Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dressing Up: Follow-Up

On Tuesday, I wrote about dressing up (Boston-style) for a "business gala" dinner and awards ceremony. Moments after I posted it, my husband called to say, "Off the hook!" We were going at the behest of a colleague of his from out of town, who'd planned to sit with us at dinner to talk business with him and chat with us both. But she'd just heard she had to sit at the head table, so she told him we could skip the event if we liked. My husband decided to stop by to meet with her during the cocktail reception; my appearance was optional.

How I love reprieves and cancellations for social events. They are more thrilling to me than snow days were in grade school. I should become a recluse.

I decided to walk downtown with my husband so we could have dinner after his meeting. Since he was still in his suit, I put on my black dress, which can be dressed up or down. It looks fine with the flip flops I wear for walks. (I put metallic flats in my bag for saying hello to our friend.) We got to the hotel, hot and windblown, before most guests had arrived. I changed my shoes and we found our friend. Instead of heading to the lobby for a private talk, she pulled us into the reception (as we did the polite version of kicking and screaming). She marched us straight to the French ambassador who was standing with her boss, the American head of a major French company. They were impeccably dressed, crisp and fresh — especially compared to us. After we made small talk, we had to pose with them for photos. At least I wasn't in flip flops; here's hoping that smiles and enthusiasm compensate for messy hair and glowing faces. I'm guessing we looked okay — by Boston standards, anyhow. We got out of there as quickly as we could.

I didn't see many guests, and I was too early to catch the hoped-for prom dress. But I predicted correctly that just about everyone was clearly in the same clothes they'd put on that morning. I saw one pair of towering, strappy shoes in a sea of sensible pumps, but that was about it.

While my husband and his friend sat talking, I took off for Crumbs Bake Shop. It had been too long:

The one in the front with the swirly topping is Monkey Business, their June Flavor of the Month: banana cake with banana cream cheese filling, caramel cream cheese frosting, caramel drizzled on top, plus toffee bits. It was so big and heavy that we split it and it was plenty for two. It was the best cupcake I've ever had: moist, rich, and creamy. Banana and caramel are a wonderful combination, and the mildly salty toffee was an ideal complement.

We ate at Così, one of my favorite spots for a quick meal. I'll always take a good sandwich or burrito over a formal meal. I'm a very cheap date. I wish we had a Così in Back Bay; the cashier told me the company is looking at spaces there, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I've walked as far as Kendall Square for their Signature Salad but I'd rather not. I asked our server to make me her favorite item on the menu. (When I can't make up my mind in a restaurant, I order whatever the waitstaff recommends and have never been disappointed.) I had a pesto chicken melt with sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella. It was gooey, as delicious as you might imagine, and just the right size. My husband raved about his ham and Brie sandwich, too. Then we walked home to cupcakes for dessert, Possum and Snalbert on the sofa with us, and a good book for me. Just my kind of evening, sans French ambassadors and CEOs.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Snalbert Sur la Table

Snalbert was on the table as we were getting ready for lunch today. It's a good thing, because some slices of our new favorite baguette (B&R — thanks for the tip, Penny) tried to escape. Snalbert subdued  a couple of slices before they had a chance to get very far. He agrees that B&R baguettes are unusually delicious and well worth the long walk to Savenor's.

Then he settled in and did his best Winston Churchill imitations:

He's going back to the vet tomorrow for more tests. We're hoping he's improved since his last visit and that his kidney problems are under control. But he's still too skinny. I was tempted to let him have some of that baguette. I'll ask the vet if we can indulge some of his carb-fiend activities.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dressing Up in Boston

Arggh. I just remembered that we are going to a "business awards gala dinner" tonight, sponsored by  the local branch of a European chamber of commerce. Two hours of cocktails (not for me, thanks) followed by two hours of a rich dinner (salad and bread for me). The only person I'll know is my husband; he'll know two or three others out of hundreds. This is surely a major networking event, which means I need a serviceable response to, "And what do you do?" Since I don't do much of anything these days, I need a creative answer. I shouldn't resort to wisecracking, as I am often tempted: "I just got out of prison so I'm still getting settled" or "I'm home-schooling our cats."

I suppose I can tell people I'm a writer. Or is that stretching it too far?

If I manage to behave myself, I should be okay. The way I "network" is to pepper whoever I'm talking to with so many long-answer questions that they can't pepper me back. Seem fascinated by everything someone says and they'll eventually wander off thinking you're brilliant. (It works best with men. But like all forms of combat, it's exhausting; there'd better be Diet Coke.)

The other problem, of course, is that I have to dress appropriately. This requires not only having the necessary items in my possession, but also the detective skills to determine what they should be.  There is no dress code on the invitation so I am left to my own devices. No way am I going shopping. As Henry Thoreau reminded me again after he was done playing with my iPhone the other day at Walden Pond: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes" — a Boston motto if ever there was one, which we interpret as: "Don't shy away from new experiences but always be the person you are, looking as you do." (Henry wore a tie and a flower in his lapel, but apparently didn't deal with his hair.)

When I see the word "gala," I automatically envision black tie and formal dresses. I think of the Met Gala, where stars wear extravagant gowns, starlets and models wear sparkling micro-minis, and Tom Brady greases his hair into a quasi-Mohawk. Gowns? Oh, god. Surely not.

But Mr. Brady has provided a clue — or so my detective instincts tell me. It's obvious to me that he's Bostonian by default now, despite the relatively brief time he lives here. Hair-wise, at least, he's making "Boston" choices despite a California mansion, a Manhattan apartment, and a supermodel wife. In the past couple of years he's gone from long and shaggy to boring to emulating a tufted titmouse. Those are Boston choices. We tend to be casual, if not actually schlumpy. We tend to make lazy, odd, or dull choices, and we'll dress down more often than we'll dress up for occasions.

It seems that even fashionable Europeans working in Boston for a while do not look quite like they do at home. Their style is affected by contact with our atmosphere. Not everyone at this gala will be foreign, of course: there will be many locals, so I'll bet there will be someone in chinos and someone without a tie.

I deduce that it would be a big mistake to dress up very much for this affair.

[Aside: These days, Possum likes to sit on the sofa arm, not far behind my chair, to tap me on the back with his needle-like claws. He's trained me to turn my full attention to him for conversation and petting. Since the poor fellow "erupted" from both ends unexpectedly this morning, he's getting extra cosseting, if that's possible. And here he goes (ouch!), so please excuse me....]

My detective skills tell me that, since this is a business gala, almost everyone will wear office clothes, dismissing the "gala" aspect as too much trouble. I predict that every man and most women won't bother to change after work. A black suit with some rumpling and a top that's dressier than a T-shirt will likely be the women's uniform, although some youngster will wear a strapless or sparkly prom dress — because she read "gala"and the tickets cost a fortune (ours are free), because young women love to dress up, and because making fashion mistakes is also a Boston thing.

As for me, I am now complacent about dressing for tonight. Silly me to worry. This Bostonian can handle it. In my closet is a demure black dress. I have elegant heels as well as relatively chic flip flops, which I can wear to traipse downtown and then hide in my black Longchamp tote. (It won't be the only Longchamp at this gala.)

This is how we do things here; no need to fuss. How nice! And there will be the amusement of spotting that prom dress.

Update: My husband has decided that he only needs to go to the gala for a few minutes to talk business with a colleague, so I am off the hook if I want to be. I think I'll go with him and leave before the dinner, just to see if my sartorial conclusions are correct. I always get melancholy for Possum at these affairs.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Flag Garden on Boston Common

For Memorial Day weekend, more than 33,000 flags were planted at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Boston Common. Each flag represents one fallen Massachusetts serviceman or woman, beginning with the Civil War and continuing to the present. 

The Flag Garden is organized annually by the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund "for observance and reflection." It's a moving, sobering, almost unfathomable sight: so many lives, so much courage and sacrifice. And grief. See it today if you have a chance:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Garnet Hill Sale

Garnet Hill is offering an additional 40% off their sale items through Monday; add items to your cart to see the discount. There are still some excellent deals on winter and spring clothing, shoes, and bedding, even though it's been going on for a few days.

I just bought a Filigree quilt and shams for 75% off. I've had my eye on it since the fall, to replace the faded red matelassé coverlet we use in cold weather. I like its intricate, cream-on-red quilting and it's probably thin enough to fit in the washer after those inevitable cat catastrophes.

It looks like it will be an elegant upgrade, but if I don't love it for any reason, Garnet Hill accepts returns unconditionally and exchanges are always free — a recipe for keeping me a happy customer.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reading List

When I was a kid, I used to read multiple books at a time, especially during long, dull summer vacations. I kept a book by my bed and at least one more in the living room. One would come with me for lounging under the cherry tree in our backyard, and another might be parked on the kitchen table for solitary breakfasts and lunches. I kept the town library in business, and I'd check out my favorites over and over. When I was about 11, my mother bought me my own set of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books when they were reissued in a paperback boxed set — she was tired of seeing me lug home the same books again and again.

In college, we were usually expected to polish off several hundred pages a week as class assignments, which prevented me from reading for entertainment. During semester breaks, I was often busy finishing term papers; I would request, and receive, extensions of up to several weeks for some ambitious topic in psychology, anthropology or art history. My ridiculously late papers netted me good grades but also a lot less vacation time. But finally I'd have time for something fluffy by Rona Jaffe, Tolkien, or Taylor Caldwell. After all that heavy reading, such novels were like sweet dessert.

After college, I seldom read more than one book at a time. For one thing, I decided I had to pace myself. For example, it was years before I read the complete works of Jane Austen — I'd decided to save a couple of her titles for my old age, in case I ran out of wonderful books to discover by then. Eventually I caved: I have the gift of a terrible memory, so rereading my favorite books is often like discovering them anew.

These days I have plenty of time to read, and I'm dipping in and out of multiple books once again during this long, dull period of unemployment. While I have hundreds crammed onto shelves, tables, and windowsills (and my husband has thousands more), including dozens that I've never read and many more that have vanished from my memory, I find I'm most eager to read the titles I check out from  the Boston Public Library. Whenever I hear someone's enthusiastic recommendation, I reserve the book online; it's often available for pick-up in a couple of days.

Possum enjoyed reading The World of Downton Abbey with me.
Often he curls up between my head and my book, which gets complicated.

I just finished the newest of Donna Leon's "Guido Brunetti" crime stories, Beastly Things, featuring a Venetian police commissioner. While the plots are often topical and the criminals aren't always brought to justice (life is very complicated for Italians), I read them mainly to revisit the canals and beauties of Venice. Leon's stories are filled with details about daily life there (and glorious food) along with Italian political insights, environmental concerns, and mobs of tourists. There are more than two dozen novels in this series and I try to reserve each one as it comes out. But I was #82 in line for this one; it was worth the wait.

I'm slowly reading Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees. As an editor and literary agent — and an elegant writer — she offers guidance to aspiring writers on how and what to write, and describes the publishing process from the inside. I find it eye-opening; I'm continually tempted to write fiction but have no idea how to begin and no desire to join a writers' group or take a class. This book might help.

My husband and I have been toying with the idea of playing our guitars again. We were both skilled enough to perform in our teens and 20s, but neither of us has played much since (and we've never played together). So I checked out Guitar Zero, by Gary Marcus, an unmusical cognitive psychologist who decided to learn his first instrument at 39. He explores the scientific literature about how our brains and fingers learn music differently as children and as adults and applies it to his own experience. The book came due before I finished it, so I've reserved it again. In the meantime, I might get new strings, trim my fingernails, and see what I remember.

I'm not one of those voracious mystery-readers, but I love Lisa Lutz's Spellman Family novels, narrated by Isabel, a prickly 20-something with a dissolute past. She and her precocious kid sister Rae work for their parents, who are private investigators in San Francisco. These two often perpetrate minor criminal activities themselves, and most of the characters have testy relationships with each other, so arguing, negotiation, double-crossing, threats, and retaliation are typical daily family dynamics. The newest "document," Trail of the Spellmans, is on the coffee table, to be devoured immediately after this post.

Last and least, I'm browsing Crazy Sexy Diet, by Kris Carr, a vegan nutrition book. Apparently I am the last person to know about her, since I rarely watch TV or follow Oprah. We eat very little meat but this book is too much. I take much of what she says with a grain of salt (more often a cookie or two). I can't take anyone seriously who refers to cheese and other dairy products as "mucus" and assures me that enemas can be enjoyable. On the other hand, her writing style is so annoyingly perky, playful, and profane that it may have changed my life. Let's hope I'm cured of perkiness and playfulness forever, which would be better than owning a juicer. (Profanity is sometimes necessary.) It's best to skim this one over a tall glass of chocolate milk and a grilled-cheese sandwich.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Possum Pontificates

Possum overheard me complaining about the difficulties of selecting air conditioners. I was saying for the umpty-tenth time that consumers are left dancing in the dark because it's impossible to judge how unpleasant any given unit's noise will be until it's installed and turned on — and then they're stuck with it, even if it sounds like a jet taking off. And apparently some sound just like that.

His reaction was quizzical:

He said I was obsessing about nothing. He pointed out that, the louder the air conditioner, the more it would drown out even less desirable noise from the street and the neighbors. 

He said that people, like cats, should be able to get used to anything and develop patience and tolerance. The example he gave was his breakfast. He'd been getting canned food for breakfast since the beginning of time, he reminded me. But we recently switched to dry food in an effort to reduce some of his, er, excess tonnage. He pointed out that he had been forced to adapt graciously. (If you call staring up from one's food bowl and singing the tenor part of a requiem every morning gracious.) According to him, living with a cooling device that roars like a tractor trailer will be nothing compared to the loss of his longed-for Fancy Beast Classic Chicken. (That's his name for it, not mine.)

One can get used to anything, no matter how horrible, said he, staring fiercely at Snalbert. He sighed dramatically. Then he said that, if the air conditioner drove us crazy, it would be an excellent incentive to move elsewhere, where there might be central air conditioning. And he thinks we need an incentive because this house-hunting exercise has been going on for too long. Take the next decent place that comes along — one with lots of windowsills and hiding places, and crawling with mice and bugs — and be done with it, he said.

Like Snicky before him, Possum enjoys sitting directly in the path of the air conditioner's chilly blast, fur blowing in the breeze. He's looking forward to it; I can't disappoint him. I will take his advice (not the part about the bugs). But I believe it entitles me to sing the soprano part of a requiem to him whenever the darn thing is roaring and keeping me from sleeping.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Buying an Air Conditioner: A Pain

Wow, Memorial Day is almost upon us. Can a heatwave be far behind?

Last fall, in a fit of starry-eyed optimism, we put our two, 11-year-old air conditioners out for a special recycling pick-up. We were positive — dead certain — that, by the time summer rolled around, we'd be settled in a new place, preferably with central air, that wonder of wonders.

Oh, well.

Now we need new air conditioners, or summer will be a nightmare. I don't like the frosty feel of heavily air-conditioned spaces, but I need a certain amount of coolness or I'm wretched. When Boston gets into the high 80s, 90s or beyond, the cats have a hard time, too. My husband likes blowing, noisy fans but they annoy me. Fans don't dehumidify; air conditioners do.

Possum's hot-weather hangout.

Our elderly Panasonics were great, especially in their early years: they were quiet, very efficient, and had fans, remote controls, and removable casings to make the hellish task of installing them easier. But in recent years they were no longer cooling well, and were making more noise, keeping me awake. Panasonic no longer makes ACs.

The first step in choosing an air conditioner is to figure out what size you need, i.e., the correct amount of BTUs, primarily based on room size. If the AC is too big, your room will be freezing and clammy even on low speed, and if it's too small, it will be blasting all the time but may still not cool the room or cut the humidity. I measured our living room and bedroom, including the ceiling height; ours are 10 feet. I used various online calculators; they are all different, and many assume your ceiling is no more than 8 feet high, so those are useless. Ceiling height isn't the only factor: if there are many windows, big windows, sunny windows, skylights, kitchen appliances, crappy insulation, or more than two people occupying the room, you need more power.

By my calculations, we need two 8,000 BTU units, more or less. Maybe. I'm sticking with that because it's close enough and I'm through with all those contradictory calculators.

My next step is to find a good model with the features we want (quiet, efficient, easy to use, has a remote) at a decent price. This is impossible. Air conditioners are fraught with issues in addition to being heavy, big, and loud.

Steve Jobs revolutionized personal computer technology and design, and our lives were vastly changed and improved; if only he had turned his attention to the air conditioner and the vacuum cleaner, too. (And while we're at it: the shredder, the eyelash curler, and the situation comedy.) Just think what he could have achieved for humankind....

Friedrich makes outrageously expensive models, which cost two to four times more than other brands. But not everyone thinks they're worth it, and I don't want to spend that much. Someone used to offer "low-profile" models that took up much less window height; I see them around the neighborhood, but they aren't sold anymore. The rest of the brands and models are just a blur. Some are the exact-same item with a different brand name. And models change slightly every year, so reading a review of a 2011 model doesn't guarantee that it's what you'll get in 2012.

Oh, well.

For every good online review for an AC, there is a scathing one. People declare the same model to be both astonishingly quiet and unbearably loud. Asking around at hardware stores does no good; both Ace and True Value sell their own brand, which you've never heard of. It comes from China, as they all do. I broke down and bought a one-month subscription to Consumer Reports, just for their air-conditioner report, only to find that their top-rated models were often loathed by real-life consumers. It would be amusing if it weren't maddening.

The weirdest thing: according to user reviews and Consumer Reports, almost no air conditioner vent can direct air in either direction equally well, so if you don't want it just blowing straight ahead, you have to be careful. A unit will either blow strongly to the left, or the right, but almost none can manage both. I happen to need a left-blowing model in the living room and a right-blowing one in the bedroom, so I'll have to buy two different brands. This is just plain bad design. People also complain that they can see through some models, meaning hot air and bugs can come right in. How pathetic is that?

By now, I'm sick of the subject — and so, probably, are you. But we have the windows open, and it's warm and sticky out there. What to do? I have no idea; you tell me. It's going to be a long, hot summer.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Feeding the Cat(s)

Although we dread a recurrence of Erupting Cats, we need to find something that Snalbert will eat. Our vet half-heartedly recommended Science Diet K/D, a prescription canned food for cats with kidney disease, although she warned us they usually hate the stuff.

"But Snalbert is weird," I said. And sure enough, he loved it. Other members of the family were also very interested in his stinky, yucky-looking food:

Wendy and Possum watch Snalbert eat. We leave his carrier 
out for a few days after vet visits so Possum can nap
 in it, dreaming of a trip home to Norway.

Aggrieved expressions — both youngsters are on diets.

Wendy muscles in; Snalbert lets her share.

Possum decides it's his turn.

If you're going to steal food, be polite
about it and use your paw, says Possum.

Although Snalbert loved his new food in the afternoon, his interest waned by suppertime. His passions are often short-lived except for cheese and other people food. Even so, I returned to the vet for more cans. I suspect that having the other cats nearby, watching with jealousy, whets his appetite. And I'm sure that scene can be recreated without much prompting.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The S.E.W.P.A.S.

Yesterday, I woke up to the sound of Snalbert yelling his head off. According to our vet, Bertie's chronic renal failure is getting worse and he recently reached "the final frontier"— he's getting subcutaneous hydration twice a day. That means there's not much more we can do for him beyond trying to keep him comfortable. He gets several pills a day now.

Our vet is worried because Bertie is too thin and has no appetite, so we're trying everything we can think of to get him eating. A significant portion of our kitchen counter is Snalbert's pharmacy these days. We're still syringe-feeding him, which is not a long-term solution. Fortunately, he's a weird cat and he enjoys it. We're also sprinkling smelly treats on top of nicely warmed bowls of wet food to enhance its flavor and entice him to eat by himself. I crush his favorite Whisker Lickin's treats into "Magic Pixie Dust," but he's expert at eating that while leaving the food below untouched. The same thing happens with disgusting dried fish pieces.

Meanwhile, Wendy and Possum are beside themselves because they long to eat his wonderful, warm, smelly food and it is forbidden; they're too fat.

So, when I heard Snalbert howling, I expected the worst. Pain, a blockage, a crash. But I had underestimated him. He was simply deploying his Snalbert Early-Warning Pancake Alert System (S.E.W.P.A.S.) on full blast. Bertie knows when my husband is merely contemplating the concept of pancakes. And, lo, he was actually making them, for the first time this year.

Besides being a cheese connoisseur, Snalbert is a carbohydrate fiend. He was already on the table, demanding his share:

Snalbert awaits his pancakes. Note that Possum left a mouse on the table.
If you consider this sort of thing unhygienic, that's because it is.
But we don't care.

He knows I'm watching, so he can't snatch a pancake.

After getting nice, syrup-soaked pancake bits in his bowl, 
He dropped them on the table before enjoying them.

It's hard to worry about a cat who's chowing down pancakes.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


I am feeling better, thanks to plenty of risotto and applesauce. Today we went for a walk around Walden Pond, which I haven't done in at least 20 years. There were many swimmers at the beach and one intrepid pair crossed the pond a couple of times.

The nicely aging replica of Thoreau's house reminded me of Beacon Hill studio rentals I've seen in my time, although those usually didn't have such nice windows. The "not-so-big house" movement really began with him, and I can only wonder if trendsetters will soon be inspired to live in one small room heated by a stove — without a kitchen or a bathroom, great room or mud room.

We were disappointed to discover that the easy path around the pond is mostly bordered on both sides with a wire fence, to keep people from wandering curiously in the woods, as Thoreau did with abandon. Since I do most of my hiking in Acadia National Park, I'm not used to being fenced in as we circle Jordan Pond, or take any of scores of trails up there. So the fencing was odd, but we still enjoyed the scenery as viewed through its wires. The best thing was passing under a noisy swarm of bees, probably busy around a hive that we couldn't see. Their humming was deep and vibrant, really wonderful and strange to hear.

Some photos:

The fenced trail around the pond.

With the trees in full leaf, the woods seemed almost 
as lush as in mid-summer.

Pond scum gets such a bad rap. 

On the way out, Henry borrowed my iPhone.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Step, Step, Grapevine, Kick...

It seems that a troupe of tiny Eastern European folk dancers has rented space in my abdomen; they've been practicing up a storm since late last week. I can't hear their instruments,which must be tiny indeed, but I feel their intricate stepping in unison, which means they're perfecting a circle dance. I grew up around Croatians and I enjoy a lively kolo tune, but I'd rather be dancing it or watching it than serving as the floor.

I'd rather envision a dance troupe down there than an IBS attack, which feels the same but is less picturesque to imagine.

Either way, I feel crummy. Widespread cramps, back pain, even leg pain. The first sign was how much it hurt when Possum (who carries his extra pounds most attractively) curled up on me, although I couldn't refuse him. I stopped feeling like walking much yesterday. I spent a lot of today curled up in a ball, tolerating occasional visits from Possum.

It took me a few days to figure out what's going on and to change my diet accordingly. At first, I thought it was my gym workout, then the flu, and then a dramatic prelude to getting the "other kind of cramps." But I've only been off the Pill for three weeks or so, and realized that the math doesn't add up. (I'm expecting major hormonal turbulence, but I'm apparently still in a grace period that can last a month or two before my own hormones realize they're back in business and begin making life hell.)

Then I remembered that I'd gotten sick like this every couple of years or so, usually after eating airline (or airport) food. Ah, yes, those cramps, that pain. This is why I've been taking an expensive probiotic capsule called Align every day, for years. To prevent IBS attacks. No more evangelizing about Align.

What triggered it this time, I've been wondering. Could it be the divine chocolate layer cake I polished off for breakfast this morning? It's the only new thing in my diet. But how evil that something as lovely as chocolate cake could result in something as unpleasant as this. Life is SO unfair. At least my timing is good; the cake is gone.

I will have rice, mint tea, toast, applesauce, grapes, and bananas for the foreseeable. I would be enjoying the wonderful Greek avgolemono (chicken-egg-lemon) soup from Steve's on Newbury Street but they are closed for renovations. (I hope that isn't a euphemism for reopening as a sushi restaurant.)

I know from previous experience that I will not lose an ounce no matter how little I eat for the next few weeks. No worries about becoming emaciated. If only!

I'm going back to the sofa now. The dancers are done with their break.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Zappos Delivers

The cats were having so much fun playing with the kraft paper stuffing that arrived in the most recent Zappos box that I waited a few extra days to return my rejects. They took turns jumping around on it and making a crunchy ruckus late into the night, sometimes hunting one another. Then they'd curl up to nap inside paper nests and tents. But today I had to pry a reluctant Possum out of the mess so I could repack the box for shipping.

He'll be happy to discover that there's another big Zappos box arriving tomorrow. Shoe shopping is always a tedious process for me; Zappos makes it easier — even if I don't have an amazing time like the cats.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Spring Cleaning

To the person who put that brown, crispy Christmas tree out for trash pickup on Charles Street today: Good work, and thanks for making me feel a hundred times better about the condition of my apartment.

Another thank-you to the musician who left the perfectly good double guitar stand on the curb on Cambridge Street. We'll put it to good use someday.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Vacation Time

Our intrepid Possum is in the mood to be someplace else, and so are we. The question is, Where?

Possum prays for a trip to France, where he heard one can buy
 little dead, plucked birds with their heads still on.

Possum, upon realizing he doesn't have a passport.

Wendy and Snalbert are perfectly happy here and would be perfectly unhappy elsewhere.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Shoebox Mysteries

I recently ordered quite a few pairs of flats and sandals from Zappos, in hopes of finding a pair or two that won't destroy my feet. I'm still making up my mind; more about that later. Maybe.

Here's the more pressing question: what's up with the way shoes are packed in their boxes?  When I open a shoebox, anticipation, hope, and dread are often displaced by sheer confusion. Why is all this crap stuck inside and around the shoes?

Let's look at this White Mountain sandal, for example. Someone — in China — went to a great deal of trouble and some expense to design, create, and wrap a ridiculous amount of "protective" material around this shoe. But why? These shoes sit in a sturdy box wrapped in "protective" tissue, just as all new shoes do. There's also a piece of cardboard placed diagonally, to prevent the shoes from touching each other.

But, as you can see, there are wads of tissue stuffing, presumably to help the sandal keep its shape. Except that it has no shape; it's a sandal. It essentially collapses because it's nothing but a few straps attached to a sole. 

Note the cardboard form that's been shaped and put under the front straps, secured by additional, short strips of cardboard that are inserted into slits cut into the base after carefully being wrapped around one of the straps, on both sides. I see no purpose in this, unless it's to protect the sandal from the (useless) tissue wad that was stuffed beneath it.

Can you see that the two ankle straps were fitted with a special, white plastic brace to keep them from... what? I have no idea. And under those plastic pieces are little bits of folded cardboard to protect the leather from the protective plastic brace

Also note that the buckle is wrapped in tissue to protect... what? It? Me? I had to rip the whole thing apart to get the darn shoe on. And we're talking about a $60 shoe. One might expect a $600 pair of Manolos or Jimmy Choos to be protected beyond a flimsy sheet of tissue in their box, but not a pair of Chinese sandals intended to make heavy contact with dirty sidewalks, dirty dirt, and bare, potentially dusty feet.

So, what's the point of all these materials and associated labor? Do shoes go to war with each other as they sit in the dark in their boxes? Or is all this stuff designed to prevent them from procreating, so no one experiences the shock of also finding a baby shoe upon opening the box? 

Let's take another example. Here's a pair of Nine West flats, not a terribly expensive shoe:

Someone cut and shaped foam to fit neatly inside the toes and heels of these shoes. On top of that, the toes are packed with carefully shaped wads of tissue. Presumably, the foam in the toe was intended to protect the shoe from the protective wad of tissue, which theoretically protects the toe from becoming misshapen as it sits there doing nothing. Or whatever. That's my best guess. The heels are fitted with a block of styrofoam that appears to have been trimmed to the exact shape of the shoe. A notch was carved at the top, to hold a plastic stick that stretches from the back of the heel (where a specially cut notch helps it stay in place) to the wad of tissue at the toe.

What the heck? Are these shoes likely to collapse or deconstruct or something if they aren't trussed up like this? I don't understand.

Here they are, in their box, carefully swaddled in tissue with a hefty pad of brown paper to keep them separated, lest they horribly abrade each other. Or whatever:

My most plausible explanation so far is that some marketing drone came up with the idea that, if shoe manufacturers swaddled and "protected" their cheap, China-made products as if they were actually precious, fragile, and expensive, consumers would be fooled into believing they'd bought something more valuable than a pair of cheap, China-made shoes.

Huh. That actually makes sense. But I'm not falling for it and neither are you. Not in a million years. Which is probably about how long all that useless plastic and foam will need to decompose in a land fill.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Today's Adorableness

Zappos provided us with several pairs of flats and sandals today; none seem very promising to Miss Fussy Feet here. But the box was packed with a couple of sheets of kraft paper that were several yards long and deliciously crinkly, so a good time was had by all:

Possum explores the Unknown Secrets of the Paper.

Possum after getting smacked by a riled-up Persian;
the Secrets of the Paper weren't so secret after all.

Camouflage: Snalbert blends well with kraft paper.

Possum makes a crunchy nest.

Wendy, licking her nose just because she can.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Snalbert Is at It Again

We went out for several hours tonight, and returned to find that Snalbert had been busy on my laptop. I should have known, because we had all watched the new "Sherlock Holmes" episode on "Masterpiece Mystery"on Sunday night, and that sort of modern-day mystery stuff is right up Bertie's alley. Bertie likes to be mysterious.

He did at least two computer-wide searches, one for "///////" and another for "888888888888." But he was searching an "alias" for "This Mac." I never made such an alias, although I suppose he may have, not that I will be able to find where he put it. I also can't figure out how he requested that particular kind of search; I can't recreate it. But I suspect he knew what he was doing even if it makes no sense to me.

Snalbert's computer activities baffle me.

I have deduced that eights have some importance in the feline alphabet but that's as far as I've gotten. I'm not terribly Sherlockian; my powers of deduction are limited, although they are useful for certain things, like finding four-leafed clovers and knowing when strangers on the street are about to ask me to chip in for a bus ticket to Providence. But I am not the Champollion of the cat language yet, although I'm working on it. Snalbert's not telling, they never do. But if he keeps composing on my keyboard, I may crack the code yet.

Bertie enlarged all of the screens he opened to make them easier to read. I don't know how to do this, nor how to fix it. My husband had to work it out. I found that he also opened my iTunes to play Mozart, although he must have turned down the volume when he heard us coming in. I had him pegged for a country-western fan given all the howling and yodeling he does. He always manages to surprise me. 

He also opened the stock market widget on my Dashboard to check on the Dow and the NASDAQ — something I never did since I got this laptop two years ago. I didn't know I had this widget. I also didn't know cats followed the financial markets, but then they keep so many of their interests close to the vest. For all I know, he owns Apple and Google stocks. That would be a nice surprise... if not all that surprising.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Car Candy: The McLaren MP4-12C

Last night was another of those occasions when I'm so mesmerized by an amazing car that I absent-mindedly walk into traffic. This time the dangerous curves belonged to a McLaren, parked in front of the Mandarin (naturally), and glowing fiery orange in the deepening twilight.

I may only have a learner's permit, but I can assure you that, should I actually get a driver's license, you will never see me behind the wheel of a Camry. Life is short, and it's even shorter for me — car-wise, that is. (And if I keep walking into traffic, it's going to be short in all ways.) Having lived for decades without wheels of my own, I am going to insist upon driving something racy, even if I'm a ringer for the Little Old Lady from Pasadena by the time I get around to it. I'm predicting it will be an ancient, ratty Porsche, although a battered Z3 might be more realistic, and I might have to settle for a Miata. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Up in the Air

We went to a party yesterday afternoon on a private roof deck at the Hotel Cambridge (aka Beacon Towers) on Beacon Street at Mass. Ave. This is the 10-story building that suffered a 9-alarm fire in April, 2010. Our host lives in one of the penthouses. We enjoyed stunning views of  Back Bay and beyond — the South End, downtown, Cambridge, the Charles, Fenway Park (where we could see the walls and the crowd during extra innings), and all the way to Coolidge Corner down Beacon Street.

View to Cambridge from a very high, secluded roof deck

Beacon Street, looking toward downtown.
The deck is higher than any surrounding buildings, 
so views are unobstructed.

Back Bay basks in afternoon sun

Fenway Park is a bright green speck near the horizon. 
We could see the green walls around the field with binoculars.

Views to Brookline and Coolidge Corner

We did not see the "super moon," since it didn't show up until it became too cold and windy to stay on the roof. Warmth and chocolate cake beckoned downstairs, along with plenty of similarly amazing views from windows facing in three directions.

Our host, a visionary thinker and inventor, decorated his cakes with pieces of holographic chocolate he had made; holography is one of his areas of wizardry. It looked and tasted like magic:

It's chocolate AND it sparkles: heaven.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Missing Snicky

It's not the same around here without Snicky. There's an emptiness that three cats can't fill, although they are doing their best to distract us.

I found this photo of Snicky working hard to stay tolerant of a sick little kitten who took over her chair.

How beautiful she was, with her owlish orange eyes and tortoiseshell fur. How unfathomable her thoughts, how peculiar her tastes, how elegant her ways, and how sweet her curling up with us every night at the foot of the bed.

We miss her. But how lucky we were to have her for 18 years.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Hair: A Memoir

My hair is nothing special: thin, fine, and straight, except for maybe 5 percent that's coarse and curly. I'm not sure what my natural color is, something between dark ash blonde and medium mouse brown, with more iron gray and silver arriving daily.

The Good Years
As a kid, I resembled my Skipper doll — straight brown hair all the way down my back, and bangs. For school, I wore a ponytail or a braid, and almost any kid sitting behind me was welcome to play with it. For church, my mother pinned it up in elaborate, curly creations with fabric flowers or jeweled hairpins. I wore chic Sunday ensembles that my godparents bought in Hess's Department Store, or party dresses with elaborate sleeves that my mother sewed from patterns and fabrics we spent hours choosing together. I realize now that childhood was my most fashionable period. I went downhill after that.

When I had to wear a white crown and veil for my First Holy Communion and Confirmation, my mother sewed it to my hair with a needle and thread. It was a clever idea and didn't hurt, but I was scandalized and considered myself abused. I couldn't take it off until she was ready to snip me out of it.

The Weird Years
When I was 12, I grew out my bangs to look grown-up. As a teen, my hair was glittery, light ash brown, almost dishwater blonde in summer. It looked strange on me; nuns and others accused me of coloring it because it clashed with my dark eyes and black eyebrows. One horrible day in eighth grade, my mother dragged me to her salon for a "body perm." It fried my hair, leaving odd waves and straight ends.

In high school, I had enough hair to make reasonably thick, braided pigtails, which I sometimes wrapped and pinned around my head, peasant-style. I doubt that other girls wore their hair like that, but I didn't care what anyone thought. I usually wore it hippie-style: straight and parted in the middle, à la Peggy Lipton on "The Mod Squad." Or I'd twist it into a bun and pierce it with a pencil to keep it in place. No one else wore old-lady buns at my high school, either.

Around this time, I read some old-fashioned girls' book where the characters slept with their hair rolled up in rags, the ancestors of curlers. I ripped up an old nightgown and tried it, and had bouncy curls. Then I discovered I could wrap a strand of hair around a pencil, remove the pencil and secure it with a pin. Everyone wants the hair they weren't born with: I went from sleek and straight to frizzy and outrageously curly, and I was thrilled. It was the 1970s, after all. Bad rock-star hair was cool.

Bad Hair and Worse Hairdressers
In college, I quit using rags and pencils and began getting curly perms, a bad habit that persisted throughout my 20s. To keep my hair off my face, which is where it always wanted to be, I wore plastic headbands, which dug into my scalp. But I thought they were cute until my cousin Ed said to me, after a good day of fishing, "You need to stop wearing that headclamp. It looks painful. Please give up the headclamp." I did.

I began coloring my hair in my 20s when the first gray hairs appeared. I chose gingery or auburn shades, which did not look natural but were livelier than my natural shade. People told me the reddish tones matched my eyes. I did not pause to consider whether this was a compliment.

One evening, on a whim, I walked into a salon on Newbury Street, "Born to be Wild," for a free consultation. I went in with long, reddish waves, and walked out with short, straight, razored and layered ash-brown hair that I loathed. I'd never had short hair in my life and I never wanted it. For almost a year, I woke up startled in the middle of the night, wondering where my hair had gone. I was wary of hairdressers but I needed trims to grow out that awful cut. I began seeing one in Brookline, recommended by a trusted friend. Let's call this hairdresser "B."

B. cut my hair for years and kept trying to talk me into more flattering hairstyles, requiring blow-drying or using a curling iron. I couldn't be bothered; my pencil-wrapping and rag days were behind me. We slowly got my hair back to normal: long, straight, and parted in the middle. Wash, comb, and go. Then, one day, B. grabbed my front ends, pulled them in front of my forehead, and jokingly (or so I thought) said, "I wonder how you'd look with bangs." And before I could say a word, SNIP — I had bangs. Skipper had returned. And she's still here; that was 20 years ago.

I never saw B. again. My friend still sees her and updates her on my perpetual bangs. B. is probably horrified; she hoped to push me out of a hairstyle rut and hurled me into an abyss instead. Bangs are ridiculously hard to grow out. I tried about 10 years ago, wearing bobby pins at each temple for months to keep my hair off my cheeks. But my bangs fought stubbornly to be in my face, and I surrendered and cut them short. I am Skipper in perpetuity.

Low Maintenance
I gave up on hair salons: too dangerous. I get trims at SuperCuts, where no one impulsively cuts bangs. I color my hair at home, which costs about $50 a year. It's easy and I don't have to make an appointment, wear a stupid smock, listen to gossip, make small talk, or tip myself.

In 1998, a well-meaning girlfriend dragged me to her hairdresser to persuade me to try something special for my wedding. He and I almost came to blows. "I don't know what I can do with this," he sniffed, holding up my ends with distaste, as if they were covered in guano. "That's good," I replied, "Because I don't want to look like I spent any time in this salon." I stalked out, unscathed.

And I spoke the truth: I never want to look like I spent time in a salon; I don't want to seem frivolous or obsessed with my appearance. I may be frivolous and obsessed, but I want to look serious. I must have absorbed the dominant hippie philosophy of looking "natural" when I was an impressionable kid. Thank god it didn't extend to hair coloring — or bathing, wearing lipstick, or dentistry.

For my wedding, I bought a nice barrette instead of a headpiece. Other friends took me to one of their hairdressers before the ceremony, a gentle person who curled my ends and put in the barrette. But I don't look like myself in our photos; I should have just washed, combed, and married.

The Sparse Years
My hair has thinned over the decades, falling out in handfuls after I wash or color it. There's not enough for braids now, just a single, slender ponytail. Volumizing conditioner helps a bit. I could be a bald old lady in 20 years. But I can still twist what's left into a bun, and if I tuck in the ends just right, it stays up without pins. When I worked in an office, coworkers could judge my mood by my hair. When I was calm, my hair was down; when things were hectic, it was in a bun — a hair barometer.

My husband and I have been loyal to the same stylist at SuperCuts for years. She does what we ask and no more. There is no talk of layering, angling, or razoring; we both know my hair is so thin that there is only one layer. I get blunt cuts in 10 minutes.

This week, I asked her to lop off about 3 inches. I'd been considering this for months. "You're getting brave," she said, agreeing that my ends, trailing down my back, were ratty. Now my hair brushes my shoulders and swings around. I like it. It's easier to wash, comb, and go, but it also looks more polished — like I might actually give a damn about my hair. Just a little. (And, clearly, I do.)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I went to the gym yesterday for the first time in five months. Doctor's orders. My hand injury (December) and sprained ankle (March) were acceptable excuses for several weeks of all that slacking off, but the rest was pure slothfulness and procrastination. I was sensible; I did not overdo it. I had a short, gentle workout (or so I thought), trying out a few exercises from my old strength-training classes with light weights. Then I did some luxurious stretching and took a long walk to keep my muscles happy.

Today it hurts to walk, to bend, to get out of a chair, to lift my arms. I'd better go back and do it all over again tomorrow. I haven't lost much flexibility, just a shocking amount of strength and endurance. (Walking five miles a day doesn't do a darn thing for one's muscles.) So now I have a goal: to get strong enough to survive an hour-long strength-training class — without giving my instructor an unusual number of reasons to make fun of me.

That means I'll need to complete sets of military push-ups with decent form; I used to be able to knock off sets of eight several times throughout a class. I can't do a single one now. I'm reduced to "girl pushups." The indignity! I also need to be able to hold the plank pose for a minute. That was also impossible yesterday. I collapsed, shaking, and curled up into Child's Pose.

I have my work cut out for me. My inspiration will be Possum:

Possum contemplates his next workout.

Since he is lazy and well-upholstered — rather than athletic and sleek — he might strike you as a poor role model for my fitness renaissance. But he spends a few minutes a day tearing around the apartment with Wendy, wearing himself out. Then he spends the rest of his day lying around, righteously recharging his batteries. I'll be aiming for the human version of that. The first part will be hard, but the second part — maybe even curling up for an afternoon nap with Possum — should feel very, very good.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Back and Forth

We drove to Quincy yesterday, to check out the neighborhood around The House again, to see if I could cobble together enough of a village" for myself to avoid becoming a recluse. We parked by the Wollaston branch of the Quincy library, an old-fashioned building that's open for a few hours on certain weekday afternoons. It's a third of a mile from the house. Considering that there are no bookstores in all of Quincy, it's a gem. In the vicinity, there's also a huge CVS and a small Friendly's (I'd never seen booths designed for one person before), where we tried the frozen yogurt (meh). There is also a coffee shop that gets good reviews. Five bagels and four donuts were sitting in the case by mid afternoon; it must be more exciting in the morning.

There are many fast-food places, from Wendy's to KFC to Papa Gino's. But we don't eat fast food and don't plan to start.

We walked to the Hannaford supermarket, which is compact and sparkling clean. It carries two of my favorite bread brands (When Pigs Fly and Nashoba Brook) but no Iggy's. We were drawn magnetically to the tall Hannaford cupcakes, so piled with psychedelic frosting that resistance was futile. We bought one to share after dinner.  (It was moist and rich, with more than a 1:1 frosting:cake ratio, and much better than the fancy one I'd gotten from the cupcake shop nearer the house on a previous visit.)

I carried two heavy bags of groceries most of the way back to the house before I gave up and we headed to the car instead. It's a long, dreary walk "home" from the supermarket, with steep hills at the end. So it seems that almost all of the shopping and errands I normally do myself, on foot, during the day, would need to be done in our car, with my husband, when he's not working.

Is a great cupcake, a sometime library, and a CVS enough to help me make a move to Quincy?

I still don't know. While I think I need much more "village" than we found, the house is still calling to us. The beeches on one side of the yard have their copper-penny leaves now and look fantastic. But someone was yakking loudly on a phone from one of the 12 porches facing the other side of the house, where there's a large apartment building very close by. That was the opposite of fantastic.

And nothing else more suitable for us has come on the market in months, although I'm hunting relentlessly. So the dilemma continues.