Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Better luck next time

I promised, ages ago, that I would do something, even at the high risk of failure, with the fabric that I'd been hoarding forever in my search for the "perfect project" to use it on. Well, months ago I made up my mind. I wanted a dress. You see, being either pregnant or nursing for most of the past nine years has made wearing regular dresses rather impractical. But now that I was neither, I finally found myself in a position to actually wear a dress, yet there were very few options in my closet that didn't scream "1999."

So, I chose a pattern, cut out the pieces and then—very, very cautiously—cut out the precious fabric. Eek. I had to do some careful maneuvering and minor adjustments to the pattern in order to include as much of the embroidered design as possible without losing symmetry. I couldn't fit the very top of the design on the skirt front, but I was able to place the rest of it as a little flourish on the back. (I'm rather fond of that bit of detail.)

However, before I could finish the project, I got buried under a gazillion graphic design jobs, so I put the sewing on pause. For three months.

Whew. I got most of the design work almost done, breathed a sigh of relief, and then I found out I was pregnant. ACK! Now I really had to hurry to finish the dress before my body ballooned beyond all hope of fitting into the size I'd cut out.

So, in a mad rush, I pinned and trimmed and sewed and serged and got all the major pieces assembled on the night before Easter Sunday, hoping against hope that the dress would fit. Then I hurried with baited breath to try it on. I could zip it up, but breathing? Forget about it. And at this stage of my life, air, as you may imagine, is rather important.

With a heavy heart, I hung the unfinished garment on a hanger and deposited it in the back of the closet. Not much point in staying up late to complete it. Alas. I decided to put off hand stitching the final details until I actually have a hope of wearing it. The work will be more gratifying then—even if it is two years from now. I'm not sure I'd call this a failure; I think I actually like how it turned out, although we'll see how I feel about it when I finally regain my original shape. Just poor timing. *Sigh.*

Here's to delayed gratification.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Architectural (in)Digest(ion)

As I entered the house with three of my boys in tow, I had one of those rare moments of shock when I see my home (and, by extension, my life) with the eyes of an outsider—or rather with the eyes I possessed in a former life. With aesthetic disapproval, I surveyed the scene that greeted me when I opened the front door. What kind of woman lives in the midst of this designer faux pas? This, quite honestly, is not the home I thought I would inhabit, back in the days when I fancied myself to be some sort of aesthete. I have an art degree, after all. La-dee-dah.

Ten happy years ago, I recall tripping lightly through the halls of commerce, scanner gun in hand, and registering for sets of crystal stemware and high-thread-count sateen sheets, all the while imagining how they would grace our brightly lit neoclassical house on a hill. The one with the 14-foot ceilings and the gorgeous, dust-free crown molding; the one with the carefully selected paint colors and the matching sets of furniture in every room. I've done what I can to make ours a lovely home, but my time and resources are limited, and my talents do not extend to reupholstering sofas. Just to repaint the dining room seems, right now, to be an unattainable goal. My home beautification efforts are normally limited to what you might call "damage control." I'm hardly the hip, design-savvy housewife I once assumed I'd be. Not even close.

When I was in high school, my mom worked as a secretary in the Department of Architecture at the local university, and every few months, she would bring home a new stack of back issues of Architectural Digest and other home design magazines. I loved to sit on the couch to peruse their pages; they were full of ingenious injection-molded furniture and glitzy, custom-printed wallpaper. As I flipped through, I would take mental notes, soaking up all the decorating possibilities of the "someday" house I would inhabit.

But as I look back from the vantage of motherhood and nearly ten years of marriage, certain characteristics of those picture-perfect residences become clear. Sure, there were lots of homes that still strike me as downright lovely. But the rest were owned by childless couples (usually "partners") who stay there for only a few months of each year—and with good reason. In retrospect, I can see that those designer homes were utterly ridiculous—not just because of their bank-draining price tags, but also because of their life-draining aesthetics. If there's one thing that can be said about the pages of those journals, it is that they represented, by and large, an entirely sterile way of life. They were made to accomodate ideas, not human beings. And, let's face it, human beings are what constitute a family.

It's impossible to imagine raising flesh-and-blood children (though, judging by the photos, some have tried) in a cantilevered concrete box filled with polished stainless steel and right angles and glass tables and suspended, rail-less stairs.*  Nor is it possible to imagine bringing up a family in the midst of a palatial Rococo explosion of gilt statuary and mismatched brocade and silk-upholstered ottomans and crystal candelabras. In either case, the environment is hostile to basic family life—in the first instance by setting up hard edges, cold surfaces, and dangerous angles, and in the second by scattering priceless art and irreplaceable fabrics and fragile collectables in every conceivable corner. These designers have shoved aside the business of living in order to make way for the business of showing off their refined tastes. Now that I think about it, my family could hardly be comfortable in many of these magazine estates for a single weekend, let alone for the rest of our lives. Who are these people kidding?

Themselves, if you ask me. And I, too, am kidding myself to think I'd be happier in the pages of a magazine.

Sure, the magazine couples are the ones with the maids and the polished marble floors. I'm the one with the messes and the stained, unraveling carpets. But, although it's far from perfect, my home at least looks like it's meant to be lived in. It has been lived in. Boy, has it ever. There will soon be seven of us in this 3-bedroom house. And I grant that it's a little tight. When bad weather keeps us all indoors, this home can feel very small and chaotic indeed. And it's times like that when it's easy to cast side-long glances—easy to flip through a catalog and long for something bigger, better, more.

Not only do my living room chairs and couches not match; they are also bespeckled with ten thousand sippie cup drips. A shiny streak on a throw pillow is evidence that one child has decided the cushions were more convenient than a Kleenex. The rug is fraying around the edges and is littered with random toys and lonely socks. There's no rhyme or reason to the furniture choices. No matching bedroom sets. No thematically decorated nursery. And (ACK!) would you just LOOK at the kitchen floor! My former self would have thought, "This woman doesn't just need a maid; she needs an HGTV team of home stylists to come to the rescue." And moments do come when I almost agree with myself.

But I don't have a maid. Or a personal stylist. Or an interior decorator. Or anyone else to breeze through my messy life and wrap it up in glamor and sparkle. A broom and a bottle of Windex (and, on a really great day, a vase of daffodils) are the only design team I am able to employ, and they don't do much to produce stunning "Before" and "After" shots.

It's not that I'm longing to set up house in Kubla Khan's stately pleasure-dome. At least, not anymore. But a couple of rooms from a Restoration Hardware catalog would be all right with me. It's a good thing I no longer get that rag in the mail; it would too easily leave me sighing over out-of-reach armoires and tastefully coordinated drapes and upholstery. Better not to know what new wares they're peddling and be spared many a covetous hour. Even in a catalog-worthy house, the envious soul could find new ways to want more, and if I can't be content here, what makes me think I'll be content in a Pottery Barn showroom?  A spirit of discontent has a way of staying with a person regardless of location, location, location. "Wherever you go," as they say, "there you are."

In this blessed existence, days will come (and have come) when I descend the stairs—in all my disheveled, pre-caffeine glory—to discover that my boys have emptied all their drawers in search of a certain shirt; dumped the entire contents of our 84 bins of Legos onto the carpet; pulled approximately 397 books off the shelves in an effort to locate a missing school folder; and decided it would be a good idea to pour their own drinks...into water bottles with an opening the diameter of a pencil. And I had, in my foolishness, gone to bed with a clean house expecting to find the same when I awoke. Haha. Those are the days when an army of servants would be quite welcome.

And those are also the days when it can be hard to take the long view. I could be giving my hours to a full-time job, clicking away at a computer for 40 hours a week in order to help finance the house I used to dream about. I could spend the hours God's given me in order to live the DINK dream, in a pristine home with beautiful, unspotted sofas and real wool rugs and windows entirely free of nose prints. I could set giant bouquets in crystal vases on the coffee table, and carry a little clutch purse on my way to dinner at eight. I could give the best years of my life to appearing in the pages of Architectural Digest.

But Architectural Digest is here today and tomorrow is cast into the fire. Instead, my hours—messy and unglamorous as they may be—are being spent on something eternal. Five somethings, to be more precise. Silk upholstery will tear and fade. Walnut armoires will scratch and crack. Colors schemes and design fads will fall from favor. But my children have spirits that will last forever—spirits that are being shaped and nurtured here. Here, on these fraying rugs. Here on these sticky floors. Here on the mismatched chairs. Here are souls that cannot go out of fashion. Here is a "Before" and "After" project worth giving my life for.

*Visit archdaily.com for a look at life in just this sort of modernist architectural Hell.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

Many of you know that my dear husband is writing his dissertation on the poetry of George Herbert (1593–1633). Here's a beautiful little sample of his poetry for this Easter Sunday:

Easter Wings
by George Herbert

Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
  Most poore:
With Thee
O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sicknesses and shame
  Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.
With Thee
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.


Herbert originally published the poem sideways like this:
(See the wings?)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Of Mice and Men

Another one bit the dust, but not before he had chewed his way through a package of ramen noodles and littered my pantry shelf with shredded plastic and nasty brown pellets. That was the night before last. But even after annihilating that one furry intruder, I could still hear the sounds of scratching and skittering behind the drywall as I lay in bed last night, keeping me awake into the wee hours. Mice in the attic. This is something new. And not at all welcome.

This old farmhouse has had a record winter for mice. It's not unusual for one or two find their way into our warm and well-stocked pantry during the coldest months. But this year I lost count at nine. For most of my life, I'd never had a terrible aversion to mice. I never wanted one as a pet, but I didn't hate them either. But now that we've disposed of the umpteenth squashed mouse of the year, I am convinced that the only good mouse is a dead one.

Our particular mice have been harder to catch than most. They are sly. At first they led us to believe that peanut butter was the sure-fire bait to lure them in. But no. After days of wreaking havoc in my cupboards with nary a nibble on the peanut buttery traps, we discovered that these unique rodents have international taste: sushi nori, pepperoni, ramen, chow mein.

But we're on to their little games. We now catch mice by offering them seaweed and Slim Jims and Asian pasta. I kid you not.

I liked Ratatouille as much as anyone, but regardless of their gourmet taste, these creatures must die. Apologies to the squeamish, but really they must. Those "humane" mouse traps are for sentimental sissies who watch too many cartoons. Sorry kiddies. Mickey is NOT your friend.

Mice. They live in darkness. They sneak around behind closed doors. They carry disease. They trespass. They steal. They destroy. They breed. Apart from their size, what makes them any better than rats? I'd rather have spiders. At least spiders don't eat my chow mein noodles.

Why, oh, why have all the children's stories—even the great ones—portrayed mice as the dear little friends of humanity? Please tell me if you know. Aesop seemed to be fond of them. Beatrix Potter put them to diligent work saving the poor tailor of Gloucester. C.S. Lewis portrayed Reepicheep as a brave and noble beast.  And Walt Disney launched mousehood to new heights of fame and glory. What did these people know that I don't?

As far as I can tell, the only trait that has led us to exonerate these beady-eyed little burglars is that they are cute. Small and furry and cute. That's it. If I'm right, then here's the obvious, though disturbing, lesson to draw from this phenomenon: If you are cute you can get away with just about anything, and people will still adore you. Now I ask you, is this a lesson we want to teach our children?

I submit that we need to protect our young people from harmful messages such as this by censoring and eliminating all stories and movies that portray mice as lovable and dignified. Burn your copy of Stuart Little. Pitch those Mickey ears right into the rubbish. I will be picketing with my "Cuteness Does Not Equal Innocence" sign downtown this evening. Please join me. And make sure you write to your senators, demanding that more federal funding be directed toward the much-needed research and development phase of building a better mousetrap. Mice are a menace and a threat to traditional morality and national security. Do your part to spread the word.

Thank you. (And Happy April Fool's Day.)

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