Saturday, March 31, 2012

I Feel Lucky

My $5 investment in last night's $640 Mega Millions drawing paid off in a $2 win; I got the PowerBall number. This is the best I've ever done playing the lottery, and my second $2 win. When I told Possum about it last night, this was his full reaction:

Note the left paw, gracefully wrapped around the right leg.

Well, I suppose money means nothing to him, he's a cat. But it's interesting: he may know nothing about how most of the world operates, yet he's perfected his superior, withering, cat-of-the-world expression.

I don't care. I'm happy with my $2 win. It means I'm improving at getting winning numbers, see? So if I keep playing — a couple of bucks a week, anyway — I will eventually get all six numbers. Yeah — and then we'll see if I get a more positive response from Possum when I announce that we can finally afford that bicycle rickshaw he still wants.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Pottery Barn Hates Me

How come all of my neighbors get Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma catalogues every month — and I don't? I often sort the mail; there they are, like clockwork: two fat booklets for each of my neighbors, usually advertising some tempting offer, too, like 15% off any purchase with a one-time-use code.

It's lucky for my neighbors that I paid attention to everything the nuns said, so I would never take anyone's mail. I'm also aware that stealing mail is a federal offense as well as a violation of the Eighth Commandment. Unfortunately, one of our local mailmen didn't know that this on Wednesday.

Let it be known that I've signed up to receive both catalogues at least 10 or 12 times over the years. For a while, a few years back, I filled out a card every time I shopped in each store, which was often; it got to be a routine. But it didn't work. I signed up online every time I placed an order and sometimes when I was just bored, cranky, and/or in the mood for an exercise in futility. I've also called customer service and begged to be put on the mailing lists of both stores. (I'm scrupulous about stopping catalogues I don't want, so this is bizarre.) I also place orders — usually a guaranteed way to get catalogues for life plus tons of unwanted stuff from "affiliates." Doesn't work for me.

Pottery Barn has some excellent merchandise (some, not all) and their catalogues are always inspiring and fun to browse. Last month, after I received an order (a hefty marble cheese board, via a gift card), I realized that, yet again, everybody got catalogues except me.

I got annoyed. I sent an email to PB customer service, detailing my request, mentioning what I wrote above in some detail. Among other things, I said:
...  I've bought lighting, kitchen things, bedding, towels, accessories, holiday items, and a complete set of bathroom hardware from you. I request and receive gift cards as presents, and I really enjoy browsing the catalogues. But usually I have to find them in someone's trash.....

For a while, I was filling out catalogue request cards every single time I went into a store; I tried that maybe 8 or 10 times. No luck. I have also called PB's customer service MANY times over the years to make sure my preferences to receive monthly catalogs are noted. I was always assured that everything was all set.

For a while, it did work. I was getting Pottery Barn catalogues, although I'm lucky if I get a Williams-Sonoma catalogue once every two years. More than a year ago, I noticed that my neighbors in this building were all getting their PB catalogs while I got nothing. I did get one at Christmas, which inspired me to trek to the store in the suburbs, where I bought stuff and then I ordered something recently online.

See, if I don't get catalogues, I forget to shop. But if you send them to me, it's actually going to be profitable for you.
.... So, please, tell me: what more do I have to do to receive your catalogs? Is there some secret that other people know that I don't? If shopping often, ordering items, and begging by mail, phone, and email can't do it, what will???

I received this response, with weird fonts:
Hello,

Thank you for contacting Pottery Barn.

We appreciate your interest in our Pottery Barn  and Williams Sonoma catalogs. However, at this time we do not have enough information to process your request.

You may add your name to our catalog mailing list by selecting the "Catalog Request" icon at the bottom of our home page at www.potterybarn.com, or you may reply to this email with your mailing address and we will be happy to enter the information for you. Please be advised we currently mail catalogs only to the United States, U.S. Territories and APO/FPO addresses.

Once the requested information is complete, you should receive a copy of the most current Pottery Barn catalog in approximately 7-10 business days.

We look forward to having you receive our catalog.

If we may be of any further assistance, please contact us via email.  Alternately, you may contact our Customer Service Department directly at 1-800-922-9934 from 5:00 am to 9:00 pm (PST), seven days a week.

Kind regards,

L___ S____
Pottery Barn
Customer Service
I wrote back:
Hi L--,

I've probably added my info to that catalogue request form more than a dozen times over the past few years. I did it again tonight, for laughs, but I have ZERO faith that it will work.

If you had actually read my letter, I think you would have known better than to suggest such a simple thing. Believe me, it doesn't work. My request is not only to be added to your mailing list in some ironclad way, but to find out why dozens of attempts to get onto it permanently have inevitably failed, particularly for Williams-Sonoma.

My address, which I'm sorry I forgot to include (but which you could have found by looking up my email address in your system) is:

[my info]

Is there any chance you can get me a March catalogue like all my neighbors have, with my very own discount code, like they have, sometime very SOON, so I can order a few things??

Thanks,
I received this is response:
Hello Ms.  ___,

Thank you for contacting Pottery Barn.

We have not received an answer yet as to why you are not receiving our catalogs.  Please allow us 3-5 business days to get an answer.  However, we have requested a Pottery Barn catalog be sent out to you.

We are sorry to hear that you have been going through recycling bins to get our catalogs.   In hope of you getting a new catalog in the next 7-10 business days via postal service, a request to send you one has been made.


If we may be of any further assistance, please contact us via email.  Alternately, you may contact our Customer Service Department directly at 1-800-922-9934 from 5:00 am to 9:00 pm (PST), seven days a week.

Kind regards,

D___ A_____
Pottery Barn
Customer Service
A few days after that, I received a manilla envelope containing a PB catalogue that someone had three-hole punched. There was no savings code, of course. And I never learned why they can't get it together to send me monthly catalogs.

Because they just effing can't, I guess.

I surrender. It will probably take less time to prowl the alley on the next recycling day than to keep up correspondence with Pottery Barn. If you have a spare PB catalogue you don't want, preferably with a discount code, please let me know when it's your trash pick-up day. We need new pillow shams.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Beautiful Kitchen

I complaining a lot about how I hate most kitchens. Here we go again. If you're sick of hearing about this, I apologize, but it's on my mind. I promise not to go on about open kitchens, islands, and breakfast bars this time around. But there are still plenty of fundamentals to dislike.

I hope you'll tell me what you do and don't like about 21st-century kitchen design so I will know if anyone else out there is on my wavelength. If you make it through my lecture, there's a photo reward at the end — showing my idea of a lovely kitchen.

I reject:

1) Stock cabinetry that doesn't reach the ceiling. Who wants to clean up there? Sooner or later, someone decides to put baskets and stuff on top of those cabinets. Bad idea, always looks cluttered and dusty.

2) Trendy (or once-trendy) countertops. Colors and patterns that are wild, dreary, or worse. (I once saw an expensive granite slab that reminded me of fetal ultrasounds.) This includes many types of stone as well as concrete, Corian, other synthetics, and rustic tiles with grout.

3) Too much going on. You've seen it: wavy stone counters plus a patterned tile backsplash, a busy tile floor, two-tone cabinets, fancy knobs and light fixtures in different metals. Also: contrasting appliances. Who'd put black appliances in an otherwise all-white kitchen? Lots of people. Black appliances are out of date, of course, so now everyone does it with stainless steel. I don't think it looks any better in all-white kitchens. I like dishwashers and fridges that are hidden behind clever cabinet doors if they can't blend in quietly with the general milieu. I also think that, if you have stainless appliances, you should rethink the gold-plated cabinet hardware, the copper chandelier, and the shiny chrome faucet.

4) Wrong woods. I've seen custom cabinetry made from what I swear was polished plywood. Hideous color, hideous grain, lovingly sanded and finished. I also don't think that heavily carved mahogany or exotic woods like zebra or ebony belong in a kitchen unless you are ironically tricking out your yacht. Kitchens can certainly be "dressy" but they shouldn't be formal or lavish to the point where you go bananas worrying about damage. Kitchens are for hanging out. They are for making messes and standing around devouring them. Kitchens are casual by definition.

5) Too predictable. Stainless appliances (cheap or high-end), cherry or IKEA stock cabinets, recessed lighting, and same-old Home-Depot-stock granite. Plus that ubiquitous one-piece chrome faucet that looks like it belongs in a nursing facility. It's everywhere and so depressing.

6) Too many appliances. The wine keeper, full-size dishwasher, and trash compactor in an apartment-sized kitchen that's begging for more storage via cabinets instead. They make excellent small ranges, etc., for smaller kitchens these days.

7) Too big. You shouldn't wish for roller skates because your sink, stove, and fridge are so far apart. Especially when it costs you valuable space in your living room or dining room in a city apartment.

Obviously, the vast majority of America disagrees with me; why else would homeowners and developers build all these big, boring kitchens? Almost everything I see as we're house-hunting presents most, if not all, of these issues. My first impulse is to calculate the method and cost of replacing all those standard items that were mindlessly chosen to thrill the average buyer.

By now you must be curious to know what, exactly, I DO like.

This:


This is almost perfect. I might get annoyed with that ladder, although it's a wonderful idea if it can roll right out of the way. Behind it, you'll see a couple of discreet dishwasher drawers; this is a practical kitchen, not simply a showpiece. I think it's a perfect size and layout for a smaller city apartment, assuming there's a refrigerator at not too great a distance.

I'm pretty sure that at least some of the cabinets were reclaimed from an old pantry. The wooden counter is a refreshing alternative to stone, and there's a soapstone area next to the sink that's ideal for wet dishes and messes. There's some kind of practical, neutral countertop on either side of the range — where you'll spot the handle of a Simplex tea kettle, proving my point that this is a clever and charming kitchen.

Yes, there's a lot going on here, but it all serves a practical purpose — nothing is just for show — and it also isn't jarring.

There is not a single kitchen remotely like this in the Boston area, I'll bet you. I hope I'm wrong.

I admire all the detailing, from the ceiling molding to the old brass pulls and locks. However, I would change that light fixture, which looks like it was added in Photoshop. I'd veto recessed (and abscessed) ceiling lighting and choose a different hanging fixture, probably an antique one, in brass to match the hardware. (I'd also prefer having nickel hardware throughout, to blend better with the faucets and range. But you can't be fussy about architectural salvage.)

I might darken the wooden floor to match the beautiful patina of the cabinets, and then add an old oriental runner or kilim to protect it.

I'm curious to know your response to this kitchen. Love it? Hate it? Please tell me. I'm planning to recreate it if I ever get a chance. But it seems to me that most people wouldn't want anything remotely like this. They like kitchens to be big, shiny-new, and predictable — just like what they see on HG-TV.

Final point: Every kitchen needs a balcony or deck, where you can watch the birds as you eat toast. Surely no one disagrees with that?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Goodbye, Magnolias

Because of the cold nights we had earlier this week, the magnolia blossoms turned brown before their time. Most of the petals haven't fallen yet, so the trees look especially sad.

It's too depressing to show them in their current state, so here are a couple of photos I took on Monday afternoon, before the frost, when they were still pretty and pink:



Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Back to "Mad Men"

We watched the season opener of Mad Men last night, via iTunes and without commercials, which I heard were relentless on Sunday night. (If you're craving a thorough recap of those 92 non-commercial minutes, go here.)

It felt great to be back at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with its snarky hallway humor and the nonstop ringing phones. But I couldn't help comparing everything with Downton Abbey.

Both shows are exactly what I like best: well-researched, multi-episode, period dramas with complex plots, sophisticated dialogue, and excellent performances. Both have spectacular sets and would be worth watching for the costumes alone, with the sound off.* But I think the similarities end there. Mad Men is loads of fun, but Downton is the more satisfying show.

Dowton's characters are rocked by major historical events — the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, Spanish influenza. These events aren't merely discussed around the dinner table; they have a direct, stunning impact on the characters, dramatically changing the course of lives and sometimes ending them. Mad Men's characters rarely take such a serious hit from major news events; instead, they read about them in the Times or watch on TV, as we do. Civil Rights protests — and retaliatory water-bag dousing — are happening, but only from a distance — on the sidewalk beneath a rival agency's high-rise. Joan's husband is serving in Vietnam, but who really cares? Surely not Joan; that's Roger's baby. No one is setting up a hospital in the lobby of SCDP.

This is not to say that the quality of a show correlates to its connectedness with big historical events. What I admire about Downton is how natural it all seems. While there are certainly plot contrivances, killing off characters with the Spanish flu wasn't one of them. Instead, we get to experience real world events within the context of a familiar home and family, which makes for wonderful, believable, big drama. It would be delicious if Mad Men's characters are allowed some closer brushes with history. Surely Megan will drag Don to Woodstock if their marriage lasts that long.

Megan and Don

The other significant difference between the two shows is the quality of the characters. Well-rounded characters are based in good writing and directing, but the emotional investment of the actors themselves makes all the difference. In both of these shows, most characters strike us as having vivid, complete personalities because skilled actors have fleshed them out beyond what is written in the script. Good actors achieve this through careful preparation, emotional commitment, and artistry — the countless tiny, careful choices of facial expression, emphasis, gesture, inflection, tone. Characters develop further through interactions — ensemble acting, which is also often brilliant in both shows.

It's always a pleasure to watch all this on both shows, but it's better on Downton Abbey. Last night, Megan hit the nail on the head when she complained about how cynical everyone is at SCDP. In Mad Men, every person is out for himself, seeking some kind of power and/or material gain. There have been long stretches when the only only office character we can stand to root for is Peggy, while only Sally usually gets our complete sympathy on the domestic side. Mad Men's characters almost never appear "heroic" in the dramatic sense of the word. They may be believable, quirky, fascinating creations, but we can seldom embrace their totality because they almost never deeply move us. Perhaps I'm just cynical myself, but I don't care about whatever horrors may descend upon Don this season. I know it will be riveting to watch (as, say, Megan eats him alive and spits out his bones), but I can't care about him as a character. (Which is strange... because I never stopped rooting for Tony Soprano, a true monster.)

On the other hand, the characters of Downton Abbey were continually rising and falling in our estimations as they evolved and more facets of their natures were shown to us. And this mattered. We've rooted for all of them at one time or another. Thomas and O'Brien may have initially seemed like predictable villains as the "evil" servants, always plotting some enemy's downfall. But both grew into more complicated personalities as they experienced guilt, love, and loss along with personal and historical calamities. O'Brien grew a guilty conscience after Cora loses the baby. And no one expected to weep with Thomas when his friend, the gas-blind lieutenant, committed suicide. The arc of Lady Mary's character was among the most satisfying as we watched her broken heart and ruined "honor" teach her self-awareness, compassion, and humility. There was nothing better than watching Mary struggle to keep her polite smile steady as Matthew extinguished her hopes yet again. We hated Edith and then we loved Edith; we were rarely indifferent to her.

Matthew and Mary

Downton Abbey's characters command our attention and earn our sympathy, while Mad Men's cast is strictly out for themselves; it seems they can take or leave the audience, too. They amuse and intrigue us, and provide plenty of discussion topics around the water cooler. But ultimately they don't win our hearts because they don't seem to have any themselves.


*That's the only way I made it through James Cameron's Titanic a second time. Gorgeous, mesmerizing sets and costumes, but a terrible script. I covered my ears and had a better time.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Car Candy: The Tesla Roadster

We were walking around the other day, enjoying Back Bay's blooming trees, when we were suddenly riveted by an unusual car, sitting at a traffic light. It was a glacier-blue Tesla Roadster, a completely electric sports car. I'd never seen one. Small wonder: there are only about 2,100 Roadsters in the world.

It was beautiful. But its looks weren't the most amazing thing about it. When the light changed and it accelerated, it barely made a sound — just a soft hum. Imagine a sports car that quietly glides instead of growling or purring. It moved with stealth, understatement, and zero emissions instead of metaphorically beating its chest and suggesting that its engine noise is in direct proportion to the driver's testosterone level. Or whatever.

On the basis of that alone, the Roadster has to be one of the most sophisticated sports cars ever. I know that Priuses and other electric cars are quiet, too, but they are also invariably dorky to look at. Show me the George Clooney of electric cars instead of the George Costanza, and I'll start paying attention.

I didn't have time to snap a photo, so I went to the Tesla website and "designed" a similar one, so you'll see what first caught my attention:

The top was up so we couldn't see who was driving.

Tesla Roadsters have a base price around $109,000. 
That's a bargain compared to these sports cars
Or a Bentley or Rolls. And you won't be buying gas.

But you can't buy a new Roadster in the US these days;
they are only available in Europe, Asia, and Australia. 
Bummer: I know you had your wallet out. 
This won't break MY heart; I don't even have a license!

Teslas aren't sold at a dealership. There are 21 Tesla stores worldwide, modeled on Apple Stores. In fact, the stores were designed by George Blankenship, Apple's former "retail guru." There's no store in New England; the nearest is in Manhattan (figures). Rather than being out on a suburban auto mile, they are in fancy downtown shopping areas, to attract the Frette-and-Ferragamo set. 

Although they aren't making more Roadsters for the American market, Tesla makes a Model S sedan, which looks comparatively nondescript, and will soon be offering a Model X, more of a (dull) minivan. Only the Roadster is eye candy for design as well as rarity, at least to me. But the company mission is to make increasingly affordable all-electric cars. The pricing for the Model S Sedan starts around $50,000. (Remember, you never pay for gas and you'll get tax breaks, too.)

If you're curious about how the Roadster performs, you can find plenty of reviews online. It goes from 0 to 60 in about 3.7 seconds; you can experience this via YouTube.  As you will hear, it sounds more like a luxury vacuum cleaner than a sporty car, at least in films. We barely heard a thing from the Real Thing.

Seeing the occasional very cool car is one of the perks of living among the acutely overprivileged. (I'm trying to think of other perks... glimpses of local sports stars and fancy landscaping are all that come to mind.) We have more than our share of one-percenters and multi-multi-million-dollar housing here — although that doesn't mean we don't also have struggling studio dwellers and students with rusting, 1995 Eagle Talons occupying the free resident parking spots alongside the BMWs and Audis. Thank god.

At least this particular rich man's toy is ostensibly "noble," being environmentally correct. And as quiet as a cat.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Taxes Done!

My husband's missing W-2 form showed up in the mail yesterday, so we did our taxes last night. We sat  squashed together on the sofa so we could both see TurboTax on the laptop. I held our messy pile of records as my husband typed and dealt with Snicky, who kept jumping up in hopes of walking on the keyboard. Possum and Snalbert made cameo appearances. Wendy watched from a distance.

As usual, there were several questions that made absolutely no sense to us. After trying to unravel each of these, we'd inevitably answer "No." TurboTax sometimes gives tiny hints, usually by putting the "No" button ahead of the "Yes" button. Sometimes it will tell you that the more nightmarish questions are only relevant to a small percentage of taxpayers, so you can be almost certain they aren't meant for you. 

In spite of all the blank staring and head-scratching, a call to Fidelity, Googling, and repeated requests for more online information from TurboTax, which was never enlightening — plus a certain amount of yelling — we finished both the federal and state forms in about two hours.

Thank you, TurboTax. That sure beats doing it by hand or paying a few hundred bucks to an accountant. Plus it's exciting to watch the red "Tax You Owe" amount, in the upper right corner of the screen, turn to a happy green "Refund Amount." This happens as we enter the quarterly self-employment and estimated income taxes I pay. (After years of screwing up, I finally remembered this year that these two amounts get added up and entered as a lump sum for each quarter.) Watching that big red number change to a green one as the dollars are scrolling by gives me the kind of rush that I imagine slot-machine gamblers get. I can't help squealing, "Wheeeeee!" — as if quarters are spilling out of the laptop.

You see, there are far more boring things one can to do on a Saturday night than figuring the taxes. And if you want to find out what those things are, stick with me. We'll be doing some of them next weekend.

I believe we could have completed the tax forms in under an hour if TurboTax was less secretive. For example, towards the end of the state tax form, it tells you to list "all" of your out-of-state purchases, with dates and amounts, to calculate your in-state sales tax for out-of-state purchases. (This seems like a total scam, doesn't it? Like one of those unfair British import taxes that the Boston Tea Party and ensuing Revolution should have addressed.) Anyway, the page TurboTax provides for listing your purchases has four measly rows — for four items.

Now, come ON. Four rows might be enough for a couple of hours of Christmas shopping around here. Remember, my nerdy compulsive-shopper academic husband spent a fat sum on a ridiculous considerable number of online book orders last year. Listing his and my out-of-state purchases would take days, assuming we kept all the receipts, which we certainly did not.

Fortunately, for people like us, Massachusetts has calculated a "safe harbor" amount of sales tax that's based on annual income, not spending. But on TurboTax, there's nowhere to enter that amount. Instead, there's a trick you have to know. We figured it out last year, by accident, after a lot of puzzlement and screeching. This question messed us up so badly last year that we actually remembered the trick this year — after only about 15 minutes of mild hysteria. Here it is: On that little form, you need to pretend to add one token purchase, say, "books" and then put down any old date. If you provide those two made-up bits of info, but leave the amount blank, TurboTax will calculate the "safe harbor" amount that will keep you honest, and put it in the third box for you. And you're done.

We were relieved to be finished so soon. We thought it might take days, given our ineptitude. I hope I'll remember to revisit this post at tax time next year so we can get through at least one confusing question with less suffering.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Pink Time

Spring — and it was June, not April — arrived this past week for a surprise visit. The magnolias on the sunny side of Commonwealth Avenue were fooled (along with azaleas, flowering cherries, and other spring bloomers) and appeared almost a month earlier than last year. Usually they coincide with the Marathon on Patriots' Day Weekend. But here they are:


Of course, we're enjoying the trees on the sunny side of the street. The ones on the shady side might decide to take their time and show up on time instead of early.


I'm able to stray a little further from home every day on my recovering ankle, but I haven't made it all the way up to Arlington Street yet to capture some of the other magnolia varieties. The pink ones you see  here are Magnolia c soulangeana, planted in the mid 1960s by Back Bay volunteers, led by Laura Dwight. I'll try to shoot some of the white ones, planted in 1995, soon.


Penny Cherubino, photographer, journalist, and coauthor of Boston Zest, wrote about Ms. Dwight and the magnolias for the Back Bay Sun. Read her story here.


I wonder how long it will be before computers can transmit scents as well as images and sound. I wish you could smell the sweet perfume under these trees. It's a whiff of spring. 


The weather pattern changed last night, and now skies are gray and temperatures are seasonably chilly, which should keep the magnolias blooming longer. The cold hasn't stopped people from eating under the umbrellas on Newbury Street patios. At Stephanie's, people were wrapped in big brown blankets. Clothing, as usual around here, runs the gamut from sundresses and sandals to winter coats and gloves. They may call us unfashionable in Boston, but no one can accuse us of doing it in any uniform way. 


I was thinking about local brides, who may have planned April weddings to take advantage of our beautifully blooming neighborhood. And then I thought about March brides, who are usually deprived of all that spring glory but got lucky this year. I thought about the many brides who've had receptions in the ballroom of the Boston Center for Adult Education, at 5 Commonwealth Avenue — including me. It was a beautiful site for a celebration, very French, all ivory, gold, and marble, with a parquet floor for dancing under rows of crystal chandeliers. Now it's a private house again, and it may only see a wedding or two in each generation. Sorry, house.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Tax Timeout

We're due for the annual agony of doing our taxes online. At least our situation is easier than that of a friend of mine, who prefers not to have a computer. She has to organize and make lists of a whole box of small business—related expenses and expenditures by hand, for her accountant. With a pen. This takes her a solid month; they have several businesses. I hope she uses a calculator.

Last night around 8 o'clock, we gritted our teeth and got out the tax folder. I added up all of our charitable donations (not bad!). Husband spread out all the papers we'd accumulated over the table in semi-logical piles. Then he fired up the laptop, downloaded TurboTax, and eventually remembered the password from last year.

One of the first things TurboTax wanted was info from his W-2 forms. He should have two. We could only find one. Major problem: even though TurboTax can download the information from his employer, it still wants us to enter some identifying info found on the W-2.

We hunted and hunted, went through all of his other files, did that a second and third time, and then looked in even more unlikely places. (He had recently cleaned up his desk dramatically, which probably saved us an hour of sifting through piles.)

I decided not to bother Saint Anthony over this one, it's only a piece of paper. We went online and requested a duplicate W-2.

Reprieve! And before 9 pm.

I don't know when the W-2 will arrive, but I bet it won't be very soon. In the meantime, the cats are working on the taxes for us because we have not bothered to clean off the table. (Doing taxes is a fine excuse for eating out, at least the way we do them.) Wendy is very insecure, being feral, and worries that we'll become homeless because we are so irresponsible. She'd like us to do our taxes in January.

Wendy assists us with our taxes last night.

Both cats continue to work this morning.

Since I had nothing better to do, I decided to add up all of my husband's receipts for book purchases, beginning with the foreign receipts, which had to be converted from Euros to dollars. There were loads of receipts, so I was curious.

Why, oh why did I do this? I was appalled at the total. I was staggered. Voices were slightly raised; disbelief expressed. I mean, these aren't even the books he bought with his annual book allowance from the university.

After all that, I think he's finally learned not to keep his book receipts in the tax file — we never declare them as business expenses anyway. His books are mainly decor, if you ask me, since they are reference works that fill shelves; they're rarely read cover to cover and often they are never even opened once they are out of the Amazon.com (or Amazon.fr or Amazon.de) box.

But it was useful knowledge after all: I decided that if he can spend that much on "decor," I'm going to spring for some decent shoes!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring

The magnolias are blooming on the sunny side of Commonwealth Avenue, almost a month sooner than last year. I'll hobble over there to photograph them soon.

The smell of barbecue grills fills the evening air throughout the neighborhood.

The outdoor tables on Newbury Street are filled with women in strapless dresses and men in cargo shorts.

Now that boots are too hot, I find I have no decent shoes. Nothing magically materialized in my closet over the winter.

With only about three weeks to Opening Day, the Red Sox are a looming, hopeful reality again — instead of a half-forgotten nightmare redolent of fried chicken, beer, and shame.

The swallows are returning to Capistrano.

And Possum has returned to the sink.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Trashy Lighting

Do guests find your home alarmingly pristine and sanitary? Do you often sit around bored and unhappy, wishing you had something more to clean? Do you find dusting deeply satisfying?  Have you ever dusted your Christmas tree, not because it had cobwebs, but just for a rewarding challenge?

If you just leaped out of your chair, saying, "Yes, PB! Yes, that's me!" have I got something for you:
This is Anthropologie's Magpie Chandelier, created from recycled plastic, string, and a variety of found objects (including cat toys?) by the Magpie Art Collective. They mostly do public art; you can read about them here. No two chandeliers are alike (they are not that obsessive, but I kind of wish they were). 

Some of that plastic stuff looks like it might be a little bit close to the bulbs, so even if dusting isn't your thrill, this could be a very exciting light fixture to own.

You can get yours for a mere $2,999.95, on sale from $4,800. That seems like a small price to pay for never having a dull moment at home again. It's not my style, but chacun à son goût.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ouch

The cats don't understand why their human has become a slow-moving clod. They look at me with disapproval as I stump around on my swollen foot, as if I am making poor choices.

Possum regarded my bright-blue cold pack with suspicion last night as he lay by my feet on the bed. He sniffed it, prodded it with a paw, and gave it an exploratory bite or two before I made him stop. I think he'd decided it was the reason I was limping. If he took care of it for me, perhaps I'd give it up and snap back to normal, able to leap up and march obediently into the kitchen behind him to give him more supper.

Instead I have a cold pack that leaks blue goop onto my sock.

I guess I'll go back to bed. I'll bet it was a beautiful day — I heard the birds chirping their heads off — but I didn't mind spending it in a nightgown and ace bandage, reading about Downton Abbey.  I keep ringing for my imaginary servants; they certainly take their sweet time in this confusing and hectic post-World War era.

Possum pensively waits for his person to recover.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Annals of Stupidity: Flying Pumpkin

I decided to start spring cleaning today. Among many, many other long-postponed tasks, it was time to toss the Cinderella pumpkin we've had since Halloween. It still looked perfect, like an expensive ceramic objet, unchanged since the October day we brought it home. But spring seems to be in full swing: people are wearing shorts and planting flowers. Pumpkins have to go.

I gathered some other last-minute trash, put everything in a bag, and headed to the alley, where the bins were still waiting for pickup. The bag was heavy, so I carried it in my arms.

Walking down our front steps, I missed one or two. I couldn't see where I was going because of the large pumpkin I was carrying. I watched it sail through the air away from me as I became airborne myself. It was one of those moments where everything happens in slow motion. Then I landed, twisting my ankle, and banging my knee. (The pumpkin landed with a memorable thunk; I landed silently, at least, if far from gracefully.)

Two strolling gentlemen witnessed this. They stopped and offered to help me, but I said I was okay. "Sprained ankle?" one asked as he watched me consider my shockingly painful right foot. "Probably," I replied. "I sprained my wrist," he said, smiling and gesturing to his blue cast. It takes a while but it will get better." "Thanks," I said. But no thanks. I need two feet.

I sat for a bit, collected my trash, and limped to the alley. My foot didn't feel too bad but I was clearly not going to be getting my 10,000 steps today or perhaps for some time. Back at home, I hobbled around and did a few more chores, but my foot started protesting. So I began icing it; it retaliated further by swelling around the ankle anyway. It's still feeling worse instead of better. I'm writing this from the sofa, where the chilly foot is elevated on a pile of cushions and wrapped in an Ace bandage. I'm sure nothing's broken and I doubt anything's fractured. If it gets much worse, I'll see my doctor.

Gym-going and spring cleaning will be postponed for awhile longer. I sent my husband to go see the little house in Beacon Hill. When he returns, he will receive instructions to prepare dinner if he wants any. Me, I can only lie here and read my gorgeous, fluffy new book, The World of Downton Abbey and recover. Oh, poor, poor me.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

House Stalking

It's time to move. I'm more than ready. We've been hunting for a condo or house for more than two years and I'm quite sick of it. We're more willing to make some compromises in terms of space, price, location, and parking. What we really want is some old-fashioned charm. Nearly every shred of poetry and grace has been ripped out of almost every place we've seen, replaced by sheetrock and best-value items from Home Depot.

The house in Quincy is pure poetry but it's also in Quincy. We're still thinking about it but Quincy is not a walking city, and I'd probably feel annoyed and inconvenienced whenever I had to leave my poem of a home to get a loaf of bread, a library book, or a cat prescription. I'm so, so spoiled in Back Bay.

A tiny house just came on the market in Beacon Hill, with parking. It has five little fireplaces, but I think the living room is so small that it can hold only our sofa and a bookcase and not our armchairs, coffee table, or desk. It's small. Last night, I needed to escape from the charcoal-grill fumes that routinely pour into our apartment in warm weather, so I took a very long walk. I decided to check out the exterior of the tiny house. We're not going to tour it with our broker until tomorrow.

I needed Google Maps to find it, tucked away at the end of a tiny lane I'd never noticed before. The street is so narrow — a little wider than one car —that it's impossible to turn around. So everyone parks partly on the walking path and backs the length of the lane to get out.

I felt mildly stalker-esque peering at the house's glowing windows, but I soon realized I had company. An Italian couple had gotten there just ahead of me, double-checking that they had the right address by the light of an iPhone. At first we kept our distance and threw each other wary looks. But it's a tiny lane; we soon figured it out why we were all lurking, and found it funny. We discussed what we knew about the inside, and I told them about an equally tiny house for sale on the flat of the Hill that they didn't know about. I'll probably run into them again.

Today, my husband and I went to see the house in daylight, and there was another couple standing in front of it. I guess I'm not the only one ready to move.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Green

 The Prudential Tower celebrates St. Patrick's Day.


Brand-New Bag

About a month ago, I received one of those $25 J. Crew rewards cards they send me once or twice a year, after I've overindulged myself on sweaters or brought things for my husband. I know these are a sneaky way to get me to spend even more money, but I don't care.

The card's expiration date was March 15. On the 13th, I went to the J. Crew store to look around; I didn't see much of interest. I found this very soft hoodie on the sale rack. Visions of wearing it in Maine this summer danced in my head. But I couldn't decide if it looked cute or ridiculous on me. Those stripes are very bold; that model is very tall. It came down to the tops of my legs. I decided against.


On March 14th, all the stores in Copley Place were closed because of the blackout. They were also closed on the 15th, I discovered, as my expiring rewards card was beginning to smolder, prior to self-destructing. I figured I'd look around online and order something but got distracted and forgot. Yesterday, I remembered, and realized I knew just what I wanted. I went back yesterday, aiming for the men's store this time, figuring they'd accept my expired rewards card given the circumstances. 

Nope. Closed again; another generator or transformer fail. I walked home and called customer service, something I could have done at any time, except that I like to walk a lot every day. The rep quickly agreed to honor my card and successfully tracked down what I wanted: the Rugged Twill Briefcase Bag, which went on sale a year ago and hasn't been available online since. It's rare to get something this "old" from J. Crew. Here's the bag, which also works nicely as an overnight bag if you're a light packer:


I'd gotten one for my husband via a helpful fellow at the Copley J.Crew men's store a couple of months ago; he said there were only a handful left in other stores. (They make a new model now, which I think is ugly and he says is cheaply made.)

I'd been coveting one for myself, but figured I seldom take my laptop anywhere so why spend the money? But it's time for a new bag. Last summer, I packed my laptop into my 12-year-old nylon backpack for a meeting at a client's office. As I walked there, the backpack began gradually unzipping itself on my back. The front flap, which holds the laptop, flew open and dangled down by my legs, scaring the heck out of me. Fortunately, the laptop was in a neoprene sleeve attached by strong Velcro to that flap. Otherwise it would have crashed on the sidewalk. I haven't trusted that creepy old backpack since, although I think it might be fine as long as its double zippers meet up off to one side and not dead center, where the weight of the laptop was enough to pull them steadily apart. But I still worry whenever I use it. During the blackout, I carried my laptop in a Longchamp tote, which doesn't work well at all.

J. Crew offered 30% off all sale items yesterday, so between the sale price, the promo, and my gift card, my bag will cost me $16. 

Looking around on the web last night, I found this description of it on Rakuten Global Market, "Japan's No 1. Shopping Site, which says it all:  
It is a twill briefcase bag appearance from J.CREW! Of the combination of thick cotton twill and leather pat it, and textures increase so as is strong, and to embezzle it. It is the high-quality bag which feels feelings in detail. A pocket sticks together the front, back and is attached two pockets that one big pocket is moderate inward.
I'm secretly hoping that owning a handsome bag that behaves itself will lead to some decent freelance work. I don't know why I think this, but it's nice to believe in things. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Today's Adorableness

Wendy and Snalbert's reactions upon learning that we are too cheap to pay for cable, and thus they won't be watching the return of Mad Men next Sunday:


Snapshots from Tuesday Night

Before the transformer blew, Newbury Street's restaurant patios were filled with diners enjoying the remarkably balmy evening, even as smoke from the fire drifted by. When police cruisers announced over loudspeakers that the smoke was toxic, everyone abandoned their plates and headed indoors.


Here's smoke-filled Hereford Street as it's being taped off to keep people like me away from the fire:


And here's the Prudential tower in darkness, moments after the lights went out:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Art in the Alley

We spotted this original work of art (acrylic on board) in the alley this morning, as we hauled our spoiled refrigerated food to our trash area:


The bottle motif in the background is intriguing, as is the perturbed expression of the sun, in contrast with the cheerful guitarist and the Dalmatian.

We can't afford another expensive fine-arts framing project — we have to restock a lot of food that got spoiled during the power outage, which ended for us late last night. So we left this treasure where we found it for a more enterprising art lover to grab. Just cruise the alley between Commonwealth Avenue and Marlborough Street ahead of the garbage trucks, and it's all yours.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Blackout

Last night's transformer fire has turned me into a most pampered refugee. We have no electricity, heat, Internet or phone service (not even mobile), or hot water, so we are "camping" in my husband's rather luxurious university office and eating our meals out. I can't complain; my biggest trouble is that I've probably lost all the homemade chicken stock I had stockpiled in our tiny freezer.

I saw the smoke before I smelled it last night, and since I was in the mood for a walk, I went out around 7. I was dusted with flying ashes as I stood on our doorstep. I headed toward the billowing cloud of black smoke near Dalton Street, just to see how close I might get. It seemed like everyone in the neighborhood was out walking or running. As I approached Newbury Street, police cars drove by slowly with their loudspeakers on, telling everyone to go indoors because the smoke was toxic.

Hmm... I have sensitive lungs; I can barely walk down the street behind a smoker. And I was feeling fine. But I obediently turned around, went home, and closed the windows — it was the first day I'd opened them in months.

Not being obedient by nature, I quickly hit the streets again, passing many joggers deeply inhaling toxic smoke. I walked up Newbury Street, pausing to take photos of the abandoned plates and glasses on the outdoor tables at Charley's. (I can't download them; I'm using a borrowed computer, so I'll post anything interesting later.) At Trader Joe's, I bought a large tub of cookies in the spirit of disaster preparedness. The store was not busy for once; everyone was out gawking, I guess.

As I left the store and turned the corner, I heard a woman behind me say, "There's a 115,000-volt transformer right where the fire is. If that blows up, man.... Wow." (I thought she'd said "150,000-volt" but what's a few thousand volts here or there?)

Less than a minute later, the lights went out all over Back Bay and, thanks to her, I was not at a loss for an explanation. I always thought Back Bay was immune to blackouts because our cables are buried; it was my first power failure in more than 30 years here. Newbury Street and Commonwealth Avenue were eerily dark, but the night sky was bright and smoky, so it wasn't hard to walk. It was easy for me to find Mercury and Mars, and the constellation Orion without the usual squinting. The tops of the Pru and Hancock towers were still lit, and so were hotel signs: "Sheraton," "Hilton." The traffic lights were out, and I was reminded of the traffic bedlam in Egypt as pedestrians and cars took turns yielding but mostly not yielding.

The gas lamps remained lit on Marlborough Street but it was tricky to unlock our doors and get up the steps in blackness. Gas lamps provide a lot of charm but not much illumination. Our fire alarm was blaring but I couldn't see to turn it off. Our apartment was pitch-dark until my husband waved a flashlight in my direction. I had another on my desk for hunting down Wendy's toys, so I took it to organize the evening pills for Snicky and Snalbert. The flashlight made it much easier to check inside their mouths to make sure they swallowed everything. I may use a flashlight from now on.

I was immediately bored again — I guess noisy, hovering helicopters make me restless —so we went out together into the toxic smoke with our flashlights. Our neighborhood had transformed in minutes from normal to surreal and we had to witness it. Along Mass. Ave., clever passersby were using lit cellphones as flashlights. People were still drinking in candlelit bars along Newbury but most restaurants and shops were deserted. We realized that ice cream and frozen yogurt shops would likely be a mess in the morning. And was anyone trapped in an elevator in the big condo buildings or hotels?

After bumping into a few neighbors and filling them in on what we'd heard — there were no news reports until later and cell service was spotty — we were ready to go home. We lit many candles but still stepped on many cats. Without phones or Internet, we were at loose ends. It's annoying to read small print by candlelight, so I resorted to An Old-Fashioned Girl (Louisa May Alcott) on my brightly lit iPad. I enjoyed the irony until I realized I wasn't enjoying the story. Not one of her better efforts. My husband had downloaded Hugo on his iPad; we were charmed despite more hovering helicopters.

That tub of cookies proved really useful, although it was impossible to know how many we ate in the dark.

I expected to sleep soundly, given how dark and silent the neighborhood was, but I was awake all night. The sky was strangely bright; blue light streamed into our bedroom even though almost every neighboring window was dark. (Do none of our neighbors have candles? Had they all decamped for their weekend houses?)

We awoke early to chilly rooms and the last of the hot water. We are in Cambridge now, grateful for warmth, light, music, Internet service, breakfast, and Peet's. We'll go home much later tonight — the power should be back — and see how the cats are doing. They haven't been inconvenienced at all so far and, honestly, neither have we.

Monday, March 12, 2012

March Heat

On Newbury Street this balmy afternoon, you'll find flip flops and tank tops, down jackets and thigh-high suede boots mingling together under the unseasonably warm spring sun. You'll find shirtless skateboard dudes dodging old ladies in fur-trimmed parkas and leather gloves. The happy medium seems to be capri leggings and ballet flats.

You'll see plenty of fro-yo and ice cream cones melting in pale, white hands — but none from JP Licks. They were forced out by their landlord, apparently. I saw the old teacup car getting packed into a truck this morning.

If you're unlucky, you'll see the woman in the hot-pink, hot-pants romper in front of Cafeteria. No rompers were spotted on any members of the nursery set playing at the Clarendon Street Park. Those babes are all sophisticated for their age.


How to Identify a Crystal Pattern

I just figured out how to do this yesterday; I'm still surprised I succeeded so quickly.

I was very taken with a set of crystal stemware at Oldies, the big, waterside antique shop in Newburyport yesterday. They were unidentified — no maker, no pattern, no mention of their age or origins on the price tag. At $60 for a set of six, they weren't expensive, but I like to know what I'm buying. (I know very little about glass.) Plus, we don't need glassware and we have no room to store it.

On the other hand, they were delightfully rounded, well proportioned, felt wonderful in my hand, and were in mint condition. If they were a once-in-a-lifetime antique find, I knew I'd be kicking myself forever if I let them go. I took photos, and decided to mull over the purchase as we walked around town.


Newburyport is lovely. And there are gelato shops. We lost track of the time and the antique shop closed before we had a chance to return for a second look. My only option now was to do some research.

I kept the photos handy as I went on eBay that night. There's no easily searchable, comprehensive database on the web for crystal (or china or silver) patterns so, while eBay is random and may seem futile, there's enough merchandise there that you can often spot what you're looking for — at least for silver, which will usually have at least a maker's mark if not a year. If you can't find a silver pattern after a couple of hours of intelligent searching on eBay, that tells you it's probably rare. But you have to be patient.

I'd never tried to identify a stemware pattern before; glasses don't have marks or, if they do, I can't see the damn things. I searched eBay's "Glass" category for "crystal goblets" and got more than 6,700 results. Yikes. But I'm patient about hunting (less so when dealing with people), so I began quickly scrolling through them. After several hundred, I soon noticed that a few other styles of glasses had a stylized, leafy, ornamental band around the bowl, similar to "my" glasses. When I looked at those listings, I discovered that they were often called "Laurel."

Okay, so that's a laurel band on them-there glasses. That might help.

Next, I went to Replacements.com, which has the world's biggest inventory of glassware, crystal, and china (at outrageous prices), along with an unwieldy search engine that can't help you if you're clueless. (Replacements will try to identify a mystery pattern for you if you email them a photo. But where's the thrill in that?)  I searched for "laurel." That turned up photos of several styles of glassware with similar leafy bands, but not the pattern I wanted. Oh, well.

I went back to eBay and kept scrolling through listings. My next discovery was that only a few manufacturers routinely make glasses with hexagonal stems and bases, including Seneca, Fostoria, Villeroy & Boch, and one or two others. I searched quickly in "Glass" for goblets by each of these brands, and found that only Villeroy & Boch makes crystal patterns with the same hexagonal stems and faceted "knobs" of my mystery pattern.

I did a new eBay search for "Villeroy and Boch" in "Glass" without specifying "goblets" and quickly found similar patterns with identical stems and, finally, a centerpiece bowl in "my" pattern. Voilà — it's called Miss Desiree.


I searched for "Villeroy Miss Desiree" on Google and found that it's a current offering. New goblets are available in three sizes for as little as $12 ($20 at Replacements). The set of six in Newburyport seems a bit overpriced for secondhand, contemporary glassware, although I would have bargained for a better price. But there's no urgency now; Miss Desiree is a dime a dozen, so to speak. But if we ever decide we want fancy water goblets to celebrate our withdrawal from soda (ongoing, with relapses), I've got a great pattern picked out.

So, my tips for identifying glassware: look for distinctive elements and pay attention when you find photos of vaguely similar patterns to give you hints about the manufacturer, as well as keywords for further searching. The hexagonal, knobbed stems and bases on these glasses made it simple.

My best tip: don't try to identify plain, boring glassware! If you want a manageable challenge, pick a pattern with some character.

Finally, use Replacements.com as a reference tool but don't buy antique or discontinued items from them unless you are desperate or have too much disposable income. Their prices are often double or triple what you'll pay anywhere else. Check their prices and expect to pay a fraction of them at other dealers.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Top 10 Wardrobe Essentials

I've squandered a ridiculous amount of my life browsing fashion magazines, websites, and blogs. If I had devoted the time I've spent on all that (since maybe the age of 11) to something worthwhile, I'd probably have a decent career and maybe even a MacArthur Fellowship, Pulitzer, or Oscar for best screenplay on top of it. I'm not saying I'm particularly talented — just that the sheer number of hours I'd have spent doing something productive would surely have resulted in some kind of achievement, possibly by accident.

But it's all water under the bridge. Instead of artistic or academic glory, you're getting stuff like this post.

I've been thinking about those "Top 10 Essential Items" lists that are supposed to help you fill out your wardrobe and solve the "I have nothing to wear" problem once and for all. They are perennially attractive to all of us who love lists and are a bit insecure about how we dress. I think they keep reappearing because they inspire us to go shopping, even though we haven't yet worn the stuff we got the last time we paid attention to a Top 10 list. I also wonder if any author of a Top 10 list ever succeeded in curbing her shopping habits after finding the universal solution to America's fashion problem in her own closet.

Those lists never work for me. They are too specific and too much like the Ten Commandments. If the list includes a black jacket with matching pants and a pencil skirt — and it always does — forget it. As I've said before, I feel phony wearing a suit. I get rebellious urges to roam the streets committing petty crimes whenever I foolishly decide to wear the black suit I foolishly bought a few years ago. I also look terrible in pencil skirts and I don't like pants except jeans.

The other items that are always on Top 10 lists are plain black pumps and a white cotton button-front shirt "that can even be found at the Gap." I'll pass on both of those, too. If you wear all five of those items together, without irony, you might as well tell the world that you get all your fashion sense from a magazine list. Many of us instantly figured that out the moment we saw you. You will also be mistaken for an off-duty flight attendant.

It's time I made my own "Ten Essentials" list, so here you are, beginning with the core items first. Please note that I will give you very few specific items to buy, and nothing should be newsworthy. You know what you love, and what looks best on you; I don't.

1.  A classy bathrobe. It's the foundation of the freelancer's career attire. I spend more hours in my bathrobe than in anything else. It's my suit. Mine is burgundy cotton-poly velour, full-length, with set-in sleeves, broad lapels, and an attached sash.  It looks like something out of a 1940's Katharine Hepburn movie. It even had shoulder pads but they were scratchy so I removed them. Even if you work outside your house, a great bathrobe is lovely to look forward to and is a vast improvement over baggy or shrunken PJs.  I think it's as important to dress well at home, around your partner or family, as in public. Maybe it's more important.
     Avoid thick terry, kimono-style robes. Every time you raise your arms, the whole robe will lift up and disarrange itself, and that thick belt will unknot itself as often as possible — especially when you're signing for UPS or letting the plumber in. Also avoid poly-fleece robes: they attract lint like crazy, and crackle with static if you think too hard.

2. An elegant winter coat. Coats cover a multitude of sins — practically everything can be improved or concealed by the right coat. Choose wisely, and you will look put-together no matter what's going on under there. I recently found a black, ankle-length princess coat by DKNY at Lord &Taylor, on sale for $112 instead of $450. It's a wool-cashmere blend, fit-and-flare and sweeping. All you'll ever see peeking out from it are my boots. And perhaps the hem of my bathrobe.

3. A light jacket or coat. Same theory as the winter coat, extending coverage for extra seasons. If you're the trench type, you're all set. I hate belted coats, so I'm hunting for a simple, black, waterproof coat.

4. Basic, high-quality sweaters in neutral or jewel-tone colors, including cardigans, pullovers, and turtlenecks. They have to fit well, skimming the body and neither too tight or too loose. A richly colored cashmere or merino sweater looks handsome and enriches everything you're wearing. If you're always roasting, you get a pass on this one, with my sympathy. It's hard to go wrong with a navy or black V-neck or turtleneck.

5. Scarves. You can't have too many, in cotton, silk, or whatever you like. They'll "finish" your coats and make whatever else you threw on look vaguely French and put-together. You can invest in vintage Hermès on eBay, or shop street vendors' stalls.  I bought a soft, yellow plaid rayon square from The Limited, in 1982, for $12.99. It's gone with me on all of my travels ever since, and shows no signs of age. If you think you don't know how to wear a scarf, you're mistaken. The more casually you fling one on, the better it usually looks. Scarves, like sweaters, look fantastic on everyone.

6. Lingerie that does its job and doesn't show. With a good foundation, all of your clothes will look better. The engineering feats wrought by Spanx and its copycats are small miracles when you want to look very, very sleek. The rest of the time, you can enjoy blissfully comfortable yet sexy lace underwear from Hanky Panky, which disappears under clothing. And everyone makes invisible "T-shirt" bras these days.

That's as specific as I'm going to be. Your style is up to you to figure out; far be it from me to tell you that you have to own a pencil skirt. I'll just provide scenarios so you can make sure you have something that works for the following occasions.

7. Cocktail parties, concerts, gallery openings, dinner parties. Whenever I think that none of these events is looming on my horizon, whammo, we get invited somewhere nerve-wracking. It is awful to shop for special occasions; you never find what you want when you're hunting for it. So I make sure I have a few pretty dresses in my closet and a couple of pairs of heels. Maybe you're the pants-and-silky-top type, or you are chic enough to have a dinner suit. Boston is not a glitzy town, so our "good" clothing tends to be classic and quiet. (We got most of it at the original Filene's Basement years ago.)

8. Funerals, etc. No one likes to anticipate such events but they often come up suddenly. If your wardrobe is strictly casual or largely technicolor, make sure you have one or two sober, conservative items to get you through sad occasions. And court appearances — you never know when life may suddenly get complicated and you'll have more important things to worry about.

9. Work. I have no idea what the dress code is at your workplace. It can be mysterious: at my last office, my female supervisor wore hiking sandals and shorts while others wore suits or jeans. My only advice is to take your cues from the colleague you consider the best dressed, and never wear anything that makes you feel the least bit uncomfortable or unprofessional, even if it fits the dress code.

As you can see, sedate dresses, skirts or slacks and sweaters, or suits will cover all of the above situations, with the right accessories to dress them up or down as occasions dictate. It's your choice. Most of us have too many clothes although we need relatively few items to dress well for all occasions.

10. Three casual outfits for every season. These can include anything that makes you feel chic and put-together. You need three because two will inevitably be in the laundry. If you don't have a third, you are guaranteed to run into your ex, your boss, your best-dressed friend, your most obnoxious acquaintance, and/or Tom Brady as you're sneaking to the supermarket at dusk in ratty clothes. I've learned the hard way: get rid of whatever embarrasses you even slightly.

Bonus accessories: books. Carrying the right book raises both your perceived IQ and your style quotient. No one will care if your chinos are ragged if you're reading Wittgenstein, or Donald Hall, or Michael Pollan, as you're walking down Newbury Street. But you must actually absorb some of it, or you'll be busted when the cashier at Trader Joe's begins sounding you out. And besides, improving your mind is much more important than whatever you're wearing. I think I read that in Elle.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Therapy, Lapsed Catholic Style

It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.  Chinese proverb.


But why not multitask?

I think it's fine to silently curse the darkness the whole time you're lighting your candles. (Why stop at one?) Get it all out of your system. It's a soothing ritual for head and heart, it's far less annoying than yoga, and you get to play with fire before sitting down in solitude and (let's hope) a little less darkness. No matter what you believe.

St. Clement's Shrine is a peaceful Gothic church on Boylston Street near the Fenway. In the back, you'll find hefty candles, for a $2 donation.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Bunny

Over at PaperSource on Boylston Street, they have a display of soft, squishy little bunnies. Everyone heads straight for them, to squeeze and coo:  
I bought one to send to my aunt. She hasn't been feeling well for a while, and could use some cheering up. I knew she'd enjoy it. I went back the next day and bought a second one, just because:


I discovered that Possum disapproves of cute little bunnies. He subjected mine to stern disciplinary measures, even though it wasn't misbehaving. He smacked it repeatedly on the head: 


I think he is threatened by anything that might be considered more adorable than he is. He began biting the bunny's ear: 


I stepped in and remonstrated, saying that the bunny was harmless and not one of his catnip toys. Possum disagreed: the velvet armchair is his territory; the bunny trespassed and thus deserved whatever it got. 


The cowering,wet-eared bunny still looked awfully cute. I couldn't help cooing. Possum took off in a huff.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Cat Stays in the Picture

I don't know about you, but it seems to me that it's dogs, dogs, dogs, everywhere I look. Dogs have been trendy and popular for far too long. Like, centuries. For one thing, dogs are always on TV, which may partly explain why I rarely watch any. Even when they aren't being trotted around in Madison Square Garden, they're all over the tube. Even the Downton Abbey titles feature a close-up tracking shot of Lord Grantham's retriever's homely backside as she ambles toward the house, which I find in poor taste. (Lady Violet has a cat. Sensible woman.)

I also find dogs in too many books and movies — like that little terrier who stole every one of his scenes in The Artist and then stole the Oscar Best Picture acceptance speech. And dogs are relentlessly used to advertise everything from Ralph Lauren to Bud Light.

Cats tend to appear in ads for cat food, litter, and allergy medications, and very little else these days. I think this is wrong, but I understand the reason behind it: dogs will always appeal to the lowest common denominator, while cats are a more sophisticated taste. Cats are for snobs, like people who go to college. In America, dogs are country-western while cats are... Chopin.

But even so, the greatest advertisements have had cats in them. In Paris in the 1890s, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen raised advertising to an art with his Art Nouveau posters. No one has ever done it better:



Then there's my vote for the most creative commercial of all time, EDS's "Herding Cats." I'm not saying it was an effective advertisement, because I've seen it twenty times and I still can't remember the name "EDS" nor have a I clue about what they mean when they say, "We bring together information, ideas and technologies, and make them go where you want." Does that mean they sell iPads? I have no idea; I'm too busy laughing. That commercial has genius storytelling and humor in every frame. And even if I can never remember their name, I do know that, whoever they are, they are very cool for having given the green light to such a brilliant, crazy project.

Speaking of cool and crazy, IKEA's version of Herding Cats is also unforgettable. IKEA is not my style, but I admire them for their cattiness.

After a long dry spell with no cat media worth getting excited about, I was pleased to see cats cleverly featured in Anthropologie's March catalog. I hope this is the cutting edge of a new, non-dog trend: