Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Possum Is Better

After hurting his leg somehow, Possum is behaving more like his usual self. This morning, I was relieved to see him strutting around, demanding his breakfast. (It was a darn good thing, especially as our vet was closed today despite their website saying they were open. I didn't want to put him through the stress of a trip anyway.)

Even last night he was feeling much better, He purred and settled down on me, and we had a little talk. We didn't discuss his sore leg because cats have evolved to be stoic and to hide their pain. Possum always gets very testy if I mention anything to do with his physical health.

But there was still the matter of the long-desired bicycle rickshaw, which did not materialize for him for Christmas again this year.

I knew he was unhappy about this and so, when he settled in my lap last night, I told him that we had been unable to get him a bicycle rickshaw because we don't have a garage to keep it in. It wouldn't be wise to park a tricked-out bicycle rickshaw, with a fringed canopy, and catnip-scented cushions, and sparkly handlebar streamers, etc., in the alley.

Too many crooks, I said.

Possum spends a fair bit of time looking out the back windows into the alley, so he understood immediately.

"But, Possum," I said, "We're really going to move somewhere better this year. I know I've been saying that for as long as you've been with us, but it's going to happen soon. I promise. And in our new place, I expect that you will have something even nicer than a bicycle rickshaw. For one thing, you'll have more rooms to hang out and run around in, and more upholstery to sleep upon. And, best of all, we're hoping for a nice little walled garden, or a "catio," where you and your brothers can sleep in the sun and chase bugs. I have wanted this for you ever since you arrived, and you shall have it. Soon."

Possum saw the appeal of that and gave me a very sweet look. And then we settled in together for a little nap. He trusts me, and it's wonderful.

Now I just have to deliver.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Little Crazy Around Here

Our two vandals take a brief break.

Post-holiday lethargy has set in, at least among us humans. We're recuperating from the holiday excitement and the long drives back and forth to my family in Pennsylvania, which included getting rear-ended on the trip back to Boston. (We're fine and the car just needs a new rear bumper. We were very lucky.)

The cats have their own ideas. Harris spent the day trying to dismantle the tree, aided by Toffee. When he got tired of swatting ornaments, he gnawed off twigs and carried them around. This went on for hours. I tried to distract him with his great new Da Bird pole toy, but he preferred to attack the tree. (But Lion loves Da Bird and even lazy Possum gave it a few swats.) Harris also stole three pairs of hideously bright Star Trek–themed socks (packaged together) that were a gift to my husband. I was hoping he'd sold them on the sock black market, but they reappeared. Who would want them?

*  *  *  *  *

Possum just got hurt in some kind of collision with the other boys, who were unusually rowdy tonight, chasing each other. About an hour ago, we heard bodies crashing and violent hissing in the bedroom, and then Possum came limping into the living room. He'd injured his back leg. He limped around restlessly, trying to find a place to retreat and get comfortable. He tried his box, went under the tree, jumped gingerly onto my chair, lay on the floor and then sprawled on top of my husband, who reported that he was purring.. He's looking pretty comfortable at the moment, giving himself a bath on the sofa.

I called my friend Robin for advice as soon as it happened, since she's experienced with all kinds of cat accidents after many years of fostering. She gave me great instructions on how to examine his leg after he's had time to settle down and relax. Since he's purring, I will do that now. I don't think this is an ER situation because he's putting weight on the leg and it's the normal temperature, but if I feel anything weird, off we'll go to Angell. Otherwise, we'll keep an eye on him through the night and take him to the vet in the morning if he's not fully using the leg or just doesn't seem like his usual self. Wish us luck.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Harris, Toffee, Possum, Wendy, and Lion join me in wishing you a wonderful day!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Holiday Card Runners Up: Harris

This photo of Harris on the bed in front of my beloved "Winter Village" pillowcases (from Pottery Barn) was a close second for the cover of the holiday card. I'll post the winning photo tomorrow.

I'd swear Harris knows how to pose and exactly where to pose for my camera iPhone. He waits patiently until I get my shot. He gives me a range of moods and facial expressions. He learned this dreamy, "saint on a holy card" look from Possum, who used it to star on our holiday card in 2011:

Enjoy your Christmas Eve! 

The Holiday Card Runners Up: Lion

Lion saw the Santa hats arrive last month. We'd optimistically bought three; what WERE we thinking? He hid and continued to want nothing to do with them. I asked his foster mother, Connie, if he'd had any traumatic experiences of the hat variety at her house. After all, last she had managed to shoot this:

And this:

Geez, isn't Lion's sister adorable? Look at that sweet expression. I should have put her on my Christmas list last year, too. I've become friends with the woman who adopted Lion's other lovely sister — she's named "Possum" in honor of somebody or other — as well as one of Harris's brothers, which makes us somehow related... "cat cousins," if you ask me. We compare sibling notes and stories all the time. But this little girl was adopted from the shelter after Connie fostered her so we don't know where she is. And it bothers me.

Anyway, Connie wrote back and said no hat traumas for Lion; he just has a good imagination. She told me about, where I can add all kinds of hats, bow ties, and so on to my Lion photos without any participation on his part. Thus the Santa hat in his photo. The big white beard is his own, but he lost it shortly after he grew it in the fall. Our condo is overheated, which may explain why all of our very foofy "Maine Coon mix" kittens turned into "Domestic medium hairs" with strangely huge tails and fluffy pants. They are wearing their summer coats all year long.  When we move (a new place is on my Christmas list, since I tend to get the far-fetched items on my Christmas list, i.e., Lion), I hope we'll be able to control the thermostat and have a safely enclosed garden or porch where the cats can get fresh air and show off their winter fur.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Wreath at Our House

I can't make a wreath like this for the Garden Club. For one thing, we invariably use bows, and we always try to use a good variety of items for each wreath — but we don't use anything to excess. For my own wreath, I like to do things differently. As usual, I went overboard with pinecones; I love them. And this was such a poor-quality wreath to begin with (chosen in the dark at Wilson Farm) that it really needed to be covered entirely.

Having overdosed on pinecones, I decided to use too many red berries, too. It hangs is a darkish spot so it needs some brightness. We like the result.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Another Outtake from the Holiday Card

It was nice of him to wear the hat, but Possum is still seething about the likely absence of a bicycle rickshaw on his holiday horizon. And it shows.

"Can't you give us some holiday cheer, Possy? Please" I asked from behind the camera iPhone. He flicked off his Santa hat, gave me a baleful stare, and crabbily settled in for yet another long winter's nap.

Despite this, he was annoyed that he didn't appear on the front of our Christmas card. That honor went to Harris, a star graduate of Miss Robin's School of Modeling. Again.

Friday, December 19, 2014

And So It Begins

Things seemed peaceful when I went to bed on Wednesday night. We'd just finished signing and addressing the Christmas cards and they were ready to be mailed. The cats seemed mellow; Harris was hanging out on the chair in front of the tree, just in case I needed another Christmasy photo of him:

Is that a scheming expression? Or is that just Harris?

We sleep with a sound machine making fan noise in the background so we miss a lot of nocturnal feline activity. My husband woke me up early, telling me that there was something strange lying on the floor that I had to see, because  he didn't know what it was. It was this:

Oh, noes!

That was had been one of my newest ornaments, a wool felt mouse wearing an acorn cap and carrying a tiny knitted bag and traveling stick, like the top figure in the photo below:

Traveling mice from a company called Roost.
Pretty cute, huh? Some of our cats thought so....

I'd put him up as high I as could manage on the side of tree, although the armchair had been in my way, and so it clearly hadn't been high enough. I'd wrapped the twine cord many times around the branch so no one could pull the ornament off the tree. But I obviously hadn't done it as well as I thought I had. If you look at the closeup below, you can find the ornament toward the back of the tree, to the left of the orange glass ball:

How did the cats recognize the ornament as a mouse — official prey that apparently legally obligates them to attack and kill at all cost? I documented the crime scene and cleaned it up, noting that the twine had not been eaten, although it appeared that one wool ear had. I also wondered how much styrofoam and wool had been ingested.  Hard to know. 

Then I found my ill-fated Vermont owl ornament on the floor, missing its foot, which had been nearly severed in a previous incident. I had also hung it in what I foolishly believed was a safe spot, wrapping its flimsy thread hanger "very securely" around and around the branch:

This poor ornament just can't win.

How someone managed to pull this one down, I don't know. (I will need my pruners when I take down the tree, to clip off the tips of the dry branches and then slowly unravel each twisted and tangled cord.) Do they recognize this rather abstract figure is a bird, or do they just have strong convictions against its survival for other reasons?  I am hoping that the black thread hanger, which was loose, is still on the tree. Because it's gone from the owl. You can find the owl in the closeup, too. I stepped on the missing foot, which was lying on the carpet, later.

We had to make annual checkup appointments for Harris and Toffee anyway, so I mentioned the wreckage as we scheduled them for Saturday. I assume it was one of them, or perhaps Lion. We heard the familiar drill: watch them for signs of vomiting, lethargy, lack of appetite, etc. 

My friend Robin told me, when she was here with Freya, that wearing out the cats with play sessions, especially before bed, would help keep the cats from going after ornaments and tree lights. We were too tired to do it that night and now we're paying the price. At this point, I'm alternating numbness with worry. I've been through this too many times before... I keep doing my best to protect the cats from themselves and failing. So we'll play the waiting game and watch for signs of serious trouble, as well as signs of styrofoam, wool, and bits of thread turning up on the floor or in the litter box. Sometimes this can takes weeks or months; more often nothing reappears. (I'll keep you posted, like it or not).

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

La La La LA

Our dear old Fa-La-La pillow has a new friend. Although Lion was afraid of the Christmas tree, he thought the jingle bells on the pillow might be good to eat.

Or not so much.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What You Want for Christmas

If you aren't 100% sure about what you want to find under your Christmas tree, or wherever your Hanukah presents go, I can help you...

1.  A fluffy kitten — admit it. Get her from Connie, who fosters in Maine (a lovely drive from the Boston area) and blogs at Tails from the Foster Kittens. She's fostered 376 kittens and counting, including our purring, biscuit-making Lion. Her kittens turn out friendly and sweet; she has a great recipe. Currently she has two longhaired sisters just about ready for adoption. They arrived terrified and in awful shape but are now friendly and flourishing. Do us all a favor and keep these two together; they are very bonded. Hurry!

You can also adopt from Kitten Associates, in Connecticut (a less lovely drive but the reward will be great). They make fabulous kittens, too, including Harris. Check out Ivy, Wallace, and Fernando. And if you really think your life is so darn rich and full that you don't have room for a kitten, then celebrate your prosperity by sending them a donation!

2.  You want Christmas socks, like these Japanese handmade ones by Anonymous Ism, or maybe woolly ones with snowflakes. ($39.50 and $16.50 at J. Crew). Sure, they'll look silly with your chic, mostly black winter wardrobe, but these need never leave the house. Wear them on the sofa when you're watching Downton Abbey (returning on January 5) and Scandal (January 29), not to mention binge-watching House of Cards (February 27). For you boys out there, J. Crew carries red snowflake wool socks for you, too.

3. You want seasonal candy, specifically something in the peppermint bark line-up, which is out of control this year. You want this even though the stuff is everywhere and you're worried that you might just be succumbing to the hype. But  no — just as the pumpkin is the autumn vegetable, the candy cane is the winter vegetable, and foodies always say we should eat whatever's in season. If you need more convincing, check out the always-profane and high-energy 2014 Hater's Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog, and note that the author failed to summon enough hostility to completely reject the peppermint-chocolate offerings.

4. You want a bicycle rickshaw.  Where did that come from?

4.  You want something cool and monogrammed. That means heading over to Mark & Graham, where you can even choose monogrammed soaps in three different shapes. But you'd be happier with the versatile, unisex Everyday Leather Zip Pouch ($79) in one of nine colors (green is lovely; red is classic). Then add your initials in Didot, and you will be elegant. Even in your Christmas socks.

5.  You want moisture. Lip balm, hand cream, and body lotion are necessities during New England winters, and if you're still using Vaseline or drugstore basics, it's time you woke up and smelled the Neroli & Grapefruit Body Cream from REN Skincare ($29). It's a tall bottle of very pure, light cream that contains jojoba, shea butter, and grapeseed oil. REN uses only 100% plant- and mineral-derived ingredients and no synthetics, including mineral oil, silicones, petroleum-based ingredients, etc. I have a bottle, so I'm certain you will want one.

6.  The scent of Christmas. Pop into Blue Mercury (160 Newbury St) to smell the Birchwood Pine Room Spray from NEST Fragrances ($28). Unlike Ebeneezer Scrooge, you may have a little trouble honoring Christmas in your heart and trying to keep it all the year... but you'll be able to smell it whenever you want.

Monday, December 15, 2014

More Outtakes from the Christmas Card

Wearing the Santa hat was not Toffee's happiest or most photogenic moment. 

Possum remarked that Toffee looks like an underprivileged Victorian orphan wearing a workhouse bonnet in this shot. Possum has been reading Dickens.

Possum said that Toffee looks like an underprivileged Victorian orphan opium fiend in the photo below.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Let the Games Begin...

Yesterday afternoon, I asked my husband if he even wanted to get a tree this year. We were positive last year that it would be our very last Christmas in this apartment, and so we are pretty bummed to find ourselves still here.

He mulled it over and decided it would be depressing not to have a tree. We drove to the Belmont Lions Club tree lot and bought one of the biggest ones they had. The people who work there are really nice, and they have very good, affordable trees and the best plain wreaths — fat and fluffy. 

We were going to settle for a tall, skinny tree we liked, but this gentleman insisted on
showing us this one. It was much bigger and better, and we had to go for it.

The tree wasn't quite as big as the car. High school boys really like our car.
Lion was afraid of the tree when we brought it in and missed his supper.
Later he joined our other furry woodland creatures, who were hanging out beneath it.

We stocked up on lights at CVS (two for one!) as I remembered tossing multiple strings
 last year afterToffee chewed the bulbs off them. Toffee approved our purchases. 
When it was time to put the lights on the tree today, four old strings were pretty dead.
We needed what we bought and we still have extras for next year — although I am not 
anticipating Toffee-related shortages this year. We had another little talk...

I love seeing my ornaments again each Christmas. This year, I only used about
two-thirds of my supply. You can see my minimalist result, below.

I'd just finished, and Harris began swinging at something I hope is unbreakable. 

The cats left us alone for most of the decorating, although Harris tried to swipe some ornaments. I suspect they've decided they'll meet up to redecorate it after we're in bed. The bottom of the tree is kind of bare, by design, but there's unbreakable stuff there. I should probably buy some boxes of those plastic balls that look like glass.

Another Christmas in our same-old place, and I don't think it will be so bad after all....

Friday, December 12, 2014

Outtakes from the Christmas Card

Harris is photogenic from nearly every angle and was agreeable to wearing this hat. But my camera angle was terrible — he looks like a Munchkin. And the view from our bedroom windows is like a Soviet painter's interpretation of drabness.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Recent Adorableness

Mr. Gorgeous still likes to hang out on his pillow although balancing is more of a challenge these days. He weighs 11 pounds now, and I hear he is looking forward to encountering his first live Christmas tree.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Toffee Talk

"Toffee," I said, "We need to talk. It's almost time to get the Christmas tree and we need you to promise not to climb it, eat any cords from the ornaments, or chew the light bulbs out of their sockets this year. We hope you've outgrown giving yourself electric shocks. You were still a kid last year, but now you're a gentleman cat, and we expect a higher standard of decorum from you."

 Precisely what we hope to avoid.

Toffee looked at me with polite interest, as if he wished to be helpful but had no idea of what I was saying. Silly me — trying to talk to a cat. You'd think I'd know better by now.

So I turned to his neighbor on the sofa. "Possum," I said, "Would you please translate what I just said into cat language for Toffee? I'd really appreciate it, man."

Possum opened his eyes and yawned. From his twitching tail, I knew a lecture was forthcoming. "Honestly," he said, "I don't know how you people are smart enough to live. First, you bring a huge evergreen into the house, that smells like forest, and squirrels, and birds. And then you tie cat toys all over it. And then you expect us not to have any fun. What on earth are you thinking?"

What could I say? I used one of Possum's own debate tactics. I became fiercely focused on examining one of my hands for possible fleas and didn't reply. It worked.

After a while, Possum said, "I don't suppose you'd care to make a little bargain with me...?"

I tried to do the human equivalent of perking up my ears and looking interested. "What did you have in mind, dear Possum?" I said.

"There's the matter of my Christmas List. Every year I put a few fantastic things on it, and every year I don't get them." he said.

He was referring, of course, to the Bicycle Rickshaw he's wanted every year since he saw one in an Anthropologie catalogue. It cost $10,000 and was tricked out like a fantasy from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Possum imagines me pedaling him and select friends around in search of treats from dumpsters of the best restaurants in the South End. I thought he'd given up on this idea now that his No. 1 destination — Hamersley's Bistro, for the roast chicken — has closed. (I enjoyed it twice just before the end, and I see his point. I didn't bring home leftovers, so please don't say a word.)

"But, Possum," I said, "Last year you put a kitten on your Christmas list and Santa did come through. Against all better judgment. I know it took some extra time, but we DID get you a kitten. And a very good one, too."

Possum considered this for a while. "This year," he said, "I really do want a bicycle rickshaw. And if you promise to get me one, I will do my utmost keep Toffee from electrocuting himself or otherwise trying to off himself by eating ornaments, strings, ribbons, and large tree branches. I will likewise prevent him from climbing the tree or the mantel, although I cannot make any guarantees about gift tags or bows. There all bets are off. That's my deal. I want catnip-scented pillows on the rickshaw and streamers on the handlebars. And a pretty canopy... something colorful."

I said I would think about it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Too Much Cattitude

Possum, raising a ruckus and being unneighborly, as usual

Our offer on the co-op in Beacon Hill wasn't accepted. 

They said we have too many cats! Imagine! Sure, their rules permit only one dog or cat, but if one is okay, what's a few more? If, say, 120 pounds of dog is allowed, what's wrong with a collective 56 pounds of cat? 

A friend has been house-hunting for a few years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where all the apartments are co-ops. She was shocked that a building had a cat limit. She said NY co-ops don't mind cats. They don't bark, pee in the lobby, or bite you in the elevator. Perhaps we should move to Manhattan. 

I wrote a nice letter to accompany our offer. There were a few paragraphs of gushing about the charms of the apartment and listing our credentials, including my husband's tenured teaching post and my activities as a local volunteer. I talked about how we are friendly, considerate people who had spent decades living in small Back Bay condo buildings, so we understood the importance of both being and having good neighbors. Co-ops usually ask very personal questions about finances and lifestyle as they're deciding whether to accept you into the building, so I mentioned that we don't drink, smoke, or throw wild parties. I said we both work at home at all hours, and are very quiet, and like to garden. I said we love historic architecture and care deeply about preserving and maintaining our home.

In other words, I said we were classic cat people. And I was honest. I'll bet there are people who aren't when it comes to applying to co-op boards. I came right out with our cat family situation. And then I explained a few things about our five:
I’d like to try to anticipate any cat-related concerns your co-op board may have, so I hope you will give me a little more of your time and attention to explain a few things. Our cats are all fluffy Maine Coon mixes. Most weigh about 10 pounds, although one is… portly. They are neutered and spayed, up-to-date on vaccinations, and never, ever leave our apartment except for vet visits. They are quiet, healthy, and well behaved. They do not howl or make noise audible beyond the apartment (a few of them meow at mealtime). They all get along beautifully and use the litter box perfectly. We trim their claws and brush their teeth. I’ve done a lot of research on feline nutrition, and we feed them an expensive, 95%-meat diet that I special-order from a shop on Newbury Street. Cats are pure carnivores and should only eat meat. When they are fed properly (and the vast majority of cat owners don’t do this), they digest food extremely efficiently. As a result, there is much less matter in the litter box — and much less odor, too. One cat fed dry or canned food from the supermarket will leave more solid waste in the box each day than our five. Even so, we take care of that chore religiously, twice a day. 
Adult cats sleep between 16 and 20 hours a day, so our visitors often don’t see more than one or two of ours, and they are surprised they don’t smell them, either. I’d be happy to provide a veterinary or neighbor reference if you like. In 30 years, we have never received a single complaint from a neighbor.
I should have included a photo of Possum. Who wouldn't want Possum for a neighbor?

I can only conclude that we escaped from having to live among barbarians. 

We decided that we don't want to live in that silly co-op anymore, anyhow. It had some lovely features: a real library for my husband, a sunny living room, a big dining room with a fireplace, and loads of storage. High ceilings, a bay window, old floors, and some nice molding here and there. I could tell it would work for us as soon as I stepped in the door. 

But it had quirks. It had only one bathroom and no possibility of adding another... inside the unit. We don't mind sharing a bath, but it's unusual for a large apartment with a seven-figure price tag to have just one — especially one done up with elderly Corian, Formica, cheapo tile, and brass hardware. We could have added a half bath, but only outside the unit, beyond the locked back door. The cramped second bedroom (former maid's room) was back there, under lock and key. Halfway up a flight of ugly service stairs was a closet with a stacked washer-dryer that could be converted to a tiny half bath. Some of the other units had done this, but we didn't see the point. 

We found a mousetrap in the master bedroom. I'd say they should rethink their cat policy.

When we got our rejection (five hours after it was due), we also found out within minutes that a condo we've been interested in for some time had finally gone under agreement. It had everything we wanted, including a lovely walled garden, but it was in a rough part of the South End, on a noisy, sketchy street. We wouldn't have felt safe coming and going. I'm glad it's gone.

The decks are clear; we can move on. 

But I can't help hoping the new owners at the co-op will have a huge, untrained, barking, biting, severely incontinent dog. I also hope they drink like fish, smoke weed for breakfast, have a set of disturbed toddler triplets, and hold salsa and flamenco parties several nights a week. That co-op board missed their chance to have very nice neighbors. Seven of them.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Wreath Decorating: Day 4

Here's my final wreath. I had several hours to work on it, and I enjoyed them all. It was "designer's choice," meaning I could do anything I liked, and it will hang on a front door in the South End.

The wreath was nicely shaped and full to begin with. I pulled, primped, and pruned to make it more perfect, and attached the bow at the 10 o'clock position.

By the last day, the best materials are running out or have disappeared. But sometimes they've only disappeared into a tray on your neighbor's table, and if ye ask nicely, ye often shall receive on the last day. I also received unsolicited donations, and used almost every one. For example, someone handed me clumps of pheasant feathers, so I tucked them around the bow. You can barely see them sticking up here and there.

For greens to augment the balsam, not much was left besides sticky pine and some kind of bristly... cedar* covered with loads of yellow cones, or seeds, gathered from an old tree in Connecticut. I used plenty of both, dusting some of the pine lightly with gold paint and fashioning fan-like sprays.

I'd hoarded a pile of gold pinecones and a pile of natural ones. As I was trying to choose, someone offered me two of the fused pinecone clusters I love, which were sprayed gold, so I took them. A third one materialized. I added many more gold cones on the front and along the sides, plus a few gold lotus pods near the bow.

I had planned all along to use artificial fruit on this wreath because it can be both dramatic and challenging. You have to be careful with quantities and relative sizes and colors, or your wreath turns into fruit salad. Larger fruits can be tricky to wire; you often have to drive an awl through them and hope they don't split open, and then you can then pull a wire through. I gathered a pile of the last of the fruit, including little red apples, clusters of "sugared" pastel pears and oranges, and lots of sticky little green things trying to be limes. I settled on the apples, which mercifully came on short sticks that just needed wiring to florist picks. I also found a couple of nice, fat clusters of red plastic "currants," so those went on, too. I love berries, and found a few sprays of big red ones, and quickly collected more from stashes on nearby tables. 

Someone handed me a bag of dried mimosa pods — hard corkscrews that are velvety olive-brown on the outside, and rough ivory on the inside. They're hard to wire to a pick but I found a way. They're tucked in all over the wreath but they're hard to see in the photos. They're subtle but interesting.

Finally, I added smaller red berries mixed with gold pearls on wires for more color among the greens. You can see many of the materials here:

As I worked, many better wreath decorators came by to ooh and ahh, and tell me how different this wreath looked from my usual efforts. That was what I'd hoped to hear. It was delightful to work slowly and thoughtfully, and to have so many interesting materials at my fingertips. I'd fussed over this wreath for nearly four hours and it was pure pleasure.

I took it upstairs for delivery and then helped everyone clean up. By 2 o'clock, the basement was clean and empty. Wreath decorating is over for another year, although I'll be getting a couple of plain ones for our apartment. One will be decorated with only a bow. The other one... hmm.

* I call greens "cedar" when I'm clueless, although I suspect that stuff might be some kind of juniper, my other catch-all label.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Wreath Decorating Day 3: Do-Over and Beyond

Here are the new wreaths using the ivory and gold bows. I knew these wreaths would be hung on dark wooden doors on Marlborough Street and I wanted them to to look lush close up and to have some "pop" when viewed from the sidewalk:

I sprayed pinecones and lotus pods gold, and added big fan-like sprays of pine for texture while my gold stuff was drying outside. Someone told me there had been a new delivery of holly, and it was gorgeous and thick with berries. I used it all over the wreaths. That holly was too beautiful to ignore. Then I added gold pearls and called it a day. 

These wreaths are "identical" rather than being mirror images of each other. I didn't find it any easier to work that way, although some people do. I'll go back to making mirror images from now on.

I still felt these were nice but not as interesting as I would have liked. I could have done any number of designs using the massive amount of glittery sprays and glass balls and other natural materials we had piles of... but I didn't. I was stuck in a rut; it was time to break out into new territory.

My last wreath of the day was another "designer's choice." I chose a plaid bow in odd shades of rose, orange, and olive green. I added texture with pine sprays — we were running low on everything else — and arranged several magnolia leaves around the bow. I'd dusted them lightly with gold paint, and showed both the shiny green fronts and the velvety brown backs.

Since Monday morning, I had been hoarding a few unusual pinecone clusters that were still attached to branches. I lightly sprayed them gold and criss-crossed them on the wreath, adding  a couple of velvety brown magnolia sticks for color. Then I used rosy-orange statice flowers and loose clusters of fake berries. Finally, I added  a few tiny, fake branches covered in gold glitter.  I like the result. It looks old-fashioned and woodsy, but with touches of sparkle. The colors are rich and unusual.

This wreath was supposed to go to a Back Bay customer but it was deemed perfect for a long-time customer on Beacon Hill instead. I was glad it was a departure for me, but it still wasn't anything like the incredibly inventive creations of some of the expert designers around me. They layered on dozens of materials, often oversized, glitzy, and tricky to work with, and mixed colors and textures in ways that dazzled me. My work is extremely simple and pedestrian in comparison.

By the end of Wednesday, there were only about 12 orders left for Thursday. It looked like we might be finished and all packed up by the early afternoon. In other years, we were kept busy working, cleaning up. and packing until 9 o'clock. Packing up is  a big chore, since everything from easels and folding tables to the many tubs of leftover materials have to be moved to a rented storage area to sit until next year.

I made sure I got one of the last orders for Thursday. I got lucky with another "designer's choice." I would have many hours to work on this wreath. I was going to experiment with a different look and try some different techniques, hoping to achieve a design that looked closer to what the brilliant designers around me were doing. It was my last chance. I chose an apple-green bow, and headed for home and my neglected cats, thinking about a plan.

Walking in the dark, I passed this:

Tree half-empty, or half-full? 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Wreath Decorating: Day 3

Yes, this post is two days late. Things have been hectic around here: we made an offer on a coop apartment and we found out at the last minute that we had to get pre-approved by a new bank. The one we've been working with for the past four years doesn't handle mortgages for coops. Solving that problem took most of today. We'll find out tomorrow morning if our offer is accepted. But it won't be. They only allow one cat or one dog. I wrote as persuasive a letter as I could about why our five won't be a problem but I have grave doubts. But it's a lovely apartment and we had to try.

So, on to Wednesday's wreaths.

Another stash of pinecones arrived that morning from one of the professional gardeners in our club. They were quickly snarfed up, appearing on many glorious wreaths. We had more volunteers decorating this year so all of us were able to work at a more thoughtful pace on fewer wreaths. The results were often amazing. Go to the Garden Club of the Back Bay's website beginning on Sunday and you'll see what I mean. The "Wreath of the Day" feature will begin then and continue through the month.

I found a wad of pine pitch on the top of my head on Tuesday night. My head smelled like a rosined violin bow. I decided to treat it as hair product, working it around in hopes it might add some body. Nothing adds body to my hair but at least it smelled nice. I didn't have time to wash it out until Thursday; no one noticed.

I decorated five wreaths, beginning with a matched pair that was "designer's choice," meaning I could do whatever I wanted, beginning with any ribbon I liked. I get very few of these opportunities; I spend a lot of my time working on all-natural outdoor wreaths with Christmasy red or plaid bows because that's what I seem to do best. Before I got the coveted "designer's choice" order, I'd rejected one that called yet again for plaid bows with all-natural materials and touches of gold. I wanted something different. I chose ivory velvet bows lined with gold:

I'll go through the steps of wreath decorating. First, for a matched pair for a set of double doors, we choose wreaths that look as identical as possible. Some wreaths are larger and fuller than others, and they can have different shapes, thicknesses, colors of balsam, different types of needles, etc. Finding two that look alike can be a challenge. 

Once that's done, we attach wreath hangers with the tags that identify the order and the customer. Then we attack the wreath with our hands to shape and fluff it, and our pliers to trim off the wild parts to make it more symmetrical, with an attractive center opening. 

Then we attach the bows, which are made up for us by a team led by a seasoned professional I used to refer to as Madame Bowvary. I can be annoying, but I'm tolerated because I work fast.

By Wednesday, we're all hoarding some of our favorite materials, like decent pinecones, stored in battered roasting pans or flat baskets that do double duty when we need to spray-paint stuff in the alley. Above, you can see my pinecone stash for the day. We roam around the room, choosing from the wide variety of fresh and dried materials as well as glitzy plastic sprays, glass balls, and so on, mostly from the florist wholesale market.

To attach materials to a wreath, we use scores of small wooden florist's picks with flimsy copper wires that get wrapped around whatever we're sticking onto the wreath. Or we use fine green wire, or flexible velvet-covered wire to attach materials even more securely. 

The first materials I work with are fresh greens. I add sprigs of cedar, white pine, Japanese pine, or whatever I can get my hands on. I tuck it in all over my wreaths to make them fuller and more textured. I will often wire a lot of sprays of the same material at once, so I can add it quickly to the wreath, then move on to the next material.

When I can't identify something green and flat, I call it "cedar." I think this actually is some type of cedar, with contrasting tiny yellow cones, or whatever.  I used a ton of it this year, wiring it to picks:

There is always someone working near me who can identify all the materials, with their Latin names. I have no aptitude for this, so I'm lucky to have the human equivalent of Google at an easel near me.

I like to distribute materials fairly evenly over my wreath. Others work differently. They'll put a bow at 10 or 2 o'clock, and then build an elaborate, asymmetrical "still life" working from the top and bottom of the bow. I found that I also enjoy doing that for single wreaths; it helps me work more freely and creatively. But this time, I was stuck with two bows on the bottom. At least I could create a lot of texture and variety across the wreath:

I also decorate the inner and outer edges of the wreath with greens and pinecones. It makes the wreath look richer and more three-dimensional. 

It's important to attach everything securely — many wreaths hang on doors that get a lot of use and we can't have things falling off. We have to shake our wreaths hard for the quality control ladies when we're finished decorating, before they'll check them off as complete. We also have to make sure that there aren't any sharp wires or pointy picks sticking out of the back of the wreaths so the delivery people or customers don't get stabbed.

To make a matched pair for a set of double doors, I always work on both at the same time, trying to make them mirror images. If I wire a pinecone to the upper right of the bow on one wreath, I'll wire a pinecone to the upper left of the other bow, and so on. I match every single item I use on the other wreath. It's challenging but fun.

So here's one finished wreath:

This wreath has a couple of kinds of "cedar," pinecones, holly (stripped of its curling leaves so it's just berries and stems, which hold up better over time), eucalyptus berries, and gold "pearls" on brown wire "stems." These are my same-old, go-to materials, but when I was finished I didn't like the result at all. It looked okay but it bored me. I realized I had done yet another "all-natural materials with touches of gold" scheme. In fact, I'd followed the order for the plaid bows that I'd rejected earlier in the day. Hmm... No one else had been working on that order, so I grabbed the bows, swapped them with the ivory ones, and switched the customer tags. Now I chance to do something more interesting with those ivory bows.

Here's the result, and as you can see, these wreaths look so much happier with bright, Christmasy plaid bows:

I'll show you my do-over with the ivory bows in my next post.