Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Signs of Christmas?

Presidents' Day is over but lots of our neighbors still have their outdoor Christmas decorations up, in varying states of dryness, brownness, disarray, and death. Some of my Garden Club wreaths are still on doors as we head into Month Three.

Some of us (don't look at me!) still have indoor lights up, too. I think I actually spotted a lit tree last week on Commonwealth Avenue.

I love Christmas but enough is enough. So I recently inspected the apartment for leftover holiday stuff and, I have to say, I don't have a perfect score but I've done pretty well. At least I can justify make good excuses for what I have.

Our last balsam wreath, the one that always gets totally obscured by pinecones, was laid to rest more than a week ago, decently before Valentine's Day. No Christmas cards linger on my desk, not even the one with my cute baby great-nephew, which didn't arrive until late January.

I spotted one hydrangea spray with glitter that I hadn't bothered to put away, but it was up high in a vase, mostly out of sight, and not terribly Christmasy.

There are glittery pinecones mixed into the bowls of plain ones I keep around all year. I consider the glittered ones to be "wintry" rather than "holiday." So there.

I don't count Christmas-themed cat toys, since they don't belong to me.

I also refuse to count all the Christmas music we're still listening to because all of my MP3s are jumbled into one huge, unsortable playlist on my husband's ancient iPod. We need to update our sound system. So a typical playlist is a Chopin waltz, the Clash, a big-band version of "O Holy Night," the Beatles, Gregorian chant, Joan Baez, Arcade Fire, "Silent Night" and Nick Drake. It's not my fault. I try to click through the carols when they turn up but I forget, especially when I'm staring at my glittery pinecones.

Then there's the Christmas candy. We are making a valiant effort to finish it off as quickly as possible, although I wisely (or foolishly) skipped all the post-Valentine's chocolate sales. When it's gone, it will be easier for us to try to eliminate everything with added sugar from our diets for a month, something we initially planned to be doing now, since this is the shortest one. We got side-tracked, mostly by cookies. But it will happen: we both have to shed all the pounds we've gained since Thanksgiving so we do well at our annual check-ups. And because Easter candy is coming.

There's one last item and it isn't going anywhere. It's an ornament I got at Anthropologie last December and didn't have the heart to pack away:

He sits on the bedroom mantel. He looked great hanging him from a doorknob but I had to move him to higher ground because Harris.

On the night of the Super Bowl, around half-time, my husband was in despair. I took the creature from the mantel and pranced it around in his direction. "This is the Flying Jackalope of Good Fortune," I said. "If you make a wish, maybe you'll get it." The rest is history, and the kid stays in the picture.

What about you? Is your tree gone? What about the wreaths, garlands, dead poinsettias, fruitcake, cookies, and cards? Do you still have wrapped presents sitting around, waiting for people to show up because you are too lazy to mail them? (Me, too, but they're decently hidden in a drawer.)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Signs of Spring

We've had a few days of spring-like weather that's melted most of the foot of snow we were shoveling at this time last week. We spotted these hellebores on Saturday on the sunny side of Commonwealth Avenue, the first flowers we've seen:

On that same walk (North End Pizzeria Regina) I saw the witch hazel that's been blooming in the Public Garden for a while now. This is a terrible photo because I had to plunge through slippery, melting snow to get close to it and my boots weren't up to it.

It's weird to see flowers in February; my first impression of snowdrops and hellebores is never "Oooh, flowers!" but "Uh-oh — strange, alien growths oozing from the earth!" I sometimes felt a similar disconnect when I saw kids walking home from school back in the '80s and '90s, when there weren't so many young families in Back Bay. When I'd see children from my window on Commonwealth Avenue, my brain didn't register them as "school children in uniforms" but as "remarkably tiny yuppies in preppy outfits." A split second later I could correct myself; my next thought was usually that I needed to get out of Back Bay more often because it was too homogeneous.

These days, it's the magnolias and rhododendrons that are weird — they have had their buds since late summer. I'm not sure what they are going to look like when they finally bloom, which could be any time now if this warming pattern continues. Will they look wrinkly and tired? Will they still be wearing their Hillary buttons? Or will they just decide not to bloom at all as a protest because people will still have their Christmas wreaths up?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Lion Is Nervous

In this photo, Lion looks relaxed on his pillow but he actually is on the verge of taking off and disappearing. His pointy little ears are back, which is the warning sign.

He is nervous for one of two reasons:

1. I am bothering him. When I took this, he was having a rest after a pitched battle with me over whether he should chase the [disgusting] furry rodent attached to the pole or chew on the string, which is he thinks is his mission in life. He will chase the toy like a rambunctious kitten to please me and distract me, but the second I turn away — and I try hard to keep an eye on him but there are other cats who want attention, too — he attacks the string. It is fraying in several places. I remind him that he swallowed two feet of it once and it was no fun at all. He ignores me. I wish I understood him. The closest I can come is my own relationship with dental floss. I don't love flossing my teeth but can't imagine not doing it every day. Did he learn from watching us that "chewing" on string is hygienic and necessary? If I ask, all I get is his innocent, round-eyed gaze. And then he takes off to hide.

2. Lion is worried about our government. Possum follows the news and updates the others. I'm not sure what he tells them; so far, at least, no one's appetite has been seriously affected. But I've noticed that, when we are reading and working in the living room after dinner, four of them gather on the bed, leaving one, usually Harris or Toffee, to keep us "company" (it feels more like surveillance). If I walk into the bedroom while they are there, they stare at me, trying hard to look innocent and sleepy. I am not fooled. Then, every night when we go to bed, all five regroup in the living room. I can't remember when I last had a cat for company at bedtime — probably around Christmas. All we get is four patches of vestigial warmth. It makes us wonder if we should get more cats: five feels a lot like zero these days.  If I get up in the middle of the night (I have insomnia and looking out the window passes the time) I find them all curled up on the living room chairs, facing each other. Having a meeting.
    I can only assume they are planning some covert operation to disrupt/save the government, and they don't want to get us in trouble if it fails and they get arrested. They all lack any proof of citizenship. We know Harris was born in Newtown, Connecticut, but that's it. Possum allegedly came from Norway, and Lion is said to be some type of foreigner. They are brave.
    I'm pleased that they are organized; like many others, our little family is learning the hard way that we need to participate in government if we want it to work for us and for all people. I'm also glad that Wendy is part of the group, since she tends to hold rigid conservative beliefs aligning with the Tea Party, according to Possum. But he says she becomes more open-minded once she's been bitten enough. I hope they don't do anything dangerous or embarrassing. I'm praying it's something harmless, like speed-dialing Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan's offices when we aren't home and leaving incoherent messages, or donating their toys to Elizabeth Warren's reelection campaign.  If I figure it out, I will let you know.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

You Want These. But You Can't Have Them

When seasoned travelers from Europe and elsewhere visit us, or just my husband at the university, they usually bring presents. My husband wisely hands the good stuff — anything that isn't the visitor's latest scholarly tome — over to me. 

The best presents are chocolate, of course. Sometimes French and Italian visitors bring a good bottle of wine, which was a nuisance for them to transport. Since I can't drink and my husband only likes an occasional sherry or Bailey's, it means we have a good gift the next time we are asked to dinner. 

Our Paris friends sometimes remember that our favorite Mariage Frères tea is butterscotch. We really miss our Paris friends these days.

A Belgian visitor brings chocolate, so a Belgian visitor is always more than welcome. A recent one handed over a little cube that was surprisingly heavy, being packed tightly with half a kilo of little chocolate pyramids, filled with vanilla cream. Then she sent us another tiny box, this time packed with cats and Santas filled with hazelnut cream. She'd better come back soon.

Egyptian chocolate can be excellent. In December, we got a box of gold-foil-wrapped dark chocolates from Cairo, with a crunchy, sort-of praline center. I was initially skeptical, but Egyptians know from chocolate; I knew that they had pastry all figured out — and candy, too. The praline things were so addictive that we ate them all without saving a wrapper, and now we don't know how to get more.

The best thing about dark chocolate is that my husband thinks he doesn't like it and usually leaves it alone. Mine, mine, mine.

German, Austrian, and Swiss visitors wisely bring chocolate. The more diabolical among them bring us Lindt chocolate in varieties that we can't get here, a welcome gift that is also a form of torture. A package appears, full of something wonderful, and we (or I should say, I) snarf it down and realize I must, must, must have more. Now! So I race over to the Lindt store . . . and they've never heard of it.

Let me draw your attention to two such items, just in case this happens to you, or if you are going to travel to Switzerland and want to bring us a present:

These are roasted almonds covered in milk chocolate and dusted in sugar spiced with cinnamon and coriander:

They are amazingly good. They run rings around the deeply addictive chocolate-covered almonds with sea salt and Turbinado sugar from Trader Joe's. I ate most of a bag the other day, during a screening of La La Land, and it was by far the most enjoyable part of the experience. (Musical romantic comedies have Happy Endings — it should go without saying. So what was that?)  

Anyway, I'm trying to learn how to pronounce Weihnachts-Mandeln nicely so I can tell Santa I want many bags of them next winter. They are, obviously (if you have any German; I do not), a holiday item. But that didn't register with me until I had only about four left in the bag. This means that nobody can get them now unless there's a Teutonic candy shop somewhere with a curse on it. 

I will never understand why all the wonderful holiday things are only available at holiday time.* For example, peppermint bark tastes just as good in April as it does in December. But unless it's occurred to you to hoard the stuff (and I have) you'll just have to trust me on that. 

After all, in A Christmas Carol Mr. Dickens advised us to keep Christmas in our hearts all year round, and it would be a hell of a lot easier if we could keep it in our stomachs, too. 

I may actually try to make some Weihnachts-Mandeln soon. I'll let you know how that goes. 

My other long-lost foreign-only item is Lindt's Milk Chocolate Orange Thins (see above). They look like nothing — thin little rectangles of plain chocolate. Big deal, you say. I know, I thought so, too. Loads of them come packed in a shallow box about the size of two decks of cards. But there's something lovely and satisfying about their very thinness and smooth flavor — and I'm hardly a chocolate minimalist. They melt in your mouth perfectly. And you really only need a few at a time but, as I said, there are loads of them, which is lovely, too. 

In the US, you can get them in milk or dark chocolate. What you can't get is the orange-flavored milk chocolate and those are the ones you want. The ones you must have when you finish them out and trot over to the Lindt store for a crushing disappointment. (I can also tell you that they don't have them in the Heathrow Duty-Frees because I pestered a friend to hunt for them last week.)

If you are heading to Zurich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, or similar soon, please let me know.

*  I get the point of not leaving Christmas decorations up much past January, and waiting until after Thanksgiving to put them up.** I'm not sure how I feel about the people who leave their electric candles in the windows year-round. This is common in the my hometown, Bethlehem, PA (the Christmas City of the USA). If I lived there, I might be tempted to do it, too, but I also think it makes the candles less special when they are always lit, heating up August nights and competing with the lightning bugs and humidity there.

** Which reminds me. It's the day after Valentine's Day. Are your Christmas decorations, etc., GONE YET? More on that subject later. I'm keeping Christmas in my heart AND here and there, I guess.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Another snowy day spent indoors. I've stayed inside for three of the past four days and, while I miss getting exercise, I also like being warm and lazy. I think I will have had enough of my easy chair by tomorrow even though the snow is supposed to be worse then. Cabin fever will propel me out into the thick of it, unless it's really a blizzard.

I've reserved three books from the Boston Public Library on the trending topic of hygge,* the Danish practice of making winter more pleasant. It will be interesting to see if there's enough material to fill one decent book, and if it's worthwhile to read all three.

I will let you know what I learn but, in the meantime, here's a good summary with tips that I've found so far. It boils down to making your life cozier, healthily indulgent and more sociable:

  • lots of candles and soft lighting, day or night
  • hot drinks, from cocoa to mulled wine
  • warm socks or slippers
  • hearty, comfort food, eaten at home 
  • casual socializing at home
  • blankets and throws
  • fires, if you have a fireplace
  • watching the snow
  • decorating with greens, flowers, and plants 
  • limiting screen time (a tough one for me)
  • going out daily for fun exercise and activities. 
All of these are simple, healthy ways to make the most of winter and promote happiness at this darkest, coldest time of the year. I'd add snuggling with cats and reading good books to the list. I hope those are hygge; they'd better be.

I'd also add being careful to limit the overwhelming amount of upsetting, nearly incredible news coming from Washington every day. We need to be informed citizens, but we also need to be active citizens, so focus on that every day, too. Do whatever you can and you will feel a little better. You can:

  • donate to causes and candidates 
  • subscribe to professional journalism (we have The Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post, and The New Yorker. The Atlantic is probably next. Plus Vanity Fair — a whole year cost me $5 after Trump dissed it and they responded with an offer to good to refuse)
  • join political action groups, locally or nationally
  • write or make calls to your elected officials
  • sign all the petitions circulating online (I have doubts about the value, but if it makes you feel better. . . )
  • become active in your own neighborhood, city, or town
  • attend marches, protests, and other organized gatherings
  • volunteer to make a difference to the less fortunate.
So let's get to it, but I really don't think I'm going out to frolic in the storm or be a one-woman protest movement today.

Possum, being Norwegian, says he has mastered the art of hygge in his own way, which looks more like hibernating, I'd say. He only wakes up to eat or snuggle with Harris or my husband. (Rarely with me.)

* Try saying "HUE-gah" in your best Danish accent.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Growly

Since Harris and Toffee had their dental surgery for tooth resorption on January 19, I've noticed differences in their behavior — all good, of course. They are eating faster and with more gusto. They have an easier time gobbling their dry treats, like freeze-dried chicken and salmon; before, they would drop some, which would get instantly snapped up by another greedy cat. They run around and play more with each other and Lion, and are more interested in playing with me. 

Different energy, different habits . . . and yet I had no idea there was anything wrong with them when they were suffering silently with painful teeth that had exposed pulp. Each cat had two lower premolars removed, and Harris had an upper tooth that showed signs of deterioration on X-rays, so that was removed, too. I figured they were just slowing down because they were getting older. I was wrong. Take your cat for annual vet check-ups — it's so important. Cats do a great job at hiding their pain and problems.

One more notable change is Harris's fierce attachment (literally) to our new Neko Flies Original Kittenator pole toy. This is a little mouse-sized fox-fur toy with a tail: 

For years we had the fake-fur version, but I'm here to tell you to leave your principles at the pet-shop door and get the real-fur one if you love your cats. Our fake-fur one has been around for years and looks as good as new. I replaced it only because of the string : Lion prefers chewing it to bothering with the toy, and he made too much progress. And, as we know already from Lion and his love of the string on Neko Flies, endoscopies are expensive.  

Anyway,  check out the real-fur Kittenator now, after just about two weeks with Harris. It's at death's door:

Harris is mad for it. He greets me every morning when I wake up with an expectant look, and then he herds me to the corner where we keep the toy out of his reach. If I ignore him, he goes to my desk and commits vandalism. When he gets tired of me shooing him off and protesting, he attacks the coats hanging near his toy. Eventually he gets his toy, and I'm getting better at playing with it and holding a mug of tea at the same time. 

He races around chasing it and will leap high into the air, as he did when he was a kitten. But his favorite thing is to sit with it clamped within his jaws, growling and occasionally hissing in ferocious triumph. He will do this happily for as long as 20 minutes. He has spent a few hours since his recovery sitting around, dissolving the toy with his saliva and emitting cute bass rumbling.

 Grrrrrr. Grrrrrr. Grrrrrrrrr.

The toy is now known as Harris's Growly. Toffee and Lion are interested in it, too, as it's flying around the room and Harris is after it. But when they manage to get it for themselves, they quickly lose interest. It's too tattered, and smells too much like Harris's breath. Lion still wants to eat the string, of course.

In the beginning, I'd be stuck standing a few feet from wherever Harris caught it and hunkered down to growl and hiss. Then we learned he was portable:

So I park him and his Growly next to my chair and do email, make calls, surf the web, and so on as he grrrrs contentedly. I keep a little pressure on the pole and jiggle it a bit to keep him happy. 

And life is good. That is, life with cats is good. As far as Life, with a capital "L," well, don't get me started.