Thursday, September 18, 2014

Postcards from San Francisco: The Chateau Tivoli, Alamo Square

Lots of postcards just arrived. I hope this doesn't take forever to load for you...

Surrounded by gorgeous Victorian architecture, I was in hog heaven during my visit to San Francisco earlier this month. I was lucky to stay in two different rooms in one of the grandest of the city's "Painted Ladies," a B&B called The Chateau Tivoli.

Just unlocking that gate and climbing those steps was magic. I had my own keys!

Since I was traveling solo, which I never do, I kept thinking of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, and Mary Ann Singleton, (played by a young Laura Linney in the TV adaptation). A Midwestern innocent, Mary Ann takes a trip to San Francisco in the late '70s, and decides to stay. She scores a lovely apartment on "Barbary Lane" and an eccentric landlady, Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis).

The Chateau Tivoli didn't have a Mrs. Madrigal (or I might never have left) but it was still satisfyingly eccentric and cozy. The staff and several guests were warm and friendly, as were many of the people I encountered in the city. (Everyone is friendlier there. People chatter to strangers and make loud, witty announcements on the buses. Old guys standing on the street will tip their hat as you pass by. In a car.)

One of my favorite things about the Chateau was how the interior matched the exterior — something we rarely find around my neighborhood in Boston, where the stately Victorians have mostly been gutted, sheet-rocked, and renovated beyond recognition. But look at the public rooms on the main floor:

I'd sit here after breakfast, or read and chat over a drink later in the day.

The hallway and staircase up to the rooms.

All the natural woodwork had been painted white at some point, and had to be restored.
The house was originally a private mansion and then became a home for Jewish girls, 
a Jewish cultural center, a rooming house, and finally a center for New Age weirdness 
before being completely restored inside and out as a B&B.

We guests made our own toast and tea for breakfast together in the dining room.

An ornament in the parlor.

I will have some postcards of the two rooms I stayed in and a few other details of the house later on.

The B&B was only a couple of blocks from Alamo Square Park, in a neighborhood famous for its many Painted Ladies. You've probably seen photos of these iconic houses bordering the park, high on a hill, overlooking the city:

I took a tight shot and cropped out more of the houses to the right because the fifth Painted Lady is currently covered in scaffolding and brown netting:

Seeing that house was like coming across a stylish Parisienne in her bathrobe, curlers, and facial mask. Shocking. And if you think scaffolding ruins a photo, just look at what's further along the park:

The park was full of loungers, picnickers, walkers, dogs, kids, artists, musicians, redwoods, and tourists. I felt at home. I might have bumped into Mrs. Madrigal or Mary Ann at any turn.

And I kept asking myself: Why don't we live in San Francisco? I'm still trying to find the answer.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Shopping... for Body Parts

Someone has spent far too long in the Chestnut Hill Pottery Barn: 

I interpreted this as a warning and kept my visit to well under an hour yesterday. I can happily waste lots of time in Pottery Barn and it's probably good that we lost the store in my neighborhood despite my frequent patronage. I'm a sucker for their paisley duvets and pillows along with their towels, boxes, serving pieces, and seasonal items — our apartment is filled with PB purchases. But I was in Chestnut Hill for a doctor's appointment and couldn't resist dropping in to see what was what. 

It's wise to shop at PB stores instead of online because items are often a very different size than you imagine from photos. (I'm pretty good with intrepreting measurements and using a tape measure, but clearly not good enough....) I'm a retail optimist, imagining that things will be exactly the size I want, but reality usually brings a surprise. 

We need new bedside lamps and PB had a metal style I liked. (I've never owned a traditional table lamp with some kind of decorative base and a fabric or paper shade. I've lived with clumsy, playful, and/or passive-aggressive cats since college and I know better than to buy lamps that will break when — not if — they are knocked over. I stick with metal.) We drove to a store to see the lamp in question and it was too big to fit on either bedside table. It was like a floor lamp for toddlers. So we're keeping our old lamps until we move. The scale issue is true for lots of things: serving pieces that appear neat and modest in scale online turn out to be better for catering banquets. Paisley prints that seem striking in an image are mind-blowing on a shower curtain or bed. Yesterday I looked for what I imagined to be a little brass tray in the shape of a maple leaf maybe as big as my hand; it's actually the size of a charger. 

While I'm not buying much these days, I'm unable to resist certain seasonal items. I suggest that you check out the Halloween selection at PB online or in person. They've gone bananas this year, offering everything from that life-size skeleton (on sale for $79) to skull-shaped decanters to little glass votives on spider legs. I spent my visit yesterday carrying this skull candle around (knowing I would never, ever light it):

I felt like Hamlet. It has a satisfying weight although it's more kid-size than Yorick-size. (I thought it would be bigger, but at least it looks much better in person). It was also on sale — a bargain compared to Damian Hurst's platinum-and-diamond skull, which I vastly prefer, but it last sold for $100 million.

So bring on the pumpkins; I'm ready for October. Afterward, this will live in a dark corner on a bookcase, showing off its gleaming teeth until I can afford the platinum version.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Monday, September 15, 2014

We Love Straws

Some of us love straws because they are ideal transmission devices for our daily smoothies. The rest of us love straws because, well, they're straws!

Harris wants anything that Lion has. And Lion has a lot of straws.

I don't have photos of Lion carrying his straws around, looking silly, but I'm working on it.

One of the most exciting things about straws is their ability to get stuck under the fridge.

When that happens, it's my job to fish them out, under close supervision.

Here Harris demonstrates the finer points of this particular straw to Toffee and Lion.

Toffee likes straws. And showing off his toes.

Even Possum has been spotted playing with one during his 10-second daily exercise routine. 
But Lion loves straws the most. And this one is about to take a wild ride around the apartment.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Photos Fixed!

As I was droning on, photo-less, in my last post, my dead iPhoto library/database was rebuilding and repairing itself in the background.

After about five hours of spinning and chugging, almost all of my nearly 24,000 photos are back where they belong. That means that postcards from San Francisco could arrive as soon as tomorrow.

There will be fewer than 24,000 postcards, but that's all I can say with certainty.

Phew. It's been a scary few days. I tried various repairs, but nothing worked. The prospect of having to start all over and re-import all those photos from thousands of folders sent me trotting to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store this afternoon. I usually dread going since they can't always help me. But I'm beginning to think that the true, secret purpose of the Genius Bar is to stimulate self-reliance. As we watch the Geniuses fumble, look baffled, and ask each other for tips, we quietly think, "Oh, come on. I'd be able do better than that." Thus we develop confidence. And then we listen more carefully, and gather enough clues to go home and fix the problem ourselves.

The Narcissist's Bathroom

It was a long day. We had ten open houses for condos and houses on our schedule, and we made it to seven of them. We'd already seen two of the other three twice, many weeks ago. We were just going to confirm one more time that they weren't quite right for us. And the third place is in Charlestown; we're pretty convinced that Charlestown is too inconvenient for us spoiled Back Bay brats.

Before our trek began, we were optimistic that at least one of the ten would be right for us but, as I reflect, I realize that if any of them had been promising, I would have fought to get us in for a showing within hours of the listing's appearance. So, basically, we were dashing around today to see if there were any pleasant surprises. For the most part, there were not.

There's a condo up high on Beacon Hill that we like in spite of its having very low ceilings, old carpeting, and bathrooms and a kitchen from the era when Formica counters and laminate cabinets were the Big New Thing. Its chief problem is that its price needs to drop by several hundred thousand dollars to land within our more modest budget. It's been on the market for months without an offer, whereas most properties sell in a couple of days, so it seems like everybody but the owner is with me on this one. But I bet he isn't going to budge.

Oh, well.

We saw another place that had clearly been a glorious Victorian apartment a few decades ago, after serving as the parlor and dining room of a Proper Bostonian family from the 1880s onward. But developers and owners had chipped away at it until it was just a bare shell of its former self. The large main rooms of the condo had been "opened," so no walls remained to divide the kitchen, dining room, and living room. Instead, the owner used top-of-the-line custom cabinetry to "define" those areas. The cabinets spanned almost an entire, very long wall. The kitchen portion had a broad expanse of sleek, modern natural wooden cabinets. Smack up against them, another row of fancy, white floor-to-ceiling cabinets began. These had dentil cornices and traditional trim. Next came the original fireplace. And next to it were more white cabinets, this time less elaborate, with a built-in desk to make a home office. These were also white, but they still looked different from the other ones. Even my office-loving husband thought they looked odd, being bang-up next to the fireplace.

On the opposite wall stood a gigantic, free-standing custom storage unit with shelves and drawers in very dark wood. It didn't look anything like the cabinetry across from it, but it is much too big to go anywhere, so it is included in the price.

To me, the room resembled a cabinet showroom displaying four styles in three colors. They didn't relate to each other at all. And so, in our minds, all that super-expensive, handcrafted, meticulously designed cabinetry would have to go, except in the kitchen. We'd also want to divide the rooms again with, say, some reclaimed antique pocket doors to close off the kitchen from the living area. Sort of like the ones that were probably there between the dining room and parlor until a few decades ago.

Oh, well.

But I digress. What I really want to tell you about is the bathroom. It was luxe, with creamy stone on the floor and the sink top, and surrounding the soaking tub. It had the obligatory double sinks. (I never saw the point of them since I like my privacy. However, a spare sink comes in handy if one has a cat who likes to hang out in the sink, so I'm starting to come around.)

But here's the thing: three of the walls were covered in mirrors so that, if you were in the tub or standing near it, you would see an infinite number of bathtubs and naked yous, a là the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

I don't know about you, but the idea of infinite images of my naked little self, in a tub or out, is very disconcerting. They don't even have to appear on the Internet without my permission for me to feel this way. I would have felt the same way when I was in my young, skinny prime. I would have found it embarrassing by about second grade.

Who — aside from a fashion model or a narcissist — could stand that? 

I have no idea, but I can tell you that the same sort of person also likes a giant mirror for a headboard. It's built into the wall, too. So if we were going to live there, it would have to be ripped right out.

Before I conclude, I want to help you decide if you should cover every inch of your bathroom walls with mirrors.

Narcissists have always baffled me. It's hard to deal with them because you need to compliment them and butter them up to get anywhere, when all you really want to do is kick them in the shins and tell them to stop being so conceited and self-absorbed. And I have to deal with one (formally diagnosed) sometimes. So I was interested to read this article in the Washington Post about how researchers have learned that they can reliably identify narcissists by asking them just one question instead of dozens: Are you a narcissist?

As the article says, most of us wouldn't admit to having casual sex or taking drugs during a survey. But if you ask a narcissist if she is one, she won't find anything embarrassing about admitting it. After all, she is incredibly wonderful, and what could be wrong with that?

So ask yourself, and discover the truth. (You might need to get out of your bathtub and put on some clothes first.)

I wish I were a psychology researcher. I'd like to do a study where I ask people two questions:
1. Are you a narcissist?
2. Would you like to have you bathroom walls covered entirely in mirrors?

I suspect I'd get the same answer to both questions every time, except for those narcissists who'd answer, "But my bathroom already is, and I love it!"

I love how people's houses reveal secrets about their psyches. I ought to figure out what ours says about us. When I do, I'll let you know. Or not. I bet it will involve my unconscious longing to recreate idyllic childhood days at my grandmother's house. After all, there's next to nothing in this place (except for computers and iPhones) that would seem strange to her if she decided to visit me as a ghost again. (She did once, on July 13, 1988, and it was cool.)

Actually, she'd be surprised that I don't have a garden. And that we have so few cats. She always had lots.

We'll keep working on acquiring what's missing. Upward and onward, as we continue into Year Five of our merry, maddening house hunt. Maybe a place we'll love will show up tomorrow. Or the next day.

Friday, September 12, 2014

New at Anthropologie: Chic Tools for Housekeeping

Ooh, have a look at all the nifty new housekeeping tools and supplies that Anthropologie has.

They look so elegant that it would be a shame to get them dirty. But if you can cross that line, imagine how hip you'll look as down on your hands and knees, sweeping out the crud that's under your design fridge. Or whatever.

I'm most intrigued by this Pet and Lint Brush, which will set us back a mere $62.00 (not a typo but definitely sarcasm).

It is "handcrafted by the artisans of Redecker" using beechwood and rubber. And for that price, it effing better work like a charm. It effing outta do the job itself, à la Mary Poppins. (Talk of housecleaning sometimes transforms me into a bitter Cockney housemaid with a sailor's mouth.)

I also like this $98 Hedgehog Shoe Cleaner made of wood and bassine fiber. I've never even seen a bassine. I wonder where they live. For that price, they must be very hard to trap or hunt down.

Ten Things I'm Enjoying Now

I accidentally wrecked my iPhoto library yesterday, so the 24,000 photos I've organized there are not behaving. I'm trying to stay optimistic, and I have an appointment at the Genius Bar at our local Apple Store but not until Sunday afternoon.

Ten things to take my mind off THAT. If you read here much, you know that food tends to take my mind off things.

1. Carrot soup. I made a very good batch the other day. I used an onion and a bunch of carrots from the farmer's market. I used a whole stick of butter, too, since I was using a box of Trader Joe's, organic, non-fat chicken broth. I added some sea salt, dried lemon peel, cinnamon, and nutmeg.When everything was cooked, I puréed the soup with my stick blender and added the zest and juice of an orange, and some fresh grated ginger that I'd frozen last fall. The orange and the ginger made it taste bright and fresh, and it's good hot or cold.

2. So there was this one carrot in the bunch the farmer chose for me that I could not chop up for my soup. He (I assume it's a "he") is still living in the fridge:

3. Saturn peaches. These are the little donut-shaped ones that don't look like much. I find them at the farmer's market and occasionally at Trader Joe's. One of the Rules of Fruit is that the best-tasting varieties are often the least visually appealing and the smallest of their kind. This is true of peaches. I have a really hard time choosing a white or yellow peach that will be sweet and not too hard, too soft, or too tart. If you choose a Saturn peach that has a wee bit of give under its skin, you've got a winner every time. I have no photos because I ate my last bagful too quickly.

4. Field tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, yellow cherry tomatoes. Almost all of the tomatoes at the farmer's market are looking fine! We eat the yellow cherries like we used to eat peanut butter cups. (Oh, crap. Why did I have to think about those....)

5. Brewed ice tea. Since we stopped drinking soda, I've been drinking more iced tea. My current favorite is Bigelow's peach herbal tea. I use four teabags plus a mint teabag in a quart of boiling water, and let them steep for about 5 minutes. I add two teaspoons of sugar (8–10 grams) while it's hot. Then I add cold water to fill my pitcher, which holds almost two quarts. It's delicious, and a beautiful color, too. I would love to paint my walls the color of iced tea....

6. Those tiny decorative pumpkins are showing up everywhere. That means summer will soon be OVER.

7. Besides food, there's fall clothing to think about. So I don't spend the next few months in my Madewell skinny jeans, I ordered this great little skirt from Boden, in denim and in two colors of velvety cotton moleskin, to see which one I like best (free shipping and returns). If this orange-red is too bright, there's a neutral light brown that looks like suede:

8. Not watching football. We spent last Sunday afternoon in Newburyport and I didn't know until around 4 o'clock that there was a Patriots game. My husband is usually glued to the set on Sunday afternoons so this was a refreshing departure for him. (He did listen to the end of the game in the car going home. Not that it was remotely rewarding.) I'm hoping that all the recent articles about how head injuries are causing premature dementia and death in many players are finally having an impact — along with the NFL's lamentable behavior over the Ray Rice affair. Watching football has become an inescapable moral issue. I hope its sway is finally finished in my household.

9. Sunsets. Super Moons. Northern Lights. We've been experiencing spectacular evening skies lately. I've been too tied up to get out and shoot them this week, but I've been enjoying glimpses, and others' photos, and I hope to get outside soon.

10. The Furry Five. You didn't think I'd neglect to mention them, did you?  I adore all of them and four out of five adore me back. Harris loves me so much that he's perched on the back of my chair, trying to eat my hair right now.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Our monthly delivery from the Fish + Bone pet shop on Newbury Street arrived this morning. We got three heavy boxes packed with cases of Hound & Gatos and Nature's Variety Instinct flavors this month. There's a shortage of domestic rabbit these days, so we can't get any of that tasty stuff. (And yet there are lots of bunnies now in Back Bay. Are they refugees from wherever they were being raised for cat food? I hope so. Cats may be pure carnivores but I still feed a little sad serving all this meat — especially when I'm feeding them rabbit.)

I had a lot of supervision as I hauled the boxes upstairs and then unpacked and sorted the rations. Possum is always happy to see it arrive:

Because of the rabbit shortage, we're feeding more chicken, lamb, and duck these days. I wish the companies we like would make some new (and more affordable) flavors. I'd like to see turkey and goat, for starters. We don't feed our cats beef, pork, or fish for various reasons. For one thing, Wendy hates salmon and other fish. When she was a kitten, finding salmon in her bowl would make her visibly unhappy. If cats could cry....

Possum loves fish, of course. He says he would like to see smoked herring and Norwegian lutefisk in his bowl. And sausages.

We have several area Food Inspectors, who scrutinize all the cans, getting in my way as I try to fit everything into our cabinets. Some of them don't think it's necessary to put anything away. Just open it all NOW, they say. Others want it put away quickly — Just In Case Something Bad Happens And It Disappears! (That would be our eternally paranoid Wendy.)

Harris is never sure we've ordered enough. He knows that Lion can single-pawedly eat us out of house and home. Here's he's counting the cans:

There's usually at least one Inspector standing guard against thievery until the cans are secured below:

We're lucky that we can afford all this good food. But we're still hoping to move to a new place with a bigger kitchen, so we can make and store our own homemade raw food. Someday soon, maybe.