Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Seeing the Original (or, If Only I'd Had $$ in 1961*)

This afternoon, we double-parked briefly behind an elderly neighbor unloading stuff from his car. He is a retired professor and prolific author; he spends most of his time at his country house, and we re-introduce ourselves every couple of years. He is known on our block for his indoor-outdoor cat, an elderly tortoiseshell hussy who would fling herself from any passing stranger on the sidewalk, meowing and demanding attention. I hadn't seen her in a long time and suspected the worst.

Since I was carrying my own precious calico in her carrier, after a trip to the vet, the professor, my husband, and I struck up a conversation. The professor told me that his cat had died a year ago, shortly before his beloved indoor cat, named Laptop. He then began explaining that, as much as he missed them, he feels liberated now, not having animals, since he travels a lot. Since the alleged freedoms of pet-free existence is a subject on which my husband and I occasionally but powerfully disagree, I handed him the cat carrier and shooed him away to park the car.

I stayed behind to help the professor unload his backseat. I was angling for a peek into his townhouse, which is a rather run-down single-family built in the exact style as our rather run-down condo building. He lives alone on the upper floors and rents out a basement apartment. He handed me a giant bag with some bedding in it, and invited me inside.

Wow! He said he'd bought his 1880's townhouse when it was a rooming-house, in 1961.* He did very little to "improve" it. He and his wife raised four children there. The layout is mostly original and most of the woodwork, including the staircase, is still unpainted walnut and oak. All the elegant fireplaces, moldings, parquet floors, and windows are original. Even much of the bathroom is Edwardian, with wainscoting, a clawfoot tub, and a wonderful walnut cabinet sink with a marble top.

While the house is deteriorating, dim, and cluttered in the style of an elderly academic, I thought it was amazing. I was in heaven. I love old houses, not only for their architecture but for the traces that linger of all the lives that once filled them. This house had a lot of old stories to tell. And I could finally see what our building had been meant to be, and it was all I could have imagined. (No one who saw the parlor floor of our building now would have a clue of the grandeur of its two original, high-ceilinged, connected rooms with ornate walnut mantels, inlaid floors, and ceiling medallions.

The upstairs room that is the twin of my living room has an identical painted fireplace and doorways, and the proportions are all just the same. (That explains why we love our place so much, it has been left surprisingly intact from its Victorian beginnings.)

The professor raised artistic children, now living interesting lives; he proudly described each one's accomplishments to me. I wished I could meet all of them. He showed me some examples of their art. I recognized the bust of a young Mark Twain, sculpted skillfully in clay by his son when he was a prep student. As I looked around, we talked about Klimt, pipe organs, the neighborhood, our houses, our cats, his family, how hard it is to write books, and his favorite secondhand store, and then we unpacked his new bedding, which came from that store — whose location he refused to reveal because he gets such great deals there. "Just tell me anything you're looking for," he said, "and I'll try to get it for you." "All I can use is more nice neighbors like you." I said, born flirt that I am. "Can't help you there..." he replied.

When we went outside to get the rest of his stuff, I spotten a parking ticket on his double-parked car. He was incredulous. In all his decades of double-parking, he said, he'd never gotten a ticket. I told him it was my fault for distracting him and touring his house, and then I put the ticket in my pocket, promising to pay for it.

Since he's a philosopher, this led to a discussion of whether one of us, both of us, or neither of us should feel guilty about this. I put the ticket back on the car, and we settled that subject back inside. Then he inscribed one of his books (he's written more than 20) for me. That seemed like a more-than-fair exchange for a house tour and a fascinating new friend. I happily took the book and the ticket and went home.

A few minutes later, as I was regaling my husband about my hour with the professor, the phone rang. It was him. "Hi there. Can you come downstairs for a moment, please?" I ran down, and he was standing there holding a bright green balloon. I'd noticed it lying in the back of his hatchback. "I thought you should have this, to see what your cats think about it." I said thanks, and he gently tossed it at me as I stood above him on the steps. I laughed and tossed it back to him. We tossed it around a couple more times as a delighted grin spread across his face. And that did it — I'm in totally love with him now.

I'll be glad to pay that parking ticket. It's my first, since I don't drive.

* When I was 2. By the time I was 22, all of the Back Bay housing bargains were gone.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Picky Person's Peeves about Boston Condos

After looking at hundreds of condos in the Boston area over the years, I can pontificate with certainty: There's a lot of disappointment waiting for buyers in my middle-class price range. And even when I venture into my fantasy range, edging up towards $1 million and beyond, or look in neighborhoods beyond the dowtown area that are less expensive, I'm rarely impressed.

I see the same bad design choices again and again: Units in gorgeous 19th-century buildings that once had huge potential were butchered by developers sometime between 1975 and this past winter. In almost every case, the developer hoped to maximize the unit's value in the cheapest possible way — providing "amenities" he or she imagined the average buyer would want — at the expense of taste and common sense.

Cheapo Solutions
In the earlier condo conversions, you find a lot of exposed brick. Exposed brick belongs in converted factory lofts, but almost nowhere else in historic buildings. When I see a wall of exposed brick in a room that also has (or had) parquet floors, fine plaster moldings, and an ornate fireplace, I can only think, "Gee, an opportunity to learn how to plaster."

You also see a lot of this disaster: what was originally a large room with three elegant bay windows — now chopped into two bedrooms by erecting a cheap wall between two of the windows. The weird wall angles and awkward spaces that result from this crime were fine with developers because crappy two-bedroom condos can be priced higher than decent one-bedrooms.

Throwing $$ Down the Toilet
The current trends in condo design involve extra bathrooms and an "open kitchen" or "open layout." Does a couple, living in 1,000 square feet (or much less), really need two full bathrooms and a powder room? Like most people who cook experimentally, I make something awful occasionally. And I dispose of it. I've never served anything that sent us both rushing for the loo simultaneously. When I see a listing for a place that has more bathrooms than bedrooms, I have to assume the developer has experienced bad bouts of family-style food poisoning. Why else would they do it? Bathrooms are expensive and for most buyers (singles and couples anyway), an extra bath or half-bath isn't usually a dealbreaker.

Okay, I suppose that, if you live with someone who spends an hour or more a day on hair and make-up, you'd want your very own bathroom. But looking around Boston, I rarely see anyone (except for punk or goth students) who appears to do that. (Sure, maybe some people are that engrossed in perfecting themselves, but the result isn't apparent. They could be doing sudoku instead.) I spend less than an hour a week on hair and make-up so, please, Madame Condo Fairy, give me a couple of precious storage closets (and fewer toilets to scrub) instead.

I rarely see a bathroom I like. I'm terribly fussy. I'm not moved by jacuzzis, vessel sinks, contemporary hardware, shower doors, beige marble, or anything else I'm supposed to find exciting in an upscale bathroom. I like deep soaking tubs, woodwork, old marble, vintage hardware, and Arts and Crafts tile. In other words, I need a fixer-upper bathroom I can renovate myself. But every seller believes that an "updated" bathroom is an essential, so they do a half-baked job: putting in a fancy sink, for example, while the tub and tiling remain classic 1980.

Stupid Kitchens
The highly popular "open kitchen" baffles me. If I'm sitting in my living room, why would I want a clear view of the toaster, dishes sitting by the sink, and a cat food can? No matter how pretty and pristine my kitchen may be, I never want to see countertops from my sofa. But it's cheaper for developers not to build walls, and they and designers have duped a good portion of the public into thinking that open living is great because your guests and kids can hang out with you in your kitchen. But how it often feels, in reality, is chaotic. And messy. It's much more sensible to be able to shut the door on your dirty dishes than to have them nagging at you from your desk in the living room. And I often can't handle socializing or other distractions when I'm cooking (see "something awful," above).

Many small Boston apartments have disproportionately large kitchens. These are great for a serious cook or a family of four. But most of us city folk living in smaller units are lazy singles or couples. We rarely have dinner parties. Or kids. We go out, or eat take-out. For us, a compact kitchen, separate from the living room, makes perfect sense. But developers, who live in big suburban houses themselves, don't know this.

More Peevish Demands
Another must-have for me is the in-unit laundry. I'm spoiled. My stacked, high-efficiency washer-dryer are in the bathroom, 5 feet from the bed, where I fold everything, and less than 10 feet from our closets and dressers. We have no hamper or laundry basket; everything goes into the dryer to be sorted later. I will never be persuaded to haul laundry down a few flights to some grotty basement, only to wait in line for a washer. As God is my witness, I will never hoard quarters again.

Then, of course, there are all the things you desperately hope for but can't determine from architecture alone.The right location. Convenient parking. Affordable condo fees (no elevator maintenance, no concierge, no looming assessments). Neighbors who are quiet and reasonable, with no offensive habits, like smoking or running illegal daycare centers. (Along the same lines: soundproofing and smellproofing.) Condo-hunting can easily start to seem like a doomed enterprise.

A Little Romance
Many of us live in Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the South End and surrounding neighborhoods because we love 19th-century architecture and interior detail. It breaks my heart whenever I find it's been ripped out and replaced with whatever was considered more tasteful back in 1985. But more and more interiors are being ruined by "modernizing" instead of preserving. I'll keep hoping there's still an apartment out there with most of its lovely original details intact (preferably with a ratty bathroom and a tiny kitchen), just waiting for us to find it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

House-hunting, Old and New

Eleven years ago, when we bought our condo, there was almost no benefit in searching on the Web. We waited for the Saturday Boston Homes and nagged our realtor about new listings. A few real-estate firms may have had one online photo for a few of their listings, but that's all. So we spent evenings and weekends following our broker from one unsuitable condo to the next. I think we saw about about 60 until we found one that had Victorian detail and wooden floors, could hold our books, and wasn't a basement.

As I've said before, Boston Homes is still my favorite fantasy reading. But, these days, sites like Redfin make it a snap to see practically everything that's for sale in any neighborhood. You specify location, size, price, and a few other variables — and you're off. You can usually see the equivalent of a listing sheet (detailing more features, the unit's location within the building, taxes, condo fees, etc.) and enough photos to give you a clear sense of whether the place might be right for you. Now that I'm caught up on exploring all the listings that have remained unsold since last year or longer, I can quickly check for new listings that were just posted today.

You can select an age range for units when you search, too, but that's unreliable: realtors often have no idea of when a building was built and will often date a 19th-century building from the year it was converted to condos. I've also seen buildings from the 1920s to '40s labeled "Victorian." Realtors are often as clueless about Boston's historic neighborhoods as many of the residents are.

After checking out hundreds of condos from Coolidge Corner to Charlestown, I feel like a Peeping Tom. I saved a ton of time and shoeleather but, best of all, I didn't have to drag my patient-but-suffering spouse along. So far, we've checked out three addresses in person; two came pretty close to being The One.

More relief: not needing to invent cheerful lies about positive features I'd dredge up in even the most hideous apartments, hoping that my chatter would give my realtor a false sense that I'm not as picky as I am. (More on that subject soon.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Get Me Out of Here

I would give anything to be at the pool at the Lindenwood Inn right now... floating, thinking, watching the trees sway, and then reading in the hot tub, and then cooling off back in the pool....

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Annals of Retail: A Good Shopping Day...

Shopping on the cheap is among my favorite ways to waste all the free time I have from being an underemployed freelancer. Since I don't have money to waste, I hunt for deals and try to buy wisely.

For awhile there, I was so very, very underemployed that the mere thought of shopping or spending money made me feel ill and worried. Fortunately, things are looking up a bit these days, and I can do my tiny bit to stimulate the economy. I have overcome my shopophobia.

I took stock of my wardrobe recently and realized that, among other things, I need some tees. When it's not cold enough for my motley collection of old cashmere turtlenecks, I live in tees. I tend to ruin delicate fabrics like silks and sweater-knits, and I refuse to iron or pay for dry cleaning more than a handful of times a year. Tees make it easy to be both lazy and cheap.

Anyway, I realized that my "best" tee had been purchased for a trip to Egypt in 1999, while my other "good" ones dated to 2001 and 2002. (Banana Republic and other retailers thoughtfully provide date labels in their clothing, perhaps to embarrass people like me.) And almost all of my tees look much too short these days — they pre-date even moderately low-rise pants. And tees wear out; they shouldn't be with you for a decade unless they are concert souvenirs.

I found this soft, silky tee with a sweetheart neckline at the Copley Place Banana. (Seeing it under the threatening gaze of this model doesn't add to its appeal, I know.) It can be dressy or casual, it's not insanely long, and it fits well. The cotton had a hint of spandex, and there's some organic cotton in there, too.


I wanted it in white and fuchsia. Together they were $48. I had $30 in rewards cards, for no reason I can fathom. I don't buy very much at Banana, and what I get tends to be ridiculously reduced, so I feel they send me an inordinate number of rewards cards. Which is fine with me. Still, I have a tough time spending them, just as store gift cards languish in my wallet for ages, waiting for The Perfect Thing. But discovering that my best tees date from the Clinton administration galvanized me into action.

I figured I'd save more by ordering online because I received a special 10% discount code to atone for Banana's running out of something I'd ordered last winter. I also get 10% off everything and free shipping with my Luxe card this month and next. This purchase was looking good. And so I went online to hunt for more deals.

Turns out that there was a special 12-hour sale, today only — 20% off regular-priced items — that was only offered to certain card-holders, but not me. Each customer received a unique code good for one purchase. More research turned up a shopping blog I've visited before, J'Adore These Stores, whose author had a code and was graciously offering it to the first person to request it. Me.

Here's what I saved:

$48.00 for two $24 tees
- 4.80 (10% off for Luxe card holders)
- 4.32 (10% with a special discoun code)
- 7.78 (20% thanks to "J'Adore's" code)
- 30.00 (free rewards cards)
_________________________________
$ 1.10 charged to my BR Luxe card

I feel good about that price. I can pay that bill without stomach pains. I hope it nets me another rewards card.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"When Ordinary Isn't Enough"

Every weekend, I waste time on virtual condo-hunting via Boston Homes, the colorful tabloid that brightens our doorstep on Saturday. Even though we've been settled in our place for more than a decade I keep looking, just in case something amazing turns up in our price range. Proving that I'm a deranged optimist with no inkling of reality.

I picked up the current BH yesterday, while cooling my heels at FedEx (my husband likes to show a girl a good time on the weekend), and spotted this:

Those decks are certainly far from ordinary. It would be thrilling indeed to have one, especially if your household includes small children or dogs. I wonder if the developer decided that railings would detract from the sleek lines and minimalist aesthetic of the aluminum siding. Or maybe it's the only way one can live dangerously in South Boston now that it's become all lattéed and yogafied.

Only two units are left, and I'll bet they're on the top floor.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bad News for Bo, Good News for Boston?

Last fall, Bo Smith left his post as Head of Film, Video, and Concerts at the Museum of Fine Arts — after more than 20 years of creative, successful programming — to become the executive director of the Denver Film Society. Now after just 8 months, it turns out that he's been sacked after 21 staff members resigned, apparently in protest of his management style. IndieWire had details a couple of weeks ago:



I worked with Bo for a dozen years. I edited and proofread his Film Calendars and ran interference between him and the Publications team over his countless missed deadlines — always because he was desperate to squeeze in a few more French films or waiting on an extraordinary possibility in China, India, or Iran. I also handled reservations for public events in the MFA's Remis Auditorium. I used to refer to him as "The Vapor Fog," because his goal was to fill every free, precious minute in the hall with public, private, or critics' screenings.

I would characterize his working style as passionately and tirelessly dedicated to his mission. He was relentless in pursuit of the best cinema for Boston audiences and in overcoming all obstacles in his way. But he was always sunny, pleasant, and even-tempered in the process. He and I were continually having deadline battles and negotiations over valuable program time-slots — and it was always gracious and kind of fun. I don't recall ever hearing an uncivil word from him.

While he still managed to drive his colleagues at the museum crazy, at least some of us couldn't help enjoying him, too. And I doubt that anyone had anything other than respect for the quality, breadth, and diversity of his programming. If he caused problems, they were always because he was striving to give Boston audiences the best; it was never about ego, personal insecurities, or power games — the stuff one routinely encounters in the hothouse environment of an arts organization. Bo seemed like a refreshing change of pace, at least to me. His only agenda was programming more good films. (And more. And more....)

As deadlines came and went, unmet, I would complain to him and about him, but I still had loads of admiration for him and his work. (He was the Film Program.) To be fair, he had one or two intolerable eccentricities. He was forbidden to bring his lunch into my office, for example. He often ran around swigging his meals out of a canning jar — a healthy concoction that started with his own homemade yogurt, blended with (raw?) fish, seaweed, and something red, which could have been tomato juice or fish blood. I never asked, and it smelled revolting.

To return to those unfortunate headlines. I'm sure the Denver Film Society employees are all dedicated, hardworking people, too, so why couldn't they all just get along? One of my theories is that the Denver crew was deeply set in its ways, having had the same founder/director for 30 years, so any new director would have faced a similar potential mutiny unless he or she spent a year or two on tiptoeing on eggshells. (Or replaced people.) Instead of trying to adapt, it appears they put their energy into organizing themselves. 

Or perhaps we, his colleagues at the MFA, should blame ourselves. If we hadn't jumped through so many hoops, had pushed back harder on Bo's wilder schemes, and kept him down, he might have evolved into a different type of boss. Or it could have simply been those jars of raw fish.

Whatever happened, I hope this contretemps turns out to be a great opportunity for Boston, and that Bo finds a way to return to the area and run a great film program. He'd surely be welcomed and appreciated.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cake Is the Key to Nirvana


Layer cake, lots of it, with excess frosting. I don't care what it looks like or where it's been. If it's moist and it's got icing, I need a fork.

The mere thought of cake makes me absurdly happy; I don't give a damn if anyone thinks I have the culinary discernment of a 4-year-old. Nyyaaaaahhh!

About two weeks ago, on the way to Shaw's to get groceries, I suddenly realized what's been missing from my life (besides a salary, a career, a professional wardrobe, a driver's license, a Shetland sheepdog, a trust fund, a swimming pool, a Conemara pony, and maybe a published book).

So instead of being my usual self-righteous, self-denying, healthy-eating prig self, I went straight back to the bakery and found a chocolate-frosted golden cake, trimmed with ridiculous turquoise roses. It appeared to be waiting for me. It was half price. I was almost giddy with high spirits as I brought it home, and haven't looked back. Except when we run out and I need to get another one.

The cakes at Shaw's are pretty but they are never sophisticated, and I like that. I'm not crazy about that combination in, say, movie starlets who aspire to Broadway, but it's perfectly okay for cake. Shaw's cakes revive the old-fashioned birthday-cake tradition of decades past. They do not contain pepper, rosewater, vegan or soy ingredients, bacon, or any of the other weird stuff people put in cakes these days.

Shaw's also makes cupcakes, of course, and they're good, but there's something about the presence of a layer cake that makes it superior to even a dozen cupcakes. Cupcakes disappear in a few quick bites, whereas eating cake with a fork lets you take your time and savor each bite. Cupcakes, being super-trendy, bring out the snooty connoisseur in me, whereas a wedge of cake reawakend the blissful schoolgirl.

Knowing that our prize awaits us at the end of the day helps me make healthier food choices the rest of the day. It also makes me feel just guilty enough to hit the gym or jog around the Charles most days of the week. I don't drink, smoke, or gamble. I'm saving recreational drug use for my 80s and 90s when I'll need it most. A big, fat slice of cake and a tall glass of (skim) milk is really all I ask of the world these days.

But if you want to send along any of the other stuff on that list of mine, please don't hesitate to do so.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

So Very Tired

I had just managed to make it up the steps and out the door of the basement-level fitness club, having finished my twice-weekly "Club Strength" workout, which should properly be called "Club Weakness" because that's the result. Our sadistic, black-clad instructor had goaded me into doing 16 military push-ups in 30 seconds, holding the plank position for a minute right afterward, and doing 53.5 more minutes of equally malicious torture-exercises. It's true that I have "shoulders" now and "guns," and even the faint outline of a six-pack, thanks to him. But even so: that class reduces me to a shaking mess.

Which is how I was feeling when I encountered the most enormous piano truck I've ever seen, parked on Newbury Street. I didn't have my camera — wouldn't have had the strength to push the shutter button anyway — so I went online later on and found their web site. And the truck:


It's an insanely big piano truck, and I've seen plenty because I used to manage concerts for the big local art museum. I often hired Deathwish, because they're professional, reasonably priced, and had style (all-black clothing, morbid-looking trucks). They also told great stories about Piano Moves Gone Wrong. Here they are, from their web site, doing something they should never, ever do:


Anyway, the back of that enormous truck was open and two guys were hanging out, so I slowly walked across the street to talk to them. The truck was packed pretty tightly. All piano movers are really nice people; I don't know why, but it's true. It must have something to do with all that meticulous, risky, and outrageously heavy lifting. Or the potentially catastrophic aspect of what they do. These two had beguiling southern accents, and politely told me that there were 32 pianos in their truck, and 8 of them were destined for the Boston area. Steinways, Yamahas, and every kind of piano you could imagine, they said. I immediately flashed to Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1935:


There were fewer pianos in the truck than in this photo, but I hope you enjoy the idea.

Then I thought about moving all those pianos. Thirty-two pianos went into the truck, and 32 had to eventually come out and be hauled up steps and down, through windows and winding hallways, into houses, apartments, practice rooms, classrooms, and concert halls. The movers were two wiry, little guys, not much taller than me. I hope there were a couple more getting coffee at Dunkin Donuts, because it's hard to move pianos with two people. On the other hand, the truck may have been huge, but the cab probably didn't hold more than two. My god. In my current state, the thought of the workout they were anticipating was almost enough to make me collapse on the street in my sweaty spandex.

I may have a few new, cool-looking muscles, but I still have a long way to go.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More on the "100 New England Books"

Continuing my musings from my previous post about The Boston Globe's "100 Essential New England Books" (I know I said I would stop — but who's running this blog?):

The "reader rankings" are kind of a mess. I suspect that many respondents didn't bother to rate the quality of the books they'd read, and so a small minority's tastes predominate (a minority with good reading comprehension skills, at least, since they followed directions). One of my personal favorites, Jean Stafford's Boston Adventure, bottoms out at #100, with Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures just above. The former deserves more many more readers; the latter doesn't, except from a comparative religion point-of-view.

Readers ranked The Da Vinci Code at #96, just below Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome. Since Dan Brown's book is one of the most-read novels, at #5, this shows some sensible discrimination on the part of the respondents. Yes, it was a fun read, but it was a stupid read. Dan Brown must have believed he was writing for morons; by the time his protagonists triumphantly solved a puzzle I was way ahead of them, having solved most of them immediately. (Yeah, I have a high IQ, but I still didn't need to use even one of my extra points.) It's great to see that readers can critically assess books that insult their intelligence even if they don't read a lot. (The average respondent had only read 5 books on the list when I took the survey.)

But I have to wonder why Ethan Frome is at #95. It's certainly not Edith Wharton's best novel; her "realist" period never did much for me although I adore her in general and consider her our finest female American author. I think Summer is her worst "great novel," and confess I haven't read some of her obscure, later works. But honestly, anything written by Wharton has to be better than The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which is up at 16! Perhaps it's because most people read Ethan Frome in high school, which is the wrong age to read this strange, pessimistic tale. Read it as an adult on a cold winter evening and it will cause chills.

The list of books people say they "most want" to read begins with David McCullough's John Adams. I would like to read it, too. But I can't seem to get into this guy. I've met him a couple of times, I like and admire him, and he writes on fascinating subjects. But I can never stay awake through his first few chapters. I tried to read 1776 but I couldn't make it through 1775. Then I picked up The Johnstown Flood, figuring that it had to be a gripping read on a subject I already know pretty well. But when he started listing every one of the 20-odd creeks and tributaries that flowed into the Conemaugh River, including a few that no one had ever bothered to name, I lost patience. McCullough is both a historian and an obsessive detail freak. I respect both, but I can't stay awake through it. Still, I might give John Adams a try; maybe he didn't spend a lot of time in creeks and tributaries.

The #2 "most-wanna-read" is Moby Dick. Good luck with that. I love 19th-century literature and even have a high tolerance for 18th-century literature, but Moby Dick is where I draw the line. It may be considered our greatest novel, but I still think it takes too much effort to be enjoyable. Which is what primarily all novels ought to be. (On the other end of the 19th-century timeline, I draw the line at the late novels of Henry James. Life is too short to spend that much time figuring out what he means. Not even he always knew what he was getting at — I figured out that much.)

I guess I'm really done ranting about this book list now. I promise. Heh heh.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

New England Books, or Not So Much

The Boston Globe has a feature on "100 Essential New England Books," which manages to include books that aren't set in New England and exclude many great books that are. Author Chuck Leddy's reasoning, I guess, is that books qualify for the list if the author happens to live in New England. Thus, The Da Vinci Code is an "Essential New England Book" because Dan Brown lives in New Hampshire. (His protagonist also has a bogus-sounding professorship at Harvard. Of course, referring to "Da Vinci" instead of "Leonardo" is not something you'd ever do at Harvard, but I digress....)

New England resident authors also put such non–New Englandy books as Memories of a Geisha, Sophie's Choice, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on the list.

The Proper Bostonian took the survey and has read at least 34 of the books on the list. (The average survey respondent read 5 — shocking, especially if you consider how much people cheat on online surveys), The PB has possibly read a few more because she doesn't recall whether she read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel or Make Way for Ducklings back in the '60s. (This is not because she smoked lots of weed in the '60s, but because she was little.)

The list is really more about "New England authors" than "New England books," because each writer is represented by just one work, meaning that all of Louisa May Alcott's, Henry James's, John Updike's, and Elinor Lipman's New England books aren't listed. Just a single title.

No, wait: Elinor Lipman (New England resident, writer of New England–based novels) isn't on the list at all. But The Inn at Lake Devine will always be towards the top of my list of favorite New England books.

The PB was surprised to see that Boston Adventure, by Jean Stafford, is the least-read book on the list. It's an amazing tale — grim as hell in parts and hallucinogenically weird (not that the PB took hallucinogens in the '60s, either) at times, but still a riveting, extraordinarily detailed portrait of a slice of Brahmin society and the North Shore working class in the 1940s.

Susan Cheever's exquisitely written American Bloomsbury, about the Hawthornes, Alcotts, Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, didn't make the list. Nothing by Sarah Orne Jewett or Carolyn Chute (The Beans of Egypt, Maine, and many others) appears. Nor is there anything by the prolific and popular Beth Gutcheon.

The PB could go on and on. The more she thinks about it, the more peeved the she is because this "100 Books" list doesn't come near to fulfilling its promise. But because she wants The Boston Globe to regroup, hire (or rehire) better journalists, and ultimately prosper, she's going to stop dissing this. Except in private.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I Love the North End

We were having pizza at (where else?) Regina's tonight, and I noticed that the server was wearing a St. Anthony button. As he stood behind our booth, seemingly ignoring us, I mentioned this to our friends. Above the din of a Madonna tune and a lively crowd, I said something like, "Oh, look, he has a St. Anthony button. He's my favorite saint. You should like this saint even if you aren't Catholic. He helps everybody. He's the patron saint of lost things."

My seatmates raised their eyebrows and changed the subject to lost causes. The host wandered off. But a few minutes later, he returned and put two St. Anthony buttons on our table. "I overheard what you said, and I thought you might like these. Would you like two more?" he said, looking around at my friends. I thanked him profusely and put one on my jacket. And then we had two spectacular margherita pizzas, green with basil.


I thanked the host again after dinner and he took my hand in both of his. At times like this, I absolutely love the North End and (almost) everyone in it.

While my husband and friends went to their bank machines, I got in line for cannoli at (where else?) The Modern. The line was out the door, as usual. I had a nice chat with the woman in front of me, who didn't know anything about any of the pastries in the window, including the marzipan. I gave her a brief pastry lecture. Then we talked about the North End of years ago, which led to our ages. When I guessed that she was 48 (she was 62), she blessed me and practically hugged me. My friends arrived and quickly decided the line was too long, so we headed for Lulu's, where there is never a line.

A few minutes later, the lady and her husband showed up. My friends had no idea who they were, so they found it odd that this couple marched right up to me, their pastry tour guide, and demanded, "Where are the cookies? Are they any good?" I led them over to the rack where the cookies were cooling. It's the North End, after all, and sometimes everybody is your relative.

Gay Pride

My walk to the Haymarket yesterday intersected with the Gay Pride Parade most of the way. This is always a happy occasion because just about everyone out and about in Boston seems to loosen up and smile more. The city felt more like, say, Greenwich Village to me as I walked through the Common and the Public Garden.

I accompanied Asian Pride and their drummers up Beacon Street:


Saw plenty of happy spectators lining the route:


Everyone was rocking to the music of the Gay Lifeguards, who were having a blast:


Even Heaven-or-Hell Guy seemed to enjoy the Lifeguards. He turned my way so I could get a better photo. Note that ghost of a grin on his face: maybe there's hope that even he might be saved one of these days:


I was stuck on the wrong side of the Center Plaza construction and decided to step through some yellow tape draped between a couple of parked bulldozers. But this stereotypical cop saw me and started lecturing me about the meaning of yellow tape and pointed me down to the end of the construction zone, about two blocks out of my way. Being the a Proper Bostonian — revolutionary, deeply anti-authoritarian, and an incorrigible jaywalker — I went the other way as soon as his back was turned. I dashed into the street, past more cops and joined the parade.

Unfortunately, I was deep in the middle of the Gay Contra Dancers, not the Gay Lifeguards. Instead of dancing, these folks were earnestly asking the crowd, "Do you like contra dancing" Would you like to learn to contra dance with us?" I don't like contra dancing. So I blew a big kiss to the cop as we went by, and got out of there.

The party at Government Center looked like fun but I had to get to the Haymarket. I spotted some drag queens on their way, plus a guy in a tiara:


And then this vision in black and fuchsia tulle gave me a big Miss America wave:

Same time, next year!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Give a Green Bean a Chance

Spotted at the Haymarket today:


Perhaps they have dreams of becoming haricots verts.

Annals of Retail: Such an Easy Trick

I enjoy getting J. Crew catalogues because I admire their style. Their clothes are down-to-earth and usually affordable, yet even their casual pieces can look chic and elegant with the right shoes and accessories. (Michelle Obama knows best.) Many of their items are also relatively "ageless" and their quality is good. (Their cashmere is excellent, from Italian mills.) And I love it when they choose locations I know, whether it's Paris, Prague, or our own South End. If I were in the market for a wedding dress, I wouldn't hesitate to buy one of their inexpensive silk tricotine designs, which simple and stellar.

I have to temper my liking with reality, however:
  • Their tees hang down to my thighs, even though I am slightly over average height and not "petite."
  • Their pants gap hugely in the back, despite being tight in the front. I can only conclude that they hope I'll stick a large Iggy's sourdough Francese loaf back there, since it would fit nicely.
  • Their shoes, while adorable, all have stiff leather soles and uppers that would cause me instant pain.
  • Much of their jewelry, especially their "statement" necklaces, is outrageously oversized. Their models must all be Amazons for those breast-plate-sized necklaces to look so well-proportioned on them.
  • Their jackets are all too short, designed to have 6" to 8" of shirt hanging below them. I'm sure this looked sweet on some J. Crew designer once upon a time, but that moment is history.
  • They often offer only one or two styles. For example they'll have 10 pencil skirts and 10 short, poufy minis, but nothing else. If you want an A-line, pleats, or a bias-cut, wait 'til next year.
End of rant. This week I caved and got myself a J. Crew credit card (there are lots of perks). And bought this long necklace:


As a Proper Bostonian, I'm no stranger to pearls. I wore long ropes or classic triple-strands almost every day in my 20s and 30s, before their weight and the swingy-swaying began to bother me (and I became a jewelry minimalist, in diamond studs). I have vintage, cultured, freshwater, and bogus pearls of all descriptions. But nothing looks as perfect with a basic white tee, dark jeans, and flip flops as this simple chain, roped carelessly around my neck a couple of times. I am certainly no genius when it comes to accessorizing, so I'm amazed at how many compliments and second looks I'm getting with virtually no effort.

Plus it's really rather lovely, with its luminous dangling pearls. I play with them all the time. Wearing jewelry can make life a little more interesting just when it's getting boring. And while I'm trying to save money, not spend it foolishly, this seemed like a reasonable "feel-good" purchase because it works with practically everything I wear. (And I got the educator 15% discount, too.)

So I recommend adding a necklace to whatever you're wearing, even if it's shorts (fortunately, J. Crew shorts don't accommodate loaves of bread) and a cardigan. Yes, you'll have the "J. Crew look" but it's unlikely that you'll see yourself coming and going. There's finally a trend that's fun, pretty, affordable, and sensible enough to work for everyday life.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How to Save $356.14* at Williams-Sonoma

I love getting Williams-Sonoma catalogs. I sign up for them online every few months, and I fill out a little card whenever I'm in the store. I order things online. I request catalogs whenever I'm doing business with their partner stores, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma Home. I get those catalogs, but I almost never get the one I want, the Catalog for Cooks. My neighbors get the big, thick one like clockwork, once a month; I get the skinny version maybe once a year, despite all my hard work.

Maybe they feel I don't make the grade as a cook so they don't want serious customers seeing me wandering the streets engrossed in their recipes. Or maybe they know how I feel about some of their products.

Anyway, I got the skimpy little 52-page catalog yesterday, while my neighbor got the nice fat one.

I covet plenty of their stuff. Gorgeous Ruffoni copper, for example (which I found at a bargain price on eBay). Or that Ebelskiver Filled Pancake Pan, to make adorable little Nutella bombs.


But with our tiny kitchen, I can't store almost any of it. A tiny kitchen makes you read product copy with wary cynicism. And many Williams-Sonoma "exclusives" make me roll my eyes and wonder what kind of dummy would buy such silly "specialty" contraptions.

When you see "exclusive" used for a W-S product, think: "I can probably use my hands instead of this."

Because I only have the loser edition of the catalog, I don't have the full range of W-S insanity at my fingertips, but here's a sampling of what they believe that even loser customers like me really need. And I calculated how much you will save by not falling for it.

1. Nonstick burger press. Pressing burgers squeezes the air (and juiciness) out of them. Do you really want your burgers to look as uniformly perfect as the ones at McDonald's? Besides, hamburger is even more fun to mold in your hands than Play-Doh (which wasn't edible in my day). You save $19.95.

2. Avocado pitter/slicer. Try a knife, a teaspoon, maybe a fingernail. More room in your utensil drawer and you save $15.

3. Electric vacuum marinator. This monstrosity takes up as much counter space as a toaster oven and claims it "marinates foods in minutes, not hours or days." By thinking ahead and marinating fresh meat as soon as you bring it home, you can save $199.95.
4. Breakfast scones. Do you know how idiotically easy and fast it is to make scones from scratch? Think about it: the English can handle it. Yes, I admit that I burned my last batch because I accidentally turned off the oven timer with my hip, but I'll bet you are smarter than me. You need just a few ingredients, and if you don't have them, you can substitute. I made my own "self-rising flour" with salt and baking powder, for example. If you don't have milk, use yogurt. Or vice versa. It's difficult to screw up scones, so why spend $46 to get 18 frozen ones (plus $10.50 shipping)? You can feed armies with your own scones for that amount, or splurge on a fancy tea at the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons.

5. Monogrammed steak brand. If you worry that your steak could wander off the grill and go roaming in the neighbor's yard, provoking a 21st-century cattle war, you need more help than Williams-Sonoma or I can offer you. Make sure your cow is dead before you put it on the grill and save yourself $39.95.


* I figured shipping at 11% of the total amount for orders over $150.01, according to the W-S site.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Insomnia, or Lack Thereof

The Proper Bostonian is busier than usual these days, proofreading chapters of the rather dry, scholarly, archaeological book her husband is rushing to finish and get to press by the end of the month. I find it very difficult to read his (well-respected, well-reviewed) brand of archaeological writing without yawning, which makes the author, seated a few feet away, chuckle as he watches me practically dislocate my jaw. He chuckles for perhaps the first ten times I do it, then does his best to ignore the hundreds of agonized yawns that follow.

My sleep-inducing task has me thinking about insomnia. (Actually, my mind is wandering in all sorts of interesting directions between absorbing such juicy prose as "the south door of the east mud-brick wall, looking northwest..." If only I had time to write more blog entries.)

Last winter, I wrote an article for a health magazine about sleep disorders, and I heartily urge you to do the same if you suffer from sleeplessness. There's nothing like researching and writing about insomnia to send one's head crashing onto the keyboard. But if you aren't so inclined, here are my personal tips for improving your sleep, which I was unable to include in my article, because I am their only source.

1. If it ain't your mattress, it's probably your pillow. My insanely expensive Swedish mattress is deliciously comfortable, but my pillow can be a problem. It's an easy one to miss: you sleep with the same pillow for many years, so you assume you're used to each other. Sleep disorder specialists rarely get into the finer points of pillows; probably because it's such an idiosyncratic thing. 
    But pillows deteriorate over time — even insanely expensive white Siberian down ones (that come free with expensive mattresses). After a few years with one of those, I developed neck trouble, and it didn't just hurt, it made me feel dizzy and weird. It took a visit to a neurologist to determine that I needed to change my posture and my pillows (at that point, I was sleeping with two pillows). The neurologist recommended a Japanese pillow, a narrow sack filled with buckwheat hulls. But those hulls crunch audibly whenever you move, and since I seem to gyrate 360 degrees in my sleep many times a night, I couldn't see this working out.
    Instead, I planned to get a similarly super-soft down pillow like my favorite, but the salesperson at the Cuddledown outlet, up in Freeport, Maine, stopped me. She asked my how I slept and whether I had any problems, which was astute of her. (Most likely, I looked unusually bleary-eyed.) Then she told me I had to stop sleeping with two pillows and that I needed a medium-to-firm pillow, not a soft one. 
    And she was right. I slept soundly and had very few neck problems for a long time. But now it's already time for a new pillow. I find myself pummeling it a few times every night to get it into a supportive position. I like Cuddledown in general, but I think a pricey pillow should last an awful lot longer than 2 or 3 years.

2. Don't sleep with a cat on your head.  Our cats sleep all day so they can keep us up all night. I can usually sleep through things breaking, howled feline songs and speeches, hairballs being hurled, and other cat noise. But when a 10-pound cat takes over my cozy, warm pillow by curling up on my head and purring loudly, I have no defenses. I must be instinctively polite because I never push her off. I just move further and further down the bed until she has my whole pillow and I have my head to myself, but I'm scrunched up, awake, and listening to her snoring.
   Actually, that can't be true; I'm not that nice. When I hear a cat about to throw up on the bed, I can locate the perpetrator and send her sailing through the air, past the carpet and onto the floor, before my eyes are open. I hate spending afternoons at the laudromat washing and drying the comforter. So I must just have a soft spot for pseudo-friendly purring directly applied to my ear.
   Anyway, as much as I love sleeping with cats, I have to admit that I spend a lot of hours not sleeping because of them. Maybe you have a similar problem that you can tackle more successfully than I ever will. (I could also discuss the problem of the noisy human bedfellow, but I'm not.)

3. What they say about caffeine is true.  It's rotten luck, but drinking coffee, tea, or Coke past the middle of the afternoon can definitely keep you up at night. Even if it didn't help you wake up when you drank it during your 4 o'clock slump, it's going to get you later.
    What I can't understand is why, when I took No-Doz caffeine pulls to pull an all-nighter in college, I'd often fall soundly asleep about an hour later. I'd wake up the next morning, in my chair, or on the floor, without a term paper. I'm half tempted to try it as a sleeping aid now. (But I have archaeology instead.)

4. Exercise helps but Jon Stewart does not.  Your daily habits make a difference when you go to bed. If I take long walks or get decent exercise, I find it easier to conk out at night. Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day also helps. If I stay up past 12:30, I will often be awake until 3 or 4. Watching news shows often keys me up too much to sleep. Watching disturbing movies even early in the evening does it, too. (But I slept through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the theater. Did it have a happy ending?)

5. If you can't sleep, read scholarly books that describe countless piles of ancient rubble (or pot sherds) in meticulous detail. This works every time, I promise. Your library will have these, probably in pristine condition. Mutual fund prospectuses are also pretty good, especially if you aren't an investor. Or I could send you my article about sleep disorders. 

Time for a nap....

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Local Fashion: Just Don't

I saw these at Anthropologie yesterday, on sale ($89.95, down from $178), in many sizes. They call them "Harem Pants." I call them bloomers:


A fellow shopper and I marveled at the insanity. They look even worse in reality — baggier, more sheer, and ankle-length on a woman of average height. "Who might look good in these?" we wondered. We decided that it would take a very tall, very skinny, very confident, somewhat exotic someone. (Like the model who wore them in their catalog, who must be over 6 feet tall, and is indeed very exotic and skinny.) 

But even if a woman did look okay in these, she'd look a heck of a lot better in practically anything else (except maybe a romper, another idiotic trend that showing up on the Anthro racks and in Hollywood).

If you know anyone who wears Civil War–era hoop skirts, or whose sultan keeps her hidden behind mashrabiya screens in his harem, you might do her a favor by telling her about these. But I think it ends there.

PS: The pants were reduced to $49.95 yesterday. Don't be tempted.