Friday, March 30, 2012

Good eggs

It's been too many weeks since I last shared a Walter T. Foster art-instruction manual. This has always been one of my favorites, though I'm not sure why. Maybe I didn't know felt tip pens were an actual medium. How do they differ from Magic Markers? Maybe I just like the Rona Jaffe Best of Everything vibe I'm getting from the illustrations. Maybe I just really like that portrait of breakfast—when I eventually come across another copy of A.V. Almazar's How to Paint with Felt-Tip Pens, and I've no doubt that I will, I'm going to tear out and frame that plate of sunny-side eggs and hang it in my kitchen.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Time for a new timer

I don't know what other people talk about in the privacy of their own homes but in our house we spend an inordinate amount of time talking about kitchen timers. How none of them work. How we need to stop wasting money on timers that don't work. How the ones that do work invariably get lost in the house. How the jangle of most timers is so unpleasant. How Lindsay has a knockout idea to improve timers that one day he will patent and make us as rich as one of those "inventor moms," like the one who came up with the Snack Trap or the one who invented that shopping cart cover-thingie for babies. How I'm skeptical of Lindsay's idea but I'm going to keep it to myself in case one of you totally steals it and makes a success of it and quits your day job and moves to Kaui and I will never hear the end of it. Talking about timers invariably leads to talk about the folly that is our expensive, defective Bluestar range and how we need to replace it. This is never a discussion that ends well.

But what a ball of sunshine this timer is, huh? So radiant, so ’70s, so very, very big! You can't tell from this picture but it's the size of a lunch plate and meant to be mounted on the wall. In other words, the sort of kitchen timer that's very hard to lose should we (Lindsay) ever actually mount it on the wall. It's just been sitting on the counter for the last six months, you know, untouched, waiting for someone to mount it on the wall.

I pried the timer off a wood-paneled backsplash in a standard-issue avocado kitchen at an estate sale. It was grimy with 30 years of kitchen splatter but I've got a strong stomach and willed myself not to think what the results might reveal if I had the thing swabbed and sent to a lab. Until I dropped it—and for a half second all the estate salers milling in the kitchen froze and gawped at the greasy hairball mass that had accumulated inside the timer. Ugh. The moment it split in two, I'd committed to buying the vile thing for $2.50. We break it, we cry; you break it, you buy, blah blah yeah whatever. But as you can see, there's a happy ending: The timer wasn't permanently damaged, and I managed to clean it with half a bottle of Greased Lightning and a roll of paper towels. Was it worth all the effort and the trauma or even $2.50? I'll let you know, if we ever start using it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Who will speak for the knees?

This is the root of a cypress tree—what's known as a cypress "knee"—and it's something I see occasionally on my estate sale rounds in San Antonio. Cypress trees are native to this area and they figure mightily into the city's second-most-famous tourist attraction, the Riverwalk. The roots poke up out of the earth like stalagmites, or like prehistoric fingers—don't you think this one looks like it's giving us the finger? It would not surprise me to know that trees were collectively flipping the bird at San Antonio, given how they're razed willy-nilly here to make room for big-box shopping centers and condos.

Turns out that cypress knee art was once quite the thing in the Southeastern United States, especially Florida where the rampant kneecapping of cypresses resulted in laws prohibiting the practice (the knee obtains oxygen for the tree—cut it off and the tree is very sad). Some artists would just varnish the wood and let the biomorphic shapes speak for themselves, perhaps topping it with a lampshade. Others were a tad more literal, carving and/or painting the knees to resemble wizards, witches and gnomes (google images for cypress knee art and you'll see what I mean).

At this website, I learned about Tom Gaskins, the preeminent cypress knee artist, who died in 1998. Check out the completely awesome vintage brochures for his Florida roadside attraction Cypress Kneeland, "a 3 in 1 attraction," comprising a cypress knee museum, the world's first cypress knee factory, and a 2,000-foot catwalk in a cypress swamp. The museum featured knees resembling FDR, Stalin and "a lady hippo wearing a Carmen Miranda hat." The brochure makes some pretty grandiose statements, which I've no reason to doubt:

The collection is fantastic, artistic, humorous. One with a well-oiled imagination can see in the knees nearly everything that was and is yet to be. Animals, birds, and people you will recognize, good and bad.

Gaskin's son had taken over the family business after his father died, and in an article in Roadside America, he gave one of the best quotes I've read in a good long while: "This place is real Florida. It's not a plastic mouse show. I'm a Florida Cracker, a piney woods rooter. I know how to survive on acorns. It'll be a long time before anyone ever shuts us down."

Unfortunately, he had to shut the place down in 2000 after someone broke in and stole many of the best knees. Total drag, right? The only places I've been in Florida are the aforementioned "plastic mouse show" and the place in Miami where the big cruise ships depart. I'm bummed that I'll never bear witness to the treasures Gaskin amassed.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Kids find the darnedest things

I don't take my kids to estate sales as much as I used to, much to their relief and mine. I generally hit sales on Friday mornings, when both kids are in school and the merch is usually partially discounted but there's still good stuff left (and no lines to get inside). They don't like coming for the obvious reasons: It's boring! We're bored! You won't buy us anything! Though of course that's not true—I buy them stuff all the time, most of it total crap to appease them while Mommy finishes sorting through all the musty ephemera in the garage. But sometimes they hit on something good, like this nice edition of The Boy's King Arthur, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and published by Scribner's, which my eight-year-old unearthed from a landslide of forgettable books, mostly mildewed and worm-chewed. The best part was how she gave me that familiar big-eyed, pleading look, the same one she gives me when she wants me to buy her some squalid Happy Meal toy:

Her: Mom, can I PLEASE get this?

Me: Oh, I don't know, sweetie—it's 25¢ and the dustjacket is in tatters... I guess, but you'll have to work extra hard in the salt mines next week!

When I was her age, my family used to do flea markets and antique shows every weekend. As a bribe, a distraction, my parents gave my brother and I a little money so we could shop. I think I spent most of my money on hot chocolate, doughnuts and pony rides (whenever possible), but I also browsed the stalls and made purchases, most of which probably ended up in landfills because as you know, I have everything, and remember everything, so I am sure if I bought it and it was worth keeping, I would still have it? Or at least remember it?

One thing I remember well was a handmade stuffed horse, with a yarn mane, that I obsessed over from the moment we arrived at a flea market held in a public-school gymnasium in Paramus, NJ. Part of the appeal might have been the young woman selling it. She had a whole herd of handmade stuffed horses—and she looked like Bailey from WKRP, but with cat-eye glasses and a Betsy Ross-style outfit. In other words, tres chic circa the mid-’70s. I hung around that booth all day, making small talk and ogling the many styles of patchwork horses—when I wasn't back at our own booth nagging my parents for the astronomical sum of $10. Finally my dad caved at the end of the day—I got the black horse covered with red hearts and I'm sure Bailey was glad to be rid of me. (Between the labor of making the horse and putting up with me all day—was it only worth $10? Inflation, I guess.) Anyway, long story short: The horse graces the bed in my old room in NJ, and my kids play with it whenever we visit. I refuse to bring it back to Texas as they have about 350 stuffed animals between them (no lie—we counted once, and that was a couple years ago).

Another time, at the flea market we did regularly on the grounds of the junior high school in Sparta, NJ, I bought a small, round blue bottle for 10¢ (10¢!). Later, I showed it to my mother who instantly recognized it as a highly collectible Lalique perfume bottle. She cajoled me into giving it to her in exchange for a small polished pale green stone with googly eyes glued onto it that a friend of hers was selling (I got to choose from a whole case of googly-eyed stones). And it should come as no surprise for you to hear that I still have that googly-eyed stone inside my old tackle box. (I'll add a photo next time I'm taking pictures.) Does my mom still have the Lalique bottle? Doubtful, but you never know...

Friday, March 23, 2012

Me and my Shadows

I think I'm losing my touch because somehow it took me a whole week to notice that the official trailer for the latest Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration, Dark Shadows, had been released. What the hell? I didn't even know it was in production! In addition to being a fan of the Burton-Depp oeuvre (though I don't believe they will ever, ever top Ed Wood), I'm a bit of a vampire buff. I came to terms with that previously here. I love True Blood, though a little less with each passing season. Every May, I self-loathingly download the latest slapdash volume in the Sookie Stackouse series ( that available for pre-order yet?). I look forward to seeing the final grotesque installment in the Twilight movie series at one of those theaters where alcohol is served. And Bram Stoker's Dracula is definitely, probably, I think on my list of the top 20 books of all time (I've never actually made such a list so I'm not 100 percent sure how it would shake out).

But I've never seen Dark Shadows—the Goth soap is a little bit before my time though I'm sure I would've watched with my mom if I hadn't been, like, a baby. (Thanks to her, I was an Edge of Night addict all through middle and high school.) Dark Shadows aired five days a week for around five years, so, you know, it's not like playing catch-up with an entire season of Mad Men or Breaking Bad over a single weekend. I don't think I've consumed TV on that scale since watching the first few seasons of Six Feet Under while pacing the narrow confines of my Brooklyn living room, a squalling newborn in my Over-the-Shoulder-Baby-Holder. Anyway, the Dark Shadows DVDs are not surprisingly of poor quality, production values of 1960s soaps not being quite on HBO levels. I could start reading these Dark Shadows novelizations written by Marilyn Ross (pen name for a Canadian writer by the name of Dan Ross)—apparently there are only 32 of them! I scored a nice stack at the church thrift shop in my hometown (no, my mom did not donate them) but I think it's more likely I'll just wait for the movie. The trailer made me guffaw at least three times—that's gotta be a good sign.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sprechen sie anything?

I've already voiced my regret about never having mastered a language for which it's necessary to memorize such phrases as "Where's the bathroom?" and "How much for the beer?" So the promise of learning French, Spanish and German in just 18 weeks and for only a few bucks (don't be misled by the pricetags—I did not pay $4 for any of these box sets) is an appealing notion. Take that, Rosetta Stone! Actually, what is Rosetta Stone, precisely? For quite a few years, I passed those airport kiosks, assuming it was some sort of spiritual guide—something about the graphics suggested Dianetics to me. I've since learned that it's a pricey language instruction system, geared toward multitasking, self-improving types who listen to audiobooks instead of an endless loop of Howard Stern repeats on Sirius. In other words, not me. (Right now I'm struggling to finish this post because I'm distracted by "This Week in Howard History." But does the fact that I'm drinking my daily iced nonfat latte while laundry spins in the next room make me a multitasker?)

Anyway. The Living Language Course records—published by Crown in the 1950s and allegedly developed by WWII experts who employed a special "speed-method" to teach languages to soldiers heading overseas—make regular appearances at estate sales here in San Antonio, presumably because this is such a military town. I can't help buying them because (a) the boxes are pretty, and (b) because I have a plan to make my kids listen to them, especially my sponge-like multitasking five-year-old, who'd probably be happy to spin a few language-instruction platters if she could just stop listening to the audiobooks of D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths read by Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Matthew Broderick, Vincent Price and Kathleen Turner. But she can't stop.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Another day, another doll

True story: Several years ago, I was visiting the ancestral home in Jersey with my older daughter who was then just a couple years old. As always, my first priority was making the rounds of the two thrift shops I've been frequenting since I was a wee lass: the larger one is run by the Ladies' Hospital Auxiliary and occupies a former department store (Murray's, I think, or was it Montgomery Ward?) on the town's main street, and the other is in the musty wood-panelled basement of the Catholic church, a five-minute walk from my house. So I took my daughter to the church shop and this peculiar-in-a-cool-way fashion doll was the first thing we snapped up. (Note that she did not have that odd storky neck at the time; it was concealed by a bit of satin ribbon held in place by a pearl-tipped pin. Even I know it's not advisable to let toddlers play with pins.) After we filled a paper sack with old books and records and old-ladyish pocketbooks and retro cheese plates, we went home and proudly spread out our booty on the porch for my mother to inspect.

She wasn't very impressed, considering that half the stuff we bought had been donated to the shop by her, including the freaky doll.

I've made this observation before, about how thrifting and estate sale shopping really bring home the idea that the circle of life is really just a circle of stuff, passing from one sentimental fool/obsessive freakazoid to the next. But sometimes when I'm at the ancestral home, it feels more like being trapped in a Bermuda Triangle of stuff. Or whipped up in a whirlwind of stuff. Insert your own stuffy metaphor here. My mother is a dealer, as I've discussed previously, and the house bursts from the seams with stuff that I want and stuff that I don't want. Four floors, plus several rental storage units. In addition to hitting the garage sale circuit hard on the weekends and making buying trips to certain antique shows, she still frequents the church thrift shop, as well as the hospital thrift shop, where she actually volunteers (her charitable service began decades ago when the ladies' auxiliary decided to open a thrift store. I'm sure it was just a coincidence). Used to be when I visited, I had to control my covetous nature—I'd always end up loading the car or stuffing my suitcases with stuff that I'd asked for and she gave me. These days, I spend less time coveting and more time mentally downsizing, trying to figure out how the impossible will be accomplished when the time comes to accomplish it. I've just returned from Spring Break in Jersey and if you go to my instagram, you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about.

This doesn't mean I leave empty-handed. For some time, I've had my eye on a wooden Pinocchio doll tucked up on the top shelf of a crowded bookcase in my brother's old room, but I couldn't fit it in my suitcase. My mother promises to send it. And the kids and I went to the thrift stores and bought a lot of books, which my parents will ship to me via media mail. But I didn't find anything too special, like the stork-necked fashion doll. I remember chastising my mom for donating the doll instead of giving it to my daughter (minus the pin, of course). How could she be so thoughtless? I was haunted by images of all the great stuff that was slipping through my fingers, stuff she was selling or donating without consulting me first.

I choose to take this as a sign of maturity (sanity), that I no longer fret (too much) over the things that got away, the things that are getting away every day, probably even as I'm writing this post. I'll just keep going to the thrift shops when I'm back in town and hoping to run across one of her castoffs—the hunting and the finding is kinda the best part, after all.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The New York dolls

I'll be traveling next week for Spring Break, bound for the ancestral home in NJ and the spiritual home in NYC. If I can get my shite together, I'll be sending dispatches via instagram from my favorite thrift shoppes (e.g., my parents' basement, ministorage facilities, etc.). You can follow me if you want.

In honor of the occasion, I bring you the Campus Cuties Lodge Party collection by Louis Mark & Co. circa 1964, which wended its way all the way from New Yawk City to our humble San Antonio mailbox inside a lumpy padded envelope. At the time, my bro and his lady were in the process of downsizing—relocating from their overstuffed Williamsburg apartment to a minimalist loft in Bush-Stuy-Burg. Lucky for my older daughter, the package was addressed to her specifically or I would have snapped those Cuties up and displayed them, much like Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner does in his unsurprisingly rad pad (so I learned from a NYT magazine story featuring his "Mad House"—scroll through the photos and you'll see his extensive Cutie collection voguing atop the piano). Instead, these Campus Cuties bring their mod-girl insouciance (and in the case of the one wearing the teddy, very inappropriate attire) to the Toy Story–scale shenanigans with Barbies, My Little Ponies, Schleich animals and Playmobil princesses that play out across my kids' carpet-tiled floors on a daily basis.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Philosophically, I'm more of a Home Sweet Home person than a God Bless Our Happy Home person but if an anthropomorphized house is involved I'll overlook the Christian overtones. I scored this plate at the estate sale of someone who had a passion for anthropomorphized fruit. One wall of her kitchen was covered with grinning plaster fruit faces. I just got the plate, though more than a year later, I'm still wondering why I didn't get the fruit too.

I'm not sure when I developed my penchant for smiling houses—maybe it was the first time I read Virginia Lee Burton's classic children's book The Little House. Love that cute little house! And check this out—I just ran across this 1952 Disney short based on The Little House and it is fabulous. The story was adapted by Bill Peet, and the hand of the great Mary Blair is quite apparent. If anyone happens to be selling the animation cels, I'm interested.

So, foolish though it may be, I choose to view my house as a benign force in the universe—a refuge/haven/sanctuary/velvet prison/vehicle for self-expression. I lean homebody. Even when my house seems to be ganging up on me, daring me to hate it, with its leaky leaks, rotting gutters, nests of scorpions, peeling paint and total lack of energy-efficiency, I forgive. If I could somehow pull a Plumbean and incorporate a pair of giant eyes and a wide smile into my house's facade, I would.

By pulling a Plumbean, I mean trick out my house in the style of Mr. Plumbean, the protagonist in Daniel Pinkwater's The Big Orange Splot, another brilliant children's book about houses. His could-not-have-said-it-better-myself mantra: "My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams." Plumbean could totally have his own show on HGTV.

My daughter also has Plumbean tendencies. Her third-grade class is making something called "dream boards" this week—I'm not exactly sure what the takeaway is supposed to be; I guess if nothing else, she'll be better prepared to open her own pinterest account. One of the brainstorming questions she had to answer was "What is your dream home?" Now I think mansions and castles and magic kingdoms would spring to most third graders' minds, but she said, "I would like to inherit both of my mother's houses." Referring to the one in which we currently reside, and the one in which I grew up. I think her grandparents might take issue with her description of the latter as MY house, but I think we get what she means...and where she's headed.

Dream house #1

Dream house #2

Monday, March 5, 2012

When Scholastic was cool

Today I'm doing my bit as a volunteer at our elementary school's Scholastic Book Fair. I'm wearing a grass skirt and a lei because for reasons unknown the fair has a luau theme. I'm going to spare you my usual diatribe against the crass commercialism of Scholastic—the merchandising tie-ins, the emphasis on made-in-China tchotchkes and $5 pencils as opposed to, you know, good books. I ranted about that on my old blog, the Kindergarten Diaries, and maybe now that my kid is a third-grader and I'm working my eighth fair, I'm just over it.

And maybe I was blowing things slightly out of proportion, anyway. One commenter on my old blog pointed out that even back in the glorious ’70s, when I would squirrel away my meager allowance till the day the Scholastic Bookmobile would pull into our school parking lot, we were buying all kinds of books of little redeeming "literary" value. Like the Guinness Book of World Records, which is still a hot ticket though now it's an oversized hardcover and costs 30 bucks. (Can't tell you how many crestfallen boys I've turned away who didn't have enough crumpled bills in their ziploc bags to purchase the latest edition.) And while it was nowhere near on the same scale as it is today, we were snapping up our own movie tie-ins—novelizations of Herbie the Love Bug and Escape from Witch Mountain, as well as authorized biographies of Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett. Who's to say that was any better?

But one thing I can say is that vintage Scholastic books are definitely cuter. Which is why I always buy them, particularly from the 60s and 70s, when I'm out on my rounds. I'm not alone in feeling the love; you can find blogs and flickr sets devoted to their awesome covers. Here's just a random sampling of the Scholastic goodness in my collection.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Gag me

On Fridays, my preschooler has an alphabetically themed show-n-tell. This week's letter was "B," and she selected—okay, with a little prompting from her devious mother who likes to get her laffs where she can get them—this seemingly innocent Box of Balm-Olive After Shave. Little did her unsuspecting classmates nor the teacher nor the assistant teacher know, but when you slide open the box expecting to find a fresh bottle of after-shave... SQUEAL! A rat flies in your face.

Out of all the marvelous objects I've purchased for my lovely children at estate sales, I'm pretty sure this novelty toy is their favorite. And is it any wonder? I still fondly recall the snake in a can I got my brother for his birthday many moons ago. Pretty sure it was the best present I ever got him. The appeal is more subtle than, say, that of a whoopee cushion or fake puke, but equally effective. It may be old (1950s? 60s?) but it never gets old. As I was reminded when I picked my daughter up from school and she and her BFF re-enacted the show-n-tell for my benefit about 19 times. Apparently the best part was when the teachers, having sufficiently recovered from the shock of a rat flying in their faces, took the box down to the office and tried it out on the principal. Totally fell for it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Everything's cuter when it's French, part 3

I sincerely regret never having learned French, or any language in which one can actually carry on a conversation (Latin mass doesn't count!). In four years of high school German all I learned was the Chicken Dance. I had one of those teachers who is so well-liked, so crazy-charismatic that no one seemed to notice or care that by senior year we were still translating the same passage about Uwe going for a walk gleich um die ecke that we'd first encountered as freshmen. I'm not at all sorry about the years I dedicated to Latin (and medieval Latin and Middle English and Old English), but it would be nice just to be able to read some of the adorable French books I buy. Here's hoping that by leaving adorable French dictionaries (en couleurs!) lying around, my kids will somehow absorb the language.

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