Friday, July 31, 2009

How to Tell if He's the Right Guy

People always say "You'll just know," when you've finally met the right guy. But if you're even a fraction as neurotic as I am, a statement like that will drive you crazy. When did you ever "just know" anything worth knowing? If you're like me, you can spend several weeks trying to decide about a sweater. And this would be after you've narrowed the options down to one style and three colors. Forget trying to pick a wall color, a sofa, a job, or a man purely on gut instinct. Fortunately, there are other, more concrete ways to "know." Here's a partial list.

Your perfect guy:

1. Can imitate several characters from The Godfather. (None of them should be Connie, but Kay is all right.)

2. Is simply the best person you know. The kindest, smartest, most decent, funniest, most thoughtful, most impressive, and yet humblest person you know. You may be wrong, of course. But you don't think you are.

3. Knows how to surprise you in little, delightful ways. Rather than predictable red roses, you receive impromptu sunflower bouquets. Or cupcakes from your favorite bakery.

4. Makes you feel safe and cherished. And smart. And funny — and all the things he actually is.

5. Does his share of the dirty work, or more. Cares for animals and sick relatives. Cleans up disgusting messes. Makes a fine impression at family events. Accompanies you to scary doctor appointments. Goes grocery shopping without being asked.

6. Gives you the right kind of chills. And makes you weak in the knees. And can also slow-dance.

7. Doesn't bite back.

8. Loves his mother. But not too much.

9. Won't gamble, cheat, lie, steal, or get overdrawn, abusive, drunk, or high. You might think this one is stupidly obvious — but then why do so many women suffer with losers who do these things? Read the papers.

10. Is hilariously incompetent at a few basic things, like scrambling eggs or using the land line. You can feel mildly superior without causing trouble.

11. Loves his work. Bonus points if he does something you find interesting, as opposed to, say, underwriting. You'll have plenty to talk about. More points if he finds your work interesting, too.

12. Has at least a few very good male friends.

13. Never bores you. With the right guy, you will never run out of things to talk about. And if you do, you can both just start making stuff up in funny foreign accents. This is one is absolutely a deal-breaker.

14. Loves you even though you can never make up your mind.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Mad Woman"

Thanks to my friend and media-savvy fellow blogger Some Assembly Required, I can see just who I'd be in an episode — no, a full season — of Mad Men. The official site has an excellent tool that lets you personalize your character's physical features, outfit, and accessories — right down to your glazed donut or cigarette.

So here is A Proper Bostonian, who would be playing Persis Fuller Gold on the show. She's a well bred, overeducated, teetotaling, sarcastic, clever, and bloodthirsty senior copywriter who is in direct competition with Peggy. Her work on the Milky Way, Cadillac, and Clairol TV campaigns, and her suave handling of the partners rapidly get her promoted to associate creative director. After a calculated affair with Peggy's priest combusts (I said she was bloodthirsty), she will move back to Boston, buy a crumbling townhouse on Marlborough Street for $22,000, and become one of the founding partners of Cabot, Gold & Company.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Losing It

To follow up on my earlier post, my new diet plan seems to be working. I feel good and have more energy. I'm eating a wider variety of foods, and finding that produce isn't as boring as I'd thought. I've lost a little more than 2 pounds in a week without counting calories or feeling hungry or deprived. If I keep losing weight, I'll know I have a winner.

I realize that all I'm doing is following the good old Food Pyramid more closely: all I'm doing is filling at least half of my plate with fruits and vegetables (going light on dressings and sauces) whenever I eat. This is the same old, boring wisdom we've heard a million times: make sure that most of your food is fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. In its more hip, Michael Pollan phrasing: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much."

For breakfast, I've started eating Post Raisin Bran (rich in iron and fiber) with skim milk, a banana, and a small glass of orange juice, which helps the body absorb the iron. Lunch is often a turkey wrap with quacamole or a bowl of my homemade, roasted tomato soup with crackers and cheese. And some fruit.

To me, avocados are luxurious — almost decadent — but they count as healthy food. I made a great soup from an avocado, a cucumber and fat-free buttermilk the other day. I eat grapes and peaches for snacks. Dinner almost always includes a big salad, and often we roast asparagus. Dessert is mixed berries with sugar, milk, a squirt of light whipped cream, and ginger snaps.

When we go out for Anna's burritos, I order mine with roasted vegetables now. As long as they leave out their powerful onions, it tastes great. Besides losing weight, my goal in trying this eating plan was to find a new way to eat more sensibly yet happily for life. And I think I may have done it! Plus, I have IBS, and so far, things are very good. Eating less dairy, red meat, and fatty food always makes me feel better.

I'm trying to exercise more, too. Before it got so hot and humid, I was going out for a jog and/or some hill-walking twice a week for an hour or so. I hope I can keep that up in this soupy weather, but I'll probably need to set out earlier in the morning. I take two very challenging weight-training classes every week, which are cardio-intensive. And I take very long walks at least twice a week. For example, we walk from Back Bay to the Haymarket, stock up on cheap produce, and lug the heavy bags back home. We often walk nearly a mile to get our burritos, too.

I hope that's enough activity for me to lose more pounds, but if it isn't, I'll start taking cardio classes at the gym. And I'll see about cutting back on dessert. I'll keep you posted again next week.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Extraordinary Cats & Silly Wabbits

We went to the MSCPA's Adoption Center over the weekend because visiting with the cats always cheers us up. Most of them seem very content to be there, especially in the multi-cat rooms with their giant windows, climbing furniture, and cozy beds. Many of the cats welcome being petted and spoken to. We hope to eventually discover the next member of our household. But we are very particular; it could take years of visits before I see the right cat and I just "know." I have an instinct for finding extraordinary cats. I knew that Bunny had to be our cat when I had only seen her sleeping for a few seconds, with her back to me in her cage. I had taken the adoption papers off her door before even she woke up and blinked at me. And she is an extraordinary cat.

I believe there is a Taoist art to selecting a cat. In J.D. Salinger's Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, Zooey Glass recounts a story his brother Seymour read to their infant sister Franny:

Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: ‘You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?’ Po Lo replied: ‘A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But the superlative horse — one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks — is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air. The talents of my sons lie on a lower plane altogether; they call tell a good horse when they see one, but they cannot tell a superlative horse. I have a friend, however, one Chin-fang Kao, a hawker of fuel and vegetables, who in things appertaining to horses is nowise my inferior. Pray see him.’

Duke Mu did so, and subsequently dispatched him on the quest for a steed. Three months later, he returned with the news that he had found one. ‘It is now in Shach’iu,’ he added. ‘What kind of a horse is it?’ asked the Duke. ‘Oh, it is a dun-colored mare,’ was the reply. However, someone being sent to fetch it, the animal turned out to be a coal-black stallion! Much displeased, the Duke sent for Po Lo. ‘That friend of yours,’ he said, ‘whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast’s color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?’ Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. ‘Has he really got as far as that?’ he cried. ‘Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses.’

When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.

I haven't found a superlative cat yet. My cats raise dust and leave tracks — and worse — sometimes. But I am amazed and delighted every day by three extraordinary ones I've found. My cats are way beyond "good."

At the MSPCA, my husband always drags me to see the rabbits. I don't relate to them as well as he does, which is a little weird considering that my cat is named Bunny. But we were both taken with this little guy, who seemed very personable under his long, frilly ears. I had never seen rabbit plumage before:

Then we saw this refugee from a Star Wars movie sitting quietly by the window. The Cousin It of the rabbit kingdom. I don't know if he's superlative or extraordinary, but he's going to need a lot of grooming:

Thursday, July 23, 2009


The Proper Bostonian is reeling because her favorite cat, Bunny, received a diagnosis of lymphoma two hours ago. Here she is, in better days, when she was sort of fat; she's thinner now, but not terribly so.

I promised at the beginning of my blogging not to bore readers with cat stories, but that's just tough. I suspect I'll have more cat-related things I'll need to say in the coming weeks and months — and, I hope, years in the case of Bunny. 

The type of lymphoma she has is known to respond well to chemo, meaning it can go into remission for a while, potentially for years. So we're going to take it one day at a time. Or more precisely, every other day at a time. She's going to need to swallow a large chemo pill every other day. She is impossible about taking pills. I have been giving cats all kinds of pills since I was 9. I'm an old hand, I'm brave and tough, and I know all the tricks. But Bunny will not swallow a pill. Bunny can spit out a pill you thought you'd given her two days earlier. But if she's going to live, we've got to make her swallow big pills. I'll keep you posted on how we ultimately resolve this one. There is a liquid version of the chemo medicine, but if she should spit or spray it at us, we can get seriously ill; it suppresses the immune system. She's a spitter. So that's out.

In addition the chemo, she needs shots of a liquid steroid twice a day. I'll be doing this for the first time in two hours. My stomach is already in knots. My vet says we'll both get used to it, and soon I won't think twice about sticking in the needle, which should indeed be far easier and faster than giving pills. "It'll feel like you just did a drive-by," said the vet.

Bunny also needs a vitamin B injection once a week. If I can handle the steroid shots, the only problem with the vitamin shot will be remembering when to give it. I think we'll post a schedule on a wall calendar. Now, to find a wall calendar in July....

A few years ago, I realized that we were going to be in big trouble some day, because our three dearly beloved cats are very close in age. They are all about 16 now, and their health problems began this year. We are very lucky that our tortoiseshell Persian, Snicky, is doing well on her medications for inflammatory bowel syndrome; she was very sick last fall and winter. We should be so lucky with Bunny.

We know we've been blessed with the gift of many happy years with each of our extraordinarily personable, sweet, and entertaining furry friends. We plan to do our very best for them as they age. Their well-being will always come first, not our selfish, maudlin, sentimental feelings. There will be no prolonged or unnecessary suffering for them — all that will be strictly on our side. We will be brave for their sakes. I just hope we'll be able to squeak in a few more good years with all of them, and that we'll still have a lot of fun times to off-set the pill hostilities, syringes, and bad news. We'll see.

PS: We each gave Bunny a shot a few minutes ago, and it really wasn't bad at all, for her or for us. She ate through it, in fact. It was, nevertheless, nothing like a "drive-by." If the chemo drug were injectable, we'd be home-free... and who knows, maybe it is...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


This morning the PB put on a charming summer dress and walked to City Hall, planning to talk to a building inspector. I was hoping he or she could help us with our recent air and noise pollution problems. I figured that talking to someone in person would be more effective than sending an email complaint from Boston's .gov site, or just calling them. And the public is welcome to drop in during business hours to discuss such matters with inspectors.

It was a pleasant, if humid, morning for walking, and I was glad to come into the tepid air conditioning of America's Ugliest Building. I went through security and headed to the smiling man at the information desk. I asked for directions to the building inspectors — on the 5th floor, right? He said, "Maybe, but not in this building. They're all at 1010 Mass. Ave." Oops. Then he told me to take the Orange Line to the Mass Ave. stop to get there. So I did. And upon arriving, I discovered that it's nowhere near 1010. In fact, I wasn't far from my own neighborhood so I walked back home and left the inspectors another phone message.

It's hard to fight City Hall when you can't find City Hall. (I know, I wasn't planning on anything remotely like a "fight" in my pretty dress, but it's best to prepare for the worst — as I've learned from many recent experiences.)

I don't blame those inspectors one bit for seeking shelter elsewhere than City Hall. Even the poetry taped up by the elevators can't redeem that mess. I just hope this PB can find their office tomorrow.

Monday, July 20, 2009


The Proper Bostonian was a skinny child, a bony teenager, and a slender young adult. At age 12, her favorite party trick was slipping a triangular plastic pool-ball rack over her head, shoulders, and hips to the floor.

In those days, it was not unusual for her to eat thick wedges of homemade Betty Crocker cake three times a day, or have dinner twice (after a bland meal with her family, sneaking out for filet mignon or Croatian cooking at her godparents' house, down the street). The PB ate whatever she wanted and it didn't show until her late 20s. When her hips expanded, the PB tried SlimFast but decided it tasted like liquid cardboard. So she bought cute workout clothes, joined a gym, and became an aerobics convert. It worked; soon her coworkers exclaimed as her biceps rippled when she punched buttons on her phone.

In her mid 30s, the PB fell in love and developed allergies and asthma at the same time. Her weight dropped by more than 10 pounds, even though she was routinely baking and snarfing up brownies and cookies and eating in Mexican restaurants. Apparently, falling in love can do this, even when it's reciprocated and not wracked with doubts and angst. It's the hormones; it's a shame that they eventually settle down. Plus, 45-minute coughing attacks from asthma are a form of cardiovascular exercise; they can also be core-strengthening if you hold your abs in. The PB thought she looked fashionably emaciated; her plain-spoken aunt said, "You look like hell." Safety pins kept her skirts from falling down on her hips. Size 2 jeans made their first and only appearance in her closet.

After the wedding and a long series of allergy injections, the PB felt better, stopped coughing, and gave up aerobics classes when her favorite teacher moved to NYC. Her weight climbed to its normal number, and a few pounds beyond. She decided to cultivate an eating disorder but, since she was raised to appreciate good cooking, she found it impossible (neurotic as she is in other ways) to develop obsessive behavior around food. She felt fine and she looked fine, so she relaxed, went to the gym occasionally, and enjoyed a few hundred burritos.

In her 40s, while taking the Pill, that little bit of extra weight stayed put, but she was still at least 20 pounds below the "average" weight for a woman of her height. She gave up eating gobs of high-fat peanut butter and frequent cheeseburgers, and learned to eat more sensibly. One rule: never buy food packaged in crinkly cellophane bags, like chips, popcorn, and cookies. She also switched to diet soda and skim milk. This saved her from following the path of most of the women in her family, who eventually developed  an "apple" silhouette after decades of being rail-skinny. So the PB was wary. She periodically tried variations on the South Beach Diet, tried to eat even more sensibly (only one slice of cheese on the burritos), and did a ton of walking. She consulted a nutritionist. And she still has a waistline.

But the PB recently got on the scale for the first time in a few months. She nearly fell off. She saw a number she never, ever imagined seeing. Hand her a lightweight bowling ball, and she weighs as much as her father, who is trim and handsome at age 95. Even if he's very short and very old, a daughter has no business weighing as much as her dad plus a bowling ball.

What should she have expected, given her recent slice-of-cake-per-night habit? It may be her secret of happiness but it's also the secret of her inability to zip her matchstick jeans. She can pretend to blame it on added muscle from her twice-weekly intensive weight-training classes, but she knows the truth.

So the PB is embarking on... well, not exactly a diet, but an even-more-sensible lifetime eating plan. She is determined to lose about 10 pounds by her birthday next month. This will put her weight back where it belongs. She's up-to-date on all the latest health and nutrition information so she knows how to do this safely, although her knowledge still has to compensate for her zero willpower.

She'll weigh herself daily. While weight-lifting is important for weight loss, daily cardiovascular exercise is also part of her plan now. She's about to go out to sweat for an hour or so after finishing this.

She recently read about an interesting weight-loss tip in one of her magazines: At each meal, make sure that half of your plate is filled with fruits and vegetables. You'll automatically get the recommended daily servings of produce for good nutrition. And if you skip the fatty dressings and sauces, you won't need to count calories to lose weight, either.

This sounds easy, and even appealing. The PB is already a weekly habitué of the Haymarket and the farmer's market, so this is a plan she thinks she can follow. And soon it will be tomato season, the best time of the year for fresh veggies and fruit. She'll keep you posted on how it's going.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Reason to Move #17

17. The same guy, a few doors away, who kept us up all night last Friday, threw a similar — but longer and louder — party last night. A couple of his friends stood in the alley, after 1 am, and sang pseudo-operatically at top volume, taking advantage of the marvelous acoustics created by all the tall brick building facades (full of hundreds of people who wished they were asleep). The rest of his friends just like to hoot, shriek, and shout, often in unison. Didn't any of them notice that the yard they were screaming in is surrounded by scores of apartments, filled with frustrated people hoping to sleep in their beds?

People with friends like that shouldn't have any friends. I mean, normal party noise that ends at a reasonable hour is one thing, but taking advantage of the alley acoustics to sing long arias, well, that's rude.

We called the police twice for help, but we don't think they ever appeared. I know the landlord. I think he will be sympathetic if I beg him to stop these regular parties. But I have to wonder how many other neighbors called the police, or just found their earplugs, cranked up the air conditioner, or put a pillow over their head.

A party once in a while is one thing; a weekly party on one of Boston's most elegant and otherwise tranquil residential streets is just plain mean.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Day at Brimfield

Yesterday, three womenfriends and I spent the day at the Brimfield Antiques Fair. As we drove down, we made fun of Brimfield's hokey old-fashioned web site and hatched a collective plan to open a gourmet donut shop slash consignment vintage furniture store in Back Bay.

The weather was perfect, the crowds weren't bad, and the food was as unhealthy and inviting as ever. We munched on apple fritters, blueberry muffins, and hot dogs with sauerkraut. We slathered on sun-block and perused a staggering quantity of stuff, finding hidden treasures among the junk. Among our purchases: a large American flag with embroidered stars and a pole, an ornate, hand-painted Lenox dinner plate from 1926, a 1970s "Emergency" board game, blue-and-white tea towels printed with morning glories, and three handcolored antique German maps.

For almost as long as I've been going to Brimfield (an embarrassingly long time), I've been hunting for colorful litle tropical bird pitchers from 1920s or '30s Czechoslovakia. Often we go home without having spotted even one. One this trip, I found one in one of the very first tents we explored:

I didn't buy it because I already have 26 of them. But it was a steal at $18 and very cute.

If you like blue-and-white floral transferware and Egyptomania, you'd have been in luck. For the first and only time in your life, no doubt. But again, I passed. Even the dealer said it was ugly:

As we walked in umpteen sunny, dusty fields, it was pleasant to come across this shady garden shop, which offered colorful potted flowers and herbs, statuary, outdoor furniture, and homemade herbal products, including moth-chaser sachets.

The dealers all seemed to be in good moods. For the first time in a long time, it wasn't pouring or cold or so windy that tents were blowing over. Business was brisk; we had to wait in line to bargain and buy.

This doll appears to be wiped out from too much traipsing:

You may wonder how you survived without a hand-painted Austrian floral dish with a shiny gold lobster handle ($75). It was on the Quaker Acres main drag if you need it. We already have all we need, or I'd have snapped it up.

The following display stumped me: very old, very used sporting goods mixed in with badly beat-up band equipment. Ah, someone has liquidated a high school:

So this is where tubas go after they die:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It's Time to Move: Reasons #15 & #16

When you get tired of hearing about this subject, please send me a few new real-estate listings in your neighborhood, okay? I'm checking the whole Boston area every day on, but pickings in our price range are slim.

More Reasons to Move:

15. A giant central air conditioning unit was just installed today in a neighboring garden. This monstrosity is practically guaranteed to keep me awake, since the roof-mounted ones further up and down the street already contribute to my warm-weather insomnia.

16. An operatic soprano just moved in across the street. She practices the same phrases a lot, and she's one of those wobbly sopranos of the church choir variety. I wouldn't mind a good singer, or a pianist, harpist, or classical guitarist, but she's on the squawky end of the soprano continuum.

I'm trying to be cheerful about all this. I try to say to myself, "Gee, all signs are pointing it's being Time for Us to Move! Won't it be fun to pack up and leave this beautiful, ideally located, efficiently designed, and affordable little condo that we've loved dearly for the past 11 years — and renovated to perfection not so long ago? I'm sure we'll be able to sell it just at the moment that we'll need to, so we can manage to get a mortgage on some other place! Yes, it took us two years of constant hunting to find this place, but maybe this time we'll get lucky! And, who cares if we can't afford anything as nice as this because I'm unemployed, and so what if we'll have to leave our beloved neighborhood? Oh, well! It will be an adventure!"

Have you had enough? Can I smack myself into silence now? I really do try to think positively, as I spend my late-night hours trolling online for a new home. But it isn't working too well.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tall Ships, or Not So Much

The tall ships have left Boston — no more masts and sails cluttering the harbor view, no more comparisons of the scene to a Fitz Henry Lane painting, and far fewer sunburned tourists sipping sodas in baggy cargo shorts.

Despite her dislike of popular attractions, the Proper Bostonian took a detour from shopping in the North End over the weekend to view the ships. They were okay. The hot sun and the crowds soured her mood. If Johnny Depp in full pirate make-up had appeared, piloting the Black Pearl, she would have had more enthusiasm. As it was, the experience was mostly a let-down. The best ships were very far away. Everyone she saw looked so tacky in their loud, printed T-shirts and white trainers — and not a sailor suit or even a crisp straw boater in sight.

And then she spotted this not-tall, non-ship, historically inappropriate vessel, whose sheer ridiculousness made her trip worthwhile:

Saturday, July 11, 2009

It's Time to Move: Reasons #11–#14

This morning has inspired me with a few more Reasons to Move:*

11. The loud party in the alley, one backyard over from our bedroom windows, that went on until 12:30. Now, even the Proper Bostonian understands that this is a respectable, and even a considerate, time to conclude a Friday-night party. But it was very loud until it ended. I could hear it in the front of our place, and the party was in the back. Down the street. Many doors away.

12. The lone partier who stayed on afterward, happily yelling into his cell phone until after 2 am. Sound echoes beautifully in an alley filled with tall brick buildings. In those wee hours, I calculated that as many as 200 neighbors might alse be lying awake, unwillingly listening to him.

13. The air compressor that started up somewhere in the alley at 8 am and roared on for about an hour. By law, it could have started at 7, so I suppose I should be grateful. But I was too tired to be grateful.

14. The dude in the white pick-up who parked across the street from us and has been blasting "Boston's Country 102.5" on his radio for the past 45 minutes. Since he's sitting in the back of his truck, admiring the view, I fear that he's found his inner-city camping spot for the day. I hope that truck's battery is old.

*The top 10 reasons to move include: one of us owning way, way too many books, having too little space in general, and longing for a garden.)

Annals of Retail: A Real Deal from Banana Republic

I found this intriguing email from Banana Republic on our return from vacation:

So I immediately increased their conversion rate. I quickly filled my shopping bag with $500 worth of miscellaneous handbags I had no interest in, started the checkout process, applied the code, and discovered I was entitled to a mere $15 off.

While I was hoping for $500, I guess Banana Republic knows better than to give a bargainista like me a handout that good. But it was still a $15 handout. And because I get free shipping with my Luxe card, I decided to order one of their classic "Timeless V-neck tees, (on sale in teal and blue for $17.99), costing me a total of $2.99. These classic cotton tees are opaque, neatly cut, and a sensible length (for women who aren't giantesses).

Banana has plenty of accessories, jewelry, and other sale items at similar prices. So if you also get free shipping and this deal is sitting in your inbox, see if your savings are bigger than mine were. It's valid through tomorrow.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why the Sun Finally Came Out (at least in Maine)

The talented folks of Southwest Harbor, Maine, have discovered the cure for a rainy day:

Water and Wind on Mt. Desert Island, Maine

When we stay in Southwest Harbor, I often wander down to the Cranberry Island Ferry dock close to sundown. It's often windy and cold, but the light can be spectacular:

We saw the moonrise one evening. The water often takes on a pinkish glow at sunset:

There's always a feeling of tranquility at this time of day, with all the dinghies tucked in for the evening:

Another cold, blustery spot offering dramatic scenery is the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. When the wind isn't knocking you around, you can see the town of Bar Harbor and the Porcupine Islands in Frenchman Bay:

Eagle Lake is on another side of the mountain:

The Ledges, on Acadia's Park Loop Road, is yet another windy spot with interesting photo opportunities:

When it's time to get out of the wind and thaw out, there's nothing quite like a hot shower with a few crustaceans for company:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Deer Me

When we're in Acadia National Park, we're always on the search for deer but we rarely see any. We also hope to see bear, moose, and owls, but those are all extremely unlikely unless you spend a lot of time lurking quietly on remote trails. (We spend a lot of time lurking in the hot tub at the inn.) But the park is allegedly overrun with deer and seeing them from the roads, main hiking trails, and carriage roads should be almost as easy as spotting seagulls, at least according to the locals to whom we whine about the lack of deer. They're sick and tired of deer. Nevertheless, we spend a lot of time driving around, staring deeply into the woods and complaining about the dearth of deer.

Yesterday we were cruising the Park Loop Road on a cloudy, drizzly day, wringing extra value from the 12-month park pass we'd sprung for last October. We'd been all through the park a couple of times on this trip and hadn't seen a single deer. Jt just when we'd given up, four appeared — couples grazing, on each side of the road.

And one of them looked like this:

A guy who'd been driving behind us also tiptoed out of his car (you don't shut the car door for fear of scaring off the deer) to admire and take photos. He was in awe of this white one, and told us that while he'd read that they can be found in the woods of northern Minnesota, they are extremely rare in Maine.

Of course, now we can't wait to see that particular deer again.... and where are all the damn moose?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

No Baby

A lot of the summer help on Mt. Desert Island consists of young Russians and Eastern Europeans, who come on four-month work visas. The young woman scooping your Caramel Caribou cone at CJs is likely to ask you if you "vant colored or chocolate shprinkles?" in an accent as rich as the ice cream.

This year, there's Melan, a tall, sweet-tempered Serb, helping out at our inn. He's trying hard to learn English, and spoke very little when he arrived, according to the innkeepers. Since they both have Australian accents and talk a mile a minute, they present an extra challenge to his language acquisition. For the first few days, "Hello!" "Thank you!" and "Serbia number one!" was just about all we heard from Melan. When he saw the Fourth of July fireworks, he reportedly said, "USA number one!" although he also complained mildly that American fireworks were just noise and color — not dangerous, like the shells he'd seen exploding in his own country.

We were sitting by the pool on morning as Melan was having his first lesson in pool maintenance from another young worker at the inn, Mario. Mario was explaining the intricacies of the test strips that are used to test the water in the hot tub to determine which chemicals to add.

Mario had stuck a test strip into the tub and was telling Melan, "So we keep it in the water for about 5 seconds and then we wait another 10 seconds to see what develops..."

Suddenly Melan put his hand on Mario's shoulder, looked deeply into his eyes, and said very seriously, "Baby? Or no baby?"

When we stopped laughing, we realized that Melan is going to be just fine with English.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Greetings from Southwest Harbor, Maine

The Proper Bostonian's husband spent a month of his childhood summers in Bar Harbor, and when we and the PB got together, he was eager to take her up there. We spend a couple of weeks up there every year, broken into three trips: July 4, late August, and October. We've been coming up for more than a decade, and we always stay in the "Poolside Bungalow" of a mellow inn in Southwest Harbor, on the "quiet side" of Mt. Desert Island. The crowds, the fancier restaurants, and the tacky souvenir shops are in Bar Harbor. At Southwest, there's a grocery store with gourmet offerings, a wine and cheese shop, a casual clothing store called the Moody Mermaid, and a family restaurant/ice cream shop called the Quiet Side.

We were bracing for changes when we drove into town. Usually, Mt. Desert has a comforting way of staying the same from year to year, and even from decade to decade, but we knew the economy would have an impact here this year, as it has everywhere. And sure enough, our favorite bookstore, Port in a Storm, in Somesville is just an empty shell with a "For Rent" sign. No more dreamy afternoons on the second-floor windowseat with a small pile of design books and biographies. That hurt. The Higgins Store, which sold an amusing range of antiques as well as jam, is also empty, but we'd expected that. The storekeeper confided last year that he was in the middle of a divorce and closing his shop. We felt even worse about what happened to our favorite tree on the road to the inn, a very tall, shimmering larch (I think) that waved its silvery leaves at us as we came and went. For no reason we can figure out, it was sawed in half, leaving one shimmering branch sticking out at a 90-degree angle, which feels sadder than losing the whole tree.

Then I noticed that our favorite lunch spot in Northeast Harbor, the Tan Turtle, was not showing up in any of the seasonal island advertising directories that you find everywhere up here. A jolly bar/restaurant, it had a tabloid-sized menu that seemed longer than Bleak House. It was almost impossible to decide between all the paninis and poorboys, club sandwiches and quesadillas. Since several businesses in Northeast Harbor had burned in a freak fire last September, we suspected that the loss of those stores had hurt other businesses. Instead we found another giant hole where the Tan Turtle had been. It had burned in the winter. But the old-fashioned bakery, two doors away, had been rebuilt with a glossy wood facade, and was still selling hermits, crullers, and carrot cake just like the old days.

The rest of the trip held no surprises beyond a few new flavors at C.J.'s in Bar Harbor and higher prices ($5.99 for a box of linguini!) at Sawyer's Market and for the popovers at the Jordan Pond House. There are more vacancy signs at the Bar Harbor inns, but our cousin, who owns two galleries in town, says she's been having a great year already and has sold all the largest paintings of her most-expensive artists.

The reassuring thing about lakes, forests, mountains, and even the rocky shoreline up here (unlike the Cape), is that they never seem to change. Southwest Harbor still turns pink at sunset and the dinghies are always tied up in photogenic rows. There's lobster on almost every menu, and happy families and couples line the pavements in town. Our Australian innkeepers continue to make jokes, complain, make ambitious plans for improvements, change their minds, and keep the faith as they always have.

The one that I wish would change is our always having to leave eventually. Unfortunately, that's always predictable, too.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Car Talk

I don't have a driver's license, don't know much about cars. But I do know that when the oil indicator lights up, it's serious.

We were driving in Brookline on Wednesday night, heading for yet another burrito dinner at Anna's on Beacon Street, when the oil light started flickering on and off. We have a Mitsubishi Eclipse, which is only the second car my husband has owned; he bought his first car just 10 years ago. Before that, he just stole cars whenever we needed one (actually, he borrowed his mom's old Chevy, but that doesn't sound nearly as cool, does it?).

We were planning to drive 400 miles to Maine the next morning, and we had a long night ahead of us, putting the final touches on a 530-page book on ancient Egyptian archaeology that my husband has been racing to complete before we left. He'd begun writing, illustrating, and designing it in 1993, but it got sidetracked by other projects over the years. But suddenly it had to be in print by September to give him a better shot at being selected for an exciting new job. We were planning to drop off the files and manuscript at the printer on our way north. We'd been working like maniacs day and night to finish it, and we really didn't need car trouble at this point.

I grew up in a family of men who fix their own cars, so I know a bit more, via osmosis, about them than my husband does. And from my experiences of being around other people's cars, I have learned that the first break-down of a previously reliable car is a harbinger of many more repair bills ahead. I don't know if the local repair shops are unusually inept or actually sabotage cars, but I've noticed that new repairs are usually necessary every few weeks after the initial problem was repaired. Sure enough, my husband had taken his car to a new mechanic a month ago when the "check engine" light went on. Because he is trusting and earnest as well as clueless about cars, he told the owner of the garage (let's call him Charles) to repair anything that he thought might be wearing out, figuring that this would prevent future problems. Charles saw dollar signs (700 of them). And my dad, in Pennsylvania, saw stars when he heard the story and started yelling. "Crooks! You never have to replace all four ignition coils at once! He paid what for how many spark plugs? Geez, it's too bad the ancient Egyptians didn't have cars or he might know something about them! I bet he never read his manual, either!"

Two weeks later, my husband mentioned that the car wasn't starting properly. "When did this start?" I asked, figuring that the grim era of never-ending car repairs was about to commence. "About a month ago, I guess," he said. "Didn't you tell Charles when you were there a couple of weeks ago?" I asked. "No, I forgot." "Well, you can't go back to there or my dad will have a fit," I said.

But he said he liked and trusted Charles, and that all of his work was guaranteed for a year. I rolled my eyes. Charles said the car needed a new battery; it was 7 years old. He also said the starter was wearing out but that it would probably last a few more months. And he gave him the model info so we could buy a less-expensive, rebuilt one ourselves, to have on hand when the time came. This didn't seem especially "crooked," to me, but I figured Charles was feeling guilty about all those ignition coils.

When the oil light flickered on I said, "You have to stop driving. Now. If you're low on oil, that's okay, but if you're not, we're in big trouble." The light flickered on and off until we found a parking space; my husband checked the oil. There seemed to be plenty, maybe even too much. I wondered if the light was lying.

It was 6 o'clock. Cars never break down when repair shops are open. I called my dad. He said, "Are you sure you're not low on oil? If you're low, go get some. But if you have enough oil, you're probably in big trouble with a pressure problem. And don't drive at all if the oil light is on." As I said, we have osmotic learning in our family. But then my dad said, "Of course, it could just be that your oil light is no good. Those bulbs and the electronics can wear out over the years. In that case, it's nothing, you can drive." "Well? Which is it? We're stuck in Brookline!" I asked my Oracle. "I don't know!" yelled my dad. He never says that.

So I called my brother, who happened to be on his way to drop off his car at a mechanic in New Jersey. "He says there's plenty of oil," I told him. He said, "Does he know how to check the oil? Does he know what the marks on the stick mean? Does the car have an oil pressure gauge?" I inquired. My husband said he wasn't sure. My brother said, "Does he read the manual?" I said no, and saw, perfectly in my mind's eye the disgusted expression that accompanied the snort coming through the phone. He said, "If you have oil, you can't drive at all with the engine light on. You'll wreck the engine... unless the light is just acting up. Why don't you start the car and see if the light goes back on?"

We did. It didn't. "Try driving it," said my brother. "As long as the light stays off, you're okay." We made it home without the little red light. The next day, my husband called a list of mechanics suggested by friends who had heard about the ignition coils and spark plugs. No one could take him that day, and many were closing early for the July 4 weekend. We'd miss at least a day of our Maine vacation, and maybe the whole thing. So he called Charles, took it right over, and had it checked within the hour. "No problems at all," said Charles. "Everything looks fine. You should be okay to travel." He didn't charge him.

So we set out in a downpour that afternoon for Maine, exhausted but jubilant, having finished the book (more or less). We handed off the files to the printer, and avoided conversational topics pertaining to oil, cars, and lights for 7 hours. The car was fine. I have to tell my dad.