Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Master Craftsman's Secrets For Buying, Maintaining, and Fixing Your Silver

Grande Dame Silver

The winter holidays loom. Along with dreams of pumpkins, ghosts, turkeys, pies, Christmas lights, and menorah, come thoughts of polishing silver. Silver is surrounded by myths and misconceptions, like many luxury goods. All the better for exclusivity beyond cost alone. But there are people who know why not to put silver into dishwashers, and what you pay for when you buy sterling instead of silverplate. Recently, I interviewed Martin Biro, silversmith, of Biro & Sons. This family has been in silver for decades. I was happy to hear what Martin had to say.

What To Know Before Buying Silver

LPC: Let's start with how to buy good silver. What should people look for?

Martin: First you have to determine whether to go with sterling or plated. There are pluses and minuses to both. Sterling is obviously more expensive, but sterling in this country has to be marked, and if it's marked you always get 95% silver.

There are now very good quality silver plated sets out there. *Laughs* I have silverplate at home, even though my wife is not too happy about it. You can get a good deal. But you have to watch out. You need a good quality base metal, ideally nickel silver (which is rare nowadays), or brass. The less expensive plates use stainless steel. Silver is soft, steel is hard, so the combo is not effective for long term wearability.

It's very hard to tell good silverplate from sterling. We've been fooled, once or twice, until we looked for the mark.

Biro & Sons workbench

LPC: Are there any brands you recommend?

Martin: One thing that you have to remember is that there's not much manufacturing left in the USA. Few silver sets, even those with an American name such as Wallace, Reed and Barton, Gorham, or Towle (pronounced Toll), are made here any more. You are often buying an import from an American company. Tiffany may still be made in America, although they probably have stuff manufactured all over the world too.

When you go to buy flatware, first, and most important, hold it in your hand. Is it going to be pleasurable to use? Buccellati and Cristofle, for example, make silverware in the European style. It's a heavy, large utensil. In the American style, forks and spoons are smaller, more delicate and lighter.

With sterling, it is what it is, only thing to decide is do you like it? Considering metal prices, it's not going to be cheap. There were great prices 2-3 years ago, 8-$12/oz. Now silver is at $20/oz. The quality of flatware has to be gauged by the price. You can get sometimes get sterling on sale at Macy's for as low as about $179.00 a place setting.

For silverplate, any reputable silver maker is going to be good. You will pay $200/setting for the good stuff vs. $18 for junk. Some manufacturers use poor quality stainless, and put silver on in thin quantities. Other companies, like Cristofle, pride themselves on heavy plating. A good heavy coating is anywhere between 8 and 12 microns.

Myself, I kind of like a modern style of the 30's and 40's. A lot of people like the more baroque, more ornate stuff, You can mix and match.

Biro & Sons workbench

The Secret of Used Silver

LPC: What about used silver? My mother bought me a mixed and matched 10-piece set from the London Silver Vaults when I got married. (I was a little disappointed not to get a set like her Tiffany pattern. I was young. And foolish, with no sense of the value of money. I'm over it.)

Martin: Absolutely you can get good deals on used silver. The way the economy is I have had people call and ask, "Can I sell it?" With the value of sterling going up, some people are willing to sell for the weight of the sterling alone.

It has to be marked sterling, and you have to look at the condition. If it's not in excellent condition, you are going to have to bring it to somebody like me, and pay $5-$18 to restore it, each piece. For a used set, you also want to make sure it's heavy. The older the silver, the heavier it will be. Silver makers have ways they have cheated over time, using less metal. If you look at patterns made in 1940, and still made today, the new version will be lighter. When they cast it, they hollow the handle out on the back.

Silver is being bought and sold on eBay, by those who are savvy about it. Otherwise, go to a local auction house, such as Butterfield's here in Northern California. or go to Replacements online. They have a large flatware exchange.

With silver, to get a good deal it's very important to buy a complete set. No matter what the quality, if you don't have the complete set, you don't have the full value. Say you pay $1000 for a set missing 2 forks, you might then have to pay $100 per solo fork. You want to be counting your pieces and make sure you have the correct round number. 6 place settings is bare minimum for a set, ideally 12.

The Keys To Maintaining Silver And The Evils Of Dishwashers

LPC: How should people store their silver? Do those cases and bags really make a difference?

Martin: Traditionally people have silver boxes, that contain the pieces in an airtight environment, not exposed to temperature or moisture. There's nothing worse for silver than sitting in the living room with the air conditioner one day and the heater the next. When silver gets moist, sulfur causes oxidation.

You can store individual pieces in treated flannel bags to help them resist developing sulfur. Even with the bags, to keep silver shiny and happy, put it in a drawer or a cabinet in an environment that doesn't change.

LPC: I was just thinking the other day, it's time to polish my silver. I actually like to the task, as long as the polish isn't toxic and harsh. How should we be cleaning our silver?

Martin: Some people insist on using silver every day and throwing it into the dishwasher. Soaps in most dishwashing detergents have alkali, in order to dissolve food. You get a chemical reaction and the ingredients will etch silver. Takes the shine off. I don't recommend it, I encourage my clients to hand wash.

LPC: *raises hand* Yes, I confess, I throw everything in the dishwasher.

Martin: *shakes head* The main thing to do when you are dealing with silver polish is to read the directions, if it says wash immediately with water, you are washing away some kind of acid chemical that cleans by attacking. If you can just dip it in and you are all set, the dip has to be pretty strong.

On the other hand, when you use something that you have to rub, you can be more comfortable there's nothing really harmful in there. You have waxes, cleaners, a little bit of an abrasive, but it doesn't harm the silver. The fact that you have to rub it, makes it shine. Like car waxes. Nothing's going to kill you. People are always looking for the easy way out, and it's not always the best.

We have carried Pine-Ola for 40 years. A good old-fashioned polish.

Sturdy Gal Silver

What To Remember About Silver Repair

LPC: You repaired a piece for me, an old polo trophy. I was very happy with the work. The base had fallen off, and it was dented.

Martin: We can repair pretty much anything. Even flatware that's gone down the garbage disposal. Sometimes people are helping in the kitchen, a fork goes down the disposal, and you hear that crunch crunch crunch. Repairing is usually less expensive than replacing your flatware. Buying one fork in a certain pattern can get pricy, and sometimes we check for clients to find replacements and they are just not available. If you have a flatware set and one of the pieces gets damaged, don't throw it away, keep it. Preserve your complete set.

The cost of repairs is based on labor. Mostly we file, hammer reshape, solder, and then repolish. You will spend from about $25 up to $100/piece on flatware repairs.

Some families in bring their silverware in for us to polish them once a year. On a 12-place set, depending on what I do, they can spend anywhere from $200 up to about $8-900.

Artsy Cousin Silver

The Enduring Tradition of Silver Sets

LPC: Martin, anything you'd like to tell us that I forgot to ask?

Martin: I can tell you that there is still a tradition of handing down silver in families. People's lifestyle, they don't entertain grandly any more, young people don't have those big dinner parties in today's world. But there has always been an interest in handing down silver sets, Aunt Ethel presents her grandchild, or a niece, with the set when they get married.

1/3 of our work is people bringing in sets to hand down. A lot of it is monogrammed. Monograms can be removed and new ones put on, but people usually keep the original because it's a keepsake. When you are selling silverware, you don't want a monogram, sterling sets with monograms have less value. But the monogram makes it a keepsake.

Silverware Confessions of a High WASP

Do I follow Mr. Biro's sage advice? Well, yes and no.
  • No. I can't bring myself to buy silverplate, preferring that substances assume their identities with impunity. So I go sterling, or stainless.
  • No. I throw my silver in the dishwasher because it's all I have to eat with.
  • Yes. I polish with the old-fashioned stuff. Largely because I failed the harsh chemical smells section of the Sturdy Gal test. I like Twinkle.
  • Yes. I derive enormous satisfaction from bringing an old, tarnished, dented piece back to its former glory through repair.
  • Completely Off Track. Despite my usual preference for the simple and streamlined, I have a secret weakness for the ornate, delicate tracings of Kirk's Old Maryland.

Happy polished silver and sparkling tables to all.

Martin, 56, and his brother, Rick, 48, run Biro & Sons with their father, Alex. They have all been in the silversmithing trade for decades. Alex learned originally, in his native Hungary, from his uncle. Emigrating in 1956, when Russians violently suppressed the Hungarian uprising, he moved to the Netherlands, to Canada, and finally to the USA. Biro & Sons has been in its location in San Francisco since 1976. Biro & Sons recently performed the engraving on Oracle's America's Cup. You can find more of their story here. You can find Martin, his family, and world-class traditional silver repair, at Biro & Sons, 1160 Folsom Street, San Francisco.

Images: me, my silverware, and the steampunk style workbench of old world craftsmen
No compensation of any sort has been received for anything here.
First posted on The Daily Brainstorm.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Privilege[d] Guide to Packing for Bathing Suit Resorts

A mesh beach bag my sister found in Los Angeles. Transparent beach bags are good for a) sand release b) finding books, sunscreen and glasses.

There's an entire category of vacation places we might call "bathing suit" resorts. You know, the kind where days are passed by the side of a pool, a lake, or the ocean, and one's bathing suit is rarely dry. I have often packed my bags for these occasions. It's my favorite way to spend time off.

Tory Burch beaded skirt, five gold bangles, the joys of a tank top, black jeweled sandals

I've believe I've got this packing down to a science, or, to be fair, an art. Science obeys universal laws, but style varies person to person. My mother still packs a special travel bathrobe. She still has special grape-cutting scissors too. But I digress. So.

The [Privileged] Guide to Packing for Bathing Suit Resorts, Or, What To Bring?

Olive shorts and shirt. Ironically, minimalism can be achieved with very little. Orange Havianas. Exceptionally comfortable rubber flip-flops. With some style.

  1. Bring at least 2 bathing suits. 3, even better. Putting on a wet suit is one of the more unpleasant first world problems. Your life will be made easier if you pack complementary colors. Green, peach, and pink, or, blue, white, and black, for example. Hues of any sort terrify me in regular life. Vacations are different. Packing for a resort is all about color, since you will want limited structure in your clothing, and minimal texture to your fabrics.
  2. A cover-up, for walking to the water. I prefer sarongs. Thin fabric over bathing suit tops reveals straps and various bumps and wiggles. Looks messy. You hair will have already developed its own lovely wisps and frizzles. No need to turn up the mess dial. Whereas a sarong covers that which must be covered, and cascades gracefully down your legs. If you need something up top, wear a button-front shirt, or a plain white heavy tee. Millions of Southeast Asian men have proved the concept.
  3. 3 pairs of flip-flops, some, um, flippier than others. If you make sure that one pair is bejeweled leather, you will never have find yourself teetering on lava stone steps, or sinking into spongy paths. Again, explore interesting colors. It's amazing how stylish a pair of lavender flip-flops can look, when you're wearing little else.
  4. A pair of shoes for activities more strenuous than walking, on terrain more difficult than sand, or tile.
  5. A hat. Not a baseball cap - they can't shade the critical parts of your face. Not stiff-brimmed either. Stiff-brimmed hats prevent one from laying one's head back on a lounge chair to read. Mid-size, soft, white hats are perfect, as the brim can be folded up to make a point in conversation. Or watch particularly attractive passers-by.
  6. Sunscreen. But not too much. Over 30 SPF often discolors clothing. Sun umbrellas are your best friends. Just hide. Come out for swimming. Hide some more.
  7. A cloth or straw beach bag. Enormous pink slouchy patent leather bags don't mix with water. And they disturb my serenity besides.
  8. Workout gear. For justifying mini-doughnuts sprinkled with coarsely granulated sugar or the third glass of pinot noir. Or both.
  9. Some shorts. Some tank tops or tees. For meals. I am from the old school that feels dining rooms should not be entered in visible bathing suits. It's just not that hard to walk back to your room to put on your suit after breakfast.
  10. A couple of skirts. And your "good" tank tops or tee shirts. No top you have to fuss with is worth the effort, for warm nights by water. Impunity. If you are going somewhere with cool nights, bring a pair of pants. Warm nights were made for white jeans.
  11. Gold or silver bangles. If you sport silver sequins, the bangles should be gold. It's vacation - live dangerously - mix metals. Aim to appear nonchalant, under the theory that 'displaying the affect brings the effect.' Smile and the world smiles with you. Bangle, and the world bangles with you.
  12. A wrap, a shawl, or, if you have more panache than I, some kind of 3/4 coat with kimono sleeves that you happened to pick up in, say, Bali. In 1972. Or 1986. Or 2001.
Bathing suits. A sarong. And yes, now that you ask, those are sequins. I didn't say life had to be all work and no play. Or all appropriate and no edge.

Happy swimming, where ever you may hit the water. It's been 95+ degrees Fahrenheit in Northern California these last few days. Good timing for a getaway, and serendipitous last minute plans.


Monday, September 27, 2010

In Which We Learn The True Story About Softball With The Kennedys

Recently, I told a story about my mother playing softball with the Kennedy family in Hyannisport, Massachusetts. The other day she called me to set me straight.

As my mother remembers, there were two groups of young people on that part of the Cape, in the early 50's. My mother hung with the crowd that lived a dangerous, hot-house life. Frequented piano bars. The Kennedy's crew called them the "Pansies." In return, my mother's group called the Kennedy crew the "Barefoot Boys." Because, I suppose, they ran wild and free.

One year, the softball games between the Pansies and the Barefoot Boys went on all season. Came the final game. Apparently, in an act of ruthlessness, focus, and sprezzatura, the Kennedys brought in some Boston Red Sox as ringers. The story does not include a record of who won. We can guess.

Whether to call this "cheating," or a brilliant act of nonchalant insolence, I leave to you. Along with the implications of terms from another time.

Pansies by turtlemom4bacon, Softball by kamau akabueze, both from the Creative Commons at Flickr


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Old Ladies In Bathing Suits, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:01am

Indian summer this week. Temperatures in the 90s. So yesterday we decided to go to Napa for a few days. Sit by a swimming pool, on a hillside. We leave tomorrow. I'm packing this morning, very happily.

It's not a cold climate, here by the San Francisco Bay. But it does get wet come winter. Ever since I turned 35 - perhaps 40, I don't remember - I've had the sense that summer serves to dry out our bones. Gets in there and bakes the marrow empty. This is a climate where you are well-served to take your cues from the seasons. We do without air conditioning for good reason.

When your bones are dry you can rest easy. When you exhale, with dry bones, anything difficult leaves with your breath. I know this is imaginary, but we are allowed a little bit of magical realism.

These days, if I think about it, my only unsolvable difficulty is aging. The minute we reach peace with ourselves, forgive old mistakes and get comfortable with our emotional makeup, the universe pulls out a new trick.

I turn 54 on Thursday. I'm not yet sure of my philosophy and approach to older age. What to fight and what to embrace? Do I still follow my instincts? The pull of the seasons becomes stronger. Are they more dangerous now? I mean this not at all in a morbid fashion, but I understand more old people die in winter.

I need a strong summer now. More sun to dry my bones. This is not a bad thing. If you're my age, maybe you feel the same way.

If you're young, I imagine you wish I wouldn't talk about this. When I was young I wanted to hear no talk of aging or death. I figured I'd never die, and that old age would be scary. But sitting here, now, an open suitcase on my floor, a bathing suit at the ready, it's really not so bad.

I've been watching old ladies in bathing suits all my life. The summer we lived in Santa Monica, I remember an old lady tanned dark brown, shameless in her maillot. My next door neighbor mowed her lawn in a bikini top. She must have been 60 at the time. I forgive them all now and I wag my finger at my younger self who disapproved. I didn't know it wasn't about their skin, or their flesh, anymore. It's bones. And I didn't know how good they felt in the sunshine.

Feel no more pity or shame for old ladies in their bathing suits. They are, perhaps, evolved. Seasonal, if you will.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

How To Deliver A Difficult Ethical Message

Figure 1. The dead elephant.

A reader, T., wrote in to explain that she had recently suffered through a situation which resulted in her leaving the practice of a health professional. As in, "Thank you very much, your services will no longer be required." She asked,
"To make a long story short, would you consider a post on the topic of 'how to deliver an unpleasant ethical message?'"
Unethical behavior, if not confronted, behaves like a dead elephant. Some of us line up in front smiling, others cross their arms, uncomfortable, in distress.

How to speak up about the elephant? How do High WASPs do it? It's not our strong point, frankly. Crimes against humanity, the behemoths of bad ethics, we approach like any other culture. Sometimes courageous, sometimes fearful, sometimes guilty as charged. We try to do good. We sometimes fail.

Smaller ethical mistakes, made unknowingly, we try to forgive. We sometimes fail.

It's the middle ground where the High WASP culture lets us down. We are far more easily shamed than most. So overturned, in fact, by social gaffes that I cannot offer advice in this situation, cannot deconstruct as usual, without matrices. Diagrams, we hope, can fight off shame.

Feel free to snort with laughter.

Figure 2. Impact of Emotional State On Conveying An Unpleasant Ethical Message, Mapped Against Severity of Ethical Misconduct.

If you've finished laughing, we can discuss. Not finished? I'll wait.

Right then. 3 of the quadrants in the matrix pose no 'How To' dilemmas.
  1. Heroic Resistance. When we need to be heroes, whether we are up to the task or not, we know what it would take.
  2. Sociopath. Those who feel nothing at horrors of humanity must be sociopaths. I don't think sociopaths think about 'how to.'
  3. Zen. When other people's small mistakes annoy us a just little bit, we have learned to breathe deeply and move on.
But when we have strong feelings about what we believe is unethical but non-criminal behavior, that's tougher. It's difficult to balance the discomfort of embarrassment against the righteous pleasure of calling out mid-level bad behavior. At least for us. If you are freer I salute you.

So. You notice that you are angry and concerned about someone's unethical behavior. What now?

The [Reformed] High WASP Guide To Difficult Conversations
  1. Examine the offending behavior. Make sure you have the facts. No point using up righteousness points over inaccuracies.
  2. Stand still. Take a breath. Examine your own feelings. Are you purely righteous? Or is your distress motivated more by your own emotional needs?
  3. Realize that you're human. Nobody, except perhaps the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, or Thich Nhat Hanh, feels distress over pure right and wrong alone. Our internal landscape engages. Welcome to humanity.
  4. Review your feelings. Even after you understand your own emotional engagement, do you still feel the person's behavior is unethical? That wrong has in fact been done? You are ready to speak. You will feel quite strong and calm.
  5. Put your feelings aside. They will be there when you come back.
  6. Do not send an email, text, or Twitter message. The usual rules of courtesy apply. Call the offender, or even better, make an appointment to see them in person.
  7. Preview your message. "So-and-so, I need to speak with you about a difficult subject." Your politeness here prevents the kinds of thrashing common when people feel blindsided.
  8. Deliver your message. Carefully, simply, articulately, and as briefly as possible.
  9. Wait. Listen. Repeat. You are not here to argue.
  10. If you hear new facts that indicate you were wrong, apologize sincerely. You haven't done anything that can't be repaired. You had bad information. It happens.
  11. If you hear no new facts, listen, tell the offender you have heard what they say, and repeat your message. At a certain point you will know if they are going to admit their wrongdoing or not.
  12. Before you are done, you will need to decide what reparations will satisfy you. Those who have done wrong must make it right, one way or another. Do you require only that they acknowledge? Apologize? Offer compensation? Submit to punishment? In this too, clarity is your friend. Your good friend.
  13. Go home. The world is probably now a little bit better place.
This is all more easily said than done, you might reply. You would be right. One has to be willing to step back and look at oneself. This is not easy. Hence the entire cadre of therapists. But it's not impossible, especially as one ages.

Sometimes you notice unethical behavior in a person who has power over you, an employer, an official, a parent. The problem of power imbalance is more tenacious. Backing down from fear is much different than backing down from embarrassment. Far easier to forgive.

The photo above is from T.'s family archives. She grew up in British Colonial Africa. The picture was taken in Kenya. Colonialism is the epitome of ethical issues, complete with a terrible power imbalance. I can only imagine how I would have felt as a child in that environment, although I would not want to assume anything about T. The elephant as metaphor.

I'm talking to myself here. Diagramming for myself what I haven't always done well. Using abstract constructs to repair felt flaws. While mild shame has probably improved my taste in clothing, its more bitter cousin has left other, longer, traces.

High WASPs have historically believed that what remains unsaid means more than what gets said. This should have changed, in 2010. I don't know if all the talking that goes on night and day now, across the electronic universe, is helping with shame, and the resultant ignoring of bad guys. I hope so.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Discovering Artists: Anna Mavromatis, "Artists' Books"

When my daughter was 2 we happened to spend New Year's Eve in Rome. On the 3rd day, discussions were held about the next day's plan. My daughter, from her spot on the floor, surrounded by preschooler play with small plastic figures, piped up. "No more churches! No more museums!"

High WASPs like art. We collect it. We like museums. We drag our children to them, at very early ages. We are glad that all over this planet, and perhaps all over other worlds in other universes, people are addressing empty space.

Art galleries, however, can be intimidating. The hush as you enter. The sound of your feet clacking on wooden floors, or rubbing against carpet. The distortion of your shadow on very white lighting. We don't like to go to art galleries unless we know something, or someone. One of the best things about the Internet that things of beauty can be observed in complete absence of embarrassing social context. One shares only if one so desires.

I discovered Anna Mavromatis, I believe, when she started to read Privilege. Unless it was on Twitter. She is from Greece. She makes artists' books, among other things. I won't say much about her work, because I cannot for the life of me figure out how to talk about the visual arts without sounding like the complete pompous twit.

My stepmother, who is a photographer, and speaks at conferences about her work, put it this way. When she is asked talk, she just wants to point at her work and say, "There." So, there.

Anna blogs, too. Here. And here, where she appears to be quilting, beautifully. Maybe we will talk about other artists over time, but this seemed like a good starting place, what with the references to texts and symbols, and all. What with those last two books and how much I'd like to put them in my house.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How To Dress Like A Million Bucks. For $31 Dollars

A couple of weeks ago I made a very trendy fashion haul.

I went to Target. Someone in Target's top management is wearing smartypants and sources goods that speak to most everyone. Their tees, in my experience, are top notch, albeit with a somewhat abbreviated lifespan.

My haul cost all of $31. My family fortune, as I have said, is fading. My desire to turn myself out well, is not.


Merona gray and black striped Ultimate Tee, $13. Cowl-neck Mossimo Drapey tee, $10 (this exact version not online).

A marinière. Some 70s style. I am telling you, we wore the heck out of cowl-necks in the 70s. How else to balance the long skirts and boots? And if I want to call that a marinière, don't break my heart. It's much less baggy than it looks. Check it against the real thing here.

The third overwhelmingly fashionable item I bought was a new navy tee. For $8. What am I talking about? Jeans and a navy shirt count as minimalist, monochromatic dressing. Jeans are navy. They are.

Add pearls, and a pair of non-trivial black flats, and you're quite presentable. A triple-strand may seem a little much for an $8 tee. Impunity, my friends, impunity. And recently I've been wearing the heck out of my 80s vintage mabe pearls. Those big buttons look good for the first time in years. Mine came from my sister, but you can find others at Beladora, here.

Alternatively, gold is always a good accessory for navy.

The watch doesn't have to be a Rolex. Frankly, it'd be a better outfit were this a vintage man's timepiece of a lesser-known brand. Or a Russian ladies' watch with Soviet implications. The earrings are from Chinatown, small discs with a dragon engraved, noteworthy for the tell-tale coloration of 24K gold. Again, gold-plated would look just fine. Square, for example, but simple. The point is to enrich a blue monochromatic outfit with fairly subtle variations across the yellow spectrum - yellow-brown, red-brown, gold, bronze.

You will note signs of fraying above. The Manolos' heel and the watch strap's #1 loop are both in need of repair. This Sturdy Gal approach to classic dressing requires spending almost nothing on what you'll wear for only a season. Conversely, one spends a reasonable amount on that which should last several years, i.e. blue jeans, and invests a fair amount of time and money to maintain what's worn for decades.

I wear my shoes for 10 years, sometimes. Rubber half-soles, and heels, are our friends.

The Sturdy Gal approach also requires us to have faith. So we won't be buying Jean-Paul Gaultier's version of the marinière. It's not necessary.

Last week I walked up a hill in San Francisco, in jeans, pearls, Ferragamo Varinas, the striped tee I will persist in calling marinière, and a James Perse peacoat. A street person asked me if I designed clothes. I said no. "You dress well," he replied. I took it as a compliment, even though I knew he was angling for a donation. Which I gave. I suppose you could say I felt like a million dollars.

No compensation has been taken, yet, for any of these recommendations. However, a relationship with Beladora, vintage jewelery extraordinaire, is in the works.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Rituals In The Empty Day, Or, Saturday Morning at 11:00am

I've had a productive week. I managed to exercise, complete blogging projects, and deal with administrative and house issues that have been on my list for 6 months. Or longer.

This was not easy. You might wonder, "Why? The woman is unemployed, her children are on the other side of the country. What on earth prevents her from living every day in a blaze of checklist glory?"

Well, I find that with no absolute demands on my time, I have to create my own deadlines, my own structure, my own to-do list. And that's tiring. The effort of talking myself into doing what I have to do wears on me. It appears that I require a fair amount of talking to.

I don't think it has to be like this. I believe that one can avoid the exhaustion of self-discipline by building a routine. When you work, it's already in place. Everything outside of work makes do with the leftover space. When you have kids, you build their routine. You follow it, to save all of you from chaos. But in the absence of external requirements, you have to set up your own structure. This week I did it well. Doesn't always happen.

The best resource I have ever found to improve the process of getting things done is here. Admittedly, the idea that if you absolutely want to do something you have to make it into a habit surprised the bejeezus out of me. I thought I needed to speak to myself more strictly, or eradicate, somehow, my love for lying on the sofa. I've been trying to rise from the ashes of my lazy soul for years. No. It works much better to create a habit. Habits are the small pieces of routines.

Free form living illuminates the exercises of nuns and monks. The ringing bells. The rituals. As humans, pretty much no matter what we do there's going to be a voice in the back of your head saying, "Shouldn't you be attending to that thing? You know, that thing?" Structure and ritual, it turns out, aren't the noise. At their best, rituals and routines are the stage for thought beyond tasks.

When I was young, with two small children, what with nursing and nighttime coughing and sibling quarrels I used to wish I could run away to Portland and hide in a motel for a week. I know I've told you that before. One never forgets those days of overwhelm. When I was working and managing people and traveling to New York and presenting at conferences, I wished I had the time and space to write. But once there's nothing preventing you from doing almost anything you like, you run into yourself muttering in your own corridors.

So were I to speak to my younger self, I might say this. "Cherish your masters. Step back from obligation and feel some gratitude for the structure that requires you." Of course, I might just tell my younger self to get some more sleep, for Pete's sake, and to start a blog sooner. I mean, if I wasn't feeling all enlightened that day. Which often happens.

If you are in the stage where life demands more of your time than you think you have, I'm going to turn you over to Penelope Trunk. This is perhaps one of her best posts ever. Then I'm going to sign the engagement letter for my estate lawyer and send off a check to my web designer.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Privileges and Pitfalls of Traveling Abroad

This is a guest post by Barrie Davenport of Live Bold and Bloom.

As you may remember, a while back I wrote a post for Barrie's blog, about how to live boldly, even when you're terrified. Since that day, Barrie's blog has become a Big Deal. However, she has the good manners, even as a Big Deal, to return the favor and tell us a story. To wit, her recent trip to Marbella. If I were pitching it as a movie, I'd say Michelle Obama goes to Spain on a luxury vacation and meets the enraged friends of that flight attendant who took his job and shoved it.

Hello dear and devoted readers of Privilege.

I asked Lisa if I could write about my recent trip to Spain, and she gave the go-ahead, as long as it related in some way to "privilege." That part is easy -- it was a privilege to go, a complete and total privilege for which I am profoundly grateful. I got to leave my three hormonal teenagers, the 100 degree Atlanta heat and humidity, and a minor home construction project to travel to a coastal Spanish beach resort with a girlfriend for an entire week. That's about as good as it gets, and I know it.

But no privilege can be completely appreciated without examining the accompanying pitfalls. Anyone who has traveled abroad knows that pitfalls are inevitable. I accepted that premise going in and was frankly too over-the-top with excitement about the trip to fret about potential annoyances. I started the adventure in a very privilegy mood.

We flew out of the Atlanta airport to JFK. Things did not go well at JFK. Our flight to Spain was delayed by an hour before boarding. Once aboard, we taxied to the runway, but we had to taxi back to the gate because there was a problem with one of the doors. It shouldn't take long they said.

We sat for three hours with a plane-load of restless and drunk Spaniards and a guy from Brooklyn behind me who punctuated his F-word vocabulary with the occasional conjunction and preposition. We start to taxi again -- briefly.

Now here's the exciting part, and I don't know if this would count as privilege or pitfall because frankly, it was kind of thrilling.

As we are pulling out of the gate, a group of Spaniards start to protest. They demanded recompense for being delayed. They wouldn't sit down, they wouldn't be quiet, they wouldn't get off. The flight attendants and the captain tried to humiliate them into submission, but they weren't having any of it.

The F-word man was screaming at them to f-ing sit down and shut up. The rest of us were snapping photos. Then, five Port Authority cops board the plane. More shouting, more refusals, and finally a threat of arrest. They ultimately escort two Spanish women off the plane. Two women! Our 7:00 flight took off at midnight. I guess the real privilege part of this leg of the trip was that I had a sleeping pill.

I haven't told you where we stayed -- Marbella, Spain, a coastal town in southern Spain where vacationing Europeans and hob-nobbers hang out. Michelle Obama and her daughters were there a few weeks before us.

Part of the attraction of Marbella is Puerto Banus, a luxury marina and shopping complex for the jet-set and the super rich. The King of Saudi Arabia berths his yacht there. We decided against staying on his yacht.

Our hotel was absolutely dreamy -- a pension in Old Town Marbella called The Town House, and it was perfect. Look at this yummy room:

Here's a shot of the lovely rooftop patio where we had coffee.

Privilege was a part of every day while we were in Marbella. We slept late. We had coffee and breakfast on the rooftop patio. We either went down to the beach (where we had the privilege of keeping our tops on) to read and watch people, or we shopped in Old Town to walk and watch people. Everything around us was lovely.

Old Town could have been plucked from a storybook. It exceeds the description of quaint European village. Narrow cobblestone streets, whitewashed buildings, and an abundance of flowers. The weather stayed in the low 80's during the day, and there was no rain in Spain during our entire stay.

Lunch was at 2:00. Siesta until 8:00. Dinner somewhere around 10:00. The streets, restaurants, and shops were packed at midnight. We also had some wonderful day trips to Ronda, Ojen, and Monda -- all small Spanish villages within a couple of hours of Marbella.

We had one travel pitfall during our stay, and sadly it was my fault. We planned a day trip to Grenada to see the Alhambra. You must buy advance tickets to see the palace, and I booked us for the wrong day. We decided to go anyway to see the gardens and try to get palace tickets at the door. It was a 3 and 1/2 hour bus ride each way. We couldn't get into the palace. The grounds were beautiful, but we spent nearly 8 hours traveling for a two hour garden tour. Here's the Alhambra at night. It's beautiful, but worth a two day trip.

The next day we were scheduled to fly home. All in all it was a trip of far more privileges than pitfalls. Our beautiful hotel, the beach with the clear Mediterranean water, breathtaking Old Town, perfect weather, and fun day trips. We were sad the last day was spent mostly on a bus, but it made us appreciate the other parts of the trip even more.

We arrived at the Malaga airport at 9:00 a.m. for our 11:30 a.m. flight to JFK. We see a huge line at the one and only Delta counter. Our flight was canceled.

  1. No other flights are departing to JFK for two days.
  2. We wait three hours in line to book a 6:00 p.m. flight to Madrid.
  3. We wait in the airport for six more hours and board the plane to Madrid.
  4. We take a shuttle from the airport to a Madrid hotel and stay overnight.
  5. We take another shuttle back to the airport at dawn's crack and fly home to Atlanta. (That flight was delayed too.)

That all sounds like the crowning pitfall, and it could have been. But when you are stuck overseas, dying for your own bed, toilet and shower, nothing better highlights the privileges of your own home and family than being kept from them, even one more day than you anticipated.

Traveling is exciting, uplifting, educational, and so much fun. But when it comes to feeling really privileged, it sometimes takes a trip abroad to realize there's no place like home.

Barrie Davenport is a career and life coach and the founder of Live Bold and Bloom, a blog about fearless living. She is also the editor of The Daily Brainstorm, a blogazine.

*Note that I am a contributor and editor for The Daily Brainstorm. No compensation of any sort was involved in this post.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

4 Favorite Minimalists

Having written about stuff just this morning, in the interest of civil and fair discussion I want to present the other side. I had thought to include these links in my previous post, but did not want to be arguing directly against people I like and respect.

Here are my 4 favorite minimalists:

Metscan. A personal blog on house and clothing by a Finnish woman of impeccable taste.
A Gardener's Cottage. A personal blog on house and garden, by a vegan.
Stone Soup. 5-ingredient recipes, minimal fuss, beautiful blog design.
Mnmlist. By Leo Babauta. The godfather of this current wave, I believe.

Because I could always be wrong, and everyone has their own version of the truth.

In Defense Of Stuff

I like my stuff. In fact, I'd have to admit I love it. It's not a wild love, but it's certainly a fond one. With some wistfulness thrown in for good measure.

Right now there's a wave of minimalism sweeping the land. As a backlash against the "Buy More, Buy Now, Buy Again" excess of our recent millennium, I approve. The recession has reminded us of important principles. As a backlash against pops of color, and shoes the shapes of aardvarks, and Accessories Are Your Savior, I also approve. Monochrome is a lovely design choice.

But I do not believe there's inherent virtue in the minimal.

We're advised to get rid of all the clothes we don't wear. I need both my hands to count the pieces I have kept over the decades and I still wish I had more. We're advised to rid ourselves of old photos. I'm only now scanning in my slides from a trip to India, 28 years ago. We're told, pare down, scale back, find zen in empty.

I prefer not.

I have lived my life both in impulse and on purpose. Patterns developed anyway, despite my wandering. Sometimes I understood their shapes, sometimes I followed what I could not see. Now my stuff, such a silly word, acts like a lens. Magnifying details I might have forgotten, then obscuring the small so that patterns show large.

I'm not advocating that we all become hoarders. Clear surfaces are good. I'm defending intentional stuff, not the kind that lives in drawers and breeds misery.

Several years ago, in the divorce, I cleaned out my entire house. Every drawer. Every cupboard. Every closet. Only a few mysterious tubs in the garage remain unexplored. Who knows what's in there? Now my stuff is intentional. I kept what I loved. I kept what I needed. I put everything where I meant it to stay.

The cleanup was hard work. My best friend helped with a lot. But some I did alone.

My kids' craft supplies had always been stored in a cupboard over the washing machine. We had compounds for melting and tools for cutting and construction paper and glue guns and beads. To say nothing of glitter. As a mother of young ones I planned for creativity. We all do our best.

When I finally got around to cleaning out the laundry room, I took the Rubbermaid containers down from the cabinet. They had stiff, annoying, aqua lids. I opened them. I fingered the packs of felt pens. I felt so sad. And then I thought to myself, there is something else mixed up in my sorrow over the end of my marriage. I am sad as much because kids stop using glue guns as for any other reason. And because I had such dreams and intent to be perfect.

My children would have grown up, no matter what I did. I understood my loss more clearly through my stuff. That's worth a little clutter.

I have more. In the photo above you see a family enamel pocket watch I never carry, an inappropriate Armani tunic I bought in times of distress to wear to my son's 8th grade graduation, and a postcard from my mother. With her inimitable boarding school handwriting. Oh, and random shells in a random glass piece from beaches somewhere.

Because I am a High WASP, my souvenirs, from the French word for remember, look like antiques and haute couture and distant geographies. They aren't. They are just stuff.

In defense, then, of stuff.


Monday, September 13, 2010

How To Make A Delicious Girly Martini

Have you ever noticed how much testosterone surrounds the making of dry martinis? Why? James Bond? A man is made a man by slugging gin almost straight? Here's the High WASP way. If you like gin, just drink it. We say, "I'll have my gin now." We don't pretend to be doing anything else.

I myself love a good martini. But I like it good and wet. Girly, if you will. I spent enough years in sales to feel quite comfortable with my testosterone levels, thank you very much.

Here's the thing. Girly martinis are much better for entertaining than the Sean Connery variety. We decorate our martinis - and drink decor makes a great conversation starter. Additional vermouth means lower alcohol content, which means the conversation can, in fact, continue.

How do you make a girly martini? First, you need whimsical toothpicks. If you think this makes your martini into a Cosmo I can't help you. I got my toothpicks from our very own Muffy Martini's Etsy shop, Beachy Baubles.


Then you need olives. Anything called Santa Barbara is my friend.

I like to spear 3 and chomp them as I drink. If you think this makes your martini into dinner I can't help you.

As far as chilling, stirring, and the other martini athleticism? Keep the gin and vermouth in your fridge,

and freezer.

TO make a girly martini, pour gin into your glass. Tuxedo jacket optional. Junipero tastes like berries. And yes, OK, they're juniper, but a berry is a berry. Add some vermouth. I like at least a tablespoon. Then I wave toothpicked olives through the mixture. It's good enough. At my age I've learned to cherish good enough. It's another friend.


Estrogen-dependent perhaps, but delicious. And how cute is that little shell, peeping out of its chilled cocktail bath? I know it's only Monday. Let's say this is something to look forward to.

Me. Glass from Riedel.
Toothpicks from Beachy Baubles.
No compensation anywhere to be found.
No alcohol was consumed in the production of this post. I did eat the missing olive.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pictures Of You, Or, Saturday Morning At 10:27am

My son is back in New Jersey. My daughter and he went to the U.S. Open on Thursday night. Nadal vs. Verdasco. Had a great time.

I texted to ask where they were sitting, thinking maybe I could spy them, up high in the stands. That's the perspective of a mother, right there. Yes there's a world-renowned sporting event, yeah the world's #1 player is thwonking a little ball with a racquet, sure celebrities abound.

Just show me my kids.

As you can imagine, since they sat all the way up by the big live action screens, cameras might have scanned them, once. Not even my daughter's red hair stood out.

This is how it's supposed to be. They are too far away, in a crowd, but I know exactly what they look like. I can see my daughter's ponytail, her fair skin, her big smile. She usually tilts her head up to laugh. My son's newly broad shoulders, bent over to place his elbows on those bony knees, his blue eyes. A growing capacity for witticisms. Smooches to you both, my original punkins.

They will be glad to hear that I am fine. In all honesty, I don't need them to be here. Nor on TV. This is how it's supposed to be. The day is lovely, the birds are noisy, and I think I might go shopping.

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone. To anyone who may have lost someone on 9/11/2001, we will all be thinking of you


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How Does It Feel To Share A Family Portraitist With The Kennedys?

Back in the 60's, my mother had a portrait painted of her children. The three eldest, that is. I was 6, my sister 3, my brother 2. The painter tried several times to cover up my brother's diaper, but couldn't. The diaper stayed, my arm got tired, and my sister and now I fall about laughing about how, well, piggie she looked. She no longer looks one bit porcine, but she's captured forever as, um, piggie.

The eldest three children in the Privilege family of origin. c. 1962.

Family portraits play an storied role in High WASP families. Especially since we didn't have cameras back when. Local talent included Gilbert Stuart, 1755-1828, who painted many notable early Americans, while the Age of Innocence relied on John Singer Sargent, 1856-1925. My father believes the Privilege family portrait was modeled on this.

The Daughters of Edward Darly Boit, 1882. Who subsequently lived fairly difficult lives.

Singer, unfortunately, was not available to paint for us. However a man named Aaron Shikler was. As is often true in lives of privilege, we, wholly without intent, bumped into someone who then bumped into someone else extraordinary. Five years later, Shikler was to paint this.

Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children, 1967.

And in 1970, at Jackie's request, he painted this from a photo. Post-mortem.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1970.

Which now hangs in the White House as JFK's official portrait.

What do I think about having our family share a portrait painter with the Kennedys? The same thing I think about other things we share with them. My father went to Harvard, some years before Jack. My mom played softball at the Kennedy Cape Cod compound. It feels cool, as though some of their import rubbed off on us. Even though it didn't. Privilege sometimes lands you in the vicinity of special. You get a better view, not necessarily a place on the playing field. Oh, and apparently Teddy cheated.

Why paint a family portrait, even without Presidential connection? Beyond status or privilege or simple representation? In the era of digital photography, which has led to a proliferation of images unseen since the Russians stopped iconifying saints? Recently Materfamilias wrote very movingly about the portrait she found from her youth. The degree to which the drawing of her young face reminded her she had been more beautiful than she knew. The Privilege family painting, on the other hand, provokes not one whit of profound feeling in its subjects. We fall about laughing. I think there's a place for both reactions.

I imagine, as I write, that our parents feel something more. Portraits show intent. You "sit" for them, over several weeks at least. No wonder I complained my arm hurt. However, the intention itself is open to interpretation. All one can say for sure is, "Yes, we did that on purpose."

Oddly, my siblings and I find most meaning in Shikler's painterly habit of getting things wrong. I do not have now, and did not have then, hair like a wild animal. In this painting I always will. Portraits create distortions of reality that become part of the told history. Which is, I suppose, as good a definition of art as any.

Decades later, Mom checked to see if Shikler would paint my youngest sister too. But his services now run dear. Presidential commissions will do that to a fellow. So Mom had a lovely charcoal sketch done. Which looks just like my sister. Beautiful. It hangs in Mom's bedroom, as do piggies, diapers, and fierce hair.

Shikler himself continues to get better, as a painter. Capturing exhaustion and pre-teens pretty darn well.

Mother and Daughter, 2005

If your family fortune is intact or (thank goodness) on the increase, there could be worse ways to invest your time and money. And maybe one of your children will, in fact, become President.

Family collection
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit via PBS
Jackie and children via Artnet
JFK via The White House Historical Association
Mother and Daughter via Davis & Langdale

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Monday, September 6, 2010

5 Good-Looking Products At 5 Very Nice Prices

Let's talk about good taste.

We know it's not the same as money. Expensive tastelessness is everywhere. However, finding the inexpensive tasteful can take a little work.

Advanced tasteful in particular. First level, raise-no-eyebrows style, like a plain white toaster, gray tee, or black and white photograph of your kids is pretty easy to come by. Hard to go wrong. But advanced tasteful relies on the elusive click of good design. Something in material, the shape, the color, or all of the above, makes you suck in your breath and say, "Nice."

These nice goods, when done in a distinctly Anglo-Saxon style, are what my mother calls "good-looking." As in, "Dear, that's really good-looking." To be sure, there are other kinds of good taste than the good-looking. It's possible to have good taste in the ornate, the gothic, the punk, the hand-crafted, the mid-century. Just not for your garden variety Sturdy Gal. And, luckily for fading family fortunes, one can find the good-looking at good prices. For example, this glass pitcher and glasses from Target. $25.79.

Why is this good-looking? The pitcher's insouciant lip and rolled base, coupled with practical short-stemmed glasses. Glass. Almost anything looks better in glass. Let's not even get started on plates. From Finland, in particular.

How about these peridot earrings from Walmart? $49.

Made so by precious and semi-precious metals and stones in a classic circle, set off by dissonant color. Worn by a dark-haired brunette, with a navy dress, or white button front shirt, yes. Worn with careless pastels, perhaps less so. Good-looking low cost items often require constraints where the high-priced goods and their extraordinary materials of construction need none.

My mother would appreciate this cashmere sweater from Bluefly. $73.99. It's yellow and gray, an unusual color combination, just 'off 'enough to avoid bumblebee implications. Stripes are always a cheat sheet for "good-looking." Close to the body for shape, cabling for texture, buttons up the neckline for whimsy*. Cashmere for, well, cashmere.

What about this cropped twill motorcycle jacket from Old Navy? $39.50.

OK. Confession. My mother just might not call this good-looking. Anything James Dean wore is probably excluded. But I, a generation later, can use the term with impunity. And shall. In gray, we thumb our noses at orthodox black jackets. Without causing any sort of stir. I might wear this with a pair of Converse and dark wash jeans. And pearl studs, just to make clear I haven't forgotten myself.

Even better if the good-looking supports your values. Witness this stainless lunch carrier from To-Go Wear, $24.95, and their reusable utensils, $11.95.
All these goods share simple but harmonious proportions, authentic materials (authentic gold or authentic stainless, doesn't matter), a striking but dignified surface, texture or color, and, do not forget, useability. We're still sturdy, after all. Things should do a good job, just like people.

I've mostly avoided the words "good taste," until now. They are the unspoken creed, a muttered spell of the High WASP secret society. We meet in the ivy-covered cottage out back of the main house. Lord, ivy smells dreadful. At night. With gin. Now, gin, gin smells pretty good. Especially if you find yourself some Junipero.

We used to think we were better than everyone else. But now we know, the good-looking is only good looking. The good itself is something else altogether. And we have to remind ourselves of this every single day.

*The buttons might just take this shirt over the edge into contrived territory. We'd have to see it in person to know.

Carolina pitcher and glasses via Target
Peridot earrings via Walmart
Cullen cashmere Henley via Bluefly
Twill motorcycle jacket via Old Navy
Reusable bamboo utensils via Amazon
Stainless steel lunch carrier via Amazon

There is no monetary or compensatory association for any of these items.


Labor Day Planting In the USA

Rudbeckia, coryx, coleus, alyssum

Here's to the work ethic. And days off. Hope everyone, American or not, has had a wonderful weekend.

4th of July


Saturday, September 4, 2010

An Asked Question Is Answered, or, Saturday Morning at 8:00am

There remains one unfinished piece of business on Privilege. Several of you have asked me to talk about relationships, about marriage. And I haven't.

In fact I am divorced. I feel shame even to type those words, but it is the truth. I was married, for 20 years. Separated in 2006.

In the world of divorces it wasn't the best ever, nor was it the worst. I live in the same house, my kids are doing well, the process was managed with as little visible drama as possible. And yet to think about the moment we announced our separation to the children still makes my eyes tear, and my throat hurt.

When I was young I had planned, as one does, to stay married always. I loved my family and the home we made. When the marriage ended I felt terrible for what I could not give my children any more. I wasn't a woman scorned, not in any traditional sense, but that mitigated neither sorrow nor pain.

By now, a good deal of the initial tumult has passed. I am in a relationship, and happy. You might ask, "Why not tell us this before? Why the secrecy?" Good question. Because, once, when I talked about doing some writing, my daughter asked me what I would write about. I answered something like, "Oh, life, work, the sky, relationships." "Don't write about relationships, Mom, please," she said. So I haven't. And won't, going forward. Nor will I write about anything here other than my own feelings.

You might ask, "Why say anything at all?" Because I needed to set the record straight. Because I cringe, so, when commentors doubt my veracity. Because I have to be sure that everything I say is as true as I can make it. If I'm going to hold forth on what I'm good at, I need to complete the picture with what I wasn't very good at. Otherwise I just don't feel right.

I don't know whether there's a High WASP spin on this or not. Maybe in the level of shame, in the feeling of failure that dogs me like the Hound of the Baskervilles. Maybe that I'd even use a term from Sherlock Holmes in this context. Maybe I can just tell you that when High WASPs divorce they get new furniture at Pottery Barn, unable to summon up sufficient discernment for custom upholstery. In that situation you need someone else to make it all go together.

But my guess is that culture and class matter less here than who we have become through living in our bodies and our hearts. My days are not sad now. But I am still sad and ashamed I got divorced.

Luckily the simplest of facts is true. Life goes on.

Have a wonderful weekend.