Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Deaf white cats and Innotek pet locator

White cats with blue eyes have about a 50 percent chance of going deaf shortly after birth. For white cats with green eyes, the chance of deafness is about 25 percent.

Fortunately, deaf white cats are spectacular pets--under the right circumstances. Raised in a good home, they are frisky, friendly, pettable, and affectionate. Obviously, they can't be allowed to roam out of doors because they can't hear cars and predatory animals. They do well with other cats and dogs if they are introduced to the other animals while they are still kittens. Adult deaf white cats, however, can be extremely aggressive with other cats and dogs, so if you get a adult DWC, things will be far more peaceful if it is the only animal in the household.

I speak from experience, as we have a five-year-old DWC (Sheba), and I was a member of a now-defunct online DWC owners group. People shared tales of DWCs' fascination with water (one cat turned on the shower every time her owner left for work, flooding the apartment); yowling (they're loud); and desire for domination of multi-cat houses (several of us had divided our houses into zones to protect our other cats from the DWCs).

We finally negotiated a truce among our four cats (one of them actually likes Sheba) but we caved to Sheba's insistance on going outdoors. We moved to a dead-end street and we take her out several times a day, employing a transmitter system, the Innotek Puppy Trainer/Locator, to keep tabs on her. The system, formerly sold by Drs. Foster and Smith, but now discontinued, consists of a transmitter carried by the owner and a collar receiver worn by the pet. The owner uses the transmitter to make the receiver give off either a clicking noise or whooping siren sound. For a hearing pet, this could be used a signal for training. With Sheba, it serves two purposes: It warns all the other cats in neighbor that she's out and they need to hide before she spots them and attacks, and it enables us to find her--under shrubs and porches, inside tarped boats, in the bathroom of a neighbor's house (she dropped in through an open window) and on the roofs of houses and sheds (she's a climber).

These Trainer/Locaters, which we call "Sheba beepers," are about $50 a set, and the tiny battery-powered receiver mechanism, in a plastic sphere housing, is fragile. Sheba doesn't help matters by dipping it into our outdoor fountain when she takes a drink. We go through two or three receivers a year, and try to keep an extra on hand. Sheba without a beeper means hours of patrolling the yard until she takes pity on us and emerges from wherever she's been hanging out watching us. Keeping her in the house is not an option, as the claw-carvings on our kitchen door attest.

We were down to our last beeper, living dangerously, when the new Drs. Foster and Smith catalog arrvied with the Trainer/Locator on sale for $19.99. We ordered four of them.

If you have a deaf white cat, or know someone with one, we highly recommend the Sheba beeper. We've used it to locate Sheba in the heater ducts, trapped in the dresser, or just plain sleeping somewhere obscure. (Calling "Here, kitty, kitty" isn't an option with a DWC.) The only downside is when my husband is looking for Sheba in the basement or garage and she's peacefully asleep in bed with me. The beeper shrieks, he can't hear it, he keeps beeping, it keeps shrieking, I wake up and start yelling "Stop it! She's here! Upstairs! Stop!" Sheba, of course, sleeps through it all.
[NOTE added April 19, 2006: Here is some information on a new type of cat beeper from Cat Locator.]

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Blogging from down the hall

My TiBook has taken ill and my iMac is busy trying to fix it, so I've moved down the hall to use my husband's G4. This office feels oddly familiar. It has the old birch desk Jim Howe and I built 18 years ago when I lived on Evanston Ave. in Greenwood and used a Mac SE. And my custom bulletin board is on the wall! Hmmm...this is an extremely nice office. If I'd know when we moved in here that I'd be working from home, I'd probably have lobbied to get this one, with the bay window overlooking the mountains and Sound, instead of my current digs overlooking the back garden. My office does, however, have a huge closet for storing office supplies, software, all my chargers, books, and a small wine cellar--plus my dance clothes.

Speaking of feeling at home...thanks to my .Mac membership, all of my Safari browser bookmarks are accessible online even though I'm using someone else's computer. Very cool!

Thursday, December 25, 2003


Look for the recipe for a particular dish on the Web, and you often find the results you get quickly divide into two or three categories: People who use pignolis in their pesto, and people who use walnuts; people who put egg in vanilla ice cream and people who just use cream; people who roast the turkey breast down, people who roast it breast up, and people who turn the bird midway through.

Now try looking for a recipe for seafood bisque. There's lobster bisque, crab bisque, shrimp bisque, and every-imaginable-combination-of-seafood bisques--including several recipes for catfish bisque. Hmmm. They range from short versions ("Just combine canned mushroom and tomato soups, milk, and that surimi stuff, hon!") to excruciating versions that involve flaming shrimp in brandy, grinding shrimp shells in Cuisinarts, using eight lobster bodies, cooking in sherry, pureeing in blenders, straining through cheesecloth, and flavoring with Madeira, m'dear.

The version I created by combining the most adventurous recipe with some common sense was, nevertheless, something out of a Flanders and Swann routine. I ended up with crab shells in the dish strainer, shrimp shells in my hair, and warm pureed bisque all over the counters. Plus the kitchen was swarming with cats. I didn't use the brandy in the bisque itself, but it came in handy for after I cleaned up the mess.

Here's my recipe, if you're game:

Melt 2-3 tablespoons of butter or a light olive oil in a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven and sautee half an onion (chopped), a chopped carrot, a chopped celery stalk, and a minced clove of garlic.

Toss in two pounds of shellfish (anything but mussels or oysters), rinsed and patted dry, in shells. Hint: If using shrimp, buy large Gulf shrimp. If using crab, look for frozen split crab legs—these refinements come in very handy where you reach the point in the recipe where you are shelling all the cooked fish.

Sautee, stirring, until lobster or shrimp turn pink, scallops and clams open, or whatever.

If you used a skillet to sautee, transfer the sauteed shellfish to a Dutch oven or a stockpot. Add to the seafood 2 cups clam broth, 2 cups chicken broth, 2 cups tomatoes (pureed work well), and one cup white wine. Using either all clam broth or all chicken broth, plus the tomatoes and wine, is also an option.

Bring to a boil, then decrease heat to a simmer (very low) and cover, cooking for 20 minutes.

Now the fun part: Fish out the stuff with shells and remove all the shells and dispose of them, far from any cats. Reserve two or three cups of the shelled shellfish, chopped in small pieces, and refrigerate it.

Return the rest of the shellfish meat to the liquid, and puree in a blender or Cuisinart. In small batches. Seriously: Only fill the blender halfway unless you were planning to hose down the kitchen later anyway.

You can refrigerate the puree for a day or two if you want. By that time you should have removed all the tiny bits of shrimp shells from the cabinetry and the smell of boiled shrimp from the kitchen. When you are ready to serve the soup, heat the puree, slowly stir in 1 cup of heavy cream, and all the reserved shellfish meat. Heat extremely gently (if it gets too warm, the cream will separate out and look curdled!) and season with salt and pepper.

Add a splash of Madeira, or serve with a small pitcher of warm sherry as an optional add-in.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

The psyche of the geek

I'm a geek, a girl geek, with electronic gadgets, a woodshop, and those just-bordering-on SCA hobbies like gardening, cooking, and folk dancing. (The folk dance community is predominantly a mixture of male geeks and females in the helping professions--healthcare, social work and education--which is pertinent to where this blog entry is headed. Patience.) For more than a decade I've been a member of a computer user group and its related BBS.

Today's Good Morning Silicon Valley by John Paczkowski ends with a link to Five Geek Social Fallacies, a slightly overwritten but very insightful piece on the principles of geek society. It would be fascinating to see this writer's analysis extended to cover behavior in geek-driven (as opposed to marketing department-driven) workplaces.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Range wars

I like raving about things that are great and ranting about things that stink. I don't like talking about things that are just vaguely creepy. Like our new Kitchen-Aid stove.

I've always taken stoves for granted. As a child, I grew up in houses with gas ranges. They had pilot lights, and at Cape Cod we kept all the crackers in the oven so they wouldn't get soggy in the damp sea air. I think there might have been crummy electric stovetops in a few apartments I rented after college, but mostly there were old gas ranges and they were great. When I finally bought a house 15 years ago--an old bungalow in Wallingford--it had a cheap but adequate gas range.

About 12 years ago I was out for a walk along the Cut (aka the canal between Lake Union and the Ballard Locks leading to Shilshole Bay) with my friend Bob, whose many-faceted career at that point included several years as a chef. We stumbled upon a yard sale in a warehouse occupied by an odd artist and his even odder girlfriend. "The stove," Bob hissed, pointing at a beautiful old range in the corner of the warehouse. It had a nickel-plated cooking grill, big black grates, and a folding cover that either folded down on top of the burners or arched over the range to form a shelf. As it turned out, the stove was not for sale. "Leave your name with them," Bob insisted. "Offer $500."

I did, and two months later I got a call that the stove was, indeed, for sale. My friends John and Jim moved it (Bob was no longer in the picture) and the cooking adventure began. The stove was an O'Keefe and Merritt, one of the Cadillacs of the World War II era. I had the chrome re-chromed, the copper grill re-nickeled, and the grates re-enameled. I learned about gas fittings (in fact, I shipped some of the piping off to The Homestead in Skykomish to be re-done, as well). It was all worth it. That stove really cooked! It made farinata and pizza just as wonderfully as the wood-burning ovens in Italy. The grill was perfect for six grilled cheese sandwiches (you scraped the grease into little trays that could be cleaned later). The gas jets adjusted from a little interior circle of blue flames for melting butter to a roaring inferno for quick frying.

Two years ago we moved to a beautiful house in Ballard that had only two drawbacks: Uncontrolled bamboo in the sideyard and no gas line. Despite pleas from us, and from three of our neighbors, the gas company has no interest in extending the gas line from any of the surrounding streets. Thus, when we built our new kitchen nearly two years ago, we installed an electric stove. It's a Kitchen-Aid, and it wasn't cheap.

I loathe it. I've learned to compensate for the unresponsive electic stovetop by moving pans around to two or three locations to "adjust" the heat. But I can't compensate for the oven, which is pathetic. It roasts and broils adequately. But baking? Everything comes out dry and hard as a rock on the exterior, and raw on the interior. Pizza is pathetic. I've tried using the convection settings, pizza pans with perforated bottoms to let the air circulate, and baking stones that you preheat for an hour. Nothing works. Nothing even helps slightly.

The only clue I have to the situation is that the temperature in the oven fluctuates quite a bit--set it to 375 and it goes back and forth between 350 and 400. That certainly did not happen with my old gas oven. Yet when I called the appliance store where I purchased it, and Kitchen-Aid, the polite reponse was that they'd never heard of such a thing and had no idea how to adjust it. My reading on the Web indicates that oven temperature fluctuation is considered normal in run-of-the-mill ranges and that I'd need a quasi-professional one, or an older model like my O'Keefe and Merritt, to avoid that.

On Wednesday Kitchen-Aid will be sending a repairman out (for $60) to "test" the stove. I'm not expecting much. I suspect they'll tell me everything is normal and I'm crazy. But I'm going to put up a fight, anyway. I just bought two frozen pizzas and am going to bake one before they arrive to illustrate the problem. If they can get one the second one to come out edible, and tell me how they did it, I'll be content. Otherwise, my next call is to the gas company.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Late Friday

The site fridayfive posts five questions for you to answer in your blog. After posting, you leave a link to your blog for others to visit.

1. List five things you'd like to accomplish by the end of the year.
• Survive Thanksgiving
• Get the holiday letters out on time
• Take some real vacation days with my husband without being "on call" to my boss 24/7
• Wander around town and discover some new bookstores, thrift shops and cafes
• Have coffee or lunch with friends I usually talk with only at dances, parties or online

2. List five people you've lost contact with that you'd like to hear from again.
• Steve Litt
• Patrick Henry
• Miren Etcheverry
• Harriet Moss
• Harry Guffee

3. List five things you'd like to learn how to do.
• welding
• basic woodworking
• the North Carolina shag
• African dance
• play bluegrass bass

4. List five things you'd do if you won the lottery (no limit).
• Pay off the mortgage
• Take a year off to write fiction
• Hire an au pair for Sheba (our rambunctious deaf white cat)
• Make anonymous contributions to charities
• Order expensive, exotic ingredients for cooking

5. List five things you do that help you relax.
• Pet the cats
• Garden
• Shop (but only in thrift shops and consignment shops)
• Contra dance
• Read mysteries and science fiction

Sunday, November 09, 2003

The Matrix Reviewed

(We saw The Matrix Revolutions Saturday. Brady, who was seeing it for the second time, had the following commentary, which I asked permission to republish here. Please note: It contains a minor spoiler about the plot that might upset a fanatic Matrix fan—though such fans, presumably, would have already rushed out and seen the film by this time.--MT)

The Matrix Revolutions was released this past Wednesday with very little fanfare, in sharp contrast to the hooplah that preceded The Matrix Reloaded last May. Raking in $24 million in the US/Canadian market ($47 million globally), Revolutions is enjoying a doubtless short-lived status as the 3rd-highest first-day gross in history. The first weekend figures are similarly impressive. The film has brought in an estimated $50 million in box office receipts, catapulting it to the number 1 spot.

The first Matrix film zoomed to the number 1 spot the day it opened and kept that position for four weeks, staying in the top 10 for more than four months before beginning a rapid descent. The Matrix Reloaded, the second film, also opened at number 1 but stayed there for only a week and dropped out of the top 10 after seven weeks. The Matrix Revolutions has once again opened at number 1. I anticipate that its fate will be much the same as that of The Matrix Reloaded.

What the Matrix series is not
The Matrix is not, and so far as I can tell was never intended to be what many critics complain that it is not: A deep, introspective, philosophical science fiction film with a bit of action and a few special effects tossed in to enhance the story. Anyone looking for a film of that sort should rent 2001: A Space Odyssey or the original Solaris.

The Matrix series contains little if anything that is new or original. Without doubt the themes of the film are new to moviegoers with only a casual exposure to science fiction, but in reality the film (or films, if you prefer) brings no new or creative concepts to the screen. Instead, it is simply a fast paced, action packed retelling of a story based on a theme well known to science fiction fans.

Computers taking over the world? Hardly new. The first film treatment of that idea that I recall was Colussus: The Forbin Project in 1970. In science fiction literature the idea dates back at least to Thomas Ryan's 1977 book The Adolescence of P-1.

Humans "jacking in" to enter a computer generated, wrap-around reality? William Gibson brought that idea to life in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. In fact, most of the concepts at the core of the matrix are found in Gibson's works. The idea of a cyberreality indistinguishible from "real" reality is hardly new either. Tad Williams' 1996 Otherworld series is one of the latest iterations of this theme.

Well then what about the idea of humans creating machines that "wake up," frighten their makers into trying to pull the plug, resulting in retaliation by the machines and all-out man versus machine war, the near destruction of humanity and the desperate attempts of a small number of militaristic humans on a ravaged Earth? Can you say Terminator? A good argument can be made the underlying idea of this theme dates back to the 1950s and Fred Saberhagen's berserkers.

So what does the Matrix series offer us that is really new? Not much. In fact, I would say nothing at all apart from the fact that it has popularized a theme previously limited to science fiction afficionados.

What the Matrix series is
If the Matrix series is short on story and offers little or nothing that is new to science fiction, what is it? What does it offer that has thrice made it a box office winner?

The Matrix is a special-effects and action extravaganza with shallow but likeable characters. It is a diverting two hours for fans of that genre. For fans of Hong Kong kung fu cinema the martial arts sequences are very recognizable, high-tech versions of kung fu sequences in many films of that genre. In fact, the Wachowski brothers hired Yuen Wo Ping, well known to fans of the kung fu genre, to train the actors and choreopgraph those scenes. Wo Ping's entire career before the Matrix series was with Hong Kong and Chinese kung fu films. His highly stylized choreography is a pleasure to watch. Pitting human kung fu against software agents is one of the few novel and original ideas in the Matrix series.

Revolutions departs from this theme until the final battle, focusing instead on more technological battle. The battle for Zion is fought not in the matrix, but in the real world; not with hand to hand combat, but with heavy artillery reminiscent of the oddball machines of the Star Wars world. This part of the film is less interesting, but far louder than the hand to hand scenes. I found that while I could easily and uncritically lose myself in the beauty of the kung fu scenes, during the seemingly unending battle for Zion I was wondering why the machines weren't returning fire and why, despite their obvious technological superiority, they were not using any projective weapons. If the electromagnetic pulse weapons (EMP) were so effective for the humans, why would these intelligent machines not simply drop one into Zion, disable all of their defenses, then follow it up with an invasion of projectile-vomiting, gravity-defying infantry?

In sum
I found Revolutions to be a fitting and well-done ending to the Matrix series. But then, unlike the authors of many reviews I have read I never expected more than a fast-paced action flick with lots of wonderful computer generated special effects.

Little in the Matrix series is award-winning material, unless it be perhaps for special effects. Nonetheless, the series including the final installment is a wonderfully entertaining diversion that is well worth seeing.

Credit where credit is due: The facts and figures about sales and performance of the Matrix series are thanks to http://www.boxofficemojo.com/.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

News from the cat wars

Domestic cats are supposed to organize themselves into a pecking (clawing?) order, with one cat serving as the alpha. Our cats are confused; three of them think they are in charge. The fourth one, Socks, doesn't have any idea what's going on and the other three don't seem to think he's even a cat.

Sheba, the deaf white cat, is a narcisistic little tornado. She thinks she owns the house, and tries to shoo all the other cats off her territory by hissing. Interestingly, she realizes that she doesn't own the yard, and treats her indoor rivals with deference when she's outside.

Smokey, the Russian black, doesn't fight because the Russian blues (and blacks) just don't fight--even when attacked. But he's awfully good at annoying Sheba and Betaille. He likes to get into Sheba's cat bed and watch her glare at him. He delights in running up and leaping high in the air over both Sheba and Betaille. But if he's in a room with me, getting petted, and Betaille marches in, he slinks out immediately and defers to her.

Betaille, the 14-year-old Himalayan Abyssinian, views Sheba with alarm, and clearly thinks Smokey is nuts. Betaille is probably too old to clobber Sheba—but she has taken a few swats at her.

While the three would-be alphas maneuver around each other, Socks, the tabby ragdoll, pads blithely about. He goes wherever he wants, frolics with Smokey, follows Betaille around outdoors, and even sleeps on the bed with Sheba, who lets him kiss her nose and never hisses at him. Perhaps he's on to something.

One percent magic

Ninety-nine percent of writing is practice and hard work, but the one percent that's magic is important, too. The Oct. 27 issue of The New Yorker has an article on the career of Toni Morrison. The article closes with Morrison showing the writer where she writes—not in her office, but on a rustic Norwegian wood table in her kitchen. That makes perfect sense.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Content for the thing contented

This morning I went to the bakery and ordered two croissants to go. The barista placed each one in an individual wax paper bag (for the prices they charge, she should have placed them in gift-wrapped boxes). Then she asked me, "Would you like a bag for the bags?" I said yes, and she produced a real bag of heavier paper and put the two croissants in.

"I feel so funny every time I say 'Would you like a bag for the bags?" she said. "It guess it's tautology."

"I think it's more like a paradox," I suggested.

It occured to me as I left the store that what she was really grappling with was metonymy, a grammatical (actually, rhetorical) concept James Thurber immortalized in his essay about his English teacher, Miss Groby ("Here Lies Miss Groby," from The Thurber Carnival.) Metonymy is when you say "The iced tea is great; can I get you a glass?" What you really mean, of course, is can you get the person some tea, but the container (glass), stands in for the thing contained (tea).

You could read about metonymy and its subcategory synecdoche at World Wide Words. But you'd get much more out of reading The Thurber Carnival.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

My closet obsession

Having lived in a series of vintage houses, I've been fighting for closet space for more than 25 years. When we added a second floor onto the first Shady Rest in Wallingford, we included the most enormous walk-in closet you can imagine, with a cathedral ceiling, dressing room area, south facing windows, and a birdseye-maple door with Cotswold glass. It even had an attic storage closet off the dressing room. We took the glass door with us when we moved to the Shady Rest West, but unfortunately couldn't take that closet. The walk-in closet here (more of a walk-thru) is only half the size and has terrible track lighting (though not as terrible as the bare bulb that illuminated it when we first moved in). As a result, we have clothes in the attic, in the laundry room, and in a storage locker. Neither of our recent houses has had a closet in the entryway, but the current house does have a tiny closet (2 feet wide by not quite 2 feet deep) in the main floor hall outside the bathroom. Until last week it had a rod made from a broomhandle suspended between two loops of wire, an enormous fir shelf up top that kept the coats in permanent dimness, and a musty odor. Finally, after putting up with that for two years, we attacked!

I ripped out the shelf and rod and assorted hardware and Zorg painted the interior a soft yellow. I installed a natural wood rod, centering it between the back of the closet and the door and raising it up four inches from the previous rod so the coats were no longer squished or dragging. Over the rod I set a shallow white wire shelf. Even though I don't usually like wire shelving, this maximized the amount of light from the hall entering the closet, plus made it possible to see what's on the high shelf from below. Zorg's caps, two dozen of them, had been thrown on the old shelf and had pretty much been lost for two years. Now they're on a special long oak cap hanger attached to the inside of the door--cheesy, but practical. Parallel to the cap hanger is a hemlock 1"x3" strip with brushed nickel J hooks where I'm planning to hang winter scarves. The last piece of equipment, scheduled to go in tomorrow, is a thin bathroom towel rack, 24" long, that we had left over from the upstairs bath refurbishing project. It goes in the back of the closet, about 2-1/2 feet up the wall, so we can hang umbrellas by the handles instead of having them falling over the floor of the closet.

The downside to this project involves our cat Socks. Previously, the squished coats made it difficult to close the closet door securely. This made it easy for Socks to pry open the door and sneak inside, bedding down in the forest of drooping coats for the day. From his viewpoint, this just another case of a neighborhood ruined by overdevelopment.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Grape news

One of the few beverages I actively dislike is grape juice. My mother says it goes back to an unpleasant experience at a birthday party as a child. So while I'll happily drink coffee, tea, citrus juices, all manner of ghastly carbonated drinks from RC to Yahoo (I grew up calling them tonic), and I have a secret fondness for Hawaiian punch, my lip curls involuntarily at the site of dark purple Welch's grape juice. In a word, yuck.

Grapes, I like. I don't even mind the ones with seeds. So when we bought our current house two years ago, I was pleased to see a young grapevine twining over the arbor. The first year it didn't do much, but last year it had plenty of reddish grapes that I turned into delicious raisins. This year, after I followed Martha Stewart's advice to prune the vine back to a few leaders in February, it simply exploded with big red grapes. More than enough for my raisins, so I made...grape juice. (Put the grapes in a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, cool and strain through cheese cloth.) The result was a startling, nearly day-glo pinkish-red juice. It tasted amazing: tart, sweet and powerful.

This grape juice had no resemblence at all to the sickeningly sweet, monotonous, dark purple stuff that comes in bottles.

I realized immediately that this is why people drink grape juice. Our grandmothers used to make it: Picking the grapes off the vines, removing the annoying little stems, cooking, straining, and bottling (I froze mine). It was delicious. It was a pain. Grandma probably sighed with relief when the first commercially-bottled grape juice appeared on the shelves down at the local market. "Doesn't taste near as good as yours, Hattie," Grandpa said the first time she served it. I suspect she didn't give a hoot. No more purple stains on her aprons. And, in all likelihood, bottled grape juice in those days probably tasted more like real grape juice.

Next time you hear an elderly woman muttering about how some things just don't taste as good as they used, don't go getting her started on grape juice.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Get fresh with me

Part of my job producing web content is to write blurbs on new pop music releases. It's discouraging how quickly you run out of fresh adjectives and verbs to describe pop tunes, most of which will be forgotten by the time the next Grammys roll around.

Tonight, driving back from the airport, I was listening to the BBC World News and was reminded how vivid the language of good sports reporting can be. Coincidentally, I've been reading David Haberstams Summer of '49, his account of the bitter pennant race between a fading Yankee team and the perennially hopeful Red Sox. The reporting is inspired, and the writing fresh. This got me thinking about the best writing teacher I even had—Tim Cohane, the former sports editor of Look magazine. At the end of my sophomore year I enrolled for the summer at Boston University to take journalism and photojournalism classes—neither of which were offered at Ivy League school I'd been attending. By some extraordinary stroke of fortune, I was assigned to the last newswriting class ever taught by Cohane, who retired at the end of that summer. On the first day he said he'd be teaching newswriting, not reporting, and he invited people who wanted a trendier, high-level approach to the trade to step across the hall to the other section, led by a shaggy-maned Carl Bernstein wannabe from the Boston Globe. Many did. I stayed and received the best writing training imaginable. "Blood, sweat, and rewrite!" Cohane would bellow, turning from the blackboard to rap an accompaniment to his words on the desk. He wasn't joking. I wrote six drafts of one three-page story before he would accept it.

A web search for Tim Cohane reveals that several of his books are still in print. And it turned up two recent recollections of that BU newswriting course by other students he had inspired. I saved every handout he gave us that year, and all the writing exercises, vowing that some day I will offer that same class and be as unconcerned as he was by the number of students who turn their backs on basic training.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Mind games

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As much as I dread dementia, if it happens to me, I hope it's dementia like my father's —- a letting go, a distancing, and amused tolerance for those strange loved ones who insist on trying to call you back.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Responsible writing

Today some well-meaning friends forwarded to me a rant by someone trying to protect all our ears from the danger of free speech. (Don't you just love it when people assume you're a gullible idiot?) The rant, urging us to protest against an obscure film the ranter disagreed with, was replete with typos, miss-spelled words, logical gaps, and exclamation marks. In short, it screamed "nut case" and begged for the mercy of the Delete key.

But what if the writing had been good? I grit my teeth when I read something that, because of inside information, I know is wrong but which, to the average reader, appears well-reasoned and persuasive. And I wonder, when reading something on an unfamiliar topic, if what appears well-reasoned and persuasive to me is obvious bullshit to an expert.

Many years ago I met an extraordinatry storyteller, Rabbi Yitz Etshalom, at an arts retreat in Oregon. Several of us were captivated by his traditional and contemporary Jewish tales, and he was later invited to perform at Northwest Folklife and at Seattle storytelling events. At one performance at the Burke Museum Yitz revealed that for some years he'd stopped telling stories because he felt he'd misused his talents. As a counselor at a camp for Jewish teenagers, he'd been asked to intervene with a camper who wanted to cast off his Jewish identity and pursue secular studies; the boy's family wanted him to become a rabbi. Trying to reason with the camper only made the boy more determined to escape the community. But one night at a camp gathering Yitz deliberately told a heartrending tale about a boy who leaves his Jewish family and identity, only to find on his eventual return that his mother has died, heartbroken by his desertion. Some months later Yitz learned that the camper had been so affected by the story that he changed his academic direction to Jewish studies; the boy later became a rabbi.

But Yitz was deeply disturbed by the influence of his story on a young mind. Even if his motives in telling the story had been for the best, he was conscious that what he'd done was manipulative. Yitz returned to telling his fabulous stories, but said he never again crafted them for an audience of one, preferring instead to let the tales, and the listeners, meet by chance.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

10 things I want to do before I die

In no particular order:

1. Learn to play acoustic bluegrass bass

2. Visit Genova again

3. Dance at the Sidmouth International Festival again

4. Visit Australia and see some of the remote towns Arthur Upfield described in his Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series

5. Publish a work of fiction (short story or novel)

6. Teach writing

7. Be Bat Mitzvah (and learn Hebrew)

8. Live in a house that has a backyard guesthouse for friends

9. Have time to cook nearly every day

10. Write The Shady Rest Cookbook

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Whine and dine

In the early 90s, I hosted an annual basil massacre—a six-course sit-down dinner with a Mediterranean theme and a first course featuring homemade pesto. In its heydey, the basil massacre involved two dozen dinner guests, three sets of china and flatware, linen tableclothes, candles, a hors d'oeuvres buffet (tomatoes with basil and mozzarella, caponata, broiled stuffed mushrooms), planked salmon, salad and cheese courses, and homemade tiramisu and espresso.

No more. With only a few exceptions, there are very few people for whom I'll now go crazy in the kitchen.

People used to enjoy my cooking; now they seem to actively relish criticizing it—even before they take a bite.

"I don't suppose that olive oil you use is ORGANIC," one woman sneered, looking at a bowl of hummous drizzled with one of my favorite Moroccan olive oils.

"Hamburgers and hot dogs?" another said dubiously, when invited to our summer cookout. "You'll have to get turkey sausages for us. We don't let our children eat beef any more because of all the mad cow disease going around."

Even better was the vegan who, invited to a large catered buffet dinner at our place, contacted the caterer without my knowledge to instruct her to use a ghastly egg-free recipe for one of the main dishes.

If someone is going to be a guest in our home for a day or two, or they are the only guests at an intimate dinner, I hope they'll tell me about their dietary preferences. But for someone who is coming to a large, informal party, as far as I'm concerned they should just clam up and have a double helping of one of the dishes that doesn't offend them.

While there's a certain amount of sheer indignation to this stance, the essence of my pique is logistics. There's simply no way I can please everybody now that nearly everyone I know has a dietary regimen as complex--and as humorless--as the federal tax code.

One friend is on the Atkins diet. He informs me meat, cheese, oils and butter are fine. So are some vegetables. Fruits are a no-no, as are all breads and desserts--except unsweetened whipped cream.

This leaves precious little overlap with the vegan, except veggies and oils. The vegan would like generous servings of whole grains and legumes--just what would send the Atkins and Scarsdale folks around the bend.

Many of my friends eat no red meat, but allow fish and poultry. This is fine with some of the organic folks, as long as the fish is wild and not farm-raised. The chicken and eggs can come from a farm as long as it was a humane farm that let them run around and didn't put antibiotics in their food. Some of the organic folks think beef, pork and lamb are OK, as long as the source animals were free range.

I flip through my cookbooks, trying to keep all this in mind. But no matter how strategically I approach the menu, it seems that at least one of the guests takes it upon him or herself to loudly criticize not just my table but their fellow guests' dietary preferences.

"I never eat bread," one fellow sniffs sanctimoniously as I put a loaf of homemade French bread, a gift from another guest, on the table. He blathers on "I stopped eating bread two days ago and lost 20 pounds!"

"I'm can't believe you're still drinking coffee," I hear one guest say to another as I bring in a fresh pot. "OHMYGAWD, don't you know it prevents calcium absorption, elevates your blood pressure, and turns you into a crock-winged bleeblethorp?"

Well, cross her off my guest list. If there's any place at all left where the old axiom "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" should apply, it's at the table—particularly if you're a guest.

Push food around on your plate, nibble at anything not scientifically proven to bring imminent death, and restrain yourself from commenting on what your fellow guests are or are not consuming. If you fear you'll risk starvation at someone's dinner party, politely decline the invitation rather than attend. It's "wine and dine," not "whine and dine," for heaven's sake.

Full disclosure: Since 1984 I've had a medical condition that restricts what I can eat. In spite of this, I've never gone hungry, and I've gotten to enjoy some spectacular dishes (with trace elements of these restricted foods) that the host might never have made if he or she had been running around the pantry in a frenzy fretting about my dietary quirks.

I'll close with the wise words of "Weird Al" Yankovic:

"Just eat it."

Monday, August 18, 2003

Reporting? What's that?

Today the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced that RealNetworks would be distributing the first legal digital tracks from the Rolling Stones.

The article by PI business reporter Dan Richman, coyly larded with references to the Stones' tracks, went on to assert "Tunes by Madonna, Michael Jackson and the Beatles still aren't available on legal sites."

Yikes! Then where did all those Michael Jackson tracks in my iTunes come from? I could have sworn I purchased them from the Apple iTunes Music Store. Gosh golly gee.

Checking the iTunes Music Store and confirming that the Michael Jackson tracks were indeed there, I sent off an email to that effect to Dan Richman, including the phone number from the Apple Web site of the Apple PR person for iTunes.

Richman wrote back minutes later "sorry. i was just going by what realnetworks told me." (Obviously this man has a copyeditor who saves him the exertion of hitting the shift key, but unfortunately the PI hasn't gotten around to getting him a fact checker—or sending him to remedial journalism school.)

A couple minutes later I got cc'd on an email from Lisa Amore, the PR person at Real, admitting that she was the source of Richman's error. "I'm sorry if I misspoke. I was under the impression that there were no legal tracks of Michael Jackson online."

As a professional PR person, Lisa Amore is entitled to all the impressions she wants, particularly when they benefit her company, as this one certainly did.

The problem, of course, is Dan Richman and the PI. They obviously have no idea that they aren't in the business of broadcasting PR people's impressions under the guise of fact to thousands of readers. I've been bemoaning the imminent demise of the PI and Seattle's future as a one-newspaper town. Now I realize it won't make a bit of difference.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Revert to original

"Revert to Original" is a command in Apple's easy-to-use iPhoto software.

After you've performed all the tricks you thought would improve your snapshot--only to discover they didn't--you select "Revert to Original" and with great relief you get back to the original, not-so-bad-after-all, picture.

More and more often I find myself looking for commands like "Revert to Original" in real life as well as on the machine.

Two weeks ago I bought my mom a new iBook, and I've been systematically setting it up, hoping that in that machine she'd find clarity and easy of use--in short, a respite from what's been going on in her life for the past year as my dad becomes increasingly frail and senile. This morning she called with the news that she's given up and is going to put him in a nursing home.

Last night I'd been up late working on her computer, setting up her .Mac mail account in OS X. (NOTE: .Mac is an Apple fee-based service that includes "anywhere access": Mail, address book, calendars, to-do lists, and browser bookmarks are synchronized between devices and accessible from any online computer--plus effectively backed up online. The address book is fully integrated with the mail client.)

.Mac Mail preferences let you set up a picture signature, so I went into my iPhoto library and chose one of my mom that I'd taken at Safeco Statium last August (Mariners v. Red Sox). She was sitting next to my dad in a crowd of people; I chose the square cropping tool, selected a closeup of her face, and voila! there was her signature pic.

Exporting the cropped JPG to my desktop, before choosing in it .Mac Mail preferences, I noticed that the export of an cropped iPhoto image does an odd thing: It displays as a tiny thumbnail of the uncropped rectangular photo. This puzzled me, but on import to .Mac Mail, the picture displayed as the square closeup of my mom in her baseball cap.

Yet the JPG on my own desktop remains a tiny, haunting version of the original picture: Her smiling in the crowd at the baseball game, and next to her my handsome, patient father already looking a little incomprehending.

Everyone who has a .Mac account who gets mail from her will see the .Mac signature photo of Ruth with a big grin at the ballgame. But when I open her email and see that photo, I'll always mentally revert to original and see my father there, too.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

He's been to the mountain...

My husband's midlife crisis is of the most impressive sort: He's decided to climb Mt. Rainier. The lead-up to the climb is a year of training with the Mountaineers, Seattle's world-renowned climbing club. All spring he spent a couple nights a week in classes, coming home and practicing with first aid kits, ropes, and other gear. Then, in May, he began organized weekend climbs with certified leaders.

All went well until he failed to make the summit on his qualifying glacier climb. It wasn't fear that caused the problem, but unsteadiness that turned out to be the result of undereating. Some 5,000 calories must to be consumed over a 14-hour vigorous climb toting a 50-pound pack.

Last weekend he set off on his second glacier climb, determined to reach the top this time with more food and a slightly lighter pack. The expedition involved a hike to a "base camp" of sorts, an overnight stay, and a pre-dawn wakeup for the assault on the peak. He made it, and returned home tired but happy Sunday night.

The fun started Monday night when I hopped into his Subaru Forester. It smelled like it had been sprayed by a male mountain lion. When we turned on the fan and air-conditioner, the mountain lion reek was prompty overlaid by a thick miasma of mold. I shrieked. He quickly hit the button to open all the windows. But that was a mixed blessing. Horrible smells, seemingly from the shoulder belts, were now wafting through the car.

As luck would have it, my 13-year-old Honda Civic station wagon was in the shop for two days and I had arranged to borrow his Subaru Tuesady to drive to the airport for a day trip to California. We left the windows open all night, but when I hopped in to the car Tuesday morning the seatbelt smell on the driver's side was comparable only to the whiff of a NYC subway station restroom in August. I piled newspaper on the driver's seat, wrapped the shoulderbelt in plastic, and drove off into the pre-dawn darkness with all the windows open. Reaching the airport, I locked up the car for the day and shuddered to think what I'd smell on my return that night.

While in California, I emailed my husband to say that the Subaru needed to go in for detailing as soon as mine was out of the shop. I described my journey with the newspaper and plastic. "Newspaper," he mused. "That rings a bell. We were very wet when we got in the car Sunday and we put down a lot of newspaper to try to soak up some of the dampness in the seats."

"Is there anything else you want to tell me?" I wrote.

"There was the decomposing carcass of the elk we picked up and drove with for 50 miles before we found the dumpster," he replied.

He was joking. I think.

I returned from California that night and, while the car had been locked up all day, at least it had been in a dark, covered parking garage out of the sun. I rolled down the windows, wrapped the shoulderbelt, and sped home.

That's where the plot, and the miasma, thickened. I climbed out of the car, unwrinkled my nose, and ran in and got the Woolite heavy-duty rug and upholstery cleaner. Then I sprayed the offending seatbelt and stretched it around the steering wheel to dry. The plan was to leave the windows open, but the past week had seen rain nearly every morning. So I rolled them up.

Wednesday morning I got a phone call from my husband, who had left for work before I was fully awake. He was spluttering about horrible chemical fumes, having to throw his shirt away, etc. I made sympathetic noises, and he couldn't see the little smile on my face. I then took a bus downtown, picked up his car from the parking lot, and drove right to the detailing garage. By that time the rug cleaning smell had dissipated and we were back to eau de mountain lion.

The detailer assured me the Subaru would be ready for pickup that night at 5, but I was hardly surprised when my phone rang and caller ID showed the detail shop. Had they found a decomposing possum in the air intake? Perhaps something organic the climbers had "packed out" of the wilderness and forgotten to dispose of?

"No, it's just very, very dirty," the detailer said. "It's going to take all day just to clean the upholstery, and we'll be drying it with fans all night. How about 5 p.m. tomorrow?"

Several months ago I read about cleaning companies that come to houses to clean up murder scenes; now I'm wondering how you find them in the phone book. Meanwhile, my husband is concerned about my 13-year-old Honda. He thinks we should sell it and get a new hybrid; he'd drive that, and I could have...his Subaru.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

More mysteries of yard sales

Nearly every Saturday morning for more than 25 years I've gone to yard sales.

It started in New Haven, where Mike Maffeo and I would scrounge for fiddles, banjos, guitars and mandolins. Picking up pottery, kitchenware, furniture, and tools was a sideline.

We waited for more than an hour one morning outside a suburban house in Branford to get the first crack at a collection of antique planes, only to see a local dealer walk out the front door with the whole set before the sale opened. We felt much better a few minutes later when I made off with a $200 Roseville vase for $2.

Cape Cod, where my parents had retired, was a treasure trove of yard sales (or, as they call them in New England, tag sales). My mother has a revulsion for anything previously owned--she'd pass by a 100-year-old Sarouk in favor of a "nice" new synthetic rug from Jordan Marsh--so when we visited her I used to sneak out to sales, pay for the goodies, leave them with the sellers, and then make the rounds collecting them on my way out of town the following day. The purchase I remember best from the Cape was a pair of cotton braided rugs. My then-husband, Ted, had gotten fed up with tag sales and had stomped back to the car in a huff, causing the woman running the sale to give me the two rugs at half price. Ironically, when we got divorced they were two of the few items he wanted, telling me how much he'd grown to like them.

Seattle yard sales are a bit different--no Colonial or Victorian gems out here, but some good finds none the less. My best was the vintage Fiesta salt shaker loose in a box of crummy Tupperware.

To me, the most mysterious aspect of yard sales is clothing. The $72 petite polar fleece robe I buy from Land's End makes me look like a yeti, but the $2 cherry red terry cloth robe from the yard sale looks stunning. The best chinos I've ever owned (Riveted by Lee) I discovered for $1 at a yard sale; the yard sale pants were one size too large, but I could tell immediately that the style and fabric were perfect for me and managed to locate them in a smaller size at Fred Meyer--a store I'd never have considered for clothing.

And, of course, there are the people you meet at yard sales! Seattle photographer and historian Paul Dorpat has for some years been working on a video about yard sales and the people who put their belongings on the block. In the process, Paul's become a yard sale legend himself. When we lived in Wallingford, not far from Paul, he always stopped by our sales with his camera. Zorg and I will never forget the frumpy older woman, at our sale with a friend, who sidled over to me and indicated Paul. "Watch out for that man!" she hissed. "He's always at yard sales. And his camera can see through your clothes!." I managed to ask her to pay Zorg, then made a mad dash for our backyard, where I collapsed in hysterical laughter.

Is there anything you can't get at a yard sale?

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Ice cream, yard sales, and 70's nostalgia

I grew up in a Washington, D.C., suburb that had incredible ice cream. There was a famous frozen custard stand at Jefferson Village, a Gifford's at Bailey's Crossroads, and one of the first Baskin Robbins stores (with flavors like creme de menthe) just down the road. My family spent summers on Cape Cod (with the incomparable Kreme 'n' Kone in Dennisport) and in Boston, which boasted Brigham's (with the Fribble ultra thick frappe), Bailey's (an old-fashioned ice cream parlor just off the Boston Common) and Howard Johnson's, which in the 1960s had great maple walnut, butter pecan and coffee ice creams.

In the mid-1970s, while I was in college, electric ice cream machines came into vogue. My gourmet friend and New Haven housemate Mike Maffeo aspired to having one, and it was on our list of things look for at yard sales. Sure enough, we found a Waring Ice Cream Parlor, new in box, for $5. "My daughter-in-law gave it to me to keep me fat!" the seller told us. "Take it away!" We made off with it and spent the summer churning strawberry ice cream (using fresh berries, cut and sugared to make a nice syrup) and banana frozen yogurt.

Twenty five years later, I'm living in Seattle, a city apparently oblivious to ice cream. One gourmet option, Fran's at University Village, makes ice cream in mind-boggling flavors, but it's just too rich. The soft ice cream found at cheap stands is, for the most part, sickeningly sweet and glossily artificial. Nowadays Baskin Robbins is hardly a sure thing; quality varies by store-by-store because it's a franchise. The only supermarket ice cream that's at all distinguished is from Dallas' Out of a Flower, which offers flavors like Fresh Nutmag, Texas Goat Cheese, Marc de Bourgogne, and (for the more conservative) Dark Chocolate and Rum. But the only place to buy it is Larry's Market. [ NOTE: As of March 2003, Out of a Flower's web site appears to be offline. Their phone is (800) 743-5696.]

Last weekend I spotted the Waring Ice Cream Parlor in the pantry, still in its original box, having followed me through at least seven moves. [NOTE: Here are the much-requested operating instructions for the Waring Ice Cream Parlor.] Tonight I noticed a pint of heavy cream in the fridge, left over from my husband's recent truffle project. Obviously I was meant to make ice cream. Soon the Ice Cream Parlor was grinding loudly away just the way I'd remembered, ice cubes and salt gently sloshing outside the rotating metal cream container. Forty minutes later I was putting two containers of spectacular tasting vanilla into our freezer. (I have to admit, the ice-cream-making process was a lot easier now that most refrigerators have automatic ice makers; years ago in New Haven I can remember running short of ice and dashing to a neighbor's to scrounge some.)

Since we rarely indulge in ice cream, or keep heavy cream around the house, I suspect the Waring Ice Cream Parlor will last me for the rest of my days. Wish you had one of these culinary workhorses? Act now: I spotted three of them selling on eBay, for $15 each.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Shock tactics

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Relations with our neighbors got tense this past winter when Sheba darted after their cat and pursued it around the block, cornering it and socking a few times along the circuit.

I had the flu, and was chasing them in my slippers, and had great difficulty catching up with them and prying Sheba off of her victim. I promised my screaming neighbor that we would get a shock collar to train Sheba not to go onto their property. I did research, purchased a collar for training small dogs, but just couldn't bring myself to put it on the little white cat who looks so fragile and dainty when she isn't eviscerating her fellow beasts. The box with the collar sat in our front hallway for months. Fortunately, Sheba, who is nearly four, mellowed out in the interim. When we saw her trespassing we punished her by taking her indoors (a time in, instead of a time out), and she got the message.

Last week, I decided it was time to put the collar (never opened) up for sale on eBay. It was purchased right away and today I shipped it off to the buyer, a woman whose street address is 71 Doberman Lane. That certainly got me thinking, as I bade farewell to the collar at the Post Office. Is Doberman Lane part of a development, with Pit Bull Place, and Corgi Court? Could you live on Doberman Lane and own a couple of toy poodles? Somehow, I doubt it's a route favored by joggers or postal carriers. Come to think of it, the buyer's address also included a box number...

Friday, July 18, 2003

Summer songs

This morning our local NPR station's call-in show was about summer songs--Springsteen, Led Zepplin, the Beach Boys, Patty Larkin, and classics from Alice Cooper's "School's Out for Summer" to the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City."

As I thought back on songs from my summers over the years on Cape Cod, at Andover, and in New Haven, I stopped when I got to 1984. We were living in Sardegna, near the shore in Alghero, in a furnished apartment complete with a TV. One of Italy's public TV stations (Rai Due?) aired the Rainer Werner Fassbinder film Lili Marleen. It's the story of a cabaret singer who rises to fame based on her performance of the love song "Lili Marlene." (Note: The film's name is spelled differently that that of the song, whose lyrics are from a 1918 poem by German soldier Hans Leip, with music by German composer Norbert Schultze, and English lyrics by British songwriters J.J. Phillips and Tommy Connors) The singer's recording of "Lili Marlene" sweeps Europe, its popularity growing until the song becomes the theme of the German army. By the film's end the singer is a dolled-up plaything of the Nazi brass and the love song has been corrupted into a grotesque, ominous march.

As you can imagine, Fassbinder's film deeply affected Italians who'd lived through the war under Mussolini, and it fascinated Italians of my generation, who were troubled by and curious about their country's Fascist past.

The movie played in July, and all summer long, in cafes in little villages, on the streets of Rome, you'd here "Lili Marlene" murmured and whistled, particular the refrain "...for you, Lili Marlene." Like the memory of a bitter love affair, the song had returned from the past to haunt an entire country.

Juxtaposed in my own memory with "Lili Marlene" is the only other song I remember from that bright, hot summer in Italy. It was the number one pop tune, an American import, blasted from beachside gelato stands and car radios: Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

Both songs are readily available at Apple's iTunes Music Store. There are two versions of the Stevie Wonder song (I picked the less orchestral) and three of "Lili Marlene." The Carly Simon version (!) did nothing for me, but I bought the two utterly transcendant Marlene Dietrich versions, one in German, the other in charmingly accented English.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Getting rid of bamboo

My bamboo is on its way to Burning Man, and good riddance.

Two years ago I knew nothing of bamboo except my husband's tales of the bamboo at his ex-wife's house in Pennsylvania; he claimed it could grow 11 inches in one day.

We'd been househunting for six months when we spotted the clapboard Tudor that is now our home overlooking the Olympics. We loved everything about it--except the backyard, which was overshadowed by a huge hedge of dark green bamboo nearly 30 feet high.

Our first summer in the house we found ourselves avoiding the backyard, which even on hottest days seemed cold and uninviting. In midsummer, the bamboo began to shed ugly dry leaves all over the yard. I called in a bamboo specialist who informed me our bamboo was "the wrong bamboo." Plus it was badly in need of pruning, and it was diseased. He could remove it for $2,000.

$2,000? We decided to let it continue to loom for a while. "I hope it didn't hear you," my husband muttered.

In November, I took drastic action. My favorite concrete contractor, Mike, who had done the driveway at our previous house and poured our neighbors' foundation, was coming to put in a concrete pad for my garden shed project. He agreed to bring in a jackhammer and have his team take out all the bamboo.

"I'll never do that again," he said, after two days of jackhammering and digging. He suggested that I pour Roundup weed killer into the 20-foot-long trench after he'd removed the bamboo. I put my little environmentally correct nose in the air, and declined. Big mistake.

By spring, the bamboo was back with a vengeance. I called several garden services, and they all assured me the only answer was Roundup. "Wait until the sprouts are 6 inches high, clip them, and shoot Roundup down the stems. You'll have to do it for two or three years, but eventually you'll get rid of it," one garden expert told me.

I bought Roundup and rubber gloves, and went to work. Faced with my hostile treatment, the bamboo headed north into my neighbors' yard, tunneling under a concrete pathway and popping up next to their foundation. When their house went up for sale, I took to sneaking over and applying Roundup there, as well. Since I was concerned about pets coming in contact with the treated shoots, I covered all my work with plastic garden pots.

Meanwhile, there was a clump of bamboo in our yard that Mike hadn't removed. The bamboo guru had said it was "good bamboo," in that it was more delicate, and only about 15 feet high. Plus it was contained by concrete retaining walls, preventing it from taking over the yard. Still, it was shedding vigorously, and the leaves were embedding themselves in our cedar decking and piling up unattractively in the garden bed.

I read up on bamboo and discovered that it needs to be pruned--one-third of the stalks removed--annually. I figured ours hadn't been touched for four or five years. The question was how on earth would you get a pruning saw into the thick clump? Eventually I purchased a hori-hori, and went to work on it, sawing the stalks and then tugging and dragging to get them out of the clump. After removing half of the stalks, I was amazed at how attractive the remaining bamboo looked. It waved and rustled in wind.

But now I had a heap of 15-foot bamboo poles drying out in the driveway. I put an ad on CraigsList, offering them for free, and was swamped with takers in minutes. I chose one, and sent an email to everyone else who'd inquired, saying it was spoken for and expressing my surprise at its popularity.

"I'll bet you it's going to Burning Man," one woman wrote back, and, sure enough, she was right. My bamboo turned out to be far trendier than I am.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

More tales of marketing communications

The development of an effective marketing message is often like the emergence of a long-lost heir to the throne in a chaotic kingdom--it's born in secret, carefully nurtured and developed by a few courageous caretakers, and unveiled just at the right moment to save the day before the grumbling council of jaded politicians can have it brainwashed, dismembered, or sent to rot in the dungeons. Had the heir been raised by the politicians, he or she would be one of them, and the empire would truly be in trouble.

As a communications consultant, I've spent much of my career producing marketing materials bearing what's left of an organization's messages after committees have finished gumming them into pap. Is the scenario always that grim? No. Usually, but not always. Here's a story with both a good and a bad ending:

A few years back, I was doing marketing materials for....hmmm....let's call it a research center. Two teams in the research center liked my work for the director's office and hired me to design marketing packets for them. The scope of the work was similar, my proposals were accepted, and the contracts signed. One week later, I met with the point person from Group A; four weeks later, Group A was happily mailing out its four-color brochure to prospective clients. Seven months later, I was meeting with 11 members of Group B, and rewriting the descriptive text for their brochure for the umpteenth time.

Where do good messages go wrong? Right at the beginning, as a rule.

The ideal message would be one designed by an organization's leader, assisted by a communications professional. The leader's job is to ensure that the message genuinely represents the organization. The professional's job is to make sure it will make sense to a variety of audiences and will work well in a variety of media. A good communications professional will also give the leader feedback on the how long the message is likely to remain useful, and find out if it needs to be linked to messages about other organizational activities.

This is rarely what happens. For some reason, most leaders think they don't have enough time to focus on the topic for a half hour. They prefer to waste weeks of staff and consultants' time.

My all-time favorite tale involves a multi-billion dollar organization that decided it needed a mission statement. The leader asked the company's organizational psychologists to spearhead the effort. They designed a survey to determine what words came to mind when people thought of the organization. This survey was delivered--by the means of special publications--to hundreds of customers and staff. From all these results, the psychologists compiled a list of the 20 most frequently used words. Then they organized a retreat at which a committee of staff and customers wrote descriptions of the organization's mission that included all of the 20 words.

At the end of this expensive process, the committee went to the CEO to present their sentences. The CEO looked puzzled and annoyed. "This doesn't sound right me," the CEO said. "I thought our mission statement would say 'We do X, Y, and Z for A, B, and C.'"

The company PR person, who had been an unwilling captive of the psychologists and the committee through the whole affair, blurted "That sounds like a good statement to me." Committee members shot him looks that could have stunned a rampaging elk.

"Great!" barked the CEO, getting up from the table. "Let's put it in the annual report."

Monday, July 14, 2003

Not for wimps

My dad fell last Friday, thought he was OK, but early Sunday morning he woke up with terrible muscle spasms and pain and couldn't get out of bed. My mom called 911, EMTs arrived and took him to the ER at the nearby community hospital, and he was admitted for evaluation. I visited him on Sunday and he seemed comfortable and lucid.

My mother insisted my husband and I come up and take away the 9x12 Oriental rug she thought he'd tripped on. We rolled it up and shot it lengthwise off their balcony onto his Forester parked strategically below. My husband used his mountaineering skills to hog-tie the rug to the roof rack!

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Friday, July 04, 2003

Clipping the price tag

I've always considered it rather gauche to ask people how much they paid for something--or to tell them how much I paid. And I'm an unabashed feminist. Those two facts, combined, make my engagement ring a problem for me.

I wear a plain wedding band all the time, indicating that I'm legally and spiritually in partnership with a spouse. No problem. But my engagement ring remains in seclusion because I'm uncomfortable with what it does--and doesn't--indicate.

The diamond makes an appearance once a year on my wedding anniversary to be worn, along with whatever is stylish, when I go out to dinner with my husband. When we get home, I put it away again.

Practically speaking, the engagement-style ring, with a stone in raised setting, is a bloody pain. It's right in the category with stiletto high heels, fussy little purses with rigid handles, and Brazilian waxing. The diamond snags on sweaters and upholstery, and you risk damaging it when you undertake any sort of respectable physical work like carpentry or gardening. Taking it off to protect it means you immediately forget where you put it, necessitating a panicked search.

But, practicality aside, wearing an engagement ring is like wearing your clothes with the price tag still on. Or painting the price of your house on the front door. Or wearing your resume pinned to the back of your shirt. Tacky, tacky, tacky.

Worse, the information conveyed by an engagement ring is not absolute. It's relative; merely an inviting starting point for speculation. When I got engaged and wore my diamond in to work at the downtown corporation where I was doing PR, female colleagues--even ones I barely knew--would dash over to check it out. The subtext of their interest seemed to be: "Did she hook a guy who's either really rich or really in love?" I felt invaded.

Those of you who can look at an engagement ring and not know if it came from a gumball machine or from Tiffany's (that's most men, and a small subsection of women who have my deep admiration) are now excused from reading the rest of this blog entry. The rest of you, read on--and admit you've entertained some of the following thoughts:

"They've got plenty of money, but that ring is a real loser. Maybe he's a cheapskate. Of course, maybe it's from back when they were starting out an she keeps it for sentimental reasons. Or is she just clueless?"

"Sheesh, that's one gaudy rock! But those two just got married, live in a cheap apartment and have entry-level jobs. So--are the parents helping them out? Are they in debt up to their eyeballs over that ring? Is the diamond a fake?"

"What a stunning ring. But they've always seemed so modest and unassuming. Are they secretly loaded and just pretending to embrace the "live simply" lifestyle like the rest of us? Maybe our non-profit should be hitting them up for a heftier donation. Maybe we should ask her to sit on the board..."

Thoughts to make you squirm, expecially if you're the subject, rather than the thinker. Thus my ring lives a quiet life, never getting lost in the garden or down the sink drain, and never providing tantalizing clues to anyone about my finances or social status. Anyone who wants to dig into my private affairs will have to take the time to get to know me, my family, and my friends. I've clipped my price tag.

Friday, June 27, 2003

Really wrong numbers

Got time for just a little, teeny rant? Oooh, please....

One of my minor tasks for the day was ordering some tutorial software. When I visited the tutorial company's site today, I couldn't find any information about the product's compatibility with the operating system I use (Mac OS X). I decided to call and ask before purchasing online. That's when I discovered that these folks, who you'd hope would know something about user interface and usability, provide one of those unspeakably stupid phone numbers with their company name instead of numbers. Until I can dial from my keyboard (and type CONAME) few things are as infuriating as taking the phone with the keypad away from my ear and searching around in the 4 point type as I translate CONAME into numbers.

Phone numbers that are names make sense only in a very few circumstances. An example might be a local number with local exchange prefix, followed by a four-letter word: 321-WORK for a local jobline, perhaps. The prefix is already well-known, and the name makes sense. Plus it's a number a job seeker might be calling repeated over a period of weeks, and a number you might want to remember to tell a friend.

But how often do you call a company that sells a couple of software packages? Would you remember the unusual toll-free prefix they use (1-866 instead of 1-800)? Would you remember that you must then insert a 6 in front of CONAME? Of course not.

For this inanity we can thank some bozo in their marketing department who thought it would be cool to have a phone number that is a name. This is probably the same person who wrote the copy touting the products' features and benefits at mind-numbing length on the site without ever mentioning what operating systems the product runs on. Of course, this company's Website is utterly devoid of even the most rudimentary search function.

All this hasn't stopped me from trying to buy their product. What probably will stop me is what happened after I decoded and dialed their coyly named phone number: I got a recording from a bored-sounding woman asking me to leave my name and number and they'd get back to me. Yep, that's real effective sales. (I still haven't heard back from them.) Perhaps they should put their creative marketing genius to work--answering the phone.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Killer prose

I occasionally review crime fiction (a.k.a. mysteries) for January Magazine and in connection with that follow one of the major online lists, RARA-AVIS. The Rara Avians, as they call themselves, focus on the hardboiled subgenre of mystery fiction. This is a subgenre that thrived from the 1930s through the 1970s (think Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Crumley). You can trace its roots back to certain of the classic (turn of the century) crime fiction writers and many would argue that it's alive and well today in the works of Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, and others. Anyway...last week one of the Rara Avians observed that he'd gone back to read a hardboiled classic by Hammett and had been decidedly turned off by the dated jargon:

"Last week I read "Red Harvest" - for the first time, believe it or not - and although I enjoyed and admired it enormously, there were times when the "piled-up slang" (good expression, that) became just too much and stopped me in my tracks, like roller skating along a smooth pavement and then coming to a loose gravel drive. When every other word was a (frankly) phoney-sounding slang term, I didn't know whether to laugh or snarl; especially since, all these years after the writing, the meanings and contexts are no longer always obvious - shit, sometimes the *object* the term applied to no longer exists!"

The following day Kevin Burton Smith, producer of the excellent Thrilling Detective site provided a thoughtful response:

"But Hammett didn't write RED HARVEST for you -- he wrote it for your grandfather, who probably got a real kick out of it. I think we should write for the times we live in, and let posterity hang. If it happens it happens, but most writers want to be read in their own lifetimes, not some hazy spot in the future. I know I do.

"Of course, like anything a writer uses in forging his own style (violence, sex, pop culture references, political opinions, brand names, technical data, whatever), slang can be over-used, but in the right hands any of these can add considerable weight and texture to a book.

"And anyway, what's "slang," and what's just common usage? Will some guy in 2095 wonder why you used such archaic slang in your post? Can you imagine?

" 'Dear Moderator,
Last week I accessed the famous RED HARVEST post by the legendary M-- C-----, and although I enjoyed and admired much of it enormously, there were times when the slang became just too much and stopped me in my URL. What in Microsoft's name is "roller skating"? And other times I was rather troubled by the inherent sexism of the time -- "a loose gravel drive" is a particularly offensive and nasty phrase, no matter how well-regarded the writer is. Were they always so sexist back then? I don't see the benefit in keeping these old archives around if nobody can understand them, or worse, use such occasionally nasty language. What's the point? Someone should definitely Bush these old files, so modern audiences can access their data fully.'"

Bravo, Kevin!

Friday, June 20, 2003

Follow that blog!

When I'm not ranting and raving myself, I like to read other people's blogs. While many of these folks are published writers, it's the unedited tone of the blogs that appeals to me. Here are a few of my favorites:

Joe Kissell's Interesting Thing of the Day, itotd.com/
Kissell, the author of 50 Fast Mac OS X Techniques (Wiley, 2003), puts up something lengthy and thoughtful every day, from the story of the outlandish castle built by the equally outlandish King Ludwig II to musings about the strange dialect spoken in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Bet you can't read just one...

Deborah Branscum's Buzz, now Buzzword News, and now at www.buzzword.com
Deborah is a media critic who minces no words, but has ground some PR flaks into exceedingly small particles. Her grasp of business journalism and the PR mill that overfeeds it is sophisticated, but her writing is refreshingly plainspoken in a way that reminds me of Jim Hightower or Molly Ivins. See for yourself.

Jeffrey Zeldman's The Daily Report, www.zeldman.com/
Definitely one of the most professional blogs around, Zeldman's daily report on design standards pre-dates blogging (1995) and retains a formal tone. If you are planning to use your blog for business purposes, watch how Zeldman covers the epicenter of online design with authority.

Andy Ihnatko's Yellow Text, www.cwob.com/yellowtext/
Ihnatko was blogging years before blogging existed, with rambling opinion pieces in MacWorld and other Mac magazines that delighted readers while no doubt dismaying editors. Yellow Text, like Ihnatko's columns, reveals him as a homerun hitter--he strikes out about two-thirds of the time but leaves you gaping in awe (or howling with laughter) when he slams one out of the park. [Added Sept. 2004: Yahoo! Andy has finally shed the unreadable yellow-text-on-black-background motif. Maybe he started to read Zeldman...]

Sunday, June 15, 2003

For sale by nincompoop

The guy down the street has put his house up for sale. "For Sale by Owner." It might as well say "For Sale by Nincompoop" or more specifically, "For Sale by Greedy Delusional."

The sale is preceded by three weeks of frenetic painting and gardening by hourly workers supervised by the cheapskate owners. The paint colors are 20 years out of date because that's what matches their furniture and towels. And they've convinced themselves that everyone prefers old wall-to-wall carpeting over the hardwood floors that lie beneath and that the aluminum screen door doesn't detract at all from the front entryway.

Based on my recent observation of our neighborhood, that house will languish on the market for couple of months before the owners wise up. Eventually they'll notice that nearby houses represented by agents for well-known realty companies have been sold. They'll get sick of cleaning the house on a daily basis and spending their weekends hanging around listening while prospective buyers troop through and badmouth their furniture, decorating and landscaping. They'll get tired of rushing home from work to show the place to prospects. They notice that weekly ads in the paper are costing them a small fortune. If they're lucky, that's the worst of it. If they're unlucky, they'll have gotten an offer that somehow turned sour, resulting in unpleasantness, threats of lawsuits, and no agent to hide behind.

For whatever reason, I've noticed that the "For Sale by Owner" folks, even when they finally give up trying to unload the place without paying a commission, will never hire the a realtor from one of the area's leading firms. No, they always hire a firm you've never heard of with a male agent who looks like someone from a 1960s sitcom. He prices the house about $10,000 lower, puts up a sign in lime green or fluorescent orange that looks like it just came from the hardware store, and puts out flyers that promptly vanish and are never restocked. By this time, the for-sale-by owners have moved out, taking their outdated furniture and paintings with them but leaving the outdated paint job. They "save" money by failing to stage the house and failing to hire a lawn service. They come over and mow, once, and after that the lawn gets long, scraggly and (if it's summer) brown.

By now buyers are actively avoiding the house, speculating that someone (not just the lawn) died there. After three or four months of deterioration, a real estate speculator scoops it up for 20 percent less than the for-sale-by owner had been asking before getting an agent. And that's when the real fun begins.

The speculator hires contractors, who add on to the house using the cheapest materials possible. They go up and out, turning the house, whatever its original style, into a huge box occupying every inch of ground and air space allowed within the building code. They put in enough bedroms for a bordello. Layout is convoluted, closets are non-existant, but the kitchen is loaded up with marble, slate, Corian, and stainless steel. A fancy front door appears. They tunnel from the street down into the basement and turn the basement into a two-car garage. On the bright side, they pull the old wall-to-wall and either refinish the floors or put down Pergo. There's not much yard left at this point, but most of what's left is promptly paved in concrete and then decked over. A six-foot fence with a three-foot lattice add-on surrounds the backyard and sideyards. Three or four instant shrubs and trees are plopped out front and smothered in bark. Then the sign for the fanciest real estate firm in town goes up; the asking price is 20 percent more than what the for-sale-by owner had originally set, and the place sells on the second day to a landlord who turns around and rents it to four college students. They arrive, each with boyfriend or girlfriend, and a couple pitbulls (great fenced yard!) and now the neighborhood has eight vehicles to contend with (the garage is being used as a combo storage locker and party room).

Plea to for-sale-by owners: Get a top-notch real estate agent to begin with. You'll save time and money, and our neighborhod won't turn into fraternity row.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Sheba attacks

Two years ago my husband adopted a deaf white cat. The shelter that found her wandering around had temporarily named her Angel, but it was clear to me within minutes of meeting her that this was a particularly inappropriate apellation. We renamed her Sheba the White Tornado. People often mis-hear the name and think we are referring to her as Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction)--a mistake that's understandable when you've seen her in action.

Sheba's deafness theoretically renders her vulnerable to surprise attack from other animals, but in practice this never happens. Sheba's defensive strategy is to savagely attack any cat, dog, or other small animal she sees. It's effective--no one has ever voluntarily gone a second round with Sheba.

Unfortunately, Sheba has got it in for the big gray cat next door, which is plainly terrified of her. Since we never take Sheba out at night, the gray cat has become more or less nocturnal. But yesterday the two collided in the neighbors' backyard. I separated them immediately, and carried Sheba home, but the gray cat seems to have suffered psychic damage and now won't come out at all.

Cat question #1

My neighbor Steve called me today, worried because Smokey, the big black cat we share, seems to be losing hair. Did I know why?

"It's summer. And he's a cat."

Working from home leads to an odd juxtaposition of technical crises with family and neighborhood events. I'm a writer, editor, and Web content producer for a high tech company. That means working the same hours I would if I were in San Jose, and keeping a phone by me at all times. But my lunch break can be spent cooking an omelette instead of driving to Subway, and my coffee breaks are out on the front lawn supervising Sheba the deaf white cat and chatting with neighbors and Ralph the mailman.