29 November 2006

Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving Redux

Jerry and I have spent every Thanksgiving for decades -- in his case, 30-some years, predating our getting together -- with good friends in Arcata, in Humboldt county in Northern California. He met these folks when they were back-fence neighbors in Berkeley; their daughter Heidi was three at the time. She's now 40-something, married, with teenagers. Victor died, tragically, off the coast of Kauai, a couple of years ago. He drowned while trying to rescue his grandchildren from a rip current; they rode it safely back to shore, but Victor never made it. His wife, Sondra, is now matriarch of the clan.

Last year, the entire Arcata contingent -- Sondra, Heidi and her husband Jon, and their kids Sadie Rose and Elliot -- drove to Portland to spend the holiday with us. My brother Larry and nephew Josh, plus my mother and sister Karen, were here as well. This year it was our turn to make the trip south. We invested in a set of traction tires in case we encountered snow in the mountain passes. We lucked out on that score, but man, did it rain! With the exception of the half-hour we stopped for lunch, it poured nonstop, and torrentially, the entire way. At one point, on 199 beyond Grant's Pass, it was like going through a carwash. I've never seen it rain so relentlessly.

But it was wonderful to see our old friends again, and to spend some time with Larry, Josh (who just turned 12 and is a total computer geek), and Larry's girlfriend Kate. We stayed in a very nice suite, furnished in Ikea, overlooking the incredibly entertaining goings-on in Arcata Plaza. Larry & Co. had a two-bedroom unit next door, with an artsy Oriental vibe to it, and an even better view of the Plaza circus. The five of us got in a couple of good long walks through Arcata Marsh, a combined municipal wastewater treatment site and bird sanctuary that our friend Victor had helped make happen when he was mayor.

Heidi prepared soup and salad for the multitudes on Wednesday night. Friends of Sondra's had offered to host Thanksgiving dinner itself, since they had room to spare. Friday evening was leftovers, of course, which Sondra orchestrated and we visitors hosted in our palatial digs at the Plaza. By 6:15 Saturday morning, Jer and I were on the road again, fortified with turkey sandwiches for en route. The weather gods smiled on us this time; it was dry the whole way, and the drive was as glorious as an 8-hour car trip can be.

The only trouble with "away" years is that we get hardly any leftovers. So, after we got home, I decided to brine a turkey -- which I've wanted to try, but last year was just too intense, what with family and other distractions -- and invite a couple of friends for Thanksgiving Redux on Monday night. I made mushroom-leek dressing to go with it, Jer cooked sweet potatoes and green beans, and we had leftover cranberry relish (the horseradish and sour cream variation that Susan Stamberg used to give out on NPR). I also made an apple cake, which we served a la mode. The gravy turned out perfectly, and the brining really did make a difference in the moistness and flavor of the turkey. It's not that big a deal; you just have to think of it the day before.

So now we have about three gallons of turkey stock in the freezer, and enough light and dark meat for a couple of the stew/ragout/soup recipes I've been looking forward to cooking, or having Chef Jerub cook. Now it feels like we've well and truly done Thanksgiving.

15 November 2006

Ashes, ashes...

When was the last time you attended a funeral? Now it's all about "celebrations of life." Years ago I predicted -- I was not alone in this -- that the boomer generation would redefine a lot of the rituals around death. One of my particular fantasies was a locket containing some of your loved one's ashes that you'd wear around your neck, or a vial that you'd carry in your pocket along with your keys and loose change. This has not yet, to my knowledge, caught on.

Before you read any further, be warned that I get kind of giddy around grief. My remarks at my mom's memorial -- she died at the end of June -- consisted mostly of funny family stories. I'm also inclined to attach not much importance to physical remains. Treat them with respect, of course; other than that, do with them what you will. Cremation, the default among my people, is appealing in part because it gives you options. You can enshrine your loved one's ashes in a tasteful urn on your mantelpiece, or scatter them in the dear departed's favorite spot, or dig them in around your roses, which my mother would have loved. You can do all those things and more. Ashes are fungible.

My father died in 1984. He, too, had been cremated. Mom kept his ashes, all these years, in a box on a closet shelf. After she died, my brother and I agreed that their ashes should be mingled; they loved each other so much, and she missed him terribly until the end of her own life. The urns in which the respective funeral parlors (now there's an obsolescent term) had returned their remains were hardly a matched pair.

This morning I found some time and a quiet place in my mind, and decided to do the mingling. Another warning would probably be appropriate at this point: When the circumstances get strange, I tend to get analytical.

So. On the bottom of Dad's urn -- a heavy, marble-esque rectangle -- was a small brass hatch that unscrewed easily by hand. Voila -- Dad's remains, in sudden, rather startling, proximity. I put a stainless steel bowl on the kitchen scale and turned it on to get a zero reading. Then I carefully shook the contents of the urn into the bowl. A small cloud of fine dust wafted over the proceedings. I then did the same for Mom. Her urn was a cherrywood box with a sliding panel held in place by a Phillips-head screw. Inside was a plastic bag sealed with a cable tie. Dad weighed 5 pounds, 6-1/4 ounces, Mom 4 pounds, 4-3/4 ounces. That seemed about right, I thought, for no particular reason. Mom's ashes were several shades darker than Dad's; I can think of a couple of possible explanations for that, but I wonder whether either of them is right.

Then to the mingling, which I did by hand. The color differential made it easy to tell when the two were thoroughly combined. It did feel like kitchen prep, I must say; "mix until well-blended" ran through my mind like a mantra, though I didn't invite it to stay.

I'd participated in a couple of ceremonial scatterings over the years, and knew better than to expect containers full of homogeneous, fine ash. Still, the amount of identifiable bone matter was a little startling. I looked at some of the larger bits as they passed through my fingers -- a fragment of a rib or a finger bone, a flat piece of what surely must have been skull. I also found two pieces of wire, each twisted into a ring, and two tags, each with an identifying number. The proverbial toe tags, or wherever they put them, I assume.

When I finally washed my hands, they felt oily. It felt odd to stand at my kitchen sink, washing traces of my parents off my fingers.

I'd initially weighed the contents of both urns because I was curious: What would an adult human body weighing, say, 120 to 180 pounds, be reduced to after... you know. But I realized when it came to dividing up the ashes -- half for Larry, half for me, to do with as we choose -- that weighing was the way to go. Doing it by volume, with measuring cups, struck me as just too bizarre. So I weighed 4 lbs. 14 oz. back into one urn, and the same into the other. I looked for a zip-lock bag to go into the box that had been Mom's, since it was less impermeable than the other container. I made sure to pick one that didn't still have a label for its previous contents. Mom would have approved of my recycling.

This was a small private ritual that, from the time my mother died, I knew I wanted to do and felt hugely compelled to carry out. Despite the mundane surroundings and unconsecrated utensils, I was mindful every step of the way, and did what I've described with as much respect for my parents' ashes as I had for them when they were alive. Which was, needless to say, a lot.

Rest in peace, Vic and Hertha.

11 November 2006

A Champagne Kind of Week

It's been a week for cozying in. Abbie has the right idea.

Last Saturday, though, began with a backstage tour of Portland's magnificent Central Library. After that, I hooked up with Jer at the Art Museum for a preview of the new Egyptian antiquities exhibit, the Quest for Immortality. Sounds cheesy, but it's very well done, with some exquisite pieces and, at the end, a full-size replica of a pharoah's tomb.

Sunday, our friends Jen and Drew -- in town for parents' weekend at Reed, where Jen's daughter Laura is a freshperson -- came for brunch and stayed through the afternoon, poaching our wi-fi, even unto dinner and beyond.

***Too Much Information alert*** Monday I had an invasively productive (productively invasive? That works, too) doctor's appointment involving a steroid injection in my wrist (yes, it hurt) to relieve the carpal tunnel-related pain in my thumb. Preliminarily, I'd say that the localized, motion-related pain is mostly gone, but the seemingly-random macro pain (like, up my arm when I tilt my hand a certain way) has increased. That might be a function of the injection itself, who knows. But that's not all! I also had the doc look at the three big moles on my back (thank you, teenage sunbathing), reassure me that they weren't cancerous, and freeze 'em with nitrogen. I expected them to shrivel up and fall off, just like that, but it hasn't happened yet, though they do look a little...disturbed. I'll be sure to keep you posted.

So. Tuesday the Democrats took back the House. And apparently the Senate.

Wednesday we made sure about the Senate.

Thursday evening we drank champagne with our good friends Libbi and David, who came for dinner (chicken-mushroom ragout and nearly-incinerated-on-purpose brussels sprouts, the latter recipe from Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires).

Friday, I finally got back into working on my commission piece, a landscape quilt, layering it in preparation for actual quilting. No pix til it's finished and delivered to the client, which will be weeks from now. I'm happy with how it's gone so far.

Friday was moving day for Carol, whom we know from The WELL. She recently bought a house on 31st just north of Powell. We brought champagne (again; it's been that kind of week) and snacks, did the house tour, toasted close of escrow and the Democratic victory, and then went in search of dinner. Lauro Kitchen forecast an hour's wait, so we ended up a few blocks away at the Savoy, a friendly place with a reasonably-priced and tasty menu. That stretch of Clinton, where the road takes a little jog, felt so much like a provincial square someplace in Europe. Dinner was okay, but the neighborhood atmosphere was delightful.

That brings us to this afternoon. After a modest bout of quilting and another Sisyphusian struggle in the backyard, armed only with leafblower and rake, I headed out with Jer to a Move-On victory party in Carol's general 'hood. As we left our house, a brilliant rainbow arc-ed over Rural Street to the east; a propitious omen. At our destination, we opened another bottle of champagne, our third this week, and toasted the return of the light in the USA. Here's hopin', anyway.

06 November 2006

Working in Series

At a friend's house in San Francisco two or three years ago, I was taken with a calligraphic brush print called Midori, by the Japanese artist Toko Shinoda. I couldn't get the central image out of my mind. Inspired by Shinoda's work, I made one wall quilt, then another. For the background, I used linen bias tape from a stash my friend Giselle Shepatin, an incredible fashion designer, gave me several years ago. I wove the tape and stitched it down so the background resembled a field of puffy mini-ravioli. Then, using mostly hand-dyed fabrics, I cut, fused and appliqued the main figure and the smaller leafy shapes. For the central motif on the second piece, I used teal silk from a jacket lining my friend Francine gave me several years ago. (She doesn't sew, but she knew I'd be able to use it someday.) Here and there I added interest with overlays of organza or netting that I'd tinted with acrylic paint. I think of the two as negative images, kinda sorta; clearly they're a pair.

But I still hadn't gotten Shinoda's composition out of my system; I could picture, vividly, several more variations that I wanted to try. The third, to my mind, turned out to be the least successful of the series. In fact, I've just taken it down from our front door, where it served as a Hallowe'en decoration (note pumpkin-esque shapes on the background fabric). Oh well.

Finally, I used Japanese and Japanese-style fabrics, including some that I'd overdyed with indigo, plus my own hand-dyes. I developed this piece during an art quilt independent study with Jeannette Meyer at the Oregon College of Arts of Crafts. In my humble opinion, it's the best of the lot.

I have one more variation in mind. For whatever reason -- I do not have weddings-on-the-brain -- I'm picturing it as a "bridal" piece, in white/cream with touches of gold, some lace, and lots more embellishment than any of the others. I'm also thinking of it as a much smaller work; the others are all roughly 18" by 24", give or take. This concept, though, might just represent the artistic impulse playing its way out into rococo decadence, decay, and the death of civilization. Maybe I should quit while I'm ahead.

Meanwhile, the initial (dark woven background) piece in the series sold during the first week of the Pacific Piecemakers Quilt Guild 2oo5 Challenge show. Its close companion won a 3rd place ribbon in the Innovative division of the Northwest Quilters 2006 show. The pumpkin hanging, as I mentioned, graces my front door in October. And the last in the series (so far?) was juried in to OCAC's spring '06 student show and exhibited at the Hoffman Gallery on campus. That was a pretty big thrill.