Sunday, January 31, 2010

Leading Men

Our kitten Possum (Possumus Passamaquoddy) has movie-star looks and charisma. I can't decide whether he looks more like Cary Grant, who was also born to wear a well-cut suit...



... or Johnny Depp, who has such expressive hair — and similarly big, soulful eyes. There's even something similar about their two adorable noses:



Perhaps George Clooney best personifies Possum's rakish charm, leading-man looks, and effortless style. I'll bet Mr. Clooney is jealous because he's not missing half an ear (notice how often he lets you see his left ear — gee, maybe he's missing the whole thing!):



 

I don't know if any of these three fine actors likes to knock over his water bowl a few times a day, but I think that might be the deciding factor.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Malaise

No matter how delicious the mango iced tea is, don't drink two or more large glasses on a full stomach. And don't have any of that garlicky focaccia and parmesan dipping oil with it, no matter how good that tastes. Just don't.

Don't drink any mango iced tea in Watertown, in particular. And especially avoid it after wandering in the Armenian Library and Museum of America (lace exhibit, ceramics exhibit, clothing exhibit, musical instrument exhibit... extremely graphic and emotional genocide exhibit).

Don't let that charming young server keep refilling your glass, no matter how enthusiastically she proves that she is Armenian, too (after your uncle flirtatiously disputes it) — by showing your table a tiny peek of the Armenian flag tattooed on her slender hip.

Later, when you are driving in the car, in Watertown, after drinking a vat of overly sweetened iced tea, you will realize just how exceptionally rough and potholed are the roads of that city. You will register each jarring bump in every fiber of your wretched innards. Finally, you'll come to Belmont, where the roads seem miraculously smooth in comparison. But by then, you will be sweating profusely and wishing you never heard of mangos or iced tea.

Yet you won't be able to feel a bit sorry for yourself because of what you just read in some of the museum's text labels and saw in unforgettable photos. You may not even be Armenian (I'm not). But sometimes, we are all Armenian. If you know what I mean.

I have found that the wiser path is to stick with ice water.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Wearing a Typo for Life

I would loathe having a tattoo. No matter how much thought I put into choosing a location, size, artist, and design, I know I would change my mind about it before the ink was dry (or the scab had healed, whatever).

If I was told I had to wear a particular bracelet or pair of earrings every day for the rest of my life, I'd hate that. So why would I want something poked into my very own skin that's indelible? My tastes and inclinations change from year to year, week to week, sometimes hour to hour. I pursue some object of desire — a scarf, a coat, a necklace — and can't wait to own it. Then, later, when I do, I will suddenly wonder what on earth I was thinking. Even if the tattoo were in a place I couldn't easily see — say, the back of my neck — I know I couldn't bear knowing it was there.

I'm not only a bad candidate for tattoos myself, I worry a lot about people I see who are covered in ink. We all have different philosophies and ways of expressing ourselves, and I know I'm simply too old to get, let alone embrace, the tattoo trend. I know it's supposed to be a unique, deeply personal means of self-expression. But how individual is it if practically everyone in your generation has them?

In my generation, we all had Earth Shoes. But then we got over it and threw them out.

Tattoos are just another trend of the time — except it they are annoyingly permanent, get worse-looking over the decades, and can cause autoimmune problems. And no matter how different each generation is from preceding ones, there are still a few immutable similarities. For example: we all get tired of our stuff. We all grow up (even the hippies and the Gen Xers). We all keep changing. Are you wearing the exact same hairstyle, clothes, or shoes you wore 10, 20, or 30 years ago? If you are, you are either very broke, very cheap, very unconcerned with appearances, or well beyond middle age.  Maybe there are people out there who will still be madly in love at 50 with the tattoos they got at 20. But I doubt it.

I know there are tattoo artists who create beautiful, subtle, original work, but I've never seen such a tattoo on anyone in Boston. I've only seen them in online stories about exceptional tattoos. Every tattoo I've seen in person looked pedestrian. If more of them were amazing, it would be easier for me to understand. If it's permanent adornment, it should be a masterpiece, not a piece of clip art. Clip art is what I see.

All of this is leading up to this photo story about misspelled tattoos on the Huffington Post. Check this out and cringe: If there's anything that would make me happily take an electric sander to my own skin, it would be finding a typo written there!

Keeping Warm (continued)

In my last "Keeping Warm" post, I forgot to mention Mortite putty. Every fall, I buy a box or two from Eric and Lex at the Parks True Value Hardware Store on Newbury Street. When the cold winds begin to blow, we put down the storm windows, such as they are, and I patiently caulk our seven 19th-century windows with strips of gummy gray putty, stuffing rags into the larger gaps. I stuff it in cracks between our outer walls and the floor, too. I have a little Mortite party.

I usually feel like a pauper when I do this, wistfully wishing we had new windows. Seven replacement windows, built and installed in accordance with the local architectural commission's guidelines, would cost at least $20,000, probably more. I saw some fancy new windows that were installed in an apartment like ours, and didn't like them. They looked "fake" and clumsy, even if they do tip inward for easy cleaning. (To clean ours, someone brave has to stand outside on the window ledge, with an assistant, strong and brave, kneeling inside, holding tight to the window-washer's ankles. Meanwhile, I curl up in a corner on the floor, hands over my face, listening for screams.)

Mortite helps against drafts, but it's not great. Icy breezes drift across our bed at night. Every year, my father, in his stifling (thermostat @ 78) split-level in Pennsylvania, recommends the old plastic-wrap-and-hairdryer solution for drafty windows. Every year I point out our cat ownership and he laughs. Cats have claws (those "Soft Paws" caps eventually come off). And we also have very deep windowsills, which belong to the cats. I don't even need to get as far as telling him that I think the plastic wrap looks tacky. He knows about cats.

Yesterday I walked into the kitchen in my bare feet. (I hate slippers. No matter how cold my feet are, my toes demand their freedom in the house. Socks are all I can stand.) My toes encountered something new on the floor....  about 8" of Mortite.

The kittens had found some, pulled it off whatever crack it was covering, and dragged it over to their food bowls, like captured prey. I threw it out, and found more little bits of it all over the kitchen. Clearly, the Mortite had put up a struggle. I've had struggles with it myself, especially when I try to use it up high; it likes to fall down. I can't count on victory, either.

Later in the night, I began to wonder if the kittens had eaten any Mortite. I looked it up online: it's mostly titanium dioxide, which is pretty inert. But I called the vet this morning just in case. They told me what to watch out for, but confirmed that the stuff is non-toxic. I guess it's still possible that it can gum up a kitten's innards, so I am watching and waiting. They are running around and eating, so so far, so good.

This morning, I found another long piece of Mortite on the kitchen floor. I carried it back to the bathroom and stuck it the crack along the outside wall, where frigid airs blows across our feet. An experiment. A few minutes later, Possum came trotting into the kitchen with it in his mouth. Aha. I took it from him, threw it out, and then pulled up the rest of the Mortite on the bathroom floor. I guess it's going to be a very chilly winter, but that's better than a trip to the ER at Angell.

Possum rests on a sunny windowsill after hunting the wily Mortite.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How I Keep Warm: A Catalog

Unlike many women my age, I suffer from cold flashes. My hands and feet turn icy; my arms, legs, and nose are frosty to the touch. It can go on for hours. When I complain to my doctor, she mutters about Reynaud's Syndrome, but my skin doesn't turn colors and I don't have any rheumatic diseases. I'm just freezing cold, a few times a day. Maybe it's poor circulation. We keep the thermostat at 70 to 72, by the way, but the original windows in these old Back Bay townhouses can be very drafty, and the walls are uninsulated.

Here's how I warm up:

Penzey's Hot Chocolate.  Tea doesn't work as well as cocoa. I don't know why. And while Penzey's is rich and satisfying, it isn't as sweet as some, so you never feel too full or sugar-crazed afterward.



At my last office job, which was in an arctic-temperature office building, I survived year-round thanks to two daily cups of cocoa, a space heater, a fleece, a hat, and fingerless gloves.




Mine are actually much more adorable, with subtle coral and yellow flowers knitted on a pale aqua angora background, trimmed with pale green crochet. A good pair of fingerless gloves will have you dropping your "H"s in no time as you channel your inner Eliza Doolittle. This was okay in the office, where calling everyone "sir" or "milady" was considered acceptably sarcastic.

Eliza Doolittle could not afford cashmere socks but I can, especially when they are reduced to $9 from $24 during Garnet Hill's winter sale. Sadly, it's over, so I can't provide a link. By ordering right before Christmas, I was able to stock up before they sold out. Washing makes them even fluffier.



I wear my socks with these Ugg fleece-lined boots, in the house:



I consider these to be much handsomer than standard Ugg boots. Unfortunately, they don't seem to make them anymore. All their current styles are appallingly ugly. But warm: I'm aware that Uggs are outdoor boots, designed to be worn without socks because of their extreme warmth. However, these barely thaw my feet even indoors, with socks, during a cold flash. So I wear them while huddling under a large, moth-eaten, knitted Scottish cashmere throw:



My husband gave me this wonderful, outrageously expensive gift for Christmas many years ago. It's my beloved Linus blanket. Not only did he give it to me; he will locate it and bring it to me any time I complain that I'm cold. That's an exceptional husband, and a gift that keeps on giving.

I really should do something about the moth holes.

When I'm really cold, I put a full-length shearling coat over the throw. I use this stiff, junky microwaveable heating pad for my feet, but it takes a long time to work:



I crave one of furry hot water bottles instead, from Pottery Barn:



Hey: it's on sale, and I have a gift card. But don't hot water bottles leak? And do they stay warm for a long, long time? Long enough to thaw out icicle toes?

Needless to say, I'm always wearing a cashmere turtleneck from J. Crew, Ann Taylor, or Pure — and, often, this fleece jacket:



Sometimes, nothing works but a hot bath. I like Philosophy's Candy Cane Bath and Shower Gel: it smells like the holidays, not toothpaste. The scent is refreshingly cool, even in a steamy bubble bath:



I also warm up by making soup in my Le Creuset Dutch oven:



When all else fails, I go to bed. I have written before about our Cuddledown Warmth Level 3 down comforter. Here's how this southern Maine company classifies its comforters by warmth level (click to enlarge):






We use our Level 3 from fall through spring, with heavy flannel sheets and a couple of coverlets on top. We also wear things like socks and sweaters to bed, too, and I occasionally wrap up in the cashmere throw under the Level 3. I guess I'll never be mistaken for a native New Englander. But my husband is, and he's often just as cold as I am.

Maybe we need a Level 4, but the salespeople at Cuddledown practically require a court order before they'll sell you one. They thought we were insane for wanting a Level 3. Yeah, there's a big steam radiator next to our bed, so it's not really comparable to an "unheated European farmhouse." But we still get cold. While these comforters are expensive they are excellent quality. And you can sometimes get the heavier ones for half-price at the Maine outlets, after hardier souls have returned them because they are too hot. That's how we got a deal on ours.

Finally, there's nothing like another warm body (or four) to make a bed cozy. If you don't mind the occasional cold, wet nose probing your exposed skin, so you'll wake up and do a little petting, there's a lot to be said for this type of fur bedspread.



Tuesday, January 26, 2010

There's No Place Like Home, If You Can Find It

The PB's dad, a former machinist for the Bethlehem Steel Company, is 95 and in "perfect health," according to the doctors who examined him after he fell in his house, where he lives alone, on New Year's Eve. "Perfect health" except for vitamin D and B12 deficiencies, that is. Then there's his new injury, a cracked vertebra that is causing him considerable pain. I suspected a deficiency when he began complaining that his legs felt weak about a year ago. But he accused the PB of pretending to be a doctor, and refused to go to a doctor for blood tests. Dad is best described as scrappy.

Dad can afford good health insurance but he doesn't have a primary care doctor or a prescription benefit plan. He canceled his very reasonable plan when it increased by $17/month last year. He refused to believe that he might someday need a prescription that would make this monthly charge worthwhile.

The PB is extremely fortunate to have not only a sharp, argumentative dad but also a pair of kind, dedicated siblings who live closer to him (2 hours for one, 15 minutes for the other) and are taking care of him as he's been in and out of the hospital and a couple of rehab places for the past few weeks.

Since the ringworm plague prevented us from hiring cat sitters and traveling home for the holidays, we finally made the trip to Pennsylvania to see dad this week, the day after we got the official all-clear. I'd been spending about an hour a day on the phone with him since New Year's. A phone call that lasts less than an hour doesn't count with my dad. Thus I became an expert on the menu options and the food quality at his hospital and rehab places.  And I heard repeatedly about the evil attributes of the "turtle shell" back brace he must wear for several weeks as his vertebra heals.

I don't drive, for reasons even I no longer remember. I need to learn. One of these days. In the meantime, my husband drives for us both. He never complains; he is magnificent. The drive to Bethlehem takes about 6 hours, since we stop for rest breaks (he gets sleepy) and we like to take the West Side Highway in Manhattan. It feels like a long, long drive. Connecticut seems as endless as Montana.

When we arrived in Bethlehem, it was largely unrecognizable because the steel mills have been converted to an enormous Sands casino, with corresponding enlargements to many streets and bridges. It's strange to call a place "home" when you are perpetually lost there and few things look familiar. When the steel company closed, it left a  silent landscape of blast furnaces and rotting mill buildings that stretch for miles along the Lehigh River. Most of the residents regard its redevelopment into a casino, sports, museum, and entertainment complex as a godsend. But it will always remind me of Pottersville from It's a Wonderful Life. There's a giant neon "Sands" sign attached to an old ore-moving crane that they left in situ. We don't gamble and we worry about the families of people who shouldn't, but do.

The downtown, historic area looks about the same, though. I spent my teen years there, taking guitar lessons, cruising the library, and working as a museum volunteer. We escaped the rehab center one day to have lunch in the Moravian Bookstore, which has expanded into housewares, gourmet food, candy, Christmas ornaments, clothing, and jewelry over the years. There's also a café with free wireless, which the rehab center lacks. Then we drove around a little to admire the 18th-century stone houses and elaborate Victorians on Market and Church Streets. There are no houses in the Boston area that compare with the charm of these Pennsylvania houses. Darn. Stone houses are rare up here; I love them.

There are several large, parallel roads in Bethlehem that head from downtown towards the places we need to get to: my dad's and sister's houses, all-night restaurants, the highway to New Jersey, etc. I can't tell one from the other, and they all veer into dark countryside eventually, if you don't get off them in time. We make a lot of U-turns and wander in circles whenever we go "home."

Can you still call a place "home" if you seldom know how to get there?

The rehab center is above average; it smells like cinnamon and apple as you walk in. Everyone on the staff is nice, according to my dad. He is using a walker, but he's very spry with it. He's doing great in physical therapy. No one can believe he's 95. I expected to feel stunned and sorrowful over his deterioration since I hadn't seen him in more than a year. But, in fact, he looks about the same and can argue with as much energy and stubbornness as ever.

The food is terrible but my dad isn't very fussy. There are many things he won't eat, including mushrooms, apple juice, and any pasta that isn't covered in tomato sauce. But he does like frozen dinners and canned soup, and since rehab food approaches that culinary level, he's okay. He loathes the coffee but nearly had a stroke when I suggested he order a cappuccino or latté instead. He always puts six spoonfuls of sugar in his Sanka, plus about a quarter-cup of milk, so I didn't think a latté was that outrageous. But he reacted as if I'd suggested he drink kerosene. So he's stuck with the coffee. I tried.

He shares a room with a friendly, retired high school German teacher who has gout. When the lights go out at night, he and my dad enjoy lying awake, talking about history and the Bethlehem Steel, which is what my father prefers to talk about most of the time, even though he retired 30 years ago. My husband and the teacher spoke German together while my dad and I talked about the steel industry.

I'm glad we saw him and were able to give my sibs a weekend day off. They both came to the rehab center that night, anyway, to see us. They are saints and angels, and I feel guilty that I can't do more to help them.

I'm sure we'll be heading down there again very soon (please don't tell my husband that it might be SuperBowl weekend). Perhaps next time we won't get lost getting to "my" house.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Journal of the Plague Year, 9 — The Last Post

It's REALLY official today — we are technically ringworm free!! We knew we were out of the woods when all of the kittens' cultures were negative. They were the ones with the lesions, after all. But today the very last culture results finally came in — on Snalbert, who has no lesions. His culture took an extra 3 weeks or so because it was growing something. But it's not ringworm. As I've said before, I don't care if it's growing ebola or anthrax, all that matters is that it isn't microsporum canis.

I'm celebrating by changing the HEPA filter on my vacuum cleaner.

Naturally, I'm so paranoid that I triggered a false alarm. (In Italian, it's falso alarmo — did you know that?) I found a strange, colorful patch of fur under Possum's chin that I swear wasn't there before. So we took him to the vet on Tuesday night after fretting throughout the long holiday weekend and examining him under a magnifying glass.

"I think it's pigment!" said the vet. Translation: "It's just a little tiger patch on his white fur, moron!"

I so enjoy being stupid at times like this. Normal life can commence any time now. I'm waiting...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Farewell, Kate McGarrigle

Kate McGarrigle of the singing McGarrigle Sisters, and mother of Rufus Wainwright, has died at 63. I listen to their old albums all the time these days. I will miss the songs they won't have a chance to sing together now.

There's nothing quite like the vocal blend of sisters, whose voices are distinct yet similar enough to merge into one pure sound throughout their harmonies and unisons. When I listen to the sisters singing the old folksongs of their French-Canadian village, they can make make my hair stand on end, the way superb Gospel choirs and other large, extraordinary vocal ensembles sometimes do.

I heard Kate and Anna perform at the Tsai Performance Center at BU; it must have been in the early 1990s. We were among the last to get tickets, and were very fortunate — we were pointed toward an extra row of folding seats put up just in front of the stage. We found ourselves sitting almost under the sisters' noses. Their concerts were famous for being informal and intimate, and we felt as though we were sitting in their living room. I'll always remember.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Two Kittens Are Better than One

I never realized this before a few months ago: for kittens, one is a terribly lonely number. Two means you won't have to spend hours each day dangling mousies on strings. Every kitten needs a friend for playing, chasing, and cuddling.





Saturday, January 16, 2010

Missing the Big C

Damn! Every time we drag ourselves to Ikea in Stoughton, a president calls us.

Today I missed taking a call from Bill Clinton! I guess he mainly wanted to tell me to vote for Martha Coakley; he sounded so warm and folksy. Even a little nervous, with a long pause (just like Obama's!) before he launched bravely into his personal message for me.

If there is any famous person I'd want to receive a call from besides President Obama, it would be President Clinton. But because Ikea makes crap, I missed his call.

Yesterday we bought nine likely-looking Ikea metal desk lamps for my husband's renovated office and missed President Obama's call. When the spouse's staff tried to assemble them, they discovered they were junk. So today we had to traipse back down there to return them. I stocked up on Swedish food this time, knowing we would Never Return.

I'm not sure if the moral of this story is "Buy American" or "If You Want a President to Call You, Go to Ikea."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Missing the Big O

Barack Obama called and left us a message today! Unfortunately, he called while we were shopping at Ikea for a pile of cheap desk lamps for my husband's office.

It was our first trip to Ikea and, honestly, I would have preferred waiting at home by the phone — just in case the President called. That store is too big and twisty-turny, and everything looks Swedish. The only items that tempted me were in the Swedish food section at the very end of the store. I've always wanted to try saft, that lingonberry drink concentrate. But I wasn't paying $12, even if it made enough to fill the bathtub.

But back to Barack: Yes, if you're a Massachusetts resident, he probably called you, too. But I don't care! I'm taking this personally! I was so excited to hear him talking to ME! His voice on our machine sounds just like him! So friendly, pleasant, intelligent, and earnest. I'm never going to erase it, until I do it accidentally.

He asked us to vote for Martha Coakley on Tuesday, and explained how crucial our vote was. We already know how important it is, and we plan to vote for her. (Given the opposition, I'd vote for Rasputin if he were on the Democratic ticket.) But it was so nice of the POTUS to remind us.

I didn't bat an eye when Matt Damon and Brad Pitt called during the presidential campaign. They're just movie stars.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Possum, Revisited

Possum's nose has recovered from the ringworm plague, as you can see here:



It's wonderful that he's finally back to his photogenic self. I love photographing him and it was sad when his nose was disfigured and his babyhood could not be suitably documented. He's especially easy to shoot because he poses naturally — and usually remembers to pause as I press the shutter button:



I took the photo below as he was helping me bake cookies. I think that cats who are interested in tasting new foods, especially people food, tend to be more intelligent. Or at least more adventurous. Or fatter, anyhow. Possum does not eat any cookie ingredients but he is wild for roast chicken, cheese, and turkey. He wraps both paws around my hand so his treat won't get away:



I have noticed that my cats tend to grow into their names. Since I give them fancy, one-of-a-kind names (Possumus P. Passamaquoddy, Wendelina Pantherina), my cats tend to develop complex personalities. I've noticed that they also develop attributes that relate to their names.

For example, Possy has elevated Playing Possum into an Olympic-caliber sport. I think the way he's revealing just a hint of his fangs and his possum-y, black lower lip in this road-kill pose is genius:



I don't know if Wendy's name is partly responsible for her unusual degree of kitten-loveliness. (I do feel guilty for naming her "Pantherina," after a poisonous mushroom — because she promptly developed a contagious skin fungus.) We had no idea she'd turn out to be so stunning when we got her as a baby. We knew she was cute, shy, and sweet, but now her expressive face often stops both of us in our tracks.



Rest assured that our older cats are not being neglected at the expense of the newbies. It's just that they don't photograph as well!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More Praise for Garnet Hill

New Hampshire–based Garnet Hill carries luxurious bedding and intelligent clothing and shoes that real women of any age can wear in comfort. There is nevertheless a decided lack of frumpiness, elastic waists, and trapeze tunics (although there are always a few). You also won't find painful-looking high heels, sheer or otherwise nonsensical tops, jeans that start below the hipbone, or skirts you can't stride in. You will find boots made for walking, down coats that don't resemble sleeping bags, sundresses that can be worn with a bra, and an overwhelming quantity of sweaters.

In short, it's as though J. Crew got a dose of reality from L.L. Bean, via mutual friend Eileen Fisher. (I like the idea of Eileen Fisher, a featured label at Garnet Hill, but I won't be ready for her line until I'm  70, or have doubled in size, like pizza dough.)

I usually place an annual order for an item or two from Garnet Hill — flannel sheets, matelassé coverlets, waterproof boots (I can view my order history online, beginning in 2000). But this year I was unusually inspired by their winter sale, which started before Christmas. It ends tonight, and was a doozy: loads of cashmere; clothing and shoes from several very good labels, their signature bedding basics, and much more, at good discounts. And I found an online coupon code (G9KMENT) for additional savings.

I ordered these Børn boots and saved $70. They look gorgeous in person.



Cashmere socks were $9 instead of $24, so I stocked up. (Most "cashmere" socks contain only a token amount of the fiber; Garnet Hill's are a sumptuous 81%.) I also ordered a few duds: a sweater in appallingly bright pink and a couple of "small" tees that were much too large.

When the boots and tees arrived, I was concerned about their sizing, so I had a "live chat" with a sales rep. She suggested that I wash and dry the tees to see if they'd fit better afterward. "But I wouldn't want to keep them if they're still too big," I said. She said, "It's okay, you can return them after you've washed and worn them if they aren't right."

Whoa. How many companies let you do that these days? L.L. Bean does, but their clothing and homegoods never appeal to me, as much as I love Maine. I buy shearling slippers for my dad, and that's about it. Sorry, L.L., maybe someday I'll take up duck hunting and buy some boots. Garnet Hill has more style to offer, even with its practical New England philosophy.

Back to the boots: Børn comes in European sizes, which is tricky for us American size 7s. Size 7 translates to a 37.5, but European shoes don't often come in half sizes. So we must choose between a 37 (6.5) and a 38 (7.5).  The 38s I ordered felt a tad too roomy. The sales representative offered to send me 37s at the same bargain price (even though my coupon code was for one-time use). And there's free shipping on exchanges. When the 37s arrived, they felt a tad too snug. So I spoke with another rep, who encouraged me to take both pairs of boots for a walk outside to help me choose the better pair.

I was stunned. Try returning boots you've tested outside to Zappos, which gets raves for allegedly bending over backwards for customers. Try returning obviously worn boots almost anywhere (you'd probably succeed at Nordstrom). Who else wants you to be that confident about your purchase? A lot of places say they want you to be satisfied, but their reps don't go around advising you to crash-test their products until you're sure about them.

I kept the larger boots because they'll accommodate cushioned insoles. I returned the others in pristine condition.

The effect of a no-risk satisfaction guarantee is that we ordinarily skittish customers become fearless about shopping. At the last minute tonight, I ordered a Siberian down pillow ($60 off) and flannel and jersey sheets.

I usually make investments in housewares (or anything) only after hesitating and comparison shopping for weeks or months. I've been unhappy with my fancy down pillow for ages; it gave me only about 7 months of comfort (or unconsciousness) before it flattened into mush. When I complained to Cuddledown, they suggested I buy another one just like it. Right. Ridiculously expensive pillows should last for at least a few years, not a few months. So, for more than a year, I've spent random hours lying awake on it, considering the various catastrophes that might result from my slitting it open and trying to fatten it with down from an old pillow. Instead, I am springing for an even better-quality pillow (at a lower price) that I can return if it should die on me, too.

In the past week, I've been awakened twice by the sound of ripping fabric close to my ear. I somehow put my hand right through both an embroidered flannel top sheet and a matching pillowcase in my sleep, ruining both with long, messy rips. I'm not a violent sleeper, so I'm interpreting this as a sign from the retail god to buy sheets. If they disappoint me, I can return them, too.

And I promise I won't wait until they've been worn to the consistency of Kleenex. Although I'm a stickler about quality, I'm never going to abuse Garnet Hill's generous guarantee. Heaven knows I want them to offer it for a long, long time.

Creative Leftovers & Staples

Since it's been so cold and the brick sidewalks of Marlborough Street have turned walking into an adventure sport, I've been lazy about hiking to the grocery store. So, when we were starving and it was past dinnertime the other night, I figured I'd make our old standby, pasta. But then I remembered that my minor fiasco with the New Year's Eve chicken pot pies has left me with plenty of refrigerated phyllo dough.

Exploring our tiny apartment-sized fridge, I found most of a package of sliced baby bella mushrooms, light cream (also from the pies), and several slices of smoked turkey from Trader Joe's. I sautéed the mushrooms in butter and sherry, put them in a baking dish, added the turkey, a little parmesan, salt, and pepper, and topped it with the pastry sheets, each brushed in melted butter. Rather than laying them flat, I go for a scultural effect, so the top looks either interesting or weird, depending on your aesthetic.

We had a good head of red-leaf lettuce and my aunt and uncle had sent us a few clementines in our Christmas box. So I made sliced them up and made salad, adding dried cranberries and toasted almonds (throw them on the same baking sheet supporting the casserole 4 minutes before it's ready to come out). I buy a 6-packs of Conzorzio Raspberry & Balsamic Dressing from Annie's Naturals in California, which is a sweet and tasty fat-free dressing for a fruity green salad. It also lasts forever. I don't know why they stopped selling it anywhere in New England.

I meant to take a photo of this very pretty meal, but we were really hungry. And it was good! We ate while watching a football playoff game, which is the only time we eat in front of the TV.  Now that the Patriots have tanked so spectacularly, I can look forward to having the spouse at the dinner table.

I have a variety of oval baking dishes: petite Royal Worcester Evesham, mid-sized Polish hand-sponged pottery, and a huge Italian copper gratin for when I'm stressed and inevitably make too much food. Here's a good trick: anything served in a pretty oval dish tastes better. Trust me. I'm not advising you to mix 9-Lives Tuna with Campbell's cream of asparagus soup, but I bet it would taste better in an oval dish. (As good as anything made with Campbell's would taste, that is. It's simple to make your own soup without recipes or fuss, as I will describe soon, in another post.)

Early in our relationship, my husband told me that he had great respect for a cook who can assemble good meals from whatever is lying around. I took this to heart, but my strategy was not to hope for brilliant flights of creativity — our tastes are very simple —  but to always keep lots useful ingredients on hand. I like to improvise without recipes anyway, so I shop for stuff that will be both tasty and versatile. In the pantry, we have a few kinds of pasta, Italian rice, Vigo dried rice and beans, good bottled pasta sauce (Trader Joe's roasted garlic marinara makes a memorable pizza), sundried tomatoes, dried porcini, garlic, and onions. In the fridge: eggs, a few kinds of cheese, butter, salsa, carrots, celery, and other stray vegetables and fruits. In the freezer: chicken sausage, homemade soups and stock, pesto, nuts, filled pasta, and bags of peas and other veggies. These staples guarantee that we always have several quick meal options. If my husband wasn't so unadventurous, I'd be cooking with lots of whole grains, fish, olives, root vegetables, polenta, and goat cheese, too. (I do occasionally sneak some of those into our meals.)

Most of this food has a long shelf life, and I rarely need to toss anything that's gone science-project besides lemons. I hate wasting food, so our tiny pantry and fridge are just right for two people. I have no plans to follow my brother-in-law and purchase one-half of a pig for three people. (We don't eat a lot of meat, but we often have all-natural sliced turkey or the remains of a rotisserie chicken around.) Parsley and other herbs will stay fresh in the fridge for weeks if you trim the stems and keep them in water, like a bouquet. Since I make and freeze stock almost every time we buy a rotisserie bird, I could have made mushroom risotto the other night, for example, or a mushroom, sausage, and cheese frittata. Or some baked pasta with mozzarella, turkey, sundried tomatoes, and the baby bellas.

All of this talk of food is making me hungry. Time for breakfast!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Journal of the Plague Year, 8 — The End?

Our vet's office called this afternoon to tell us that the third and final cultures on our ringworm-stricken kittens are negative. Officially, we have a cure!
H O O R A Y !

Our adult male, Snalbert, still has an unfinished culture — it's still got an "unidentified fungal contaminant" after 35 days. He has no signs of ringworm, and our vet is assuming it's not ringworm because the lab can identify that. So we're declaring an all-clear final result. Ringworm cultures normally take up to 21 days to develop. At this point, we've got to be out of the woods. 

 Because our apartment is coated in plaster dust from recent (even longer-awaited) repairs, I will be cleaning like mad, one more time, for the next few days: removing Christmas decorations, dusting the ceiling molding, wiping down the walls, dusting everything in sight with a damp cloth, and vacuuming and damp-mopping the floors. Cleaning the kitchen and bathroom. 

Then we'll put everything back to the way it was before the plague began, back in October, which seems like years ago. Curtains! Persian carpets! Pillows! I can't wait. What a long, strange trip it's been. This experience changed me. I evolved from being dazed with horror to getting a grip, then eventually took some control of the situation and learned to laugh among the spores. For example, there was the day I found this little creature in the cats' toybox:


It took my brilliant professor husband quite a while to figure out why I was laughing so hard, even as I was waving it under his nose on my finger. Here was Our Enemy himself, Ringo the Ringworm, looking more like the Grinch than I had imagined.

Once I started breathing again, and threw myself into the cleaning and treatment routine, it began to seem almost normal. As normal as having cats who reek of gunpowder and embracing the design aesthetic of the Indian bedspread can be, that is. It certainly helped that we humans never caught it. And neither did the Persians, who are supposed to be very susceptible. I spent far too many hours reading all I could about "feline dermatophytosis," including a lot of garbage fiction on sites trying to sell me expensive sets of products promising to cure it in a few days but with no supporting studies or much information at all, except for brief, first-name-only testimonials.

Eventually I figured out who the vet experts are, and tried to follow their advice. The recommended treatment is stinky, potentially dangerous, time-consuming, and annoying. But our vet said it works. And apparently it does. Possum's nose is dazzlingly white again. A few tiny black spots remain on Wendy's ears, but they could be part of her calico patterning for all we know.

 Naturally, I will be paranoid about ringworm for the rest of my life. Visiting cat shelters will feel like a dangerous excursion instead of like fun. Fostering kittens — a little fantasy I had — is entirely out of the picture. And I will soon begin worrying that the ringworm will recur — maybe near Wendy's incision, if we are really unlucky. Or a nasty-looking spot will show up on one of the other cats, some weeks or months from now. Or on us. Ringworm spores can live up to two years! But we did follow the treatment plan and it brought the desired lab results so, just for tonight, I'm going to try to relax and pretend it was all a very bad (and smelly, expensive, and exhausting) dream. Tomorrow, I'll get busy with all the new cleaning and worrying.

Ringworm may be out of the house but it will always linger in the back of my mind.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Super Cookies

I'd like to share my mother's favorite cookie recipe, the taste of many happy childhood Christmases, which I've memorized from baking it so often. It was probably copied in the 1940s or '50s from a ladies' magazine or a package of Quaker oats or Nestlé's chips. We used to use Crisco as shortening but cleaned up our act sometime in the 1970s:
My Mom’s Oatmeal Toll House Cookies
           (Preheat oven to 375)
Mix
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar (I keep granulated on hand, lasts forever, works fine)
1/2 cup butter (1 stick, softened), soft spread, or margarine
1/2 tsp vanilla

Stir in:
1 egg
1 tbsp water

Then thoroughly mix in:
1 cup flour (no need to sift it, but don't go overboard packing it, either)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

Finally add:
1 cup oats (instant is fine; I prefer old-fashioned; I often double this amount and add another tbsp of water)
1 cup semisweet chips (you can double that, too, or add toffee chips as well....)

Drop onto a greased cookie sheet in rounded tablespoons (I use parchment instead of grease, and re-use the sheets again and again — very fast cleanup. We like bigger cookies, so I use a large cookie scoop for speed and consistency; a small one will give you a thicker, chewier cookie). Flatten the cookies a bit and bake for 8 to 10 minutes. It could take longer. Take them out when they turn uniformly golden. I often double this recipe.
My mother kept her cookies in an old Carr's biscuit tin she inherited from her mother. It's square and printed with a cross-stitched sampler design. There's a quaint word of wisdom on each side of the tin: "And I've oft heard defended —little said is soonest mended." "The noblest mind the best contentment has." "Be to her virtues very kind, be to her thoughts a little blind." "Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep."

If anyone in my family had taken any one of these messages to heart, we might have been considerably less dysfunctional. But we just ate the cookies. When my mother died, my sister took the tin. I found mine on eBay. It has almost the same Proustian power.

I routinely bake these cookies when it's snowing, and I made a batch during the storm last week. I did nothing unusual; I barely paid attention. I bake these on auto-pilot. I softened two sticks of salted butter, and used all the usual ingredients from my baking cabinet (King Arthur unbleached flour; Trader Joe's oats, Madagascar vanilla, and chips). I only deviated by adding about an extra half-cup of oats to a doubled recipe. But this particular batch of cookies was fantastic. They stayed soft — butter cookies often get crispy — and their flavor and consistency was tremendous. Is tremendous: these are so good that just one is very satisfying.

Even my husband, the absent-minded professor, noticed their extraordinary quality and raves about them daily, with his mouth full. And he had failed to notice that there were no more foot-long cracks in all the walls when he came home the other day.

I don't know what I did, or if the stars were in alignment, or that was some magical butter from Trader Joe's. I just hope you have the same memorable results if you make them.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Not My Choice

I saw this photo of singer Hayley Williams on Go Fug Yourself, which I try to visit daily for entertainment, enlightenment, and schadenfreude:


I had no idea who she is but I thought it was interesting that she arrived at the "People's Choice" awards looking like a character out of a Roz Chast cartoon — same awkward pose, messy hair, and dazed, mildly disturbed expression:


I can just see her slipping on this ensemble, which Roz says she wore as a kid, over that dress:


And she'd probably look cute.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Epiphanies

For three days, painters and plasterers  have been busy repairing the damage that was inflicted on our apartment from the recent renovation project in the building. After all the cracks were filled and sanded, they matched paint on ceilings, trim, and walls, including our hand-sponged living room walls from 1997.

The place still looks like a wreck because of the ringworm wars, and now most of the paintings are down and there's plaster dust everywhere. But the shell — walls, ceilings, doorframes, etc. — looks great. They did excellent work, far above and beyond what we expected.  I am very pleased, and I enjoyed having the guys around. They were friendly, sympathetic, and polite. (If you want to win over an Irish workman, just ask him a few times if he'd like a cup of tea.)

The ringworm plague may be passing, too. After waiting and wondering for almost two extra weeks, our vet called today to tell us that the kittens now have two negative culture results apiece. We need one more (in a few days, I hope) and they we're done! Bring out the heavy comforter and the Persian carpets! Pack away those Indian bedspreads! There should be feasts and dancing. We'll at least mark the occasion with a burrito.

Then there's my dad. He fell last week in his house, where he lives alone, age 95. He's always been much younger-looking and stronger than his age might suggest — he takes no medications, for example, because he has no health conditions. But he's been complaining for about a year that his legs feel weak and unsteady. I tried to get him to go to a doctor for some tests. I thought he might have a vitamin deficiency, because he doesn't eat a lot, and doesn't think about nutrition. But my dad has deep, complicated issues with doctors, and refuses to even have a primary care doctor. He'd just yell at me that he took a five different vitamin pills and that a deficiency was ridiculous.

When he fell, he bruised his liver, cracked a vertebra, and pinched a nerve. After a trip to the ER and being miserable at home, my siblings took him back to the hospital. He had a rotten couple of days there, too, and then he suddenly turned around. I think they adjusted his pain medication, and then this morning they moved him into the rehab wing. He went from being bedridden, mildly incoherent, and needing a sponge bath yesterday to taking a shower by himself this morning and walking around. He enjoyed his meals, made a new buddy, flirted with the nurses, and talked my ear off alertly for 72 minutes (he does that routinely, but not since he fell).

It turns out he has a vitamin D deficiency, which probably contributed to his fall. Who knew? Whatever, it's wonderful that he's better.

The final little miracle of the day: the dean in charge of putting together my husband's offer letter and contract for his new teaching position called. Every time he hears from a dean, it hits us all over again: It's a Job! This Is Real. It Happened. We Can Stop Waiting and Worrying.  It's amazing. It was a Christmas miracle, and it continues to be an epiphany.

Speaking of which, many "wise men" — two were female, so lets call them all "magi" — appeared in this apartment today.

A Journal of the Plague Year, 7

Beginning on December 4, we took our four cats to the vet for ringworm cultures, on the way to their stinky, weekly lime-sulfur dips at the groomer. To gather material from the cat, the vet (masked, gloved, gowned) takes a new toothbrush out of its package and brushes it all over the cat's fur, ears, and paws, to collect possible spores along with fur. Everything on the brush gets stuck into a sterile culture medium. Tiny samples from any lesions are also gathered and added to the agar, or whatever medium is used. This gets sent to a lab, where it is kept in the proper, warm conditions, and examined regularly for growth. Anything that grows is identified  under a microscope as microsporum canis spores, or something else (I'd be thrilled with anything else, even ebola, anthrax, or bubonic plague).

This is the gold standard for determining whether cats still carry ringworm spores or whether the oral medicines, dips, housecleaning, and the cats' immune systems have cleared them of the plague.

Everything in the dermatophytosis (ringworm) literature tells you to wait 21 days for the cultures to fully develop and yield any fungal information.

We did more cultures on the 11th and 18th, too. We spent almost $800 on them all. According to my calculations, the first set of cultures should have been ready on Christmas Eve, the second set came due on New Year's Eve, and our final set should be ready tomorrow.

So why don't we have a single set of lab reports yet? By my calendar, we've been waiting 34 days for the first set and 27 days for the second set. The culture medium is supposed to dry out and deteriorate after about 28 days, so I'm really not understanding this.

It's always hard for me to be patient when I'm waiting for lab results. I don't think there's any worse kind of suspense (well, it's also no fun when your husband is up for a very rare, important tenured teaching position and the unversity takes 7 months to choose between him and another candidate). I was really expecting some news on December 26, when our vet's office opened and they could check in with the lab's online reporting.

But I keep calling and being told that no final reports are ready. In the meantime, our house remains a wreck — torn apart because of the cleaning I have to do to keep the spores at bay. We can't get our female kitten spayed until we have two negative cultures on her and she may go into heat any time now. We want to be able to stop dipping everyone in lime-sulfur every week at a cost of $160.

And, worst of all, my father is in the hospital in Pennsylvania, recovering from a fall, and we can't visit him because, as long as we theoretically have ringworm in the house, we can't hire a sitter to feed and care for the cats, or board them.

We want our lives back. I want our carpets, slipcovers, and curtains, cushions, and warm winter quilt. I want to put away all the tubs and boxes that filled the area under our bed. (I had to pile them around the bedroom so I could clean the floor more easily.) I even miss our paisley shower curtain. I am tired of the hippie-style Indian bedspreads covering our sofa and bed. I want to put away the big tin box filled with our cat medical kit in the kitchen, a constant reminder of all the health problems we've dealt with since October. I'm sick of cleaning and vacuuming. I'm tired of worrying about the cats getting worse. I want information. I want those lab reports!

Yesterday I spoke with the vet's office about this and other issues three times. I stayed home most of the day waiting for a call from our vet herself, which never came. I called again in the evening and asked her to call me; she was supposed to, but she never did. I know she's busy, but this is ridiculous.

I'm on the verge of taking the "no news is good news approach," meaning that, since no one's reported that there IS ringworm in any of those cultures, they must all be negative by now. When you've got it, they can spot it and they tell you. But I still want those final reports. I'm about to call the vet yet again, and probably get more runaround. Once again, I'm thinking about switching vet hospitals, beginning with getting Wendy spayed elsewhere ASAP. Like, tomorrow....

UPDATE: Our vet just called, about an hour after the above rant. "Good news!" she said. We have five of the eight culture results. All negative. We're just waiting to find out what the strange contaminant is on Snalbert's, and then the last two cultures should be ready around the weekend. Wendy is scheduled to be spayed tomorrow. I also heard that my dad has been moved to the rehab area of the hospital and is feeling better, walking, and doing extremely well for a 95-year-old. And things are looking a lot brighter around here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Progress

In August, I wrote:
...our unit has huge cracks in almost all of our apartment's walls and ceilings because of the downstairs renovation, which are waiting to be repaired. We have doors that won't shut and buckled floors, too. I watched a giant crack form over my head one day as I sat working at my desk, as the builders slammed heavy loads of wood onto the basement floor, making the whole building shake. We've been living with all this depressing damage for more than half a year, and we were continually promised that everything would be repaired when the renovation downstairs was complete. Well, it's been complete for a couple of months now, and no peeps from the builders.
In June, I wrote:
... The structural "changes in the basement created big gaps at the joints of our floors and walls. Dirt, noise, and smells float in. (We also have several doors that no longer close, huge new cracks in many of our walls and ceilings, and a buckled floor, which they say they'll repair. There's also damage to our meticulously hand-built, wood-paneled bathroom that needs expert attention.)
In April, I wrote:
We're now entering our 8th month of living in a construction zone while the condo below ours is renovated after being gutted to the bricks. Our lobby has also been a filthy wreck for the past couple of months and we've had no working doorbells since September,... Dust and dirt still pour into our place regularly, our doors no longer shut properly, and we have buckling floors, misaligned paneling, and big new cracks in our walls and ceilings, thanks to a few structural changes....  
So we've been waiting for this day for a while. The workmen from the renovation returned at 9 sharp this morning to begin repairs. Our floors are covered in purple paper, our furniture is draped in plastic, everything is pushed around and badly rearranged into a scene of chaos, and there's a big guy mixing a big bucket of plaster in the hallway. Plastering today; painting and fixing doors and floors tomorrow.

I wasn't really expecting this. The odd thing is that it was set in motion — the contractor showed up with our building manager to assess the problems —  on the same morning we heard my husband was finally getting the job he'd applied for 22 months earlier. These sorts of coincidences make it difficult for me to dismiss astrology as hoo-ha. What is the opposite of Mercury retrograde? I have no idea but I'm all for it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Pot-Pied

I like all this snow. One of the joys of being unemployed is staying home as much as you want, and I do.  When it's snowing, my guilt level about this drops to minus zero, and I relax. Technically, I hibernate. On frosty days, I enjoy rousing myself from my stupor to warm up our drafty apartment by putting some hearty, casserole-type dish in the oven. Or I bake tollhouse cookies, a snow-day tradition around here that can be accomplished while semi-conscious.

The Warren Tavern in Charlestown makes a delicious chicken pot pie with a puff-pastry top, and I decided I wanted to make that for our New Year's Eve dinner. I bought phyllo dough instead of frozen puff pastry, figuring I'd get the same effect with far fewer fat calories. Since I enjoy cooking without using a recipe (one of the few ways I choose to live dangerously), I perused a few online pot-pie recipes to get the general idea, and wandered into my kitchen around 5 o'clock on the Eve.

Cooking without a recipe means you have to be on your toes. Without written instructions, I need to rely on every drop of common sense and kitchen experience I have, plus all my senses — taste, sight, and smell, of course, but also hearing (Hey, what's exploding in the oven?) and touch (Hmm, this vegetable is unusually slimy...).

So I began by poaching some fresh Bell & Evans boneless breasts in homemade stock (from my freezer). As they were quietly simmering in their saucepan, I cut up potatoes and onions and sautéed them in butter in a big pot. After a while, I added celery, diced baby carrots and frozen baby peas. I contemplated some baby bella mushrooms, and changed my mind. Already enough babies in this pie.

When the chicken was done, I added the strained broth to the vegetables along with some milk, flour, and a bit of cream, and watched it turn into a convincing, creamy broth as I stirred. With enough salt, pepper, and thyme, plus a dash of nutmeg, it tasted pretty good. I cubed the chicken, added it to the stew, and got out a variety of shallow dishes to make single and double servings.

Then I got the phyllo dough out of the freezer. Duh —the instructions say that you're supposed to thaw it at room temperature for 2 hours, or keep it overnight in the fridge. Here's an example of how cooking without a recipe can be quite interesting. So interesting that you find yourself making and eating an entirely different dinner because you screwed up.

 I could have made pastry or biscuit dough from scratch pretty quickly, but I was not in the mood, and we were very hungry for our dinner.  So we ate sandwiches on good Iggy's bread on the last night of the old year. I stuck the phyllo in the fridge for another night.

We had lovely chicken pies last night and tonight, topped with dramatic, sculptural crumplings of buttered phyllo and accompanied by a green salad with mushrooms and garlicky dressing. I'll definitely make these pies again, but next time, I think I'll try puff pastry and READ THE DIRECTIONS.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A New Year's Eve Walk in the Storm

Yesterday we decided to take a walk during the storm. It wasn't so cold and Back Bay and Beacon Hill looked elegant in monochrome.

Here's the Christmas tree at Old South, one of our favorites every year:



The Public Garden was relatively empty; the crowds for First Night were just starting to arrive:



I spotted a large raptor, perched high in a tree, and used my digital zoom. I was hoping it was the owl people have reported seeing in the Garden, but now I can see it's a hawk, solemnly taking the air (or looking for an unsuspecting pigeon?) in the storm:



We ate good soup and corn muffins sitting at the counter at Panificio on Charles Street, as we watched the passersby through the plate glass window on the other side of our bowls — it's one of the better people-watching spots in town. Twice we spotted that picturesque gentleman tour guide who looks like MFA director Malcolm Rogers, dressed in Revolutionary garb. I wanted to photograph him as he passed us in his tricorne, cape, and breeches, but my tomato-basil soup was too good; I couldn't put down my spoon to dig out my camera.

Then we picked up an Iggy's Francese loaf (how I miss the farmer's market) at Savenor's and pastries at Café Vanille, to give 2010 a sweet start.

As we slip-slid our way home, soggy and chilled, we passed the Angel of the Waters:



I love the way the snow traces all the architectural details that make our neighborhood beautiful. The snow on the wrought-iron fence made me enjoy the splendor of it anew.  Pity the poor Mt. Auburn Cemetery, surrounded with a hideous chainlink fence!