Saturday, May 22, 2010

NEW YORK, NEW YORK: Another Saga!

This is Pie, who is owned by Tricia, one of my New York hosts. Pie loves to hide under things.

It took a novel and the shingles to get me writing again. The weeks prior to my first visit to New York—a city I had called home for thirty-eight years, really ruined my ability to add anything to my blog. I can’t tell you why. Maybe it was the rain or maybe trying to get Beau healthy after the departure of Walden, the adorable puppy who had left Beau depressed and anxious. The vet couldn't not find anything wrong with him, yet he had bad diarrhea and I had a $1300 vet bill. I might have been able to accept Walden intense destructive path through my dining room but I could not put Beau through the puppy’s energy. They were polar opposites. So as many of you now know, Walden went back to his original family.

I was curiously unfazed about my coming east after ten months away. I was excited to see friends, and I know some will be distressed that once in the city, I felt completely ambivalent upon entry. I finally got up to Tricia’s flat after waiting an interminable time in a cab line at Penn Station. Now there’s a familiar inconvenience.

My tale of health woes can be read below, but first I have to talk about a novel, which has completely captivated me. THE IMPERFECTIONISTS is a first novel by a youngish writer named Tom Rachman. At once comic and deeply moving, the work is a series of beautifully contained profiles of a large cast of characters who work for an Anglo newspaper in Rome, my absolute favorite city in the world. There are some connective short chapters in-between these beautifully written “profiles,” which explain the paper’s genesis and history beginning in 1954 and ending in the present day. Rachman bring an enormous amount of talent to this work. It is as meticulously constructed as a Swiss watch. His observations of his characters are so believable that we empathize with them immediately—they have human foibles we can all relate to. There are laugh-out-loud funny scenes that kept me turning the pages. The book’s prose is lean, elegant, sharp and he refuses to get sidetracked in pages of exposition for which I was not only grateful but made me remember why I loved good fiction so much. The book is almost old-fashioned in its ability to both entertain and move you. A rather bittersweet ending to one chapter about former lovers left me teary-eyed and breathless.

I found out about the book from, and then a week later read a rave review by Janet Maslin in The New York Times and then another rave by Christopher Buckley in the NYTimes Book Review. The success of this work is very rate these days as it now sits at #5 on NYTimes Book Review bestseller list. This is a novel not-to-be-missed and helped me through a tough week of bad health.

I was in New York to work the big BookExpo America trade show that I’ve done for about ten years. I love seeing publishing colleagues and the first day at the show was a round of getting back to press about Barbra Streisand’s keynote speech and the growing frenzy over the Duchess of York’s participation in the Children’s Book & Author Breakfast. Fergie had found herself the victim of a sting by Rupert Murdoch’s disgusting “news investigative team” which captured her on video accepting big money for access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew. The tabloids were having a field day and everyone began lining up, determined to find a particularly bad shot or photo of the Duchess or hoping to get a quote from her as she entered or left the program. Despite the presence of all the main morning shows on hand to do live feeds, no member of the press got close to the Duchess, who was calm and charming, and fessed up to her latest lapse of judgment. After a long but productive day, I was ready to meet my friend Maryann for a leisurely dinner filled with news and general catch up. We went to Crispo, my favorite Italian restaurant in Manhattan. Maryann used the dinner as an excuse to acknowledge my impending 60th birthday. It was a lovely evening.

At home, I was alarmed to find my left leg had a series of ugly bruise-like spots and a rash running down below the knee into my foot. I felt no pain and thought perhaps it was a reaction to a recent topical unguent my dermatologist had prescribed for my eczema. By 4:30 the next day, I had become sufficiently alarmed to ask a friend to drop me off at the emergency room of Roosevelt Hospital. I was rather shocked to find out I had shingles. Armed with antibiotics and painkillers, I went back to Tricia’s waiting for the pain to start. I took the Percoset as prescribed. I felt stoned, but was not prepared for the waves of nausea that hit me on Wednesday, making me very sick. We had organized a big gathering at a local watering hole, but I was too under the weather to go through with it. The next thing I knew, I was canceling and re-arranging all the appointments with friends and business colleagues, which was the whole point of my trip. But I dodged the pain bullet completely. I took myself off the painkillers and started the process of healing. I considered myself extremely lucky not to have suffered the pain that most people experience with shingles.

My friend Dyanne has a small, but perfect terrace outside her apartment on Third Avenue and 65th Street. Eighteen floors in the sky, Dyanne has created an oasis of plants, chairs, a table, a water fountain and various wind chimes and sculpture, set against a stunning backdrop of skyscrapers. It’s a view to die for. We sat there from about 4:00 PM until I left at 10 with the city lit for evening and looking impossibly glamorous. I walked back to the apartment where I was staying a few blocks away. My hostess who was away, told me to go to the roof and look at the view. I stepped off the elevator and into one of the most romantic looking roof decks. I was completely alone and it was dark except for some lights strung around the railings. I walked over to the edge to admire the view for the first time in ages, wished I had a cigarette to smoke in solitary silence as I took in the dark outlines of the tall buildings that surrounded me. How compelling and still it all looked. This is what I imagined New York to be when I first arrived here so many years ago.

I did manage to get together with friends and do some business, and had memorable but quiet evenings Carl, Karole, Laurele, Tricia, Sara and her grand daughter, Caitlin, Alison and Jeannie, Joe and Christine. And on my way to dinner to meet Maryann, I stopped by the old apartment house to say hello. It was brief but the nostalgia was huge--I lived in that building for twenty five years.

I dropped by Lincoln Center to see the changes that have occurred in the plaza with it's new two-toned pavement--much nice than before. The fountain is handsome and the water effects are wonderful to watch. Inspecting the new grassy area over by the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, I marveled at how the complex is addressing visitor needs. You can sit in the grass or lie in it and take in the sun. The whole place looks more visitor friendly, though the marble is still cold and the 60s architecture is chilly and uninviting. Alice Tully Hall's new facade, on the other hand, invites you in. That huge glass expanse that cover the Broadway side of the theater is dramatic and compelling. There's a fine meeting place where you can have a drink, or order a sandwich and it's a pleasure to sit in this soaring space where once all was dark and gloomy. Because I was sick, I never got downtown to see the new west side walkway, and I never found the time to go to the Met or Moma to see something.

Dyanne, bless her, dropped me off at Newark for the flight home. Kyle picked me up at the airport. It was raining--in fact, it had pretty much rained non-stop for the past twenty days. It's still raining the third day I'm home and is expected to cease by tomorrow for a few days.

It has held up the work on my patio, but everything was growing. I could believe the activity in my raised vegetable bed. Carrots and beets have sprouted. The spearmint is out of control and it looks as though I will be moving it to a solitary pot of its own. My first two roses have bloomed, but the rain has punished them and I'll just have to wait for the buds that are right behind to be able to bloom when it is dry. My strawberries are large and turning red now.

Beau is back to his old self and after a session with the groomer's is looking quite handsome. He just turned seven at the beginning of the month. He's endearingly noisy as usual with all his grunts, wheezings, gurglings and schnurflings (as a friend used to describe the many sound effects he makes). Beau is very happy that I'm home and tends to follow me around the house.

I do realize that Portland is very much my home now. I have completed the long cycle of separating myself from New York. It now feels like I'm a visitor rather than an occupant of that amazing town. It was a part of me for so many years but now I think I'm happy to leave it to younger, more ambitious types than me.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Big Return To New York!

Kyle is nearly halfway through the laying of the bricks for the patio, or as I like to say, The Sistine Chapel in reverse.

French Breakfast Radishes grown from seeds!

Last Fall I hacked this bush to pieces to restore some shape and because it was being bullied by my huge Cedar tree. It's rewarded me with lots of new growth! Now if only I could identify it!

If you look very carefully, you can see cherries growing!

Thyme and Chives

Basil, Rosemary, Oregano, Spearmint, Italian Parsley, Green and Purple Sage, Cilantro, Red Leaf Lettuce, Butternut Squash and Hubbard Squash

A tiny Iris from my neighbor's garden

I've always wanted Peonies and now have two plants.

My very first blooming Rose--this is a "Peace" rose.

Beau, enjoying the sunshine.

Tomatoes grown upside down from my balcony.

View of my new bricked walk-way to the new patio area from my balcony.

Balcony pot of sweet potato vines and some Coleus that I rooted from a mother plant.

If you want to know why medical costs are through the roof--at least in Oregon--let me tell you why. I went to a dermatologist today for some routine things and in the screening room first came a kind of medical note-taker who put me in the room and told me the doctor would be there right away. Sure enough, a minute later, a pleasant young man introduced himself to me as the nurse/practitioner and he was there for the initial interview. He inspected me, asked me questions, and then told me the prescribed ways in which we could treat my eczema and the disappeared to fetch the doctor. Suddenly we were three people in the room. The young woman was writing down notes on a computer. The nurse/practitioner was silent while the doctor basically reiterated everything the nurse/practitioner said to me. I left having paid $50 in co-pay fees. Lord knows what they billed my insurance company for.

I grew up going to a doctor in single offices. Maybe there was a nurse there. Certainly there was a woman who handled all appointments, and managed the office. This "dermatology" center had three MDs, a cadre of receptionist/clerks and lots of people walking around in nurse/doctor mufti. The officious woman at the desk demanded that I show her a photo ID. I don't drive, so no photo ID despite the fact that I had a valid insurance card, lots of credit cards and offered cash on the co-pay. She said to make sure that I brought a photo ID the next time I came!

Later picking up my prescription, I ran smack into a Nanny Law. If you are using a prescription for the first time, a licensed pharmacist must talk to you about the medication. This is patently ludicrous as they don't want to do this any more than you want to be held up as they fly through the process of superficially telling you what the doctor has already said to you. Yes some doctors are careless. "Take this," they say without much explanation, but really, it's the consumer's responsibility to understand what they are taking But that particular Nanny Law and those extra bodies in the doctor's examination room are adding $billions to the cost of treating people.

Forget calling a house a money pit. They are far worse. They are work-sucking, effort-making, exhaustion-inducing, and never-endingly needy. While Kyle slaves away in the back yard on the swell brick patio, I'm chopping away at my holly tree, planting seeds for what I hope will be a vegetable garden, planing Dahlia bulbs, feeding my roses, and endlessly watering everything. The new raised bed got seeded on one end with Atomic Carrots (photo attached), Chiogga beets (a kind of pin and white bulls-eye beet) and French breakfast radishes--long red in shape with white tips. I found some yellow squash--you know those round little ones you see at farmer's markets, and some butternut squash. At the other end, I'm growing herbs: Italian flat-leaf parsley, red and regular sage, Italian oregano, rosemary, spearmint, cilantro, and basil. I have another planter that is overflowing with thyme, chives and a variegated thyme that looks beautiful. They are all thriving with the radishes already throwing up young shoots and my roses are on the verge of blooming. Hope I get to see them totally open before I leave.

Sadly, Walden has gone back to his original owner. I've learned that puppies simply are not for me. Beau has not had a good time of it either, peeing on my couch, getting sick three times in one night, twice in my bed, and leaking all over everything. Walden had taken to his crate well enough at night to sleep, but in the morning, you have to get up all he will scratch the door off the wall. You expect puppies to have accidents, but he is a very smart little dog and sometimes he goes outside in the mornings and sometimes he just goes. Last night I got home from dinner. I have to separate Beau and Walden when I'm away from the house. Most of the time Beau goes with me, but when he doesn't he is upstairs in his bed sleeping until I get home. I went to the kitchen to check on things and to my absolute horror Walden has clawed his way through the paint of one of the baseboards in my kitchen and then started on the corner of the wall--he simply scratched his way through the paint. He then managed to find the zipper of Beau's daybed, unzipped it and tore a ton of the stuffing so it was everywhere. I immediately went into a red zone fit. And then decided I needed to take total charge. I moved his crate into the kitchen. He would simply stay in his crate when I was not around to supervise him. It also meant, I could keep him out of the upper part of the house where he was confined in the bathroom while we went through the process of house-breaking him. He settled down nicely and went to sleep. He woke me at 7:00 am this morning yelling and screeching his head off. I ignored it. I followed Cesar Milan's advice about his food. Walden simply goes nuts whenever food is around. I'm trying to teach him to be a good citizen. I held the bowl and stared at him, waiting for him to sit for a second before giving him the bowl. It worked and then I practiced taking it away so he wouldn't develop any possessiveness about his food. That also worked.

Out in the backyard, Walden played while I gardened last Saturday. Kyle and I went off to Lowes's for more top soil and potting soil. When we got back home, I opened Walden's crate to the sight of his having found the zipper on his cushion inside and totally trashed the cushion. And later on he trashed a small rug outside my kitchen door. Again, I saw red. I could leave him in the crate without any comforts at all. The war of wills between us escalated. He's a puppy and he really bugs me. This is sad, but I had visions of his attacking my furniture. I can't risk the rage I might feel if he did that. And he will. So back he went with some regret. The story of Marley never amused me. I've been spoiled. Beau has been a virtually perfect dog. Walden may well grow up to be a perfect dog, but right now he's a puppy and I can't control a thing about him. A week later, I went to check up on him and found out he's enjoying hanging out with one of his brothers, who was also returned for bad behavior!

The grill is out and and in regular use in this beautiful weather. And the best part is that I can now set the table out on the wide walkway into the patio that is more than a third finished with more than 1600 bricks anticipated. Kyle is turning the project into his own version of the Sistine Chapel--he literally checks each brick to make sure it is level. With all the flowers and greenery exploding, I'm thinking that by August this backyard will be my own piece of paradise.

So off to New York on Friday for ten whole days of work and reunions.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Kyle has completed the work on my new raised bed, including the trim and I think it is beautiful. The wood is cedar and should last for a long, long time. He also built a smaller container along the same walkway and now I'll be looking for a small tree that enjoys some shade, as it gets both sunlight and shade but about 50% of each. We're about to embark on the patio and gazebo and I'll be all set for summer, except for a lot of gardening.

Things are peaceful between Beau and Walden. I finally stopped worrying about keeping Walden away from Beau's feeding dish because Beau gets quite ornery with the little 'Munchkin' as Kyle likes to refer to him. This week Beau's patience have been tried a number of times, and he's let the kid have it, or as I like to say, "teaching the little guy some manners." Walden has ventured too close to Beau's dish when he's eating a couple of times and gotten his head handed to him. Walden now keeps a respectful distance from Beau when he's eating. Not sure how he's doing with the house-breaking. I try to move him and his poop over to a wee-wee pad, and it is somewhat effective. But there are accidents. He loves laying on top of the back pillows on my couch if I'm watching TV in the living room. But I got up the other night and saw the wet puddle he'd left and fortunately was able to take the stuffing out of the pillow before any damage was done. Up to the washer with that cover. When Walden is on the ground, he's a whirling dervish never stopping for an instant. He's got quite a bark and I'm hoping that won't be a regular daily feature Beau almost never barks and I prefer it that way. Walden loves being out in the back yard, and generally keeps within the grassy boundaries of the lawn. Beau has been trying to show by example that he can relieve himself out there, but it is hit and miss at this point.

Detente between them was achieved today. Beau allowed Walden to come into his daybed in the dining room. I tried to snap a photo but when I got up to get the camera, Walden was out of bed like a shot. Ten minutes later, I snapped this adorable photo of them. It's become a regular thing with them. Beau will be in his bed, and Walden settles down next to him. Walden, being something of a bed hog, Beau has to push him over whenever Walden expands his area of body mass too far into Beau's space. But it looks like they will nap together peacefully from now on. Besides, it is the only day bed down here and I'm not getting another.

I won a free eight-inch skillet. I was at that pet show a few weeks ago, and someone called out to me asking if I wanted to enter a contest for a free stainless steel fry pan. Like I need a new fry pan! Well I signed up and two days later, a woman named Kate called with the news that I had won the pan. She wanted to bring the pan over and cook a dinner for me in my own kitchen showing me how superior these pans were. How I get myself into these things, I'll never know. She offered to cook for any other friends I might know who would be interested. It still didn't dawn on me that she's selling pots and pans. But at least I didn't rope anyone else into this event.

Kate arrived on Tuesday night an hour late. And she brought with her more pots and pans than I have ever seen in once place except Macy's, with her. On the menu was fried chicken, which she was going to grill in the same pan as the sliced Yukon Gold potatoes. In another pan she poured in a package of frozen corn, then a bunch of fresh broccoli and then some fresh carrots that had been waffle sliced from the supermarket. It was the oddest looking vegetable medley I've ever seen. Over this she sprinkled a liberal amount of something called Spike--a mixture of spices. I wasn't inspired. She sprinkled more Spike on the check and thick slices of potatoes in a large pan with raised cross hatching on it, which she called a grill pan. Now mind you, this was attractive stainless steel of clearly good quality. But did she notice, I wondered, a massive pot wrack in plain sight in my kitchen loaded down with all manner of stainless steel, copper, cast iron enamel ware, and Calphalon? Did it occur to her that I might not be in the mood to replace this painstakingly assembled and expensive cookware for her shiny, clearly pricey new stuff? Undeterred, Kate went on her spiel telling us of the low-fat virtues of this cookware that simply didn't stick. But who would want to eat a pile of frozen and fresh vegetables cooked with nothing but a spice blend? The "fried chicken" was nothing of the sort. I pointed out to her that it was simply pan seared boneless and skinless chicken thigh. There was an impressive amount of fond at the bottom of that pan just crying out for some liquid to deglaze its surface and turn it into a sauce. As she got near to completing this bland dish, I grabbed some chicken broth and did it for her. I might have added some thyme, salt, pepper and a pat of butter, but then I figured that was bad manners.

The chicken was fine with a good sear, juicy but my pans could do that. The less said about the vegetables the better. I'm not about to start eating vegetables cooked this way--I don't care how much fat I'm saving. We ate and talked more about what the pots were capable, and I actually heard myself say "what if you want to cook conventionally?" Kate said they perform as any quality cookware does. And then she asked to see my Calphalon non-stick saute pan and one of my All-Clad pans. She dropped a teaspoonful of baking soda in each one with water and heated it up. We were asked to sample the results to show that my pans were leaching out impurities. She did the same thing were her pan. Well who the heck drinks baking soda dissolved in hot water? All three tasted terrible and were hardly conclusive. And then we were told the prices. The largest set cost more than $4,000! Well it was a slippery slope by then. I had missed "Dancing with the Stars," and had to do an Internet search to find out that Jake had been voted off at last. I also missed "The Good Wife," the only good scripted hour-long drama on network TV this season.

Kate packed her pots and pans and departed. It was 10:30 PM. A few days later, Kate called me. She had been reading my stovetopreadings, my cookbook review blog, and had an offer. They wanted me to accept a free grill pan (worth something in the neighborhood of $400 +), in exchange for writing some sort of endorsement for their website. "Okay...well what about I take their grill pan and see what it can do," I countered. "If I like the pan (and it's a handsome thing and I suspect it will do a lot), I'll write about it. If I don't, I'll return the pan to you, and that will be that." They agreed. So I await their pan and will let you all know how it goes.

Finally, Kent took me to see the Portland State University farmer's market yesterday, which was in full swing with many booths selling spring produce, including gorgeous asparagus, lettuces, strawberries, rhubarb, red and green kohlrabi (ridiculously overpriced at $4 a pound!), leeks, etc. There were many plant stands where I bought a beautiful and unusually colored Coleus with a mostly red leaf edged in green. There were also lilacs for sale in bunches and I couldn't resist a deep purple variety edged in white. There were vendors selling meat, fish, jams, eggs, cheese, sausages, all local. It so reminded me of the Union Square farmer's market in Union Square--only a block away from my Manhattan apartment. I bumped into the chef of Tabla Mediterranean Bistro, a restaurant I liked and wrote about. We had another pleasant chat, and I look forward to going again.

Warm weather is resisting us. The temperatures have rarely risen above this year and I'm anxious for it to get warm again--if only for a few days. Today we go in search of pavers for my patio.