Wednesday, June 9, 2021

ESTATE SALES, OH MY

I go to estate sales. 
Not garage sales. 
Not church bazaars. 
Never fund raising auctions!

Estate sales are held in houses — places where lifetime accumulations of objects are still in the closets. 

Objects in estate sales are arranged, priced and sold by professional agents. Agents are totally neutral. They have no history of association with the stuff. When they sort and price, they don’t sit down to leaf through old yearbooks. Nor do they hold photographs and cry over past memories. And they never see the value in bottles of sand brought back from a honeymoon trip to Tampa. 

It doesn’t matter to agents that the owner paid hundreds of dollars for a “collector edition” of anything. Current prices are determined by their experience and comparative prices at other estate sales. Most of all, ebay, that arbiter of all things marketable. 

Buyers can sometimes negotiate for lower prices. Or they can wait out the sale: prices are usually cut in half on the second sales day or toward the final hour of the sale. Nobody wants to pack up the unloved. 

Twenty years ago, estate sales were advertised in a special section of the local newspaper. Now, if you are a subscriber, they are posted every day into your emails along with political pleas for money and medical ads for erectile disfunction. Progress! 

The listings include the location of the sale with a map, dates and hours of the sale, any special “conditions” and photographs of actual merchandize! Conditions include forms of payment accepted, where to park and how buyers will be grouped into the sale. 

Nearly always, buyers are required to bring their own moving muscle. After all, loading up a 1920 credenza is hard! In my experience, however, people are nearly always nearby ready to help. I’ve had perfect strangers hoist heavy garden pots into the back of a pickup truck on the fair exchange of a heart felt thank you and the certainly that next time, it could be me helping them. 

Like most things in life, sharing sales with a partner lightens the load. My estate sale partner always heads straight for the closet with the shoes. I don’t do basements unless they are full of treasure — she scouts first. I put restraints on her clothes buying: “no, you won’t wear that EVER” and “you cannot buy another t-shirt for your grandson.” Lately, my grownup daughter has joined me. I’ve learned a lot about her. She can’t resist beautiful table ware. I’m learning to observe without comment. 

Estate sales divide themselves into a few categories. Nearly all are sad passages. If the goods are fairly new — furniture from Stickley or West Elm, say — they point to a marriage breakup. The partners are liquidating assets. The “Sold” sign is already on the lawn. I hope children weren’t involved. (Curiously, I rarely see contemporary toys or children’s clothing. I imagine that means mom and dad are trying to spare the kids separation from the familiar. Too late. The kids are probably onto you!) 

The other venues are sadder still. These are the homes that are giving up histories…wedding dresses, vintage baby clothes and old-fashioned toys — decades of cookie jars and mason jars — trunks with marriage albums and college certificates — well used tools in a crowded workshop and kitchens full of multiples. 

These artifacts open the portal to touchingly personal stories — families raised and scattered, the caregivers now requiring care — or beyond care, now passed. Who made the decision to liquidate? One or the other partner who can’t manage now? Grown children looking out for mom now that dad is gone? 

It’s the decision part that always stops me in my tracks. I want to be in control of my place. Separation may be forced on me by circumstances — poor health, or failing finances. One day, I may look around, turn to Chip and say “I’m never cooking again. Start packing.” Even worse: “Living alone is too hard. I need ease now.” 


But I still want to make the decision. I know where the valuable pieces are. Ebay may think this is only a $50 cookie jar but I know better!

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

OF SONS, COWS AND GARDENS

MY BACKYARD
 


I’ve been thinking about the story of the boy who traded his cow for magic beans. It’s a fable that needs some unpacking.


First, according to the fable, he and his mom live alone and are poor. She’s a single mother. Is he illegitimate? Where’s Dad? Nobody ever asks.  Curious. We know a lot about Cinderella’s father. And Snow White…Sleeping Beauty…Beauty (Belle. Really? Couldn’t come up with a more original name?) and the Beast. Come to think of it, most fairy tales featuring beautiful girls (and they are always beautiful.Ugly girls never get the Prince.) have much to say about their parentage. They are never bastard children.


So poor Mom gives the cow to her son and trusts him to take Milky White (Was that the cow’s real name or was that only in the Stephen Sondheim version?) to town to make a fair trade. 


Would you? If you were so poor that the only thing standing between you and starvation? Would you entrust your one asset to a boy? Wouldn’t you go along? The fable doesn’t say that Mom was physically disabled. Sick. Weak. All we ever know is that she’s poor. Illustrations (and the movies) show her cleaning. Would any sane woman chose to CLEAN rather than hit the market to drive a hard bargain?  


No. 


Mom had something else in mind. I think she needed to say to the boy, “It’s time. You need to see and move into the grown up world. I’ve done all I can to prepare you. Now it’s up to you. No more games. Here’s the cow.”


(Granted, Mom, kinda’ looses it when he comes home with magic beans! But Moms…we are not perfect. When our kid says…

 

“I’m dropping out of medical school to try out for the All-Male Olympic Synchronized Swim Team.” 


Or “My buddy’s dad’s friend will hire us to clear timber in Alaska. All I need is an airline ticket and a pair of snowshoes.”


…we are apt to hit high C.)


So Son comes home with magic beans. AND THEY WORK! 


(The rest of the story gets a little weird…a stalk to the sky, Giant’s home, golden harp and/or goose/and or eggs. Somewhere along here the story plot dissolves into pure silliness. That’s what happens when a writer plays to the masses.)


But first, all kinds of truisms…planting for the future, nothing is ever a ‘sure thing,’ sowing seeds…you get the gist.


My three grandsons are facing the “take the cow” stage of life. It’s scary. Their parents want them launched but only if they (1) don’t take risks (2) don’t do anything dangerous…which really means  #1 all over again or (3) don’t go so far away that they can’t be rescued. 


But that’s not the way life…or fables work. They are ready. They get to take the cow.  And they might get magic beans.


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“I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological disease: music and gardens.


In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”


(Oliver Sacks, Doctor of Neurology, in his international best selling book, “Everything In Its Place.”)


What about art? Theater? Literature? 


No, Dr. Sacks is pretty clear. Music and gardening.

I wonder if Dr. Sacks ever suffered from arthritis? What about a degenerative back? He was well into his 70s when he died. Surely, his knees were shot.  


All bad but not nearly as stressful, neurologically speaking, as dementia or Parkinson’s or stroke — the big worries at my age. My skeleton may not work very well but I hold out hope for my brain.


Every seed planted is magic.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A YEAR AND A MONTH

 A year ago, we were all novices in COVID PURGATORY. We traded stories about toilet paper shortages and sources for face masks. Many of us learned to use GrubHub, BluBox and  Insta-food delivery services. People with no jobs and cars became “shoppers,” filling up carts of food and delivering to our front steps and porches. We sanitized boxes, bottles and cans before bringing contaminants into our kitchens.  


Along with information, we e-mailed or texted cartoons and videos to our patch of technology friends. Funny, or inspiring — blogs, podcasts and newsletters took on more weight. At the root of all this tech blitz was the message: "I care about you and your state of mind. Have you fallen into the hole of depression? Loneliness? While I can't be with you physically, I'm still thinking about you.” 


A woman I barely knew telephoned me every month or so to “check in.” I was startled at first but I added her to my e-mail blast list. A longtime friend suffered a serious non-Covid illness and was hospitalized for six weeks. Visitors were not allowed at hospitals. I passed along reports to my e-mail list and the list recipients sent back concern and prayers for Laurie, her family and to me, her friend. 


Sincere intention: my household needed information beyond that available from the 6 o’clock news, New York Times, and CDC. Along with vital facts, we needed in-my-kitchen-real-person assurance that we were not alone in the craziness. Or paranoid about the present risks!  We shared what we had with our network. Now we realize how elastic that network became. We are testaments to community building in its purist form.


Building community is what we all crave. It's one of the most compelling reasons for church-going, and social club memberships. It pushes some of us back to our hometowns — those towns or neighborhoods we remember, if we are among the lucky ones, as places of safety. It’s Cheers, the bar where everybody knows your name. 


Now, after one year and one month of Life with Covid, I feel another shift happening. Vaccinations are thankfully widely available. The immediate scare has passed. After a year of abstinence, I can hug my grandchildren — all young adults and fully inoculated. There’s no need to track down sources of paper products or Purill. Like Snow White, hostesses are waking and going to — and giving — small dinner parties again.


The stress of those first weeks of The Troubles (March, 2020) was immense! And I don’t want to get too sappy about “unlocking the love under wartime.” But there was something that happened this year— a physical and emotional vibration, a quivering of those invisible threads that marry us to our universe and to each other. 


The echos are getting fainter — as they must.  But I think I’ll phone my friend. I haven’t heard from her in a couple of months. 


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My 18 year old grandson, Parker, graduates from high school this year and has been recruited to play ice hockey for the Vermont Lumberjacks. He’ll move to Burlington, Vt. in September. He’s thrilled. Is this a good thing?  Why is my stomach in a twist?

PARKER MITCHELL





Thursday, April 8, 2021

MY LIFE WITH AMAZON

MY MYSTERY GIFT
 The Amazon truck stopped at our house yesterday. The delivery person didn’t ring the doorbell. He put the box on the bench beside the door, took its picture and drove away. About thirty seconds later, I had an email from Amazon with a message that my delivery was complete. The email included a photograph of the package at my very own doorstep with the message “how was your service?” Thumbs up or thumbs down?


How many responses to this sequence are there? I clicked “thumbs up” naturally. 


Amazon trucks zip in and around our house every week and stop at least once that often at our door. The delivery person never rings the door bell. He never offers my dog a cookie. The regular postman does. I don’t know what the Amazon truck driver looks like. The postman’s name is John. I leave a little something in the mailbox for John at Christmastime. I don’t give the Amazon person anything.


Even before the year of Covid isolation, we were relying on Amazon for easy purchases and quick delivery. I like book stores — but Amazon books are discounted always. Even better, I can opt for used issues — my favorite! I love used books with underlines, highlighted passages and notes in the margins made by previous owners. All that makes me feel like a part of an invisible community of readers — a virtual bookclub. I add my own highlights and notes before passing the books on. I’ve decided to add my name to those books too — discretely on a back blank page. Maybe it’ll initiate a true bookish conversation. 


But the Amazon thing has gotten out of hand. Now when we can’t find something at the grocery store, we “Amazon it.” Instead of one or two packs of dry onion soup mix, I have two dozen. (There is no “use by” date for dry onion soup mix. Somebody is putting these packets into a shipping box. I’m paying shipping fees so I may as well make the order worthwhile. How often do I use dry onion soup mix you ask? Maybe twice a year.)


Obviously, there are some flaws in all this plan. Storage for one. And carried to extremes — as though ordering a dozen dry flavor packs isn’t extreme? —I’m contributing to the demise of my local economy. 


So my next step: I fill a box for the Penfield Food Pantry. Numbers of families in need of food have doubled this year. More children are going hungry. These people are in crisis. I pack cans of tuna, boxes of dry pasta, unopened rolls of toilet paper…and a half dozen packs of dry onion soup mix.


About yesterday’s delivery: a book “THE MADMAN’S LIBRARY: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities From History.”  It has beautiful illustrations. It looks interesting. But I didn’t order it. Nothing inside the box or on the label indicates who sent it. 

Did  you? I’d like to thank you. If I can ever catch the Amazon delivery man, I’ll ask him how to track down this mystery gift.







Saturday, March 27, 2021

KLARA AND THE SUN.....a review

A wild turkey

 A wild turkey strutted past my bedroom window this morning. Or was it a turkey buzzard? I didn’t get a good look at its face.  As “birds” go, both got the ugly end of the stick.


I’ve never seen turkeys fly much beyond a few feet from ground to bush. How could they with those huge bodies? In fact, their proportions are totally out of whack — wings not nearly big enough to support their heft  — evolution engineering gone to lunch when “turkeys” popped up on the to-do list.


Evolution — what an old fashioned concept! Today, Bob at a turkey farm, breeds birds for big breasts. Think of that as you sit around the Thanksgiving table. Bob has no aesthetic requirements. Nobody asks the female turkeys.


Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favorite authors. I read “Never Let Me Go” in 2005 when it was first published. It’s about “human farms,” cloned people propagated for the purpose of organ harvesting. 


Is that idea really so far out there? News stories pop up occasionally about parents, facing death of a beloved child, becoming pregnant for the purpose of creating a close donor match — a sibling who might save the life of child #1. 


Already the very poor in some areas of the world “sell” their own (or somebody else’s!) organs…a kidney here, an eye there. Nearly every part of a corpse from a fatal accident is transplantable —  kidneys, hearts, lungs even faces — to needy recipients. I carry a “donor card” to allow my body parts to be harvested, but I’m not sure that mine are worthy. At my age, the parts are pretty well worn out! 


Most of us believe that every human is unique. But when a human becomes a mixture of parts from others, what then? Is animal and even human evolution now in the hands of scientists in a lab? Certainly I can change the look of nearly every inch of my exterior with plastic surgery. So if my thyroid (for example) doesn’t work hard enough to keep me thin, can I sign up for a new one from a younger, thinner version? And if no donor, how about a “pretend one,” mechanically built and  transplanted along with my new knees, new shoulders, new hips? I’m in my mid 70s. I want to be young and pain free. So build a new me. But am I still “me?” 


Enter Ishiguro again. His new novel, “Klara and the Sun” asks questions that are just as sticky. Parents in this not-so-far-in-the-future-unnamed place, decide if their children will be “uplifted,” genetically boosted to give them a leg up intellectually. The exact process is never discussed. It’s risky. Children die sometimes.  It’s a worry.


What is created, of course, is a caste system. Those uplifted go to university and theoretically, enjoy the good life. Those left “natural” are destined for menial labor. Josie, the main human character in the book, is a 14 year old girl who is among the “uplifted.”


(And before we go much further, don’t we already have something like this? Haven’t we convinced nearly every kid — and their parents — in America that college is an absolute MUST for even the most modest aspirations?)


Uplifted children somehow need help socially. Artificial friends are purchased for them. Klara is an AF, something between a robot and a life-sized doll. They run on a solar powered battery and are programed with artificial intelligence.


The crux of the story:  Klara identifies “God” and bargains with “God” for the life of Josie. So…life and death. Bartering with God. A human response that probably everyone of us has exercised. Is this a learned response? Where does it come from? Are humans just “built” this way? 


But Klara isn’t human. What distinguishes a human? a soul? where does it reside? in the transplanted heart? brain? some nebulous aura? And what about love? Love is the answer. So Klara, a robot, loves Josie enough to ….? Uh-oh…We are in tall weeds here!  In our quest for eternal life, how far will we go? And who gets to decide?

Ishiguro uses the simplest language — easy sentences, elementary vocabulary. But he smacks us around pretty good with the issues.


The turkey walked away behind the pine trees. I didn’t see it again.  A little later when we came into the kitchen, a pheasant was on the patio. Fifty years ago, pheasants were everywhere but I’ve only seen one or two wild since. Pretty birds. Good proportions. Nice feathers. 




Saturday, February 27, 2021

QUILTS - TODAY, ALWAYS

Artist: Rosie Lee Tompkins
 

Every few years, art critics, museum curators, designers and collectors “discover” quilts. It’s the damnedest thing! I’ve watched this EUREKA for most of my 70 plus years. 


But quilters never go away. They’re always around somewhere, hunched over quilt frames  with their neighbors (women usually) laughing about the latest antics of their kids, husbands and dogs. And methodically pushing with those thimbled fingers - down and back up - the needle holding cotton thread, making tiny stitches that weld together the textile layers that comprise a quilt. 


Community. Sorority. Creativity. The very purist example of socialism: “we’ll take turns….do your quilt…then Mary’s…then…You need a little more blue checkered gingham? Here…take some of mine.” Shared labor equally divided.


I know about quilters. My mom was one. Setting up a quilt frame was a Fall rite just as putting away the sundresses and dragging out the winter coats. I could quilt before I could read. And I knew the “rules.”

 

  1. Make sure the fabric is clean first
  2. Don’t mix fabrics..keep together by weight, weave, etc. 
  3. Quilt stitches must be equal and in neat patterns, generally following the “maps” established by the piecing patterns
  4. Piecing corners must meet exactly 


Very strict. Very European. Quilters were graded by how closely they followed the rules. Mom was an expert quilter. She would be flabbergasted by the quilts now hanging on museum walls made by descendants of slaves.


The Gee’s Bend quilt ladies  — and African American quilt making artists that followed — set the art world on its ear! Never mind perfecting precision corners, straight lines, and matching squares. Their quilts are voices of freedom made foldable.  


Rosie Lee Tompkins’ quilts incorporate cotton double knits, rayon, polyester, wool, cotton t-shirts, and silk neckties. And usually in one glorious soup of narration. The Gee’s Bend ladies combined old jean denim and corduroy. No perfect 90 degree corners. My mother and her quilting friends must be spinning in their graves to hear such trash.


But I am convinced that she would look at these objects and return to look again and again, and wonder about the freedom, the spontaneous choices. “Why didn’t we think…? Why didn’t we see…? Why were we so tightly controlled?” She and her friends would gasp at the beauty and fall in love with these quilts just as I have.


(There will always be a place in the quilt iconography for traditional quilt-making, just as there is room in art history for portraiture and landscapes. But the emphasis is different. One branch stresses the craft — the other, the art.) 


Last week, quilt artist and historian Carolyn Mazloomi (originally trained as an aerospace engineer, Dr. Mazloomi now lectures about quilt making art throughout the world) received $50,000 and was named a United States Artist Fellow. She donated the $50K to the Women of Color Quilters Network.  


The February, 2021, NY Times Style issue pictured this season’s high fashion wearable designs using traditional quilt patchwork. In another magazine reporting on style, a journalist wrote “while it may conjure up thoughts of the elderly, sewing scrap fabric together, this is not your grandmother’s quilt.” The writer needs some serious lessons in quilts. (Also an editor that points out agism and sexism when it shows up on the page!)


 And if fashion designers think they’ve hit on something new this year, they apparently never listened to Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors?” 

Monday, February 15, 2021

THE OWL

 An owl must live in the trees at the edge of our woods. I hear it who-ing every evening right before the channel 10 lady airs tomorrow’s weather forecast. She, (the news lady, not the owl), along with sharing her predictions for climate shifts, unknowingly announces our dinner. At my house, we are like Pavlov’s dogs, conditioned to respond to recurring signals: garbage truck = breakfast, noon whistle = lunch, weather lady = dinner.

 

Without those landmarks, would we starve? Surely not! We must retain some prehistoric mechanism, some native response to hunger, regardless of the time of day. But I am not so certain. 


The year of quarantine has deepened the ruts of living at our house. My routine varies so slightly that each day is an echo of the one before it and a prediction of the one to come. 


This is the worrisome part: I’m beginning to like that rut. It’s as comfortable as the thin tee-shirt that I sleep in. I know there are other nighties in the drawer but I reach for the same pale pink shirt with the long sleeves that need folding up twice to keep out of toothpaste, the one with a vest pocket that usually holds a slightly used tissue. The tissue invariably goes through the wash with the shirt and resurrects in shreds marking the entire laundry load and showering paper dander all over the black tile floor.


We humans are social animals; our survival depends on sharing, and I always believed myself to be a “people person.” Get me to a dinner party, a performance, an event. I can usually bluff my way through a crowd of strangers, sometimes convincing them and myself that it’s all good, that I find them intoxicatingly interesting, that we share fundamental facts upon which we can enjoy conversation and humor. 


But I wonder if these skills must be exercised, like our stomach muscles, doing social sit ups to keep the smile intact and the brain cogs whirring? If we see no one for weeks, months, years, do we become mute, indifferent to the quirks and tics of fellow travelers? 


Are we in danger of becoming social novices? A Covid casualty of a different kind?


I have a friend who keeps making new clothes for herself. She’s a fine knitter and seamstress and throughout the “Year of the Troubles,” she’s maintained her sanity by working at frenzy focus on this new wardrobe.  I smile at her obsession. Her life “pre-Covid” was one of modest social engagement. Judging by the trousseau she continues to construct, anyone might guess that she’s about to launch on a major travel season! 


Within the next several months, her life may resume something labeled “normal.” Likely, it will mean an occasional dinner out, a monthly evening with friends, a movie, a haircut appointment. What about all those new sweaters? the skirts of many colors? Even before their final pressing, are they destined for Goodwill? Second Hand Rose? There are worse ways to mark this year. 


As I sat at the table today, I caught sight of wide white wings sailing through the trees at the edge of the woods. I think it was the owl. I’ve never seen an owl in flight at my house. It was worth the wait. 

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The white lilies are from Trader Joe's...the best $9 I've spent in months!