The Wonderful World of Sock Monkeys!

Archive for February, 2012

The heart of the matter

Although I enjoy making my sock opera monkeys and other monkeys inspired by fictional characters from theatre and books, sometimes I want to make one to commemorate or celebrate other inspirations.

A little over a year ago, my partner Rolland had to have open heart surgery. He had a history of heart disease, and had suffered a heart attack five years earlier. Between then and a blockage problem a year and a half later, he already had eight stents, and the doctor felt a bypass to restore blood flow to an area of his heart that didn’t appear to be getting any was his only option.  We were scheduled for surgery at the UW Regional Heart Center on a Monday morning in mid-June, and had met with his awesome surgeon, Dr. Daniel Rabkin. The doctor told us what to expect during surgery and the 5 to 7 day post-op recovery at the hospital. We notified family, and got ready, which really means I had no idea what to do so I went on a manic house-cleaning frenzy. I said it was to prepare for Rolland’s mom and sister who were coming into town for the surgery, but in reality I was totally freaked out and just needed to stay busy.  Rolland stayed calm, but underneath it he was pretty scared, and my crazy cleaning wasn’t helping the situation much.

Rolland was pretty sick – something we didn’t realize until after the fact, but there was a tip-off when he suffered another heart attack between his pre-surgery testing on Friday and the surgery Monday morning. When he was being prepped for surgery that morning, I was trying to be strong, but I had no idea if it might be the last time to see him. I just smiled a lot, told him I loved him and when they wheeled him out, told him I’d see him soon.

The surgery went OK – Dr. Rabkin said he had completed two bypasses, but wasn’t entirely happy with the results. Rolland was doing fine and we’d be able to see him soon. About four hours later, the doctor returned to say that it appeared one of the bypasses was not working at all, and he thought the best option was to return to surgery for another operation. As power of attorney, he needed my permission for the second surgery – YES! Several hours later, an exhausted doc returned to tell us things looked great, with the help of a colleague they’d restored  blood flow to the heart as he’d hoped to and Rolland’s heart was in better shape than it had been in years. I think I cried, but I know I felt like the weight I’d felt pressing down on me during the weeks leading up to this was gone. Now to get Rolland strong and back home!

We weren’t exactly out of the woods yet – there were complications in recovery and Rolland’s 5 to 7 day post-op lasted 17 days. There were also two more unexpected hospital stays that summer as he continued to heal and get stronger. At this point, Rolland’s care was in the hands of his cardiologist, but each time Dr. Rabkin checked in to see how he was doing. He is a kind, brilliant and humble man who saved Rolland’s life, and thanking him a billion times just didn’t seem like enough. Enter the sock monkey.

I had a blue and white sock I wanted to use for the monkey, and I knew a surgeon costume would be easy – I picked up some scrubs “for authenticity” at the thrift store, and a friend who works at Children’s Hospital got one of those surgical hats for me to use as well. Rolland’s mom has one of those fancy embroidering sewing machines, so I got her to embroider the lab coat with Dr. Rabkin’s name, and my final accessory came from ebay – a sock-monkey sized stethoscope. The finished result is probably not the usual gift  a world-class surgeon receives, but he fixed my patner’s heart and I couldn’t think of a better thing to do than give him a gift from mine.


Dr. Rabkin - heart surgeon extraordinaire! Photo by Rozarii Lynch


P.S. – I entered the Dr. Rabkin monkey at the Western Washington State Fair (the Puyallup) this past fall – I’ve entered embroidery pieces and Christmas tree skirts I’ve made in the past, so this was a departure for me. The good doctor earned a “Judges Craftsmanship Award”! He was displayed with a hand-made wool rug of sock monkeys that was really amazing – thanks again Doc!

The Puyallup Fair 2011

Porgy and Bess

Even if you don’t know who George and Ira Gershwin are, or have never seen a production of Porgy and Bess, you know their music. So much of the work, which was actually conceived as an opera by George Gershwin, is so ingrained in the American popular songbook that once you hear a few notes of any of the great songs like Summertime or It Ain’t Necessarily So, you can hum along. The work itself presents a lot of difficulties – not just from the sheer size of the cast, the different sets and the overall complexity of it, but also the political and racial questions that come from a work that’s about African Americans living in a tenement that’s written by two New York Jews and a Southern white man, DuBose Heyward. 

Thankfully, our society has changed a lot since the opera’s debut in 1935, and I was excited to spend my summer working on the Seattle Opera production with a favorite baritone, Gordon Hawkins. Gordon is an amazing artist. He won the Luciano Pavarotti International Vocal Competition in 1992. He has a powerful voice with a rare ability to make it emotionally heartbreaking and tender. I actually cried backstage a couple times listening to him and the pain and longing he conveyed as the disabled beggar, Porgy – just too beautiful!

Of course, I wanted to do a sock monkey for him, but I was a bit gun shy after preparing my show for  the “New Visions” exhibit at McCaw Hall (see my post about “Verboten”). I thought the best way to proceed was to tell Gordon I wanted to make a Porgy for him, and let him decide if it was OK. He was all for it!

I pushed myself to add a lot of details to this character. I found a crutch from a ski set for the American Girls doll line that was the perfect size for him. I wrapped it with cloth strips from a favorite old shirt of mine, added some bits of leather and distressed it. The result came really close to the actual stage version he used, and with the club foot I gave him, he needed that crutch. My boss, Ron, helped me distress the pants and the wool I used to make the cardigan. I added a removable hankie to his cardigan

Porgy's custom-made crutch uses fabric from a favorite old shirt of mine

pocket, and leather tabs to his suspenders, trying to bring it as close as possible to the costume worn on stage. The most fun I had was making a felt fedora for him. I made my own pattern and kept cutting it down until it fit just right, added a hat band and distressed it.

The production was terrific – for the most part, it was an entirely new group of performers who’d never sung at Seattle Opera before, and they brought a refreshing energy and enthusiasm to the show every night. The first costume change I had backstage with Gordon was primarily an instrumental point in the show with little singing. I went a bit early to the change each night – I felt completely immersed in and surrounded by this lush, gorgeous Gershwin sound. I could hear bits of other Gershwin pop songs throughout the orchestration, and a little Rhapsody in Blue every now and then – absolute heaven!

Porgy and Bess is one of the most beautiful and fun productions I’ve worked since my first show at SO in 2002. I wish they were all like that –

Gordon Hawkins with Porgy, August 2011