Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Postcards from Maine: Subtleties

Here are a few more colorful scenes from our long weekend on Mount Desert Island.

I love berries. I could photograph them for ages.

Soft shading at the Asticou Azalea Garden in Northeast Harbor

The popular view of the Bubbles from the lawn at the Jordan Pond House.

The suitably named Ivy Manor Inn in Bar Harbor.

Golden leaves against blue water and sky...

Weeds. In fall, they're almost up there with berries as a photogenic subject.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Don't Try This at Home: Pool Style

If you crave a swimming pool but don't have the funds, or even a yard, pick a room and cover the walls, floor, and trim with light blue paint, wallpaper, and wall-to-wall. You'll get a similar, underwater effect without all the maintenance hassles (or wetness, or liability issues) of a real pool.

When I tried and failed to learn to swim in college, I spent too much time walking around on the bottom of a deep, chilly indoor pool, looking upward in hopes of spotting the ladder. When I saw this house listing on, I had an instant déjà vu experience.

If this concept appeals to you, consider adding a "lap lane" with a long runner, and putting a (fake) diving board on the second floor landing. How about attaching a raft or life preserver to the ceiling, and a metal pool ladder to the staircase?

And surely someone sells chlorine-scented candles for the perfect finishing touch.

Postcards from Maine: Autumn Color

Maine's foliage in mid October was not as "loud" as I expected but it was beautiful enough to provoke continuous oohs and aahs as we toured around Mount Desert Island. It was hard to know when, or if, the peak had happened; friends who'd been there for ten days before us, including an arborist, weren't positive, either. They were still hopeful that the peak would announce itself within a couple of days, before they had to go home. While some trees had already lost their leaves, many others were still green. Evergreens further confuse the issue, of course; there are plenty of areas with mostly green trees all year round. It seemed to use that the color show was more subtle this year, but longer lasting.

 Asticou Azalea Garden, Northeast Harbor

 You can see a mostly bare tree, at right, beside a green tree that's next to an orange tree.

I took lots of photos of shrubs, weeds, and berries on this trip, as you'll see.
A colorful, tangled mess of berries, vines, and leaves appeals to me, 
perhaps because I don't see such things very often in Boston.

Acadia landscape, still mostly green, with touches of color and lots of bare trees.

The landscape was more colorful and coordinated around the Rockefeller Boathouse. 
Even nature makes more of an effort for that distinguished family.

Flower boxes by the footbridge in Somesville, one of the most-photographed spots on the island.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Happy Belated Gotcha Day, Possum!

I need to add the cats' "Gotcha Days" to my iPhone calendar. With five, it's hard to keep track.

Possum, showing off a much flatter, less impressive belly back in the day.

Possum's Gotcha Day was Friday. No wonder he has spent these past two mornings purring loudly from across the room, curled up next to my husband in the leather armchair, demanding petting from him while shooting me dirty looks. No wonder he hasn't been waking me up at dawn for little chats.

Poor, neglected Possum. I do remind him constantly that he is the biggest and therefore the best of all the cats. The Top Cat. The Boss. The Wise Old Bird, as my husband calls him.

More attention must be paid. I guess I'll have to break down and order a cake.

I have no good excuses for forgetting. I don't have any writing or editing projects these days although I gather that's about to change. But I spend many hours every day house-hunting. Weekends are spent running around Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Arlington, Newton, and Somerville to visit open houses, to make sure we haven't missed any promising prospects during the week.

We actually found a winner yesterday: a small two-bedroom on Beacon Street, with parking. It had no outdoor space and I suspected it would be too small for our books and furniture, so we didn't race to it when it came on the market three days earlier. It turned out to be much nicer than it looked, and had several long walls to hold the 300 linear feet of shelf space we need. We liked the bedrooms, bathrooms, and galley kitchen, separate from the living room, which matters hugely to me. We liked what we heard about the neighbors, the condition of the building, and its management. We got out our measuring tape, realized our big furniture would fit, and got pretty excited. And then we found out it was under agreement, although the agent was hoping for a back-up offer.

So we blew it again. At least we know that the offer isn't all-cash, so there is a teeny-tiny chance the deal could fall through. Fingers crossed. Or maybe this is the House-hunting Fairy's way to telling us to hold out for a little alley garden or a deck. I'm just getting really tired and depressed about all this.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Happy 1st Birthday, Lion!

According to his adoption papers, Lion is one year old today. 

Here, he's reflecting on his successful first year: he survived being born outdoors in a chilly Maine autumn, landed in the perfect foster home, and used every diplomatic maneuver in the book to get himself adopted by four nice cats and two people who try to do their best for them.

How delighted we are with him! Despite dire warnings from the folks at our cat hospital, Cat #5 is causing no fights or troublesome behavior from our other four. He's just a joy — but he's also developing an interesting, chatty adult personality that reminds me of our beloved, loudmouthed, computer-loving Persian Snalbert. This makes me happy indeed.

I want to thank Lion's foster mother, Connie, of Tales from the Foster Kittens, for relentlessly posting cute photos of him on my Facebook page until we surrendered and drove up to Maine in January to take him as a "foster kitten." The plan was that our mutual friend, Robin of Kitten Associates, would drive him from Boston to her shelter in Connecticut after a day or two with us. Things turned out differently.

One of Lion's first photos, taken by Connie.

Lion is a major reason why I'm fond of Facebook; I'd never have known he existed without it. When people ask how we came to have five cats, I say I'm connected to a dangerous network of cat rescuers online. And what amazing, kind, courageous, funny, wise people they are. They are the best.

Through Harris's shelter mom, Robin, I became Facebook friends with Kelly, who adopted Harris's handsome brother Buttons. We share stories about our cats and much more. When Kelly was in the market for a kitten, Robin showed Kelly (and me) photos of her friend Connie's latest fosters, Lion and his siblings. So I owe Robin and Kelly my thanks, too. Kelly adopted Lion's beautiful sister (named "Penelope Possum" after You Know Who). Hearing about her sweet, friendly ways made it harder to resist meeting Lion.

Photo: Tales from the Foster Kittens.

The photo is above is the first one that won my heart. Connie originally named him "the Cowardly Lion," because he was wild and skittish, but I could see everything I needed to know about him from his expectant expression here. Connie works miracles with skittish kittens and we have proof. 

 Photo: Tales from the Foster Kittens.

We weren't in the market for a fifth cat but some things are meant to be. I remember showing the photo above to my husband when we were in Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving. He asked me when I thought we'd have time to drive to Maine to see him. I'd caught him at either a very weak or very wise moment; I didn't know which. Then he changed his mind, and Lion was relegated to the most important item on my Christmas List (and Santa failed me).  

I had to keep that Thanksgiving conversation fresh in my mind for the first two months we had Lion because my husband kept insisting we couldn't keep him. I referred to Lion as "The Doubtful Guest." Now it's a mutual adoration society between those two. 

When Lion arrived, we realized that he didn't resemble his fluffy-wuffy baby photos. Robin and Kelly wondered if Connie had pulled a bait-and-switch with a shorthair. His coat, which had been thinned and shaved to remove burrs, grew back a few months ago. He is fluffier than ever and soft as silk.

Harris is still not 100% won over by Lion and declares this by stealing Lion's stuff. Here, he has just stolen Lion' collar from my desk and is gnawing it into submission in the next room. Harris planned to be the baby of the house but it didn't work out. You can see how annoyed he is.

Finally, I'm grateful to all of my readers who urged us to keep Lion and wrote thoughtful comments and emails. Robin, Kelly, Connie, and my readers listened patiently as my husband and I hemmed and hawed, hawed and hemmed. Why no one slapped me upside the head to knock some sense in there I'll never know. Now, I can't imagine why we were ambivalent at all. From Lion, I hope I've learned to listen to my heart. Otherwise, I can't be trusted to make a wise decision even when the answer is as clear as the pink nose on a furry white face. 

Happy birthday, Lion! We wish you many, many, many more.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Very Late Postcards from San Francisco: Conservatory of Flowers

San Francisco has many things that Boston should have, from beaches to La Boulange, and one of the biggies is the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park (we don't have one of those, either). Considering that we have long, cold winters, it makes sense for Boston would have a large public conservatory where Bostonians could pretend we were in the tropics instead of New England. It would be mobbed.

A charming Victorian confection, the Conservatory of Flowers opened in 1879 and has had more than its share of fires and other disasters since — although it survived the 1906 earthquake intact, it was badly damaged in a windstorm in 1995. You can read about them here. These days, it's spectacular inside and out (click on any photo to enlarge it):
Boston doesn't have nearly enough palm trees (or redwoods), either.

Outside, there are vivid flower gardens, and people picnic and play music on the grounds. 
Inside, the temperature is in the mid 80s, with steamy humidity to keep the tropical plants happy.  

It's a jungle in there!

Victorian clutter and a moon gate.

There are lots of luscious orchids.

There was also an exhibition of creepy carnivorous plants. 

A pool in the Aquatic Gallery.

A blooming whatever in the Aquatic Gallery.

I wonder if this ironwork was inspired by Edward Gorey's creatures. 

While I was there, the curators were all staring upward and wondering what to do
about a plant that had broken through the ceiling.

At closing time, I cooled off outside under some palm trees. 
To catch the bus to my B&B, I found a lonely path through some woods.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Decorate for Fall

Boy, I just received lots of postcards from Maine, and they'll appear here a little later. A few very late postcards from the gorgeous conservatory in San Francisco showed up, too. I promise to post some Boston-area scenes shortly. But not today. It's rainy and muggy, and it's been much too warm recently — hardly the brisk fall weather Proper Bostonians love.

But it will cool off for good sooner or later, and Halloween is coming, so it's time to dress up this place for fall even if I'm sweating, running the AC, and wearing shorts today. In this little apartment, there's not a lot of decorating I can do. In the kitchen, I replaced our silver tureen with our orange ceramic pumpkin version. The tureens hold various chargers for electronics; we leave our phone chargers plugged in nearby and hide the cords inside the tureen, passing them through the slot for the ladle.

In the bedroom, there's also an autumn-hued quilt on the bed, over a down comforter and flannel sheets. You can see it under some of those old-fashioned bed-warmers we like to have around in the cooler months:

I put a few of those pricey velvet pumpkins on the mantel, where, so far, no cat has ever ventured — knock wood. (Do check out that link: those people are getting a little crazy with the rhinestones, crystals, and beading on their handmade squashes. Are "bridal pumpkins" a thing now?)

For the living room, I put away the silver lobster and crab that we keep around in the summer. I've been slowly accumulating perfect examples of tiny real pumpkins from various markets, so the cats can knock them out of bowls and off the mantel and roll them around. Our future jack-o-lantern is already sitting by the fireplace. And, of course, we always add some furry pillows to the sofa at this time of year:

Cold drafts will soon become a problem, so we'll place our cute, cat-shaped draft blocker against our front door:

The next step in getting ready for fall is to swap our warm- and cool-weather clothing in our closets and chests. But whenever I even think about scheduling that, the temperature soars in response — I was planning to do it this week, hence the October "heat wave." I've decided to hold off as long as I can. 

Don't Try This at Home: A Renovation Rant

It's been a while since I've gotten on my high horse about how to respect old houses and apartments.

Fasten your seat belts, all you folks back there in the stagecoach. It's going to be a fast, bumpy ride.

A couple of weeks ago, I took an architectural tour of our neighborhood and our guide stopped in front of 211 Commonwealth Avenue. Known as Mason House, it was one of very few original single-family houses in Back Bay that still retained most of its historic details: woodwork, elaborate plaster, grand rooms, period lighting, etc. It belonged a family who bought it as an investment in the late 1990s; they didn't live there but used it for social events. My husband was invited to speak at a university fundraiser there a couple of years ago and came home starry-eyed, showing me the photos he'd managed to snap.

Here's an article about sale of that house. It sold for close to $13 million. You would hope that whoever paid that much for it loved it for what it was, a museum-quality historic home. But as we stood in front of it listening to our tour guide, I looked through an upstairs window and noticed that the walls looked raw and freshly sheet-rocked, while the ceiling was recess-lighted. A big black TV had been installed in one of the walls, perhaps above a mantel I couldn't see. I felt sick and sad. It looks like the downstairs rooms are also being gutted, but I'm not sure, or I'm in denial. At least one of the grand, formal front rooms was stripped of furniture and loaded with building supplies the other day. My husband and I both felt queasy and sad for the rest of the tour. 

That article doesn't show you my favorite room, a little library or study to the right of the front door. I have spent happy minutes on many icy winter evenings peering like the Little Match Girl into that room from the sidewalk. I would stop whenever it was softly lit by that chandelier and the sconces on either side of the fireplace. From the window, its blue walls, woodwork, and ceiling made it one of the prettiest. most welcoming rooms I've ever seen. And I bet it's gone now. But here it was:

For me, the most important principle of interior design and decoration is: "Respect What You Have." To me, it is a terrible mistake to work against the architectural period and style of a house or room. It is a fatal mistake to rip out surviving architectural details in an attempt to "modernize" the room. You aren't "updating" it; you are denuding it. Don't lower ceilings; don't replace fine old wood floors or doors or cabinetry or plasterwork.  Don't replace that original, carved mantel with one you designed yourself using marble bathroom tile. Don't let your contractor talk you into using anything that's a deal at Home Depot. Your contractor can't do a single thing better than a 19th-century craftsman could. Let him update your wiring as long as he doesn't wreck your walls.

Recessed lighting doesn't belong in a room that existed before electricity did. How I hate recessed lighting. Also track lighting and fancy ceiling fans with lots of fooffy glass lampshades. When I walk into a Victorian-era room and the ceiling is pock-marked with recessed lights, speakers, and HVAC vents, I start calculating the steps toward getting that ceiling back to a plain, beautiful expanse of plaster. Call me crazy, but I couldn't stand living under a ceiling full of holes. I barely tolerate the smoke detector in our bedroom. It annoys me.

I know I'm extreme. You're free to disagree with me. But please consider my point of view.

Nothing you do to "modernize" an old room is ever a good idea, aside from installing heating, plumbing, and electricity. Anyone with an educated eye will see that you got rid of those perfectly good walls between your previously well-proportioned living room, dining room, and kitchen. You "opened up the space" and now you have to furnish a giant space with competing functions. But you have hardly any wall space left for art or storage or shelving. And your lighting fixtures are all either going to clash or look inappropriate from one area to the next. And you'll no longer have any privacy in any of the rooms you opened to make "entertaining" easier. How often do you really entertain? And how often are you hanging around with just your partner, wishing you couldn't see your dirty dishes by the sink as you sit in your living room? Or wishing you didn't hear the TV show blaring in the living room while you're trying to concentrate on a recipe?

Walls are our friends. Why does everyone want to live in what are essentially "studio apartments" these days? A couple of decades ago, fresh out of school, we could not wait to earn enough to get out of them and into a bigger apartment with separate rooms. 

I suppose it's only a matter of time before the "open bedroom/bathroom" concept becomes the next trend. If it is cheaper and easier for contractors to build that way, that's what seems to matter, not a homeowner's comfort or privacy.

Thinking about what's probably going on in 211 Comm. Ave. even as I write this depresses the heck out of me. I may decide to continue this discussion later, moving to the less painful subject of using "contemporary" furniture in traditional rooms. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Postcards from Maine: On the Road

We love driving up to Maine, especially along Route 1 after Brunswick. I suppose that everyone who drives regularly to a beloved vacation spot develops goofy traditions and rituals that must be observed along the way, and we are no exception.

We saw dramatic light and clouds on our drive through Maine last week. 

For instance, we always make a point of exclaiming, "Alfalfa Farm! Alfalfa Farm!" when we pass the Alfalfa Farm Winery in Topsfield (I just found out it's a winery! I thought they grew alfalfa.). Surely we are not the only people who do this.

We often stop in Freeport for a break and visit to the British imports store, Bridgham & Cook, where we might pick up a tube of McVities digestive biscuits or a bag of licorice all-sorts. We recently we discovered Frosty's Donuts at 45 Maine Street. (Try a glazed twist. They are perfect, gigantic, and worth both the trip from Boston and the guilt trip you'll take later after you calculate how much sugar you just ate... but you're on vacation.)

We always stop in Wiscasset for lunch at Sprague's Lobster, where we prefer the hot dogs. Wiscasset has lots of little shops and an antiques coop I like to browse, before or after the hot dogs.

We sometimes stop to visit friends in Thomaston. They have four cats and a spotless house. And the cats get to sit on the kitchen table whenever they want, which is just fine with us.

Passing through Camden, we admire the gloomy-looking and impressive Norumbega Inn and say we should stop in and have a look sometime. Camden is another great place to take a break and do a little shopping or order one of the deadly dessert bars (they have about a dozen kinds, each deadlier than the next) at the little deli on Main Street.

Yes, sugar is always a theme when we're on the road. I'm much better about it than I used to be. Believe it or not.

There are special houses we always like to see, including a cluster of splendid Second Empire Victorians in Searsport. Then there's everyone's beloved Victorian mess further along:

This photo is from a few years back. It looks much worse now, with huge holes in the roof.
I LOVE this place. If it's ever torn down I will be devastated.

The Penobscot Narrows Bridge means we're on the home stretch — usually we've been in the road for about seven hours at that point. 

The bridge is like a much smaller, shorter, and narrower variation on Boston's Zakim bridge.  

Maine highways have plenty of signs warning drivers about moose and deer on the roads. We have rarely seen a deer on these trips, which provides a lot of sarcastic fodder for conversation: "I guess all the deer are at a stress-management workshop again." "Yes, they always schedule that for this weekend. As you well know...."

In Ellsworth, we pass the Sunset Motor Court, which has a row of tiny cottages painted in a rainbow of colors. There's also the Big Chicken Barn Books and Antiques. We've gone in and been simultaneously under- and overwhelmed a few times. It is BIG; I'll say that for it. And if you have a penchant for creepy old dolls or Life magazines from the '60s and '70s, you'll be in chicken heaven.

Then we'll pass Rooster Brother, an excellent coffee, gourmet, and kitchen shop that we will visit on the return trip, to console ourselves. It's always nice to see their stacks of Le Creuset Dutch ovens, also in a rainbow of colors, in the windows.

We stopped for gas in Ellsworth last week, and saw the sun setting over the river:

Soon we'll be on Mount Desert Island (surely everyone exclaims, "We're on the island!"), and following signs for Southwest Harbor signs to "home."