October 16, 2010

Great Voices

In October of 2009 NPR solicited comments from the listening audience about the greatest voices. It was a wonderful opportunity to put something together. Here is the memo that I wrote to them, along with links that were active at the time.

As a child I grew up loving music and the only recordings I could afford were the 78s that I could buy for a nickel at the local junk stores in my CT hometown. Those 78s served me well and provided a breadth of vocal understanding that I would otherwise not have. Patient parents helped a great deal when I would play the same new to me record over and over again. Schipa's "Ecco Ridente" was a repeated favorite. As a result of this education, when people tell me that Pavarotti or Bocelli are the greatest tenors who ever lived, I go back and recall Gigli, Caruso, Schipa, Piccaver, Tauber, Melchior and most especially McCormack and give myself pause…………….

1) John McCormack Il Mio Tesoro http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSHnxlf2DPs

As a vocalist myself, this remains, to me,  the single greatest male vocal performance on record. McCormack displays incredible vocal control in one of the most difficult examples of the male coloratura in the tenor repertoire. Most amazingly, recorded in 1910, this is sung into a large horn with an orchestra playing behind him. No microphone, no editing, no technical magic just the most beautiful record of singing.

2) Mary Garden Depuis le jour http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_o4DKajxuQ

Mary recorded this in 1912 at the peak of her career. She would ultimately become “la directa” of the Chicago Opera. A friend of Charpentier, he coached her in the role. Her ethereal approach to singing led her to become the source for late 19th and early 20th century French opera.

3) Ernestine Schumann-Heink Stille Nacht http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdSF404AHCA

It wasn’t Christmas in the Teens and Twenties in most American households without hearing Mme. Schumann-Heink’s performance of Silent Night. A woman whose life was filled with abundance: joy and despair. When told she would never become a singer, she lay down on the railroad tracks to end her life, she had second thoughts and the world fell in love with this astonishing contralto.She had sons fighting on both sides of World War I and yet became a legend for her ability to bring in the money during war bond drives throughout the US. When advised by a conductor that she would be less likely to knock into the orchetsra music stands if she went in sideways she replied, "But Otto, I have no sideways!"

4) Enrico Caruso and Titta Ruffo Si Pel Ciel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMySAq_tiVs

If you know only one great voice from prior to 1920 it is probably Enrico Caruso. His Vesti la Giubba [No More Rice Kripsies]from Pagliacci was the first million selling classical record. His brilliant career cut short by lung cancer in 1921. The OTHER incredible voice on this duet being the absolutely greatest living baritone to perform in America, Titta Ruffo. [ His actual name being Ruffo Titta] Ruffo’s voice was so big that he sang at the opening of Radio City Music Hall without the benefit of a microphone. He lived a long retirement in Italy writing his remarkable autobiography, “Mi Parabola”. This is the only recording the two did together and they never once sang together in the United States. This is also recorded without a microphone or editing.

5) Geraldine Farrar Un Bel Di Vedremo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5Y6_93jeVo

America’s first Cio Cio San in Mme. Butterfly and one of Puccini’s muses. A firey soprano with remarkable vocal ability and one of the better dramatists of her day. Her fans were called Gerryflappers and it is believed the iconic term for the 20's "flapper" derived from this. Her autobiography is enormously entertaining. Someohow she leaves out her affair with Kaiser Wilhelm…………..

6) Claudia Muzio Voi Lo Sapete O Mama http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBx6xS_Lj14

There will be numerous battles over the greatest soprano singer prior to 1940 and I will not jump into that snake pit. Few, however, will dispute who the finest mezzo was of the day. Here, in a 1934 performance Muzio demonstrates why she was was referred to as the Eleanora Duse of Opera. This is verismo singing at its finest.

7) Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior Tristan & Isolde Love Duet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch3o0qV6TiA

I can’t imagine referring to these two separately; they are like Beer & Pizza, RC & Moon Pies. The whole is even greater than what would be the greatest individual part. They defined Wagnerian opera for generations and as a pair have never ever been matched. I can hyperventilate listening to the two of them together.

8) Nora Bayes Over There http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aed8-0C6XcY

Wow! What a great voice sending the boys over to France to fight for right! Born Leonora Goldberg, Ms. Bayes was the Army’s secret weapon in WW1. Recorded in 1917 this classic is identified as few other songs with a specific event in history. A composer herself she holds credit to “Shine on Harvest Moon” with her then husband Jack Norworth.

9) Paul Roebson Old Man River http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEQEeNhtosg&feature=related

Robeson was one of the greatest basses to ever tread upon any stage in the United States. A man of extraordinary personal courage and immense artistic ability.

10) Marian Anderson National Anthem http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQnzb0Jj074

It would be easy to forget that aside from being the trailblazer that she was, Anderson was one of the greatest contraltos America ever produced. We are right to be focused on her performance at the Lincoln Memorial as one of the landmark events in the Civil Rights Movement. A noble artist whose Schubert and Brahms still beguile the listener http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAvX_UwmQzQ&feature=related

11) Ethel Merman I Got Rhythm No You Tube version [Amazing!!]

Toscanini famously observed that it was “not the voice of a human being” and that she was the greatest heldentenor he had ever heard. For shear lung power it would be difficult to beat Ethel Zimmerman. If we stick with her performances prior to 1940 we get Gershwin and Cole Porter masterpieces as no-one else could sing them. Wise, witty and sly as a fox Merman could put off the would terrific terrifically and it’s why Cole Porter wrote it into so many of her songs.

12) Ira Louvin In the Pines http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWrSg5znyMU

Simply the most incredible tenor voice ever granted a human being. Even though it is outside my self-imposed parameter, it would be a crime to leave this vocalist out of any list. How does he do it, where do those upper notes come from? Like so many other phenomena Ira was a comet and he tragically burned out well before he should have, tormented by demons.

Finally, like many others, the greatest voices on earth I ever heard and  from whom I continue to seek wisdom, comfort, and guidance are my mother and and late father. As a little boy they were there for me and I can still hear them back then. Happily I can still hear my mother’s voice on the phone and do so almost every day.

August 17, 2010

Collecting Butter Pats

 Haviland Pansy

Some friends found themselves up against the wall with work, planning and other life stresses and I offered to drop a little blog entry their way if it would help. The more I thought about it, the more I decided to just go ahead and bite the bullet and do one on Victorian butter pats. Mainly for 2 reasons, it is an interesting subject and I need the practice in writing. 

The butter pat is something one frequently finds in Great Aunt Mildred’s china cabinet when one is cleaning out the house, and often they are found lurking in antique shops. Like any other dishware, they come in a number of sizes from 1 inch to about 4 inches with 3 inches being the industry standard. In some circles they are called butter chips. Their purpose is to provide safe haven for the butter that you will be putting on your bread during dinner, isolating it from the breadcrumbs. As we all know, if the butter were to mingle with the breadcrumbs it would cause a scene of the greatest indelicacy.

Minton Faisan

No wait, you are correct, that seems like overkill, a separate plate for the butter? A British dishware and cutlery catalogue from the Victorian era lists a standard Tea and Dinner service of dishware for 8 as follows:

12 Meat Plates

12 Soup Plates

12 Tart Plates

12 Cheese Plates

12 Butter Pats

12 Dessert Plates

4 Low Comports

2 Tall Comports

12 Tea Cups

12 Tea Saucers

12 Coffee Cups

12 Coffee Saucers

12 Demi-Tasse Cups

12 Demi-Tasse Saucers

12 Saucers

12 Small Plates

1 Tea Pot

1 Coffee Pot

1 Slop Basin

1 Cream Jug

2 Bread Plates

12 7” Plates

12 Egg Cups

1 Milk Jug

1 Hot Water Jug

1 Sugar Basin

1 Covered Muffin Dish

Bates Gildea & Walker Melbourne

1 18" Dish

1 16” Dish

1 14” Dish

1 12” Dish

1 10” Dish

2 9” Dishes

1 Soup Tureen with Ladle and Stand complete

2 Sauce Tureens with Ladles and Stands complete

2 Vegetable Dishes

2 Butter Boats

Wedgwood Ivanhoe
This is pretty much the minimum for the average well stocked middle class Victorian Household of about 1875. One would likely have other items for service such as the Ham Stand, the Cheese Dome, the Sardine Box, the Salt Cellars [Master and individual] and the Mustard Pot. You don’t’ want to see what utensils they provided for fine dining- the list is vast- but here are a few choice ones: Cheese Scoops, Sardine Forks, Sardine Tongs, Grape Scissors, Crumb Scoops, Tartlett Servers, Asparagus Tongs, Ice Cream Forks, and Preserve Helpers. They give you twelve of everything assuming clumsy kitchen maids.

Doulton Oceana

Why all this armament you may ask? With the rise of the middle class in England, the dishware and silverware manufacturers began developing additional plates and utensils that were specially designed to perform a single function. This mania for additional service pieces and cutlery stems from a deeply ingrained desire by the new English middle class to rise above their station. The thinking being, the more elaborate your dinner service and the more dishes you have for singular use the better class household you maintained.

So an elaborate service meant that you were more refined. 

Bates Gildea & Walker Satsuma
Another thing to consider is that we are in the full bloom of the Industrial Revolution and still have the convenience of child labor. This leads to greater utilization of mass production and tailoring dishware to the clientele with numerous designs and color ways. Bates Gildea and Walker would design “Satsuma” in 1878 and thus far your humble blogger has found 23 color ways.

Coalport Japanese Grove
Now, back to butter pats, they can be a remarkable collector’s item on their own. Being small and easily portable, one can pick one up at the local rummage sale and come home with it in your pocket. When you get home you can place it on the table top with the other 6 butter pats and leave room for more. I defy one to put 40 dinner plates on a side table without stacking them- impossible! For those in trying economic times their being small, usually means a tiny price tag is as well. The super rarest bringing seldom more than $150 and most of the popular patterns clock in at around $50 - $75.

Powell Bishop and Stonier Miako

The artistry used on many of them reflects the potter’s desire to synthesize the pattern’s look down to its essential elements. This results in one being able, in most cases, to be able to identify the pattern at first glance. There are exceptions; the Minstrel Wamba plays his lute as he strolls across Thomas Allen’s Ivanhoe pattern for Wedgwood, Charles Haviland turns his into a pansy blossom, and sprigs of bamboo appear alone without much in the way of attribute, leaving one unclear as to who the potter was much less the pattern.

Wedgwood Panama

The endless variety, the low cost, and the wonderful way these itty bitty little old butter pats can lighten the heart make them the ideal starting point for the beginning collector. They make collecting fun and help one to learn the pattern names and manufacturers with ease. Happy collecting and hope you will find something just wonderful for you!

July 18, 2010

The Devil is in the Details

It’s fitting that on the last day that Richmonders are given the opportunity to see the collection of James and Frances McGlothlin that we give pause and thank them. The quality and breadth of their American art collection which they have generously promised to the VMFA is staggering. From the earliest genre painting of the late 18thC, to Edward Hicks’ pupil Martin Johnson Heade, to rooms packed full of Blums, Homers, Chases, Glackens, Henris and Sargents, there is much to cheer about. Thus far my favorite review of this wonderful gift to the Commonwealth was a 40 year old friend who called to tell me he stood in front of the Winslow Homers and wept. Isn’t this what great art does, shake us to the very core of our emotions? That millions will one day be able to have that experience is the legacy of the McGlothlins. Good for them. Good for us. Good for Everybody.

A few collecting suggestions while there is still time, assuming the McGs are feeling expansive. Mrs. Cazalet and the children are apparently still not sold, so it would be fabulous to have them to go with Sargent’s stupendous portrait of William in his hunting togs. Scooping up a tiny Heade hummingbird/orchid picture would sure be nice as they are emblematic of his style and there isn’t one in the collection right now. A Hicks would round out the early stuff nicely. A wintery Twachtman would be fun. A Homer Civil War or rural oil or sketch would be nice, as would be a full size Whistler. This is not to say that the Whistler they have isn’t stunning, iconic and Japanesque, it is all of these things in an image slightly larger than a post card.

It certainly is easy to spend their money, over all though, they seem to have done very well without the writer’s suggestions. In general the choices they have made have been ones which provide the viewer with a very fine example of the artist’s work even if they are not the splashiest- the John Sloan and Robert Blum works are that way. The collection exhibits very good somewhat conservative taste and it will fit in well with Virginia’s sensibilities. One hopes that when the time comes, some thought is given to integrate the collection in with what the VMFA currently has as has been done with the Cochrane gifts. The two little Whistlers, the VMFA has one very similar is style and size to the one mentioned above, side by side would be a splendid vignette. In taking friends for tours of the American art upstairs and this collection one found ones-self constantly referring back and forth to what was in the other area. That is a very good thing indeed as the collections are highly compatible.

The writer hesitates to continue this essay as it will go downhill from here as far as the VMFA is concerned, but these things cannot be avoided in honest reporting. Rick Mather’s new wing has been the recipient of great praise through the architecture and design world, as this is his first American building and he is the darling of the cognoscenti. It is true that this is a titanic effort on the part of the museum, considering its country cousin reputation prior to this addition, adding a space that increases the size and utility significantly. Assuming that the building is still a work in progress, here is the writers punch list.

1) The Cochrane atrium is a vast amount of wasted space- which the artsy will tell you invites people into the gallery. I will tell you it is barren, devoid of interest and the cluster of red chairs and the Levitz sculpture only emphasize exactly how big it is and insignificant the art and furniture is. If there was ever a space begging for a full size Burghers of Calais by Rodin, this is it. The viewer does not feel invited on entrance, they feel lost. A few monumental 19thC Paintings on the walls would go a long way to cover up the abjectly poor wallboard work done by the contractors, which is emphasized by the dead white matte finish wall treatment- somewhat like a woman with stretch marks in a bikini. Why are we seeing seams and puckering?

2) Why do we continue to feel lost once we start towards the collections? Because the signage in the building for where things are is trendy and chic and utterly useless. On first visit, with a map, I managed to end up at the back of the American art, not the front, which was cleverly hidden by discrete signage. Even the National Gallery does a better job with this. It’s hard to see the art if you can’t find it. I fell into the Fisher Expressionist display, the signage was at the other end.

3) On one visit, while dining in the Best Café, I watched as they placed the tasteful clear plastic boxes in the atrium to catch the rain water that was leaking in- from the roof. So the line about no such thing as a leak-proof flat roof apparently applies here as well.

4) The Best Café offers expensive and mediocre food. Having tasted a few examples, the carrot cake- which may or may not be available- was the only medal winner. Seafood chowder was served at room temperature and while consuming same I had to wonder if I was going to be presented with food poisoning later in the day. Members of the staff were milling around with little to do and I received numerous questions from fellow diners about where to put their trays when they were finished. Virtually every food service in every gallery everywhere in the USA expects you to clean your place. Not here- it is annoying rather than quirky and completely out of touch with current food culture.

5) There is no excuse for cheap in an art museum. If we are there to educate the public in the fine arts we need to give them surroundings which reflect that. Was there anything in the café furniture and fixtures which wasn’t purchased in China? A Hoosier Farm Boy friend who is big, in a fit healthy way, was legitimately concerned that the chairs were not going to hold his weight. They are cheap looking and feeling. The cleverish light fixtures were hung in such a way that the architect’s rendering, which this writer had reviewed, was clearly never seen by the contractors- it was a hot uneven mess, all four times I was in the café. For such a thing to work right, theyhave to be hung PRECISELY and that wasn’t done. Nor was the café actually finished, bare concrete columns and parts of the ceiling had not been provided with even one coat of whitewash. As a result it looks as though the space was completed as an afterthought when they were running out of money. The Biltmore syndrome, as George Vanderbilt did the same thing there. As a surprise concept, it would be useful for the museum higher ups to remember that every space in the museum is there to educate and enlighten. Providing a café for the unwashed that looks like that’s for whom you provided it is inexcusable. It is noted that better chairs were provided for Amuse- the white tablecloth restaurant replacing the members dining room-and clearly a hoped for source of revenue.

6) Not all the collections are currently on display and the VMFA is to be commended on taking their time in those installations to come. For those that are, some observations by collection:

American: Trying to find the entrance is issue number one. Figure out how to let the public know where they need to go. The loaned items are impressive and there are some real superstars on display, the Peale Washington Porthole, the Burial of Latane, St. Gaudens’ Pilgrim, Valentine's Lee manque, and a number of really well thought out vignettes for the decorative arts from PA painted furniture to Egyptian Revival mantle sets.

There is an issue, there is mood lighting and a number of the walls are painted dark or intense colors, an improvement over the oatmeal colored walls of past installations. However, in an effort, I think, to allow for easy reading by those with disabilities the notes for the objects are now 8 inches off the floor and in most cases written in a Times New Roman 12 in low contrast. This requires some visitors to bring flashlights and kneel down to read the cards. This is bang-ass crazy and needs to be fixed. So what if you don’t think anyone reads them, people do, and they need to be legible. So you put the cards on a white background and use sans-serif fonts at about 14 or 16. This one issue nearly ruined the entire museum experience for one out of town guest. Interestingly, not every gallery followed this labeling protocol and so one cannot argue that it is museum policy.

19thC Art Nouveau and 20thC Art deco: With the exception of the Godwin sideboard, there is not a great deal of stuff that will be new to the viewer, although in some cases there are additional pieces on display; the Guimard office suite is now all there. These additional pieces, that were previously owned and are now out, are helpful in understanding the works as an ensemble. One observes that there is a paucity of Ceramic decorative arts- particularly English- which is regrettable since the museum owns some stellar examples. The little display on Christopher Dresser is devoid of any mention of his graphic design for which he is famous. Polishing the tureen would have been nice. The elastic hairband which had been inadvertently shot at the Guimard sideboard would best not have been on display and it is disturbing that guards who were patrolling the gallery failed to notice this.

Quibbling with the Godwin installation, it would be nice if the side shelves had been lifted up so that the full Anglo-Japanesque effect can be seen. Quibbling further, because it really matters, placing the Ars Nouveau sculptures of Sara Bernhardt and Loie Fuller so that they abut the atrium and one is utterly blinded by the glare from the opposing white wall is just plain stupid.To see the sculptures requires either a cloudy day or that the viewer sprout wings. The result is they are seen almost only in silhouette and any detail or color value is completely lost. Were they placed where they are because the curator ran out of room?

Finally the Tiffany room- as one wag said, they succeeded in completely sucking the life out of the objects. What was once a brilliantly beautiful window is now a gloomy grey, the only object which is allowed to be viewed in a three dimensional way is the punch bowl [which really is fantastic and would have helped the lackluster Tiffany show enormously]. There is enough space in the room to display other objects and lamps similarly. I understand the installation of the lamps- as this is done as well at the Hosmer-Morse Museum in Winter Pak, FL, as it allows the curatorial staff more flexibility in display, but the Peacock lamp surely loses significant lustre this way. The companion installation of the All Saints Episcopal Window on the 3rd floor is absurd- causing two of one party I was with to go into the bathrooms to see if you could get a better view of them from there. Sadly you cannot. While useful for seeing the external texture of the windows, being able to see them as Tiffany intended requires dead of night, the “shade” that is supposed to enable appropriate darkness during the day fails to do so and further creates a large white block which is visible from the outside and creates a jarring effect from the street on an already troubled Grove Avenue façade.

There are gems as well……….the Asian installation is stunning. The red walls with object cards at eye level are easily read and the Moghul paintings and Nepalese hangings are interesting and will expand many people’s understanding of this discipline. The sculpture is thoughtfully displayed and I suspect our former director had a hand in selecting some of the recent acquisitions, so his impact on the museum is gratefully felt. A clearer understanding of what was on top of the amazing marble pavilion would be useful and I suspect there will soon be requests for use as a marriage venue. It is a special and beautiful place.

The Arabella Worsham Huntington Huntington bedroom is a welcome addition to the American gallery. We are grateful that the Museum of the City of New York could no longer house it and equally grateful to Rockefeller for being too cheap to redecorate. It is an exceptional interior which warrants the addition of some little things so as to be seen not as a museum room but as a living space. A desk set and stationery on the desk, some bibelots on the shelves and a dressing set would enhance the experience enormously. It is also too bad we can’t figure out a way to see it from the other side….. Having seen this as a child in NYC I recall the upholstery as being plush, the hard surface damask will be easier to dust no doubt.

The temporary display of 18thC European painting in the Near gallery is presented in the Continental style, so appropriate to the works displayed. Although this will probably vanish once the galleries are ready, it is to wondrous effect and one wishes there were more of it.

We are thankful to Jerome and Rita Gans for donating even more exceptional items from their silver collection which has been reinstalled in a far superior way than before and creates a marvelous space for the works. Reviewing these works with English ceramics experts brought about an intriguing discussion of the translation of ceramic works into silver. The Garrard gold wash teapot and the Neo-classical work in particular. Study on the part of the curatorial staff may produce origins for some of the designs in the works of Wedgwood; the birth of an outstanding Master’s thesis perhaps?

For those with particular tastes, one would not want to miss the Native American and Mesoamerican art which is thoughtfully displayed or the Kawase Hasui prints which leave one in a wonderful meditative state. The Mellon French and Sporting galleries were not significantly changed with this renovation and there are many lovely things on display. Removal of the carpeting in those rooms would be helpful. With the new addition one observes how dated the Hardy Holzman and Pfieffer addition has begun to look- 1985 was not a very good year. Refacing the atrium stair hand railings with thinner wood would help enormously, they look dated and clunky.

To sum up- the new addition offered more in concept and promise than it delivers. The execution of the architect’s plan was clumsily done. It is clear that much of the work was done with cheap labor rather than with an eye to posterity and quality. Friends observed that glass panels were installed incorrectly and sloppy painting and wallboard installation distract from Mather’s design significantly. The flat white paint shows every single fingerprint and using it at ground level was absurd when one considers that patching that surface will be impossible without it showing up like a carbuncle on the Mona Lisa. Cheaply done work is expensive to maintain. As was said about Mies’ Seagram’s Building;  it is great modern architecture that looks as good as it does because it used expensive materials and they were installed perfectly. One need only drive 90 minutes on 64 to see a more satisfactorily done addition: the Chrysler Museum.

The installation of the works runs the gamut from intellectually stimulating and stunning to abjectly thoughtless, to the point of appearing thrown together without any idea of what message they were trying to convey to the public. Objects which would naturally go together are placed in totally different rooms thereby reducing their ability impact the viewer.It is clear who the stars are in the curatorial and installation departments.  The glare in a number of galleries caused by the thoughtless use of super bright wall treatments is inexcusable. Alternatively the lack of lighting to make the information cards legible is a significant bugaboo, particularly in the American collection.

Should you go? Yes, there’s lots of good stuff to see. While the building ultimately fails in the details I believe it will be far more useful than the late Robert Stewart addition as it provides additional gallery space and far more flexibility. Signs that maintenance will be an issue are bubbling up both inside and outside in the reflecting ponds. But avert your eyes and focus on what’s there, the art, as Howard Carter said when he discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb, “I see wonderful things.”

April 2, 2010

Grandmother Food

It is Good Friday and my grandmother is imprinted on my brain. She can be heard deep down inside me saying “Not even a dog would eat meat on Good Friday.” That’s it. Do not pass “GO”, do not collect $200. Go straight to Hell, in fact, if you’re really bad, having eaten something like a cheeseburger with impunity, the ground beneath your feet will split open and the demons of Hell will drag you down screaming into the eternal bath of fire and brimstone. The gist of it being that there was probably no sin more grievous than eating meat on Good Friday. (In adulthood I would discover others.)

Blanche, my grandmother, was not alone in this thinking. As a child in kindergarten at the Convent of the Sacred Heart on Noroton Point, Mother White, a penguin shaped and garbed woman of uncertain age, reminded us that the THOUGHT of eating the hotdog on Good Friday was as bad a sin as the actual eating. So, if you think about it, you might as well do it, you’re going to Hell in a hand basket any way.

Strangely, this served as a valuable tool in my later life of sinning and transgressions. Telling myself, I was already condemned to Hell for thinking about whatever unnatural act came to mind, I might as well get the pleasure derived from same. I drew the line at most thoughts of violence but felt completely within my rights as an inherently impure person to therefore do basically whatever I wanted, assuming I could figure out a way to escape the inevitable parental punishment. I suspect this is the way a number of Godless roués start their career of mayhem. It certainly worked on some level for me. That is until it no longer did……..

Today, I find myself frequently saying to myself and others, that it doesn’t matter what’s going on up inside my head, as long as I don’t act on it. Whether it be plotting the demise of some Republican or Mormon or amusing myself with what so and so looks like bereft of clothing, as long as I don’t pull the trigger, or rip the shirt off, I am doing OK. This is because, while I can better filter my actions now that I am older and supposedly more mature, I don’t always have control of the three-ring circus that is inside my head. At any given time there are trapeze artists swinging from graphics of the Fibonacci Sequence while Charles Ive’s Lady in Pink is riding on the midnight train [whip slam bang we go sir, right on through the rain] knowing that her destination is the Minton factory in about 1875 when they are trying to determine which designs they are going to steal from Audley & Bowes. Images flashing here and there triggered by daily conversation, “Do I known Marc P” the conversant asks, the file cards flip inside my head reminding me that I went to school with his aunt and that we share a common interest in Caravaggio and Sushi; my response being yes, and none of the rest of that brain image comes out of my mouth. I probably appear ADHD but suspect I am simply just like everyone else..

But I digress. My grandmother was a wonderful woman whose Victorian Catholic upbringing resulted in a lifelong devotion to her church and family. Easter was frequently spent in Chevy Chase at 3 Grafton and I remember walking to mass at the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament [BS to the cognoscenti- I didn’t know the other abbreviation tied to these letters until years later and wondered why everyone was talking about Blessed Sacrament.] being warned to watch for traffic on Connecticut Avenue as one wouldn’t want to be smashed flat on Easter Sunday. The fountain at the circle would have been dosed with soapsuds or purple dye and shoot up in festive colors which never ceased to amaze me. Like all kids, the more garish the color the better I liked it. Enduring the second longest service in the Catholic Canon, only Christmas being longer and more tedious, we went home to Easter dinner.

Excepting her remarkable ability to demonstrate unconditional love, it is in the kitchen that I remember my grandmother most fondly. Raised in a household that had a cook, she came to the chore only after she married the handsomest man in Virginia. This last comment being a true fact as she never ever lied, although she didn’t always let the facts get in the way of a good story. In spite of her slow start to the skill she was remarkably talented and today the highest compliment one can serve to me as a cook is that what I prepare is almost as good as – or tastes like- hers.

She was no Escoffier; she was a classic cook of the 30’s and 40’s so she turned out food that was ample, tasty and enduring. A few of her hits included crab cakes that were held together with a bit of mustard and prayer, there was no breadcrumbs and no other filler, baking powder biscuits that were light as clouds, lemon meringue pie with a pale white tender crust and bright yellow filling made in the double boiler, the purple can of home made cookies; molasses, chocolate hip, or “icebox” to which all the grandchildren made a bee-line when they entered her house. Cooking was a fully participatory thing for her, stirring the stew or gravy and tasting it with the spoon that then went back in the pan to add just that savory bit of saliva, aka “love” to the collation. It was all good because it was a part of her and she was good. Although long gone from earthly toil, she remains as alive to her children and grandchildren as if she was right now in the kitchen with the cat clock mixing up the cocoanut cake while her husband grated the fresh cocoanut. She remains alive in our hearts and memories.

It can be a wonderful thing to have memories, and the one’s we’d rather not remember, like the relationship between dogs and Good Friday may be a burden; but they are often overshadowed by thoughts warm and sunny Easter Days, laughter, love and grandmother food.

March 15, 2010

Sears Has................Nothing

I attend a regularly scheduled function on Monday nights. We provide coffee for the attendees, as is traditional, and after a long day at work, the evening seems to benefit from having a cup of Joe at hand. There are two pots, one for the high test and then one for the wimps who like to live the coffee experience vicariously through others but want to look like they are drinking the real thing. A friend claims to be able to taste a difference between the caffeinated and the decaf. I don’t believe a word of it, it all tastes like bitter dirty water unless you add sugar, cream, or whatever toxic artificial sweetener the FDA has failed to ban. Then, it tastes like whatever it is you added to it, making it closer to potability, and therefore permitting you to say to the coffee person, “Wow, this is a GREAT cup of coffee!” The pathetic souls who drink it black must’ve had their taste buds killed off by one too many deceptively hot pizzas while in college. Youngsters always forget the insulating factor of the melted cheese trapping the 800 degree tomato sauce underneath.

Enough caviling about the end result; we need to focus on the process at issue. To make a pot of coffee you need to fill the pot with water, the basket with coffee, insert the cord and plug it into the wall. The time it takes is dependent upon how much water is in the pot. A reasonable facsimile of coffee usually is brewed in about 30 minutes.

Insert the cord………….. Go to the storage box and extract the cord, which is not there. Check around the entire building in case it was left stuck in a socket to hang there like a snake caught half in and half out of the trunk of a car. There is no cord to be found within the building that belongs to you so through temporary sleight of hand, two appear and you can start the brewing process. “Ugh,” you say to yourself, I guess I need to find replacement cords. But this really isn’t a problem because you can always go to Sears and get them. After all, Sears has Everything.

You’ve heard this or some similar phrase for hundreds of years; it’s buried in the collective conscience. Craftsman tools never break and if they do, you get a free one- forever. That Sears’ appliances will last until the last Ice Age, I can vouch for this; my mother’s washing machine lasted 30+ years. The Sears Catalogue is the most accurate document of what “life was/is like” for any given year since its first publication. If Sears doesn’t have it, they don’t make it any more. This proved to be truer than you can imagine as my 90+ year old grandmother demanded, and got, corsets with metal stays up until the 1980’s. They were also the last place to sell a true Union suit for gentlemen.

The cover of the 1902 Sears catalogue- I happen to have one right here- advises they are the Cheapest Supply House- that they are The Great Price Maker, and within the 1162 pages there is all sort and kind of stuff to sell and use. Fleming’s Lump Jaw Cure [for cows], Never Root Hog Tamer, Kenwood Steel Windmills, and other equally essential items to life in 1902.

Flashing forward to 2010, I get in the car and go over to “Ye Olde Shopping Mall” nearby thinking confidently that if any place is going to have a replacement cord, it will be Sears. The drive takes almost no time and I am deposited at the entrance to the store. Pulling open the double doors I walk into the Sears of today. It bears a remarkable resemblance to a mausoleum. I am in the store for about 5 minutes before I actually see another person shopping. There are about 4-5 sales people on the floor, milling about attempting to bide time looking busy. None of them address me to ask if I would like some assistance. Since none of them are overwhelmed with customers, I find this unsettling. There is sale stock everywhere, garish beach towels in stacks in every color of an LSD drenched rainbow, countless sandals holding up the wall by the escalator, and an enormous display of Land’s End product on tables which appear not to have been touched any time in the last week. Land’s End used to be good stuff, quality, so a bit more expensive. Now, since it has been taken to Sears, as Persephone was taken to Hell, it sits in the store….lonesome, forlorn, unloved and unpurchased. Joe Boxer product sits beside the standard Sears items which render it indistinguishable and sited so that no one will notice it even exists, an ignominious end to a hugely popular label.

A trip down the escalator to what was believed was the appliance section of this store resulted in my viewing the first ACTUAL customer. The man was buying something, I mused it had better be delivered in a hurry as he was clearly on the closer side of death. One wonders if this is the demographic for the average Sears customer. Nobody else was interested in their marquee products. An idle sales person, seeing my vacant head turning, asked what I was looking for, I advised of same and was told that I would find it on the third floor.

My solo journey up the two escalators presented me with my first impression of this floor; clearance displays posted on either side of the escalator. That’s good- show me the unloved stuff first, set the mood for something exciting by displaying the wretched refuse. No longer get off the escalator and see the wonders as described in the 1902 catalogue from my 1960’s youth. Sears is there to make a sale, not make it an attractive experience. Landing on the third floor reminded of what it would have been like for the Pilgrims if instead of landing at Plymouth Rock they had landed in Death Valley: grim, tired and dreary.

The house wares department was conveniently located wherever they thought it would fit. It was not a permanent installation. There were cheap looking wire racks on wheels holding the various boxes of kitchen appliances and equipment for the customer to peruse. There was no order to the merchandise, other than clumping things together that kindof matched or belonged sortof together. It was as though the kitchen appliance department was an afterthought squeezed into an ill fitting space now that the store display team had been let go and the store manager’s friend had come by to “help out” and set it up. Name brands clumped together in unattractive ways – much like Joe Boxer down below- and products to be sold that nobody wanted.

Of course, Sears no longer has cords- at least that I could find- a walk around the floor revealed nary a single salesperson to ask. It did have really ugly house brand dishware for which they were charging very large amounts of money, single portion coffee discs and enormous yellow signs trumpeting how much lower the prices are.

It was sad. Real sad. Somehow, since my childhood when Sears was the king of retail, admired and respected nationally, it has sunk to this. Large spaces with nobody in them, stock that nobody wants to buy, at prices which make things unappealing, store design which is clearly on the cheap and a staff which no longer cares. It’s time. Would someone please go ahead and pull the plug. Some of the parts may be salvageable; Target would do well to buy Land’s End while A & F and Joe Boxer would make a cute couple. Target is the Sears of the 21st Century and Sears is sadly the Montgomery Ward. Put the poor chain out of its misery.

March 6, 2010

It's Not About the Cookies

It’s Not About the Cookies

March 12, 1911, Juliette Gordon Low, known as Daisy to her friends registered the first 18 girls into the first Girl Guides troop. Since that time more than 50,000,000 have been given an opportunity to learn and grow as capable women in the single largest female empowerment program in the world, the Girl Scouts. Such an organization needed some way to fund its activities, and the Mistletoe Troop of Muskogee OK held the first cookie sale in December of 1917.

In July 1922, The American Girl magazine, published by Girl Scout national headquarters, featured an article by Florence E. Neil, a local director in Chicago, Illinois. Miss Neil provided a cookie recipe that was given to the council's 2,000 Girl Scouts. She estimated the approximate cost of ingredients for six- to seven-dozen cookies to be 26 to 36 cents. The cookies, she suggested, could be sold by troops for 25 or 30 cents per dozen.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Girl Scouts in different parts of the country continued to bake their own simple sugar cookies with their mothers. These cookies were packaged in wax paper bags, sealed with a sticker, and sold door to door for 25 to 35 cents per dozen.

An Early Girl Scout Cookie® Recipe

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar plus additional amount for topping (optional)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
Cream butter and the cup of sugar; add well-beaten eggs, then milk, vanilla, flour, salt, and baking powder. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Roll dough, cut into trefoil shapes, and sprinkle sugar on top, if desired. Bake in a quick oven (375°) for approximately 8 to 10 minutes or until the edges begin to brown. Makes six- to seven-dozen cookies.

Thus began a common effort to raise funds for the Girl Scouts by selling cookies door to door. In a time far more innocent than today, it was expected that with the robins of spring the little girls in green, and their Brownie sisters, would knock on one’s door and ask if you would like to buy some cookies. The rise of the suburbs created the ideal environment for the various girls to manage some prodigious sales within a half mile of home. Even the dads of the 60’s were known to have shown up at the office with the tri-fold cardboard order forms to hit up the guys and gals for a box or two for little Becky or Susie. This created the dilemma of determining how many boxes to order from your boss knowing that Alice from the steno pool was going to asking for a box or two for her little girl.

It became impractical for the mothers and daughters to continue to bake the cookies at home and the districts began contracting the cookies out to the large industrial cookie manufacturers. In the 60’s, this created some odd bedfellows. The cookies we ate in Darien, CT were made by FFV Foods in Richmond, VA and the Richmond, VA cookies were made by the Little Debbie Bakers in Gentry, AK. The choice of baker was determined by each local district and being the local didn’t always guarantee the contract. Now, they’re down to 2 large contractors nationwide so that the peanut butter cookie in Muncie, IN tastes just like the one in Ms. Low’s home town of Savannah, Ga.

I never sold a cookie, not one……… I was never permitted to be a Girl Scout; instead, I was support staff. You see, my mother was a district cookie sales manager. That means that once the girls finished with the orders, the boxes and boxes and boxes of cookies would arrive in our garage, the car would be displaced and mountains of brown cardboard boxes each holding 12 boxes of cookies would rule the roost. As a support staff-person my job was to sort out the cookies, put them in boxes corresponding to the troops orders, 325 Thin Mints, 278 Butter Trefoils [Which had pictures of the merit badges on them], and hundreds of boxes of the others. New varieties would appear such as Samoas- we believed they’d never sell, and we lamented the departure of the Vanilla and Chocolate Cream Sandwiches.

Staff support persons also stayed home and sorted out the money that arrived while watching TV in the kitchen. Enormous piles of quarters, dimes, nickel and pennies which had to be separated counted and rolled. When done the hoard was taken to the district where they were deposited for the benefit of the thousands of smiling faces that had stood on countless front stoops and asked if we wanted “just one box”. The district cookie manager’s husband got the garage back and we collapsed after a hectic week of distribution and delivery. Her comment afterwards was always the same, “If I never see another box of cookies again it will be too soon.”

It was one of the first times in my life where I was to experience service work, to do something for others that supported a far larger common good. It felt wonderful back then as a kid to be able to be part of this tremendously exciting epochal event. For the girls, it was no mean feat to sell millions of boxes of a totally unnecessary product and have the full support and backing of their community.

It is a tradition spanning 90+ years now that has provided funds for the girls to go camping, education, training for role models, leaders and other expenses necessary to help the leaders do one simple thing, help turn little girls into empowered women. Whether that girl is struggling to find lunch in the inner city, earning a merit badge in computers, or getting her first up close and personal experience with a real live deer, the pathway to that adventure is strewn with cookie crumbs, purchased by her family, friends and neighbors.

It’s not about the cookies…………it’s about the girls; the women, mothers, leaders and role models that they become.

So go out, buy a box or 10, and let the girls know they matter.

Recipe courtesy http://www.girlscouts.org/program/gs_cookies/cookie_history/