I am starting a Buzzfeed series:
Obsessing over the details
I am starting a Buzzfeed series:
After I started watching The Great British Bake Off, mostly illegally online thanks to TunnelBear, I have fancied myself to be a bit of a baker myself. Oh look at that. I'm even using the English lingo. That Paul Hollywood is such a cad!
If you don't know who Paul Hollywood is, then I have a lot to teach you, but that's a conversation for another time.
The problem is, although I've been baking for a year, it doesn't seem like I have a year's worth of experience doing it. I am not getting better at it. Truth be told, I believe I'm getting worse. I started out baking bread--a simple loaf of white bread, from America's Test Kitchen's recipe--and that loaf of bread turned out absolutely delicious. Although it's probably because I was so nervous, the radiant heat from my intense, unwavering stare at the dough probably baked it before I even put it in the oven. But it really was so good.
Since then, I have fumbled my way through endless attempts at cakes and such, and I don't know if it's because I choose to watch TV while I'm baking and I get distracted, but everything turns out crap. Cakes don't rise. Cakes come out tasting like plaster. Cakes rise but then collapse in the middle. Cakes come out looking like they are slathered with smoked salmon dip. (I am especially bad at icing, for some reason. Remember this glorious achievement?) Tonight's attempt was baking Ree Drummond's Texas Sheet Cake, but instead of baking it in a giant 13x8 baking sheet as instructed--because where am I going to put that monstrosity?--I split it up into 2 rounds, each 10 inches in diameter. And it would've been fine, except for Ree's instructions to pour the batter into an ungreased pan. Guess what? IT DOESN'T COME OUT OF THE ROUND PANS IF YOU DON'T PUT BUTTER ON THEM FIRST.
Seriously I was so mad, I just attacked it with a giant pancake-flipping spatula. Don't you tell me I'm not the boss of my own kitchen.
When watching Julie & Julia, I had a problem understanding why the Julie character had all those meltdowns when her cooking went awry. It seemed so random. But now I understand.
I would have taken a picture of it, but I pieced it all back together into one of the round pans and slathered the entire thing with icing, and I'll let it sit overnight. It will taste fine tomorrow. Or at least it should. I was planning on bringing it to work, but I won't subject my coworkers to it in case it sucks.
Buttercream icing is pretty easy to make, btw. It doesn't involve any cooking, so even I can't screw it up. Powdered sugar, butter whipped at room temperature, a little milk to loosen everything up, and the flavorings of your choice. For chocolate, I use a combo of chocolate chips and cocoa powder. Never cocoa powder by itself. Too bitter.
...they would be sorted perhaps like this (with a couple of other schools thrown in as appropriate):
Frank Bielec: Hufflepuff
Hard-working. Patient with homeowners. Likes lots of hugs. Knows how to give housewives new kitchens that they'll like. Giggles all the time and wants to have fun.
Laurie Smith: Hufflepuff
Warm, charming, and very kind. Meeting her is meeting your new best friend. Crafty and creative design aesthetic. Likes things to be comfy and pretty. Never loses her cool, because when did drama solve anything?
Genevieve Corder: Gryffindor
Confident. Likes to take risks. Charismatic and full of energy. Does not hesitate to tell homeowners that they are going to love something, whether they know it or not. Likes to add items to a room that are "bold" so they "pop."
Vern Yip: Ravenclaw
Thoughtful, methodic and analytical with his designs. Every item in his rooms has a purpose and everything is analyzed to best suit the homeowners. Only a Ravenclaw would have the mental fortitude to deal with installing so much fussy accent lighting.
Hildi Santo-Tomas: Slytherin
Designs for the sake of designing a room that no one has ever seen before, regardless of whether or not it has any actual function. Highly resourceful in seeking out unusual construction and decorating materials. Entirely self-serving in making rooms that she likes before worrying if it will be a room the homeowners like. And the tears of unhappy homeowners have no effect upon her soul.
Doug Wilson: Durmstrang Institute
Skilled in emotional design combat. Prefers to resolve conflicts directly and has no time for diplomacy. Looks for opportunities to confront homeowners and push their boundaries. Likes to cause trouble because he knows it will increase his screen time and ratings for the show in general. But really he's still a nice guy.
Ty Pennington: Ravenclaw
Although he seems like a charming and courageous Gryffindor upon first impression, really Ty is as Ravenclaw as they come. First of all, the man is a highly skilled technician when it comes to carpentry, and produces highly elaborate projects that require great orientation to detail. He He is also deceptively intelligent, as is evidenced by his knowledge of the design process as well as his quick wit. Who says Ravenclaws can't be sexy?
Carter Oosterhouse: Beauxbatons Academy
Smiles all the time, ALL THE TIME, because he knows it makes him look pretty. Utilizes his charms to make everyone in the room think he's wonderful. Really he is probably a male Veela.
You noticed the show Trading Spaces is back on TV, did you? Big news, it is.
Back in the early 2000's, the show was quite the thing, with fans excitedly gossiping about watching people move into friends' homes and redesign a room with the help of a designer. It seems innocent enough, right? Oh no. Some of the design jobs, involving glue and Liquid Nails and sledgehammers and all sorts of drastic changes, left homeowners in tears. And the show would just pack up and move on to the next place.
Lots of designers came and went during the show's run, but there is a core of designers that were part of the show's identity in its heyday, and those designers are back for the reboot. To understand the show, you need to understand those designers. There are many new faces on the show this season as well, but we'll all have to take some time to get to know them.
We'll list them here ranging in degree of anxiety you'll experience when you find out he/she is in charge of redesigning a room in your home without you there to stop it.
1) Vern Yip
Typical Design Trends: Throws lots of stuff into a room, usually involving elaborate shelving units and bits of cool furniture and interesting lighting. Likes lots of color, but is a master and keeping things under control. Makes a room look so good, you'll want to invite people over to see it. Isn't afraid of showing exposed electrical cords, because all that track lighting has to plug in somewhere. Has a knack for designing rooms that will look contemporary 10 years from now, yet manages to find antique chandeliers at local shops that would normally be too expensive for the meager budget of the show, and then he says "I got a really good deal," which is code for "I never have to pay full price because I am in the Gay Mafia."
Three words that describe his work: Tasteful, Contemporary, Stylish
Degree of Anxiety: 1. If Vern is designing your room, you are almost guaranteed to get something you'll like. No problem.
2) Frank Bielec
Typical Design Trends: Every room had a theme. Country Kitchen. Southwestern Living Room. Bavarian Ski Lodge Bedroom. Approaches his room designs as if they are art projects, and will spend more time creating a fun mural on a wall than designing any actual furniture. Isn't afraid of a bit of creative clutter. Known to occasionally decorate with ceramic chickens.
Three words that describe his work: Festive, Crafty, Suburban
Degree of Anxiety: 3. Frank's taste may not be your thing, but it was usually perfectly pleasant, often creative, and always safe. And entirely reversible. But why not keep it the way he did it? It's fun. If someone were to tally up all the times a room reveal caused the homeowners to scream and cry tears of joy, Frank's colorful rooms of whimsy and ceramic chickens would probably be at the top. He's big with the Fiestaware collector crowd.
3) Laurie Smith
Typical Design Trends: Never met a can of paint she didn't like. Picks a color and introduces 47 shades of it into one space. Especially fond of soft shades (pale green), earth tones (brown), and for some reason orange. which she uses to often paint interesting shapes on accent walls. Isn't afraid to design furniture or fixtures that are one size too large for the room, because why not? Uses lots of fabric, with slipcovered furniture and curtains and pillows everywhere, although sometimes things look a little DIY. Thinks TVs should be hidden from sight and does not hesitate to take down a ceiling fan if it doesn't match her slipcovered furniture.
Three words that describe her work: Romantic, comfy, pleasant.
Degree of Anxiety: 4. More of an interior decorator than a designer, she has pretty good taste and usually plays it safe. And of all the designers Laurie has always seemed to be the most concerned for designing what the homeowners would actually want. And if you don't like what she does, just take off the slipcovers and re-paint the walls and all's well.
4) Doug Wilson
Typical Design Trends: Often uses shades of grayish-blue. Rooms look like they should be in a home design magazine published somewhere in the Midwest. Considers white to be an accent color. Occasionally gets bored and decides to have some fun for the sake of the show, by designing a room like it was a themed honeymoon suite in a cheap hotel, and he's end up with his version of a jungle (painted zebra stripes, and lots of tropical plants) or a room painted like a prison cell, with the walls painted to look like concrete blocks...of course using several shades of his trademark grayish-blue.
Three words describe his work: Cool, reserved, WASPy. Just like him.
Degree of Anxiety: 6. Doug likes playing the part of the bitchy villain designer, and gladly locks horns with the visiting homeowners if they hesitate to do things to their neighbors' rooms. But in the original incarnation of the show, as the seasons played on, this became more of an act for the cameras and clearly he is a nice guy who just likes having fun on TV. However, this also means he takes great pleasure in ignoring what the homeowners would want, and instead doing what he wants, but fortunately he also doesn't like to leave things looking tacky, so things usually work out. And when he goes awry, he is more likely to err on the side of not being adventurous enough.
5) Genevieve Gorder
Typical Design Trends: of form-follows-function and knows how to make a room work, y'know? Keeps the carpenters busy by designing big, bold furniture and fixtures that create drama. Good at mixing not only colors, but textures and materials, to make a room look like the design was expensive without being fussy. Isn't afraid to take risks, and has good taste so those risks usually work, although once she lost her mind and covered a wall in metallic paint, sprayed oxidizing solution all over it, and invited the homeowners to watch it rust and change colors over time. This was inside the home, remember.
Three words that describe her work: Eclectic, Attractive, Fun. Just like her!
Degree of Anxiety: 6. Genevieve usually stands alongside Vern in the "You're going to love it" category, as her designs are timelessly contemporary; when she gets it right, it is really right. But she isn't afraid of using a hammer and a saw to tear apart a room, moreso than her fellow designers, and that permanence is a lot more risky than Laurie painting the walls brown and green or Frank creating a piece of art in the shape of a sun. And Genevieve has a few bungled rooms that haunt her, so there is a lingering worry that she will pull out her staple gun and cover your wall in living moss, which you would then have to spray with a water bottle every day or it will die. She did this. And again, this was inside the home, remember.
6) Hildi Santo-Thomas
Design Aesthetic: Approaches room design like a fashion school student would attempt to make a couture gown: everything is entirely experimental, and she's much more interested in exploring the design process than in the final result. Challenges the idea of what "interior design" should entail, and likes to use non-design materials just to see what will happen, which sometimes looks great. But sometimes, it doesn't. Seems to not test her choices before applying them to someone's home, and if it doesn't work out, the homeowner suffers as a result. However, when it does work out, the result is exciting, and can become the most interesting room in the house. Very generous with giving big shares of her budget to the show's carpenters, so they can create legitimate pieces of furniture that the homeowners can keep for the rest of their lives, which is in stark contrast to some of the goofy design choices she makes for the rest of the room. Then there was the time she designed a kitchen with a tile mosaic of her own face covering an entire wall. Hilarious for a TV show, but who wants that in their kitchen? (And tile mosaic is not easy to remove.)
Three words to describe her work: Infuriating. Provocative. Conceptual.
Degree of Anxiety: 8. When Hildi accomplished rooms that worked well, there was often a sense of disbelief that it actually worked. Sadly, there has often been a sense that she really didn't know what she was doing, and was using materials she had perhaps never tried before, which is just unfair to the homeowners. Other times, she knew what she was doing but obviously didn't care about the functionality of her choices--like when she turned a living room into a beach cabana, and covered the floor in sand. But for all her flubs, she has also come up with some exciting ideas, far more adventurous than anything the other designers dreamed up. Covering a kid's room in old CDs may seem like a gimmick, with all the prismatic color radiating off the surfaces of each disc, but to the kid who lives in that room, it could be the coolest thing ever. So it's a toss-up. If Hildi is in your house, maybe you'll get lucky. God help you if you're not.
I've spent far too much time investigating the rich history of 1980's TV movies and mini-series (what is the plural of "mini-series"? Mini-serieses?). Long before Netflix was putting the best scripts into production, the TV movie was the event of the week, usually because of a story rife with scandal and a sexy bit or two. Here are some of my favorites:
1) Swimsuit: The Movie
1989 was the birth year of Baywatch, the flagship of PG-13 sexy shows, but let's not forget this absolutely terrible but nonetheless fun movie about a swimsuit designer looking for models. 80's icons like Catherine Oxenberg, Nia Peeples, and Jack Wagner had roles, as did William Katt from "The Greatest American Hero," who is in this scene featuring a man wearing a ridiculous Speedo while talking about financial investments, to show models really are smart, you guys. https://www.nitrovideo.com/video/swimsuit-video-clip-04-20201.html
2) V: The Final Battle
This show was THE BEST. It was a combination of dystopian drama, alien invasion (the aliens wore prosthetic human faces that they could peel off! so cool!), and a bit of soap opera thrown in to the mix to make things interesting. It started as a 2-part TV movie, and it was so successful it expanded into a regular TV series for 2 years. When the series ended, I wrote a letter to the network begging them to keep it going. My letter was ignored.
3) Secret Weapons
Linda Hamilton, who was a big name at the time after The Terminator, played a Russian spy who pretends to be an American woman so she could gather secrets and overthrow The West. And of course she gathered her secrets by using her sexy naked body. I seriously researched careers in espionage after I saw this movie, because I wanted to be a spy just like Linda Hamilton. And of course I did not tell anyone about my career aspirations. What kind of a spy would I have been if I told people what I was doing?
4) Consenting Adult
Grace and Frankie is not the first time Martin Sheen has had a role in a drama about gay life, although Grace and Frankie is a much more affirming portrayal of gay men than this 1985 TV movie. In Consenting Adult, Sheen joins the fabulous Marlo Thomas as parents of a young blond man who figures out that he is attracted to dudes. And he refers to himself as a "homosexual" like 1,000 times. Although the script is a bit slow, there is a particularly memorable scene where the blond guy gets picked up at a restaurant, they go for a drive in the other guy's van, and they park in a parking lot and do unmentionable things to each other, off-camera. (click the link in the title for that scene...) My parents were SHOCKED that they put that on TV. I pretended to be confused by it. I wasn't.
5) A Bunny's Tale
Kirstie Alley was the perfect combination of gorgeous and sneaky, in this story based on the true experiences of famed feminist Gloria Steinem as she worked "undercover" at a Playboy Club to show what life was really like for the women there. (Plot spoiler: it wasn't very nice.) As a bonus, Delta Burke has a supporting role, as did Diana Scarwid who played the adult Christina in Mommie Dearest. Genius casting.
I entered the 2017 Pillsbury Bake-Off, a contest for amateur bakers to submit "original recipes" that included a Pillsbury product (mostly from a variety of their pre-made, packaged doughs), along with an essay that told a story about why that recipe was important to each contestant's family. In these days of the internet, every recipe ever used by anyone in my family has already been posted on someone's Web site, so submitting an "original recipe" was a significant challenge.
I am a huge fan of "The Great British Bake-Off," known as "The Great British Baking Show" in the U.S. because Pillsbury already owned the "Bake-Off" name here, so I have been inspired to learn how bake. But before my forays into the world of bread, my family did not bake a lot; my mother made cakes and cookies, but the most we ever did with a roll of any of that Pillsbury stuff was (a) unroll a thing of crescent rolls, (b) bake the crescent rolls, and (c) slather them with butter until they were of proper artery-clogging saturation and then eat them. We never pondered the versatility of that crescent roll dough or dreamed up a way to turn roll it around a piece of chicken or whatever.
The prize for the Pillsbury Bake-Off was 50,000 dollars, which would be nice, and new kitchen appliances, which my mother wants, so feeling inspired with Bake-Off fever I thought I had a chance to win, and went to the store and bought every type of Pillsbury dough that I could find. After much trial and delicious error, I came up with a really cool idea for a caramel apple pie topping, including bits of (Pillsbury!) crust, to pour over ice cream. I cannot emphasize enough how delicious this stuff is. Unless I turn into Diane Keaton in "Baby Boom" and start my own food-in-a-jar enterprise, I will post the recipe here when I have the wherewithal to take photos of each step.
Sadly, the recipe and essay that I submitted didn't catch anyone's eye among the judging panel. No new kitchen appliances for mom, no money for me. Try, try again.
As for the essay we had to write, I took a gamble with that "what does this recipe mean to your family?" topic, and instead of making up a lovely tale of gathering 'round the dinner table and eating hearty baked goods, I just told the truth. Here is the essay:
My grandmother, Lorraine, did not cook dinner. She threw parties. It was how she approached life: everything was an "event." Every day was another chance to greet the world while dripping with sparkling rhinestone jewelry, and perfectly manicured fingernails painted Dragon Lady Red.
I need a monologue for an audition. I could do something from "The Music Man," which was my big starring role when I was 17. Perhaps a little too light-hearted? Yes. So I'll do this poem from "Baal," by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
I need this written down so I can memorize it.
(the character is imagining what it would be like to watch himself die)
Is your toothless mouth choking with pus?
How's the rest of you--can you still tell?
Must you die so slowly and with so much fuss?
We've just had your horse chopped into steak for us.
Hurry up! They're waiting down in hell.
Then the forest roared above their heads
And they watched him clasp a tree and stagger
and they heard his screams and what he said.
Each man felt an overwhelming dread
Clenched his fist or, trembling, drew his dagger
So like them and yet so nearly dead
"You're foul, useless, mad, you mangy bear!
You're a sore, a chancre, filthy creature!
Selfish beast, you're breathing up our air!"
So they said. And he, the cancer there:
Let me live! Your sun was never sweeter.
Ride off in the light without a care.
That's what none of them could understand.
How the horror numbed and made them shiver.
There's the earth holding his naked hand
In the breeze from sea to sea lies land:
Here I lie in solitude forever.
Yes, mere life, with its abundant weight
Pinned him so that even half-decayed
He pressed his dead body even deeper.
At dawn he fell dead in the grassy shade.
Numb with shock, they buried him, and cold with hate
Covered him with undergrowth and creeper.
Here are three advertorials I wrote about Las Vegas:
I need to start writing these recipes down somewhere. So they'll go here.
After watching countless hours of The Great British Bake Off, a.k.a. The Great British Baking Show as it is named when it airs on PBS here in the U.S. (must Americans be so obnoxious, they won't even let overseas TV shows keep their own names?), I decided to try to bake a loaf of bread. I had never used my oven for anything other than seasoning cast iron pans, after I cooked bacon of chicken or some other meat thing to gnaw on. But baking shouldn't be too hard, a recipe is a recipe so just follow it, and remember the little tricks that Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry taught us. Put the salt on one side of the mixing bowl, and the yeast on the other. If you pour them on top of each other, the salt kills the yeast. Mix bread dough well, but doing it in an electric mixer can overwork it quickly. Blah blah blah.
That loaf of white bread, just plain white sandwich bread, was gangbusters. Delicious. I haven't bought bread in the store since. Thick but not heavy, without those air bubbles found in loaves from bread machines, it was the recipe from America's Test Kitchen, so I don't need to write that one down. It's easily found again. Note: I didn't knead that dough on the counter. I did it all in the mixer and I didn't mix it very much. And I proofed (proofed? proved?) it for a lot longer than the instructions said. Maybe because it is humid in Kansas? Is that why proofing takes longer? I dunno.
So the recipe I am writing down here is for lemon tarts. I used this Martha Stewart recipe for dough--which makes 2 crusts, but I needed only one. I used Gold Medal flour, and I weighed it to 130 grams per cup, from there just do the math. Weighing is much more exact than scooping, because the flour can get packed down an you end up with a lot more than you would want.
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup ice water, but then another 1/8 cup was added as I mixed because 1/4 isn't enough!
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) water, poured from a bowl of water chilling with ice
Blend the dry ingredients in a food processor, then add frozen cubes of dough and blend for like 7 seconds. Becomes little peas of butter.
Use a hand-held dough cutter thing to mix in the water little by little, sprinkle by sprinkle. It forms a crumbly mess. Scoop up those crumbs and dump onto some plastic wrap, then wrap it up, and smush into a disc. It doesn't look like it is going to work as actual pie crust. BUT IT WILL. Remember, that butter should still be semi-frozen.
Freeze that crumbly pile of doughstuff for a few hours. Or a few days. I froze mine for 2 hours, and then I cooked little round shells in a cast iron biscuit pan, but that made the taste strong and nutty, and a milder-tasting crust lets the lemon flavor really pop. Actually, just use anything, it will turn out fine. See, they don't even have to be perfectly formed:
So the important part: that lemon curd/cream. I don't know which category it falls into, because it isn't really either curd or cream. It is whatever it wants to be. This is 2017. My Lemon Creation will not be defined nor confined by binary labels. It is label-fluid.
3 eggs and 1 egg yolk (what to do with the extra white? so wasteful) from large eggs, not extra large, those are for breakfast and not for cooking, recipes are created using large eggs as a standard
3 lemons, regular store lemons, they don't need to be fancy hipster lemons
1 1/2 sticks of butter, unsalted
3/4 cup sugar, I use a mix of regular and a little bit of turbinado, which I keep mixed in a tub because I like the taste of the mix
a little tiny pinch of salt, so keep salt in a bowl somewhere nearby
2 capfuls of vanilla, and yes I use the fake stuff because I like it better! I don't like real vanilla extract. It's too oily.
Put a saucepan on the stove and fill it halfway with water. Boil it. Put a glass bowl (not metal, which I found out can make everything taste like a mouthful of pennies) on top of it, so the bowl is close to the water but not touching. This is a double boiler.
Take a kitchen rasp, which everyone needs so if you don't have one you should buy one, and being super-careful and scrape off the yellow part of the lemon rind. SCRAPE OFF NO WHITE. That's the pith and it's nasty. Do this slowly and gently, so you get juuuuuuust the yellow part of the rind. Do all 3 lemons, into the bowl. Cut one lemon open and, after picking out the seeds, squeeze the juice in. Just one lemon is enough. The lemon juice is there more to start the chemical reaction of thickening things. The lemon skin is the flavor.
I also added a splash of lemon extract, like 1/8 teaspoon at most. I used the alcohol-based extract If you want to use some, smell it first. If it smells good, put it in. I have used lemon extract that smelled weird, and surprise surprise it didn't taste any better. Lemon is all about the smell. You smell it on your tastebuds. But if you don't have lemon extract, no need to buy some. The lemons you've got are plenty of flavor.
With the zest and stuff in the bowl, add the sugar, the vanilla, and the little pinch of salt. Mix mix mix. Add the egg parts and really stir it. You're using a whisk, btw, with a long handle.
Stir for like 20 minutes, probably longer. Directions say to cook past 160 degrees to be safe, if you have a thermometer; but after 160 degrees, it's going to start to get thick, so that's a big giveaway. Keep stirring until it is like pudding. When it starts to thicken, you can taste it to see if you need to add more lemon, but you probably won't need to add anything. Then turn off the stove, take the bowl off the pot and put it on the counter, and stir it a little more to cool it down.
Use an immersion blender to blend in butter, slices at a time. In trial runs of this recipe, I also tried whipped cream, but for some reason the cream killed the lemon taste and made it bland. Stick to the butter.
Spoon it into dishes or into the shel(s) of your choice, and chill for several hours. The lemon continues to work magic while it's in the fridge. The longer it sits, the creamier it gets. But don't wait too long. Like, a day, tops. FYI, don't let it rest in that bowl. It has to be put into crust or cups or something right away, because it becomes too thick to work with very quickly.
"How would you like an authentic New York experience?"
I was laying on the couch, in my temporary home deep in the depths of Brooklyn, with the ever-present aroma of cat urine wafting through the air. A chorus of horns blared and bleated outside, as cars crammed into the one-way street like angry sheep, trapped by a rambling garbage truck inching down the block. Having just eaten a bagel, I was licking cream cheese out of my beard's whiskers so hard that it was straining my tongue, but I was too lazy to get up and get a napkin. So yes, I was already having an "authentic New York experience," although the way my friend pronounced "Nu YAWK" certainly added a bit of glamour.
I hoped he couldn't hear my lips smacking from the cream cheese. "What do you mean?" I asked.
"I'm going to a dinner party tonight at my friend's house down the street from where I live," he said. The hosts, he explained, lived in a glorious brownstone in the Upper West Side, and just seeing their place was worth showing up. But it wasn't going to be a pretentious affair; these dinner parties are pot luck, not a big crowd but an interesting mélange of friends. "We get together once or twice a month. Everyone is really nice. It's like Mayberry."
I will always accept an invitation to dine in the company of people with unimaginable wealth. And my friend is a fun guy. So I accepted. "I'm bringing asparagus," he said. "You bring a bottle of wine."
After a thorough scrubbing of myself and a cream cheese removal from my beard, I hopped on the subway and zipped out of Brooklyn and under the East River and stepped into a brisk evening in the wondrous isle of Manhattan. I then popped into a liquor store and, not knowing what specifically was being served for dinner other than asparagus, picked a bottle of rather nice wine just because I remembered it from my days as a server at a fancy restaurant. Buying wine is always a challenge when going to a dinner party; the host undoubtedly has drinks already planned, and people can have finicky palates. So I hoped they would like it. I just didn't want to look stupid, walking in with a bottle of Clos du Bois or something else I could buy at Target. Because that is usually where I really buy my wine.
With one last sniff of my sweater to make sure I wasn't carrying any fumes of cat piss from Brooklyn, I rang the buzzer at my friend's apartment, and he let me in with much hugging and chitchat. I showed him the wine; he smiled and shrugged, in a gesture of gracious indifference about whatever I had in my hand, and he said it looked great. Then after putting the finishing touches on his asparagus he grabbed his coat and we stepped back outside to brave the evening chill to walk down the block for the soirée. The street was lined with stately brownstone homes, built with actual stone instead of brick. Even the trees here, without any leaves, look like they have money.
My friend turned up some steps and rang the doorbell. I looked up, admiring the ornate stonework. "The windows are beautiful," I said, arching by back to get a view all the way up.
"Just wait until we get inside," he muttered. "They own the whole building."
"All four floors?"
"Five," he said. "They have their own elevator."
The host of the party opened the door and warmly shook our hands, graciously accepting the bottle of wine I brought, and offered to also take the asparagus and our coats. Clenching my jaw as I said a prayer in my mind, please God don't let him smell any trapped fumes of cat piss in my coat, we walked down the hall. Several guests were gathered in a formal sitting room, holding drinks and laughing at whatever was so delightfully funny, not full howls of laughter but the polite laughs you would hear at a country club. The hostess, a lovely matron wearing impeccable ready-to-wear and an enormous diamond ring, introduced herself and her friends, who stood up from where they had been lounging on furniture that looked like something out of Antiques Roadshow. Ornately carved couches and chairs, with luxuriously stuffed upholstery woven in patterns of yellow, white and blue, sat next to a grand piano, surrounded by walls painted a buttercup yellow with white trim. The room gently curved at the far end into an oval, with pocket doors that followed the bend, and the doors glimmered with gold accents of the beveled panels. The shape of the room was matched at the front by the bay windows, which were adorned with leaded stained glass. If I tried to decorate an oval room with yellow and gold, it would look like we were sitting in an ugly Easter egg. But here, the effect was stunning. Regal. Obviously professionally executed.
"This is really beautiful," I said. "I love the gold paint on the doors."
And there was a pause. I just kept looking at the door.
"...nnnn-No, dear," said the hostess. "That's not paint. That's leaf."
Faux pas #1 and I just walked in the door! Great.
The hostess overheard something else to laugh about across the room, so she went back to her mingling as her husband passed around libations. They then took turns sharing tidbits of personal history of each person in attendance, until there was not a stranger among us. This couple has three kids, that couple just completed a mission trip in El Salvador. This friend was in Rome and a gypsy stole everything out of her fanny pack, can you imagine? The gypsies in Italy really are such a problem. And as I was the new face in the room, I automatically piqued the crowd's curiosities, so I regaled them with tales of my home in the exotic land of Kansas and my recent road trip to New York, to live in a friend's apartment in Brooklyn so I could care for her 21 cats. I assured them, after fielding a few requests for clarification, that I really had just said 21. It was a lot of cats. (...and this, Dear Reader, is another story for another day.)
"Why on Earth would someone want to have 21 cats?" asked an appropriately exasperated friend.
"Because 22 would be too many," I said. And laughter erupted from everyone, HA HA HA HA HAAAAA, all around, this time with real laughs, not the country club kind. If they laughed at a line that was that easy, I thought, this party is going to be a cinch.
Feeling very impressed with myself after several more rounds of laughs, and equally as accomplished for not spilling a single drop of my cocktail on any priceless antique furniture, I triumphantly followed the group into the dining room when it was time for dinner. These people were fun! They liked my stories! And we moved to the dining room table, the ornate centerpiece surrounded by equally extravagant chairs, I gently placed my cocktail glass down on the table. Exuding utmost grace and gentility, a most pleasant and genteel smile upon my face, I sat down in my chair and slid into the table.
In case we haven't met, Dear Reader, I should mention: I am 6'3" tall and weigh somewhere above 240 pounds. So the weight of my extra-large body proved to be too much for the antique sensibilities of my chair, and as I slid towards the table, the front left chair leg cracked out of its joint and bent back at a horrifying slope.
I didn't immediately register what had just happened, but the noise startled my reflexes and locked my thighs into a squatting position. Still holding the chair, I managed to keep smiling, although the cold air on my eyeballs disclosed the fact that my eyes were widened in what could only be construed a look of horror. My friend, sitting on my right, was engrossed in a story with the person on his right so he hadn't noticed what was going on. So I looked to the left, and there was the host, standing with a giant bowl of salad, looking down at me. He had the same smiling but wide-eyed expression that I had.
"I seem to have done something to your chair," I muttered to him.
"It's fine," he said, with a gentle wave of his free hand. "Those chairs are very old." Yes, I thought, antiques usually are.
A woman across the table, sitting perfectly straight in her seat, had noticed the sound of splintering wood and leaned slightly to her right to look down. I knew the moment she saw the leg of the chair, because her eyebrows raised up so high they almost disappeared into her perfectly coiffed hair. And then she looked up at me, and smiled. Everyone was smiling. When anything goes wrong, apparently rich people just keep smiling.
I wrenched the leg back into position, and if I didn't shift my body weight, the chair was stable enough to hold me up, so I sat through the dinner and balanced precariously without any future incidents. And after much pleasant conversation with a sprinking of another story or two, the incident of the chair seemed to have been forgotten. I pretended to not notice how everyone at the table chose to not drink the wine I had brought, so I just shared it with my friend who was entirely happy to have more wine to himself. A true friend will drink the wine you brought to a dinner party so you don't feel low-class and stupid.
Towards the end of dinner, the conversation had turned to decorating ideas, so as we moved to the living room for an after-dinner drink, the hostess mentioned to her friend with the perfectly coiffed hair that they should go upstairs and look at the newly-remodeled top floor. Perhaps emboldened by all that wine I drank at dinner, I asked if I could come along. The hostess energetically welcomed me to join, and we progressed to the stairs. And there, in all its glory, was their elevator, a little wooden box filled with magic, golden light.
"You two take the elevator," she said. "It isn't big enough for all three of us." I hesitated, as I hadn't originally been invited on this adventure, but the hostess insisted she took the stairs all the time anyway, and she would meet us at the top. The friend stepped onto the elevator, turned, and looked at me with those eyebrows raised again. And she looked me up and down.
"Are you sure this can handle both of us?" she called to the hostess, who was already up a few stairs.
"It's fine!" she said. "It was built for two."
The woman on the elevator grimaced. "Yes, but..." she said, as she undoubtedly remembered that dining room chair. "I hope we don't get stuck."
Having lived my entire life pushing back against people who would prefer me to be different, to fit into what they define as socially acceptable--not so gay, not so flamboyant, not so much whatever--I have developed a reactionary behavior which I certainly make no claims of being able to control. If people say they don't like something about my personage, I give it to them double. Full-throttle. No holding back. Tell me to not be so queeny, I become obnoxious. Tell me to shut up, I get really loud. And in this case, this woman, with her passive-aggressive eyebrows, was obviously telling me I should not be so big. So forgetting all my efforts at being polite amongst this crowd of social elites, I did what I had no choice to do.
I barreled into that fucking elevator and shut the door. "DON'T WORRY ABOUT IT!" I boomed, amplified by the tiny space of the elevator. "IT'LL BE FUN!" And I punched the button for the top floor.
As we passed the first floor, this person seriously stood there humming nervously, and actually said "Oh I hope we make it," not meeting my gaze as I stared at her down. The elevator hummed as we rose up, two, three, four, until we reached the top floor and surprise, the doors opened without incident. "There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" I said, as I stepped off. Although as soon as I looked at the splendor of the magnificent room around me, this time a neutral-toned refuge up in the sky, flanked with windows, I instantly no longer cared what she thought about anything.
"Yes," she said. "But I'll be taking the stairs back down."
I am not particularly scared of spiders, but I had to share this story.
I live in an apartment that faces a piece of land that has a creek, and along the banks are lots of trees. It's a bit of a wilderness over there. At night I hear an owl hooting nearby, which is cool. And last year I was visited a few times by a toad, who squatted on my front porch for a few weeks and hopped inside whenever I opened my door. That toad freaked me out for some reason. I worried it was going to jump on me, and...I didn't know what would happen. But I knew I wasn't going to like it. One particularly unfortunate afternoon, I was re-planting some potted plants on my porch and as I pulled a plant out its pot, the toad--which had evidently burrowed into the soil, unbeknownst to me--fell out and flopped onto the ground, its legs jerking around as it tried to flip over and hop away. I screamed. My neighbor, an alarmed look on his face, came outside to see what the ruckus was about. I will spare you the description of his reaction when I told him I had just been attacked by a toad. Needless to say, he wasn't impressed.
This is not supposed to be about toads. This is about a spider. I am not scared of spiders. But still...
DAN VS. THE SPIDER
Grab towels out of laundry basket.
Notice a towel had fallen behind laundry basket, and pick up that towel to add to towels already in arms.
Look down at towel, and notice dead spider attached to that towel, legs curled up into body in death pose.
Walk over to toilet, and shake towel in attempt to knock it off into toilet.
Action of shaking the towel alarms spider, which was just pretending to be dead, but is actually very much alive. Spider flips legs open, and is now the size of a dime. Spider begins to scurry up towel in general of direction of hand.
Shriek. Not knowing what else to do, shove entire collection of towels into toilet.
Stand back and gaze upon collection of six bath towels (plus one spider) in toilet.
Survey clump of towels from multiple angles, looking for spider. See no sign of spider. Plan the intricate task of peeling out towels one-by-one to inspect for presence of spider.
Pull out towel that originally had spider. Hold up above toilet. Spider is, not surprisingly, still present on towel on area that is soaked with water from toilet, but is still, very surprisingly, alive. Spider starts crawling up towel again.
Turn on shower. Hold towel in shower stream. Strike spider directly with water in attempt to wash down drain.
Spider curls up again but does not dislodge from towel. Continue to attack spider with deluge of water from shower, yet spider refuses to relent.
Contemplate the resilience of spider. Waves of guilt flood forth, while trying to kill a living creature for no reason. This spider means no harm. This spider only wants to live. Who am I to kill this poor spider?
Turn off shower. Study spider for signs of life. Spider unfurls legs again, and tries feebly to crawl up towel once more. Wow. What a tough spider.
Holding towel like a bullfighter's cape, walk with towel to front door, dripping water in steady stream along the path. Spider falters on towel, so walk quicker, to get spider outside and off wet towel. Worry that spider may die while on towel and guilt would be too much to bear. Please don't die, spider. Make it just a few seconds more and you'll be outside. And if you live or die out there, I cannot control. But it's a nice day.
Step onto porch, and flick spider outside. Feel warmth of sun on face. Goodbye spider. May you live to see another day.
Turn to go back inside, and notice neighbor, looking back, while I stand on porch. In t-shirt and underwear.
Walk back inside. Neighbor already thinks I'm crazy anyway.
I wanted to get a cup of coffee.
This is not a casual decision. I can't go just anywhere, and get whatever swill they're straining out of their coffee bean grinds. It needs to be the good stuff, with labels like "Fair Trade" and "organic" and "made by hipsters" all over the place. I like the kind of coffee beverages that have a lot in common with my ex-boyfriend: both are unnecessarily complicated and slightly bitter. The ex is long gone, but I still like fussy coffee drinks.
So I took a walk, in the hopes of finding an overpriced coffeeshop somewhere. It shouldn't be that hard, right? I was in Brooklyn.
But from what was supposed to be a quick jaunt around the neighborhood, I turned that way instead of this, and ended up wandering aimlessly towards the waterfront, right into the middle of Cobble Hill.
That's where the rich folks live. When row houses are fancy, they're called "Brownstones." This is Brownstone territory.
But then I lightened up at the sight of these lovely fellows.
I turned left.
I was extremely intrigued by those old wooden posts.
That's the Statue of Liberty way back there. Click on the photo to enlarge it, and you can see Lady Liberty a little better.
Actually first I found these cannolis, but I'm embarrassed to tell you I ate them before I had the pizza. And yes I ate both of them. How do I choose which I liked better? It's like Sophie's Choice of desserts. Both were delicious. FYI, cannolis in Brooklyn are only $2.75. In Manhattan they are like $4.
It was after St. Patrick's Day, but they had leftover green sprinkles, so why not? "Sprinkles are for winners," as the Geico lady says, and I was having a good day. So I deserved them.
Well that's a nice how-do-you-do after a lovely meal. Glad I ate the eggplant pizza and nothing with meat. Blech. But again, this is what happens in NYC. And whatever that butcher is making out of this stuff must be deeeeeelicious. Fresh.
I continued my long walk. The nice neighborhood ended. I walked into the wilds of hipster gentrification, where the brave 20somethings are roosting with their beer gardens and their juice shops, and I passed a shuffleboard club?...playing bad 80's hip hop.
Is this really a thing? I guess it is no more or less boring than bowling. Everyone was drinking huge glasses of beer. Have fun, peeps. I kept walking.
I stumbled upon a coffeeshop where a full jazz band was playing. Ah, that's better.
I never got any coffee! But it was too late. So bought hot chocolate, and had a seat for a little while and enjoyed the tunes. I would show you the audience but it was much lower in number than the amount of people in the band. But again, that's NYC. And there were people waiting by the door to play. Open mic night.
I faced the brisk night air and just walked along the streets, taking photos of the various things to see.
Perhaps another day.
I've been thinking about you for a long time, my lovely, sitting here ignored like the stump in The Giving Tree. I've come to sit on your stump again.
My friend is a scientist who researches primate behavior, and she and her husband spend a month each year studying animals at a refuge somewhere in Florida. They sent out a plea to anyone who could come stay in their house in Brooklyn and care for their cats. They live in a row house in an up-and-coming neighborhood, although almost all of Brooklyn is up-and-coming, and if you ask me I think some of it is not destined to ever arise and make it. But in a city where rent is thousands of dollars just for the privilege of saying "I live in New York," standards of what makes a neighborhood "liveable" are low. And people make the most of it. A Starbucks opens in between a check cashing store and lady who reads palms, and suddenly the neighborhood is being gentrified. And so here I am.
The people in this neighborhood mostly speak with a mélange of lovely, lilting Caribbean accents, and based on the rasta headwraps on a few of the men, presumably the vibe here is Jamaican, although there are also signs for food from Trinidad. Would that be Trinidiadian? Trini? I think Trini, I've heard that before. And the people here are quite friendly. Ordering some chicken fingers to-go may involve a very long wait, because no one behind the counter is in any hurry, but they will definitely greet you politely and sincerely wish you a very nice day. And apparently the ox tail is delicious.
The day before my friends departed on their road trip south in their Prius, I made the voyage to NYC from Kansas in my Corolla, adding another 1,500+ miles to the 190,000+ already on the odometer, and arrived clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckle death grip after barreling through what was apparently the largest snowstorm of the year. The snow had already stopped in the city, and the streets were clear; but snow plows had piled all the snow into drifts up to the door handles of the cars parked along streets. The next day, after the overnight freeze, all that street slush had formed into a wall of ice. And we had to dig through it to break free their poor little Prius.
It was a definitive Brooklyn moment: a group of Gentrifiers, dressed in flannel shirts and Merrell boots, hacking away at the ice piled up around a Prius, as men with rasta head wraps walked by cheering us on. Hey mon! You gonna do it mon!
After taking a break to indulge in some Fair Trade coffee from the shop down the street, we cleared a hole in the ice wall, and a hearty final shove by myself launched the Prius through the sludge and onto the street. They were off, into the wilds of scientific research amidst the palm trees of the American sub-tropics, leaving their home and their cats in my care. I watched them zip down the street, past the coffee shop on the corner,, and then marched my weary limbs back into the house empty of anyone except a few cats. And as I flopped onto the couch, I peeled off the soggy boots from my feet and looked around at the quiet, and thought...So you're in New York. Now what?