Saturday, May 28, 2016

Insommmnnnnnia


Insomnia is rare in cats because they work hard at sleeping and become very good at it after lots of practice.  Ours lie around resting all day, polishing their napping techniques, and it's exhausting; it wears them out.

I've found a cure for the rest of us: Agatha Christie's first murder mystery featuring Inspector Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. published in 1920. Towards the end of the Great War, there's a poisoning at an English country house and many are suspected. Poirot is a refugee in the village and a friend of a friend of the family. He investigates by doing and saying mysterious things, making mysterious discoveries, and asking mysterious questions. All of this is reported by the narrator on every page, with never any lucid explanation. Given the total lack of clarity, I fell asleep after every two pages on average. By the time all is revealed at the end, you no longer care who committed the crime; you only wish Poirot were real so you could smack him. And you are surprisingly well rested.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Straight Advice from Possum


Possum and I sat down for a talk the other day. I asked him what people can learn from cats and this is what he told me.

Possum's Rules for Living Well:

1.  Nap more. When you are sleepy or bored, for heaven's sake, take a nap. Humans have too much guilt and neurosis about this, says Possum. But we, like cats, have evolved to need and love naps or we wouldn't have invented things like the work day, church services, academic conferences, golf, or NASCAR races. If each of us committed to taking several naps each day, it would soon become the "new normal," and our quality of life would vastly improve. Instead of recognizing it as healthy behavior, we feel embarrassed when it happens naturally at a committee meeting, during extra innings, or on a date. Cats never bat an eye when another cat falls asleep; they consider it a sign of trust. The next time you fall asleep at work, says Possum, tell your colleagues they have reached a new level of trust in your estimation. Make them feel proud. Change has to start somewhere — why not with you?


2.  "Eat food. Mostly plants, little critters, and cheese. Not too much. But not too little." I asked Possum to expound on his variation on Michael Pollan's Rules for Eating. He said that we humans ought to add new, lean, unique protein sources to our diets, since red meat isn't working out so well for us. He suggests beginning with tiny birdies, mice, and crickets. If humans ate them, he said, we'd be breeding and farming them, and they wouldn't be in such short supply for cats. (He also said they taste really good.) The cheese addition, he said, was self-evident. I had to agree.
     I asked him about "Not too little." "The correct amount of food," he said, "is more than you give me at supper but exactly equal to that plus whatever's left in Toffee's bowl when I've finished mine and he isn't done yet." I asked him to extrapolate this to humans. He suggested that we not finish whatever is on our plates (as Pollan suggests) but start eating from our neighbor's plate about three-quarters of the way through mealtime. I immediately grasped his logic: I would find this so unappealing that I'd lose my appetite and leave the table without being full, which is precisely what Mr. Pollan hopes we will do. But, of course, we don't. I admire Possum's solution and plan to start implementing it at my husband's college reunion dinner this weekend.
     Possum also knows who Mark Bittman is. When he saw my copy of How to Cook Everything, he checked out the index right away and was relieved to find no recipes for cooking cats. He parked himself on the book to read the rest and was annoyed to find no recipes for songbirds, mice, rats, or bugs.
    "But, Possum," I said, "Those are things cats eat and they are best eaten raw. So you don't need recipes. If anything, you need hunting tips." He retorted that everything tastes better topped with melted cheese or a nice sauce, and I couldn't disagree. Then he bemoaned, at length, the dearth of lutefisk in the American diet. (He is Norwegian.) It was hard work to get him back on point.


3. Stop thinking unpleasantly about the past and future. Live in the present. Possum says we worry too much about things we can't control and things we fear might happen in the future. Cats don't do this at all, he said. 
      I asked him what we should do instead. "Just stop," he said. "Don't do it anymore. Ever." 
     "But HOW?" I replied, a bit loudly. "See," he replied, "You're already getting worked up and worried about how you're going to manage it. You're being ridiculous. Just STOP!" Again, I had to ask him how I can possibly make my brain stop racing backwards and forwards. His response:


When he awoke from his nap, I asked him if he had any more advice for us. He had one more piece:

4. Grooming, people!  Possum says we fuss too much over our clothing but not enough over our personal care. He said that our showering daily is all very well, as is brushing, flossing, combing, manicuring, shaving, plucking, moisturizing, and so on. (He doesn't know about waxing, and I doubt he'd approve.) But, he said, he would like to see humans devote more time to the finer aspects of grooming. I didn't understand what he meant, so I asked him for specific details.
     He became annoyed. I find that Possum eventually becomes frustrated with me during every serious talk we have, perhaps because he expects me to understand him intuitively, as he says he understands me. I persisted, and he kindly decided he would Show, rather than Tell:


I refuse to show you all the steps involved in his toilette; l leave it to your imagination. If you think your bella figura will profit from your spending more time chewing between your toes, by all means go for it, but spare me any description of it — and whatever else you choose to do in emulation of Possum and his kind. Except for the napping and the not worrying; I'd like to hear how that goes.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Green Boas for the Ladies

Out for a Sunday walk on the 15th, on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, we found the figures of the Boston Women's Memorial dressed up in fluffy green boas:


I can find no online explanation for why Abigail Adams, Phyllis Wheatley, and Lucy Stone were decked out in so much green frippery. It was interesting, but mostly it was just odd.


No one accessorizes our monuments to men. That is, aside from the large nude, Quest Eternal, that used to be outside the Prudential Center:


Photo: Boston Art Commission

He sometimes wore a Santa hat in December or the jersey of one of the local teams. Once someone did the obvious and natural thing, and dressed him as a delivery man holding a pizza box aloft. He looked perfect. We miss him and hope he returns when the construction is done.

These ladies, who were all interested in ideas, words, and action, strike me as self-conscious and uncomfortable in their boas.  



But someone clearly went to much trouble and some expense to honor these ladies with greenery. If anyone knows why, please let me know.


 


Just Exactly Right

This pot of hydrangeas on a Marlborough Street porch makes me glad every time I see it. It's perfectly beautiful. 


I wish that someday we can have one like it at our door.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

My Brimfield Find

I often tell myself I'm not to buy anything at the Brimfield Antiques Fair. I tell myself I'm just going for the long walk in fresh air, the visual entertainment, and the unwholesome food. (My husband goes for the antique postcards; he collects, and is well known to the dealers in the Postcard Barn.)

I tell myself we already have too much stuff and we don't need one more thing. (It seems we always need more postcards, however, although I often get the misguided impression that we have enough of those, too.) 

But my attitude is silly and wrong. At Brimfield there are many hundreds of dealers selling acres of antiques, vintage items, and crafts. Everybody over the age of 4 is buying, selling, or both. If everyone thought as I did, the whole fair, and maybe the town itself, would collapse and die a horrible economic death. So it's our moral and fiscal duty to not leave empty-handed — just as when we visit an independent bookstore. 

Besides, I love antiques, and I only have an opportunity to see so many once or twice a year. While I often do come away empty-handed, it's not for lack of trying. As I quietly roam the fields, I keep an eye out for The Perfect Thing. 

The Perfect Thing is antique, unusual, beautiful, and it "speaks" to me, telling me I can't live an entirely happy life without it. Ideally it serves some useful purpose, fits easily in our car and our apartment, and is a good price.

Finding The Perfect Thing became much harder after Harris arrived. I can't go antiquing now without automatically envisioning Harris destroying whatever it is I'm looking at. He likes to knock things on the floor and he's good at it. He's ambidextrous. The other day I caught him trying to push a very large, heavy antique pressed-glass canister off the kitchen counter, and we had words. I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect that he is figuring out how to use his shoulders to move heavier things.

So I don't bring home fragile items from Brimfield now. Even silver dents when it hits the floor. Ask me how I know. But this struck me as eminently Harris-proof:


As you can see, it's the marble keystone or ornament from a Victorian mantel; I was calling it an "escutcheon" before I realized that's not what it is. (I just like saying "escutcheon." You might, too — try it.) Some people call these "medallions," but I think those ought to be round or oval. It looks like common Vermont marble to me, but what do I know? I thought it was interesting, and I also felt sorry for it, the rest of its mantel, and the room it was torn from. 

Knowing our luck, if I didn't get it, we'd end up buying some pathetic mess of an "updated" Victorian condo with no ornament left on its wrecked marble mantel, and I'd be kicking myself for all eternity.

It weighs a ton, so I told the dealer I'd return to buy it later, although chances were excellent that I'd get lost trying to find her shop. I'm usually hopelessly lost at Brimfield, but it doesn't matter unless I want to go back and buy something after thinking about it for a few hours and miles. The place is HUGE, every field looks similar, and my global navigation system is often tied up in the Postcard Barn.

The dealer gave me her card, looked me carefully in the eye, and told me, slowly, the name of the field she was in, to look for that name on a black sign from the road, and to go to the very end of the first row. I felt like a 5-year-old — a 5-year-old faced with a challenging task. She also told me about a Brimfield app with maps and dealer locations and so on. I have to get it before the next show.

Her carefulness worked. I walked my husband right to the keystone at the end of our day, and he liked it, too, He lugged it to the car. I have it on our living room mantel, mainly to tease Harris. When I tire of it there, I'll find another spot for it. It will make a nice doorstop, for one thing.

It could also serve as the mother of all paperweights. I need a massive one because Harris likes to throw my papers on the floor and chase the smaller scraps under furniture. The other day, Lion retrieved one with the name and number of an archivist I've been trying to reach by fiddling with his paw under a bookcase. We both knew who put it there.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Annals of Real Estate: Room for Books

This three-bedroom coop in a building on Memorial Drive instantly caught my eye. It has a Charles River view and it's listed for a little over a million smackers.

 All photos: Thalia Tringo, Thalia Tringo & Associates Real Estate, Inc.

This unit is refreshingly un-staged. No one decluttered it. Nothing was updated; no walls were painted neutral gray. You won't find the obligatory cowhide rug, dramatic mirror, large potted plant, knockoff DWR chair, or perfectly placed cozy throw.

Instead there one heck of a library:



When I first saw these photos, I felt like we already lived here. But as I kept looking, I realized for the first time that I have indeed successfully curbed my husband's book-collecting habits to a reasonable level. He only has a fraction of what this person has. (And keep in mind that this person, being an academic, also has an office somewhere that's really bursting with books. They all do.)

Here's the living room. Someone has spent lots of time bargaining in souks. I feel the need to catch up, especially in the rug department. There are very few deals on Persian rugs in Egypt or we'd have the layered look, too:


This person does not have cats, or these stacks of books would be spilled across the floor:



I've been informally studying the Academic Interior for decades. Several years of house-hunting in Cambridge provided the fieldwork I needed to supplement anecdotal knowledge I'd gleaned from friends and family over the years.

It's plausible that a person can have this many books and not be an academic. Plenty of people simply like and collect books.

How do I know this place belongs to an academic?

Find the sofa.

There isn't one. There's a stiff wooden bench with a leather seat in the photo below, as well as a sort of low daybed, which looks hard and is probably only comfortable for smoking opium.

Academics are oblivious to the joys of fine upholstery. The best thing you can do for an academic pal is to take her shopping and talk her into a decent sofa. This will dramatically increase her comfort although she probably won't notice. At least you'll have a nice place to sit when you visit instead of a wooden chair or the floor.


I like to see bookshelves lining a wide hallway:



I do not like to see books and papers sticking out from shelves. It drives me crazy, to be honest. But academics don't care a fig. If you bring it up, you'll probably get a blank, uncomprehending stare.

I like to have bookshelves in the bedroom:


Those shelves in the corner look particularly inviting and I love the little chandelier. But I can't help wondering about whoever is under that bedspread.

In the guest room, a gracious host will be sure to place a few interesting books for bedtime reading. Just as this host did:


Many academics don't understand the value of headboards, which is strange — reading in bed is a drag without one.

I  was expecting to see books — a few cookbooks, at least — in the kitchen, but no:


This is an academic kitchen for sure, however. I could give an illustrated lecture on how I know this, but I'll save it for another time.

I'm curious about what's in that round jar next to the wine bottle. Cigarette butts? Weed?

I know that some readers have been patiently rooting for us to find a new place to live. I'm grateful for your kindness and good wishes. But, before you let your imagination run away about this place, let me remind you that it's in a coop building. A coop board would never approve a quiet couple with five cats, even in Cambridge, a city that thrives on eccentricity. If we had five children with behavior problems, who are were all aspiring drummers and hyperactive bagpipers when they weren't tap-dancing, we'd be shoe-ins. But five clean, silent, fastidious, well-behaved cats? NEVER!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Recent Adorableness: Harris


Harris has been trying to grow his ears since my husband began fondly referring to him as "The Demented Little Bunny." Harris has been charging around and getting into trouble like crazy lately, and we love him for it. It looks like he's making some progress with his ears.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Scenes from Brimfield: Part 2

At Brimfield last week, I found myself noticing lots of toys and similarly nostalgic items, including this glass case with more than a dozen once-loved dolls:


Nearby, I spotted this living doll, an Alaskan Eskimo:


Just the day before, I'd read something online about how this is an ideal breed for apartment dwellers, since they are smart, quiet, trainable, friendly, and don't need much exercise. I mentioned this to his people, who were dealers. They said he barks all the time and like to gallop like a wild pony, so not such a great apartment dog unless you hope to drive your neighbors and yourself crazy. Food for thought.

Another shop pretty much condensed my 1960's childhood onto a few shelves. There were vintage Barbies and Mattel's Liddle Kiddles, as well as these international Josef Originals china figurines or "dolls." My mother collected these, so I found several familiar faces and outfits here:


My mother's collection is still on shelves in my dad's house, just as they were in the '60s. They'd completely slipped my mind although I'd adored them as a kid. Their $50 to $60 price stickers shocked me. I've since found that they are much cheaper on eBay but I do not plan to start collecting.

There are always lots of old teddy bears at Brimfield. These had so much personality and history that I had to take their picture:


But most old bears look as wonderful as these. You can tell they were loved long and hard. It seems to me that many of us keep our bears in a safe place as we grow up, or we make sure our parents keep them for us. When do we finally let them go? For many of us, not until we die.  (And I'll bet a lot of bears have been betrayed by people who went a little nuts after reading Marie Kondo.)

Some of us don't like reminders of our childhood, which reveal contradictory clues about us to others that we're trying to impress with how smart, cool, professional and adult we are. But sometimes the most professional, bearded, old grownup will surprise me. There was the first time we went to visit our financial advisor at his house instead of his office, for example. I was expecting some slick, modern, monochromatic bachelor pad. He lived in a splendid, perfectly restored Arts and Crafts–era condo in Brookline, with a copper-stenciled ceiling in the dining room and a pantry he'd stripped and refinished himself. He surrounded himself with piles of wonderful books and an amazing collection of the best kinds of antique toys. After seeing how brilliantly he lived, I trusted his advice even more.

Brimfield also has a large network of dealers selling vintage and antique clothing. There are huge tents filled with everything from corsets to fur stoles to '80s power suits, as well as new clothing that looks old or sufficiently "bohemian" to pass for vintage. I love to look at everything but I can't imagine buying anything these days. I believe I can trace our eternal moth infestation to a certain bejeweled, pale-yellow vintage cardigan I had in the '90s. I've also done the bohemian thing. This was pretty much me in the '70s:


I'll admit that I revived the denim jacket and Converse All Stars in the '90s, but I swear I'm over the whole thing now.

Doesn't it make you mad when you find yourself stuck in a juice pitcher?


Probably the most enticing discovery I made on this Brimfield excursion was a tent full of old cameras, antique and vintage photographs and a massive collection of the most hilarious snapshots and studio photos imaginable. I finally just had to put everything down and get away from there. I wanted everything. I'd worked on the labels for the MFA's snapshot show last year, and thoroughly enjoyed the humor and strangeness of what the curators had selected. But any random handful of photos in that tent revealed just as much, if not more pure magic.

Take these Brady Bunch lookalikes, for example. Please!


One particular pile of gold consisted of vintage dance-recital photos. These are still a "thing" of course, since kids still take dancing lessons. But we are much too sophisticated these days. No one is ever going to stand still again for a photo like this:


I apologize for the poor quality of that image. The original was curling and I was in a rush to see more. But you get the idea. Multiply it by about 300 to get the full effect of the dealer's dance-photo collection.

On the way to the car, I spotted this expressive figure. I think it is some sort of god worshipped by the Brimfield Association of Dealers in Useless Rusty Objects:


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Scenes from Brimfield: Part 1

One of the great things about May, besides lilacs and... I don't know... more lilacs, is the Brimfield Antique Show (If you think of anything else particularly great about May, let me know. I'm stumped. Rhubarb?)

Brimfield is the place to go in May because where else are you going to find a whole rack of tie-dyed velvet blazers to outfit your Bee Gees tribute band? Your long quest is over.


Every time we go to Brimfield, my husband complains that it's not nearly as good as it was when we first went together, around 20 years ago. He says that it's increasingly about useless pieces of rusty metal nowadays. I quibble: Brimfield always had lots of useless rusty metal. And of course there's a lot more of it now simply because everything has had another 20 years to rust. Like these corrugated letters:


I usually head straight for the apple fritters when we go to Brimfield, although I get lost on the way because I can never remember exactly which field has The Apple Barn. This year I had to break with tradition because I have another round of stupid liver tests coming up. I was unhappy cranky about this but I consoled myself with sweet potato fries and reptiles:


I love Brimfield most for its crazy juxtapositions of weird stuff you'd think no one would ever buy in a million years. There are many dealers with a taste for the surreal and outrageous; their displays beg to be photographed. Like the rusty stuff, they get better every year. It's like there's another, artier festival within Brimfield, showcasing the bizarre and insane:


We always identify "motifs" at Brimfield — items that turn up again and again as we walk the fields, and which we don't remember seeing much of in the past. It could be taxidermy animal heads, Hummel figurines, or vintage prom gowns. One July, it was salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like breasts. This time, I kept spotting Steiff stuffed animals. I didn't see anyone buying them.  (This was also true of the salt-and-pepper breasts.)


Occasionally, I come across some Proustian madeleine. This time it was these red rubber snow boots:


I wore these as a little kid — the ones on the right, without the fur. I hated them. I hated how they looked and how they smelled. I hated putting them on and taking them off because a grownup had to help me. I hated their buttons. I hated the miserable pink snowsuit that went with them and the fact that I had go outdoors and stand around freezing and unable to move freely while wearing the whole stiff, rotten getup, which included mittens and a giant hood that blocked my sight if I turned my head.

It all came back to me in a moment. Being an adult is fantastic.

Then there was this:


Notice that her sign say, "Rustored Salvage." Some people thought she was alive; with some dealers, you can't be altogether sure. While many are chatty and want to negotiate, while others ignore their customers, preferring to catch up with their fellow dealers over unhealthy lunches from the food trucks. 

Along with the usual antique tents and stands, and the surrealist dealers, there is a growing group of dealers who specialize in better decorative items, often new and/or natural, and usually quite elegantly displayed considering that they are under a tent in a dusty (or muddy) field. Here's one:


Along with shells, minerals, medical illustrations, bones, and aged bottles — stuff everybody needs — they were selling succulents and other houseplants, creatively displayed in stacks of rusty metal drawers:


The place was packed with shoppers but I didn't see many people buying. Generally, the fancier-looking the shop, the less flexibility there'll be on pricing. But that's not always true. If you are complimentary and gracious, you might still get a break. (I did: stay tuned for part 2.)

But first, a cheeseburger. The little sign under it says it's MADE OF FOAM, PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH. Because who can resist fondling a foamy cheeseburger?