Friday, December 14, 2007

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

I spent a lot of time as a child mooning around the playroom in the middle of the night. My dollhouse, lithographed metal 50s ranch-style suburban bourgeois Sears and Roebuck icon though it was, seemed to come alive when I stared at it. By third grade, I was reading The Five Dolls books by Helen Clare, an English series in which a young girl, Elizabeth Small, divines the means by which one becomes small enough to walk up to the front door of one's own dollhouse and knock - and when the five dolls that live there come to life, the adventures that ensue are stories I loved. My goal in life for many years afterward, beyond learning the trick to becoming small enough to inhabit a dolls' house, was to have a real dollshouse, one in which the furniture wasn't plastic. Because I never really got one nor had the industry to make one, I spent a lot of time reading books about dollhouses, in particular Victorian dollshouses, which are undoubtedly the pinnacle of the whole dollshouse lineage. I ended by becoming quite taken with the whole Victorian period, and those of you who know me know I had a Victorian wedding. Now I live in a Victorian dollhouse, with a different pattern of wallpaper in each room, and I feel like a house archeologist.
For example, the keys. This house has two front doors. The keys are labeled "East Front" and "West Front." A thermometer is mounted outside the bathroom window, angled so you can see the temperature right when you sit down in the morning. Living in an old house is a kind of excavation, as the things left behind are clues to how people once lived and thought. John Lennon wrote: "Oh boy, when you're dead, you won't take nothing with you but your soul." We believed when we bought the house we were also acquiring a lifetime+ of attic-type remains stowed away in the barn (which is giant, and more accessible than the attic). Malicious or not, that didn't end up happening; the ex-owner, whose parents lived here for 50 years and who grew up in this house, had everything carted away, probably to the dump. That makes the things that somehow remain all the more mysterious. One LIFE Magazine out of the hundreds that went in the trash: "Our Great Outdoors" (1953). A molded glass eyewash cup. In the dining room's corner cupboard, two etched crystal goblets that seem to say, "Cheers, and good luck!" The key - one of many left hanging on a rack in the kitchen - marked "Buick," that perfectly fits my son's desk. The rolled Norman Rockwell calendar of the four seasons I found in a hall drawer upstairs, promotional gift of a local insurance company in 1949.

Monday, December 10, 2007

If You Fall, Make a Ball

Diatomatic siftling of snow crystals against the window, like glass beads whirling under the sea. The giant spruce trees loll and bend under the weight of the wind, which piles up dunes like the sands of Arabia, erasing all the foot paths cut during the day. People here have lawn mowers for the snow, which plow a path however many inches thick, straight through the depths, blowing snow out the side. I said I preferred the houses with paths dug out by standard snow shovel, the old-fashioned way, where you walk on packed white paths instead of bald asphalt. What's the point, after all? Snow isn't slippery - it's the cleared walkways that freeze to glass overnight that pose the problem. After his first day of shoveling, Wayne invested in a snow shovel with a bent handle, and he disagrees. I shoveled the walkway once and my neighbor, Drew, looked at me incredulously when I told him I wanted to study his technique. You mean to tell me you never shoveled snow??

People here are sophisticated; they have graciously made it a point not to call me a “damn idiot” when I don’t sweep the snow off the top of my car so it blows back in their faces on the Parkway or crashes down onto my windshield like a giant ice floe when I stop at a stoplight. Or when I have to go down to the hardware store to learn how to tighten a band clamp on the fireproof dryer vent hose Wayne presented me for Christmas. John Spitzer says he has parked his car outside for ten years, and he flips his wipers up in the evening, so that they won’t get stuck. I am learning things the usual way, by making mistakes. These flat-run tires on our souped-up Model “T” Scion XB might be OK for Malibu, where, a collector wrote to tell me, it was a crystal blue 65 degrees today. But people make a lot of work for themselves, out shoveling and dusting and cracking the ice off their windshields before the sun comes up. Doesn’t the old system make better sense? When the snow comes and buries everything, so snowshoes look like an impressive innovation (another great idea from the Iroquois), you simply hitch the horse to a SLEIGH, and it runs over everything: no waiting for the snow plow, no bulldozers clearing parking lots at 6am, blowing black smoke at the sky. No parking lots! It took me about two weeks of living here to realize all the pre-1900 houses were built right up next to the road so people could get out in snowy weather.

My poor little Laura, after only a year's experimentation with snow, tried "penguining" (going down on the stomach of her snow suit) on an icy slope that had nothing but asphalt underneath, whanged her head and broke off her right front tooth. Her brother looked like he wanted to die; there was some talk of it being his fault, or his idea. She wasn't expecting to lose a tooth on her 8th birthday, and she was freaked for about the first hour, after which her physical toughness took over and, as she was not in any pain, we stopped at a diner and she ate a stack of soft pancakes. The main point for gratitude is that if it had broken off any shorter, she would have hit the nerve, but no need to go into those implications. We drove all the way to Great Barrington, and the kind pedio dentist smoothed the rough edge and put some de-sensitizing Bondo over it, and said when the swelling goes down he would rebuild the tooth with compound, since it is impossible to eat an apple with a re-glued tooth. He gave her the fragment to put under her pillow. She included a note for her fairy:

"Dear Tooth Fairy i cracked my tooth while i was pnguining down the hill.
This is a present for you it is a necklace cas i thot it Was not enough."

She beaded a little necklace with the beading set she got for her birthday, as she feared a tooth fragment was not enough to get a prize under her pillow. She got one, though.

And that reminds me of just one more instructive story I wanted to tell. When we first moved to Brooklyn and were super excited about the skating rink in Prospect Park (just one stop from Franklin Avenue, near our apartment in Crown Heights), Wyatt fell coming off the ice. The landing pad must have been slippery, because this huge kid fell right behind him, and nearly cut off the tip of one of Wyatt's fingers with his skate blade. After that we had an important family saying: "If you fall, make a ball," that is to say, make a fist, until you right yourself again.