Do You Love the Place Where You Live?

S7305184Do you love the place where you live? Its backyards and alleys, its houses and people?

Collages6Do you love its weather (physical, political, and otherwise)? Is it a place where spirits soar?

State College walk around March 23 2017-001Can you identify its colors, its faults, its charms?

State College walk around March 23 20171Does it accommodate art and embrace differences? Does it know where the wild things are and save a space for them too?

Collages4  Is there an evident pattern of pride that gives you a boost . . .

State College walk around March 23 20173s7305126.jpg. . . . rather than making you feel buttoned down?

State College walk around March 23 20172Do you love the place where you live?

State College walk around March 23 20174 Is it a place that is welcoming to strangers, yet where you can imagine your chickens coming home to roost?

 

These pictures were snapped a couple days ago, when I was walking around one of the neighborhoods of my hometown — the town of State College, Pennsylvania. My husband and I live about a ten minute drive away on its rural outskirts, but this neighborhood is quite special to us. When first dating, back in the ’90s, we walked these sidewalks for hours every night, talking and getting to know one another. I’ve lived here most of my life, with the exception of six years after college, so perhaps it’s natural that there came a time when I wanted to move away from this area and make my home in a sunnier part of the United States (the desert southwest was calling to me).

Lately, though,  I’m having a “second-honeymoon” feeling about the place where I live. State College has small-town charm and, at the same time, a population that is culturally diverse, thanks to the local university and, in particular, its graduate-student program, which draws many international students into our fold. For almost its entire existence, State College has revolved around welcoming newcomers — because of Penn State University, that is its business — and this welcoming nature makes for a town that is lively and friendly. To wit: while taking my stroll on Thursday, I looked up and saw a young man flying in graceful, arcing circles above the yard of his house. He was doing arabesques and changing positions as he went round and round, many feet off the ground. “Can I take your photo?” I called to him over the wrought iron fence of his yard. “Sure, come in,” he said, and in the space of ten minutes I learned a little of his history. (His name is Dimitry, he studied circus arts and, for a while, lived and performed in New York City before moving back to State College, which is where he grew up too. The long-poled contraption that suspended him as he flew in elegant circles above his yard was a gift he recently bought himself for his 26th birthday.)

“Are you happy to be back here?” I asked him as I was leaving, silently wondering if someone who has lived in the Big Apple would find State College to be more than a little too small. “I am!” he said without hesitation. “I love it here.”

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Forget-Me-Not, from “100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names”

March came in like a lion this year, and the weather here is quite wicked at the moment, but I’m thinking of gardening and, particularly, of flowers. One of the most fascinating and charming books ever written on the subject of flora is Diana Wells’s 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names.  I have a hunch that most people who enjoy gardening also enjoy history, and Wells’s little book is a gathering of historical facts on each of these flowers, most of them quite entertaining, as she writes with a lovely sense of humor as well as intelligence. It’s the type of book you can randomly open to any page and find delightful reading for a minute or two, for most of the flowers are described in only two pages, but the writing is so good I read it from cover-to-cover when I first bought it, many years ago. Whenever I pluck it from my shelf, I think to myself that it would have been the perfect gift for my grandmother, who was the most bookish gardener I ever knew (which is saying something, as gardeners are a bookish lot!) and who would have delighted in reading the histories and myths attached to her favorite flowers.

Below I’ve excerpted the author’s enchanting entry on one of the early flowers of spring, the forget-me-not. A friend of mine has these tender blue flowers growing so profusely in her garden, they look like a blue mist spiraling around her pathways in the months of April and May.

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BOTANICAL NAME: Myosotis.  FAMILY: Boraginaceae.

Its botanical name comes from the Greek mus (mouse) and otis (ear). This is from the rather touching perception that the leaves are shaped like a mouse’s ears. John Gerard called it “scorpion grass” and believed that it cured scorpion bites, though there are no scorpions in England—but maybe it was best to be prepared.

The name “forget-me-not” comes from the Old French ne m’ oubliez mye, which in turn was a translation of the German vergiss mein nicht. The best known legend about the flower is of a German knight picking a posy of forget-me-nots for his beloved as they strolled together on a riverbank. He slipped and fell in, but before drowning he threw her the flowers, crying, “Vergiss mein nicht.” This excruciating story could really only have merit were it to be sung onstage with a suitably distraught and bosomy soprano and some excellent trap-door mechanisms. Botanically it doesn’t hold much water.

Blue is a celestial color and it almost always clothes the Virgin Mary in medieval paintings. Flies reputedly will avoid blue rooms, which is why dairies were often painted blue. Gardeners treasure blue flowers, which are rarer than any other color in our borders. Blue and yellow are also the colors that most attract insect pollinators, which is what interested Christian Sprengel in forget-me-nots. Sprengel, rector of Spandau in Germany, was investigating the role that colors of flowers play in the process of insect pollination. He so neglected his pastoral duties to pursue botany that he was dismissed from his post. In 1793 he published The Newly Revealed Mystery of Nature in the Structure and Fertilization of Flowers, which demonstrated his belief that all nature had a connected purpose. It was, however, unenthusiastically received by his contemporaries, leaving him too depressed to publish anything more. It was not until 1841 that Charles Darwin read the book and recognized the truths in it, which he incorporated into his own research.

“Forget-me-not” is one of the few flower names that almost everyone knows and remember, and the flowers commonly decorate Valentine cards and the like. They grow in damp places and are, indeed, bluer that the Virgin’s robe. The most memorable place they grew, however, was in Lady Chatterley’s pubic hair, where her gamekeeper lover planted them, saying, “There’s forget-me-nots in the right place.” When she looked down at the “odd little flowers among the brown maiden-hair,” she said, “Doesn’t it look pretty!” The gamekeeper’s reply is unforgettable: “Pretty as life,” he said. †

— Diana Wells, from her book 100 Flowers
and How They Got Their Names

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100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, copyright © 1997 by Diana Wells (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1997, pp. 72-73)

 

A Little Art History: Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques

I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately. Back in December, I wrote a post about being an avid art lover in the first half of my life, and how that passion had basically faded to the degree that I’m no longer keen on going to museums — my tastes having narrowed to the point where I know exactly what kind of art I like, and I’m more inclined to indulge my particular whims than go in search of art elsewhere. For the most part that feeling still holds, but lately I’ve been doing some excavation into my life, digging up works I’ve kept over the years, and I realize that art appreciation on one level or another has been at the core of almost everything I’ve ever done, writing-wise. For example, there’s a coffee table book I wrote and published in 2002 about artists and other creative types of people who live in my hometown; an unfinished novel in which my protagonist is a young woman from the South, in the 1930s, who falls in love with a travelling artist, follows him to New York, and in the course of her journeys becomes an artist herself; and works I kept from my college days pertaining to art history that I can’t seem to throw away. Thinking about the latter, I thought I’d create an ongoing (though random) series on my blog under the tagline “A Little Art History,” in which I’ll examine works that particularly speak to me. And on that note, here is my first entry:

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Pablo Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques

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Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, completed in Paris in 1905. Oil on canvas. (From the Chester Dale Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)

 

During the end of 1904 and the first half of 1905, the artist Pablo Picasso produced a group of works treating a circus theme. These paintings illustrate a transition from his Blue Period to the Rose Period, possessing a warmer palette, a more relaxed use of line, and a change in mood to suggest a more subtle feeling of melancholy. Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, his most famous painting from the Rose Period, provides an intimate glimpse into the life of a circus family. Like most of his works on this theme, Picasso chooses to show the performers behind the scenes, in their personal relationships, rather than in their masquerades before an audience. In doing so, he seems to emphasize the loneliness of any artist, whether trapeze or painter, whose work tends to isolate him from the rest of society. In the Harlequin, a favorite motif, Picasso unmasks a serious, often sorrowful, and very human person who is in direct contrast to our image of the laughing clown.

Picasso made numerous studies for this work. In fact, several of his earlier works of 1905 can be called studies for this painting because these same characters he painted in the beginning of the year found their way into the Family of Saltimbanques. The most important study belongs to the Shchukin collection in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. In this preparatory sketch, the acrobats are positioned against a background which includes a horse race, a crowd, and houses. By omitting these details in favor of a desert background, Picasso places more emphasis on the figures themselves. Their sense of community forms the only barrier from a world of emptiness.

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Family of Acrobats sketch by Pablo Picasso (from the Shchukin Collection of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow).

Although his palette is warmer than the monochromatic blues of the previous period, Picasso uses a delicate touch in applying the color. In some places it seems almost transparent—particularly in the seated figure of the woman, whose skirt seems to fade into the neutral setting—as if to suggest the ephemeral nature of life itself. This quality inspired the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived with the painting for fifteen years, to write in the fifth of his Duino Elegies: “But tell me, who are they, these acrobats, even a little more fleeting than we ourselves—so urgently, ever since childhood wrung by an (oh, for the sake of whom?) never-contented will?”

 

One of My Favorite Films: Fading Gigolo

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There are certain books I re-read from year to year, always finding something new in them, and there are a handful of films that fall into that category too. One of them is writer, director and actor John Turturro’s 2014 elegiac gem, Fading Gigolo. It’s a film that surprised me: When I saw Woody Allen’s face next to Turturro’s on the movie poster, I assumed it was his film and would thus be marked by his neurotic and slightly acerbic wit. And indeed, some of Allen’s trademark humor finds its way to Fading Gigolo, and one could say there’s a lot of Allen in this film, period, because Turturro quite obviously paid homage to him. The beauty of New York City (here caught in the dappled shade and golden glow of autumn, which seems to triple its beauty); the sweetly soft and melancholic jazz score; the story itself, which acknowledges the bittersweetness of life’s relationships (its inevitable losses, deeply felt yet lightened by the possibility of new beginnings); and yes, the humor, the sense of absurd comedy that plays out in the daily lives of humans: all of these Woody-esque elements are in Fading Gigolo, though under Turturro’s vision and lens they are softened, achieving a subtlety that has the effect of making the viewer feel he is watching a Woody Allen film through a veil. Whereas the humor in a Woody Allen film can sometimes feel jarring or tangential to the point that it almost seems to occupy its own separate room in the story, here it is toned down in a way that recalls Allen’s more sublime films like Midnight in Paris or Hannah and Her Sisters. Though understated, Turturro very capably evokes the famous director’s offbeat brand of storytelling: at its heart, Fading Gigolo is a story about human connection, arrived at by observing the various ways a person can feel lonely and through a flow of events that are, by turns, comic, tender, sad, and romantically sweet.

Woody Allen’s character Murray is the instigator of the story. Murray is the aging owner of a rare-books bookstore in Manhattan, started by his grandfather, that is no longer doing enough business to keep it afloat, and is lamenting this fact to long-time employee and friend Fioravante (John Turturro) in the film’s opening scene, as the two men empty shelves in preparation for its closing. Murray then tells Fioravante about a conversation he had with his dermatologist earlier in the day. While visiting her office for a procedure, the dermatologist confided to him that she and a girlfriend planned to pursue something they’d never done before—a ménage a trois—and she wondered if he might know someone willing to help them out with that fantasy, a man they could trust. Murray said he did know someone who would do it—for a thousand dollars. The person he had in mind is Fioravante, he tells his friend. Fioravante looks at him in surprise but Murray is serious and brings up the fact that Fioravante is living hand-to-mouth with his part-time jobs at a flower shop and the now-closed bookstore. While admitting this to be true, Fioravante isn’t interested. “You need a young, slick, leading-man type,” he tells Murray a day later at the florist shop, where he’s carefully potting an orchid when Murray shows up to resume the discussion, spurred by the fact that the dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), has already phoned him again. “I’m not a beautiful man,” Fioravante protests, but Murray is relentless in trying to convince him that he’s perfect for the job.

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Naturally, Murray is right. When Fioravante finally agrees to show up at Dr. Parker’s wealthy address for a one-on-one tryst (because she wants to see what she thinks of him first), he does so with impeccable grooming, smooth styling, and something else that’s hinted at in a gift he brings her. The gift is a small detail in the film but, coupled with what we already know about him, bears witness to the fact that a job is never just a job to Fioravante; it hints at the soulful sensitivity he will bring to this new vocation. And a vocation is exactly what it becomes after he leaves Dr. Parker’s with an envelope in which she has not only placed the agreed-upon cash but a five-hundred dollar tip. After taking his cut (he made the arrangements, after all), an excited Murray starts lining up more clients for Fioravante, effectively becoming his pimp. Murray proves to be an ace at his new job, too; on his daily jaunts through the city, even while visiting Central Park, he has an eye for scouting out women who might appreciate Fioravante’s services, and judging by the blissful looks on their faces after their various rendezvous with him, they clearly do. Dr. Parker declares him “top shelf” and is now somewhat reluctant about sharing him with her sexy friend Selima (Sofía Vergara) as they make plans for their threesome.

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Then one day Murray brings a very different woman to Fioravante’s apartment. Avigal (played by French actress Vanessa Paradis) is a young widow from one of the Hassidic Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn – a mother of six children whose husband, a rabbi, has been dead for two years. Murray knows her because he purchased her husband’s collection of books after he died, and on an unrelated visit to her home, he senses her deep loneliness. A devout woman living under the rules and the watchful neighborhood eyes of her religious sect, Avigal carefully considers Murray’s suggestion that she venture outside her sheltered environs to visit someone who might help her. When he comes back with a car to escort her to Manhattan, she assumes he is taking her to a healer of some sort, and when they arrive at Fioravante’s place that expectation is still on her face as she gazes hesitantly at the massage table he has set up.

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The rest of the film is theirs—Fioravante’s and Avigal’s—though other characters in its ensemble cast continue to play important roles. It is theirs by virtue of the acting: Paradis has little dialogue yet speaks oceans with her eyes; Turturro plays the quietly soulful type with everyday-man casualness. And it is theirs by virtue of the story itself: these two meet where the probability of such an encounter seems unlikely, and when that is the case—when two people have to reach beyond what is the norm—any romance that ensues really is on a different level from most romances. It’s a higher kind of love, often a quieter kind of love, and transformational, even if only in a stepping-stone kind of way, as it is for Avigal. Her connection with Fioravante (whose name, she discovers, means “Flower”) allows her to bloom, to reawaken, and perhaps, in a certain sense, to start over.

Of course, while this is happening lots of other stuff is happening in the story, too: some of it sweetly comic, some of it more darkly comic, allowing the film to make a serious observation or two about life, love, and religion while treading a path that is mostly lighthearted. That’s not an easy balance to pull off in any form of storytelling, though Turturro makes it look easy here. Fading Gigolo is an autumnal slice of cinema tinged by melancholy, peppered with characters well-past the summers of their youth, and at the same time, it is a film of airy, elegant understatement. Like the sunlight of autumn that is briefer yet more piercing than summer’s long light, it is one of those deceptively small films that touches the heart more fully than one would imagine.

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Images are film stills from the 2014 film Fading Gigolo, written and directed by John Turturro (who also plays the lead character, Fioravante), which I found at various places on the Internet. The film can be rented or purchased as an instant video on Amazon.com.( No affiliation; I just love the film!)

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Spontaneous Homage N0. 3

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The purity of ingredients; the fine, laser-like focus of flavors; the dense, high-butterfat creaminess;  the supreme elegance of an all-natural composition that eschews fillers and stabilizers; the wisdom in producing a pistachio ice cream that is chock-full of pistachios (necessary in an ice-cream where the nut itself is the main flavorant) and a sesame brittle ice cream that takes a reined-in approach with the candy;  the consistency of quality, decade after decade, and the consistency in maintaining an impeccable style (this brand has resisted the gotta-lotta-candied-junk-in-the-trunk approach that seems to be the norm in almost anything anymore; for decades, it has produced ice-cream that is refined in the sense that it focuses on a very small list of ingredients, yet while keeping this signature approach, it is a brand that has a boutique-like hipness about it, achieved by being innovative in smart ways – most recently, through the addition of its “destination series” of ice creams which feature flavors inspired by the decidedly global and cosmopolitan times we are living in). So yeah! For all of that, and for keeping old-fashioned flavors like rum-raisin, strawberry, and butter pecan going strong all these years while making way for new flavors like mango, I’m raising my silver spoon to you, Haagen-Dazs.

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All images are from the Haagen-Dazs website. (I’m not affiliated with the company, btw, just a very happy consumer.) 🙂

Built for Speed

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I never tire of looking at photos of rabbits. These two stop-motion photos of wild rabbits sprinting through the winter landscape are fascinating. Rabbits’ bones are very fragile, though these creatures have great muscular strength, particularly in their hind quarters (as evidenced by their thumping, which is loud). This combination of a light skeleton and well-developed musculature gives them unbelievable agility and speed. My house rabbit, Boxer, is far more solid than these wild rabbits, but he has amazed me at times with his speed and reflexes –his showy demonstrations of flying leaps, high jumps, and mid-air twists of his body as he zooms around our upstairs and, particularly, in his playpen outdoors.

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The Case for Lawns

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Today everything is covered in six inches of snow that arrived on the wings of a winter storm last night, but only a few days ago when I snapped this photo, the temperature was in the 50s and it felt like winter was breaking up. Having lived in Pennsylvania for most of my life, I know not to trust what seems like the stirrings of an early spring; I was not surprised when the snowstorm blew through, but because there is a bit of a contrarian in me, I spent my day thinking about green things — lawns and parks, in particular. There’s a fascinating article about the history of lawns in America that I read in the New York Times Magazine nearly 28 years ago, which I’ve never forgotten, and today I wondered if it was possible to find it online. It seemed like a long shot but, lo and behold, I found it in one quick Google search and was surprised to find that it was written by Michael Pollan, whose name meant nothing to me back then, but whom I now know from his Netflix documentary series on food. I really love Pollan’s curious mind, his passion and eloquence, all of which comes across in this article, which is titled “Why Mow?; The Case Against Lawns.” What’s funny is that, while his article works towards his viewpoint that the American obsession with lawns is neither natural or healthy (either ecologically or psychologically), and he makes some valid and thought-provoking points in building his case, his article stayed in my mind all these years precisely because it made me love the ideas that influenced and informed our suburban American landscape.

IF ANY INDIVIDUAL CAN BE said to have invented the American lawn, it is Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1868, he received a commission to design Riverside, outside of Chicago, one of the first planned suburban communities in America. Olmsted’s design stipulated that each house be set back 30 feet from the road and it proscribed walls. He was reacting against the “high dead-walls” of England which he felt made a row of homes there seem “as of a series of private madhouses.” In Riverside, each owner would maintain one or two trees and a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors’, creating the impression that all lived together in a single park. †

Truly, I feel my heart flush with admiration when I read the quote above and think about the work of Frederick Law Olmsted — and I feel it flush with pride in regard to the American landscape. In terms of my tastes, architecturally and land-wise, I love beautifully flowing, open spaces. I need privacy like anyone else, and I think there can be areas in a yard that accommodate that, but I also love seeing my neighbors and having a reason to pause in my day and chat about the weather or the Christmas lights or the state of the azaleas in the spring. Though I understand Pollan’s feeling that lawn care in America is an exercise in conformity that can make one feel “the hot breath of the majority’s tyranny” when an individual doesn’t keep his lawn mowed, maintained, and on par with everyone else’s in the neighborhood, I don’t see how this expectation is different from other popular expectations we have about how a person should behave in our society. The majority of us hope and expect our neighbors and nearby business owners will keep up their properties and not let them fall into disrepair, whether there’s a yard involved or not. We don’t like it when the paint is peeling and falling off our next door neighbor’s house — and we don’t like it when they stop wearing clean clothes and traipse about the neighborhood looking disheveled and smelling ripe (unless, of course, they are undergoing a hardship or are not well, in which case we understand and find a way to help).

In the historical overview of his article, Pollan talks about what the landscape in the United States looked like before Olmsted’s influence, and basically it looked rough, “as if it had been shaped and cleared in a great hurry — as indeed it had: the landscape largely denuded of trees, makeshift fences outlining badly plowed fields, tree stumps everywhere one looked.” Unlike in Europe, hardly anyone practiced ornamental gardening because, if one had the luck and the fortitude to carve out a piece of land here, one was most likely engaged in eking out a living from that land by farming it. But, as Pollan notes, there were also cities here, with a growing middle-class of city people who were prospering and moving out of them in the years after the Civil War. That is when the “borderlands” of America started to change in appearance, he explains, and it began with Frederick Law Olmsted — the man who designed so many of our country’s beloved parks, including Central Park in New York City, as well as many of the campuses of our universities (such as Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley). He was the impetus, and his vision and groundwork were then furthered by another gentleman:

In 1870, Frank J. Scott, seeking to make Olmsted’s ideas accessible to the middle class, published the first volume ever devoted to “suburban home embellishment”: “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds,” a book that probably did more than any other to determine the look of the suburban landscape in America. Like so many reformers of his time, Scott was nothing if not sure of himself: “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.”

Americans like Olmsted and Scott did not invent the lawn; lawns had been popular in England since Tudor times. But in England, lawns were usually found only on estates; the Americans democratized them, cutting the vast manorial greenswards into quarter-acre slices everyone could afford. Also, the English never considered the lawn an end in itself: it served as a setting for lawn games and as a backdrop for flowerbeds and trees. Scott subordinated all other elements of the landscape to the lawn; flowers were permissible, but only on the periphery of the grass: “Let your lawn be your home’s velvet robe, and your flowers its not too promiscuous decoration.”

But Scott’s most radical departure from Old World practice was to dwell on the individual’s responsibility to his neighbors. “It is unchristian,” he declared, “to hedge from the sight of others the beauties of nature which it has been our good fortune to create or secure.” One’s lawn, Scott held, should contribute to the collective landscape. “The beauty obtained by throwing front grounds open together, is of that excellent quality which enriches all who take part in the exchange, and makes no man poorer.” Like Olmsted before him, Scott sought to elevate an unassuming patch of turfgrass into an institution of democracy.

With our open-faced front lawns we declare our like-mindedness to our neighbors – and our distance from the English, who surround their yards with “inhospitable brick wall, topped with broken bottles,” to thwart the envious gaze of the lower orders. The American lawn is an egalitarian conceit, implying that there is no reason to hide behind fence or hedge since we all occupy the same middle class. †

I don’t know about you, but most of these ideas sound rather good to me. I think our open lawns — these small acreages that you don’t have to be a land baron to afford, that stretch out for the enjoyment of all, at least visually — accurately and beautifully symbolize the democracy we strive for. Yes, our lawns certainly do have a uniformity to them, but uniformity does not necessarily equate with sameness — and sameness (where it does exist) doesn’t always equate with ‘bad.’ I’ll touch on that in my conclusion, but first I need to acknowledge that while I haven’t made mention other aspects of Pollan’s article (just as relevant now as when he wrote it in 1989) questioning the ecological impact of American’s insistence on having green lawns in places of the country where perhaps they don’t belong, using pesticides and chemicals  that perhaps shouldn’t be used anywhere, it’s not because I want to brush those points aside. It’s more the fact that the history and symbolism of the lawn is what thunderstruck me about this article originally and continues to do so now.

Pollan himself is proof that we are a country of smart people, of innovative thinkers, and this gives me hope that we will find solutions that will allow us to uphold our tradition of having these flowing green spaces across our country. Our collective lawns stretching from sea to shining sea, creating the impression that we are living in a park, is a more-than-lovely, defining feature of these great United States. In the same way that in landscape design, various elements serve as archetypes — with rocks sometimes set in the ground as a representation of water (symbolizing the unconscious), while a cave or grotto signifies the womb of Mother Earth — I really would like to believe, along the lines of Olmsted and Scott, that our collective, sprawling lawns makes an archetypal statement, too. One that declares,  We are Americans and we are united in our enjoyment of being a country that was formed with the promise that you could come here and own land, not through entitlement, but through labor. We earned this land as commoners: this is our pride, our commonwealth and our common good that is on display. We do hope you’ll come for a barbecue later, but for now, let us start our engines.

†Excerpted from the New York Times Magazine article “Why Mow?; The Case Against Lawns by Michael Pollan, published May 28, 1989. I linked the title to the online article, for those who’d like to read it in its entirety. It is fascinating, beautifully written, and brings up more topics than I’ve managed to cover in this post.

She Was Just Passing Through

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She was just passing through, on her way to Alaska on her motorcycle with her black-and-tan Chihuahua dog tucked into a sidecar that served as his doghouse. I can’t remember her name, only what she looked like: a tall, big-boned woman with a wide, smiling face—her long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail—wearing leather chaps over her jeans and a leather vest over her denim shirt. Her motorcycle was tricked out in all kinds of things: leather fringe, chrome-studded leather guards, a couple of those little American flags on sticks, attached to the back of the bike where they fluttered in the wind, and a handmade sign on the front that said “Alaska or bust.” She was an immensely attractive woman—there were dimples in the corners of her mouth when she smiled—and her build, sturdy leaning towards thick, worked in her favor. She looked like she was built to ride in the saddle of that motorcycle.

I was working for a small weekly newspaper in upstate New York, my second job in the six years I lived there and my favorite job ever, perhaps because it was a kind of newspaper I‘d never encountered before and was most certainly a relic, even in those days, the mid-eighties. In addition to items most people consider newsworthy, this paper had a fair amount of “social” news, owing to its graying readership, and it regularly published items that read like so: “Mrs. Elsie Wood and her niece, Miss Josephine Shawley, attended an afternoon tea and bridal shower at the Woodstock home of her cousin on the last Saturday of April. Tea and assorted sandwiches were served….” It wasn’t that I found the social items in and of themselves particularly endearing, it was that I loved how this quaintness extended to the staff of the newspaper and to the way the whole affair was put together. Oddly enough, I didn’t write for the paper but did everything else: from selling and designing ads, to being in charge of the newspaper layout—which was not done on a computer but by pasting everything up with the aid of light tables—to proofreading columns, and even to managing the paper boys and mailing out subscriptions. Don’t ask me why I found all of this so exciting, I just did. I loved staying at my job until 10:30 pm on Tuesday nights, which was when we “put the newspaper to bed” before it went to the printers in the dawn hours of the next morning. And working elbow to elbow with the editor, a sixty-year-old country gentleman who loved Manhattans and regaled me with his stories from a lifetime of working at the paper. Then having the entire next morning off to do as I pleased until the freshly-printed papers arrived back from the press in the early afternoon, all smelling of ink and ready to go.

It’s funny to think that when the motorcycle lady rolled into our parking lot, her story of riding to Alaska, from whatever Southern state she rolled out of originally, was deemed important enough to be a feature story, yet it was. This smiling Amazon in leather with her tiny-dog sidekick charmed the country-gentleman editor. So much so that, rather than assigning her story to someone else, he wrote it himself on the spot and asked his best reporter (who usually wrote the features) to take a series of photos to accompany it.

Of course, she thrilled the rest of us too, being that free-as-the-wind American dream that each of us had squarely tucked up in our heads but had never taken out to contemplate, for all of life’s valid reasons. The motorcycle lady didn’t have a husband or kids, and she didn’t mind looking for odd jobs that she could do on the way to help support her trip. (The oddest of odd jobs, at least in terms of availability, because she was intent on moving on, and how many restaurants only need a dishwasher for one or two nights?) Who knows whether she even made it to Alaska—at some point she might have turned around and headed back home—but that thought never crossed any of our minds, and if it did, I’m not sure we would have cared. She was living the dream we wanted to believe in, and everything about her (including her pint-sized dog, clad in his own leather gear) seemed larger than life.

Over the past couple months I’ve been wearing the gorgeous plum-leather fragrance Boxeuses, by Serge Lutens. Boxeuses is French for “lady boxers” (yep, women who box), but when I wear it I have a hard time conjuring up such an image. The fragrance is leathery, yes, but it’s a little too fun, a little too breezy to make me think of a lady boxer, or anyone in the heat of combat. This leather has a green-tinged (almost absinthe-like) anise coolness on initial application that spurs the image of my motorcycle lady to come riding into my consciousness. Give it a few minutes, and this leather is as fringed and tricked-up as her ride, with its dried-plum yumminess enhanced by a hint of chocolaty patchouli. If I were to use only one sentence to describe Boxeuses, I’d call it leather in the guise of a Fruit Roll-Up (that densely chewy, pectin-based confection approved by mothers for inclusion in school lunch bags because it fulfills the requirement of “fruit” while being conveniently portable).

Leather is one of my favorite notes in perfume. Sometimes it reminds me of men (for whatever reason its a scent that triggers masculine associations in my brain); other times it reminds me of freedom (because of saddles and horses), as it does here. Green-tinged, slightly woody, and sweetly prune-like, Boxeuses is one far-out-of-the-ordinary leather perfume that tugs at my heartstrings with its free-wheeling beauty.

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Serge Lutens Boxeuses eau de parfum can be purchased from the official Serge Lutens website, as well as from Barneys.com, where a 75-ml bell jar is currently priced at $300. My review is based on a decant I received from my blogging friend, Ines, of All I Am – A Redhead.

NOTE: This post is reprinted from my other site, Suzanne’s Perfume Journal, where it originally appeared on April 17, 2011. The story is true: I can see that woman in my mind as if it was yesterday, and I still wonder whether she made it to Alaska (and if so, did she stay or motor on?).

Image credits: Yamaha motorcycle is from Motorcyclecruiser.com; photo of Serge Lutens Boxeuses is from Fragrantica.com.

Want.

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Source: Pottery Barn

There are so many cute bunny plates that I see in the Pottery Barn and Pier One catalogs. If I had room for more dishware I’d buy some, but I don’t, so I just enjoy looking at them.

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Source: Pier One

Here are some of my favorites (not necessarily from this year’s catalogs … I got caught up browsing for bunny items, and these were the ones that stole my heart!)

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Source: Williams Sonoma