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Dirty Dish Bouquet

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Like flowers in the Spring, the utensils of your meals bloom into a surprising array of colorful arrangements. Just think of all the stories and insights that were shared while eating off those plates.

Rather than tackling the wash-up, grab a glass of wine and admire the interplay of light, shadow, glass and chrome. You may find surprising insight in the juxtaposition of form and function.

You might also discover that it’s time to take the family out to eat. Or, perhaps, you might decide it’s time to invite these little guys over.

 

Inventory from a Drainage Pipe

Whirlpool Duet Sport Error Code ‘5d’ falls under the heading of “Jobs Tackled by Dad”.

While the kids and I ate vegetable beef soup, he got down on his hands and knees in front of the washing machine, opened the pipe and withdrew:

– 1 small rag

– 6 paper clips

– 4 hair bands

– 32 cents consisting of: 1 quarter, 1 nickel, 2 pennies – all tinted green

– Gray 3×2 Lego piece

– 1 sock

– pebbles (rock variety, not Flintstones)

– 1 bungee cord

– 2 gallons of foul-smelling gray water

 

Somewhere in the last four and a half months of laundry, these items slipped from our lives without notice. But, they wouldn’t be forgotten forever, as is the case with many things we casually stuff in pockets. They demanded someone kneel before their minuscule power to jam up the works (even though that someone just got home from an incredibly long day of unblocking the pipes that carry blood through people’s bodies).

When he finally made it to the dinner table, we all agreed that Dad is awesome and that we haven’t told him that near often enough. He looked at his bowl, not so appetizing after what he just witnessed.

The kids and I agreed that Dad shouldn’t have to do laundry for a while.

Making Dad Feel Better falls under the heading of “Jobs Tackled by the Rest of the Family”.

 

Rembrandt’s Selfie: A Humblebrag Portrait

Portraits used to be a mark of class. You could only get an artist to paint your likeness if you had enough money or social stature.

These days, though, it’s no problem. You just grab your phone and snap a “selfie”.

03-25-13 Megan Selfie

But, the “selfie” has a lot of haters. People point to them as examples of our runaway narcissism.

And yet, the self-portrait is a pillar of fine art. So, what’s the difference between a self-indulgent “selfie” and a self-portrait worthy of generations?

I turned to Gary Faigin with that question. He’s an artist, an art critic and co-founder of Seattle’s Gage Academy of Art.

He pointed me in the direction of this self-portrait from Rembrandt, created just four years before his death, around 1665.

Rembrandt Self Portrait

 

Gary notes that in this portrait Rembrandt paints himself as “artist in the studio”. He wears simple clothes, carries his palette and brushes, and sits in front of a wall with two simple circles painted on it.

When Rembrandt painted this he was out of fashion, bankrupt, and watching his students rise above him in wealth and social stature; students like the fellow below, Ferdinand Bol.

BolSelfPortraitRijksmuseumAmsterdam

 

Bol learned his craft from Rembrandt, even teaching the style to students of his own. When he painted this, Bol was more financially successful and socially well-regarded than Rembrandt, and he painted himself like that. Sumptuous fabrics, a pricey statue and a Roman column were the trappings that Bol chose for his self-portrait, portraying himself as “successful man”.

Gary says that Portraiture was big business during the Dutch Golden Age. In an era before advertising and social media, portraits were branding. The wealthy class commissioned portraits to show the world how successful they were.

Hals_PieterVanDenBroecke

 

Rembrandt’s contemporary, Frans Hals, painted this portrait of Dutch merchant Pieter van den Broecke. This guy comes across as friendly, and he was in fact a close pal of the artist. But, Gary did research and found that van den Broecke wrangled a nutmeg monopoly for the Dutch in the Banda Islands, killing and enslaving natives. The portrait captured the image van den Broecke wanted, not reality.

So, what message does Rembrandt’s portrait convey? Gary Faigin believes the secret message is in those simple circles.

Like many other art historians, Gary thinks the two circles are a reference to another great painter, Giotto. The Italian painter of the Middle Ages was said to have been able to draw a circle, perfectly, free-hand. By putting those two, simple circles so large behind his head, Gary says that Rembrandt thumbed his nose at the fleeting fashion of the Dutch art scene. Rather than portraying himself as rich or successful, Rembrandt painted himself, quite simply, as a Master. He connected his image to one of the greatest artists of all time, branding himself as bigger and more enduring than his era.

Now, very few of us intend to set our image as Great Masters of Art, but Gary Faigin says there is something we can learn from the way Rembrandt crafted his own “selfie”. It’s something Gary thinks about when he paints his own self-portraits.

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Portraits should do more than just show what you look like, whether you’re fat or thin or beautiful. In fact, portraiture as art has very little to do with what a person looks like. The test of a portrait is what someone will be able to connect with one hundred years from now. It should reveal something about the life of a particular person in a particular place at a particular time.

So, the next time you snap a “selfie” for your profile pic, ask yourself, what am I really saying with this picture?

Megan in the Studio

 

RELATED EVENT:

Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles, and other portraits from The Kenwood House, London, are on display at the Seattle Art Museum through May 19, 2013.

Enjoy the “Art History Lovers” edit of my Interview with Gary Faigin, jam-packed with stories, here:


The Big!Lotsowski

The Megan Abides

 

A few days ago I found myself in Big Lots. And as I walked through the aisles of off-brand merchandise, dented cleaning supplies, As Seen on TV products and almost-expired candy, this song played on the store sound system.

I was only there because I needed some plastic storage bins, but I felt like I had stumbled upon the rock bottom of my life. Surrounded by towering shelves of outdated and overstocked product, I heard the Eagles warn me:

“They will never forget you ’til somebody new comes along”

The closeout merchandise was no longer an unbeatable deal, it was my doppelganger. How could I fool myself into thinking I was an in-demand career woman if I was shopping for low, low priced containers in the middle of a weekday? The most important conversation I had that morning was a debate about the relative merits of grilled and toasted cheese sandwiches with a four-year old.

My husband and I switched roles several months ago. For five years he was the primary parent, working ten hours a week. I was main wage-maker and worked full-time. Now, he’s working fifty hours a week and I’m starting my own consulting business, taking on the bulk of the homemaker duties. It’s a gift that we can make the family float with the arrangement. We’re immensely grateful to have this flexibility. But, I’ve got whiplash from the lifestyle change.

Rather than hustling to meet a daily broadcast deadline like I’d been doing for twelve years, my main task for the day was the reason I had to go get the organizing bins: cleaning up the kids’ room. It’s a job that’s vexed my husband and me for years. One time it drove us to make a music video about it. Typically, we’d split the duty. But, when he was the at-home dad, I didn’t have to help out quite as intensely. I was usually at work when the mess reached crisis proportions (the only time we get motivated enough to handle it).

This day, though, it was just me. I hadn’t tried to do more than cycle the laundry through the room in the past six months. I put the cleaning off and rationalized I was teaching the kids a lesson. I bribed the kids to do it themselves. I yelled myself hoarse to get them to handle it. I knew they probably needed some supervision and guidance, but I just didn’t want to walk in and have to deal with the chaos.

I didn’t want to do it because doing it means that I’m not more important than the job.  I have the time – and really, no excuse – to raise the sanitation grade of the place where my babies sleep. But, eight hours re-ordering a child’s universe is twenty-eight thousand, eight hundred seconds of awareness that I am no longer spending all my days going to a mentally challenging job with intelligent adults and exciting stories to tell.

So, with begrudging assistance from the children, I tackled the mountains of action figures, Legos, baby doll clothes and teeny-tiny house furniture. I had no spoonful of sugar for sorting broken crayons from Hot Wheels.

I threw the Nanobots in a bin with the Transformers and launched into a long-winded diatribe about consumerism and over-consumption, lecturing about making-do and the need to embrace simplicity. When a teetering box of trains fell on my foot, I threatened to put all the toys into the trash can and leave the kids with only two wooden blocks and a sock puppet. And that’s when my eight year-old son said, “Well, then you’re just making more pollution.”

Kids can be so annoying when they make a good point.

Since hearing that Eagles tune, I’d been despondent, feeling like I was walking through every moment burdened by obligation. I totally forgot why I decided to brave the despair of Big Lots for stackable boxes.

I didn’t go to Big Lots because I didn’t have any other choice, because I was out of other options, because I thought I wasn’t worth more than closeout. In fact, I had gone to Big Lots for the storage bins because it was a compromise between my desire to make it fun for the kids to play in their room again and my desire to be as earth-friendly as possible.

I know I could have scavenged wood pallets and built a miniature barn for their all-organic toys, but instead I decided that I’d delay throwing away all their plastic crap by putting it neatly into other plastic crap that was only one step from the landfill anyway. I reasoned that by shopping closeout I wouldn’t be contributing to the demand for new stuff, I’d just be scavenging the almost-garbage… to hold other pieces of almost-garbage. And, I felt certain my new system would make it easier to clean, giving me more time to do the work I’d rather be doing.

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but life isn’t about perfection.

And then, this song came on Pandora radio:

 

Suddenly, I thought of The Dude. His thrift-store sweater, his beleaguered car and his trips to Ralph’s. Sure, he was between jobs, but it didn’t make him a loser. At least, not in his eyes. If The Dude had time on his hands, he used it to help his friends, take in some of the local art scene or work on his bowling. And he had no problem doing tai chi on a cheap rug, possibly from a closeout box store, so long as it wasn’t soiled.

If I learned anything from The Big Lebowski, it’s that money, status, what-have-you, they’re not reliable markers of a person’s true nature. You are who you are, not what you do for a living or what other people think of you. That’s how the Dude abides.

I looked around at the paper airplanes and candy wrappers and comic books and realized I wasn’t having an identity crisis. I just had a soundtrack crisis.

The Eagles’ “New Kid in Town” suggests that life is, at best, a brief moment in the spotlight and then a bitter exile where you’re forced to watch the next lucky stiff get his ya-ya’s with your dream. Creedence, on the other hand, paints a picture in “Green River” of the joyful simplicity that is taking a break from the rat race and going home. It’s really a matter of how you choose to see the situation, good or bad.

I may find myself in Big Lots again. I may get that “Big Lots” feeling again. But next time I know I just need to change my tune.

And just in case Big Lots reads this post, you could probably attract far more customers if you took a note from “The Big Lebowski”.

The Dragon Tamers

Megan v. Dragon

 

We remodeled our basement into an art studio a few years back, digging down under our 1922 townhouse to get a higher ceiling. We were shocked to find huge, twisting, tunnel-like holes in the dirt once we cracked the thin concrete floor. They looked like a human sized mole had been making its home there. My first thought was, “The sandworms from Dune!”

In fact, the holes were voids left from trees that had been used to help level the building site. Over time, the trees rotted away, leaving spaces that conveniently filled with water during the winter. One of the holes sat under our chimney, only the edges of the brick were on solid ground. If we hadn’t dug down, we might have lost the chimney in a small earthquake.

The contractor poured dirt into the holes and we put down a huge slab of concrete. We thought the matter was settled, crisis averted. But seven years later, we can see small depressions around the basement floor where it appears the fill job is failing. If we rap on the concrete floor we can hear the echo of the empty void underneath. Those spaces want to stay open. Initially we had been relieved there were no bodies, but now we suspect we have a nasty infestation of hell mouths.

When I found this 1899 story from the godmother of fantasy, Edith Nesbit, I took comfort. In “The Dragon Tamers”, a young family, hard on their luck, discovers a fearsome beast in the dungeon of the castle ruins where they make a home. What begins as a threat to their lives becomes the secret to their happiness and prosperity.

I hold out a little hope that we may be so fortunate with the sink holes in our life.


Sliced Chartery

I’m always a bit surprised that blood doesn’t gush out when I cut into red chard.

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Eating greens was a rite of passage for me. As a little kid, the pile of dark mush looked like something my grandmother pulled back out of the garbage can. I watched her eat fried fish tails and suck the marrow out of chicken bones, so I assumed that greens fell into the category of “things you learn to eat on a farm”. When she offered me a serving, I’d crinkle my nose and shake my head. I didn’t know how anyone would willingly subject themselves to that.

But then, around the age of 8, my grandmother suggested I try the collard greens with a little drizzle of vinegar. She had already won me over to okra by frying it and gave squash the heavy butter treatment so that I fell in love with it, too. But, there was nothing so glamorous to disguise the true nature of greens. Bitter, sour, dark, chewy, and wholly nutritious, you had to accept greens for what they really were:  pure vitamin delivery vehicles. If I could appreciate the flavor and experience of eating them, I knew I would no longer be a little kid. I would be strong like my grandmother.

After that first, timid taste, I finally understood how to eat cooked leaf. At the K&W cafeteria, I began to order a dish of greens every time. Drizzle the vinegar, sprinkle the salt and eat them with a bite of cornbread. My grandmother told me turnip greens would be sweeter, mustard greens spicier. I gave them a shot and I’ve been eating greens ever since.

But, I never tried chard until I moved to the Pacific Northwest. What a revelation. All the weight and chew of collards, but with a sweetness that I never tasted in greens before. And, the colors! When I cooked up a mess of chard, they glistened in a pool of bright red liquor. The hardy greens of my Southern childhood were full of strength and practicality, but chard had a little sexiness. Their leaves weren’t content to be pure green, scarlet ribs and vessels showed exactly where the life flowed.

I now make greens several times a week, rotating through kale, collards, turnip, mustard and chard. Washing, trimming and slicing the greens still often feels like a chore, a long process that can’t be avoided. However, I treasure the butchering of chard. I am keenly aware that the leaves I cut were once alive. And as I separate the tender leaf from the rib, I half expect to see that life come spilling out all over the counter. It doesn’t, of course. Instead, it spills into me.

 

BRAISED CHARD

serves 4 a side dish… or 1 hungry mom

1 Bunch Chard

3 cloves garlic

Olive Oil

0.5 tsp Salt

0.5 tsp Sugar

+ Put a cast iron skillet on the stove, pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat onto medium low.

+ Mince each of the garlic cloves in a press. (I used to chop the garlic, but I found the garlic press minced the garlic in a way that gave me even more garlic flavor. It’s a pain to clean the press, but I think it’s worth it.)

+ Put the garlic into the warm oil. Keep an eye on the skillet, you don’t want the garlic to brown, you just want it to flavor the oil in the pan.

+ While the garlic steeps, slice the chard. I first slice the ribs out of the center of each leaf. Then I stack the trimmed leaves on top of each other and slice them into thin ribbons.

+ Wash the sliced leaves THOROUGHLY. This is another step that feels like a chore. Isn’t one washing enough? Not when you get gritty sand in a bite later. So, I use my salad spinner and rinse the greens three times. (I don’t dry the leaves, though, just drain them. The water clinging to the leaves is what will be the braising liquid.)

+ Turn the skillet up to medium heat. When the garlic just begins to sizzle in the oil, put the wet, sliced chard into the pan. (I love the popping and crackling sound when I do that.)

+ Saute the greens until they wilt. Sprinkle the greens with the salt and sugar.

+ Let the greens cook gently for 5-10 minutes. (It just depends on how big your bunch was and how wide your pan is.) Because there is so little water, but a nice amount of oil, the greens will cook down, the water will evaporate and then the green will begin to sizzle again, getting a little crisp at the edges as they almost fry at the end of the cooking time. The little bit of sugar will give the greens a shiny glaze.

 

I love the mix of soft and crisp texture and I always give myself the biggest serving. My children eat them out of bravery right now, but once they figure out the joy of greens, I won’t be able to hog them all anymore. Of course, I’ll be happy to share. After all, blood is thicker than chard.