Desk Envy

Getty desk 1I’ve probably written more letters sitting on my bed, in a chair watching TV, or even in the sway of a train than I ever have at a desk. But I like to imagine that if I had a luxurious, purpose-made space set aside for pen and paper alone, I’d sit down and write letters for the sheer joy of using it.

On a recent trip to the Getty Museum, I found a treasure trove of desks, the ultimate 18th and 19th century bling for dedicated correspondents (or for wealthy men and women who enjoyed looking like they were dedicated correspondents).

Getty desk 2This massive desk would have not only accommodated the spread of my papers and books across its top, but also the spread of my wide satin skirts beneath in an earlier century. However, I suspect it was designed for the man of the family.

Getty desk 3Maximilian II Emanuel, the exiled Elector of Bavaria, commissioned a Parisian craftsman to make this ornate inlaid desk and the matching footed organizer that sits on top. Separated long ago, the two pieces found each other again at the Getty when the museum acquired the organizer and returned it to its proper place on the desk already in their collection.

Getty desk 4This little beauty, while elaborate in its own right, seems modest by comparison to the other two. It’s an 18th century lady’s desk, and I have to wonder if the wired hooped skirts that came into fashion 100 years later knocked it over once or twice. The hinged compartment for storing ink, pens, and stationery reminds me of the lidded desks we had in elementary school. Do they even have desks like that in school anymore or is my Dick and Jane childhood almost as old-fashioned as sealing wax? As charming as this desk is, it would never hold all the stuff I pile up in any work space.

I took a photo of my own computer desk a couple of years ago. At the time, I was writing an article about mudlarking on the River Thames so it was strewn with bits of old tile and porcelain found along the river, as well as a journal, photos, etc. But I can’t blame the mess on that project. Objects may rotate over time, but it always looks this way. Maybe I need to invest in smaller notecards to fit the space available.My desk

A Tooth Fairy Tale

Missing front teethMy daughter lost her first tooth down the drain. Her friends at school had been losing teeth for months, so mine was anxious to show off a gap and to swap the tooth for largesse from the Tooth Fairy.

Wiggling that tooth for days had done nothing, but it popped out while she brushed her teeth and swirled down the drain before she realized what happened. She lay on the carpet and wailed.

I wrote a note to explain the circumstances to the Tooth Fairy. We even taped a grain of rice to it as a substitute offering. And the Tooth Fairy, being one of the less temperamental magical folk, still swapped $5.00 for the note (and the rice). Subsequent teeth only earned $1 each but that first tooth, whether under the pillow or the sink, was special.

After my daughter’s experience, I enjoyed reading how an elementary school in Canada handled a lost tooth. A little girl named Avery lost her loose tooth in class. The teacher gave her a “tooth chest necklace”—how cool is that?—to keep it safe until she went home. However, Avery fell during recess  and popped the tooth out of her necklace. Despite searching the playground, neither Avery nor her friends found the tooth.

o-TOOTH-FAIRY-LETTER-570Principal Chris Wejr came to the rescue with a great letter to the tooth Fairy: “If you could please accept this letter under her pillow and leave her a gift for her lost tooth, we would really appreciate it.”

Read the full article here.

Anyone else have a Tooth Fairy tale?


Eating Monsters and Moon Dust

Where-the-wild-things-areWhere the Wild Things Are creator Maurice Sendak liked to tell how a young fan once sent him a card with a drawing on it. Sendak responded in kind, drawing one of his Wild Things on a card and sending it to the boy.

“Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

I’m not sure how I would have reacted if my own child had eaten any card, let alone one with original art by Sendak. What an understanding woman Jim’s mother must be to have written simply, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.

moon_cratersIn Dava Sobel’s luminous book, The Planets, she weaves together the diversity of our solar system with humanity’s search to understand and find meaning in Earth’s companion worlds. One story Sobel tells is about her friend Carolyn receiving a “quantum of Moon dust” from a young astronomer analyzing Moon rocks during the Apollo project. (A gift that would have been frowned upon by NASA!)

“‘Where is it? Let me me see it!’ I demanded at this news. But she answered quietly, ‘I ate it.’ After a pause, she added, ‘There was so little.’ As though that explained everything…In a reverie I saw the Moon dust caress Carolyn’s lips like a lover’s kiss…Crystalline and alien, it illuminated her body’s dark recesses like pixie powder…She had mated herself to the Moon somehow via this act of incorporation, and that was what made me so jealous.”

While I haven’t felt the ritualistic urge to forge a bond with anything by ingesting it, I do understand that longing for a tactile connection, the visceral need to touch the world of the past.

OHANatRegChristChurchChrist Church in Alexandria, Virginia has preserved the Washington family pew, benches topped with red cushions in a wood paneled compartment with its own half door. Only a few visitors wandered the aisles the day I visited so I dropped to my hands and knees to look underneath the benches to see if the wood looked old enough that George Washington himself may have sat there. Maybe.

Just in case the Father of Our Country did rest his tush upon it, I lifted each loose cushion in turn to sit squarely on the polished bench, scooting around the whole U-shaped area to make sure I sat where George sat. It would probably make a better story if I confessed to chewing a stray splinter, but I still achieved my cosmic connection with history—even if I did sit down on the job.

Read more about Maurice Sendak’s fan mail and other author letters to young fans.

Appointed Rounds

800px-PO_10001_colonnade_nite_jehNeither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Although we think of these words as the official motto of the United States Postal Service, they’re not.

The text was inscribed across the front of the James A. Farley Post Office building in New York as a finishing touch in 1912. William Mitchell Kendall, who worked for the architectural firm that designed the building, based the phrase on a quote from Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote about the ancient Persian courier system in the 5th century BC:

“It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.”

The USPS actually has no official creed or motto, but that’s OK because I think we all love the unofficial one best.

Film Friday: P.S. I Love You

ps_i_love_you-1First, ignore what the blurb on the DVD box says. P.S. I Love You is NOT “the best romantic comedy in a very long time.” Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie so have no quarrel with someone assigning the word “best” to it. However, despite several funny scenes and buckets of romance, it’s not a comedy.

Gerard Butler and Hilary Swank star in this hard-to-pigeon-hole movie about a young woman coming to terms with her husband’s death, aided on her journey by a series of letters her husband leaves behind. Each is mysteriously delivered at just the right moment for her to take another step towards a new life.

Gerard ButlerButler plays a charismatic young Irishman, who sings and jokes even after death in the realm of flashbacks. Swank is the woman who always wanted to live according to a plan until that plan unraveled with her husband’s demise.

The letters precipitate much of the film’s action—from singing karaoke to visiting Ireland—but they don’t dominate the film. Letters simply start the ball rolling, and the characters take over from there.

rowboatThe tomatometer on the Rotten Tomatoes film review site showed one of the biggest disparities I’ve ever seen between the opinion of critics and audiences. Critics panned P.S. I Love You, giving it a dismal 26% approval rating; audiences embraced it, with 80% liking the movie. While I agree with critics who felt the film played up the sentimentality, I also have to confess that it worked on me. I liked it.

Film Friday: Do you give P.S. I Love You your stamp of approval?

Visit Film Friday’s Pinterest pinboard, Lights, Letters, Action!

Ladies with Letters: Classical Love

the-love-letter-1913With its dreamy, classical backdrop, John William Godward’s painting of a young woman reading a letter—titled as usual, “The Love Letter”—is a languorous fantasy of blue water and veined marble.

The well-heeled patrons who could afford to hang original art on their walls usually had a strong grounding in the classics, so Godward studied Greek and Roman architecture and attire to infuse his painted worlds with accurate details. Note the rust-colored staining along the marble seams, as though rain had worked its way into the cracks over the years.

The artist’s traditional British family did not approve of his career path, so they totally washed their hands of him when he moved to Italy with one of his models in 1912. This painting is dated 1913, so might the woman reading so intently be his partner in scandal?

Unfortunately, Godward’s Neo-Classical style became passe in the early 20th century with the eruption onto the art scene of surrealism, futurism, abstract art, and other avant garde styles. His career faltered, and he committed suicide at age 61, supposedly saying that “the world was not big enough” for him and a Picasso.

One of the last to paint subjects in classical settings, Godward reminds us how much the ancient world influenced European art, architecture and style for centuries.

Cards and other products featuring this painting are available in the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Who’s Got the Big Letter?

the-big-letter-MichiganBefore email and Facebook, Instagram and texting, there was “The Big Letter” for one extended Michigan family.

Since World War I, Dorothy Derheim’s relatives have circulated a packet of letters from one family member to another, passing on news and photos so everyone is kept up to date on what everyone else is doing.

Dorothy, now 87, remembers her mother yelling out the back door to her father, “Harvey, the big letter came.”

The big letter was a group of letters sent among Harvey and his brothers and sisters. “They all lived in Michigan, but back then, it might as well have been across the country,” said Dorothy to

Her father and his eight siblings are gone, but the tradition of the big letter lives on among 22 families scattered among several states. When the bundle of letters arrives, each family reads the news, removes their last letter from the mix, adds a new one, and then sends the big letter on its way.

It’s not a lack of computer literacy that keeps the paper letters circulating. Most families type their news on a keyboard. But they are loathe to give up a tradition that maintains a tangible connection between the generations, family branches, and a century of letter writers and recipients who looked forward to the the big letter’s arrival in their mailbox.

PeachWhen my daughter was in first grade, her cousin Teal sent us a stuffed bear named Peach and an accompanying travel journal. The idea was to take Peach on a few local outings, write about them and then send the bear on its way to a new destination. A specified end date indicated when Peach had to be returned to Teal in Dallas so she could present her school report.

My daughter loved having Peach visit. The bear rode in the car with her and slept in her bed at night, and even paid a visit to show and tell at school one day. Imagine if Peach continued to circulate, bringing tales of new adventures on every pass?

Read the full article about the big letter here.

A Book Is Born!

Old-Manhattan-Has-Some-FarmsI just received an advance copy of my new book, Old Manhattan Has Some Farms. It doesn’t matter how many PDFs or galley copies I’ve already seen; a book only becomes real to me when I hold it in my hands. That may pose a problem as society moves more towards ebooks, but for now, I can still enjoy the genuine article.

Old Manhattan Has Some Farms highlights how communities across North America can add locally grown foods to the menu. Each verse is set in a different city—Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta—and covers topics that range from beekeeping to hydroponics to container gardens. Anyone can grow good food, E-I-E-I-Grow!

Charlesbridge Publishing will release Old Manhattan this summer on August 5.

Remember Aerogrammes?

Aerogramme 1Who remembers aerogrammes, those lightweight, prepaid, all-in-one flimsies that post offices around the world once sold for international correspondence?

A constant during my pen pal years and when I taught school in Melbourne, aerogrammes have gone the way of the dodo and rotary dial phones. When I lived in Australia, international phone rates ran a steep $2.00 per minute. Those were the days when people shouted, “It’s long distance!” and you RAN to the telephone to save the caller from spending good money on silence.

By comparison, an aerogramme at that time cost 25¢ from Australia and 22¢ from America, cheaper than regular international postage. I could cram a lot of news into one full sheet plus a third (on the inside fold). Conversely, letters with fold and seal end flaps had a marked finish line; I usually didn’t run out of news before I ran out of aerogramme. And the very name conveyed the feeling of swift couriers carrying a message in my own hand: “telegrams” sent by “airplane” = aerogrammes.

aerogramme 2Of course, there were drawbacks. No enclosures allowed, so I could not have mailed my cat, for example, who decided to pose on top of an old letter to illustrate my point. Plus, I don’t usually look for a letter opener, so piecing together ripped news was par for the course.

Aerogram006I recently found an unused 1985 aerogramme celebrating Mark Twain and Halley’s Comet that I had saved. Its white color is unsettling. No matter where I bought them, aerogrammes were always blue.

Email, Facebook and our other electronic connections are easier (and even cheaper if you don’t count the monthly Internet bill) than the streamlined aerogrammes. But wouldn’t you love to open your mailbox to find one of those thin blue missives, carrying in its folds a connection to faraway friends in distant lands?