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There is something quite wonderful about Spring on a beautiful day in New York. I decided to spend some time this afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum going to see “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde”.

It was simply a beautiful day, crystal clear, cool, brilliantly sunny, with a turquoise sky.  I decided to walk to the museum from Midtown, and the last part of my walk was on Fifth Avenue, alongside Central Park, from 59th Street up to 81st.

Sidewalk on Fifth Avenue adjacent to Central Park

The show was superb, with a breathtaking collection of paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and Renoir which had been astutely collected by the Steins when they lived in Paris and before these artists had been discovered.  My favorite piece was a small line drawing by Picasso of Leo Stein, which I wish I could have included here but photography wasn’t permitted.  It was just one thin line, but it brilliantly, and playfully, captured an animated facial expression, unruly hair and perfectly plausible anatomy.

On my way out, I also discovered a wall of watercolors by John Marin, an American artist who painted watercolors at the turn of the century and was apparently known for his abstract landscapes. There were several that I thought were remarkable.

John Marin, "Delaware County", 1912

I’m obviously taken with Spring, trees and the concept of renewal.  With so much changing for me, and becoming new, it’s nice that nature is part of that.

The trees have even been my inspiration for a collage, when the challenge this week was to create a collage using CD’s, as unnatural and man-made a product as you can find. But maybe it’s nice to be able to see nature in even the least natural objects.

Tree Collage with CD's, sandpaper, mylar,fabric, watercolors and ink

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In the 41 years of our marriage, I never went to the movies or to the theater by myself.  It would never have occurred to me to do that.  Aside from shopping, which my husband didn’t much enjoy unless it was to bookstores, we wanted to spend most of our downtime together, whether it was to go for a walk, visit a museum, or to go see a play or movie.

I remember my first theater outing as a widow, a few months after his death.  I had purchased a ticket to see “The Odyssey” performed on a Saturday night in an off-Broadway theater on the Lower East Side in Manhattan.  They didn’t have reserved seats and I picked one on the aisle.  The seat next to me stayed empty until a few minutes before they closed the doors.  A pretty scruffy young guy in his 20’s sat down next to me.  I’m not sure what was worse, having the seat empty or having somebody else sitting in it who wasn’t my husband.  Either way, it was extremely difficult.  I made it through the first act, until intermission, and then left  as soon as the lights went on.

It’s been about 2 years now and I’ve gotten better at this, having gone to several Broadway and off-Boadway plays by myself and seen them through to the end.  One friend, who’s widowed, suggested that going to matinees, when there are fewer couples, was just easier than going in the evening.  Although I haven’t always followed that advice, I can say that it is.  I still swallow hard each time an usher in a theater sees me standing at the top of the aisle waiting to be seated and asks, “How Many?” And I respond, “Just one”.

This past Saturday, I went to a matinee of “The Artist”, playing at a movie theater on 2nd Avenue and East 67th Street. The theater was only about a third full and just about everyone there was eligible for a senior citizen discount. Many were single women.  As I started to eat a bag of popcorn before the movie started, I thought how far I’d come in being able to do this.

If you haven’t seen it, the movie is just terrific and very life-affirming, although I confess that I was probably one of many viewers who was transfixed by, and immediately fell in love with Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier.

Tulips and hot dogs on Third Avenue

I didn’t mind not having to think about who I was going to get to shovel the snow (what little there was this winter) after I moved out of my single-family Brooklyn brownstone with its 50 feet of sidewalk frontage and into a Manhattan apartment building with a full maintenance staff. Seeing it fall from the 23rd story window of my temporary apartment during a snowstorm in New York in late January was very nice.  Since most of these Manhattan buildings do have a maintenance crew, the sidewalks  are all magically cleared within no time at all, and getting around here is infinitely easier than in Brooklyn.

However, now that the daffodils and crocuses are beginning to bloom, I’m wistful that I no longer have the backyard I had in our Brooklyn brownstone.  It’s not that I did much gardening, which I didn’t.  It’s not even that I spent much time actually sitting outside in the yard.  By mid-April until October, the mosquitoes take over and feast on any humans not slathered in repellant.

But on days like the ones we’ve had recently, when the temperature is above 60 degrees, I did like to keep open the screen door  from the ground floor kitchen into the backyard and feel the air, hear the birds and smell the garden.

It so happens that the tall modern building I’m temporarily in has sliding windows that only open about 6″, so any thought to throw open the window and let air in is impossible.  Of course when you open the windows even 6″, you also let in the noise on 3rd Avenue.

When I walk to the subway, I aim for the more scenic side streets in Murray Hill.  They do have row houses with window boxes, tree pits with flowers popping up, and flowering trees,  but there are simply not enough houses with plantings, compared to the apartment buildings, to make the air smell like spring.  The closest you can get to a sensory experience of spring is from walking by a Korean grocery store with a large floral display out front. The hyacinths are extremely fragrant.

Tulips coming up in a tree pit on East 38th Street

I know it’s easy to romanticize about what you know longer have and I don’t mean to give the impression that downtown Brooklyn is Walden Pond or some other extraordinary idyll.  Trust me, it’s not.  But there is a ratio of the built environment to the dirt environment that favors the dirt.  There are simply more (at least for the time being) low-rise buildings and trees.

My new apartment overlooks Riverside Park and when I was there yesterday, I could see the clusters of daffodils in the park, in different places, from my 11th floor windows.  It’s quieter there than in Midtown, where I temporarily reside, so there’s a chance I might even hear some birds.  But, of course, the experience of spring is going to be very different when it’s experienced through an open window and from a distance of about 100′.  However, at least I’ll be able to open the double-hung windows pretty wide and I don’t think mosquitoes fly up to the 11th floor.

I am in my mid-60’s now and have no problem getting up on a ladder to change a lightbulb, if necessary.  However, I’m thinking ahead to when I may be in my 80’s, and, possibly, still living in my new apartment.  Therefore, I’m trying to make far-sighted decisions about how it’s laid out or furnished that will make sense when my mobility will be much more limited and my bones much more fragile.

So it was interesting today to visit a lighting showroom in Manhattan to pick out lights for the kitchen ceiling, the insides of 3 closets and the ceiling in what is becoming my little laundry center in what used to be the maid’s bathroom.

For anyone reading this who has not bought a new lighting fixture recently, you may be surprised to find that incandescent bulbs might as well be relics from the Jurassic Period. They are hard to find in new fixtures.

Because of the concrete beams in the ceiling, it made sense to flush mount the kitchen ceiling fixtures instead of recessing them.  Of the various flush-mounted fixtures, there was only one I could find that would have enough light (75 watts from a halogen bulb), be relatively streamlined in appearance and, most important to me, have an easy-to-remove (I hope) collar and glass cover that was not too heavy to hold as you were standing on a ladder trying to get it off.  Honestly, I think removing anything over your head is tricky business.  Then I learned that the 75 watt halogen bulb it uses has to be handled with a tissue so your hand doesn’t overheat one portion of the bulb.  All of this while you’re poised precariously on a ladder.

Access to the 75 watt halogen bulb (which has to be handled with a tissue so the bulb maintains an even temperature!) in this new kitchen ceiling fixture is accessed by pulling down on the stainless collar.

The lights for the ceiling in the 3 closets also promises to be a challenge, thanks to a relatively recent change in the NYC Building Code that requires lights in closets to be covered.  I didn’t want to spend much on these closet fixtures.   My choice was between glass-covered fixtures that either pulled down or unscrewed.  After some internal debate with my equilibrium, I opted for the screw driver approach on these fixtures that take a 75 watt florescent bulb.

Closet light has screws on the collar to hold the glass.

Finally, there was the ceiling fixture for the laundry room, also a good 9′ above the floor.  The winner was simply the last fixture standing as I eliminated ones that were expensive, were difficult to access or didn’t provide at least 100 watts of light.  (I debated whether I even wanted to see the stains that didn’t get removed from my new energy efficient washing machine that uses less water.)

Laundry room fixture selected pulls down for access.

The moral of this story is simply that, even with my best intentions to buy easy-to-access ceiling lights, I bought ones that are going to be hard to maintain. I have the new standards of energy efficiency and the new changes to the NYC Building Code to thank for all of this.  I long for the days of the Sylvania 60 watt flood lights, in high hat ceiling fixtures, in my old kitchen and sockets with light bulbs in closets.  Just stick your hand up and unscrew them.

I’m not sure if the writers of all these new standards had the elderly in mind who, I think, run the risk of more falls as they try to access and manipulate all these new types of bulbs and covered fixtures.

I guess I’ll just have to keep the super’s number by the phone for any bulb-changing.

A week ago, I would have thought a subwoofer was part of a dog. Now I know it’s what you need to get the bass notes out of  a sound system.  In addition to this heightened audio wisdom has come a realization that, sometime when I wasn’t paying attention to electronics (which could be at any point in the last 20 or 30 years) they made these televisions HUGE and razor thin. So big, in fact, that setting up a popcorn stand in the foyer seems to be an an appropriate ancillary use.

The contractor brought in an audio-visual consultant to help guide my decision-making process.  I knew immediately that we were coming from different places when he said that,  “I would need at least a 50″ television, given the size of the living room, if I wanted to put it in there.”  I remembered the small black and white, and then color, televisions my parents bought in the 1950’s and ’60’s, where we all assembled to watch “Gunsmoke”, “The $64,000 Question”, and other jewels from those quaint days of early broadcasting.  However, the noun, “television”, and the modifier, “need”, are not, for me, dependent parts of speech.

A bigger challenge was how to be able to integrate a television into the living room, where I hadn’t had one in the 30 years we lived in our Victorian brownstone.  Now that my space was roughly half as big as it once was, the idea of a television in the “living” room didn’t seem like such a terrible idea.  Or did it? Among the keepers from the past that will always remain with me are the wonderful prints my husband and I bought together.  Many are of England, which we both loved, and, more specifically, of Cambridge, where he went for graduate work for two years after college and where we spent our first year after getting married.

How does one of these televisions work in a room with nice, old prints?  The AV consultant suggested a cabinet, from which the TV could magically levitate when it was needed and sink down again when it wasn’t. I thought this James Bond solution only made the elephant in the room seem even bigger, since to conceal the TV, the cabinet needed some heft.  Remember “Le Petit Prince” and the boa that swallowed the hat?

I decided, in the end, to simply coexist with the TV as a 21st century component that will enable me to sit and watch episodes of “Downton Abbey” without squinting from across the room.  And certainly as I get old and decrepit, who knows whether I might need to bring the world into the confines of this apartment instead of going out into it, as I do now.

Popcorn anyone?

The likely solution: a TV* and a media cabinet
*Yes, it seems enormous to me in the 40" range but it's a relative peanut compared to what's out there.

 

I expected to be able to get around more easily once I moved to Manhattan from Brooklyn.  I had probably taken a bus in Brooklyn twice in the 30 years we had lived in  our brownstone neighborhood downtown and was expecting to take buses all the time in Manhattan to supplement the subway.  What I didn’t expect is how often I decide to walk instead of taking any mass transit.

Walking in Manhattan these days is certainly different from when I lived here last, in 1978.  My husband and I lived in one of those white brick apartment buildings on Third Avenue in the 20’s and, as evidence of our walking zeal, would not infrequently walk back from the theater in the evening and downtown to eat in Chinatown on Saturday nights.  So I do have some historical perspective on the subject.

I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle as I walk around these days.  Demographically, Manhattan has certainly gotten younger with everybody looking to be no older than about 25.  Everyone seems to have a tatoo, women show much more skin and everybody is wired to something.

Of course the city is much safer than it was in the 70’s (and 80’s), when some of my walks now as a single woman, coming back from the theater at 10:00 pm, would have been very inadvisable.  My greatest concern now is stepping on a dead rat, which one young woman, crossing East 38th Street, said she must have stepped on in the middle of the street; it obviously wasn’t quick enough to escape the frenetic traffic heading east toward the Midtown Tunnel.

So walking would certainly be a logical theme to pursue in collage, and was my immediate response to a design challenge to come up with a narrative for a 15″ x 40″ sheet of nice, 3-ply, Strathmore paper.

Walking in the City collage with newspaper, colored paper, watercolor, marker, paper fasteners, ribbon, and foil paper

(middle panel detail)

As nice as it is to be distracted by art and walks, the renovation requires some decisions on appliances, lighting, and a subject about which I know little, 21st century electronics.  More on that to come.

One of the wisest things I did in the year after my husband’s death, which was also soon after I had sold my company of 25 years that made educational children’s products, was to take some art classes.  Since I had to sign a 5-year non-compete agreement for children’s products with the company that bought my company, I needed to reinvent myself in my working career as well as in my personal life.  In short, the ground shifted every which way.

That year, I took a painting class and  several textile design classes.  They were part of my effort to stay as busy as I physically could manage and try to distract myself, as much as I possibly could.

The plan worked, to a large extent. I would come back from late afternoon or evening classes simply too exhausted to do much thinking, but with new design perspectives and skills.  My goal is eventually to make hand-made textile products and then follow-up with a website on ETSY, a great outlet for artisanal crafts. Unfortunately,  the textile supplies wouldn’t fit into my temporary apartment and needed to go into the storage warehouse with everything else.

However, since I decided that this 4-month renovation interlude should be about trying out new experiences, I thought I would try a class in collage.  I’ve certainly seen wonderful collages by Picasso and Matisse, but had never thought about the possibilities of glue and paper.  The class I found is taught by an artist who has worked exclusively in collage.  She favors mixed media and has a good eye for composition.

I’m enjoying it immensely, especially being able to incorporate any material into a composition, both 2-dimensionally and 3-dimensionally. The Atget show at MOMA, particularly his photographs of trees in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris,

Photograph by Eugene Atget of trees in the Luxembourg Gardens

inspired one recent piece, which used sandpaper, wire, paper and rice paper.

Collage with trees and bird

It affirms once again the value of always being open to new experiences.

Unquestionably,  the biggest visible part of my renovation is the new kitchen.  That said, the biggest part of that are the new kitchen cabinets.  Here is the hierarchy of kitchen cabinets, as described in an email to me by the salesman from whom I ordered my new “stock” cabinets:

“There are 3 types of cabinetry-stock,semi-custom and custom. Stock is a pre-made cabinet with no options and limited door styles and sizes. Semi-custom is made to order  with some customization available. Custom cabinets are pretty much anything goes; if I can draw it they will build it, custom stains,custom paint finishes, color matching ect.

“I would put what you ordered at the better quality end of stock or entry level.”

They seem like perfectly nice, simply designed cabinets, with a Shaker look to them, and I’ve been told they hold up pretty well.  The picture below is a photo of the cabinets in the  showroom.  I’d like to be able to have them hold up for at least as long as I hold up.

Kitchen cabinets in the showroom

After I paid for the cabinets, which have a very respectable 4-6 week production time and are made in Wisconsin, the salesman gave me a capsule summary of the typical life expectancy of kitchen cabinets, based on the 25 years he’s been selling them.  He said most people move every 7 years and most cabinets “start to look tired” after about 15 years.

What was stunning to me was how often he said most people move. I suppose I significantly alter the typical statistic, with my move coming after being in the same house for 30 years.  But then again, my marriage was also one that was about to celebrate its 41st anniversary.  Same house, same kitchen cabinets there, installed about 15 years ago,  and same husband for almost 41 years.

I think all those numbers are unusual today.

The foyer chandelier

The prior owners of the apartment that I purchased moved back to France.  They left behind this chandelier.  It’s visually striking (some may say weird) and also pretty contemporary in design.  It’s not anything I would ever have picked out.

Each time I went to the apartment, after the closing and after the prior owners had moved out, I confronted my decision on whether or not I should keep it.  It would be hard not to confront that decision.  The chandelier is in your face the minute you walk in the door and, although it was a dramatic presence when the apartment was furnished, now that it was empty, the chandelier seemed to take over.

I changed my mind continuously.  One visit, my right brain would argue that it was simply too modern for the traditional pieces of furniture eventually coming out of storage from my husband’s and my 1870 Brooklyn brownstone.  On another visit, my left brain would insist that the future can exist with the past, that the future is good and should be embraced.

The futuristic voice in my head favoring keeping the chandelier also had the support of  another internal thought lobbyist.  I’ve always believed in the idea that we never really own these houses or apartments we might buy.  We simply reside in them for some time and then pass them along, hopefully in better shape than we found them.  If you buy into that philosophy, there’s something nice about having something of its past history around.  The funky chandelier would certainly accomplish that.

The contractor’s crew took down the chandelier on their first day working in the apartment to protect it while I made up my mind.  They put it temporarily in the bathtub in the guest bathroom where it sits, much less dramatically, on a piece of old carpet awaiting my ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumbs-down’ decision.

I decided, about a week ago, to keep it, and cast my vote with that part of me willing to embrace the future along with the past.  I think it was the right decision.

“What do you want to do with this?” the contractor asked me on Friday, as he pointed to a cavity in the exterior, north-facing, kitchen wall underneath the window.  It was about 12″ x 12″x 4″ deep, although I was reluctant to stick my hand in to get a precise depth measurement and risk having it shredded by the somewhat menacing-looking crumpled tin.

Ice Box in the Wall

“What is it?” I asked. “Probably a place where they stored ice.  We can reline it,  and put a small cabinet door on it, if you want to keep it.”  I most certainly did!  I have renamed it the wine cellar.  I immediately saw it as a nice place to keep a bottle or two of wine, flanked by 10″ thick masonry walls and benefiting from the blasts of cold wind that would certainly blow in from the north on cold days.

There are a few other treasures from the past here.  Each of the bathrooms has a small button (the one in the Master bath is located to the left of the door and looks to be made of mother of pearl; the one in the second bathroom has been painted over), which presumably summoned the maid.  Everyone who walks into the Master bath always presses it, but its ring has been long silenced.

There is also an outlet of some sort in the middle of the dining room floor (and under any dining room table, past or future) which we assumed connected to some device you stepped on to also request the maid to come.  Perhaps if I ever succumb and set up a Fresh Direct account, I can wire the bells and buzzer to them.