Archive for June, 2009

rings and things

I’m back in Madison in the heat, trying to read. I’m feeling pretty fatigued after rushing through a re-reading of Jane Eyre yesterday–naturally, my mind is wandering to other things and other places. I took this rather strange picture of my hand while I was at my mom’s house. There are many, many interesting things in her house–tiny clay food, for one–but also all the detritus of both sides of my family, remnants of the society-page lives of one half and bits and pieces of the farm run by the other. The house is in upheaval right now, due to a pipe that froze and burst during the winter. Everything from the lower level has been piled high upstairs so that a new floor can be laid. The result is a rather striking intermixture–a pink silk quilt from one grandmother’s trousseau alongside a rifle rack made by the other grandfather; a rusted butter-churn beside the towering glass-front secretary.

In the midst of all of this, I went looking for a blue ballpoint pen. Woolf begins her essay “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” with the pretext of a lead pencil; so I began my evening with that of finding the perfect pen for underlining in some Victorian novel or another.

No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner.

Now, a pen seems like an easy enough thing to find, especially given that my mother writes exclusively in blue ballpoint pen (I admit to the inheritance of this prejudice). But these things are never as simple as they seem. My mom and I frequently joke about the apparently straightforward task of locating a small, sturdy table somewhere in the vast inventory of furniture that populates her house–this jest dates back to some time early in my parents’ marriage when a visiting friend requested such an item in order to position a slide projector or some such thing. My father responded that it was unlikely that he’d be able to locate one amidst those rickety, fragile leftovers from grander times–times when people perched more delicately and rested only transparent china cups on their tables. Intricately ornamented Victorian chairs with carved backs and plush needlepoint seats are numerous: small, sturdy tables–nonexistent.

The finding of a pen proved a similarly futile undertaking. But in a likely-looking drawer I did find some pens–albeit they were fountain pens from the last century–and this hastily personalized base metal ring. Eleanor–who likely owned this trinket, unless it was intended as a gift for another–was my great-aunt, the last owner of the family farm in Pennsylvania, a beautician who had wanted to fly fighter planes instead of curling hair, who worked through WWII in bobby pins instead of rivets. Just last week, my mother shot a rabid raccoon with Aunt Eleanor’s deer rifle (you can take the girl out of the country, but–you know how it goes).

And so here is Aunt Eleanor’s ring, on her grand-niece’s finger, resting above a pile of polished rocks–gathered by my mother at some waterfront or another–and a small, not altogether un-sturdy table.

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I was kind of an obsessive child. I also spent a lot of time indoors–reading Nancy Drew books by the dozen, teaching myself how to make balloon animals and how to juggle (apparently I had vague and subconscious notions of growing up to be a carny)–oh, and this:

That’s right. Tiny clay food. I had a book that provided instructions for making all kinds of Fimo and Sculpey wonders–animals, beads, small and useless housewares (more than one ballpoint pen was enrobed in polymer clay that summer)–but, being a stickler for detail, I really excelled in the production of tiny food.

I realize that there’s nothing here for scale, but these tiny foods have spent the last 15 years or so tucked away in a Tupperware container that you might use for salad dressing or something equally inconsequential (like 86 miniature faux-Oreos). They’re spread out on one corner of Ricky’s MacBook. The cookies are about the diameter of a pencil eraser; the pies and cakes around the size of a quarter. In case you’re wondering, that pizza is topped with sundried tomatoes, olives, and what looks like green pepper. That heap of fried eggs would be at home in a Salvador Dali painting–I remember bending the clay and placing it on pieces of foil to keep the eggs from flattening out into what I saw as unrealistic angles.

After honing my fondant rose and lattice crust skills in clay, I went on to experiment in actual food–making technicolor cakes with food dye pastes and many life-size pies. I don’t bake all that much anymore, and I threw out the last fossilized lumps of Fimo years ago–they made the move from Colorado to Missouri in the corners of my desk and remained there until I brought it to my house. But I think that it’s clear how this tiny food story plays out in the rest of my life. It’s not such a big leap from tiny oreos to academia. Think about it.

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Five years out.

My conclusions after my five year reunion at Wellesley are that five years really isn’t all that long–and nothing much has changed, for us. My first-year roommate still looks exactly the same. The campus is still stunning and idyllic. Being trapped on campus without a car –even for one weekend–is still enough to drive me a little nuts. Extra-long twin beds are still not that great. Wellesley is still an elite institution–and I mean that, for better and worse, in both senses of the word.

But to see the lone member of the class of 1929–

to see crowds of white-haired women cheering for each other, and for us, with tears in their eyes–

to see Madeleine Albright marching alongside her class, carrying the yellow banner for 1959–

that changed me, as unchanged as I may be.

Five years out, our virtues– and our flaws –may still be much the same. Our hair is not yet gray and my memory of these unwrinkled faces is still sharp.

But how wonderful to still– to always –feel a part of all of this.

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Lake George

Ricky and I (with cats in tow) spent the weekend with his family at their house on Lake George. I’ve gone up there with them almost every summer for the last seven years–I think I’ve only missed one, last year. The first year that I went, Ricky’s family had rented a house for a week–the same house that they had rented every year for a decade or so. It was a rambling, slightly decayed (but still beautiful) Victorian on a small peninsula–quiet, idyllic, with a tiny tv that was never turned on and a porch swing for afternoon reading. The bedrooms upstairs were like a rabbit warren–small flights of steps up and down, beds in every corner, inexplicable doorways and arches.

The Rickys now own a house up at “the Lake,” and go almost every weekend–even when it’s cold. It’s funny, because now there isn’t that much of a difference between spending a weekend with them in NJ and spending one at Lake George. After a four hour drive, everyone comes together in the house and goes about their business in much the same way that they would at home–lawn mowing, evening news, laundry. The commotion of Ricky’s family is part of what makes them so much fun to be around, but there are no quiet corners to be found in this lake house. It’s business as usual–except for the boat. I never get tired of being on the lake–like the ocean, it’s somehow always a novelty to me, perhaps because of my rather land-locked upbringing. I love being on a near water–so it’s good that I have a lake house of my own, located just a few blocks from Lake Monona. Maybe I should look into some cabin decor when I get home–plaid curtains, duck decoys, maybe a moose head? I already have the wood paneling in my basement…

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oh, wow. Where have I been? Oh, I know. READING.

For those of you not in the know, I’ve dropped off the planet because I have 160 books to read by mid-August, when I’ll be taking my preliminary exams. Fortunately (?), Ricky has a similar list hanging over his head, so at least I have company in these daily sojourns to Starbucks and the like. Chapel Hill was a pretty pleasant place to read, although the heat was already a little scary–walkable coffee shops, cheap places to eat lunch, and–my favorite– Locopops. We even spent a few days at the Outer Banks, which was beautiful–I read The Moonstone on the beach and forgot to take pictures, but remembered to fill Ricky’s pockets (I didn’t have any) with pretty shell fragments. But we moved Ricky’s stuff into a PODS unit last week and have been in New Jersey ever since. Some of you already know this, but Ricky’s family lives in the same town inhabited by the illustrious “Real Housewives of New Jersey.” It’s… a little different from a college town like Chapel Hill or Madison. Trying to walk anywhere is life-threatening. But it does have Ikea.

I love Ikea. We’ve been reading there lately, which I know sounds utterly insane. But they have unlimited coffee for $1, and we’re both unreasonably fond of their food. And it’s not Starbucks. I also like it because it’s sort of like reading in a small, walkable town–like Madison, but indoors. When I get sick of trying to race through another 600 page Victorian novel, I can take a little stroll through Sweden. How quaint. And I’ve managed to limit myself and have only come home with a small handful of strangely named and pleasantly designed thingies.

Anyway, the reading isn’t really so bad. I’ve actually loved all of the books I’ve read so far, some of which I’d read years ago, some of which were entirely new. My joy is probably largely due to the fact that I’m dealing with primary materials now–it may subside when I’m forced to read Jameson–but I haven’t been this happy to be working in a long time. I may have the pudding paper to thank for all of this–never have I been so grateful to be at liberty to delve into things that I actually care about. Speaking of pudding, we made banana pudding–replete with Nilla wafers–tonight. so good. See, I don’t hate all pudding. Just THAT pudding.

Another change of scenery tomorrow–Lake George for the weekend. Next weekend is Walden Pond and my Wellesley reunion. Then comes the winding trip back to Madison, via St. Louis. I think that my grass is probably about three feet tall by now. I’m starting to miss my little house, although I really am lucky to find myself in all these beautiful spots. I say that without irony, even though these highways around me right now perhaps leave something to be desired.

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