Monday, December 11, 2017

Wreath Week: Wednesday

By Wednesday of Wreath Week, I feel like I'm on a roll, and like I've been pummeled in a fight. It's the midpoint. I have aching muscles from my neck to my feet, especially in my back and hands, since I have a touch of arthritis in the joint in the heel of each hand. I remember feeling sore like this years ago, after working too hard in an exercise class. I really need to get in shape, which means joining a gym — but who wants to feel like this without wreaths to show for it?

Wreaths. My first assignment on Wednesday was one that most of the other decorators refuse: no bow. A bow covers up a nice chunk of the wreath and that saves time. It also gives the decorator a starting point and a direction. The bow always goes on first; it's a rule. I was born questioning authority and I like wreaths without bows.

The assignment called for an indoor, all-natural wreath. The customer will keep it hanging until the spring if it holds up well, so it shouldn't look Christmasy.

I like to use a lot of different materials on indoor wreaths, especially things that are too fragile to be used outside, like dried flowers. I can't use holly or fresh eucalyptus because the former shrivels up too much and the latter smells bad, like cat pee. I didn't add pine, juniper, or cedar to add texture and variety this wreath, either, because short, clipped greens don't always dry prettily, and some drop pollen.

I rarely do indoor wreaths so this was my chance to scavenge in our many old boxes and bags of fragile dried plants, including ancient roses and papery hydrangea. I often break the delicate stuff when I wire it onto the wreath. It's easier for me to use harder items like seed pods. I don't know the names of many of the items I chose but there's golswn yarrow (I think), hard brown yucca and lotus pods, reddish rose hips, two other kinds of dried yellow flowers, dried pink clover-like flowers, two more types of hard, woody seed pods, tiny dried (non-smelly) purplish eucalyptus berries, pine twigs, and two types of pinecones.

This wreath took me a lot longer than usual. Many little blueberry muffins fueled my labor.

lying outside on the bench, it looks brighter and more three-dimensional:

After lunch (pizza and leftover salad), I ate more brownies and contemplated my next order. It was a "decorator's choice" outdoor wreath, meaning I was free to pick my own colors and materials. However, the customer said she had a dark aubergine door. I picked a green bow and covered large pinecones and purply lotus pods with gold glitter spray. Someone brought in lots of lovely holly without berries, so I used that, plus some gold glittery plastic springs, and lots of the tiny, bright-golden jingle bells that dangle on delicate gold wires. There are also pearly green and iridescent purple glass balls. and some dark, dried purple berries that never made it onto the previous wreath.

Looking at it now, it seems like a rather moody wreath, but who paints their door aubergine? Not Little Mary Sunshine, I'd say. But the tiny bells make a festive, silvery sound.

My next assignment was a pair of all-natural outdoor wreaths for double front doors on Marlborough Street. I must have been feeling a bit punchy, or bored. Since my last wreath made noise, I decided that these wreaths needed to make a different kind of statement.

I started with pine, cedar, pinecones, and holly, which some kind soul had offered to me from her own stash. The wreaths are mirror images, which I find easier to make than identical twins.

For an aromatic touch, I added cinnamon sticks, which I'd found while foraging for the wreath with no bow. To wire a cinnamon stick onto a wooden pick, I had to poke holes into it with an awl. This turned out to be time-consuming and hard, since cinnamon cracks and breaks. I persisted.

I doubt I will ever use cinnamon again but the wreaths smelled wonderful.

If you look closely you will see five white, dried flowers that are spiky, hard, and exotic. No one could identify them; they may be a variety of protea. We think they were pulled from a fresh florist arrangement someone got on her birthday a couple of years ago. I found 10 of them in a box under a pile of moldering yellow roses. They were full of pretty, fluffy brown seeds that I was told to remove in case this is an invasive species.

Everyone loved them and wished they had some. Everyone else could have made more interesting and dramatic use of them, I'm sure. But I kept them for the poor customers who were stuck with cinnamon sticks, which I was now finding weirder and weirder. People kindly calmed me down; the sticks stayed on the wreaths.

I wrap the tips of my index fingers and thumbs in surgical tape to help prevent thorns and holly leaves from pricking me. Here are my hands before I washed up:

We all went home each night after washing our hands with Crisco shortening and dish detergent. That still left us with grimy nails, splotches of pine sap here and there, and random glitter. Glitter on our faces, in our hair, under our shirts. Glitter spray paint on my boots.

I may have looked a mess but my work station looked remarkably neat this year. I made a point of cleaning up after each wreath was finished.

I didn't document my hoarded messes of previous years but these two shots will give you some idea:

I was proud of my new ability to not be a slob. If only it could translate to my desk at home. Never!

Wreath Week: Tuesday

On Tuesday, my first assignment was a matched pair of wreaths for a set of Beacon Street front doors. The customer specified cream bows and "designer's choice" accents. We often get valuable, anecdotal advice from the woman who has been handling all the orders for many years. She knows our customers and has a long memory for who likes or dislikes what and who has complained about their wreath or returned it.

Her advice to me was "Not Christmasy."

If I'm told, "Christmasy," I think, "Pinecones!"

If I'm told, "Not Christmasy," I think, "Pinecones!"

If I'm told, "All natural accents," I think, "Pinecones!"

If I'm told, "Mostly natural but with some sparkle," I think, "Glittered pinecones!"

Next year, I should try to decorate a wreath without pinecones. I'd probably end up writhing on the floor, going through withdrawal.

Anyway, this wreath has gold glitter-sprayed cones and lotus pods, magnolia leaves, cedar, juniper (when in doubt I call any green "juniper" but I think this IS juniper), eucalyptus berries, gold glittered plastic sprays, and dark-gold sparkly sprigs that don't show up well in the photos but look nice in real life.

After that, I was ready for "Christmasy" so I took two assignments that called for all-natural decorations and red bows.

Just before I started the first one, someone showed up with some holly. I'd been pining (ha) for holly; garden club members often have second homes with gardens, and they collect all kinds of natural materials for wreath decorating. Some people dry the flowers from their birthday arrangements while others go scavenging around their neighbors' properties for rosehips or other interesting stuff.

I'd say this is my signature style: plenty of woody pinecones, holly, cedar, juniper, and white pine:

Someone brought in a box of fluffy baby Snowy Owls, and I had to add one, since this wreath is for a Garden Club member. 

My last wreath was for another customer who also wanted a red bow and a traditional, all-natural wreath. I added magnolia and juniper to the greens and used up the rest of my holly hoard.

I had to leave early to go to an evening meeting so I only managed to decorate four wreaths. However, I don't think anyone outperformed me in the eating department — impressive quantities of coffee cake, mini blueberry muffins, and those insanely good, round, two-bite brownies that come in tubs. And that was before and after lunch, which was sandwiches and salad. Yes, I ate vegetables! So, feeling virtuous, I allowed myself to eat cookies all afternoon.

By late Tuesday afternoon, we've completed about half of our orders and the courtyard of the church where we work is covered with them, awaiting delivery:

The church organist practices in the afternoons, so we have soft classical background music as we work and chatter away in the basement. Neighbors and friends come by to pick out their bows, visit their pals, and coo over the wreaths in progress on plywood easels, or hanging from hooks on doors and pillars. Other volunteers keep busy making the bows, sweeping the floor, emptying trash barrels, keeping the decorators on track, and replacing all the food I ate. Delivery teams come by to warm up and have a snack on their breaks from driving around town. We are cogs in an efficent, delightful machine that turns out pretty things.

All this quiet, happy society makes me feel like I live in a cozy village instead of the heart of a big city. That feeling lasts well beyond Wreath Week. Since I joined Back Bay's garden club and its very active neighborhood association, I often feel surrounded by friends or at least kindred spirits, part of a community. We love our neighborhood as a safe, beautiful, historic, welcoming place. We are lucky to live here, and we know it. We hang wreaths for the holidays and place our Christmas trees in the bay windows, gifts to our street and all the neighbors who pass by.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Wreath Week: Monday

Well, that was a long break from posting. I've been busy. I hope to be posting a lot more holiday fun and prettiness soon.

Right now, I'm taking a time-out from breaking beautiful old ornaments as I decorate our Christmas tree. More on that later.

Last week was Wreath Week for the Garden Club of the Back Bay. Every year many of us gather in a church basement to create wreaths for our neighbors, who order them with either just a fancy bow or "fully decorated" around a bow. Some of us take "fully decorated" as strict orders to cover every inch of balsam with fresh, contrasting greens and loads of natural and/or glittery synthetic gee-gaws. 

That's certainly how I interpret the phrase. Wreath decorating often brings out a compulsive side of me that doesn't usually appear in public. Channeling it into pinecones and holly is healthier than staying up night after night trying to track down an identical replacement for an antique majolica plate that Wendy broke, or pieces in my silver pattern, which unfortunately dates from 1892. I don't ever seem to make things easy for myself. 

Anyway. . . . you don't want to hear about my mental health or lack thereof. The proceeds from selling the wreaths are used to care for trees in our neighborhood and for other "green" projects around the city. For example, we provide grants to send inner-city kids to a summer day camp, and we help fund garden projects in other neighborhoods. So Wreath Week is totally worthwhile and loads of fun.

Here's a friend celebrating her finished wreath — the first wreath anyone completed out of about 160 that we made this year: 

In the next few posts I will show you other wreaths decorated by people who know what they are doing, along with my own work, which is still like dancing in the dark, meaning I have a good time and I get away with it. 

My first wreath was essentially a fantastic, oversized bow with a little wreath hiding beneath:

I have a mental list of "usual suspects" materials that I use over and over on my wreaths because I know how the behave and they are not fragile enough for me to ruin them as I try to wire them onto the wreath. This indoor wreath has pinecones, magnolia leaves, yellow incense cedar, white pine, rose hips, eucalyptus berries, and some dark-red dried flowers that I thought might break but didn't.

The first wreath always goes along slowly and cautiously. Then, for the second wreath, I get cocky. I know this client and she said she wanted something very visible on her pretty door in Beacon Hill. She picked the ribbon, and said she I could do anything I wanted with the rest. So I used lots of pinecones and sugared pears. I enjoy using fake fruit because I get to play with an awl to make holes for threading wire, and the fruit is large and showy, but very secure on the wreath. This wreath also has some sprays of fake berries that aren't too glitz, along with magnolia and white pine.

I don't love the way this wreath looks in the photo, which flattens the design. I think the fruit looks  too big here, but it looked better in real life.

The next wreath was also for a customer I know, for the front door of her building. She and another neighbor have differing tastes, which I try to reconcile. One wants a quietly traditional, all-natural wreath and the other wants a some sparkle, which we call "glitz," which is nicer than saying "glittery plastic stuff."

I started with a lively bow, which the glitz lover approved. Yet it's plaid, which is still traditional and Christmasy. I rolled white pinecones in gold paint to gild their edges. I used white pine and eucalyptus for some texture and glittery gold plastic sprays for sparkle. Then I added red glass balls and sprigs of tiny jingle bells in gold, red, and green. There are lots of them, and they dangle from tiny wires, so they should make a faint, silvery sound as people come and go. 

In my prime as a wreath decorator (2010 and before), I was considered very fast because I could do about six fully decorated wreaths per day and a bunch more that were just fluffed, trimmed, and given bows. Then one year I got tendinitis in my hand  as I was jamming too many picks into too-tight wreaths. I've also got arthritis now, in the joint at the base of each thumb, which I suspect is from overusing my phone (although I don't use it all THAT much). 

Nowadays, I can only decorate four wreaths a day. (I'm still very fast at fixing plain wreaths, though and adding bows. I'm not timid: I fluff them, push and pull them hard to reshape them, yank boughs into new spots to fill in bare spots, and give it a judicious trim. It's fun and satisfying to transform a crooked mess into a pretty, symmetrical wreath. And I can hide a trouble spot with one of our big, beautiful bows.)

My last wreath of Monday was my specialty: all natural, outdoor wreath with a plaid bow. Some materials are too smelly (eucalyptus smells like cat pee) or dry out too quickly (holly) to use inside. Other materials (dried flowers, dyed grasses) disintegrate if they get wet. And the yellow cedar on this wreath drops lots of yellow pollen dust, so I only use it for outside wreaths. I had little piles of yellow dust all over my work table. This wreath also has pinecones still on their branches, which I love, and rose hips — those clusters of little red berries that also have tiny, sharp thorns.

When we're done with a wreath, we bring it to "Quality Control" and if it's okay, it gets photographed. Then we take it upstairs to be readied for delivery or pick-up. We have a whole team of drivers and assistants who deliver wreaths around the city. The wreaths hang on sheltered walls around the church courtyard, so it's like a gallery. I enjoy studying everyone's work. 

Wreaths just look better outside, too, away from the plywood easels and fluorescent lights:

  I was very tired when I went home. I don't usually spend 10 hours a day bending over an easel and using my arms and hands so much. But I wish I did!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Outtakes from the Holiday Card

Harris's photo sessions often end with him in this pose and most props on the floor.

I started to work on our holiday card this weekend — this is early for me. It's a darn good thing, too. I'm using new Photos software and, if I press a benign-looking button that I think will change a color or a font, it deletes the whole layout. After I did that three times, I took a screen shot for reference, which made recreating the layout faster the next three or four times it disappeared.

Every year, I have two predictable issues (in addition to What the Heck to Say). The first is that we have no photos of me, which is great, until it's time for the holiday card. I always have scores of pictures of my husband, mostly with Possum (aka My Cat) curled up with him. One or both inevitably has an insufferably smug, adoring, possessive expression. How I loved having such cozy times with My Possum. But I've come to accept the situation, graciously; it doesn't bother me one bit anymore. At least I have plenty of card fodder and even gloating expressions are tolerable at the tiny size I use for the photo collage inside the card.

My husband doesn't photograph me much, at my request. I look like a Sea Hag in photos. Accidentally seeing myself can send me into a depression for weeks. But friends complain (really) that, although our holiday card is seething with cats, they'd also like to see us.

I can sometimes dredge up one half-decent photo of me per year. Last year, I hit the jackpot with two. In one, I'm working on a wreath at my easel (Wreath Week with the Garden Club starts tomorrow!) and I look mostly human. The other is a photo of the two of us, taken in the summer in Newport. We were at 22 Bowen's, having lunch by the water and being entertained by our waiter, who was chatty, high-energy, and funny. He insisted on taking our photo and we were so charmed we let him. He swore it would be a good picture and it was.

But no such luck this year, although I did find the iced tea of my dreams at 22 Bowen's.

The front of the card always features a Christmasy-looking cat or two. Choosing this is always fraught. Sometimes, I stage a photo, like this one.

This is staged: Possum would not waste time on such frivolous reading matter.

We try to shoot a lot of photos after our tree goes up for the card for the following year. As our Most Important Cat, Harris feels entitled be to Cover Cat, and he is by far our most photogenic, vogueing cat, providing about ten times the number of shots than the next contender, Possum. As Top Cat, Possy feels it's his right to be on the cover every year. These two are so competitive that Toffee and Wendy don't even try to compete with Harris, although each has made the cover once, although Harris managed to get himself into that photo, too:

And that leaves Lion. He has tendency to squint when I point my iPhone in his direction, even though I never use flash. We managed to get a couple of open-eyed shots of him by the tree last year. And he has never been on the cover. So this is His Year. I won't show you the photo we chose until later in the month, but here are some rejects:

Possum looking louche in a Santa hat is a common sight around here.
Some people find his pose in questionable taste so we save these for inside.

Cats unwrapping gifts from my sister. It always seems like a promising photo op 
but it's just mayhem.

Per usual Harris winds up with everything. And also with Airplane Ears.

This year's black-snake and catnip pizza slice and hot dog were not so Christmasy anyhow. 
I have not seen that hot dog since January. The pizza slice is much loved by all. 

 Then there was this. I decided it was a mistake to encourage his bad behavior
by celebrating it on the front of the card. Maybe next year, Harris.

Friday, December 1, 2017

It's December!

It's December! The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. 

I keep trying to get tired of pumpkins and excited about evergreens and carols with limited success. I hope the Christmas spirit will arrive by Monday, when the Garden Club's annual wreath-decorating week begins. I look forward to this all year, and plan to work with the rest of the merry crew for all four days. I'll post photos here and on Instagram.

November went out with a great deal of sneezing. Something in our apartment has been giving me an itchy nose since about Tuesday, and I finally gave up and took an allergy pill at 4 am this morning — after Harris woke me up puking (clear liquid) next to the bed. Between worrying about Harris and blowing my nose, I was awake for hours. I thought reading an interminable New Yorker article about a Soviet apartment house would help, but it didn't.

When I started sneezing, I thought I simply needed to vacuum but it didn't solve the problem. I feel better when I leave the house, so I know the problem is in here. I have two suspects: the big bouquet of roses I got on Tuesday and the pumpkins that have been decorating the living room for more than a month. I often have roses in the house and my nose doesn't itch, so it would be odd if I were allergic to this particular, deep pink variety. Since Since mid-October we've had more than a dozen little pumpkins, mostly tiny ones in bowls. I wonder if they are getting moldy but they don't look any different. A few of them were a bit soft so I threw them out. The rest will go away in the next trash pick-up on Monday. If not before. What do you think? T

he only other thing that could be causing issues is the sealant, or lack of it, around some portions of the top of our bathtub, which needs a messy repair I've postponed for years. So that's nothing new; it's been looking suspicious for years. If you have any theories, please let me know.

Harris clearly didn't feel well last night, and so neither did I. He seems to be fine today, but we'll keep a close eye on him. The most recently swallowed green string has never materialized, so we remain on the watch for symptoms of blockage.

I often have moments of clarity in the wee hours; this morning it occurred to me that decorating a 10-foot fir and filling the place with other fresh decorations given this crew of cats is reckless and foolish. (I'm allergic to evergreens.) But I will probably have another moment of clarity about how much we love our traditional Christmas trappings, and how, so far, everyone has survived in spite of their efforts to off themselves by eating the tree, chewing the little light bulbs, breaking ornaments, chomping on ribbon, etc. And Toffee and Harris are 5 years old now, while Lion is 4 — all old enough to have simmered down and learned their lessons (ha).

Harris is on the mantel above my head as I write this, and he just threw our first Christmas card onto the floor. Thus it begins!

I took these photos yesterday: