Fairmount Flea Market is Back

It was good to get outside last week, stretch my legs and attend the Fairmount Flea Market. Fairmount is a Philadelphia Neighborhood north of the Art Museum district. Fairmount’s distinctive landmark is Eastern State Penitentiary which sits on the neighborhood’s southern border. I used to live in Fairmount on a street right behind the prison. Of course, the prison was no longer operating by this time and the prison grounds were home to bands of feral cats who roamed the large expanse.

When they built the prison, it was located far outside the city in a cornfield. Now, it’s surrounded by busy streets and row houses. The prison was considered an improvement on crowded, violent penal conditions of the day. It was felt that giving an inmate solitude and opportunity to reflect would help rehabilitation. But the road to hell, so the saying goes, is paved with good intentions. And so it was with Eastern State. Solitary confinement proved to have a disastrous effect on inmates who it destroyed psychologically. Charles Dickens witnessed this when he visited Eastern State in 1842 and later wrote about it.

Fast forward 160 years and the inmates are gone. Eastern State has been cleaned up, is open for tours, and beautiful playgrounds and gardens cover the grounds where the feral cats roamed. Funny how these things work. Here are some pictures.

Speaking of cats, I met two of them on the way home and they graciously let me take their pictures.

Official Portrait

More from the mind of Marjorie Waxman.

How Irises Almost Led Me to a Life of Crime

I have always been a sucker for irises. They are my favorite flower. And of all the colors irises come in, my favorite is purple. Purple irises impede my judgment faster than a couple of shots of whiskey on an empty stomach. The closest analogy I can make is to people who turn stupid and gaga at the sight of a cute baby. They struggle to maintain a sense of boundaries and decency as they poke some stranger’s child and go kitchy-coo. I feel the same loss of control when I see a purple iris. I want to pluck it and take it hostage. I am an adult woman and these days, I manage to control myself when I see irises. But when I saw the riot of purple irises you see below during a recent walk in Philadelphia, I was taken back to my youth and recalled the time I did something that could have gone terribly wrong.

I was attending a small college in central Pennsylvania. My dormitory was next to a ramshackle wooden house with a detached garage that was not part of the college. A fence surrounded the house which had a small yard and garden. I never paid much attention to it.

But one day when I was coming back from class, there they were. The irises. Purple irises, bales and bales of them growing like crazy in the yard, under the fence and fairly stuffed into a narrow strip of ground between the fence and the sidewalk. Hundreds and hundreds of irises. I had never seen so many irises. I was gobsmacked.

I decided right then and there to liberate some of the irises. But not in the light of day-no I didn’t dare. I didn’t want to hear the disdainful clucks of any townies or my fellow students who, I felt, were so judgmental and so conservative that they ironed creases in their jeans. So I hatched a plan. I set my alarm to wake me at 5:00 am on a Sunday morning when I figured most people would be sleeping. I threw a coat on over my pajamas and crept out of my dormitory with a pair of sharp scissors, a flashlight, and a paper grocery bag. I made my way down the road and crept behind the garage where the irises where growing profusely. I knelt down and began to saw away with my scissors.

“Do you go to college here?” I heard a voice behind me. My heart jumped. It was a woman’s voice and it sounded pleasant enough, but maybe she was softening me up for the kill before marching me off to the Dean’s office where she would tell the Dean, in a shrieking and not so pleasant voice this time, what I had done. Then the Dean would call my parents. I had visions of drama. Much drama. The kind of drama only my parents were capable of. Followed by my father having a fit of apoplexy and exploding into little bits (which he never did) or screaming and threatening to write me out of his will (which he did all the time.)

I decided to play it cool, and took a deep breath. “Yes, ” I replied trying to sound as innocent as I could, trying to sound like secreting myself behind an old garage dressed in a coat and pajamas, and cutting some stranger’s flowers and shoving them into a grocery sack as fast as I could at 5:00 am on a Sunday morning was a normal activity for a college student.

I looked up and she was holding some small magazines fanned out like a deck of cards. “Would you like one?” She asked. I didn’t dare say no. “Sure,” I replied, “I’ll take one. She pulled one out and handed it to me. When I saw the name of the magazine, I knew I was home free. There would be no visit to the Dean’s office and no drama.

“I’ve heard of The Watchtower,” I said, “but I never read one. I’ll take a look at this. Thanks.”

“Do you think any of your classmates would be interested?” she asked, pressing the rest of the magazines into my hand. “They might be, ” I replied, “I can put these in the student union lounge.””Thank you, she replied, “and have a blessed day.

I returned to my room, and put my purloined irises into a jar. I can’t remember if I put the magazines in the student union building. I probably did, after my heart stopped pounding. But that is the last time I ever helped myself to anyone else’s flowers. Not that I haven’t been tempted.

Make a Pottery Throwing Gauge

One way to make similar-sized pottery plates, bowls and mugs is to start out with a given weight of clay for each item. Here’s a handy chart of recommended amounts of clay needed for certain items. But I have a hard time throwing consistently-sized items even if I do start out with equal weights of clay. It would be nice to make a set of four mugs that are nearly the same size on purpose and not by accident. A pottery throwing gauge is a tool that is supposed to help you do just that. You set the gauges to the height and width you want your piece to be and, if you don’t knock it over, you might end up with an evenly-matched set of bowls or mugs.

I’d never even heard of a pottery throwing gauge until I saw this video by Florian Gadsby on YouTube. I was intrigued needless to say. I love tools but I’m not the kind of person who buys tools willy nilly thinking they can make me a better artist. But I will buy a tool if I think it will be helpful. (I just snagged a KitchenAid mixer on Craigslist and it sure makes kneading bread easier.) And if I think I can make a tool that will be helpful, even better.

So I decided to make a pottery throwing gauge. I gathered up my nut and bolt collection, and my scrap wood. Aside from some wood screws, the only other material I used was a broken set of pottery calipers from the pottery studio. I sawed these in two, to make two positionable gauges which can be used in tandem to measure the height and width of the pot. They fold up out of the way if they’re not needed. I fastened the gauge parts with bolts, wing nuts and rubber washers like these because they make it easy to tighten the wing nuts and position the gauges. I used bigger bolts, washers and wing nuts to attach the gauges to the center post.

My tool list was short: a drill and bits, an electric screwdriver, a metal saw, a wood saw, a ruler, and a clamp to hold the wood during sawing.

The gauges cover a pretty wide range of sizes. I drilled holes in the main post about four inches apart so the gauges could be taken out and repositioned as needed.

I screwed the main post into a crosspiece which seems steady, but I might have to weight it down with a brick when I am throwing pots on an active wheel. I also drew lines at one-inch intervals let me know how to set the gauges. The center post is about 15 inches high.

Yarn Bombing in Cianfrani Park

I’ve written about yarn bombing before. Yarn bombing is a joyful form of street art that takes knitting and crocheting from the fireside and the easy chair and the knitting circle outside to trees and fences and telephone poles and anything that’s standing still for awhile and can be covered in colorful granny squares and pom poms and stockinette. Always surprising and delightful.

Spring’s Blossoms

Every Spring for a week or so, the flowering trees in Philadelphia burst into bloom all over the city.

The view from my bedroom window

Everywhere you look, the trees are showing off their blossoms like they’re in a competition to see who can be the showiest.

The party lasts about a week and then it’s over. Enjoy it while you can.

Want to see more? Check here and here.

Inspiration Makes a Clasp

I haven’t been making much jewelry lately, but when I do, it always comes back to clasps. I love clasps that are elegant, simple to use, and reliable. I don’t like to struggle to put on and take off a piece of jewelry and I dislike losing it even more. A good clasp doesn’t call attention to itself because it is part of the design. By that, I mean it doesn’t stick out like someone who crashed the party. Even if it functions as the focal in a piece, it should be a working part of the design.

Sometimes, I start a piece and then consider what the clasp should be. Sometimes I start with the clasp and build the piece around it. And sometimes, someone’s else’s jewelry inspires me to create something new. The following necklace is a case in point.

This necklace belonged to my mother-in-law who loved midcentury modern studio jewelry. I think it’s made of onyx and it’s got a lot of heft. The beads are about 25 mm and the necklace is about 18″ long including the clasp. I think the clasp is the best part of the necklace.

The clasp is silver. Note that the open ring to the left it slightly open and ajar. The closed ring slips right onto it. You can put on the necklace with your eyes closed. The weight of the beads pulls in a manner that the open part of the clasp remains on top so the necklace is secure.

Here’s my take on this clasp with a polymer necklace.

Again, I have very big beads. In fact, most of them are bigger than the beads in the onyx necklace. Except they aren’t heavy because they’re hollow. Can you see the clasp? It’s on the right above the red round bead.

The polymer beads are strung on 16 gauge dark annealed steel wire and connected with loops. The back of the choker-length necklace is 16 gauge wire which works because the beads are so light that it doesn’t bite into the neck. This piece of wire is permanently fastened on one side of the necklace and finished with a tiny hook on the other side that slips into the loop coming out of the round red bead. The opening on the hook points to the side and holds the necklace closed and secure.

Here’s a picture of the polymer choker. The wire is rigid enough to hold the beads in place but not so rigid that it’s stiff. The onyx necklace keeps its shape by virtue of the weight of its beads. It’s a heavy necklace and not everyone would feel comfortable in it. My mother-in-law was not too concerned with the comfort of what she wore, as long as it was fashionable. But the clasp is very comfortable and makes up for the weight of the beads.

And here’s a picture of the polymer choker with the onyx choker. As you can see, they are about the same size.

Spring is Here.

The crocuses are peeping up in Bob’s garden. What more proof could we need?

What is it About Tofu?

What is it about Tofu that brings out such passion in people? Tofu is, after all, a bland soy product that takes on the character of whatever food it finds itself associated with- a veritable Zelig of gastronomy.

My husband didn’t exactly recoil at the thought of eating tofu. He loves Asian cuisine which uses a lot of it. But he never ate it at home. I didn’t care. I can cook anything (Ok, I was not successful when I tried to make phyllo dough from scratch. I don’t mean Baklava, I mean the dough. It is incredibly difficult to make.) but I don’t cook that often. As a child, I listened to my mother complain every day about how she hated to cook. It wore on me. I don’t iron either. (Same reason).

Which brings me back to tofu. My husband started eating it for health reasons. So I started looking for a good recipe which, to me, means something he’ll eat plus it has to be easy and fast.

All of the recipes I saw contained directions for draining the tofu and getting the water out. Yikes, what a bunch of messy chemistry experiments! I was directed to wrap the tofu in paper towels which I don’t use, or cloth towels, to soak up the moisture. Some directions recommend strainers and colanders in addition to the towels. What a waste of time.

Here’s how I do it to make oven baked tofu nuggets. I open and drain four 1 pound packages of extra firm tofu. I grab two loaf pans. I place two, 1 pound blocks of tofu into each loaf pan. I nest the pans and place a third pan on the top. Then I place a 5 pound dumbbell in the top loaf pan. If you don’t have a dumbbell, use something else.

I let the tofu sit for a few hours and drain off the liquid.

Next, I line a pan with parchment, spray it with cooking spray, and sprinkle it with a layer of tofu coating. This is kind of like a Shake-n-Bake for tofu. There are a lot of recipes on the Internet, like this one and this one. If you want your tofu crispy, I recommend you use cornstarch as your base ingredient. A little baking soda helps add crispiness too, but not too much. You can add spices to the mix. I use powdered garlic, onion flakes, and a wonderful salt-free mix from Pensy’s Spices called Mural of Flavor. You can add sesame, flax, or poppy seeds, red hot pepper flakes, nutritional yeast, seasoned breadcrumbs and panko-use your imagination. I’ve also used leftover rice from takeout meals. It gets crispy when you bake it.

Add the tofu cubes, sprinkle on more coating and toss to cover. I like to bake at 400 F for an hour. You can stir the tofu after 30 minutes to insure even cooking. I turn off the oven after an hour and let the oven’s residual heat crisp up the tofu even more. Store in refrigerator in a covered container.

WANTED!

I have a bad cat. Yes, Boris is wanted for Destruction of Furniture. This is a Felony in my house, but cats and small children get automatic immunity.

Exhibit “A”

We have some storage hassocks that we use as foot stools and coffee tables in our living room. When you live in a small (916 sf) house, every piece of furniture has have more than one function.

Boris keeps his sleepy pad one one of the hassocks where he hangs out with his stuffed mice. The little monster does not deserve a new cover on his hassock (never mind that he has three scratching posts on the first floor, plus a cat tree and he uses them all) but I decided that a pandemic sewing project might be interesting.

I used some heavy canvas fabric I got in a free bin at a house sale. I added a design with some fabric paint. The hassock was an 18″ cube, so I measured a strip of fabric 72″ long (the material swatch was huge. I could have also cut and sewn a strip 72″ long) plus an extra inch, and 22 inches wide. I made a giant tube snug enough that I had to finesse it over the hassock. The bottom of the fabric was already hemmed.

The fabric pulled over the hassock. I stapled it to the inside.
The finished hassock

So, what’s to keep Boris from destroying this? And I also decided that I didn’t want to make three more covers for the rest of the hassocks. And I’m not crazy about the fabric. Light colors don’t work to well for a foot stool. Replace the hassocks? And have them destroyed again? But I think I found a solution.

To be delivered this week. I hope it’s Boris proof!