Monday, August 29, 2011

An Instant Classic

Last week I finally got to watch The King's Speech, which won last year's Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.  I hesitated about reviewing it because I may have been the last person in America who hadn't already seen the film, but I enjoyed it so much I can't resist raving about it.

As you probably know, the movie is the story of George VI's struggle to overcome his speech impediment, culminating in his live radio broadcast to the people of Great Britain announcing the start of the Second World War.  Hearing this summary of the film I had assumed that he took the lessons specifically for the purpose of readying himself for this important speech, but in fact he had started them years earlier while still the Duke of York.  Even then he had been expected to speak in public as one of the representatives of his father, George V, and every attempt plunged him deeper into anger and depression.

The speech instructor is played by Geoffrey Rush, one of England's great character actors (probably best known as Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) who is also one of the film's executive producers.  I would have expected him to walk away with the movie, and he does do a marvelous job, but Colin Firth more than holds his own as the royal stammerer.  He is completely believable as the shy, tongue-tied Duke with hidden reserves of anger and strength.

The rest of the cast is also wonderful, particularly Helena Bonham Carter as the Duke's wife Elizabeth and Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop.  The two little girls who play Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret are gravely adorable, especially when giving the royal wave alongside their parents.  The costumes and sets are terrific, too; I loved the seedy Harley Street office-cum-apartment where Lionel Logue, the speech therapist, lives and works, and the catty portrayal of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson is amusing and, if true, very enlightening.  If you somehow missed The King's Speech when it was making the rounds of the theaters, rent it now; you won't regret it.

Hear the actual speech by George VI:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mainlining Fashion

Last week I finally gave up and hooked up the cable box and the TV.  I still have a lot of other equipment that's lying in the bottom of the entertainment center with its loose wires waving pathetically in the air, but at least I'm no longer cut off from TCM, Masterpiece Mystery, and my guilty pleasures, What Not to Wear and How Do I Look?  If you've never seen either show, their premise is that some hopelessly unfashionable (usually female) person is ambushed and made over by professional stylists.

Although I suppose I'd be mortified if my friends and family actually turned me in to the fashion police, I can't help fantasizing about someone offering me a free trip to New York or LA, a new wardrobe, and a fabulous makeover; I think I could manage to overcome the initial embarrassment after receiving The Full Treatment.  Well, maybe I'd be scarred for life by the sight of my rear end in the 360 degree mirror, but at least I'd emerge from the experience with better camouflage for all my lumps and bumps.

Since I'm unlikely to be rescued from fashion failure by Stacy and Clinton or Jeannie Mai in the flesh, I do try to benefit from their electronically delivered advice.  Over the past few years I've stopped wearing baggy giveaway T-shirts unless I'm refinishing furniture or painting walls.  Since I can't find pants that fit off the rack, I found a tailor who can alter them appropriately.  I've even made my makeup brighter to counteract my fading tan.  I still need a personal visit from Ted Gibson to magically improve my hair, but maybe if I keep watching the shows I will eventually see a style that's right for me and that a local stylist can replicate.

I must admit, though, that I don't want to invest too much money in a new and improved look.  If I manage to lift my look completely out of schlumpiness all by myself, I'll never get that professional fashion ambush.

"The finest clothing made is a person's skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this." ~Mark Twain

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A New Low in Cat Pampering

Because this is Arizona and the climate is very dry, I try to drink a lot of water every day.  I even take a glass of water to bed with me in case I get thirsty during the night.  (The glass sits on the nightstand, of course; it doesn't actually join me under the covers.)

While Rusty and I were staying with my parents, she apparently noticed this phenomenon for the first time and decided to help herself to a drink.  She hopped up on the bed, strolled over to the nightstand, and stuck her snout into my glass.  At first I tried to shoo her away when she did this, but she doesn't really drink enough water, so I finally started putting two glasses on the nightstand every night - a plastic tumbler with a cover and a straw for me, and a short wide glass for Rusty.

So now we're in our new house and I've been using a styrofoam cup for Rusty's nightcap, but I leave the glass there all day for her, too, and it looked pretty scruffy.  I scouted around the house for another short fat glass that I don't normally use, and there it was - an orphaned highball glass that had originally been Tom's.  Its partner broke several years ago while being washed and I never replaced it.

Voila: I now have one of the few cats in the entire world - if not the only one - with a Waterford crystal highball glass for a water dish.  (No spoiled cats in this house, oh, no...)

"I tell my wife that you can't spoil a cat. That's the way they are supposed to be treated and anything less is unacceptable." ~Robert Megee

Monday, August 22, 2011

Armed and Ready to Dice

I have some important milestones coming up over the next couple of weeks.  I will have owned my house for a month.  I will be trying to ignore another birthday.  And I will have been blogging for an entire year (didn't think I could do it, did you?).

To celebrate, I've been buying gifts for myself and the house.  Most of them have been little things like a tumbler to replace the one someone dropped and broke and a spoon rest to keep the cooking surface of my smooth-top range clean.  A few have been bigger - a second-hand lateral file for my business records and a dishwasher (this house didn't have one) that was on final clearance because it was a discontinued model.  A few days ago, though, I bought myself an expensive present at full price, something I almost never do; it's a beautiful set of Wusthof kitchen knives with a sharpener and a wood block.

I've never owned really good knives before and I can already see that I need to be retrained.  "Razor sharp" appears to be an understatement; if I continue to chop, slice, and dice with my usual vigor, I could easily amputate part (or all) of an important finger.  Yes, I keep my fingers bent under when I'm holding food with them, but the chef's knife in this set could probably take off an entire knuckle without half trying.  Time to sign up for the Basic Knife Skills class at the local Sur la Table.

On the other hand: Barry was always trying to convince me that I needed a large shotgun for personal defense when he wasn't around, but with these knives in my kitchen, I have all the deadly weapons that I'll ever need.

"At the root of many a woman's failure to become a great cook lies her failure to develop a workmanlike regard for knives. " ~Robert Farrar Capon

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In Praise of Straw

Have you ever moved into a new home and found relics left by the previous owners?  Over the years I've seen everything from cleaning and gardening equipment to a sofa sleeper, old clothing and bath soap abandoned in the rush to vacate the premises.  The previous owners here left behind a coffee table, a tea cart, and, yes, a sizable stash of cleaning products, including an authentic straw broom.

I can remember my mother using a straw broom when I was a small child (for that reason it's the type of broom I grew up thinking witches ride), but she switched to synthetics early on.  I don't recall ever owning a real straw broom myself; I assumed because the straws were uneven to start with and more liable to break than synthetic bristles that it would be more likely to leave dirt behind and wear out more quickly.  For a while I even gave up brooms entirely in favor of a Swiffer.

Yesterday, though, I grabbed the left-behind straw broom more or less at random and used it to sweep the tiled bathroom, hallway, and kitchen, and I was amazed at how effective it was.  It removed dust from the corners better than either a Swiffer or a synthetic broom, it didn't have any static issues, and the sweeping actually took less time than usual.  I believe I'm going to hang on to it and put my old synthetic broom out in the garage sale pile.

I guess sometimes progress isn't.

"A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows the corners.” ~Irish Saying

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Make Mine Macy's

For many years Macy's has been my favorite department store.  We didn't have one in the town where I grew up but I was familiar with the flagship store as the terminus of the annually televised Thanksgiving Day parade, and I paid it a visit as soon as I moved to Brooklyn.  During the time I lived in New York City I also shopped and loved Bloomingdales, Lord and Taylors, and A&S, but Macy's was always The Best - partly because it was (and is) the world's largest department store, crammed with Great Stuff; partly because of The Cellar, a basement full of more fabulous cookware, dishes, and gourmet food that any specialty kitchen store; and partly because their salespeople were always well-trained, knowledgeable, and (oddly enough in New York) polite.

Now that I am in Arizona I am shopping in mall-based Macy's stores.  They are smaller and less well-equipped than The Mother Shop but I still adore them.  Last week they were running their annual home sale, so I visited the nearest outpost (the store in Arrowhead Towne Center) to browse.  Because some of my stemware had been broken by the movers, I headed for the section of housewares dedicated to china and crystal, where an employee named Lynda immediately asked me if I needed help.

I suppose I could have told her I was looking for Waterford wineglasses, but I was still hoping to find them for half price on E-Bay, so I said I was just looking.  She moved with me as I wandered through the department, chatting idly but not pressuring me in any way.  Then I saw a sale sign that made my heart beat a little faster.

Several years ago I fell in love with Mikasa's Italian Countryside pattern of everyday china.  I asked Barry for (and received) a starter set for my birthday that year, and I've been adding bits and pieces ever since.  This year I had been thinking of buying the salt and pepper shakers to sit on the table in my new kitchen, and lo and behold, Macy's had the pattern on sale with some seriously deep discounts.

I turned to Lynda and asked whether the store had the salt and pepper shakers in stock.  After ransacking the display area to no avail, she checked the inventory records and discovered that three sets were supposedly lurking in the storeroom.  She headed back there to search for them.

The minute she was gone, the thought crossed my mind, "Maybe I should have asked her about a butter dish, too."  So I was blown away when she emerged from the storeroom with the salt and pepper shakers and a butter dish.

THIS is why I love Macy's.  Who else hires telepathic salespeople?

"Here is a simple but powerful rule: always give people more than what they expect to get." ~Nelson Boswell

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My New Favorite Farmers Market

One of the ironies of life is that everywhere I lived in New York City, I was within walking distance of an awesome Farmers Market, but now that I live closer to actual farmers, the Farmers Markets are few and far between.  Most of the Phoenix area Farmers Markets are also seasonal, closing down completely for the summer months.  I was thrilled, therefore, that my new home is within easy reach of a Farmers Market that was open yesterday despite the heat.

The market is located at the Citadelle Plaza in Glendale, a few miles east of my house, and it's open every Wednesday from 5 to 9 pm.  This week the booths included bakers, a beekeeper with about 20 different types of honey, organic greengrocers, a vendor of frozen wild-caught Alaskan seafood, and a rancher selling free-range local beef and lamb.  I bought locally-pressed olive oil infused with basil, beautiful organic tomatoes, and a fresh loaf of bread containing figs, walnuts, and goat cheese.  My sister bought a pear and blue cheese loaf, and some gorgeous round red Comice pears from the same grower who had provided them to the baker.  Great stuff.

Today I had a big lunch, so for dinner I sliced one of the tomatoes and drizzled it with the olive oil, cracked black pepper, and sea salt.  I followed that with a bowl of Imagine Sweet Pea soup garnished with carmelized onions, a chunk of the bread, and a glass of red wine.  Absolutely fabulous.  Next trip I'm thinking of springing for some of the homemade pasta and a few baby eggplant.  I have this recipe for pasta with eggplant, lamb, and goat cheese...

"Farmers markets are green shoots coming out of the gun. They represent hope and they need to be cultivated." ~Jerry Brown

Monday, August 15, 2011

I'll Never Be Hungry Again

Some of you may recall that I scored a giant bag of cheap books at this year's VNSA book sale.  With all the upheaval this spring and summer, though, I just finished reading through the lot.  The last one was The Hungry Years by William Leith.  This is an autobiographical book by a British journalist who claims to have been addicted, at one time or another, to nicotine, alcohol, sex, and practically every drug known to man.  The Hungry Years is the story of his struggle with food addiction.

At the beginning of the book Leith is on his way to interview Dr. Robert Atkins, the low-carb diet guru.  He reviews his past misadventures with eating and dieting and hovers between skepticism and an intense desire to believe that The Atkins Diet is The One that will finally help him conquer his weight problem.  Part of the diet's attraction for him was the idea that nothing was wrong with him; the extra poundage was all the food's fault.  After finally meeting Atkins (shortly before his death), Leith did in fact go on the diet and lost a significant amount of weight.  He became such a convert to the low-carb way of life that he even proselytized his own parents.  At this point I was expecting Leith to end the book with a ringing endorsement of Atkins and a commitment to avoid the evils of carbohydrates for the rest of his life.

He surprised me, though.  Although The Atkins Diet allowed Leith to keep his eating in check, his other addictions started to spiral out of control.  He eventually had to admit that the problem was indeed in himself and sought professional health.  By the end of the book he was eating normal amounts of normal foods including carbohydrates.

Leith's writing style is sharp enough to draw blood.  (I winced at his description of the heavy person's decision to start wearing his or her shirts untucked as "Going Floaty.")  The good news: after reading some of the author's descriptions of his insatiable binges, you may never want to overeat again.  The bad news: after reading those passages, you may never want to eat again.  An interesting book, but one I will probably recycle to the VNSA next year.

"My hunger frightens me.  The fatter I get, the more I want to eat.  The fatter I get, the more comfort I need." ~William Leith, The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Super Maid

OK, I haven't been blogging this week because I've been exhausted after several hard days of unpacking and cleaning, but strangely, I wasn't doing it at my house.

This week Barry finally moved into his new home, and a couple of days before he called and asked me whether I would help him unpack.  I interpreted this to mean "assist him to unpack" and said sure.  He offered to pay me.  I said that wouldn't be necessary.  Then he started talking about how much his back hurt and how large piles of unopened boxes would stress him out and I understood that he was really asking me to unpack everything for him.  And clean up afterward.  And then help him clean the friends' house where he's been staying for the last  few weeks.

One of the stresses in our relationship was that I like my things to be neat and well-organized, and so does Barry, but he's not willing to do any of the work to keep them that way.  He apparently expected brownies to clean up after him every night.  No matter how many times he whined because he couldn't find something, he either wasn't willing or wasn't able to pick a designated spot for the item to live where he would always be able to locate it in the future.  If I put something of his away, fine, because I remembered where it was, but if he dropped anything at random it was lost indefinitely and somehow that was All My Fault.

Sorry, I didn't mean to rant.  The point I was going to make here is that when Barry needed someone to organize his new life and at least start him out with a clean place, he knew exactly who to ask - Ms. Obsessively Neat.

So far I have been able to unpack and arrange about 90% of everything he owns, and his friends' house is as clean as I can get it without shampooing the carpet.  One more day of the blitz and I should be done.  Of course, his new house has three times as much closet and cupboard space as mine, so that made the whole process go much more swiftly - my infamous "treat this closet as a jigsaw puzzle" skills were not required; I was able to more or less shovel everything into a reasonable logical spot.

Maybe that's a job opportunity I've been overlooking - helping new residents and seasonal visitors to unpack, for a price.

“The time to enjoy a European trip [or a new home] is about three weeks after unpacking.” ~George Ade

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Finally Coming Out

I know, I've been a Very Bad Blogger lately.  My postings have been irregular, to say the least.  Partly that's because I've been afraid of saying harsh things about the people who sold me this house, since as you know I have resolved to go back to the kinder, gentler me I was BB (Before Barry).  Partly it's because...because...OK, let me tell you something that, before last weekend, only one other person on earth knew.  I have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).

I've joked about having a touch of OCD before, but the truth is that I've been a counter for as long as I can remember.  I will see a flock of birds perched on a telephone line, or pencils in a cup, or people waiting for a bus, and I have to count them.  Usually I can justify the counting to myself; if each person takes 10 seconds to deposit a token and move into the bus, how long will those of us in the bus have to wait before it moves on?  If five people are in the line, though, I don't stop counting at five; especially if I'm stressed, my brain will count on to 50, or 150, or 500, or whenever I realize what it's doing and tell myself to stop.  Sometimes even then it drones on in the background while I force myself to mentally go on to other things.  Telephone poles, socks, semi-colons - given enough stress, I can count anything "to infinity and beyond."

One of the brightest moments in my life was when a New York co-worker told me that she was also a counter and we were able to talk freely about the problems it caused and how we coped with it.  I lost touch with her a few years later when she changed jobs and always regretted it.  Last week she found me again through Linked In, and I was so happy that I told my sister about it and about the counting.  Sue was flabbergasted; she looked at me as though I'd confessed to an ax murder and said, "You've managed to hide it well."

Well, no.  I wasn't really hiding anything; when I was a child I didn't realize that everyone's brain didn't work this way.  I think I was in my late 30's before I read an article on counting as a symptom of OCD.  I was shocked.  Sure, I've always had anxiety dreams where I'm responsible for the fate of the world, pretty much every co-worker I've ever had has made fun of how neat my desk was, one co-worker used to call me "Adrian Monk" when she was in a bad mood, various friends have suggested I organize closets for a living, and my husband Tom used to do an imitation of me striding through the house and shouting, "Order! Ve must haf ORDER!!" - but OCD?  ME??? 

The good news is that it doesn't control me.  At an early age I developed a fierce focus that lets me keep on going even when I can't get the counting to stop.  I can concentrate so completely on what I'm doing that I literally don't hear anything else, or when I do, I leap for the ceiling as if someone has set off firecrackers under my chair.  Bosses love this because I usually get as much done for them as any two other employees in the same amount of time (although I have to watch myself to keep from redoing acceptable work in a fruitless attempt to make it perfect).  Significant others hate it because they feel ignored.  Hm. Maybe I was meant to live alone.

At any rate, now you all know.  The main reason I haven't blogged much since July 22 (the day my house closed) is that I've been busy unpacking and obsessively arranging things.  A few more days and I should be completely finished, if I can keep from rearranging things to make them just a little more perfect.  And I have to say - the closet in the master bedroom is an organizational thing of beauty.  The kitchen will be, too, by the time I'm done, if I can just keep myself from being derailed by counting silverware.

"I do not have OCD OCD OCD."  ~Emilie Autumn

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Definitely One Cat

I mentioned recently that a friend of my sister's is trying to find a new home for her cat, now that her husband has developed an allergy to it, and I agreed to see if Rusty would tolerate a roomie.

Alas, the Kitty Meet and Greet took place today and a lot of bad language was passed on both sides, although no blood (human or feline) was shed.  For a moment I thought Rusty was going to sink her teeth into me for opening our house to an interloper but fortunately the impulse passed.  Jasmine is a beautiful cat and apparently well-behaved when not being hissed at, but she was also obviously very bonded with her current owner and I don't know whether I could win her affection in the middle of an armed (clawed?) camp, so I had to tell Deb I couldn't take her.  Rusty sulked for a while after the Great Hissy Fit but eventually decided to treat the outcome as a personal victory and had a hearty snack to celebrate.

I hope Deb is able to find a good home for Jaz; the Humane Society is now so overloaded with cats that they're giving them away for whatever donations people are willing to pay.  The last thing they need is another recycled kitty, and the last thing poor Jasmine needs is to be one.

"One is never sure, watching two cats washing each other, whether it's affection, the taste or a trial run for the jugular." ~ Helen Thomson

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Less-Macho Hemingway

Over the past few days, during the breaks from unpacking, I've been re-reading A Moveable Feast, my favorite book by Ernest Hemingway.  Written in fits and starts during the four years before his death in 1961 and published posthumously, A Moveable Feast looks back at Hemingway's life in 1920s Paris, when he lived there with his first wife Hadley and (later) their son "Bumby" (Jack).

As an undergraduate English major I struggled my way through Hemingway's more famous works, most of them dripping with machismo.  I first read this "lesser" work a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised by its gentle treatment of Hadley and of F. Scott Fitzgerald; his friendship with the latter appears to have been rockier than one would expect, but Hemingway lays most of the turbulence at the feet of Fitzgerald's mentally unstable wife Zelda.  Hemingway's incisive portraits of his fellow ex-pat writers are sometimes hilarious; I particularly liked his description of the poet Ernest Walsh as consciously "marked for death."  (Apparently Walsh had tuberculosis and milked it for all it was worth.)  Other descriptions - such as the cause of his break with Gertrude Stein - are quite disconcerting.  These were the years when Hemingway was consciously paring back his writing style to develop the sinewy prose that eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 "for his powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of narration," and his discussions of how he did that and his struggles to find a market for this new type of prose are very interesting.

Between the personal and literary anecdotes Hemingway talks about the food, wine, art, cafes, and architecture that made Paris "the town best organized for a writer to write in that there is" in a way that makes me want to revisit Paris in a time machine.  Of course, 30+ years after the events described Hemingway's memories of the discomforts of their often unheated cold-water flat have probably dimmed somewhat, and I'm still wondering how, during the lean periods when he often went without lunch to save money and wrote in cafes in avoid buying fuel, they could still apparently afford a cook; was Hadley really that hopeless in the kitchen?  I may have to buy a copy of Hadley, the biography by Gioia Diliberto, to fill in the gaps.

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." ~Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Turning Up the Heat

This week I've been coming to grips with my new stove.

Over the years I've cooked on wood-burning, propane, gas, electric, and smooth-topped stoves plus campfires, charcoal grills, hibachis and Sterno.  At Girl Scout camp I even learned to bake in a reflector oven.  This stove, however, is going to take some getting used to.  Don't get me wrong - it's a beautiful stove.  It just isn't quite what I expected.

First of all, a couple of nights ago I opened the oven door to look for the broiler pan and it wasn't there.  It wasn't any other logical place, either.  Finally my sister, witness to my puzzlement, informed me that many stoves no longer automatically come with broiler pans; they must be special-ordered.  This baffles me.  Don't people broil any more?  Surely not every consumer has switched to the George Foreman grill.  What happens when the family wants steak and the snow is a foot deep on their Weber grill?  I guess they do what I did that night - fry it instead.  I need to look up the model on the manufacturer's website and see what I have to do to order a broiler pan.

The other issue I'm facing is the speed and calibration of the stovetop burners.  My previous smooth-top range had instant-ignition halogen heating units that rivaled gas for speed, and the numbers on the knobs roughly corresponded to the heat levels I'd experienced with electric coil burners.  The burners on my new stove tend to take a long time to heat up, but once they do, oh, baby.  Level 3 for this stove seems to be equivalent to level 10 on the electric coil burner stove I just left behind.  (This explains why the onions I intended to caramelize as part of dinner came out as onion crisps instead.)  I believe I'll be doing a lot of cooking on Low.

Of course, the cooking situation hasn't been helped by the fact that so far I haven't unpacked much of my basic kitchen equipment.  (The kitchen boxes seem to be buried under a huge heap of book boxes.)  I'm getting pretty creative with the microwave, my omelet pan, and the one spatula I've located.  Oh, well, nobody in his or her right mind wants to do anything too fancy in an Arizona kitchen at this time of the year - we're all wary of pushing our air conditioners past their limits.

Which means I'll probably have to wait another couple of months to explore the final frontier - does the oven actually work, and what's the temperature control like in there?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Back to the Box

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you probably remember my rant about Barry's insistence that we buy a giant TV for our living room.  You won't be surprised to hear that he retained custody of the leviathan and I kept our original TV plus the entertainment center we had built for it when we first moved into our house.

Before I bought my new home I carefully drew the floor plan on graph paper and pushed the little to-scale cutouts representing my furniture around to be sure everything would fit.  And it did.  Almost.  I forgot one thing: the ceilings in this house are a foot lower than the ceilings in our previous place.  The center section of the entertainment center wouldn't stand up in the living room here, or indeed in any of the rooms.

Enter Super Dad with his Skil saw.  My father was able to remove the top 8 inches of the center section so it's now the same height as the side pieces and will (just barely) fit into the house.  Of course, it's almost solid oak so it took the two of us plus my sister and a small wheeled furniture cart to get the thing into its final resting place, but it's there now and the living room looks less like I'm camping in it.

The next phase, of course, is to find and connect all the audio and video paraphernalia that go into the entertainment center along with the TV.  If I can find my trusty wiring diagram, I should have everything up and running in a couple of days.  If I can't find it, I may be cut off from PBS and TCM for weeks.

I guess that's not all bad, though.  If I go back to spending my evenings in front of the box I will probably lose all my unpacking momentum.  I could still be wondering where my favorite saucepan is at this time next year.

"I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts. " ~Orson Welles