Thursday, July 31, 2014

How to Read a Real Estate Listing

As a seasoned house-hunter, I know that reading a property listing is an art. There are so many tricks beyond substituting "cozy" for "tiny" and "open kitchen" for "the fridge is next to the fireplace."

Let's consider this listing, posted earlier this week
Stunning South End Penthouse with Custom touches that will make your head spin! Step into this 2 bedroom luxury palace and find yourself intrigued with the exposed brick, Granite like you have never seen before, Chef's kitchen with custom drawers, Sub Zero Appliances, built-in Wine bar, sound system and 2 private outdoor spaces with remarkable views of Boston. Walk In Closets, high ceilings, stunning baths and the open concept layout are just a start to why you would love to live here. Walk right outside your home to the health trail that leads to Back Bay. Pet Friendly building and ready for move in at your convenience. OPEN HOUSE SATURDAY AND SUNDAY FROM 12 -1:30
Let's "unpack" this, as my anthropology professor used to say as we were about to consider various Western theories about some tribal culture. Realtors are also an interesting tribe, maybe not so unlike those cargo cults from Melanesia that we studied. We all do what it takes to survive in a tough world.

So let's translate this:

Stunning South End Penthouse with Custom touches that will make your head spin! 

If your head is going to spin, those "Custom touches" are likely to be weird and puzzling.

Step into this 2 bedroom luxury palace and find yourself intrigued with the exposed brick, 

If it's a "palace," it means it's a normal size for a 2-bedroom. Exposed brick is always "intriguing" because you can't figure out why it's still around in 2014 when it ceased to be cool in the 1980s. Here's a clue: plastering costs landlords and developers money. Another clue: people who own places with exposed brick trick themselves into thinking it's still desirable or might become trendy again any minute now. At a minimum, "Luxury" means the bathrooms have doors and faucets.

Granite like you have never seen before, 

I hope this doesn't mean the granite has huge swirly patterns in loud colors. The worst I ever saw was bright blue granite with what looked like red and yellow fetuses floating around.

No, it's granite like I've often seen before. 
But it looks like two different colors are on the floor...

Chef's kitchen with custom drawers, Sub Zero Appliances, 

The fancy appliances and cabinets cost the owners a fortune and they'll be in great condition. Not because they are brand-new but because hardly anyone bothers to cook these days, especially in the South End, where they are surrounded by restaurants. Often, a "Chef's kitchen" means that its owner likes to give the appearance of being a foodie but mostly patronizes real chefs. A true cook's kitchen is a no-nonsense sort of place; they don't seem to care much about the price or chicness of their batterie de cuisine as long as the knives are sharp and nothing is falling apart.

built-in Wine bar, sound system and 

The built-in sound system is generally a form of self-defense against noisy neighbors (see below), but in a penthouse, it would have been smarter to put those speakers by the floor. And, OMG, the "built-in Wine bar" means you have a big refrigerator in your living room. If you don't already have a drinking problem, you'd better get one:

2 private outdoor spaces with remarkable views of Boston. 

The deck and roof deck are why most of us are giving this place any serious thought. It's an annoying truth that the best outdoor spaces alway seem to be deeded to the weirdest condos. And the best condos have no deck or patio. At least in my price range. And, yes, I am bitter.

Walk In Closets, high ceilings, stunning baths and the open concept layout are just a start to why you would love to live here. 

"Open concept" means, of course, the developer wanted to save money on building walls. It also means that you won't have any privacy if you live with anyone, or have guests — unless you hide in the bathroom. Bathrooms haven't made it into the open-concept concept yet, thank god. And I think this might be why you'll find the even tiny little apartments nevertheless have two full bathrooms but not enough bedroom or closet space, and certainly not room for a stacking washer and dryer, the Holy Grail of small apartment living.

It only looks like the range hood is over the dining table.
And I think that is the fireplace — not a wall oven. But who can say?

Walk right outside your home to the health trail that leads to Back Bay. 

"Health trail"? I'm stumped. I'm envisioning a pathway lined with Spandex-clad personal trainers yelling at me to move faster and physical therapists complaining about my posture, and maybe a few yoga stations, smoothie stands, and medical facilities here and there. Maybe the agent is referring to the Southwest Corridor Park, which does have bike paths and tennis courts and so on. But calling it a "health trail" is weird broker-speak. "Leads to Back Bay" is a nice way of pointing out that the South End, which still has lots of rough edges despite decades of gentrification, is convenient to an even more expensive neighborhood.

Pet Friendly building and ready for move in at your convenience. 

"Pet Friendly" means your neighbors will include a few large, relentlessly barking dogs. Or some crazy couple with, like, five cats. "Ready for move in at your convenience" could mean that the sellers are so fed up with something they are not disclosing that they can't wait to get the hell out of there. Best to ask about other unit owners, abutters, pets, and any other resident wildlife. But it could also just be that Baby #2 or #3 is on the way so they've bought a house in the 'burbs. Or they're about to go bankrupt from eating out too much.


Two open houses in this hot market? Ha. That's just to impress the listing agent's boss. This condo was listed on a Tuesday and should be under agreement by Friday. That line may actually contain a coded message to the broker's pals that he'll be celebrating at a certain bar on Nantucket on Saturday night.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Recent Adorableness: Friends

Possum and Lion get along well, even when Lion provokes Possum to play with him. Lion lies on his back and smacks at Possum, flailing and begging Possum to pretend to puncture him with his snapping fangs. The rest of the time, Possum insists on being treated with deference as Top Cat, and will occasionally place a warning paw on Lion's head to remind him to respect his elders.

Possum and I had a brief early morning chat yesterday. I was sound asleep until he settled in on top of me, as heavy as an overnight bag. I asked him what was up and he said he was very pleased with his three boys and felt it was time we rescued a nice girl kitten who could teach Wendy how to be less neurotic and more pleasant to have around.

I said, "No!"and refused to say anything else. I got one of his glares before he got up to sit on my husband, but he wasn't having any of it, either.

I could have reminded Possum that he wasn't so fond of Lion for weeks after he arrived, even though he had pushed hard for us to rescue another cat. I'm glad he adopted Lion, but I really don't want to discuss his new idea. Because it will turn into an argument. And he often wins.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Current Craving: Cropped Cashmere

On the hot, sticky days of mid summer, my thoughts turn to fall... and to soft, cozy cashmere sweaters in particular. It's not because we have fabulous air-conditioning at home. It's just because I love nice sweaters to a ridiculous degree. But even now, I keep one in my bag in case we go somewhere that's freezing. (Yes, I mean you, Pizzeria Regina in the North End. Oh, my god, it's always Arctic in there.)

How fortunate that Boden is having its end-of-season sale. They do a brisk business in cropped cashmere cardigans all year long, since it's allegedly cooler in the UK than it is here. Cropped sweaters look great with skirts and dresses in particular, since they accentuate the waist, but they're hard to find. Boden seems to have cornered the market with classic styles in nice-quality cashmere and a huge choice of colors. Their spring-summer version has three-quarter-length sleeves and comes in two styles: one plain and simple, and one with gathers at the shoulder. They're made in dress sizes rather than the usual S/M/L, so you can be precise about fit, and they provide helpful garment measurements:

I'd ignored these for years until I realized how much I love and rely on a black cashmere cropped cardigan that I splurged on about 20 years ago. It's still going strong despite many moth repairs. So I ordered a pale-pink one that will finally match a favorite dress of mine with a difficult, strangely colored print. Then I got intrigued by some of the cooing comments about the "Bright Pink" color in that last photo. So I ordered it just to see if it was pretty or obnoxiously bright, and it turned out to be an unusual, saturated raspberry with an orange undertone. It's delicious, it glows, and now I can't part with it. Don't you hate it when that happens?

Me neither. But these cardigans also solve the problem of how to wear a too-long tee over jeans without looking shapeless. A cropped layer gives the appearance of a neat little waist whether you have one or not. I have a hard time arguing with a sweater that does that, especially when it's talking back in a plummy British accent.

If you don't see the color you want in your size, bookmark the page and visit it again, as obsessively as you choose. Colors and sizes are refreshed periodically. You can also go up a size in these.

If you can't contemplate cashmere right now, there's a lighter, cotton-blend version on sale now, too. For fall, they also have a pretty, V-necked style in cotton blend in lots of colors. Here it is in "Honey":

Boden just began stocking that sweater as well as their long-sleeved cashmere cropped cardigan. You can get 15% off right now (and free shipping and returns) with this code: 3J5S.  There will be even better deals coming, and I will try to keep you posted.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Writing for the Rich

Universal Hub posted an enticing paid blogging opportunity from Craigslist last night: "Help rich people cope with the problems of being rich. 

Here's the Craigslist post:
Emotional Writer Needed For Support Community for Affluent Individuals (Boston)
Special community for people who have earned a lot of money or been born into a wealthy family needs a blog ghostwriter. The focus of the community is providing psychological support for the problems money brings -- family tensions, unfulfillable expectations, boredom, etc. To do this you must be intimately familiar with the problems faced by wealthy people. If you grew up wealthy or through some other means can write detailed blog posts on this topic, please get in touch. 
The posts need to be highly personal, emotional and have a strong editorial voice. These are anything but generic lectures. We are looking for 3 posts per week and each post pays $30. If you're interested, please send a brief cover letter with some suggested topics so we can see that you really can come up with specific topics which touch the hearts of people from affluent families along with some writing samples of your personal, emotionally charged writing. It should all be pasted into the body of the email. We can't open attachments. Thanks!
It must feel strange to be super rich yet unable to open attachments. I guess boarding school and Ivy League educations are not what they were. Or perhaps attachments are the domain of butlers. I feel somehow obliged to reach out and help these people, who often can't handle attachments of any kind, except perhaps for poodles and polo ponies.

Living with cats is sort of like living with rich people.
Harris knows he is worth billions and requires a lot of attention.

As a retail copywriter, I wrote "emotional" paragraphs to sell practically everything — I'd spend my days writing sales copy for, say, 40 hideous garden sculptures in the shape of fat toads. I can find something positive to say about anything if I'm in the right mood (and getting paid decently). So I could easily help people who are struggling with having way too much money. I enjoy observing them, too. Some people watch birds; I like to watch rich people.*

One of the wealthy's biggest problems is that they get no sympathy from anyone who doesn't also have a ton of money, so they must be extremely careful about where and to whom they choose to unburden themselves — or risk being branded as an ungrateful, entitled jerk.  Smart rich people rarely admit to having problems of any kind to the rest of us. This makes us envy them all the more, as they seem completely fortunate, soaring serenely above everyday troubles, while remaining curiously hard to know even when they're chatty and nice. If they try to complain to rich friends who are in the same boat yacht, they'll still get nowhere because their friends will be too busy complaining back about their own wealth-induced troubles. I suppose this is why the grocery stores in all the rich enclaves I've visited have staggering inventories of alcoholic beverages and party snacks. What else can rich people do?

But here I am, eager to save the day with $30 blog posts. I'm not rich by any outward measure and see no future in that direction — only the other direction. I am terminally underachieving and underemployed; I earn next to nothing and would be starving in a rusty van by the river if my husband didn't have a good job that keeps us comfortably in the middle class. But I sure feel rich much of the time: I have a marvelous spouse and family, friends, and cats (who all believe they are super-rich, as housecats should). I'm healthy. I live in a beautiful neighborhood in a great city... even if my apartment is small and annoying in several ways. I travel to lovely places. I can buy all the burritos, baguettes, and chocolate I want. I have too many cashmere sweaters, my only addiction.* So I consider myself rich even if it doesn't look that way to a rich person. And most important, I do feel like an ass when I complain. (Not that it stops me.)

So let me be your blogging savior, Mr. and Mrs. Moneybags!

To Whom It May Concern,

I'd like to apply for your blogging position. I'm not rich myself, but I've spent decades working with the overprivileged and have come to understand their unique, embattled position in society. I can write "emotionally" about their issues. Here are some topics I'd propose:

1. Why Too Much Is Never Enough
2. Help! My Children Can't Wait for Me to Die
3. How Much Gucci Is Too Much Gucci?
4. Everyone Says I'm a Spoiled Brat, But I'm Just Being Me
5. Where's My Stuff? How to Cope with Living in Too Many Houses 
6. Six Ways to Tell if Your Lover Is a Gold-Digger
7. If "Happy Hour" Starts after Breakfast, When Will I Be Happy?
8. Running Out of Wall Space? Build a Museum!
9. Make Your World a Better Place: How to Buy Politicians 
10. Eight Clever New Ways to Say "No!" to Charities
11. They Say "Money Can't Buy Happiness"? New Ways to Prove Them Wrong
12. How to Talk to the Lower Classes, from Lawn Boys to Lawyers
13. Everything I Need to Know, I Learned from Thurston Howell III

I can start blogging right away. If payment is a problem, I'll accept an equivalent amount of expired groceries and cast-off clothing in lieu of checks. (See? I really do know how it is.)

Sincerely yours,

Persis Fuller Gold 
(my nom de plume)

* You can easily spot the old-school super-rich in summer towns like Seal Harbor or on the Vineyard because they often wear ridiculously old, ratty clothing. It's not because they are charmingly oblivious to fashion or self-image. It's because they think they are blending in with the rest of us. I find it so interesting. Up to a point.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Little Lifesaver

If you live in a city, stay in hotels, or have noisy neighbors or sleep problems (and those two are often related, I know), I have just the thing for you:

This is a LectroFan, available at Amazon for about $55. It blocks unwanted noise. It's a neat little machine, about the size of a large bagel or Crumbs cupcake (remember those?). It gives you a choice of 10 different, steady fan sounds and 10 types of white noise, which you can make as loud as you want, up to crazy-loud, which I hope you never need. It plugs into an outlet or USB port.

You'll know you picked a good sound when you return to whatever you were trying to do — reading, working, sleeping, teaching your cat French — and, an hour or more later, you realize you haven't been disturbed by much of anything. You'll get so used to its bland whooshing that it won't distract you even when you turn it up loud. And you generally won't hear one peep of the racket that previously bothered you, either.

We have amateur musicians downstairs, with loud amateur-musician friends. Worse: we have an amateur Broadway-style singer next door. He's been keeping his windows open lately to the detriment of most of our block. (He's a belter but he goes flat whenever he tries to sustain a high note, and the harder he pushes, the worse it gets. He needs to practice diaphragmatic breathing, not belting. He also needs better material: "Save the Last Dance for Me" is a creepy, controlling song. He also needs to close his effing windows.)

Besides the "music," there's an MIT frat house a few doors down. Big construction projects across the street from our building and in the back alley start at 7 am sharp and slog along until late afternoon. Then there are late-night drunks, early-morning trucks that empty dumpsters, and pre-dawn trash scavengers pushing rattling shopping carts. There are people partying on roof decks, fire escapes, and in back yards. There are car alarms, noisy birds, barking dogs, sirens, and more. (With so much noise pollution, I do wonder why I love city living so darn much....)

The LectroFan drowns out most of it. It doesn't mask our rackety air conditioner, loud bass thumping, or heavy-footed people upstairs. Nothing is perfect. But it is great, all the same. We've been using ours for four months, every day. It's been to Paris, Pennsylvania, and Maine so far, and it's going everywhere else we go.

We use it in the living room until bedtime, and then it stays on in the bedroom until we get up. I've been sleeping like a log. Sleep is what this machine was originally designed for, not blocking out daytime noise. When I read reviews before I bought ours, I thought it was bizarre that so many people are dependent on fan noise for sleeping, but I'm a convert now. I rarely wake in the night and lie awake for hours anymore, unless cats are jumping on me — and not always then, according to my husband. He is a lighter sleeper since he usually needs the bathroom at some point. He no longer awakens me, either. I just sleep and sleep and sleep. Some people tell me this is because I eat a lot less sugar nowadays, but I say it's the LectroFan.

We had previously tried a "sleep" machine that made all kinds of realistic, "environmental" sounds: rainstorm, ocean, creek, meadow, waterfall, and so on. (It even had "city," featuring traffic and sirens.) The "rainstorm plus thunder" option was recommended to me by customer service as the best option for blocking ambient music, traffic, and voices. But it was too distracting and theatrical. It sounded like a film crew was dumping tubs of water at our windows; the cats were freaked out by the thunder. The random birdsong and bell-buoys programmed into the other sounds were equally annoying. So that machine went back. Give me a boring old fan any day. I think we ought to buy a second LectroFan as a backup: if ours breaks, we might go nuts during the two days Amazon Prime needs to deliver a replacement.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Postcards from Newport: Green Animals

"Green Animals," a topiary garden and estate in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, belongs to the Preservation Society of Newport County. It's a short drive from the Newport Mansions but if you like gardens, it's worth a visit. The Brayton family's house is a charming, unpretentious museum compared to Newport's bombastic mansions. Some of the upstairs rooms have old-fashioned displays of antique toys and dolls. The lawn sweeps from the veranda down to the sea, with old specimen trees that good spots for for a shady picnic. But the stars of the show are the whimsical topiaries, a meticulously manicured collection of animals, geometric shapes, baskets, arched gateways, and more, grown from privet, boxwood, and yew.

Here you can see a giraffe and an elephant, two of the larger topiaries:

More topiaries, including a dog and a bird:

Two teddy bears:

Spiral topiaries and a bed of marigolds, with the house in the distance:

A bed of bright coneflowers attracts butterflies and birds:

The garden is full of old-fashioned flowers, like these orange-red day lilies, and herbs, in beds bordered by neat hedges:

Newport had an eye-popping abundance of blue hydrangeas when we visited last summer. I think it must have been a banner year for them. This year we saw fewer flowers, but I think we'll have to go back in August and see how it looks then for a fairer comparison. The bushes at Green Animals had some lovely blooms:

Grape arbors shade the garden pathways. I'd like go back later in the summer, when they are riper and ready to harvest.

Two well-dressed scarecrows guard the vegetable garden.

A fine old beech shades the house:

If you want to read more about Green Animals, check out Wikipedia. You can also watch Errol Morris's award-winning documentary, Fast, Cheap &  Out of Control (1997), which features the story of George Mendonça, one of the Portuguese topiary gardeners who created Green Animals.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Postcards from Newport: Little Treasures

We spent an afternoon in Newport last Friday, after stopping to see Green Animals, a topiary garden and house museum in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. I'll have postcards from the garden later. In Newport we saw two Preservation Society house museums. We always like to visit Kingscote, a Gothic Revival house with an unusual Arts and Crafts dining room designed by Stanford White.

We also visited Chepstow for the first and last time. While the house itself is 19th-century Italianate, we should have paid more attention to the mentions of "mid-century" and "contemporary" in the Preservation Society's brochure. While the house has fine antiques and paintings dating from the family's Colonial–era ancestors, the overall atmosphere is "Trapped in the '80s with My Overpaid Decorator."

As the tour guide discussed the blatantly patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme of the formal rooms, I kept getting a creepy feeling that the last owner — whom I imagine as an 80-ish grande dame with a lacquered blonde helmet and too much cosmetic surgery — was just around the corner, sipping a Manhattan and jingling her charm bracelet. While I enjoy visiting house museums that mingle several generations of family furnishings and tastes, I seem to draw the line somewhere before the 1960s. Chepstow looks like every rich old lady's house from the past few decades — you can tell too much money and effort went into creating its sumptuous "informality," and the ghost of Laura Ashley is always lurking somewhere, too.

I realize that it's prescient of the Preservation Society to keep this house as it is, as a prime example of overprivileged feminine taste in the late 20th century. I'm trying to be enthusiastic about it (can you tell?). Someday soon, all the ancient, distinguished, opera-loving trust-funders will be gone, and their padded chintz upholstery, dog oil portraits, and needlepoint cushions will land in their grandchildren's dumpsters.

We parked our car in town and walked to the house museums about a mile away. Newport has a wealth of interesting domestic architecture from the late 17th to the 21st centuries, with especially elegant and/or fanciful houses built from about the 1860s to the 1920s, of course, when the town was a summer destination for Society. Wandering around is the best way to find them.

We spied this picturesque gate and had to look in:

A lushly landscaped pathway led to a small, English-style stone cottage with a slate roof and hexagonal chimney. I'l take it!

Not far away, we found this delightful stone house with windows that "make faces" on its little tower:

Gee, I'll take this one, too! I'm not sure if these houses were once gatehouses for larger mansions or if they were built as small "storybook" residences, but you will be hard-pressed find such elegant little fantasy houses anywhere in the Boston area, especially in stone.

On the lower end of Bellevue Avenue — the opposite end from the great "cottages," you'll find the Hotel Viking (1 Bellevue Ave.), a stately five-story brick hotel built in the 1920s. We've eaten lunch there, and I'd happily spend a night or two upstairs. When we're in town, we always go in just before the ride home to use the restrooms. On this visit, we found dispensers of iced cucumber water and lemonade in the lobby, so we took our drinks to the rocking chairs on the shady veranda.

Across the street is a row of colorful commercial buildings:

These two buildings are the Hydrangea House Inn. While I've read that there aren't many original details left within, I'd like to stay there, too. In fact, there are lots of really lovely inns and hotels in Newport. Inn-hopping could be even more fun than visiting house museums. Someday...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dazed and Confused, But with Cookies

In Back Bay, in the '80s and '90s, our supermarket was called the Star Market. At some point, it changed hands and became a "Shaw's Supermarket." Nobody cared. We still referred to it as "the Star." Many of us long-time residents continue to declare that we are "Going to the Star" as if we're launching into Space.

A store's name doesn't matter, as long as you can get the same old stuff you need inside. Unfortunately, every few years the Star/Shaw's people make that difficult. They "update" our store and rearrange things. But first they create chaos for a few weeks, when the place is so random and disorganized that we can't find anything. There was also the time when the Shaw's (or maybe it was the Star) moved to a new location around the corner, ushering in a remarkable period when Back Bay residents spoke willingly and frequently to our neighbors in the aisles — it was the only way to find anything in uncharted territory. For weeks, we wandered around, looking hopefully in each other's carts and asking, "Hey, where did you find that?" It was the friendliest we've ever been, except maybe right after 9/11. (We didn't even bother with each other when our transformer blew and we lost power for a couple of days.)

If you find New England supermarket history fascinating, you can read the Star/Shaw's story here on Wikipedia. I found it boring and confusing. (You'd be smarter to invest your time in David McCullough.) It will make your head spin, so don't do it before you need groceries in Back Bay. To get them, you will need all of your brain cells in working order, and you might need to borrow some, too. Because our "Shaw's" is turning into a Star Market again.

Not that anyone cares. Even newer residents use both names since we old-timers have confused the hell out of them. The real issue is that the Star/Shaw's people are rearranging the store again, big-time. I was just there and I'm still dizzy from my efforts to purchase a few things. They are disorganizing everything in stages, so the merchandise will probably move around more than once. Simple things like crackers will become sought-after, moving targets. 

As you can see below, I found the risotto next to the organic toothpaste:

Between the toothpaste and risotto, you'll find a bottle of "Desert Essence." I don't know what it is but I hope you never put any in your mouth. I've been to the Egyptian desert: it's a vast litter box for wild cats and dogs, donkeys, horses, camels, sheep, goats, and human. You don't want desert essence, trust me.

It looks like we Back Bay neighbors will have to start talking to each other again, god help us. The store is already surreal. There is neither Shaw's nor Star signage... it's all generic, and the place seems darker, too. Those big signs up by the ceiling that tell you roughly what's in each aisle are untrustworthy, and several are blank, as if to put you on the Road to Nowhere. 

All I needed tonight was cereal and straws. I found the cereal fairly soon, after I noticed that bottled iced tea was next to pancake syrup... and, naturally, pancake syrup goes with cereal. Just like little fruit cups belong with poultry stuffing:

I needed straws because we drink lots of smoothies these days. I'm cheap: I like to reuse my straws so I rinse them and keep them on the kitchen counter. But I kept finding that they had tooth marks all over them. I didn't think I was an unconscious straw-biter, so I was puzzled. Then I saw Lion carrying one around.

So we needed straws. I had to ask where they were, and along the way, I noticed one bag of Tate's chocolate chip cookies (only 6 grams of sugar per cookie). I grabbed them just in case I never saw any again. I also grabbed bathroom tissue, thin spaghetti, and a tube of McVitie's Digestive Biscuits (5 grams of sugar per biscuit) just because they were there. Being British, they used to live in a "Foods of the World" ghetto section but the Foods of the World now have their green cards and are naturalized citizens, mingling with the Jello and Campbell's Soups.

I never imagined tuna and Jack Daniel's BBQ sauce coming together, did you?

I was bug-eyed by the time I got to the registers, dazed from concentrating furiously for so long amid all the colorful packaging. Most people standing in line with full carts looked strangely triumphant. But I bet they had also loaded up on things they found rather than things they needed.

You might be wondering how all the Ocean Spray juice flavors were faring during the upheaval. I was curious but I couldn't find them, so I can't tell you.

Monday, July 21, 2014


Lion figured out how to take selfies with my phone today. He's an adolescent now, so I figured it had to happen sooner or later. These may not be his finest moments but at least he doesn't have a double chin. That's one of the [few] good things about having a beard.

I'm not sure how he held the phone far enough away to get that shot. Maybe Possum helped him. But what I really want to know is how all the Rainier cherries in my little bowl managed to escape and fling themselves all over the kitchen floor when we were out for a walk today. They behaved themselves the whole time I had them in the fridge. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Annals of Real Estate: We Have a Winner!

No, we don't have that kind of winner, unfortunately. It's been more than four years but we still don't have a signed offer on a place that we love. Or like. Or can stand, even sort of.

BUT: this morning, in the course of my relentless, leave-no-stone-unturned search for the house of our heart's desire, I believe I have found my personal pick for Worst Boston-Area Listing Photo Ever:

Every morning, sends me an email listing new properties from the day before. I've already seen everything that interests me, but I glance through them just in case. I have no idea how I stumbled on this house this morning as I went through the list — this place has been under agreement since November. But when I saw that photo I practically spit up my tea. Then I knew I had to show it to you.

This is one of just two photos advertising a $260,000 Victorian four-bedroom house in Quincy. The other showed the exterior of a very ordinary Greek Revival. The listing noted that the roof leaks, there's water damage, and the floors need help. It's a short sale.

Keep in mind that this is the only photo of the inside of the house, so we should expect to be admiring its very best features. I have seen my fair share of terrible real-estate photos, including close-ups of toilets (seat up or down), contractor-grade faucets, fuseboxes, boilers, doorknobs, and vinyl tile. But none was as evocative as this sad little corner with its messed-up walls and junk all over the floor. 

No way am I setting foot in this place. 

But don't you love how the mirror reflects the worst of those stains on the wall? And don't you think it makes the room look dramatically bigger and brighter?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seen on the Comm. Ave. Mall

Someone left a child's fire helmet on top of the bronze one on the Vendome Fire Memorial on Commonwealth Avenue at Dartmouth Street. The sculpture honors the nine firemen who died in the 1972 fire at the Hotel Vendome, which is the white stone building you can see in the background. The memorial gives the names of the men, a timeline of the tragedy, quotes from firefighters about their work, and a bronze coat and helmet.

I often see bouquets and wreaths left at the memorial but this is the first child's helmet I remember. In Boston, firefighting is often a family vocation, shared by fathers and sons. So it's natural to wonder if a grandchild or great-grandchild of one of the nine — or perhaps a child of one of the two firefighters we lost during the Beacon Street fire a few months ago — is planning to follow in his footsteps.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Annals of Real Estate: A Tiny Townhouse

On Sunday, I went to Bay Village to an open house for a tiny townhouse on Lyndeboro Place, which I'd never heard of. It's unique: you enter through a brick and wrought-iron gate into a tiny enclave of four semi-attached townhouses, which face each other across a little brick courtyard, not far from the Theater District. A big apartment building looms over it on one side, but that's life in the city. The other side has a sloping, fenced area with mature trees and groundcover blocking the view of a busy road.

I could tell immediately that the four-story townhouse was too small to hold our books and furniture, but it was adorable! I knew I wanted to share it with you. There were two tiny rooms on each of the three upper floors, but the basement was configured as a pink-walled office or craft room with cabinetry under the stairs:

Whoever staged and styled this place had charming taste and vision. It had a theme of soft pastels and warm neutrals with personality — which one rarely sees in staged properties. Usually you find white walls with a cold gray, white, and black color scheme — as though any more appealing color choices would be too threatening for a buyer's imagination. 

Look at all the pretty print fabrics and quirky items on the shelves in the basement:

The kitchen was small but efficient, and it sparkled with five lighting fixtures. Look at the dishes and cookbooks on the shelves, and that pink KitchenAid mixer:

There was also a tiny half bath under the central staircase on this floor, and a fireplaced dining room the size of a postage stamp was just inside the front door. Upstairs were two small, sparely furnished bedrooms, a bathroom, and a closet for a stacked washer-dryer. The pastel theme continued:

The top floor had two compact, neutral living rooms separated by the staircase. The back one led to a little deck with plants in need of watering, while the front room had a long, upholstered bench built under a bay window, with storage. A perfect place to sit and read....

All photos courtesy of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, Newbury Street, Boston, via (except for the photo below)

I looked inside a couple of the bench's drawers and found board games and toys. At this point, I was beginning to wonder if the house had been staged at all, or if maybe some wonderfully quirky, minimalist family really lived here. Then I took a closer look at the bookcase, and realized things had gone too far. The game was up:

I went home to present this book arrangement idea to my husband as a great way to make our own library appear more coordinated and "neutral." We've filled something like 200 linear feet of bookshelves right now, and we need a lot more — this is one reason why house-hunting is so difficult.

When I showed my husband this photo, he just looked at me. And then he went back to writing his book. (He's actually writing two books at the moment. Because we all need more books, you know?) 

The little house went under agreement the next day.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Happy Birthday, Possum!

Possum is 5 years old today. Every day is a holiday for Possum but we like to celebrate this occasion by praising and indulging him even more than usual, telling him formally how proud and honored we are to be his family. Truly, he is the greatest of our cats — and not only in terms of volume.

Possum listened politely and said he was very pleased to hear all that but would vastly prefer some sausages. Sausages are often foremost on his mind when he's not thinking about art history or ways to improve me. The trouble is that he craves a particular kind of fish sausage from his homeland, Norway, that is not available here. So we have never been able to satisfy his longing.

I love to coo over his kitten photos and his birthday gives me an excuse. Possum tolerates me, but just barely, since he is never one to look backward and reminisce. 

Here he is lounging on the sofa shortly after he arrived. We could already tell that he would grow up to be extraordinary: cultured, gentlemanly, cosmopolitan, elegant, and full of interests and ideas. We didn't know he would turn out to be quite so well-upholstered.

Here is another early photo where he has cat food on his nose. He objected to my including this one, but I think it's adorable and I'm the one at the keyboard:

Possum was proud of displaying his belly even before it became so... prominent:

Here's a recent closeup that he likes because of the way it presents his tipped left ear. He's very proud of that because it proves he was believed to be a wild outdoor cat once upon a time, rather than the the Proper Bostonian he say he is now.

House-Hunting Drags On

Our house-hunting continues relentlessly, although I haven't been boring you with details.

But I feel like boring you with them now.

We've made offers on a few places in recent months, but there were always higher offers, with fewer contingencies, that we weren't either able or willing to beat. We're not exactly in mourning for any of them. But it's getting tiresome since we've been at this now for four years.

One recent near-miss was a lovely High Victorian duplex on Tremont Street. It had beautiful detail, lots of space, and a tiny deck overlooking the Villa Victoria low-income housing community. The main drawback was that almost every wall was covered in Venetian plaster in strong, strange colors (green marbled walls with a red ceiling, purply-pink marbled walls with a metallic copper ceiling...). At first we thought that the place just needed a good paint job. Simple, right? 

I'd love to live in a Venetian palazzo... but it would have to be in Venice.

I guess it's Christmas every day in this bedroom.

Interesting furniture... but those colors are just too weird to wake up to.

But I did a little research on Venetian plaster and learned that you can't just paint over that stuff. The top layer has to be removed with chemicals and sanding before you can paint. I spoke to an experienced painter, and he told me that, conservatively, it would cost between $35,000 and $50,000 to repaint the condo with four to six painters working for a solid month. The condo also had a kind of creepy kitchen (black fridge, black counters, mostly black cabinets) tucked under the stairs, reminiscent of Harry Potter's bedroom. So we made a correspondingly low offer and someone else (who probably doesn't know about Venetian plaster) made a better offer, and that was that.

Then, last week, we thought long and hard about a Victorian house in Newton. It was on a busy street, but it initially seemed to have everything we wanted: old-fashioned charm, lots of space inside and out, William Morris wallpapers in the dining room, a porch, and so on. But somehow nothing quite worked. Much of the outdoor space consisted of a sloping front lawn bordering the busy street. The porch was too narrow to hold furniture. The living room was oddly configured with a corner fireplace, and would barely fit our beloved sofa. The dining room was much bigger (although the sofa didn't fit there, either), but the two rooms couldn't be "swapped" because it had a lovely, glass-doored butler's pantry. There were more space problems in the bedrooms upstairs. 

Lovely and so normal after that condo. Yet it was strangely not "us."

After a long session with our tape measure, we surrendered. We didn't make an offer. We expect that it will sell for $300,000 over the asking price — just like another house, two doors away, that we considered in the spring. That was another reason we balked; some families will pay a premium to be in a good school district, whereas we are home-schooling our cats.

The only good news is that there is more inventory, finally, after a dry spell of about two years. I check online for new listings many times a day; I took a break for a few hours one afternoon last week to do some writing, and missed out on a Marlborough Street penthouse. Those are still rare; there still isn't a lot of inventory in Back Bay or Beacon Hill, although we no longer go for weeks without a single listing in our price range. Anyway, that penthouse (which needed a lot of work) was snapped up in a couple of hours by the first buyer to see it.

I won't let that happen again.