Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Of Whalers and Witches: Salem

Today is Halloween, so it would seem the perfect day to talk about Salem, Massachusetts, the other place I stopped on my trip last week. Unfortunately by talking about Salem on Halloween I'm perpetuating the stereotype that I despise, which is that Salem is the city of witchcraft.

Yes, women were hanged for witchcraft in Salem in the 17th century, but they weren't witches, and I think it a shame that beautiful old-fashioned Salem should be ever after labelled for one tragic thing that happened there. Ironically, today there is a large population of Wiccans, modern day "witches" that live in Salem because of its relationship to the long-ago witch hunts. Nowadays, you can't walk down the street in Salem without seeing witch-related merchandise in store windows, the Museum of Witchcraft, witch-tours of the city, etc. What about Salem's history as a seaport? It's thriving furniture business? The artists and craftspeople who lived there and produced some of the finest goods in America during the 17th and 18th centuries? Forget witches--I would rather spend my time at the phenomenal Peabody Essex Museum.

Currently they have an exhibition of the work of Samuel McIntire, who was America's finest carver of the mid-18th century. In a country without sculptors, he carved such things as chair backs, fireplace mantels, finials, figureheads for ships, busts of famous people, and all types of other decorative ornaments for both inside and outdoors. He was also an architect-designer, who entered the competition to design the U.S. Capitol building. Extremely prolific and famous for his carving, he also found time to be a professional musician, giving music lessons and performances. Truly a renaissance man, the exhibition of his long and rich career is a masterpiece of museum display.

Another interesting and permanent exhibition at the Peabody-Essex is Yin Yu Tang, a Chinese house built in 1800 and moved in its entirety from China to Salem. Reconstructed meticulously in every detail, entering this house is like being transported back in time and to the other side of the world at once. The house of a well-to-do merchant, it was built in observance of feng shui principles, with large formal rooms downstairs that serve as receiving rooms and places to worship ancestors. An open atrium with fish pools forms the center of the house. Upstairs are many bedrooms, to house a large extended family. The rooms are furnished with the original Chinese furniture owned by the family, and everything down to the 19th century acupuncture charts on the wall, and the clothing laid out on the bed, are authentic. Signs of the Chinese cultural revolution under Mao are evident, as in the propaganda box mounted on the wall in the large downstairs room. Every house was required to have one of these boxes installed so that everyone would hear what Mao was saying--they couldn't turn it off.

It was so interesting to compare Yin Yu Tang to the nearby Garner-Pingree house, which was built in Salem in 1804. During this time, China was emerging as a major source of trade with Europe and America, and Salem would have been a major port for incoming ships laden with goods from the far East, ensuring the wealth of both American and Chinese merchants.

I didn't have enough time in Salem to see everything I wanted to see. The Peabody Essex Museum is incredible! I briefly looked at its permanent collection of early American art and furniture, which includes one of the first organs made in America. I was enthralled by the displays of model ships and paintings that had to do with the sea-trade and sailor life. The interior of America's first private ocean-going yacht "Cleopatra's Barge" is recreated within the museum, complete with the watercolor homage to the cat Pompeii, who died at sea in 1817 or so. I especially loved the sketchbooks on display, made by sailors during their long voyages, and the scrimshaw they made by decorating whale teeth or walrus tusks in etched designs. One had a poem, "Death to the living, long life to the killers. Success to sailors wives & greasy luck to whalers." There is something so magical and adventurous about the sea--I'm constantly fascinated by stories of sailors and sea-life, especially during the old days before coal and machine powered ships.

There wasn't enough time to see the photography exhibit, or the glass, or any of the rest of the museum. Someday I'll have to go back with much more time to wander. However, I saw enough to know that the Peabody Essex Museum is a fantastic place, and I highly recommend it to anyone. Also, next time I go to Salem I will visit Nathaniel Hawthorne's "House of Seven Gables," which is just down the street.

As for Halloween in New York? I'm going to visit the Met, do my homework, go for a run in the sunshine, and then stay in tonight, safe from ghouls, with no tricks but a few treats on hand.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Fleeting Moment

One magical thing happened to me today: I arrived early for my class at the Met and was sitting outside on the edge of one of the cement fountains. It was quite cold today, but sunny, and the streets are full of autumn leaves. So I wasn't surprised when an orange and brown leaf fluttered down and landed next to my leg. However, I looked again, and saw that it wasn't a leaf but a large burnt-orange butterfly with brown-edged wings! It stayed there fluttering in the sun next to me for a few minutes, while I admired it, and then it flew away, blending again into the autumn cityscape.


One of the places I visited last week was Marblehead, Massachusetts. A small town today, this seaport was once bustling with business from the cargo ships that sailed in and out of its harbor bringing goods from Europe, South America, and the rest of the world to the American colonies. In the mid 18th century it was the second largest city in Massachusetts, and the home of the state's richest families. It remains a charming quaint town by the sea, full of darling old houses packed tightly together amid winding lanes that all lead to the harbor.

In 1766 Jeremiah Lee built an impressive home in Marblehead for his family. The owner of an impressive 21 ships used for both fishing and commerce, Jeremiah Lee would soon be known as the richest man in Massachusetts. His new home reflected his wealth, and still stands today, furnished to evoke what it may have looked like when the Lees lived there.

Built in the Georgian style, the Lee mansion is both symmetrical and graceful, on the cutting edge of the emerging neoclassical craze in art and architecture. The exterior looks like it is made of large stone bricks, but in fact is wood, coated in sand and painted to appear as if it were limestone.

The interior is spacious and furnished as the Lees may have kept it. Because the house passed to a bank after the Lees owned it, and thereafter became a historic site, almost no changes to the structure of the building have occurred. Floorboards have changed over the years, and original wallpaper painted over, but much has been restored to appear as it would have in the 1760s and 1770s. One of the more remarkable changes occurred in 1852 when the walls in one of the front parlors were painted to look like paneled wood. The grain is painted so well, its hard to see that they are not real wood.

In the 18th century houses were set up differently than they are nowadays. There was a specific delineation between public and private rooms, often an entire half of the house was the public half, and the other the private. For example, in the Lee mansion, as you enter the home, the front room to the right was used as a public entertaining room, for parties, dinners, etc. The left-hand room was reserved for more private family teas and other intimate gatherings. Upstairs, the bedrooms to the right were used for guests, or for Mrs. Lee to entertain female friends. The left-hand rooms were strictly for family use.

In those days, furniture would be kept up against the walls when a room was not in use. The rooms had multiple purposes, so all the tables folded up and went against the walls, as did the chairs and sofas, and only brought out when it was time for a dinner, tea, or game of cards. With no central heating, the Lees no doubt spent a lot of time during the winter sitting in front of their beautiful fireplaces, which still have the original painted ceramic tiles from Europe that Mrs. Lee must have chosen. In all the rooms, household items are on display along with the textiles and furniture from the period. 18th century people would probably laugh at us today, because most of us probably could not identify some of their everyday tools such as candlewick trimmers or chamber pots.

Jeremiah Lee was one of the unsung heroes of the Revolutionary War. With all his wealth and connections, he risked it all by engaging in covert operations involving purchasing and smuggling in weapons, gunpowder, and supplies for the rebelling colonies to use in the impending war. Without his help, the outcome of the war may have been totally different. However, as a direct result of this clandestine and now patriotic activities, Lee died in 1775 and has remained obscure to history. Without him, his family descended into poverty and all that remains is their remarkable house.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Church and Stuff

It's Sunday! Always a wonderful day. Today was especially exciting because I have recently been given a new calling at church. For those of you not up on your Mormon lingo, a "calling" is a job that you get assigned to do as part of your church attendance. The Bishop issues the calling and you may either accept or decline, but its always good to accept because every calling allows a person to learn and grow in a new way. Callings include such things as Sunday-School Teacher, Librarian, Family History Worker, Chorister, etc. My new calling is Relief Society Teacher. And again, for those of you who don't know, the Relief Society is the women's organization of the church, which meets the third hour of church every Sunday.

So in my new calling I get to teach the Relief Society lesson about once or twice each month. The topic is determined by the leaders of the church so that each ward in every city around the world gets taught the same things (and the men get taught the same topic too, in Elders Quorum). But its up to me to decide how to teach that topic and what specific things my women ought to hear.

My sister was horrified when I told her what my calling was going to be, because she has a horror of public speaking. (She hasn't received a calling in this ward yet.) I guess I'm old enough now that it doesn't bother me in the least to stand in front of 40 girls and teach a lesson. In fact, I rather enjoy it. I get to be in charge, and view it as an exciting challenge. Plus, it forces me, in a good way, to read up on and learn about a topic that I may need some work on in my own life. In fact, if I were to choose my own calling right now, it would be RS Teacher, so I am very happy. I'm very relieved not to be on the Activities Committee, or an FHE leader!

However, last Sunday when I got my calling, my initial excitement turned to surprise and almost dismay when I found out that I would be teaching my first lesson in just one week, and it would be on the topic of Divorce! The fourth Sunday of each month the lesson comes from a talk or talks given in recent General Conference, and this particular talk was given last April by one of my favorite Apostles, Dallin H. Oaks. His talk is actually quite wonderful, (you can read it on in the Gospel Library section, under General Conference--just do a search) and I enjoyed rereading it. Elder Oaks is a lawyer by profession and he seems to always say things in a very orderly, logical way, which allows the truth of the gospel to shine through.

You'd think that the subject of Divorce would have nothing to do with single adults under the age of 30, but there was actually a lot to be said and discussed. The lesson was actually easier to plan than I thought it would be. The hard part was teaching it. It's a subject that a lot of people get very emotional about, as it has touched so many lives, and it involves discussions on marriage and dating, which single Mormons are also very opinionated about. My main task was steering the discussion to a desired goal, and that was to reaffirm some key points:

1. Heavenly Father loves each of us and wants what is best for us.
2. He cannot deny us blessings if we are righteous and do our best to work hard and keep the commandments.
3. Families are sacred, and marriages can be eternal.

With those things in mind, I was able to steer every tangential comment back to the point that if we just do everything we are supposed to do as obedient sons and daughters of God, marriages will work, relationships will be strong, and families will be happy and blessed. I've seen it happen in real life!

So, I'm really excited about this new calling, though I am eager for less controversial topics.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


To catch everyone up on my trip, and to remember all the incredible things I saw, I will spend the next couple of blogs talking about places I visited this past week.

One place was the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence. I spent an afternoon browsing their amazing art museum. For a small school that not many people outside the art world have ever heard of, they have an astonishing collection, including things as disparate as ancient Roman sculpture, French Impressionist paintings, and contemporary video-art. I was really proud of myself when I was able to recognize an etching by Piranesi, similar to the ones I saw last weekend at the exhibit currently at the Cooper-Hewitt in New York.

Two displays struck me as especially nice. One is in homage of the "grand hall" found in old English and French houses: the long passageway from one wing of the estate to another, where the nobility would display their art collections from floor to ceiling for all their friends to admire. Unlike a dark old castle hall, the RISD's grand hall is painted a deep blue, and pictures are hung salon style, but not crowded to the point of fatigue. A long skylight as well as myriad spotlights illuminate the works, which range from serene landscapes to noble portraits, to impassioned religious scenes. Soft chairs in the center of the room provide a place for the viewer to contemplate the art and leaf through guides which inform of titles, artists, and media. The walls are refreshingly free of labels. When I was there, two actual monks were seated before a painting of a biblical scene, utilizing the power of the visual to convey spiritual meaning.

The other exhibit that I thought just wonderful is titled "American Idyll," the play on words an example of musuem curator humor, I guess. The selection here is quite thought-provoking. The idea of the show is to illuminate the stories of people and places overlooked in America's long tradition of using art to showcase the ideal, and show how they helped make this country vibrant. In portraits of Native Americans and African Americans, women and children, untouched wilderness and smog covered rooftops, the panorama of America unfolds before the eye. In telling their stories, the exhibition draws from so many directions, and references so many issues, that the message isn't immediately apparent, yet once I started to see the different threads and recognize the subtle way that artists have used their work to tell social stories, I understood. The best example is the dressing table and chair pictured above, which was made by the Gorham silver company for the 1904 World's Fair. It's hard to tell from my image, but this table, the most fabulous and masterful example of its kind ever made in this country, is a combination of French art nouveau, English rococo, Greco-Roman neoclassicism, and Asian marquetry and inlay techniques. It combines a variety of cultural influences into one masterpiece. Just like the 1904 World's Fair did. Just like America continues to do.

The third amazing thing at the RISD art museum is the historic "house" that is built into the museum, known as Pendleton House. Stepping into it is as if you are going back in time into the home of a wealthy and elite 18th century American. It's not a real house, as the built in display cases attest, but it simulates one in a gorgeous way.

I encourage everyone to visit Providence, a charmingly quaint city with street names such as "Pleasant" and "Benevolent" and the city motto "Hope." It's enough sweetness to make you sick except its so welcoming and idyllic that you never will want to leave. I didn't, but of course I did.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Back to Boston

Sorry about not posting the last couple of days. In case anyone is wondering, I did not give up on my blog and abandon it to cyberspace. Nor did I run out of fascinating things to say. I went to Boston. And some other places too. It was a whirlwind tour of New England, and it was so much fun.

I cannot right now describe everything I saw. In fact, I just barely got home and walked in the door and have changed out of my rain-soaked clothes, and since Boston is still fresh on my mind, I will just say a few words.

Boston and New York are both big cities, but that is where the similarity ends. They are like two worlds. In Boston, you feel a connection with history that isn't apparent in New York. In Boston, the streets are brick and haphazardly placed, and are named after artists of the 18th century: Stuart and Copley. You turn a corner and you are confronted with a statue of a pilgrim or the gravestone of a founding father. And even more ancient stories are there to be told: long ago when I lived in Massachusetts I used to constantly think of the Native Americans who used to live where I lived, and walk in the woods where I walked. How did they feel when strange white people came and took over their world?

I know that Native Americans lived in New York once upon a time too, but here the history has been repressed and buried under the slick impermeable state-of-the-art bubble of flashing modernity with all its grit and glamour that is New York City. Nobody here ever thinks of the past, except me--but only because I'm studying it.

Boston has a personality, a depth, a spirit that is unlike any other city I know of. I got there on the night of the first game of the World Series, and the Red Sox won. You just knew that in every bar, in every living room, people were cheering and having a great time, and kids were falling in love with their home town team. Boston is like one big family that has never moved away from where it has always lived. You feel welcome there. You feel good.

I felt good as I chowed down on delicious Dunkin Donuts, at 8 o'clock this morning in Boston Common, sitting on a bench in the sunshine watching old Asian men do martial arts exercises. It felt good to be home.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On Top of the World

One of my favorite things about my apartment is that I can go up on the roof and hang out. The rooftop is an experience unlike any other. It provides a totally different aspect of the city, and because of this, it facilitates introspection, creativity, and relaxation.

This morning I didn't have class and it was one of the last really nice days we're going to have before winter comes along. The roof was calling me and I couldn't resist its pull. I climbed up there and laid on a blanket in the sun, soaking up the warmth, which the roof's surface reflects back again. Starlings warbled and flew in and out of their nests in the brownstones across the street. Crows like inkblots on the blue sky flew overhead and pigeons, along with an occasional squirrel, came for a morning drink in the stopped-up gutter of my building. See, there is nature within the city.

As the morning progressed, I wrote a letter, read some chapters in a book, and called my mom for a much-needed chat. Fine, wispy clouds came along and hazed the sun, but I was glad because it was getting hot up there. I moved to the shade next to the chimney, but still I couldn't leave.

I watched the workmen gutting the house across the backyard and listened to them talking in an unfamiliar language. I observed other rooftops with their potted plants, astroturf, chimneys like mushrooms sprouting every which way, doors leading to unique and private worlds. Each house here has a distinct and colorful personality, much like their residents. In the distance, the skyscrapers of Manhattan seem bland and indistinctive.

After eating my lunch up on the roof, I finally had to come down and get ready for an afternoon class. But oh, so reluctantly.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Maximum Potential

I don't know if it was the sleep deprivation from staying up too late on Saturday night, or the slight cold I may or may not have, or the Benadryl I took to combat said cold, but today I felt a strange melancholy.

At church I realized it was actually a feeling of deep spiritual longing. I've always tried to be a good person, and do everything the way the church teaches, bla bla bla, but for the past few years sometimes I've felt like I've just been floating along, not paying attention to my spiritual life the way I should. Paying attention to temporal things, that don't really matter in the long run. Sometimes you get comfortable and don't want to change things, even if it would be a change for the better.

But today in each lesson taught at church, each talk, or comment made, I felt those pangs that some of you may be familiar with. The pang you get when you know that the Lord is telling you something. The pangs that make tears come to your eyes for no apparent reason during the hymn, for example. The still small voice.

What is preventing you from reaching your maximum potential? This is the question asked by the teacher in class, and I've been answering it in my mind all day. It's simple--I am preventing myself from reaching my maximum potential. God wants me to succeed. He loves me, shows me the way to go, gives me all the tools I need, and then its up to me. But I don't always follow through as best I could. I haven't always paid attention to that still small voice. I've brushed it aside and forged my own way ahead, not caring.

The good news is that I know exactly what I need to do to make those changes in my life for the better. And the other good news is that I really want to do it, and I'm listening now. I believe in God, and I believe that he has a plan for me, which helps me to find the courage to make steps into my future.

The other thing that I know with certainty is that no matter what I've done, there is still my Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ believing in me, desiring my success, and reaching out to draw me closer to them. As it says in Isaiah, "his hand is stretched out still." He will never turn away or move.

So now I have a renewed desire to live my life more spiritually. I've been renewed today, and refreshed, as if the scales have been removed from my eyes, and I see the splendor that the gospel can bring me. Let me feast! I will go, I will do. I will not hold myself back.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Unanswered Questions

I knew that moving to New York would be somewhat of a culture shock. It's a big leap from the South, that's for sure. However, I think I've been adjusting really well. I've always been a fast walker, so I fit right in, especially during the morning commute. Still, after two months of being here, I have some unanswered questions about the city, or maybe just about my neighborhood:

1. Why are there always piles of batteries on the subway tracks? You're waiting for your train, you look around, you look down on the track, and aside from the occasional rat or newspaper, you see batteries. Triple A, double A, batteries of all brands. Every subway stop has them down there, scattered along the track. Are people changing their i-pod batteries while they wait for the train and throwing their batteries down there? Is it some sort of sacrifice to the subway god? Does it give energy to the track?

2. Why is there a man selling incense sticks at every street corner in Harlem? Sometimes they sell candles too, sometimes earrings. But always incense. My theory is that its covering up the scent of other things they sell, but that would seem so obvious...

3. There is a building near my house with a really tall tower and at night the lights in the building are always off except for one small window at the very top of the tower. Every night it is on, and it makes me wonder. Who is up there?

4. At the grocery store, sometimes there are little boys that run up and bag my groceries for me. They look about 8 or 9 years old. Am I supposed to tip them? Is it legal for them to be working?

5. Why do so many New Yorkers have dogs? I know they're cute, but you'll never catch me walking one three times a day or more, with a plastic baggie, picking up it's poop off the sidewalk.

6. Why is my landlady crazy? She stores trash (old magazines and newspapers and other junk) in the first floor apartment of my building. It's such a waste of a beautiful space. And we have to put our garbage in front of the neighbor's stoop on trash day, or else the landlady will come along and sort through it. She's crazy!

It seems like I have more unanswered questions, but its getting late and I can't think of any more right now. Or maybe six is enough. I don't know if I could sleep well if I had many more than that. How about you? What are your unanswered questions?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hidden Gems

There is a pattern that some old fairy tales follow: the hero or heroine begins a journey in which they meet along the way various people who request their help. Sometimes it is an old man with a long beard that has become caught in the brambles and cannot free himself. Sometimes it is an old woman in rags waiting by a well, requesting a drink. The kind-hearted heroine, unlike her previous sisters, helps the stranger, who eventually reveals her true nature as a magical being, and gives the young girl a talisman or gift that helps her reach her destiny.

I remember being very young and reading one such story that made a big impression on me. It was about a girl who gave the woman at the well a drink and was rewarded with the gift of having jewels and flowers fall from her lips every time she opened her mouth to speak. When her sister saw this, she too went to the well, but in her haughtiness would not give the old woman a drink, so she was cursed with frogs and snakes coming from her lips.

In the Bible, the same sort of theme is echoed in the parable of the good Samaritan, as well as in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. It seems that in order for the magic to work, the person must have had no selfish motive for helping the stranger, but be moved purely by benevolence. Furthermore, the stranger represents Christ, as in Matthew 25 where it says, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." In the case of the good Samaritan, the reward is spiritual not physical.

Sometimes I wonder if fairy tales, even Greek myths, aren't just corruptions, variations, and elaborations of old biblical themes. I've had this on my mind today because it seems like I was helping little old ladies right and left this afternoon. At the bus stop, a lost woman asked me how to get to the East side and I told her to get on the bus I was getting on and she'd be there in no time. The same thing happened when I was waiting for the subway. A little old lady asked me how to get to 125th street, and I told her to follow me--I was going that way too. At the grocery store, being tall, I was able to assist little old ladies in getting the merchandise they desired.

No gems and flowers fall from my lips, and I have not been the recipient of any magical tokens. However, I do feel good about my day, and that's enough reward. I am able to forget personal problems and feel grateful for the abilities and blessings that I do have. Now if only we could get to the part in the story where the prince charming rides up...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


I just found out that I get to sleep in tomorrow! My morning class was changed to the afternoon. Now the prospect of a long leisurely morning in my pajamas is making me smile. Too bad I don't have anyone to serve me breakfast in bed...

No, I'm sure I will be up with the sun (if there is any--it's supposed to rain tomorrow, I think) and getting stuff done. Some of the things on my to-do list include buying Borax (this magical powder serves double duty as both laundry detergent and roach killer), doing my laundry, and cleaning the bathroom.

But that's not interesting blog-material! Instead, let me tell you about riding in a car for the first time in weeks! So, yesterday my dad came to town for a business trip. He wanted to stay with us, but my sister and I convinced him that if his company was paying, why not get a hotel? He agreed, but it was so cute--he booked one in Harlem, to be near us!

We had the afternoon to spend, so we went to the Met and wandered through the Greek & Roman galleries, as well as the Rembrandt exhibit (really just to see the Vermeers--what is it about those paintings?) and the Egyptian mummies. My favorite thing is always the jewelry. There are some amazing gold necklaces, a few thousand years old, made of thread-like hand-knit gold wires, so intricate you wouldn't believe! And hammered gold laurel wreaths that were placed on important people in their tombs. What I love about gold is that, old as it is, it never dulls, but remains as bright as the day it was worn by an exotic Greek princess.

The best part of the day was when Dad took us out to eat for dinner. Starving artist/students that we are, we don't eat right. A good day involves a peanut butter sandwich, ramen noodles, cereal, and maybe an apple. Tonight we had Real Food. Meandering over to the upper East side, we found a cute Italian place, and it was just warm enough to sit outside and eat (I had a delicious fettucine with mushrooms and garlic!!!) while we talked and people-watched.

My dad served a two year mission for our church in New York City in the 1970's, so he reminisced about his experience, and caught us up on all the news from home. Afterwards, we strolled over to the nearest Tasti-D-Lite and had a yummy treat for dessert. Then we popped into a taxi and sped back to Harlem.

And it felt so wierd to be in a car after so many weeks of walking, taking the subway, and riding the bus. Sometimes at night when I hear revelers and hoodlums down in the street I instinctively panic, but then I realize I don't have a car out there, so there's nothing to worry about. And sometimes when I'm walking around the city, I get a whiff of antifreeze, which had been the bane of my own car experience for many years, and I feel a sinking in my stomach. But then I remember that I don't have a car, so I don't have to worry about antifreeze leaks! Ha ha! I'm free!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My Problem

My problem is that I like to do everything, but there's never enough time for it all. I have lists of books I want to read, projects I want to complete, artwork I want to make, places to go, things to try, sights to see, and on and on. Not to brag, but I was blessed with the almost super-human ability of hardly ever becoming bored, which has come in handy over the years. The problem is, when you are interested in everything, what do you choose?

How does one choose what to do first or what to focus on? Okay, I'm not a baby--I know my priorities are things like family, church, and school. But then what comes next? Should I learn how to knit a sweater or spend my time at the museum looking at ancient Egyptian jewelry? Should I invest in calligraphy supplies or tatting thread? Would it be better to crochet curtains for my windows first, or make a rag rug for my floor? I just don't know, and sometimes I just end up wasting my time thinking about the possibilities and don't every actually accomplish anything.

Which is why I'm worried about my Master's thesis. I know I don't have to pick a topic until December or January, but I'm already thinking about all the choices. It seems like most people have one thing they are really interested in, but I love it all. Okay, maybe not ALL, but a lot! So what should I choose? American jewelry or printmaking? Shaker furniture or Mormon craftsmen? Quilting or quill-work? Miniatures or mirrors? Children's book illustrations or circus posters? A single work of art or a whole genre?

My mother would tell me to make a list, with pros and cons and rankings and so forth, so as to gradually narrow it down, so that's probably what I'll end up doing. Maybe if anyone is reading this they can vote in and tell me what I should study. I guess the good news is that no matter what I choose, I will be fascinated by it.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Winter of Our Discontent

My sister hates winter. She hates the cold. She hates wearing sweaters. When she's cold her lips become numb and she can't talk. Her legs and hands become numb and she can't move. When it's winter, she says, everyone looks the same--like big marshmallows in their bundles of clothes, and where's the fun in that?

Well, I like winter. But then, I'm not too picky. I like the summer, spring, and autumn too. Winter is just different, not better or worse than any of the other seasons. It's not here yet, but we're already starting to feel the nippy air. The days are shorter. The wind blows in through the cracks in our old house, and we're starting to wonder where our scarves and hats are. Do we have boots to wear when the sidewalk is icy?

My sister wants to hibernate all winter--never leave the house or even the warm spot by the radiator. I'm excited about the change in season. I'm enjoying the autumn, with its ups and downs in temperature, the colorful foliage, the coziness of wearing sweaters and putting on socks again after the hot summer. I can still eat my lunch outside, but I have to search for a sunny bench.

I'm looking forward to waking up one morning and seeing snow falling. It will be fun to go to Rockefeller Center and watch ice-skaters. I'll wear mittens and a furry hat. My cheeks will get rosy when I walk briskly to class. Hot chocolate will be my snack of choice. Christmas displays will fill the shop windows. I'll sleep in flannel sheets, with three quilts and maybe an electric blanket too, and I won't want to get out of bed in the morning. I love these things about winter!

But I suppose that come February, when I've grown bored of all my winter clothes, and my boots have holes in the toes, and the skies seem to be gray every day, and there are huge piles of brown slush everywhere, I will have forgotten the charms of winter and will begin daydreaming of fresh spring, with its greenery and sunniness.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Poor Me

It may sound crazy, but I've always secretly believed, no matter how much I may talk otherwise, that it is better to be poor than rich. When I say poor, I don't mean extremely homelessly poor, with no medical care or food. I mean having just enough money to meet your needs and not a ton of extra to spend on frivolous things. So now that I am quite poor, I've been thinking about things that I like about it:

1. When I do spend m precious money on something, I treasure it. It's fun to search for the best bargain, and when I find it, I appreciate what I've found more than if I just bought it on a whim. And, I take care of something better if I know it has to last a while. Winter boots, for example. I'm searching for the perfect pair, because I can only afford one pair that will have to last me all winter. When I find them, they will be awesome, and I'll take care of them like my babies.

2. Food tastes better, because I eat less of it, and what I do buy is wholesome, because its usually unprocessed. I've eaten more vegetables since moving here than I have in a long time! Beans and rice are really good for you too.

3. My eyes are open. I take the bus or I walk where I need to go, rather than taking a taxi. That way, I see much more of the city than I would if I were zipping through traffic. I see the small details, such as garden nooks, interesting architectural details, and the interesting people that inhabit such places.

4. I'm more creative. There are a ton of things to do in New York without spending money, but they aren't obvious, so it requires thinking and planning, as well as being flexible and spontaneous, willing to try things I wouldn't think of otherwise.

5. Less to worry about. Because I have no money, I'm not afraid of being robbed. Also, I have less choices I have to make--I already know what I can afford to do or not do. No need to waste time shopping for things I don't need or eating junkfood--I'm out doing important things instead, like spending time with interesting people or reading great books in the beauty of Central Park, for example.

These are just some of the reasons why I like being poor right now. Then again, I've never experienced being rich, so maybe I just don't know what I'm talking about. Still, I think it's healthy to have to work for what I get, and learn how to enjoy life without relying on money.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Raindrops Keep Falling

Ah, the summer is over... It's a good thing I bought an umbrella the other day because today was one of those rainy days that make you want to curl up in front of the fire sipping hot chocolate with a good long book. Unfortunately, I had class on the other side of town.

Luckily, class was at the store of Leigh Keno, of Antiques Roadshow fame, who has a furniture business specializing in late 17th to early 19th century pieces. Sitting with him was actually the perfect thing to do on a rainy day, because his shop was bright and inviting, full of amazing artifacts and friendly associates. Most delightful of all, Mr. Keno was there to ply us with stories of his life as a treasure-hunter. More ebullient and outgoing than his twin Leslie, Leigh is a talker! Ask him a question and he will launch into a story about an amazing find, then head down a tangent that describes the construction of a particularly unusual spice chest, detouring next into another story about growing up, or his experience racing cars for fun. I could have listened all day. Leigh's passion for his field was evident, but what I found most heartening was the fact that he's not just an old furniture snob. He loves and collects all kinds of other things from antique stoneware jugs, to cast iron door handles, to 20th century paintings.

Plus, he is a genuinely nice person who succeeds in the competitive art world while maintaining a very high standard of ethics. Let's just say Leigh Keno is my new hero.

Also today I saw the amazing period rooms at the Museum of the City of New York. Ranging from a 17th century Dutch interior to the opulent rooms of the Victorian elite, this museum has a surprisingly rich collection of furniture, textiles, silver, and ceramic. It was quite illuminating and educational to see their displays, described so excellently by curator Debbie Waters, who also tought my class how to distinguish between an early 19th century klismos chair and a 20th century reproduction. I think I'm starting to get a handle on this furniture stuff.

Back outside in the bleakness of a torrential downpour, I ran to catch the bus, which of course stopped in front of a huge puddle! Finally arriving home in the late afternoon I was soaked from the knees down and ready to curl up with my hot chocolate and... homework.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Porcelain Sickness

My favorite thing about school is the amazing people that I meet, and the incredible stories they tell while teaching me about their specialty. One of the most delightful and entertaining of these has been Tish Roberts, an expert on the subject of porcelain. A small, spry Philadelphian, she has the knack of inserting the most hilarious asides in her lectures on the seemingly staid subject of ceramics.

As it turns out, porcelain has a very exotic, adventurous, and elaborate history. The Chinese have made porcelain expertly for thousands of years, so when Europeans discovered this and began to bring the stuff back to Europe, people went literally crazy over it. Perhaps the craziest was Augustust II, Prince of Saxony, known as Augustus the Strong not for his muscles, but his ability to sire children (they say he fathered over 300!) But his main passion was for porcelain. He amassed a gigantic collection of precious objects including all the porcelain he could lay his hands on. He told people he would build a palace out of porcelain if he could.

This obsessive porcelain collecting reached ridiculous heights when Augustus traded 600 of his soldiers to the King of Prussia in exchange for 151 blue and white Chinese porcelain vases. Part of the reason porcelain was so prized during these times was the fact that no European knew how to make it--China held the secret, and they weren't telling.

But, luckily for Augustus, he had in his employ one alchemist, Johann Bottger, who was in charge of turning base metal into gold. Obviously failing at that task, he was imprisoned and about to be executed when he stumbled upon an even greater discovery--the secret of how to make "white gold," porcelain. The secret lay in kaolin, a white clay that creates the hard, white, translucent ceramic that Europeans loved so much. And as fate would have it, Augustus the Strong had kaolin deposits in his kingdom. Soon enough he had formed his own porcelain manufactory in Dresden, and the rest is history.

You can't make this stuff up!

Tish says that the history of ceramics is the history of mankind, and I believe it.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Viva L'Italia!

Every year New York city celebrates Columbus' discovery of America by throwing a huge parade that focuses on... Italy. I had to see it. So my sister and I arrived at 5th avenue this morning and staked out a prime spot to watch the spectacle. Four hours later, I'd seen quite a few Italians including Miss Italian America, Miss Teen Italian America, Miss Italian USA, and Miss Everything (somehow I rather doubt the "Miss" part on that last one). The parade also included several very good high-school marching bands, Shriners on Vespas, soldiers, clowns, marching men in kilts playing bagpipes, lots of cool old cars (I liked the vintage police cars), people dressed as medieval royalty, people dressed as Roman gladiators, as well as quite a few unidentified mayor/congressman/city council-types walking the parade rather than riding in cars (so as to appeal to the people, I take it) with their wives and children tagging along.

We also had a front row view of eight police officers trying to arrest a suspicious looking video-camera operator.

It was quite a spectacle. My favorite was the old man dressed vaguely as a pirate but with flourescent flowers stuck all over him. He had a live parrot on his head, and they both seemed to be having a great time. We also had fun speculating on the reason why humans find inflated bits of colored rubber so fascinating (I'm talking about balloons)!

But it was a hot day to be out in the sun, so afterwards we went home, rehydrated ourselves, and ate a lot of ice cream. Since it's a holiday, it's okay to be lazy, and I spent the rest of the evening listening to NPR up on the roof, watching the clouds form first into a brilliant pink sunset, then a distant but dazzling thunder and lightning show.

Sunday Conference

If you don't know by now, I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and there are a few things differences between my church and others. One of them is that we believe in a living prophet, and continuing revelation. God continues to speak to his children, just as he did in biblical times.

We also believe in having our church organized just as it was when Christ was on the earth, with twelve apostles. Twice a year, the whole church gathers for a world-wide conference, and the prophet and the apostles speak, as well as other leaders, and their words are broadcast to hundreds of countries and translated into hundreds of languages. Anyone who wants to can listen or watch live online, too. (

So, this weekend was conference weekend. It's hard to describe the feelings I have about it, because it's difficult to explain the peace and comfort that it gives me to know that my Father in Heaven loves me, and has given me leaders and teachers to help guide me along. Many of the words in the talks seemed directed at me personally, and I know that other people felt the same way, even though they are going through different trials than I am. There is a holy spirit that reveals truth to those who seek, and through that spirit, I knew that those men were prophets and apostles, and that what they spoke were words that my Heavenly Father wanted me to hear.

The messages were about leading Christian lives of love, charity, service, and faith. There was a focus on the family, and how the most important work to be done in life is within the walls of our own homes. Also, that we ought to be examples of goodness to all around us, showing the compassion and caring that Christ did while upon this earth. These were not thunderous sermons of repentance, but loving counsel of kindness and understanding. I left conference with my lamp of oil refilled, my eyes misty, and a sense of deep trust that the Lord is longing to bless me, if only I will listen.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sticks and Stones

For the most part, everyone I've encountered here in the city, even just in Harlem, have been nice if not friendly. Sometimes at the grocery store an old lady will engage me in conversation about keeping bread fresh, or on the bus I'll see a man give up his seat for a pregnant woman. But every now and then there's a meanie. My sister went to the grocery store early yesterday morning and along the way a man called her, for no apparent reason, some awful names. He had a little boy with him, too, and she heard him tell the little boy that that's what you should say to people when you want them to get out of your way.

Appalled at his display of senseless rudeness, she was further incensed that the man would be actively training a little boy how to be cruel too. Coming from a family where the children were taught how to be kind and polite, it just didn't make sense to her that there could really be such mean people out there. She came home in tears.

I suppose the only way to combat it is to be as kind and friendly as we can. If a cruel word can have such an effect, think of what effect a very kind word could have on a stranger. So it was funny when, later, we set off together for a church activity. As we turned the corner on our way to the subway, I smiled at a guy walking a dog, and he said to us strangers, "Hey, have a wonderful day!" We thanked him and went on. As we passed another church, a woman outside handed us pamphlets. Mine said "You are Special." Another token of unexpected kindness. At our church we were treated to a most uplifting message of love and charity, where we were challenged to live the way Christ lived, giving love and service to all we come in contact with.

So we see that life is a lesson, and gives us daily choices. We have two examples before us--the rude and cruel man, or kind and friendly strangers. How will we choose to react to bad and good? What will our own actions toward strangers be? What will we teach our children?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Mysteries at the Met

Class was cancelled today, so I had a class of my own at the Met. I've been there a few times since coming here, but I haven't spent a huge chunk of time there, just wandering and soaking things in, until today. Today I spent about 4 hours just in the American wing, and I didn't even see everything there was.

Some things were familiar, like Sargent's Madame X and the Mary Cassatt paintings. Other things were strange to see in real life, because I'm accustomed to seeing them in books. Washington Crossing the Delaware is enormous! I knew it was big, but how did Leutze even get it out of his studio? And that painting by Winslow Homer of the schoolboys playing crack-the-whip is tiny! My favorite pieces to see today were the paintings by Ryder and Blakelock--both very strange, enigmatic artists who had a similar style. Albert Pinkham Ryder is known for his small very dark paintings of sailboats on tossing waves lit by only the moon, and his use of paint was so fierce and thick that now all his works have the added mystery of an intensely cracked surface.

I also spent time looking at the furniture, because that's what we've been focusing on at school. And I have all the periods down--I just can't figure out how to tell the difference between regional style differences. What makes a Chippendale side chair from Boston different from one made in New York? There's a difference--it's still a mystery to me, though.

Of course, I didn't waste the whole day in the museum. I napped in Central Park in the middle of a flock of tiny brown birds that were having the best time eating tiny grass seeds. I read a book. I went back into the museum and sketched some Roman statuary (does anyone dust those things? My statue had a cobweb on him), and got freaked out by a glass urn still containing funerary ashes of a Roman person. What would they have said if they knew that someday their final remains would be sitting on view in New York City being stared at by high-school students and tourists?

Thursday, October 4, 2007


There will only be a few more weeks of warm weather in New York before the cool and crisp autumn breezes blow in, with winter following soon behind. So I've been trying to enjoy the sun and warmth while I can. Actually, today was quite warm--85 or something--so when classes were done, I made a beeline for the park and sat under a tree enjoying a book. It's nice to be able to sit on grass again without being bitten by ants and spiders!

All around me scampered squirrels, birds, children, and the odd teenager dressed all in black with purple hair. All the birds I saw were starlings, and it reminded me of something I once heard. Supposedly, back in the olden golden days, a man named Eugene Shieffelin wanted to introduce to America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. So in 1891 he released 60 starlings into Central Park, where they've flourished. In fact, now they are found all over the entire U.S., taking over the food and territory of native birds, and in fact driving other species away to the point of devastation. Apparently, European people weren't the only invaders of this "New World." Nowadays, it's illegal to kill most birds in the U.S., but not starlings. Poor guys--it's not really their fault. They're just really good at surviving.

They are pretty birds--iridescent black with white speckles all over. And apparently they can imitate other noises like car alarms. Who knew? Maybe that's what I keep hearing out my window at night... No, it actually is car alarms, invading my sleep!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


The tea-table at Christie's sold for over 6 million, in case you were wondering!

Other than that, I have no news to report. No deep thoughts today. No strange stories, or uplifting memoirs to relate.

Just that I'm alive in New York City, still not quite believing that I live here. Missing old friends, but starting to make new ones. Soaking in everything I'm learning at school. In fact, I think I'm turning into a nerd. Maybe I already am one! All I want to do is read about antique furniture and old paintings. I suppose there are worse fates, but it sure doesn't give me anything to talk about at parties.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Battle of the Tea Tables

Tomorrow at Christie's sale of American Furniture a small mahogany tea table will be sold for over 2 million dollars. In January, another, almost identical piece will sell at Sotheby's.

The two tables were both made around 1760 in the same Philadelphia shop, where they were both carved by an unknown artist, now known as the Garvin Carver. From their creation, they both descended through different branches of the same family, staying in those families until today. And now, it's such a coincidence that the two biggest auction houses in New York each have one up for sale, that it's all anyone has been talking about at both Christie's and Sotheby's.

This morning I took a look at the Sotheby's table with Leslie Keno (of Antiques Roadshow fame!) and he was clearly in love... with the table. He pointed out the gorgeous scale and lines of the piece, and the characteristic beauty of the Garvin Carver's acanthus leaf motifs on the legs, where even parts not readily visible to the casual viewer are carved. The surface of the table is beautiful, with a pie-crust edge of contrasting straight edges and scalloped curves. This table was included in the 1935 "Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture" in which William Macpherson Hornor called it "the acme of perfection." According to Keno, that definition still stands.

When I arrived at Christie's, their table was on the floor in pieces. John Hays, head of their furniture department was unscrewing part of the top to show the color of the wood underneath. "I've had it apart so many times, I'm starting to worry!" he said, although it is a standard practice for both auction houses to let clients see all parts of the items for sale, and if that means taking it be it. It gave me a good opportunity to see the original screws, obviously hand-made themselves, and original to the table. This table also has its original surface, though with a much darker, rough patina, with one big crack running down the center of the top. A result of natural wear and age, such a crack wouldn't necessarily detract from the value, but because there is a more intact-looking table over at Sotheby's, it may be a factor that makes buyers wait until January. However, in Christie's favor, their table does have obviously deeper, crisper carving on the legs, and its original casters--almost unheard of.

With each table estimated at between 2 and 4 million dollars, what will happen tomorrow? Will bidding be fierce at Christie's and the table go for a record amount? Or, will bidders be more hesitant, holding out for the table at Sotheby's in January? Each is a gem. Each worthy of a museum--hopefully that's where one will end up. It's going to be fun to see what happens!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Cents and Sense

Don't laugh at me, but I'm one of those people that pick up pennies off the sidewalk. I'll be walking along and see some free money lying on the ground, and I'll take it. Who wouldn't do the same? Well, it get's more complicated here in New York.

My sister says that I shouldn't pick coins up off the ground because they're filthy. But isn't everything pretty dirty here? Doorknobs, subway seats, change you get from the newspaper guy on the corner... So I'm not afraid of the dirt that might be on a penny, just because its on the ground. If it was in a puddle, I wouldn't go for it... unless maybe it was a quarter... (Hey, I'm really poor!)

Is it worth it, you ask? Why stop to pick up just one cent? If I picked up a penny a day, it would take 100 days to earn a dollar. Some people throw their pennies away because they don't want to bother with such small change. Maybe I'm just an optimist, but I feel like the more money I have the better, even if it is a few more cents. To quote a former boss: more is more!

The main problem I have with picking up pennies here is that it's a little embarrassing to do it in front of other people (for all of the above reasons) and there are people everywhere in this city. Sometimes I'll be walking along a sidewalk in Harlem, where people tend to congregate on steps and street-sides to hang out and talk. I'll see a penny or a dime on the pavement, and reach down to get it, only to see all these people staring at me. They're going to start thinking of me as that white girl who picks pennies up off the ground. Do I want to be known as that person? Well, I am that person! Might as well embrace it. And with my pocket jingling with pennies, I'm all the more richer for it.