21 May, 2006

mental note

Note to self: in future, probably best not to wash a bright-red, brand-new pashmina scarf in the same load as husband's business shirts.

I'm in the doghouse. A bit.

You see, Avery went off to her school friend Alice's birthday party on Saturday, which was billed as a "disco and fashion show." Intoxicated at the opportunity to wear not only NOT a school uniform, but not even jeans or khaki pants, Avery went nuts. She rummaged through her closet until she found a dress that my sister Jill and brother-in-law Joel will recognize from the Christmas they gave her, as a joke, a whole pile of outrageously crazy, glittery, slinky clothes and watched my reaction to see if they were for real. I think my sister had a client with a kids' clothing store, and they were samples? The details elude me. In any case, this dress is the last remnant of that haul, which served Avery and her little Tribeca friends very well as dress-up clothes for years. This particular item is lavender, at the bottom, and then sort of morphs into a mauvey-ish pinky grey at the top, with spaghetti straps and sequins and beads and I don't know what all. Lined in silk, and at this point quite, quite short. It might have fit her properly four years ago. So she put this on, and did her hair up in a series of scary little puffs, held in place with glittery clips for whose provenance I cannot possibly vouch. They have all the earmarks of party favors. Anyway, to top this ensemble she threw her beloved red pashmina around her shoulders, added a pair of shiny maroon Mary Janes that I remember clearly paying $4.99 for at the Danbury, Connecticut Walmart, in a pouring rainstorm. Gee, this is like word association.

Anyway, there she was. I did not get to see the finished product as I was attending my "Autobiography Into Fiction" workshop at CityLit, but I heard reports that Avery looked quite stunning. The upshot, however, was that the pashmina got chocolate all over it, and without thinking I just stuck it in the washing machine blithely with everything else that was in it, including John's two favorite shirts (of course, they WOULD be) from Thomas Pink. Doubly unfortunate, he happened to go in the laundry room to get paper towels or something and saw the pathetic little streaky corpses where I had bundled them up on top of the machine. He bleated, "What on earth happened to my SHIRTS??" I had had every intention of high-tailing it over to Pink and replacing them before he saw the dreadful evidence, since Dorrie, the cleaning lady extraordinaire, says there is no way on earth they can be resurrected. She came in this morning, took one look and asked succinctly, "He knows?" All women are familiar with this situation. The pashmina itself, smug in its new cleanliness, is hanging over the kitchen door to dry, a reminder of my iniquity.

Ah well, John's off to New York and I shall swan off myself to Pink. I don't suppose it will do any good to take the poor things with me to match, since they bear no resemblance to their former selves. Sigh.

But all has not been domestic embarrassment. For example, last week I was in an episode of "Who Wants to Use her PhD?", the little-known spinoff from that show you all watch and just won't admit it. There was a meeting Friday up in Notting Hill, for the "UK Friends of the NMWA," which means the London contingent that is gathering support for a visit from the founder of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. This lady, a Mrs. Wilhelmina Holladay (yep, she calls herself Billie) is 85 years old, started her museum of works by women artists in 1987, and for some bizarre reason (at least I've always thought it bizarre) decided to call it the "National" Museum of Women in the Arts. How "National"? It's a private collection. Just because it's in Washington does not mean it reflects anything "national," to my mind, and it gets no public funding. Don't get me started on this, as I've spent more hours than it would take to paint the Tower Bridge, debating the oddness of this whole institution. But here in London, all such complications have been laid aside to celebrate the fact that some 50 years ago, the Holladays decided to buy art only by women, and when they discovered that they could not do any research into what they'd bought because no one had written anything about these artists, they decided to open their collection to the public and hope it spawned (always a good word to use if you get the chance) some scholarly interest. Which it did, but by then feminist art history had got well and truly underway.

Anyway, a certain segment of the London expat community, namely a large number of Harvard Business School female graduates who are chomping at the bit to use their brains for something grander than homework supervision, has mobilised itself to bring Mrs. Holladay here in the autumn and fete her. I wonder if she has the strength to withstand the amount of fete-ing that is being planned. I tell you, these women have ENERGY. So I've been drafted in, first just as a person with a somewhat murky reputation for being "interested in the arts" (I've told almost no one about the gallery or anything else for fear of being in just the position I'm now in with this group), but the truth leaked out. So I'm going to try to have a conversation with my old friend - nemesis - colleague Susan Fisher Sterling, who's the Chief Curator at the NMWA, about ways we might get the London group and the Washington group together. Receptions at the American Ambassador's house, lectures at the Royal Academy, an official website marrying our two cultures which have such a "special relationship" to one another. That phrase is almost a code here in London: the "special relationship" between America and Great Britain that has landed them, as they see it, in quite a diplomatic pickle these days.

The meeting was actually quite interesting, and I admire so much the kind of women who can go from an MBA to running a household, to no doubt being the pillars of their children's school communities, to dressing up in their Jean Muir dresses and Manolo Blahnik mules and sashaying forth in the name of righting the sexist wrongs of the art world. More power to them. One thing I did find instructive and profoundly depressing: no one is using the word "feminist" ever EVER in these discussions. In fact one woman said, "When I told some friends about this meeting, one of them said, 'Isn't it ghettoizing women artists to have projects where the only thing they have in common is that they're women?' What do you all think of that?" I could hardly speak for having so much to say. It's such a nasty, specious little argument but its appeal is undeniable: that way everyone's off the hook for acknowledging inequity, because it would be sexist to try to right it! I merely said, with admirable restraint I think, "No more ghettoizing than an exhibition of 'just' photographers. Does every show have to include painting too?" I know women worry about painting themselves as victims, if they acknowledge, or even posit, that their sex might make a difference in how they're perceived or treated. But I think it can be discussed without its being about victimization. I do think I got three book sales out of the discussion, so now we can retire with my next royalty check.

I hate to say it, but I enjoyed my post-meeting jaunt around Portobello Road even more than the meeting itself! I've found out that the # 23 bus goes right from my corner of Oxford Street to the exact road I like best in Notting Hill, Elgin Crescent. And just around the corner in Blenheim Crescent is possibly the most wonderful bookstore in the world, "Books For Cooks." I wanted one of everything! And there's a cafe, but I didn't sample anything this visit. Next time. I came away terribly intimidated by the accomplishments of people who can write really wonderful cookbooks. I did indulge myself and pick up a copy of "I Am Almost Always Hungry," by Lora Zarubin. The introduction by Jay McInerney (of "Bright Lights, Big City" fame and almost no other kind of fame, poor boy) is pretty lame, in my opinion, being more about his impressions of Lora than the importance of the book itself, but the recipes look divine. Every dish you can think of under the sun is represented, from the simplest possible sandwich of toasted mozzarella and tomato confit, to "fillet of salmon cooked on a bed of sea salt in parchment with aromatic spices." And how about a little "roasted peaches with cardamom sugar and mascarpone sauce" to finish it off? Beautifully illustrated with photographs by Tessa Traeger, just completely intimidating. I consoled myself by looking at the photo of the author on the dust jacket, holding... her Jack Russell terrier, who we are solemnly informed is called Bessie. OK, maybe I could churn out an incredibly impressive cookbook of 198 pages if I weren't also following around a small person of slightly more demanding needs than your average terrier. Or maybe not. Too bad!

I also bought MFK Fisher's classic "How To Cook a Wolf," which is possibly the best bedtime reading there is. You can't go wrong with chapters like "How to Catch the Wolf," "How To Have a Sleek Pelt," and "How Not To Be An Earthworm." I love her observation, "Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken." I also bought Julian Barnes's "The Pedant in the Kitchen," which looks entertaining but I've never read it before. It's practically against my religion to buy a book I haven't read yet. It's almost as scary as adopting a new kitten. Sure, I guess you could find a way to dispose of it if you got it home and you, gulp, didn't like it. But it would make me really uncomfortable. So I choose my kittens and new books with care. The bit that sold me was, "The sole liberty I take with a recipe is to increase the quantity of an ingredient of which I particularly approve. That this is not an infallible precept was confirmed by an epically filthy dish I once made involving mackerel, Martini and breadcrumbs: the guests were more drunk than sated."

I wandered around through the excellent farmers' market in the Portobello Road and bought so many vegetables that I spent the entire weekend devising ways to stuff them down my family's throats. Huge, bloomy artichokes, possibly 300 tiny, tiny tomatoes, a half dozen red peppers, avocadoes (I am addicted lately, and have convinced myself I have a potassium deficiency that can be addressed only with copious amounts of sliced avocado, drizzled with lemon juice and sprinkled with really expensive salt), and most interestingly, two different varieties of asparagus. Did you know that the asparagus season in Great Britain is only five weeks long? Here, in the days of Lord Peter Wimsey, they called it "English grass," and it could be served only in the following manner: lightly steamed just until it begins to smell like asparagus (since raw asparagus smells like nothing at all), and slathered with melted butter. The thing that intrigued me with the asparagus at the market was that some was fat and some was thin. Bunches of each, not mixed together. So being a dumb American I could ask the farmer why. After his initial shock at being asked to produce more verbiage than the usual "that'll be two pounds, my love" he came forth with the information that the skinny ones are the earliest stalks, and they've been harvested in order to thin the rows. The fat ones are the ones that were left behind. So I bought some of each, got my allotted "my love," and came home to see how they tasted differently. And they did. Avery and John and I agreed that while the "bite", the feel, of the big stalks is nicer, the little ones had more flavor. So take your pick!

Today after I've found replacement shirts and paid my penance, I have absolutely nothing pressing to do. I want to save a couple of errands for John's mom's arrival, like going to the Royal Academy Framers' to get some glass replaced on a piece that broke somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. I think that will be a cool place. But wait a minute: I could take it now, and collect it with her. I think it's just around the corner from Pink, so I can kill two birds with one pashmina.

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