Monthly Archives: April 2010

Better Living Through Lloyd

You all know that a friend of my youth, Lloyd ,  is going to roll in from Seattle on the Empire Builder in a couple of days. Frikkin’ yikes.

I’ve already described my housekeeping, style as “One step before the Board of Health” because my fiddle-about life is so full of little stuff I enjoy that those dirty windows, crappy bathrooms and neglected flat surfaces can be invisible to me for weeks, nay months, nay years. Martha, I hang my head in shame.

Then providence, in the form of a house guest arrives . I’m not speaking lightly here. The last time we put out the bucks to make the family hovel look good was before Lou held a party for my 50th birthday. We’ve gone on a tear. viz:

1) At ten tomorrow morning two ladies from a cleaning service will come do their magic — bathrooms and floors and cobwebs and stuff.

2)We were cleaning up today before the owner of the cleaning company showed up for a walk-through, and our vacuum cleaner died. No shit. Lou headed off to Sears for a replacement and I’m thrilled, because I’ve hated my old vac for ten years. Really hated it.

3)He turned up with not only a vac but two new phones! Neither of our phones have worked in any but the most primitive sense, for five years. The one in the kitchen, so encased in smoke and grease that I gave up on cleaning it was an eyesore that should have been on a Federal Cleanup site.

4)He got a haircut. I don’t understand why most of his grey hair disappears after he gets a hair cut, but it does.

5)After my mother died two summers ago i gave up on my garden. It’s reverted to prairie, as has the lawn.We said “Give up!” and received, through Abel, who bought his house,

street-where-i-live-tiny/ Victor’s phone number. He came around  last cold rainy Saturday and we walked, the estate. We’re gonna pay him and his crew a fortune to do and undo all the things I should have done. I feel bad about this — Mexican landscapers? Victor’s down with it — he cleaned the garden up before that 50th birthday party.
6)New pots and pans.
7)I polished a lot of silver.
8)New shower curtain.
9)New sheets.
10)New towels.
11) Light bulb replacement
12)New smoke alarm.

And with all this i know, I just know that when Lloyd walks through the door, I’ll spot every littered surface, every speck of pollen, and die inside. I hope that eating and talking politics and sightseeing together will be a distraction. I don’t think he’ll care about the housekeeping! We’ll be doing the Frank Lloyd Wright tour and eating a double cheezeburger at the Billy Goat. But I’m grateful that his visit has propelled me to do things I’ve always known I wanted to do. Maybe I can put off the Board of Health for a few more months


Filed under Uncategorized

Sixty Second Karma, Sixty Second Post

I don’t believe in God, but a I have a superstitious atheistic belief in Karma, aka “What comes around goes around.” I saw it at work at TJ’s tonight, on our monthly trip — wine for me, a decent cheese plate for Lloyd.

That’s because Lou is the master of grocery store check-out lines.I was trundling up our half-full cart to the check out  of the  Hawaiian-shirted hottie, Matt V., when I heard Lou talking to the man behind us in line. This guy didn’t have a cart: he had a couple of bakery items and a bag of pretzels.The man was saying “You mean it? Really? You’ll let me cut in ahead of you guys?”Now, we Midwesterners may not have the politesse cred of Southerners, but we’re polite people — even in Big Bad Chicago.But people are astounded by a simple act of courtesy — a wave through the check out line. It cost us exactly sixty seconds.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Free, Into the Mystic

On The Street Where I Live: Tiny

A couple of nights ago we stood the kitchen in the rear of the house when I heard the noise that announces that a child is at the front door. I wondered what little kid would be calling when it was so late and so dark, and Lou asked how I knew it was a child.


Door knockers are a dying hardware item here in the ‘Ville. Children always choose to announce their presence via rat-a-tat-tat, and adults always push the doorbell. This pattern has never blurred, not once in twenty-five years.

I opened the door to three children and their father Abel, who live four houses down. This was unexpected because I don’t know this family except for a smile and a wave in passing — Abel’s English isn’t great and my Spanish is, regrettably,nonexistent.

But what really caught my attention is that the two gorgeous little girls were shaking with sobs and, literally, tear stained. Their big brother, maybe nine, was stoic but not the grinning hollering boy I swerve to avoid when he and his buddies are practicing on their homemade skateboard ramp just where my street bends.

I invited them in and asked what was wrong, because something clearly terrible was afoot. The boy stepped up and explained —  in colloquial American English with the wide Midwestern vowels — that their new puppy had run away. I asked the middle sister with the face of a sorrowing angel what the dog’s name was and she stopped weeping just long enough to wail “Tiny!”

The boy said “We want to make posters to put up. Would it be OK to use your printer?” He knows exactly where to find the printer — he’s seen it every day, twice a day, as he walks to and from school. It’s easy to spot because it sits on my living room windowsill, otherwise known as my office. Yeah it’s a custom made double-wide windowsill Lou whipped up one day, but it’s just a windowsill.

Then he pulled out an iPhone and his thumb flashed like a windshield wiper in a hurricane until he found this picture.

I asked the kid if he had a cable that would link the phone to my laptop, and he hustled out the door and returned in less then ten seconds. We huddled by the windowsill, an urgent ocean of quiet in a small room still echoing with uncontrollable grief. I downloaded the Apple software, we held our collective breath as the pictures downloaded into Picassa, and we cropped and edited and printed.  I stroked the littlest girl’s cheek and told her about how we’d lost Calliope  cat for three whole days but we found her under some shrubs three blocks away. She was unconvinced. Abel thanked me and led his tragic trio down the block.

You see, this is why I love the undistinguished street where I live. We’re not exactly snoopy, but we pay attention. Even if we’re not practically life-long friends, as we are with Char and Dale, our Next-Doors and cat sitters, we know who’s who. We aren’t afraid to ask for help or to give it. And the street’s swamped with kids who actually play outside for hours.

This just in: I walked down to Abel’s and Tiny’s still missing. He said:”My little girl, she still cry and cry.” So, fellow ‘Villians, grab that tiny chihuahua, and give me a call. That’s what we do on our street.


Filed under Animals, Free, History, Home, On the Street Where I Live, Worth it anyway

C & C Earth Day Edition: Site of the Day

I had great plans to show you my curtain making activity for Lloyd’s bedroom, until I realized I hadn’t taken any pictures and the curtains aren’t that interesting. But NPR Head that I am, I was besieged with Earth Day radio as I measured and hemmed and pressed and stitched. The pressing part was a match of wills. An ironing board is one of Willow’s favorite places to laze and watch me,  as I go about my trifling human activities like making curtains, telling yet another insurance agent that I don’t want an estimate, or making an egg salad sandwich for lunch.

As I hung the curtains to check out the length I noticed that the neglected guest room windows would need the old vinegar and water and newspaper treatment. I’m not a deep person, and  if I were asked to pass on some Old Lady Wisdom on my deathbed it wouldn’t be something  about living in the present, dancing as if no one were watching or going vegan. It would be: Forget the Squeedgie, and the Windex: Get a bowl of vinegar and water and the Business Section.

I’ve mused about the family disposition to newsprint.

But just futzing about today I found this cool site. As God is my witness (channeling the O’Hara extended family in “Gone With the Wind’ who stuffed newspapers into any available orifice for insulation)It’s terrific. Newsprint can remove stinky odors from shoes and food containers? That I didn’t know . Did you?

I’ll have a forthcoming Master Class about origami hats folded from a broadsheet. But now, it’s all about washing windows.


Filed under Free, Holidays, How Cool is That?, Site of the Day

Pots, Pans, Ducks, Tulips and Thirty Six Years

It was our thirty-sixth anniversary yesterday.

Yowza! Well, we’re experts on richer/poorer, sickness/health, better/worse and sharing a kitchen. This week we checked out our eclectic collection of cookware, acquired piece by piece over the years and decided that most of it had to go. Now.

We’re keeping the three cast iron skillets, the ancient Mauviel copper (we bought it on our honeymoon,) my mother-in-law’s double boiler and a couple of glass-topped saucepans I like a lot. I think I got them at Target. But jeez – all that trendy early Calphalon non-stick? That twenty pound Copco enameled cast iron Dutch oven with only one handle? That’s in fact a scary pot, even if it’s served us well for more years than I feel like counting. The pasta insert on our stock pot is likewise one-armed. I found more crappy bits of ancient cookware today, as I cleaned out cabinets, than I could imagine in any heavy metal dream. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Yesterday we decided to go to our favorite mall in the world, Oak Brook Center in the bland upscale suburb of Oak Brook, which lies about half way between us and Chicago. It’s been around as long as I’ve been in Chicagoland – so that’s at least thirty-six years – and it’s a destination for us at Christmas and for a few random Saturdays a year.  I love it because it’s a beautifully landscaped and maintained outdoor mall, so you can stroll along the gardens between nips into Neiman-Marcus, Montblanc, Nordstoms, Crate and Barrel and Anthropologie, The anchor stores are Macy’s, Sears, Nordstoms and N-M, where I’ve had scores of lunches with my buddy Kat in the Zodiac Room If you want a mall that sells baseball caps or rude t-shirts, this ain’t your place. But I love it especially at Christmas because it’s not a self-enclosed pod: even if the temp and wind could freeze the balls off a brass monkey, I love the contrast of the overheating of the stores and the gasps of white breath when you emerge from Pottery Barn and trundle over to Crate and Barrel.

This is the classic well-heeled Asian tourists taking pix of themselves while I snap them photo.

We had a few goals for our outing: we were going to replace the Copco Dutch oven, we were going to buy, for the first time in our lives, a set of cookware, and we were going to go to one of the decent and expensive restaurants for dinner. We parked close to Macy’s and checked out the Housewares Department. I was leaning towards Martha Stewart, but she didn’t have a set on sale. Her enameled cast iron was gorgeous, but we found a chip on the rim of every display pot. Hmmmm.  A nice lady guided us around All-Clad, Calphalon – the usual cabal, and I figured that I could get a new roof (urgently needed) for the price of an eight piece set. Then she showed us a Macy’s house brand lesser quality fourteen piece set for two hundred and forty nine bucks and I got interested. The pans have the usual aluminum wedge in the base, glass lids and pretty shapes. We’d think about it.

Crate and Barrel, my first employer thirty-six years ago, seems to have moved away from a serious cookware section, though you can certainly go home with an expensive pot for every occasion. Williams-Sonoma’s cookware prices for any kind of set made me hyperventilate – smelling salts please! But I like W-S, especially their baking stuff, and I snapped a pic of this adorable pan just before the Nice Lady told me W-S doesn’t tolerate photographers.
We’d arrived at the extreme end of the mall, far from the parking lot and Macy’s– the Bloomingdale’s Home Store. Our daughter and son-in-law had (kiss, Sweeties) given us Bloomies gift cards for Christmas. A Le Creuset sale was on. We scored a four and a half quart yellow oval casserole for seventeen bucks outta pocket. Lou dragged it back to the car, and I waited for him outside Macy’s communing with a duck.

Back to Macy’s, we bought the cookware set and walked back to the car. Then the bottom of the box broke, splashing all our lovely new pans onto concrete. We checked every glass lid, every pan and trucked them, in shifts, back to the car.

We’d been checking out the menus, and I just didn’t think, however seductive they were, that I wanted to spend a couple of hundred bucks on an upscale mall upscale restaurant dinner. So we drove home, bought a USDA Choice Strip Steak, some shrimp that appeared en cocktail, and a bottle of decent Napa Cab. I’d had the presence of mind to pick up a couple of pieces of Frango Mint cheesecake for dessert.

In other words, we acted exactly the same way we have for the last thirty-six years.


Filed under Born in Chicago, History, Holidays, Home, Worth it anyway

The Countdown to Lloyd

I’ve met Lloyd exactly twice — in corporeal form. The first time was in Montreal in the dim dark days beyond recall: 1970? The second was when he crashed with us in Chicago in, I think, 1975. Then there was a twenty year gap, until the internet brought us together again. God bless the internet.

Lloyd’s gonna hop the Empire Builder from Seattle (he’s a Train Guy) and stay with us in our hovel in the ‘Ville for a week, in eleven days. This makes me happy in a special way I can’t describe: personal history, sure. The long attachment of — may I venture this: Soul Mates? Hmmm. He’s spent his life as a bookseller. He’s progressive, politically. He likes chamber music. He likes cats and architecture. Snap!

I met Lloyd through his sister Llyn, my bff at McGill and my travelling companion in Europe. She was my roommate at the Locanda Anna in Florence where I met my Chicago husband. She was the witness at my wedding. She flew in to Chicago to help when my baby was born. Then she disappeared, to me and her family. It breaks my heart.

Moving forward: When you know you’re having a house guest, the cataracts are peeled from your eyes. Good God, what a dirty dingy dump! We were planning on a new roof, but that can wait until after Lloyd leaves. I will hire a cleaning service. I’ll make new curtains for the guest room. For our anniversary on Tuesday we’ll go to the mall and buy a new set of cookware, new sheets and towels and have dinner out. I’ll dust the bookcases.

Lloyd, if you read this, know that you’re a force for good, although I’m sure you’ll find a dust hippo somewhere. Sometimes I need to get off my lazy ass and take care of the things I should always have been taking care of. Can’t wait to hear you and L, after a coupla beers, talking politics. You could head up a ticket together. As for me, I think Im going to look up upholstery cleaners. Or not.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Home, Hunks, Into the Mystic, Travel

Roll it and Prick it and Mark it With Me: Chicken Pot Pie

I told you yesterday that I was going to rend a chicken, soak the pieces in buttermilk and fry them up for dinner. Readers, I got lazy. I plunked the bird in the big black skillet, surrounded it with potato chunks and roasted it with some whole garlic cloves. With Darina Allen’s recipe for Buttered Cabbage as the vegetable side dish it made for some cheap and cheerful eating, and I can still taste the garlic, which is fine by me. It saddens me that I’m not the trencher-woman I was twenty years ago — I could have eaten that chicken single-handedly (roast chicken — yum!)  — but I’m not. Neither does he put food away in the volume of meals twenty years ago, so we have half a chicken sitting in the fridge. As we turned off the news last night he said: “I think we should make chicken pot pie tomorrow .” We make a lot of chicken pot pie.

The filling hasn’t gone through many changes over the years: a veloute sauce stirred  with lots of black pepper, cayenne, nutmeg, some shallots, tiny cubes of carrot, potato and a handful of frozen peas. Pick over the bird, chop the good bits not too fine and toss them with the sauce. Done.

It’s the crust I teeter about. Jacques Pepin’s Quick Puff Pastry is always a winner. Here’s an example, baked on a night when Lou was feeling romantic with the garnish:

But , as much fun as I have making puff pastry, I’m feeling too pooped to puff tonight. (Tossed and turned last night — computer probblems — another story with a happy ending.)

The the choices are:
1)My plain old butter/lard pie crust.
2)Delia Smith’s fabulous Flaky Pastry, made by grating frozen butter on the large side of a box grater into cold flour.
3)Make a batch of buttermilk biscuits , roll it out thinnish, and drape the top of the pie with it.

I’m leaning towards the biscuit crust solution, but I need to keep the crust off the filling;I don’t want Chicken and Biscuits or Chicken Cobbler.  Luckily I have a flock of pie birds (and they’re another post) to keep the dough off the filling with their skinny little shoulders.

So, which way would you go? After all this this analysis,  I’m now  leaning towards Chicken and Biscuits. So easy. except… Should I bake it or treat the biscuits like dumplings and cook the dish atop the stove, covered?

Too many choices! My brain hurts. What drama about half a chicken! But that’s how I roll.


Filed under Collections, Five bucks or fewer, Food, Home

Cheap, No. Cheerful, Yes! Sunny and Warm in the ‘Ville.

It was the day I checked things off my to do list, and wrote checks in order to check them off. The taxes got mailed yesterday, and I think we’ll get a pittance back — reason for cheer! But today’s the day of the month when all those pills I take to keep my body and mind from splatting all over the patio needed to be refilled. Ouch. Being jobless and without health insurance, those Maggies’s Little Helpers don’t come cheap. Then there was the payment to our fine mechanic Jim: it was about a third what we figured it would be — thank you Jim! The Cheerful outcome here is that my car’s running for the first time  in six months, and not a moment too soon, because I don’t want my eagerly-awaited house guest to be marooned with me in the “Ville , rather than cruising to the local commuter station and rumbling in to Chicago.

Then there’s the business I waded through to keep that cheery vibe goin’ on: an hour and a half — I swear — on the phone with invariably polite Customer Service people changing the expiration date on my debit card so that those automatic payments will keep the lamps lit, the phone and internet alive and the roof over our heads. Done! Excellent!

I mailed a couple of gifts to a pair of wonderful women and sent a check to Medecins sans Frontieres. Those docs and nurses without borders are heroes of mine, and sending them money when I don’t have a whole lot is kinda karmic insurance for me — I can’t imagine the lives they lead in the most dangerous waste places of the earth.

I mean: here I am with a car that runs, medication, clean water , my street teeming with adorable kids on their three wheelers and a huge bouquet of heavenly fragrant daffodils picked from my own garden.

I’m going to cut up a plump fryer (69 cents a pound!) and let it sit in buttermilk. I’ll start some stock from the carcass. I’ll pour a glass of wine before I fire up the old cast iron skillet and fry that chicken up. Biscuits, maybe? Asparagus, definitely.  Here’s looking at you, Kids! Cheers!


Filed under Drink, Food, Free, Growing things, Into the Mystic, Worth it anyway


Writers know that pesky moment: You have to decide on a title for your novel, short story, article or blog post. Newspaper people are lucky – they file their stories and someone else dreams up a catchy title. My friend and longtime editor Dave Scantland calls himself the Title ‘Ho: he has the knack, and has offered advice to more successful writers than I. (Happy Birthday tomorrow, Dave.)

If you don’t have a title you like, anything you write seems raggedy and unfinished. Sometimes it’s easy: my title of my Tourtiere piece at came like a flash. . Christmas en Croute. But that’s an exception.—I’ve mostly had to tear my hair and rend a couple of garments and sacrifice a couple of goats to come up with something I’m barely satisfied with.

Then I think of the Great Writers, men and women whose hems I’m not worthy to touch, have not necessarily been fab titlists. “Hamlet?” “The Last Chronicle of Barset?” “Pere Goriot?” “Mrs. Dalloway?” “Mansfield Park?” Just saying.

I think writers below the level of sublimity have better titles skills. Mystery, thriller and noir ladies and gents from Conan Doyle, through Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and Nero Wolfe can put up terrific titles. “The Long Goodbye.” “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” “Some Buried Caesar.” The Redheaded League.”

“And Then There Were None.” “The Thirty Nine Steps.” “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

I regret to say that although I loathe Ayn Rand’s beliefs I think “Atlas Shrugged” is brilliant. And then there are “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude”  “The Manticore” and “The Joy Luck Club.” And I love “The Dharma Bums.”

But you know what my all-time favorite title is? It’s from that writer’s writer, John McPhee. I didn’t understand the physics when I first read it in “The New Yorker” eons ago, and I don’t think I’d understand it now, even with McPhee’s crystalline prose guiding me though it. But I think “The Curve of Binding Energy” is the most beautiful title in any language and any era. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t care. I like thinking about it, reading it and letting it flow off my tongue. Pure poetry.

So, what titles resonate with you?


Filed under History, Into the Mystic, Library Card, Media, Paper

The Tower ‘o Tea Towels

I seem to have taken a girly turn here at C&C, what with aprons and perfume. No fear, my male friends, I still love gin, tasteless jokes and The Transporter movie franchise. (When are we getting a new one — I need my Jason Statham fix.) But I’m back to fabric and housekeeping (hilarious, because I suck at housekeeping) because of the denoument this morning of my Mess Hall Apron post. Here:

I walked upstairs to tuck it away with its pile of apron buddies in my bijou linen closet. I opened the door and was almost flattened by an avalanche of tea towels. Unused, virgin tea towels, some of them thirty years old, some three weeks old. I decided it was time to out myself — My name is Margaret and I’m a teatowelholic.

I know what you’re going to say: “Thats, like 27 towels? (Yes.) You don’t have a real problem — you’re just a social collector.” But I repeat: These are the never-used, pristine tea towels. It’s not counting the twenty that are in regular rotation because our dishwasher’s been dead for five years, and the ten stained ratty oldsters who’ve been demoted to household rags. And I know that on my next jaunt to Ikea, Homestyle,Williams-Sonoma  or the dollar store, even if I buy nothing else I’ll add to my collection.

Here are a couple of favorites from the tower, though each is special in its own way. My friend Priscilla in  California sent me this vintage linen beauty. (Note: I should have pulled out an iron, but as I said, I’m a crappy housekeeper.)

Love those California poppies.

This one is part of a set of five  from Elfi Nnicheri, Norwegian-Canadian opera singer married to an Italian-Canadian painter who worked with me at Holt Renfrew in Montreal. The occasion was my bridal shower, back in the days when tea towels and pillowcases, rather than a set of Shun knives were appropriate shower gifts. I have two left and they’re so beautiful I’ll go to my grave before they dry a tea cup. Damask woven in Hungary, and believe me, my (not) crackerjack photo skills don’t do it justice.

Then  there are the tea towels that got away. My standard shower gift for the bride-to- be is James Peterson’s Cooking wrapped in a tea towel and topped with a bow. I’ve doubled down: wrapped an apron in a tea towel for gifting. And because I love embroidery , friends have recieved tea towels embellished with tea cups, cats, and — thank you, Aunt Martha transfers — a chicken playing a guitar.

I feel better, cleaner now that I’ve confessed. And if you’re wondering about a suitable birthday gift…


Filed under Collections, Five bucks or fewer, Home, Needlework