Friday, April 30, 2010

Intergenerational Friends


Snalbert (nearly 15) and Wendy (9 months) are pals, sharing common interests in upholstery, seafood, and catnip toys.

Adding kittens to a senior-cat household could have been a disaster, but I took a chance, hoping it would make life more fun for the older cats, who seemed deeply bored by their routines. I think they enjoy hanging out with the kittens, showing them how to be cool, and watching them do stupid things.

I have a couple of girlfriends who are in their late 80s, and I hope they feel the same about me.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

So Much for My Paris Souvenir

I have bad eyesight, but I believe my facial scar from Paris is almost gone. There's only a faint pink line where previously there'd been a scary red gash. Its slight remaining bump is fortuitously in the same place where a horizontal wrinkle had been deepening between my eyes. Which I had no intention of ever filling in with Botox. Thank you, French scar, for plumping up that spot.

Wary of strange products in French pharmacies, I did nothing to treat the gash during our trip. It didn't occur to me that there were scar remedies on the market until I'd been home for a week and someone told me about them. Then I started using Mederma a few times a day. I used it regularly for a couple of weeks and noticed some improvement right away. Then, as usual, I got distracted and forgot about it most of the time, even though I keep it here on my desk.

But I think it helped my skin to heal, even if I was lazy about following directions. My next experiment will be to start putting it all over my nose, to see if it will shrink that, too.

Update: I took a closer look today, and the crease is still there, below the scar. Maybe I need to go to Paris and trip getting on a train again.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dripping Sink vs. Possum

Now I can show you the cats in action! My new laptop lets me upload movies. While I'm childishly impatient about waiting for video clips to load (and if I'm expected to sit through a commercial first, forget it), I must admit that Possum Cinema is exceptionally thrilling and suspenseful. Definitely worth a five-second wait!

Possy says his major artistic influences in this production were Charlie Chapin, Captain Jack Sparrow, and that James Bond movie with Daniel Craig, where a big chunk of Venice collapses and sinks into the lagoon. (Our bathroom collapsed spectacularly, too, immediately after we stopped filming. And Keira Knightley was scheduled to make a cameo appearance but she got stuck on the Red Line. Next time.)

Twelve Angry Drips
Synopsis: In a fierce battle with a trickle of water, Possum emerges soggy but victorious after making a splash. (Director and star: Possumus Passamaquoddy, USA, 2010, 29 seconds, comedy)


video

Monday, April 26, 2010

AllSaints Spitalfields Arrives on Newbury Street

AllSaints Spitalfields is about to open in the former Pottery Barn space on Newbury Street. A friend and I walked by today and watched the  preparations.

They are loading in fixtures and decor, and it appears they have cornered the market in antique Singer sewing machines. Just seeing one Singer fills me with nostalgia for the countless long, serene days and nights when I played or read near my mother and grandmother as they sewed our dresses on their fancy black and gold machines.

Seeing this many Singers was overwhelming:


That plastic-wrapped flat on the left is stacked several feet high with Singers. There are more under the blue tarps and even more inside the store. Some were pristine; some need a good polish and a lot of rust remover:


As we exulted over the machines and watched the sign painter, the manager came over and greeted us. Tall, blonde, British, and impeccably dressed, he explained that the Singers would be polished and spiffed up, and then installed on tight rows of shelving all across the huge plate-glass windows. The machines will also be beautifully lit, he said.

If it really looks like what I'm imagining, it will give the galleries on the street (and the ICA) a run for their money as a traffic-stopping installation piece. I can't wait. You can see some of the machines on lower shelves here, next to the sign painter:


The store opens on Wednesday night. The manager assured us that we would find "lovely," suitably grown-up knits and dresses. I must say it looks promising.

And if I can't find what I want, maybe I can borrow a machine for a few days to make my own.

It's a Nice Place to Visit, but...

Very late on Saturday night, I was house-hunting online, using Redfin.com to cruise towns from Melrose to Newton to Dorchester, and all points in the middle. I think we want to stay close to Back Bay, but I just wanted to make sure we weren't missing anything. So I flipped through about 700 properties. I'm kind of obsessive, I guess.

After midnight, I came across an intriguing section of Cambridge with lots of winding streets and lanes. There were no properties for sale there. So I upped my "maximum sales price" to a cool $5 million, figuring that any property there must be spectacular and worth drooling over. Still nothing. Now I was mad. "Who lives there, dammit?" I muttered to myself. What is this exclusive enclave, denied to me?

I looked more closely. It was Mt. Auburn Cemetery.

Ye Powers that Be, I am in not such a rush to put down roots there as I said.

On the other hand, it might be nice to have a snug little mausoleum, with wifi, electricity, and running water — not unlike the hundreds of families who have lived for generations in the magnificent Islamic mausoleums in Cairo's huge City of the Dead. We wouldn't have to worry about neighbors (although apparitions would be worrisome indeed) or loud parties. We wouldn't have to mow the lawn. (I'd still want a pantry.)

But we weren't house-hunting when we went for a walk there yesterday. The trees were still in bloom and we wanted to enjoy them before it was too late. We caught them just in time.


I love old cemeteries, and I've seen some of the best — in Paris, Prague, Cairo, Milan, and Florence. Mt. Auburn is my favorite because of the wonderful Olmsted* landscaping — no matter where you are in its sprawling acreage, you feel like you're in a more intimate garden — and superb Victorian, Edwardian, and art nouveau monuments. The tower on the hill is fun to hike up for a view of Boston, too.

Here's the well-preserved monument of a Civil War captain, who died in battle at the age of 23:


The stones that affect me most are those with just one name inscribed on them — someone's child. Parents never forget the dates, so they don't need to be inscribed on the stone. Yesterday we passed a marble cross, carved to look like rough logs, with only the name "Emily." Later I saw a simple block that said only, "Frankie."

Designed as a memorial garden park, Mt. Auburn is not especially creepy; it's always pleasant for walking in good weather. But you can still find something macabre if you look hard enough. This weeping beech has yet to unfurl its leaves, so it's still providing a bleak backdrop for this gothic revival monument. (If you want a creepy Victorian cemetery, visit the one in Milan: it's outrageous.)


And these fiddlehead ferns look like they are rising from the dead — and, in fact, they are:


The day turned cloudy and colder, with a damp wind, and we were glad to get back in the car and leave the residents behind.

* I stand corrected by an alert reader. Mt. Auburn was landscaped some 25 years before Olmsted began his career, according to this source. We owe our gratitude to General Henry Dearborn and Alexander Wadsworth, and their committee for Mt. Auburn's design. Thanks for the catch! I'm always zoning out instead of paying attention during tours... admiring the scenery.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What's with Coach?

I've been out of the Boston style loop for a while now. Since I don't have a steady income, I've been staying out of stores. But I was in Copley Place the other day and — whoa! What's going on at Coach?

Who is their designer now? Kimora Lee Simmons? Lindsey Lohan? The ghost of Liberace? Some board member's 8-year-old?

Because who else would have designed this?


I mean, honestly! This is Coach? This, from the decades-old bastion of classic, impeccable style? Here's a detail of this train wreck ($398) in another color:


As you can see, it's some kind of slippery, sequiny material, with not only the classic leather Coach tag, but also a metal version and a big, screaming plastic one on dangly chains. And in case you missed all those, there's one more sewn onto the flap.

This is not an aberration. There's a whole rogue's gallery of purses only a pre-teen or tween should love. Like this one:


Poppy may be "a girl, a flower, and/or a state of mind," but Poppy is also a fashion-don't for anyone old enough to drive. Coach's Poppy line — a marketing response to the downturn in luxury handbag purchases during the recession — is meant to be more "eclectic and spontaneous," according to the company. Here's another Poppy, and it's even worse. 


The average price of the Poppy line is still $260 — meant to appeal to those who can no longer spend $330, the average price for a regular Coach bag. I always believed that having less disposable income meant that you had to be more selective and thoughtful about what you bought. I thought you were supposed to save and then choose something you felt you would love for years. You know: a classic. 

Remember what Coach bags used to be like? Like this:


They were cut from thick bridle leather with equestrian detailing and solid brass hardware. They never were the least bit trendy, so they were perfect for New Englanders who care about quality, subtlety, and enduring style. They were made in America, and they were truly all-American. You could walk into a Coach store, pick any style (even with your eyes closed), and walk out with a handsome investment that would last you a lifetime. You broke in your Coach bag — or more accurately, you formed a sort of partnership with it. It softened and molded itself to your will over months and years, often decades. It was your trusty companion. If you used it to death, you could send it back, or take it, and it would be returned to you repaired and looking great again. 

That discreet leather logo tag quietly identified you as a woman who had arrived. (Coach still makes several of their "Legacy" bags, but now they come from China. And they are not quite the same.)

Until fairly recently, Coach remained the antithesis of logo-mania, which began in the '70's with designer jeans and tees. So I don't know what to make of these:

 




I realize now that their slightly more affordable logo fabric line (which I never liked) was a harbinger of Bad Things to Come. But even if those bags weren't to everyone's taste, at least they were understated. Remember this one?


Now all hell has broken loose in the logo-fabric department. Here's a new Coach logo bag, high on hallucinogens ($198):


The legendary little embossed leather logo tag is also under fire these days. Apparently, one isn't enough to do the job now. Your bag needs three:


Why not just implant one of those little gizmos that come in those singing greeting cards — so the bag actually shouts, "Hey, I'm a COACH BAG!!!" every few minutes? (If anyone at Coach finds this post, I expect royalties.)

I must say that Coach still makes some good-looking bags. This one isn't my favorite, but if you ever secretly lusted after a man's Dopp travel kit, in yellow pebbled leather with shoulder straps ($298)...


... here it is, complete with a clear plastic Coach logo tag. I hope there's a Gillette razor in there and a bottle of Old Spice.

There are still Coach bags that are charming, like this little tweed "pouch" — from the Poppy line, believe it or not ($198). You could remove that tacky plastic (?) logo and all those ribbony doo-dads:


I'm all for whimsy and color if it's pretty and doesn't frighten the horses.

I also think the bag below is handsome — possibly a "lifetime" style, depending on its construction and materials, all from overseas:


But even if I were willing to pay $398, it would be impossible to buy it with the same confidence and sense of achievement that accompanied every Coach purchase once upon a time.

I mean, how could I possibly put my trust in a company that also produced this ($198)?


All photos from Coach.com

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Possum's Morning Routine

It's generous of Possum to let me follow him around with a camera. He knows he's the house celebrity, so he usually provides a good show. He was born to have his own reality series (Hangin' with the Possy) even though he's never seen one (and I wish I'd never seen one).

I can't show you him lying on top of us, purring, at 5 am, nudging at us with a wet nose whenever we try to go back to sleep. I also won't show you the mess he makes at his breakfast dish because he needs to work on his table manners. (He's only 9 months old.)

He likes to have a morning "bath," which is really just a long nap in the sink — just at the time when some of us need to brush our teeth, etc.


A post-breakfast catnip cigar is also a daily habit. Or addiction?


Then he likes to "help" me make the bed:


"Help" is in the eye of the beholder. HE thinks he's indispensable to bed-making. I think he does everything he can to make it take forever. He insists on lying on top of each layer, so I have to drag him around on it, and then I throw the next layer on top of him. He loves hiding under the covers. He persuades me to dangle toys within his reach so he can grab them from me, drag them into his bedsheet lair, and have his way with them in his cat-cave. He is especially fond of those extra-long twisties that come tied around the curly-leaf lettuce at Shaw's.

It can take us a half-hour to make the bed together.... thank god I'm unemployed.

He thinks he is a ferocious, predatory hunter when he's under the covers. I think he's adorable. (Except when he insists on smoking in bed...)


Spring in the Public Garden

Ah, the joys of being an unemployed freelancer. You can get together with your various freelancing and/or unemployed friends and go for long walks any day of the week. Yesterday we enjoyed the Public Garden, which is at its finest because the tulips have all just popped.


I can never decide if I prefer red:


Or sunny yellow:


Either way, they always look like they might be made of unusually realistic cast-resin, plastic, or silk. These varieties the gardeners plant are amazingly big and solid-looking — the mothers of all tulips. I keep expecting to hear them clunk against each other when the breeze blows.

The trees are mostly at peak bloom now, too. The air smells sweet, and the falling petals make me think that this is the perfect time for an outdoor wedding. Who needs rice and confetti?


There were lots of children playing; it's School Vacation Week. And it's still possible to find your own private world in the Public Garden:


The Lagoon has been filled and the Swan Boats are back. The last time I was here, it still looked like Boston's biggest mud puddle. But now it's a postcard wherever you look:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Case of the Missing Blog Post

Yesterday's post, about a taxi fire we witnessed and a couple of open houses we visited on Sunday, seems to have vaporized overnight, photo and all. All that's left is the title.

Curious. And a little nerve-wracking.

I'm thinking about recreating it, just as an exercise in memory recall. I don't think it has anything to do with my dying laptop; more likely it's some kind of Google glitch. (My new laptop is shipping from Shanghai, and should be here in a week, barring more volcano activity.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sunday Small-Scale House-Hunting

This post was rewritten after it vanished mysteriously overnight from Blogger. The original post was better than this one. Too bad it's gone forever. 


Despite the crowds of marathon runners and their fan clubs clogging Back Bay's streets, we set out on Sunday afternoon to visit a couple of open houses.

Along Newbury Street, we observed a taxi cab parked by Louis, with smoke and flames pouring from under the hood. We kept our distance in case the gas tank blew, but I managed to get this photo just as the fire truck arrived to extinguish it. In the meantime, a duck tour had driven right past it. The driver continued his regular spiel, oblivious to the fact that his passengers were getting seriously smoked. At least it didn't blow up then.

We had just two open houses on our list. The first one was a one-bedroom floor-through in Back Bay with a deck. I knew it would be too small for us, but it's a a place I'd loved and lost when it was on the market about 25 years ago, when I was shopping for my first condo. It was just out of my price range back then, but I never forgot it. I was delighted to find that it still has all its lovely 19th-century details: original wood floors, soaring ceilings with heavy moldings, and ornate window frames in every room. There's a window cleverly placed over the fireplace in the bedroom: you could warm your feet as you watch snow fall on a winter afternoon. The kitchen and bathroom had been redone, in excellent taste. The deck would have been large enough to easily become our "summer home." If only the place could sprout an extra room for a library-office.

The broker was also the owner so I hope she was doubly pleased by all the compliments we heaped upon the architecture and her decorating.

The second property was a triplex on Appleton Street with a private entrance so it seemed like a single-family house. As we walked up the stairs, a cheerful broker greeted us, telling us it had gone under agreement on the day it was listed, "But you never know...."

The parlor level looked promising. It consisted of a large dining room in the front, with a fireplace and enough room for a baby grand piano as well as a long table. There was also a very practical, white kitchen on that level, with many pantry-esque closets and cabinets. A deck led to a small deck for al fresco meals.

The next floor was even more interesting: a double living room, with plenty of built-in bookshelves along one wall and a marble fireplace. This is just what we need: space for me to relax and read nap on the sofa while my husband surfs works at his massive computer nearby. It was puzzling that there were only about 10 books on all those shelves, though. The readers of Boston really do all seem to live exclusively on Beacon Hill.

The third floor had a large sunny bedroom and a smaller room that we'd use for the TV and our guitars. The bathroom had a deep soaking tub and a big pile of kids' bath toys (so we knew that the family's lack of books wasn't due to property "staging"). An old wooden spiral staircase led to a large roof deck with lots of built-in seating, running water, and even an exposed shower head. Why would someone want to take a shower on the roof, in plain sight of many neighbors?  Were the owners doing heavy calisthenics or gardening up there? Exhibitionists with a tendency to apply too much sun-block? We couldn't figure it out. But it would be a nice touch if there were a hot tub up there, too.

This place seemed awfully suitable for us; we could imagine our furniture and cats fitting nicely into those spacious rooms. We consoled ourselves for its unavailability with the fact that it's far away from the supermarket and Trader Joe's. Carrying heavy bags would be a real drag, and getting to my gym would be a hike, too. It's also very far from the free shuttle my husband is hoping to use for his commute to Cambridge.

At least that's what we told ourselves as we walked home, crossing the marathon finish line in the pouring rain.

Friday, April 16, 2010

It's Soap to Me: Cilantrophobia

My alert buddy Some Assembly Required pointed me toward an article about cilantro in the New York Times, in which Harold McGee explains why the green herb tastes powerfully like soap to some of us, including my husband and me.

But my favorite part of the article is not the explanation but this bit about Julia Child:
Culinary sophistication is no guarantee of immunity from cilantrophobia. In a television interview in 2002, Larry King asked Julia Child which foods she hated. She responded: “Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all. They’re both green herbs, they have kind of a dead taste to me.”
“So you would never order it?” Mr. King asked.
“Never,” she responded. “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”
I look forward to throwing the cilantro on the floor the next time I encounter it, before explaining that it's what Julia would have done in my place. And I'm far from alone. Here are some descriptions of the taste of cilantro by people commenting on the article:
Old dirty gym socks  •  RightGuard  •  body odor  •  the intake side of a sewage treatment plant  •  horrible, soapy pennies  •  Dawn dishwashing liquid and tin  •  Stink bugs in Southwestern Pennsylvania  •  blood  •  The stuff I'd been spraying on the sofa to keep the cats from using it as a scratching post  •  licking a battery terminal 
And my personal favorite:
The smell of a mildewed canvas deck chair combined with the flavor of an old window screen.
Yes, that's it, but it would need to be a soapy window screen. About a year ago, we attended a small dinner party thrown by a colleague of my husband's that featured multiple bouquets of fresh cilantro in more than one dish. I was overcome by the smell as soon as we entered their apartment — even from a distance, cilantro gives me that "I'm drinking dishwashing liquid" taste. 

Our hosts had no idea that many people find cilantro repulsive. Thanks to this article, I can now explain if they ever invite us again (doubtful): cilantro contains aldehydes, molecules that resemble those found in soaps (and certain insects). While people in some countries grow up eating lots of cilantro and find it pleasant, others, who encounter it rarely, get brain signals that it's poison. We taste soap (or bed bugs, presuming we know what they taste like). And try to discreetly spit it on the floor. 

We muddled through that cilantroid meal as best we could, but it was a strange, soapy evening. I didn't know enough about Julia Child and her food-throwing techniques at the time. Luckily, there was cheese for an appetizer.

According to the article, deliberately eating lots of cilantro might eventually help us neutralize the soapy taste; we might even learn to enjoy it. I can't imagine attempting that. The author recommends starting with cilantro pesto. I bet it tastes like exfolating scrub. For me, all it takes is one teeny-tiny shred of the herb — the size of this "0" — accidentally wandering out of the salsa container and into my Anna's burrito to soapify the remainder of the meal. It's ruined more than one burrito for me. So, thanks but no thanks for that tip, Harold McGee. If I want to go through that, I've got a bottle of Nexxus coconut shampoo that smells more appetizing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

It's in the Bag

It was time to clean my desk again:













I had run out of surfaces, except for the laptop keyboard. Lunch was sitting perilously on a pile of mail. There was a Garnet Hill box (free exchanges!) that needed to be mailed, Italian candy to be shipped to my dad... heck, there were still Paris souvenirs in a pile from March 2.

When my desk gets this bad, I have two options.
  1. Go through everything carefully and toss, file, and put stuff away.
  2. Pack the mess in a shopping bag and worry about it later.
Guess which one I accomplished in less than 30 seconds?


I made a trip to the post office, too, which helped. The rest fits nicely into that little shopping bag. 

This is my favorite housekeeping trick. I call it the "ghetto" method of cleaning. In the old days, when my whole apartment often grew as cluttered as my messy desk, I used to gather up everything that was out of place — clothing, books, mail, papers, miscellaneous bits — and pile it on the bed. If I wanted to go to sleep that night, it meant that all that stuff had to go somewhere more appropriate. In the meantime, I had a perfectly neat apartment, except for the bed. For me, this was a great incentive to work quickly and seriously as I dealt with the pile. And if I wanted to take a break from sorting, it was much easier to vacuum and dust without all that clutter everywhere.

Since I've been unemployed, I have loads of time to keep our apartment neat, so I don't use this approach often. But it still works for my desk, which gets out of control every couple of months. After hiding the mess in the bag, I can breathe again as I sit here. I don't have to worry about iced tea tipping into my keyboard (in its final hours anyway, since the Apple Store finally has new MacBook Pros in stock).

You, too, can do my cleaning trick, if you have a bag. If you're like me, you have about 40 of them. If you aren't, run to your favorite store with cool bags and buy a little something. Reward yourself in advance for straightening up. Can cleaning get any better than that?

I will confront the scary contents of the bag later. I'll toss and file most of it, put souvenirs away, and then enjoy that particular serenity and feeling of accomplishment that comes from a neat desk. After a few minutes of that, I'll be back in the business of messing it up again.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Warning: Not Suitable for Those Living in Less than 900 Square Feet

I know I should be out on the Common right now, standing with the rest of my fellow liberals and waving a sign that says something like "Obamo Is a Terrist." But I slept late. And I don't have a sign, or the makings of one. And with my luck, I'd get lost and end up up in the wrong group, mistaken for a Tea Partier. And with my luck, I'd end up on the front page of the Herald. Eww.

Enough excuses. What I really want to focus on today is porn. My kind of porn. The kind privately indulged in by many of us who have lived too long in small apartments.

You'll recognize us by the Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel catalogues stashed discreetly next to the bed.

I'm talking about storage porn. Like this:


It's the Pottery Barn Garrett Glass Cabinet. It's 52.5" wide, 18" deep, and a satisfying 78" high.  It's $1,499. It comes in black, espresso stain, and Ming red finishes. I like them all. Those sliding glass doors are a smart space-saver. And just look at how much stuff it holds. All easily accessible, all just waiting for me to come along and help myself at mealtime.

I wouldn't have to stand on a step-stool and take every single thing out, stacking it on the counter, just to reach my paisley dessert plates or my crystal sherbet glasses, which are currently buried deep inside my corner kitchen cabinets. I rarely use most of the great stuff I have because it's such a pain to get to it.

I can just imagine the pleasures of arranging all of my little collections of new and antique china and glassware in there, making a pretty still life on every shelf.

It's awesome. I want one.

I want two:


How about two in every color?

When our blood pressures return to normal, let's consider this:


A pantry. The ultimate china-storage dream come true. Plus: drawers! For silverware, utensils, knives, towels, linens, and those annoying boxes of Saran wrap. Imagine having more than one drawer. And, yes, I know that the top rows of those glass-fronted cabinets are out of my reach. But they're pretty and I don't CARE.

Phew. Man. I think I'll go take a walk now to clear my head. But wait, one more fantasy image for the road. I also dream of collecting all-white china....

Monday, April 12, 2010

Stain Devil

When you are married to a Ph.D. who holds a prestigious teaching position and is internationally renowned in his field — and is actually very smart, besides — you can't help having certain expectations.

Here's an example. Your Ph.D. is clearing the table after dinner, and a serving utensil slips from the plate he's carrying. It makes a long, greasy trail across his shirt before slithering to floor.

The first time this happens, you would probably chalk it up to an accident. Klutziness is among your own strongest traits, after all. You'd take the shirt from the Ph.D. and attack it over a couple of days with Carbona Stain Stain Devil #5 (Fat & Cooking Oil), eventually get the stain out, and live happily ever.

But say this happens almost every night when the Ph.D. is clearing the table with you. Say it keeps happening to the same old shirt you've been seeing too much of — because you are perpetually dousing it with your Carbona Stain Devil #5 and poking at it with your finger (as directed) to get the grease out? Say it happens as often as three or four nights in a row? And you find that your stain-removal efforts are complicated because your cat, Possum, likes to nap in the sink?

Do you lose your cool, become upset, and threaten the Ph.D. with the loss of that particular shirt?

No. You take deep breaths and go attack the damn shirt again. Why? Because you yourself do not have a Ph.D. and you don't know any better!!! You are entitled to grumble and make noise about this. About how you had had expectations that your husband was adequately skilled at the dish-toting. And now you need to lower them.

I suppose it's possible that being able to safely carry a spatula six yards is incompatible with high academic achievement. Don't ask me.

Next: what if the Ph.D. guiltily hides his shirts in the washer, inside-out, because he (rightly) fears your discovery of his newest grease stains? You have blithely washed them, dried them, and turned them right-side out, only to discover you've just baked in the stains. What do you do?

Blog.

And then take out the Carbona again. You can also forbid the Ph.D. to carry plates and utensils on the same trip. Or just serve easy things like sandwiches for dinner. Or remember to be grateful that this is the worst of your problems these days.

Good luck with that.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

House-hunting on Beacon Hill

Hunting for a new home has begun in earnest. We are completing mortgage pre-approval forms and I'm scrutinizing new listings in our chosen neighborhoods. (We're still avoiding the scary issue of putting our place on the market.)

Yesterday we saw a little single-family house on a narrow Beacon Hill lane. Just beyond our price range, it had a small, sunny brick "garden" outside its basement dining room. The back garden wall abuts the courtyard of the Hungry I restaurant. Whenever the weather is fine, we'd hear the diners at six tiny outdoor tables. I'm not sure if the sounds of clinking dinnerware and conversation over frogs legs and steak au poivre would be pleasant or annoying, but it would be fairly constant every night in the summer, just when we'd want to be enjoying our quiet garden.... The house also needs a new kitchen and bathrooms, which has kept the price low.

It is charming, however, with very low ceilings and federal-style details. Most rooms are lined with built-in cupboards, cabinets, closets, bookshelves, window-seats, and desks, all painted creamy white. As compact and cozy as a boat cabin, and not an inch of wasted space. The master bedroom has three walls of clever built-ins, so the bed can only fit under the sharply sloping roof. I can't imagine not bumping my head on the ceiling, constantly. I'm not even sure I could sit up to read on anything higher than a mattress on the floor.

The house was so loaded with cabinetry that we realized that there were no places for our favorite furniture: an antique Japanese tansu (a tall, wide chest of drawers and cabinets, where I store most of my clothes) and our trio of Arts and Crafts–style, glass-fronted bookcases from Restoration Hardware.

But imagine the privacy of a single-family house! No worries about neighbors above or below! (Just next door....) Freedom to fix, change, and decorate as we please. Wow.

Today, we went back to Beacon Hill to visit open houses. We began with a grand, high-ceilinged condo high up on Beacon Street, overlooking the Frog Pond. There were long walls for bookshelves and a perfect office off the living room. The kitchen sported bright orange cabinets with black and stainless appliances. You can't have everything. It had a great deck. But it isn't deeded to the condo. Currently, it can only be entered from this unit, so it "belongs" to it by default.

And.... the owner of the upstairs unit just got approval to expand his balcony, which overhangs part of the deck. When he does, he could easily add a ladder or staircase down to "our" deck. We can imagine an uncomfortable situation developing, where we'd be sharing this "private" deck with a perfectly legal interloper. Plus, the supermarket is all the way across the Hill on Cambridge Street. Might as well be in Siberia. No way.

We checked out two condos on Hancock Street. The first one had handsome rooms and features, but only a sad little balcony advertised as a "deck." Standing on it, we admired a much nicer deck across the way. We soon discovered that the nice deck was attached to the next condo we visited. The deck was its best feature, and it is under agreement. So much for Hancock Street.

Next we visited a tiny single-family on a rather run-down, dead-end lane off Cambridge Street. Two astonishing aspects of this house are its private parking space and low price — well under a million. It was cleverly laid out, with a brick courtyard the size of a closet and a small, sunny deck off the bedroom. But it was truly miniature, despite having three floors, three bedrooms, and two baths. Imagine each room as dollhouse-sized and very low-ceilinged, and you'll begin to understand how cramped an "inexpensive" Beacon Hill house can be.

It had an unfinished basement with a laundry area, so I'd be hauling wash up and down three winding, narrow flights of stairs — versus my current set-up, with the washer next to our bedroom. There is also no space for a formal dining table and chairs — just a small table in the kitchen. No room for our tansu or bookcases. No room, in fact, for my husband to stand up straight while shaving at the bathroom sink! Rats.

The house is a few blocks from my favorite branch of Anna's Taqueria. Today's burrito was a revelation: occasionally, over the years, I've asked and been told that they put cilantro in their guacamole. Even one speck of cilantro overwhelms my mouth with a strong flavor of soapsuds. But I asked today, and they said, "No cilantro." My burrito was superb! We'd need a home-equity loan to cover the extra charges we'd rack up for adding guacamole to our daily burritos if we bought that house.

We saw a penthouse duplex on Revere Street, beyond our budget but so pretty in photos that I was curious. It is unusually sunny, with many windows on three sides, spacious and luxuriously renovated. It had windowsills deep enough for oversized cats. A large roof deck with river views. To get up there, I had to climb a skinny metal spiral staircase, suspended right over the staircase to the top floor. By not looking down, I made it up the spiral, but my fear of heights stopped me before I could climb out of the skylight (no railing, ugh) and onto the roof. Assuming I could someday overcome shaky legs, heart palpitations, and faintness, it would still be a chore to carry any sort of meal up those two steep staircases. So long, fancy penthouse.

We walked home, realizing that, while nothing was right for us, most of these properties had plenty of positive features. Something will come along and win both our hearts. And then, as always happens when people fall in love, all hell will break loose.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

More Fun with Cigars

I'm raising a fluffy Tony Soprano. Possumus Passamaquoddy likes a regular post-breakfast cigar these days.


I assumed my Professor Minerva McGonagall aspect yesterday, delivering a lecture on the evils of cigars, catnip, biting one's sisters, stealing food, laziness, sloth, gluttony, and a few related issues. He listened attentively at first (I do a fine Maggie Smith imitation):


But he dislikes being referred to as "Maquoddy." He turned a deaf ear (actually, it was his half-ear) to my entreaties for reform.


As is typical with this incorrigible rapscallion, things quickly got out of hand:


I wish he'd at least attack the correct end of the cigar. They will take him for a bumpkin in the casino.


He is really too young to handle cigars. This one was too much for him:


He retired to his armchair to recover.


He spent the rest of the day doing nothing remotely improving. I despair of his future. I suppose we should start accumulating a trust fund for this n'ere-do-well.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Reason to Move #22

My last post about "Reasons to Move" was back in August. Back then, I never dreamed we'd have such an unexpected Reason #22. But I've been dreaming about moving since last February, when I realized that, because our building was so noisy, chaotic, and unpleasant, I preferred being in places like the airport and the hospital to being at home.

When you are dragging your feet to leave Logan, you know you have a problem.

But now there's Reason #22: My husband's new professorship came with a tempting relocation package, just as if we were living in Helsinki. So even though we're only across the river, we received an Offer Too Good to Refuse.

So we "have" to move in the next year or so. We'd be fools otherwise. It's lucky that we want to move.

Now we just need to find a place we love. According to my husband's contract, our new home needs to be in the eastern third of Massachusetts, excluding the Cape and islands. (They don't want anyone using this excellent benefit on a vacation home.) We also have to buy a condo or single-family house — no multi-family property with income units. We can't be landlords while we're getting so much financial assistance. This is all fine with us. They've looked over our finances and told us what our price range should be. We could afford a big house in the suburbs if that's what we wanted, or a nice two-bedroom city apartment, bigger than the one we have.

My husband wants a minimal commute, and I sympathize. Ideally, I'd like a quiet, historic village where I might be able to have a real garden and do errands safely on a bike. We've checked out pretty towns like Marblehead, Concord, Charlestown, and Quincy, but neither of us can see ourselves living that far from Boston, burritos, and Trader Joe's. In fact, we're so spoiled that even neighborhoods as close as the South End and Somerville seem inconvenient compared to the Walkability Score we have in Back Bay. So we're looking in Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and parts of Cambridge and Brookline.

What do we want? We don't need many bedrooms or bathrooms. We do need charm and detail. We are depressed by newly renovated, white boxes with open layouts, low ceilings, and no character. But those are everywhere; developers and homeowners have ripped out most of what made our 19th-century housing stock distinctive and gracious, replacing it with stock fixtures, cabinetry, doors, and appliances from Home Depot. We prefer old (creaky) wooden floors, high (cracked) ceilings, deep moldings, wood-burning fireplaces, and the character that comes from being lived in for at least 100 years. To us, that is beauty. And there is surprisingly little of it left around Boston. We also want a private garden if we're outside Boston, or a roof deck if we're in town. (The ultimate fantasy? Adding a brick or slate patio with a stone hot tub and miniature swimming pool to a small, fenced backyard. Dream on....)

I wrote a fantasy post about our ideal house almost exactly a year ago. It is still accurate; I hope it's prescient, In addition, my husband wants a good-sized library/office and a parking space. I long for a traditional pantry (any place that still has a pantry should have plenty of other old-fashioned features, too.) I also want the washer and dryer next to the bedroom, not down in the basement. (If I have to walk more than 10 feet to put away laundry, I feel I might as well head to the Charles and pound my wash on the rocks. Basement laundry rooms are one old-fashioned element I can't stand.)

Of course, we haven't found anything resembling what we want. I'm not convinced it exists in our chosen neighborhoods. We'll almost certainly have to make a lot of compromises. But perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe it's out there, waiting for us to slog through the pre-approval forms we've just received from the University's preferred lenders. I check Redfin all day long, just in case.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Less Is More

I'm much happier being out in today's 60-degree weather than the sweltering, 90-degree strangeness we had yesterday. It was nice to see all the outdoor patio tables filled on Newbury Street, and people out in their first brave attempts at summer attire. Ankle-length sundresses seemed just right, camouflaging winter-white legs and unpainted toes. But short-shorts are clearly going to be more popular this year, and not always on bodies they rightly belong on....

But it was just too hot! I'll always vote a cool, rainy spring and summer over heatwaves and humidity. (But where do we vote?) Here's hoping for a lot of sweater weather this summer.

Yesterday, I noticed that leaves on the Commonwealth Avenue mall had popped, seemingly overnight. One day you happen to look up — and there there they are, in clouds of bright-green baby fluff, promising shade and summertime ahead.


The magnolias on the sunny side of the street are at the peak of perfection, too:



Those of us on the shady side of the street will get our blooms in a week or two. By that time, these petals will be making Comm. Ave. almost as slippery as it is in January. Remember January?