Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Away We Go... Ouch

We are driving to our favorite inn in Maine tomorrow because Back Bay gets too crazy over July 4th. I have just about finished packing way too much stuff, using a new method, rolling everything, so it fits better into my duffle and "doesn't wrinkle." I'm also bringing books and several months' worth of New Yorkers to read in the hot tub. Ah, the hot tub.

Normally, I look forward to these trips the way I looked forward to Christmas as a little girl. But this time, I feel so unhappy about leaving the cats that I've had an IBS attack. IBS allegedly affects 15% of Americans, so chances are good that you know all about it. It's not fatal, just annoying and occasionally painful.

I usually get attacks after trips, especially transatlantic flights. (I blame airline food: I've stopped having attacks since I've started refusing everything, including ice in drinks.) For years, I mistook these attacks for weeks-long bouts of food poisoning. I hope this one doesn't linger that long. I started taking a probiotic called Align, and I hope it does its magic again.

Then there's the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. I've lived on this for weeks and never shed so much as an ounce. I usually add chicken-egg-lemon soup (from Steve's on Newbury) and pita bread to the list. Oh, wait — isn't Maine lobster on the list, too? Do popovers at the Jordan Pond House, slathered in butter and strawberry jam, count as "toast"? I guess so.

I shouldn't be so concerned about leaving the cats: we have nice, seasoned, professional cat sitters coming, who've done a great job before. We've left the two older cats dozens of times, and they've always been fine. And the kittens, whom we've only left a couple of times, will be okay, too.

Actually, they'll miss us. Wendy will hide the moment the sitters come, so she won't have anyone to talk to, or to pet her. And Possum insisted on curling up on me five times today for petting and praise. What's he going to do when he wants attention? Call a feline escort service?

And I bet the older cats will try to convince the kittens that we've been killed by predators and we're never coming back. Even our vet was amazed at what a little sadist Snicky is — when we boarded her at the vet's, she took a front-row seat, from her cage, whenever a cat needed blood drawn or some other unpleasant procedure. The vet said Snicky was fascinated and they had to make sure she had the best view.

Yeah, Snicky will lie to them. Poor little babies!

My brain can be rational about this (it's just five days, everyone's health is stable, the sitters are pros...), but my digestive system clearly has its own opinions. I feel like there are little carpet bombs going off down there, causing strange, widespread pains and cramping. It feels like a really bad case of stage nerves, or butterflies, lasting for days instead of hours, and without reason.

I'll probably be posting from Maine, so be prepared for slightly more interesting stuff, or at least different topics and pretty pictures. Now it's time to take the carpet bombs to bed.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Chillin' with Our Possy

The Proper Bostonian and her furry clan are ready for fall temperatures — right now, please. Hot weather is miserable when you're wearing a fluffy fur coat — and it's too humid even for skin. We have an air conditioner in the living room and a ceiling fan in the bedroom, but neither is a good substitute for cool, fresh air pouring in through the windows. We open them before bed and tie back the curtains, hoping our rooms will cool down naturally. Not so much. But the linden trees are blooming, and their sweet scent is strong enough to wake me up.

Here's Wendy, lying behind her tail and enjoying a direct blast of air conditioning this morning, with Snalbert catching the breeze nearby. Wendy allowed me to pet her, and felt refreshingly cold to the touch:

Here's Possy, who thinks the sink is his personal bathtub. He curls up in it for hours every day. And doesn't he look comfortable?

Last night, the kittens — I can still call them that because they aren't quite a year old — had a mutual grooming session that was great to watch, even after Possy decided to gnaw on Wendy's leg.

We could all use somebody to gnaw on when it's this hot.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Why I'm Spoiled

Here are a few photos of houses in Bethlehem. Some of the larger mansions are condo or apartment buildings. But any of the single-family houses would probably cost about what you'd pay for a very ordinary two-bedroom condo in Back Bay, or a ratty, tiny wooden house in Cambridgeport.

I find that there's so much more architectural variety in eastern Pennsylvania. For example, there are loads of stone farmhouses. There are also even more picturesque styles. like this ivy-covered English-style cottage:

This stucco-over-stone (or brick?) French mansard Victorian one has a few large condos in it, plus one in the matching carriage house in back:

The one below, an extremely large and elegant mansard-style Victorian, has a huge fenced lot with gigantic old trees. It used to be an apartment building. It's looking very spiffy, so I'm wondering if it's been converted to condos by now:

There are loads of beautiful brick houses, too, in quirky styles we don't see much of in the Boston area:

Here are a few more beauties: Queen Annes, painted ladies... I guess we'd need to move to Newton or Woburn to find a house like this:

I grew up dreaming of living in one the dozens of similarly gorgeous houses in my hometown. I'm still dreaming about them, and I guess I always will.

Greetings from the Old Hometown

We drove to my hometown, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for the weekend to celebrate my dad's 96th birthday. He's walking with a cane but is still stubborn and full of vinegar. At his party, my sister offered him a choice of homemade chocolate layer cake, (his favorite) and homemade strawberry shortcake. Or both, of course. He thought about it as he was unwrapping a gift and asked, "So what else do you have?"

To replace the rusting steel mills (and the livelihood they provided for most of the town), there's a giant new Sands Casino. It keeps certain members of my family occupied a few evenings a week — and flush with wads of cash, since they all seem to be unusually lucky with slot machines. We Proper Bostonians lasted only about a half hour on our maiden casino visit. We lost $5 on two slots before we even knew what was happening. With the noise, the heavy cloud of cigarette smoke, and the general pointlessness of it all, our gambling career is now officially over. We'll have to be forcibly dragged back in there.

But downtown Bethlehem is still historic and charming, and we spent a few hours there between visits to relatives, browsing in the bookstore and enjoying the architecture, all an easy walk from our inn. Here is a café on our 19th-century Main Street on a quiet Saturday morning:

Bethlehem was founded in 1741 by the Moravians, a sect of missionary Protestants from Saxony. The town still has several of its original, mid-18th-century Germanic-style buildings. The building below, on the left, is the Brethren's House, where all the single Moravian men lived together. Single women also lived together in one building, as did married couples, widows, and widowers. Children were separated from their parents to be raised and educated together, too. Marriages were arranged once a year, by drawing lots.

This utopian religious community did not survive terribly long: even pious German missionaries preferred to have their own homes and raise their own children. And they definitely wanted to pick their spouses themselves.

There are no buildings like these in New England. The Moravian building style is similar to what you'd find in Bavaria (At least I was taken aback to find it there when my husband was offered a job in that region of Germany. And I realized that I hadn't come so far simply to find myself "back in Bethlehem" again — only unable to speak the language. So I refused to move there. A wise decision.)  

The Moravians made roof tiles from the local red clay and built massive, multistory buildings with thick limestone walls, trimmed with red brick eyebrow-arched windows and herringbone-patterned wooden doors.

The building above is a recent reconstruction, using traditional masonry techniques. A lot of these buildings are open as museums now. I spent eight years volunteering, and then working, as a guide and craftsperson in some of them. This experience was so pleasant that it ruined me for working anywhere else. We spent long summer days between tourists playing our guitars under the trees, throwing pots, spinning wool, or chopping firewood. I still can't believe I was paid for this.

Here's a peek at the Federal-style church on the corner of Main Street. Giant trees blocked the view from every angle, sorry:

The Moravians were very musical in addition to being pacifists. They ran a hospital and provided supplies in lieu of fighting during the Revolutionary War. 

The story is that they discovered that they could repel Indian raids by blasting trombones from the steeple of this church. But they also converted many of the local Native Americans, who lie buried under flat tombstones like everyone else in "God's Acre," their  cemetery. Everyone is equal — in death, anyhow.

Here's the chapel, which pre-dates the church. It's a beautiful site for weddings. 

Because my dad's house is only habitable by him these days (very hot, dirty, and cluttered, and he swears he likes it like that), we stayed in the Morningstar Inn, which is perfect. It's run by the wife of a high school classmate. Like me, he has only dim memories of those days, but it was fun to talk with him about other things. His wife is warm and friendly and we have a lot in common; she even introduced us to the most sociable of their three cats, who aren't normally allowed out of their private quarters on the top floor. 

The inn is a high-ceilinged Victorian stucco house on the nicest street in town, comfortably furnished with antiques. Very serene, pristine, and relaxing — in other words, the exact opposite experience of staying with my father or any of my relatives. There's even a pool. 

Our room had a black iron-and-brass bed with a round-top steamer trunk at the foot; we have the same set-up in our own Victorian-style bedroom.  They served a wonderful breakfast (cheese soufflés, Canadian bacon and two kinds of homemade toast, oatmeal-raisin pancakes with bananas and crispy bacon, crunchy French toast, fruit salad......) And there were always free drinks and homemade cookies in the pantry.

It was hard to leave the inn to visit the relatives. We'll be back. 

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Moving On!

And right over the edge, apparently....

Every weekend, I waste time on virtual condo-hunting via Boston Homes, the colorful tabloid that brightens our doorstep on Saturday. Even though we've been settled in our place for more than a decade I keep looking, just in case something amazing turns up in our price range. Proving that I'm a deranged optimist with no inkling of reality.

I picked up the current BH yesterday, while cooling my heels at FedEx (my husband likes to show a girl a good time on the weekend), and spotted this:

Those decks are certainly far from ordinary. It would be thrilling indeed to have one, especially if your household includes small children or dogs. I wonder if the developer decided that railings would detract from the sleek lines and minimalist aesthetic of the aluminum siding. Or maybe it's the only way one can live dangerously in South Boston now that it's become all lattéed and yogafied.

Only two units are left, and I'll bet they're on the top floor.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cat Clothing

No, I'm not talking about dressing up the cats, who already have elegant fur coats (and allegedly wear silk undies beneath them).

I'm talking about this dress from Anthropologie, which I spotted on their sale page:

I remember passing it in the store and thinking it was a very pretty style, except for those odd orange and gray splotches on the skirt. But after I took a closer look at what they are, I changed my mind:

Cats! I had to give this a try. After all, there's free shipping for Anthro card holders until Labor Day, I can take returns to the store a few blocks from here. So no commitment.

Pictorial clothing is a stretch for me, although I have a skirt that's got a charming vintage-style print of Venice. When I wore it there, I had to fend off women asking where to get one in various languages.

Aside from this, I don't wear prints very often, not even florals. And forget tees with slogans or pictures, or anything at all with obvious logos. I snip the labels off the insides of my clothes, so I never want any on the outside, either. Sometimes I'm stuck: Barbour jackets have logos on the buttons.

I hope that the cat dress shows up; Anthropologie has disappointed me in the past. I'll order something that quickly goes out of stock, leaving me in the lurch. If this arrives and actually fits, I guess you'll see me around....

Monday, June 21, 2010

Now What?

Hooray! I just finished the main part of my writing project, which has been keeping me busy since early May. I just have to make sure the last portion is ready to send off, and then I'm finished with writing new material. That's a relief. But I'm not completely done: about half of everything I've written is still due to return to me, covered in editorial comments for revision. Still, fixing stuff I've already thought about and written isn't half as hard as conjuring new material out of the air.

Our apartment looks about as filthy, food-less, and book-strewn as any grad student hovel and I'm actually looking forward to spending the next couple of days cleaning. (For the record, my husband always works as hard as I have for the past few weeks, which is why I do most of the cleaning in my normal, chronically unemployed state. And he does pitch in, too. And he hasn't once complained about the appalling mess... I think he's been too busy to even notice.)

I will also go food shopping, and to the farmer's market, and to the library to pick up some novels I'm eager to read. I'll go to the gym, where my sadistic strength-training instructor will make cutting comments about how I haven't been showing up. Believe me, I've wanted to: my legs have semi-permanent indentations from my desk chair these days. I'm going to call the dentist about the tooth that's been hurting since April. And I'm going to give all the cats extra play time and a nail trim. And call my relatives, and try to see some friends. Some Assembly Required and I are overdue for lunch.

On second thought, maybe I'll just sleep in... this is all starting to sound exhausting.

I look forward to resuming my old, boring, pleasant life, more or less. I'm going to miss the challenge of writing about art — and especially learning about a different artist or movement every day. So I need an ambitious project. I've been disciplined about meeting or beating my deadlines, so I should be able to crank out something on my own steam. But what?  A short story, a kids' book, a screenplay, haiku? I'm open to suggestions. I'm sure Possum would dictate his memoirs, but he'd want to do it in his native Norwegian.

I feel better now. I can tell that just coming up with an idea could keep me occupied for months. Suggestions are welcome.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


And he wonders why his nickname is "Bug Eyes."

Possum's leggy pose reminds me that cats imagine themselves as very tall, long-legged creatures. 

Pierre Bonnard understood cats very well. Here is The White Cat, which shows you exactly how cats think they look:

When I first saw this painting at the Musée d'Orsay, I had one of those "Aha!" moments. Look at that smug expression. This could be a cat self-portrait. Suddenly, I understood why cats like to jump up to high perches and climb trees. It's because they desperately want to be tall, and they feel more like "themselves" whenever they can look down on us.

Cats' opinions of themselves haven't changed that much since this was painted in 1894, although some of them now imagine themselves to have fierce computer skills along with their dashing good looks, intelligence, and general coolness.

Possum, of course, really does have all of those fine attributes, along with very long legs — at least when he's posing like this. His rather barrel-shaped mid-section tends to camouflage his graceful limbs when he's standing on the ground. If he lost a few pounds, he might look just like The White Cat.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Annals of Retail: It's Toast

I love bread. I love toast; I make some almost every day. I still enjoy making bogus grilled-cheese sandwiches using the toaster and the microwave instead of butter and a frying pan. I'm a lazy cook.

I don't love my toaster. It takes forever to even lightly toast bread, and the only reason we haven't replaced it is that all the current models take up at least twice as much counter space. We can't spare an inch in our tiny kitchen. So even though we worry that our toaster doesn't always shut off correctly and could burn down the building, we keep it around for its skinniness. We unplug it when we're done with it.

I've found that toasting bread in an unplugged toaster is only slightly less satisfactory than when I plug it in. Both methods take forever.

Even though I'm a prime candidate for a fancy toaster, I can't see spending $299.99 for The Magimix Vision Toaster (regularly $350) from Williams-Sonoma, my favorite store for the Person Who Has Everything and Still Wants More:

It's a see-through toaster. A great idea, but is it worth that much money? It won't always look that pristine; you are going to get stuck doing windows. If you look inside your toaster, you're likely to find that its insides are surprisingly grungy. (Unless you're Martha Stewart, who probably scrubs down the inside of her toaster twice a week.) Who knew that bread has tiny explosions as you're toasting it, and that the flying crumbs bake onto the innards of the toaster? 

Cleaning those glass windows will be a pain, even though they flip open like this:

Why spend all that money just to watch bread? As much as I love toast, I don't need a ringside view. With mine, I can look down into its grungy slot and easily see my bread... not toasting.

This Magimix toaster also has quartz heating elements. I'm not sure what those are, or why they are worth this price. It sounds suspiciously New Age-y.

To put the price into perspective: for another $100, you could buy a new electric range, and make entire meals instead of lousy pieces of toast. 

Or you could spend that $250 on a small TV and a DVD player. Surely someone on eBay sells a DVD of bread toasting. You could watch it to your heart's content in HD, even when you are out of bread and frozen waffles. Then you could eject the DVD and tune into something more interesting. Like watching paint dry on HG-TV.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Little Bits of Retail

I read last week that there are 30 nail salons on Newbury Street, and that the major landlords think that's enough. Hooray. Actually, guys, three nail salons are all we need.

I don't mind that there are four Second Time Around shops, though. It would be nice to have more than one antique store (Marcoz, which is having yet another moving sale, uh-oh...). But STA is as close as you can get to being free to rummage in your neighbors' closets, so it's often entertaining.

"Sweet," the disappointing cupcake shop on Mass. Ave., is moving to Newbury, not far from Johnny Cupcakes. Now, when unsuspecting tourists flock into Johnny, hoping for cupcakes but finding nothing but cotton jersey tees in those poor, wasted bakery cases, they can be directed to Sweet — to pay too much for a real, if undersized and cottony, cupcake.

I see that we are about to get not one but two shops for "the urban pet." I hope that doesn't translate as "dog." Possum always wants catnip cigars and I have to go to the two urban pet shops in Brookline to get more, because Pawsh, on Gloucester, is all about dogs and has hardly any cat toys. One of the new shops is called something like "Fish and Bone," which doesn't sound promising. Unless they are selling dried fish as cat treats. There are more pet cats in the U.S. than dogs, and it's time retailers realized that.

Possum regards me accusingly because his soggy old
cigar has lost its cute label. Because he ate it.

It looks like that "women's" clothing store that never showed anything but a row of thigh-high, foufy, baby-doll dresses in the window is gone. I could be wrong; I hope I'm not. What was it called? Baby Wings? Easter Feathers? Whatever, it's empty. Any self-respecting female over the age of 10 should not try to attract men who want girlfriends dressed like preschoolers.

Sel de la Terre on Boylston is offering an express lunch with various half-sandwich, half-salad, half-soup combos for $10 and $12. That's an excellent deal.

Go into the Arden Gallery, at 129 Newbury, which is having a show by a favorite artist of mine, Terri Malo, through June 30. They've already sold all my favorite little paintings, so you can have your pick. (Oh, to have a steady income to blow on art, lunch, cat toys, and books on Newbury.)

Here's one little canvas I loved and lost:

Passing Showers, by Terri Malo, at the Arden Gallery

In less local news, I hear that the empty Crate and Barrel store in Harvard Square is being filled by Anthropologie. If I end up to moving to that side of the river, I'll be partially consoled by that. It's an excellent, huge space, and I look forward to seeing what the Anthropologie designers do with it. Every store looks different but I always enjoy their atmosphere. It's fun to visit a few in NYC over the course of a day to see what their display people put together with arts-and-crafts supplies and found objects.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Farmer Wants Out

$329900 / 4br - Real Maine Country Farm (West Gardiner, Maine)

Date: 2010-06-16, 8:13PM EDT
Reply to: [Errors when replying to ads?]

Here is a home you do not want to let slip away. This is an 1820's real country farm house built on 8 Beautiful acres nestled in the country yet within 10 miles of Augusta/ Gardiner, Maine. This home offers 4 bedrooms, 1 1/2 baths with an old wood/cook stove in the Kitchen. Cuddle by its large fireplce on those cool summer evenings or just rest on its back or front porches after a hard days work on the farm. This home offers an oil fired boiler with a attached wood boiler and 5-6 cords of fire wood for the coming winter all in place. There also is a 32'x32' barn with ample hay storage in its loft area. Two pastures for your animals to roam and feed in. Two large established garden plots and a raised bed garden area to meet all of your gardening needs. It also has a large high yeilding Raspberry patch and 5-6 Apples trees for your picking and pie needs. The farm comes with Two Cows (Black Angus) and 10 laying Hens along with 300 bales of hay in the loft for your coming winters feed needs. If you have a dream to farm and to live the simple country life than this is the home for you. This is a must see. This is not a dream it is for real for only $329,900. 

Oh, Mr. Farmer, please don't sell your pretty little farm! Your cows and chickens love you. Don't give them up for the bright lights and the big city. Stay home.

You've already got your hay baled and your wood chopped. You're all set, except for maybe watering the pumpkin patch. Take the family to DisneyWorld and try to get your groove back. Please stop dreaming of running off to Vegas with $329,900. You don't want to miss raspberry season, do you?

And what are you planning to do with all those poor hens? You say you're selling ten, but I see about 20 in the photo. You can't take chickens to Vegas, you know.

After all: Maine is The Way Life Should Be.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I don't watch professional basketball unless I can't avoid it. I think pick-up games on the street are much more fun than what I've seen on TV. But I feel sympathy for all you sports fans wrapped up in the NBA finals tonight.

I spent the evening reading and thinking about a Whistler Nocturne I have to write about, and listening to Chopin's Nocturnes for inspiration. I've loved these since I was a teenager and they only improve as I get older and more "complicated." They are especially perfect for summer nights, when there's a soft breeze coming through the window. I'm listening to Rubenstein because that CD was easy to get to, but my favorite recording is a very old one by Dinu Lipatti. He was marvelous' died at 33.

I used to have this awful little book about Whistler that I kept above my desk during the many years I worked at the MFA. I don't know why I bought it, since I was only mildly interested in Whistler. It was filled with precious and petty quotations of his, from around the time of his lawsuit with Ruskin; he must have been an annoying person. I went looking for it tonight. I spent a good 10 minutes squinting up at my dim, high shelves and poking around behind books on lower shelves in case I'd hidden it. After all those years of seeing it on the shelf just above my head, I can picture its green and orchid cover clearly in my mind's eye.

But I can't find it. Did I get rid of it? It didn't take up that much space. And I have plenty of even worse books. I have The Bridges of Madison County, for example. That is actually an excellent book — for opening to a random page and reading aloud in a dramatic voice. Try it when you're feeling mildly depressed or sad. You won't be able to stop giggling.

It's also fun to open Ayn Rand books to a random page and search for the word "destroy." I give myself three chances to succeed and I usually score. But I would never own an Ayn Rand book. I've been trying to get my husband to toss his for the past 15 years.

So, anyway.... is that Whistler book still above my MFA desk, which I vacated 10 years ago? It's possible. And it's going to drive me crazy until I can ask someone tomorrow. There are still other books of mine there, so I hope I abandoned it when I left in 2000, never guessing that I'd want it for an MFA project in 2010.

Current Craving: Jersey Sheets

We tried out our new jersey sheets from Garnet Hill last night. They are deliciously soft and silky. I washed them first, of course, hoping that they wouldn't warp and pill — jersey sheets tend to be disappointing that way, falling apart quickly and turning into strange shapes whose names I once knew from geometry class. These came out of the dryer unwrinkled and neatly rectangular.

I tend to buy plain sheets because I seldom see patterns that I'll keep enjoying for years. I like to keep things simple, so I usually buy white flat sheets and cases, and liven things up with colored fitted sheets. This makes it easier to do just two loads of laundry a week in our little washer and dryer, too.

But I went out on a limb with these jersey sheets:

My husband loves them, as I knew he would. He had wild sheets in his single days. One horrible set, featuring large rainbows in a pilled poly-cotton blend, is still etched in my mind. He saw me putting these on the bed last night and said, "Bachelor sheets!" I said they were not. Bachelor sheets are cheap and crappy, and these are definitely an investment.

I believe they are worth their price. Every time Possum woke me up last night — and I think he jumped up three times to stretch out on me, giving violent head-butts whenever I stopped petting him — I was delighted with how great these sheets feel. They make me happy. I want another set. Soon. Maybe right away.

The color options are below. I'll skip the pattern with the blue peace signs, and try the tiny polka dots instead, with a green fitted sheet. My husband will try to persuade me to get an orange set instead, or mix it up with orange, green, and bright blue. But I will resist. He is no longer a bachelor.

Hey, it's after 11! Time to go back to bed, which is just what I'm in the mood to do.

Oh.... Never mind. It seems there's another 12 hours left before bedtime.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Men Are Easy

It's so simple for men to buy clothes. In general, they don't have to deal with weird fits, strange colors, goofy detailing, trendy designs that don't flatter, excess or skimpy amounts of fabric, bizarre sleeves, too-revealing or unflattering necklines, too-short skirts or shorts, or transparency. Everything comes sized to fit an average guy, in styles and fabrics that won't scare horses. They routinely have a choice of sleeve and inseam lengths. It's sensible to have fewer options in terms of styles and more options in terms of fit.

A men's blazer is predictable; they all look and fit about the same. The sleeves hit where they are supposed to, around the wrist, instead of creeping up the forearms in an attempt to look cute. The lapels follow the dictates of traditional styling; they don't decide to go wide or skinny, or round or too pointy. The same is true for dress shirts. They come in a variety of collar styles, but none of them are much better or worse than others. Until recently my husband believed that there were only two collar styles: with buttons and without. I can see his point. And all men's dress shirts have long sleeves (at least where we shop). If men would look ridiculous in 3/4-length sleeves, why are about half of women's shirts made that way?

And why are all the women's chinos at J. Crew's outlet stores cropped at the moment? There's not a single pair of full-length chinos to be had. No one has bothered to try sell the idea of cropped chinos to men. But women are stuck with them, and they look bad. Crops wouldn't look any goofier on men, they'd only look equally goofy. But somewhere, there's a Sartorial God that protects men from the silly fashion trends that we women have to navigate around. Men have it easy. I'll grant that their shorts are really bad. But they can always find basic ones that fall somewhere above the knee. They don't have to wear those long, baggy ones with cargo pockets — unless they need a break from looking decent and want to look ridiculous and trendy for an afternoon.

My husband said he needed chinos. So I ordered three pairs from J. Crew in his size and length, in different colors. The only other option was "fit," which I guess is a euphemism for "how fat is he?" I chose "classic fit," instead of "slim" or "relaxed."  The pants came, they fit perfectly, and he's all set. I can't get away that easily. On me, their chinos are too baggy, gap strangely in the back, and are too long. Petites are too short.

My husband said he needed dress shirts. We went to the Kittery outlets. Because he tends to destroy his clothing pretty quickly, with rips, indelible stains, and unfixable holes or pilling, I tend to look for good brands but at bargain prices.

He tried on a dress shirt at Ralph Lauren. Too baggy. The baggy shirt is practically the only annoying clothing issue that men ever confront. Then he tried on a shirt at J. Crew. Just right. Bought four, in different colors. He's all set.

We went to Brooks Brothers because one of his sport coats has developed some holes. I no longer question him about how he manages to ruin his clothes while working in an office and teaching college courses; it's just a special talent he has. Brooks Brothers had all their sport coats on sale. Every one he tried on fit like it had been made for him. (Maybe they were; he's a preppy.) He bought two. And some socks. Now he's got a new wardrobe. It look us less than an hour.

Meanwhile, I didn't see a single thing in Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, or Ralph Lauren that I would consider owning even IF it looked nice and fit me (and it probably wouldn't). I was most interested in the Brooks Brothers' series of faux-leatherbound books on "How to Be a Lady" which I read as they rang up his purchases. But I'm not convinced that I want to be a lady. It sounds like too much hassle and too many occasions that would require biting my tongue.  I think I'm going to look into cross-dressing instead.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Learn from My Mistakes

If you go to brunch at Sel del la Terre, as we did on Boylston Street today, heed this advice.

They will hand you a memo and your eye will immediately be drawn to:
Brioche French toast, apricot compote, honey roasted almonds, vanilla butter; Vermont maple syrup 15
After you read that, it will probably be impossible for you to consider anything else, not even:
Truffled mushroom quiche, caramelized onions, Comté 
Grilled ham and cheese: black forest ham, gruyere, mustard aioli, pickled red onion; Pain levain 
So you and everyone else at your table will order the French toast. And it will be wonderful. You will find yourself sopping up every last morsel of syrup and apricot compote with your last bite of brioche.


Then they will bring you a dessert menu. And you will feel very foolish, because you have already had dessert.

And thus you will miss:
Warm molten chocolate fondant, toasted house-made marshmallow; graham cracker ice cream
Don't suffer as I have suffered.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Just Stay Home. Do Your Homework.

What's with this new parenting trend: letting your 16-year-old child sail around the world alone in a sailboat? Another teenaged girl, Abby Sunderland, was just rescued, at some risk by a French fishing boat in the Indian Ocean, in heavy seas and after losing her boat's mast.
French authorities called it a ''delicate operation'' and at one point the fishing boat's captain fell into the ocean. ''He was fished out in difficult conditions'' and is in good health, said a statement from the French territory of Reunion Island.
I know 16 can be a difficult age, but I'd send my daughter off to convent school before I'd let her get into a sailboat alone. It's probably a good thing I don't have children. I'd be one of those parents Abby's father was complaining about in the Times article:
''I never questioned my decision in letting her go,'' he told reporters Friday. ''In this day and age we get overprotective with our children. If you want to look at statistics, look at how many teenagers die in cars every year. Should we let teenagers drive cars? I think it'd be silly if we didn't.''
Actually, I never thought that letting teenagers drive was such a great idea. I was barely allowed to cross busy streets when I was 16. And most teenagers die in cars driven by other teenagers, so I might let my kid get into a sailboat, where brave French fisherman can rescue her, before I'd let her be driven anywhere by another teen. Especially late at night or early in the morning, when most crashes occur.

But I'm sure that if we let all of our teenagers try to go around the world alone in sailboats, there'd be fewer teenage highway deaths, too.

It seems that the Sunderlands' older son did manage to sail around the world when he was Abby's age. He was the youngest circumnavigating sailor for about a month, until some other underprotected child grabbed the record. I think I read somewhere that that Sunderlands have about six kids, so is that enough to make one or two expendable in the name of a world record? Is this possibly a response to the escalating cost of college tuition? Surely not....

I honestly think this round-the-world gig is just a clever way for a kid to avoid about a year of homework and chores. And get publicity on the side. Nice try, Abby. And you, my Imaginary Child? You're staying home.

Friday, June 11, 2010

New Look

In my very successful pursuit of ways to procrastinate instead of working on my writing project, I decided to redesign this blog.

This is not exactly the look I had in mind, but it's fun for a change, and I hope it's more legible. What do you think? I'll keep tweaking it, of course, since it's an endlessly entertaining way to waste time. It's better than writing about William Paxton. Not that I don't enjoy his work. I love antique stores, after all, and that's what all his crowded interiors look like, as far as I'm concerned.

I just realized I'm about 75% finished with this project, which has been lots of fun and lots of work. I still find writing about art a scary challenge every single day. But I like a scary challenge; the opposite is a boring exercise! No thanks. I think I'm writing much too slowly but there doesn't seem to be any way to speed up and also do a good job (and being a champion procrastinator doesn't help).

In other news, we've had visitors from Egypt, and soon we're getting six visitors from France and another friend from Egypt. And a friend from Italy is supposed to show up this month, too, but we don't know her plans. These travelers all provide legitimate excuses for not working, so I appreciate their timing. These are mostly friends and colleagues of my husband, so all I need to do is show up for nice dinners and brunches, at which they politely ask me to whine about how busy I am. It's nice.

Another way to procrastinate is playing with the cats. The other day, Snicky remembered an old toy we have, which was left behind by our condo's previous owner. It's a disgusting little piece of chewed-up fabric, tied with a long string to a wooden fishing. She had a great time chasing it and carrying it around as I trailed right behind her, which was unusual — she's a sedate, fragile 16-year-old. Then she swallowed the fabric and I had to pull it out of her throat, covered in cat slime. Didn't I say this toy is disgusting? I never exaggerate.

Wendy has decided she enjoys being petted and that we are not as evil as she'd thought. Since we've stopped picking her up and holding her, she is blossoming. We can approach her for petting any time and she will purr madly and start sashaying around. Her giant tail slams back and forth as she does this, throwing her slightly off balance. She has yet to start flinging herself against us, which should be her next step in her claiming us as her territory. But she's making progress, and she'll talk to me if I question her in the right tone of voice.

The other day a friend came by and was lucky to catch sight of Wendy by the fireplace, briefly frozen in terror at seeing a strange human. As she took off, our friend said, "There goes Wendy! And there goes Snicky behind her!" But it wasn't Snicky. She has mistaken Wendy's fluffy tortoiseshell tail for our fluffy tortoiseshell cat. I'm serious when I say that Wendy is a big tail with a small cat attached.

Life is good.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Shoe Fits

So there's this story in today's Boston Globe about this 5,500-year-old shoe that was just found in Armenia. It's the oldest leather shoe ever found. And it's a 7 — my size! It looks like this:

Apparently we wore shoes like this for thousands of years. It's made of one piece of cowhide, with lots of laces and eyelets to fit it to the foot. It's stuffed full of grass for shock absorption, blister protection, and warmth.

If you know any Armenian little old ladies, you've probably seen these shoes. I don't know where they get them, but nowadays the leather is blacker and has slightly more of a sheen. They've probably had them handed down in their families over hundreds of years. Perhaps they originally came from the same prehistoric cobbler over in Yerevan.

At least they are comfortable. Those little old Armenian ladies really get around.

And isn't being able to walk the whole point of a shoe? So why, exactly, did we ever switch over to these?

The 5,500-year-old shoe is not so different from an Earth Shoe, without the grass:

How long will it be before the good people at Uggs, Down Under, start making reproductions of the Armenian Shoe? I can see it now: it will come with its own starter pack of pre-planted grass seed. Just add water and wait. And walk.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kitchen Wares: French Goods, American Prices

When we were in Paris last winter, we visited our favorite little tea shop, La Charlotte de l'Isle, where I had a near-fatal run-in with a delicious pot of chocolat chaud that was loaded with cream. Which upset my digestion, to put it mildly.

I wrote about it here, but I don't think I included a photo of the crime scene. Here it is:

Before the chocolate tried to murder me, I was having a pleasant conversation with my husband, as he drank tea and ate a chocolate torte and I finished every drop of my chocolat chaud, accompanied by shot-glasses of cold water, because that chocolat can be too high-octane for anyone. My husband mentioned that he really liked the little dog-shaped milk pitcher that you see in the photo. I instantly promised him that I would find one for him. I love a quest, especially if it means shopping.

I looked around Paris, but didn't see any. Then I forgot all about it until I went into the new Kitchen Wares (formerly Kitchen Arts) store at 215 Newbury. They carry a French porcelain line called Revol. And there they were: little pitchers shaped like dogs, cows, and weird, Buddha-like cats. My little dog pitcher cost a whopping $2.50. I was so pleased.

And after I reminded my husband that he'd wanted one of these little pitchers, he was, too.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The One that Got Away

We had a birthday dinner with my mother-in-law at her favorite Italian restaurant in Arlington Center last night. We were never sure why she liked this place so much years ago, when it was one of those plastic-tablecloth restaurants where the bread is terrible and the food is so-so. Now it's under new management and completely different, but she still loves it. The bread is much better, the tablecloths are paper over cloth, and the food is still pretty bland. My husband and I are always reaching for the salt shaker in this place. But the chef and his family are charming, and so I'm going to give them at least one more chance to feed us well before I name names. And I'm sure we'll be back, whether we like it or not.

Back at home after dinner, I decided to look at real estate listings around Arlington. It's very easy to drag the little Google map on all over the place.  But I didn't realize I had also asked the search engine to show me properties that were under agreement.

I so wish I hadn't, even though I keep saying that we want to stay in Back Bay. There's this house.... it's a dream house that would make me change my mind and leave the city. It's near Pleasant Street and Spy Pond. It's too big and has too many bedrooms and bathrooms, besides a full attic and basement. It's, well, beautiful. It's amazing. And it's under agreement, so unless the deal falls through — fingers crossed for that 1% chance — it will never be ours.

But here it is. I can't resist showing you:

Look at that front porch. I could live on that porch for months every summer.

The best part is the kitchen. This must be the original 1873 pantry:

That alone would be enough to make me move to Arlington. But it also has original sinks!

I'll bet that whoever is buying this place is planning to rip these out and put some stupid stock cabinets from Home Depot in here, with a stupid breakfast bar and some stupid stainless steel appliances. These sinks should be declared a national treasure, I love them. There are six taps!

And check out this stove:

I wouldn't care if this house were situated in an alligator-infested swamp in a combat zone — with a kitchen like this, I want it. I would give up my carefree, convenient city life. I would get a bike, learn to drive. Get a pony. Order my groceries online, whatever. I can only hope that at least one of the too-many bathrooms is from the same era, with a marble-topped sink and separate hot and cold taps. Sigh....

I realize this isn't the house for everyone. But, unfortunately, all day I've been realizing that this is the house for ME. It's funny: I used to think that St. Botolph Street was too much of a hike to get to Back Bay (and technically, St. Botolph Street is in Back Bay). Now I'm thinking that Arlington wouldn't be so bad. I used to work there, so I know the place. There's a great library, good restaurants, a cat hospital, and an independent donut shop, for instance. Trader Joe's is a bus ride up Mass. Ave... it's a village. I want a village, not a suburb.

Just listen to me! The house is Not For Sale! But if there's another one like it, we're moving to Arlington.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


I'm loving the neighborhood bird whose songs imitate the well-known car-alarm sequence, augmented with police and fire sirens. I don't know the species of this bird — maybe a cat bird? — but it's definitely a jazz singer, improvising long solo jams on all the popular neighborhood racket. I think I even heard a jackhammer in the tweets the other morning. It's pretty amazing to hear those annoying sounds transformed into birdsong.

But I wish this bird would perform at a reasonable hour, not 4:30 am.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Current Craving: American History, "John Adams"

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney

Although I probably watch less than .001% of the television shows most Americans watch, I hereby declare that the John Adams (2008) HBO miniseries is the best TV miniseries ever made except for, possibly, Brideshead Revisited (1981). I've seen many of the miniseries on the IMBD Top 50 List, including Elizabeth R, and most of the Masterpiece Classic series of the past decade (Brideshead came in at #10 on that list). I can only assume that John Adams is at #15 because most voters don't have HBO. (And I will never understand why I Claudius, #3, gets any raves. The acting was so wooden that little toothpicks popped out of my B&W portable back in 1976.) Now, I love The Godfather Epic — which is at #2 because it was presented as a TV miniseries — more than anything. But I don't think that splicing together two major motion pictures together with extra footage really counts as a miniseries. (I also don't think Godfather 3 stacks up to the other two, so I try to only watch The Epic.)

Anyway, John Adams beats them all. It's our history, come to life. For basic historical accuracy and a dramatic story, there's David McCullough. (I've met him a few times and he is the friendliest, most down-to-earth Pulitzer prize–winning author you can imagine — exactly as he appears on TV.) For a satisfyingly authentic set and costumes, there's Gemma Jackson, who chose Colonial Williamsburg for some of the locations. You couldn't ask for, or build, a more authentic set — and Gemma made sure that it and all of the actors and extras were always authentically grungy). Yet no one had filmed anything at Williamsburg since the '50s. Tom Hanks produced it (and spent piles of money, which no PBS series can ever hope to match, extremely well). And the actors — Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Stephen Dillane, David Morse, Tom Wilkinson — are all extraordinary.

The casting is amazing. The characters are so real and so well-rounded, that I'll never be able to think of American history again without imagining these actors as the characters they played.

Here's Tom Wilkinson as Ben Franklin, wearing a coonskin cap in France, because everyone at court expected American colonists to be part savage:

Here's George Washington, played by David Morse. When you see George portrayed with the power of early Marlon Brando with the charisma and statesmanship of Bill Clinton, you'll never think of him the same way again. He also reminded me of Possum; when you see these photos, I hope you'll agree:

But John Adams is worth watching for one character alone: British actor Stephen Dillane, whose handsome, brooding, brilliant Thomas Jefferson steals every scene. Who ever thought American history — factually presented, without pancake makeup, or made-up romance, or even a hint of Hollywood glamour — could steam up the TV screen? And again, I present Possum for comparison:

He's not wearing his tricorne because he's so vain about his 1.5 ears.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Current Craving: Southwest Harbor, Maine

In a month, we'll be back on Mount Desert Island, after 11 months' absence, way too long.

It's a beautiful place, and we have friends and family there.  We hang out by the pool or the ocean:

The park has it all: ocean, lakes, mountains, woodsy trails, rocks, ponds, carriage roads for walking, and great views everywhere you look:

We eat delicious, often unwholesome food, like the hot dogs and fries at Sprague's Lobster, and outdoor shack by the sea. We always hit Sprague's on the drive up, in Wiscasset:

And there's CJs Ice Cream in Bar Harbor, the Little Notch for gourmet pizza, and the Mt. Desert Island tradition — hot popovers and cool drinks at the Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park:

When we aren't eating, we visit the Rockefeller Gardens, the Azalea Garden at Asticou, and the garden at Thuya Lodge:

We go for walks and hikes, and I like to photograph mushrooms. At night, I compare them to my mushroom guides back at the inn and seldom make a clear match. I'm always hoping to find deadly ones, of course....

There's a friendly cat, Ruby, who visits us at the inn and puts on a show:

The only sad part about vacations is leaving our cats behind. I don't think Snalbert or Snicky will mind our absence much. They're used to our summer trips and they are champion sleepers at their ages. I don't think Wendy will notice — at least not for a few days. But Possum requests my attention all the time, and I know he will miss me. I wish we could take him with us.

He will languish without all the petting, snuggling, playtime and attention he asks for and gets many times a day. And I will miss him terribly. Fortunately, our visits to Maine seem to fly by; a week up there feels like a couple of days.