Thursday, August 22, 2013


The first fruit this season from my Pluot tree

My pluot tree is now in its fourth season and is just now producing fruit. About thirty this year. A cross between a plum and an apricot, this pluot boasts a beautiful purple mottled skin, and is very sweet, the apricot softening the sour/sharp edges of the plum. After all the fruit has ripened, I'll trim the tree for the first time. It sits next to a pear tree and I will do the same to the pear after the fruit is gone. Hopefully next year, I'll have an even bigger harvest. 

Cherry and grape tomatoes from my garden

Then there are the cherry and grape tomatoes that are now ripening in profusion, producing about a pound a day.  Last night I made a roasted tomato salsa which was enriched with roasted jalapeno peppers pounded in a mortar with salt and garlic. This was mixed with the roasted tomatoes which I separated from their skins. A big handful chopped cilantro and a glug of extra virgin olive oil and more pepper made this a great appetizer with rose and corn chips. Last year I made tomato chutney, but this year, I think I'll make a batch of tomato jam. I've got freezer sauce for pasta this winter. 

A tired old magazine rack gets a nice face-lift

I bought this old magazine rack at a garage sale for $10 about three years ago. It went into the garage, along with a plan to paint it. Three years later, I finally dragged it out and cleaned it thoroughly. I sanded the shelves and sides, and painted it this with this latex copper paint. It looks great in the guest bathroom. 

Dame Janet Baker, on the occasion of her 80th birthday

I don't write too much about my passion for classical singers, but Dame Janet Baker, one of my very favorite singers, is celebrating her 80th birthday right now, and I recently saw her interviewed. She is considered the finest classical singer from England in the last half of the 20th century. A mezzo-soprano, Dame Janet specialized in lieder concerts and I had the pleasure of attending her annual Carnegie Hall vocal recitals for fifteen consecutive years in New York. These concerts provided with me two opinions about her. Her unique voice with it's special sound coupled with her great artistry moved me very much. She was a versatile singer, who was a master of various styles. Her English songs came straight from the heart. Her French chansons were elegantly phrased with that distinctive Baker French accent that wasn't quite French, but was, nevertheless, very stylishly French. She sang Handel and Mozart with charm and virtuosity. Schubert and Mahler were unique creations which she delivered to her audiences in definitively. The voice was of good size--not a dramatic mezzo, but certainly not a lyric either. She could file her voice down to a whisper and open it opulently filling the hall either way. Her way with the texts of her songs was absolutely riveting. Whether molding the intense classical line of Beethoven's "Ah, perfido!" or lofting a long spun pianissimo in Berlioz's languorous "Les Nuits d'Ete," Dame Janet communicated without ever getting in the way of the music. She kept it all very simple and very direct. 

The other opinion, is that Dame Janet often arrived on stage at Carnegie Hall in concert gowns that might be worn by Elizabeth II. They could be an orange or a chartreuse that was blinding. We often took bets on what color she might select for her concert that season. They were invariably dowdy, unsophisticated and utilitarian. Somehow they never interfered with her unique delivery in performance.  

Dame Janet didn't sing opera in America, other than in concerts, though she was much in demand at the various British opera companies. She came to the U.S. every year from 1966 until the middle '80s to sing with orchestras and to give lieder recitals.  Very few classical singers have made successful careers off the opera stage, but in the U.S. Dame Janet has no peers and her recitals were always packed with her admirers. The music critics adored her as much as her many fans. 

I have often had crushes on great singers, whose great artistry sent me scrambling to acquire their latest recordings, but Dame Janet remains the singer I admire most. She also the very greatest singer I ever heard live and I'm grateful she was performing during her peak years when I lived in New York. Happy Birthday, Dame Janet. 

Dame Janet Baker, circa the 1960s

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

HOUSE HUNTERS: A Generation of Brats

Like many of my generation, I love watching House Hunters on HG-TV. I'm fascinated by real estate, and love looking at a house, sizing up its potential, while exploring all possible options. But clearly the producers seem to think viewers need an extra dose of "reality".  Too often we are presented with young married couples, often on the verge of getting married, who decide that while they are in the overwhelming stage of planning their weddings, absolutely must buy their first home before the big day! I know it's old school, kids, but most of us spent more than a few years in rentals, saving for a down payment, and figuring out just what sort of house we could afford and then fantasized about the details such as what we wanted in a house. Today's entitled couples have those most limited and superficial needs. The wives must have their stainless steel and granite counter tops--forgetting the simple fact that most of them cannot cook. The husbands are not much better. To placate the out-of-control fantasies their wives have concocted from reading too many magazines, they take the "happy-wife/happy-life" approach. They are not immune to selfish wants. "I have to have a two-car garage and my very own man cave, and a big backyard with a barbecue," becomes their mantra.  

All too often I see bratty wives who display appallingly rude behavior as they reject one house after another, whining about improvements that are quick fixes. They hate a room's paint color or "oooh, this carpet is disgusting." Fix it, ladies. Do you really want to live with someone else's carpet? Not every home is move-in-ready, especially given your budget.  Today's couples are demanding three to four bedrooms, two bathrooms with a huge master bath with double-sinks, (and if there's a half-bath, so much the better), walk-in closets, open plans, big fenced-in back yards, and finished basements. They don't want the neighbors too close by. The features about houses they hate are gold fixtures in the bathroom, appliances that do not match, popcorn ceilings, and anything that resembles "old." Many of them don't have families yet. By the time they move in, they have completely swallowed the whole real estate enchilada. Oh--they also got a dog!

All too often, couples don't agree on what they are looking for in a house. She wants move-in-ready, while he has fantasies of a fixer-upper. In these cases, I'm not sure she's wrong. Love It Or List It, another HG-TV show, features squabbling couples brought to the verge of divorce because their current house is unlivable. In many cases, the husband promised to make updates. Years later, with nothing done, not even to the point of admitting defeat and hiring a contractor, the couples barely managing detente in their relationships over this issue. Love It Or List It, is a really fake reality show. No matter how much the co-host is given as a budget to make improvements in the old house, the show's producers always throw a curve into the proceedings, which doesn't allow her to make all of the improvements demanded by the home owners. I'm shocked at how many couples actually decide to live in their old homes. 

Last night I watched a blonde princess with a good paying job, as she stomped through three homes, dismissing something in every house as unacceptable. Her husband had no say in the matter whatsoever, and she made no bones about it. She would make the final decision, and he was just along for the ride. He liked all three of the houses, including the final house, which was the largest, most expensive and had most of the things she was looking for, including a room for her pet turtles. It was clear she would most likely never have children--those turtles were her kids (she travels with them while she is working). She didn't care what her husband thought or wanted. Their weary real estate agent finally said, "it's time to make a decision." After all, they had seen more than 80s houses! They discussed the merits of each house and then she announced "I think we have a decision here." No, she made the decision. They would take the most expensive house with the most bedrooms. End of story. I didn't see any family in the post-purchase phase of the show coming to look at the house. We just saw them alone with her turtles. I kept thinking about warning that guy: "Hey buddy--flee out of that house and as far away from that woman as you can." 

This is one of the more extreme examples, and there are mature couples who seriously go through the three homes assigned to them while talking maturely about the things they like and dislike about a house that are grounded in reality. But they are the exception rather than the rule. 

I don't think I need to remind all that as kids, many of us grew up sharing bedrooms, and certainly sharing bathrooms. The real-estate scene in Portland is full of three-bedroom, one-bathroom houses that was the norm before the real estate industry corrupted the minds of today's young consumers. In bed with the decorating magazines and full of wedding fantasies that cripple young couples financially, real estate is a massive, multi-$billion business. On the upswing after a near crippling financial crisis over the past four years, real estate prices are on the upswing again. I thought the rebound would take a few more years but would certainly not surge back the way it has in some areas of the country. Young couples are paying big bucks to get into homes right now. Many of them lack a real down-payment. Banks reward couples with jobs. Forget about buying a house if they perceive you are not making enough money, or are taking on too much credit card debt (one bank that refused to refinance my house told me my American Express Bills were too high!!!). But today's young are being wooed for their youth as well as their ability to pay for expensive mortgages.  They have become demanding even as they lose their sense of individuality.  

It has taken me four years to make the many changes I have to my own home. Yet most couples want to move in, unpack and start living without the messiness of renovations or other home improvements. And one of their biggest kicks is to start shopping for furniture, making sure every room is filled as soon as possible. Rare are the couples who move in, and say, "we plan to upgrade the kitchen, but not now." 

And who says television doesn't corrupt young minds?

Sunday, August 4, 2013


This morning I treated myself to a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon for breakfast. The bagel came as a gift from my good friend, Marcella Berger, who with Maryann Palumbo (my absolute best friend in the world), and Sandy Friedman, came out for a visit from New York just two days after my brother and his fiancee departed. That bagel was the real deal--chewy, doughy, and unmistakably New York. You can't get a bagel like this in Portland, which is odd for a city with such a sizable Jewish population. It wasn't until I left New York that I realized the rest of the world puts up with a lot bad bagels. They simply have to be made in New York. All the rest are some designer baker's idea of what a bagel should taste like or some supermarket creation that tastes more like sandwich bread than bagel. 

I had been pretty good about not putting pressure on Maryann to come for a visit. But it was now four years since I moved here and I had not had the pleasure of her company on my home turf.  The problem is that Maryann couldn't stay with me. She is highly allergic to pet hair which meant a hotel. She decided with my wholehearted agreement to invite Marcella and then Sandy to join her. They got rooms at the hotel Modera, a boutique hotel in downtown Portland, which was part of a package deal for their trip. Turns out they loved the hotel, the Nel Centro restaurant inside of the hotel, the service, the rooms and the ambiance.

Lobby of Hotel Modera, Downtown Portland

It always funny to watch a New Yorker's reaction to Portland. The first thing they comment on is how green it is here. Arriving in Portland in July is ideal--the weather is hot but not steamy, and evenings, it's pleasant to sit outside as the city cools off (unlike the long and dreary rainy season). As they got through the check-in process they were amazed at how polite the hotel staff are. We quickly assembled for a late-night bite to eat and they found the same treatment at Nel Centro. We watched the sun slowly set and go dark as we plotted out the stuff I had planned for the week.  It was a good start with everyone relaxed and happy to be in each other's company. 

A kiosk near the main entrance to the Rose Garden

Rose bushes at the famed International Rose Testing Garden 

Some beautiful rose specimens

Me, Marcella and Sandy

I decided to drive them around a bit to give them a feel for the downtown area. I took them way up to the top of Washington Park, which is almost always the first stop for my friends when they visit. The International Rose Test Garden, is home to 7,000 rose plants representing some 550 varieties. The visitor's first site of the garden is one of astonishment that so many roses have been assembled in one place.  It will reach its 100th birthday in 2017.  It is considered one of the finest gardens of its type in the world. The city of Portland is also known as Rose City, as apparently our climate is ideal for the cultivation of roses.  That's news to me, as mine are always plagued by black spot, aphids, and other garden-related problems. They bloom, but by the end of the blooming season and no matter how often I spray them, more than one of my rose bushes have been completed deprived of their leaves. I haven't got a clue how this garden manages to look so unblemished, but it does. The girls oohed and aahed over the colors and the sheer variety on display.  The garden itself is located high above the city at the very top of Washington Park. The vistas are really something to see, and on great days, you can view the Willamette River and Mt. Hood and all of downtown and beyond. The garden itself is tiered on the side of this small mountain.  Everyone had their camera out on this brilliantly sunshiny day. Afterwards I decided we needed to enjoy our first lunch at Papa Haydn's in South East Portland. This restaurant is known for it's outstanding layer cakes (some are four layers high), and their beautiful garden under a grape arbor is a great way to escape the sun. We ate salads, and sipped ice tea--gracious way to get through the midday.  I dropped them off at the hotel where they scoured the neighborhood's stores in search of shopping therapy. They later couldn't stop talking about how polite everyone here is. They are to used to New York where the denizens of bad behavior often yell at you, spit at you, whistle at you, try to run you over when you cross the street, and if you are a bike messenger, whizz pass you at scary speeds (causing coronaries). In a city of more than 22-million, it is all too often, everyone for themselves. 

This being Portland, I had to make sure we ate at some of the city's great restaurants. Tuesday night we ate at Nostrana, a huge Italian trattoria in South East with soaring ceilings, and a welcome vibe. It's become one of my favorite places to eat in the city. Cathy Whims, the chef/owner, has been nominated as a finalist for a James Beard Award as best chef Pacific Northwest, five times. She's long overdue to win (Seattle cops most of the Beard awards). The pastas, pizzas and main dishes that are turned out to hordes of hungry diners, are of top quality.

Wednesday, I decided we should see the great Columbia Gorge, which is about an hour out of the city. We had great weather, and managed the trip easily enough. But I made the mistake of not asking the right directions for Vista Point which gives a spectacular view of the Gorge from high above. Instead, we drove along an impressively scenic stretch of road on the Washington state side of the Columbia river. After driving what seemed to be another 45 minutes, we found a stop with tourist information and they had us reverse course. We had a nice lunch at Skamania Lodge, a beautiful arts and crafts-style resort and meeting hotel with spectacular floor-to-ceiling views in the high-ceilinged dining room and on the way back, stopped off to see Horsetail Falls, one of the most beautiful of the many waterfalls in the area.

Horsetail Falls, Columbia Gorge

Here's the spectacular view from Vista Point of the Columbia River Gorge, 
taken during my first visit there in 2008

One of the famous waterfalls (maybe Bridal Veil Falls) also from that 2008 visit.

The trip took up most of the day, and when I was ready to drop the girls off at the hotel, they invited to join them for dinner at Nel Centro. I've dined her often and always well. I had just celebrated my birthday at a lunch with a friend a few weeks before. David Machado, the chef/owner, has a recipe in THE OREGONIAN COOKBOOK. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day. 

Thursday I took them down to the Pearl district for some sightseeing and more retail therapy. The Pearl district is a major tourist destination--a reclaimed area of the city, which was home to warehouses, light industry and railroad yards. It most reminds me of New York City's Soho area, full of art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and other attractions. We spent the morning in and out of boutiques where at one shop, Maryann found another handbag to add to her collection of hundreds. How could she resist--the store was have a 50% off sale? I found a pair of red and blue Keen sandals, a Portland company, famous for this particular type of shoe. But the most fun shop was Cargo, a vast warehouse emporium specializing in Asian furniture, tabletop, objects, garden ornaments, and all sorts of toys, umbrellas, jewelry, clothing, housewares, etc. It was huge with lots of things to grab the eye. I found a flexi-wooden hand which makes an interesting addition to my dining bookcase which is covered with objects found on travels. The girls bought jewelry, and gifts to bring home. I was looking for a French bistro that I had lunch in a few years ago. Only it had closed, and in its place was an Iraqi restaurant, which served very good food and made for a pleasant stop for lunch. 

Powell's Portland's famous independent bookstore was next. Maryann said there were more people in Powell's than in all of downtown Portland, which may have been true. At any given moment, this huge store, which reminds me of a more updated version of Manhattan's The Strand bookstore, only bigger. We all separated to do our own browsing, each of us emerging forty five minutes later with books and magazines. They planned to dine that evening at the Raven and Rose restaurant, in the newly restored, Ladd Carriage House. I was going home to take care of my pets, who had been rather abandoned all week.  

It seems appropriate to stop and say a few words about my driving. I re-learned to drive at 63, and had not been behind the wheel of a car for more than four decades. It's two years now, and I feel relatively confident. But when someone is in the car with me, I tend to lose focus on the driving. Sometimes stop signs (especially when they are more than partially hidden behind trees are a problem for me. It didn't always help that Maryann was riding shotgun in the seat next to me. I should have made her drive. The last thing you need when you're uptight is someone telling you what to do while you're driving. I made a huge blunder driving them back to the hotel one night. It was dark, and I took a wrong turn onto a bride--which was an exit for incoming cars to my side of the river. Thank god traffic was virtually non-existent. We got over to the right side before we entered the bridge. It shook me up a bit, and now I know I'll never make that mistake again. Maryann is also afraid of heights, so it was both amusing and a little disconcerting that she spent part of the ride up in the gorge with her face practically buried in my shoulder. I'm sure her version would be a tad harsher, but the important thing is NOBODY GOT KILLED!

On Friday, the plan was to come to my house, which they hadn't seen yet. So in the afternoon, I picked them up and brought them  over to the SE side of the city. After giving them the house tour, we had wine on the patio with John Baker, one of my good friends in Portland. The plan was to take them to Gladstone pizza, my preferred place to indulge my favorite guilty pleasure. Just after John arrived, my real estate friend, Brad Wulf called. He was in the neighborhood and wanted to drop by. We have had lots of discussions lately, because he is assisting my brother and fiancee in their search for a home in Portland. Brad is fun, attractive, and a great addition to any group. By the time Brad got to the house, the wine was flowing. Then off to Gladstone Pizza and a table in owner, John Mitchell's magical patio garden. John was one of the first "food" guys I met in Portland. The first time I tried John's pizza, I instantly recognized a master pizza maker. John's crust is amazing--that combination of crunch and softness coupled with the char and blister that his hot ovens give to his pizzas, is something very special. Others rave about Apizza Scholls and Ken's Artisan Pizza, which are outstanding, but you always have to wait to get a table in those two fine pizzerias. I've never waited at John's and his pizza is as good as any of the best I've eaten on either coast, or in Italy. We got two large pizzas and two large Cesar salads. It was a wonderful night--the ladies last in Portland. Everyone was in a terrific mood and we ate and drank and laughed and before you knew it, four hours had passed. 

Portland Japanese Gardens

Sandy, Maryann, Marcella--friends for more than three decades

Even though she's a nervous backseat (front seat?) driver, Maryann 
is absolutely my best friend 

Saturday was packing day and at 11:00 am, I picked up the ladies and we headed back over to Washington Park, this time to visit the Portland Japanese Gardens.  This garden is considered the most authentic outside of Japan, and once we got our tickets, we decided to take a guided tour of this five-garden oasis of tranquility. Our walk took in all five of the gardens, which cover 5.5 acres. The free tour was informative and fascinating. The garden's many plants and trees are worth knowing about, and the minimalist gardens have an austere and calming beauty that is hard to resist. Though the weather was spectacular and the garden filled with visitors, I never felt crowded the way I do going to see an exhibit at the Met, or other major tourist sites in New York. 

Back to Nob Hill for lunch at Jo Bar, a popular place on the main drag of the neighborhood. A favorite area for young professionals, it reminds me of a kind of Greenwich Village of Portland. The area is loaded with shops and restaurants. I don't go there very often. I'm not that fond of high end shopping these days, but it's a lively spot to bring out-of-town friends to for a bite to eat, and explore the neighborhood. Back in the car, it was time to get everyone back to the hotel, collect luggage and head to the airport. Six days had flown by. 

I love having my New York friends come to stay in Portland, and Tricia, Carl, Bruce, and others have made the trip. Everyone who visits is amazed at how livable and affordable the city is. And everyone goes home feeling relaxed and recharged. I hope Maryann, Marcella and Sandy come again. We can go to the beach (casinos are out there), or have time to explore the wine country or take the drive through Mt. Hood and into Bend. Marcella--I have four bagels left. I'm rationing them.