Monthly Archives: May 2012

Tales From New York: American Girls

There was a time when waiting for the mail to come was enjoyable. A time when it wasn’t all bills and mortgage offers. I don’t know how they knew to send the magazine to my house. I’m certain my parents would have stopped it if they could. I can remember checking the mail after school before Mom got home. I was so excited when it arrived. Pouring over each page in my living room. Book bag and jacket forgotten, left in the middle of the hallway floor. American Girls were the gold standard; the toy I coveted above all others.

I was never really into dolls growing up. Mom says she remembers me sitting in the family rec room with a book and precisely turning each page in imitation of my elders. I was probably three or four years old and I couldn’t read, but I desperately wanted to. I quietly reenacted what I thought it would look like if I really was reading: a miniature version of Plato’s cave shadow; the idea of reading without the reality. Growing up there was no shortage of books. I had children’s encyclopedias with information about space and how to make homemade playdough. I had books about dinosaurs, poems by Ogden Nash, and stories about a mouse on a motorcycle, goneaway lakes, and friendly bulls.

Perhaps that’s why American Girls appealed to me. Long before my parents ever conceded and sent away for my girl, I had the books about her. Back then, there were only three choices. You were either a Samantha, a Kirsten, or a Molly. Samantha was always my favorite. Even after the red-headed Felicity was added to the collection with her beautiful blue ball gown, I wanted Samantha. I’m sure part of it was the fact that we had similar hair, but I think another part of it was that there was something about her spirit that I identified with. In some ways she was living a privileged life, but she was also a bit of an emotional outcast – having been orphaned. Her best friend was poor and she had a tremendous amount of compassion and did her best to help. Her stories tied in with the idea of women’s equality and the right to vote.

During my recent trip to NYC with Kristin and Adrian, we did a lot of walking. Adrian wanted to go to a brewery and had his phone set for walking navigation. This gave us the opportunity to walk all over Manhattan from the MoMA to the brewery. Of course, being New York City, his reception was less than stellar and we did some back-tracking. We ended up walking through Rockefeller Center while an episode of 30 Rock was taping. Jane Krakowski and Judah Friedlander performed a musical number with the interns as the chorus. We walked passed Magnolia Bakery, where I was tempted to “mack on some cupcakes.”

And then we walked past the American Girl store. Correction: And then I stopped mid-stride and demanded that we go in the American Girl store. Adrian, being male, simply did not understand. Kristin, being of an age, told Adrian he could wait on the street corner by himself while she accompanied me inside.

The store was huge. If someone had taken me there when I was a child I may have had an aneurysm and died from overexcitement. They had all the dolls on display. They had all the little outfits set out to full effect. There were scenes, the dolls posed with all their accessories. There were pets. There was a doll hospital where the performed repairs. You can have tea with your doll.

The original girls are no longer available, but there are new dolls. Now you can pick out one that looks exactly like you. This was something that I was vaguely aware of as I recently read an article about a photographer, Ilona Szwarc, who has done a series of portraits of girls with their American Girl dolls. These portraits are provocative and thought provoking. The idea that children are malleable and are in the process of a metamorphosis, that they are constantly in the process of forming ideas about themselves and the world around them, and that the American Girl phenomenon is an extension of that process.

Does the girl come to identify and know herself through the doll, or does the identity exist and then the doll is chosen to reflect that identity? It’s a sort of chicken or the egg hypothesis. I think that’s the magic of American Girls. Because unlike other dolls, which seem to exist for young girls to mirror the act of mothering, American Girls exist as a mirror of one’s self. I never played mother to my American Girl. I played history. I learned about the world around me: about factory fires, children working to support their families, and the suffragettes. I learned about the wars that shaped our world and was given a marker by which to judge my experience as a girl growing up at the end of 20th century. American Girl provided me with a perspective on the privileges and limitations placed on me due to gender. A complex, although admittedly not always accurate, lesson for a seven-year-old.

And so, while my brother stood outside on the bustling streets of New York City, I took a few minutes with my sister-in-law to bask in the nostalgia of my childhood. To appreciate what I was given and to remember hours of hours of playtime with friends. Kristin and I reminisced and talked about our shared history as an American girl with an American Girl doll.


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Tales from New York City: The MoMA Addition

Ok, so even for me that last post felt a little morose. I swear I started with the idea that I was going to do a recap blog about my experience in New York City, and that is not what came out. I guess the heart wants what the heart wants… Anyway, my trip to New York was awesome. I spent time with two of my very favorite people, saw a lot of really cool things, and ate a lot of really great food.

I drove up to Kristin and Adrian’s the night before and spent the night, which is always a good time. Then we took a bus out of Nazareth, PA the next morning, which was surprisingly cheap and easy. It took about an hour and forty-five minutes to arrive at the Grand Terminal. The ride was scenic and the conversation superb. Not to mention they indulged my need for Starbucks…

When we got to the city something very interesting happened to me. Now for most of you who know me, you will probably not believe this: I did not feel the need to take control. I did not immediately assess the situation and figure out where to go or what to do. We were standing in the middle of the metro trying to figure out how to buy passes and which track to board from, and I was completely cool with Adrian and Kristin taking charge. I don’t know what it is about the two of them together, but I just didn’t feel the need to figure it out or take over the trip. I just let them lead me around. And you know what? It was freaking liberating. I had the most relaxed and wonderful day as a result. I’m hoping I can take this feeling and apply it to other aspects of my life. I think my stress level would only continue to decrease as a result. Maybe I just need to hang out with them more and learn their Zen ways.

The main “purpose” of the trip was to visit the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). I was super excited about this because I’ve been to a lot of art museums in the United States and in Europe, but I’ve never been to the MoMA before. Kristin planned the trip because they were featuring a Diego Rivera exhibit. Seeing Diego Rivera’s work was wonderful. I didn’t realize that his time in Europe working on frescos so directly impacted the medium in which he worked and became famous for. I knew about the ill-fated project he had worked on for the Rockefeller’s and its ultimate demise. I had a general sense of his aesthetic, his political views, and his impact on Mexican culture and art – you know – the basics. But I guess I never really put it together how large and immovable his pieces were.

Instead of using plaster, he used a more modern material: cement. This made his work tremendously heavy and difficult to move. The curator of the exhibit did a wonderful job of displaying this to maximum effect. There was an xray of one of the pieces on display. You could see how the blocks were held together with wire and larger pieces of metal x-ing the entire piece as a reinforcement. Then the original art was viewable from both sides, suspended inside a wall. It was all very impressive.

His roots to Communism and his commitment to and love of the proletariat was evident in each piece. Also, although his fresco work has been criticized as being “flat” (due to the nature of the frescos being observed up close instead of high up on a wall or ceiling as is traditional), I found the pieces vibrant and expressive. I liked the distinct shapes of the people as they represented each aspect of the working class’ struggle against the rich and powerful. Although much of the fresco work on display depicted scenes of violence in the forefront, I found the characters in the back of the pieces equally compelling. Overall, I felt like I came away from the exhibit with a new respect for Diego Rivera and his work.

The MoMA was also featuring a Cindy Sherman retrospective. I will admit that before this trip I had never heard of Cindy Sherman. I have picked up a great deal of art history as a hobby. And I’ve certainly learned a lot through my work at the Mattress Factory and the State Museum, but there are definitely holes in my education – as I’ve  never studied art history formally. I’m specifically ignorant when it comes to photography. For those of you who are like me, here’s the skinny on Cindy Sherman. She is an amazing photographer, and an artist who is widely considered one of today’s premier contributors to the field of contemporary art. She takes photographs of herself as different personas. She uses makeup, prosthetics, and costuming to metamorphosize herself into completely different people. The contrast between pictures is such that one might never realize that they were looking at the same person. She portrays women with all their complexities: with all the beauty and grotesqueness that is placed on women by accepted social norms and by themselves.

Her most recent series portrays women in different stages of the aging process. At first glance, one might see a typical portrait. But at a closer look, and certainly when seen together with the whole series, it becomes clear that there is an underlying panic behind the eyes of what should be a confident woman. Each piece subtly shows a different way in which women try to forestall the wheels of time. Whether it’s with clothing, makeup, cosmetic surgery, or a chosen activity, it’s made clear that none of these women are comfortable in their own skin. I found the work both tragic and compelling. Certainly, an apt portrayal of the modern woman’s plight in a world that is ever-focused on youth and attractiveness.

The M0MA is an amazing building. We saw a lot of other art, including a new print exhibit and some of the permanent collection. About three hours in, however, we were all pretty tired. There’s only so much one can take in before it becomes a blur. I would definitely recommend the experience to anyone who has an appreciation of art. Modern Art is not just paint splattered on the wall; it’s a reflection of where we are as a culture. Even if you don’t appreciate a particular piece, even if you question why it’s there, then realize that it has fulfilled its function. Because when you deny that it is art, you have fundamentally defined what art means to you in that moment. Take note of what that is, because that will undoubtedly tell you as much about yourself as it does about what you are looking at.

As a side note, the MoMA gift store is awesome. I picked up a set of coasters for Ben (I felt bad he couldn’t come along, and also he’s always looking for coasters in our house). They are made of cork and shaped like pieces of bread. They came in a little bread bag and only cost $10.00. There were a lot of really cool “artsy” household and kitchen items. I had to show some major restraint while in there, so be forewarned.

More to come: The American Girl Store!

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Tales from New York City, World Trade Center

The last time I was in New York City was the summer of 2000. At that time I had no inclination that our world, as Americans, was about to change. I remember when I was young, my grandmother would recount the story of where she was when Kennedy was shot. She had blood poisoning creeping up her arm and was out hanging laundry in the yard. Of course, everyone was transfixed by their televisions as the whole devastating mess unfolded.

Much was the same when the Twin Towers fell. I got a call from my mother who very succinctly ask me if I was watching the television. I said that I wasn’t. I was instead laying on the couch staring into space because my wisdom teeth extraction had turned to dry socket and I was in terrible pain. She declared that we were “under attack” and recommended I go turn on the TV. Then she went back to taking care of her class at school, leaving me to wander into the TV room and start flipping through the stations. Channel after channel showed similar footage, and I watched live as the second tower collapsed and men and women leapt to their deaths.

Ten days later I left for Ireland, via Newark, NJ. It was recommended that we show up about five hours before departure and there was no guarantee that we would actually be making our international flight. We did eventually depart, but security was tight and customs took an inordinate amount of time. From there I watched the perception of my country’s plight change from empathy to anger. Near the end of my year in Ireland, my accent marked me an “Ugly American,” and I could hardly order coffee without someone making a comment about our impending involvement in Iraq. Our ultimate reaction was treated with both confusion and disdain.

And so recently, when my sister-in-law, Kristin, invited me to take a day trip to NYC – I was both excited and anxious. I still can’t watch any programming about 9/11 without becoming a complete emotional mess. The whole thing has left me completely traumatized. At times I feel guilty about my reaction because I haven’t personally lost anyone to the attacks or the wars, and yet I continue to carry it as a very personal loss. There are other times when I feel this reaction is appropriate. Perhaps if we all continued to feel the great communal loss of that event there would be less focus on banning birth control and more energy and interest placed on our foreign policy and diplomacy…

We took a bus to N.Y.C. from Nazareth. From there we took the subway to the World Trade Center. We walked up the steps, out of the station, and there it was: the tallest building in New York. Just days before our visit the construction team was able to announce that they had placed the beam that officially made the second tower taller than the Empire State Building. Looking up, up, up, I witnessed the tower fade into the clouds. It was an awesome moment of reflection on our capacity as humans to both create and to destroy. I managed to keep it together in that instance, and have since found the experience to be a calming thought in an otherwise vivid and terrible memory.

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Tales of a Crazy Idea: We Made a Sofa

So about five months ago, a friend from high school posted a comment on Facebook. Holly said that she was finally going to finish her “sofa-tub.” This of course begged the question, what is a sofa-tub?

Holly very kindly wrote back with pictures and an explanation. Apparently, the idea stems from a scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey Hepburn sits in a claw-foot tub that has been refashioned into a sofa. I was totally enamored with the idea and decided right then that I must have one. A quick review of Etsy assured me that one would need to be made, as finished sofa-tubs run around $2000.00.

Like with everything I do, I thought, no problem. Once again, I took no note of my inability to sew upholstery, make pillows, or cut a cast iron tub. Whatever. Those things would work themselves out. The first order of business was to convince everyone around me that it was a good idea.

This was harder then I had anticipated. My husband presumed I was joking and ignored my threats to make the sofa-tub until it was too late to stop me. By the time he realized that I was serious I had searched Craigslist, and emailed a man in Carlisle about a tub that would fit my purposes. I even talked him down to $75. The next thing Ben knew he had been enlisted to go pick the thing up.

I then called my father-in-law, who should also be used to my crazy ideas by now, and asked if we could borrow the shop and his grinder for a couple of days to cut the thing. At first he was resistant to the idea, but quickly adapted and started googling “how to cut cast iron tubs” on his computer while Ben, Zach, and Daniel got the thing unloaded.

Ben and I stood in the shop in front of the sad little tub with our arms crossed. Its outside had been painted several times and was now the color of a pukey sort of pink. Flakes of paint were peeling as we watched. “So, how am I cutting this thing again?” Ben asked. We debated the practicality and aesthetics of cut marks for several minutes. Then I drew a line with a pencil and said that that would do.

This is kind of what Ben looked like.

Ben, then fully resigned to the fact that we were actually doing this, put on his respirator and cut  a large portion of the front of the tub off. He looked a little like the main character from the Fallout video games, which was slightly terrifying, but much preferred to inhaling lead paint, porcelain, and cast iron dust.

When he was done, the tub looked like this:

Clearly the tub was surprised and dismayed at having been cut in half.

He then spent the next two days working on getting the paint off the outside. Otherwise known as the “fun with toxic chemicals” portion of the project. He wore his Fallout mask for that as well. While he was busy doing hard manual labor, I was at Lowes picking out primer and paint for the tub. (Sometimes relationships aren’t fair, people.) I got a really great primer that was rated for outdoors and for metal. I’m told it’s important to pay attention to these details when picking a primer. Then I picked this great deep purple color called “blackberry.” This paint was also rated for outdoors and metal. This means that the paint should never ever come off. I got a spray primer for the feet and a slick looking silver spray paint to finish the look.

Second Coat of Paint

Cast iron oxidizes and rusts very quickly, so we had to get the tub home to Ben’s shop and start the priming portion of the project right away. I put three coats of primer down and four coats of purple on the outside of the tub before I was satisfied with the look.


Ben painted the feet, but first had to repair one. The length of the piece that holds the tub up had snapped. He solved this by threading holes (tapping for you more mechanically inclined folks) into both pieces and bolting a custom made plate to reinforce where the split had occurred. Then he cut and ground the protruding pieces of bolt off so that the original piece, now repaired, would slide into place under the tub without difficulty.

Tub Feet

I then spent several months trying to find fabric and upholstery foam that was both affordable and fit the color combination that I had envisioned. If I were to do it again, I think I would have purchased the fabric first before I decided on a paint color. Although I am very happy with the final result, it was not an easy task. I lucked out when I found 4 inch foam at Ollie’s for only $32.50. This might seem like a lot for foam, but the same stuff is on sale right now at Joann’s for $79.99. Tip for cutting upholstery foam: use an electric meat knife! It works wonders and makes quick work of an otherwise messy project.


Tub with Pillow Forms

It also turned out that it is cheaper to go buy pillows then it is to make them, as pillow forms or stuffing is very expensive. Who knew? Still, I had this idea in my head, and I refused to be diverted. My mother-in-law (who is the sewing expert in my life) suggested that I refashion old pillows that I was no longer using. I happened to have some so-so throw pillows that were a good size, so I used them as my base. I also had extra foam after the large bottom cushion was cut, so I utilized that as well. Finally, I broke down and purchased two pillows forms for $6.00 a piece because I really wanted cylindrical pillows for the sofa.


Upholstery Picked!

I made a date with my mother-in-law to purchase fabric and start sewing. I finally landed on this upholstery fabric, which I got for 40% off at Joann’s (the discount was the only thing that made it affordable). I also purchased a satin gold fabric, a rich purple velvet material, and a contrasting canvas print fabric for the pillows. I got these cool make-your-own fabric buttons (more on that later) and yards of piping.


The first thing that I learned about pillow and upholstery making is that you can’t just cut straight strips of fabric to wrap your piping cord in. You have to do something called “cutting on the bias.” This allows the cord to bend without bunching. For those of you who don’t know what piping is, go look at just about any sofa or cushioned chair. The structured ridge that runs around the top of the cushion is piping. It is four pieces of fabric sewn together with a piece of cord inside. In order to get your sewing machine to accommodate that much fabric and to sew along the piping, it helps to have a special foot. On most machines it’s fairly easy to change the feet. Click here to see an example of a piping foot.

So back to bias cutting: I was on a limited budget, and cutting on the bias has the potential to waste a lot of fabric. Luckily, we found this great little instructional video on Youtube with a shortcut for cutting the material. It worked great, and as an added bonus, the pieces were already sewn in the proper diagonal into one continuous length. I used this technique both on the bottom cushion and on the cylindrical ones.



For the sake of simplicity, the bottom cushion is not reversible or zippered. We traced the cut pieces of foam and added approximately an extra inch of fabric around the entire circumference. Another neat trick for adding the extra inch is to use a large spool of thread as a guide around the foam. Make your marks with a chalk pencil using the outside of the thread spool. This leaves a consistent one inch space between your tracing object and the drawn line. We also traced, measured, and cut several strips of fabric for the side, and one large piece for the bottom.

Once everything was cut, we began pinning. We pinned the piping in between the top and side pieces and sewed that first. Refitting and checking the fit throughout the process. Then, once we were satisfied we fit the bottom piece on and sewed three quarters of it with the machine. We then fit the foam into the case, and hand-sewed the foam in, hiding the stitch as we went.

New Cushions!

In order to make the sofa-tub look like it belonged with our other furniture, I  measured and cut the same upholstery fabric into squares and recovered the original throw pillows that came with our sofas. These cases were machine sewn approximately 5/7ths around the edge and then stuffed with the old pillows. The last length was then hand sewn into placed with a hidden stitch. I did four pillows this way. The large back pillows on the sofa-tub were done the same way, but with the purple velvet fabric I had purchased.

Round Pillows

The small round pillow’s fabric was cut into a circle, machine sewn, stuffed with left over foam, and hand sewn with a hidden stitch. The buttons are handmade. In order to make the buttons, I purchased a kit. Each kit comes with the materials needed to make two 1 ½ inch buttons. Each button has two metal parts that clips together. There is a cutout template on the back that you use to cut the material to the appropriate shape and size. I used the material I chose for the cylindrical pillows so that the pillows seemed “related.” I thought this was especially necessary because the canvas print I had chosen, although complementary in color, seemed a little detached from the rest of the aesthetic.

Once I cut the fabric for the button according to the template, I stretched the material around the front of the one metal piece and hooked it to the teeth at the back. There were many teeth around the back of the piece and the fabric needed to be meticulously stretched and hooked to each tooth to keep the front of the button looking smooth. Once the fabric was stretched evenly and hooked, the second half of the button snapped into place on the back, hiding the teeth and excess fabric. Wallah! Instant custom button. Each round pillow has two buttons: one centered on the front and one centered on the back. I used a very long upholstery needle and the two buttons are actually attached in placed by each other. They are pulled tightly together to give the puckering look at the center of the pillow.

Cylindrical Pillows

Finally, I worked on my cylindrical pillows. I measured the circumference and the length of the cylinder pillow form and cut a large rectangular piece to size. I used my trick of making a continuous bias with my gold fabric and cut and pinned piping to run the length of the diameter of the cylinder. These pieces were pinned on both sides of the cut rectangle. Then I measured the radius of the cylinder and cut two rectangular pieces to pin on either side of the piping. I sewed the four pieces of fabric together on both sides of the original rectangle. So I was left with: skinny rectangle, piping, large rectangle, piping, skinny rectangle – all sewn into one piece. Then I folded it in half, long ways, and sewed the length together leaving an opening in the center to stuff the pillow form later. I then hand sewed the end pieces with a loose stitch that I pulled together like a drawstring. This left a nice ruching on either end. I secured the tightened stitch in place from the inside of the case and sewed one of my handmade buttons into the center, which added a nice decorative touch and also served to hide the center stitching. I did this on both ends. Then I stuffed the pillow form into the case and hand sewed the remaining seam, hiding the stitch.

When all of this was done, I put the pillows in place and declared this project a success!

Finished Sofa Tub!

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