Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Je Voudrai Une Marinière, Part Deux

My quest for a striped sailor shirt continues. Apparently everyone wants one of these, because Petit Bateau has been sold out of them all over the country for months (plenty remain in red, gold, or green, but why would you spend $88 for the wrong color?). The store on Newbury Street just received a few blue ones a couple of days ago, but the size smalls were snapped up instantly. On me, the size XS is skintight in the arms, and size M is a nightshirt. In this store, these sizes are listed as "12 Years" and "16 Years," respectively. I need a size S, but all the other 14-year-olds have already purchased my shirt.

L.L. Bean, as an alert reader has pointed out, is sold out of their cream/navy- and navy/cream-striped boatnecks until early May or mid June, depending on the size you need. I'll order one (or the other, or both if I can't make up my mind) and try to be patient. They are available in plenty of other colors, which would also be easily spotted from the deck if you fell overboard — the reasoning behind the stripes, according to French navy legend.

J. Crew had one XXS Saint James marinière, which they held for me until I got there to try it on. Not flattering. Tight in the neck, sleeves a little too short, and the body was too wide. I tried on an XS for laughs; it would have made a laughably baggy $85 beach coverup.

One detail I've noticed about the true marinière: it has very obviously dropped shoulders. Since I've been lifting weights, I find dropped shoulders constricting on my own magnificently toned shoulders. So I was secretly glad the St. James didn't fit me in other places, too.

And then, stacked on a floor-level shelf at J. Crew, I found this:


It's lightweight, slubbed cotton with charcoal-gray stripes. The fit is long and slim, and the neckline is flatteringly open, unlike some authentic marinières. Despite being an unnautical color, it has more "je ne sais quois" than any other sailor shirt I've sampled so far. It also comes in tasteful camel stripes, but the store is out of those (and has just a few gray ones). Online, all of these shirts won't be shipping until June 15. Everyone wants a marinière.

I used my husband's 15% educator discount, but even the original $36 price seemed right. Any French sailor could afford this shirt. Like the L.L. Bean shirt, this one has 3/4 sleeves — not authentic but, somehow, a little more chic.

It will tide me over nicely, until the L.L. Bean ship comes in.

If you're waiting for your marinière, too, read this and don't let the Gwyneth Paltrow reference get you down. I'm proud to say I had no idea how this stripey zeitgeist arose; I caught it purely by osmosis. I didn't see any marinières in Paris; all I saw were raincoats. And I haven't seen Coco Before Chanel, although I want to — but I can certainly see how it helped:

Audrey Tatou in Coco Before Chanel (AP photo).
That looks like a Petit Bateau shirt.

Bald Man Arriving in Back Bay

We're getting a Max Brenner, Chocolate by the Bald Man outpost at
745 Boylston Street, roughly across from the Mandarin and next to Starbucks.

Savor the entire condescending review by New York Magazine here. Here's an excerpt:
Somewhere over the course of spreading the chocolate gospel, the European-trained (and sufficiently bald) chocolatier Oded Brenner has adopted the Wonka-like persona of “Max Brenner.” These days, he can generally be found at his newest location, expediting orders, munching chocolate-covered toast, and ensuring that the venture continues to position itself as the joyful antithesis of the intimidating realm that, his press materials assert, haute chocolate inhabits. Trouble is, Brenner’s self-proclaimed “new worldwide chocolate culture” comes off as just the sort of ­tourist- targeting spectacle you’d expect to find in Times Square, animated with loud Euro- accented house music and an abundance of overwrought, often overly sweet concoctions... 
Max Brenner strives to be a dessert destination, and the minuscule café tables tend to be taken by groups of diet-be-damned girlfriends yapping away like overstimulated mynah birds, gurgling tots, and sheepish young couples on dates. 
Even though chocolate forms the wide and sturdy base of my Food Pyramid, I don't know how I feel about this. When I'm in Manhattan, I always walk right past the Bald Man in Union Square because I'm so intent on getting my Così Signature Salad next door on Broadway. (Yes, I know I can get them in Boston, but I don't care. We even had dinner at the original Così in Paris, which is very different, but also good. I love Così.) I know there could be chocolate nirvana in there, but it looks like a zoo. And, in NYC, I am also intent on checking out the many cupcake bakeries, not Cheesecake Factory–type experiences. Which is what the Bald Man boils down to, I guess, only even more outrageously.

But anything that New York Magazine gets all high and mighty about can't be all bad. Especially if it's chocolate. So maybe we'll join the tourists and Mandarin residents [redundant?] squawking with mynah-bird glee over their Hazelnut Cream Banana Toffee Crèpe ($13.25), White Chocolate Truffle Carrot Cake ($11.95) and Chocolate Chunks Pizza ($8.75/$15.95). I'd try something simpler, like Banana Tempura Fondue ($11.75). The hot chocolate drinks impressed even New York Magazine, but I'm not going to risk that.

Check out the Bald Man's Menus, here. I wish we were getting a Così instead, but we apparently can't have everything here in Back Bay.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

That Sinking Feeling

When I got up this morning, I discovered this, clogging the bathroom sink:


It's Possum's newest hangout. While it's charming, it's also promoting tooth decay. (If this keeps up, we'll need a second bathroom, which I normally think is a frivolous waste of space in a two-person household.) Possy will curl up there while I'm in mid-brush. I often walk around a little as I brush my teeth, not expecting anyone to be bathing in my sink when I return.

When I look at this starry-eyed pose, I can't help wondering why whoever neutered him (after he was trapped as a tiny feral kitten) chopped off half of his ear. A little, tiny notch was all that was necessary, just enough so the trappers at his colony would know he was altered if he got trapped again. Maybe his ear was already torn or injured. We'll never know.

Most of the time I hardly notice his ear because I'm too busy admiring his remarkable face. I'm so grateful he got himself trapped again, rescued, fostered, and listed on Petfinder.com so we could adopt him. What a lucky chain of events for all of us.

Our vet says the missing ear gives him "street cred" with other cats. Tough guy?


I don't know what cats think about it. But I wouldn't mind meeting this character in a dark alley.

The Ultimate Solution

I have figured out how to make the rain stop. Really, truly.

What's it worth to you? I'm willing to negotiate.

All I need to do is buy a very good pair of rain boots.

When I bought my fancy winter boots earlier this year, the snow, which had been accumulating regularly, immediately dwindled down to the occasional flurry. I never had a chance to test them. I suspect that I singlehandedly diverted all those outrageous mid-Atlantic snowstorms from traveling up the coast here.

When was the last time that Philly and New York got repeatedly socked with snow and we got nothin'? Think about it. It was a weird winter, and it was weird because of me.

If I finally break down and invest in a pair of Hunter waterproofs, we could have a drought.

Would that be okay with you? I can go either way on this one.

Monday, March 29, 2010

This looked very uncomfortable:


Why would Possum sleep in such a hard, cramped place? I mean, besides the fact that he's a cat and can sleep in little places?

It didn't last:


Possum is a hedonist. He likes beds, soft cushions, and velvet chairs. After he left, I realized that he'd parked himself on my new black chenille hat. He rightly felt that it was his duty to get fur all over it. He did a thorough job.

He then moved on to his regular appointment with Snicky in the bathroom. She is teaching him how to drink from the faucet:


Unfortunately, this class is always scheduled at the same time I need to take out my contact lenses and get ready for bed. But education comes first around here. After all, these cats own a tenured, senior professor now.

Good News on Newbury

We wandered in to Kitchen Arts, yesterday, noting with a little sadness that their going-out-of-business sale was still going strong. Very little stock was left on the shelves: a couple of shrimp deveiners, those paper frills for turkey legs, magnetic knife sleeves, a few diner-style syrup dispensers... that was about it.

I asked the salesperson where I could get knives sharpened after they close. He said, "You can still do it here." I looked puzzled. "You mean, in the next two days?" He said, "Oh, actually, we're closing but then we're reopening. Same name. Someone bought the business."

What great news! One less vacant storefront on Newbury, and an independent store (and neighborhood mainstay) resuscitated at the last minute. I can continue to go there for all my knife-sharpening and turkey-bloomer needs. I may even celebrate by indulging in some shiny new cookware, since the nonstick coatings on mine are all going to pot.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Tax Time

We just finished our taxes — in record time. We started around 8:30 last night. Yes, we also turned out all the lights for Earth Hour, but as my husband pointed out, "With TurboTax, you're always in the dark anyway." (We unplugged our laptops, too. His, with the TurboTax, was fine for the whole hour; mine died after 8 minutes. I really need a new laptop.)

It's true, TurboTax isn't any more difficult to use in the dark, although you can't read anything in your tax files without a flashlight. So we used one when we had to enter W-2 and 1099 info, etc.

Our efforts were fueled by a chocolate cake from Lyndell's. It is impossible to even think about doing the taxes without a layer cake in the house (we should deduct the cost along with the tax-prep software...). Most years, it takes us at least one agonizing weekend and a few weeknights — with lots of shouting and frustration — to complete our taxes. (I also have to file a Pennsylvania form, which usually baffles the hell out of me.) Cake gets us through the rough spots and has saved our marriage.

Last night, we ate our cake in the dark. When we turned on the lights at 9:30, I realized that cake that is eaten unseen doesn't count. You must see your cake and eat it, too. But I didn't have another slice because I figured I'd have it for breakfast today, when our work resumed.

The worrisome thing about TurboTax is that it asks you a zillion questions but it doesn't take you through the forms and schedules in any linear order. (You also can't do searches, which is highly annoying.) So you have to trust that it is completing all the information, just as we trust that the financial reports it grabs from our Fidelity accounts are accurate. If there are errors, there's really no way we can know that. Just as there is no way we could ever figure out how to add all that Fidelity info ourselves to a paper tax form.

For that, we'd have to hire an accountant to do our taxes. Which is what we did until 2003, when we switched to TurboTax. We realized we couldn't trust an accountant, either. For our 2001 taxes, she ignored our list of all the estimated taxes we'd paid, and told us we owed a big chunk of taxes. We wrote the check. Then we got a huge refund from the IRS, with a sternly worded letter telling us never to pay our taxes twice again, or we'd be fined. For that accountant's expertise, we paid something like $1,200. Hello, TurboTax.

Either we're getting smarter or TurboTax is getting easier, but we finished our federal forms in about 3 hours. With no shouting (minimal swearing). At around 11, I realized that I'd forgotten to add my self-employment tax payments in the same boxes with my estimated income-tax payments. Adding those sums boosted our refund nicely, so I went to bed in a cheerful mood, despite knowing that the state taxes were looming over our heads in the morning.

But those were fairly straightforward, too. I mean, when we don't know the answer to a question —because it makes zero sense to us, and we've stared at it for 15 minutes trying to bend our brains around it, and have also read all the related answers to questions other people have asked about it — we tend to surrender and answer "No." It's is the easy way out and hopefully the correct answer,  as well. We have probably missed small deductions related to Massachusetts municipal bonds and foreign stocks in our mutual funds, but I would rather have a lower refund than spend another minute trying to figure out how to unravel and declare that stuff.

Digging out the Pennsylvania forms from last year helped me fill out this year's; I was done in under 15 minutes.

So what are we going to do with all that leftover cake? Freeze it for next year? Then it would become a carryover depreciated business expense, right? I can't be bothered. We'll finish it now.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Possumus Passamaquoddy Poses

It's been a little while since I posted any Possum photos. I shouldn't prevent this personable pussycat's public from peeping at his poses:

He sleeps with personality and drama. And when his eyes are closed, I don't have to worry about red-eye. Or turquoise-eye, in his case.


Observe the neatly crossed paws in the photos above and below. I think Possy is aristocratic, and not just because he's always nicely dressed in a suit. (It is possible that he is not merely a feral foundling, but a descendant of old, titled European nobility. More on Possum's provenance at another time.)


In this pose below, he's clearly dreaming that he's SuperCat, flying through the air. Upside-down.


He sleeps a lot. I thought kittens ran around like maniacs 24/7 until they were nearly 2, but it's always hard to make the bed around here:


When Possum isn't sleeping on furniture, he's sleeping on me. My productivity at home was never anything to brag about, so all the time I now spend lying around with 11+ pounds of snoring cat parked under my chin will not affect the GNP. But I wish I could read, at least. I find myself thinking of Mohammed almost every day. According to legend, he cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than disturb his sleeping cat. I love that story, and it helps me keep still and remember my priorities. Up to a point.

Because Possum is often even more photogenic when he's awake:

Au Bon PAIN!

I was going to write a little eulogy to my favorite Au Bon Pain product, which is the chocolate-orange-pecan scone. These chocolate-frosted beauties are delicious, but a store manager told me they are soon to be discontinued. This was after I hit three different shops in Cambridge this afternoon, hoping to snag one. All were sold out of this flavor (why discontinue the popular one?) and I'm not interested in the others.

I just went to the Au Bon Pain Web site, to see if I could find any news. I couldn't, so I decided to take a look at the nutrition facts.

Oh. My. God. One scone has 580 calories and 28 grams of fat. That's a lot, especially when you consider that a scone is really more of a dry, serious, breakfast-y food than a decadent dessert. I started eating them because I believed they were healthier and less fattening than muffins. Wrong! A chocolate-chip muffin has 580 calories and 23 grams of fat. A "healthier" raisin-bran muffin has 480 calories and 11 grams of fat.

I'd be better off with one of their chocolate-toffee cookies, at 250 calories and 14 grams of fat. Heck, I could have two! Or a chocolate-chip brownie, for heaven's sake (510 calories, 19 grams of fat). What a fool I've been.

To look at this another way, a chocolate-orange-pecan scone has more calories and fat than a Burger King Whopper Jr. (340 calories and 20 grams of fat). I guess Au Bon Pain, for all its wholesome good looks is squarely in the realm of fast food, in that it's packed with unhealthy ingredients that make stuff look and taste good (not that I consider most fast food edible). So, the same common sense that prevents me from setting foot into Burger King, Wendy's McDonald's, KFC, Arby's, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Dunkin Donuts, and all such places ought to keep me out of Au Bon Pain, too. (And Starbuck's, while I'm at it, I suppose.)

Still, I wish I'd managed to get one last scone before I was enlightened.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Lazy Woman's Homemade Pizza

I love to make pizza at home:
1: Pre-heat oven. Remove rings (dough + diamonds = mess). Roll up sleeves.
2: Oil a 16" pizza pan (cheap, perforated aluminum is fine). 
3: Flour hands and dough. Form the crust in the air, with your hands. Enjoy this.
4: Put the dough on the pan, reshape it to fit. 
5: Add sauce, cheese, and toppings. 
6: Bake at 425 to 450 degrees for 12 to 18 minutes, depending on your oven. 
The whole process should take about 20 minutes.

I can't be bothered to make the dough. I prefer to get it at a nearby pizzeria. Uno's dough is excellent, but it's usually too far out of the way. On Newbury Street, Bostone's dough is tasteless, Scoozi's is okay, and The Upper Crust refuses to sell dough, so the heck with them. If I'm using supermarket dough, I find that Shaw's fresh dough is usually decent, whereas Trader Joe's is less tasty and harder to work with.

I've been experimenting with freezing fresh dough so we can have pizza anytime. So far, the best way I've found to thaw it quickly is to put the dough in an airtight bag, squeeze out the air before sealing it, and submerge it in a sinkful of hot water for about an hour. The dough won't be as easy to handle, but with a little skill, you can still form a nice 16" crust.

I can't be bothered to make sauce. We really like Trader Joe's sauce, with the green labels, especially the Roasted Garlic Marinara. It has a robust flavor (nothing like raw garlic) that enhances but doesn't overwhelm the pizza. I bought my first jar of this by accident, mistaking it for their Tomato and Basil Marinara, which is also very good. I use the garlic flavor all the time now. It's also delicious with gnocchi.

I can't be bothered to make cheese, of course. I like the multi-cheese blends I find at Shaw's, with some combination of part-skim mozzarella and parmesan with romano, asiago, fontina, and/or provolone. If I'm stuck with a bag of plain mozzarella, I supplement it with plenty of parmesan. And a sprinkling of oregano. I don't always use a whole 8-ounce bag of cheese. Pizza with excess cheese bothers me. I want to taste the dough, sauce, and toppings, not a big slab of greasy, rubbery cheese. (For this reason, we always order our takeout pizzas with half as much cheese. But the pizza-makers rarely take us seriously.)

I can't be bothered with complicated toppings. Cutting the rind from a wedge of brie for a ham-and-brie pizza is as much effort as I'll make, and the result is worth it. Mushrooms and/or sun-dried tomatoes are easy. Fresh tomatoes and basil are great in the summertime. Thin-sliced salami, cut into quarters, is wonderful, as is imported prosciutto or lean ham. Turkey pepperoni is a low-fat approximation of real pepperoni, but it's still full of nitrates, so I feel it's not worth it.

When the pizza is out of the oven, we slice it using a magnificent cutter hand-forged and crafted from brass, steel, and cocobolo wood by my late cousin Ed, a member of the Knifemakers' Guild. It's the only pizza cutter he ever made, and his life is remembered and celebrated with every pie I make. When it comes to cooking, I may be lazy, but my heart is generally in the right place.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Je Voudrai Une Marinière

As in a navy-striped French (specifically Breton) sailor's T-shirt. A marinière. I was hoping to find one in Paris last month but, apparently, they are not as hot there are they are over here.

Stripes are all the rage for spring, but this is one trend I don't mind adopting, since these Breton shirts haven't changed in many decades. Or at least they shouldn't change, or at least not much. They were popular in the 1950s and '60s. I'll bet Audrey Hepburn had one. When I get mine, I intend to wear it long after everyone else stops.

There are many variations, good and bad, on the marinière around these days. Anthropologie has one like this:


It's tissue-weight, stretchy-clingy, and has shirring up the sleeves and shoulders, with tiny buttons. Very cute and kind of a deal (for Anthropologie) at $48. But it's not a marinière. I'd like something close to the real thing.

You can get the "authentic" Armor-Lux brand from Brittany over there, but not over here. It's 49 Euros and it looks like this:


According to their Web site:
The Breton shirt was officially created by the 27th March 1858 Act which introduced this blue and white striped knitted shirt in the uniform list of the French seaman. It was said that this stripe allowed to locate more easily a man fallen into the sea.
I'll be sure to wear this on my next rocky mailboat ride out of Southwest Harbor.

There is another "authentic" French shirt you can get over here. At J. Crew, you'll find the Saint James marinière:


This one is unisex, made of heavy cotton, will set you back $85 and is out of stock until the middle of April. There are Saint James shops all over France, including two in Paris (one is on the Rue des Rennes, not far from our hotel). Oh, well. I'll just have to go back. You can also find their line in various shops on the Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Cape (as well as Stockbridge, that seafaring town).

We have a Petit Bateau shop on Newbury Street (which is why I didn't look for shops in Paris), and that seems like an apt place to find a marinière. They sell this one, in heavy organic cotton jersey for $89:


The classic navy is sold out online. If it ever stops raining, I'll see if they have navy at the shop. It seems a little pricey, but Petit Bateau shirts tend to be very chic.

Finally, here another example, from a Breton clothier, that seems both authentic and chic, Comptoir du Matelot. This shirt is 25 Euros and even the mannequin has that insouciant French je ne sais quoi:


Too bad you can't get them over here.

But in America there are plenty of sailor shirts. Ideally, I'd get mine from Maine, which means L.L. Bean. Here's their version, which comes in lots of colors, for $29.50:


This is from their regular women's line, known and loved for its frumpy styles and overgenerous fit. (There's also a new "Signature" line, meant to appeal to the younger, hipper Preppy. To me, it looks vaguely like Boden clothing, only in duller fabrics. (They offer a weird, tunic version of a marinière; click here to see it. I can't imagine anyone remotely college-age wearing it.)

This LL Bean marinière doesn't look half bad, though. I know it will hang on me and make me look fat, because every single thing I've ever tried on at L.L.  has depressed me thus. It shows me a glimpse into the future: what I'll be sporting when I'm an apple-shaped senior citizen in 25 years. But L.L. Bean stuff also shrinks, and I think mariniéres should be somewhat baggy and overscaled, being men's shirts.  So an XS might just be all right (and it's been a long time since I've worn anything XS.) It certainly looks more plausible than this seemingly A-line or trapeze-style Eddie Bauer version, also at $29.50:


Is it odd how some of these shirts look obviously unflattering — like they add pounds — whereas others are clearly more "gamine"? It's the cut, not the stripes. It's all about how it skims the body.

It occurs to me that the marinière is the sort of thing J. Peterman would have sold. I just remembered seeing a slim catalogue of his recently. And, yes, they do sell them, for $44. Only they call it a "Russian Navy Shirt." And the sales copy for it is as florid as you'd expect. And worse. I will not dignify it by quoting it here.

But... for crying out loud. I have always thought that their copywriting was overrated despite its "literary" style (which is not difficult to master; even Elaine Bennis succeeded, on "Seinfeld.") I read in Peterman's book that their writers spent days working on one piece of copy. In my retail-copywriting days, I was renowned for turning out at least 50 blurbs (and once I managed 100, all witty and inspired) per day.

Anyway, I want a marinière, not a Russian shirt. Even if it looks like this in watercolor:

I think I've done my research and earned my stripes, so to speak. If I can't catch myself a French marinière locally (or back in Paris; I'm over that traumatic return flight and ready to go back, please, please...), I'll even try out L.L. Bean.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cat Stories: Little Mysteries

After belonging to Snictoria and Snalbert for 16 and 15 years, respectively, I can say that neither one has ever shown any puzzling behavior. They are pleasant, affectionate cats, who do typical cat things.

Snalbert with his toys.

Snicky in her dotage.

We expect our cats to throw up on our white coverlet, claw antiques, and get into any baked goods we leave outside the bread box. We expect them to tear around maniacally now and then and to sneak onto our computers. But none of my cats has ever done anything that routinely drives me crazy.

Until Wendy.

Both she and Possum have intriguing habits that are new to me. For example, we have plenty of steam radiators, bookcases, and chests around here, which are low to the ground and ideal for collecting runaway cat toys.

Wendy proudly carrying her snake.

You would imagine that their toys would get stuck under most of these pieces of furniture. I kept expecting this as I'd go around with my long wooden spoon and flashlight to fish them out. Instead, I kept finding that these kittens are strangely organized about losing their toys. I always find almost all of them under the same chest. I recently found TEN toys under there; just a minute ago, there were five.

It's odd: they don't play around that chest very much, so it's like they toss them under there deliberately. And they only do it when I'm not around. It gets weirder: they "lose" their toys by type. Just now, I found five fluffy or crinkly balls under the chest. When I do find toys under a radiator or bookcase, they are almost always in pairs: they have two fake-fur mice, and they end up together. It's the same with their real-fur mice. And I find the two balls covered in leopard-print fabric together.

Do these kittens, who love to play together, also think that their toys need company?

While this puzzles me, it doesn't drive me up the wall. Wendy's water-bowl maneuvers do that. Every morning, my husband gets up and finds a chilly lake on our kitchen floor. Wendy scoops the water out of the communal dish with her paw, splattering cabinets a few feet away. We don't know why. I step barefoot into an icy puddle of hers almost every day. I screech, I lecture, I beg. You'd think the other cats would put a stop to it because they can't have a drink after she's done with her waterscaping.

The wise cat people in the TheCatSite.com forums know of cats who do this, but offer no satisfying explanations or solutions. (Some tried cat water fountains or reservoir dishes, but found that a cat can splash all the water out of those, too. I trust Wendy to figure it out.)

I need to find a ceramist who will make me a special dish — either spherical or tall and cylindrical — with an opening just big enough for a cat's head, not her side-stroking paw. It must be heavy and untippable. When I have a workable model, I will patent it and make my fortune.

Possum doesn't mystify me, although I wonder why he loves to sit in a wet bathtub. He has one other odd habit. Rather than eating directly from his food dish, he will lie near it, reaching in, like it's a bowl of popcorn, and pawing some kibble onto the floor. Then he roots around to eat those, and spills some more: Here he is, in action. Doesn't he look like he's snacking through a Sox game on NESN? I recognize that expectant yet long-suffering expression.


Where did he learn this? We rarely snack in front of the TV. It must be a primal male behavior. And Possy was only about 10 weeks old when the Sox played their last post-season games. But he's a New Englander, and a Maine Coon, and clearly a furry future member of Red Sox Nation.

Color in Cambridgeport

We took advantage of yesterday's unseasonably warm weather to stroll around Cambridgeport. We came across a cluster of colorful, quirky houses on Franklin Street that seemed to have once been renovated as  student projects for the local architecture schools.

Or maybe the owner of this black-and-aqua-trimmed house just had very few clues about how to add new windows:


We passed so many brilliant purple, pumpkin, ochre, red, and screaming-yellow houses that we didn't bother to photograph them. I was looking for a standout. And, of course, I found one. But because someone was in the driveway, I felt nervous trying to capture all the happy, crayon-box details of this house, with its coordinating red sports car:


For example, I wanted you to see the bright red edging that accents most of the yellow trim. Check out how the foundation is painted bright blue to match the storm door. I wish you could also see that multicolored Christmas lights were twinkling on that yew bush next to the fence, in front of a flourishing patch of crocuses — a juxtaposition you don't often find in broad daylight in March. With a house this colorful, why not keep the Christmas lights on 365 days a year? Even that striped construction drum in front adds to its appeal.

This clapboard Victorian, which seems to be a school or daycare center, makes interesting use of industrial materials for its staircase and railing. It wouldn't have been my choice, since I tend to be a purist, but it's clever and cheerful, and was probably more affordable then recreating 19th-century details:


Heading to Harvard Square, we fell in love with this old brick house on Putnam Street, which was built and occupied by a few generations of a family of bricklayers. Harvard must have kept their business booming. It's a shame there aren't more brick houses around. If the Big Bad Wolf ever shows up in Cambridgeport, he can have a field day.


We especially admire this house's beautiful proportions, as well as those two "telescoping" additions on the left.

But the highlight of my afternoon was discovering the Petsi Pies is actually over on this side of Putnam, at No. 31 — not across Mass. Ave. No wonder we could never find it and have been pie-deprived all these years.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Flowering Back Bay

Spring flowers have appeared already at at least two Back Bay addresses. At 263 Commonwealth Avenue, you'll find the first of the neighborhood's magnolias in early bloom, especially its upper branches. We can expect plenty of magnolia action in the next couple of weeks, but this tree is a "star" variety, which is always the first to bloom, with slender, pure-white petals:


The garden next door at 265 was not was not be outdone, with an outstanding profusion of crocuses:


If you stand at the boundary between these two addresses, on a sunny Saturday with temperatures in the 60s, you can almost convince yourself it's April. But never fear, you still have nearly four weeks to file your taxes.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Little Breakthroughs

I have not given up hope that our feral calico Wendy (she's still officially Wendelina Pantherina; unofficially called The Sausage) will be a lap cat someday. Some cat lovers believe that lap cats are born, not made. I believe it's true that, while some cats are naturals — Possum turned lap-sitting into an art, despite being feral — others can develop their abilities.

Wendy is not the sort of feral kitten who runs and hides all the time. Just lots of the time. She hates to be caught off guard, so we never sneak up on her. We don't chase, grab, yell, or otherwise upset her. We approach slowly, talking softly. Sometimes she allows us to pet her and pick her up. And then she'll purr with a loud rumble. Other times, she'll stare at us like we're axe murderers and run. If we pursue her, she'll soon surrender by crouching into a ball and falling over. We pick up the furry ball and the rumbling eventually starts. But she just doesn't get it that we're never out to hurt her.

Wendy encounters us in her foster home last September. 
She still has that look of terror at times. For no reason.

It's true that we're not always purr-worthy. We used to catch her twice a day to give nasty medicines for parasites and tummy troubles, and then there were all the ringworm treatments. Now, she and Possum have feline acne, which is different from human acne but equally unappealing. Cats get black, crusty stuff on their chins, which has to be scrubbed off. I use an old soft toothbrush and warm water. Then they get their Stridex medicated pads; I tell them they'll never get prom dates if they don't put up with it.

Anyway, little Wendy is blossoming. I was writing here on Tuesday and heard purring at my feet. I figured it was Snalbert. He likes to stand by my chair with his paws on my leg when he's hungry. When this didn't happen, I looked down and discovered Wendy attacking my shoelaces, purring her head off. She attacked my gym shoes, bit my ankles and had a great time.

Wendy enjoys a petting session.

This is significant because Wendy never purrs unprovoked when she's near us. She purrs when she likes her food, when we pet her, and when she's playing with a favorite toy. I guess that was me on Tuesday.

Our other cats purr if we talk to them. When I ask Snalbert, "Are you a nice pussycat?" he will always purr, unless he's as ill as he was last fall. When he began to purr again, we knew he would recover.

This afternoon, I curled up on our bed to consult a cookbook. Three cats were lying there, including Wendy. I spoke to her but kept my distance. And she began to purr. Then she rolled over on her back, showing me her fluffy white belly. This means she's happy to have me around and wouldn't mind being petted. So I did. She purred happily for awhile, but then Snalbert decided to bite her (this is an ongoing issue with him). I complained; she escaped.

Tonight, Wendy was back on the bed, so I visited. First I greeted Snalbert and got him purring. Then I spoke to her, quietly, flatteringly — and she purred. You may not think so, but this is Big. I've never been sure that she enjoyed being spoken to. But she is learning to like and trust us.

The feral shelter that caught Wendy came from recently trapped her mother, who was born in the wild. She was spayed; now they are slowly taming her. She's been living indoors, in a crate, for many weeks. She's growing used to humans, learning to enjoy being petted and having steady meals, and starting to purr. She is also learning to play. If she can become a friendly indoor cat after spending years wild on the street — and she's making good progress — so can Wendy, who has far less feral history.

At the moment, Wendy is alongside my chair, chewing on the strings of my PJs.

Since she is a calico, I think there's a good chance that she'll develop the possessive qualities of tricolored females, and realize we are both her slaves and her soft, warm perches. If she only knew how willing we are.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Spring!

The temperature made it up to 65 degrees this afternoon. I pulled up a storm window and pulled down the screen, and gave the kittens their first taste of sweet spring air. Later I dusted off my flip flops, and we walked to the Anna's on Cambridge Street for excellent burritos.

We noticed shorts and sandals, green attire, crocuses, ice cream cones, Christmas wreaths(!), and convertibles with the top down. We also saw a lot of rain boots. C'mon, that was Monday! Flood warnings are still in effect, but not in downtown Boston. The Charles doesn't crest.

Strolling down Newbury after dark, we saw a sliver of a moon that reminded me of the Cheshire cat's grin in Tim Burton's Alice. The old Joe's Bar and Grille is dark and gloomy, but the new Joe's, in the former Friday's space, had a lively bar scene that was practically exploding onto the street. The reconfigured space opens directly onto the sidewalk in good weather, and the patrons make quite a racket (at least on St. Patrick's Day). But that happy din was much nicer than the ghost town Newbury Street often resembles at this time of year. If at least a dozen of the larger, empty storefronts would fill up, it might feel just like old times.

Now We Are Six

My 15" PowerBook G4 laptop is six years old.  In computer years, that's a geezer. For you Mac people out there, it pre-dates the Intel machines, so I can't upgrade to the Snow Leopard OS. Thus, I can't upgrade to Adobe Creative Suite 5, even though it's here waiting for me (I'm stuck on Suite 1). And this laptop is wicked slowwww nowadays. It's loading pages like it's 1999. And the disk is nearly full, so I have to watch how many photos I download. I can only open two images in Photoshop at a time. Because of the OS, I can't use FireFox anymore. (I never liked it anyway, but one of the cats, Snalbert, prefers it.)

And now the video cable is going, so every morning it has "seizures" of strange pinky colors and fuzzy, vibrating patterns, until it warms up. Here's a clear, accurately colored view of my laptop's rendition of Boston.com this morning. The site was actually green for the holiday — not a blurry, faded magenta mess.


Later my Boston.com window deteriorated to an old-fashioned, late-night-TV snowstorm:


Lightly smacking the machine can encourage it to settle down and behave. Or I just go away and let it warm up. I can usually "erase" the mess onscreen by grabbing a window and dragging it around. That will also fix the cursor, which swells to a gray block the size of a dime. It's fun.

At least the hardware looks okay: no dead pixels; even its aluminum case doesn't seem dated compared to newer models. I'm glad they've kept this sleek design; how I loathed those frosted plastic iBooks that looked like space-age toilet seats. Remember?


Some of my keys are eroding to reveal the darker plastic beneath: just "e," "o," "a," "c," and "n".  Maybe I type the word "ocean" too frequently, or "canoe," but I think it's Snalbert's fault; the messages he types in Cat have a lot of vowels. And the keys I use most are the space bar and Delete (for my millions of typos, since I never learned to type), and they are in perfect condition.

For crying out loud, get a new laptop, you are thinking to yourself. Okay! I want one! I'm ready to shell out thousands of bucks for a new baby, with an annoyingly different OS, which will drive me crazy for at least two weeks to the point where I am continuously cursing in frustration and longing for the pleasure of throwing it out the window.

Yes, I'm actually ready to go through that; it's my little tradition, and I eventually work through it and adapt. (Whether my husband, whom I married for his 24/7 Apple tech support, is equally enthusiastic is another story. )

But I can't buy one — yet — in good conscience. The current line of Macbook Pros are almost a year old and their processors are considered way out of date. Since I cling to computers for too many years (my last one was almost coughing up blood, too) it makes sense to get the newest, fastest model when I am finally ready. It might also make sense to buy a year-old "leftover" if it is suddenly selling for hundreds of dollars less than it cost the day before.

The new models are expected to have significant improvements in power, disk space, and speed, and have been the subject of hotly debated international rumors, hoaxes, fantasies, and predictions all across the Web for months. The reason for the chaos is Apple's Sphinx-like code of silence about hardware upgrades. Like thousands of desperados everywhere, I began visiting the MacRumors.com buying guide in December; now it's bookmarked so I can check for news several times a day. It reported last week that new models might be announced no later than yesterday. Yeah, well. Now everyone seems to be betting on April — if not any minute now. There are the pre-iPad-release theorists and the post-iPad believers.

I suppose I should take some comfort in knowing that I am in the company of thousands, if not millions, of gullible, fevered Mac users who are desperate to throw carefully hoarded wads of cash at Apple in spite of their policy of torturing us.

It still beats having a PC.

Monday, March 15, 2010

March Showers, Better with Frosting

I haven't really minded this nor'easter; we're into Day 3 of unrelenting rain and wind. It gave us a good excuse to skip the gym and stay home through the weekend. We ventured out to a couple of movies (Young Victoria: very good, especially if you're into period costume; Alice in Wonderland: not great, but entertaining enough). Today I went to the MFA; instead of walking, I hiked to the bus stop at the Christian Science Center, which was enough of an adventure. And then I hauled four bags of groceries home. That wasn't much fun in a soaking gale, but it's never much fun.

Whatever isn't covered by raincoat, hood, and boots gets soaked, but then it dries. Not worth moaning about. I actually wish it had all been snow; we'd have a magnificent Blizzard of '10, and old people could finally stop boring young people with tales of '78 (which I missed).

With all this time to lounge around the house, often with Mr. Possum purring upon my person, I did some thinking. About cake, among other things. As I've written before, I believe that cake is the key to nirvana. We have been lacking in cake for a long time. Our last cake was a fantastic Chocolate Decadence from Party Favors (their gourmet flavors are much better than their decorated buttercreams), purchased on the day my husband received the good news about his new teaching position. (The lady wrote "Congratulations, Professor!" across the top for me.) That was way back in mid December. For god's sake. No wonder I'm craving frosting.

But my husband is trying to lose weight. I'm usually up for that, too. But I never succeed through deprivation. In fact, I think it's impossible for me to improve my habits without cake for a reward. Without the promise of a respectable dessert in the evening, I'm not disciplined; I'm nibbling on cheese and other stuff all day. Cake actually provides an incentive for me to eat sensible meals. It might even inspire me to get more exercise, too.

I'm not making this up; it runs in the family. My dad, 95, has always been trim, as was his dad, who lived to 92. They both ate two or three sensible Italian or American meals of reasonable size — and then had a bowl of ice cream or piece of cake, or both, at night. They didn't graze, gobble, or snack, but they enjoyed their food. I'm just following in their footsteps, sans the Breyer's.

At least that's what I told myself when I spied a small Chocolate Silk cake at Shaw's today for half price. It was sadly smushed around the edges. It is my favorite flavor, at half price, and someone needed to take pity on it. I don't know why I'm sitting here boring you to death when I could be having some. (I encourage you to have cake, too, especially if the rain is getting you down. But don't try to ring our doorbell; we don't have one.) Bye.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Eloquence of Alexander McQueen

Even if you aren't interested in fashion, you'll be moved by Alexander McQueen's final collection.

See it here via the New York Times. Be sure to zoom in on the enlarged photos to see his inspired use of art motifs from Botticelli to Hieronymus Bosch, as in this pantsuit, covered in angels' wings. And read Cathy Horyn's On the Runway blog for the details.

New York Times

All of these designs are interesting, and some are almost painfully beautiful, because we know there won't be any more. Who knew that a fashion collection could evoke such sorrow, and such a range of other emotions?

These dresses are more than exquisite examples of clothing now. They are a testament. They bear witness.

I used to believe that suicide arose from a failure to imagine all the possibilities of the future. I see no failure to imagine here, though. I must have been wrong.

A coat of gilded feathers. New York Times


New York Times

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Kittens into Cats

My mother-in-law was in the neighborhood yesterday and called to ask if she could drop by to see the kittens. She'd only seen them once since they arrived in October because of the ringworm quarantine.

She arrived at our building and requested cookies and juice, which I supplied. Then she wanted to see the kittens.

They were both hiding. Of course. Wendy squishes herself on top of storage tubs under the bed, and disappears into even narrower spots when there's a stranger around. Wendy still has a "feral attitude" that we're slowly wearing down. As expected, she was Garbo for my mother-in-law.

Possum was under the sofa. This is new; he is very sociable. But he discovered the big, exciting cave just beyond the sofa skirt and it's his current lair.

Being an exceptional cat, he came out promptly when I asked him to, and made his way over to sniff my mother-in-law's coat. "Here's Possum," I told her. "Isn't he a handsome boy?" She looked at him blankly. "But where are the kittens?" she said. I'd been explaining for weeks that the kittens are big now, but she was still expecting a little ball of fluff.

Possum quickly won her over, and soon he was purring and giving nose kisses as she petted him.

I love kittens as much as anyone: the wonder of a tiny, helpless creature that fits in your hand, discovering the pleasures of cat-hood for the first time. But kittens are such a huge responsibility. Even when they don't come pre-installed with parasites and viruses,  their immune systems and digestions are fragile, there are all kinds of diseases and conditions that can kill them suddenly, and you have to keep constant vigilance so they don't fall, get stuck in dangerous spots, or swallow things your plumber leaves lying around the place (see Tuesday's post, below).

To me, it's a relief when they're grown. Possum and Wendy are at a perfect age: they look like big, blooming cats but they are still immature and love to play and explore. I still see them as "babies" even though their size has tripled or quadrupled since they arrived; they are both bigger now than Snicky and Snalbert. It can take a couple of years, or more, for some cats to mature fully. It may take that long for these two longhairs to develop full ruffs and bushy coats to match their spectacular tails.

They've certainly changed from their baby days. Here's Possum shortly after his arrival:


Here's Possum this morning:


Yes, there's been a certain... expansion. I'm the only one who thinks he's a baby. Fine. What bothers me is people who say, "Oh, I love kittens, but I don't like them when they grow into cats."

Really? So, there's a day when suddenly you stop loving a kitten, because it's looking bigger? And is size the only issue? Maybe it suddenly appears to be regarding you with new-found wisdom? As if it clearly sees you as the poor excuse for a human that you are? As if it's on guard, expecting you to throw it outside to fend for itself in the alley from now on? Can you blame the cat?

People can be so weird. To me, it's not that different from saying, "Oh I love little girls, but I don't like them when they grow into women." Ugh.

I have generally found that when people say they don't like cats, it means that cats don't like them. I'll trust the cat's judgment every time. (I can't say I love all cats; as with people, I take them on a case-by-case basis. I like about 95% of them, and even have a special fondness for feisty ones who might decide to bite me. (I avoid all biting humans.)

So my mother-in-law passed Possy's test; I'd had some doubts. She's nice to cats in her way, and loves to look at cute pictures, but says she'd never own one because, "They defecate!" The first time I heard this, I replied, "That why I'm not having children!" I'll take a litter box over a diaper any day. Plus, cats don't get moody and mouthy and leave home for college, only to move back in after graduation.

A purring lap cat is a purring lap cat for its lifetime. There's nothing better.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hard Times in Burrito-Land

It's likely that my husband and I are among Anna's Taqueria's all-time best customers. We have at least two or three meals there every week, which may not seem like much — but we've been at it steadily for about 14 years. That's a lot of rice and beans. At about $11 for two, it's a cheap date.

I know people who burned out on Anna's decades ago, but we never have. Ever. We are invariably up for a burrito, even if we had one yesterday. Or for lunch. I'm not sure why we don't get tired of eating the same old thing. It might be because we are boring, unadventurous eaters who like predictable food. Or it's because their burritos offer a unique blend of tastes and textures, creating a Perfect Storm of satisfaction every time (almost). Plus, they are cheap and nutritious. And they have cheese.

It was more difficult to get our burritos when we didn't have a car, and the nearest Anna's was on Beacon Street in Brookline, past Coolidge Corner. But we managed on the T.

When we bought our condo, we spent two weeks painting and cleaning. I did most of our packing alone in the evenings, because my husband's department was inconveniently hosting a major conference at the same time, which kept him busy round the clock. But somehow he managed to surprise me often with burritos during that exhausting time. (I think he bummed rides from people to get them to me.) Fortified by Anna's, bagels, cookies, and the occasional Burger King, we were ready on moving day. And I still lost seven pounds.

When we got our first car, ten years ago, Anna's in Porter and Davis Squares became very convenient on the professor's commute home from Medford and on movie nights at the Capitol and Somerville Theatres. When MIT got its own Anna's, we walked across the bridge. And when, after years of procrastination, the Cambridge Street Anna's opened, we enjoyed walking to and from Beacon Hill with a burrito in the middle.

Despite our long history with burritos, we are not Mexican food aficionados. We are boring; we are bland. We don't like hot, spicy flavors or rich meats. We eat the same burrito, year in, year out, with only the occasional deviation. We don't order hot sauce, hot peppers, or even salsa, because of the cilantro. (To both of us, it tastes like soap.) We order the regular size, with cheese. I get red beans, black beans, rice, lettuce. My husband gets grilled chicken, black beans, rice, lettuce. Occasionally I'll order grilled vegetables and he'll have steak. In the old days, we'd order extra cheese and sour cream. This makes the burrito more luxurious — at the price of an expanding waistline. Nowadays we keep our burritos basic.

Periodically, we've noticed, the owner (or his henchman) makes a visit to all the shops and exhorts the staff to be chintzier with ingredients. For the next few days, you will get a miniature burrito, and sometimes an argument if you suggest that you might want more than 36 beans and 90 grains of rice. I once walked out of Porter Square because a woman tried to charge me extra for any rice at all — after I'd ordered thousands of burritos over the years that all came with free rice. If you happen to complain, you will suddenly find that the entire crew doesn't speak a word of English.... But this Scrooge-like attitude always blows over in about a week, and then the crew will cheerfully make you a normal-size burrito with plenty of rice again. After all this time, some of the guys will greet us and tell us what we're having. We love that.

More than a decade of experience has given us opinions about the comparative quality of burritos at the various branches. Despite having the same mix of ingredients, a burrito can be tasty or bland. I think the key factors include the freshness of the tortilla, how thoroughly the beans are cooked, and how much salt is used in the cooking liquid. The rice is pretty constant.

The Anna's at Porter and Davis almost never disappoint us. Davis used to be my favorite; I've only had tasty burritos there. The MIT Anna's tends to be a let-down; we expect those burritos to be dull and are pleasantly surprised when they aren't. The two Brookline Anna's generally produce a fine burrito. The Beacon Street branch is our top Anna's destination. We rarely go to Harvard Avenue because it's harder to park.

And for the best, saltiest burritos, the Beacon Hill shop is the place to go. Parking is usually impossible, so we walk — across Back Bay, the Public Garden, and along Charles Street — about a mile, working off a few calories.

After all this love and loyalty, I hope you can imagine my horror when I ordered a grilled vegetable burrito on Beacon Street last Sunday and found it filled with soggy, bitter, rubbery, sour veggies. It was My Worst Burrito Ever. The beans were also too hard, so the parts of the burrito that weren't bitter were tasteless. I should have sent it back but I kept eating, foolishly expecting it to get better. The bad aftertaste lingered until I broke down and bought a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. I could have used three.

For the first time in a long time, I was in NO mood for a burrito on Monday or Tuesday. But, yesterday, a friend and I walked to Coolidge Corner and she suggested lunch at Anna's. I was ready. When we got there, she admitted that this would be her First Anna's Burrito. If I had known she was an Anna's virgin, I would have hesitated: Sunday's burrito was that scary.

We both ordered rice and beans; I figured that would be safe. Mine was utterly tasteless and hers must have been, too. Maybe they ran out of salt. I hope they haven't decided to stop using it out of some misguided health concern. Salt is the spice of life, if you ask me.

I felt sorry for my friend; no doubt she thinks I'm crazy for loving Anna's so much.  At least I don't have to feel guilty for turning her into another wild-eyed Anna's addict. As for me, I'm staying out of that branch for awhile, and I won't be ready for another burrito until............ tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Plumbing Pain

Following up on a previous post, I am now hopping mad.

The plumber had to return yesterday to replace the toilet flapper he should have fixed on Saturday. He said then that his boss was too disorganized to tell him to bring the part we needed, even though I'd told his boss which part we needed twice. And he told me he had that part twice. (So we paid $195 for him to jerry-rig the broken flapper with my sewing needle! Next time, I'll do it myself.)

He brought the part on Monday, plus some metal washing machine hoses to replace our elderly rubber ones. It seemed prudent to have them replaced, especially since he was charging us for another half-hour visit anyway.

He fixed the flapper, replaced the hoses, told a few good stories about weird plumbing stuff he finds in old Boston houses and left.

I didn't realize that he'd left behind a lot of kitten haz-mat scattered in the corners of my bathroom.

Those hoses come wrapped in lengths of stretchy, knotted elastic cord. When the plumber cut them apart, pieces of the elastic flew all over the bathroom, and he didn't bother to pick them all up. This morning, we awoke to the sound of Possum the kitten choking. I pulled a length of elastic I'd never seen before from his throat.

When cats start to swallow something stringy, they can't change their minds and spit it out. They have to finish swallowing it, or choke. I have no idea if Possum found more elastic pieces and swallowed them whole. He loves to play with anything he finds on the floor. Strings and other foreign objects can cause life-threatening obstructions, requiring emergency surgery. I am very careful to keep our apartment safe from yarn, rubber bands, hair elastics, and other hazards.

I do not expect my plumber to leave such stuff lying around. I expect him to clean up after himself. And he knew we have cats, so I'd expect him to be extra careful. I found more elastic pieces on the floor, in the trash, and on my bathtub. In the end, I had five little pieces but they didn't add up to nearly enough to secure two coiled hoses.

The plumber was a nice guy, and I believe he just wasn't thinking, so I didn't get angry. I left him a message; he called back. I asked him for more details about how much elastic there was, and he had no idea. Since he uses these hoses all the time, I figured he really had some idea, so I pressed a bit more. I explained that my vet would likely be asking how much elastic the kitten might have swallowed, so we could decide what to do next. He was very vague. He said that he might have stuffed some more bits of elastic in his pockets and thrown it out later. He really couldn't say. Sorry. Bye.

I asked if I could talk to his boss. I said I wasn't trying to get him in trouble, that he'd done a good job, but that I wanted more information. (I believe in being polite, quiet, and reasonable; it helps get things accomplished smoothly.) His boss grabbed the phone. In a bored, pontificating voice, he said that he wasn't about to listen to me.

It's been a long time since I've felt talked down to because I am nothing but a silly little woman, but I recognize that tone. I know he wouldn't speak to a man that way.

He said his plumber was a great plumber, and he trusted him completely, and that he had nothing more to add, and he was going to hang up the phone now. I only got a few words in edgewise. I told him I wasn't angry. I said I just wanted a sense of how much elastic is used on those coils, because my cat had probably eaten some. "Cats can eat anything and be perfectly fine," he said. "I've had cats and you wouldn't believe what they ate." Then he said "I am hanging up now." And, sarcastically: "HAVE A NICE DAY." And he hung up on me.

That's when I became Angry. Following the vet's advice, I get to spend the next few days dosing Possum several times a day with Laxatone and keeping watch for an intestinal blockage in all four cats. Possum won't eat Laxatone. He really hates it.

In sum, it's hard to justify carelessness, rudeness, and lack of concern on top of the fact that this plumbing company doesn't really fix things all that well. The only reason they came here last week was to fix things they'd "repaired" before that had broken again. If it takes them two visits to replace a flapper, I now say, Run Away.

Plus there was that odd coincidence where my trusty Toto toilet broke exactly one day after the plumber repaired my tub and sink faucets.... do these guys just have terrifically bad plumbing karma?

This little adventure cost us $318, not to mention any future vet bills. 

Monday, March 8, 2010

Spring in the Air?

On my exercise walk up and down Beacon Hill today, I spotted crocuses, snowdrops, magnolia buds, flip flops, and shorts. You know what that means.

Don't you?

It means: it's time to take down the Christmas decorations. Including that lame little tree in a living room on Commonwealth Avenue.

It doesn't mean that it's spring. That doesn't arrive until May, no matter how much we indulge ourselves in wishful thinking and unseasonally flimsy clothing.

You may switch your latté from hot to iced, if you insist, but go no further.

I predict that it's going to snow like the dickens when we least expect it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Saturday in the South End

It was a beautiful afternoon, so we walked over to the South End. We hadn't been over there since December; we were overdue for a visit — it's the closest thing we have to SoHo, after all.

On the way we checked out what's new at Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. I love their crystal spheres, but they don't come with instructions for predicting the future. And at those prices, they should.

Then we visited the cats at the Animal Rescue League — just looking. We were taken with Mr. Buttons, a friendly, black-and-white longhair who kept trying to smack us from behind bars. Then there was Bella, a ruddy Abyssinian who insists on being an only cat as well as having two litter boxes.

We were happy to find a pair of stools by the window to rest and enjoy crispy-crunchy oatmeal-raisin cookies and iced mocha lattés at the South End Buttery on Union Park. It was hopping, as it usually is on weekends, and there was a small crowd of people outside, holding onto dog leashes, bikes, strollers, and wiggly toddlers as they wait for their friends to come out bearing baked goods and coffee.

Further down the Union Park, we noticed a store we'd never seen before, Old Japan. Now you can buy vintage kimonos in Boston. They also have a wide variety of affordable items, including cute little rabbits made of vintage kimono silks, and different kinds of Lucky Cats. They also have superb antique tansu (wooden storage chests) that are not affordable but are still worth every penny.

Then we headed over to Harrison Avenue, where we visited our good friend at Ars Libri, one of Boston's best specialty bookstores. If you crave art and photography books, you will be very happy here.

Mohr & McPherson always has something new and interesting. There were some tansu we hadn't seen before, semi-precious jewelry, and a collection of small leather armchairs. I coveted a cloisonné vase covered in sapphire and turquoise flowers and this Japanese basket:

Photo from the M&M site. It's a whopping $375.

Mohr & McPherson has a new café, downstairs at 460 Harrison, offering hot and cold drinks, a very fine array of baked goods, and comfortable seating. We heard that they are going to be adding a panini press soon, and that Rocca, next door, will be providing a soup du jour. Kevin McPherson is always full of good ideas; this is just what the area needs.

We also visited M&M's rug gallery, is in a spacious, stylishly raw, ground-floor loft around the corner. We met Ken, who is the ideal rug dealer: friendly, knowledgeable, and very low-key. If we need a rug, we're going to him first. He mentioned that rugs are half price right now....

We browsed some of the galleries on Thayer Street and stepped into Bobby from Boston. Bobby himself was there, listening to '60's R&B and managing his staff from his wheelchair. Whenever I see his pristine collection of vintage suits, blazers, hats, shoes, ties, cufflinks, and overcoats, I start wishing I could dress in drag. He has an excellent stock of leather luggage, including hatboxes, too.

Then we steeled ourselves and went into Tour de France. Exactly a week ago, we were at the Marché aux Puces in Paris, and we just needed a French fix. We first visited Tour de France a couple of years ago — and had the most appalling retail experience of our lives. We were treated like clods incapable of not knocking over valuable items, when we hadn't touched a thing.

During today's visit, the owner was singing to himself, in his beret, rearranging silverware on a table, and pointedly ignoring everyone in his store. Fine with us. We fantasized about knocking over a vase, but... aha! Those dining chairs from 2008 are still there! There is justice after all. (We'd gotten ourselves a set of lovely antique bentwoods at a fraction of their price.)


We browsed in a few other shops and galleries before heading to Garage Sale, on Waltham Street, on the way home. They have a modern, Italian-designer-meets-Frank-Lloyd-Wright dining room table and chairs, in glossy, honey-golden wood, for about 1/4 of the original price. The shop is always packed with plenty of other stuff — especially original artwork — at great prices. It's too bad our apartment is bursting at the seams. 

Since it turned from spring back to winter as the sun went down, it was good to come home to that bursting apartment. 


Friday, March 5, 2010

Plumbing Paranoia

Yesterday, our plumber came to tighten a loose spigot on our bathroom sink that's hard to reach, and fix a malfunctioning part on our tub faucet —again. I'd paid to have the same work done almost a year ago, and both items failed over the summer, but I was too lazy to follow through. Since the one-year warranty was almost up, I finally called. The plumber came exactly on schedule. I left him to his work, and he fixed both items quickly and for free, and was perfectly nice. He explained why both parts keep misbehaving: poor design, in a nutshell.

So... why did the flapper on our toilet break tonight? We had a young guest here and heard some loud, metallic commotion in the bathroom, but didn't ask questions. When I inspected it, I couldn't figure out how the chain was ever attached in the first place. There's no loop to hold it; it's gone. Maybe it was flushed away by our guest, who must have removed the top of the tank to lift the flapper, as we are doing now. (Does he think we do that all the time?)

I have to wonder: Was it broken by our guest's excessive use of force, or... sabotage?

I'm not a naturally suspicious person, but life has taught me certain lessons; I'm much less trusting than I once was. And this is a weird coincidence.

I called the plumber and left a message around 10:30 pm, so we'd get onto their schedule in the morning. I was surprised when a sleepy-sounding man returned a few minutes later. They offer 24-hour service, he said, and mentioned that he'd been in bed. I apologized for disturbing him; he tut-tutted. Then he said he'd call me in the morning to set up a time to "make it all better." These guys are so nice— surely they don't need to go around breaking flappers to make a living. How silly of me.

I need to work on being less paranoid. It's a better way to live. This is just one of those odd, expensive coincidences. Yeah.

Update

The plumber called this morning. "I slept very well," he said, in lieu of "hello." He sent over a guy from his team, who temporarily fixed the flapper in less than 10 minutes with a needle. He said it was a time-and-a-half charge on a Saturday, and so the bill would be $195. When I protested — after all he'd used my needle — he asked if his boss had told me that Saturdays were time-and-a-half. I said "no." He agreed that wasn't fair, because not all companies charge extra on Saturdays. But he's not the boss.

He called his boss, talked it over, and told us he'd come back on Monday and replace the flapper. There would be no charge today, but we'd have to pay only today's bill, plus the charge for the part, on Monday. (I'd told his boss twice that we had a Toto "Drake" toilet; he told me twice that he had the flapper. For some reason, it didn't go out with his plumber.) "Okay," I said, "but while you're here, can you change the hoses on our washer from rubber to steel?" He agreed, so at least we won't have to pay for yet another visit.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cat Stories: Possum Is Fat

We took three of the cats to the vet tonight. Snalbert was overdue for his twice yearly "senior wellness" check-up, and Snicky was overdue for a weight check. We brought Possum along for a weigh-in, too. Wendy was left home alone for the first time, but she was too busy hiding under the bed to revel in her freedom. I doubt she knew we were gone.

We were grateful not to be hauling all that cat tonnage (cattage?) to the groomer for lime-sulfur dips. That ended a couple of months ago, but we all still bear the scars. There was loud protest howling in the car.

Snicky has gained almost a half pound since her last visit. She weighs about 7 lbs. That's good news, but she's still too thin. She's not interested in food, despite taking a daily appetite stimulant. She prefers to absorb nutrients from the air.

Snalbert lost a pound. He's about 9 lbs., too thin. I hope it's because he's fussy about canned food, which is relatively new to him. If the tests rule out a health condition, we'll be stuffing him with goodies to fatten him up. He should enjoy it; he loves food. He's already had two snacks since we came home.

As the vet lifted Possum out of his carrier, she said, "He is FAT, by the way." Little Possum weighs more than 11 lbs. and he's not quite 8 months old. I think his dignity was insulted by her words; he isn't obese, just well-upholstered:

Possum sings plaintive laments when he wants his bowl filled.

He will likely grow to be a very large adult, and maybe he'll lose his baby fat along the way (ha!). He has a substantial "lion paunch," a flabby pouch on his lower abdomen that sways when he runs. While paunches like his are genetic, according to the vet, his is much too large and fatty.

But Possum isn't going on the Atkins Diet. Since Snicky and Snalbert need access to food whenever they are hungry, the vet said that the tradeoff is that Possum also gets to free-feed on dry food. Better to have him be a little pudgy, she said, than to have the older cats losing weight.

I'd already seen the writing on the wall, and stopped giving him high-calorie kitten chow and extra canned food during the day, which he'd normally require because he's still growing, and under a year old. But since he was neutered when he was just a few weeks old, his metabolism slowed down much sooner than is normal for a kitten.

 I am trying to find some premium low-cal "indoor" foods for him and for Wendy. Much of her weight is in her tail. Lugging it around seems to burn extra calories, keeping her from getting pudgy, too.

Wendy in a feline yoga pose.

Comings and Goings Around Newbury Street

I'm used to seeing too many vacant stores on and around Newbury Street — Paperchase, Rockport, OKW, the poor Shreve building... I could go on and on. So it shouldn't have been a surprise to find even more empty space today (as well as a few new businesses).  Overall, it does feel a little too gloomy on Boston's main shopping street.

So many galleries are gone that it's changed the nature of the street, although many of the oldest and best galleries —Vose, CoSo, Guild of Boston Artists, Arden, etc. — remain. 

It seems that the prime real-estate eventually is taken over by über-chic, usually British stores, often named after men. We've got Ted Baker, Jonathan Adler, and Ben Sherman so far. Who's next? I hope it's Top Shop. Or Liberty.

I hope this British Invasion fares better than the French Revolution we had several years ago. Remember Comptoir de Famille, Diptique, L'Occitane, and Agent Provocateur? All that remains is Arche, who got there first.

I walked by Jari Boutique on Clarendon Street today and found it emptied, with a sign on the door saying that entering the premises was forbidden by law, or words to that effect. Their windows were always filled with intriguing, pretty, rather expensive clothes, and I'll be sorry to see them go. I was just browsing in there a couple weeks ago.

Then I went into KitchenArts at 215 Newbury, and learned that it's closing on March 31. I noticed the shelves looking empty and no sign of a Le Creuset Dutch oven anywhere, and then the clerk politely spilled the beans. Their "sidewalk sale" is really a going-out-of business sale. They've been around for almost 30 years and I will miss them, too. As I miss Pottery Barn. (I don't miss Louis, but I'm sure many people carrying credit-card balances do.)

There's a new barber shop next-door to Pawsh on Gloucester. Michael's tailoring shop used to be there, and then it became Glam. Glam is gone; I never knew what it was, but Google just revealed that they had offered hair extensions. I just knew there was never anyone sitting in those zebra-print Louis chairs in their window. It's good to have a barber shop in the neighborhood, although at least two of them recently came and went on Newbury Street proper.

Vera Pelle is going out of business, but I won't miss them because I never checked out the store. ("We have our leather," as Bostonian women used to say about their hats long ago.) The Jewel of Newbury inn and restaurant is boarded up. No surprise there: I heard that, no matter what you ordered from the menu, they served only one dish, so that's what you were served.

Can we please have a bakery? I'd be thrilled to see Iggy's or  When Pigs Fly in the space vacated by First Act Guitars. Or anywhere.

Brooklyn Industries, which appears to be a sort of Abercrombie for the 20+ set, is opening next month down near Diesel. Graphic T-shirts are a speciality, in case shoppers are bored with Johnny Cupcakes, Life Is Good, Urban Outfitters, and all the other T-shirt stores in the neighborhood.

At least it isn't a nail salon.

And Bliss is having a "moving" sale. I hope it's really just "moving."

I hope the All Saints Spitalfields store that is taking over Pottery Barn will have more to offer the 35+ set in the way of clothing and housewares. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Souvenirs from Paris

In case there's anyone reading here who just can't have enough of Paris, I've added five new posts to February with many photos from my trip. And to finish up, here's a bit about souvenirs.

While many travelers to Paris come home with designer clothing and fabulous antiques, I'm always on a shoestring budget and my suitcase is overstuffed, so I have to be sensible. Plus, I can't imagine shopping for clothing in a chic store in Paris. Store clerks would fuss over me; I'd hate it. I'd feel expected to buy something, whether or not there was pressure. But I'd be ambivalent, hesitant, and reeling from the prices. I've already had the pleasure of buying an Hermès scarf in Paris, and would love to do it again someday. But nowadays I only like their vintage designs, so that's out, too.

I fell in love with the elegant pumps our hôtelière was wearing on our second-last day. They had sculptural, wearable heels, maybe 3" high. Soft black leather, a very high vamp, a few covered buttons, a perfectly rounded toe. They are hard to describe but I will never forget them. She told me they were from a designer shop on the Rue St. Honoré, and were about 10 years old. I'd seen nothing like them on my travels and no other shoes in Paris would do.

As far as antiques, they are way  too expensive even at the flea market. And I can't bring taxidermy home, because I hear it's not allowed into the US. I also heard that my husband would move out if I bought so much as a set of deer antlers for the bathroom wall. (But I wouldn't have to buy them; we have 28 racks on my grandmother's dining room wall currently looking for a new home.) If I wanted the stuffed polar bear on all fours at Deyrolle, it would set me back 40,000 Euros. The Larry Bird–sized standing one on the Rue Jacob was probably even more. For such losses, I console myself very effectively with pastry and chocolate.

Here's what I did bring home instead:


There's nothing worse than kicking yourself for years after passing up some marvelous thing that was only to be found in that faraway city where you hesitated and walked away, not realizing that you wouldn't be able to live quite happily without it. I went through this after my first trip to Prague in 1994, where I found a shop selling hand-carved, one-of-a-kind marionettes, dressed in vintage fabrics and jewelry — kings, queens, noblemen, peasants — made by a local artist (who was also a scuba diver). They were about $80 and too big to fit in a suitcase, so I passed. And never forgot them. Seven years later, we returned to Prague and I found that shop, and bought one, at a much higher price. Two years later, we went back and I got a second one. I love them. There are thousands of mass-produced marionettes in Prague, but mine have their own personalities and are beautiful and amazing. There are only about six available at any time (scuba diving must be more lucrative.) Whew.

On our last trip to Paris, I was too embarrassed by dreadful French to negotiate the purchase of a copper gratin pan at Dehillerin, so I was careful to get that out of the way on my first day. Naturally, when I arrived there and saw their many choices, I couldn't remember the size of the Williams-Sonoma gratin I have. So I hemmed, hawed, and kept walking around, and decided to get a round pan instead.  I bought their biggest, heaviest, steel-lined model. It's gorgeous:


You make your choice, then they dig one out of their ancient cellar for you. Then you go to a tall wooden counter with your credit card, and they take it away. As they do their calculating, you fill out a form with your name and address, and then you sign the receipt. They give you a slip and send you to another table, where your pan is wrapped and waiting, and is politely handed to you. Very civilized. I can't wait to make a tart tatin, as soon as we lose a few pounds (all that pastry).

On our last trip, I spotted lovely Gerson combs, made of animal horn, in a pharmacy window. They seemed very expensive for combs, and I was feeling poor so I didn't buy, but continued to covet. Feeling a bit less poor on this trip, I checked out about a dozen pharmacies until I found one that carried them, and bought a pretty, marbled one. I will use it every day and remember Paris:


While I was at it, I bought a couple of sleek French toothbrushes. Since I was about 14, I've always used only transparent, colorless toothbrushes. I have no idea why I insist on them, but why change after all these years? They are so simple. And hard to find; toothbrushes, like running shoes, get ever more complicated all the time. French toothbrushes are still old-fashioned. 

We love tea from Mariage Freres. It's hard to find most of their teas in the states, and there are scores, if not hundreds, of varieties. Whenever friends from Paris come here, they know to bring us a packet of butterscotch tea. Sometimes they get it wrong and bring us caramel or bourbon, but we manage. On our last trip, we were introduced to Imperial Wedding, which is like butterscotch mixed with chocolate. Wonderful. They also make the best holiday spice tea, Esprit de Noël, which is delicious all year.

I bought a few small loaves of walnut bread from Poilâne, the best bread bakery in Paris for hearty, country-style bread, as opposed to baguettes (for those, go to Kayser). This bread would be wonderful with a smelly, runny French cheese, but I've been too lazy to get some, so I eat it with butter, peanut butter, or whatever is around. 

On the Ile St.-Louis, we found linen tea towels printed with colorful Metro maps. And at the flea market in St-Ouen, I found this little art-nouveau tin (I collect tins) for mint throat lozenges. A closer look after I bought it revealed cocaine among the ingredients. My husband bought too many vintage postcards and was very pleased about it.


And we finally caved and bought ourselves a bronze-colored Eiffel Tower, hunting to find the only one that didn't have "PARIS" and "FRANCE" blazing in large print down two sides of it. Do you really need to mention on an Eiffel Tower replica that it's from Paris, which happens to be in France? (Apparently, you do. Our friend, who traveled with us, presented a small, vintage-style print of the Eiffel Tower to his landlady as a souvenir. She looked at it for awhile and said, "What's that?" He had to explain, in detail.) Anyway, we must have gone to 15 souvenir shops before we found a single tower with a discreet "Paris" draped across one arch. We picked up little ones as gifts, too.

As we were finally boarding our flight home, I realized at the very last minute that I needed a larger Longchamp tote bag after all. Many hours earlier, when we arrived in the terminal, I'd decided against it, even though I frequently stuff the four smaller ones I use daily (in seasonal colors) to the gills. But after more than eight hours in the airport, everything seemed different. So I chose a chocolate-colored one that turned out to be about half the price I'd pay on Newbury Street. It immediately swallowed all our excess gear, food, and reading matter for the plane. No regrets.