Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lazy Sunday

It's been a lazy Sunday afternoon. I threw in a load of wash, had a lunch of leftovers, took a walk with friends, checked my email, and started the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle. There's no real reason why Sunday should feel different from other days, since I don't work in an office during the week, yet it does. It's a time to sleep late, putter around, and generally relax.

Somehow Saturday doesn't have the laid-back feeling of Sunday. On Saturday, I'm more likely to run errands, do my exercises, and entertain or go out with friends in the evening. I think of Saturday as a high-energy fun day. On Sundays, I like to slow down. 

My Sundays had a slow feel even when I was in high school. There might have been homework I'd left until the last minute, but there was also time to lie on my bed daydreaming about my latest crush, wondering if I'd see him between classes on Monday. If I wasn't fantasizing about boys I was on the phone with my girlfriends talking about them. Sunday was a day of possibilities, filled with the delicious anticipation of the week to come.

Later, when I was in law school, Sunday afternoon might find me napping. I'm normally not a person who naps, but law school was intense. Just thinking about the workload was enough to make me drowsy. On Sunday, the whole afternoon stretched out before me and my quiet bedroom beckoned. School work could wait until evening. Those Sunday afternoon naps were special. I've rarely taken them before or since, but they seemed the height of luxury at the time.

Today I didn't lie on my bed daydreaming or luxuriate in a nap, but I did slow down the pace and take time to appreciate the company of my friends and the beauty of a Miami sunset. I've had a nice lazy Sunday.

Friday, February 26, 2010

If the Shoe Fits

As some of you may remember, I recently spent an inordinate amount of time shopping for an evening dress (see "Shopping for 'The One' "). The good news is, I finally found a lovely dress at an amazing price. The bad news is that now I have to find shoes to go with it.

Those of you with adorable Carrie Bradshaw feet, just made for Manolo Blahnik shoes, will probably find this post incomprehensible or merely boring. Why, you might ask, do I not head to the nearest mall and buy myself a cute little pair of strappy sandals? The answer, sadly, is that my feet are not the Manolo Blahnik type. I've been blessed (or, some might say, cursed) with very narrow heels but wide forefeet. Basically, impossible to fit.

I'm not complaining, exactly. Despite their limitations, my feet have served me well. I love to walk and they've carried me for many a mile. But when it's time to shop for dressy shoes, I face a daunting challenge. Thankfully, the Internet exists to help me meet it. Enter Zappos, Nordstrom, and other online shoe retailers. They not only carry a huge selection in varying widths, but they feature generous shipping policies.

I started my shoe search with Zappos, since I've had good luck with them in the past. During an earlier shoe quest, I called a Zappos customer service rep with a question about a particular style and she suggested I simply order the shoes I wanted in the two sizes I thought might fit, then return the pair that didn't work, or both pairs, if neither fit properly. This time, I found a pair of sandals in just the metallic color I was looking for, so I ordered them in an 8 and an 8 1/2. When I chose standard shipping, I was informed there would be no charge. Pleased, I submitted my order.

A short while later, an email arrived telling me that Zappos valued my business so much they were upgrading my shipping status to priority. The shoes arrived the following day. So far, so good. Then I tried them on. The size 8 pair fit, in the sense that I could get my feet into them. But as far as actually walking, that was another story. The size 8 1/2 pair was altogether too big. Both pairs would have to go back. Zappos made it easy. I merely had to slap on a return label and drop the box off at my nearest UPS Store.

Next, I tried DSW online. I knew I could return the shoes to the nearest store if they didn't work out. They didn't. The clerk at the store couldn't have been nicer about the return. A petite young woman, she clearly loved shoes and enthusiastically told me there were some great styles available on clearance. She seemed totally mystified when I mentioned that I was hard to fit. Ah, innocence.

After that failure, I really intended to give the local mall a try. Maybe I would get lucky. But yesterday evening, too late for hitting the brick and mortar stores, I decided to go virtual once more and check out the Nordstrom online shoe site. I found a cute pair of sandals with a reasonably low heel, available in a C width. If I bought two pairs, the price would qualify me for free shipping! Since I would need to try both the 8 and 8 1/2, as usual, I couldn't resist the allure of one more online order. 

If this doesn't work out, I'm not sure what I'll do next. The dress is floor-length. If worse comes to worst, I can always go barefoot and no one will be the wiser.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Organic, Sustainable . . . Walmart?

Sounds like an oxymoron, right? But Walmart has apparently made big changes in its produce department. Corby Kummer, food writer for The Atlantic Monthly, visited a Walmart for the first time in a decade and was amazed by the transformation. You can read about his impressions in an article in the current issue of The Atlantic, "The Great Grocery Smackdown."  Make sure to check out the video that accompanies the article—if I didn't know better, I would have thought I was viewing a Whole Foods or other high-end market.

As Kummer points out, Walmart's new emphasis on sustainable agriculture and organic produce is good news for local farmers and consumers alike in areas which typically have poor produce choices. Kummer is not naive. He knows Walmart is not acting purely out of altruism. His point is that offering healthy fruits and vegetables may benefit both the company and the populations it serves. Kummer concludes his article with the following—"I’m convinced that if it wants to, a ruthlessly well-run mechanism can bring fruits and vegetables back to land where they once flourished, and deliver them to the people who need them most."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Weather Obsessed

We live in a weather-obsessed culture, which has been fueled by our ever-increasing access to weather data—we can check our local radar at any given moment and can find current weather conditions anywhere on the globe. The Weather Channel provides constant local updates and goes into crisis mode during any type of storm. But there's another factor that has contributed to our weather obsession—our mobility. Once we've actually lived in another place, with a different climate, we think about ourselves differently in relation to our local weather.

Long before I lived in northern California, I knew it had a warmer and dryer climate than Long Island, where I grew up, but it wasn't something I cared about. During my childhood, I regarded New York's climate as a given. My mind and body accepted the rhythm of the four seasons. I loved the changing weather. Summer seemed special in part because it had to end. During fall, I enjoyed walks home from school, with the crisp red, orange, and yellow leaves crunching underfoot. Winter meant skating at outdoor ice rinks and on local ponds, the quiet after a snowstorm, and soft mohair sweaters. And I couldn't imagine life without the miracle of spring, a time of rebirth and renewal, of love and longing.

At college, I became enchanted with the climate of western Massachusetts. There, the seasons were more sharply delineated—summer sultry and green, fall magnificent with mountains dressed in brilliant autumn hues, winter majestic and awe-inspiring. Spring fever never seemed so poignant and wonderful as during those college years, when the yearnings of adolescence were fed by the soft greens of budding trees and the scent of lilacs in the air.

When I was 23, I moved to northern California. At first, I found the climate bland and boring. The leaves never really fell off the trees, though the oak leaves turned brownish and a few of them drifted to the ground during December and January. Other plants stayed in bloom year-round, so when "spring" arrived in February, it passed largely unnoticed. There was a dry season and a wet season, which didn't feel natural to me. My body rhythms weren't attuned to them. And the air seemed harsh and dry. When I sat in the California sun, I developed a rash.

After a year, I returned to the East Coast for a year, then came back to California. This time, I felt more comfortable with the climate. I loved the smell of the eucalyptus trees and the sight of the fog bank looming over the Coastal Range. I still missed the four seasons, but I began to find compensations—no snow and ice to contend with while driving, the clarity of the dry air and the beauty of the sky after a rainstorm. In short, I began to feel at home in California. My mind and body adapted.

After about five years, I moved back east, with a two-year stopover in Chicago, where I experienced a return to winter with a vengeance. My stay in the windy city coincided with the most severe winter in Chicago's recorded history, which set records for both snow and cold. From there, I settled in Boston, which seemed balmy by comparison. I still loved the New England summers, the gorgeous falls, the delicate and beautiful spring, and even the cold and snowy winters. But I didn't regard them as inevitable anymore. I knew viscerally that I had options.

Over the years, this awareness, coupled with the length of New England winters, made me receptive to spending winter in a warmer place. Now I live in Florida during the coldest months and have adapted yet again. I love the softness of the air here and the lushness of the foliage. But I still look forward to returning to Massachusetts in time to see the daffodils bloom.

I haven't done a scientific study, but it's my impression that those who haven't ever lived in a climate without winter accept and savor winter more than those of us who have experienced the alternative. So, the more mobile we are as a society, the more people will object to climate conditions they once would have embraced. Add to that the availability of instant information to remind us that when it's inclement where we are, it's beautiful somewhere else, and it's easy to see why so many of us become obsessed with the weather.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Flying Above the Clouds

You know the feeling when you take off in overcast weather? The plane climbs up through the clouds. At first you can see the ground below, then the clouds surround the plane and you are flying blind, in the midst of soft gray, hoping the pilot's instruments are guiding him well. Then comes the wonderful moment when the plane bursts through the clouds into pristine blue sky and blazing sunlight. At that point, you are truly above it all, in a rarefied atmosphere, viewing the stunning cloud carpet from on high.

Rarefied is the operative word here because, in reality, you couldn't survive in this crystal clear environment, where the air is frigid and the oxygen thin. Still, it's a beautiful sight to behold, one I never tire of, and the memory of this experience has come to me at times of crisis, when I'm reminded of what's truly important.

There's nothing like a life-threatening illness to put things into perspective. Little problems fall away and the focus returns to what matters—love of family, of friends, of the wider world. The fog of everyday life clears and its little irritations seem irrelevant. Though born out of a sobering realization of mortality, the clarity that comes with that realization can be bracing and exhilarating.

In the fortunate event that the crisis passes and health is restored, that heightened awareness often lingers for a while, then inevitably slips away, like an airplane descending back into the clouds, coming down to earth. It's hard to hold on to the experience of sun shining down on a glorious blue sky over a white cloud carpet. But when I catch myself sweating the small stuff, I try to put myself there, to remind myself that life is short and I should treasure each moment.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Etiquette of Arrival

When it comes to arriving at places, I have a split personality. I love to get to the airport early, with plenty of time to go through security and relax at the gate. For business or doctors appointments, I feel it's important to be on time, if not slightly early. But when it comes to social occasions, I'm all for arriving fashionably late, or at the very least not early. There can be no greater social faux pas than arriving early for a party.

I could never convince my father of this, however. He liked to arrive early, even for social occasions, much to the chagrin of my mother, who preferred to make a later entrance. It was difficult to thwart my father's desire to get going. He would stand by the door with his coat on, impatiently calling for us to hurry up. When we arrived at our destination before the appointed time, which often happened, he seemed oblivious to our mortification. He liked the comfort of knowing we had made it there safe and sound.

By the time I was a teenager, my mother and I and my two younger sisters had worked out a tacit plan to prevent early arrival. While my father stood by the front door, one or another of us would call to him from the upstairs bedrooms where we were dressing. "I'm almost ready," we might say, soothingly, or "I'll be down in a sec." Finally, in an attempt to show he was serious about leaving, my father would go out to the driveway and start the car, where he'd sit, engine running, until we finally emerged. Usually, we had stalled long enough to avoid arriving before the appointed time.

I still go to great lengths to avoid arriving early at social gatherings. Recently, I prevailed on E. to sit in the car for fifteen minutes, so we wouldn't ring the bell early for a dinner party. And I've been known to circle the block or even take a scenic detour in order to avoid showing up before my host expects me. In all other matters of arrival, though, I've inherited my father's anxious nature and find it comforting to arrive early. This even extends to some social situations—I don't like to be late for restaurant reservations and when a friend is driving me to the movies or the theater, I try to be ready for pickup early.

So, rest assured, I won't keep you waiting if we're going to the movies together. But, if you ever invite me to dinner, don't worry—I won't show up while you're still in the shower.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bizarro Restaurant Universe

Yesterday evening, E. and I and two friends had tickets for a concert at 8 pm. Our friends suggested we have dinner beforehand at a nearby restaurant, one of very few within walking distance of the concert hall. They hadn't been there before, but it seemed promising, with an appealing menu, creative-sounding cocktails, and rave reviews from diners on the Zagat and Urban Spoon websites. If only our experience had lived up to the reviewers' hype.

We arrived at the restaurant shortly after 6 pm, so we wouldn't have to rush to make the performance. Our first impression was great—we liked the colorful artwork and stylish bar. A number of tables were already occupied, a good sign at such an early hour. In retrospect, it might have been better for us had we been the only ones there.

We were seated and given menus. As we chatted, activity swirled around us, but no one approached our table. After about ten minutes, a busboy came over to ask if we'd like some water while we waited for the waiter to take our drink orders. Tap water would be fine, we said. The water arrived, then nothing happened for at least ten more minutes. Wait staff traversed the floor, but no one made eye contact with us. I flagged down a passing waiter and asked him to get our waiter. He said he would. No one came.

We looked around the room. We saw people younger than us and older, more chic than us and stodgier. We could find no obvious explanation for our waiter's inattentiveness. For that matter, the staff may have been studiously ignoring any number of other tables. It was hard to tell. Eventually, we caught the eye of the manager. He apologized for the delay and took our drink orders.

Finally, our waiter sauntered over to our table. He, too, apologized, but he sounded totally indifferent. We explained that we needed to leave by 7:30 in order to walk back to the concert hall in time for the performance. He assured us that would be no problem. No problem for him, that is. We finally received our entrees at 7:20. I quickly shoveled down the food, which was not bad, if I'd only had a little more time to enjoy it.

We wondered what had happened to make such a well-reviewed place perform so badly. We noticed that there seemed to be a surplus of busboys. At one point, we heard one busboy teaching another how to set the table. When a different busboy finally served us our meals, he seemed so nervous that his hands were literally shaking. Had half the staff quit the day before, resulting in too few waiters and a bunch of newly-hired busboys?

I prefer to believe that we entered a bizarro restaurant universe, where the aim was alienation of the customer. By that measure, our dinner was a complete success.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tiger Repents

Today, the world witnessed the long-awaited apology by Tiger Woods, golfer extraordinaire and philanderer. In carefully enunciated phrases, Tiger said he was sorry, so very sorry, very sorry. He repeated himself. Almost ad nauseum, but not inappropriately. Tiger has plenty to be sorry for.

He let down his wife, to put it mildly. He let down his mother. He let down his fans. And he let down the PGA, which depended on him to draw people to the sport. In fact, before the sordid story of Tiger's personal life broke, the stories about him often concerned the fact that golf was losing popularity and he was the main reason people still had any interest. I'm exaggerating a little. But not much.

The best moment in Tiger's apology came when he acknowledged that he had believed the regular rules of behavior didn't apply to him. He said he had mistakenly thought his fame and fortunate entitled him to have affairs and generally act selfishly. The words were right, but Tiger's delivery sounded a little canned, as if he were mouthing phrases that had been drummed into him during the 45 days he recently spent in therapy for sex addiction.

More therapy will follow, Tiger said, and eventually maybe he'll play some golf. Meanwhile, he'd like people to respect his privacy. Can't say I blame him, though his long-held privacy policy obviously didn't succeed in keeping his past peccadillos private. Experts say that sex addiction is very difficult to cure. If Tiger strays again, I doubt he'll find his antics will remain private for long.

Tiger spoke slowly during his fourteen-minute apology. He read the words. The words were contrite. He may have meant them. He spoke before a friendly audience and took no questions. He seemed so controlled and robotic that I felt sorry for him. But I'm not convinced that he truly feels sorry about anything other than having been caught.

Am I being too hard on Tiger? If you haven't yet seen his apology, you can watch it and decide for yourself. Just go to and take a look.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Like Ships Passing in the Night

Recently, I received an email from an old friend. He had tracked me down after finding an article of mine that had been published online. In his email, he told me what he'd been up to for the last 35 years and said he'd been wondering what had happened to E. and me since the 1970s, when we all lived in Los Gatos, California.

I answered his email and we swapped photos. He appeared to be a nice-looking guy. But, staring at his picture, I didn't recognize the person I'd known all those years ago. Perhaps, had I seen him in person, his smile or body language would have made him seem more familiar. However, it's entirely possible that if I'd passed him on the street, I would have walked right by. Realizing this got me thinking about all the times I may have walked right by someone from my past life without knowing it.

This certainly could have happened with old friends from high school. While I didn't attend my fortieth high school reunion, in 2007, I later saw a video of the event. I hardly recognized anybody. My class was relatively small, about 300, and back in high school I knew virtually everyone by name. Not any more.

A few faces did stand the test of time and I would have known them anywhere, but in most cases youthful appearance had been obscured by the years. Whether it was weight gain, wrinkles, jowls, gray hair, or hair loss, these former classmates didn't look like anyone I'd ever met. A few women had clearly had face lifts, presumably in an effort to look younger. But the process of smoothing wrinkles had distorted their previously-recognizable features, making them strangers to me.

All of which leaves me wondering, would my old friends recognize me? Or would we simply pass one another on the street, unknowing, like ships passing in the night?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Miami's Hills

To speak of Miami and hills seems an oxymoron—there are no natural hills in Miami. The only way to achieve elevation in Miami, short of flying, is to spend time in a high-rise. There are many to choose from and quite a few along the coast, with spectacular views of the water. As a New Englander, I miss the rise and fall of the land when I'm in Miami, but I compensate by living on the eleventh floor of a high-rise. In Miami, high-rises are the next best thing to hills.

There are advantages to living in a flat landscape. I love to walk and I appreciate the endless level terrain. The flatness of the land allows winds to sweep from the Gulf of Mexico east across the Florida peninsula, clearing out pollutants and helping to make Miami a city with exceptionally clean air. The land may lack definition, but the sky here is big and beautiful, an ever-changing landscape in itself, with mountains of clouds often nestled at the horizon.

Still, living without hills can feel monotonous. Sometimes, I long for the beauty of a gentle slope or the curve of a road through a valley surrounded by hills. It's then that I most appreciate my apartment aerie, where I can perch on my terrace overlooking Miami. From there, I see houses submerged in lush greenery and sailboats dotting the water. At night, I survey the lights of the city and the dark expanse of the bay. The view never fails to provide a sense of space and possibility.

From the outside, many high-rises appear hulking and out of place. I sympathize with Miami natives who wistfully remember the days when much of the coast consisted of only sand and surf and an occasional house. But I've come to appreciate the value of buildings that rise up from the flat land and, like hills, provide their residents with the gift of an elevated perspective.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Oympic Poetry

This evening, I watched a little Olympic poetry, as the male figure skaters competed in the men's short program. I was particularly taken with one of the Japanese skaters, Nobunari Oda. Oda skated a clean program with tremendous athleticism, though his performance lacked passion. But it was not so much Oda's skating that fascinated me as his lineage—he is the 17th direct descendant of Oda Nobunaga, a 16th century feudal lord who conquered most of Japan. I wondered what the young skater's ancestor, an exceptional samurai of his time, would have made of his descendant's attempt to conquer the ice.

During an earlier Olympics, in 1992, I found myself pondering the samurai traditions of courage and honor. During those winter games, Midori Ito of Japan skated for the gold in the women's figure skating competition. She won the silver. Many of her countrymen were in the audience waving Japanese flags the day she skated her long program. I watched her drama unfold on television and was moved to write the following poem.

Midori Ito
A Pantoum

Rising suns flutter in the stands
as she slowly skates onto ice,
face of a Kabuki dancer,
modest, but without kimono.

She slowly skates onto ice,
eyes downcast, her muscular legs
immodest, without kimono.
She has come to skate for honor.

Eyes downcast, with muscular legs
she balances on two sharp blades.
She has come to skate for honor,
devoted as a samurai.

She balances on two sharp blades,
gliding gracefully to music,
devoted as a samurai
warrior facing certain death.

Gliding gracefully to music,
she attempts the triple axel
like a warrior facing death,
needing perfect concentration.

She attempts the triple axel,
leaps, knowing she cannot succeed
without perfect concentration,
and falls, shame etched on her features—

face of a Kabuki dancer
as all the rising suns flutter.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Camera Shy

I asked E. for a new camera as a birthday gift. He loved the idea, but wanted me to pick it out. That has turned out to be a daunting task.

My iPhone camera is pretty incredible, considering it's part of a phone that can do so many other things, but even when using a photo app that has a zoom feature, I can't get the closeups I'd like. So, I want a digital camera with good zoom capability. Sounds simple, right?

I knew that digital cameras had come a long way in the past few years, but when I started researching my options online, I was amazed by all the features available these days. I'm always drawn to the models with lots of bells and whistles, but I'm trying to resist. Experience has shown that I get intimidated by too many alternatives and wind up not using most of them. Also, the cameras with lots of cool stuff tend to be bigger and heavier, not to mention more expensive. I've learned that if my camera isn't really compact, I'll leave it at home, and if I keep leaving a really expensive camera at home, I'll constantly feel guilty. So, I've decided I would be better off with an easy-to-use, compact, point-and-shoot camera. That narrows down the field somewhat. But there are still a surprising number of brands and numerous models to choose from.

While checking out cameras online, I quickly got into the camera-world lingo, but I didn't feel any clearer about what I should buy. Different expert reviewers favored different cameras, and once I started reading customer reviews, I became totally confused—they kept contradicting one another. I've asked friends for advice and a couple have recommended their cameras. One has a Sony that she likes, another uses a Canon. But in the short time since they acquired them, the model numbers have changed and some of  the features have been replaced by newer ones.

What's a girl to do? It would probably help to remind myself that this is a good problem to have. I can't wait to get my camera and start shooting the local flora and fauna, including people. If you're in my line of sight, watch out—I'll surely want to take your picture. But if I get one of the cameras that can sense you smiling, you can rest assured you'll look happy in my photos.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Snow Day

Today was a rare, perhaps unique, day in American meteorological history. Snow was on the ground in 49 of the 50 states of the union. Only Hawaii had no snow, but Florida's panhandle got some of the white stuff, thanks to an unusual winter storm making its way across the South. With the mid-Atlantic and Northeast digging out from the latest blizzard, the United States is officially a winter wonderland. Too bad Vancouver hasn't shared in the snowfest—as the Winter Olympics begins, workers are busy trucking in snow and hoping it won't melt before the ski events begin tomorrow.

But the U.S. is not the only country experiencing more snow than usual. My cousin Cathie sent me the beautiful photograph posted here. It was taken yesterday at sunset by her husband, Jacques, from their apartment in Nice, France. It also snowed today in Rome—the heaviest snowfall in nearly a quarter of a century.

Even here in normally balmy South Florida, the weather has been uncharacteristically wintry. Many plants died during the January cold snap, along with fish who couldn't withstand the colder waters (see "Death at Sea").

This week, we're having cold-snap redux. Yesterday, I awoke to temps in the low forties and crisp dry air, kind of like fall in New England. Today was a bit warmer, but still unusually cool. During the late afternoon, dark clouds began to gather, but they didn't appear overly ominous. After darkness fell, however, I saw flashes of lightning in the distance. I didn't think much of it until, from one second to the next, a violent wind began to blow, so fierce that I stopped what I was doing and moved away from the window, wondering if a tornado was about to descend. Instead a powerful thunderstorm unleashed its lightning, thunder, and rain upon us.

Who knows what will come next? Given the wild weather across the nation, nothing would surprise me. Snow for Mardi Gras? A white Valentine's Day in Miami? How about an early spring for everyone? Now that would be a surprise.

Click on photo to enlarge.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Seen Through Another's Eyes

E. and I have owned our Miami apartment for quite a while now, since 2004. The apartment is in an older building and had never been renovated, so after we bought it we hired a contractor, gutted the place, and started from scratch. The work was completed in January, 2005. Shortly after, we moved in with our furniture, set up our computers, plugged in the television, and we were home. Or almost.

Our walls, painted off-white, remained bare until the following year, when we were able to bring paintings created by E.'s father back from California, where they'd been stored. Once we'd hung the paintings, the place really felt like ours. After adding a few decorative odds and ends, including a Chinese red ceramic jar and an Indonesian window screen, we considered ourselves done. For the past several years, we've made virtually no changes. We've simply lived here. And after a while, we stopped really seeing the place. It was just home.

Earlier today, a friend came to visit. Though we've known her for almost as long as we've lived here, she had never seen our apartment. She had no idea what to expect, what our taste in furniture would be, whether we liked clutter, austerity, or something in between. She's something of an expert, since she renovates houses for a living, so I was surprised and pleased when she said she loved the apartment. She commented on things I'd stopped thinking about—the dark wood we chose for our kitchen cabinets, the way we'd laid out the master bath, even the soffits we'd had built over the windows to hide the shade mechanisms. But she also said she loved the artwork and the way the place looked lived-in and not over-decorated.

Before my friend's visit, if I noticed anything about our decor, it was the negatives—all the wires visible beneath our desks, the way the ebony dresser shows dust five minutes after I dust it. Of course, my friend, being my friend, accented the positive. But her praise did more than make me feel good. It helped me appreciate anew the environment E. and I have created, which reflects who we are and how we like to live. It took seeing the apartment through another's eyes to remind me of that.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Being There

Today, I was caught in traffic in front of an elementary school. Parents were lined up in cars, picking up their kids. A few children were walking home with accompanying adults, but for the most part, it was cars, cars, cars. The sight made me grateful that I had lived just around the corner from my sons' elementary school, so I was able to walk over and pick them up when school was out, at least until they were old enough to walk home on their own. I remember those afternoons fondly.

I used to leave the house a few minutes before dismissal time and walk over to the school, where I'd stand in front with other moms and the occasional dad. We parents developed a pleasant camaraderie as we chatted about our children and their concerns. Then, as the students started streaming out of the building, there came that wonderful moment when one or the other of my boys emerged, eyes scanning the waiting parents until he finally found me, then bounded down the steps, full of news of his day.

We ambled along the path next to the field and up the hill to our house, talking about this or that, or simply daydreaming. Those long ago days seem like a dream now, the specifics of our conversations mostly lost. But I still remember the joy I felt at being there for my children at the end of their school day.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Shopping for "The One"

It's interesting to remember how much I enjoyed dressing up as a child, considering how much I dislike it as an adult. Like most girls, I adored trying on my mother's high heels and her jewelry, and I loved watching her get ready for a party—the smell of Chanel No.5 still reminds me of sitting on her bed as she padded around the bedroom in her slip and stockings, then pulled on a black cocktail dress and applied bright red lipstick.

Later, I remember the excitement of having my hair done for my senior prom, and how beautiful I felt in the soft pink gown I wore. A lovely orchid corsage from my date supplied the finishing touch. Since then, though, the thrill of dressing up has been replaced by the joy of dressing down. But sometimes, I still need a fancy outfit for a wedding or other occasion. This week, I've been shopping for an long evening dress.

Most of the dresses I've seen would look gorgeous on a twenty-something-year-old, but not so much on me. At Nordstrom's yesterday, I did find a couple of dresses that seemed worth a try. One that I liked fit nicely in every regard, except around my waist, where it was (ahem) a tad too tight. The saleswoman assured me that a body shaper undergarment would do the trick. I'm sure she's right, but do I want to go through the entire evening feeling constricted? Some women are willing to endure pain for beauty. I'm not one of them.

Speaking of pain, high heels aren't so much fun these days, either. I've decided not to even think about shoes until I've found a dress. At Neiman Marcus, I tried on a pretty taffeta number. Fortunately, it was a little too big. I say fortunately, since the number that was way too big was the price. At Neiman's, I couldn't even find a sale rack.

I have had the occasional success story when searching for a fancy dress. Last spring, I desperately needed something to wear to a wedding. I perused the offerings at Bloomingdale's, Macy's, and every boutique at the local mall, with no luck. A couple of days later, I decided to wander through Bloomingdale's one more time, hoping that something I'd missed would catch my eye. Something did! On a sale rack jammed with shopworn clothes, I found a Burberry cocktail dress, drastically reduced. The dress was adorable, falling above my knees, with an empire waist. The fabric was silk, in a soft rose, silver, and pewter check. I had no idea Burberry even made evening clothes, but there it was, in perfect condition and just my size. I'd found "The One!"

This time around, even though I'm not looking forward to heading back to the evening wear trenches, I'm hopeful that among the sequins, beads, taffeta and satin, I'll find the perfect dress for me. And, if I'm really lucky, it will be on sale.

Monday, February 8, 2010

You Be the Judge

The Who received generous reviews for yesterday's Super Bowl halftime concert—apparently, the nostalgia factor prevailed. I wish I could say I enjoyed the performance, but I found the band to be a pale shadow of its former self. Given that I never liked the original group that much in the first place, I suppose it's not surprising that I felt almost embarrassed for Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend last night. The light show that accompanied their music way out-dazzled the aging rock stars.

But if it's celebrity The Who were after, I guess they achieved that—Super Bowl XLIV was the most watched television event in history, surpassing even the series finale of M*A*S*H. So, last night's audience was surely the band's biggest ever. In case you missed the show, you can check it out here, in two parts. You be the judge.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Who's on First?

Actually, The Who's on the fifty yard line, or will be for the Super Bowl halftime show later this evening. Some of you might not even know what The Who is or who The Who are. Those of us who came of age in the 1950s, '60s, or '70s probably recall the music and destructive guitar antics of Pete Townshend and crew, but do kids born in the 1980s or later really know or care about The Who? Do you?

Back in the day, I wasn't a huge fan, but The Who's music still evokes memories. During the mid-1970s, I worked as an editor for Guitar Player Magazine. I shared an office with Steve Caraway, the magazine's layout editor. Steve was obsessed with The Who. Every morning, he'd ask me, "Don't you think Pete Townshend is great? Seriously, don't you think he's the greatest living guitar player?" Every morning, the same urgent refrain. It wasn't enough that Steve worshipped Townshend. He needed me to affirm his devotion.

"I do think he's great, Steve," I would agree. To admit that I didn't believe Tommy was the greatest rock album ever made would have been tantamount to blasphemy in Steve's mind. It was easier to go along to get along. I lost touch with Steve ages ago, but I'm sure if he's still out there somewhere, he'll be watching tonight's halftime show. The question is, what will he see?

For one thing, half the band has passed on. Drummer Keith Moon died in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle died in 2002. The remaining two members, guitarist Townshend and vocalist Roger Daltrey, have passed into old age—Townshend is 64 and Daltry 65, making them the oldest act to perform at the Super Bowl since 1987, when George Burns, then in his 80s, and Mickey Rooney, 66, led a halftime salute to Hollywood's 100th anniversary.

Despite the nostalgia factor, seeing old guys perform the rebellious, muscular music of my youth can be pretty depressing. I recently watched the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on television (the concert took place at Madison Square Garden and tickets sold for astronomical prices). Crosby, Stills & Nash hogged the stage for far too long, Aretha tried (and failed) to hit the high notes, and Springstein belted out his usual fare. Simon and Garfunkel looked over the hill, though they still had their harmonies down. Bono's voice seemed shot and when B.B. King sang "The Thrill Is Gone," the thrill really was gone.

They were all great artists in their day, but their time has passed. When I started watching the concert, I didn't expect to feel that way, but after a couple of hours, I'd had enough. So, I'm not anticipating a great performance from The Who this evening. Maybe they'll surprise me, though I'm not holding my breath. And I hope Pete Townshend doesn't smash up any perfectly good guitars.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Click on photos to enlarge.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Department of Domestic Affairs

This is a story about heat, deception, and eventual triumph. No, I'm not about to reveal a torrid love triangle. My story is about laundry and a dryer that stopped working. It's also a cautionary tale about what can happen when you try to repair a simple problem.

On Monday, I needed to do laundry, lots of laundry. Not wanting to face the mountain of clothes waiting to be sorted, I decided to start with towels. I washed them, then put them in my Bosch Axxis dryer, left the room, and forgot about them. About two hours later, I suddenly remembered the towels, which should have been dry long before. But the dryer was still running and when I opened the dryer door, the towels were damp and cool. The heat had failed.

I quickly guessed the source of the problem. A damper that had recently been installed on the dryer vent had apparently not opened sufficiently to allow adequate ventilation. This caused the dryer to overheat, triggering a shutoff of the heater. At first, I feared that the heater itself had broken, but my Internet research suggested that most likely the dryer had a safety feature, either in the form of a reset button or a thermal fuse, that had acted to turn off the heat before serious damage occurred.

Further surfing on the Internet revealed that while older dryers had reset buttons, most newer models use thermal fuses—if the dryer overheats, the thermal fuse burns out and breaks the connection, preventing further heating. Thermal fuses that burn out require replacement. My owner's manual had no useful diagrams of the dryer's internal mechanisms to help me figure out what the thermal fuse might look like and where it might be located. Even E. was stumped. We finally decided to call a "professional."

The repairman arrived the next morning. E. had told the scheduler the nature of the problem, yet the repairman failed to bring a Bosch thermal fuse or any other Bosch dryer part with him. He glanced at the dryer, didn't open up the back panel, yet claimed to know exactly what part we needed. He said he would have to put in a request for the part and that, if it wasn't in stock, we might have to wait a week for the repair to be made. For showing up and doing absolutely no work, he charged us $100. He assured us, however, that there would be no further service charge when he returned.

The following day, not having heard anything from the repair company, E. called and learned that the part wasn't in stock and that it would be at least a week before the repair could be made. When he asked the cost, he learned we would be charged a staggering $300 for parts and labor. Most of that was for labor. The part itself cost a mere $12. Including the price of the original service call, fixing our dryer would cost us over $400.

Appalled, E. and I considered our options. It would almost be cheaper for us to buy a new dryer than to repair the current one. I was not quite ready to give up, though. In search of inspiration, I went back to the Internet, where I came across a discussion of Bosch dryers on a repair forum. The discussion concerned a Bosch Nexxt dryer, the big brother of our smaller Axxis model. A knowledgeable forum participant wrote that Nexxt dryers have a reset button, located on one side of the heater. Since our Bosch Axxis is virtually the same as the Nexxt except in size, the possibility that it had a reset button definitely seemed worth checking out.

It took a torx screwdriver to get the back panel off, but once that was accomplished, to our amazement and delight, we indeed found a red reset button. E. pushed it and the circuit was restored! As soon as we started the dryer, it heated right up. Problem solved. We did have to remove the damper from the dryer vent to ensure adequate ventilation, but that seemed a small price to pay to have our dryer back. And it's certainly a much smaller price than we would have paid the repairman to unnecessarily replace a part while no doubt surreptitiously pressing the dryer's reset button himself.

We realized we had almost been victims of a scam. Fortunately, we were able to stop payment on the $100 check we paid for the original service call, so the experience only cost us a little time and a little faith in the goodness of our fellow human beings. On the brighter side, I've finally finished the last load of laundry and I've never before appreciated the simple beauty of a well-functioning appliance so much. Precisely because it's full of hot air, the lowly dryer has earned my gratitude and respect.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ode to the Brown Pelican

I have been living by Biscayne Bay in Florida for over five years, yet I never tire of seeing brown pelicans in flight. They look like creatures from prehistoric times. Indeed, the fossil record indicates that pelicans have existed for over 40 million years. I'm repeatedly filled with awe at the sight of their impressive wingspans and long beaks. Perhaps if I'd grown up in a climate where pelicans were common, I would regard them as an everyday sort of bird. Instead, I never fail to find them amazing.

Pelicans appear at times comical, at other times majestic. I love to watch groups of them flying overhead in a vee formation. Often, though, a single pelican, gliding above the water, catches my attention. A pelican's dive is something to behold—from a considerable height, the bird plunges head-first into the water, scooping up fish in the distinctive pouch under its beak.

Brown pelicans, like other sea birds, were devastated by DDT and were placed on the endangered species list, but recent years have seen a recovery of the their population and they have been removed from the list. I count myself lucky to live among them. I hope there will never be a time when brown pelicans won't fish in the waters of Biscayne Bay.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to enlarge.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Curious Case of the Moving Mattress

A few years ago, E. and I discovered the joys of a Sleep Number mattress by Select Comfort. We had tried conventional mattresses of varying firmness, including a pillow-top mattress that was soft on top and firm underneath. Nothing felt good for long. Plus, we didn't exactly agree on the desired firmness. I like a nice cushy feel, while E. hates to sink in. Our solution—a Sleep Number air mattress with separate adjustments for each side.

E. sets his side at 90 out of a possible 100, almost as firm as can be. I prefer to vary the air level, going as low as 25 and as high as 70. In fact, I particularly enjoy the ability to change the setting. If I find that I'm feeling at all stiff or sore in the morning at a firmer setting, I can soften the mattress and relieve any pressure points. If the softness starts to irritate my back, I can increase the firmness for a while. We've been very pleased with our sleep solution. Until lately, that is, when our mattress seems to have developed a mind of its own.

Last week, I was sitting on the love seat in our bedroom, watching television, when suddenly I heard the tell-tale release of air characteristic of the mattress resetting from a higher to lower setting. But I wasn't trying to reset the bed. The setting remote was tucked away in E.'s nightstand drawer. After a couple of minutes, the bed clicked on again. This time, it sounded as if the bed were refilling with air. Peculiar, to say the least. Still, when I climbed into bed later and checked the setting (I normally set the firmness while lying on the mattress), it seemed to be more or less where I'd left it. As with other mysterious occurrences, since I couldn't figure out why it had happened, I conveniently forgot about it.

Last night, however, the bed once again spontaneously turned itself on, several times. This time E. was sitting next to me and witnessed the strange event. Again, the setting seemed okay when I later got into bed and checked it. But what could be causing the bed to develop a mind of its own?

We hadn't had any power surges. I hadn't touched the plug. My nightstand sits between the love seat and the bed, but the setting remote was way on the other side of the bed, in E.'s nightstand drawer. However, several other remotes were on top of my nightstand—television, cable, and radio. Could their proximity somehow have signaled the bed to re-adjust itself? I wasn't using the remotes when these events occurred, although I was watching television each time.

Then there's the apartment factor. Perhaps, unbeknownst to me, the man who resides in the apartment next door also has a Sleep Number mattress and, while adjusting his, triggered ours. Or the people upstairs have an Xbox that's interfering with our mattress. Or it's sunspots. At least the problem doesn't seem to occur while we're sleeping. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Today, I had a peanut butter and jam sandwich for lunch. It's still a favorite of mine, although too much sweet jam sometimes induces an afternoon headache, so I indulge sparingly. A few other aspects of the meal have altered, too. Charting the evolution of my PB&J lunch provides a revealing look at the way American eating habits have changed. 

When I was very young , my mother made my PB&J sandwich with Wonderbread, creamy-style Skippy Peanut Butter and Welch's Grape Jelly. By the time I reached my teens, I'd discovered black raspberry jam and my mother had switched from Wonderbread to Pepperidge Farm white bread. Back then, my idea of a good sandwich consisted of a thin spread of peanut butter and gobs of sweet, luscious jam. I still favored creamy-style peanut butter and my mother still purchased the Skippy brand.

For a good part of my life, I considered a PB&J sandwich inedible without an accompanying glass of milk. By milk, I meant whole milk. Though I learned to tolerate low-fat and later non-fat milk in my cereal, I preferred to drink good, old-fashioned whole milk when imbibing straight from a glass. Usually, my glass of milk contained an added dollop—a couple of teaspoons of coffee. My father was in the coffee business and I considered it a great privilege to be allowed to add a spoonful or two of coffee to my glass of milk, years before I was permitted to drink coffee on a regular basis.

PB&J was a staple food of my college years. While I usually had no idea what brands of bread, peanut butter, and jelly or jam the dining hall served, I still often preferred PB&J to the mystery meat alternative. Toward the end of my time in college, the back-to-the-land movement had taken off, along with an interest in healthier eating. Some of my friends tried growing their own food; others experimented with macrobiotics. While I didn't radically change my eating habits, some of the new food ethos rubbed off on me.

By the time I graduated from college, I preferred my PB&J with whole wheat bread. Later, natural fruit spreads took the place of jams made with refined sugar. Eventually, unsweetened, all-natural peanut butter became readily available. I still clung to my whole milk, though, until finally the ubiquitous concerns about high cholesterol wore me down. Not that I had high cholesterol, but it seemed somehow indecent to continue consuming such large quantities of animal fat, as if I were tempting fate. I still disliked the taste of straight skim milk, even with a little added coffee, so I would often reverse the proportions and accompany my sandwich with a cup of coffee to which a little skim milk had been added.

Today, I prepared my PB&J using an excellent whole grain bread, spread with a generous portion of all-natural peanut butter (kept refrigerated to prevent the oil from separating out) and a thin glaze of apricot fruit spread. I enjoyed the sandwich with a glass of Brita-filtered tap water and a P.D. James mystery. That's one thing that hasn't changed—PB&J always tastes better while reading a good book.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Let the Price Wars Begin

The Kindle is far from perfect. Its screen is small and the light-gray background doesn't provide optimal contrast for comfortable reading. Color isn't available on Kindle, so graphics are limited. The pages aren't numbered like ordinary books, which can be confusing. There's no backlighting for reading in the dark. I don't love everything about my Kindle, but up until now I've loved the $9.99 price of downloading an e-book. With the advent of the iPad, though, that's all about to end.

Amazon has just announced that it will temporarily cease selling books published for Kindle by Macmillan. This after Macmillan indicated that it wants to charge $12.99 to $14.99 for bestsellers and most hardcover releases. Apparently, Apple, the manufacturer of the iPad, will allow Macmillan and other publishers to set their own e-book prices and Apple will take 30 percent of the revenue.  This type of arrangement is known as the agency model, as opposed to the merchant model (currently used by Amazon), in which the retailer purchases stock from the publisher for an agreed-upon price and then sets its own price for sale to consumers. So far, Amazon has priced its e-books at $9.99, even if that means taking a loss on sales.

Now, though, it's likely that e-book prices will rise. Amazon admitted as much in a letter posted by the Kindle team on a customer forum. The letter states that while Amazon will temporarily suspend sales of Macmillan titles, "We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it's reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book."

With the might of Apple behind it, iPad stands to make inroads on Amazon's e-book territory. The iPad offers multimedia and color, making it more appealing for certain types of books and other publications. Thus, even before the announcement of Macmillan's new policy, it appeared that Amazon was in for a competitive ride. Now, things should get really interesting, though not necessarily in a good way for consumers.