Friday, March 31, 2017

An Early School Group Tour at the MFA

This photo (undated, photographer unknown) was taken some time after the Museum of Fine Arts moved from Copley Square to its current home in The Fenway in 1909. An enlargement hangs in the corridor around the museum's rotunda with several other historical photos.

Judging from the clothing, I'm guessing this photo is from about 1912 to 1916, mainly because the adults' skirts are long and the hats are small. It's interesting that many of the girls are wearing shoes instead of boots. (If you can date this more accurately, please let me know!)

I like to imagine that these girls are from the Winsor School, an easy walk across the Fenway. And that maybe Janet and Ruth Sabine are in the group. It's possible, but I'll never know.

I continue to think about the Sabines, who lived (and died) in my building from 1909 to 1950, all the time.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Few More Tech Troubles

I think and hope that this will be my last post about my passel of technology woes. And I think I will also spare you the Nightmare That Is Our Taxes.

As if the credit card fraud and new email address hassles weren't enough, last night I decided to update my iPhone to the latest operating system, which came out last fall. For months, the phone has been giving me little messages several times a day, demanding that I agree to this update —  interrupting me as I was trying to take photos or check email. Every single time, I sternly refused and told it to bug me again "later."

I liked the phone as it was. I don't like adjusting to unnecessary, arbitrary new ways to get to the camera, turn the darn thing on, etc. I have learned from experience that whatever they do to switch things up is rarely an improvement.*

I'm not sure what possessed me to agree to the update last night, although one of the several Apple Support people who've been spending lots of time with me lately urged me to get it done. (Yet I'd successfully ignored all of my husband's frequent admonitions to do it.)

Since I've been going through so much tech torture anyway, I must have figured, what the heck, why not add one more thing to the mess?

Big mistake. For one thing, I didn't check that I'd backed up the phone before starting the update. I just caved — I was busy, in the middle of making dinner — and I just blithely set the update in motion when the nagging message showed up for the 1000th time.

After all these months of nagging me to update, you'd think the phone might have nagged me even a little bit about making sure it was backed up first. And set up with a strong wifi signal to speed things along. But no.

It began around 7 pm and was still chugging away at 9, claiming it was updating iCloud settings. My husband had decided it was taking too long and helpfully powered-down the phone and restarted it, thinking this would get it to behave. I turns out that is one of the worst things you can do during an update. But I didn't have a fit; I would have done it myself if he hadn't beaten me to it.

Every time I'd check the phone, it did the same maddening thing: It would show me a series of white screens that said "hello" in about 36 different languages, one at a time. Then it would ask for my passcode and my password, and then it would go right back to telling me it was updating iCloud settings. Those hellos began to seem passive-aggressive as hell.

I called Apple around 11 and learned that we could either let the phone keep updating overnight or erase it completely and reinstall everything as if it were a new phone. I'm not sure of the whereabouts of around 9,000 photos since the other night, when I dealt with changing my Apple ID on iCloud, my phone, and my laptop. So starting fresh wasn't an option. We went to bed.

When a cat knocked over a pile of recycling in the kitchen at 5 am, we both got up and checked the phone. It was still "updating iCloud settings" while saying hello in too many languages.

I slept in, and the phone was still misbehaving when I got up. I noticed the wifi signal was weak. I walked it around the house to find the best spot. The living room mantel has one spot that's not bad but I can't get a full signal anywhere in the house. I stuck the phone in the spot and checked it every hour or so.

Hello. Hola. Bonjour. Dobry Den. 

I had to pay a few bills on my bank's website. First, I had to change the my credit card number to the newest one — my (second) replacement card had arrived yesterday. But to do that I had to enter a security code that the bank texted to my iPhone. Except my iPhone was still too busy saying hello to accept texts.

I called Apple Support for — what? — the sixth time since Friday? I have to say they are always really good. It's not their fault that Apple keeps messing up its products; they can still help us cope.

I was instructed to find a cable to connect my phone to my laptop while iTunes was open. (I found one behind our breadbox.) Connecting it seemed pointless, but as soon as I did the phone snapped to attention, stopped greeting me, and began to work for the first time in 16 hours.

Sixteen hours without a mobile phone (and camera) turns out to be a lot. Isn't that sad? I need to reflect on this, and my life.

I was so grateful to have a working phone again that I'm still not complaining about how horrible it is now.**

It could be that going for "a long time" without a phone taught to appreciate having one, no matter how frustrating it is now.

Or it could be that my husband had had enough of all the tech sturm und drang around here (we both know I married him for 24/7 tech support) and sensibly scheduled himself to be on campus from early morning until late tonight. Moaning to cats is not nearly so satisfying as moaning to him.

You pick.

* I hate the new iPhone 7, with its simulated Home button, to the point where I emit an involuntary "Ew!" and shudder every time I try to use my husband's. When I touch that button, it doesn't feel like a boring little click, it feels like the phone is collapsing internally because I just broke it. Ew! It creeps me out. I will never move on to an iPhone 7 unless someone develops a hack to improve that.

** I can't easily turn on the phone, or find the camera in a hurry (essential for taking cat pictures), or figure out how to get written directions in maps, or any of a dozen other things that were intuitive yesterday but are now just different enough to be annoying and hard. I could read up on it and I probably will (unless my husband gives me lessons) But I'm a little too fed up to do that right now.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Possum and Toffee

Possum played possum in this dramatic pose the other day. I'm not sure how to interpret this shameless, or unselfconscious, or silly, or just weird display. Toffee wasn't sure, either, but felt obliged to bear witness.


Some Technical Difficulties

I haven't been posting as much as usual because I've been distracted by life, The News, and various technical problems.

I'm sorry this post has no cute photos. I always like to post photos I've just taken, but I've been having trouble getting those photos to copy automatically from my phone to my laptop via iCloud these days. For example, I've been waiting for a series of odd Possum-and-Toffee photos, which will appear in my next post, to load for several days. I finally gave up and emailed them to myself — how primitive. How 2008.

This is just one of many troubles I've had in recent weeks. If you are not into long and boring stories about how technology fails us, please, please quit reading here and look for the cat photos I'm about to post next, okay? This post is mainly to document the mess I've been in this month. That way, if/when it happens again, I'll know what happened and what to do next.

I've had to stop using the Verizon email address that I've used for everything for close to 20 years. Verizon decided to get out of the email business. They are switching those accounts to AOL. But I don't have to tell you that AOL is not cool. I couldn't use it anymore than I could ride a girl's bike or wear pristine white sneakers. Some things will never happen.

I've been spending part of every day changing my many, many online accounts over to a more recent Gmail address I've been using for a little while. It has been a nuisance, particularly because the old email address was my Apple ID, and that Gmail address was the backup "recovery" address in case bad things happened. For some reason, Apple made it very hard for me make the switch. I had to jump through several virtual hoops, including dredging up an ancient Yahoo address (and remembering the password) to swap for the recovery address. Then I had to wait 30 days to see if that worked. It did. But everything still went to hell when I finally did the switch and it didn't register at iCloud. I had to enter it manually in about 20 places on all of my devices. (Oh, no. I forgot all about my iPad! Argh....)

An hour or so on the phone with Apple Support made things better but not great. Fixing  the mess meant erasing all of my photos, contacts, calendars, and notes on all of my devices, one at a time, and hoping they'd reappear via iCloud. That's how some photos went missing. I'll be back on the phone with Apple tomorrow to see if we can find them. I estimate that about 9,000 disappeared. I am trying to stay calm. (It's not hard because I'm far too confused and tired to successfully freak out.)

Yesterday I discovered that my carefully curated set of bookmarks, which appear in a row across my web browser, had gone to hell. They were still there, but they were mixed in with about 50 others, many of which were ancient history. These must have lived somewhere on my phone, where I ignored them, but iCloud didn't. Similar things happened to my "Reading List," an insane number of web links that I consulted all the time to find blogs and other sites I frequented often. It is now a mess; I can't find anything.

Maybe this is God's way of telling me to read more books.

I'd be philosophical about all this except that, recently, my automatic "Time Machine" backup disk decided that it didn't like me and my laptop anymore. It was my main archive if my laptop died or fried. And now it is on the fritz. On March 11, it whimsically told me that it wanted to erase ALL of my backups, the ones it carefully saved over several years, because it wants a fresh start. I have no way to tell it that "fresh starts" are rarely what they are cracked up to be.

I wouldn't care that much except for my photos. I have had other weird stuff happening to them. I have about 40,000 and maybe that's a lot for Apple to handle. But it seems to me that some people take about that many in a week — and all selfies. Anyhow, I refuse to let my archive erase itself. So I had to stop those life-preserving automatic backups. Now I just do manual backups to an external hard drive — when I remember. Fortunately, I'd done that just before those 9,000 photos took off for Neverland. Of course, if I back up my laptop NOW, all of them will disappear from my archive. Sigh.

On top of that, I discovered fraudulent charges on my credit card earlier this month. I just happened to be looking at my account online (after changing the damn password). I discovered a $300 charge to a company in California called Keen. I also saw that someone had set up a Lyft account in San Francisco, setting up auto-billing with a charge of less than a dollar. Clearly someone had stolen my info.

I called my bank and, as part of dealing with the fraudulent charges, they had me call Keen to dispute the charge. I had imagined they sold hiking shoes, but they are an online fortune-telling service. They sign up freelance psychics who use the site to charge gullible people large sums for "advice." I wonder if their advice ever includes advising clients not to throw money away on psychics.

Keen helpfully has its own fraud department. I spoke to a woman who began by asking for my name and address.

"But you're psychics." I said.

"I am not a psychic," she said, patiently.

"Honey, nobody is." I said.

That charge was dropped, my credit card was canceled, and a new one arrived. To get it overnighted, I had to pay $6, and I'm still hopping mad about that, since I've been a customer for 22 years.

I assumed that the Lyft charge had been settled, too. I began using my new card. That meant giving the number to various companies I use often like the pet store where I order all the cat food. I did this during breaks from spreading my new email address around, which included repeated contact with some of my associates, who kept ignoring my repeated pleadings and warnings to delete the Verizon address.

The other day I got at my latest credit card bill and found more Lyft charges. So, back to the phone. I'm getting yet another credit card. This time, they are paying the overnight postage. And the bank has finally figured out that they can't just automatically transfer over all of the monthly automatic charges to this new card, as they naively did last time.

And this time I contacted Lyft and their fraud department tracked down the crook's account and froze it.

However, I got a couple of weird emails, yesterday, informing me that my Apple Pay AND Android Pay accounts were updated with my new card number. (I love Apple Pay, because all I need to buy groceries is my phone. I can leave my wallet and purse at home.) But I don't have Android Pay. Maybe the crook in California does. I made some calls. Neither my bank now Apple knows what those emails are about. My bank can't even tell me what that new card number is — they don't know! The card has to arrive here and I have to authorize it first, I guess. I'm hoping those emails have something to do with all that iCloud erasing I had to do the other night, to start using my new email address. More phone calls tomorrow.

Such fun. And I did mention it's also Turbo Tax time? Let's just not go there. Ever.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Nose in the Roses

Guess whose pink nose that is?

Harris, of course. My husband has taken to referring to him as "Doctor Evil," a term of endearment. Harris just can't leave anything unexplored, including these roses from Wilson Farm. The bunch was huge and they didn't all fit in the vase I use in the bedroom. Harris immediately spotted the extras on the living room mantel, and that was that.

From here on, the soundtrack for these photos was me saying, "No Harris!" or "Stop that!" Emphatically and repeatedly.

You can tell I'm annoying him because his ears are back in most of these photos.

Saying "NO" and urging Harris to remember his better nature are rarely effective deterrents.

He doesn't like being told he can't do something.

At some point during his crimes, Harris inevitably pretends to be (briefly) uninterested in whatever he's after, in hopes of fooling me into leaving him alone and going off to bother someone else:

But he can't control himself:

If he could talk to us, I bet he'd say that his investigations are of a purely scientific nature.

But I think his real goals are to eat my roses and disobey me. My exhortations kept him from chomping away on the flowers but he refused to surrender entirely.

I can always tell when Harris isn't happy. He has such an expressive face, especially when he's peeved:

He thinks the world is a cruel and unfair place. Yes, it is, Harris. But not for you.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring is Here

Spring arrived cold and breezy in Boston, but the brilliant sunshine and cloudless skies reminded me that soon I'll be hot, cranky and dependent on sun hats. I walked home from a doctor's appointment along The Fenway this morning and wished the snow would stick around. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The New Growly

I took pity on Harris (and myself, since he tortures me every morning by pushing things off my desk and clawing at our jackets on our coatrack) and unwrapped the back-up Neko Flies Kittenator pole toy attachment, aka Harris's "Growly," which I had squirreled away for future use.

Harris at war with my messy desk because he wants to play with his Growly.

After only a few days, it's ready starting to look like his previous one — that is, how it looked after it spend long stretches of time in Harris's mouth but before Lion ate 14" of its string and put it out of commission. This is the old one. It's made of fox fur, I think, and it is irresistible. I don't dare try to photograph the new one because it will be attacked if it sits anywhere for more than a few seconds.

Kittenator showing signs of being digested

I wish I could show you Harris's intense focus and feats of athleticism as he chases his new growly. I work hard to keep it from him; it flies high and darts all over the room with just a few tempting pauses to challenge him into running after it. He's a match for me, though — talented at grabbing it when I least expect it, often when it's in the air. And we play where HE wants to play. He usually likes to play in the bedroom, so he will race in there and wait for me to follow.

I wish I could film him victorious, strutting around with it in his mouth. He drags me from room to room, growling and proud, with ears flat and eyes narrowed. He especially loves to jump into the Amazon box we kept around for him, which he thinks is the perfect spot for growling over his Growly.

But I can't photograph him because I won't take my focus or my hands off the pole toy even for a few seconds after what happened with Lion. I'm no longer letting Harris spend several minutes at a time with the toy clenched in his jaws, either. I want this toy to last and it won't if his saliva dissolves it. So I pry open his jaws, which is a struggle, and I yank it out after a short time as he fights me off with his paws. Growling.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Talking Tea: Part 4, The End!

When it finally sank in that my husband hated our kettle, which he'd been using many times a day for years to make our tea, I felt bad. I wanted to fix the problem quickly. I like problems that can be fixed with shopping.

After some scouting, I confirmed that there was no stovetop kettle we'd both love. He has to use it but I have to look at it. I'm unusually fussy about kettle functionality and aesthetics. I rejected everything out there. 

A kettle should have a pleasant, clear whistle; most do not. A kettle should be easy to fill and pour, and have a handle that doesn't get hot (or melt) and a lid that stays put. Its interior should stay spic-and-span or be easy to clean. It should not turn alarming colors, as ours did. 

A kettle should also be beautiful, since it sits on the stove, attracting attention. Our Simplex is beautiful — it just, you know, annoys my husband and might be poisoning us. No other kettle can beat it for looks, though. I'm not a fan of colored enamel (Chantal, Le Creuset), or black plastic handles (practically everybody). Copper kettles are lovely until they tarnish, and they sure tarnish. All stainless kettles (All-Clad, Cuisinart, Alessi, Oxo) look grayish and dull compared to our silvery, chrome-plated Simplex. 

Staub makes a cast-iron one that looks like a weird little cookpot. According to its Williams-Sonoma blurb, it heats water slowly. That's a plus? When we want tea, we don't want the water to gently simmer. We want it to boil like hell. We want fast

"Aha!" I thought. "People like us use electric kettles." But, in my mind's eye, I saw my scale-encrusted $5 hot pot from college. I saw the cheap, grungy plastic and metal kettles from True Value that sit on elderly relatives' countertops. None of those would do, but was their a nice electric kettle? I began looking. 

I soon arrived at and their excellent article, The Best Home Electric Kettle. They did everyone's homework and analyzed all the major kettles. However, their criteria weren't the same as mine. We agree that a kettle should be affordable, safe, fast, easy to fill and pour, and should shut off automatically. But they prefer variable-temperature kettles that heat below boiling for brewing green, oolong, and white teas. We only like black and herbal teas, so we just need a kettle that boils. Their top-rated Cuisinart is a big, boring steel pot with too many buttons and options.

Electric kettles get bad reviews because they leak, fail, don't boil, overheat, or have parts that melt, discolor, shatter, or break off. As with all foreign-made electrics, there's always a chance you'll get a dud or doozy. Always read product reviews for the disaster and success stories others have had. Most people are satisfied but there are always a few who end up with melted kitchen cabinets or strange skin rashes.

With an electric kettle, it's most important that your water doesn't come into contact with a reactive material. Steel and tempered glass are good, but rubber, adhesives, and plastic are not. Most kettles have a least a few plastic parts that come in contact with the water, even if it's just while you're pouring it. Those parts ought to be BPA-free, of course, but there's no guarantee that BPA-free plastic is less toxic; BPA is the only chemical that's regulated but there are numerous similar chemicals — too many to regulate.

I decided I could live with a little plastic in an electric kettle. At least we would no longer be poisoning ourselves with copper or blackened tin. 

The Sweet Home recommended one glass kettle and the photos looked cool. Then I remembered seeing one at a friend's house and being surprised at how quickly it worked. So I looked for glass kettles on Amazon. Glass sort of disappears on your counter. Glass lets you watch the water roil and boil, and you'll always know how clean your kettle is, or not. You never have to peer into a cloudy little window to check the water level.

Then I discovered one other feature, which had nothing to do with quality, purity, speed, safety, or anything at all, but it made up my mind. Some glass kettles LIGHT UP BLUE as they heat. I knew we were getting one. 

I knew my husband to be a guy who likes things that light up, especially for no particular reason, and especially bright blue. I mean, LOOK:

I presented him with a few options and he chose a small, simple one with double-walled glass so it won't burn us (or cats jumping on the counter). At $53, it was an affordable experiment. 

So far, he completely loves it. It's fast, clean, and easy to use. While it is far from some gorgeous, high-end design, I find it relatively unobtrusive on the counter, despite its big white plastic handle. And it's fun to turn off the kitchen lights and enjoy the kettle's bright glow as we wait for it to boil. We've only had it about a month, so we may get tired of that, but not yet.

If a more elegant model comes along, we'll get that. As long as it lights up blue. 

I still keep the Simplex on the stove because I like to look at it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Talking Tea: Part 3

This is now a four-part tea series instead of three because an update on Simplex tea kettles is long overdue. In my last "Talking Tea" post, I'll tell you about our newest kettle, which we love.

My husband makes almost all of the tea we drink while I research and choose all of our household equipment. This means that he is stuck using the kettle I choose. This isn't right if it makes him suffer, and it took us both until last month to figure that out.

From the late 1990s to 2010, we used a Bodum steel kettle with gold-plated trim, a wood handle, and a pretty blue ball on the  lid:

Our scary-but-pretty Bodum kettle, left, and the Simplex Heritage chrome kettle, right.

My husband thought this kettle was fine. I hated it. I'd heat water in the microwave or drink something cold rather than use it. The handle had swingy golden hinges so the kettle would sway and try to burn my hand as I poured it. The lid liked to pop off and burn me as I poured, too, no matter how firmly I'd pushed it down and prayed for it to stay put. And it didn't whistle, so we sometimes forgot it was on the stove. In fact, that's how we'd destroyed our first Bodum kettle, an expensive copper one, within days of receiving it. (I think it had been a wedding present; I do remember that the day we ruined it was a sad one.)

By late 2010, I was tired of being afraid of my kettle. I did my research and wrote about it here. I settled on a Simplex Beehive, made in England. Simplex kettles, in copper or chrome, had been made by the same British factory since 1903. They earned almost uniformly rave reviews everywhere I looked, and their happy owners promised they'd last a lifetime. Naturally, as soon as I decided we had to have one, I discovered that the company had unexpectedly locked its doors one night the previous summer and ceased production. Retailers were selling out of them and couldn't restock. I'm a relentless hunter-shopper, but Simplex Beehive kettles were no longer available anywhere. 

I decided I'd settle for their other model, the Heritage. I got on the phone and tracked one down in the stockroom of a Sur la Table in Michigan. The kettle (dated 2007 on a slip of paper inside it) arrived just before Christmas 2010. At $150, it was much more expensive than most kettles (except maybe those cutesy Alessis), but I believed it was worth it, since we'd never need to replace it. 

It turns out that Simplexes don't always last a lifetime . . . if you turn your stove up a little too high, or if you scrub at what you think is gunk on the interior but is actually the fragile, discolored, and essential tin plating over the kettle's copper core. You must handle a Simplex with care; my husband didn't. Alas.

In 2011 and 2012, I kept tabs on future of the Simplex company and reported here. They pledged to reopen under new management; eventually they did. In the meantime, this blog got lots of hits from people trying to track down a new kettle. Used ones were selling for a small fortune on eBay. In England, my blog was said to appear at the top of Google search results for "Simplex."

In the years after the factory reopened, American companies, including Amazon, Williams-Sonoma, and Sur la Table restocked the kettles, but customer reviews were generally negative, if not horrible. Issues with rust, the tin lining flaking, dead whistles, defective lids, etc. were widespread. And these bad kettles now cost twice what I'd paid, about $300. Soon they all stopped selling Simplexes again — but by choice this time.

In December 2015, I was evaluating all of our shabby, old cookware with an eye to replacing it. I bravely peeked into our kettle and thought I saw copper instead of tin. The interior was reddish and blackish, streaky and evil-looking. Boiling water in copper is not considered safe. There are differing opinions on just how unsafe it is, but it's probably never a good idea. Our kettle had probably been that way for years. I mentioned this during a visit to the liver specialist I'd been seeing, and she eagerly offered to subject me to a battery of tests for copper poisoning. I said no, and pulled our Bodum kettle out of storage. I also took photos of the Simplex kettle's interior and emailed them to their customer service, with links to relevant old blog posts of mine. 

They sent me a replacement kettle for free. It arrived in time for Christmas, packed in a fancy carton and wrapped in a soft fabric bag. At first I was delighted and planned to writing a glowing update here. Upon further inspection, the kettle's tin lining was already mottled black and gray. It looked almost as unwholesome as my old kettle. I suspected they'd sent me a reject or a refurb. When we used it, it had a sickly, half-hearted whistle we could barely hear. 

Simplex still wasn't making decent kettles, it seemed. I felt awkward complaining about a freebie or asking if they'd sent me a reject. I decided not to blog about it; bad reviews were already speaking for themselves all over the intertubes. (You can still find some on Amazon.)

In January, I talked to a guy named Jim in Rhode Island who does copper re-tinning. I sent him both kettles. He re-tinned the interior of our old one and shipped it a few back months later, and sold the new one on consignment. 

Re-tinning is expensive. I exhorted my husband not to overheat the kettle in future; he obeyed. But its dull, rough, gray interior soon was covered in a black bloom that looked like mold, or tiny lichens. I told Jim, who said this was normal tin discoloration; as long as copper wasn't showing through we would be okay.

Okay. But making tea in a blackened kettle seemed far from pleasant. My husband wasn't happy about it, especially as it continued to look worse as time passed. He claimed it was probably poisoning us (while offering no evidence). He also complained that he'd always had trouble filling the kettle* and that it took forever for it to boil, now that he had to use less heat. He said hated the kettle. 

And here he was, using it as often as three or four times day. 

I finally realized this was not nice at all. So last month I went kettle shopping again. 

In closing, I need to report that the Simplex Kettle Company has changed hands, or something, once again. There's a company calling themselves the Richmond Kettle Company and they sell four "Richmond kettles" that look identical to Simplex Heritage kettles —for around $300, in copper or chrome, and for gas or regular stoves, just like before. (They also make a silver-plated Jubilee edition for $350 to honor HRH QE2. )I discovered this just last month. They are on Facebook.

It remains to be seen whether the Richmond kettle is as good as the old Simplex kettles were/are. Let's hope that they aren't as bad as newer Simplex kettles. I'll be checking reviews when American shops start carrying them. And if anyone in England wants to send me one, I'll be happy to put it to the test. 

Update: May 2017: there are now TWO companies in England making "Simplex"-style kettles. One is Newey and Bloomer, who seem to have reopened the old Simplex factory in Birmingham. On their website they state that a company with that name, formed in 1850, manufactured the original Simplex kettles for more than a century. They claim that they are just re-establishing the Simplex line now, in 2017. However, SOMEONE was making and selling Simplex tea kettles using their name in the meantime. And those kettles got some terrible reviews. However, there is now another maker, the Richmond Kettle Company, in Norfolk, making kettles that look exactly like the original Simplexes, and claim that they have the same superior qualities. (Note that don't refer to their kettles as "Simplex" but as "Richmond." Given the disastrous kettles we've seen from "Simplex" in recent years, this is a good thing.) I've just received one to test, and I can tell you it's gorgeous. I will post more here soon about how it performs and how the interior etc., holds up. 

It's a gorgeous kettle. It's the Mrs. Patmore (Downton Abbey) of kettles. It's the Mrs. Bridges (Upstairs-Downstairs) of kettles, too. There's no kettle I've ever admired more. 

But we've had to move on.

* I have never, EVER spilled drop of water filling that kettle. The opening is wide; the handle is NOT in the way. I observed my husband in action and spotted his problem. He filled kettle with water from our Brita filtration pitcher  — right after he'd overfilled the pitcher. He always adds more water than will fit in its reservoir, so there's extra water on top, which overflows from under the lid instead of the spout when we pour. He refuses to stop overfilling it. So, when he pours it, he gets a waterfall. I pointed out that his problem was with the pitcher and not the kettle. He didn't care.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

So Much for a Big Snowstorm

I'm not impressed with today's so-called "blizzard," which promised up to two feet of snow and delivered about six inches. And now it's just raining and turning to slush.

Still, it was an excuse to lounge into the afternoon in PJs, sitting by the window and toasting my feet on the radiator while reading The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, by Judith Jones, who was Julia Child's editor. Delicious. There were grilled-cheese sandwiches and tomato-basil soup with for lunch, when the snow was still coming down hard.

Others didn't pay the slightest attention to the white stuff:


Friday, March 10, 2017

Talking Tea, Part 2

I submitted this photo of Possum to the Harney's Instagram contest. And didn't win!

(Full disclosure: this is not a paid ad or sponsored post. I just like the brand.) 

We discovered Harney's teas on the October Sunday we adopted Harris in 2012. We'd spent the night in an inn near Woodstock, Vermont, and planned to drive to Kitten Associates in Newtown, Connecticut, to meet Robin and Charley, as he was called then. We hoped to bring him home ahead of Hurricane Sandy, which was due to start battering New England that night.

I was a nervous wreck. I had no doubts about the kitten, just us. I was afraid Robin would take one look at us on her doorstep and change her mind. We had passed a rigorous application process that began with an intense, interactive online questionnaire. Depending on my answer to a question, new windows requesting further details would cascade down the screen. I also had a phone interview, and our vet was called for a reference. We lived too far away for Robin to do a home inspection, however, so I felt we still weren't in the clear. But I already loved Harris; I felt he was my cat.

Oh. Aren't we supposed to be talking about tea?

That morning at the inn, I felt too anxious to eat the waffles, bacon, and eggs in the breakfast room; I could barely handle tea and toast. There was a selection of Harney's tea sachets in pretty tins. I don't remember what I picked, probably something soothing, like mint or chamomile, while my husband tried Vanilla Comoro, a decaffeinated black tea. He raved about it, so I made a mental note to buy some if I ever recovered from my grief in not getting Harris.

We got Harris, and not much of Hurricane Sandy. When I could tear myself away from my cats, I went tea shopping and found Vanilla Comoro at Cardullo's in Harvard Square, and at That Darn Patisserie on Newbury, and Savenor's on Charles, which has the best price. That was four years ago; now Harney's is in supermarkets.

As much as I enjoy tea, it took me a long time to get around to trying other Harney's varieties. I assumed that the best teas came from English or French companies. But black tea is not native to either country and so there's no reason to think that only Europeans can find and buy the best leaves in far more distant countries, or that only they know how to blend and flavor them to make a perfect cup.

It turns out that we Americans can do it, too. Harney's was founded in the 1980s in Salisbury, Connecticut — less than 50 miles north of where Harris came from. (Robin also loves Harney's.) The company recently moved to Millerton, New York.

Two or three Christmases ago, I discovered their Holiday Tea, flavored with almond, citrus, cloves, and cinnamon. I was out of Mariages Frères Noël, and I liked the dark red tin. It's wonderful to drink all year long. That tea brought me to the Harney's website, where I discovered that they have about 300 varieties; Cardullo's only stocks two or three dozen, so this was exciting. I spent hours browsing and reading descriptions, ratings, and reviews. (Tea drinkers generally write useful reviews.)

I also discovered how little I knew about tea. What didn't I know? Just about everything. How black teas, differ and what green and white teas are. Why loose tea may taste better than a teabag, and why a sachet is a good compromise. What temperature the water should be for different types of tea. How teas can be differentiated and judged by not only their flavor, but also by their "briskness," "aroma," and "body." Tea can be judged similar to wine, but I'm not likely to taste the subtle differences others can.

 "I don't see what all the fuss is about."

You can find a lot of what I learned about tea on this helpful page.

Harney's teas are reasonably priced and their website is easy to use and informative, with detailed descriptions and comparative ratings for each tea. They smartly sell inexpensive sample bags of many loose teas, so you can brew two or three cups and decide if you like it. I discovered their Irish Breakfast, Chai, and Chocolate Mint teas this way, and I plan to try a lot more. We buy tins or their  economical bags of 50 sachets of the teas we like best.

Not every variety is a hit. I don't love their "Oaklands Full Assam" because it's too "brisk," or astringent, for me. Their Irish Breakfast is also a pure-Assam tea, and I like it much better. Their "Tower of London" blend in the photos above is a little too flowery-sweet for me, although it's fine once in a while. (And I'm happy to have the purple tin.)

I'm on Facebook and, somehow, Harney's finds me and messages me there about the status of my orders — and so far I've been hearing from members of the Harney family. When I write back with questions, I get prompt, detailed answers. And one stormy day, I called the company with a question and had a great chat with the same Harney son that had messaged me on Facebook.

He told me that their best-selling tea by far is — I'd never guess — Hot Cinnamon Spice. "Tastes like that red-hot candy," he said, sounding a little bemused. "It's so popular that if we only carried that tea, I think we'd do all right."

It's a China tea blended with three kinds of cinnamon, plus cloves and orange peel. I've always hated that candy but the tea is probably worth a try.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Talking Tea, Part 1

These are outtakes for a Harney's Tea "Show us your mug" contest on Instagram. 
I read about the contest at 11:30 pm and it closed at midnight, so I had to hustle. 
That's iced tea in the mug.  The silver bowl holds cotton puffs on our bathroom sink. 
I could take or leave that tea, but the purple tin looks pretty. I didn't win.

This will be the first of three posts about tea. The next post will be about Harney's Tea, and the final post will be about how to boil water, focusing on our new electric kettle, which just replaced our Simplex British stovetop kettle because my husband loathed it despite its timeless good looks. It's time I gave an update on Simplex and what's gone since the company's sudden demise a few years ago, its seeming resurrection, and its current status under a new company name. 

* * * * *

We love tea. My husband always gets up well before I do, puts the kettle on, and makes mugs of black tea for both of us, with milk and sugar. Since I prefer lukewarm and cold tea, I have something nice to look forward to every morning, no matter when I wake up. It's is usually all I need for breakfast. Fortunately, I can handle a mug and a pole toy at the same time, because Harris demands his playtime as soon as I'm up.

My husband drinks regular or decaffeinated tea at all hours and it has no effect on his sleep. If I have a cup of decaf after about 4 pm, I will be up all night. Sometimes that's okay: more time to read.

Our tea preferences are not fancy. We avoid Salada and Lipton, but who doesn't? We use loose tea, bags, and sachets without noticing a lot of difference. We prefer black teas from India and Ceylon to those from China. For Christmas, I got my husband a tea chest similar to this one and we keep it packed with a variety of brands from Bigelow to Tazo. It's easier for him to pick out what he wants instead of rifling through boxes and tins in our cabinet. (I wanted to get him this fancier one, but it's so big that it wouldn't fit anywhere. One of us would have had to move out.)

He drinks a lot of English Breakfast and Earl Grey. My favorite morning tea is Assam, with its strong, malty flavor. Assam often the main component of Irish and Scottish Breakfast teas, which I like, too. 

Green tea tastes like grass to us, but that could be our fault; more on that later. White tea seems "weak" rather than "delicate." Red teas made with hibiscus remind me of Egypt, where they drink it cold and sweet. 

For herbal tea, we like mint, but Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger is among my "madeleines." It returns me to my high school years, when I also discovered overalls, coffeehouses, Earth Shoes, The Grateful Dead, bean sprouts, and Tolkien. I don't step into that time machine often.

We drink lots of flavored black teas, too. No doubt many connoisseurs look down their noses at those, but that leaves more crème brulée, caramel, vanilla, chocolate mint, and butterscotch for us. We also stock up on the spiced teas that are sold at Christmastime so we can have them all year along. And I love chai — my Starbuck's pick if we're out and thirsty.

We used to buy tea in Paris, at Mariages Frères, in business since 1854, and at least as good as English tea in our opinion. We'd find room in our suitcases for their signature black tins filled with fruity Marco Polo, Imperial Wedding with its caramel notes, Vanille des Iles, fragrant Noël, and Butterscotch — our favorite! — among others. But since we aren't crossing the Atlantic very much anymore, we've had to find alternatives. Tealuxe's Caramel Creme Brulée is about as close as we've come to butterscotch.

In Paris, we also discovered Kuzmi Russian teas; their tiny, colorful shop is always packed. Cardullo's in Harvard Square stocks many of their varieties in pretty tin. I like Kashmir Tchai the best, but I also like their Vladimir and St. Petersburg teas, which are sweeter, more complex versions of Earl Grey. They make a nice, low-caffeine Russian Evening tea, too.

We tried various English teas on our trip to London a few years ago, but somehow the Fortnum & Mason and Harrod's teas we eagerly brought home didn't wow us, although they were fine. We made a point of having a "cream tea," every afternoon at a different place, including Fortnum's, our hotel (The Cadogan, where Oscar Wilde was arrested), a church basement, a midcentury-modern tea shop, and a hipster hole-in-the-wall. Every one was marvelous. Why don't we have more tea shops here? Coffee, you say? Ha! Tastes like burnt sticks, or burnt sticks with milk and sugar: I'll have tea.

There is no shortage of imported and local tea around Boston. We can now get several flavors of Harney's teas at the Star Market as well as upscale grocers and Cardullo's. (More on Harney's, which started out in Connecticut and now supplies some London hotels, later.)

For Irish and Scottish breakfast teas, I rely on Taylor's of Harrogate. We drink lots of the Stonewall Kitchen's Wild Maine Blueberry Tea, made by Republic of Tea. We buy tins on our way to Southwest Harbor every summer. Republic of Tea also makes a caramel-vanilla flavor inspired by cake and a line of Downton Abbey teas, which look good, anyhow.

There are a few stores around Boston that sell their own brand but we're not fans. I've just never liked any tea I've tried at David's Teas or Teavana. There's a new Australian shop, T2, on Newbury that may have potential . . . but I'm skeptical. They have some intriguing black teas, including Caramel Brownie, Creamy Chocolate Chai, and Terrific Toffee. The latter has nougat bits in it; the ingredients include sugar, glucose syrup, almonds, honey, egg, cocoa butter, and potato starch. Weird. I want mostly tea in my tea. And when I asked for more information about their Irish Breakfast blend, all the shopkeeper could do was look at the box I was holding and recite what it said: "black tea." Gee.

Harney's has me so spoiled. More on that soon.

Friday, March 3, 2017

How to be Popular

Someone carved a rotisserie chicken the other night with some enthusiastic companions:

Possum likes to stand up and smack us so we won't forget he's there. Harris is just being snuggly. Toffee seems overcome with emotion:

Wendy waits in the wings:

Swarm! Swarm! Swarm! Eventually five bowls of chicken scraps made their way into five happy bellies.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Possum Encounters Broccoli

After concluding his investigation he was not persuaded that it was edible, despite the butter. 

When it's not smothered in cheese sauce, I'm inclined to agree with him. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Harris at Loose Ends

Harris has been bored and crabby every morning since Lion ate the string on his Growly — his beloved pole toy. He tortures me by alternately clawing our winter coats and knocking things off my desk. I inevitably give in and he'll play halfheartedly with whatever I've got to offer. A couple of days ago, I decided to get out the cats' nylon tunnel, an entertainment that usually appears when we're going away on vacation. We also played with the fleece ribbon, which so far seems to be inedible.

Harris had a decent time but he wasn't growling in glee:

It got better:

It's March!

I took this photo on Beacon Street today and then continued on my way feeling So Much Better about my own housekeeping. Doesn't this make you feel better, too?

That sure looks like it was a live tree once upon a time.

May the Flying Jackalope of Good Fortune smile upon you and keep you and yours from eating string or taking a job in the White House. If you have to choose, go for the string.