Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Chicken in Every Pothole?

The New York Times's news blog, The Lede, reports that KFC is donating money to a few American cities to fill potholes in return for stenciling the repairs with KFC logos in (temporary) chalk. I wish they'd send a crew up to Boston and fix up my neighborhood, which has some tom-turkey-sized potholes that are hard to avoid.

I can't help wondering if their mashed potatoes or their stuffing makes a better filler. But either way....

Friday, March 27, 2009

What to Do with the NEIDL?

Now that I've filled the city block–sized construction pit downtown with a Level 4 Biolab, you might be wondering how I would repurpose the existing Biolab (aka the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory) in the South End. 

That's easy. The South End, and all of Boston, would benefit enormously if the NEIDL were retrofitted with all of the authentic fixtures, bargains, discount policies, and salespeople from the original Filene's Basement. That pale imitation in Back Bay isn't fooling anybody.  I would personally crawl on my hands and knees to the South End if I had any hope of snagging another pair of bronze Ferragamo T-straps for $13.12 (all of it donated to charity).

On the ground level of the former Biolab, if there is one (I haven't crawled over there to check it out yet, for some reason), I think a Chacarero, a mom-and-pop bakery, and an Anna's Taqueria would make everyone happy. And if there's still space left over, how about a dance club and a multigenerational community center?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What to Do with that Hole Downtown

According to a story in today's Globe, Boston city planners looked the other way as a developer demolished an entire downtown city block — well before anyone bothered to check out the finances, which now aren't there to complete the project. 

In short, where we used to have Filene's we now we have a hole, and no plans for anything more.

I think I have the solution: Transfer the Level 4 Biolab there from the South End. There's already a perfectly good hole for building subterranean labs for studying Ebola and Black Death and other deadly microbes. There are hardly any residential neighbors to form committees to complain about safety concerns. It will be so convenient for scientists and technicians to leap off the Orange and Red Lines right into their basement (formerly The Basement, sob) labs. And when it's time to evacuate, what could be easier?

Feeding the Cat, Part III: "Peel Me a Shrimp"

Does that look like a sick, frail, elderly bag of bones? Does that look like a cat in the throes of inflammatory bowel disease? No more — our glamourpuss Persian, Snicky, is well again. She gained 8 ounces in recent weeks and is on track to surpass her all-time "fat" weight of 7.2 lbs. When she was at her sickest, she was down to a skeletal 5.3 lbs. At her last weigh-in, she was back up to 6.8. 

She's taking just a tiny steroid pill once a day now and chows down Fancy Feast with enthusiasm. We have stopped giving her sermons in LOL-cat language, exhorting her to chew (except for the fun of it). If she turns up her nose at her dish, it's only becaue she's behaving like an ordinary, pain-in-the-neck tortoiseshell. She's not quite back to leaping around like a madwoman, but she seems to be enjoying herself despite acting closer to her age. Once more, Snicky rules. 

And so does The Boston Cat Hospital. They are a terrific practice in Kenmore Square. We've gotten to know most of the staff over the years, in times of good feline health and bad. We rely on our vet, Dr. Laura Widman, for her wisdom, up-to-date medical knowledge, common sense, and creative problem-solving. She was especially good at handling Snicky's hard-to-diagnose disease. We trust her. 

Last fall, we didn't think Snicky would be here for her 15th birthday on April 1. But there will be cake after all. And "tubafish."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spring Blooms at 265 Comm. Ave.

This garden on the sunny side of Commonwealth is covered with crocuses. Let's hope they don't get covered in snow. The magnolia trees are getting ready to bloom, too.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gone With the Wind

The Royce Funds' "Annual Review and Report to Shareholders" arrived today. A picture was worth more than a thousand words this time around, but we were treated to both. The "Letter to Our Shareholders" began with a pen-and-ink homage to Edvard Munch's The Scream, transferred to Wall Street: 

In case that didn't make the point, the letter's subheads reinforce the message: "A Series of Unfortunate Events," "A Journal of the Plague Year," "The Waste Land," Cold Comfort Farm," "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me," and finally, "The Audacity of Hope."

For a minute, I was amused to realize that the Royce Funds appear to be run by liberal-arts grads who responded to the financial crisis with literary black humor. But now I'm hoping they will get out of the entertainment business and pay attention to their day job: making money. For me. Thanks to them, a significant portion of my savings vanished into down a deep, black, rabbit hole. I'm beginning to suspect that they blew some of it on lunchtime shopping at Rizzoli, Blick, Pearl Art, and The Strand.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Best of Boston Signage

Recent trips around Boston led me past two memorable examples of signage:

First, the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care construction site, made into a thing of wonder by the ironworkers' spray-painted tribute to the children getting treatment across the street at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. There were children's names posted on the Farber's windows the morning I was there, but I wasn't lucky enough see workers with cans of paint. 

I can't do justice to how extraordinary it is to see this in person. I'll just say that it feels more powerful than anything I've ever experienced in a church. The Boston Globe had an excellent feature about it last month.

On a lighter note, the General Hooker sign at the State House never seems to get old. I'm not sure where the entrance is for Crooks, Bribe-Takers, and Unindicted Felons. That would be the staff entrance, I presume.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Italy Under Glass

Whenever we travel, I bring home a small stack of colorful papers: postcards, museum admission stubs, used metro or trolley stubs, cards from restaurants and shops, and so on. It mostly free, it's richly evocative of the trip, but it's essentially useless. I can't part with it, so it gets packed into an envelope and stuck in a drawer with packets from earlier trips. I'm too lazy to do anything so time-consuming as paste things in an album.

But I've always loved the idea of a collage. So, a couple of years ago, at Christmas, I asked my husband to find me a glass-topped tray that I could use to create a collage of my travel ephemera. He gave me a handsome wooden one, perfect for the project I had in mind. But he went a step further and inserted a large color print of my best travel photograph under the glass. That was so thoughtful that I didn't have the heart to replace it with a collage.

Recently I caved. I'd found the envelopes from our two trips to Italy last year. Away went my lovely photo of Prague. Upside down on the glass, I began arranging Milanese restaurant cards, postcards and ticket stubs from Florentine museums, a Venetian street map and vaporetto passes, and anything else that was colorful and charming. We're both very happy with the result. It brings back lots of wonderful memories.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Product Plug: Burt's Bees Cuticle Cream

It strongly resembles furniture wax, but my sample-size tin of Burt's Bees Lemon Butter Cuticle Creme smoothed my rough, ragged heels, which had been a disaster for years. I decided to experiment because of its thick, waxy texture; I can apply it straight from the container, without getting sticky hands. It works during the day as I wander around in boots, oblivious to its gooey magic. (I'm usually too sleepy, lazy, or forgetful to deal with skincare at night.)

Dramatic improvement appeared after about two weeks of lackadaisical application. My feet will look nice in sandals this summer. So to hell with all those foot creams and "intensive care" moisturizers that never did a thing. (That includes Body Shop Peppermint Foot Cream and Philsophy Sole Survivor — great name, worthless product). 

I may eventually get around to using this on my hands.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Today's Best Job Posting on Craigslist Boston

Let's hear it for Lexington Tutoring, an organization that understands what guitar students really want from their instructor:
  • A guitar teacher with solid credentials and references located IN Metro South, Metro West or Metro North who is sufficiently adept with Microsoft Office to follow our record-keeping procedures and can commit to checking and responding to email from us before 9 AM and at least a few times later in the day. We are interested ONLY in acquiring a guitar teacher who can also provide knowledgeable, meaningful support in algebra, geometry, biology and history.
I suspect there's a very specific tutoring ruse in the works. The plan probably goes something like this: A pair of worried Lexington parents will finally agree to launch their academically challenged kid's rock-star future with lessons from a very special guitar teacher... but the new teacher will inform the kid that he can't possibly understand chords without a solid grounding in linear equations, polyhedrons, mitosis, and the Peloponnesian War. (And in my opinion, you'll never become the next Eric Clapton without a practical knowledge of chemical reactions.)

To me, the strangest thing about this job description isn't its academic requirements. I took years of guitar lessons as a teen (after mastering the necessary math, history, and bio skills). And I live near Berklee, so I'm always seeing guitar teachers and students roaming around — and it's obvious that they're all intent on solving quadratic equations in their heads. But I simply can't believe there's a guitar teacher anywhere who would be capable of checking anything before 9 am.

Party on, Wayne.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Proustian Peanut Butter

Like many kids in the '60s and '70s, I lived on peanut butter sandwiches and Ritz crackers with peanut butter. There were three national brands: Peter Pan, Jif, and Skippy. (There were store brands, too, but my mother was skeptical.) For much of that time, the only option was creamy; crunchy came along later.

My mother's brand was Skippy. But I was a curious kid and wanted to see if we were missing anything, so we tried the others. They were horrible and I never forgot. Jif was sugary sweet and gritty. Peter Pan tasted strongly of peanuts but you could hardly get it to spread without tearing the bread. They were wrong.

"Choosy Mothers Choose Jif" was the first slogan to prove to me that advertisers lie. Learning at a tender age that the ad business was an evil conspiracy had a huge impact on my life. I became immune even to toy ads, and I remain healthily cynical about product claims to this day. (It didn't stop me from working in an ad agency, fresh from college, however. I lasted nine months.) I may owe a lot to Jif, but their peanut butter stinks.

During my hippie-granola, sprout-growing teen years, we tried Smucker's new "natural" peanut butter; I remember our startled disappointment. Who knew that a simple food like peanut butter could taste that lousy and look that gross? To me, any peanut butter without sugar and salt tastes like pulverized cardboard pellets mixed with oil. You'd have to be crazy to really, truly, in your heart-of-hearts prefer it to Skippy.

We recently switched from Skippy Reduced Fat to their Natural Creamy — and I discovered a powerful madeleine. It has the old-fashioned, non-hydrogenated, corn-syrup-free peanut butter flavor of my school years. Every time I taste it, long-lost memories return to me. During one sandwich, I suddenly recalled my ugly 4th-grade desk, before my school had a lunch room. Another sandwich had me visualizing a forgotten, once-loved lunchbox, a psychedlic-swirled, black-and-white oval model with a zipper, which was the last one I had before we switched to paper bags. My Peanuts thermos, always filled with chocolate milk, came floating into my brain unannounced the other day. And I remembered that before my mom upgraded to sandwich bags, she used cleverly folded waxed paper.

A piece of ratty, red-checked oilcloth surfaced in my memory today. I'm not even sure what it was for — maybe my 1st-grade placemat? I can now vividly recall the smell of the classrooms where we ate, not a memory I ever hoped to keep. More happily, I can recall long-lost details of the TastyCakes (and later, the Dolly Madison Goo Goos, Razzies, and Zingers) that always followed the sandwich.

If your mother had taste and made you into a Skippy eater, try their Natural Creamy. It's nothing but peanuts, sugar, salt, and palm oil. Yes, three out of four of its ingredients aren't "healthy" and it's got some saturated fat. But as we know, "healthy" peanut butter tastes like animal feed. This tastes like childhood.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Looking After Mom

The Proper Bostonian hasn't run out of things to say, she's been busy.

The PB's 80-year-old mother-in-law, a retired professor, fell asleep at the wheel and smashed into a tree last Friday night when she was on her way home from the opera. We got the dreaded midnight phone call from the local police and raced to the ER. 

Her car was totaled, both airbags inflated, and she broke some ribs and bruised her lungs. She (and we) spent several days in Beth Israel's trauma unit. Tiny old ladies usually get serious facial and upper-chest injuries from airbags, but she was lucky. She's very strong, agile, and active for her age. (And she probably had her chin on her chest, sleeping, so the airbag hit the top of her head, not her nose.) The accident hardly upset her. She raved about the glories of the Cavalleria Rusticana production and wondered about the price of new cars while she was still on the stretcher in the ER.

She did say she might rethink driving home late at night, which was a remarkable admission for her. This isn't the first time she's dozed off at the wheel, we suspect, given all the dings and dents on her car. We believe it's time she gave up her driver's license entirely. It would be a life-changing situation and persuading her won't be easy.

We know we're hardly the only people dealing with sad situations surrounding elderly parents. As we make calls and seek help, everyone over 40 has a similar story:  parents who can't take care of themselves, aren't safe because their homes are dangerously cluttered, are ill but won't accept nursing care, can't handle their finances, or shouldn't be driving. It's reached epidemic proportions in my mother-in-law's classy suburb, which has a large aging population. This is fortunate for us because there are teams of experts at the Board of Health and the Council on Aging, along with exceptionally sensitive police and fireman. All these people have loads of experience with proud, stubborn, fragile, elderly people. But they can only do such much according to the law. There usually has to be a life-threatening crisis before anyone can legally intervene — people have a right to live almost any way they choose as long as they aren't endangering others. With the driving, though, they believe they'll be able to help us. I hope so.

Even 25 years ago, it never occurred to that dealing with aging parents would turn out to be even more fraught than raising children — I don't have any, but that's what others say. They don't warn you about you this stuff when you're young. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My Year of Upheaval

Most of the PB's life has been pleasant, quiet, and relatively happy, with few serious problems, tragedies, crimes, romantic struggles, serious illnesses, or accidents. Trouble waits to gang up on her every seven years, during one of her Years of Upheaval — and this is one of them. These aren't calendar years; they begin on her birthday, in late August. That's when deaths, divorces, layoffs, lawsuits, and other mayhem tend to occur.

The PB's previous Year of Upheaval (2001–2002) was memorable. It began with career troubles, as the dot-com where she was deliciously overpaid as a copywriter steadily went under. September 11 occurred three weeks into that Year, with all its ensuing fear, grief, anger, and economic chaos. All was dark and depressing that autumn and winter. (She knew her problems were minor compared to others. But still.) By February, her company had folded and she was collecting her very first unemployment checks. That month, she also learned that her favorite cousin and her best guy friend from college both had cancer. Her mother was hospitalized. March was spent worrying and visiting her in the hospital, 350 miles from home. In April, her mother died. The PB was essentially a basket case for the rest of that Year. Shortly before it ended, though, she developed the first symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, an appropriate souvenir. And landed what turned out to be her Scariest Freelance Client Ever.

The PB began her current Year of Upheaval with wary trepidation. She has spent her last 8 or 9 birthdays on vacation at the same inn in Maine. On her birthday this year, she predicted at breakfast that trouble was coming and was teased for being pessimistic. She wasn't very surprised when, later that day, her friend the innkeeper broke his leg in an isolated spot at the lake, crawled back to his car, and drove himself to two different clinics, both closed. The following afternoon, her husband suddenly fell asleep at the wheel and headed towards some trees. The PB was just alert enough herself to yell and wake him. 

By Day 3, the PB was a wreck. Her husband slipped down some wet steps by the pool, sat down to catch his breath, and lost consciousness in the most alarming way, snoring loudly with his eyes open and rolling around. Until he came to, those were the worst moments of the PB's life. (All five paramedics thought it was a seizure, so the PB felt justified.) Her husband recovered in a couple of hours; it took her nearly a week. ("You weren't there to see yourself!" she kept telling him.)

Since then, the PB has been unemployed and largely without prospects or writing gigs. In September, her home began its own Year of Upheaval. It began when 37 tons of demo wreckage was carted out of the condo below hers. Since then, she's endured seven months of construction, with noise awakening her at 7 am every weekday. Most of the PB's walls and ceilings have big new cracks; her custom, cherry-paneled bathroom is quite out of kilter; her doors no longer open or close properly; and her entire apartment —even inside kitchen cabinets and built-in drawers — is coated in dust, no matter how often she she cleans. It wafts up as work goes on below. The construction has done a job on the lobby, too. Even the doorbells have been broken since September.

A week ago, the PB's mother-in-law totaled her car (see previous post). She's going to be fine, but it's still a crisis. She will have to stop driving (we hope), which means she'll need to move from her big, cluttered house, high up on a hill and not near shops or public transportation. She doesn't want any of this, naturally, but something's got to give. The PB will do anything to get her off the road and happily ensconced somewhere safe — even if it means that the PB and her husband let her try out their own little condo for awhile, while they rent elsewhere. 

The PB is also teetering on the edge of two potential lawsuits, with former building owners and a former employer. Aside from biopsies, here's nothing more anxiety-provoking to the PB than dealing with lawyers and going to court. She can only continue hope this Year of Upheaval brings some good upheaval, too, in the form of employment. And that everyone she loves manages to stay healthy and away from trees and lakes. She can't wait for her next birthday.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Money-Saving Tips from Morningstar

Now that the stock market has plunged to 1997 levels, Morningstar, the company from whom I get financial info and where I do our mutual fund research, has decided to tell its customers how to save money. I guess most of us have little to invest these days, so M'star offers "101 Ways to Cut Expenses." Investing right now is probably extremely wise, financial advisers tell us — although burning money in your fireplace may seem like a slightly more profitable alternative.

There are a number of very good suggestions here, along with the usual "use the library" and "stay away from Starbucks" advice we're hearing from all quarters. I particularly liked:

11. Stop buying clothes that are "dry clean only." Learn to iron. (I recently figured out that I can wash wool and cashmere sweaters in my machine, which has a "hand wash" cycle. I won't try this with woolen pants, although I'm soo tempted.)

12. Don't renew subscriptions to publications you don't have time to read. (I save up stacks of New Yorkers for reading in the hot tub on vacation in Maine. I should rethink my whole magazine addiction.)

22. Play golf less often.... (No problem. I'll skip playing golf forever.)

30. Pay cash when possible—psychologically it's harder to spend cash than using credit cards, and you'll save on interest charges. (Even though I pay my credit card in full each month, the idea of paying for stuff in cash makes me feel mild panic. So I should probably try it. But I get cash back from using my credit card — nearly $180 last year.)

44. Raise the deductible on your homeowner's and car insurance policies. (Once you get through the bureaucracy, this can save a bundle. Smart idea. But you should probably use the savings to improve your coverage.... Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.)

50. Keep track of your cost basis on investments ot save money on taxes when you sell an investment. (This also strikes fear into my heart. I don't buy and sell many mutual funds, but even so, doing this would be a huge PAIN. But they're right. I still nurture a tiny hope that Fidelity is doing it for me. If they aren't they should be.)

63. Don't get divorced. (I'm all over this one.) 

64. Quit smoking. (But if you live longer, doesn't that ultimately end up costing you more money?)

91. Track your spending. If you write it all down, you'll probably spend less. And you'll know exactly where your money goes. (Painful as this one will be, tracking expenses is a sensible and illuminating practice. Even if it's just for a month, you can see how those purchases add up. But if you do it continuously, it starts to seem sad, compulsive and weird.)

I'd like to add one more item to this list:

102. Reconsider your Morningstar subscription.  I pay for an annual subscription so I save over their monthly plan. But I think it will be a long time before I need to buy, sell, or research funds. So, sorry, M'star, you've been great, but you've also inspired me to put a hold on paying you until the economy gets back to, say, 2004 levels.