Category Archives: Blogging about Life

Getting to Know You…all too well

Pamela Lyndon Travers

Once upon a time, an author was an elusive creature. Rarely glimpsed, rarely heard from except in his or her published writings. There were the exceptions—the ever-touring Dickens and Twain. But when I was growing up a real writer was such a rare beast that I vaguely thought that all authors were either dead or perhaps lived in some land not really connected to our own.

So, I was thrilled to finally meet an actual author when I was 21–P.L. Travers of Mary Poppins fame when she was a writer in residence at my college. I had read and adored Mary Poppins as a child and here was the author herself.

The meeting, at a dinner table in my dorm, was disappointing. She was fulfilling what clearly was an annoying requirement—a meal with the students. She brushed off my shy, gushing acknowledgement of her and her books, ate as quickly as she could and immediately left. But, like Mary Poppins, she did leave me with a bit of wonder. I noticed that the salt and pepper shakers had vanished with her.

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Was it a bit of Mary Poppins magic or was P.L. just a bit of a kleptomaniac? This was certainly possible. Pamela Lyndon Travers was a complicated person. She was notorious for her snappish demeanor and extreme protectiveness of Mary Poppins. You can see a highly sentimentalized (but reasonable accurate) version of her struggles with Walt Disney over the making of the Mary Poppins film in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks.”   (Insider tip: Travers’ tears at the end are not tears of joy.)

You can get a more direct feel for her in this interview with Alex Witchel that ran in the New York Times in 1994.I love many of the exchanges in what must have been an intimidating interview, but this is one I could particularly relate to as a writer. Witchel asks Travers if she is proud of her Mary Poppins books.

“Yes, I am proud,” she [Travers] says clearly. “Because I really got to know her.”

Miss Travers has written that when she was a child she wished to be a bird. Is Mary Poppins? After all, she can fly and she is the only adult capable of understanding the starlings and the wind.

“That’s something I can’t tell you,” she says. “I didn’t create Mary Poppins.”

“Oh? Who did?”

“I refuse the answer,” she says. “But I learned a lot from Mary Poppins.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t say exactly,” she snaps. “It’s not a sum. I know less about her after reading ‘Comes Back’ again.” Her tongue works itself over her lips.

“I think I would like her always to remain unknown,” she continues. “I feel I’ve been given her. Perhaps if somebody else had her she’d be different. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten so much.”

I love Travers’ acknowledgement that Mary Poppins was “given” to her. And her refusal to further explain her character. In some ways, I think writers (like Mary Poppins herself) should also remain unknown. Perhaps some of the magic goes out of things when we meet them, especially if they coldly brush us off! (Although the disappearing salt and pepper shakers almost made up for it.)

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Authors are not so private and mysterious these days. Between school visits, blog posts, social media, bookstore appearances, and late-night interviews, the world seems rotten with authors. We get to know them all too well, perhaps.

Still, believe it or not this is all by way of letting you know that I’ve been doing readings and signings lately for my new book “The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael.”

So, even if you don’t need to meet me, I love getting a chance of getting to meet you. Like so many of us introverted writers, we turn into extroverts under the right light. Even P.L. Travers start to get expansive toward the end of her New York Times interview.

If you’d like to meet the not-that-elusive Bonny Becker and learn more about my latest book, do come to see me at the Secret Garden Bookshop in Ballard, Oct. 25 at 7:00 p.m.

 

 

 

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WEAVING A BLOGPOST

spider3In our garden, we’ll remember this as the Year of the Spider. The golden slant of autumn light has come — and with it a bumper crop of spider webs.

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The spiders are easy to spot, hanging head downward on their vertical webs that serve as both home and hunting ground. Just what kind of spiders are they? I searched the Other Web and found this handy identification chart on iwastesomuchtime.com.

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Reference.com had better information. I learned that the classification of spiders begins with their webs. Much as children’s writers work in genres – board books, picture books, middle grade and YA — spiders spin out one of four different kinds of webs: orb, sheet, funnel and tangle.

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By the shape of their art in our garden, I identified these weavers: orb spiders of the family Araneidae.

Yes, that’s the same spider family as Charlotte’s in EB White’s beloved Charlotte’s Web.

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It seems fitting that they are spinning webs outside my windows while I spin a blogpost within.

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Ah, that I could be so productive. Orb spiders build new webs just about every evening, after consuming the old web. Revision and more revision. Only the females weave webs. The males spend their time searching for mates. To create silk, an orb female squirts liquid out of the spinneret glands in her abdomen. It stays liquid until it hits the air, much as ideas solidify as they become words. She makes sticky silk for the circular strands, to catch insect prey, and non-sticky radials to run along: threads of dialogue and narrative; exposition and introspection.

She weaves a web from her own substance: story woven from the deepest self.

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Orb spiders do not see well, despite the fact that they have eight eyes. An orb female is alerted to an insect on her web by its vibration. She runs along the radials to subdue it with a bite, sometimes wrapping it in silk for later consumption.

A writer might move blindly into a story, as well, feeling her way for the vibrations that raise the little hairs on the back of her neck, the visceral reaction that telegraphs yes, here’s a juicy story part, an idea to bite into, a just-right word to wrap in silk for future use.

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My three-year old grandson took a good look at the orb spiders at his house, too. He counted five webs in the tree next to their stairs. But he doesn’t call them Araneus or even spiders. He calls them “Booby Voobek,” in the insect language that Carson Ellis invented for her brilliant book, Iz Du Tak. And there, where language and spiders collide, seems a good place to end this woven tale.

“Rup furt,” Ellis writes. Rup furt, indeed.

 

 

PICTURE BOOK FODDER

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In this story, a mouse’s squeak sets off a chain reaction that wakes all the animals in the surrounding meadows and mountains. I painted the illustrations in black and white gouache resist and my sister Kate McGee colored them in Photoshop, as we did for Little Wolf’s First Howling,

THE ILLUSTRATIONS for SQUEAK! are delivered to Philomel for publication next spring. So it is time to scratch around for a new project. How to begin?

BEGIN as a cobbler – laying out all the pieces of the story on the bench. It’s going to be a shoe, but what sort of shoe? Bright buckles? Strong arch support? High heeled, strappy, patent leather?

Begin with an overheard line: “As long as you’re home in time for wormcakes,” or “You’re just a baby. A baby, baby, baby,” or “I remember he was missing a few fingers.”

Begin with a character and the stakes: a child in jeopardy, a badger or weasel or mouse with unquenched desire. Yearning is not enough, begin with clear need.

Begin with a sequence: days of the week, or the five senses, cities along a highway. Sequence can open up a writing experience. Begin there

or with place. Begin with a place that holds memories of the life lived there: the janitor’s hideout in the school basement, a dresser drawer that served as a cradle, a sun-parched hillside.

FREEDOM flows when I approach the blank page. In some ways a new beginning feels like the first time I tried to write anything. In other ways, I lean on 27 years of making picture books.

I think of Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, talking about the freedom that players gain when they master their skills. He said: “Think of a dancer. Dancers work and they work and they work and they master their skill – or singers – they master their skills so far that improvisation just comes flowing out of them. Their natural expression of the best they can possibly be comes out of them because there is no boundary to hold them back.”

I hope for such intuitive leaps, but am aware of my shortcomings, too, and appreciate encouragement from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

      Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.

BEGIN. Let the world fall away and follow the path into the story – as long as you’re home in time for wormcakes.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE ON READING AND WRITING

“We read books. We write poems. We belong to ourselves. Does your story have room for me? My story has room for you – ways to enter in, ways to feel our lives reflected or confirmed. Ways of finding greater confidence. We’re all here. We can do it.

“We live on the edges of stories we don’t hear. Every person walking past us on your beautiful Bellingham pier is full of stories…”

Poet, humanist and teacher Naomi Shihab Nye took the stage April 28 at Western Washington University to deliver her Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, REFRESHMENTS WILL BE SERVED – Our Lives of Reading and Writing.

naomiX3It was a luminous presentation, full of stories from her 42 years of working and writing with students from all over the world. Her attitude is ever curious. When a student from Afghanistan asked her why she choses to spend time with kids, she answered, “Because I want to remember what you know.”

She spoke of the importance of asking for stories before they are lost and proposed ways to keep the flow going, like writing on various papers: found papers, round paper placemats, post-its, etc.

She talked about the way writing works: “Nothing is too small to work on.” And “One person’s story encourages another.” And “Each thing gives us something else – another way of thinking, a new thought, more compassion for people who have trouble finishing their work.”

She reminded us that when you feel beleaguered as a writer or a citizen, reading will fortify you.

Near the end, she read her poem KINDNESS. She told us she did not write this poem; it was a gift and she was the scribe. It came to her on her honeymoon, after she and her husband had been robbed. This poem has seen me through hard times and I loved hearing her read it.

KINDNESS

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

–Naomi Shihab Nye, 1995

P.S. Earlier this month, walking around Green Lake, this great heron reminded me of another poem that speaks to us in trying times, from poet, writer, activist and farmer Wendell Berry:

heron

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

– Wendell Berry, 1998

P.P.S. William Stafford, Oregon’s beloved poet and mentor to Naomi Shihab Nye gets the last line here: “If you are having trouble writing, lower your standards.”

 

 

 

For Love of the World

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” – E.B. White

Lately I have been digging into the final dummy revisions for SQUEAK, a picture book which will be published by Philomel in 2019. It is a chain-reaction story; a Rube Goldberg alarm clock that starts with the squeak of a small mouse and ends with the biggest bison’s bellow billowing out over mountains and meadows and waking everybody else.

Along the way I get to draw chipmunks, trout, elk, eagles, bears, wolves, and big horned sheep, as well. Also the landscape and the plants where they live.

You might recognize Little Wolf whose howling in SQUEAK wakes the big horn sheep.

I am illustrating SQUEAK with my sister Kate Harvey McGee. I wrote the story and will create a black and white gouache layer, like the wolves above, for the illustrations. She will provide the color, as she did for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. One of the benefits of this collaboration is we talk over possibilities. For instance, tree choice.

We were hiking on the Oregon coast and came by this lovely Sitka spruce. It had the perfect opening at the bottom for a small mouse nest – and great checkered bark. But the big cast of animals in SQUEAK requires the ecosystem of a place like Yellowstone. That sent me scampering through the internet to see if there is a similar spruce in the Rockies – Yes! The Englemann spruce. I gathered screen grabs of the pine cones and needles, branching habit, etc. of this particular tree. And photos of the inside of stumps, too, for the final spread.

e spruce

For LITTLE WOLF, Kate captured the colors of the hours from evening to night, painting moonlight. But SQUEAK takes place just before the sun comes up, the whole story happens in about 15 minutes. She is experimenting with possible palettes, auditioning various pinks and oranges to suggest the pre-dawn.

To find the images and the colors to illustrate this story we tune into the beauty and wonder of the natural world: from the thick brown shag of a bear’s coat to the silver scales of trout, from grass-choked meadows to conifers hugging the bottom of rocky cliffs.

We were raised in Sonora, CA, in the Sierra foothills, and spent many happy days hiking the Emigrant Wilderness, about an hour up Highway 108. On backpack trips into the high country, we sometimes woke in the chilly pre-dawn when a few stars still lit the sky. We lay awake long enough to note the beautiful mountains, meadows and towering trees all around. Then, like the small mouse in SQUEAK, we snuggled down with our friends and went back to sleep.

How satisfying to have a project that recalls that place and lets us speak our love for the natural world.

SEEING WITH FRESH EYES

Earlier this week it snowed in Seattle. We woke to clear blue skies and an outdoor world blanketed with an inch or two of bright white powder. My daily walk down the driveway to get the newspaper became one of discovery: the yellow witchhazel fluffs each wore a snow hat, same for the rhody leaves.

Animal tracks on the pavement led into the woods. Who knew this was a bunny crossing?

bunnytracksI was seeing my old familiar walk with fresh eyes. So exhilarating.

Seeing with fresh eyes is one reason I love hanging out with my almost-three-year old grandson. The world is new to him. On a walk around an ordinary San Francisco city block he discovers seedpods and leaves and various ornamental details. He pays attention to everything. When the MUNI tram goes by, he notices the paint scheme (he particularly loves the polka dot MUNI). He watches the sidewalk, too, and points out letters he recognizes on the public works cement vaults signage. He finds other lines in the cement that are perfect to jump between.

I understand that our adult brains, in the interest of efficiency, stop noticing familiar details. I have walked down our driveway at least 1,000 times. I guess it makes sense to tune out. But what wonders await when I tune in.

This week my sister Kate Harvey McGee was visiting so we could work on our book, SQUEAK, which is slated to come out from Philomel in 2019. I create the black and white part of our illustrations, first painting in gouache resist, then scanning, and reworking in Photoshop.

8-9mouseK I send my files to Kate for coloring. Kate works in Photoshop, too.

Kate lives near Philomath, Oregon, and we usually work through email. So it was fun to sit in the same room and kibitz, and to be able to print out our efforts and take a look together.

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Something about printing out triggers the fresh eyes thing. We hung the print on the wall and kept returning to look at it over the next few days. Pretty soon we were adding post-its: “rounder mouse butt,” “shadow plant” etc etc.

Kate and her partner Scott were also in Seattle because we had a family event to celebrate – our niece Maia is now engaged to Chris. So we were all thinking about how it is to fall in love. It’s related, isn’t it, to seeing with fresh eyes?

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Remember when you first met the person you love most deeply – and that wonder of discovering him or her?

I wish Mai and Chris all the best – and for the rest of us, here’s to seeing all the world with fresh eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Always Coming Home

When I learned that Ursula K. LeGuin had died, it came as a shock. I knew she was getting older, but she still seemed invincible to me. I am fortunate to have been one of the many people whom Ursula Le Guin brought into her creative universe. She was very generous in her collaborations. I worked on several book projects with her, and kept in touch over the years. I will miss her.

In the summer of 1982 when I was 20 years-old, I got a call from Todd Barton, the then music director for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival and a former teacher of mine at the University of Oregon, asking if I would be interested in working on a project with Ursula Le Guin and him.

Ursula K. Le Guin. I knew that name. I had read one and a half books of the Earthsea Trilogy in high school, but had to give the set back to my friend so never finished the rest. I figured that I should memorize the author’s name so I could find them and finish them some day.

The reason Todd Barton called a 20-year-old college junior was because he knew I had an interest in scientific illustration (I was pursuing a double major in art and anthropology) and had seen a fair amount of my student work. Ursula had written Always Coming Home, an archaeological study of a culture that “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now” and was looking for someone to illustrate it. She wanted someone young and not yet “jaded” about work. Todd was going to create the music. The book would come in a boxed set with a cassette tape.

I said yes.

I worked on the book for a year and a half, taking time off from school to complete it. I created 101 illustrations, mostly in pen and ink, but including a few woodcuts.

While I was working on the illustrations for the book, I spent a few weeks with Ursula and her family at her childhood summer house in Sonoma County – the setting for Always Coming Home. I went there to observe, study and draw reference on site for the illustrations.

One day while walking with Ursula on the grassy hills surrounding the house, she bent over and picked up a leaf and showed it to me. The leaf had a beautifully convoluted pattern etched into it by some sort of leaf borer. That was the moment that I realized that she saw much more than I did in the world around me. It isn’t enough to see things when you look for them. You need to look for things to see.

So I want to give Ursula credit for changing my life. Not in the obvious way – by being the first person to hire me to illustrate anything – but on a more personal and fundamental level.

To be open. To notice. To gather. To find.

That is the gift I needed most at the time, and I have carried it throughout my life.

And I still have that leaf.

 

Words and Images from the Women’s March

Words and Images. That’s how we convey story in a picture book. Yesterday, I tuned into the words and images that told the story of the Women’s March in Seattle.

It started with how it all looks. I had misplaced the pink pussyhat I knit last year – so decided to wear a red hat my sister Kate sewed me, edged with buttons from my mom’s button box. It was a way to bring Mom and my sisters along.

Then we met a woman on the Light Rail who’d sewn 100 pink fleece pussyhats to give  away. That set the generous feeling for the day.

with my friend Suzette

We took the train from the University station. There had been a smattering of pink pussy hats and signs as we descended the escalator into the Light Rail dungeon. By the time we emerged at Cal Anderson park everyone was showing the colors of the movement – which seems to stick to the purple and red side of the color wheel.

At the park, these two passed out the 1000 buttons they had made. I like the words on mine: strong female character, (especially good for a writer, right?)

Words and images. The Seattle march, which numbered as many as 50,000, was led off by Native Americans wearing black and red clothing, some with button blankets and woven hats. Their drums set a beat of gravitas. Their signs drew attention to the cause of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Before we fell into line, a guy with a microphone and camera asked us why we were there. Where to start?

Some of my favorite signs said why. Sometimes with humor, sometimes just pointing to the heartbreaking truth.

Respect my existence or expect resistance

I loved that many of the marchers were men…

 …and that many children participated as well, like this adorable group with Suzette’s daughter and her friends: four moms and seven little ones. When I asked seven-year old Sidney why she was marching, she said, “I want girls and women to have the same rights as men –  because I’m a girl.”

Their future keeps us marching. I plan to hang on to my new pussyhat. This story’s not over.

 

 

Many Gifts

Each month, Julie Paschkis, Laura Kvasnosky, Bonny Becker, Julie Larios and I meet at one of our houses, around one of our tables, to review and critique each other’s work. We also share news, thoughts, stories, quandaries and lunch (or brunch) and tea. As most of you already know, this blog evolved out of our working friendship.

Each year, we exchange gifts for the holidays – small things, often items we have made ourselves, sometimes souvenirs from places we have visited in the past year.

But the greatest gift we give each other isn’t at these yearly holiday gatherings; it is what we give each other each time we meet, and often in between. We give our eyes, ears, brains and trust. It has been many years since I joined this group (around 2002) and it started ten years before that. A few members have come and gone (and come back again). We started blogging together in January of 2012. Between the five of us, we have published 69 books and 309 blog posts. Geez.

There have been a lot of thoughts and ideas shared around our tables. I am forever grateful for the excellent input and feedback I have received over the years – and that is not to discount in any way the friendships we have developed.

If you have a professional critique group like ours, you know how valuable it is. If you don’t and wish you did, find a few open-hearted individuals whose work you respect see if they are amenable to starting a children’s book group with you. Maybe you will find a good group if you take a picture book writing or illustration class or workshop (that is how this group got started). It helps if you are all at a similar place with your writing and/or illustration careers.

Best wishes for a creative and productive new year!

 

If the Chair Fits…

(You should probably sit down to read this one — and put on your Goldilocks wig.)

There are many, many ways into a story. My sister Susan Britton, who is also a writer, likens the process to opening a big bag of dogfood. You pick and pull at the stitching across the top, tugging one thread and loosening another until whoosh! the bag zips open. And the kibble/story is waiting.

I agree, it is a matter of scratching around, trying one idea and then another.

Character is often the way in for me; sketching characters especially. Setting or even a little dialogue may also provide traction. But when I saw San Francisco’s deYoung museum’s exhibit of American chairs, I thought maybe I could sit my way in. If I could sit in one of those chairs for an afternoon, I am pretty sure a story would result; a new twist on butt-in-chair methodology.

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The exhibit was arranged chronologically and these were a few of the oldest chairs. I imagined myself, for instance, seated in the sack-back Windsor armchair on the left, built of oak, hickory, maple and pine in 1780-1800s. I imagined the worn arms under my hands. I’d begin by writing twenty questions as fast as I could. Pencil on paper. Anything that came to mind. This almost always gives me a thread that I can pull to get to the kibble/story.

For example: Who made this chair? For whom? Under what circumstances? Why does it have so many kinds of wood? It is obviously handmade, perhaps with crude tools. Was the maker poor? Who sat here? What conversations took place? Was it drawn close to the fire on long winter nights? What stories were told? Somewhere along the way, ideas related to the story would start to suggest themselves: i.e. maybe the story is a story within a story. I would capture these thoughts and keep asking questions.

Had this chair ever been broken? It is so old. Was it handed down through the generations? Was it prized? I could not help connecting the chair to my own memories. It is a little like my grandfather’s Windsor rocker. Like me, did a little girl feel safe in this chair? Or was it a “naughty” chair, where a child was put for time out? Was it ever pulled to the table for a special guest? Or used to reach a secret from a high shelf? Or to put the star on the top of a Christmas tree? In the eight or so generations since this chair was built, did it travel? Did it ever fall off of a truck in the middle of I-5? Was it the only nice thing on the top of the pile when someone was thrown out of a house? That’s 20 questions. Hmmm. I see a couple of directions I could further explore.

Or maybe I would need to look more closely at the chair. I would get up and draw it from several perspectives. You can get to know something better by drawing it because you have to look carefully.

4.corner,chip, gill

As I thought my way down the line of chairs, I could see that in every case I would be scratching around for a story with queries about the chair itself, the people who had owned it, and its significance in their lives — and probably it would evoke a connection to my life, a memory that would create personal meaning.

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For instance, this maple Shaker rocking chair made in Waterviliet, New York c. 1805 suggests babies rocked and little ones cuddled before bed. The high back is distinctive, a ladder back. The worn arms speak of years of rocking and crooning. How would it fit in a modern setting? The seat looks new, which leads me to wonder if it were discarded and found and renovated and reloved? Who would have discarded it and why? Who would have found it? What a treasure it would be to a young family — like my own when our kids were little and I loved to rock them.

victorian

Look at this fussy pink-cushioned armchair from the Victorian age. It seems eager to take a role as an endowed object in a story. Who would have sat on its tight padded seat? Perhaps talking about this chair would offer a repressed Victorian character an avenue to express her inner passion.

L to R: Frank Lloyd Wright chair, 1907; Timothy Gandt armchair for Stickley, 1901; Greene and Greene chair, 1907.

Perhaps we should divvy up these chairs and create an anthology of stories they inspire. They seem full of possibilities. Then we can sit in the line and one by one spin their tales.