Saturday, May 30, 2009

Worth the Splurge, Part II

Here are a few more splurgeworthy items I forgot to mention in my previous post. These aren't central to my own experience, but if these make your daily life more enjoyable, they're worth their price. Just make sure to do your research — online and locally — to get the best deal:

1. HDTV. I don't watch much TV, but my husband loves watching sports, movies, The Daily Show and South Park on our Samsung LCD. I know that normal people, in normal-sized houses, think it's ridiculous that we feel our 32" screen is huge and splendid. But it's the biggest TV that fits in our bedroom. Its bright, ultra-sharp picture delights and impresses us after 3 years.

2. Sound system. This is on my wish list; I'm musically deprived. My dad is a stereo maniac. He hid more than a dozen top-quality speakers and woofers into the walls of the man-cave he built in our basement. He loves pipe-organ music, and could rattle not only our walls, but those of our next-door neighbors. He also hooked up his speakers to his Allen theatre organ, and played in the style of the great baseball organists of years ago. Loudly. It may be that I'm partially deaf from him blasting "Blue Moon" and "Sweet Georgia Brown" at all hours during my childhood (he certainly is), but for whatever reason, puny speakers never satisfy me. Unfortunately, that's all that fits in this tiny apartment. Those Bose and Tivoli units aren't worth their high price. I'm waiting for a truly fantastic compact system that can handle both CDs and an iPod. In the meantime, I almost never play music because it sounds so lousy on our mini JVC system or through my iPod earbuds. I crave a woofer. 

3.  Coffee makers.  I don't drink the stuff, but sometimes I wish I did, just so I could park a shiny Italian espresso maker on my tiny kitchen counter. It makes sense to invest in a fancy machine if coffee is a key ritual element of your day. If it keeps you out of Starbucks, it should pay for itself quickly. You'll be drinking better coffee for less money, and you'll make your guests happy, too.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Worth the Splurge

Almost all of us are watching our spending these days: hunting for bargains, postponing purchases, making do with what we have, or doing without. The PB household is certainly being more careful about its spending — and we were always rather frugal. These days, I'm especially grateful for several high-quality items around our house that make our lives more pleasant every time we use them. These were not necessarily expensive purchases, but even the pricier ones are well worth all the agonizing we did before we whipped out the credit card. Because of them, it's easier to resist buying shiny new things when we already feel cosseted and indulged.

If you've actually got a little money to spend on your home, it's smart to spend it where you will really get the most value — on items you will use and enjoy every single day, and keep for years, or decades:

1. Bed. You spend about 1/3 of your life in bed, and if you're careful, that much of your life can become just about perfect. 
   A mattress that lulls you to sleep for a 15 years or more is worth its price (as long as the bill won't have you lying awake, worried. I'm not talking about excess here. Live within your means; never go into debt). No matter what you spend, make sure you are in love with your mattress from the get-go. We have a Duxiana, which cost something like 5 times the price of a typical mattress and boxspring at the time. I thought we were nuts just for visiting the Duxiana store to test one. But we'd tried a lot of mattresses at the local department and furniture stores. We even went to Gardner Mattress, the local maker. And the Dux was the only one that astonished us with absolute comfort. And it still does, every night. When I make our bed in the morning, I'm already looking forward to the moment when I can get back into it.  
   You also need comfortable sheets and pillows to sleep really well. I'm not a sucker for high-thread counts; when I'm asleep, I don't notice nuances of sheet quality. As long as my sheets are clean and dry, they won't keep me awake. And, anyway, I prefer cozy flannel (Portuguese is my favorite) and jersey knit sheets to crisp percale or sateen. Figure out what bedding characteristics say "comfort" to you, and open packages to feel the quality before you buy. 
   For pillows, we like the Cuddledown outlets in Kittery or Freeport, where the sales staff will educate you, ask you many questions, and help you make the best choice for your sleeping style. Theirs range from $22 synthetics to $3,399 eiderdown. A quality, white-goose-down pillow (toward the lower end of that price spread) should help you sleep well for years.

2. Bath. A few years ago, we were fortunate to have a carpenter friend renovate our bath with custom cherry cabinetry and paneling, Italian marble, and a deep soaking tub. We went crazy, but we love the result every day, and feel it was worth that enormous chunk of our savings. If you're more sensible than we but still want to improve your bathroom, a fabulous showerhead will make a luxurious difference. We have a Hansgrohe Raindance 6" handshower. The head is the size of a small frying pan, giving excellent, "rainstorm" coverage. An extra long hose makes rinsing easier (as well as cat bathing and tub cleaning). 
   Great towels can be had at all prices. The key is to decide what matters most to you: size, softness, thickness, absorbency, color?  We like ours soft and absorbent, but not too big or thick — like these super-soft bamboo towels, from The Company Store. 
   We stockpile good soapYardley English Lavender. Oh, for the days when these were 4 for $1 at CVS. Now if there's an online deal, I buy dozens. They make great sachets among the linens and sweaters, too.

3.  Cooking. Growing up among among my working-class family and neighbors, I know that great food can come from cheap cookware. It's also clear that fancy cookware won't make a mediocre cook better. But there are a few cook's tools worth their price. 
   You need a few workhorse knives. Don't waste money on a big set with a block; you don't need most of them. Instead, invest in 2 or 3 high-quality knives that can do everything and feel comfortable in your hand. I'd start with the biggest and best chef's knife you can manage, a mid-sized serrated knife for slicing bread and general tasks, and then maybe a smaller all-purpose knife like a santoku or small chef's knife. I prefer the all-steel Global knives because they have terrific blades and balance — and fit well in my small hand. Our Wustof chef's knife has been working for us for 10 years. If you do a lot of boning or carving, you may find you need those knives, too, but those three should have you covered for everything else. There are insanely expensive craftsman lines now, including Shun, that you can splurge on, but the next-cheapest brands, like Global, work perfectly well.
   Unless your pots and pans are as bad as my husband's first set — the handles were so much heavier than the pots that they would spontaneously tip right over on the uneven burners of our stove, spilling their contents — you probably don't need to upgrade. Decent cookware is available at all prices, with copper cores, aluminum and steel combinations, nonstick finishes, and so on. Just make sure you have the basic sizes and shapes you need and stop wondering if there's cookware nirvana out there. Remember: the ingredients in the pots are what matter. 
   One splurge I do recommend is an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, which will last a lifetime if you care for it properly. Our 5.5-quart Le Creuset round oven is ideal for simmering soups, baking casseroles, boiling quantities of pasta, and roasting birds. It really does heat more evenly and consistently than ordinary pots, and it makes a noticeable difference with certain foods. Plus it looks gorgeous on the stove (in "Caribbean Blue"), and it helps strengthen my arms because it weighs a ton. You can sometimes find Le Creuset and similarly renowned brands on sale at Marshall's; if you find one, go for it.
   A few inexpensive items can significantly improve your kitchen time, too: Get the biggest cutting boards, in wood and acrylic, that will fit on your countertop. You'll use a sturdy pair of tongs for everything from frying bacon to tossing salad. Collect glass storage containers in many sizes for leftovers so you won't be stuck at the last minute. A roll of parchment makes baking cookies easier and clean-up a snap. Make sure your potholders are insulated enough so you aren't a bit scared of handling red-hot pans from the oven. And figure out what your personal cooking quirks are, and work with them: I purée a lot of soup, so an immersion blender is important for me.

4.  Dining.  Everyday meals feel like occasions even if you're just eating takeout pizza — on a beautiful plate. As I was growing up, my parents had the cheapest stainless flatware and a hideous set of black and harvest-gold dinnerware. (It's all still in use.) I vowed to do better someday. Over the years, we've accumulated small sets of new and antique dishes (mostly plates) in many sizes and patterns. We also have a fancy dessert set with cups and saucers, a souvenir of a trip to Prague. We have a set of silver-plated flatware, but I also collect a few 19th-century sterling patterns that we treasure — and use all the time. I find pieces at Brimfield or on eBay at a small fraction of the price of new sterling. Beautiful, quality dishes and flatware should be used and enjoyed at every meal, so it's worth buying what you love, even if you have to do it slowly, piece by piece. Served in a turquoise French bowl with an antique sterling spoon, yogurt, fresh fruit, and granola can be a photo-worthy creation as well as a healthy breakfast.

Monday, May 25, 2009


I've decided to put more effort into losing a few pounds. I've been taking tough weight-training classes twice a week since November. I'm stronger than ever and I realized that, buried under about 8 pounds of flab, are a lot of rather awesomely toned new muscles. So I've started power-walking and jogging along the Charles a few times a week (in addition to the long regular walks I take a few times a week). The river is just 3 blocks from our apartment, and I've always regretted I rarely get over there to enjoy it. So I do a 4-mile loop, between the Harvard Bridge and the Science Museum. It takes an hour and it's an easy way to work out, enjoy nature, and think about stuff at the same time. 

Thinking turns out to be a problem: I get distracted and don't always pay attention to where I'm going. I'm also busy noticing cormorants, gulls, bird guano, malicious tree roots sticking up from the path, and boats. So, twice now, I've nearly been attacked by a furious, hissing Canada goose because I accidentally jogged too close to his or her gosling. 

You can't reason with a goose, but I really don't think I'm to blame if that gosling is camouflage-colored and sitting on dirt. Instead of trying to put a hole in my leg, Mother Goose, why don't you park your young on the grass so we can see and avoid them? I do try to keep clear of them but their markings are so clever that they practically disappear — unless there's a big group. I've counted up to 20 goslings in one gaggle [stupid term; it's a flock, for crying out loud]. 

So much for those zealous teams of goose-egg poppers armed with darning needles that go hunting for nests every spring. Heck of a job on the population control so far....

Anyway, I realized today that things have gotten to the point where, when I see a goose just looking in my direction, I get nervous and have to change my route to avoid it. I've been trained by those nasty birds. I can't wait for those goslings to grow up and help their parents pass their citizenship tests and learn some manners. Or just go back north where they belong.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ding - Ding - Ding - Ding

I've never liked Bank of America, although that's where my checking account landed after BoA bought Fleet, which had bought BankBoston, which had bought BayBank. Or whatever. 

I didn't really care, although I should have. For example, I used to get interest on my checking account — a few dollars a month, because I always keep a healthy balance (at least, it used to be healthy before I lost my lovely, steady freelance job last August). But whenever I approached BoA bankers to ask them how to get an interest checking account, I got dazed, incredulous looks and insinuations that I am asking for something bizarre and impossible. 

I could switch banks, but I have trained myself too well on the locations of convenient BoA ATMs all over Boston and Maine. I'd probably keep going to them absent-mindedly if I had a new bank, racking up outrageous surcharges at the one on Salem Street, for example, from my deeply ingrained habits. 

But I loathe those new BoA ATMs. There's that annoyingly loud dinging bell that continues throughout your transaction and serves no purpose I can discern. When a whole row of ATMs is dinging away, I can't think straight. I guess, if I were blind, the dinging might be helpful in some way... but the sound doesn't change to indicate when, say, my cash comes out of the slot. So I'd be standing there, blind, still trying to figure out what was going on. And since blind people's hearing is supposed to be far more acute than that of the rest of us, I'd be even more freaked out by that nasty racket.

Then there's their new envelope-free check deposit. In theory, this is a good idea: most of the time BoA's ATMs are out of deposit envelopes, or they are all crumpled up on the floor underneath a sleeping homeless person as a pillow. But the check reader stinks. Most of the time, I forget to note the amoun — because I'm freaked out by that perpetual dinging — and it goes into its slot, churns around forever, and tells me it can't read the amount. Then I wait for it to spit out the check, note the amount, and start all over again. There's always someone sighing in line behind me as this happens. If you're going to have a high-tech check scanner, get a decent one.

Maybe that loud dinging is supposed to remind me not to leave without taking my card. But I've left my card behind at a dinging ATM's twice. It happens because I loathe the noise so much that I can't get out of their fast enough. I grab my cash and leave the card. 

I had some encounters with BoA customer service a couple of years ago. I wanted to know that maximum amount one could withdraw from an ATM at a time. I was doing legal money-laundering for a friend who was too broke to have a bank account. He was selling his possessions, so buyers (mutual friends) would pay him with checks made out to me. I'd deposit them and give him cash. I hunted everywhere on the BoA site for info about withdrawal limits. It's nowhere. So I e-mailed BoA to find out how much I could withdraw. Their reply was longer and smarmier than this, but here's an excerpt:

> Thank you for your inquiry dated 3/11/07 regarding maximum daily 

> withdrawal.  We will be happy to assist you.

> Because your account security is our highest priority, we are unable to 

> process your request through unsecured e-mail.  We are only able to 

> perform account maintenance or discuss confidential information through 

> a secure method of contact, one that requires you to enter an Online ID 

> and Passcode such as Online Banking.  These methods of contact allow us 

> to verify that a request is from the account holder and not an 

> unauthorized attempt to change your account.

> If you have access to Online Banking, please access your account on 

> Online Banking through our home page at and go to 

> the Customer Service tab to submit your request.

So I did that. It didn't work. So I replied: 

The information I am requesting is not personal, confidential or classified. I am requesting a statement of one your banking policies. Please JUST TELL ME what your rule is regarding maximum withdrawals from checking accounts.  It has nothing to do with my privacy or account information.

This is an excerpt from their reply:

> Thank you for your inquiry dated 03/12/07 regarding your withdrawal 

> limit.  We will be happy to assist you.

> We apologize for any inconvenience this matter may have caused.  As 

> reiterated in our previous communication because your account security 

> is our highest priority, we are unable to process your request through 

> unsecured e-mail.  We are only able to perform account maintenance or 

> discuss confidential information through a secure method of contact, one

> that requires you to enter an Online ID and Passcode such as Online 

> Banking.  These methods of contact allow us to verify that a request is 

> from the account holder and not an unauthorized attempt to change your 

> account.

> If you have access to Online Banking, please access your account on 

> Online Banking through our home page at and go to 

> the Customer Service tab to submit your request.

I was fed up. I knew I could call them, but I would rather have torn my own head off. I surely don't have to tell you what a wretched and futile endeavor THAT is. Life is too precious to waste on hold with BoA's utterly inept customer service crew, who seem to be off in faraway lands (or newly arrived from them) despite working for Bank of America. So I replied:

Hello again,

As I reiterated in simple English in my previous communication, I am not requesting information about account maintenance or anything that is the slightest, teeniest, eensiest bit confidential.  So just answer my question in an e-mail.

I loathe the very idea of getting onto your site and struggling through page after page, trying to find the right place to request this information. Your site is just awful. I've had a long career in e-commerce and Web design, so I know what I am talking about. You people should be ashamed; your site must have been designed by leftovers of the Soviet regime.

So again, for the third time, I MERELY want to know your GENERAL POLICY regarding the maximum amount ANYONE can withdraw from a checking account, IF one wanted to withdraw the maximum from a checking account (and I no longer do; thanks to your extreme lack of helpfulness, I withdrew the money from my Fidelity account instead.)

Just send me a PDF chart or something and I'll figure out what information pertains to me. Just tell me about all of your various account limits in general, okay? Come on, how complicated can this be?  Does it vary that much from person to person, depending on say, their birthday or favorite color?  Or don't you have a rule?  Does your CEO make up the amounts depending on the general corporate mood on a given day?

You could reply to my email and give me this simple, basic information by filling in the blank of the following sentence:

The maximum ATM withdrawal limit for one day from a basic checking or savings account is USD $______.

If you keep this up, I'm going to withdraw all my money and switch to Wainwright.  You aren't planning to acquire them any time soon are you? (or do you need my ACCOUNT NUMBER to answer that question, too.?)

I'm also going to post your response on my consumer blog.  This is getting to be quite entertaining.  Look forward to hearing from you.  


That got me a reply from a human, albeit a banker who can't spell "withdrawal." And an answer, sort of:

Dear L. Thomas,

Thank you for your inquiry dated 3/14/07 regarding withdrawl limits.  We

apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced and we will be 

happy to assist you.

Please be advised, withdrawl limits are based on many things, including 

but not limited to the following:

 - how funds are being withdrawn (transfer via ATM, Banking Center and 

Online Banking)

 - type of account 

Most ATM's allow $300-$700 per day.  Banking Center's generally allow 

withdrawals up to the balance in the account.  Online Banking will allow

you to transfer the entire balance between your own accounts, to others 

there is a limit of $1,000.00 per day and $2,000.00 per seven days.

We value you as a customer and appreciate your business.  If we may be 

of further assistance, please contact us again by e-mail.  Thank you for

choosing Bank of America.


Cari Grey

Bank of America

I had an answer, but it was useless. It seems that the maximum withdrawal amount is based on... who knows? How much cash they can stuff into the ATM? The ATM's location? (Can you withdraw more cash on Beacon Hill than you can in Southie?) Bank manager's whim? Your favorite color? I gave up. Rather than gamble on BoA, I went back to Fidelity, which has an office on Boylston Street. When you're at their ATM, it's comforting to know that there are usually at least two well-informed, well-dressed humans working at the counter 15 feet away from you. And when you ask a question, you get a polite, correct answer. They don't give me opportunities to display my capacity for outrage or sarcasm, and I can't make (empty) threats about my blog (no, I didn't have a blog in 2007; I procrastinate, but I'm finally making good). But I'll take it.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

11 Everyday Good Things

Little things to be happy about, during this past week:

1. Produce at the Haymarket = nutrition on the cheap:   
    5 Golden Delicious apples: $2
    5 big fat oranges: $2
    2 lbs. seedless grapes: $1
    1 lb. asparagus: $1
    1 head of Boston lettuce, 1 head of romaine: $1.50
    1 carton cherry tomatoes: $1 = $8.50 for a lot of good food
    +  An Anna's burrito for lunch during the walk over there = priceless

2. Gisèle Bündchen pointed out in an interview that the secret of happiness is being grateful. That's the right answer. And she knows she has much to be grateful for. So do I.

3. Those stolen lilacs from the yard of the vacant building across the street were all that could be desired. There's still time to steal a few more.

4. These shoes. So deeply discounted at Anthropologie that I broke down and paid for shipping. (I had a gift card anyhow.) And I can still afford to take them to the shoemaker to soften the leather and put rubber on the soles. They'll look cute with all of my summer skirts, so I may have to forego my flip flops.

5. Lacey's Milk Chocolate and Macadamia Nut Florentine cookies. Eight homestyle ingredients — chocolate, nuts, butter, sugar, cream, honey, vanilla, and flour — and you can taste each one (except the flour). Trader Joe's does it again.  These are as good as homemade, and a lot fancier.

6. Mildred Kalish's memoir, Little Heathens, makes her childhood on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression sound like more fun than Eloise had at the Plaza. For one thing, they didn't dump pints of fresh cream over practically every vegetable dish at the Plaza. Although they should have. It's Little House on the Prairie for grownups.

7. Facebook. I don't care how many people have been slamming it lately — I like it. It keeps me in casual but reasonable contact with a few dozen people whom I sincerely like and find interesting, and whom I would otherwise rarely call or email (if at all). Because I'm an antisocial slug unless the communication process is practically effortless. But I like having this little community around me. 

8. Iggy's Francese loaf. A plentiful square of soft, flavorful sourdough, with an airy yet substantial texture and a chewy crust. We get one every week at the Salumeria Italiana  in the North End. When it starts to get stale, I cube the remaining slices, put them in a baking dish, add a ton of grated cheese, and pour on an egg-and-milk mixture. Then bake it until it's golden and puffy. With a salad, there isn't anything simpler or more satisfying for a quick dinner.

9. Cool, cloudy, rainy days: how I love them. Bright, hot, sunny days require sliming up with sunblock, squinting, sweating. Rainy days give me an excuse to stay indoors, wear a cardigan, and bake Ina Garten's chocolate-chunk cookies (best made with too much of a Trader Joe's Pound-Plus Belgian Milk Chocolate Bar). It's nice to eat them with a good book in the other hand. Rain also keeps the MIT frat boys from hollering bellicosely on our street in the wee hours. It's raining right now.

10.  In Treatment, Season 1. We snarfed all 43 episodes on DVD as fast as we could get 'em. Gripping stories, perfect scripting, universally brilliant acting. Is there any way Gabriel Byrne can be improved upon? No. Is it worth subscribing to HBO to catch Season 2? Perhaps!

11. The many outrageous, unbelievably hideous ensembles worn to the Met Ball.  I love seeing celebrities spend a fortune on outfits that make them look idiotic, if not insane — I can't help myself. The brilliant bloggers of Go Fug Yourself had their work cut out for them last week and I didn't miss a word. They had plenty to say about this, for example:

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spring Already, and It's Barely May

For winter's rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the Spring begins.

Sooner or later at this time of year, this poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne gets stuck in the Proper Bostonian's head. The flowering trees at Mount Auburn Cemetery inspired its annual reappearance yesterday. The old copper beeches are gorgeous now, flaming and shimmering before they darken. Here's one:

As much as I enjoy spring's warmth, I think clouds are better than blazing sunshine — and cooler, breezy days are preferable to hot ones. This week's weather looks promising. (The lilac scent from the vase on the mantel is dizzying, by the way.)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Lilac Time & Other Crimes

Since my college days, I've stolen a couple of stems of lilacs from someone else's shrubs each spring. The path to the Swarthmore Quaker meetinghouse is lined with dozens of varieties — the campus is an arboretum. I wasn't the only student sneezing from of a vase of lilacs in her room. 

Nothing declares spring, and the promise of all it brings, like the scent of lilac.

After college, up here, I found lilacs flourishing along highways around Lincoln, Concord, and Brimfield. My mother-in-law provided a legal supply until her bush died a few years ago. Occasionally I snatched my annual spray from one of a few bushes overhanging the Marlborough Street sidewalk. I'd never poach in yards, just from public paths, and never took more than two stems a year. 

In recent years, my husband has been getting my annual lilac fix from campus on commencement day. He says he risks it to keep me out of prison. On a Sunday morning in May, he dresses in his magenta academic robe, doctoral hood (blue), and a cute octagonal beanie. He looks like he came from Central Casting as The Sage Yet Somehow Sexy Professor, and the grads and their mothers can't get enough of him as they pick at terrible boxed lunches after the ceremony. He safely pilfers a whole bouquet in his adorable medieval outfit. I wish he would try robbing a cupcake bakery next. 

This year, I've decided that the lilacs in the yard of the vacant apartment building across the street are free for the taking. A developer just bought it and it's soon be trashed and converted to luxury condos — months of construction noise, just what we need around here. I feel no qualms taking my pruning shears over there (after dark, I don't want to be blatant about it) and snipping a few. That poor bush will probably be torn out along with everything else in a few weeks.

Besides stealing lilacs and jaywalking, I'm boringly law-abiding. But I broke into In Home Furnishings, on Boylston Street, a few years ago. I was heading home from work and decided I needed another look at a paisley sofa. The store had closed early, but I didn't notice. I pushed the door with conviction — why was it sticking so badly? — and I guess I broke the lock. As I went in, the alarm went off, and I realized that the store was dark and empty. So I slowly, casually left and walked down Boylston, listening to the alarm and an approaching police siren. Possessing upper-body strength and enthusiasm for paisley sofas are not crimes, I told myself as I kept a wary watch for police cars during my trip home.