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Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Winner's Curse: An Elegy for an Unknown Colleague

...some cognitive dissonance, followed by a remembrance of someone I never met.

I've done some dumb shit in my day and I'm sure that's not going to stop just because I am allegedly an adult or whatever; in fact, dumb shit might become more frequent if I progress career-wise, and have a bit more disposable income than before.   Inevitably, these episodes are due not to a callous disregard for a presumed outcome, but a childish obliviousness to the farthest-reaching ramifications of my actions.  In short, I get excited, and I don't think it through all the way.  I am the very definition of Seemed Like a Good Idea At The Time.

Quite possibly these things number in the millions, but in the interest of getting to the point, here is a list of the top 3 dumb things I have done, in descending order of magnitude of dumbness:

  1. going to (and paying for) grad school
  2. a run in with The Law
  3. winning an auction
Now Astrid, you might be thinking, surely number 3 does not belong on the shortlist.  Surely you have done DUMBER things than winning an auction, things which would deserve higher placement in the top 3.  Surely there have been times when you were more feckless and hare-brained than when you simply placed a bet that happened to come in?  (I believe we can all agree that grad school is basically pointless and hugely, stupidly expensive, particularly B-school.) (And that #2 speaks for itself.  Though it should not, anymore, as I've had those records expunged.)  I mean, where even is The Infamous Tequila Shot Contest of Springfest '91 in this list?

By way of explanation of this particular folly, let me first oversimplify the actual Winner's Curse (a tidbit I picked up, incidentally, in grad school, so I suppose if you value learning for learning's sake you should switch number one and two on that shortlist.)  In the context of behavioral economics, in a hypothetical auction of A Thing of unknown value, the Winner's Curse says that the person who most overestimates the value of The Thing will "win" it.  This is measured strictly by the subsequent revelation of some effable intrinsic value of The Thing (so once you start throwing sentimental value into an auction of, like, Mickey Mantle's glove strings or something, this really no longer applies. )  Even if the Winner does not overpay, he is the one who benefits least from winning, because he has come closest to the actual value of the Thing and so has the lowest "profit margin," i.e, the value of the thing minus what he paid for it.  See also: every corporate merger ever. 

In my case, this was The Thing:

"Enormous collection of quilting fabric of all colors/patterns.
Approx. 900+ smaller pieces, approx 50+ medium-sized, about 10 larger bolts."

This was an estate sale auction lot, word of which was sent to me by an alert vintage-loving flea-marketeer friend who knows of my textile-based weakness (aka, my Enabler. Thanks, Marianne!)   I mean!  What on earth is a fabricphile to do with this?  RESIST it?  I don' thin' so, Quickstraw!

And so, tra la, I bid upon it; and so, tra la, I freaking won it.

How is this stupid enough to make the short list?  Let me count the ways;
  1. That is, my friends, as they said in the mercantile age, approximately one SHITTE  TONNE of fabric.  That is about 3x as much fabric as my own stash, which I just this very month put into storage, since I am living temporarily in corporate housing and could not drag it all down here. Which means it is about 5x as much fabric as I will ever in my life actually USE.
  2. And who even knew if it was fabric I liked?  This was an utter crapshoot just for the thrill - I would probably never, for instance, have taken the $$ I paid for this and just gone on a spree at a fabric store. (Well, probably.)
  3. Should I emphasize again this is temporary housing, out of which I might have to move at a moment's notice, such that I should really only have one small Mazda hatchback's worth of belongings here, so as to be able to move everything out all at once?
  4. Did I mention the temporary housing is in HOUSTON, where I had to have all of this shipped from Illinois?
  5. Did I mention that I paid approximately twice as much for the shipping as I did for the lot itself?
  6. And that it ended up being FOURTEEN boxes of fabric?  Yes. Fourteen. Boxes. Big ones. Here are some of them, stacked in my temporary hallway, and some unpacked on the couch:
Though I have to say, opening up those suckers and going through all of this was like Christmas.  CHRISTMAS.  It took me one whole Cubs game and several NCIS: LA episodes to get through.

You begin to see the error of my irrational exuberance, to borrow another economic term.  Though technically, this is not really a Winner's Curse, because even with shipping I did not pay more than this fabric is worth - if someone had parceled this up and sold it on eBay or Etsy, it would have been worth like 3-5x what I paid for it. It was really just my living/working situation that made this so dumb and left me titchy and exasperated with myself for the last week or so.  What I experienced is  just garden-variety Buyer's Remorse (but what kind of blog post title is that?).  Luckily for me, though, the cognitive dissonance that is the source of Buyer's Remorse is worse the more you think things through in advance or try to front-load the decision-making process; whereas I, wheeee!  did none of that pesky forethought business and went right to the I MUST HAVE IT part.  

So the moral of the story, obviously, is that I'm a dumbass and I'm never buying fabric again as long as I live.

The End.

And yet....

And yet....

This stash is, clearly, someone's life's work.  Pretty much every piece was lovingly washed, ironed, and refolded in uniform sizes, probably around a standard quilting ruler.  (I don't usually pre-wash my fabric precisely because I don't have the patience to re-iron it like this.)  She - and I'm going to go with "she" for lots of reasons, but mostly because the odds are with me there -  bought big, splashing out for a whole yard of almost everything, and up to 4 or 5 yards of something that might have been on sale or was a particular favorite, earmarked for a whole quilt back, perhaps. She'd buy several prints from the same fabric line, too, or 4 different color stories of the same print.

If one color is good, four colors must be 4x as good, right? (That purple is actually a different print.)
And this was a connoisseur who had been at it a long while, too.  Of course, you can buy older fabric at any point, but there seemed to be a big chunk circa I would say the mid-1980s, based on dates on the selvage edge of some pieces, the dusty pastel palette of some of her florals, and some iconic time-capsule B. Kliban cats-wearing-red-sneakers action.  I assume she started around then.
B. Kliban, and some inspiration that looks like the album cover of an all-girl Madness cover band.
Selvages, 1980 to 1989

There is really no explanation for this, other than Miami Vice meets Eddie Van Halen.

And then there was this Frida Kahlo fabric that was released only a few years ago, which means this was a good 35+ year hobby for this person - something she devoted all her free time to, had special shelves built in her home to accommodate, spent quite a lot of money on, probably designed vacations around; something that I have no doubt resulted in dozens of presents for family and dozens of friendships made.  Something those friends and family members associated with her.  She identified strongly as A Quilter, and now, four years into what started as one of dozens of idle pastimes I've sampled, it seems that I do, too. Going through her collection, I started feeling a pretty strong affinity for this person.  And it started feeling like less of a curse to have won her stash, and more like a secret conversation I was getting to have with a crafty co-conspirator whom I had never met.

Her personality shines through her fabric selections.  She was definitely a lover of "conversationals," like those giant oversized Alexander Henry prints, or an illustrated sampler of different donuts, or those cartoon ladies drinking coffee or going shopping or what have you, the kind that to me say "affable middle-class earth mama living in suburban splendour."  She had a rainbow of gingham.  She had some old school feed sacks in pristine condition, of which I saved just one that I might hang on a wall some day ("Calf Pellets").  She never met a 30s reproduction fabric or a calico or a Liberty-esque floral print that she did not like.  All of this bespeaks of a love of that traditional, country, home-spun, milk-cans-and-dried-flowers aesthetic which is not so much my personal bag (though I love Liberty-style florals and saved all of those).

Love. Seriously, LOVE.

But then, there was plenty for me to choose from that I did like, and would have gladly bought myself. She had a huge pile of the solids and nearly-solid blenders that I (and most "modern" quilters) favor, and many more medium-scale feathers/paisleys/suzani/foulard/damasks for which I also have a huge weakness, though I rarely know how to incorporate them into my stuff.   More atypically, she had a sizable stash of African-style fabrics in luminous oranges and yellows, even what appears to be some authentic non-mass market mud-cloth, as well as some Asian imitation prints mixed in with some pretty high quality block-printed indigo pieces.

Ethnic prints, or reasonable facsimiles thereof

This makes me think she might have traveled some farflung parts of the world - or at least some farflung parts of Etsy - with her fabric-habit in tow.  She had some sweet pre-cut pieces of hand-dyed fabric that were loomed right here in the USA - a recent trend that I also love and have also funded with my consumer dollars (and an industry we as a country lost ages ago, though one that is pretty directly responsible for a lot of the economic success of the colonies and underpins big swaths of US history:  cotton, slavery, industrial revolution, etc. I will forebear, for now, opining about how wage parity in other parts of the world might revive some of our lost textile industry.)

There were a couple WIPs, too - works in progress, now laid down for the last time.  A hand-basted, hand-quilted wall-hanging-sized piece was the closest to being done, showing pretty clearly what I suspected to be her style, and her craftsmanship:

One room school house, country plaids, hand-quilted sashing rings, and her ubiquitous fruit prints.
She left several baggies full of pre-cut numbered pieces, ready for a waning project enthusiasm to be rekindled.  And inspirational tear-outs from a variety of magazines slipped into chosen fabrics that might fire up her own interpretation.  Pages of the venerable Keepsake Quilting fabric catalog - also celebrating a 30th anniversary this year - with several selections circled in eager anticipation, or maybe just as a thoughtful bookmark for later.  (Newbies like myself and whippersnapper millennial quilters may never know the woes of pre-internet fabric buying. Imagine buying solely from the local Joann, or waiting for a catalog to arrive in the MAIL. The horror! the horror!)  This cheery cherry batik came complete with cherry poetry to build on:

"I am red, I am gold / I am green, I am blue / I will always be me / I will always be new!"

There were even a few cotton garments folded into the mix, for future disassembly and reassembly into some quilty vision.  This sister-wife dress might actually belong in a museum, from a time when people actually had 20" waists and were not physically revolted by the sight of that much zipper:

G'night, John Boy!
And these fabrics got packed in approximately the sort order that my mystery friend preferred, too, so that I could open a box and find a neatly piled two decades of batik fabrics sorted by color;  or I could discover 30 different kinds of strawberry fabric. A garden of sunflowers of all colors and sizes.  A sanctuary of cat prints.  She loved brightly colored fruit prints on black backgrounds - hot peppers, too.  

Can you envision the sunny corner of the house that this lady wrested for herself, with her favorite scissors beside her, and her cats lolling on the fabric on the floor (I can tell because I sneezed a bunch), Carole King on an iPod, patchwork pillows strewn about, and her inevitable coffee mug bearing some kind of nouveau-folksy legend like "I QUILT BECAUSE PUNCHING PEOPLE IS FROWNED UPON"?  I can, because I live there (minus the cats).  

This whole episode might be an object lesson in the dangers of over-stashing, of over-consumption, of over-estimating how much time you have....nobody starts a fabric stash really anticipating how it will outlive her.  But then, when I look at this, I don't see wasted money or an overabundance of free time.  I see piles of inspiration and creative intentions, replete with a kind of potential energy stored up from the crafty lifeforce of the person who assembled this collection.  And I feel some caretaker-esque obligation to unleash that energy and make worthy things with her stash, just as she intended to do, even if our tastes diverged wildly in end-products.  At any rate, for the next stretch of time, I will (try to) limit myself to using just what I have saved of her stash (popularly known as a "fabric diet" - and what a sumptuous repast it is), both to limit what I have to move out of my temporary digs, and to accept this baton which has been handed to me for the next leg of this fabric's journey.  Challenge accepted, unknown cat-loving fellow fabric devotee!

In the end, I went through everything and kept about 5 boxes (or approximately one small Mazda hatchback's worth) of stuff. The rest of it I handed over to the good folks at the West Houston Quilters' Guild, who use their passion and know-how to create quilts for every resident of 2 different assisted living facilities every year; they also donate to Project Linus, which provides blankies to children in need, and is something I'd like to do too, if I ever get around to actually quilting again instead of just buying, stacking, fingering, and writing about fabric.  Giving the bulk of this over to crafters whom I know will make productive use of it relieved me of any residual curse I felt from paying for the stupid shipping on this unexpected gift, or worries about how to store or transport the whole collection. So I unloaded these remaining nine boxes for the two Guild ladies who met me at their storage space, and as I was taking my leave I heard one, unable to resist peeking into her own box of Christmas, exclaiming, "Look at these adorable sunflowers!"

And I smiled and smiled.



‘I am cherry alive,” the little girl sang,
“Each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
As the boys who made the Hallowe’en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
When I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
Someone very old, a witch in a zoo:
I can be someone else whenever I think who,
And I want to be everything sometimes too,
And I put it in along with everything
To make the grown-ups laugh whenever I sing:
And I sing : It is true; It is untrue;
I know, I know, the true is untrue,
The peach has a pit,
The pit has a peach:
And both may be wrong
When I sing my song,
But I don’t tell the grown-ups, because it is sad,
And I want them to laugh just like I do
Because they grew up
And forgot what they knew
And they are sure
I will forget it some day too.
They are wrong. They are wrong.
When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold,
I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me,
I will always be new!”


  1. This is stunningly beautiful, on so many levels. If you need a new user name, may i suggest FabricWonk?

  2. ha! I like it. Though I think I'll have to grow in to true wonkery. Do they have continuing ed credits for that?

  3. I bet you can purchase a grad school program for that.

  4. Thanks for writing about this. I felt like I lived in your head for a few minutes, and I liked it there. Love your attitude about craft hoarders. I hope whomever gets my beads when I die is as thoughtful and appreciative as you are.