Friday, July 23, 2010

Decorating with Found Art

After my mother's death I discovered a box in the attic that contained nothing but the four legs of a stool. I was so disgusted, I threw them all in the woodpile. Then, I retrieved this piece to hang on the wall of the breezeway between the garage and the house, as a reminder of what can happen to one when one begins to collect things.

There is a lot of Found Art to be found around the home I've inherited from my parents.

At least I hope you can call it Found Art. Since I'm finding it, that is what I'm calling it. Some might call what I'm finding "architectural antiques." Some might want to be more frank and call it "pieces of old chairs," which I've discovered stored in numerous corners of this abode. Anyway, I'm decorating with it so I can call it Art if I want to.

I don't know what terrible thing happened to my mother when she was young. But someone must have deprived her of a chair or something. Because she developed a sort of an obsession with them, which I know I've mentioned before.

Two of the "chairs" that didn't sell at our garage sale were actually just the backs of two chairs--no front legs or seats. After the sale, I took a hammer to them, (who is the crazy person in this story?) and used them to decorate some blank spaces that had been troubling me on the beams and above the windows in the kitchen.

A carved chair back on the kitchen cross beam in the foreground and a supporting carved chair piece above the window in the background.

My sister thinks these chair pieces look like birds: I think they look like angels, though as such they remind me of no one in my own family.

A closer look at the carved chair back I put up on the cross beam in the kitchen.

Quite a bit of stuff I've found as I've cleaned out this house has been sold, tossed, or donated. But a few weeks ago I retrieved these things from a pile I'd made in the garage. For now I've placed them on the hearth.

The orchid and the Herend and Portmerion cache pots are mine: the other things are Found Art, including; the curved iron pot hangers which I'm thinking of putting up in the beams of the beamed ceiling in the living room; the copper fondue pot that holds the orchid; and the three hand-carved chair rails that once graced a gone-to-seed Mexican chair stored in our backyard shed.

You can tell me if you think this is a good idea or not. I'd love to hear from others who have used Found Art in decorating. For now I can say these positive things about decorating with this junk: if you had parents like mine, you can find it all around you, so you have no shortage of decorating inspirations; your investment in it is zero, so your risk is equally minimal; when that big earthquake comes, as it inevitably will in California, you don't have to worry that this stuff will be damaged when it falls down--it is already damaged beyond repair anyway.

And finally, the best part about it is that when you change your mind and decide it isn't really Art after all, it has a immediate second life: you can always use it for firewood come the winter.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Classic Movie to the Rescue

I just had one of those weeks. First, I tried to join this Apple network called MobileMe and it ate all the names in my iPhone contact list. Then, the air conditioning fan in my Volvo stopped working. Then, my father's Buick, which I've kept for use as a second car, started conking out at stop lights. Then, the cable box on my bedroom television died. Then, I had to go to the dentist, twice, from whence I departed with a numb face and an empty savings account. I shouldn't complain. Nobody died, or anything. (That already happened twice this year.) So, I started thinking about something that would make me laugh. Ha. Ha. Ha. Did I ever need that.

For all who have had a week like mine, and others who agree that laughter is always the best Rx, here is an underrated classic that is better than a long talk with your shrink. Especially if you believe that men and women truly are beings from different solar systems.

Designing Woman (1957) is the story of a chic fashionista, played by Lauren Bacall, and a manly sportswriter, played by Gregory Peck, who meet while each is on assignment in California. They are, as the French say, struck by lightning and thus, very quickly fall in love, marry in a fever, and head back to their home ground of New York City where they face the consequences of their impetuousness.

Their worlds both exist in New York City but don't intersect--just as the worlds of men and women exist on Planet Earth but collide only during the mating process. His life involves fighters, bookies, poker buddies and ex-showgirl girlfriends and hers is full of writers, artists, Broadway producers, and slightly gay choreographers and dress designers. What do they have in common? Nothing! Just like most people who marry!

So what you are saying is you don't like my cheese dip decorated with hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs for your poker party?

The realistic and funny part is how oblivious each is to this universal truth. Peck's character is especially clueless. He's a guy attracted to a babe and figures that is all there is to that. Aren't men silly?

Three scenes stand out. The first involves the ex-girlfriend, lunch, and a plate of spaghetti--a scene George Burns said made him LOL. The second takes place at a boxing match, to which Bacall wears an outfit entirely made of mink and, at which, to her chagrin, she learns something she wishes she hadn't about the fight game (it involves newspapers). The third scene you won't forget takes place in an alley, during which the thugs who are out to get our hero (this is the main sub plot of the story) must face the much maligned choreographer.

Though you may not have heard of this movie, it was directed by Vincent Minnelli (Liza's father) and it won an Oscar for its screenplay and for screenwriter George Wells. It was produced in the last decade of MGM's fading glory and has all the style and class that marked this wonderful studio before its demise. I don't think I enjoyed it exclusively because of that brief and forgettable period during which I was allegedly married to a sportswriter. But it is possible.

I saw Designing Woman first on Turner Classic Movies, but it is also available from Amazon and can sometimes be found for checkout free, at your local library. If it isn't--you should ask them for it. Next time you go to the dentist and your air conditioning and your contact list on your iPhone die in the same week, you may just need it.

More About the Movie DESIGNING WOMAN

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Obsessive Compulsive Chair Disorder

Who there is who doesn't love a chair?

Dear Mom:

It is about all those chairs you left behind when you died. I know you loved collecting them, but I had no idea until you went to your Great Reward what a large quantity of them you had saved to "eventually re-do." When we started tidying up the house for your funeral reception we found them all over the place. Wow.

In your honor, I vowed to keep the prettiest and most interesting ones. The ecclesiastical one, for example, which we dragged home in the back of the Oldsmobile from our summer vacation in Spokane long ago and looks like it belongs next to the pulpit in a church? I'm doing a needlepoint cover for it. But that's a pretty big project, so the chair remains an unfinished beauty.

The ecclesiastical chair.

The carved baroque revival chair? Now that is something special. Unfortunately when you found it at that garage sale, it was covered in pea green velour. I'm casting about for some fabric to cover it with. Another project for me!

The pretty carved chair with some fill-in fabric draped over it to cover the green velour.

And the heart-shaped upholstered chair (without the upholstery) escaped its fate at our garage sale when I spotted how cute it was and weakened--deciding it would be a shame to let it go blah blah blah, and that it was worth the work and time and money it would take to transform it. Another project to add to my list. And so far, alas, nothing yet for people who come to visit me to actually sit down on.

A sweetheart of a chair. Use your imagination.

Then there is the ladylike side chair. What a patina! It would make the Keno brothers swoon. It is covered in a light green silk which is a little stained and which I notice from the tag underneath was put on there in 1934. But it doesn't look truly awful so I thought I might leave it as is for now, because, what with all the other chairs I have to re-do, and all the other things on my list, I'm not sure I'll get this chair reupholstered before the family has to tidy up the house for my funeral reception.

Not perfect but to remain as is for now.

And then Sis and I climbed up in the crawl space above the cars in the garage and to our horror found another stash o' bedraggled chairs and chair parts. What were you storing them up there for, I wonder? I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. One was a piano stool that I immediately found use for as a plant stand.

It goes without saying.

One pair of chairs wasn't too bad looking after I dusted them off and swabbed them in furniture oil. "Gosh, I'll bet those had cane seats," said Sis. "They would look great if you could get someone to re-cane them." And I agreed. She was right.

And then I thought: re-cane these old chairs? What am I thinking? In what, my spare time? I already have a half-dozen half-wit chairs to "re-do" that Mom didn't get done in her entire eighty-eight-year lifetime! And now I'm imagining I will re-cane a couple of old chairs I don't need?

Mom, it was one of those special moments of clairity we all get down here from time to time. I mean, you took your journey into the Undiscovered Country and left behind at least three dozen wobbly old chairs that needed complete rehabilitation. Rehabilitation that took place in your imagination only! We discuss from time to time--and forgive us for this--if this is evidence that you were slightly off your rocker. If you ever had a rocker and if it didn't need refinishing.

But if I pick up where you left off, what does that make me?

Your daughter, I guess.

Hope things are fine where you are. Down here I'm up to my elbows in furniture polish and upholstery fabric.

Much love,


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Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Superhero Cycle Roars Into My Driveway

All the neighbors will be rolling their eyes and wondering about me. (At least I hope so.) A motorcycle out of a superhero comic book roared into my driveway, just in time for tea.

Writer Steve Thompson was at the helm of the 2010 Can-Am Spyder RT-S, racing around Northern California in his quest to put 10,000 miles on the new and curious-looking machine in one year. And though he is using it as an excuse to visit friends and colleagues on his rides, he's actually going to be writing about the bike in upcoming articles for Cycle World where he has long been a writer and editor.

Steve Thompson getting suited up for the Spyder.

When I first met Steve and his wife Lanny, they had just moved to a home near mine in Bethesda, Maryland. Steve had been hired to serve as AOPA's vice president of publications and to be the new executive editor of AOPA Pilot magazine. At about this same time, Steve had sold his first novel about the Air Force spy/race car driver Maxwell Taylor Moss (Recovery ,1980) and he was driving a brand new, butter yellow Jaguar sedan (the 1980s version, in which the interior smelled like your favorite deerskin gloves) bearing the license plates MAX MOSS.

The bespectacled Steve managed to look very cool in spite of himself.

Though Steve is an historian by education he has long made his living as a writer and editor at most of the top magazines that cover the world of the internal combustion engine, including Cycle World, as I've mentioned, along with Cycle Guide, AutoWeek, Road Test, Car and Driver, Air and Space, AOPA Pilot, and Range.

Lanny Thompson took this picture of Steve and the Spyder in Northern California with Mt. Shasta in the background.

In 2004 his life changed dramatically. He was riding his Triumph Tiger on a rainy night in Annapolis and was in a terrible accident. Though his helmet saved his life, he was in a coma for a long time. He recovered with much hard work on his part, the love and help of his wife Lanny and their family, and the prayers of his large network of friends. He still has pain, and one of his legs doesn't work as it should, but you would have to know him well to know that. He has gone forward with an even sunnier outlook than he had before the crash. He continues to live a life of adventure and to travel life's highways as he always did: with intellectual curiosity, a talent for finding interesting things to do, and at a very good clip. More than most of us, he has been reminded that we only go around once.

Now about this thing he drove to my house. It is a $26,000 machine built by Bombardier Recreational Products, a company that builds snowmobiles and jet-ski-like thingees with the unfortunate names of Sea-Doo and Ski-Doo, which, in spite of their monikers, are very popular. The Spyder is so quirky-looking that Steve says, every time he stops to park the bike, he has to spend at least ten minutes answering questions from onlookers. I don't know anything about motorcycles--except to occasionally ride along on the back of one in some of my weaker moments and that is a story for another day--but I have never seen a three-wheeler that looks like this one. From some angles it looks like a two-wheeler. From the front, it looks like something imagined by Marvel Comics. Or, more to the point, something out of the original film version of The Fly with Vincent Price (1958). ("Help me! Help me!)

It is so much the size of a small sports car that I asked Steve: why not just drive a small sports car?

That one made him look at me as if I needed to have my head examined. Since he knows a great deal more about head examinations than I, not to mention vehicles powered by engines, I decided I better stop asking him girl-type questions and wait instead for his articles in Cycle World.

So thanks, Steve, for making me look truly glamorous with the neighbors. With things that go vroooooom, you are the essence of coolness and you've earned that title the hard way.

And I must confess: that is one very mean machine. Even if it is Canadian.


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Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Letter to My Father

Capt. William Ashley Chapman, in a photo taken of him in Brazil in 1943, when he was twenty-three years old.

Dear Dad:

Happy Fourth of July! I know how patriotic you are: so this day has made me think about you a lot. I sure do miss you, Dad.

I was remembering this morning the story you told us about the time you were coming home from Ascension Island during World War II, where you had been serving with the 38th Engineers. The ship had to stop in Brazil to pick up a load of German POWs, the survivors of German ships that had been sunk or badly damaged in the Atlantic.

It made the trip longer, but you didn't mind too much because you loved being on the ocean journey. You said you enjoyed watching the dolphins that swam alongside and all the other interesting things a young man like you, from Birmingham, Alabama, had never seen before. You were lucky, too, because, unlike many of your friends, you never got seasick. At least not usually.

Your commanding officer put you in charge of organizing the prisoners' work detail in the ship's galley--I guess the Colonel had figured out one of the most telling things about you: how much you like food! So, you had to keep the German POWs from making trouble as they did their KP duty: not exactly the most fun job in the Army.

One night, the sea was especially rough. At chow, many of your fellow officers were dashing for the gunwales with green faces, while you finished several helpings of chicken paprika with potatoes on the side. You were sitting by yourself when the dessert of custard pudding was served. It tasted a little odd, but, hungry as ever, you dug in. Suddenly, you too were ill and headed for topside where, for the first time on the ship, you lost your dinner.

Ever the engineer, you thought it was curious. So you went back to the wardroom to look at the pudding. After a short investigation, you figured out that some enterprising POW in the galley had added soap flakes to your dessert. Ouch. It was probably because you were one of the few American officers they had met and they didn't like the sound of your Alabama accent. Or something.

I ought to make sure that guy gets in big trouble, was your first thought. This is a serious offense. And then you thought again and it occurred to you: he's already in big trouble. He's a German POW who has spent time swimming in the cold Atlantic and is far from his country and family. Stuck on an America ship headed for enemy territory. The war is over for him.

What is the right thing to do, you wondered. You weren't badly injured. Another order of chicken paprika and you'd be feeling swell again. And so, you decided to say nothing about it. And that is what you did.

When we were children, we always loved that story. Anticipating the part where you ate the soap-filled dessert and dashed for the side of the ship. Eeeeeeuuuuuu.

But now that I'm older I think the story is interesting in another way. Because what you did that day by doing nothing says everything about your character. You thought long and hard before taking an action that might hurt a more vulnerable human being at a time when you had all the power and he had none. And you realized that if his goal had been to see you squirm, the best thing to do was not to squirm. And that this would be punishment enough.

I wish I could be more like you. I wanted you to know that.

A couple more things I wanted to tell you: I brought the flag up today. I've had the flag here at the house at half staff for you since we lost you on March 26. But it is the Fourth of July and I thought it was time to bring it back up again. I hope that's okay. You always loved seeing the flag flying out there beyond our kitchen window.

Another thing: when we were having our garage sale a few weeks ago, we opened a mystery box and found the most beautiful little toy airplanes in it, planes that you had obviously made by hand. They were tucked away in a brown paper box on the shelf in the garage where you kept your chemistry and physics books.

The little fleet of planes.

They are made of tiny pieces of balsa wood with tissue paper wings, and they have the most interesting black-and-white-striped wing flaps. They are so elegant and precise and remind me so much of you, I've been thinking of making a mobile out of them to suspend somewhere in the house. Each time I look at them I imagine you as (very likely) an 80-year-old kid, laboring over them on your workbench in the garage while Mom sat inside watching Julia Child on PBS.

This morning, I took them outside so I could get a picture of your miniature squadron in the shade of the garden. And, as I set them down and arranged them in formation, the morning breeze caught their props and each tiny plane looked as if it were just about ready to take off! Their black propellers turned with increasing speed and it seemed they would all head down the runway and lift skyward together into the sunlit sky. To join you, perhaps, on your journey.

With all my love,


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