Saturday, August 28, 2010


When I was growing up, public radio was a lifeline to a world beyond the confines of my little town. When the NPR correspondents were in NYC or California, I was there, too, not stuck in my room worrying about cruel high school hallways. It helped diminish my adolescent loneliness.

So it pains me to admit that I've hardly listened to NPR for the last six months. That's because we bought a new car and got a gratis subscription to XM (which we extended for three months). It wasn't only free XM that hastened my temporary departure from NPR. My local NPR stations in D.C. are mostly either talk (i.e., politics) or classical music during the week.

But I crave narrative, not just people talking about the present moment or the current political scene.

And I got that on XM (ironically, of course, on their public radio stations, particularly PRX). Each drive offered me a delicious torrent of voices describing lives full of beauty and confusion and fear and joy, with stories so compelling I often wished for heavy traffic to delay my arrival. I especially enjoyed being surprised by shows I wouldn't have known to seek out otherwise—like Nate DiMeo's Radio Palace (particularly his The Brothers Booth).

Now, alas, my trial is up. Being the frugal person I am, I can't justify spending $160/year for radio when we have four public radio stations in the area. But the real reason I let the subscription expire is...Radio Disney. When my tween-aged daughter was in the car, that's all she wanted to listen to—an experience I have described as "purgatory on wheels."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The nearly lost art of the autistic knitter

A couple of weeks ago, we went to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore for the first time. The museum features "outsider" art—art made, primarily, by people without formal training but with an intense need to create something unique or beautiful or visionary.

There were many things I loved at the museum, especially: the mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic paintings of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, a baker who made paintings on his kitchen table after-hours (one of his paintings is shown above); the memoir paintings of Russian prince Andrew Romanoff, made entirely on shrinky dinks; and tiny paintings and sculptures selected from Richard McMahon's ongoing mini museum project.

But the exhibit that gave me the most pause was a block of bizarre crocheted pieces in the middle of the floor—a headpiece that looked like it was made for an alien, a striped, rainbow-colored coat, and more neutral-colored hats, all done with incredibly precise needlework. The plaque next to them said they were done by Deborah Berger, an autistic woman who was a knitting prodigy. Berger lived in New Orleans and worked as an artist's model by day, then came home and knitted nonstop for hours. After Berger died, her family threw out all her pieces, but someone from a New Orleans arts council rescued some of them.

Unlike the other artists I've described in this post, I cannot find a picture or even a description of Berger on the Internet. As far as I know, the most visible trace of her existence is on that block of wood in a museum in Baltimore. AVAM doesn't allow photos indoors, so I cannot show you what they look like (which is why Von Bruenchenhein's painting is shown above).

When she sat alone in her apartment, knitting furiously, was this her intention? Is a museum the ultimate destination, the best possible place for her work? Yes, probably, but still there's something a little lonely about it. One wishes that one of her subdued hats would grace the head of a distant cousin or great niece, that her family had wished to keep some part of Aunt Deborah's weird and wonderful art for themselves.

After I wrote this post, AVAM sent a short biography of Berger and photos of her work. See addendum post for September 17, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sew long summer

E-girl wanted to learn to sew this morning . We sewed a skirt for her and a doll out of scrap fabric, then an elegant skirt for her out of an old chintz curtain (Scarlett O'Hara redux).

I am too busy and impatient to sew these days, and usually only get out the machine to mend things that are too valuable to toss. And, since fabric is so expensive now, there's really no financial incentive anymore. I'd rather express my creativity in some other fashion.

But when I was in high school, fabric was cheaper than clothes (since they were still being made here and not in Third World countries), so the creative and/or poor girls sewed many of their own outfits. There were three or four of us in my group who would sew at night and then compare outfits at school. Even the girls who went on to college and graduate degrees sewed at home. How else could I have been able to afford an outfit designed by Betsy Johnson? I used Betsy Johnson Butterick patterns.

Sewing also provided an economic leveling—the poorest girl I knew, who lived up on the mountains in a two-room cabin (with eight siblings) still managed to look elegant, modeling at least a new outfit every week.

Maybe teenage girls now have some kind of shared, creative experience, but observation tells me that crafts have been replaced by texting and IM-ing. Of course, it's still a shared experience but I'm not sure there's any valuable skills being honed that way, beyond typing. Texting doesn't repair a curtain—or make a skirt out it either.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What a writer does

During recent bouts of insomnia, I've been reading through Alice Munro's Selected Stories. Unfortunately, the stories don't put me to sleep.

I'm always surprised when I mention Munro to people and they admit that they've never heard of her, despite her repeated publications in the New Yorker and her short story collections. (But I hadn't hear of her myself until John Morris, during a workshop at the Writers Center years ago, told us to read Munro to learn the craft of short story writing.)

Perhaps it was because I was reading at 2 a.m., but the description of what a writer does/is, near the end of the story, "Material," seemed so profound that I sat up in my recliner. In the story, the first-person narrator is looking back on her previous marriage to a writer/professor. He has taken a character they both knew during their marriage and turned her into a short story, an act, the narrator says, where the woman has been:

...lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvelous, clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make. It is an act of magic... of a special, unsparing, unsentimental love. ...(She) is a lucky person... to have this done to her, though she doesn't know what has been done and wouldn't care for it, probably, if she did know. She has passed into Art. It doesn't happen to everybody.

(I would excerpt more from the passage, but I worry about Fair Use/copyright restrictions, and I don't want to give away too much of the story's end).

The wonderful irony of the story is that the narrator has turned the writer/ex-husband into material for her own story, transforming him into art as well.

Munro is a master of succinct, eloquent description, of writing about people you think you already know. "Material" includes an opening passage about writers/professors that, though published in 1973, still seems true today:

Girls, and women too, fall in love with such men; they imagine there is power in them.

(The wives of these men aren't in the audience where the men are reading, they)... are buying groceries or cleaning up messes... They have to remember to get the snow tires on and go to the bank... because their husbands are such brilliant, such talented incapable men, who must be looked after for the sake of the words that will come from them.

How wonderful that Munro, whether she had been one of those women in her first marriage (she divorced the year before this story was published) or had been feeling jealous of male writers—or whatever experience really spurred this story, she was able to convert those feelings into Art.