Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Old Vic

We’ve made a decision about what we’re getting each other for Christmas — a decent sound system. He’s impressed by Bose, so that’s where we’ll go, even if we have to make EZ payments. For music lovers with hundreds of CDs, we’ve almost given up on listening in the house because we’re living with a clunky mid- 70s system whose only redeeming feature is a turntable. We’ll try to salvage the turntable, but tossing the black monolith in the living room will free up three bookshelves and might propel me to match up those naked CDs with their empty jewel boxes. Maybe I’ll buy racks that will hold them, all organized, on those empty shelves! (Or not.)

The 1910 state of the art music system will stay, although we’ve considered putting it up on eBay during many the tough time. We never did, because Victrola collectors are thin in the ground during a recession, and the market would be limited to a day’s drive away, because crating and shipping this behemoth would cost as much as posting a pony. Here’s a snap of Nonno’s Victrola, top open.

I mean, this is a piece of cabinetmaking, and no lowly tabletop version. It stands four feet tall, has claw feet, a bellied front, and a covey of cornices. Lou’s grandfather’s Baldwin baby grand didn’t cost that much more than the Victrola and was easier to shift.  The two of us can’t budge it — I’ve waved a duster under it, capturing old cat toys and bills past due by twenty years, but I’ve never nosed a vacuum cleaner under it. It’s that heavy.

The gleaming interior. The original brush for dusting the discs is in the left hand corner. I should have brushed the record before I took the picture — it’s a single-side of Amelita Galli-Curci singing “Caro Nome” from Rigoletto. When we inherited the Victrola we inherited a hundred arias from the Golden Age: Caruso, Gigli, Melba. Those records were a dollar in 1910 money, for one song.

The tech is low, but it works. The record is a teeny scratchy? Early Dolby noise reduction: lower the lid — gone! You want to pump up the volume? Open the doors.

The inside of the lid sports the decal  doggie listening to His Master’s Voice. Until I inherited The Old Vic I thought it was just a cute piece of marketing. Then something eerie happened, as we spun Caruso singing “Celeste Aida.”

Cats can hear a vole at a hundred feet, a can of cat food opening at a mile — they can hear. But cats are never music lovers. Blast “Vampire Weekend” or” Mahler’s 5th” and they’ll sit oblivious on the windowsill, polishing their whiskers and jeering at passing dogs out for walkies. When the great Caruso launched into Verdi’s Top Tenor Hit they were electrified, and worried. Where was that person? Whence that voice? We had the doors open and they crawled in, looking for Enrico. Caruso’s indahouse!

That’s how live, how real  the Old Vic Sounds. The recordings were made by singers breathing the melody into a wax cylinder, ur-analogue. The cats are right: there’s a soul and a voice in there.


Filed under Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Free, History, Home, Music

The Cheapest and Cheerfullest Thanksgiving

Yeah, I missed a table of family and I missed my Wednesday ritual of preparing the pies, the cranberry sauce and blanching brussel sprouts. But, oh, so much to be grateful for, like Rafa Nadal pulling off a tough match against Andy Murray. My father and siblings, my daughter and son-in-law, the roof over my head and a car in the driveway.

It was Cheap and Cheerful because my ex-boss and dear friend Gretchen asked Lou and me over for dinner. Gretchen was a saint when she was my boss, given my unprepared career in the cut throat world of the payroll biz. She helped with me with my failings and promoted my strengths, like training and writing.  We ate, drank, played after dinner games, and it felt like family Thanksgiving. I love young folks and talking to her son Joe about writing code and Darryl’s daughter Jackie about her (literally) astronomical ambitions reassured me once again the the kids are all right. Thanksgiving in the ‘Ville. After dinner we were joined by my friend Jason, another unfortunate ex-boss of mine at Paychex and one of the funniest men I know.

Left to right: Gretchen, Jason, Darryl.

Today was one of those miracle- of- Facebook things: I met my (second) cousin Bill for lunch at a Portillo’s in Schaumburg after a period of, conservatively, forty years. My great-aunt Chi, his grandmother, was an inspiration and role model to me — in fact, my high school literary prize was a story about a trip Chi and I took to Quebec City together when I was fifteen. When I walked up to the restaurant door I saw Bill and we basically fell into each others arms –no reserve, no stiffness — it felt like the big hug we should given each other when we were teen shy teens. Portillo’s was packed —packed, but I swooped on an empty table while the guys waited in line for Italian beef sandwiches. I was hungry, but eating was wedged into chatting and I’m sure I talked with my mouth full.

Bill’s a doll. He’s my long-lost cousin. We’ve hatched a fledgling fam reunion, centered around the family compound in Sauble Beach, Ontario. As Bill said: “I think Chi would be very happy knowing that we’re here together.” Yes, Bill, she’d be thankful.


Filed under Food, History, Media, The 'Ville

Eight Pounds of Awesome: Autobiography of Mark Twain


I’m swagging the weight of the book –it’s heavier than Willow, who logs in at a feline supermodel seven pounds. It could work as a bookbinder’s press. Dropped from a height onto bare feet it would break a few toes, or crack a tile floor. When I went to Border’s to buy a copy for Lou’s birthday and couldn’t find it, I asked a young saleslady about it and she said “Oh yeah, it’s this huge. We have a big stack of it somewhere.” She and I spent fifteen minutes looking for the big stack, which didn’t exist. (I took the opportunity to grab a copy of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, and I’m glad I did.) Then she headed to the back room and returned ten minutes later. (I’d spent the time browsing Amy Sedaris’s Crafts for Poor People and discovered I disliked it. Intensely.)

“The computer says we have two copies. I can’t find them.” I suggested she check the Hold area behind the counter and after five minutes she emerged victorious. She dismissed the book customer who’d put it on hold: “You snooze, you lose,” and I gav e Borders my thirty five bucks.

Some reviewer called it a “Dad Christmas present.” Well, my Dad reads through Herodotus and Thucydides for fun. My Dad presented me with a copy of Tom Sawyer when I was ten and it changed my life. Just mention the Duke and the Dolphin to Daddy and he bends over at the waist and weeps with laughter. I don’t doubt that he could recall the plot points of Connecticut Yankee if I dialled him up this minute . And the tougher books, like The Mysterious Stranger. (Family legend is that my great-grandfather hung with Twain. They inhabited the same literary circle and had the same friends in fin-de-siecle New York. It may very well be true.)

Autobiography of Mark Twain is 736 pages long and the print is teeny. Lou started to read it today, got through maybe fifty pages and hasn’t shut up. Twain’s stories about the life of U.S. Grant, the duplicity of the AP , Grant’s miserable financial sense, his honor , the rapacious publishing business of the time, all spoken with Twain’s plain speak. Brilliant.

I’ve just dipped in, and I’m here to say that there’s a gem of a story on every page, like the one about his mother not caring for the “private bats” he brought home from the caves of Hannibal in his pockets.

This isn’t a Dad doorstop Christmas present: it’s a page turner. A life enhancer. A view back, and some thoughts about what we can do together going forward. And it’s funny.

On the eve of this most American holiday, I’m giving thanks for Mark Twain.

(Edited to add: He weighed the book. Four and a half pounds.)




Filed under Uncategorized

Cheap, Cheerful, Paper, Thread and Useless…

… so of course I love it.

It’s a garland made from two inch paper circles, a dab of a glue stick, it’s folded, then sewn. I don’t remember where I got the idea from, but I remember that the prototype was all glue, no thread. Any symmetrical shape works  I’m particularly fond of a 3D Christmas tree I dreamed up, but it must have rolled under a piece of furniture after being batted about by a cat.

The only tiny snag is that the paper needs to be colored on both sides to produce a truly festive object, and because two-sided origami paper is pricey I glued two sheets of foil Christmas wrap together before I cut out the circles.

If the paper’s thin, cut out seven circles — if not, five will do. Fold each in half, then stack them.

This was, in fact, made from duo origami paper. Straighten the stack and sit down in front of the trusty machine, (It was welcoming a change from aprons.)

Sew through all layers along the center fold line. Now comes the magic part. Open each leaf, and arrange them to form a paper globe.

To firm up the globular shape, glue two of the leaves together. Or, what a swell idea for a pop up card — just glue two adjacent leaves to either side of the fold.

What can I say, it’s been a quiet week here in the ‘Ville.


Filed under Art, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, How Cool is That?, Less than 50 cents, Needlework, Paper

Pyrex: Pretty in Pink

Cleaning out my father-in-law’s pantry while we were in the Upper Peninsula this spring was moldy, musty, melancholy work. I can’t remember the oldest expiration date on the cans, though 1987 rings a bell. We drove home with some newish pasta and tinned tomatoes, but mostly it was toss toss toss. In retrospect, I applaud the integrity of the house’s construction: even after a long cold snowy winter we didn’t find any mouse raisins in the corners.

When we opened the pantry door my eyes went to these sweet lovelies as the eyes of a fifteen year old boy’s to the cover of Maxim. In that crowded, gloomy pantry they shone with cheerfulness.

Pink Pyrex!

Of course I own plain ole Pyrex: the pie plates, the loaf pan and a couple of “vintage” casseroles I inherited from my mother-in-law. These two bowls were hers, of course — thanks, dear Pat. I’m guessing they’re 50s vintage, but they’ve hung on to their good looks and good health. The smaller one is quart sized, the other twice as big. I’m sure there was another one, probably smaller. What was its fate, I wonder? Pyrex is hard to break. Did it go home with a long gone family member, filled with Thanksgiving leftovers?

Since I brought them home I’ve used no other other bowl to whip eggs in. I’ve moved the coeur a la creme mold to the back of the open shelf, the better to show off their wholesome rosy prettiness. The larger bowl is the size of the clear Pyrex bowl my mother used when she made Scotch Omelet of Aileen’s Pudding, a cakey pudding bathed in Lyle’s Syrup — hey I have that recipe somewhere! That pud was a dessert highlight of my youth, sweet syrupy and spongy . Talk about cheap and cheerful.

Pat’s pretty pink Pyrex bowl, my mother’s pudding  recipe. I like that. I can unite around the kitchen counter with two magnificent women, and eat dessert too.




Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Born in Chicago, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Food, History, Home, Into the Mystic

Remembering the Poppy

I don’t remember if the school handed us a poppy to wear sometime in early November, or whether we paid a modest amount to wear that beloved badge.

Our fathers went to work, our mothers shopped and played bridge, the postman dropped by — all sporting a poppy on a lapel. Canadians and Brits still wear them —  the newsreaders on the BBC news haven’t retired theirs as of last night, a few days after November 11. In fact, the British delegation took some heat at the G20 earlier this week for their poppies — some other countries didn’t appreciate that splash of red. I’m happy to report that David Cameron told them, diplomatically, to shove it. Fashion note: The UK version now includes a dashing splash of faux foliage.

The Poppy is certainly cheap for such a crimson splash, but its provenance isn’t cheerful. It was the chosen official emblem of mourning for, and remembrance of, the millions of British Empire dead in the First World War. (As WWI didn’t turn out to be The War to End All Wars, we’ve many more dead to remember.) It features in the first line of the Canadian Army surgeon John McCrea’s immortal war  poem “In Flanders Fields,” and was considered the natural choice for the pin of painful memories.

To this day, it’s one of the two poems I learned in school I can still recite without effort. (The other is “Ozymandias.”)

Only once have I discussed the First World War with someone who’d fought in it — our family friend, Doug Read. He kept it light and short, recalling being so tired, young and hungry that he slept through the carnage at Ypres (or was it Vimy Ridge?) My English grandfather served in the Royal Navy, but he died before I could ask him for war stories.

In the time I’ve lived in the USA I’ve discovered that the Poppy isn’t ubiquitous — in fact I’ve been able to buy one only twice since I moved here, from eldery vets at a stoplight. They were sad plasticky versions of the flowers I remembered, but I was happy to buy them and proud to wear them them. Each year, I was literally the only employee to own one.

I need to find a way to bring back the Poppy. Hmmmm — how about I make some next year and sell them, proceeds going to the VFW? I may be a genius.


Filed under Art, Books, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, History, Holidays, Less than 50 cents, Politics

Owls and Toiles: Aprons of the Day (And Giveaway)

You didn’t really think I’d let you get away with a week without a post about aprons, did you? I’m showing you two of four I made this week: the other two are Christmas commissions and their recipients just might be on Facebook. You’ll have to wait , breathless, until Boxing Day. I’d love it if the recipients were the models.

“Owls and Toiles” — well, it almost rhymes —  is flat out about how much I love these prints. The “Owls” side has a nice 60s Scandinavian vibe, especially as the cotton has a heavy linen-like texture. (So does the toile.)

Here’s the long tall view, with Friday night martini:

I’ve been just folle about Toile de Jouy since my teen eyes first spotted it. All those eighteenth century French rural scenes, complete with hens, shepherdesses, villages, haystacks, chickens…the toiles give me the same happiness as watching the teeny Chinese fishermen leaning over a bridge on a Blue Willow dinnerplate.

The apron:

Yeah, I like eyelet on pockets.

The second apron I’m showing is very much a departure. My (second) cousin Tarby — her grownup name is Charlotte, but she slips and calls me Muffie sometimes, sent me a shot of an apron sewn from a square of fabric and set like a diamond. I call it “Green and Garlic.” I love this garlicfabric:

The avocado reverse is prettier than it looks it this picture.

I skimped a bit on the fabric — it’s two small for Zoolander. But I kinda love the pointy hem, and I think it’s flattering.

I’m asking for some help road testing this new model. First person to comment will receive it in the mail, from moi,



Filed under A yard of fabric, Apron of the Day, Needlework, The 'Ville