Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Possible New Careers

Freelance writing isn't earning me a living these days, so it's time to explore some other career options. Perhaps you'd like to join me in some of these potential endeavors. I am a team player:

1.  Character Assassin. I'm too old for law school, so I need a career I can jump right into. While this would draw upon the less-positive aspects of my creativity, I'm sure I'd be good at it once I found the right target. Since the current crop of Hollywood stars seems to be expert at doing themselves bad turns, that leaves me with politicians, I guess. But do Sarah Palin and her ilk actually need a character assassin? It seems they're managing quite well on their own, too. Damn.

2.  Pirate.  You know how they're always telling you just to do what you love and the money will follow? I can see that happening as a pirate. Even if I'm a teetotaling pirate, I can still swear and debauch, and wave my sword threateningly while flashing my teeth. The problem is that I need a boat to be a pirate. I've thought of hijacking a Swan Boat in the Public Garden and becoming the Fearsome Pirate of the Lagoon. Eventually I could maybe get the boat into the Charles, and then — the High Seas! Swan Boats aren't that seaworthy, but it would be a start and I could work my way up. But it's hard to be a solo pirate; I'd need a band of scurvy knaves. Any takers? The only requirement is that you  wear at least one braid, real or fake, somewhere on your person.

3.  Funeral Arranger.  A friend of mine actually might have some openings soon in the funerary marketplace. It sounds like a bit of a downer, but somebody has to do it and we wouldn't have to get involved in any actual embalming. Just cremation. But we'd have to work weekends and do the occasional ash-scattering and psalm readings ourselves.

4.  Bank Robber. The Boston crime market seems saturated with bank robbers, but I suppose business is booming for a reason. And there are still a few banks that haven't been robbed recently — although that number shrinks almost every day. I would need someone to drive the getaway car; I don't have a license. I'd also need someone to do the actual robbery. If there's one thing I hate, it's standing in line at the bank. Any takers on this one? It could be an exciting, rewarding partnership, especially if I don't have to do any of the risky stuff. But I'll count the loot; I'm very accomplished at putting change into those little paper rolls.

5.  Street Musician. I have this old violin with rotten strings and a messed-up bow. I don't know how to play it. In the right places, at the right times, I could probably earn decent money by agreeing to put it back in its case.

6.  Nun Impersonator. You could call me up and I'd come to your house and loudly and eloquently threaten your loved ones with eternal suffering in the Fiery Pit if they don't clean up their Man Cave, or whatever. I just need to warn you that this will be expensive. The last time I put on a habit, the wimple gave me a head-banging migraine. This was the ultimate proof that I'd only imagined that I had a religious vocation back in high school. I was not cut out to be a nun, even though I can play one on TV.

7.  Cowboy.  When was the last time you saw any cattle in Boston? Think! Obviously, our cows are all very, very lost and need rounding up. A bunch of us cowboys on mustangs could easily fix this problem. This seems like it should be a Public Works position, though, and it could take me a while to lobby the Council to agree to add it to the budget. But if you can prove you are a City resident, you're welcome to apply to ride herd with me.

8.  Life Coach. Just because I don't know what the hell I'm doing with my life doesn't mean I can't help you figure out what to do with yours. There's probably some no-brainer online course I can take to get certified. Then I'd be ready to help others find brilliant new careers. As robbers and pirates, for example. What am I waiting for?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Closet-Clearing and Coincidence

Last May, I filled a large shopping bag with winter clothing to consign at Second-Time Around in the fall. It's been sitting in our closet, very much in our way, ever since.

This afternoon, I finally pulled it out and started to deal with it. I think I was inspired by the Back Bay Street Sale. As I was brushing a bit of cat fur from a sweater and deciding which items needed steaming, the phone rang.

It was someone from Second Time Around.

"Wow, what a coincidence!" I exclaimed, "I'm in the middle of getting some things ready to bring to you later today." She agreed that it was spooky indeed. It's not like I do this often. Before I consigned a few things this past summer, I hadn't given them anything in several years.

She was calling because she thought there had been a mix-up; someone else's clothing had been added to my account. I assured her that the designer jackets and the green Burberry trench were not mine. (Burberry? Ha! More like the Gap!)  I finishing gussying up my stuff, put it on hangers, and shlepped in the drizzle to the store at Newbury and Hereford. I think all the STA stores are friendly places to browse, but this one is my favorite.

They told me they'd go through my things tonight and I could pick up whatever they didn't want tomorrow. I am always mortified by this procedure. Years ago, I stopped consigning with them because I dreaded rejection so much. In the summer they didn't accept a few of my things, but they were perfectly nice about it. I happily donated the rejects to Boomerang's. I still feel insecure, though.

Later this afternoon, they called to say they were taking everything — everything! — and would put the receipt in the mail. Closet-cleaning was clearly my destiny today.

Goodbye, cashmere vest from 2000. Farewell, corduroy prairie skirt. Ciao, handsome tweed skirt that itched like crazy despite a lining, tights, and a slip. So long, frumpy bogus-Chanel cardigan with the tag attached. Adieu, safari jacket that only looked good at the Pyramids. Etc., etc.

It feels great to have it gone. And I suspect I'm just getting started with the Big Closet Clean-Out of 2010. Like an occasional splurge, I highly recommend an occasional purge: it's good for the psyche as well as the closet. I'll keep you posted on any future progress.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Summer Into Fall

Yesterday it was warm enough to take a last swim in the heated pool at our friend's posh condo building on Commonwealth Avenue. The water was perfect — reminiscent of bath water but not quite — and there were a few pink hibiscus flowers floating around. Best of all, we had it all to ourselves. No little kiddies splashing everyone by jumping in a thousand times, screaming all the way, ignored by their chatting parents. No languid tanners in designer swimsuits lounging with their Vogue magazines. Just the two of us, and the din from the Mass. Pike and the giant HVAC unit nearby.... Really, it was wonderful.

This morning, we had all the windows open to the cooler air, which inspires the youngsters to watch the birds, —which inspires the birds to make a lot more noise.

This afternoon, it was cold enough that a cup of tea was a comfort when I got home from visiting a few open houses in the South End (beautiful but too expensive, and too far from where we truly want to be, which is Back Bay) and wandering the SoWa Market.

I know it's going to warm up again after a rainy day tomorrow. But the pool closed for the season today. Goodbye, summer!

Brimfield in Back Bay: Fun at the NABB Street Sale

For months I debated about whether to spend $100 to get a booth with a table at the annual NABB (Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay) Street Sale, which took place yesterday at the corner of Dartmouth and Newbury Streets. I have plenty of stuff I'm ready to part with, but it's all fairly good stuff, worth money to someone. I'm too lazy to photograph and measure it all and list it on eBay. Because then, assuming I'm lucky, I'd have to scrounge for boxes and packing materials before staggering to the post office, muttering curses all the way. The street sale seemed like an easy solution.

However, I was also too lazy to send a check to NABB, so I contented myself with shopping instead of selling.

Last year's fair was rained out at least twice, and was ultimately canceled. But today was hot and brilliantly sunny. I'd forgotten both a hat and sunblock, but I had fun and scored some finds.

The sidewalk was packed with shoppers and a motley array of booths. While there were a few established dealers selling antiques, rugs, and plants, most of the sellers seemed to be folks from the neighborhood. Many had that virtuous, domestic air that only comes after time spent reorganizing cupboards and jewelry boxes.

If you were looking for a big, colorful Buddha, you were in the right place:

I shelled out $3 for a fake Egyptian plaster plaque, after I emailed a photo of three of them to my husband, who naturally picked the heaviest one. They were all ugly, if you ask me, but he finds this stuff useful as teaching aids. As the dealer wrapped my item, he told me he'd gotten it from his niece, who had lived in Egypt for years, "working for the government." When I took the cast out of the bag, I saw the ancient TJ Maxx sticker on the back. At least it had once been $19.99. 

I had better luck with a dealer selling small antiques, glassware, and silver. I snagged this coin-silver master butter knife, with the coolest ball-shaped finial. And the pierced lily-patterned sterling server is from around 1903. 

After very little haggling, I paid about $100 for both. This required not one but two trips to the Boylston Street ATM because I never carry much cash and I'd only gotten passionate about the jelly server after I'd paid up for the knife. 

After I brought them home and cooed over them for awhile, I went online to do research. It's been a few years since I bought any silver. Unemployment and frivolous Victorian tableware don't harmonize together. But these pieces were too great to pass up. Buying them felt wonderful! (Much more wonderful than writing a check for a booth.) But I usually focus on Gorham and Whiting flatware, and I didn't know exactly what I had here.

It took some digging to determine that I am the proud owner of an International Silver "Frontenac" pierced jelly-cake server. I can tell pickle forks from sardine servers, and olive spoons from horseradish spoons, but there are still dozens of mysteries in 19th-century flatware for me. (How did I manage without a jelly-cake server all this time, you ask? No idea. I'm sure you have at least two.)

After I identified it, I quickly learned that Replacements has a couple of these selling for six times what I paid. Now, nobody in her right mind buys from Replacements; their prices are ridiculous. Instead, divide their prices by two, or perhaps three, to arrive at a real-world price. I still scored.

The butter knife is made by George B. Sharp, an Irish silversmith who worked in Philadelphia in the mid 19th century. It wasn't too hard to figure this out: His flatware often features skinny, three-dimensional handles with geometric tips. His pieces are distinctive, top quality, and hard to find. I'd coveted a spoon on eBay years ago but couldn't possibly afford it. I found only one piece with a similar ball motif online yesterday — asparagus tongs. Don't they look like elegant birthing equipment? 

Asparagus tongs, or delivery forceps for a duchess

The tongs are much bigger and more complex than my butter knife, and sell for nearly $500. So I can assume that my little piece, too, is worth at least a bit more than I paid. 

I love my old silver and use it often. I rarely sell any of it. It's just nice to know that, as I blow wads of cash I may need for the mortgage someday, antique silver is actually a pretty decent investment if you can get it at the right price.

I can't wait for the next NABB Street Sale. Same time, next year?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Traveling Light

This guy biking along Commonwealth Avenue struck a chord with me; I feel like this every time I pack for a trip.

We're are taking a ridiculously short (three busy days) trip to France in November and I swear I am going to be a light packer this time. Really. Even if I have to go to a couple of fancy dinners (it's a technology conference, but I will be sight-seeing, of course, not napping through it via jet lag). Even if the weather will be chilly and changeable, requiring layers and a coat. Even if I've tried and failed to be a light packer on every other trip.  I really tried when we went to Italy a few years ago — so how did I end up with more than 20 T-shirts for a 12-day trip? (And how did they all fit into my carry-on with five pairs of sandals and boots, two dresses, jeans, skirts, and a raincoat?)

My 22" wheeled suitcase was literally a drag during our last couple of trips. It was so awkward to lug onto the train to Paris last winter that I stumbled and went flying face-first into someone else's suitcase. The scar between my eyes is practically invisible, but the memory lingers on. How I loathe that suitcase, even though it holds everything so well.

Cramming things into a single carry-on doesn't make you a light traveler in my book. Not if you can barely lift the thing.

Since that trip, I've discovered how effective rolling — rather than folding — clothing is. I was able to pack all my clothes for a 9-day trip to Maine in a mid-sized duffel bag with this method, and very few things were wrinkled. This is truly a smarter, more compact way to pack. I know other tricks, too: I always make a list before I pack; I keep these on one document so I can see what I packed for the last trip and work from that.

My problem is that I need to pack extra shoes — boots in winter — because I walk so much that even my tried-and-true favorites make my feet sore. I often head back to my hotel to switch shoes at mid-day so I can keep going without limping. For three days, I should be able to get by with just two pairs. Three would be safer, though.... See? There I go.

Along with a new suitcase I need an iron-clad will to pack minimally. (I'd never pack an iron, for example. And my hairstyling and makeup needs are limited to a comb, sunblock, and lipstick.)

I'm going to donate that old suitcase to Goodwill, and start haunting Marshall's for one of those super-light, 4-wheel carry-ons by Heys. They've started making some that are 21.5", just a wee bit bigger than their previous ones, which I'd previously rejected as just too small for a week-long trip (with boots). The newer ones just meet the airline limits, and should work for me. I could also fit everything into my duffel, but rolling suitcases are so much easier in big airports, and along city streets. They're good even when you're hauling them along Venice's bridges, which often have steps. In a perfect world, one carry-on suitcase will work for both of us on this trip to France. (But can you roll a men's suit? I think not....)

Souvenirs and shopping abroad are a separate issue. Since we're going to Avignon, chances are excellent that I'll be hauling some good-sized ceramics home, just as I did from Tuscany. But first things first. I'll just pack a folding Longchamp tote, and worry about how to stuff that in Avignon.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Shoes for Everybody

Yesterday, I went for a ramble on Newbury Street, to check out the new fall styles. I'm always in the mood for a new pair of boots, and I actually need ankle boots, since two of my old reliables are about to bite the dust. 

I did a little online reconnaissance first, just to see what's out there. A lot of bland, low-heeled old-lady boots. A lot of ridiculous heels. And, as always, a considerable about of "Ugh!"

I don't want anything like the boot below, even at far less than the $485 pricetag. The best way to describe the chunky platform wedge look is "Frankenfoot."

Grim fake reptile by Elizabeth and James, from Saks.

One current trend is to put the zipper on the outside of the boot, or to have zippers on both sides of the foot. Are zippers all that wonderful to look at? Do you really want to see the zipper on a boot that theoretically laces up the front?

Super-high heels are out for me, of course, and for any Bostonian who needs to get somewhere on foot. Have you seen any fashionistas tottering around town in spike heels? They always look like they're trying too hard. Because they are. In Boston, we like to storm down sidewalks at a brisk pace, weaving in and out of strolling groups of tourists. Boots like the style below are for stepping carefully in and out of cabs, or perhaps not even that. Boots like these tend to brand a woman in Boston as "recent arrival," "tourist," or "dating a guy with weird taste."

An unfortunate $140 boot by Guess, from Macy's.

But as I was strolling around Newbury Street, I spotted some really good-looking boots. They had interesting design details and were reasonably on-trend, with cuffs or wraps, or elegant folds of leather along the foot. But they had wearable heels and flexible soles, perfect for our streets. They're all made of soft, handsome, glove leather. I saw them in Thom Brown and in the window Cuoio. When I'd find a pair I liked, my ears would perk up, cat-style, and I'd look inside to check the brand.

It was always the same: Everybody Shoes. The Tannery carries them, too. Here are some of the styles I liked:

Either of these would make my long, walking skirts and slim cords look more up-to-date. I even spotted a pair that I think successfully uses zippers in the design:

Prices hover between $140 and $200, so I won't be investing in more than one pair. And I'll be looking for an online deal, too. But it's nice to know there's a new brand of shoes that's just right for trekking around Boston without looking like an old lady or a fashion slave.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cheap Thrills: Falling for Candy

It may feel like July, but it's officially the first day of fall — time to buy a bag of Brach's Candy Corn. Sweater weather will be here before you know it.

Yes, they taste like corn syrup mixed with wax, but did that ever stop any red-blooded American candy fiend from wanting a few? And a few more?

Indulge your Inner (or Not-So-Inner) Child for a mere 99 cents at CVS.

Go Eat Worms

Did you read Samantha Storey's blog entry in yesterday's New York Times "Diner's Journal," about how to cook mealworms, wax moth larvae ("an excellent addition to trail mix), and brown house crickets?
Mealworms, which feed on grain meal, are the larvae of a beetle. They are about an inch or so long. Not to be confused with flour beetle larvae or grain moths which can infiltrate your pantry. They tend to absorb the flavors in which they are being cooked, so if you sautée them in butter, they will taste buttery. They also tend to taste like the food in which they have been raised; worms raised on wheat flour taste like bread. If you don’t want them to have the taste of what they’ve been eating, let them go without food for 24 hours and “then you have an empty-gutted meal worm,” Mr. Turpin said. “Perfect for soaking up flavors.” On a low flame with hot oil it takes about two to three minutes to cook them. And one last tip from Mr. Turpin: “Eat them head first or tail first, though I have found that the best way to eat them, especially those trying them for the first time, is with one hand over their eyes.”
Ugh, and how about some general anesthesia, too? This is not for me; I've only recently gotten over my insect associations concerning shrimp. I try to be adventurous when it comes to sampling new things, but I draw the line at bugs, eyes, and stuff like sheep testicles. (And I reportedly loved pigs' feet when I was a toddler, so I consider myself beyond those, too.)

What worries me is the unquestionable legitimacy the New York Times has just bestowed upon eating bugs. Now that I'm a "faculty wife" (not a joke, although it's hilarious to me) and all sorts of academic people Want to Meet Us, I know I'll find myself sitting at some convivial professor's dinner table and helping myself to the latest in cuisine, perhaps Mealworms Munière or Cricket Crème Brûlée.

The Times only provides recipes, thank god, for Basic Cooked Insects and Dry-Roasted Insects:
Spread cleaned insects on paper towels on a cookie sheet. Back at 200 degrees for 60 to 90 minutes until desired state of dryness is reached. To check state of dryness, try crushing insect with a spoon.
The post also helpfully provides two sources for the bugs, in California (surprise!) and Louisiana. There's no hope; smart cooks will figure things out and get creative. You and I will not be able to avoid heaping bugs on our dinner-party plates, I just know it. Mealworms will absorb the flavors of anything they are cooked with, so you'll be chowing them down before you know what happened — unless you're the type that demands to know every single ingredient in the foods you're served. I may be about to become that type.

Thanks a lot, Samantha! Eating in strangers' houses is about to get a whole lot stranger because of you!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wendy, All Grown Up

What a difference a year makes. Here's Wendy in her foster home, almost exactly a year ago, when we first met her:

Wendy when she was still "Kitten 6"

She was quaking with fear that day, utterly terrified as she curled into a ball in her crate. Scared of people, of the big dog who lived in her foster home, and apparently nervous about eating and moving. She didn't know how to play. Looking into her frightened eyes, I knew she was definitely a feral "project." What I didn't know was how much she might relax and learn to enjoy being with people.

Here with us, she settled in quickly. She learned to play, and the older cats accepted her. Then Possum arrived and became her best friend and co-conspiritor. 

Wendy tries to shut Possum in the bookcase.

She continues to get more comfortable with us — in molecular increments. She recently started talking to us— we ask her questions in a high-pitched voice, and she responds in eloquent little squeaks. She even comes over to us once in while for petting. When she does, she's the loudest-purring cat I've ever had.

But she is often still absurdly skittish, inspiring me to rename myself "Evil Mommy." Evil Mommy gives Wendy lovely food, unearths her crunchy toy balls that get lost under furniture, strokes her and makes her purr, and lets her chase her favorite feather toy on a string. And then Wendy runs away: Evil Mommy is SO evil! Evil Mommy has no idea what she's doing wrong.

Wendy as an adolescent, contemplating whether to run.

The most obvious sign that Wendy still doesn't trust us, or feel bonded to us, is that she will never rub against our legs or deliberately touch us. (She's even stopped her kitten game of sneaking up and smacking me on the backside when I'm sitting at my desk.) When we pet her, she starts sashaying around, rubbing against nearby furniture or other cats; anything but us.

Tonight she jumped on the dinner table and sat with us, asking for attention. She even rolled over so we could rub her belly. That's progress. Then she dashed away. That's typical.

She has never once hissed or growled at us, or tried to bite or scratch us. Or the vet, or the groomer who gave her many stinky lime-sulfur dips back when she had ringworm. She is a perfect lady, which is unusual in temperamental calicos. She won't even swear at us, as our tortoiseshell Snicky does all the time.

Here she is, all grown up into a beautiful and very self-possessed Cat:

If, someday, she decides to jump into my lap and settle down — or just wind herself around my legs — I'll know for sure that all things are possible.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Soup Night

I made soup this afternoon; it's a nice way to spend a lazy Sunday when everyone else is either working on lectures or stretched out like this:

Those of you who know the Proper Bostonian know that she seldom follows a recipe exactly — better ideas always occur to her along the way. And she prefers not to use recipes at all but to improvise, relying on her senses and (limited) common sense instead.

This might explain the PB's unusually dismal grades in college chemistry, which pointed her permanently in the direction of the liberal arts....

So, my soup was an improvisation. I'd picked up my ingredients at the farmer's market on Friday: potatoes, green beans, yellow beans, zucchini, corn, and carrots. I already had an onion, a couple of jars of chicken stock, and a can of San Marzano tomatoes. Everything got chopped in to tiny chunks and added to the pot, after I sautéed onions and poured in the stock. Then I added salt, pepper, and a bouillon cube. (I always use a cube because my grandmother put one in her soup. And no soup ever tasted better than hers.)

The taste was a little lackluster so I added a dollop of homemade pesto, which had been sitting around for awhile but was still bright green and fragrant once I dug deep into the jar.

Then I decided to add some pasta. I had a bag of imported annellini from the Pace's in the North End. These are teeny-tiny little Os, very cute, and great for soup. I boiled a pot of water —I didn't want them to absorb all my soup liquid — and looked on the bag to see how long to set the timer.

No such luck. The instructions say, "Cook al dente or until the desired degree of tenderness is reached."

Then they tell you drain the pasta in a colander and serve with your favorite sauce. So elementary and basic as to be verging on sarcasm. 

These instructions might as well have said, "Use your head, dummy! Do we really need to tell you to cook this stuff until it's done? And drain the water? And eat it with sauce?  How old are you???" 

But Italians tend to be very polite, even when writing instructions for idiotic Americans who can barely boil water. 

I'll bet the pasta for domestic consumption has no instructions at all.

An Italian doesn't need to be told how long to cook pasta, as an American does. An American is doing three other things in the kitchen while her pasta cooks, and she might also be texting and watching a cooking show on TV. An American expects to be given instructions and to follow them, so she doesn't have to pay attention or rely on past experience. An Italian is probably doing similar things all at once, maybe without the TV, but she still knows when the pasta is done because she manages to keep an eye on it. And because she's done it thousands of times.

Reading those useless instructions made me happy. Apparently I just hate to be told what to do in the kitchen (unless I'm baking; that's different). So I watched the pasta turn from hard to soft, tasted it a few times until it was right, and that was that. The soup was good, served with a chunk of warm cornbread and salad. And there are quarts of leftovers.

Soup of the evening, beautiful soup.

Current Craving: Traveling Heavy

Pierre Deux sells gorgeous old-fashioned wooden trunks with leather straps and brass hardware. I like the big one, of course.

I'd use it for storage and as a coffee table. But the real joy in owning one of these would be to travel with it, or even just to imagine such a trip — in the grand old manner, requiring stevedores and a first-class, flower-and-book filled cabin on a Cunard bound for Southampton.

If I had one of these, I would lull myself to sleep at night by planning out what to pack in it for a round-the-world cruise. I often pack imaginary suitcases for imaginary trips when I can't fall asleep. Try it: it beats counting sheep or lying there worrying.

I realize I'd also need the smaller trunk for the cats' toys and essentials. In my fantasy, they go everywhere we go, and they're intrepid about it. No howling, no panting, no fear. I'm sure that Possum would enjoy seeing Venice.

At prices ranging from $799 to 1,495, this craving is destined to remain just that. For a small fraction of that, you can find an authentic, restored steamer trunk at Brimfield. In fact, I already have one at the foot of the bed, in practical pine with black hardware. Unfortunately, it's very stationary; it lost its get-up-and-go well before my lifetime. So it's not even useful for fantasizing, just for storing out-of-season clothes. Even my fantasy world has its limits.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Another Thursday Morning Incident in Back Bay

Yesterday evening, my husband brought home a box of Munchkins (a few leftovers from a meeting with his teaching assistants). Before going to bed, he took the box, wrapped it securely in a plastic bag, and stuck it "safely" behind a metal box on our kitchen counter for the night. This morning, he dragged me out of bed — where I was still recovering from yet another battle with a mosquito, to witness this scene:

As you can see, an Unknown Assailant had knocked the box to the floor and neatly removed the bag, tossing it aside. Then the box was opened and Munchkins were encouraged to escape. You can see our 15-year-old Snalbert deftly pursuing one that had fled into the living room, leaking jelly.

Suddenly, a witness appeared, obviously shaken and alarmed:

When the witness had partially recovered, he indicated that Snalbert was, in fact, the perpetrator. And it does appear that Snalbert has a taste for Munchkins, because he didn't exactly return that escapee to the box after he captured it.

Snalbert tries and fails to pass as an innocent bystander.

Witness surveys scene.

No charges were filed because the witness proved to be unreliable. No police cars or fire trucks arrived, and no news crews will spend days hanging pointlessly around the scene — because Tom Brady wasn't involved in this incident. (His turn was last Thursday; I wonder if news crews will return to the corner today to respectfully commemorate the one-week anniversary.)

People will not be leaving flowers at our door, as they did at Tom's, even though he walked away from his accident. Why would anyone do that, I wondered when I heard about it. Isn't that rather ghoulish if there hasn't even been an injury, let alone a death? Isn't it overkill — a bit like wishing things had been worse?  But I guess people instinctively recognize that Tom is the People's Prince, the closest thing we have to Princess Diana. Especially with his current fluffy hairdo.

I didn't want stale Munchkins for breakfast anyway.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Not Always a Ham

Last week, I checked out The Meat House in Coolidge Corner, not far from Trader Joe's. It opened last month. This national chain specializes in fresh meat and poultry. They also carry cheeses, baked goods, and gourmet products like cookies and jams, and there's an impressive-looking deli case as well. That's what attracted me. I don't eat much meat, but I like good deli ham.

So I went to the guy at the deli counter and asked, "Do you have Italian pepper ham?"

"No, sorry!" He said. "You need to go to an Italian shop for that. Try the North End."

"I'd like some Danish ham, then."

"We don't have any Danish ham."

It looked like they were well-stocked with deli meats in that display case, so I kept trying.

"Polish ham, then?"


"What kind of imported ham do you have?"

"We don't have any."

At this point, I knew the conversation had gone remarkably in the way of one of my favorite Monty Python skits. But I didn't know these people. So I decided not to show off. I politely walked away, rejecting their offer of capicola. (Ha! I bet they didn't really have any.)

I did not say, despite being sorely tempted: "It's not much of a meat shop, is it?"

They did not reply: "Finest in the district!"

I did not retort: "Explain the logic underlying that conclusion, please!"

And no one was shot.

Monday, September 13, 2010

What Is This?

We saw someone moving this peculiar metal object on Gloucester Street yesterday, but the fellow went back inside before we had a chance to ask him what it was. I'm pretty familiar with most of the merchandise in the 1902 Sears-Roebuck Catalog (we had a reprint when I was a kid), and decades of going to Brimfield have taught me a thing or two, but this thing has me stumped. It appears to be iron, and must be hinged at the top. There are a couple of flimsy-looking, rusted wheels at ground level, but there are more hanging off the sides at the top.

If you know what this is, and why anyone would keep it in a small Back Bay apartment, please comment!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Reading the Koran

When I was a high school sophomore in the 1970s, the elderly nun who taught our religion class started each session by having one of us read a selection of our choice from the Old Testament. We went around the room, row by row. Oddly, I don't remember her asking us to say which book our passage came from.

Whenever it was my turn, I read from the Koran. I thought it was more inspiring — and better written — than the Old Testament. I have no idea why I did this, or how I got interested in the Koran in the first place. Perhaps a religion teacher told us it was a forbidden book, but it's just as likely that a teacher said it was good to read.  I was a curious kid, and I'd gotten a copy from the local college library, where you could check out books for months at a time. And so, about once a month, when it was my turn, I'd quietly take out my brown-paper-covered Koran and read away. It was beautiful, eloquent stuff. At the end of our passage, I believe we were supposed to say, "This is the word of the Lord."

More than once, I remember that nun looking at me misty-eyed after I'd finished. I'd snap the book shut afterwards, quickly put it in my desk, and whip out my notebook in imitation of an eager student. That way, when she asked me — in her most gentle, reverent voice — what I'd been reading, I could say something like, "Oh, Sister, I just chose something quickly. I think that was from... Isaiah?"

Although it's quite possible that I lied, introducing my Koran reading as coming from the Book of Ezra, or someone similarly obscure. I really don't remember what I said, but I wouldn't put that past me. Yeah, I'll bet I lied. What a sneaky, subversive but believable little schoolgirl I was.

I think it's also possible that in the spring semester we switched to reading from the New Testament, and I still kept reading from the Koran. I likely said my passages were from one of the more obscure Epistles.

I wonder what would have happened to me if I'd been caught. Probably very little; no one was afraid of Muslims in those days. I would have been exposed as a pretentious, dishonest but daring brat, that's all. But no one ever had the slightest idea about me; I was a fine actress. It's unfortunate that none of those daily readings had the effect of making me a better, more honest person.

I got away with this for a whole school year. Even educated nuns and religion teachers aren't all that familiar with the Bible. Let's admit it: neither Testament is uniformly inspiring or illuminating by a long shot. They can be dull, contradictory, confusing, annoying, ranting, and even obscene. And there would be plenty of Christians, including clergy, teachers, and other professionals, who couldn't tell the Bible from the Koran if a little Italian schoolgirl in glasses and a uniform jumper were reading.

But I can tell you from direct experience — no young Catholics were harmed by hearing passages from the Koran. Before you think about burning a book, read it. You might learn things.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tossing and Turning... Pages

I love magazines, and always have. Shortly after I learned to read, my godparents caught me poring over Popular Electronics. It broke their hearts. Thinking I lacked suitable reading matter, they bought me a 14-volume set of Reader's Digest Condensed Classics, with pretty bindings, gold-edged pages, and ribbon bookmarks.

In fact, I went to the library often. I just liked magazines. (But those classics were good, too. When I finally realized that "condensed" wasn't necessarily a good thing, I was delighted to read the complete editions of Jane Eyre, Little Women, and my other favorites.)

I wasn't suffering when I read Popular Electronics at 7 or 8. I liked it. It made no sense to me at all, but not much did at that age. It was just another reminder of how much I still needed to learn. And it happened to be stacked on the living room table along with Life, Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Women's Day, Redbook, and National Geographic.

To put it mildly, my parents liked magazines, too. My father has never tossed an issue of National Geographic since he "joined the Society" in the 1930s. His living room table is still piled with recent issues, along with photography, electronics, organ, and radio-operator magazines, and he's 96.

When my brother went into the army in the early '70s, he had his Car and Driver and New York magazines forwarded to our house. I now realize that my early forays into New York gave me the first hint that I was not a suburban girl at heart, but a city one. There was no way I was going to spend my future in a split-level. But I was going to spend it reading magazines.

I evolved from Highlights to Ingenue and Seventeen. Then to Glamour and Mademoiselle — exotic publications in a Swarthmore College dorm room. After college, I kept up with those and also started my lifelong New Yorker subscription. Eventually I started getting Metropolitan Home, Victoria, House Beautiful, and House and Garden. Then Martha Stewart Living came along, and I kept every issue. I also subscribed, in various years, to In Style, Cook's Illustrated, Travel and Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Elle, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair, Domino, Gourmet, Bazaar, Vogue, and Real Simple.

And that's just what I remember off the top of my head. I've gotten lots of decorating and cooking ideas from magazines. I've learned a lot about health, money, fashion, and life from reading them, too. I like to pull out an old issue and go through it before I fall asleep.

Eventually I had two long shelves loaded with all of my Marthas and old issues of other magazines I couldn't part with. There was always a giant stack of current magazines on the coffee table, and a giant basket that filled the whole area under the table packed with catalogues as well as magazines.

Unfortunately for them — but fortunately for my tiny apartment — most of those house-and-garden magazines went belly-up. And I finally got fed up with fashion magazines a few years ago. I'd continued subscribing because, as a retail copywriter, I had to keep up on trends. But Vogue began to strike me as a loathsome example of conspicuous consumption, not worth the occasional fantasy photo spreads where they turn Keira Knightley into Cinderella, or whatever. Who is Vogue written for? How many women would pay $700 for, say, a T-shirt — and would I want anything to do with a single one of them? I still subscribe to Elle, mainly because I was one of their guest reviewers for a couple of years. They sent me piles of free books! I might apply to do that again. But I think I'm going to let my subscription lapse. I let my Martha subscription end last year and the world didn't end.

About four years ago, I decided that my magazine and catalogue (J. Peterman, Anthropologie, Pottery Barn, Martha by Mail) collection was becoming ridiculous. During one hot summer week, I went through everything, tearing out photos and articles I wanted to keep — and filling a shopping bag. I also recycled at least five linear feet of magazines. Slowly I weeded out more and more over the next year or so, until I didn't need the basket under the coffee table anymore. I kept a pile in a small basket by the bed, and another pile of now-"vintage" magazines in a cabinet.

Recently, even these began to get on my nerves. I believe I've been reading too many "Minimalist" living articles and blogs. The clutter-free philosophy is hard to resist. So I went to Paper-Source and bought three pretty striped magazine file boxes. I wanted four, but three were all they had.

The guy on the left is the magazine holder.

It's taken me about week (I can't read anything without falling asleep these days) but I've winnowed and weeded, reducing my magazine collection to fill those three boxes. Out went issues that contained ads or letters I'd written. I tore out the ads and tossed the magazines. Out went many recent issues of O and Real Simple that I hadn't gotten around to reading. (Along with those and Elle, I still subscribe to The New Yorker and just went back to that guilty pleasure, Vanity Fair. These are all easy to toss the same month they arrive.)

So, one file box is full of the best issue of Martha, especially Christmas, Halloween, and decorating issues. Another box holds ancient issues I just can't part with — no more than two issues per title. The third box is a little embarrassing. It has J. Peterman and Anthropologie catalogs — which sometimes sell for as much as $75 on eBay. I'm too lazy to sell them but too miserly to throw them out. It's also full of commemorative issues — the Princess Diana Vanity Fair issue, The New Yorker's 9/11 issue, Newsweek's JFK Junior issue. I really don't want these — do you? Make me an offer for the lot, and it's yours.

There's a reasonable stack of current magazines on the coffee table — nothing near as bad as the stacks in my dad's house — and that's it. The basket formerly in the bedroom is now holding towels in the bathroom.

And I feel better without all that old paper lying around. I shouldn't miss any of it because I have a good-sized pile of clippings for comfort. I'll eventually sort those and store them in an accordion file. But first. it's time to tackle the closets, cupboards, and drawers....

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Breaking News

Patriots quarterback and Back Bay neighbor Tom Brady was in a car crash at 6:30 this morning, just around the corner from the PB's abode. She slept through it; the helicopters, currently roaring low overhead, only arrived two hours later. I can't imagine what there is for them to film, except some glass and a messed-up streetlight, but I'll keep you posted.

According to early reports:
  • Brady was driving a Bentley
  • Brady was driving a red Audi sedan
  • Brady was "shaken"
  • Brady was "pretty banged up"
  • Brady has whiplash
  • Brady was extricated from his car by the Jaws of Life
  • Brady was able to exit his car and walk around at the scene 
  • Brady is at practice, after refusing medical treatment at the scene
  • Brady was taken to Brigham and Women's Hospital for treatment
This level of confusion by witnesses and reporters proves to me that no one should be doing anything that requires a sharp brain at 6:30 in the morning.

Update: camera crews were still on the scene at noon, filming our beautiful 19th-century row houses and a downed street lamp or traffic pole, I presume. I saw them from a block away and was not inclined to investigate more closely. By 1 pm, city crews were fixing the damage.

Update: around 5 pm, there were still several TV news vans set up to film... nothing. An intersection, some sidewalk.... maybe they are waiting in case Tom happens to have another accident at the same intersection on his way home tonight.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

House-Hunting Still

Several new Back Bay and Beacon Hill properties have come on the market since the Labor Day weekend, as various broker acquaintances assured us they would. Except for a couple of handsome duplexes that we can't afford on Waltham Street, we haven't seen much of anything even mildly promising in the past month or two.

But the most amazing thing came on the market today. A penthouse condo high up on Beacon Hill with two decks. And in the common garden, there's an elegant, 1920s heated swimming pool, fed by a dolphin fountain. There's also a pergola, I think. A corner of Rome in Beacon Hill: A fantasy come true.

I almost don't care what the condo looks like — it seems nice, although it has very low ceilings and little in the way of the 19th-century architectural details we love — because all I can think about is that pool.

Be prepared for lots of indecisive emotional gyrating and gnashing of teeth here, probably beginning on Sunday, after we visit the open house. I know perfectly well it would be stupid to buy an apartment chiefly for its outdoor space — ignoring issues like room layouts, charm, square footage, convenient location, and parking. I realize that it's usually too cold to lounge around outside for about half the year. But could a little blue pool and a green garden compensate for endless treks up the hill with groceries (let's not forget the icy brick sidewalks....) and not having tall ceilings, bay windows, or a permanent parking space?  Possibly. It just might. Confession: owning a swimming pool has been practically my only steadfast goal in life. It started when I was about three and, no, I can't really swim. But I love pools. They always make me happy. And that's all there is to it.

Will keep you posted.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I've tried to tape the gaps in our window screens, so I don't know how mosquitoes have been getting in. We've been averaging one nasty little intruder almost every night. After we're asleep, they buzz around our heads and bite.  And bite. And Bite. 

Until a few years ago, our mosquito problem often continued into November — long after the killing frost is supposed to take care of them. We tried one of those high-tech, ultrasonic bug repellers that you plug in to an outlet. We still got bitten and the "inaudible" sound totally freaked out a couple of our cats. We sent it back. I finally got fed up and called an exterminator for a free inspection. His theory was that they were breeding in our leaky fireplace chimneys after rainstorms. Taping up the dampers solved the problem. (The alternative was to light fires and smoke 'em.)

But we always get mosquitoes throughout the summer, whenever it's cool enough to sleep well without the air conditioner and with the windows open.  Even when it's warm in the bedroom, I try to sleep under the sheet to protect as much skin as possible. But my feet like to stick out, so I get bitten there, and on my hands. And twice in the past three nights, I've been awakened by bites on my eyelids. Ugh. Ow. And so attractive in the next few days. 

So, I get up, turn on the blinding overhead light, find my glasses, and creep around the bedroom with a tissue. I found and killed both of the evil eyelid biters, both full of my bright red blood. Mosquitoes either get lazy or don't fly well after a meal, so it's usually possible to hunt them down not far from the crime scene. 

Which is not to say that mosquito hunting is not frustrating and annoying. Scrutinizing the bedroom walls when you're half-awake and itching at 2 am can seem like a nightmare.

After I squash the bug, I stumble into the kitchen to take an antihistamine — my allergy medicine, Allegra, stops the itch in about a half hour. At the same time, I try to convince two or three milling cats to wait until a reasonable hour for their breakfast. As I lie in bed, waiting for the itching and burning to stop and sleep to return, I worry about West Nile virus and debate whether bites on eyelids are worse than bites on feet. I have yet to make up my mind. I also wonder if I've already had West Nile: I had a weird summer virus years ago, accompanied by a very stiff neck. And, naturally, I had more than my share of mosquito bites at the time. So maybe I'm safe, but that's not much comfort in the dark.

I'll probably have another opportunity to consider these questions in the next few hours. But tonight I'm going to be smart and keep the Allegra bottle and a glass of water next to the bed.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cheap Thrills: Sullivan's

Yesterday we decided to head over to Castle Island in South Boston for change of scene.

On Summer Street, we passed the Queen Mary 2, probably docked for an early leaf-peeping tour up the New England coast. We were amazed to get some spectacular views — we'd been trying and failing to see this ship for a few years now. We scheduled an October trip to coincide with its arrival in Bar Harbor a few years ago, but stormy weather kept it out of port. We ran out of time to see it when we were visiting relatives in Brooklyn and it was docked there. In Boston, we tried to see it at the dock. But you can only see a small fraction of it before security stops you from going closer.

But there she was, when we hadn't been expecting her at all. Of course, I hadn't brought my camera; these are iPhone photos. My first glimpse was of the red funnel, and then the rest came impressively into view:

Sullivan's on Castle Island was our destination, of course, and it was busy last night, although the lines move fast.

For $1.60, you get a grilled Kayem hot dog with a satisfying "snap" and a toasted bun. And $3.25 gets you a hot, greasy sackful of sweet, hand-cut onion rings — plenty for two. (A lobster roll is also a deal at $9.95.) Those of you who know the PB realize that she'd pick this kind of simple, old-fashioned dinner over a snooty restaurant "dining experience"any time.

As we ate, we watched the ocean, kids, dogs, and the sunset as jets from Logan flew low over our heads. We walked off a handful of calories by circling Fort Independence, and got back in line for a tall but virtuous cone of Hood's soft-serve nonfat yogurt.

It was a perfect summer Sunday evening in Boston. I think we'll be going back soon.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Shoes? Or Art?

After seasons of towering platforms and mile-high heels, shoes are coming back down to earth. Finally, women can stop tottering, clomping, and mincing along Newbury Street, and walk gracefully again. I'm not speaking of the vast majority of women in gladiator sandals and flip flops, of course — they can stride along comfortably. But the fashionistas in trendy stilettos have had a painful, treacherous summer.

Here are some vintage-style charmers from Anthropologie, with heels that any Bostonian could walk in — assuming she was willing to risk their leather wrappings on our infamous brick and cobblestone sidewalks. I've wrecked a lot of leather-covered heels in my day.... but these elegant shoes would tempt one to try walking just on the curbstones, pretending that, say, Marlborough Street is one long balance beam or pirate plank. And, considering how unique they are, their prices aren't that bad for a splurge, especially if (like me) you spent the last four months in $20 flip flops.

These blue-green Wingspan Heels ($98) are appliquéd with suede butterfly wings. I might substitute turquoise satin ribbons for those navy laces.

With rosettes inspired by red M&Ms, these ruby slippers are better than those gaudy glittered pumps of Dorothy's. With cranberry suede and crimson faux-lizard heels, I'd be more inclined to display these than risk ruining them. Candy Disc Heels ($98).

Although these ruffled gray suede pumps are a little higher, they're still respectable at 3.25" — party shoes.  I love their graceful curves; they are sculptures for your feet. Gust of Wind Pumps ($119).

Friday, September 3, 2010

Seen (and Heard) Around Town

Yesterday I heard the distant sound of bongos as I crossed Commonwealth Avenue. Coming closer, I found a whole impromptu band of college students, spilling off a park bench and onto the ground, with guitars, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, and percussion. They were quite good, improvising tunes that fell somewhere between bluegrass and Cajun, with a strong bongo beat.

It was another hot, miserably humid day, but they didn't seem to notice.

Today, heading into the Public Garden I passed a pair of newlyweds and their happy photographer. There was a bevy of bridesmaids in purple halter dresses, too. I'm not sure why the bride on the left kept hitching up her skirt but, hey, it's her day.

The swan boats were closed today. This confused me; the hurricane wasn't supposed to blow in until late afternoon and even so, it's not like we get whitecaps on the Lagoon. But an MDC policemen pointed out that the swans are actually missing from the boats.

"Took them almost all day yesterday to pry them off," he said.  "A big job, as you can imagine." This was supposed to prevent strong winds from catching them and knocking them to pieces.

The Public Garden is sporting some late-season flowers are big as your face. I don't know what these are, but they look like hibiscus on steroids:

If I were to pluck one and stick it on top of your head, it would be large enough to shade your face. And everyone would coo about how you look like an Edwardian flower fairy. Lucky for you that picking flowers in the Public Garden automatically gets one fed to the swans.

I was pleased to see that some things never change in the North End. I hadn't been there in awhile:

But there she was: a nice old Italian lady in a sweater, hanging out her window, nodding at passersby and watching the big traffic jam on her street. They still exist. As do the traffic jams.

I had some wonderful-as-usual pizza at Galleria Umberto, but I was too busy to take a photo.

Finally, I took a long walk by the waterfront, thinking it would be cooler and less humid. Not. But I saw all the yachts and sailboats up from Cape and the islands, all battened down and hoping for a safer harbor up here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Possum Sings the Blues

Possum spent most of the day brooding in the sink. Some of us do our best thinking in the shower; I guess the sink bowl works for him.

Snicky was hopping mad about this. She likes to drink from the running faucet as often as she can. And she can't do it when there's 14 pounds of fur-covered windbag napping in the bowl. This is a family blog, so I can't quote her exact comments, made eloquently with her baleful orange eyes throughout the afternoon. But if cats could stomp their feet, kick things, and roll their eyes, she'd have been at it.

Possum was eventually inspired to climb out of the bowl and belt out a soulful interpretation of "Try a Little Tenderness." I gather that the cats watched The Commitments when we were on vacation; Possum's musical education is progressing nicely. I'm sorry I wasn't able record his song, but I was able to snap a photo of him coming down off a particularly expressive high note:

I can't wait to hear his rendition of "The Dark End of the Street."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Less Is Never Enough

Have you heard about the Minimalist lifestyle movement? It's a radical form of living simply and frugally that goes beyond mere decluttering. The goal is to reduce your possessions to the fewest possible, with the idea that it will simplify your life and make you happier. Many of its proponents live in tiny spaces, often less than 400 square feet, and raise families in them. And many have pared down their personal possessions to a round number, like 100. There's a web site devoted to the "100 Thing Challenge." Go here for their FAQs.

There was a New York Times story last month about Minimalists that got me thinking about all this....

People have sold homes and cars, winnowed down wardrobes to what fits in a carry-on bag, and gotten rid of all but a handful of their books, for example. One essential qualifier in the "100 Thing Challenge" — a personal possession is defined as something that is not shared. So you don't need to count a table or a bed — unless you live alone, I guess. You only count things like clothing, jewelry, books, personal knick-knacks, and toiletries. I guess silverware would count as "shared," too. (That's good; I have a lot.)

Actually, given that rule, I'd be willing to share everything I own with Peter and the cats. If it means that I don't have to eliminate 95 percent of my sock drawer, I'm all for sharing. Help yourselves!

But I've always been intrigued by the idea of living with less, recognizing that it's a virtuous backlash from our spendy, competitive consumer culture — it's at the other end of the ownership scale from hoarding, which affects a surprising percentage of the population (as many as 5% of the population, says expert Randy Frost). It's the opposite of compulsive shopping addiction (up to 8% of the population, according to some studies).

The idea behind owning less is that you'll end up wanting and needing less, and therefore you can earn less because you'll be spending less. Working less frees up your time so you can spend it more creatively and enjoyably. You also spend less time cleaning and dealing with all of your stuff.

All very admirable and salutary, I admit. Minimalists make even us relatively frugal folk feel like gluttons. I've been self-employed (read "unemployed") for several years and it's made me more careful about spending — and I was always a thrifty shopper, having had Depression-era parents. I don't need or want loads of stuff and I don't buy a lot of anything, except for cat food. I'm a periodic declutterer, too.

On the other hand, there's no way I'm heading too much further down that Minimalist path. I admire Henry Thoreau, but I'm not building myself a cabin in the woods. (I also admire George Clooney, but I'm not buying a chunk of Lake Como waterfront, either. But guess which alternative I'd choose if I could?)

Here's the thing. I seem to need a normal amount of stuff. For example, I can't accessorize. I was born without that gene, and the hairstyling gene. I can put on a necklace and part my hair down the middle, but that's about as much as I can handle without hurting myself.

So I can't be one of those "Uniform Project" women who wears the same dress every day for a year. I can't deal with all the required belts, scarves, wraps, tights, vests, jewelry, make-up, hairdos, hats, layered socks, and shoes those women acquire so they don't get stir-crazy wearing that one stupid old dress forever. I can't be bothered. I'd rather have a closet and a couple of drawers full of different clothes. If I wanted to wear the same darn thing every day, I'd be a nun.

There are other women who have pared their wardrobes down to six or 10 items, which they wear for at least a month. Here's the New York Times story about that.

I actually come close to doing that, out of sheer laziness. I live in the same two dresses and two pairs of shorts in the summer and three pairs of cords and jeans all winter. I probably get by with a half-dozen tops in each season, too. But if that were all I had to chose from, it would drive me nuts. I am happy to weed through lots of neglected skirts, pants, sweaters, and shirts to get to those same-old jeans and shorts. It seems that I need to be able to do that. There's a certain comfort in having those choices even if I constantly reject them.

I also wear only two pairs of earrings about 362 days a year. It does make life a little simpler. I do it because I love those earrings. But I still own dozens of other earrings. I like owning them; they don't take up a lot of space, and they aren't causing anyone any trouble. If I didn't own all those earrings, being compelled to choose between only two pairs would probably make me somewhat miserable.

Call me perverse. Perhaps I'm a quasi-Minimalist who lives simply while surrounded by plenty of stuff. Not insane amounts, but enough to make me feel blessed with the abundance this country offers us if we have bank accounts and credit cards. I love having books, boots, antiques, fish forks, and pictures. I don't need or want much more, and everything's paid for. I weed things out occasionally so our closets and cabinets don't explode. But don't expect me to be having a massive tag sale or an exciting freecycle listing anytime soon.