Loving Kindness

As we wrestle with massive incivility in the American public sphere and greater racial tension than in several decades, today I experienced a microcosm of the issues enmeshed in this current.  And it was helpful.

In my Kabbalah class, we talked about the Tree of Life.  The Tree has always been my deepest connection to Judaism, and each revisit, I learn something new or hear just what I need in that moment.  Today, I felt the cord between Chesed, loving kindness, and Givurah, the judgement and balance needed to most effectively apply our hearts.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

We talked about our speech, the importance of what we say, and avoiding ‘bad speech’.  Words are the expressions of spirit ( as in, from God came the word), so our speech is holy.  You know that experience of speaking joyfully and how you then become filled with joy.  How different that feels from whining (all words used with intention).  Do what you say you’re going to do, and you will be filled with the deep satisfaction of integrity.

I left class feeling calm, recommitted to kindness, and ready for my encounter with Anna Deveare Smith and her new one-woman show “Notes from the Field.”  Long an admirer of how she makes political and sociological points by giving voice to everyday people, I was interested in how she would bring her reenactments of interviews to the raw topic of racism by the police, our schools, and the justice system.

Image result for anna deavere smith notes from the field

When the show started, I grew impatient with the retreads of recent events, the inevitable pain and outrage focused mostly on Freddy Gray.  Take me somewhere new.  I expect this is Smith.

But, I realized, this inhumanity to humans is not new.  Smith’s responsibility is not to say something new, but to be a voice for those not usually heard.  I heard the school principal’s shock when a young man said prison wasn’t so bad because he had enough to eat and could play basketball.  She vowed to stop the school police from arresting students.  Make them stay in school.  Break the pattern.

Image result for anna deavere smith notes from the field

I started to hear hope in the possibility of words and actions.  Not be victimized into inaction by incivility of wannabe leaders or cruelty from other forms of institutionalized power.  By Act 2, I resonated with the small uplifts–the prisoner who trains service dogs for the disabled, the teacher who focuses on changing one life, John Lewis who forgave the man who beat him in 1961, now calling him brother.  I spent much of the second act in tears.

We live in a very tough world, and I don’t want to be victimized by it with a continual onslaught of pain.  I don’t want to turn into teflon either.  The Kabbalah suggests a balance—to use good judgement and hold each encounter with loving kindness.  It sounds so simple, but for me, it is the work of a lifetime.

Raising and Releasing Monarchs

2016-08-13 10.08.15It’s the Monarch butterflies that love this hot weather.  They can only do their thing when it’s 60 degrees or higher.  Today’s temp was certainly lots higher when Nancy at Natureworks told us about their concerted effort to help replenish the declining Monarch population–over 50% in the past 40 years.

As of 2015, Nancy and Natureworks released 100 Monarchs, with 30 more being nurtured now.  Only 1 in 100 eggs becomes a butterfly, so for a typical female that lays 300-500 eggs in her 2-5 week life, that 3-5 offspring.  But with a care program like Natureworks’, those odds are wonderfully improved.

Why is it so tough for an egg to make it?

Everything has to be just right, and that means, everything.  Presence of habitat, nourishment, evading predators.  So many potential complications.  Those eggs can sure use some TLC.  Natureworks cultivates the desired diet – milkweed – and introduces ladybugs to eat the aphids, one of those predators that loves the Monarch eggs.

Nancy points out a Monarch egg

Nancy points out a Monarch egg

Can you see it?

Can you see it?

Monarch eggs are teensy, and egg hunting is no small task.  Once found, the eggs are brought inside and placed in hatching boxes.

2016-08-13 09.42.28








The Monarch’s work is just getting started.

It takes a week for a caterpillar to grow to the size of a sunflower seed.  It eats its shell for protein and then molts four times, consuming the shed skin.  The caterpillars will eat Monarch eggs, too–a species-imposed impediment.

Then it’s time to grow, and as Nancy puts it, “poop.”  The hatching boxes have to be cleaned twice a day, which involves removing the caterpillars, not losing any, cleaning the waste, and replacing the carefully counted caterpillars.  It takes about an hour each time.  No more complaints about litter boxes!

2016-08-13 09.48.02

The caterpillar “unzips its skin” to turn into a chrysalis.  Then Natureworks dangles each chrysalis from a silk threat clasped by a tiny clothes pin.  You can see the stages, as Nancy points out the hanging J that becomes a chrysalis.

In 7 to 14 days, the caterpillar will “liquefy as it re-forms itself as a butterfly,” Nancy told us in genuine wonder.  When it emerges, the Monarch’s wings are wet, and it has to hang, like dripping laundry on the line, for 4 hours to dry.

Males have spotted wings

Males have spotted wings


Then they need to eat.  Voracious, these Monarchs.  Those white blobs are cotton balls saturated in hummingbird nectar, so that the Monarchs have a meal ready.  They love their nectar plants – daisies, phlox, ironweed, Astoria, goldenrod, and of course, the butterfly bush.

Natureworks releases the butterflies on their second day.  Below, a Natureworks staffer brings the day-olders to the nectar garden, so they can immediately “start tanking up.”  It’s like a “health food store,” Nancy explained.

2016-08-13 10.08.40

See, the butterflies born in late August into the early fall have a very different journey.  Unlike their short-lived parentage, the Monarchs are flying some 50 miles a day to get to a very particular 10,000′ mountain and 60-square-mile forest in Mexico, arriving November 1. Imagine having that kind of built-in radar.

Now their migration can be tracked through an innovative tagging program, and their arrival is celebrated in the nearby town.  Locals believe the butterflies represent the “souls of the departed,” and their arrival is celebrated as a Day of the Dead.  Traditionally, the butterflies are released in honor of someone who has died.

On the return journey through Texas and the Midwest, marked by laying eggs in milkweed, this 4th generation will die out.  A new generation takes over, branching out to different home spots, including Connecticut.  You can track their migration on Journey North.

But first, we have work to do.  It’s time to release those butterflies born yesterday.  One by one, the Monarchs are taken from their protective home…

One by one, the Monarchs are taken from their protective home...

…and off they fly.

2016-08-13 10.09.32

Released, the Monarchs head right into the nectar garden…

2016-08-13 10.10.11

…and start their miraculous journey…

2016-08-13 10.10.14

Kudos Natureworks for your astonishing Raise and Release program!


Preserving Memory

I love a good story and a great storyteller.  This week, I had two encounters worth noting.

Tammy Denease knew her great-grandmother who was enslaved and lived to be 125.  Wow!  Mississippi, her home state, is a place that only recently actually outlawed slavery, and Tammy knew the mindset of slaves first hand.

Now in Connecticut, she tells the stories of incredible women from history, preserving the memory of their humanity, as well as who they were and what they accomplished.  At the New Haven Museum, she performed the story of “Sara Margu: Child of the Amistad.”  And what a story it is!.


Sara Margu was one of four children captured and put on the Amistad, which ironically means friendship in Spanish.  The ship was a slave vessel.  Sara’s name in her native Mendeland (now Sierre Leone) was Margu.

The Amistad story is probably more familiar now due to the Stephen Spielberg movie.  It tells of the remarkable case of a slave revolt in 1839, with the captured people taking over the ship.  Although they wanted to return to Africa, they couldn’t make that happen. The boat was captured in Long Island Sound by a US ship, and everyone on board was brought to shore in Connecticut.

The people declared themselves free, and the remaining crew and Spain labeled them property.  In an internationally famous case, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Mende people, declaring them free, becoming a major marker for abolition.

What Denease does so well is skirt the famous portions of the story for the personal, the human.  She preserves the experience of Sara Margu by telling her very particular story–the horrors of the slave ship from a child’s perspective and her healing through education.

Sara Margu worked off debts her father accrued in Mende and was taken when she was already separated from her family.  She tells how the horrors didn’t really stop when the captives arrived in Connecticut.  Many were housed in New Haven, while figuring out next steps.  She describes that people paid 25 cents to look at the Africans, as locals had never seen or heard anyone like them before.

She also recounted how Josiah Gibb wanted to help and cleverly learned how to say the numbers 1-10 in Mende, then walked through black communities saying the numbers out loud until he found someone who understood what he was saying.  That man then became the translator for the interactions in New Haven.

Sara Marrgu was moved to Farmington where she lived with a family who had a deaf son and a kind woman named Sara (where she took that portion of her  name).  She communicated naturally with the son and began to learn English.

With the trial, she understood that the central issue was, “Am I a person or am I property.”  It was election year, and President Martin Van Buren said, property.  The Queen of Spain said, property.  But the US Supreme Court disagreed by a remarkable 6-1.

The Mende people could go home, but they had no money or sailing skills to get them there.  So they did the American thing and went on a speaking tour, telling of their “adventure” on the Amistad.  Sara Margu also singly demonstrated that Africans were intelligent by reading from the Book of Psalms.  Sigh.

But however demeaning, the tour was a success.  Sara Margu and the others raised enough to return home, and although they were not allowed to eat with white members on board, the travel was much more comfortable.  The missionaries who accompanied the Mende hoped they would help the whites start a school and convert the Mende.  One responded by ripping off his clothes upon return to show his tribal markings.  But Sara Margu helped as she could.

The missiona2016-03-10 18.14.42ries then paid for her to return to the US, to study at Oberlin, a college that accepted blacks.  Sara Margu was 14 years old.  It was 1844.  Although it wasn’t all peaches and cream, despite the liberal stance, she did learn and became the first black to graduate.

She returned to Africa and felt the outsiderness of not fitting in anywhere easily.  Still, she worked in the school, embracing Christianity along with her Muslim upbringing.  She married and had a child.  Not everyone who survived the Amistad to return had such a good life, and Denease relayed those stories, too.

For her, the world of the Amistad is more than a powerful legal case.  And one thing I really loved is that she doesn’t ever tell about the death of her historical figures.  Sara Margu can live on in our minds and hearts.

Carol Highsmith sees her work as preserving memory, too.  2016-03-09 18.23.41She has collaborated with the Library of Congress for 35 years, photographing America.  To the tune of 30,000 photos so far.  She is 70 and expects to continue for the next 15 years.

She just finished documenting Connecticut and told that story at the Connecticut Historical Society.  And she does consider her work documentary.  She is thinking about researchers in 500 or 1000 years wanting to understand the culture of the United States.

Diminutive in stature, but huge in confidence, bon amie, and story telling through photography, Highsmith is truly a national treasure.

She mixes and matches images because that’s how she sees America.  In her presentation, she might have an image of Lincoln’s coat he wore when he was shot next to Yellowstone and an image of the Mona Lisa on a barn.  She calls them all iconic.  And because nothing stays the same, she repeated, “that’s why we need to record ourselves.”

The entire archive of her work is downloadable and free via the Library of Congress.  You can have so much fun browsing it, looking for your state or favorite place.  Go for it.

Mona Lisa barn art, Wisconsin

Carol Highsmith, Mona Lisa barn art, Wisconsin

Emma and the Prudes

No, ‘Emma and the Prudes’ is not the name of a new rock band.  It’s the title of a talk today by Wendy Lee for the Jane Austen Society in New York.  Was Austen’s Emma a prude by the standards of the day?

I was particularly interested in the topic, as a ‘prude’ myself, and having just schlogged my way through the rather awful Spinster for my book club

Lee was careful to distinguish being a prude from being a spinster.  Her source is 17th-century French literature and its female types–the prude and the coquette.  The Queen and the flirt

A prude is a woman who seeks social and political power.  Consequently, she is suspicious of marriage, even if she is married, and avoids it if she isn’t.  Being a prude has nothing to do with sexuality, having or not having sex, nor attitudes about sex.  Instead, the prude simply preferred fem-centric society.

Clearly, the term is derogatory.  The male equivalent is the misogynist.


Was Emma a prude? She states clearly that there’s no advantage to her marrying. She’s already financially secure. Only love would induce her. She certainly enjoys a circle of female friends. Sounds like a prude to me.

In the literature Lee studied, the prude was depicted as a hypocritical, judgmental killjoy, who could be hysterical and suicidal.  Iconoclast, heretic, vulture.  No one can know what she’s thinking, as she comes across as ‘unfeeling,’ with neither affection not animosity.  She certainly was the best of liars.  From the literature.  Lovely

A spinster had more positive associations initially, referring to 12th-century girls in France who worked as spinners, an acceptable occupation for unmarried women.  Over time, you know what happened.  The male equivalent was bachelor, never a pejorative

Basically, these ugly labels keep women in their place, towing the cultural line.  Lee’s literature included Prude, the novel, by a Young Lady.  I pointed out that whether or not the author was a woman, the point was to keep women in the marital way.  Lee shows how the husband in marriage replaced the circle of women, a sacrifice by the prude

I also asked Lee about the link to the history of feminism.  In the U.S. from the 1850s on, women who advocated for their rights were certainly considered difficult.  They merely wanted to be sovereigns of their own lives.  In other words, a prude.

When you think about it, sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Local Passions

2015-08-02 15.48.19

And now for something completely Colonial.  As a belated celebration for Penny’s birthday, we went to the Pardee-Morris House, for a taste of Colonial history…and beer.

The house dates back to 1750, when the Amos Morris family was making its fortune in flax and with their salt works.  Its location was auspicious, on LIghthouse Road on Long Island Sound, convenient for shipping goods.  This house was no rough-and-tumble shack.

Look at the size of this fireplace.  2015-08-02 15.35.24Don’t get me wrong, I don’t lust after such a thing, because, after all, to cook here, you’d have to walk around the fire.  Fireplace cooking was the second leading cause of Colonial women’s deaths, after childbirth.  Cooking was a dangerous activity!

The house didn’t have just one cooking fireplace, but three.

2015-08-02 15.38.59

Here’s a later iteration that’s a tidge safer.  Narrower and with a separate, high bake oven, technology was definitely improving.

This room also features the extra-wide “coffin door,” for bringing your dead in and out.  Cooking and death.  They just seem to be linked, as prevalent companions in Colonial life.

2015-08-02 15.39.28You can tell how spartan the house is now, but in its day, this was one fancy place.  It featured a central hall, creating a larger house and a show-off place for wealth.  And then there’s that third kitchen on the other side of the house.  It was used in the summer, to keep the cooking heat away from the rest of the living space, separated by a breezeway.

In between was the staircase to the ballroom.  Not a fancy staircase, but still besting what anyone else had at the time, I’m sure.  Upstairs, in that big open room we couldn’t access, we could still peek up and see the chandeliers.  Again not elegant, but a step up from oil lamps.

2015-08-02 15.36.24

Our guide was in love with the tea-brick, the way tea was shipped from China.  One brick?  About 200 cups.  Densely packed tea leaves, pressed 2015-08-02 15.37.07in a mold to achieve pretty patterns, and the black tea aroma lingers.

As a tea fan, I loved the brick, but also this lemon press.  I’d like to have that right now to make some lemonade, contemporary or Colonial.

So that’s your well-equipped kitchen in a wealthy New Haven house.  That wealth, and the ability to provide supplies, is what got both Amos Morris Senior and Junior in trouble.

Here comes the Revolutionary War.  The Morris father and son provide the rebel soldiers with supplies.  The British are not going to take this

Prosperous Amos Morris II

Prosperous Amos Morris II

too lightly.  They capture the Morris’ and throw them in jail and burn this house to the ground.

The year–1779.

By 1780, the son had apparently escaped and the father was released, to rebuild the house as we see it today.  The 1750 fireplaces survived, as did some beams.  The rest you can think of as a Colonial renovation.

Remarkably, the Morris family lived in the house until 1915, even doing the late 19th century thing of running a boarding house to make ends meet.  Pardee bought the house with the intention of creating a Colonial museum, but died before pulling it off.  He left it to the New Haven Museum, which has had it for over 100 years.  A caretaker stayed in the house until 15 years ago, and now, it is in the shape as you see it.

First up, save the roof.  I hope they can manage the money to do more with this house that tells such an interesting story.

2015-08-02 15.54.35After the hard work of touring the house, it was time for Penny and me to learn about Connecticut beer, from the Morris period to today.

Author and beer-columnist Will Siss told us all.  New Haven was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony initially, and the English settlers loved their ale.  Of the two kinds of beer, ale and lager, ale was easier to make, faster to ferment, and successfully brewed at warmer temperatures.  Colonial women were the typical brewers, making ale at home.  Ale was necessary at a time when water wasn’t safe to drink.  Boiling the water to brew beer also killed off the bacteria.

In 1659, New Haven had its first “Ordinary” or tavern, a social place to meet, drink the local brew, and exchange news.  By 1885, New Haven had 8 breweries, each with its own personality and neighborhood following.  German immigrants were contributors to the growth of the brewing world here, and they became known for the lagers, which required refrigeration and were crisp, cold, and clear.  Of course, some breweries became huge, like Budweiser.  But others held that local sway.

With drink comes the inevitable backlash.  Lack of responsible drinking fueled the mid- 19th century Temperance movement, of which the Hartford Beechers were key advocates.  Connecticut attempted a state-wide ban on drinking in 1854 (when the Morris house was 100 years old).  Well, that didn’t work.  By 1872, the state tried the “local option” law, where each town could vote ‘wet’ or ‘dry.’  This approach was received pretty well in the country, with one town, Bridgewater, holding out until last year.  But the city dwellers wouldn’t have that law either.

With Prohibition and the rise of speakeasies, crime and public drunkenness actually increased.  Repeal in 1933 brought the slow resurgence of breweries.  Jimmy Carter helped the cause (and Billy Beer brewed by his brother) by passing a law that increased the allowed amount of production that could still be labeled ‘home brewing.’

And so we go full circle.  Back to highly localized, boutique breweries, that can be enjoyed in local restaurants and bars, just like the Colonials did.  We got to taste several samples from two new breweries.  Erector Brewing Collective is just getting started, with an IPA (India Pale Ale) and a lager, both strong and bitter.  Penny called the lager chocolatety.  Now that’s a civilized taste bud for you.

I preferred the four beers by Black Hog Brewing Company from Oxford, CT.  Before you ask, black hogs are a kind of pig you will find in the Berkshires.  There’s this link to your barbecue (of the pig) and beer…  Okay.  Now that we’re past that, Penny and I shared tastes of four kinds of Black Hog beer: one made with rye, another with oatmeal, the third with ginger, and their new beer, with a grapefruit peel finish (not pictured).

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 6.36.14 PM

The lesson from this day?  Stick to your passion, whether it’s letting your house be burned down for a cause or blending your brew with fruit.  Do it!

Chast on aging

Chast-BWThe International Festival of Arts & Ideas has unleashed on New Haven again, and on this second day, Penny and I stood in a loooooooooooong line to get in to hear Roz Chast talk about Memoir and Cartoons.  Of course, she told the story of her aging parents through images and her award-winning graphic novel Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? 

Check this out for a taste.

There is some genius in the book, as evidenced in the Q&A that followed.  People suffering through the passing of their parents commented on how much the book helped them, more than anything else they had found.  Chast does pull apart all the complexities of thoughts and feelings at this fragile time through the simplicity of line drawing.  It is brilliant, funny, sad, uplifting, wistful, and true, true, true.

I especially loved hearing how she got started as a New Yorker cartoonist in 1978 and laughing along with the throngs at her truthful twists on tropes.

Like this one:




and her commentary on values:

For all her success, Chast comes across as nice, self-aware, and self-deprecating.

Asked if her parents understood and appreciated the humor in her cartoons, she said they were so proud of her.  Very Jewish-y parents.


Separately she told the story of how her father interpreted this New Yorker cover she did.

She was showing the evolution of ice cream.  He thought is was about a doctor telling people all the bad things they shouldn’t eat.  Very Jewish-y parents.





I leave you with this bit of wisdom from Chast:

Seize the day!


Hurry Up and Relax!

In all the rush of the day, what a relief to finally make it to the Aromatherapy class at my Hamden library.

Aromatherapy Workshop


The aroma could be drunk in all the way out the Friends Room down the stairs to the front door.  Nice.

Kim Larkin started by walking us through how we might want to use essential oils (not fragrance oils) for their healing qualities.  Here are 8 ways:

Smell – just take a good whiff

Diffuse – scent up your room

Local applications, for the particular healing properties

Hot compresses

Cold compresses

Massage enhancement

Tenting – that is, put a few drops in a bowl of hot water, drape a towel over your head as you lean over the bowl and get a homemade, delicious steam facial

Misting – spray your room, which I do all the time to my great pleasure with rose scent.  Did you know it takes 60,000 petals to make one ounce of oil?  No wonder it’s so expensive!

You know I can’t resist sharing a bit of history with you.  The Ancient Egyptians used perfume as part of their embalming process.  The word ‘perfume’ means ‘through smoke’, so we can get a sense of how the scents were disseminated.  Frankincense and myrrh were known for their healing properties.

Another real discovery was fleurage–the process of steaming the plant to separate its oil for harvesting.  This, plus trade routes, brought scents across cultures.  In India, ayurvedic medicine, or life knowledge, used the oils.  Ancient Romans, health conscious as they were, used oils for good hygiene.  Persian doctors used Chinese oils to perfect their medicines.  Later, monks used herbal remedies to cure leprosy and other diseases.

While eating a root may have been the ancient form of medicine, we had to cycle through noxious chemicals and pills and antibiotics, before returning to, simply, eating a root for good health.

The essential oil came back to us from Italian doctors and French chemists who worked in perfume factories in the early 1900s.  When one severely burned his arm, he dunked it in a nearby vat.  Turns out, the vat was filled with lavender oil.  His arm didn’t blister, and the burn didn’t scar.  He was convinced and started a crusade for oils that continued through World War II when medical supplies ran low and on to Dr. Bach.

Bach rejected traditional medicine in favor of botanicals that he equated with 38 states of mind.  Use the botanical to heal an imbalance, with one or a blend of Dr. Bach’s flower essence remedies.  For fun, you can complete the questionnaire and see what you think.  I’ve enjoyed using these flower essences in the past and got inspired to look them up again.

You might also get a kick at looking at the healing properties of the oils.

We wrapped up the night by making three goodies to take home: a bath salt, a facial scrub, and a dream pillow.

Our bath salt mix is a spring detox – coming at just the right time.  It’s made with Epson sale and sea salt, as well as the oils.  I chose to blend citruses for invigoration and rosemary for clearing the head and as a memory aid.

Believe it or not, the facial scrub is made with granulated sugar (for exfoliating) and a couple of drops of oil, combined with a carrier, such as grapeseed, almond, or avocado oils.  I used grapeseed, because I had it handy.

2015-05-12 20.17.53

My dream pillow will go under my pillow tonight and has lots of rosemary, as well as jasmine–the King of Oils, which takes 8 million flowers to make just 2 ounces–for self-confidence and easing of the joints, plus lavender and chamomile for calming relaxation.  It smells like a little bit of heaven.

These are all super simple.  Give them a try and let me know what you think.


Women’s furniture

2015-03-25 13.33.48

Although I hadn’t really thought of furniture this way before, certain pieces are gendered.  In particular, I want to the Yale University Art Gallery‘s furniture storage area to immerse in women’s furniture–objects that tell us something about women’s lives–from the Colonial period.



2015-03-25 12.38.09

We have often admired painted chests that women built their Hopes on, hopes for marriage that would come from a good dowry (textiles, china, and other movable objects).  The portable stuff in her Hope Chest would stay with her if she was widowed and pass to her daughter, to improve her chances.

You may make out the initials J and P on this chest-with-drawer from the late 17th century.  Joanna Porter was not John Marsh’s first wife when she married him in 1704, and she wasn’t his last.  From inventory, we know the daughter they had together inherited her mother’s clothing, and perhaps this chest.  Known as a stem-and-tulip motif, the carving likely referred back to the maypole festivities in rural England.  All about fertility.

2015-03-25 13.07.31Women’s roles change a bit with the development of niceties like this tea table.  Although made of cherry, a lesser wood to a mahogany that might be found on a Philadelphia piece, this scallop or pie-crust style tea table says so much about the changes in lifestyle.  Now deportment matters.  Personal cleanliness typified the new manners of a more affluent colony, and as the price of tea dropped, more classes could afford it.  So a table like this would set you apart.  Not only would you have the leisure to stop and drink tea, but you knew the right people, including men, to come join you and admire your expensive tea set and table.

And here’s where the trouble starts.  Tea tables represented something naughty in society–the emerging power of women.  Caused by many social factors, some men just couldn’t deal with it.  Unlike the puritan spinning wheel of female virtue and fertility, the tea table allowed not just socializing between the sexes, but also the chance to show off your fashions and flirt.  Oh my!

All virtue!

All virtue!









A Harlot's Progress, British Museum

A Harlot’s Progress, British Museum, oh my!

How much better for your to apply your skills to the domestic arts.  That’s what your education would be all about–how to attract a husband.  Yes, you need to read and write and do basic math to run your household, but perhaps even more important, you need to sing, dance, perform music, and make art.

Plus do your needlework.  And how much better that would look pulled out of this graceful, 1808 2015-03-25 13.19.29kidney-shaped work table from Philadelphia.  This is high style and function combined.  Yes, you could move it easily to catch the light.  But that shape.  Well, that’s more than your average sewing kit.  Here you even see it with its original silk swag.  The shape was meant to complement your lovely figure, as you tee hee with your suitor in the parlor.  Show off all your advantages!

2015-03-25 13.08.23


A stitched cover like this 1753 flame-stitched, horsehair-stuffed seat would also be shown off in the best parlor and to suitors.  Let’s hope Abigail Porter from Wethersfield, CT, who made it, was successful.  She couldn’t earn a living any other way.




2015-03-25 13.19.41

You might also demonstrate your painterly skills on a what-not table like this darling thing.  You could use a pattern book, such as the Ladies Amusement Book, to choose your pattern for painting or needlework.  You would trace the pattern with chalk or graphite (pencil), then paint it in with watercolor or ink.  Voila!



A page from the Ladies Amusement Book

A page from the Ladies Amusement Book

The curators think these bunnies were painted freehand, since they are ‘naive.’  I think they are charming and would certainly be an ’emblem of accomplishment’ if I were able to paint such.  Which I can’t.

2015-03-25 13.31.32

Later in the 19th century, women’s furniture types grew with women’s expanding roles.  A beautiful writing desk like this tambour-door gem provided you a quiet space for writing correspondence or reading, indicative that academic subjects were now part of a girl’s education.  And perhaps most important, the desk locks.  Ah, for some privacy…

2015-03-25 13.29.20



The best experience I’ve had with chocolate took place at Colonial Williamsburg.  I was attending a conference there in February (a Colonial brrrr) and signed up for a post-conference experience: making chocolate the Colonial way.

Ten of us met at a cooking cabin at 7 a.m., where the cows had already been milked, but the rest was up to us.  We divided labor.  Getting the dried beans into a huge fry pan to roast over the open fire (done by a staffer), cracking the beans (ah the aroma!), followed by hours and hours of grinding and pounding by us all.  No matter the cold, we had the door open, letting in the biting wind we all welcomed with our sweaty labor.

Only at the very end, maybe the last hour, we added some spices–we chose cayenne and cinnamon–and milk.  Sugar wasn’t readily available, but we were given a cone to scrape off for our mixture.

After twelve hours, yes really, we each got to taking home a sliver of this drinking chocolate.  Even mixing it with warm milk, the concoction was pretty chalky.

From the primitive to the sublime, I happily braved the Connecticut cold to go to my public library for a presentation by the self-taught ‘Chocolate Lady‘ Maria Brandriff, another Hamden resident.  She gave us an abbreviated history of chocolate, which comes from an Aztec word meaning “bitter water.”  They apparently made their drink much like we did at Williamsburg, and it was a beverage for the Kings, believed to be an aphrodisiac.

Not until the mid-1800s was chocolate used to make candy.  The discovery was conching–using huge mixing machines with slowly rotating blades to blend the heated chocolate and get rid of excess moisture.  It takes an Industrial Revolution to give us the really good stuff.

But candidly, the packed house was there for the goods.  And Maria didn’t disappoint.  First she had us taste decent grocery/drugstore chocolate, after deriding most of the readily available stuff, including Hersey and other mass-manufactured packaged chocolate.  Out of Lindt, Ghiradelli, and Trader Joe’s, I liked the latter’s 54% and 72% ‘Pound Plus’, made with chocolate from Belgium.

I couldn’t really tell all that much difference between the two levels of bitterness, which really references the amount of cacao to other ingredients, although generally, I like up to 80%.  I not a fan of sugar.  If you try the Trader Joe’s Pound Plus, let me know what you think.  It’s quite reasonably priced.

2015-01-29 19.48.42Then Maria showed us how to make truffles.  First you want to know that the word truffle really does reference the mushroom, because the best chocolates are irregular and gritty and earthy like the pig-discovered thing from the ground.

2015-01-29 19.40.11Anyway, you start with a ganache–an emulsion of heavy cream and chocolate, created by whisking.  You can used canned coconut milk instead of the cream, if for some reason, you’re being health conscious with your truffles.

Now, ganache is pretty tricky.   You need to temper your chocolate so that it will both have a snap when you bite into it and melt on your tongue.  Are you getting in the mood yet?

The problem is your ganache can curdle, called “broken ganache” just like a hollandaise or mayonnaise.  Maria says after many years of making the good stuff, it still happens to her.  Yep.  I’ve already written off trying this at home.  Still it was great fun watching Maria make truffles right in front of us, dipping the formed chocolate in cocoa powder (we each got to sample one.  Luscious.) 2015-01-29 19.52.03

If you get your ganache, you have to decide if you’re going to add flavor through addition or infusion.  Our goodie bag (this was unexpected for a free public program) included Maria’s tea-infused truffle, with its marinated tea leaves creating a juice that was infused into the ganache.  Adding coconut meat and lime juice to white chocolate made the piña colada truffle.  I don’t like these kinds of coconut candies in general, but Maria’s was pretty tasty.

So what you need to know is that the health benefits of chocolate start at 70%, the dark, dark stuff.  Different beans can make the chocolate taste totally different, even at the same percentage of cacao.  Your beans might be citrusy or smokey or fruity, depending on where they come from.  The best beans come from South and Central America, but most of what we get is from the Ivory Coast, where the beans are most prolific, cheapest, and least flavorful.  The price you pay will vary by all these determinants.

But really.  At this cold moment at the end of January, who cares?  Go have a nice piece of chocolate and let it melt on your tongue.  Life is good.

All the angles

Best Video has figured out how to adapt from outmoded technology back into relevance with live music, screenings, readings, lectures, and other heady events, just a short walk from my house.  Today was the kickoff of a lecture/film series about Alfred Hitchcock.

Mark Schenker discussing the historical context for the "Downton Abbey" series at a lecture in the Best Video Performance Space in August, 2014.Mark Schenker, Dean of Academic Affairs of Yale College, provided fascinating insights into how to “read” a Hitchcock film.  We focused on “Notorious,”  watching big chunks of the film, basically with the sound very low, analyzing why he used certain camera angles and shot styles.  Plus the structure of the scenes.

The next time you watch the film, pay attention to the following themes.  Notice how Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are regularly positioned with him on the left and her on the right.  When that’s not the case, trouble’s brewing.  Are they in the shot together, or does the camera cut back and forth between them, as adversaries?  Are they touching and flor how long, or separated?

Also watch their hair.  Her hair in their first car scene, Notorious 1946.jpgwhich is bookended at the end, is loose, a metaphor for her notorious lifestyle.  His hair is plastered down, unmoving, for his overly buttoned-up temperament.  He is silent, unable to speak, certainly incapable of expressing emotion, which costs the two of them.  Her mode is talking, another symptom of her looseness.  The contrast of silence and talking is a theme among the other characters, as well as for the film, which has long stretches of complete silence, alternating with fast dialogue.

And then there’s the drunkenness.  Bergman’s character is a lush at the beginning, out of despair.  Then, she’s drunk-on-love while sober with Grant, followed by a kind of drunk again when she’s slowly poisoned at the end.  Wine bottles make regular appearances, not only furthering the spy plot, but also to comment on the love affair. Fascinating.

So take a fresh look at an old classic.  You’ll be amazed at how you can deepen your viewing pleasure.


Freedom from Want

As you know, my argument is that we’re in another economic depression now, and my day in New York made the comparisons to the 1930s striking.

Thomas Hart Benton Instruments of Power America Today mural series 1930-1

Thomas Hart Benton
Instruments of Power
America Today mural series

2014-10-25 11.11.56

America Today

I started at the Met, where I finally got to see America Today, the murals by Thomas Hart Benton that have been re-homed from the New School.  Over the years there, students had rammed chairs into the murals, and they were otherwise degrading.  Now revitalized in glorious color, made richer through the darkened exhibition space, the murals tell the story of America in a moment–1930-1, when the Great Depression was just sucking away the country’s vitality.


Reginald Marsh The Bowery 1930

Reginald Marsh
The Bowery
1930 an artist also known for pulsating energy


Benton celebrates though.  America’s pulse, its chaos and determination, its strengths and its smarts.

Certainly compared with Reginald Marsh’s nearby The Bowery from the same year, 1930, the murals are propagandistically optimistic.  The glory of work, the ingenuity of technology, the voice of entertainment, all punctuated with clarifying red.

Benton loved red.




2014-10-25 11.12.38

America Today

2014-10-25 11.13.57

America Today








  Look at that red and those gestures!

Pieter Coecke van Aelst
Conversion of St. Paul
Look at that red and those gestures!


While the curators draw connection to Baroque painting as an influence on Benton’s energetic compositions, I was also taken by the drama of the Renaissance tapestries, a newly opened, scintillating exhibition at the Met.  Surely Benton was influenced by the Renaissance body and borrowed from religious ecstasy for his modern passions.





Jackson Pollack Pasiphae 1943

Jackson Pollack


Detail America Today

Detail America Today


And where would Jackson Pollack be if he hadn’t been under the influence of his teacher’s, Benton’s, quivering, pulsating storytelling?  And Benton was completely modern, as you can see here.

But the art historian digresses.


Back on point, we, too, today crave celebrity entertainment and the refuge of technological wizardry to forget our troubles with work and the sour economy. We like to think of America’s strength, even as evidence shows the contrary.

2014-10-25 12.23.49


From the Met, I walked over to the newly-open-for-tours Roosevelt House.  After Sara Roosevelt’s death, in 1942, Hunter College bought the house and has been using it for classrooms.  Just about the only thing left from the quiet wealth of the Roosevelts is the staircase bannister.  I ran my hand up the rail where Eleanor may have, too. I haven’t washed my hand since!

I joined a tour/lecture, led by a history doctoral student.  As he told us about FDR’s and Eleanor’s accomplishments, I was most taken by the Four Freedoms speech, so relevant today.  Only the names have changed.  Have we progressed at all?

I was interested in the speech’s afterlife.  Norman Rockwell had a hard time getting support to make his monumental paintings of the same name.  Finally, the Saturday Evening  Post printed the series, which became phenomenally popular, driven by a Bentonesque vision of America.  Then the war bonds office came up with a program.  For an $18.75 war bond purchase, you would receive a set of the four posters.  And the rest is history.

Or is it?  How much do we tolerate freedom of religion post 9/11?  In light of a string of natural disasters and Ebola, how free from fear are we?  In an era of political correctness, changing mores, and lax gun laws, are we really free to speak our minds?

Grand CAnd freedom from want?  That issue was actually secondary in “Grand Concourse,” now at Playwrights.  Yes, it takes place in the Bronx today in a soup kitchen.  Yes, one of the four characters is a homeless man who teeters on the ability to get and hold a job and function well,  but I think playwright  Heidi Schrek uses her setting as a metaphor, a rumination on the nature of giving and how generosity of spirit can get twisted.  People younger than I am, though, may see the play through different eyes.  Check it out, and see what you think.

Regardless, may you be free from want this harvest season, on all levels of body and being.

Alice Paul


















Ever since volunteering at the Sewall-Belmont House in DC, I’ve been interested in the Women’s Suffrage movement.  Which in its second wave, means Alice Paul–the last living suffragette by the 1970s resurgence of the ERA that she authored fifty years earlier.

This past week, I started a two-part session on the history of feminism at the New Haven Free Public Library called “Abigail’s Revenge: How the Women’s Movement Shook Up America.”   So the timing was certainly right to head to the Hartford Public Library to hear Z.D. Zahniser talk about her new biography of Alice height.200.no_border.width.200Paul up to 1920, the year of the suffrage amendment’s passage.

I was fortunate because Bambi from the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, the sponsor of the event, invited me to join her and Jill Zahniser for dinner after the talk.  Our conversation was a rousing review of our careers, in light of the pioneers like Paul who went before us.  I know I don’t have the courage Paul had or could make the choices she did.


Paul, raised as an unassuming Quaker (not a radical like Susan B. Anthony), first became politicized through Jane Addams’ Hull House, spurring the settlement house movement that put respectable women to work in social activism.  These women realized legislative action was needed for real social change.  Paul then attended graduate school focusing on political science in the early 1900s and went to England for further study.

There she met the Fighting Pankhursts, gradually becoming involved in their demonstrations for women’s suffrage and learning tactics she would bring back for the American movement.  In 1909, she was arrested for the first time for her politics and went on a hunger strike, before being force fed in prison.  Ghandi attended meetings of this group and approved of their tactics until they turned more violent – rock throwing, arson, etc.  Interesting that Ghandi and Paul were both inspired to make change from the same group.

Upon Paul’s return to the U.S., she was a celebrity.  She thought the suffrage movement was just too nice in the U.S. and started the ‘bad girl’ National Women’s Party.  The NWP, with 50,000 members, was far more radicalized than the moderate, existing suffrage movement, numbering one million.  But NWP made waves.  In 1913, Paul organized the first successful “March on Washington,” setting a standard still in use today.  Only imagine.  Then a woman walking down the street was often confused with street walking.

An amendment to the Constitution was key, Paul believed, and her party was willing to do what it took to upset the President and Congress to make it happen.  Paul and her followers were considered traitors for picketing the White House, and she was convicted with a seven month sentence.

Prison conditions were atrocious, the food inedible, and Paul became very weak, was again force fed, and became the lynchpin in the public outcry about how these women were being treated like hardened criminals, rather than as political prisoners.  President Wilson finally called for habeas corpus to release Paul and the other suffragettes, and six weeks later, removed his opposition to women’s suffrage.

This is just the cream from the top of the story.  Read the biography to learn more.  The main lesson, in politics: don’t be nice.  Be bad girls.  They may not have more fun, but they get the job done.

Alice Washburn and the trolley suburb

It was standing room only at the New Haven Museum this evening for an illustrated lecture on Alice Washburn, a self-trained architect. In her ten year career, Washburn built about 90 homes, mostly in one neighborhood in New Haven and in my new hood, Spring Glen in Hamden. She started on spec on one of the nicest streets in Spring Glen and with a budding reputation, worked on commissions for larger, custom homes.

But with the Depression and her own perfectionist tendencies, Washburn went bankrupt in 1931, living out her life in an apartment and dying in obscurity in 1958.  Unknown she stayed until the 1980s, when an intrepid art historian resuscitated her career.  Realtors now sell her 1920s homes for more than average.  I sat next to Jean, the owner of a Washburn home, purchased from the son of the original owner.  She received a tube in the mail, addressed to “Occupant,” containing the original blueprints.  A precious thing indeed.

Washburn  believed that women were the ideal architects because the home was the domain of women.  Does that mean she designed gender-specific qualities?  Lecturer Charlotte Hitchcock, an architect with the Connecticut Trust, didn’t know.  Apparently, her kitchens ranged in size, more suited to the house than any particular gendered use.  Jean said her four-bedroom house has two baths at either end of the hall, not a master, clearly suited to family use.

Washburn’s houses were part of a larger Colonial Revival period, lasting from about 1910-1930 and the City Beautiful movement that started in the 1890s.  During that time, monumental buildings were constructed like the stately Hamden Town Hall.  Also a focus on public health meant putting gas, electricity, and running water, as well as parks, into developed and new neighborhoods.

Attention was certainly paid to walking-oriented new developments.  Hence the trolley suburb–first horse-drawn rail ways, and later, around 1910, electric.  That’s how my neighborhood grew up.  The Webb farm was subdivided for single family homes.  The town center, literally just below my house, was the retail that emerged along the trolley line.  Still very handsome today.

But no, my house isn’t a Washburn.  It was built about 25 years after her last.  Still I hope someday, it will have a bit of that New England charm she trolled for and incorporated in her Colonial stylings.  She happily mixed in Dutch, Greek Revival, Arts and Crafts, and Federal elements.  She liked the classical and a curved walk.  My house sports one now, too!

The largest of Washburn’s houses cost $20,000 to build.  Most were modest, much less expensive.  You don’t want to know what my remodel costs!  At least, the detail and perfectionism going into this little house will honor Washburn’s spirit.


Ben Franklin responded to her request and sent his sister Jane thirteen pairs of glasses.  So began an adventure of discovery about Jane and her life.  Jill Lepore, the co-author of one of my favorite books of recent years Blindspot, has done the research.  More about that in a minute.

You might wonder why her novel is co-authored, pretty unusual for fiction.  She and her friend and fellow historian Jane Kamenksy co-wrote a story for a older colleague as a birthday present.  It centered on a Colonial girl who desperately wanted to be an artist.  The profession was unheard of for a woman, so she cuts her hair and dresses as a boy and becomes an apprentice for an artist very much like the ribald Gilbert Stuart in Boston.

The story was such a hit, the two historians decided to turn it into a full-fledged novel.  Not only is it evocative of a volatile period in Boston in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, but also gives a lot of insight into how paint was made and used then, the role of the artist with patrons, and life in a paint “factory” system.  The pants role is just fun, and of course, there’s a love story inside it all.  If this appeals to you, I think you’ll find it just as good a ride as I did.

Lepore brings the same charm and historian chops to this new work (and continues working with the eye metaphor).  She spoke at the Yale British Art Center, where I’m training to become a docent, before a packed house.  I had already gotten the book Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin from the library and now can hardly wait to read it.

Using spectacles as an organizing device, Lepore talks about how close the siblings Benny and Jenny (Jane’s nickname) were.

He began wearing spectacles at age 24, while working in his brother James’s print shop.  James, too, wore specs.  Ben invented spectacles with temples, innovating the form of our modern glasses, and later bifocals.  Up until then, no one, man nor woman, wore spectacles in the street.  They were a private tool for reading.  Franklin was noted for having his portrait painted wearing spectacles–highly unusual.

And Jane wanted some spectacles.  Only most girls didn’t or couldn’t read.  Jane learned how with her brother, but her life was taken up making candles, making stitches, making babies.  She never left her childhood home, while her famous brother traveled the world.  She lived in penury with a destitute husband who moved into her parents’ house.  Her brother was wealthy.  Ten of her 12 children died young.  She was sad.  Ben was a wit and a womanizer.

But Jane needed glasses, and Lepore details how Jane was a voracious reader, even as she had trouble with writing.  By the time of her death, late in the 1700s, the nature of education for girls was starting to change.  So the historian unveils a period just prior, when an accomplished mind was limited by gendered work and poverty.

These bespectacled siblings, readers and letter writers, were both remarkable.  The glasses enabled them to look and see and therefore think.  Lepore talks about how glasses act as a door to knowledge and a way to hide.  Jane and Ben did both, in their own ways, in their own worlds.  Her story is a remarkable one, quiet and small.  How wonderful to celebrate that with Lepore and with you.

Miniature paintings of an eye were intriguing and fashionable gifts between lovers

The Shrieks of October

The trees are going hot orange and pumpkins to match are sprouting around.  The local MacIntosh apples are on the shelf, and the farm stands are offering apple picking times.  But the New Haven Museum is focusing on spooks.  During October, in this 375th birthday year for New Haven, the historical society is giving over to the macabre.

Last night was the kick-off, with Mike Bielawa discussing his new book Wicked New Haven.


The ol’ story goes:

“Is this Hell?” the boy asked.

“No, son,” his father replied.  “It is only New Haven.”

That the oft-repeated quip is on the New Haven Museum walls demonstrates just how low a city’s self esteem can go.  Bielawa uses it to wander into New Haven’s wicked past.


The book has a definite water-y theme, with its share of pirates using Connecticut coves as covers and cursed captains and haunted ships and hellish crimes and supernatural legends.  Bielawa focused on one cursed captain, the supposedly beloved Captain Parker J. Hall whose temper also got him in a lot of trouble, and his haunted ship, the Robert P. King.

Sailing in the early 1890s, Hall refused to give in to mariner superstition, painting his boat blue, which was notoriously bad luck, and thrusting a knife into the mast, another no-no.  While hauling a load of cement from Augusta, ME to New Haven via the Hudson River in 1894, Hall’s crew of two, Portuguese brothers, turned on and attacked him.  The siege ended badly for one of the brothers, murdered, or killed in self-defense, depending on your point of view.

After that, no sailor would stay on board the schooner overnight, for all the shrieks, weird laughter in the rigging, and voices calling, “kill him!”

Whether the haunting comes from that mutiny and murder, or from the schooner’s history as a slave ship, a whaler, and battle ship during the Civil War, we can only speculate while telling the tale on a dark October night.  The remains of the Robert P. King are on display in Mystic in the Ship Carver’s Building.  We need to go hear for ourselves.  Field trip!


History with a Twist

2013-06-05 17.45.21


Visiting the New Haven Museum (the local museum that corresponds to the New York Historical Society), I couldn’t resist this book.  I really look forward to getting the backstory on Arsenic and Old Lace and of course, Benedict Arnold, who had his druggist, book, and what-not shop on the New Haven Green.


2013-06-05 17.10.15


The strange phrase on his shop sign “Sibi Totique” means ‘something for everyone’.  Arnold also prospered as a merchant in the West Indies trade, as did New Haven.  But you probably know Arnold as the Revolutionary War turncoat.

And you may not know that Nathan Hale, America’s first (failed) spy lived in New Haven and attended Yale. Caught and hung by the British, yet still a model origin spy for the CIA.  What a way to make a reputation!  New Haven certainly has inauspicious Revolutionary War ties.

Cinque Leader of the Amistad Captives

Leader of the Amistad Captives

The city redeemed itself with the Amistad trial, where John Quincy Adams defended newly enslaved Africans, who led by Cinque, revolted onboard the slave ship Amistad.  Considered the first Civil Rights trial, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, little changed in terms of policy or law as a result.  The pitiful rationale was that the slavers were Spanish.  Had it been an American ship, the outcome probably would have been very different and not as noted in history.



New Haven had an industrial boom, making clocks, carriages, locks, and my favorite, corsets.  In two weeks, I see a play called Freewheelers on that very supportive topic, at the Arts & Ideas Festival. And then there’s the bicycle.








Just for the ladies…

bicycle ad









New Haven also was a major trade and working port, as well as a center for oyster harvesting.  In the maritime exhibit, I really liked the modernist artist Max Dellfant.  Many were like this work, with thick, juicy paint slathered on the surface.









And his depiction of his workspace just charmed me, reminding me of the mess and jumble of my mother’s studio.

My Studio Max Dellfant 1923

My Studio
Max Dellfant









From Connecticut’s earlier history, the Jerks of Connecticut book doesn’t include the two early founders who hid out in a West Rock cave.  They were hiding because they had GeorgeHenryDurrie-JudgesCaveWestRockNewHaven signed the death warrant to behead King Charles I in 1649 (note, eleven years after New Haven was founded, which is completely unrelated).  With Restoration in 1661, they were hunted by British Royal Agents.  Now a street is named after Edward Whaley.  How history redesigns us all.  The cave is apparently a local tourist site, so I have to go find it.

The evening concluded with a lecture on financial documents from the Revolutionary War period.  You know, hand signed currency, stocks, bank notes (which anyone could print, even Delmonico’s Restaurant), and bonds for financing the nation.  Bonds were also used to raise the money to fight the war.  They could be redeemed in meat, wool, or sheep, as a hedge against inflation.

Early on, silversmiths had the engraving skill to put an identifying mark on the border of stock certificates to try to prevent counterfeiting.  Later pictures were incorporated, including portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes.  So these documents are actually quite handsome.

This aesthetic didn’t keep the country from going bankrupt.  Alexander Hamilton created the US Treasury to take back those (worthless) bonds in exchange for Treasury Bonds.  Everyone wanted to buy Treasury Bonds because they loved their new nation.  Too many were sold, in fact, causing an early financial panic, which then created the national debt.

Although a seemingly dull subject, the documents opened doors that were wonderfully evocative.  Stories about expansion, experimentation, businesses and industrialization, as well as the individuals behind the scene.

Plus in those early days, bonds yielded 6 percent.  Those were the days!

Cassatt the feminist

The New York Public Library has a sweet exhibit of Mary Cassatt prints currently on view.  The works show the influence of Japanese print aesthetics, particularly linear flattening.  What’s wonderful about the prints is you see her hand at work.  She was an innovator, mixing print forms like drypoint, aquatint, and softground, all on one work, even as she was showing conventional subject matters–studies of her sister, mother and child, the usual.  Many are quite abstracted.

Eve's Daughter/Modern Woman: A MURAL BY MARY CASSATT

What drew me to NYPL today was the lecture by Sally Webster:  Mary Cassatt, Women’s Suffrage, and Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.  

I’ve missed Webster academically, as she’s retired.  But at least, I got to hear her speak about Cassatt’s missing mural from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Women’s Pavilion.  Webster has written a book on the topic, if you’re interested.


The 1890s found the woman’s movement in resurgence, after two splinter parties reunited.  But even as the World’s Fair included a Woman’s Building, many feminists have decried the separation from man, ghettoizing their art, writing, architecture, and thought.  Webster showed how the pavilion was architecturally removed from the main part of the fair.  Still, the Woman’s Building was one of the most visited at the fair.

Cassatt’s three panel mural was one of six in the Gallery of Honor.

Unfortunately, since the panels have been lost, only these black and white images are available.

The middle panel features 12 women in contemporary dress harvesting fruit, and it’s called “Young Girls Plucking the Fruit of Art or Science.”  Webster talked about the scene as an allegory (where a figure stands in for an idea), but also placed it in historical context.  After the Civil War, the Seven Sisters colleges opened, and women were could more easily get a college education.  And she suggested that the women plucking knowledge were a direct assault on Genesis.

The Woman's Bible: A Classic Feminist Perspective


If so, Cassatt was keeping good company.  In 1895, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of my heroes, at 80 years old rewrote the Bible.  She was condemned as a heretic, but her assault on how the Bible justifies women’s second class status is still in print today.  Cassatt offers her own repositioning of the Eve story, where she celebrates women gaining knowledge, rather than be punished for it.

The right panel shows women as Art, Music, and Dance, allegories of course, but presented in contemporary dress, enjoying themselves.

The left panel: “Young Girls Pursuing Fame,” with Fame as an allegory, but even more, attacking the demure, self-effacing Cult of True Womanhood that dominated much of the 1800s in the U.S. and Europe.

Webster concluded by suggesting that the three panels of the mural taken together represent the three stages of a woman’s life and more:

Childhood – harvesting

Youth – enjoying what’s been harvested

Maturity – the ambition to pursue our dreams (as active participants in the Arts)

In 1893, Cassatt herself had reached maturity, with a 30 year career behind her, fighting her own battles with the Cult of True Womanhood.  She left us an innovative, subversive voice.  Thank you, Sally Webster, for bringing a lost work to life.

Chicken bones

Today, I went to a very entertaining talk on Regency era theater by Lorella Brocklesby, a professor at NYU.

In her very proper British accent, Lorella told us how actors accommodated for poor lighting by acting down toward the front of the stage by the audience, hence downstage.  The wealthiest notables got to sit on stage.  Anyone else was lucky to sit on a rough-hewn bench, and otherwise stood.

The producers put on two or three shows for one ticket price.  So Othello might be first bill, along with a comedy and a light musical.  Jane Austen, who at one  point lived very close to the Drury Lane theater, remarked on taking a carriage (apparently no one walked) and enjoying a 4 1/2 hour evening.  Now we complain if the show has an intermission and lasts longer than 90 minutes.

Still they would think nothing of editing Shakespeare down or having a 15 year old wunderkind play Hamlet.  I wonder if his voice squeaked when he said, “to be or not to be.”  As late as the Victorian era, the Queen was known to grouse about the unhappy endings in Shakespeare’s plays.  In the Regency era, the motto was to leave ’em happy.  Hence ending the performances with musical comedies–certainly my favorite mood elevator.

Lorella commented how polite we all were, attentively and quietly listening to her.  Regency era audiences would catcall, and if they didn’t like a performer or performance, they would throw chicken bones.  I’ve certainly wanted to throw a bone or two at some honkers I’ve seen.  Could a revival of customs be in store?