Saturday, December 31, 2005

Civilization and Its Contents

A few of the year's highlights:

Visited New York City twice this summer, both times for work, though one (the more fun one) was only marginally work-related. Splurged on a gorgeous hand-sewn retro-ish shirt at
D.L. Cerney in the East Village. The stuff there is really the work of artists. I can't wait to go back. One of the owners is Linda St. John, a very friendly woman who is also a fine artist and the author of the memoir Even Dogs Go Home to Die, which I have not read yet but mean to. We've had nice chats on both occasions I've been in the store, though she's given to surprisingly kooky comments such as "I don't follow politics -- why do people hate George Bush so much?" She seemed to be genuinely clueless about that particular point. But I've also heard her read from her work, and she's a serious, talented writer. The shirts she sells (some of which I believe she makes, along with other apparel, including for women) are both subtly and out-of-this-world beautiful, if that's possible.

Heard one of my favorite writers,
David Rakoff, read at the DC Jewish Community Center. This was before his new book of essays, Don't Get Too Comfortable, came out this fall. I've since read it, and it may be even better than his first book, Fraud. At the JCC, he read an essay from the newer book about his ambivalent decision to become an American citizen (he's Canadian by birth). In it is a phenomenal passage containing yet another appallingly insensitive quote from former First Lady Barbara Bush. What he does with it -- and her -- is hilarious and outrageous and moving all at once.

Memorable musical moments: The brilliant and warm singer-songwriter
Patty Griffin at the 9:30 Club -- her exuberant encore cover of "Tears of a Clown" particularly lingers. A Grand Ole Opry evening at Wolf Trap featured a too-short appearance by the great country singer Patty Loveless but was most notable for introducing me to the neo-old-timey string band Old Crow Medicine Show. Should have known about them long ago. Especially love "Wagon Wheel," an adaptation, with additional lyrics, of a Bob Dylan song. And I had a nice birthday present of seeing the Proclaimers at the Birchmere. If you think this might have been a reunion tour by a duo that has done little of note in 15 years (having fallen out of touch with them, I almost expected that myself), think again. They were fantastic.

Could go on and on. I made a good new friend (he knows who he is), enjoyed pleasant times with older friends and family (they know who they are), appreciated every moment in my home, and at this time of year am once again reminded of a Sigmund Freud quote I first encountered 25 years ago, the opening words of Civilization and Its Discontents:

"It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement -- that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life."

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

"We Shoulda Stayed in Munich"

I went to see The Family Stone tonight with my friend Dennis. The trailers preceding it were surprisingly intense for a light holiday comedy -- Harrison Ford robbing the bank he worked for to prevent his family from being killed, Julianne Moore as a mother in distress yet again. In the midst of these previews, Dennis slipped out to go to the men's room and came back to tell me we were in the wrong theater -- Munich was showing in this one.

The Family Stone has some good performances -- almost everyone, in fact, from Sarah Jessica Parker to Craig T. Nelson (even though, as Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter rightly pointed out in his review, Nelson is a "TV guy" not in the same stratosphere as his on-screen wife, movie "royalty" Diane Keaton: "And you cannot marry a movie queen to a TV guy"). But in the end it's a pretty dreadful movie. Full of contrivances, manipulations, gross implausibilities, undeveloped relationships, and sap sap sap. Quoth Dennis: "We shoulda stayed in Munich."

And I shoulda listened to Stephen Hunter.

A far better movie I saw in the last week was The Squid and the Whale, with Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels. Excellent all around, even as much of it made me uncomfortable. But it wasn't an unintended or inappropriate discomfort. The movie is about a family acting stupid and loving and embarrassing and occasionally intelligent and, time after time, with squirm-inducing disregard for boundaries. But unlike The Family Stone -- in which all of the above characterizations also apply at various moments -- The Squid and the Whale is extremely funny, astute, and real.

Friday, December 23, 2005

To the Ends of the Earth

I should have known one of my dogs would appear between the covers of a book before I did.

My ex -- the man with whom I share custody of the dogs we adopted five years ago, P. and C. -- surprised me today with a copy of
The Dogs' Book of Romance by Kate Ledger and Lisa Sachs. There on page 5 (as well as on the back cover) is a lovely portrait of C., our beagle, for all the world to see. The snapshot here is not that picture. The photo in the book, in which he's looking wistfully into the camera, is much, much better. It's beautiful, in fact. Just like him.

I don't know if my ex is friends with the photographer,
Lisa Sachs, or if she simply sent out a call for cute dogs and he answered it. He did tell me in his note that she took pictures of both dogs together but for whatever reason went only with C. (I'll post a picture of P., our crazy but sweet terrier mutt, another time.)

The small gifty book is from Andrews McMeel -- publisher of the
Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes books, among many others. It uses pictures of dogs, mostly in pairs, to illustrate principles of a successful relationship. (Isn't it ironic . . . dontcha think?) -- things like "Give from your soul" and "Wake one another to catch the sunrise." Opposite C.'s picture, in which he's posed with two antique globes, it says: "Go to the ends of the earth for each other."

I wish I could show the actual portrait. This is kind of like talking up a professional portrait of, oh,
Colin Farrell and then showing a snapshot of him sleeping. Well, maybe not exactly like that.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

My Festive Winter Solstice

Two cartoons from last week's New Yorker that I particularly loved: this one and -- oh, the pain -- this one. Speaking of the latter, here are highlights of my day:

1. Had to ask, once again, someone on the packed bus who was sitting on the aisle with an empty window seat next to him, "Do you mind if I sit here?" Once again, he didn't move into the window seat or stand up, just pivoted his knees out enough for me to squeeze by.

2. Was cc'd on an e-mail from the boss in which he admitted a rather serious mistake I hadn't even realized anyone had made, let alone him.
3. Made a lunch of leftovers set out from last night's office holiday party: chips and bean dip, broccoli and celery, a roll, a mini elclair, and many mediocre butter cookies with sparkles on them. I returned three or four times over the course of the afternoon for more cookies.
4. Stopped into Borders at 18th and L at lunchtime to look for a book and was shocked to see the checkout line was fewer than about 20 people four days before Christmas. Found the book and was -- as the employee posted as a kind of checkout barker repeated over and over -- "less than two minutes in line! less than two minutes in line!"
5. Went back to Borders an hour later for an informational interview in the cafe with a young woman in which I was the one from whom information was being sought.

6. Spillled decaf latte down the front of my sweater during the aforementioned interview.
7. Had to ask two colleagues where a recently hired employee in another department sits so I could pass something on to her. I was embarrassed to ask, since the employee in question has worked there for at least a month and it's not that big an office. The first person I asked wasn't sure either and took a guess, which turned out to be wrong.

8. Talked to "Ted" at the Dell help desk in India to fix an ominous error message that kept appearing on my month-old computer. "Yes, William, no problem, you are absolutely welcome for that."
9. Had brought my notebook computer into work with me so I could call the help desk in India, which is why, since I was loaded down with the computer and my briefcase, having to ask someone on the bus for permission to sit next to him was particularly galling.
10. Came home to find my down-free throw pillows had arrived from the Company Store. This is my third attempt to get it right after ordering feathers by mistake the first time and the wrong size both the first and second times. Haven't opened the box yet.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Music to Bake By, Baking to Sing By

Night three of Baking Marathon '05. On Sunday evening, I made four of a recipe that will remain nameless since one or more people who will be receiving the results may read this. These . . . things contained milk that needed to be heated to a certain temperature, so I used my candy thermometer. When I was cleaning up, I discovered that the glass surrounding the actual thermometer was broken -- some chips of glass were missing. Since there was no way of knowing if the shards were was lodged in my freshly baked items or had ended up in some previously baked good -- years ago? -- or got washed down the drain, I couldn't in good conscience give these products to loved ones. So into the trash went all four, and I started from scratch again last night with a new thermometer. I finished up that recipe just now, with a full complement of six of said (or rather unsaid) item.

No big deal -- I consider it part of the process. Last year at this time, I had to throw out two or three loaves of bread that didn't rise no matter what I did. As I type, the next recipe on the agenda is sitting mixed and waiting for its turn in the oven.

I really enjoy this time in the kitchen. I brewed a pot of tea and put on
Mahalia Jackson's Silent Night: Songs for Christmas (on vinyl, which somehow seemed just right). Her powerful, slightly spooked-out gospel voice survives even the obligatory bland 1950s choir that strong-arms its way into every song. I'm now listening to perhaps my favorite Christmas album, Emmylou Harris's bluegrass-tinged Light of the Stable. (Mine is on cassette, a format toward which I have no emotional attachment -- it's just all I happen to have this album on. The remastered version on the link here contains three additional tracks. Must . . . replace . . . tape.) The title song -- with backing vocals by Neil Young, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt -- is transcendent. I can listen to it over and over.

See, I don't like only carols I grew up with, despite what my December 12 post may have implied to some; Emmylou's album didn't come out till 1979, the year I graduated from high school, and I didn't become a groupie till years after that. New versions -- even new songs -- are fine, as long as they add to the canon and don't just repeat, desecrate, or simply aggravate.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Go Tell It on the Mountain

I saw Brokeback Mountain last night. It's an extraordinary film, pervaded with ache. The characters' confusion, furtive joy, denial, passion (barely contained one moment, acted out the next) are amazingly nuanced and complex. I don't mean just the two men at the center of the story but their wives as well.

There's more I could say -- among other things, about a stunning scene between Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams that shows what happens when a couple's inability to communicate is so profound that it lasts into the time when they're no longer even a couple, right up to and through an explosion of emotion that lacerates both of them -- but I don't want to spoil the film for anyone who hasn't seen it.

Who cares if red-state America or straight America is or isn't going to embrace Brokeback Mountain? You could try to convince skeptics out there that it's a love story anyone could relate to. (I want to believe that, but I'm not sure; I think there are people who would never allow themselves to relate to it.) Or you could claim, without spin, that it's about the corrosiveness of shame and self-hatred born of the closet, of living in an intolerant world. Let's just say it's a beautiful, heartbreaking movie.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Magical Holiday Thinking

December 16 and I don't have a single Christmas decoration up. I'm strangely not bothered. I was going to put my kitschy bubble-light candle in the front window, but I need an extension cord and seem to have only one, which is in use for the TV-digital-cable-box-VCR-DVD-player conglomeration in another room. I really should get a surge protector for in there. I used to have one of those. Where is it?

So no bubble light in the window yet to help cheer the neighborhood. Eh -- whatever.

Odd coming from someone who used to love Christmas so. I stopped loving the "season" the way I used to sometime in the last few years. It feels a lot healthier to me -- in terms of both pre-holiday stress and post-holiday blues -- to view Christmas as one day out of the year, maybe two if you count Christmas Eve, which I've always liked a lot more than the day itself anyway.

In my immediate family -- consisting of two eightysomething parents and four fortysomething "kids" and assorted spouses and offspring -- we now officially allow everyone to give whatever gifts cause the least anxiety and economic hardship to the giver. We love one another and want to partake in the spirit of the holiday, but we all have our own lives, after all, and who really knows what a fortysomething sibling needs or wants? We're too busy to ask, let alone shop!

If the new rule means giving "raisins and some money" -- to invoke a piece of "family shorthand" (a term Joan Didion uses in her book The Year of Magical Thinking, which I'm currently in the middle of; that is, she uses the term "family shorthand," not "raisins and some money") -- then that's fine. If it means baking cookies for everyone, that's fine. If it means buying the same generic item (candles! chunky bars of unusually scented soap! -- part of my presents to everyone last year) or a gift certificate to the same store, that's fine. If it means going through the traditional rigmarole of buying original, pricey, store-bought gifts, making sure they're all equal in value down to the last dollar, that's . . . just fine. The byword: low stress.

I was telling a colleague about all of this at lunch earlier this week at the fantastic restaurant Zaytinya, and she e-mailed me the next day to tell me she admired the idea and thought it was "revolutionary." Eh, whatever.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Going, Going, Gone

Saturday night I attended the holiday party of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's DC chapter at the happening new restaurant/bookshop/performance space Busboys and Poets. I'm normally not that comfortable attending a schmooze-fest like that by myself, and I'd only just joined the group a month before, but my friend Dennis couldn't make it at the last minute, so I was on my own. I could do this.

Everyone I encountered was warm and welcoming, and there were three saving graces for the socially nervous: speeches (including one by Frank Mankiewicz -- the public-relations executive and former NPR president whose father,
Herman, cowrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane -- who came off as a gracious straight ally), entertainment (the good-natured if not exactly riotous Washington Improv Theater), and best of all, a silent auction.

I'd never before bid in a silent auction, but emboldened by a glass of wine, I bid on two items: a $50 gift certificate to
Universal Gear -- where, if my $15 bid had won, I would have been able to afford maybe a few pairs of underpants (depending on the brand) -- and two cookbooks, a $57 value for which I bid twice (that wine!), the second time at $35.

Well, tonight I came home to hear on my voicemail that I won the cookbooks! They are
The Food You Want to Eat by Ted Allen, one of the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy guys (he's the sort-of-cute one with glasses, not to be confused with the most-cute one, Jai Rodriguez, part-time Pier 1 huckster). One food I don't want to eat is meat, so I hope there's room for the likes of me at Ted's table. The other book is the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. Excellent timing, as I could use some fresh inspiration for my holiday baking, which should kick into high gear -- er, into gear -- next week. Stay tuned.

A "special guest" at the NLGJA party was singer/musician
Bob Mould, whom I see regularly at my gym, though we've never met. While what I've heard of his music isn't really my cup of tea, he has a well-written and thoughtful blog I enjoy checking in with for some reason.

Another blog I recommend: The Happy Booker, whose proprietress, Wendi Kaufman, is a barrel of laughs and utterly charming in person. Her blog is equally lively and a well-informed site for literary matters in and around DC (and sometimes other parts).

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Girl Named Liesl (and This Time It Has Nothing to Do with Mia Farrow)

Here's a very funny article by Liesl Schillinger for anyone who read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid and wondered, as I (and the article's author) did, what the mysterious confection "Turkish delight" was. I completely forgot I had wondered that until I read the article. It's called "The Lion, the Witch, and the Really Foul Candy."

I loved that book, and a couple of the others in the Narnia series, but I remember my enjoyment diminishing after about the third one, and I never finished the series. I don't feel compelled to see the movie, for some reason -- partly because I'd rather preserve my childhood memory of the book. I'm also just not so into kids' movies -- even lush, apparently brilliantly made ones that adults are meant to enjoy as well.

Some movies that I personally think did good to great jobs of capturing the spirit of the source material, in no particular order: The Dead (from the James Joyce story), Sophie's Choice, The Sheltering Sky (a really underrated film), A Home at the End of the World, The Graduate. I read the last one years ago after seeing the movie for the first time -- I've since seen it multiple times, including part of it tonight at the gym, as a matter of fact! -- and the book could pass as practically a screenplay; I mean it's almost exactly, word for word, what's on the screen. Bizarre.

Fun factoid: The charming Germanic name Liesl has appeared twice in the span of two days in a blog that's barely a week old.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I've finally started to listen selectively to Christmas music on the radio. I've refused to listen to the 24-hour-a-day holiday rotation WASH-FM (97.1) has been doing for the last few years -- and which now starts a full week before Thanksgiving -- until December 1. That's my personal, somewhat arbitrary date at which I consider the season to begin. But I don't like most of what 97.1 plays this time of year anyway.

I'm not a fan of the sacred-hymn-as-power-ballad, for one thing. How many "interpretations" of "O Holy Night" or "Away in a Manger" do we need? In the more secular realm, I'd much rather listen to a new, original Christmas song (of which 97.1 plays relatively few) than yet another "Silver Bells" by Faith Hill or Mariah Carey or, yes, even Neil Diamond (see yesterday's post). But mostly I'm a traditionalist -- because traditional carols are what I grew up with. WGMS (103.5 FM) has been playing some very nice stuff.

Right now I'm listening to a CD that has the Vienna Boys Choir, Placido Domingo, and Mario Lanza (!), among others. Now, that's Christmas to me -- "Adeste Fideles," "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." The Latin hymn "Panis Angelicus" is one I didn't discover until I was in my twenties, when someone in the family gave my mother a Luciano Pavarotti album that included it. For the most part, Christmas music I came to know in my childhood has the most emotional resonance for me, but this is one song that's now in my top ten or so. Placido and the Vienna boys do it on my CD. So lovely.

By the way, as of this morning the full beard is gone, and I'm back to Goateeville. Who knows, I might end up back in Soul Patch Town, but for now I'm happy with my decision. The beard wasn't working for me, even though people told me they liked it. It just looked a little . . . schmutzig. I was having dinner with friends last night at Nirvana -- an excellent vegetarian Indian restaurant at 1810 K Street, NW -- and I kept catching glances of myself in the mirror. I was wearing my glasses, too -- there was just a little too much going on on my face.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Do Re . . . Mia: The Subject I Can't Let Go Of

Re previous post: Actually, now that I think about it, given that she's ten years younger than Julie Andrews, I doubt Mia Farrow could have been up for the Maria role in The Sound of Music. It must have been Liesl. So I'm going to reverse my previous attitude and say she probably would have made a better Liesl than the actress they picked. Guess I will definitely have to get that DVD now to find out for sure.

I spent a good part of the afternoon at Union Station with my old friend Holly and her almost three-year-old daughter, Sophie. Ask Sophie what music she likes listening to: "Burt Bacharach." She's serious, too. She might then also like Neil Diamond's captivatingly grizzled and spare new CD, 12 Songs. I'm a longtime fan of Neil, from his very young '60s stuff through the early '70s, when he started to turn mawkish, nonsensical, and self-parodistic. He was once a great pop songwriter, and this new album contains some really simple -- almost Amish in their plainness -- but interesting songs that show he still has, at age 64, the talent for what he once did so well and hasn't done for a very long time. My favorite of the new songs: "Captain of a Shipwreck."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Rosemary's Baby?

I saw a touring production of the musical Les Miserables tonight at the National Theatre. I'd never seen it before, and I must say I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. I was actually quite moved by the end. It was worlds better than some touring productions I've seen, which often seem a little mechanical or low-rent. Some of the singing tonight was truly spectacular, particularly that of Randal Keith, who played Jean Valjean. He got a huge and well-deserved ovation after the beautiful, if sentimental, show-stopper "Bring Him Home." (It struck me while listening that that would be an appropriate anthem for the US troops in Iraq. Someone put together a year-end film montage and cue up the background music! There won't be a dry eye in the viewership, I promise.)

I have a conflicted relationship to musicals. I admit to a secret fascination with them but usually don't love them as much as I feel I'm supposed to (don't get me started about Sondheim). It's not because I have a problem with people breaking into song or dance -- if you're going to a musical for realism, you're so in the wrong place. I guess I have trouble with the unmerited bombast with which many of them are treated. Les Miz was certainly bombastic, but it worked. The story was so grand and mythic from the first note that the grandiosity seemed perfectly appropriate. The emotions were believably theatrical -- they made me feel as though my own emotions were theatrical, or could be; there's a bit of a thrill in that sensation.

This is the 40th anniversary of the movie The Sound of Music, by the way, and though I don't have it (yet), there's a special-edition DVD just out with all sorts of juicy-sounding extras, including actor recollections and a Mia Farrow screen test. That's one Maria who wouldn't last a day with those devilish Von Trapp kids!

A Little Something to Make Newcomers Think This Is a Literary Blog

I just now finished, after many, many weeks, The Folding Star, a novel by Alan Hollinghurst. I read it mostly waiting for and riding the bus to and from work. (Earlier this year, I decided to sacrifice the time I used to spend listening to NPR on my Walkman in order to actually get through a non-work-related book now and then; I still get my NPR fix while primping in the morning and walking the dogs.)

I had read Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty this summer, which then led me to this one. The Line of Beauty is better, but in both books his writing is completely gorgeous and -- as he and his fellow Brits would say -- "spot-on." Not a whole lot happens in either one, but he has an amazing, utterly one-of-a-kind way of dissecting a scrap of body language, a line of dialogue, or an emotion in such a way that I would read the words describing the action or feeling, then instantly replay them in my head, nodding in stunned recognition, envy, and satisfaction that he could have gotten it so right -- yet again.

Here's a passage from The Line of Beauty. The main character, Nick, is meeting a boyfriend's mother for the first time:

Nick was always a favourite with mothers, he was known to be a nice young man, and he liked the unthreatening company of older people. He liked to be charming, and hardly noticed when he drifted excitedly into insincerity. But he also knew the state of suspense, the faked insouciance, of bringing friends home, the playful vigilance with which certain subjects had to be headed off even before they had arisen; you took only a distracted, irrelevant part in the conversation because you were thirty seconds, a minute, ten minutes ahead of it, detecting those magnetic embarrassments towards which it would always twitch and bend.

And here's a little moment from The Folding Star. It's dawn and the thirtysomething narrator is stumbling out of a car in which he fell asleep on a stake-out in front of an apartment building, waiting for the 17-year-old boy he's obsessed with to appear:

An old man with a knapsack came past and greeted me humorously and I answered him with tremendous gusto -- the day's first phlegmy utterance mad with unadjusted warmth.

I love that stuff! Hollinghurst is fantastic even when he's imperfect: The Folding Star has a really dull subplot that is important to the theme (I guess) but that I kept fidgeting through. The Line of Beauty won Britain's Man Booker Prize last year; The Folding Star was short-listed for the same a decade ago. I tried reading his first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, around the time it came out, 15 or so years ago, and could not get into it. I now want to give it another try since I think I was too young and immature (I was 29 or 30!).

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A Vote for Jake Is a Vote for His Beard

My new beard is coming along. I like to think it's every bit as good as Jake Gyllenhaal's, as seen on page 101 of this week's Newsweek and on its Web site. Though there, as the cliche goes, the resemblance ends. (At the hairline, to be precise.) Jake appears to be the winner of a contest in which readers of the distinguished newsmagazine are invited to vote for their favorite celebrity photo of the week.

I haven't had a full beard in about 15 years. Most recently I was soul-patched. Before that, I had a goatee -- not unlike Brad Pitt's and Billy Joel's, as seen, as it happens, on page 101 of this week's Newsweek.

I even once had just a mustache. I keep waiting for the 1970s flannel-shirt-sideburns-and-mustache look to come back among gay men (not that my mustached look was that; James Joyce is more like it). But it never does. I'm not longing for it. It's just that from a cultural standpoint, I think it's strange that it doesn't. You'd think it would have by now.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

An Assembly I'd Rather Miss

Last night as I was watching Inside the Actor's Studio on Bravo, a commercial from the Arlington Assembly of God came on. In it, a man claims to have been sexually abused as a child and then to have tried "the gay lifestyle" -- but, he says, he still didn't like himself. Eventually, he turned to God, and now he's straight. The Washington Blade has already reported on this commercial -- in an article by Katherine Volin, the church's pastor, Lynn Carter, is quoted as saying, "This is a new ad that we're doing just to let folks know that we love 'em and that we care about them" -- but it was the first time I'd seen it myself.

It's galling that the church would buy time during a show with such an obvious appeal to . . . well, theater queens. And on a cable channel that also carries Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, among other gay-friendly shows. Okay, so the church wants to reach gay people -- that would be a good way to do it: Get them where they gather. Bravo has every right to sell ad time to anyone who can pay for it. And certainly there are self-loathing or conflicted or fragile gay people among the fans of the show in which we get to learn what Charlize Theron's, Kevin Spacey's, and Michael J. Fox's favorite curse words are and what sounds they most love and hate in the world.

What's the adjective I'm searching for to describe the Arlington Assembly of God's motives in airing the commercial when it did? Opportunistic? Predatory? And to describe Bravo? Hypocritical? Two-faced? Maybe just depressing. That goes for both of 'em.

If You Must Know, I Don't Have a Mantelpiece

For the literalists out there, I don't have an actual mantelpiece -- or a mantel (is there a difference?) or a fireplace. I picked up the slate fireplace frame pictured here last year at Good Wood, on U Street. (The baubles draped over it are from Pottery Barn.) Propped up against the wall -- like a piece of a stage set in a high school play -- it is my" fireplace." It cheers me.

Monday, December 05, 2005

In a Polar Bear's Eye

Today was my mother's 86th birthday. I made a pineapple upside down cake and brought it over this afternoon. The other celebrants were my mother and father, my brother and his six-year-old son, and one of my sisters (the other sister lives in Boston; she called to say happy birthday while we were there).

The cake recipe was from the fabulous 12-volume Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, copyright 1965 (volume 2, Bea-Cas). My mother had this cookbook set when I was growing up, and the four of us kids used to spend hours on end flipping through its pages. I now have a complete set of my own, meticulously compiled, one or two volumes at a time, by my father a decade or so ago from numerous visits to various secondhand bookshops around Washington (at my request). My sister told us today that she has a complete set as well, recreated for her by Dad in the same way. My brother somehow ended up with the original set. I don't know if my sister in Boston has any at all. If not, we must all help her acquire one.

In this cookbook you will find recipes for Asparagus Souffle, Raspberry Shrub, Sesame Anise Cookies, and Philadelphia Fish House Punch. The categories range from Polish Cookery to Saffron to Canning to Bagels ("Bagels are seldom made at home. However, it can be done by the determined, as shown in the following recipe.") And more than 1,500 photographs, in slightly artificial-looking, color-saturated, mid-'60s splendor! As a child, I imagined myself being invited into the sparkling white kitchen that was the setting for the Western Breakfast, with a six-inch pile of buttermilk pancakes surrounded by bacon, ham, and sausage (this is back when I ate meat). Two stark, sleek Scandinavian Modern crystal cruets, which I would love to have in my cabinet today, hold two kinds of syrup--maple and boysenberry. (Boysenberry! The subject of another nostalgia posting at a later date! My favorite Baskin Robbins flavor at the same time in my life was boysenberry. I couldn't identify an actual boysenberry in a lineup, then or now.) At the other extreme were the pictures that were fascinatingly, revoltingly exotic. Even today, looking at the photo of Isbjornoye, in the Norwegian Cookery section (the "o's" in the recipe's name have those Norwegian slashes through them), I am at a loss to identify any of the components of a dish that looks like a mixture of chopped-up chunks of raw beef, cherry Jell-O, and red cabbage. The only recognizable element is a single egg yolk resting complacently in the middle. When I look it up on page 1,235, I see that Isbjornoye translates as Polar Bear's Eye. (Yum!) The ingredients are anchovy fillets, potatoes, onions, beet, and -- indeed -- raw egg yolk.

The pineapple upside down cake came out really well -- I made it with soy milk instead of regular (take that, 1965!), and you never would have known the difference. We ate every last piece. My mother had a nice time. If only every visit there were as jolly. I think the secret may be to bring a new recipe, each time I go over, from the Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery.

Bowl, Mug

I christened my new Jill Hinckley mug this morning with some hot chocolate (Ovaltine) rather than tea. The mug feels great in the hand and on the lips! Many of Jill's pieces are quite refined and elegant, but this one has a bit of a spare tire in its midsection. I fell in love with it. Above it is the bowl. In real life, it's holding leftover Hershey's Kisses from Halloween.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


I attended Jill Hinckley's annual show and sale of her work at Hinckley Pottery in Adams Morgan tonight. Jill is one of the treasures of Washington. She makes beautiful functional pottery -- mugs, bowls, colanders, teapots, vases, etc. -- and her work is in the collection of the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery. If you don't know her artistry, you should really stop by tomorrow from 12 to 6. If you can't make it, you can stop by anytime the studio is open and browse through her pieces in the gallery.

I bought another lovely mug for my tea as well as a bowl. My friends Dennis and Mary, who had never been there before, left happily with pieces of their own, as did Robert, who had been there before but never bought anything till tonight.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

And So It Begins

"The View from the Mantelpiece" is an homage to a story my father has told for as long as I can remember. He claims to recall being perched on the mantelpiece at the age of 18 months.

Okay, so maybe "story" is an overstatement.

Anyway, the columns in my college newspaper had names, not just bylines -- "Sidewalk Social Scientist," from a Blondie song, was one of my favorites. I always thought that if I ever had a column, I'd call it "The View from the Mantelpiece." Naturally, the year I got a column, they stopped assigning names to them, so I never got to. Now I can.