Hold Fast. Let Go.

14/11/2012 § 10 Comments

As I mentioned last week, I still have yet to return home due to damages my apartment building suffered during Hurricane Sandy.  I have been removed from my normal routine and neighborhood, but I recognize that compared to some, I have lost very little.  I am very sorry to have been an absentee parent these past few days, and I wanted to let you know that your emails checking in on me have been a particularly bright spot for me in this stretch of time.  Thank you! xo

That said, I have found these past few weeks difficult.  Personally, when I feel like I have a sense of control over things, I feel the most secure.  Having to leave my home has forced me to cede a certain amount of that control, and that has been disconcerting.  But I believe that this also speaks to a larger concept that I have struggled with throughout my life: the concept of letting go – the process of detaching myself from an outcome, a routine, a person, or a relationship that I have invested my time, my money or my heart (or even all three) into.

In the early post-Sandy days, I realized that I was hanging on to a lot of frustration at being displaced and also at not being able to do anything about it.  It bled over into other areas of my life, causing me to feel sullen and wanting to retreat – all because I felt like I had lost my sense of control over my living conditions.  That’s it!  I hadn’t really lost anything at all!  Well, maybe aside from a few trips to my local — yet overpriced — bodega.  And maybe my perspective.

So, this past week I have tried my best to keep in mind that this change is only temporary, to trust that I will be home soon, to embrace a new neighborhood and to be very thankful that I have the help of some truly lovely friends.  It isn’t every day that I get the opportunity to step outside my usual box and since I haven’t lived on the Upper East Side since 2008, I’ve spent a lot of time simply walking around the neighborhood.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed visiting a few of my old favorite places like the Ralph Lauren mansion, Sant Ambroeus and The Frick, discovering new (to me, at least) gems like the Lexington Bar and Books and Creel & Gow, and I actually forced myself to get out and run in Central Park over the beautiful fall weekend we had.  Changing my perspective was hard work, but I’ve been feeling much, much better.

Taking a step back to look at the bigger picture, there is something very, very easy – and very dangerous – in the refusal to let go of negativity.  It’s what a good friend described to me as being “comfortably sad.”  You get comfortable with being sad or frustrated, because you aren’t quite sure what it would feel like to try to let that go and move forward.  If you’re at all like me, that can seem a bit like jumping out of a plane without being completely sure that you’ve got your parachute – and your two backup parachutes, too.  But the thing is, if we hold on to anger or sadness or regret or pain, we prevent ourselves from moving forward.  We prevent growth.

This can obviously apply to personal relationships as well, and I know I’ve definitely been guilty of this myself.  Holding on to a relationship that isn’t really working or miring yourself in the pain of a relationship that has ended, can sometimes seem like the easier path – better the devil you know.  True, it is a way to avoid dealing with any new feelings or facing the fear of the unknown, but you’re also completely foreclosing your opportunity to be truly happy.  It isn’t easy, don’t get me wrong.  It is a painful process, but it’s nothing compared to the pain of a life spent unfulfilled.  I want you to know that you are worth that risk.  I want you to try to let go.

The first step, is knowing when to say when.  I oddly found inspiration in an old nautical term, illustrated in the picture above, from a 1940 issue of Life Magazine (which you can view here).  The traditional sailor tattoo “hold fast” written across the knuckles, is a good luck charm – one of many such symbolic tattoos worn by seamen throughout the years – to ensure the bearer’s steady grip as he worked onboard.  A “fast” refers to a line (or rope) that has been secured.  However, “hold fast” – or rather, it’s Dutch origins hou’vast or houd vast – also gave rise to the nautical term “avast,” meaning to cease, or to stop.  One term, two very different meanings.

What I chose to take away from this nautical history moment, is that the same hands that can hold fast to something – or someone – are just as capable of letting go.  And while there definitely are things in life that are worth fighting for, not everything is.  What I hope you’ll realize, is that there is just as much strength in the surrender.

Hold fast.  Let go.

Charm School Extra Credit: How to Tie a Bow Tie

29/10/2012 § 2 Comments

Editor’s note: Even though February’s Charm School has come and gone, a bit of Extra Credit is just the thing to get us through the other 11 months of the year, no?

The Corsillo Brothers, the lovely Brooklyn-based duo behind The Hill-Side and Hickoree’s, have created an elegant — stop motion! — film to teach you how to tie a bow tie, which makes an excellent hidden talent for anyone’s toolkit.  Closely related to a previous Charm School lesson (see: Tie a Tie), this would definitely be taking it to the next level.  Granted, learning to tie a bow tie takes patience and practice, but without any hands getting in the way of this tutorial, you’ll be on your way in no time.

Personally, I can’t wait to break out my holiday bow tie.
Do you have any plans to wear one?
And if you like the indigo chambray tie featured above, you can find it here.

The Quite Continental Charm School
A modern guide to creating a charmed life

Charm School Extra Credit: Daughter of a Deb

25/07/2012 § 1 Comment

Editor’s note: Even though February’s Charm School has come and gone, I still find myself coming across lovely gems like this one.  If you might indulge me, I’ll be sharing a few throughout the year as a bit of Charm School Extra Credit

The idea that girls require guidance and education in order to become women — scratch that, to become proper ladies —  is the foundation of charm school.  You might recall we discussed this concept in February.  I talked about how I saw value in the model, girls and women coming together in the name of self-education and improvement, but I disagree with the emphasis most of these institutions placed on being pretty, perfect baking skills or being a good wife.  To hell with all that.  And so, that’s why I created the Quite Continental Charm School, a modern guide for modern women to create their most charming life.

And while I might have turned the concept of charm school on its head for my own purposes, I still remain fascinated by all the traditions that prepare and commemorate a girl’s transformation into a woman, like the Bat Mitzvah or the Quinceañera.  Growing up, I was none too interested in all of that Sweet Sixteen stuff, but I wasn’t able to completely escape the allure of the tradition.  Perhaps it’s because I am actually the daughter of a “deb.”

What’s a deb? Historically, American debutantes were girls who had reached the age of maturity and were newly eligible to be married.  As part of a formal — and usually quite lavish — ceremony the girls were presented to polite society (read: upper class) either singly or as part of a group, usually wearing some kind of fancy white ballgown.  Fast forwarding a few generations, the deb of my mother’s generation wasn’t primarily intent on catching a husband.  Her attentions were instead focused on making an excellent impression in her social circle (on her own behalf, as well as for her family), finding the perfect escort and wearing an amazing dress.  While traditions do vary regionally, most debutantes also perform some sort of charity work as part of the process as well.

So, as we might have discussed already, my mother was quite the social butterfly growing up.  When I was a young resident of Awkwardsville, living at the intersection of Braces Street and Glasses Avenue, I would often look at the pictures of my mom at one of the many photos of her at a prom or formal — from their sheer number, it would seem like that was all she did in high school — but it was the pictures of her at her cotillion, in that shining white dress, that would always stand out from all the others.  What I felt is hard to describe, but I loved them without having any desire to be a deb.  I left that to my sister, who seemed to enjoy it.  Naturally, to her cotillion I wore a black, backless gown and painted my nails with Chanel’s VampNaturally.  

So for a change, I asked my mom to talk a little about what it was like when she was a deb, to hear the story behind the pictures I love so much (which I promise to scan sometime soon):

“The debutante thing was very different in 1965.  You had to be invited to participate, and that produced a group of about 35.  In the spring we waited with baited breath to see if we were chosen.  Selection was based on family, character, and social standing.  I was afraid I wouldn’t be chosen because your grandparents were not in the “in” social scene.  But we were buddies with Alicia’s family (they were); and Alicia and I were best buds (but she had to drop out because she came down with mono).  I was a little younger than the rest of the debs (required age was 17 of a HS senior), but it was the crowd I hung out with (I was 16 and a junior).   Announcements were made and the formal tea was held; we wore hats and gloves and our best dresses to tea.  In the countdown to Thanksgiving weekend, we were required to attend etiquette classes,  We were also required to do a set amount of volunteer hours.  I was assigned to the Neuro-Psychiatric Institute at UCLA (NPI).  It was interesting.  I had to wear a candystriper-type uniform (like a pinafore).  I got to see the lab monkeys in their cages (that part was sad).  Then weekly rehearsals began around mid-Sept.  Mrs. Poole started us of with the waltz and curtsey.  After we had that down, they brought in the dads, and then the escorts.  The ball was held at the Ambassador Hotel in the Embassy Ballroom (where RFK was assassinated 3 years later).  I had a room upstairs where I dressed and some parents hung out after hours.  We had an all-night party as a group somewhere else.”

My mother’s debut was organized by the Los Angeles chapter of The Links, an international, non-profit volunteer service organization of women committed to enriching, sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African Americans and other persons of African ancestry.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Link’s ball; the first was held at Ciro’s, a famous nightclub on the Sunset Strip, because hotel ballrooms were not available for minority social events in Los Angeles in 1952.  So you can imagine how happy I was, finding these pictures in the Life Archives.  While these debutantes in 1950 are 15 years earlier than my mother’s era, and a good fifty years earlier than my sister’s, there are constants: the puffy white dresses, the elbow-length gloves, the proud parents, the nervous escorts, the pomp and the circumstance.

The photos, shot by Cornell Capa for Life Magazine, capture Harlem’s very first large-scale “negro debutante cotillion,” organized by Mrs. Lillian Sharpe Hunter, a prominent social-event promoter.  If you would like to read the article — and there’s a great shot of the  Rockland Palace Ballroom where all 52 girls debuted in front of an audience of 4,700 that you must see! — you can find it here.

(Above, L-R) Debutantes Joan Greene, Carole Mc Kenzie, Marian Romain,
Lois Mc Laughlin and Marcia Miller posing in their dresses.

Debutante Marilyn Lowe wearing a dress made
from feathers during the debutante cotillion.

Patronly shriners, members of Brooklyn’s Eureka Temple No. 10,
who sponsored debutante Joanne Norris during the debutante cotillion.

Ushers holding seating lists during the debutante cotillion.

Girls waiting to go downstairs for the debutante cotillion.

Grand March is led by Mrs. Lillian Sharpe Hunter and the
guest of honor Grover Whalen for the debutante cotillion.

Matronly organizers and committee members
look on during the debutante cotillion.

Were you a deb too?  I would love to hear your story!

The Quite Continental Charm School
A modern guide to creating a charmed life

Charm School Extra Credit || I Love Lucy: The Charm School

11/04/2012 § Leave a comment

Editor’s note: Even though February’s Charm School has come and gone, I still find myself coming across lovely gems like this one.  If you might indulge me, I will share a few throughout the year as a bit of Charm School Extra Credit.

I Love Lucy: The Charm School
Season 3, Episode 14, Aired 1/25/54

After allegedly being ignored by their husbands in favor of “pretty girls” at a party, Lucy and Ethel enroll in a charm school taught by actress Natalie Schafer (you may recognize her as Lovey Howell from Gilligan’s Island) in an effort to become “well-groomed and charming and attractive.”  Of course, classic Lucy hijinks ensue.

When they present their glammed-up new and improved selves to Ricky and Fred, the men have a bit of a laugh before reminding the ladies that they love them just the way they are — a bit like our very last Charm School lesson, Day 29: The Icing, no?

The Quite Continental Charm School
A modern guide to creating a charmed life

Charm School Extra Credit: The Elevator Girls of Marshall Field & Co.

22/03/2012 § 2 Comments

Editor’s note: Even though February’s Charm School has come and gone, I still find myself coming across lovely gems like this story and set of pictures taken by George Skadding for Life Magazine.  So if you might indulge me, I’ll share a few throughout the year as a bit of “Extra Credit.”

In 1947, Marshall Field & Co., Chicago’s biggest department store, decided that their elevator girls were in need of a bit of finishing, so they were enrolled in a local charm school where they received lessons on everything from makeup to elocution.  The article noted that the “finished” ladies were happier and much more beautiful, even if there didn’t seem to be a correlating increase in sales, and that they all hoped to follow in the footsteps of actress Dorothy Lamour, who was scouted while working at the department store.

Aside from the amusing illustrations — who knew there was a correct way to bend over? — I’ve had a thing for elevator girls ever since seeing The Apartment (1960, and which happened to be the last black and white film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, until The Artist, this year), where Shirley MacLaine plays elevator operator Fran Kubelik, who catches the eye of Jack Lemmon’s hapless corporate drone C. C. Baxter.  Written, produced and directed by Billy Wilder, it is an excellent film that you must see immediately.

To read the article that appeared in the Sept 15, 1947 issue of Life, head here.
For further Marshall Field’s nostalgia, head here.

Elevator girls June Wahl and Ann Vratarich before…

…and after.

How not to operate an elevator…

…and proper form.

How not to bend over…

…and the correct way.

Elocution lessons.

All images via the Life Archives.

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