The Cult of Athena: Part II – Love Letter to an Umbrella

I graduated from college in the infancy of the internet. Mark Zuckerberg was 11 and bulletin board message groups were sort of cutting edge. When the time came to part from friends at Bryn Mawr with whom I’d shared weeping, tea, backrubs, laughter, and scorn we exchanged addresses and we wrote letters. I went home to Michigan (perhaps not the best choice, but that’s water under the bridge, and all the way out to sea by now). I worked an odd job or two, was a social worker for a bit, then went to law school. A couple of friends got married and had a baby or so relatively soon. One joined a cult for a while. Some stayed in Philly and worked, some went to graduate school.

I loved getting letters from New York, Boston, San Francisco, or even the UK occasionally. But I’m not a great correspondent. By four or five years out, the letters were rare, and I stayed most closely in touch with only two people. We actually had phone conversations. Which meant hanging out in the hall or at the kitchen table of wherever I was living, monopolizing the land line and figuring out at the end of the month how much of the long distance bill was my responsibility.

1993 – 1999 – 2003

With the exception of one wedding, my circle of friends had almost no collective gatherings. The first ten years out of college offered two reunions for me to sink back into the familiar embrace of a small tribe I knew I loved, and who I knew loved me. Scattered across countries and continents, we hoarded our hours together, going off campus to local friends’ houses for tea. As for the rest of my class mates, at reunion we sang our Greek hymns and the labor anthem “Bread and Roses”, then went our separate ways.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead 
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread, 
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew 
Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too.
As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses

Those ten years were hard. College was difficult, but came with rewards: strong bonds of affection with close friends and the looser formal identification with the sisterhood of Bryn Mawr. The ceremonial kinship of Mawrtyr alumnae was a professional networking tool and a signal of recognition when I met another alum abroad in the world, even one who had graduated decades before me.

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Bryn Mawr reinforced sheer pigheadedness as a life skill. Law school, the beginnings of law practice, and multiple ill-considered, over-invested romantic failures did not bring with them the rewards of persistence. When I went to my tenth reunion, I was in the midst of what seemed a never-ending cycle of discouragement of one sort or another. I remember a sense of chaos about that reunion: people with young children appeared and disappeared, miserable, exhausted little people in tow. I had a pleasant walk with two people who I remembered fondly and didn’t see except for the odd note in the alumnae bulletin, but overall I attended in a fog. Sometimes a stiff upper lip just gives you a sore face.

That same autumn I met my husband. Within two years I married, lost my father, sold my house, moved across the country, changed jobs, bought and renovated a new house, and got pregnant. I didn’t go to my fifteenth college reunion because I had just returned to work from parental leave with my second child. However, I felt I had things to report for the alumnae bulletin at least. I tended to review the class notes carefully, and the self selecting sample of those reporting to the Alumnae bulletin was having babies, teaching, publishing, and otherwise achieving personal and professional success. I duly reported when I married, and when I made partner at my law firm (that latter happening between the births of my second and third children).

Approximately 16 years out of college, I joined Facebook. My world of Mawrtyrs gradually expanded. Threads began to form, connecting me to people whose names or faces emerged one, two at a time from the memory bank. The first tentative bonds: a figurative polite wave across the internet, might remain that way, or might become much more, as we exchanged little pieces of daily gossip about our children, commented on the progress of jobs, gardens, cooking experiments. I moved cautiously as I had twenty years before, commenting sparsely at first, not sending out friend requests that might seem presumptuous or needy. I’m always sure I desire connection to others more than they desire it with me. Events have proved me right often enough.

I like to remember people, so I had a small slice of memory for many of my classmates who I hadn’t known well: a perennial actor while I was a techie, someone who always ate in That Other Dining Room, someone whose florid romance occasioned comment. Gradually these wraiths grew flesh and color, emerging as adults in the same life stage as me, raising children, changing or developing their careers, picking apart the injustices of the economic downturn, or ranting about particularly poignant or grotesque bits of pop culture. It became easy, if I was traveling to a city for work, to grab dinner with someone I hadn’t seen in over a decade.

By the time of our 20th reunion, I had not only reestablished much closer, almost daily contact with many old friends, I was sharing a constant thread of gossip, musing, and cheering with people I might never have had a conversation with before. When we met at reunion, we had a foundation for speaking more, rather than awkwardly reestablishing a connection with a barely-remembered former 21 year old. I still had my tight pack of friends, but I tentatively branched out, and found I could be comfortable with more people. I left with the feeling of having my battery charged, plugged in for a few days to a current that I could find no where else, recognized and accepted for a short while for who I was. I needed that feeling badly, as my career was in the middle of breaking apart. I left my law partnership six months later.

I hid out and licked my wounds for a while, weeded my garden with my three year old, roasted tomatoes over an open fire in my yard, and the like. The peculiar distorting kaleidoscope of Facebook suggested others were in similar circumstances, struggling with being women trained for intellectual rigor, professional leadership, and uncompromising opinions in a world where being intelligent, vocal, and aggressive is not always rewarded, particularly if one is a woman. I found comfort in the net of mawrtyrs, strung out loosely across the internet. One day, as a group of us were having a frank on-line conversation about menstrual garments, someone said, “I can’t believe we’re all talking about this. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a conversation, except maybe at Bryn Mawr.” Someone else brought up menstrual traditions in other societies, which gave women a physical and social place to hang out with other bleeding women and I said something to the effect of, that’s what Facebook is—we can’t be together, so we have a red tent in our pockets.

In the lead up to our 25th reunion, we all seemed eager to see each other. Not just so we could each of us have an excuse to be with our particular groups of friends from our undergraduate days, but so we could be together all with one another. Somehow we had a collective that had not existed a quarter century before, in our separate, sharp, spiny pods of young adulthood. The oldest bonds did re-form, but in my case I felt free to spend my time with people I had known less well, because I had two opportunities for mini-reunions with my closest friends in the intervening years.

I spent my 25th reunion embracing (figuratively and literally) women who I had no memory of embracing before. There is bright particular joy to seeing someone and knowing they see you back. I’m not sure I have ever been that glad to see so many people at the same time, who were also that pleased to see me. I felt I was filling up with light, starting at my feet, surging all the way to the top of my head and overflowing.

Within the swirling flock of our class were a few student staff, Mawrtyrs who graduated weeks before, or current students, assigned to help us find or fetch things. Looking at them, each born years after we walked across the stage and took our diplomas in hand, they seemed startlingly new, like ducklings. I remember the feeling of being done at Bryn Mawr: bruised but honed to a hard point. These students looked like the soft, crumpled leaves of an unfurling bean vine. But I know that they are sharp too, ready to slice and scorch their way in the world. I hope they do so, and when they are worn thin and stretched by careers, families, caring for and losing elderly parents, surviving cancer or alcoholism, they will come back and shelter with their own flocks, before going back out again.

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For years now, I’ve had a quote pinned to one of my bulletin boards, referring to Bryn Mawr classmates as sisters of the heart. (Class of ’56 probably wasn’t thinking of trans men, but my class has at least two brothers as well). What I have found is that the “small band” gets bigger. As we pass on from the demands that college placed on us, of holding ourselves together and becoming who we were to become, we find each other and discover we can cheer and chide one another in ways born of our shared experience. Modern society scatters people in all directions, and (fortunately for many of us) we are no longer bound to the places of our physical or intellectual birth and maturing. Our lives are not sweated, “from birth ‘til life closes” in an actual tent with our sisters, aunts, and cousins. But I am so grateful I can share “small art and love and beauty” with those with whom I shared toil

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The Cult of Athena: Part I – Seeds and Stripes

1fc2ffe300b5cc311ad30c8488624ec9I know a man with stripes on his back. Apparently it’s pretty common in humans who were once teen boys. They grow so quickly after puberty they get stretch marks, like some folks after pregnancy. Into his thirties, they were distinct horizontal tiger stripes radiating perpendicular to his spine, noticeable to the eye, and to touch. In his forties they faded with the softening skin and flesh of middle age, although his length of back and breadth of shoulder remain.

Growing is strange thing. It can happen so much at once that the fibers of you stretch, ache, and rage. All of you wants to rest, but some parts of you can’t. Growing requires sustenance— food and care, without which you will perhaps be left unwhole. In my experience growing is best done in good company, even if you don’t realize it at the time.

I’ve often said I was at my most functional and effective, or at least I felt most like I had power over my own fate, between the ages of 17 and 23. That encompassed the last year of high school, all of college and the first year or so out of college. I graduated at the top of my high school class, took home accolades and gifts of books from our senior awards banquet, was admitted to very good colleges. I graduated from one such college in 7 semesters (taking one non academic semester to work and do research), with high honors inscribed in Latin on my diploma. I made friends at college, worked hard, enjoyed my classes (mostly), and came to feel as though I was a person held in some regard by my peers. At least enough of my peers valued my person and my intellect to warrant feeling self respect on my part.

I wasn’t precisely happy, however. I wasn’t raised to be happy. I was raised to be smart and conscientious. My parents were scholarly, unworldly people, singularly unsuited to raise children in late 20th century industrialized society. My father was an immigrant, former soldier turned refugee, chef, teacher, and translator. A large part of the values he inculcated in me could be summarized as follows: “Be Righteous. Unless you can be a Pain in the Ass. Always Be a Pain in the Ass.” No one does inflexible self righteousness like a man who is both Presbyterian and Confucian. But no one does stiff upper lip better than a hillbilly who is both a Methodist and a Presbyterian, which was Mom. My introverted, farm-raised, religious mother was a librarian, former missionary, and aspiring art historian. Her take home message was, “Read ALL the Things”.

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a couple weeks before starting college

Thus it was I arrived at Bryn Mawr College in the fall of 1989, 600+ miles from home, confident in my intellectual capacity, determined to do well and learn as much as possible, and with a judgmental streak a mile wide. I was also anxious, socially hypervigilant, contrarian, and prone to narrowly self-selecting interests like science fiction conventions. Many things happened at once, among the first being sensory flooding from the sheer beauty of campus. This was years before Harry Potter was more than a gleam in J.K. Rowlings eye, but like many 19th century academic gothic campuses, it really looks like Hogwarts. I had never seen the campus because of course I didn’t visit any of the schools I applied to (that took Real Money). In pre-internet days, all you had was some glossy brochures. The reason I ended up at Bryn Mawr rather than, say, Vassar or Smith (or Reed. That wouldn’t have gone well), was because they gave me the most financial aid. The shocked moment of falling in love with the beauty and thinking “I get to spend Four Whole Years here? Me? HERE?” lifted me over many swamps in the next few years.

Bryn Mawr is a marginally Quaker-influenced institution founded in 1885 to give the white upper-class young women of East Coast old families and Midwestern industrial aristocracy an education. If said young ladies didn’t want to just go to finishing school and be debutantes, they could go to the Seven Sisters, women’s colleges that offered to women what their brothers, fathers, and uncles got at the Ivy League schools, who of course did not admit women. Or Jews. And definitely not pigmented people. Bryn Mawr stood for the American liberal ideals of enlightened intellectual inquiry and the benefits of training the best of society’s young minds to serve and lead. “The Best” in that case included women, if they were white and upper class.

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By the late 1980s the student body included all the diversity of an ostensibly progressive institution: black women from New York City (and South Africa), South Asians who grew up in Delhi, or in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Chinese Americans from the big urban Chinatowns, or a Midwestern, Appalachian-hapa like me. There were women from Nebraska, California, Oregon, Montana, Ohio, and military bases overseas, as well as all the eastern seaboard. There were women who grew up with house servants and ones on financial aid, piecing together loans, grants, and work study in the dining halls. A fortunate thing about my education was neither I or my parents ever had enough for anyone to ever suspect us of having enough money to pay for school without grants and loans. But that didn’t make it easy or dignified. Bryn Mawr was less than a generation from the time when students on financial aid waited tables on their more fortunate hall mates. Serving their food in the cafeteria line was better, but still… And the Financial Aid Office always made going over and doing your paperwork humiliating, inconvenient, and frustrating. That level of bureaucratic dismissiveness was always in the background. One gets used to it, one way or another.

The sensation I remember most about my first year was the constant tension between fear and yearning. Fear of being lonely (I was, constantly), fear of being outcast (fortunately I had two friends from my high school to ease my transition), fear of the unknown. Yearning for friends and connection, either platonic (I made many friends second semester), or romantic (um… no). Yearning for safety and security. Yearning to belong. I was quite safe physically. That wasn’t universally true, but it was for me. But feeling safe doesn’t come naturally to me.

The College itself (the administrators, professors, or whoever was allegedly in charge of our welfare) cared if  you actually flunked (my friends meeting this fate led me to think that dealing with admin was just as bad as the flunking). If you cracked up spectacularly and committed a hate crime or attempted suicide they would definitely notice and do something. Otherwise, they left you to make your mistakes and sink or swim. By sophomore year, I concluded that the most important thing to the College’s administration was keeping the Trustees happy, and any alumnae wealthy enough to give money to the school. More than a quarter century later, I have a more nuanced view of things, but I don’t know that I was all wrong.

On the up side, academics weren’t that difficult. Immersive, intense coursework was what I was there to do. I worked hard, some times butted heads with my professors, but it was a combination of tasks and skills I understood. I observed to my surprise that not everyone reacted the same way. Some failed first year English Composition. Some got swamped and broke apart under the waves of work. Just like some dove gleefully into parties at nearby Haverford College, or found themselves (seemingly light hearted) at the center of social groups in the cafeterias, laughing and shrieking, reactions to college that were equally alien to me.

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Firelord Zuko, the angsty teenager

I found my tribe by the end of the first year— A group of other young women (and a male Haverford student or two) whose interests and quirks matched well with mine. We began to dine together, and I began to hang out in a particular dormitory lounge (known as a Smoker. Where people actually smoked, although mostly we didn’t). I also came to some working hypotheses about who I could try to be, given what I had to work with: no history of dating or being particularly attractive to young men (except a few who I suspected would take any one they could get), discomfort with femininity borne of having been sexually harassed in 8th grade, distrust of and awkwardness with girly stuff like makeup, and a liking for wearing my keys on my belt and my wallet in my hip pocket.

First came the hair cut. Now, I saw early that Cutting the Hair was a signal that one was leaping out of the closet, so I was of two minds about it. I happened to have particularly long hair. I wasn’t, as far as I knew, all that gay. Most of my friends were queer and I wouldn’t have resisted being gay more than I did the discomfort of liking men, but as far as I could tell, I mostly preferred dudes. Then at some point, I tried a new shampoo, which made my hair feel so terrible I was happy to ask my mom to cut my hair when I went home for winter break. (Note that before the age of 23 or so I had exactly one hair cut in my life that wasn’t by my mother.) I came back to campus in January 1990 and there was Shrieking. Fine. I didn’t have to say anything about being gay because I might as well have put on a t-shirt that said “HOMO” when I cut off my 2 foot black pigtail. (If that wasn’t enough, over the next three years the hair went through variations of mullet). By the time I’d liked enough girls to honestly assert I was Bi, people had been assuming I was gay for years.

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hanging in a sarcophagus, like one does. Because it’s just there in the colonnade

Among the available formulations for how to present oneself on a small women’s college campus was Dyke. Gay students gleefully embraced the slur for lesbians and being a BDOC had great caché in certain circles.  BDOC being Big Dyke on Campus—a la the preppy phrase, Big Man on Campus, for football stars and the like. Because being openly queer was still a bit bold, even in a liberal college, it was obstreperous enough  to appeal to my Dad-instilled instinct to make other people uncomfortable.  (If you’re wondering if my Dad was an asshole, the answer is mostly yes, but he had his good points).

Next came the leather jacket. I went to a high school where many people wore classic leather biker jackets. So I returned to campus second year with a biker jacket, purchased at the decidedly un-edgy store at Briarwood Mall in my home town, on layaway over the summer, with part of my carefully hoarded earnings from my summer job at the deli. It was a good jacket. It weighed a ton, but I wore it for nearly ten years, and it developed some nice patina from being worn through a winter or two working manual labor in a recycling plant. It was like armor.

The rest of butch was easy. I already worked in theater in high school. I liked it and kept doing it, necessitating wearing black, with work boots, and a wrench in my pocket.  Swearing took little effort. I was so tired and stressed that some days the most I could manage in the way of nouns was “shit” and “doodads”. The only thing I couldn’t get into was smoking. My parents had a truly 19th century view of The Filthy Habit (and I had an uncle die of cancer related causes when I was in high school). I tried dunhill cigarettes several times, because the packaging was so elegant, and I loved the smell and feel of a burning cigarette. But no dice. Some times though, on a cool fall day even now, I really do want a burning cigarette. Not to inhale mind you, just to have in my hand.

owl pallas.jpgBryn Mawr’s elite European academic affectations came with some cool side effects: beautiful songs sung in ancient Greek, invocations of the Greek goddesses Athena and Nike (including in our school cheer), random superstitions about buildings on campus, and maypole dancing (I never tried that one, but I really liked the Greek singing). Once I got comfortable that they weren’t going to cold shoulder me out of the smoking lounge, I got very tight with a small group of friends, four or five in my class, a few in classes ahead, and a few in classes behind. I formed comfortable layers of connections with lab mates, co-workers in the dining hall or the theater, but closest was my odd little knot of friends who wrote notes back and forth in the journal we kept in the lounge (the Back Smoker Diary. The predecessor of social media!)

It took until my senior year to get completely used to how affectionate my friends were, and that were willing to extend that affection to me, accepting me into their puppy piles and lunch tables. I made sure to keep all layers of armor handy, just in case, and hide out on my own on a regular basis, to make sure I could still do it. Once I fully adopted my protective coloration, I was free to freak out quietly in my head, cry my heart out over unrequited crushes, date a man back home, and otherwise go about about my business. That business included designing my own major, taking a semester to do independent research in Oklahoma, going home 2-3 times a year (where I felt less on my guard), poking at the administration over why they didn’t have a course requirement that included ethnic and cultural diversity (Bryn Mawr was still known for giving a rigorous 19th century gentleman’s education including Latin and Greek—and a swim test), and worrying over my friends when they got stressed out. And someone was always stressed out. Or miserable.

The thing about the stress was, because I walked out alive, after four years, with all my credits and my summa, I thought I passed The Test, and it hadn’t a left a scar. When my friends and classmates cried in the dining hall and broke the glassware, or wouldn’t leave their rooms, or cut themselves, or went away for a semester, or a year, or the rest of our undergrad years, I thought I was different, or had better skills. Likewise, when others seemed happy, running around laughing, looking elegant and relaxed, serving on the Honor Board or student government, winning fellowships and honors, I thought they were different, or had better skills than me.

I know another man, fifty or so now, who has no knees to speak of. When he was a rapidly growing teenage boy, his knees began to ache. Again, not an uncommon thing. His doctors told him to power through it. So he kept doing track, and baseball, and whatever he did. The growing cartilage never got a rest and never developed properly. In his 30s and 40s he started having surgeries. By his mid 40s, he had multiple failed surgeries, cadaver grafts, braces, scars, and it was painful to watch him walk. He couldn’t do sporty things with his kids.

I’ve never wished I had a different undergraduate experience. I loved the great dense swathes of history (Quaker thought, American Imperialism, Asian immigration, Native American boarding schools), biology (AIDS, cholera, embryology, fruit flies) and sociology (African American psychology, urban studies). I swam in the adrenal sea of exams, papers and every semester I felt like I battled an octopus, wrapped in its tentacles, grappling with one arm while others seized my legs, but emerging at the end each time and flipping off the octopus, as it slid beneath the waves. (somewhere in the Bryn Mawr archives is an actual caricature or two I did in the smoker diary, depicting me and the octopus. I feel I maligned the gentle cephalopod, making it the villain so.)

I’ve gone back for four of my five class reunions. There are some women who I wish I could see, but I know I won’t because I heard their voices shake with rage when they talked about being done and being able to leave the place behind. Or they left before graduation and didn’t come back, finding a better, or at least more accessible path for themselves. Some may come back once and say “nope, not for me”. I know there are some who come back to remind themselves of the bad as well as the good, almost like returning to the scene of a battle memorial.

Sometimes stubborn suffering doesn’t do any good. Bryn Mawr was a “weed out the weak” sort of place, when it didn’t need to be. Those of us who came out valuing the place and what it had made of us, didn’t so much do things “right” as have the right luck. I was someone whose skin stretched, marked but whole, over my expanded bones. I could just as easily have been someone whose punished joints never became what they ought to have been, because the people who could have watched over me and counseled caution did not. Bryn Mawr expected honor, but did not teach empathy. It required self-discipline but discouraged self-forgiveness.

I graduated. “Walked” they call it. I walked across the stage and walked away to the next stage of my life. What I didn’t realize was the growing hadn’t stopped. The best of Bryn Mawr was in seeds that began to grow only after I left.

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Fall of senior year, on the back steps of the theater building where I worked. Because theater buildings look like Gothic cathedrals, right?

 

 

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Instructions, Details, and the Uterus

This is like one of those Pinterest #nailedit fails.

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When I wrote about crochet a while back, I listed a number different things that I could do, and their limits. I had some folks kindly suggest I was being too hard on myself, enumerating the “…buts”. I promise you, however, that the opposite is more the problem. When I make quilts, or sew an eight foot stuffed squid with beanbag arms, or crochet little doilies, or hand-off the random granny squares I make to my kids’ friends, people are usually impressed. And in general I am pretty pleased with myself. If someone says, “Wow, I have no idea how to do that! That’s really cool!” that feels good and I am happy to bask in that feeling. Making stuff both amuses and gratifies me because not only do I like doing it, I like that other people think it’s nifty and something they couldn’t do (although I usually think they could).

Mostly creativity is a self-reinforcing cycle and since I don’t actually need to do any of this for a concrete, externally driven purpose (grades, money, marketing), why stress? It’s great in fact, because I need to please no one except myself (mostly) and if I had to make stuff, it would likely suck the joy out of the task. Not to mention most creative work is shockingly unremunerative, even for the people who have dedicated years to professional advancement, training, and marketing themselves in their craft.

None of this means I shouldn’t exercise self-critique on my habits and abilities. With crochet, I can watch myself treading a familiar lane. The “I could do that” instinct gets me through picking up yarn and hook, holding the hook (but not necessarily the yarn) correctly, and making a number of basic elements. So far I have made:

My sister modeling the shawl

My sister modeling the shawl

  • a bunch of doilies, some of which I used to ornament a hat
  • a bunch of hexagons
  • 2 short chunks of single stitch crocheted fabric
  • a couple of leaves
  • at least 4 different shapes of flower
  • a large shawl
  • 3 or 4 small afghans
  • 2 owls
  • a lady bug
  • several granny squares
  • 2 scarves, one with pinwheel ends
  • an (inadvertent) “poo emoji”
  • a small shawl-type thing, described more particularly below (after the poo).

I swear I was not trying to make a poo #emoji 💩 #crochet #crochetfail

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Things I have not done include:

  • figure out “gauge”, nor even tried.
  • follow a complete written instruction for any single project, nor even made the effort to match hook and yarn size.
  • forced myself to learn “increase” or “decrease”
  • followed any formal method of joining elements
  • attempted a project that requires precisely shaped pieces (e.g. garments, or those popular little amigarumi stuffed animals)
  • learned to read a pattern that doesn’t come with a line drawing. (“3dc, ch5, dc in next WHAT…?)
  • done a project that would require me to purchase a specific amount of a particular weight of yarn.

The first two of these would be good for me, the next three probably would as well. They would make me better for going through the exercise, because I can feel the objective. I know the slight increase in effort and tedium of doing something repetitive would result in my understanding some aspect of the process better, instead of forcing it. But I haven’t made the jump. Instead I do more doilies, because they are easy and fun. Apparently they’re called “motifs” in the lingo of the craft. I actually got a book showing all kinds of circles, squares, and hexagons. I use up my heterogeneous scraps of yarn on strange mongrel Frankenstein creations. This hasn’t gone entirely badly.

For example, I posted a work in progress on Facebook and one guy (my kids’ former pre-school teacher) said “looks like a uterus” and another (a high school classmate) said “needs more fallopian tubes.” I looked at it more closely and concluded they were both right. I had started out simply by trying to duplicate a scrap of antique lace, using some very strange metallic thread that I had in a bunch of different colors (mostly gold, but some silver, red, and pastel as well). After the crowd-sourced uterus feedback, I decided to run with it, adding heavy black border to set off the red endometrium.

Trying to recreate an old piece of lace #crochet #learningcurve

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I couldn’t figure out fallopian tubes (or didn’t want to), but I incorporated a couple of previously-made doilies as abstract ovaries. I also had some flowers on hand to represent the progress of the developing ovum and implanted zygote.

#Crochet detail.

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Finished, it looked quite a bit like the drawings of the egg cycle in educational materials about the menstrual cycle. But it could also pass as a rather bohemian little shawl/scarf (although the metallic thread is scratchy and annoying). My physician sister-in-law said she thought the lighter parts of the uterus, which I conceived of as symbolic of mystical female power (or something), looked just like uterine fibroids. My various teenage nieces looked at it with some skepticism but seemed to find my explanation plausible.

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One Square Mile

 

I grew up on a one way, one block street called Hamilton Place, in the middle of downtown Ann Arbor. There were few families with children, but it was a student rooming house neighborhood, so sometimes we played with the hippies who lived in the co-ops. The public library was across the street, the YMCA was in the next block. We attended the old German Congregational Church on Fifth Avenue, that we reached by walking through the driveways and backyards on our block and crossing the street. The University of Michigan main campus was five blocks east. My father taught tai qi at Regent’s Plaza on campus, and my brother and sisters and I would leap along the concrete barriers or sit with our noses pressed against the windows of the U of M administration building watching the elevators open and close. Or we might dip our feet in the fountain by the student union while our parents did the tai qi form. From the fountain I could see the gothic details of the Law Quadrangle buildings, fascinating and elegant.

The bell tower carillon is chiming #burtontower #carillon #annarbor #goinghome

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Bach Elementary School was nine blocks west in the quiet Old West Side, with its streets full of tall trees. Nine blocks down a big hill, over railroad tracks and past an auto parts factory seemed impossibly long and scary when I first started walking them at the age of seven. Slauson Junior High School (Grades 7-9 in those days) might have been a mile from the house, in the same direction. Dad was often willing to give me a ride to junior high school.

In high school, most of my time was spent in less than a square mile. Community High School was seven blocks north, across from Kerrytown Market. The blocks weren’t as long and scary as the ones to Bach, but they could be cold and windy in the winter, carrying my viola case, with no gloves. For a few years my father had a restaurant in Braun Court, on the other side of Kerrytown from the high school. I worked there on weekends and some evenings, and I could run over and get pot stickers at lunch, if I wanted. I usually didn’t want to though. It was the age when I was separating myself from my family by rejecting potstickers in favor of sour dough rolls or bagels, and studying aikido instead of my father’s tai qi. The aikido school was two blocks from the restaurant.

 

I moved away gradually, spending a little time away in high school, coming home every spring, summer and winter from college on the East Coast to stay in the house on Hamilton Place. The family restaurant didn’t survive my high school years, so when I came home I worked at Zingerman’s deli, which was next to the high school parking lot. A lot of the Commie kids worked there. Eventually my brother and both of my sisters worked there too. My brother met his wife when they both worked behind the sandwich counter at Zingerman’s. My youngest sister, after a brief seasonal job at the deli, started working at the flower shop in Kerrytown.

 

After college I lived for a year in a rental house near the athletic campus (perhaps a whole mile from the house on Hamilton), then for two years in Ypsilanti, while I commuted to Detroit for work. In law school I moved back to Hamilton, with my sisters, who had graduated from college and high school respectively. We called ourselves the International House of Babes. One sister worked as a cook at Zingerman’s, the younger was still in the flower business. I walked to classes on the gothic campus that had so fascinated me as a child. My aikido school relocated and I helped move it to a new location on Fourth Avenue, two blocks from the house on Hamilton.

When the time came to start my career, I moved with considerable reluctance three hours away, to Cleveland, and found myself coming back once a month. After five years I mused to an acquaintance that perhaps I was preventing myself from putting down roots in Cleveland. His immediate and unvarnished agreement wasn’t gracious, but he knew enough about me to know why.

In 2004 I married my husband in the church around the block from the house where I grew up. My sister and two partners had purchased the flower shop she worked during high school and she did the flowers. The rehearsal dinner was at Cottage Inn, the campus pizza restaurant that had expanded from a hole in the wall to a city wide franchise. The reception was at a now-defunct restaurant on Liberty Street, not far from Bach Elementary. When I was in junior high, it had been a fancy French restaurant. My French class had an end of year field trip there.

In 2006 I moved across the country, finally far enough away that I couldn’t get back easily. I still made it back once a year. My mother sold the house on Hamilton Place and moved to a house next door to Zingerman’s. My sister’s flower shop was on the first floor and if I ordered a bagel from the deli, I could take the plate with me, eat it in her kitchen and take it back to the bus bucket in the deli. Condos sprang up all over downtown, including in the auto parts factory. The old Victorian clap board rooming houses on the back of our block were torn down and apartments went up over the short cut to church. I lost my job about three years ago and over two years went by before I went back to Ann Arbor. It was the longest I had been away since moving there when I was three months old.

It was the office supply shop when I was a kid #annarbor #gentrification #goinghome

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When I went back briefly last year, I took my children to some of my old haunts: The Natural History Museum, Nickels Arcade. I found myself focusing on what had changed. The campus keeps ballooning out of its confines and absorbing more of the surrounding blocks, including parts of Division Street, the next street over from Hamilton. The student flop house neighborhood where I grew up looks bedraggled and worn rather than just bohemian, while everything else downtown is shinier and fancier. The YMCA where I took dance classes and learned to be terrified of swimming is a parking lot and the new YMCA is built a few blocks farther west, where an old factory building once stood, housing the Performance Network community theater and the Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce operation. In the parking lot of the credit union that went up on William Street when I was a kid, the asphalt is heaved, faded, and battered. Forty years of my life crowded into my head as I walked the streets. The ghosts of what had been in each spot before layered on top of each building and street corner. A little of what I saw comes through in this piece I wrote for Public Streets.

#architecturaldetail #annarbor @ummnh_museum

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This year I went back again, for a few days longer, with one of my children. We shopped at Kerrytown, we bought bagels and scones from Zingerman’s, which has expanded yet again. I took my child to the Natural History Museum, where she sat on the puma statues out front and gawked at the same mastodon skeleton that I visited as a child. We admired the ceramic animals at Caravan in Nickel’s Arcade, although the store is smaller than it once was. We got Chinese take out from TK Wu, whose head chef once worked with my dad at the restaurant in Braun Court. The bulletin board at my sister’s flower shop has a flier advertising the tai qi school where one of my father’s last students now teaches.

 

One of my nieces goes to Community High School. She has an even shorter walk than I did, a grueling commute across the parking lot. Another of my nieces is still at Bach Elementary. I went to the year-end ice cream social. There was Little Caesar’s pizza (not Cottage Inn, but still a Michigan-based chain) and ice cream from Washtenaw Dairy. I saw an old friend, who has fifth and third graders at Bach. We took a picture of our youngest children together and noted that it had been over twenty years since I attended her wedding, and nearly twelve since she attended mine. The acquaintance who had once commented slightingly on my attachment to my home town was there as well. Bach is his two children’s elementary school. I even bumped into a woman who I went to third and fourth grade with. Her children are at Bach now. We stood together for a moment on our elementary school playground, with our young children clinging to our legs, stared at the new addition on the back of the auditorium, and agreed that it was very strange.

 

Perhaps strangest of all was the band. They didn’t have ice cream socials or bands at Bach when I was there, but there’s a rock and roll school in town now and the proprietor is a townie. I went to high school with him, in fact. He was a bit of big man on campus when I started at Commie High (if a school like Commie could have BMOCs, they were 80s rocker boys, with their hair and guitars). In 1986 I heard him and his band play, at Performance Network, in the old factory on Washington. So there I was, hanging out at my elementary school, watching that same fellow rock out with his electric guitar. His hair is still long and splendid, if grayer. The other musicians are 10 and 12 year olds instead of 18 year olds. I told my oldest niece that thirty years ago, when I was just about exactly her age, I heard him play, and while she didn’t have to believe me, he was very beautiful to look upon, back in the day. She and her boyfriend gave me a funny look.

This time it was the little things I remembered, hidden among all the new are the bits and pieces of my childhood. I took my kid to Peaceable Kingdom on Main Street and she rummaged in the long table of wind up toys and figurines while I ogled the earrings. The antique wooden counter is still there. When we walked to the Museum, we passed the brick houses I used to walk past on the way to high school. I drove her past the house on Hamilton and told her it was the house I lived in when I was her age. She asked, “That one? The one with the gray shingles?” And they are indeed the same gray shingles, although the giant cutout of Prince in the front window is new.

Division Street Historic Homes #annarbor #historichome #goinghome

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Over the years the urge to seek out old connections when I go to Ann Arbor has gradually faded. I don’t have quite the same desire to stare the past in the face and prove that I am prospering, that my children are lovely, or my life is something to be proud of. Except for my family and the people I met by chance, I sought out only one old friend. We had lunch at Jerusalem Garden (new location, but still a block from the house on Hamilton), compared notes on our fates, and revisited threads of conversation we have had over the course of 21+ years of often challenging connection.

I have often noticed that other people don’t look backwards so much on their lives as I do. I’m basically a psychic hoarder, remembering the places where my friends lived in 1987 or 1992, noting what I ate where, who I was with, whose birthday it was. I wonder if I should look over my shoulders less, be less wound up in my memories. But this time I felt like I got it right. I could remember who I was and the places that made me, without being pulled too far back into longing for what came before. A hard friendship pays off in long understanding. The places of my childhood and youth were nourishing and familiar, but they are not my only home.

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Hook, Line, and Torte

Learning some stuff #crochet #hidingout

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Things that I can do:

  • Bake bread (although it turns out differently every time, and my cake results are even more irregular)
  • Make clothes and patchwork quilts (clothes are usually from the scraps of other clothes, and I leave a lot of woggly seams and threads hanging out)
  • Make encaustic, multi-media collages (but no one has ever wanted to pay money for one)
  • Write short stories and novels (but I can’t sell them)
  • Draw a passable free hand caricature of a pig (but not consistently)
  • Cook variations of Chinese, Appalachian American, Italian, Indian, Tex-Mex, and Hippie American food (but not necessarily consistently)
  • Read music (but I can’t play or sing worth a damn)
  • Use most hand tools and small power tools (but I’ve only ever built things out of 2x4s and plywood, and even then they didn’t always sit level).
  • Bead necklaces (but they tend to fall apart because I use the wrong thread)
  • Grow kale (but not dill, apparently) and keep a rose bush (but not houseplants) alive.
  • Braid a rag basket (but I can’t control the shape or size at all well).
  • Dye my hair (but not all of it, and I always stain my fingers)
  • Polish my nails (but I can’t color inside the lines)
  • Cut my kids’ hair (but not evenly)
  • Needlepoint (but I get bored, even when I improvise the design)
  • Hammer a copper ring brooch (but I don’t how to replicate it)
  • Carve an owl from a cedar scrap (but I can’t replicate that either)
  • Float and swim on my back (but I can’t side breathe, so I can’t actually swim effectively)
  • Design and sew large stuffed animals (but their eyes come off and their seams fail)
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Brooch made of piece of salvaged utility wire from the pantry closet.

I’ve tried about half of these things for the first time in the past two years. I always learn something, but the main thing I’ve learned in the aggregate is how little tolerance I have for my own errors. When I make mistakes, I tend to just tie a bigger knot, add more glue, skip to the next step, drive in another nail, fold it and seam over it, and if none of those things works, I walk away. I lack the patience or discipline to make repetitive errors and do boring shit on my way to the end product I envision. Nor am I willing to do any single thing long enough to get good at it.

What the hell?

My father was a bit like this. He may possibly have had a better success to effort ratio, but it’s hard to tell. My father could:

  • Grow a vegetable garden
  • Cook just about any Chinese cuisine he had ever seen or attempted, good enough to support a family
  • Practice, teach, and lecture on tai qi and qi gong
  • Sing baritone and bass voice parts (and claimed he could once sing tenor, but broke his voice shouting at people as a drill sergeant in the army)
  • Provide simultaneous translation for spoken Chinese to English and vice versa
  • Raise animals (although he wasn’t particularly fond of any of them, individually or in the aggregate)
  • Write classical Chinese poetry and calligraphy
  • Compose music (although I don’t know if anyone besides him thought it was any good)
  • Build furniture (although the only thing I ever saw him finish was a footstool, for someone who was not a member of our family)
  • Make clothes (I once saw a pair of swim trunks that he knitted, when he was in a Taiwanese prison in the 50s)
  • Butcher a chicken
  • Catch catfish and crayfish with his bare hands.
  • Make miscellaneous household objects (walking sticks, baskets, brushes, cooking implements) out of other items.
  • Make fruit liquors (although they did occasionally explode and stain the ceiling)

I only knew my father between the ages of 50 and 80 (roughly), but according to his own telling, he had at various times in his life been a star athlete, admired vocal music soloist, successful army officer, and intellectual of note. From what I could observe, there was probably some truth to most of what he believed about himself, but I also knew he had a peculiar relationship to reality and a irregular relationship with patience. He had a good faith belief that he could do anything, and he was successful enough, enough of the time that he didn’t come off as outright crazy.

One of the things that my father flat out could not do was make an apple-nut cake. My mom had an apple nut cake recipe that she made every year for her birthday. My mom followed recipes. She used the exact steps and ingredients, measured eggs by volume, and used a knife to level measuring spoons of baking powder. My father was pretty confident that anything anyone could do in a kitchen, he could do better, and if he couldn’t it wasn’t worth trying. One year he made the apple nut cake. Actually he made it twice, with different processes, or ingredients, or both. And both cakes sucked. We sat around and thought up descriptions for how bad they were (“The flavor is like the smell of a burnt vacuum cleaner belt!”). My mom told him he should have followed the recipe and he said something dismissive of recipes in general and this one in particular.

There was one recipe that I knew him to follow. The woman across the street made a

Random picture of a kirschtorte from the internet that looked a bit like Dad's - kochbar.de

Random picture of a kirschtorte from the internet that looked a bit like Dad’s – kochbar.de

Black Forest kirsch torte and he thought that cake was magic. He got the recipe from her and wrote it down, with measurements, in English, annotated in Chinese. He bought special ingredients that he didn’t use for anything else and were never in our house for any other purpose (Swan Cake Flour, bittersweet chocolate and canned cherries). He followed the recipe the same way every time, making the cake in the cake pans, layering it with whip cream, lining up the cherries one at a time, and frosting it with more whip cream, flavored with kirschwasser (also bought special). It was a beautiful and delicious cake and I asked for it for my birthday just about every year between the ages of 10 and 20.

Whatever it was about that cake made my dad not only want to follow a recipe, but set aside whatever quirks and ego he had invested in being anti-process. And the return on investment for following the steps was worth it to him.

I have not been consciously looking for my own kirsch torte, but I am well aware of my Chin-of-All-Trades, Master of None tendencies, and I know from whence they come. I have no difficulty telling the difference between the craft product I can turn out and what my sister can make (her blog is mostly food, but trust me, she can make chain mail jewelry, oil paintings, and precisely sewn, couture confections) or even what I see at most craft fairs around town.

About two months ago, I took one of my kids to get a knitting lesson from a friend of mine who is a Very Good Knitter. My town abounds with good knitters. There are yarn shops, knitting hours at coffee and wine shops, craft fairs, and a regional Fleece and Fiber festival where you can see spinning, sheep and alpaca on the hoof, and all the beautiful skeins and accessories you could imagine. My sister is a Very Good Knitter. My mother taught me how to knit (sort of), when I was about 8. I’ve tried it once or twice since and it absolutely doesn’t speak to me. But for some reason crochet does. So when I saw a crochet handbook among my friend’s many knitting tomes, I asked to borrow it.

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hour glass shaped sampler, turned into a necklet

I studied (studying is one thing I’ve done a lot of in my life, and has historically been pretty easy for me). I watched YouTube video. I re-watched YouTube video. I figured out how to do a straight row of single crochet. I learned how to make flowers. I repeatedly watched one particular woman (who I think is English, although possibly Australian) reciting and demonstrating a doily coaster. And when I made a mistake, I actually tried to re-do it. On the doilies anyway. The pieces of fabric I made turned hour-glass shaped because I can’t count stitches and turn rows consistently.

 

I shortly accumulated about six hooks, three left behind at my house by sister and three from Scrap, the craft material rummage shop. When my kid expressed an interest in knitting, I grabbed a couple of sacks of remnant yarn from the goodwill, so I had multiple weights and fibers: gross, scratchy, gaudy acrylic, natural wool that still reeked of lanolin, single balls of expensive cotton and silk blends that retail for $10.00 a piece, shiny thread and fluffy chenille.IMG_1593

I started carrying yarn and hooks with me everywhere, crocheting in meetings and on the playground at school. One of the other moms asked me about it and I explained that I had found something that I could stand to tear apart and re-do. Whatever is in me that makes me unwilling to correct my mistakes, or do boring, repetitive small pieces seems less prominent in the process. Something about the single hook and the physical mechanics of the loops works for me and I can make myself do the mental investment to get past the basics.

First, the mock up. #crochet #learningcurve

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After listening to me for a bit my friend said, “So basically you’re looking for a hobby that induces just the right amount of self hate.”

Bingo.

“Self hate” seems like a strong word, but it sounded perfect in the moment. It’s the balance between frustration and incentive that makes me want to do it right, while actually being enable to envision the steps to getting something right. Most of my life I have approached things with the attitude that I can do them, because that’s what people do. It’s what my Dad did. You see a thing (a shirt, a cake, a shoe rack, a role in a play) and you do a thing. But when it doesn’t immediately turn out well enough for your own standards and aesthetic sensibility what do you do?

In my case, it usually means acknowledging (quietly or not) that I Have Embarrassed Myself and trying something else. Because there’s always something else to try and if something doesn’t come naturally, I wasn’t meant to do it, right? The self loathing and self scrutiny kicks in, collides with the ego that tells me I can do anything and I cannot make myself do it poorly (or worse, mediocrely) over and over and over. One of the only times I’ve been able to change that pattern is aikido, where the incentive structure was much more complex (involving relationships with other people, as well as sense of self). For twenty years I was able to do repetitive basics, with the hope and expectation that I might one day get better. Improvisation by beginners is discouraged and can be acutely unrewarding. Of course with aikido there is much less in the way of concrete product than there is with fiber craft or cooking. There is rank, but promotion is infrequent and the skills themselves are somewhat intangible.

I haven’t figured out yet if crochet is more like the kirsch torte or the aikido. Or both, or neither. I can see myself struggling to deviate or imposing obstacles. I made an owl, but I got stymied with the beak because the instructions called for sewing on felt and for some reason I couldn’t bear the idea of getting out anything except a crochet needle. So I tried to crochet a beak and it looked terrible. The owl sat neglected for some days, but not as long as my last three interrupted sewing projects. I tried to join a bunch of crocheted hexagons together, using the principles I’d learned, but not any actual pattern. It worked, after a fashion, but it looked like arse. I still can’t read a written pattern at all well and I know that I can’t attempt a garment. Nor am I sure that I will ever be able to. But I have a stack of doilies of varying sizes and materials. And I haven’t run out of steam. Yet.

First I made some flowers. #crochet #beginner

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In Which I Cook from the Internet

And it works, essentially as advertised.

A friend of mine shared one of those time-lapse cooking videos on social media this week. It was called “Fajita Pizza Twists”. Here’s the original link. It originates from a site featuring a whole bunch of stuff that looks like it’s taken from the Cheesecake Factory or Applebee’s. That’s not my usual venue for culinary inspiration, but hey… The geometry of it appealed to me. It was wheel-like. And twisty. And had melty cheese. (I do like fried cheese. Or baked cheese. Or soft cheese.)

My cooking process goes something like this: if I have time to think about making something moderately unusual (meaning not pasta, burritos or stirfry), I consider what’s in the house. I consider whether my kids will actually eat it. That’s not dispositive because if it’s not burritos or pasta (or white rice with soy sauce) their preferences are highly erratic. For example, as I was explaining to my mom the other day, at any given time, 2 of the 3 of them will eat beans. One of them will be like “Beans?! Outrageous, I despise beans! You’re trying to kill me.” The next times beans are served, that one will say, “No beans for me? You hate me!” and another will be affronted. We do actually tell the kids that they’re lucky to have food and explain about food insecurity and famine. But as one might suppose, I frequently try stuff without really caring whether the kids will like it.

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The things I had in the house yesterday included: leftover breakfast sausage, leftover sauteed kale, Frozen kale (the last of the winter crop), leftover ground beef and roast peppers served with the last round of pasta. I’ll leave it to your imagination how long any of these had been sitting on the table.  I was pretty confident I had cheese in the fridge and at least part of a jar of pasta sauce. And I almost always have flour.

I made dough. This generally involves putting some sugar in hot water in the stand mixer bowl, hopefully not forgetting to add yeast before it cools completely, then adding flour and liquids in an irregular ratio at irregular intervals. Yesterday that meant wandering in from doing yard work and poking and mixing it, and adding more flour until it looked alright. Oh, and I had about a pat of butter and a cup of sweet soy milk that had curdled in the cartoon. (You think I’m joking? It’s vegan buttermilk, basically)

Along about the time I had a good lump of risen dough and reheated greens and meat, IMG_1423my kids got home. This meant the youngest was seized with an implacable mandate to help cook. That means when I omit her from any step, she screams. When I include her, she dips her sleeves in the food, picks her nose and spills things. Did I mention that I preheated the oven to 400?

When I make pizza, I usually bake the crust a bit first, but this time, because the crust was going to be super thin, I decided not to. I managed to get it rolled completely round, and put it on a silicon sheet, on top of a perforated baking pan that I inherited from my father. It is very robust. I think he used it for gardening, in the 70s. Then I followed the steps from the video: distribute ingredients in a ring, add second layer of pasta, cut wedges, and twist. The twisting actually worked! Nothing fell apart. There is a bit of tugging and expanding you have to do.

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The original, with the Fajita flavor/theme, contemplates putting sour cream and salsa in the center, so leaves a blank spot, using a glass as a placeholder. (who are are these people, that they don’t include guacamole?) I wasn’t planning to do that, but the extra dough in the center helps it hang together.

Bake at 400 for 20-25 minutes. Lots of kale, enough sausage that there’s some in every piece, mozzarella cheese. A bit of canned spaghetti sauce. And the kids ate it!

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Price and Place

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There’s a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in our part of town called Proper Eats. It has a small grocery selling bulk grains and spices, produce and natural foods. When I walk past the open door it smells like my home town did when I was growing up: yeast bread, tempeh, soy sauce and sugar. We don’t eat there all that often, but they have great nachos and tempeh reubens. The business is roughly the same age as my oldest kid and I’ve watched them grow up in parallel.

Like a lot of cafes around town, Proper Eats lets a rotating cast of local artists show work on theIMG_0335 dining room walls. Last fall I emailed the owner and asked if I could show my work and he said yes, but it was probably four or five months ago. I had a burst of activity putting what I hoped were improved edges on my work (I had noticed that people whose work is up and looking professional have finished edges on things). My sister told me to use washi tape. I did that, and I also used some gold metal pigment she gave me fifteen years ago, that has been floating around with me ever since. Then my work in progress sat on the porch for several months, as I am wont to do.

A week or so ago, I realized that February was upon me and February was when I was putting up work. So I went through and took an inventory, finished one series I had been working on, using triangles of plywood cut for one of my spouse’s projects years ago, plus recycled curtains. And I put together three pieces using a remarkable and horrible book called “A Short History of Woman” that I found at the good will of bins. The vintage, dried out paper works really well with gluey gunk. Then I had to put on price tags.

I’ve put price tags on before, when I put up the stuff in art show at my kids school, but I’m highly unscientific about it, which is okay, because I haven’t sold a piece yet. If I sell some, I’ll put more thought into the economics. There’s a lot of interesting writing and discussion about the value assigned to creative work and the sustainability of creative work, but at this point anyway, my collages are a form of self expression that I can’t yet associate, even at a conceptual level, with meaningful revenue. But I’ll ask for and take the price I put on each piece.

Then I had to hang the stuff up in the gallery, which required wire. I showed up with all the bits and pieces and put them on a table in the dining room. One of the guys working there said it reminded him of a woman that used to have a Church of Elvis down off of Burnside. “It was the same kind of stuff, you know, kitschy.” A legitimate description of my work, even if his and my understanding of the term may not be the same. The owner came buy and looked at it and said. “It’s very…collagey…”

 

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I scrambled around on the ladder for a while. Dropped at least one of my pieces and broke it, worried about the pieces pulling off the wall hurting someone, then bought a piece of vegan lavender lemon cheesecake, and sat and recovered. It was really good. Expensive, but not much different than a dessert at most restaurants around town. I came back with my youngest, after dinner, to finish putting tags and such on everything. She was very excited, “We made those! And it’s hanging on the walls!” I kind of feel that way myself.

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