Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hide a Key

Just a week after my friend Some Assembly Required locked himself out of his apartment, I found myself in a similar, lonely, chilly boat.

At the gym this morning, I discovered I'd grabbed the wrong set of keys on my way out. Instead of my house keys and gym pass, I'd taken a ring of old keys I use to let repairmen into other apartments in our building. We'd put every old key we had on that ring, and I go through them all whenever someone needs to fix something in somebody's unit.

The check-in guy at the gym knows me, so taking my class without my card was no problem. He handed me a towel and let me use the phone. I called my husband, who was just about to head out for a few hours of errands across the river, and we decided he'd leave my keys on the porch in some discreet packaging. Simple solution, whew. I took my class, nearly collapsed as usual, and slowly staggered home.

Nothing was on the front porch. Nothing was tucked under the snow, and nothing was on either side of the porch, in the shrubbery. I spotted mail in the basket in the foyer. It seems the mailman had helpfully taken the envelope with my keys and stuck it safely inside.

I started trying all the keys on my ring, and one of them very unwillingly unlocked the door. It must have been a reject key because we had some. But the locks had been recently lubricated (so our keys make our hands black whenever we touch them) and it behaved. In the mail basket, I found the envelope with my keys that my husband had left, labeled, "Please leave in slot." He must have left it sticking part-way out of our mail slot and, with those instructions, any sensible mailman would finish the job. Whatever. I was in, and I had my keys.

Just out of curiosity, I tried the other building keys in our apartment door, and none worked. But I'd hidden a key in the lobby long ago, for emergencies, although I'd forgotten where it was. During all the renovations in the hallway 2008–09, I'd had to keep moving it around. After a short period of excavating under carpeting and elsewhere, and getting very dirty hands, I found it. So I would have been able to get inside even without my own set of keys.

If you live in an apartment building, keeping an extra key in your lobby is a good idea if you're clever — but not too clever — at hiding things.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Baby, It's Cold Outside

The weather outside was frightful.

Snow was falling snow on snow. Snow upon snow. But we foolishly went dashing through the snow this afternoon, in inadequate boots instead of a one-horse open sleigh, which would never fit in our alley parking space.  We got as far as the Public Garden and couldn't wait to turn around.

We'd been dreaming of a white Christmas. Be careful what you wish for.

Back Bay was not a winter wonderland. It was the bleak mid-winter instead, and frosty wind was making moan. A real heck of a high-pitched moan, in fact. It sounded creepy, and I was almost blown off the sidewalk on Newbury Street.

The snow was falling — blowing off trees in snowball-like chunks, actually — but friends were not calling Yoo-hoo. They were inside where they belonged, keeping quiet. Some people were cleaning off their cars, shoveling the snow into the street, risking a ticket.

It was not lovely weather for a sleigh-ride together with you, or anyone in their right mind. We kept hoping Good King Wenceslas would appear so we could tread in his steps behind his page, and feel the heat in the very sod which his steps had printed. No such luck. The only people outside had dogs, cameras, shovels, or shopping bags. No royalty, as far as we could tell.

After all, the feast of Stephen was yesterday. And yesterday, the snow lay on the ground deep, and crisp, and even. Whereas today it was blowing and drifting and shoveled in messy piles, leaving slippery sidewalks. We felt safer walking in the street, where all we risked was being flattened by a cab.

We stopped for lunch at Abe and Louie's, where I ordered one of their overwhelming cheeseburgers, dripping with cheddar and caramelized onions, and some sweet-potato fries. It's the most wonderful time of the year, after all, so why not have a few extra calories? Lunch gave us the courage to walk the rest of the way home, where we plan to stay, hermit-like.

And since we've no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Or not. Maybe we've had enough.

Here are a few photos from our ordeal. At first, I was interested in how snow highlighted architectural details on townhouses and fencing. Then I became more interested in keeping both hands and my camera in my pockets as much as possible.

Blizzard Time

We had a very short visit to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and my family, but it was great while it lasted. We arrived around 4 o'clock on Christmas Day, after an easy drive. We listened to Christmas music on the radio and ate sandwiches and cookies all the way.

Our innkeepers at the Morningstar Inn welcomed us and gave us all their news since we'd seen them in the summer. The place was beautifully decked out for the holidays, as you'd expect from an inn in the "Christmas City of the USA."

A cozy sitting room in the Morningstar Inn.

At my sister's well-decorated house, we spent the evening eating lasagna, watching football, playing with dogs, and catching up with my family. And unwrapping presents, of course. My dad had an enormous pile in spite of telling anyone who'd listen that he didn't want anything. After nearly a century of this, we're on to him. He happily unwrapped gifts he can use and enjoy, including a new amplified phone, a reading lamp, bed pillows, a blanket, candy, and lots more.

We celebrated two birthdays with two cakes. We had a big tray of kiffles, too. Because the Bethlehem Steel Company recruited workers from all over Europe (and Mexico) in the early 20th century, our city remains a melting pot with fabulous ethnic cuisines we all share. So we Italians love kiffles, an Eastern European pastry with walnut, apricot, or lekvar (prune, and very tasty) filling:

Kiffles, courtesy of The Kiffle Kitchen Bakery in Bath, PA, 
where we get ours since we're now too lazy or busy 
to spend hours rolling each piece of pastry dough paper-thin.

When my brother-in-law read aloud the latest forecast, it was clear we should return to Boston the next morning, instead of spending the day visiting family. All my relatives agreed we had to go — usually there's at least one skeptic who says, "Nah, we'll never get more than a dusting." I don't think they wanted to get rid of us; everyone has a healthy fear of slippery highways and unskilled drivers. My husband's family's celebration in Brooklyn, scheduled for today, was also canceled, as people decided to head home early, too.

We returned to the inn very late and found a plate of homemade cookies in our room. Those became breakfast — we left before their hot breakfast is served. The innkeepers sent us off with hot tea and Christmas bread for the road. I was sorry to leave; the inn is so charming and comfortable. I have persnickety tastes, but I admire everything about the place.

Traffic was light, with no snow between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. I sensed that the other cars, like us, were moving with a certain tension, determination, and extra speed, to get to their destinations before the storm hit. The snow began falling as we reached Sturbridge, and there were long waits in bottlenecks at tolls, ramps, and exits. The storm came into Boston with us; we were just in time.

Three cats were mildly pleased to see us; Wendy didn't appear until hours later. Their sitter had provided enormous amounts of kibble at breakfast, more than I'd give in two or three days. They can't make up their minds about him: he's a stranger, big and scary, but who can argue with his generosity?

My sister always gives our cats Christmas gifts, and Snalbert knocked over a heavy shopping bag of presents twice to get them. He has a good memory (or sense of smell). Madness and mess ensued.

Snalbert helpfully takes charge of the cats' presents.

Snalbert helpfully unwraps all the cats' presents.

Snalbert helpfully product-tests four catnip toys on behalf of the others.

Possum wrests a soggy catnip candy cane from Snalbert.

Since we've been home, we've done little but eat, sleep, relax, and enjoy our tree, cats, and presents. We'll frolic dutifully in the snow later. Until then, it's nice to be inside, watching it come down:

Possum watches birds in the snow.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

The PB, her husband and the cats just finished unwrapping all their presents and are feeling happy, blessed, and righteous — having done their part to stimulate the economy. Christmas is about so much besides presents, but at the end of the day, you've still got the presents, and that's just fine.

Now we're heading to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Christmas City of the USA, for more family festivities. With a big snowstorm coming, or not coming — or maybe it will be a small snowstorm, or blow out to sea — we have no idea what traveling back to Boston on Monday (or maybe tomorrow) will be like. We're keeping our plans loose, and hope it won't turn out to be too much of an adventure.

I'll post again when we return. In the meantime, Merry Christmas!

"Tzarina" wood and fabric ornaments from Anthropologie, 
from a few years ago.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve in Boston

We went for a walk around Beacon Hill this afternoon, just for some air and exercise. Here are a few photos of scenes we liked:

Lots of handsome wreaths on equally handsome old doors.

1970's ceramic trees — just like my mom used to make — in Twentieth Century's window.

There are plenty of amazing non-Garden Club wreaths out there....

It seems that this condo association couldn't
agree on the holiday decor, so someone slapped red bows
on a pair of mismatched wreaths and called it a compromise.

This bust of Franklin has been in this Chestnut Street window since I
moved to Boston 30 years ago. I love his necktie!

Acorn Street, decked out for the holidays.

I might have made these Garden Club wreaths, or not. 
At this point, it's all a blur, although my fingers are still recovering.

This is Tom and Gisele's house. Nice wreaths, but there was a 
pair of robins nibbling something in each of their urns. 
Four fat robins in December! It must be a good omen.

This is one of a pair of wreaths I made for a friend. 
They look great in her wrought iron and dark wooden doorway.

Before I take off for Christmas Eve dinner at Eastern Standard, I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and report that I failed miserably at my attempts to wrap three of the four cats. (Wendy wouldn't even hear of the idea, of course.) Better luck next year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

In the Christmas Mood

Almost all of my Christmas shopping is done, and all of those presents are wrapped, bowed, and under the tree. The cats have been helping. Here is Snalbert, pensively modeling bows:

Wendelina Pantherina (aka Wendy) was both intrigued and appalled by the mess I make when it's time to add bows and tags to my wrapped boxes. Our table stays strewn with stuff until I'm finished, so it's a great excuse to eat out. I can't seem to manage any other way, and it's only for a couple of days. Okay, maybe four days. Definitely less than a week.

Wendy has been in good spirits because her photo was featured in an article by ace reporter and blogger Penny Cherubino in this week's Back Bay Sun, Beacon Hill Times, and North End Regional Review. 

Wendy has not let high-profile media-celebrity status go to her head. But she's now a star. Our cat sitter from Boston Pet Sitters spotted me across the street the other day and hollered, "I saw Wendy's picture in the Back Bay Sun!" Since our cat sitter has never actually seen Wendy during any of his visits, because she's nervous and Garbo-esque around strangers, this proves to me that Wendy is practically Back Bay's Lady Gaga.

Possum isn't happy about this. He's been moody and despondent, spending hours sulking. His own celebrity career is in a holding pattern these days:

Although he keeps pressing us, we still can't decide whether he's a ringer for Johnny Depp, George Clooney or Cary Grant. And now he's wondering if he bears an even closer resemblance to younger stars.

Blue eyes: Possum and Zac Efron:

Deep, dark, and complicated: Possum and Casey Affleck:

Notice how both stars are hiding their left ears. Possum thinks this is a Hollywood conspiracy, and they are missing the tops of their ears just like him. I believe that he's gorgeous in his own right, and I wish he'd work through his self-image issues.

When he's not sulking, he's been mugging for our cameras, just in case the media comes knocking again. Here he's assumed a starry-eyed, saint-on-a-holy-card pose. 

He also spends a fair amount of time plotting and scheming about how to break into motion pictures:

He's not exactly wrecking anyone's festive mood around here (finding an extra comma in the message we had printed on our Christmas card took care of that). But it would be a huge relief to all of us if Steve Spielberg, or Marty, or Ben, or Sophia, or Ridley, or Jim Cameron, or somebody gave Possy a call.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The New Simplex Kettle

UPDATE: December 2017: All of you kettle seekers out there might be interested in  a new post reviewing some Richmond kettles sent to me by the company. Aside from being inundated with kettles I received no payment for the review. I can honestly say that I like design and performance of their chrome-plated model better than our 2007 chrome Simplex.  

* * * *

My new British tea kettle arrived yesterday from a Sur la Table store in the Midwest, one of the last places in this country (or anywhere, perhaps) to have any of them in stock. The manufacturer, Simplex, which had been making these kettles since 1903 in their Birmingham factory, suddenly went out of business last summer. New kettles are increasingly scarce. I had to search high and low for mine a week or two ago, and now it's getting tougher to find any, especially the chrome, electric-stovetop models.

My kettle was made in 2007, according to the slip of paper inside.

I love it! For one thing, it's chrome-plated solid copper, not stainless steel. There's a reason cars have chrome trim. It's super-shiny compared to our fancy Bodum steel kettle, which I've kept shiny, too. Here are the two side-by-side.* Chrome is a cooler, brighter, more bluish metal than stainless:

We've used the kettle twice, and I am happy to report that the handle stays cool, the lid doesn't fall off when we pour, and it doesn't leak from the lid. It boils quickly, pours nicely, and the whistle is just loud enough to be heard throughout our apartment— and pleasingly pitched. The cats' ears go back, but they don't run; they just look mildly alarmed. They'll get used to it.

There's a metal ball inside the spout that provides the whistle or improves the pouring, or maybe both. It rattles when you tip the kettle, but it's fine. I've read that it freaks our some people when they hear it, but they must be easily upset.

Anyway, it's wonderful to be able to brew a cup of tea whenever I want, without having to worry about getting burned hands in the process. Our old Bodum kettle is handsome, but its swinging handle and loose lid caused me nothing but trouble.

The only drawback I can find with the new kettle is that it only holds about 1-1/2 quarts. That's plenty for a pot of tea, but not quite enough to fill my hot-water bottle. I can augment it with hot tap water.

I was in the Harvard Square Tealuxe the other day — when they happened to be out of both Caramel Crème Brulée and Crème de la Earl Grey teas, dagnabbit. On their display shelves is an interesting collection of antique kettles, mostly dull copper. They all resemble my Simplex Heritage, with its squat body and funny, bent spout. The more I look at mine, the more its shiny curves and quirky details are growing on me. And its clear that these old-fashioned kettles were made to last a lifetime and do. This will likely be the last kettle I'll ever need or want.

I'd initially wanted their "beehive" style instead, which looks more mid-century modern now that I study it:

I've always been an Edwardian at heart, so it's natural that I've come to admire my Edwardian-era kettle. I love old things; our apartment is full of them. I like ancient stoves and those worn, marble-topped sinks with separate hot and cold taps. I love that oval granite mounting block that's on the curb down the street. If I ever get my own horse and carriage, I'm getting into it from there.

If you want a Simplex kettle, trying calling your local Sur la Table store and asking them to do a nationwide search. Or look on eBay for a gently used one; you can get good deals there. Do not fall for reproduction kettles from Old Dutch or other brands. They may look the same, but read the Amazon reviews. They're made in China and they have all kinds of problems. For display purposes only, from what I've read.

*  By the way, that discoloration in my photo, where our bead-board meets the granite isn't dirt, but darkened glue or sealant from the granite installation. It has always driven me crazy, but not crazy enough to repaint our all-white kitchen. I wasn't home when they did it or there'd have been hell to pay.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cats in Coats

Here's a find on the Anthropologie site from alert reader and fellow feline-friendly blogger Teri, who spotted a cat wearing a dog coat:

That's a mouse riding on the cat's back. I'm not sure most cats should wear clothing, even embellished with mousies. Certainly Sphynxes and other hairless breeds might feel cold in winter, even if they're indoors — if it's necessary for protection from the elements, okay.

But I have the zeal of the converted; when I was a kid, I constantly dressed our cat, Kelly, in doll clothes, scarves, jewelry, and those fake-noses-with-glasses. He tolerated it and even seemed to enjoy it. But he was a feline basket case, and I'm sure my activities didn't improve his mental health. So now I'm uncomfortable with clothing our cats, although Possum's wonderful foster family did it very nicely. I'm delighted to see kittens dressed up without having done it myself:

Possum's sister Abenaki models an American Girl dress.

Possum and his siblings dressed as... the Three Wise Men, perhaps?

Possum did not put designer sportswear on his Christmas list. I doubt he would wear a coat with the patient resignation displayed by the cat in the Anthropologie photo. He's happy in his own coat, which is plush and silky-soft.

He and Wendy have been busy rearranging tree ornaments and light strings to suit feline aesthetic theories. It seems I made a real mess of decorating and the cats feel they have to fix it.

Here is Possum, recuperating from his hard work.

Wendy knows that lights look best in a tangle on the tree skirt, where she can keep an eye on them:

Raining Truffles

We needed to buy chocolate to fill some gift boxes yesterday, so we went to the Lindt shop in the Lenox Hotel on Boylston Street. I'm not fussy about chocolate. Teuscher assortments and Burdick mice are grand, but I've never willingly passed up a Reese's cup or a Kit Kat bar. But the Swiss make some of the creamiest milk chocolate, and Lindt is our mainstay for truffles and fancy bars.

Two big bags of assorted Lindor truffles, about 90 in all, were enough for the presents. When we took them to the register, the sales associate gave us truffle samples. Turns out they were having a two-bags-for-$25 deal.

I handed over my Lindt frequent-buyer card for another stamp. It was far from full; as much as I love the place, I only shop there a couple of times a year. I like to fit into my clothes. And this past summer, I learned the hard way that peanut-butter truffles turn into a greasy, disappointing mess in hot weather (not that it stopped me from finishing them).

The sales associate told us that, for $5 more, we could fill one of their shiny green tins with 30 truffles. We thought we had misheard him; he explained it again. We are no fools; we went for it.

As I was filling up the tin, the other sales associate came over and handed me a 9-ounce package of "Gourmet Truffles," saying, "Here's another free gift for you." Whoa...

We left with a lot more truffles than we'd planned on. We trotted out of there as fast as we could before they changed their minds or offered us a truffle-filled 2011 Ford Escort as our next gift-with-purchase.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Moving the Chains

I woke up this morning and realized: I'm no longer the person I was. I'm someone else — I'm a person who knows something about football. I can look at those silly, helmeted and padded bodies and figure out what they're doing and why they're doing it. And I don't have to concentrate like hell to do this anymore. I can just watch the game.

Just shoot me.  There go my Sunday afternoons. Actually, they are already shot because my husband is a  dedicated Patriots fan, dedicated to the point where he has to watch how well all the other teams in their division are playing, too. That's how I came by my new knowledge: osmosis. And my husband, patiently answering my questions, over and over.

Now, I'm not saying I can intelligently discuss plays and strategies throughout a game. I'm still not sure what all the positions are. But I can figure out enough to surprise my husband periodically with an assessment that is not without merit. I've moved beyond providing nothing but color commentary, rooting for teams based on how attractive and slimming their uniforms are. In that arena, the Saints win every time they are wearing their black pants. I also admire the elegant fleurs-de-lys on their helmets; overall, they have a refinement that makes every other team (except, occasionally, the Ravens) look like clods. My other important stylistic insight is that every team needs at least one guy with dreadlocks or long, flamboyant hair streaming beneath his helmet. He's usually a guy to watch, especially if he's a receiver. Or a running back. (Wait, how do I even know what a running back does?)

I knew enough about the Patriots game last night to walk out during the third quarter, fairly certain that they'd hang tough and win. I knew enough, watching the last 20 seconds or so of the game, to see that the Packers' quarterback was lost. I could tell he was doing the very things I'd do, in other words. He and I were on the same page, and it was the wrong page.

And, of course, I always know what Bill Belichick is going to say during the post-game conference. (But who doesn't?)

I'm not saying that knowing something about football is an achievement; it's just a normal accomplishment for most Americans, like driving (which I also don't do). My mother was a lifelong football fan. I never understood it at the time but, after all, she grew up two blocks from the high school stadium and everyone else in her family was a fan. It's too bad she's not around now; we could finally crow together over her Eagles and Michael Vick, who is on fire.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that death prevents people from following sports. When the Sox won their first series in 83 years, the graves at Mount Auburn were covered with pennants, Globe headlines, hats, and notes that said things like "We finally did it, dad." And you could tell: the mood in that cemetery was different. It was as quiet as always. But it was quietly joyful.

To me, my new understanding is amazing. It gives me hope that I might someday wake up and suddenly be able to understand people speaking Italian or French, something I've always longed to do.

I'd thought it was hopeless. I had to play coed touch football in high school. In the mid 1970's, the Women's Liberation Movement was in its heyday, and we had a pair of gym teachers who were firmly with the program. Every fall, we sat and listened to the football coach patiently introduce the rules of game to us, complete with play diagrams on an overhead projector. Every year, his lecture might as well have been delivered in Latin; I have never felt so lost as I was on that field on chilly October afternoons, wondering what I'd just been told to do and longing to be back in chemistry lab. My only consolation was that winter brought us indoors for coed gymnastics square-dancing. For girls, climbing the rope was optional, but boys had to try the girls' balance beam. They looked worse up there than I did, at least.

Here's a confession I've only told my husband: I used to play for the Patriots. This was back in the '80s, when they were really bad and hardly anyone watched them. Naturally, you won't find me in the record books; teams still can't have women players, which is stupid. I was given a guy's name and it was all kept very quiet. But I played strong safety, and I was mean and aggressive. Even though I still didn't understand the game, I knew I was supposed to knock people down, and I did, head-butting with abandon I usually remembered to only tackle guys who were in uniforms that looked different from mine.

Naturally, I sustained a lot of concussions; as a result, I remember very little of those days. I don't remember ever signing a contract or being paid, for example. But, when the Patriots are in a rough patch, my husband always speculates about whether I'm going to be called out of retirement. But I have a lot more class than, say, Brett Favre, and I plan to stay retired if Belichick comes begging. Plus, one of my fingers is usually bothering me — I still haven't recovered from all that wreath-making from two weeks ago — and you know how hard it is to play football when you have a sore finger.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Starting the January Sale Shopping Early

Through Sunday, Anthropologie is offering an additional 25% off sale-priced clothing, shoes, jewelry, and accessories, in stores and online. The sale area in the Boylston Street store is packed. If you spend $150 online, shipping is free. Since Anthropologies usually marks down items by about 50% to start with, this deal is about as good as it gets at my favorite store.

Several clothing stores seem to be offering unusually deep discounts and special deals before Christmas for a change. And the best items are selling out, so it makes sense not to wait for post-holiday sales this year. I'm sure the prices will be spectacular, but there may not be much left. For example, I ordered a few handsome items from J. Crew to give my husband when they started their 30%-off-sale-prices promotion, and all those things have since vanished from their web site.

At Anthropologie, I gritted my teeth, dug out my credit card, and splurged on a few items I've had my eye on for some time. I bought my favorite, plum-colored dress in a second color, and saved $100. I wear mine  often, and this dark blue version coordinates with almost every cardigan I own. I can wear these dresses year-round:

I snapped up this ribbed and cabled wool sweater for half price, about $50. This comes in several colors; I chose a plummy purple and gray. Here's salt-and-pepper:

I like the horizontal patterning across the back. It flares out in just the right lines to be flattering. It's very cozy, looks great with leggings, and is very interesting with long skirts. 

Hmm, this golden one is beautiful, too....

I also got this swingy skirt by Cartonnier, constructed in a complicated method using three rows of pieced rectangles of heavy navy fabric. At the waist is a removable feather butterfly that the cats would love to tear apart. This had been $148 and it's now $60. It's the perfect length, drapes beautifully, and looks like a vintage find.

Finally, I couldn't resist this leather-trimmed paisley belt, which matches everything I bought, and my plum dress, too. A mere $15:

That's it for me. Even if Santa brings me only a lump of coal, I can't complain. I can't whine one bit about dressing up for all the dinners, receptions, and other events we're invited to nowadays.

If you're looking for gifts, the store has a good selection of arty hats, scarves, and gloves on sale. Home goods and all the Christmas ornaments are on sale, too, although they aren't included in the extra 25% discount. I bet the cats would yank this yarn ornament off the tree and bat it around:

January is going to be very dull now that my closet is full. I hope I get a long, juicy novel for Christmas. In the meantime, I think I'll check out Anthro's Harvard Square store. It's in the former Crate & Barrel (or DR, depending on how long you've been around) store and they've made interesting use of the airy, modernist space. There are about five levels, so I get my exercise, too.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Shopping

I'm making progress on my Christmas shopping, which mostly involves ordering things online after I've browbeaten and nagged my relatives into telling me what they'd like. It's our holiday tradition, and it's exhausting — not the shopping so much as the conversations. As I understand it, they test my affection for  them by seeing how hard I will work to drag a viable response from them. Other families knit sweaters or make crafts as presents present. We sometimes make mild threats or create mayhem, but it ends there.

Those of us in the middle generation take a reasonable amount of pity on each other; we like gift cards and keep Amazon wish lists, and we don't play hard to get. Much. There was that year or two when my brother asked me what I wanted, and all I could say was, "I want our mother back." Just being able to tell it to somebody who really understood was a gift.

The younger generation is more difficult. I have to work hard to make most of them admit they want anything — except for my youngest niece, who always requests one or two of the new celebrity perfumes. This year, I visited fragrance departments in Lord & Taylor, Macy's, and Saks, asking for "Britney Spears's Radiance,"quickly explaining that it was for a teenager — not for me! No one carries it around here. I ordered it online from Elizabeth Arden, who seems like an odd bed-fellow, if you will, for Miss Spears. So I couldn't even smell it, but the bottle does look very pretty.  But that's okay; my niece is crazy about it. I'm also getting an 8-piece, non-Britney, gift-with-purchase, including that old EA favorite, Eight Hour Cream.

The older generation carries the torch in the hard-to-get and hard-to-get-stuff-for departments. "Call us back, we're having dinner." "Oh, it's too early to think about that." "Call us back at 10, after the Rosary." (You can pray the Rosary, led by a nun or priest, on TV at 9:20, on some Catholic channel. Keep that in mind if you ever need an emergency prayer session or you want to lull yourself into a stupor at 9:30 pm. I'm all set; my relatives pray for me every night, and a stupor is my natural state most of the time.)

Once I manage to keep the older folks on the phone, the real fun begins. They use the wish-list tradition as an opportunity to prove they've still got plenty of muscle, volume, and energy, even if it's all passive-aggressive and negative. "We don't need anything." "Oh, c'mon. You don't have to get me anything this year." "No one can give me the things I want..." (my favorite). "DON'T get me ANYTHING. I DON'T WANT ANYTHING." "Well, let me think about it.... Nah. Nothin'." "I'm too OLD for Christmas presents."

Eventually I wear them down and they admit that they would like restaurant gift certificates or a gift card for wine. There's also the sneak attack: They'll be going on, and on, about what they had for lunch and I'll suddenly break in with, "Do you need a new umbrella?" or "Do you want more Moravian cookies?" Catching them off-guard can trigger an honest, unedited response.

With my dad, I get results if I threaten to buy toys for homeless children in his name as his present. I think it's a wonderful idea, and I'd love to do it in his honor. But it makes my Smile-Train-Fanatic father upset. He gives to many charities, and he's just told me, emphatically, that he doesn't want a single Christmas present from me or anyone else. But if I bring up the toy donation plan, he'll finally admit that the soles of his slippers are worn through or his favorite belt is broken.

It wouldn't be Christmas without these struggles. I wouldn't have it any differently, except that I wish that all the equally rebellious and cagey relatives we've lost over the years were still around to join the fray. I hope they're listening in on the action from wherever they are — it's mainly conducted by phone (land-line) — enjoying the sarcasm, sparring, protests, and surprise tactics. Because it's worth it. There is nothing more fun than watching everyone unwrap their presents, and my dad never looks happier than when he has a big pile of wrapped gifts piled in front of him. With that picture firmly in my mind, I continue my Christmas quest.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Burnin' Down the House

When we decorate our Christmas tree, we use one of those special extension cords designed to snake up to the length of the tree, hidden within the branches, so you can easily plug in more light strings as you go. It's worked well for many years, but this year, I decided we needed more lights. I think we added six strings, or 600 hundred more bulbs, to its already-crowded sockets.

When I went to turn off the tree lights very late that night, I forgot that there is an on-off switch on the cord. I pulled the plug instead. And it was hot! Almost melting hot. I don't know much about electricity, but I know this is not a good thing.

The next morning, I found that my husband had turned on the tree for me before he left for work. Again, I found a very hot, burn-your-fingers plug. So I called the guys at Back Bay Hardware and asked them how bad a fire hazard this was. They hemmed and hawed a bit, but strongly advised me to get another extension cord right away. Which I was planning to do anyhow.

Remember that 9-alarm fire last April in the 10-story condo building at Mass. Ave. and Beacon Street? I was there, and it left an impression. Someone had run an electrical cord under a rug, and either weight or friction on that cord started the fire. That's all it takes. The building is still vacant, undergoing repairs while all its residents are stranded elsewhere.

Back Bay Hardware carries practically everything, but they don't have tree extension cords. Nor do either of the Economy Hardware stores in Boston and Central Square. But Charles Street Supply had some, and they also have a calico cat I like to visit. She's adorable, although almost all the fur is missing from her stumpy, truly ratty tail, a mystery to me and her hardware store people. (And just the opposite of calico Wendy, who has enough tail for two cats. I have always been awed by Wendy's massive tail, and now I am also grateful.)

It's too bad that hardware stores don't sell anything to stop fur from falling out of your tail....

But they can save you from burning down your building. I walked over to Charles Street after leaving strict instructions to keep the tree turned off until I returned. It took about a minute to snake the new cord up into the tree, behind all the ornaments, and plug in half the light strings. We have two cool plugs now, and the tree is back in business. So is Possum, who has been attacking unbreakable bird and doll ornaments with vigor, as all cats should:

Possum poised, preparing to pummel prey.

When you put up your Christmas lights, please check the temperature of your plug after an hour or so, to be sure you haven't overloaded the circuit. Like we did.

December Day

In my quest for my daily 10,000+ steps, I walked along the Fenway yesterday. It was one of those temperate, darkly cloudy days we sometimes have in December. The sky was pearl gray and all the browns, rusts, and yellows of tree trunks, leaves, and grasses looked richer by comparison.

Winter may be monochromatic, but summer is, too, with so much green, green, green. Winter is more complicated to appreciate, but it has its own rewards.

I spotted a great blue heron standing motionless in the Muddy River. I haven't seen one of these before although I know they are common. They are as big as Canadian geese. It seemed to be waiting for a photograph, so I obliged. But the bird was far across the way, so I reluctantly used the digital zoom on my little Leica — always a mistake because the images end up full of noise (pastel splotches) that I can't eradicate. Although I did nothing but correct the color, the photos look like I attacked them with Photoshop's watercolor artistic filter:

Not what I had in mind, but pleasant in its own way.

If you want to see spectacular photos of the Fens from earlier this month, visit this link at Cabin Cove. These are the most beautiful local landscape images I've seen in a long time.

Settling for a Kettle

My exhaustive search for a Simplex Beehive chrome kettle was a failure; no online retailers have them anymore. Random calls to independent kitchen and British imports stores came up dry, too. I tried to order one from the Simplex website, even though I'd heard that the 107-year-old British company had shut its doors overnight last summer, leaving vendors hanging without contact info or new stock. Their site appeared to accept my order, but I didn't receive a confirmation, my email inquiries were undeliverable, and my credit card hasn't been charged.

If the kettle arrives, I'll be amazed and delighted. In the meantime, I've located their other three models for electric stoves (they also make gas versions with special, coiled bases). From everything I've read,  these are the best kettles on the market, made in England without many changes since Edwardian era. Here's what their (now-defunct) website has to say:
Malleable and ductile, copper is the perfect metal for kitchen appliances. With its superb thermal conductivity properties, and when lined with pure tin or nickel chrome, copper makes for one of the best cookware metals available. Robust yet light weight, impressive and attractive, your kitchen will lbe enhanced with a Simplex addition. As all our kettles conform to all U.K & U.S. safety standards, not only will you have the best looking kettle, you'll also have the safest.

Based in the heart of Britain at the fulcrum of its transport network and traditional manufacturing hub, Simplex has a hugely experienced staff, a high quality and well equipped factory, and customer service which is the envy of our competitors. We treat each transaction as a personal agreement, and strive to ensure that our customers are happy with their choice both at the point of sale and once the item is delivered.

Each and every product in our copper kettle range is checked up to 20 times during production, and we have models to suit gas and ceramic hobs, ranges, electric hotplates and spirit stoves. Manufacturing standard sized tea kettles for the kitchen and miniature versions for camping, caravanning or maritime use, we export widely throughout the world, and are market leaders in the U.S. 
Well, so much for that. You can find vintage and even antique Simplexes on eBay. For once, I prefer new and shiny to "experienced."

A handful of retailers still have the other models. When those are gone, that's probably that. Sur la Table still has the Heritage model in copper, available online. The chrome Heritage kettle is available in a few of their stores:
My new kettle.

I ordered one from a store near Detroit; they had three. This design has been growing on me; I like the handle and the built-in whistle. (I hope it doesn't upset the cats.) It's reminding me more of Mrs. Bridges from Upstairs Downstairs and less of my moody Irish grandmother, whose own kettle probably looked like this:

Cheap, homely kettle of my youth.

Three copper Beehives are available from a shop called SpecialTeas:

It's a handsome design, but keeping copper that shiny is an endless chore — and I love to polish silver. Dull copper is a very depressing sight. Besides, I already have various silvery things around my kitchen. Copper would clash.

So my decision was made, and I'm looking forward to boiling some water without being singed or scalded. I don't plan to go kettle shopping ever again. 

But before I go back to boring you about cats and other non-kettle topics, I have to show you the most gorgeous kettle I found — this Italian one, in sterling silver, for just $1,013.55.  Serves four, so it must be tiny. I suppose it could do double duty as an evening bag.