The Art of the PBJ

So, how do you like your peanut butter: a) smooth, b) crunchy, or c) fine art?

If your answer was “c,” then read no further. Perhaps you are among those intellectuals who can parse the meaning of nontraditional media and unpack the symbolism hidden in coded works of art. Or maybe you are just another sucker for the emperor’s new art. I don’t know. But, after a recent visit to Seattle’s Asian Art Museum I found myself compelled to reexamine my notions of what, exactly, qualifies as art.

Generally speaking, I’ve always been an easy audience for any and all kinds of art. From finger paintings to Faberge, I applaud people for even attempting to produce art, because I think life would be so barren without it. So, yeah, I’m a big fan of art. However, even the most gullible audience at times feels the tug of doubt, the creeping suspicion that someone is trying to put something over on you.

That’s how I felt when I first walked into the new “Reflex” exhibit of works by Brazilian artist Vik Munoz, who has made a name for himself with photographs of familiar images recreated in nontraditional mediums. In one series, for instance, the artist used sugar to produce unusual pointillist copies of photographs of children taken in the Caribbean. The enlarged images resonate with a subtle tension between the sweetness of the medium and the implicit bitter subtext of the children’s economic dependence on this cash crop.

Another series of images depicted selections from the Museum of Modern Art painstakingly reproduced using the dust vacuumed from the building itself. Still other works employed children’s plastic toys, straight pins, and refuse from the dump to fashion copies of familiar paintings by artists such as Goya and Monet.
For me, though, the most riveting works in the exhibition were the ones made with edible materials. The giant chocolate syrup photo montage. The sequence of Jackie Onassis’s face traced in ketchup. Portraits of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi rendered in pixels of black caviar. And, most of all, the “Double Mona Lisa” in Peanut Butter and Jelly (after Andy Warhol).

I stared at this large cibachrome print – it measures four by five feet – and the only thing I could think was, “Why?”

My initial reluctance to accept this unusual homage to Da Vinci’s masterwork was probably inspired in part by the coincidence of having just seen Art School Confidential a few days earlier. In that dark satire of the art world the line between fiction and reality is razor thin, and as I peered at these reinvented copies of other works, I kept wondering when John Malkovich was going to saunter through with a dry comment.

My companion at the museum seemed untroubled by conflicted feelings about the merit of the exhibit, although in passing she did voice a preference for grape in the jelly selection. I told her I could respect that, but had gone over to apricot long ago. But, I kept puzzling over the way we ascribe value to works of art. Recently, for instance,  Andy Warhol’s print of Mao was sold for seventeen million dollars. I’m no expert on investments, but I do know that in a world where millions of children are starving, seventeen million dollars could buy a lot of PBJs.

Eventually,though, I decided that maybe I was missing the point. After all, in the visual arts as in literature, some works are meant simply to entertain, others to educate and inspire. Rarely, a work accomplishes all of these goals. But, when I look at a copy of the Mona Lisa executed in peanut butter and jelly, I have trouble silencing the still small voice inside whispering, “Psst. This is bullshit.”

I guess it boils down to whether you think art is meant to decorate or stimulate. If all you want from art is something that goes with the couch, then I guess it doesn’t matter what the subject is, or the medium. But, if your idea of art is that it should provoke thought, suggest narrative, lift the spirit and/or feed the fire within, then perhaps any work which is created with thought and skill is worthy of the title. Even if it’s made with crunchy Skippy’s.

Whether or not you want it above the couch is another matter.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Okay, technically I didn’t have a vacation. But, some might argue, mine is a vacation lifestyle, what with the working at home and choosing my own hours and not making any money. However, as this was my first complete summer in Seattle, the vacation mindset fit like a baggy pair of shorts, with room to breathe, eat hearty, and enjoy the breeze.

When I first told friends in Virginia that I was moving to Seattle, everyone remarked on the weather, noting the city’s famous rain. Most spoke with a touch of sympathy, as if I were being sentenced to a soggy fate. At the time, Seattle was undergoing a monsoonish December. The outlook appeared dim. But I was confident that the sun also rose in Seattle. I dismissed my friends’ concerns and waved goodbye to the East Coast with nary a backward glance. It was drizzling when we arrived here. And, to be honest, the first three or four months were about as balmy as a meat locker. Accustomed as I was to the blistering pace of spring in Virginia and the searing temperatures of the long hot summers there, I found my faith tested by the way the chill lingered in Seattle. Locals kept telling me, “Oh, you’ll see. It gets hot here.” And I would mutter, Yeah? When? One neighbor tried to explain it by assuring me that summer doesn’t really begin in Seattle until after July 4. So, when the daytime highs were still in the 60s in June, I gritted my teeth and kept my sweater handy.

But then, just when I was beginning to think of giving away my shorts, the rains stopped, the sun came out, and the slow bake began. It wasn’t until about a month into it that I noticed that it wasn’t just the lack of humidity that was different. It was the complete lack of any kind of rain or dew. They don’t talk about the dew point out here. There’s no point, so to speak. The gardens here don’t seem to mind. And, as a maniacal gardener, I have been totally seduced by the city’s marvelous array of plants, but surprised by the shortage of some staple features of summers in rural Virginia. I miss the fireflies, the spring peepers, the butterflies and bluebirds, the hummingbirds who patrolled my garden with dazzling frequency. Heck, I even kind of miss the cicadas. Still, such creatures are less likely to frequent urban landscapes on either coast. However, for me, the most dramatic difference between summer in Virginia and summer in Seattle is the lack of thunderstorms.

It seems odd, in a way, because Seattle, in itself, is such a dramatic place, with breathtaking mountain views in every direction and stunning seascapes at every turn. But, for all its sensational scenery, it’s amazingly quiet. I mean, there is the ordinary roar of traffic and the bustle of daily life, the purr of espresso machines and the patter of thousands of joggers. But, despite all this hum of energy, the only time the sky explodes is during the Fourth of July celebrations. Whereas in Virginia, heart-stopping thunderstorms are common in the months of June, July and August. True, they can be scary, deafening, and sometimes deadly. But damn! They pull the plug on your complacency and remind you that there’s a greater power out there. And when they knock the electricity out, they humble you and force you to examine your own dependencies. Or invest in a generator.

Anyway. That’s how I spent my summer vacation. Drinking coffee, eating Top Pot doughnuts, and waiting to hear that distant rumble of thunder. To sense that sudden lift in the breeze and drop in the temperature. To feel the thrill of that drum roll on the roof that signals the storm’s arrival. I’m no longer expecting it to happen. But, after this long, sunny, dry summer, I’m beginning to understand that around here the end won’t come with a bang. I expect it will be more of a long, cold drizzle. And I’ll be the one whimpering. Thank God for those doughnuts.

Beyond the Fur Horizon

She basks in the middle of the road now. Casually spread out on the concrete as if she owns it, my young cat Gabby has finally adjusted to being an urban tabby.

When we first moved into the city, Gabby stared out the window of the high-rise apartment in which we were temporarily housed. Her eyes followed the swooping gulls that soar high above the streets. Frustrated by the walls of glass and the confines of the indoors, Gabby got what exercise she could by tearing apart the furniture and attacking the toilet paper in the time-honored manner of indoor felines the world over. However, when we moved into a small rental house in a quiet neighborhood near the university, Gabby saw more familiar and intriguing sights outside the living room window. Huge dogs trotted past on the sidewalk, flaunting their relative freedom. Squirrels cavorted on the lawn, twitching their fluffy tails at her. And, worst of all, the neighborhood cats padded carelessly across the front stoop, smirking at the new kid on the block.I think that was the last straw for Gabby.

She demanded to be let out. After a brief struggle, we capitulated and opened the door, and Gabby came face to face with Lucy, the long-haired calico queen of the block.Lucy, we learned from our neighbors Fred and Becky across the street, who belong to her, had been accustomed to sleep on the flowerbox which nestles below the window of our living room. Cats, like people, are creatures of habit, and the mere fact that the humans inside the house had changed didn’t change the fact that Lucy considered that window box her own personal futon. Gabby wasn’t having it.

The turf war began with glares and staring contests and moved on to low growls and hisses, eventually escalating to claws and fur-flying free-for-alls. At first I would jump up and try to referee every time I heard the snarling begin. But, you know how it is. After a while, you realize the kids just have to work things out for themselves. And now, some months later, peace reigns, for the most part. Oh, to be sure, there are still skirmishes, midnight porch raids and the interminable pissing contest that seems to be at the root of all wars, but the cats, at least, have decided the street is big enough for both of them. Sometimes Lucy strolls over here and picks up a few souvenirs. Other times Gabby slinks across the street and bothers the birds at Fred’s feeder. But, it’s no longer a war. It’s more like tourists crossing the border at Niagara Falls. Each side benefits from something the other has to offer.

In these complex times, the notion of open borders is no longer a simple issue. But, it seems to me that we are way past the point where good fences make good neighbors. Cats go right through fences. And let me tell you, anything a cat can do, a human can do ten times easier.The latest politically inspired idea to erect  multibillion dollar fences  to close off the borders of this country misses the point. Considering all the problems in the world today, if we are to survive as a species what we need is more unity, not more division. Even my cat has figured that out.

On the Stick

You have to admire the Seattle spirit. Gifted with weather patterns that would drive other communities into a state of permanent funk, the residents of this city manifest a water-resistant resilience that refuses to bow to the elements.

I’m thinking of the weather today because it’s Memorial Day, a day to honor our heroes and open our swimming pools. At least that’s how they do it back in Virginia. Before the last echoes of the military bands fade in the air you hear the happy squeals of children cannonballing into the deep end. They have different traditions here in the great Northwest. One of them is the Folklife Festival which fills the Seattle Center with the sounds of  music and the scent of fried food every Memorial Day weekend. But, as we discovered last weekend, you don’t have to wait for the Folklife Festival to get your pig on a stick. Or chocolate covered strawberries sandwiched with whipped cream on a stick. Or, if you really must, fried tofu on a stick.

The stick is what matters. So long as whatever you are dripping onto your shirt is stuck on a stick, you can hold your head high among the throng of festival goers. Just watch where you point the stick.Why is it that anything on a stick seems more festive than ordinary food? I imagine it harkens back to that campfire mystique, where  we all huddled at one time or another, roasting hot dogs or marshmallows on a stick and singing songs off key. It’s a short shimmy across time from that primitive bonding experience to the group hug of a street festival. We shuffle along the pavement, eyeing the trinkets, the crockery, the crocks. It’s all good.

The great thing about a freeform street festival is that most of us approach it without any agenda. We don’t go there to accomplish objectives, to meet goals, to make quotas. It’s all about diversion, gentle goodwill, merriment. And, of course, things on sticks. Despite its inherent versatility as a food delivery device, however, not all edibles can be stick shifted. If they did you would see mac and cheese on a stick. Maybe someone has already tried this. I imagine there would be technical difficulties to overcome. And not all foods gain appeal through stickdom. A hard boiled egg on a stick, for instance, would be too austere. But, cover it with melted cheese, roll it in toasted cracker crumbs and give it a catchy name – perhaps a Chegger – and you could be on to something.

The festival state of mind allows such creative cross breeding of tastes. Maybe it’s something about being on the street, without the damn cars in the mix. We see things differently. When the street is closed, our minds are open.And not just in terms of food. We festival goers sometimes indulge ourselves by purchasing items which fall outside the categories of the useful or necessary. At the festival, this is okay. We don’t care. Sometimes you just have to buy a small stuffed red dragon. Or a balloon hat. People at a festival seem so open to trying new things that I’m considering getting a booth for next year’s event. I’m working on my product now. It’s a book actually, which I’m self-publishing this summer, a fantasy romance with an environmental edge that I think could have some appeal for gardeners looking for a little light reading after a day of digging. I haven’t had any luck persuading the conventional publishers to take a chance on my little novel. But, I’ve got high hopes for my own marketing strategy.

Coming soon to a festival near you: Stick Lit.You know you’ll want one.

Wooing the Cupcake Vote

We stopped in at the Cupcake Royale in Ballard the other day to purchase some vital food. A sign by the cash register caught my eye. It read: “I’m pro-cupcake and I vote.”

It spoke to me. Sure, there are plenty of other political agendas out there which get my support. I feel sympatico with Sandra Bullock in this area. I really do want world peace. But, like Ms. Bullock, I sometimes find the forces lined up on the opposing side, the proponents of terror, chaos and soul crushing greed, to be all but overwhelming. To keep my strength up in the continuing struggle for a better, kinder, more equitable world, nothing hits the spot quite like a cupcake. Thus, my credo: Let there be cupcakes.

I realize that there are those who will misunderstand. Some may question the idea that something small and sweet could have any impact in a world so breathlessly out of whack. But, mighty oceans are composed of tiny drops. Vast prairies are formed from single blades of grass. So why not a sea change in the tide of human affairs precipitated by a mulitiude of cupcakes, evenly dispersed?

Let us consider the Way of the Cupcake. It is small. Modest in its dimensions, yet possessing more character than a mere cookie or scoop of ice cream. A cupcake has personality, style and, most importantly, icing. We all understand intuitively the significance of “the icing on the cake.” It’s that little bit of extra which makes us feel, if only for a moment or two, that all may not be lost.

Unlike a cake or a pie or a flan, a cupcake is democratic. No one gets a bigger slice than anyone else. One size fits all. This is why cupcakes are the treat of choice for classroom celebrations, bake sales and office parties. A cupcake by its very diminutive nature cannot be that bad for us. Okay, maybe six cupcakes at one go would not be exactly prudent, but I rarely indulge to that extent.

There was a time when the cupcake was viewed primarily as an indulgence for the very young. But, though we boomers have aged (I won’t say matured), some of us have yet to outgrow the simple pleasure of the cupcake, even if we no longer thrill to the “surprise” inside Hostess cupcakes. And, naturally, market forces being what they are, there’s a whole new breed of cupcake out there aimed at us.

Gourmet cupcakes, arty high concept cupcakes crowd the shelves in trendy shops in New York. In an episode of Sex and the City which resonated far beyond the urban core, the self-indulgent heroine Carrie Bradshaw ate a cupcake with an inch thick pile of frosting from the Magnolia Bakery in Greenwich Village. That bakery’s cupcakes were famous before they made an appearance on HBO. The Magnolia cupcakes’ popularity is due not just to the delicacy of the cakes, or the sweetness of the frosting, or even the over-the-top presentation. It’s the critical ratio of icing-to-cake that sets Magnolia’s cupcakes ahead of many competitors.It’s a tricky thing. Too much frosting can be disgusting. Not enough frosting is a disappointment. To properly balance the two components is one of the secrets to making a great cupcake.

I have eaten a fair number of cupcakes over the years, and I have learned that price is no guarantee of quality. One of the worst cupcakes I ever bit into came from Whole Foods, a place known for its gourmet provisions. The cupcake cost almost $3 and looked like a little work of art. But the icing tasted like whipped lard and the cake was dry and hard as a cracker. I threw it away after one bite. And I never do that.

A cupcake is a small thing. Some might say, an unimportant thing. But, to me, a cupcake is a miniature gift, a small celebration. It’s a party you can hold in your hand. And it’s a party to which everyone on the planet should be invited. A cupcake, in its own tiny sweet way, symbolizes equality – the idea that everyone, regardless of race, gender or point of origin, deserves a chance to earn a life complete with cupcakes.

A cupcake and a fair shake. That’s a platform I can get behind.
And when I say behind, a mean a really big one. Like votes, even little cupcakes add up. Mmmmmm, cupcakes. That’s the ticket.

On the Trail of the Adorable Craftsman

Out here where Mount Rainier casts its spooky spell on the landscape, you often hear people use the term “adorable Craftsman.” When my husband and I set out upon our rental house search a few weeks ago, we kept coming across this phrase and after a while I began to wonder, who was this craftsman, and just how adorable was he?

Well, of course, as our explorations of the local architecture expanded I came to understand why people in the Seattle area speak reverently of the adorable Craftsman. The Craftsman is an architectural ideal that embodies the charm, individualism, strength and style of early 20th century America. The style often features lots of custom natural wood trim, leaded windows, curved lines and stonework. Such gems seldom appear on the rental market, a fact which we learned the hard way as we drove from house to house, following a trail of classified bread crumbs like children in some Grimm tale. Our roles in this exercise are clearly defined through years of practice. I play the ever optimistic sunny side up Ma Gullible while my husband holds down the bass line, bringing me back to earth whenever I start to get my hopes up about some lead. His unwavering mantra is always, “There must be something wrong with it.”

Unfortunately, he’s almost always right. So, as we proceeded in our crash refresher course in Realtor-speak, we developed our own personal lexicon. For example: “The nicest house in all of Wallingford” means: well, not exactly. I mean, it did look great in the photos posted on the internet classifieds. The tip-off should have been that they were all interior shots – all clean white rooms glazed with sunlight slanting through the nicely trimmed windows. I suppose if you never looked out the windows you might be ready to agree with the Realtor’s assessment.

But, the thing is, I am a big window-looker-outer-of. I need hours and hours in order to achieve that state of mental clarity and emotional calm that enable a writer to wrestle with dynamic forces of dramatic narrative construction. Or not.
Anyway, it turns out that the windows of this particular “nicest house in all of Wallingford” look out directly upon the fuming freeway, where the streams of bright red tail lights and frequent hooting of horns might strike some people as festive. Sadly, I’m not one of them. All these years of country life have not dulled my preference for the flash of red tailed hawks in flight and the lonesome hoot of an occasional owl.

But I don’t blame the realtors for the knuckleball spin they put on their ads. I respect that they’re trying to emphasize the positive, downplay the negative, and push product. Our own agent has pitched our house, the one we are reluctantly selling back in Virginia, as having “the best view in Bellevue.” And there’s no doubt that it does have a spectacular view of the Blue Ridge. On a clear day it’s a jaw dropper. Sometimes the sunsets leave you standing breathless on the deck while dinner burns on the stove because it’s just too beautiful not to watch. But, to be completely honest, I know of at least three other houses in Bellevue which have even better views of the stunning western vista. And there are probably a couple more of the really high dollar properties higher up on the ridge that can claim yet more dazzling outlooks.

However, real estate agents understand the market value of a view, and they aren’t shy about extending the limits of the definition. In our whirlwind tour of Seattle’s rental house market we came to understand that the term “view,” when it appears in a classified ad, probably doesn’t mean something you’ll want to grab the camera to record for your album. It might be the distant tip of a mountain viewed over the neighbor’s roof, or the sheen of a faraway pond reflected in the chrome of the used car lot next to the property. Viewpoints are as diverse as points of view.

Musing about this over my 100th cup of latte as I juggled the map, cell phone, reading glasses and notebook which outfitted the nerve center of our real estate safari, I began to consider the way words lose meaning over time through misuse, creative or unintentional, like a tattoo of a lover’s name that lasts long after the affection which inspired it has faded. The tattoo, like the experiences we share in our journey, becomes transmuted over time, always referring to a particular point in our passage, but also, in its blurred and shifting edges, revealing how far we have traveled from that point.

Long after my husband and I have finally sold our beautiful Virginia home and moved into someplace very different in Seattle, we will still share a bemused affection for “the nicest house in all of Wallingford” for the bump and splash it gave us as our life raft bounced and swirled through the rapids of this big change in our lives.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the nicest house in all of Wallingford. But who knows? Maybe it’s in the top 50.

Out There

Everyone I talk to lately assures me that the future looks bright indeed. As if the 27 straight days of measurable rain were some sort of urban myth, not to be taken seriously.

This bright new year finds us on a new course, heading to Seattle, land of mists and volcanoes. I’m fairly excited about the change, in truth. But, being the sort of rooted, gardening type that I am, the whole process of digging up everything we own and shipping it across country, to say nothing of leaving behind a large portion of my family and personal history, has been not a little, shall we say, unsettling. I guess that’s the point, really.

Settlers settle and pioneers push on. Not that I consider myself a pioneer in any way. Too fond of modern plumbing for a start. But, certain aspects of the pioneer approach definitely appeal. The letting go of regrets associated with all the dubious decisions made in the last few decades. The shedding of that stifling layer of sentiment and nostalgia that gets thicker with each passing year. I find myself looking forward to being in a place that doesn’t constantly remind me of happier or sadder times.

I’m ready to pack up those memories and put them in storage for a while. However, one of the pitfalls of packing up the stuff you tend to acquire over the course of raising three children is that you keep coming across scraps of paper, shards of the past, and you never know when one will suddenly explode in your face, leaving you gasping for breath and digging the shrapnel out of your heart. I honestly try not to look at the stuff anymore while I’m throwing it out, or into boxes. But every now and then a fragment cuts through. There should be some sort of armor for this.

Anyway, we’re almost done now, and ready for the movers. And everyone I know here seems to think I’ll be happy in Seattle. They always say, “You’ll love it out there.” I don’t know what makes them so sure.

I’m willing to hope for the best. But, sometimes I wonder. Though I’ve sealed up the boxes, and tossed and shredded a world of history, the memories still cling to the hull of the ship. I’m not sure I could scrape them off, even if I wanted to, without damaging the vessel. They are a part of me. They are in me. And they’ll still be here, in me, even when I’m “out there.”