have taken him. Like many gallery-goers, I’m more drawn to Renoir and Monet than Warhol. But there is no denying the impact Warhol has had on the art world. He used techniques like silk screen and video and blurred the lines between commercial art and fine art. And that alone is saying a lot.

What about you? What kind of art are you most drawn to?

So much for my culture binge. It’s time to take a deep dive into holiday prep, a.k.a. oven cleaning. Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon?

In praise of wonky imperfection

One of my “wonky” individual souffles.

My daughter-in-law recently told me about a PTA presentation that covered, among other things, the quest for “perfection” among children. This is especially daunting for children who are gifted and/or talented. They hear “Perfect!” or “That would be perfect if…” Cue the stress. I’ve been thinking about the quest for perfection. We do this to our kids, ourselves and the adults around us. A lot.

Where does good perfection end and bad perfection start?

There are times when perfection matters: Don’t misspell words on your resume. Then there are times when it’s overrated.

I think the triggers or influences that drive perfectionism can be subtle or not, and they’re probably pretty personal. My dad (who otherwise was pretty perfect) used to say, “If you’re going to do something, do it right or don’t do it at all.” But I wonder how any times that quest for perfection kept me from attempting something or attempting it again after a less than perfect effort. (Maybe I would have stuck with golf a little longer.)

Pie-making perfection

My grandma was a legendary pie maker. Her lemon meringue was the right mix of sweet and tart, with perfectly browned peaks that never “wept.” Her apple pie was as American as, well, you know. And when she delivered one of them to the church bake sale, they were top sellers.

An imperfect but tasty pie.

Grandma baked pies at lightning speed, her rolling pin banging on the table as she rolled out the crust. (Really, when I got older I realized we all backed away when she got the rolling pin out.) Although my earliest cooking memories are of making pies with her, using my own child-sized pie pans and left over bits of dough that I rolled and re-rolled and played with until it was genuinely grimey, I had no interest in learning how to actually make the crust and the fillings until I had my own family and became the holiday cook. By then, Grandma was gone and I was left to learn on my own. Mostly, I just made a mess of flour in the kitchen that resulted in patched-together crusts that led to store-bought pies. Problem solved.

But my pie-making ineptitude nagged at me. I wanted pie perfection.

And so, I hit the books. Ina Garden is usually my go-to, so I began practicing her crust. She uses the food processor, really cold butter and shortening. And I practiced pie dough. I told myself it was only flour, butter and shortening. And I think I’m beginning to get it. It’s not perfect, but it’s not patched together, it browns nicely and it tastes good.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Marjorie Taylor of The Cook’s Atelier when I attended my second cooking session. We were discussing what I had tried cooking at home and I noted that my souffles rose and browned unevenly.

How did they taste?

Wonderful!

Well, she said, who cares if they look a little wonky.

What wonderful advice. Maybe “a little wonky” is something we should all accept from time to time.

So many books

You know that I am an avid reader (you do know that by now, don’t you?). Like  lot of readers, I need to have the next few books waiting in the wings (or piled on an end table or stashed on a shelf). And right now, I have an abundance of good reads lined up.

I picked up Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng because I was just seeing/hearing a lot of buzz about it. My instinct paid off because this book just blew me away. Ng is a wonderful writer with a real gift for deftly setting a scene (in this case the well-planned Shaker Heights community in Cleveland, Ohio), but it was her carefully drawn characters who really captivated my attention. The story revolves around a handful of otherwise disparate families eventually drawn into one compelling story. Ng was able to carefully step back from the developing story to recount the lives of these characters, almost like a short story or a novel within a novel. She does this effortlessly, without jarring the reader. On the other hand, their stories are not always pretty or fun, in fact Ng grapples here with some tough social issues.

Ng offers a lot to think about. A few other friends have also read it; we agree it would be a meaty selection for discussion. You or your book club may have already discovered Little Fires Everywhere, but if not, add it to your list. You won’t be disappointed.

One of my favorite reader friends shared the first three Louise Penny mysteries with me. (Apparently, you have to read them in order.) So I read the first, Still Life, and now I’m well into A Fatal Grace. There’s a lot to like here, starting with the charming Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the small town setting of Three Pines just outside Montreal, and its colorful residents, even if they do have an uncanny homicidal bent. And, there’s more than a dozen more titles waiting.

My lit group read One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. This book features an ensemble cast of nine characters who find themselves trapped together after a massive earthquake. To pass the time and manage their fears, they agree to each share one amazing thing about their life. This is a very disparate group in age, education and life experience. You can imagine how their stories must vary. One Amazing Thing is about the power of story telling, about what we are willing to share with strangers that we may never share with family, and how we often make sudden decisions that shape our lives forever. It was a good read and a great conversation.

Up next, There There by Tommy Orange, follows the lives of twelve Native Americans as they are traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. I’m sure there are some parallels to draw between this and One Amazing Thing, but There, There also promises to shed light on the plight of urban Native Americans. I’m looking forward to reading this.

I finally read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, the story of a group of international hostages hostages held by rebel forces in South America. (And yes, without thinking I seem to have noted three books here with a similar premise.) I have to admit that this book moved waaaayyy too slow for me in parts, but I kept going and I’m glad I did. Here’s my question if you have read this book: did Patchett purposely slow down the pace of this book to demonstrate how time crept by for the hostages? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

After reading a review of Patchett’s latest book, The Dutch House, I’ve added it to my to-be-read list.

What about you? Any good recommendations?

Hope you’re having a great day! Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

 

Fall started with a manicure

My husband gave me this bowl years ago, and I really do love it! It’s perfect for big, mixed arrangements.

I stopped for a manicure the other day, then realized, as I was heading back to my car, that Trader Joe’s (which shares the parking lot) had an interesting variety of pumpkins piled outside. Of course, I checked out the display and they were even more appealing up close, not to mention well-priced!

And that was the nudge that pushed me into fall.

In truth, I had already picked up a few cute pumpkins and updated planters with mums, the latter because the previous blooms had totally withered in the last of summer’s heat. Now, however, I was into the new season. I cut two big buckets of drying hydrangea blooms and arranged them into several plump bouquets.

More than that, however, I began my quest for my own pumpkin patch in the front yard. It’s a challenge to see how many different kinds of pumpkins I can find — green, pink, white, orange — and I also have to protect them from from nibbling by squirrels, rabbits, and whoever else stops by for a bite of pumpkin. And don’t get me started on how easily specimens with soft spots or tiny breaks in their skin can readily rot into messy, mushy piles. (If it sounds like I have had experience with this, you are right.)

Here’s the font yard patch: three different oranges and a pink (!!!) pumpkin.
This is my patch from a few years ago.

This year I armed myself for serious pumpkin protection (or maybe I just need a hobby?). I washed them with soapy water seasoned with a splash of bleach. After they were dry, I spread them on a drop cloth and sprayed them with a clear coat sealer. I have no idea if these precautions will work, but they come from other bloggers who seem to know what they’re talking about. (Which really means they take their seasonal decorating much more seriously than I do.)

Pumpkins getting the “preservative treatment.”

I’ve also done my best to spread some autumnal cheer inside. I have an admirable collection of dried gourds, collected over several years, that I rely on for inside scene-setting at this time of year, but they are currently trapped under the basement stairs behind bookcases and toolboxes re-located for the duration of our drainage repairs (which should be wrapping up in another week or two. Hooray!!). So instead, I’m using more pumpkins, fruit, fresh and faux leaves to set the scene inside.

I piled my ceramic pumpkins from Berea, Kentucky, along with some some baby boos and a few real ones here on the antique dresser in the living room.

 

Then I thought about how good orange looks with blue and white, so I tried this in the dining room.

 

Finally I paired one of my buckets of hydrangeas with these pumpkins on the back porch!

Most importantly this has fed my puttering/tweaking gene, which spills over into a bit of fall cleaning, polishing and generally dusting-up. (My grandma would be pleased.) My house needed the attention and I needed the “therapy.”

I’m so glad I stopped for that manicure!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

The old neighborhood

Technically, since the city annexed O’Hare Airport, the geographic center of the city has changed, but not for most Chicagoans.

If you grew up in Chicago or have lived here for any length of time you know that the city is a collection of neighborhoods: Hyde Park, Ravenswood, Lincoln Park, and Pilsen to name a few. And when you ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, it’s often a neighborhood they refer to.

My Chicago neighborhood is McKinley Park on the city’s southwest side, named for the park it embraces (Which was actually named for the 25th US president.). The neighborhood is centered on the triangle bounded by 35th Street and Archer and Ashland Avenues, but extends as far south as the southern boundary of the park on Pershing Road and to the old Canal and Interstate 55 on the north.

I should start by saying I never lived in the McKinley Park neighborhood.

But my maternal grandpa grew up there, he and my grandma were married there and raised a family there. He lived there until he was in his late eighties. My dad’s family also has its roots in the neighborhood, and I’ve always felt rooted here too. It’s from this neighborhood that so many of the family stories come, where I spent holidays and enjoyed Sunday dinners. I was not at all surprised when my daughter, who is more than a bit of an historian, took a walking tour of the McKinley Park area (Although I may be pushing the point; she’s done at least a half-dozen other such neighborhood walks since moving back to Chicago.) I couldn’t go with her on the first tour, so she took me on my own a few weeks ago.

In the past my grandparents house was painted red, like most of its neighbors, and it had tall windows in front, now replaced with this picture window. If you look closely, you can still see the shadow of the old windows and their stone trim.

We began here.

My grandparents lived in this little workman’s cottage, one of a dozen on their short block and countless others in the neighborhood. This was the brick house built for the masses after the Chicago fire. They were small, but must have seemed palatial to people who had come from tenements and boarding houses. (There aren’t many Chicago bungalows here; they came later.)

We took a walk down 35th Street, the commercial heart of the neighborhood. The William McKinley Legion Post (my grandfather was a founding member) is still active.

 

Another workman’s cottage, in 1910 the house had no bay window or sliding glass doors, and my grandparents were likely boarders in one or two rooms.

Our other destination on this street was a house we think my father’s parents lived in, at least for a short time. Maggie found them listed on a 1910 census at this address. (Like I said, she is an historian.) The next census finds them just a few blocks away on Honore Street. However, when we rounded the corner to look for it, those houses had been replaced by Nathaniel Greene School!

Since this area was first settled in 1836, it has been a working class neighborhood. The first settlers worked on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Then came railroads, steel plants, and meat packing. There are new brick row houses  and townhouses in-filling empty lots. Several buildings have been converted into condos, including St. Philippus Church where my grandparents and parents were married.

My re-cycler’s heart loves that the church, no longer able to support a congregation, was spared the wrecking ball to provide housing.

The new school, houses and condo conversions are understandable; the McKinley Park neighborhood has experienced an increase in population since the 1990’s. And that’s hardly surprising since it’s still supported by a healthy manufacturing area nearby and outstanding transportation, including Metra’s new (to me at least) Orange Line. The old housing stock is well cared for, and some original landmarks continue to serve the community, including a funeral home and St. Maurice Church.

This is an example of the mix of old and new housing stock.

Finally, we got to McKinley Park, 69 acres of green in the midst of the city, with a lagoon where my mom and uncle ice skated, a field house, and so many ball fields where Dad and my uncle spent a significant part of their lives. In fact, they met there and played ball, sometimes together and sometimes against each other, long before Mom and Dad met. It’s still a leafy oasis, popular with runners and walkers. On this September Saturday, there were soccer and baseball games. It’s still the magnet it always was.

We sometimes think of “old neighborhoods” as falling into serious disrepair or, conversely, becoming gentrified and even chic. Not so in McKinley Park. This “old neighborhood” never had the panache of the North Shore or the leafy, residential vibe of the suburbs. It has always been sturdy, a bit hard-scrabble, largely populated in my grandparents’ day by first- and second-generation German and Irish immigrants. Today it retains this sturdy, working class character, and the immigrant mix includes Hispanic and Asian residents.

It has adapted more than it changed. That’s what intrigued me as Maggie and I walked down one street and up another, peering down gangways and admiring pocket gardens. My daughter shared the architectural background gleaned from her walk, while I was filling in the anecdotal from my memories. I’m glad my daughter and I did this, but I must admit that for me it was a bit bittersweet. There are few family members left from that era to share this, to tell them the house on Damen is painted blue (!) and the Legion Hall has hardly changed.

So, I’m especially glad you came along with me on this “second” walk in the old neighborhood. See you again soon!

Re-writing history

It’s hard to believe that a landowner/businessman would design and oversee the construction of this mansion based on pattern books, but John Drayton did exactly that.

This year as we were planning a beach trip to South Carolina, I also wanted to re-visit Drayton Hall Plantation. Although we had visited years ago, before social media and blogging, I have been following them on Instagram for some time. And in my mind, the folks behind Drayton Hall have been doing a fabulous job of teaching history.

Briefly, Drayton Hall is an 18th-century plantation on the Ashley River about 15 miles from Charleston, and its history and architecture are notable. Historically, Drayton Hall is the only plantation to survive the Revolutionary and Civil Wars intact. Additionally, it is a remarkable example of Palladian Architecture in the United States, built by John Drayton Sr. and designed without the benefit of professional architects. Instead, like many other other wealthy and well-educated planters of his time, Drayton relied on British “pattern books” that detailed classical architecture.

The first time I visited Drayton Hall I was sorely disappointed. As someone who loves historic homes and had visited the likes of Mount Vernon and Williamsburg more than once, I loved seeing these buildings restored and renovated as necessary and filled with the appropriate furnishings. In fact, for me that was a big part of their allure.

This reflects how the building was found when it was acquired from the Drayton family, on the 1970’s. The workmanship on the paneling and molding is remarkable.

Not so at Drayton Hall.

Drayton Hall is a preservation, not a restoration. So, it’s empty. What you see are the architectural details of a building that was inhabited by Draytons from the 1740’s until it was turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1970’s. It has never had electricity or indoor plumbing. The preservation philosophy at Drayton Hall was to stabilize the house and maintain it as it was when acquired from the family. This was radical at the time, but it has resulted in considerable technical and scientific research into the original building and the people who lived there. And the lessons learned  have given me a whole new appreciation for the role of historic preservation.

For example, historians originally believed construction was begun on Drayton Hall in 1738 after John Drayton Sr. acquired the property. However In 2014, scholars examined the wood cores of the attic timbers and determined that they were cut from trees felled in the winter of 1747–48. Because the attic would have been framed well before the remainder of the house, scholars now believe Drayton Hall was not occupied by the family until the early 1750s. This is just one example of the kinds of data the building continues to reveal.

Expanding on plantation history

Today the plantation includes an Interpretive Center and Museum. The Interpretive 
Center traces the history of the property, the Drayton’s, and South Carolina. This history includes that of the enslaved people who built the house, planted the crops, tended the fields and served the family, all of which made plantation life possible. This reality is nothing like Gone With the Wind.

Drayton Hall is constructed from bricks made on-site. Often enslaved children worked on brick-making. Look closely at the red brick on the right in the third row. A child’s handprint is visible.

One of the things Drayton Hall has done very well is to reveal more about the enslaved people who lived there. Plantations like Drayton Hall and its counterparts throughout the South would not have been possible without the labor provided by the enslaved community. It’s important we understand the economic impact of slavery on the South, the North and even Europe.

During our visit we attended a presentation, Port to Plantation: Slavery and the Making of the Early Lowcountry Economy. The presentation takes visitors back 400 years to the beginning of the Triangular Trade Route (from Europe to West Africa, to the Americas, and back to Europe), paying special attention to the middle passage which carried slaves from West Africa to the Americas. Slaves were traded in South America, the Caribbean and North America, but their role in the American South is now under increasing scrutiny thanks to additional historic research like that at Drayton Hall.

Portugal, Great Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands all participated in the slave trade, sending ships to West Africa, where they loaded slaves for the Americas, then after selling the slaves, reloaded their ships with valuable cotton and rice to return to Europe. The passage itself was gruesome, with hundreds of Africans packed onto ships. Many did not survive the journey, and those who did were often crudely “warehoused” at their destination until they regained their strength for the auction block. This was, after all, business, and the factors or agents responsible for the slave sales depended on top-dollar transactions,

Drayton Hall is not alone in re-thinking how it presents slavery. The McLeod Plantation on nearby James Island, and the Aiken-Rhett House and Nathaniel Russell House, both overseen by the Charleston Historic Foundation in Charleston have also re-cast and expanded their interpretation of slavery. They have traded the term “slaves” for “enslaved people” to more clearly recognize them as people rather than property. To read more about this, including the controversy it has generated, see the recent feature in the Post & Courier by Robert Behre.

Not everyone is a fan of this revised history. Guides at these and other sites report visitors who complain that this history is “depressing” at the least. Some are more outspoken than others. (A sign of these outspoken times, perhaps?) But as hard as some of this is to see or hear or read (I find myself speechless over the child’s handprint in the brick), I think we are very fortunate to continue to learn more about this chapter in our history. This historic site visit pushed me to consider how little I know and how much more there is to learn.

It’s also a reminder that one of life’s great gifts is the opportunity to re-think, re-write, re-imagine, and grow. What if we gave similar license to other life experiences?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

 

The truth about my summer

This is the “finished” side of our basement. If you look at the floor in the corner of the closet on the left, you can see how the perimeter of cement has been re-done for new drainage. Those boxes  holding tools are up-ended cabinets that were under the wall-mounted wine racks. Wallboard was removed to make way for water proofing.

As I write this my husband is banging around in the basement, re-constructing our finished space there which was de-constructed to make way for a french drain (a fancy name for a trench around the entire inside perimeter of the house which is excavated with jack hammers and then lined with gravel, drain pipe and fresh cement) to replace the failed drainage tiles around the exterior of our foundation.

Are you following this? Because I can hardly follow it and I’ve lived it this summer.

But this very expensive hole in the basement has pretty much been the story of our summer. Really. Bigger than two weeks at the beach (where we escaped once we had implemented our remediation plan), more time-consuming than the yard and garden, and more worrisome than the stock market.

It started with not one, not two, but three heavy rains and subsequently a repeatedly wet basement in May and June. Not ankle-deep flooding, just puddles in the utility room. And then squishy carpet in the finished portion. And it kept happening. Where is this coming from? The hunt was on. Pull back carpet, have the restoration company out and set up their industrial fans. (They can dry anything. Really.) Move things off the floor, out of the way, into the garage. Move more stuff. Call water-proofing companies. Wait for their estimates (It was a very wet season all over Chicago and the suburbs and these guys were really busy!), wait for a building permit (the city gets involved here) and then wait for the new cement to dry.

Now it’s September. I think we’re on the down-side of this, looking at putting things back together in the next month or so. I hope. My husband has been storing nine cases of wine in the dining room. (Not a bad thing. It makes the good stuff more accessible.) I can’t even remember all that I carried out to my “holding pen” in the garage. And I have no idea where my so-called “fall decor” is.

There is an upside. We have done a remarkable job of culling the stuff stashed in our basement. And while I was driving loads to Goodwill, I also cleared a lot from the closets and happily delivered several boxes of miscellaneous school memorabilia to my son in Ohio. I would hardly compare this clean-up to Marie Kondo, but it feels good.

Choosing your words

And since I didn’t want to close on a whine-y note about my basement, I thought I would share some well-chosen words. As many of you know, Instagram is my social media weakness. I think of it as a daily shelter magazine of pretty rooms and gardens (because those are pretty much the only feeds I follow). But some how in the last week or so I have come across the most wonderful words there, witty and wise.

First, this made me laugh out loud, and is so much like me. (And why do women of a certain age seem to tip so easily?)

This, I think, is excellent advice.

Finally, from Aibileen Clark, one of so many unforgettable characters in The Help. I wish I’d had these words to repeat to my kids every day as they went off to school.

Thank you so much for stopping by. I look forward to seeing you soon!