Friday, May 29, 2015

Elizabeth Jane Howard: Mr. Wrong

I'll be so sad when I've finished reading through Elizabeth Jane Howard's novels--only three left unread!  Mr. Wrong was a treat, especially since I read it immediately after finishing the difficult Autobiography of William Butler Yeats.

I love this pulpy cover

Mr. Wrong is actually a collection of short stories, and "Mr. Wrong," the first story, is a macabre tale of a young woman and the creepy things that happen after she buys a second-hand MG after moving away from her parents to London.  I didn't realize that EJH wrote spooky stories, and she does it well.  "Mr. Wrong" is deliciously suspenseful, with hints at gruesomeness, but is also a poignant story of how lonely it can be in the big city, the difficulty in making friends, and dealing with overbearing parents.  Other stories in the book concern failing marriages, a ten year old girl who makes desperate bargains with God in order to calm her anxiety about her mother, a brief sexual encounter on the way to the train station in Marseille, and a disturbing account of an overbearing stage mother and her daughter.  The final story, "Three Miles Up" brings us back to the supernatural, as two men on a boating holiday on the canals, take a mysterious girl on as a member of the crew.

One thing that EJH excels at is writing from a child's perspective.  Her children are so real, especially the way their half-savage behavior, and entirely alien-to-adults reasoning are depicted. Two of the stories, "The Devoted" and "The Whip Hand" are about children, and I think these two were my favorites in the collection.

If you have never read Elizabeth Jane Howard, you must. You really must, although it might be best to start with The Beautiful Visit or her Cazalet series.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Building a Professional Wardrobe Part II: What does work

We've covered what doesn't work if you're trying to create a versatile professional wardrobe. Now we'll talk about what does work. After I'd been at my job about a year, I realized I had to stop making random purchases.  I spent some time analyzing my taste, and decided that I should stick to classic, unfussy styles in navy, white, khaki, and black.  This was not a revelation, but it helped to keep this decision in mind, so that I wouldn't buy silly things on the spur of the moment, which I've been known to do.

With that in mind, I invested in six basic pieces:  A conservative-length pencil skirt, a silk polka dot blouse, khaki chinos, cotton shirt dress, cashmere tee, blue Oxford blouse (pictured with the cashmere tee).  These, along with a pair of black, lightweight stretch wool trousers, which I'd bought during my SAHM days, became the backbone of my go-to-meeting wardrobe, and still are to this day, although I don't wear the skirt and dress so much anymore because of my psoriasis.

Foundation of a work wardrobe

Six pieces is a bit thin.  At this point, the people I meet with the most are probably thinking, "Here she comes again in that polka dot blouse."  I recently bought two pairs of trousers, both navy, but one cropped and one full length, and three tops: a linen blouse, a linen tee, and a striped Breton top, in an attempt to create a basic work uniform.

I'm sure that many of you saw the article about the woman who wears the same thing to work every day.  I'm intrigued by the idea, but I don't want to wear the exact same thing every day.   A while back, fashion blogger Not Dressed as Lamb, demonstrated a way to create ten separate work outfits from four tops, four bottoms, four accessories, and four shoes.  I borrowed her idea and created my own grid.

This was a fun exercise, but when I actually tried to put outfits together, I found that they can't be combined interchangeably.  The blue linen blouse, for example, doesn't look right with the khaki pants, but it does work with the two navy pants.  I wouldn't wear the heels with the khakis, or the sneakers with the black wool trousers, which are the dressiest in the bunch. (Not that you can tell from the abysmal photography.)  All of these pieces can be worn in at least three seasons of the year, and some are suitable year round.  I have other clothes, of course--pink and blue oxford shirts, my cashmere tee, the pencil skirt, a pair of gray stretch chinos from my SAHM days that I love. For fall and winter, I would add my wool bias plaid skirt, and some sweaters, particularly a gray cashmere from Everlane that has the perfect neckline to be worn with an Oxford shirt.

Linen tee, cropped wool pants, sneakers

Navy trousers, blue blouse, ballet flats

Boring?  Yes, but I don't mind. As you can see, when I put the grid into practice, I failed at accessories.  I do often wear the red chunky bracelet and the pearl necklace, but I'm not likely to wear the scarf in the summer and I tend to wear my shirts untucked, so don't wear belts very often. It was still a useful exercise and helped me to look at my clothes with new eyes.  Those sneakers, for example, I hadn't worn in over a year, and now I've rediscovered them.  Since I work in healthcare, where a lot of people are on their feet all day, casual footwear is accepted, but sandals and open-toed shoes are strictly forbidden.

When buying work clothes, I also have to take into consideration the fact that I now ride a bicycle to work.  I wouldn't bike in the black pants.  They are the dressiest pants that I own, are dry clean only, and have a wider leg that could get caught in the bike chain.  I have biked successfully in both of the navy pants.  Chances are, as the weather gets hot, or if I want to wear something that won't work on a bike, I will pack my work clothes and wear something casual for the bike ride.  I have a pair of Prana trousers in a stretchy tech fabric that are perfect for this, and are also suitable for casual Fridays or no-meeting days.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats

I read this for the fifty classics project and because W. B. Yeats is one of my favorite poets.  It doesn't really read like an autobiography, but is an account of the literary, artistic, and theatrical luminaries he associated with.  Many of whom I hadn't heard of.  If you are going to read this, it might be helpful to brush up on who was important in the arts in the 1880's-1910's, as well as refresh your knowledge of the pre-Raphaelites.  I am familiar with Oscar Wilde, of course, and Yeats' description of how he decorated his house is one of the gems in this book.  (All white with touches of red.  It sounds like Wilde's drawing room would have been at home in any modern decorating magazine, but must have been deemed singular in the 1880s.)

Here are some pictures of Yeats.  Handsome, no?  I was so struck by his resemblance to Daniel Day Lewis, I had to make sure DDL didn't actually play Yeats in a movie.

Young Yeats

W.B. Yeats or Daniel Day Lewis?

I think we can all agree that William Butler Yeats ranks with  literary hotties such as Charles Lamb and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Thank goodness he had the sense not to grow dreadful Victorian facial hair.

The Autobiography turned out to be a challenge.  It starts out kindly, with Yeats' memories of his childhood in Sligo, but soon you're grappling with the complex literary and spiritual societies Yeats associated with.  He was a member of The Golden Dawn, for example, a society that studied mysticism and the occult.  He was also active in a movement to resurrect Irish literature and drama.  I think of Ireland as having a strong literary tradition, and in my opinion, the Irish are the best writers in the English language.  But Yeats, of course, would have been unaware of how enormous his own contribution to Irish literature was to be, and was writing about the pre-Joyce Ireland.  The Autobiography concludes with his experiences in Sweden, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

I don't know how to conclude this post.  I might have said that I feel enriched for having read this, but Yeats writes in the Autobiography about the limited mental capacity of people who are always trying to enrich themselves.  I never thought I was a genius, but it's unpleasant to see yourself grouped with the lumpen proletariat.  Oh well.

Let's conclude with a poem.  Yeats was my grandfather's favorite poet, and sometimes he would recite for us, from memory, his favorite of Yeats' poems.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Building a Professional Wardrobe Part I: What Doesn't Work

After college, I worked as a nanny, and before too long I was married and at home full time with my own babies.  When I finally got around to starting a career (nineteen years after graduating from college!) I wore scrubs to work every day.  When I left bedside nursing to take an analyst position, I had reached my forties without ever having had to create a work wardrobe. So there I was, entering a professional office environment for the first time in my life, with nothing but my SAHM and student clothes.  Which were awful and inadequate, even for our business casual dress code.

An example item from my SAHM wardrobe.

So I bought some clothes, but I went about it in a stupid way and now I am going to show you some of my silly purchases and explain why they don't work in a professional wardrobe.

J. Crew

What's wrong with this skirt?  For one thing, the stiff fabric and the pleats are unflattering.  This skirt looks terrible with any top that's not tucked in. If I wear it with a sweater, I look like a walking version of the Charlottesville coal tower. It isn't easy to mix and match, and it's only suitable for fall and winter. I wear this skirt, at most, three times a year.  I'm going to keep it, because it has its uses, but it's not practical.

Cville coal tower  or Patience in her brown skirt?


Friends don't let friends buy clothes from Boden. Seriously,  Boden's clothes are often disappointing. This looked fantastic in the catalog. A skater skirt? What was I thinking?  I wore it to work once, and regretted it the whole day. 

J. Crew
Weird, uncomfortable fabric that is neither warm enough for cold weather, nor cool enough for warm weather.  The back zip, which I thought was a neat style feature, just catches my hair.  Goes well with some of my trousers, so I'm keeping it for now, but I hardly ever wear it.


Like the plaid skirt, this is a one-off.  The sleeves contrast with the body of the jacket, which looks hokey, and it has blue elbow patches. I can't wear it very often, and in general, blazers are just not my thing and tweed is really not my thing, and tweed is not Zara's thing.  They didn't do it well. Why did I even buy it?  Because I was intoxicated by the low post-holiday prices.  When it's time to get dressed, I always ignore my blazers and go for a cardigan.

Garnet Hill
I swear it looked work-appropriate in the catalog.  In real life, it looks like a nightgown.  That said, it's brilliant for fat days, thus an ideal choice for the first day back at work after Thanksgiving.  I'm keeping it in order to have something to turn to in a "none of my pants fit" emergency.  I would really like a classic print knit wrap dress, but this isn't it.


I bought these shoes (Keen) thinking they'd be a good alternative to the Dansko clogs I usually wear.  It IS useful to have a pair of comfortable non-clog walking shoes, but these stumpify my legs and also flayed all the skin off the back of my ankles.

I learned that buying clothes without a plan left me left me in a position of having to buy even more clothes because I owned a closetful of disparate items that didn't work together. In general, clothes that don't work are those that can't be worn through at least three seasons and don't work as mix and match with multiple items. (An exception to the mix and match rule is dresses.  A basic dress that you can throw on and maybe add a scarf or cardigan is invaluable.)

Now you've had a tour of the more shameful items in my closet.  I hope to write again soon about basics that I've bought that have helped me put together a more cohesive work wardrobe.  What about you?  Any mistakes in your work wardrobe?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Slices of Life

Last week was absolute shit, both at work and at home.  My left shin is a bloody mess due to anxiety-provoked psoriasis scratching. Whatever. The whole point of life is to suffer, right?  I usually find comfort in books, but last week I was reading The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O'Brian.  This is one of the last of his stellar Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series and the first of these books to be disappointing.  Now I am reading The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, which is good, but not a comfort read.

Jon and I often do something celebratory on Friday nights, but this week I went on a tidying spree and tossed out a huge pile of papers and old magazines and catalogs and gathered a bag of items to take to the Salvation Army.  A cathartic clean is a good way to end a difficult week.

Saturday, after the gym, and in a more cheerful frame of mind, I rode my bike to the farmer's market, ostensibly to buy local strawberries, but also to visit Jon and friends at the Mad Hatter booth.  I spotted one of Charlottesville's iconic local residents, dressed in leather lederhosen, pull out an inch-thick stack of two dollar bills to pay for his purchases at one of the farm stands.

I spent a good chunk of the weekend learning to sew knit fabric.  I had a huge piece of stretch knit that I got for free and Grace asked me to make her a maxi skirt.  I wasn't sure about sewing knits without a serger.  I've had bad luck in the past, and my sewing machine manual wasn't very helpful, but it does make a sort of tiny, tight zigzag stitch that made a nice, secure, un-puckery seam.  I used a jersey needle.  The skirt itself isn't perfect, but just knowing that I can sew on knit fabric gives me so many more sewing options.  I wear a lot of knits and there are so many nice patterns for knits, particularly among indie pattern designers.  I felt a bit limited, sticking to woven fabric.

I didn't have a pattern, but used this tutorial. I would never have purchased this fabric.  It's thin and skimpy, and I'm not sure what it's intended for.  An online fabric shop sent it to me by mistake and let me keep it even after I notified them of the error.

I found some great library books with projects suitable for leftover yarn and fabric scraps.  I finished this wool gauntlet, and I think I have just enough yarn left to complete its mate. I can't even remember what I made with this yarn originally.

There's supposed to be a little strap across the wrist,
with leather buttons, which I'll knit if I have enough yarn.

I also watched An Education, (for the second time) which is a great movie.  Set in 1961,  it's about an Oxford-hopeful English schoolgirl who is introduced to a glamorous lifestyle after randomly meeting a charming and worldly man.  It stars Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard and the cast includes some of my favorites: Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, and Emma Thompson. Highly recommended.  Have you seen it?

Oh, and I won the Gordy's Pickle Jar giveaway from Relay Foods!  A free jar of Gordy's Cajun okra, hot chili spears, and bloody Mary mix are coming my way.  A nice Mothers' Day surprise, and, I hope, an omen of a better week to come.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

A frugality update

Back in September, I wrote a post about trying to get a handle on our finances.  I made a real effort to curtail our spending, with moderate success.  There was definitely more I could have done, and my resolve crumbled with the holidays, but overall, our savings have grown and we have completed the scary big expenses that were hanging over our heads last year--replacing our house's circuit breaker box, hiring someone to prune the two large trees on our property, and new glasses for me.  I hadn't had a new pair since 2001!  Tuition and taxes are out of the way for another year, so now is the time for a financial power play.

One thing I did to save money was to do my grocery shopping outside of Charlottesville. I found that prices are cheaper in the valley, and for a while was driving over the mountain to the Sharp Shopper and Martin's in Waynesboro.  It seemed that I made up for what I spent on gas in the food savings, but perhaps only marginally.  There are definitely some great deals at the Sharp Shopper, but I don't have time to drive that far every week.  I made one trip to the Aldi in Culpeper--a one-hour drive from Charlottesville.  I spent far, far less than usual when I went to Aldi, enough to fully justify the gas expense, but it was so utterly exhausting, I haven't done it again.  I heard that Aldi might be coming to Charlottesville which I think would be good, although I know some of you will disagree.

Some of the comments on the Aldi article linked above are discouraging.  I know I can be obnoxious about walking and biking everywhere and living in the city and shopping local, but it's pretty shitty to call people "pavement apes" because they drive to the suburbs to save money on groceries.

Anyway, while food prices tend to be lower outside of Charlottesville, it's not practical or environmentally friendly to drive to next town to shop.  So I cooked from the Good and Cheap cookbook, served more vegetarian meals, and focused on resisting impulse buys at the grocery store. Nothing revolutionary there, but since groceries are something you must buy, small changes really add up.

Groceries aside, I've been more mindful of spending in general, particularly on clothes.  Buying new clothes, and justifying the purchases because they are needed for work is one of my big weaknesses.  I have made a lot of very silly clothing purchases over the years, some of which you will see in a post I'm writing about building a professional wardrobe.  My new found love of sewing has also made me think hard before buying clothes for myself.  Sewing takes patience and planning and forces you to get over the instant gratification of buying new ready-to-wear.

I also put a halt on any home decorating projects, which means the front hall is still unfinished.  The painting is done, but I have framed only one of my vintage Great Lakes nautical charts and I put off buying the big mirror that I want to prop against the wall.  I did buy a 200 year old Heppelwhite table at the Covesville store.  It was a steal because of a clumsily-replaced leaf.  I think it looks well in the hall, but that's all we're doing for now, unless I find a really good deal on a mirror.

Antique table--the wonky leaf is against the wall.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Swan in the Evening

I couldn't remember why I added Swan in the Evening by Rosamund Lehmann to my book list and I was vaguely annoyed with myself for having added it and was curiously reluctant to read it.  (Usually I'm eager to read new books on my list.)  It wasn't available at any local library and I considered deleting it from my list altogether, but my literary OCD wouldn't allow that.  I found a cheap used copy on Amazon, and I was surprised by the pleasing appearance of the slim hardcover when it arrived.  Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover.

Rosamund Lehmann was a British novelist, born in 1901.  Swan in the Evening is a memoir, although a fragmentary one.  (The subtitle is "Fragments of an Inner Life.")  The first part describes various pivotal scenes in her privileged Edwardian childhood.  The most vivid of these is when she allows her baby brother to take a drink from a perfume bottle and then, from the nanny's thoughtless choice of words, believes she has killed him.

Part two is a bit about her life as a writer and part three is about her grief and intense spiritual and psychic experiences after her twenty-three year old daughter Sally died of polio in 1958 after moving to Jakarta with her husband.  I remembered, after reaching part three, that I had added this book to my list after reading The Perfect Stranger, by P. J. Kavanagh, Sally's husband, which had in turn led me to Swan in the Evening.  I realized that my reluctance to read it was because I didn't want to read something--no matter how nuanced and well-written--about the death of one's child.

I'm glad that I did read Swan in the Evening, because ultimately, it was comforting.  Achingly sad, but hopeful, as the focus turns to "surviving death" and the afterlife.  Lehmann's experiences after her daughter's death suggest that there continued to be a bond and communion between the two of them. She doesn't attribute this to any particular religion, but is also careful not to steer a purely secular course.  She mentions "bigoted atheists" who might be inclined to mock her experience, but also feared organized religion, which might have told her she was sinful for believing what she did. Lehmann is absolutely convinced that there is existence after death, and I agree with her, although I'm unsure of its form.

I'm also glad I've read Swan in the Evening because now I've discovered another British novelist to  obsess about.  Lehmann wrote nine novels.  The first, Dusty Answer, was published in 1927, and was somewhat scandalous, as it referenced lesbianism.  I will definitely be seeking out her novels.