Friday, April 18, 2008

arts and crafts

I’ve never been the crafts-y type.

In fact, now that Martha Stewart has paid her debt to society, there’s no need for any of the rest of us to dip our own beeswax candles, milk our own Belted Galloway cows, or ice our own cupcakes. No need. Martha’s back in town, filling in America’s crafts gap. Only the institutionalized and socially marginal have reason to weave baskets or make their own potpourri.

The hipper side of the crafts world, MAKE magazine, has never managed to seduce me either. Do I really need to build a kayak rack? Do I want to make my own chocolate sushi? Am I up to the challenge of constructing a butter-pen? Can I imagine knitting a cozy for the TV remote controller?

The answer is always no. For me, tying my own shoes qualifies as a craft. My kayaks can be shoved under the bed with my mukluks, unracked. And a butter-pen is much too much of a commitment: I prefer to use a butter-pencil to keep my cholesterol level competitively high.

Okay. I might've lied about crafts a couple of paragraphs ago. I admit that I did flirt with macramé—but only briefly—when I was in high school.

My string of choice was rough green jute, which stained my hands and shed bits of green fiber onto the carpeting in front of the TV, where I most often worked. Square knots. Double half-hitches. Tying knots for hours on end felt therapeutic and it offered an absorbing substitute for a normal social life. Besides, going to school with green hands made me feel artistic.

I avoided the smaller, less ambitious macramé projects—the belts and handbags—and went straight for the enormous rustic wall-hangings, decorated with bits of driftwood, beads, and stones with holes in them that I gathered on the beach.

My output was prodigious and ugly. So I offered the wall hangings to relatives, who hung them in closets and bathrooms. Garages provided lots of prime wall space too.

For about a year I alternately macramé-d long thin wall hangings and short squat wall hangings. It would’ve been a challenge to find any dimensions I didn’t create a macramé objet d’art to fill.

Although my high school macramé projects were frumpy, they were relatively successful. Certainly there were worse projects. Much worse. Take the Elizabethan Crumster, for example, a crafts project that was a thoroughgoing disaster. The fact that I remember it at all, that it stands out from the general horrors of sixth grade, should tell you something.

In the Crumster, I see an element of prescience.

An Elizabethan Crumster is a ship, a merchant ship. Bigger than a breadbox and smaller than a galleon. You know: Not a sexy yacht or a fearsome gunboat, a sturdy little Crumster.

I’ve never been particularly interested in boats. Nor was I interested in history in the sixth grade, when I fabricated my Crumster out of nothing more than a stack of shirt cardboards and spaghetti. Yes, spaghetti. You can imagine what it looked like.

I can’t remember how I chose such an unlikely crafts project for school, although I can guess why I chose the materials that I did.

The problem was, the other kids built pyramids. They somehow convinced their feckless parents to drive to Vons and buy them multiple boxes of expensive C&H sugar cubes. Glue ‘em together and—ta-da!—a pyramid. Two pyramids. Pyramids on a sand-sprinkled plywood board. Pyramids to go. Pyramids a-go-go. The Great Pyramids at Giza. The Mayan Pyramids of Chichen-Itza.

I was so jealous. These kids had nothing to be embarrassed about and it was even easy for them. Probably fun too.

No way that I was going to convince any adult member of my household to pony up for boxes of those expensive sugar cubes. No way! And what of the ants? Surely that many sugar cubes would become an open invitation to the ants.

Yo, ants! House party!

My father worked in the aerospace industry, LA’s second economy. He wore a white shirt and tie to work every day. Once a week, a cleaner would come around in his panel van and pick up 5 identical dirty white shirts and drop off 5 clean white shirts. Each clean shirt was folded flat around a cardboard rectangle. Shirt cardboards. Free building material. Impossible to work with, but free.

On the first go-round, the Crumster I constructed from shirt cardboard looked horrid, unrecognizable as a boat. If it weren’t so lopsided, it might’ve passed for an Elizabethan chamber pot. Even a brisk application of brown Magic Marker did not help it pass as a ship. Now it was a brown Elizabethan chamber pot rather than a gray cardboard-colored Elizabethan chamber pot.

Drat! I rummaged around, looking for something I could use as rigging, something I could just take without getting into too much trouble. Rigging would surely transform the shapeless cardboard thing into a serviceable galleon-like object.

How can you make rigging without rope? String wasn’t stiff enough to pass muster as rigging. As I sat at the kitchen table, miserable, pondering whether a cardboard chamber pot would float me to C level, I munched on a stalk of raw spaghetti. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

Aha! There was my answer: raw spaghetti. Excellent solution! It never crossed my mind how dorky the raw spaghetti would look. I just saw a simple way to finish the stupid homework assignment, a way to make a chamber pot into an ocean-going vessel.

I glued together port and starboard lattices of raw spaghetti—and two more to match fore and aft—and finished my Crumster; I then stuffed it into a brown grocery bag so that I could transport it to school without answering any questions about what it was. My hope was that I could hide it in plain sight among the numerous pyramids and papier-mâché globes and escape detection. Was a C too much to ask?

How did I think I would get away with such a peculiar-looking artifact?

How on earth did one of my classmates construct a Rand-McNally-quality globe out of papier-mâché? Another classmate’s pyramid looked like he’d marshaled teams of teeny-tiny Egyptian slaves to hoist sugar bricks one on top of the other. Was that really a miniature camel? Did I detect the intervening hand of a competent adult?

No fair! No fair!

There are only three things you can do when you’re the most eccentric and least socially adept sixth grader in the class: (1) throw your shirt-cardboard-and-raw-spaghetti Elizabethan Crumster in the dumpster behind the cafeteria on your way to class and claim that you forgot to do your homework; (2) turn in your shirt-cardboard-and-raw-spaghetti Elizabethan Crumster, but squash it in advance and claim that it used to look a lot better, A LOT BETTER, before some mean seventh grade girl stole it from you on the bus and wrecked it; or (3) brazen it out and act like you deliberately built a crappy-assed shirt-cardboard-and-raw-spaghetti Elizabethan Crumster to make fun of Mrs. Thiess and her crappy-assed crafts projects.

Naturally I chose option (3). After all, I’d spent several hours on the thing and I wanted credit for my labor and creative use of materials. And the word “Crumster” was good. Perfect, even. It seemed to lend itself to classroom buffoonery. In retrospect, option (2) would’ve been a whole lot smarter grade-wise, and option (1) would’ve left me with a shred of self-respect, but (3) presented an attractive element of risk.

D’oh. Another black mark in my permanent record. Even today, I see the results. “Oh, you expected stock options this year? Well maybe you shouldn’t have used an Elizabethan Crumster to make fun of your 6th grade teacher. Ever consider that?”

Some things take more than 50 years of therapy to work out. It’s pretty clear that I have good reason to steer clear of crafts though.

So, knowing what I know, why was I unable to resist a glue gun at Cliff’s Variety? It’s not like I’m a closet scrapbooker or something. Why didn’t I ditch the glue gun and all of the glue sticks before I got to the checkstand? I could’ve just bought the Schultz’s Plant Food and the shower grout that I came for and been on my way. Merrily.

Why’d I do it?

I’ve had the glue gun for months now—months!—and I’ve been dying to try it.

“What can I glue? What can I glue?” I ask myself.

“What can I glue?” I ask Mark.

Mark has no easy answer, but he just picks up the glue gun (ah, such a pleasing heft) and starts gluing stuff together. Stuff. Anything. Whatever’s at hand on the dining room table. He glues a popsicle stick to another popsicle stick and glues those to some toothpicks and a post-it. Cat hair gets mixed in.

Things stick out at odd angles. The gluey object grows.

Done! Mark has satisfied man’s primal urge to glue. He is left with a wholly disposable assemblage of dining room table detritus. Done and done! He places the sculpture on the dining room table where it sits for several months.

I am left holding a hot glue gun with nothing left to glue, and in fact, nothing that actually needs gluing.

Damn! What can I glue?

What finally catches my attention are the magazines, the magazines I’ve been fretting about ever since I moved everything to the center of the rooms in preparation for the new windows. That was when I came to the stunning realization that our possessions consist of:
65% books and magazines
15% houseplants
10% knick-knacks
4% take-out menus, refrigerator magnets, and Alicia Tam notepads
3% post-its, pens, and other office supplies
2% old autoteller receipts and

It’s a distressing state of affairs.

We have a lot of old magazines. New Yorkers, mostly. It seems so wasteful to just toss ‘em. Besides, there’s always an article or two that I haven’t read yet. And if I keep them for more than a year or two, I completely forget the content of the articles that I did read, and can safely read the whole magazine anew.

I’d originally planned to donate all these magazines to someplace they’d be appreciated. But then I happened upon an article (in a magazine, of course) that said, people who know better—the street vendors who set up shop on the sidewalks of Lower Manhattan—hate, hate old New Yorkers, that you can’t even give them away, that the street vendors accept them only out of pity for the clueless donors. I flinch with guilt and self-recognition.

The thing about these magazines is that I love the pictures—the graphics and photos and lavish illustrations. Love ‘em! Even magazines that were black-and-white a decade ago are now just full of interesting pictures. Cool pictures. Pictures you might like to clip out and…

Tell me, am I too old to collage?

Scratch that question. On second thought, I decide to consult no-one about the wisdom of this project. I think I know the answer. And it’s not the one I want to hear.

All I know is that I’ve got glossy magazine pictures, a glue gun, and a lifetime’s worth of small cardboard boxes that I’ve kept “just in case.” In case of what? In case I decide to return a fetid 10 year old pair of Pumas? In case I want to remember a Valentine’s Day gift of gooey chocolate-covered cherries? In case I suddenly start an eBay business? Why oh why do I have all of these boxes?

Yes. I am having a vision, a brainstorm so dangerous that I dare not tell anyone. The answer to all of my problems is right in front of me. Well, not all of my problems. My problems are manifest and cannot all be addressed by adhesives. But most of my problems.

If hot glue were to solve all of my problems, I’d be applying hot glue to Evert’s friends who have been engaging in excessively noisy sex at 5am every morning and WAKING ME UP. I’m an insomniac; I need whatever sleep I can round up. The walls are thick, but these people are really LOUD. It’s not thumping sex or moaning sex or wailing sex; it’s complicated sex with lots of shouted instructions and noises that are ambiguously situated between pleasure and pain.

Hot glue is not the answer to that problem. I bet applying hot glue would just make the noise louder.

They’d probably LIKE hot glue. It might elicit further shrieks and shouted commands.

So what was that safe word?

If hot glue is not the solution to all of my problems, at first blush it does seem to be the answer to many of them.

Unfortunately, the first thing that I learn, right away, is that glue guns aren’t so swell for gluing paper. The glue I’ve applied is messy and bumpy. Glue guns are apparently for other crafts. Perhaps crafts involving shirt cardboards and raw spaghetti.

Crap. The first few glue gun efforts reveal that I am building yet another Elizabethan Crumster. I can tell. Shit. I am not 10 years old. Why did I start a crafts project? Why? Don’t I have any common sense?

Mrs. Thiess is smirking from her grave. SMIRKING.

I might’ve learned something over the years though. I hustle myself down the hill to Walgreens and—contrary to my usual impulse toward cheap-i-tude—I eschew the Wal-hesive, Wal-goo, and Wal-stick-um and head straight for the archival quality 3M scrapbooking glue.

Scrapbooking. Did you know that Scrapbooking was a multi-BILLION dollar industry? Either did I. Multi-BILLION. Who’d have thought? Scrapbooking. Jesus.

But this is the best glue I’ve ever used (not counting the kind you huff from paper bags). This glue is great. This glue is all-powerful and forgiving. You can’t go wrong.

You can even leave the cap off of this glue and the applicator will keep on working.

I can’t say enough nice things about this glue. It’s life-changing.

I spend hours pondering my clippings as if they were an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. I stare at them, trim them, rearrange them, glue them, Mod-Podge them.

And—just as you’d expect—they proliferate. First there’s 1 box. Then 2 boxes. Then 4.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that Valentine’s Day comes only once a year. There are but so many heart-shaped boxes that I’ve stashed away. And I haven’t even started on the shoeboxes yet.

You do have a lot of empty wall space, don’t you? I know what you’re going to get for Xmas.

If you’ve been really nice to me, I won’t give you two.


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