Saturday, January 31, 2009

How to Waste Time

I joined facebook this week, after being urged by a couple of old friends. I already have some friends there, including a local guy who joined yesterday, a girlfriend on the West Coast, a college buddy, his brother, my niece, an old pal from a former job, two neighbors, and my husband. It's nice to keep in touch rather casually with everyone, but I can't see the point of keeping tabs on hundreds of people, which seems pretty common on FaceBook. And since even my little clique is busily posting multiple times daily, I can see how this may become exhausting over time.

But anything seems like fun compared to writing about antihistamines. I hope to finish the writing today, annotate it for fact-checking tomorrow, and rejoin the ranks of the unemployed on Monday.

I would have finished it sooner except for this irresistible webcam that is sucking up the productivity of thousands of people across the US at any given minute, including several people to whom I sent the link. We're crazy about the black-tiger-and-white kitten and the calico. I'm seriously considering whether we should become a four-cat household again.

Another good way to waste time is the Banana Republic January sale. Online and in stores, this sale is always fun, and this year they seem to be giving away perfectly fine clothing at insane prices. I suppose many stores are these days, but I stick to the tried-and-true, and I like the quality and styling as well as the prices at Banana. Everything I picked is nicely made, fairly classic, and actually fits me. It's important to visit the stores often (or call them) in January to find out when there are new markdowns and promotions.

Because I was lucky enough to earn a "Luxe" credit card years ago, I get free hemming and free shipping if I want something sent from another store anywhere in the US. This enables me to call around the country in search of bargains in my size. Plus they keep sending me $40 or $50 rewards cards, even though I swear I don't spend enough to deserve them.

(Banana Republic executives: please stop reading here!)

It's important to realize that online and store sale prices differ, and stores in depressed towns in Alabama and Arkansas might produce whatever sold-out items you're coveting if you can give them the style number and you don't mind being put on hold for awhile. (The online store's customer service reps can give you phone numbers for stores that appear to have your item in quantity.)

If you're really willing to waste time, you can save lots of money by re-buying items when the prices go down further (and the 2-week price-adjustment period has passed). For example, I bought a $98 skirt marked down to $55 a few weeks ago. When it went down to $18, I found it in North Carolina and had it shipped for free.

Ultimately I bought a couple of $175 wool jackets for $19 and $35, and similarly priced pants and a skirt to go with them. I found a gorgeous cropped black pea coat with gold buttons for $35 instead of $198. And a black double-knit '60's-style coat for $56 instead of $175. Plus a couple of tops for less than $10 each, tailored chinos for under $20, a tweed fedora, and a handsome leather belt. Using one of my rewards cards helped, but my new professional wardrobe set me back less than $250. And they've already sent me more rewards cards!

Since the beginning of this century (doesn't that sound odd?) I've either worked at home or for companies where any form of hiking clothes is acceptable office attire. So my closet filled up with jeans, tees, cashmere turtlenecks, and funky skirts. For dressing like an adult, I had exactly one black wool suit with a white shirt ($60, from the Banana sale last year), a black skirt (that I recently noticed has faded to two shades), a blazer from the '80s, and a blazer from the '70s. (Plus a pair of nice brown pants and lots of cashmere sweaters.) When I took stock, I realized I had to be better prepared for potential new-client meetings or job interviews. And I think I did it. So I guess all that furious shopping wasn't a waste of time after all — or money, I hope.

If you really, really want to waste time, start a blog!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Taking "the T" in Venice

I'm missing Venice tonight. Here's the only movie I've ever taken — 45 seconds of a typical ride between one vaporetto station and another (the bumpiness at the end always happens as you arrive at the station). When I compare this with any means of transportation in Boston (barring a yacht in the harbor), I could cry.

I think I would love to live there, even if I had to haul groceries by boat, climb up many stone flights to my flat, put up with millions of tourists, and wade through acqua alta. It must be the most amazing, beautiful city on earth.

There's No Place Like "Home" (or "O at Home")

I just read about the demise of Domino Magazine in today's New York Times, which also reported:
"The home design category has suffered at almost every major publisher in just over a year. Time Inc. closed InStyle Home and Cottage Living, Martha Stewart Omnimedia closed Blueprint, Meredith closed Country Home, Hearst closed O at Home and Hachette Filipacchi Media closed Home."

These are seven of my favorite magazines, the ones I gravitate to first at a bookstore. I've subscribed to several in more profligate years. There isn't much left for those of us who don't have modern or stuffy-decorator tastes, or who aren't interested in the luxury lifestyles of the rich and over-the-top. Many of those shuttered mags, especially the quarterly ones, like O at Home and InStyle Home, were packed with great ideas to fix up real homes on a budget.

I'm not a fan of Architectural Digest, for example. And while all the foreign design magazines overflowing the store racks are gorgeous, they don't have much to say to me here in Boston. I guess there's still Old House Journal and Traditional Home, and features in Martha Stewart Living. But I thought this recession/depression, or whatever it is, was going to drive us all towards nesting — spending more time enjoying our homes through cooking and other domestic pleasures. Two of my favorite activities are curling up to read decorating magazines and trying to find ways to rearrange the furniture and accessories in our tiny apartment. I thought we'd be seeing more Domino-type magazines.

Oh, well. I'm lucky I didn't get around to dealing with my magazine collection last year, so I still have a few dozen old issues and a shopping bag packed with clippings to keep me entertained through the hard times ahead. And surely all this, too, shall pass.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Spotted this little guy on Marlborough Street on Sunday, on our way to a few real estate open houses. I thought he was adorable, and figured I'd better photograph him before another storm (like the big one coming tonight) covers him up for good. It will only take about an inch before he's done for.

I guess he isn't exactly a snowman, although he has most of the classic accoutrements — except for the top hat and scarf... and a head, a torso, and a ... what do snowman anatomists call the round part at the bottom?Let's call it a base.  

What he does have is pretty compelling, though.

We like going to open houses in Back Bay because there's still so much great architecture remaining in these Victorian buildings. We usually limit ourselves to condos vaguely in our "price range" (not that we could afford anything these days) because we inevitably feel so fortunate to come back home to our own little place after seeing the horrors out there. Sometimes we'll go see something in the $1- or 2-million-plus range because the building is splendiferous. Then we pretend we're shopping for my mother-in-law, in hopes that she'll give up her big house and move closer to us in town.

We saw a doozy this weekend: two fixer-upper studios converted to an insanely overpriced one bedroom, connected by a metal spiral staircase missing much of its railing. We both practically crawled up it to the bedroom, clinging to what was left like 90-year-olds. We were not pleased with the giant unprotected hole next to it, in the bedroom floor, with a 12-foot drop below. I wonder which of us would have found it first in the middle of the night. Perhaps one of the cats in that maniacal, hyper-cat racing mood they still get into occasionally. We'd have to put a trampoline down there. 

It felt great to come home.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sleepy Times

It's after midnight, and I believe I just finished writing an article for a pharmacy magazine about sleep disorders. I'm too tired to be certain. As I worked on it over the past several nights, I struggled with overwhelming sleepiness as I read about the importance of sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night, and the evils of napping. Of course, I can't do the former and I can't help the latter, especially given the literary quality of most of my sources. Between the construction in the building that prevents my writing during "working hours" and my natural night-owl habits, I have most of the symptoms of sleep deprivation, except for the hallucinations—which I keep expecting. They might be fun.

And it sounds like my husband may have a few symptoms of mild sleep apnea....

I yawned and dozed my way through writing the article — and once or twice put my head down on the keyboard (a bad ideaaaaaaaaaaaa). I'll be glad when this story is annotated for fact-checking and sent off to my new editor. She's a complete stranger, and I hope she's nice.

If I do have hallucinations, I wonder if they'll be about Tom Hardy, the actor who played Heathcliff in the new "Masterpiece Classic" version of Wuthering Heights that finished up tonight. It was so good that we both sat through it twice tonight and last Sunday. Boy, can he brood under that unkempt rock-n-roll hair. The hair is key: without it, I'm not interested. (British actors: another bad idea...)

I especially enjoyed the casting: the actors who played characters who were related — brother and sister, for example — actually resembled each other. This was a serious deficiency in another "Masterpiece Classic" favorite, Bleak House. It's important to the plot that Lady Dedlock and her long-lost daughter Esther look strikingly similar, but the actresses (one dark, doe-eyed, and chiseled; and the other fair, snub-nosed, and puffy-cheeked) couldn't have been more different.

But I digress. Inability to focus on tasks is symptomatic of a sleep deficit.

As I wrote through these the last few nights, I had the curious pleasure of hearing not only gentle snoring from the bedroom, but various snore duets by the cats. If you don't think cats can snore impressively, you'd be wrong. All three of ours are gifted. I don't usually have the luxury of an appropriate soundtrack when I'm writing for pay. 

Good night.

Friday, January 23, 2009

More Cooking without a Recipe

I like making soups and casseroles on cold winter days. When something is simmering on the stove, it keeps both me and the house warm. I tend to go overboard and make large quantities, so I often stock our tiny freezer and have nice leftovers for days.

I have a difficult time following recipes — not because I don't understand them, but because more interesting ideas occur to me. All of the best dishes prepared by long-gone family cooks were never written down, and I rarely saw them consult a recipe (I'm not sure they all could read). So I guess I absorbed the idea that great cooking is done by instinct. It's unfortunate that none of those ladies took the time to teach my generation any of their techniques. When I'd ask, all I'd get was a vague, "Well, you do this, take some of that — don't ask me, I just do it!"

So nowadays I do most of my cooking on the wing. It helps to be alert and to keep tasting as you go along. I like to read recipes and books about cooking, so I often have a rough idea of what someone else might do, but I try to pay attention to my ingredients and do what seems best for them.

I'd never try this with baking, however, because creativity can backfire in the oven. Even when I follow a baked recipe scrupulously, things — a doomed batch of popovers, a memorable cranberry-orange loaf — like to explode all over my oven. So while I might double the oatmeal or chocolate chips in mom's toll-house cookie recipe, I try to stick to the straight-and-narrow if flour and leavening are involved.

My latest creation is a mushroom ragout with sautéed chicken. I buy a pound and a half of sliced baby bell mushrooms and cook them in a big pan with olive oil and butter. When there's a little juice in the pan, I add some chopped shallot and a handful of dried porcini that I've reconstituted in a cup of hot water. (In the water, I add a Knorr porcini bouillon cube. You can only get these from grocery stores in Tuscany, so be sure to hit one before you get your fresh ingredients! Or use a chicken cube... but what fun is that?)

Add salt, pepper, a splash of sherry, fresh rosemary sprigs, and chopped thyme (the only herbs that grow indoors for me: what a coincidence). While that's cooking, I sauté pounded chicken cutlets in butter and olive oil, and then cut them into little pieces. (I only buy Empire Kosher chicken: It's by far the best, beating the pinfeathers off the average free-range organic bird. Kosher brining makes the meat juicy, salty, and flavorful no matter how hard you try to ruin it.)

When some of the liquid has cooked off the mushrooms, stir in a couple of tablespoons of butter. Put the chicken and mushrooms together in a shallow casserole dish, pull out the rosemary sprigs, and top it with shredded cheese. I've used Comté and fontina so far, with outstanding results. Then roast at 400 for about 20 or 30 minutes. Stirring it occasionally gives me an excuse to add even more cheese when it's out of the oven.

We eat it with a sliced, buttered baguette (Iggy's) and plain greens with vinaigrette. It's a satisfying blend of simple flavors, perfect for a cold winter night. Tomorrow, I'll use the leftovers on top of egg noodles.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Snowy Sunday

We've had a few Sunday snowstorms this winter, and I think they are wonderful. We're often inspired to head out into the white stuff for muffins and oversweetened coffee drinks from Espresso Royale (or in recent weeks, free tea lattés from Starbuck's, using coupons from my gym). Even Newbury Street is empty on snowy mornings, so we know we can get a table and a Times. We pulled on our boots this past Sunday and strolled along the Commonwealth Avenue mall. It was as tranquil and deserted as it looks:

We noticed that the lady authoresses of Women's Memorial were looking even more at a loss for words than usual. I like walking through this monument almost daily on my travels, but I think these three great writers deserved separate memorials rather than being lumped into one. Plus, they all look like they've got a bad case of writer's block (and, trust me, I know what that looks like).

Here's Abigail Adams, with snow filling in her eyes and framing her neck in a luxurious collar:

Here's Phillis Wheatley, wondering, perhaps where her quill is, under all that snow.

This was a good day to wrap up in an afghan, listen to football from the next room — and work. I have lots of freelance assignments at the moment, and I need to do my writing at night and on weekends because there's too much construction noise—including badly sung Abba tunes — right underneath mydesk during the week. How I relish the quiet of these snowy weekend days.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Feeding the Cat, Part II

I wrote a post on November 18 about our 14-year-old Persian, Snictoria, and her scary weight loss due to an unknown illness. She had lots of tests that were negative. Our vet now thinks she has inflammatory bowel disease — and that's treatable. (Or else she has lymphoma, which isn't. So we're holding tight to the IBD theory.)

She's been on steroid pills for weeks and gained more than half a pound—which is quite a lot for a 5.5-pound cat. She stopped looking like a skeleton in a fur coat and has more energy, although she is not the flying maniac huntress she was. She spends more time with us, and purrs, which is gratifying.

She also asks to eat — frequently — thanks to the pills. Sometimes we feed her 12 times a day. She eats only tiny amounts, and rarely wants the same food twice in a row. She'll sit and stare up at us in disbelief that we'd offer her such disgusting swill (the same food she ate enthusiastically less than an hour before). This is what that looks like:

I agree: It is disgusting swill. I wish I were one of those women who makes her own organic cat food, but I'm not. Even feeding her out of cans and pouches is like a part-time job, since we have to stay with her to keep the other cats from snarfing up the leftovers. They hover hopefully, like fluffy vultures. But the hardest part is figuring out how to persuade her to eat. She often just sits staring at us, with the food in front of her.

Out of desperation, we've begun speaking to her — exhorting is a more accurate term — in LOL-cat language, like those ungrammatical captions on the "I Can Has Cheezburger?" website. "Eat da foods, Snick! You has to eat dese foods! Dese is delicious foods, you will love them!" She listens, and sometimes starts eating. It seems that she expects a sales pitch now; if we silently put down her bowl, she pays no attention.

So, we behave like morons in the service of our Persian. But the great thing is that Snicky is still keeping my feet warm at night. 

A Christmas Steroid Story

On Christmas Eve morning, my husband handed me Snicky's empty steroid pill bottle, saying, "Look, they're gone! Hooray!" I mentioned this to my sister when she called. She started raving about how we HAD to get more pills immediately, because you can't just stop taking steroids all at once. You have to taper off slowly or else truly dreadful things happen to your innards. 

I realized she was right, but I also knew that our vet was closed for two days. So I called Angell Memorial Animal Hospital. The "liaison" I spoke with was utterly unhelpful. All she wanted us to do was make an unscheduled $135 emergency visit, and she said the waiting time was about 3 to 4 hours.  She refused to give me any general information about steroid pills or withdrawal, and refused to even tell me whether missing a couple of pills would make a difference. She refused to let me talk to a pharmacist, vet, or another liaison. All she wanted was $135. She was so nasty and mercenary that I never plan to go there again. 

I called five other vet clinics and hospitals. Everyone I spoke with was kinder and more informative. The consensus was that we absolutely should give the cat at least one pill a day until we could get the prescription refilled. But no one would prescribe even two pills without seeing the cat. And no one was taking appointments on Christmas Eve. 

I called my allergy clinic and left a message. Since I've taken steroid pills now and then for asthma, I figured they could prescribe a few pills for "me," to give to the cat. I gather it was the oddest request they'd received in some time. But they didn't actually hear it until days later, when the drama was over. Still, they agreed that it was a creative idea.

I called my primary care doctor's office. We love her, and she's been very tolerant in other strange situations. The answering service picked up. I explained the problem, and the operator said he was certain that the extremely annoying doctor on call that evening would not lift a finger help our cat. 

We got online and tracked down the home number of one of our vets and the street (not the whole address) of the other. The first vet wasn't home. I suspect the second vet would have been horrified if we'd turned up at her door like a couple of stalkers.

It was now after dark. Places were closing. I called our nearest CVS. The pharmacist said she couldn't legally help me. She said they didn't even carry those tablets. But she said she'd call another CVS to see if they had some, just in case we reached the vet. She called back; another local CVS carried it. I called them up and begged. 

That pharmacist told me that if we got there in 20 minutes, before her shift ended, and brought the empty prescription bottle, she would give us a few pills. My husband raced off in the snow with a gift-wrapped packet of chocolate bars for Snicky's savior. He got the pills (for free) told the pharmacist she was the nicest person in Boston, and raced back home to give the cat her pill. She was ungrateful. We were quite the opposite.

 ***    ***   ***

All right, so my tale wasn't The Gift of the Magi. I'm not O. Henry, not even worthy to sniff his cigar. But I think that pharmacist deserves a medal for helping us and our cat, and we deserve one, too. And if we hadn't gotten those pills, my sister would probably have murdered us on Christmas Day. Lives were saved.

Try scoring drugs for your cat on Christmas Eve — and see how you do. It was a Christmas Miracle!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Annals of Stupidity, Part 2, or St. Anthony Saves the Day

We had no heat yesterday afternoon, due to the construction in the building. It was freezing and miserable. I could write a separate blog about what we've suffered from that project for the past four months:
  • Endless banging, drilling, sawing, hammering, yelling, singing, fighting, and generator noise, from 7 to about 4
  • Weeks without heat
  • Days without water, with only a few minutes' notice
  • Massive amounts of dirt and dust pouring into our condo from 37 tons of demolition and the ensuing mess. It's still filtering in.
  • Days and nights with 90-degree heat from the malfunctioning new $8,000 boiler we were persuaded to get, replacing our reliable 30-year-old boiler
  • No electricity for many hours, with no notice
  • Men using the backyard as a bathroom, in plain sight
  • Unlocked building doors, and ladders left at open windows at night, welcoming the very active local burglars
  • A filthy lobby—also under construction
  • Broken doorbells for three months
  • I'm allergic to tree pollens and enzymes, including those in fresh lumber, so I've been sneezing, and sniffling, unable to breathe easily for months. I have bleeding ulcers in my nose now.
  • One of our cats got inflammatory bowel disease, likely from the stress of the demolition, which was horribly loud, and went on for days while we were traveling. We've spent thousands trying to diagnose and treat her; she's finally improving. But the ongoing noise isn't helping.
  • Workmen coming into our apartment almost every day to fix doors that have shifted, locks that won't work, radiators that need adjustment, and so much more, all caused by ongoing construction.
I endure, one day at a time—beginning at 7 am sharp, when the first guy starts waling the tar out of something a few feet beneath our bed. Right now, I'm listening to power-sawing, hammering, and a guy belting "My Way." 

They say it will improve when soundproofing insulation goes in, but they've been promising that for two months. Right now, there's only 3/4 of an inch of wood between us and the noise and dirt. Working with that much racket is next to impossible. So I start writing my freelance articles after they leave, and stay up as late as I can, always long after midnight. But then they wake me up too early. I'm clearly sleep deprived. 

To return to my story... I did another dumb thing yesterday. But I was saved.

Having no heat on one of the coldest days of the season is so typical around here that we barely complained. I'd returned from a tough class at the gym, and was chilled to the bone, so I decided to take a bath instead of a shower, because it seemed like the only way to warm up. I filled our deep soaking tub with bubbles and got in up to my chin. It took a long time to get warm because the air was so frosty that it cooled off the surface of the water. 

Then I had a contact lens attack. This always happens in the most inconvenient places, like on an icy street at night. But it had never happened during a bath before. I took out the lens, and it slipped from my wet hand into the bubbles.

A gas-permeable contact lens, tinted gray, looks exactly like a bubble. There were millions of bubbles in the tub; many of them looked like a contact lens.  It was also a perfect match for the color of the water.  I spent 10 minutes hunting, half-blind, then called my husband for help. We worried that it had floated into the overflow drain. I was starting to shrivel up and get cold when my husband said he needed to leave for an appointment. I asked him to hand me my glasses and lens case so I could see.

Then I remembered Saint Anthony. All over Italy and Paris, we visited churches and lit candles, and I usually chose Saint Anthony's statue for mine. He's the patron saint of lost items and takes his job seriously.  I've kept him busy in my time. I was raised Catholic but I no longer practice, and I am deeply cynical about almost all things religious. But not Saint Anthony. 

I'm not alone in this. A couple of years ago, I found a wallet on Boylston Street, brimming with cash and credit cards. It belonged to a woman who lived on Marlborough Street, so I looked up her number, and she came running in a few minutes. I handed her the wallet, and she gave me a hug, saying, "I prayed to Saint Anthony!" In the North End, this wouldn't seem out of place; in Back Bay, it was more striking. Together we marveled at how he always comes through.

So, in the tub, I made a short, earnest plea. My husband brought my lens case, and I took my hands out of the water and popped out my lens. Then I noticed something strange: I had TWO contact lenses in my hand. The one I'd just removed was where it should have been (and was slowly heading toward the tub in my wet palm, I'm sorry to say). The missing lens was clinging to my thumb. 

What are the chances? It was a miracle. Saint Anthony did it again.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Annals of Stupidity, Part 1

People who know me would universally acknowledge that I can be an idiot. As well as a klutz.

One morning a few years ago, for example, I woke up and reached for my glasses on my bedside table. I dropped them; they broke. As I got out of bed to pick up the pieces, I stumbled, hit my head, pulled a muscle in my back, and knocked over a lamp. I had managed to do all that just by getting out of bed, so I worried that I could accidentally kill myself if I left the bedroom. So I went back to sleep for a few more hours. I called in "clumsy" to my boss. And she completely understood.

Another morning, as I was putting dishes away in the cabinet over my stove, a glass bowl leaped into the air and smashed on the kitchen floor. With three cats usually hanging around the kitchen, I knew I had to act quickly to clean it up. But as I stepped backward, I cut my bare foot on a shard of glass. Plenty of blood, with a big piece of glass sticking out. So I hopped the long route from kitchen to bathroom, leaving a trail of blood. I maneuvered my foot into the sink, removed the glass, and opened the medicine cabinet for a bandage. But somehow I knocked a full bottle of cologne off its shelf. It smashed on the sinktop, dousing me with Hermès Eau d'Orange Verte. With my foot stuck in the sink, I was in no position to avoid it. So, in less than two minutes: Broken glass in two rooms, an injured foot, blood everywhere, and me reeking like a lounge lizard. Luckily the cats slept right through it. 

People kept their distance at work that day.

In the past few days, I've been true to form four times. I fell spectacularly on some ice a few doors from our house last Wednesday. But everyone was doing that; it was icy. I spent some time down there, thinking about how to safely stand up and observing the neighborhood from a dog's-eye view, which I seldom have. My street looks interesting from that sidewalk vantage point, but I don't plan to spend more time down there.

Over the weekend, I accidentally washed and dried one of my cashmere sweaters. I usually have a careful laundry routine but I've been sleep-deprived lately — thanks to construction noise in the building that makes it impossible to think or write during the day. (I've gotten a few writing assignments that keep me working from after dinner until the wee hours, but there's always a guy swinging a sledgehammer right under our bed at 7 am.)  And I discovered that moths were eating my sweaters in our closet, so clothes are lying everywhere until I figure out a safer way to store them. And one was mistaken for laundry.

When I pulled the toddler-sized item from the dryer, I had no idea what it was. Then I decided to soak it immediately in cold water, stretch it hard, and let it drip dry over the tub. It worked, sort of. I'm not sure I'll wear it much, but at least I don't have to give it to one of my old Barbies.

While making breakfast today, I reached into our bread box for the loaf, but somehow the brand-new package of Trader Joe's Ginger Snaps opened up and they went flying everywhere. That was typical.

Right now, I am doing more laundry to the din of brick-drilling from close by. I just noticed a suspicious amount of expensive-looking fluff on the lint filter. Had I forgotten to clean it in the aftermath of the cashmere sweater episode? No. I had just washed and dried one of my husband's nicest sweaters.  

I hope the same technique works this time. But I'm getting too much practice.

Time to go see what else I can ruin.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Abstinence-Only? Try the Fact Method

You've probably read about the latest study showing that abstinence-only sex ed does not lower the rate or timing of teen sex, but actually increases the rate of unplanned pregnancy and STDs. It's only common sense: if you don't know what you're doing, you're probably going to do it wrong.

And if you're a teenager, you're likely going do it sooner rather than later.

This got me thinking about the unusual sex education program in my coed Catholic high school, in the late 1970s, in our sleepy Pennsylvania town. It was a multi-week component of our daily religion class. We'd gotten the basic facts of life in freshman-year health class, but this sex ed course took place in our junior or senior year.

On the first day of class, we were handed an aromatic, freshly mimeographed sheet with a double column of vocabulary words. The first word was "abortion, followed by "anal sex." Further down we had "bestiality," "condom, "cunnilingus," "diaphragm," and "dildo," as I recall, along with "fellatio," "fetish," "gonorrhea," homosexuality," "masochism," "sadism," "syphilis," "transexuality," and, at the bitter end, "zoophilia." I think most of the relevant anatomical parts were listed as well, but I'm not positive.

Then the teacher said we had to shout out the list in unison at the start of each class, to get us over any embarrassment and enable comfortable discussions despite our being a coed group. After some initial eye-rolling, I remember us shouting, day after day. We wondered what the underclassmen still heading to their classes outside our room thought upon hearing us.

I remember that vocabulary list, but I can't recall our teacher. Priests and sisters taught us religion, but for this class I think they brought in a "lay teacher" (no pun intended) from some other subject. It may have been our math teacher. He was married and a devout Catholic, presumably with more hands-on experience than those who'd taken vows of chastity. But he was painfully shy. He stuttered and turned bright red when teaching algebra. If it was him, it was a heroic effort. 

The class's raison d'être had to be that knowledge is power. They didn't want us to be misinformed, but to know precisely what we were being warned against, and exactly what not to do until we were married. In the Catholic Church, premarital sex is always a sin. But they were also very careful to explain that, when we did marry, sex would be a beautiful thing. There would be almost no limit to the kinky fun we could have with a consenting spouse — without birth control, of course. Yet they made sure we learned quite a lot about that, too.

That class was strange. Many of us were still at an age where even the idea of sex seemed disgusting. Imagine feeling like that and having to study specifics, plus the details of perversions like bestiality — and on top of that, the gory symptoms of STDs (we watched these film strips . . . yech). It was enough to scare many of us off sex until well into college or beyond, I'm sure. I wouldn't be surprised if a few of my classmates never fully recovered.

Yet this class also made us extremely cool. We knew everything, and we'd even been graded on it, so we had a jaded confidence when it came to demolishing other kids' mistaken ideas. To this day, I suspect we're all unusually comfortable using those "dirty" words in mixed company. I haven't been back to any reunions, but I like to imagine that they buzz with quietly racy conversations that incorporate our vocabulary words as blithely as other alums discuss sports.

I doubt many sex ed curricula were as comprehensive or sophisticated back then, let alone now. Our class couldn't have been more educational without showing porn films or having a "practice" element. But there were plenty of pregnant girls in my high school. Among my friends who had babies, many felt it was a foolproof way to hang onto their boyfriend and eventually marry him. There was rarely shock, shame, or sorrow; they knew what they were doing. Of course, their lives changed far more than they ever imagined with the baby's arrival. And not all of them succeeded in marrying the father.

No one will ever convince me that comprehensive sex education is a bad thing. If I learned all that in the context of a Catholic religion class more than 30 years ago, and successfully avoided becoming a teenage mother, there's no reason why today's kids couldn't handle something similar. And at a certain tender age, that much knowledge can be downright repulsive. These days, the right time might be much earlier than the last years of high school. It might even be best for 12- to 14-year-olds.

Another component of our religious education, in our sophomore year, was learning about "the existence of evil." We spent months studying serial murderers and the Holocaust, watching documentaries about the concentration camps. In my memory, we saw those gas ovens, the rooms filled with human hair, and the mass graves over and over again, week after week. Every class began with Father B. reading us a true-crime story about some horrible psychopath who ate his victims or sexually tortured them. (He was also obsessed with Evel Knievel — especially the revolting antics of his motorcycle-gang followers — although the educational aspect of this continues to elude me.)

A component of senior-year religion class had a title that was something like "Real Life." We were given various scenario: we were engaged, then newly married, then expecting a child, and always earning a certain realistically low salary. Early on in the class, we needed to plan an affordable wedding and set up our household. We learned about buying or renting a house, purchasing furniture and appliances, and setting up a budget. We learned about mortgages, taxes, bank accounts, insurance, installment plans, and balancing checkbooks. It was grim, and in some ways even scarier than the sex ed class. But it was equally enlightening and useful in the long-term.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Goodbye to 2008: 20 Good Things

Hmm, this list isn't going to be easy, but here goes:

1. Obama. Don't need to say more.

2. Family and friends stayed healthy and alive with many marbles intact.

3. Our three beloved teenaged cats are all still with us.

4. We didn't lose all of our savings (just most of it).

5. Husband didn't really die after he fell down the stairs by the pool in Maine — just fainted while snoring loudly and rolling his eyes around, terrifying the hell out of me. The worst minutes of 2008, and perhaps my life. But he's fine now.

6. I have not had to beg on Boylston Street or wash pots despite losing my job. Yet.

7. One trip to Paris, 2 trips to Italy, and 3 trips to Maine: Wonderful times.

8. We discovered Venice, and were smart enough to return for a second visit.

9. We learned how to handle and cook lobsters.

10. I stopped being a picky eater by eating squid, octopus, shrimp, oysters, and everything put in front of me except for one antique-looking piece of Italian sushi.

11. I take evil strength-training classes twice a week. I can do a few guy push-ups now.

12. I finally stopped making excuses to Some Assembly Required and started a blog.

13. We made new friends, especially in Italy, and saw dear old friends, especially in France.

I wrote a good number of healthcare magazine articles, and even got to play doctor by writing some gullible client's "Ask the Doctor" column.

15. We saw about half of the color-plates in Jansen (my Art History II textbook) come to life in Florence. But this occurred over just 3 days so it often felt like flipping through postcards while roller-skating. But it was still good to be in the presence of the Great.

16. I spent an awesome hour alone with dead aristocrats in the covered galleries of the Cimetero Monumentale in Milan, during a violent thunderstorm.

17. We still feel like kids although we are technically deep in middle age.

18. I figured out the NYC subway system.

19. We decided to buy a kitten in NYC, but the Pope, in a limo, commandeered the street between us and the shop. And this other couple bought "our" kitten in those few minutes, while I was making eye contact with Himself in the back seat. There's a wee chance the kitten would not have provoked an eternal war with our other cats, but this was such an absurdly ham-handed case of Divine Intervention that I must assume it was a 2008 Good Thing. Send us an angel next time, okay? And please tell us which of the cats has your Ear.

20. I did not completely wreck the dining room of our friend's ultra-posh apartment in Beekman Place when I tried to gently close his drapes and sent more than 200 square feet of tapestry fabric crashing down, along with the ceiling track. Luckily, that silly old Rockefeller porcelain collection was between me and the drapes at the time.