Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Arachnophobia - isn't that word just gross?

I come by my fear of spiders honestly. I grew up in Texas where there are lots of big ol’ ugly and sometimes poisonous spiders. Then I lived in Australia where the spiders seem to be competing for some sort of title in the big ol’ and ugly categories. And I inherited my fear from my father who gets as wigged out by spiders as I do. (I share that same fear with my sister. We’ve had a few spider-fighting adventures together. You’d think having a sister by your side would make you braver but, um, no. It just seemed to make us a lot shriek-y-er.)

My dad used to tell the story of how one of my sister’s first words was ‘pidey.’ She’d fix her big hazel eyes in a slightly unfocused way on the area just beside my dad’s left ear, smile dreamily and coo, ‘Pidey’ and enjoy the show as my dad blasted into a blur of swatting, swiping, and anti-spider swearing. If it weren’t for the involuntary shudder I get just thinking about a spider being anywhere near my left ear, I could enjoy this story whole-heartedly.

Yesterday I was helping a colleague write condition reports for some artifacts on display in an exhibit we just got in from Texas. In non-museum speak that translates as: we were checking to make sure that all the Texas museum’s stuff got here without breaking. As I was looking at the stuff one of our other colleagues, a guy who is very good at making stuff and displaying objects in such a way that you don’t notice the NASA strength bands of steel holding it up, came over to inspect the display. He pointed into the case and said casually, “Spiders.”

It was a dangerous moment. I was half a second away from coming unglued in a killing imitation of my dad’s reaction to the word ‘pidey’ – and that would have been professionally VERY embarrassing. I was saved when he pointed again and said, “The supports.” I felt like a hot air balloon being deflated. Oooooooooh.

Let me decode. When he pointed and said ‘Spiders’ my first reaction was that there were spiders in the case and they could be damaging the objects. Spiders in the case would be bad because that would mean opening the case and dealing with them. Ew, ew, ew. Not to mention there would be damage to the artifacts, which is always disheartening. (You have no idea how grateful I am that this was indeed my first reaction – it speaks well of my professionalism.)

About .2 seconds after that whole thought process my inner freak-out was screeching “Spiders… FROM TEXAS!!!! AAAAARGH!!!!” I was this close to continuing the rest of my side of the conversation from the ceiling.

When he followed up by saying, “The supports,” it all became clear. For reasons that really should be reconsidered, certain 3-prong brass or copper supports in the field of museum display building are called ‘spiders.’ Okay, so they have multiple legs. They don’t have 8 legs, and the name has terrible connotations for some of us. I really think they could be called something a lot less fear-inspiring, such as ‘tripods’ or ‘three leg metal supports.’ Call me creative.

Last night I found myself watching Cynthia Nixon guest star on the season premiere of Law & Order: SVU. I regretted that as soon as her spider-loving scientist character said in a way that was meant to be delighted but filled my very soul with horror, “Did you know that you’re never more than 6 feet away from a spider?” She smilled dreamily and seemed to focus somewhere near my left ear. It was so uncalled for.

I will spend a lot of energy these next few days, eyeing the six foot perimeter around my body for any encroaching spiders. And doing my level best to convince myself that L&O is a work of FICTION so I don’t have to believe them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In My Dreams

I have always had pretty vivid dreams. Not every night, but on a fairly regular basis my subconscious will string together one helluva film and I'll wake up remembering it. I haven't had one of these in a while, but Saturday night the ol' mind went to town. I'm going to try to recapture it for you.

First, let me tell you what I've been feeding my mind, so you'll see how the basic ingredients were transformed.

  • I've been reading a book about Venice. I've never been to Venice, but the book is quite good at filling my mental screen with images of black canal water lapping centuries-old mossy stone palazzos and bridges, characters in masks silently drifting by in black gondolas, or modern vaporettos, blown glass, Henry James, marble statues – you get the picture.

  • I have a couple of cousins who have spent a lot of time in Italy. I haven't talked to these cousins in a while – they live in another state – although last I checked we were on good terms and they were in good form.

  • A friend I hadn't heard from in almost 2 years emailed me out of the blue to say he would be in this neighborhood very soon.

So. Let the games begin.

The dream started with my friend, let's call him Bob, just arriving in town and I had apparently taken it upon myself to play tour guide. I started showing him around and he was gamely following. I suggested, “Let's go see my cousins!” And off we go.

We go to a gigantic palazzo. It is many stories tall, but we don't linger outside. Instead we wander in and up two stories to a vast open space, dark and shadowy, filled with statues, furniture, decorative arts, paintings, etc. I tell Bob that these things don't belong to my cousins, but to their neighbor, an Italian art collector. I've only been there a few times myself so I find myself leading the way through half-remembered twists and turns, pointing out some of my favorite pieces as we go. Suddenly, the Italian art collector, a round little man with a mustache, pops up from behind a stone lion and says, “Ah, miss, you have a very good eye. If you ever want a job, you just let me know!”

I love that part. My own subconscious would like to employ me. I'll bet it would be happy to give me a good reference too.

Then we get to the front door of my cousins' palazzo and it is evident we have arrived at a bad time. We walk into the huge airy first room, lit by chandeliers and sunlight, only to find more than a dozen caterers and decorators running wild around the place. White table cloths, candelabra, flowers, ferns, crystal – it's all there but it's not in any order yet. It is clear my cousins are getting ready to throw a ball that very evening and dropping in unannounced was not our best move. Still, the cousins are gracious. 'Celia' is on the phone two ballrooms over, gesticulating and persuading people to do as she wants. 'John' comes to greet us.

In real life my cousin has a full head of brown hair. In my dream he had gone bald except for a black rim of hair lining his skull over the ears and just around back, over the nape of his neck. He had topped the pink shiny bald dome of his head with a platinum blond toupee that wasn't quite long enough to reach the back of his head, so some longer blond strands were hanging over the pink and black patches that were clearly visible in the back. It was one of the most bizarre hairdos I've ever seen. Awake or otherwise.

Anyway, in my dream 'Cousin John,' wearing the outrageously inappropriate toupee, tries to make us welcome while still yelling at caterers. He leaves us in a corner of the room while he deals with a crisis. We take in the view.

Bob and I are standing in front of gigantic glass windows, easily 20 feet tall by 10 feet wide. And right outside is the ocean. Not as in, “Oh look down there, a beach right by the front porch.” The ocean is right outside and we can see the waterline about 2 feet up from the floor level. And out there on the sunlit waves we can see about 30 surfers on their boards, waiting for the next big swell.

Before our very eyes the swell starts swelling, a big-time wave starting up, right at the save level where we're standing, but getting taller, taller, taller and faster. I felt no fear that the wave would crash through the glass. I did worry for the surfers though, and as they hurtled toward us I could see quite a few of them were worried too. And then the wave smashed into the side of the building right in front of us and about 20 surfers were splayed on the glass like bugs on a windshield in a Far Side cartoon, looking right at us. The wave subsided, they climbed back on their boards, and 'Cousin John' came running in, yelling on a walkie-talkie, “CHANGE DIRECTION! CHANGE DIRECTION!” Somewhere outside, some lackey on ocean duty turned the waves, and the surfers caught the next swell running parallel to the palazzo rather than heading right for us.

About then Bob and I decided to take our leave and I woke up.

So there you go. This is what my subconscious gets up to when I'm not looking.

Halloween Costume Postscript – Jen, I like your suggestion of Lady MacBeth. Chaybee, I think it's funny that we independently wore the same costume to Halloween in different parts of the country! Keep the suggestions coming, folks. I am clearly most creative in my sleep. Your help is greatly appreciated!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Bermuda Triangle, triangle not included

I'm keeping myself up nights trying to come up with costume ideas. It's not healthy.

To further the discussion begun here, I have now uploaded a photo of the Bermuda Triangle dress. The photo's a little too dark but you get the general idea.

It could be yours! Just come up with a fantastic costume suggestion, and the prize will be in the mail to you before you can say “Trick or treat!”

Years ago my mother attended a costume party dressed up as the Emmy Award. You don’t get much shinier than all gold, and if I did that it would give me the opportunity to fashion wings and a globe out of shiny gold floral ribbon…

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Getting to be THAT time of year...

Please don't be alarmed when I tell you this... but,

Halloween is only 54 days away.

Five years ago this statement would have meant nothing to me. I'd have thought, “Hm, 55 days till giant bags of mini Snickers are on sale” and gone on my way.

But since then my friend MKA has come into my life, and through our friendship Halloween has assumed a certain, one might say, prominence.

(Stick with me through the following long explanations – there's a giveaway at the end.)

MKA throws killer Halloween parties. She starts planning them on November 1st and I am not exaggerating even the tiniest bit when I say that. She and I have had earnest and even lengthy conversations on such topics as Halloween invitations, Halloween finger food, Halloween decorations, and of course, Halloween costumes, at all sorts of weird times, like say, in April, or in Fenway watching the Red Sox play or even while in the middle of the Mardi Gras party she threw this past February.

One of the reasons MKA throws this party is that it is a convenient umbrella-like excuse for her to obsess all year long about certain subjects dear to her heart, such as the type of paper, ink, sparkles, decorative elements and printing methods she can use on this year's invitations. Or experimenting with recipes and silicone bake-ware for her famous mini cupcakes. Or finding the perfect stamps to go on her invitation envelopes. Or what newfangled notions Martha Stewart might come up with for this year's October issue of her magazine. Or reasons to use certain household-y server-y type things that are only appropriate on special occasions such as MKA's full set of Pat O'Brien hurricane glasses, or those cute little saucers you put the colored sugar in so you can dip your drink glass and get a pretty rim of sparkly sweetness around your fruity alcoholic beverage.

MKA's invitations deserve a special mention. The girl is obsessed with paper. I don't know anything about paper or printing methods, but MKA is an expert. And she enjoys making her own invitations every year. She prints them on paper with names like 'Star Dream' (which sounds to me like a racehorse, or at least My Little Pony) and uses fancy methods such as gaucko. I have NO IDEA how to explain what gaucko is, even though last year I sat at her dining room table with her in September and HELPED HER DO IT. I still can't explain. You smear ink, there's a screen, you squish and voila!, beautiful hand-printed invitations. They truly are beautiful though, and of the hundreds of people who have received them over the years, I am sure that MKA and I and maybe 4 other people actually look at them to appreciate their details. But it makes her happy.

All of this is a long-winded way of explaining that due to my friend's detailed obsessions and annual celebration of this holiday, Halloween has lately become important in my life, in a way it hadn't been since I was a trick-or-treating child back in Fort Worth.

(Aside: One year when I was living in Melbourne a group of little kids knocked on my door in the late afternoon one day in mid-October. I answered and they said hopefully, “Trick or treat?” They weren't sure when it was or what it was all about, but they'd heard that Americans gave out candy when they heard that phrase. I laughed and laughed. I can't remember now if I had any candy to give them or not. I'm pretty sure I told them to come back on the 31st. You know, the ACTUAL holiday.)

Now, as MKA's friend, there are 2 main ways that Halloween affects my life. First, I am her party lieutenant, so I assist with many things. The mysteries of gaucko, hanging bat-shaped decorations, addressing envelopes, eating icing mini cupcakes – you name it, I'm into it. And second, every year I now have to come up with a costume. This is a double-edged sword for me. Exciting because at heart I'm all histrionics and the chance to dress up is irresistible, but challenging because I've self-imposed a set of costume rules that are simply not that easy to satisfy.

Here they are, my Halloween costume rules:

  • Costume should be created, not bought. I can buy the pieces and fashion them into something, but I don't want to buy a complete and commercially produced costume. That was cool in the 3rd grade, but not now.

  • Cheap. I will not spend a fortune on costume pieces.

  • Vintage or retro. I love vintage stuff, especially the 40s, so if I can make my costume look vintage then that's always a bonus.

  • Attractive but not slutty. Halloween has become a big-time Slut's Holiday in recent years and I deplore that. But as a single girl attending a costume party, there's no way I'm going to get myself up as a big yellow M&M or purple Grimace.* It's a party, as well as Halloween, and while I'll almost certainly be wearing something I wouldn't ever wear to any other kind of party, I still want to look and feel good.

  • If at all possible, include as many sequins, rhinestones and other sparkles as are available. Hey, I'm a magpie. I can't sparkle all that much as a museum curator. This is a fabulous annual opportunity to wear more cut glass than my grandmother's sideboard. I take shameless advantage of that.

Usually I take myself to Filene's Basement, rummage through their hideous and cheap dress racks for something that is simultaneously horrifying/flattering/cheap and start with that. (Note: it is amazing what will sort of flatter you if you allow yourself to try on things that would normally be waaaay outside your comfort zone.) But Filene's Basement just closed for a 2 year renovation, so my usual source of inspiration is not available.

So. Here's where I need your help. My mind is a blank for this year's costume. In previous years I have dressed up as :

  • Lady Luck (black 40s style dress with a print of many pairs of dice, homemade sparkly dice bracelet and helpful sparkly choker I made myself with rhinestone letters saying 'Lady Luck' on it – that was the year I learned drunk people don't read)

  • Tinkerbell (green lurex Marilyn Monroe style halter dress with a billion rhinestone brooches all over it, pink shoes with green bows and a homemade green and pink wand – oh, and an actual tinkling bell on my wrist. Most successful costume to date.)

  • The Bermuda Triangle. (I found a 60s style halter dress in something approximating an ocean print and then made and carried around all night a triangle fashioned out of a coat hanger wrapped in sequins with a little paper boat stuck in it. No one got it but I really enjoyed myself.)

The Giveaway:

Please make costume suggestions! I am open to suggestion and inspiration. And to the person whose suggestion materializes into this year's Halloween costume...

I'll send you the Bermuda Triangle dress!!!

Ding, ding, ding, ding!!! Wohoo! Talk about lucky!! Scratch that - talk about a meaningful reward for creativity!!!

Prize specifications: Dress has been modified because I bought it too large (it is a US size 14) and took it in at the back, but my alterations would be easily undone or redone. Halter, knee-length, backless style, dark aqua and teal silk with a sort of ocean-surface or leopard-print pattern to it. Label says 'Spenser Jeremy.' It's 100% silk with an acetate lining. It has been dry-cleaned. You'll have to make your own Bermuda Triangle. (I'll try to post a picture next week. Feeling the loss of my camera very much these days.)

So put those thinking caps on, people, and help me top that Tinkerbell costume.

* If you ever need a laugh, please pick up Louise Rennison's book “Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging.” It's about a snarky teenage girl in England. Her name is Georgia. The back of the book sums up its appeal, and also reveals why I was reminded of it while talking about unflattering costumes:

“There are six things wrong with my life:

  1. I have one of those under-the-skin spots that will never come to a head but lurk in a red way for the next two years.

  2. It is on my nose.

  3. I have a three-year-old sister who may have peed somewhere in my room.

  4. In fourteen days the summer hols will be over and then it will be back to Stalag 14 and Oberfuhrer Frau Simpson and her bunch of sadistic 'teachers.'

  5. I am very ugly and I need to go to an ugly home.

  6. I went to a party dressed as a stuffed olive.”

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Giving and attempting to give

Anyone who works with museum collections has gotten weird calls from people who want to donate stuff.

I totally understand this impulse. You’re cleaning out your closet or basement or your great aunt’s 4 story house or garden shed and you come across that thing, that fabulous whats-it that is full of historical interest and charm that everyone in the world would definitely appreciate. Hmmm, you think. How can I make sure everyone in the world gets the chance to appreciate it? I know! I’ll call LaLa!

Most of them don’t actually know my name, at least not at first, but they do eventually. I’m the person they call when they picture themselves on the road to altruistic glory. They can selflessly donate this thing (did I mention the thing is usually 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet and weighs 1.8 tons?) to us, I’ll store it, clean it and lovingly display it, most certainly with a big ol’ shiny gold plaque bearing the donor’s selfless name in big letters.

Actually, only a small percentage of people call us with that motivation (or result, for that matter). Often I get calls from lovely people who have somehow ended up with an interesting thing without knowing how. (Picture the Wicked Witch of the East minding her own business when that house suddenly landed on her without warning. If it hadn't squashed her she'd probably have decided it was a historically valuable structure and called to offer it to me). And now, since they didn’t ask for it and don’t want to live with it anymore, they’re looking for a nice home for it. Some try ebay, some try local history museums. And some try me.

Oh the things they’ve tried on me. The dead owl stuck in the backyard fence. The 15 foot tall metal teddy bear sculpture. The basement sized train set. The Jiminy Cricket collectibles collection. The small village diorama made entirely of newspapers. The antique pediatric examination table. The life-sized costume of the Boston Baked Bean.

It may surprise you to hear that one of the requirements of my job is being a diplomatic turner-downer. I can let you down so easy you’ll never feel the bump. I do this partly because personally, I’m one of those people who treasures things, and most of the time I probably agree with you that the thing you want to see in a museum should be in a museum. Just not this one. So I’ll point you toward a few other deserving institutions and send you on your way.

Another reason I’m a good turner-downer is that I’m a southern woman, and the diplomacy gene is strong within me. Really. It is. I may snort with laughter when you call up offering me the owl carcass you found in your backyard, but you won’t hear it. I’ll do my snorting out of earshot. I'm ladylike that way.

Although I have good turning-down skills, I don’t enjoy using them. I do, however, prefer the chance to use them to the alternative, which is poking around in my office and finding something that was donated on spec 20 years ago and never dealt with. That would be because 20 years ago, whoever was on staff was NOT a good turner-downer, and just said something like, “Why sure, bring it on by, we’ll have a look and if we decide to keep it we’ll send you the paperwork. If we don’t decide to keep it…” Actually I have no idea if they ever started that second part of the reply. Maybe they just accepted everything offered to them. Sometimes in my office it REALLY feels like that.

The typewriters, books, bags of aprons and doilies, birdcages, dolls, dolls, dolls, and more dolls that fill up the corners of my office, all from donors who never heard the words ‘No thanks.’ If I could go back in time, my small contribution might be to implement a more stringent acceptance policy regarding museum donations.

Oh, and while I was at it, perhaps a more comprehensive approach to record-keeping. I hate finding something marvelous in our collections, looking it up in the card-catalogue and seeing something unhelpful like “Basket. Brown.” written in the description section. Well, duh. I can see it’s a brown basket, thankyouverymuch. Or worse, finding something marvelous in the collection and not being to look it up at all because the numbers and tags have disappeared. We have a fabulous example of whimsical wood-carving from the early 20th century – and no idea who made it, how or why he made it, when it was donated, or who donated it to us. It’s simply a great-looking mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, you may be wondering why I’m ranting on about all this stuff. I hate to tell you this, but I’m not really sure why. I just love this stuff. I’m like that catalogue card. “Museum person. Devoted and odd.”

Well, duh.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

An Absence of the Mind

I'm stuck. My brain is caught up in a rather boring circle of work details and weather observations.

When I've got interesting stories to tell, I'll be back.

Mouse update: apparently they've moved on. I still overreact to nocturnal cat activities, but other than that, you'd never guess at the recent upheaval.