Thursday, January 31, 2008

Feburary 1, 2003

Five years ago I was living in Nacogdoches, Texas, preparing to move to Boston for a new job. I had just come back to Nacogdoches (pronounced ‘nack-a-doe-tches’ – silent ‘g’) from my last apartment-finding trip to Boston. I had exactly one week left before the big move.

I was in that “I’m going to miss everything” stage – friends, co-workers, potholes, restaurants, sights. And I was really going to miss my barn. The whole time I lived in Nacogdoches I had lived in a fabulous apartment that was one-third of an old barn. The apartment was very large and open with the bedroom upstairs and everything else downstairs. My cat Dickens LOVED to run laps around the barn at top speed. It was like the Cat Indy 500 in there sometimes. The barn was behind a house that had a pink flying pig mailbox and belonged to the world’s best landlords. If I could have packed up the barn and the mailbox and the landlords and brought them all to Boston, I would have done so in a heartbeat.

So that morning I was lying in bed, sleeping in a little, although I’d already checked the sky through the bedroom window: sunny and bright blue. It was January but it was a warm day. A nice day for running errands and finishing up the packing.

A loud roaring sound, sort of like thunder but louder and longer, opened my eyes. My bed started shaking – I thought it was the cats, but no, they were on the bedroom floor freaking out, ears flat and tails frizzed. We looked at each other and couldn’t figure out what the roaring and shaking meant. The whole barn was rattling. I still couldn’t see anything outside my window but blue sky, utterly cloudless. It went on for at least 30 seconds, maybe a minute. When it was over I ran all over the apartment looking for clues and finding none. I looked through my front window and saw my landlord standing on the driveway behind his house, looking at the sky and scratching his head. I figured he was as confused as I was (though I found out later he could see exactly what had happened).

I went back upstairs to my bed and called my dad to tell him I’d just experienced my first earthquake. My dad was skeptical. While we were talking I could hear my step-mom in the background. They’d gotten up early to watch the space shuttle fly overhead as it came down to land. She said, “They’ve lost the shuttle.” All three of us realized at the same moment that the noise I’d heard and the shaking I’d felt had been Columbia coming to earth in pieces in East Texas.

The rest of the day was surreal. I watched CNN report the tragedy on my landlord’s television (mine was already on the road to Boston). It was weird to know more than the CNN reporters.

I did run some of my errands that day, although parts of town were roped off by FEMA as they salvaged pieces of the shuttle. I couldn’t get to my bank and post office – a piece of fuselage had landed in the parking lot.

The rest of that week was a blur. The town was taken over by FEMA and news reporters. I was packing and doing last-minute things. All of us were in shock, trying to process what had happened. I kept remembering the Challenger disaster in 1986 – like a lot of school kids that day, my friends and I sat in the cafeteria watching the footage over and over, watching the shock change our teachers’ faces into unfamiliar masks.

A friend of mine told me that to him the Columbia tragedy just wasn’t the same sort of iconic tragic moment that Challenger had been. I can see that. By 2003 our world had changed so much compared to 1986. No more Cold War, post-September 11th (although we hadn’t yet gone to war in Afghanistan or Iraq). And of course, post-Challenger itself. We had seen this before. I suppose it’s like an inoculation when you’ve experienced that kind of tragedy – the first sting of shock means it won’t sting quite so fiercely the second time around, although the tragedy may resonate just the same.

But I disagree with him. Columbia was more real to me than Challenger. As a middle-school student I saw what happened on television and felt part of a national emotional reaction. Five years ago I was shaken out of bed as the space shuttle, the one we had all begun to think of as reliable and really by this time rather ordinary technology, fell apart in the sky overhead. The crew was lost.

It had seemed like such a nice ordinary day.

The space shuttle program is scheduled to be retired in 2010.

In memoriam:

Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; and William C. McCool, pilot. Standing from left are David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, and Michael P. Anderson, all mission specialists; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist from the Israeli Space Agency.

When Paper Cuts Are a Good Thing

Isn’t this beautiful? The Art Studio in our museum has a paper-cut curtain in one window. I was in the Art Studio one morning this week (to assist with a program teaching 2nd graders to paint pictures of birds from our natural history collection - which is another story entirely) and was completely distracted by this curtain, and by the shadows it made on the wall.

The curtain is made of tyvek – which means it’s waterproof – and can be cut to size. I love it so much that I'm going to advertise for free here: It also comes in red and green. If you’re interested (and have a little money to spare), you can find it here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Girl, Step AWAY from the Ruby Slippers!!!

This link was sent to me with a fairly “isn’t it shocking?” and ‘tsk-tsk’ preface. As I read the article, I was not at all shocked. I couldn’t figure out where the shock came in.

And then.

I scrolled down…

To the pictures and the dialogue…

And I literally gasped aloud. I may have even put a hand over my heart to stop it from failing.

Museum person’s cardinal rule: Don’t manhandle the treasures. And definitely don’t WAVE THEM AROUND.

New rule: Don’t let billionaires who won’t let anyone be the boss of them near the treasures.

The woman should be ashamed of herself.

Keepin' up with My Worryin'

I come from a long line of worriers. My great-aunt Margie used to say, “I’m gettin’ behind on my worryin’” and I have to say, I know exactly what that means.

These days I try to keep ahead of my worryin’. Always good to have done my worrying, so when the hypothetical occasion I’ve been worrying about becomes real, I’m already prepared with my worrying script, as it were.

Here’s what I’ve been worrying about lately:

- Matilda Rose – Heath Ledger’s daughter. So awful for such a little girl to lose her dad and then be hounded by the paparazzi through it all. She may not be hounded yet, but wait till they find her. Poor child.

- Deodorant. Not that it doesn’t work, but that it works really well and will eventually kill me.

- Other things I use everyday that science may eventually discover will kill me: chapstick, Dawn, silk long underwear, Jergen’s and Kiehl’s lotion, cheese, Brita water filters, paper towels, earrings, forks, etc.

- That after the hoopla of this election, everything will stay EXACTLY THE SAME.

- Even though I have NO PLANS to move, I worry about my eventual move. How will I move 2 (fat) cats who hate to fly or drive to my next home? I spend some time on this every week or so.

- Also move related: which items of furniture will I move, and which ones will I leave or sell and replace on the other end? This one can take up hours, especially on the weekends when I can wander around during daylight hours and view everything with a critical eye.

- That by the time I ever save up enough time and money to get back to Australia they’ll have changed it entirely and I won’t recognize it any more.

- That there are no interesting straight single men any more.

- Professional worries: fire and funding and legal issues, damage from sunlight, rogue moths, federal tax laws, storage space, how to display that bald eagle, and how to save my favorite elephant.

- I worry that ‘American Idol’ will never go away. It’s okay for now, but I do hope it’s not a permanent fixture in the world. Those poor people who honestly believe they can sing – I worry about their crushed egos. And about the tone-deaf world around them, which is apparently unfazed by the screeching sounds their favorite ‘singers’ make…

- That we’re going to go into another recession.

- Messy parts. Every morning when I ride the T I stand in front of people who were lucky enough to get seats and I look down on their heads. The number of messy parts on the heads of Boston’s workforce worries me a great deal. How will these people ever succeed or get promoted or be taken seriously?

- That I’ll never get to read a new Elizabeth Peters/Amelia Peabody book because I’ve read them all and she’s getting on in years and has lost interested in feeding my addiction.

- I worry that I’ve left something off this list.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Why Bother?

I saw a woman wearing these shoes on the train today. (She wore them with black socks.) The picture hardly does them justice. Metallic leather hippie clogs with studs, a bejeweled buckle AND a black patent-leather strap. Wooee.

This is wrong. A crime against basic aesthetic common sense.

Either you prefer comfort without benefit of style - which many of us can understand - or you prefer a ‘style’ comprised of any everything shiny.

But please not both at once.

It’s tacky.

And incompatible with the human eye.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Britney, Stop Being a Moron: A Simple How-To

Britney, stop being a moron. I write this because I am profoundly, deeply, devotedly not interested in you, and I would like to return to a world where the story of your sad, pitiful life doesn’t chase me from television to laptop to magazine covers with the dedication of a maddened attack dog.

I want you to get better, partly because it just hurts to hear about yet another of your mistakes, partly because I wish you would go away.

So listen up, sweet pea. What follows is a practical guide. You follow these instructions and things will get better. Guaranteed.

  1. Stop thinking about yourself. You’re really not that interesting. And your poor mind needs something new to chew on after all this time. It’s bound to be like week-old gum in there by now. Think about someone else for a change. Like maybe your sons.
  1. Learn to be a mom. It’s okay. Lots of young parents start out scared and ignorant, making all kinds of mistakes. But you’re past your use-by date on that excuse and it’s time to do your job. No one forced you to have those babies but you did. And now they’re your responsibility no matter where they live. If for whatever reason you don’t feel like talking to your own mom about this, get help from another mom. The world is full of good moms. Sadly, they don’t get as much press as you do, but I guarantee that someone you know is, has or knows a good mom. Good moms love to share the wisdom. And girl, you are in dire need of someone’s wisdom, since you clearly have none of your own. It’s free. All you have to do is ask.
  1. Read a book this month. A real book. Go on. I dare you. It will be good exercise for your brain. Preferably a book about parenting.
  1. Move out of LA. You need to go somewhere without so many paparazzi, like Iowa, South Dakota or provincial Portugal. Stop encouraging them. It’s like inviting ticks to feast on your blood. You need to recall a life lived unwitnessed and they need to get some other hamster wheel for their own entertainment.
  1. Take singing lessons. You were allegedly talented once, although it’s been a mighty long time since anyone heard you sing something properly. Invite some know-it-all super-duper voice teacher to give you lessons, even if you think it’s just to show off your fabulous voice and put him in his place. Try singing something hard, in a clear true voice, on key. No sex-kitten breathy moany business either. Real singing. (Re-)Learn to belt it out.
  1. Make something. Do something constructive. Paint, write, clean, plant, knit, bake, scrape, carve, tidy, scrub, cook, hoe, sew, vacuum, whatever. Even if it’s something you usually pay someone else to do. You need the benefit of seeing your own good intentions embodied in visible results.
  1. Dance. I hear you’re pretty good at it. It also makes you feel like a million bucks. Maybe learn a new routine or a new kind of dance. Dance hard.
  1. Stop shopping. Buying stuff is not going to make you feel better. And frankly, you’ve got enough.
  1. Wean yourself. From coffee, cigarettes, paparazzi and shiftless men. There are books, programs, clinics and counselors to help you with this. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, but you need to take steps.
  1. Look ahead. In a few years’ time (it’s shorter than you think), your sons will be old enough to think and talk for themselves. They will judge you more harshly than anyone else in the world, and they have the right to. Of all the people you’ve failed (except for yourself), those boys feel it the most. If you want to have even one leg to stand on in the pool of their good opinion, start acting like the mom they need you to be. Put down the cigarette, girl. You can do this.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Snow Day!

The snow fell overnight and into the afternoon.

A lunch-time view of the neighbors' backyards.

Hmm, what shall I read today?

A useful tool... especially when used by someone else.... to clear the neighborhood sidewalks!

A little soap opera to while away the morning...? (Favorite quote of the day: "All we have to do is figure out how he's going to kill me after we're married and I'm home scot-free.")

Snowy gorgeousness

Snow boots and the Boot-scraping Hedgehog

Mr. Dickens revels in indoor coziness

Look, I'm Just Trying to Buy a Pincushion...

This weekend I had a bizarre conversation with a salesperson.

I had gone to a local shop to buy something crafty for a friend for her birthday. I knew this shop carried chenille pincushions in the shape of cupcakes and that was what I wanted to buy. I found one I liked and I went to the counter to pay. A man and a woman were behind the counter. The woman waited on me, while the man talked and flitted around the back of the shop doing stuff.

'Would you like tissue paper?' the woman asked.

'No thanks, I'm all set,' I answered.

'Isn't it weird that English speakers would choose to call it tissue paper?' the man said.

We stopped to stare at him. Total incomprehension on our part.

He screwed up his face so that he looked disgusted and gave a little shudder. Then with a sort of divine flash of intuition (how else can I explain it?) I got it.

He meant tissue, as in, human tissues, like 'tissue sample.'

I suggested mildly (and, to be honest, disbelievingly) that perhaps the paper was called 'tissue' before humans realized their bodies has tissues in them. He liked that theory.

I took my cupcake pincushion and left.

When I called my sister to tell her this story she did the audible equivalent of an eye-roll and said, “Only in Boston.” I asked her what she meant and she said, “C'mon, Random West Texas Dude is never going to talk to me about human tissue while I'm paying for something.”


Although Random Boston Dudes don't usually do that either. That may just be the prerogative of Random Pincushion-Selling Dude.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Proud, Sensible and Persuasive

It started as a trickle but by the middle of this week it had become a flood. I'm talking, of course, about the number of my (female) friends who have called or written to anticipate the PBS Austen-fest which starts this Sunday. So, in case you’ve managed to avoid all references, please consider this your invitation to…

Strap on your bonnets and round up your chaperones! Starting with Persuasion, PBS will screen all 6 Austen novels over the next 12 weeks. At least two of the productions will be new. I’m not sure which of the older productions we’ll be seeing. Apart from Mansfield Park (which I never liked), I’m looking forward to seeing the others again.

A (male) friend of mine once referred to any male character in a Jane Austen novel as ‘Mr. Will-o-Wispy.’ I think this is hilarious, and try to figure out which one is Mr. Will-o-Wispy in every story. Mr. Bingley in Pride & Prejudice. Mr. Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility. Anyone have suggestions for Northanger Abbey or Emma?.

For those who need Jane Austen related information on a frequent basis, please check out this blog. Very up-to-date on Austen related happenings, and also, pretty entertaining.

Have a good weekend. La!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Toby Trumps Mermaids, and other bits and pieces

A collection of recent observations:

- In the past year the overwhelming majority of strangers who have stumbled onto this site did so because they searched for information about mermaids. This is surprising because I have never, not even once, offered opinions or information about mermaids in any form. But I did, just once, refer to the women in the water aerobics class I took last spring, as real live mermaids. Apparently, that is enough to lend me something approaching Mermaid Expert status if you do a Google search. I’ve always been very entertained by this. But in the past week, I have accidentally stumbled into a crowd of folks who love Toby Stephens. And now I’m welcoming many visitors from that category. So. Mermaid-lovers and Toby Stephens fans – welcome. I don’t actually make a habit of writing about either one of those topics, but I hope you enjoy yourselves all the same.

- Alert Reader Annette has served us all a dollop of insightful literary criticism in her comment on yesterday’s post. She took us back to the book version of Jane Eyre, which is where any good book-club-ish post should go, and made her point brilliantly: there’s not really a modern equivalent to Jane and Rochester. Society has changed too much. But they are classic for a reason. Follow the link to read more of Annette’s analysis.

- I am on winter hiatus from water aerobics. It was 8 degrees here last Thursday. This Texan doesn’t voluntarily go outside in that kind of weather, much less outside while wearing a swimsuit or wet hair.

- In a spectacular case of cosmic particles, my friend Cat, the very one who sweated through the summer of ’95 with me in Chez Wombat and who now lives many hours away in a warm southern state, called me up this morning to say she was in town for a flying visit and wondered if I’d like to have lunch. (Personal credo: always say yes to lunch.) So we lunched and caught up and had a Moment of Silence for the Divine Toby Stephens, as the occasion demanded. Always good to see the only other Wombatian in the world.

- I once came within inches of tripping over a wombat. I had gone camping with friends at a place called Wilson’s Prom in Australia (one of the world’s most beautiful corners. Go there.) We had stayed up late playing cards and were making one last dash to the toilet block before calling it a night. I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the dark. The last girl out brought the flashlight and turned it on our path just as I was stepping into a wombat’s middle. If you’ve never seen a wombat, picture something the size and shape of a furry brown marsupial footstool. This wombat was eating grass in the dark and completely uninterested in me, even when I knelt down to make friends. He ran off to eat grass somewhere that didn’t involve the paparazzi.

- I learned the words to Australia’s national anthem and to Waltzing Matilda on that camping trip. In case you were wondering, Advance Australia Fair is the only national anthem I’ve ever heard that uses the word ‘girt.’ As in, ‘our land is girt by sea.’ Actually, it uses the word ‘girt’ twice. How’s that for national pride? Waltzing Matilda does not use ‘girt.’ Although it does use words like ‘jumbuck’ and ‘billabong’ which are poetically satisfying in their own way.

- Holiday Horizon: I know we’ve only just come through the year’s most crowded holiday season, but it seems we’re already fast approaching the next crop. Groundhog Day and Mardi Gras of course. Prep list: cloud cover and king cake.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Problem of Jane Eyre

This is an unapologetically literary (even book-club-ish) sort of post.

You can blame it all on Toby Stephens. After seeing the BBC version of Jane Eyre starring the Divine Toby Stephens – and the equally talented Ruth Wilson, to be scrupulously fair – I’ve had the story in my head. My mind has been munching on it for a few days, and I thought I’d share a few of the conclusions and observations I’ve come up with so far – with special contributions from conversations held with my sister and my friends Miss Amazing and L-Bean.

Here’s the nifty trick that Charlotte Bronte pulled off when writing Jane Eyre:

She created just exactly the right set of circumstances so that her two romantic leads would call off their wedding at the altar and yet still be madly in love with each other.

The tension of the second half of the story rests between lovers who are still completely besotted with each other, but have separated because honor (and, well, the law) demands it.

Think about this for a second. Are there any circumstances you can imagine, any at all, where you can see yourself at the altar next to the fellow you must be certain is Mr. Right, mere seconds away from pledging your futures to each other, only to have Mr. Loud Mouth Deus Ex Machina walk in blaring out some startling fact that changes everything and not have that startling fact Damage Your Love?

I don’t think so. I’ve tried to imagine such a scenario and failed. I’ve polled various friends. They’ve also tried and failed. Either the wedding-halting fact is not all that startling (“It appears the groom has a dramatic horror of public speaking”) or it’s so startling that it Damages the Love.

Yesterday I wrote to my friend Miss Amazing:

What would the modern equivalent of the Jane Eyre story be? Girl meets Boy. Boy scowls. Girl ignores scowl. Girl and Boy have encoded flirtatious conversation. Boy proposes. Girl accepts. Boy and Girl are at the altar when… drum roll… Big Scary Secret is revealed which immediately negates the wedding, no questions asked. Although Boy and Girl both still desperately love each other and want to be together, there is now ‘no hope.’ They must part forever.

In the early 19th century it was finding out Boy already had a wife. Divorce was apparently never an option given said wife’s insanity and the social mores of the time.

But today, what would it take to stop a wedding in cold blood right at the altar? Not just temporarily, but For Good. Granted, finding out he already has a wife is not good news. But depending on how smoothly he can explain it away, in today’s society an inconvenient wife could be seen as a legal problem that is usually speedily resolved. Wedding could proceed, if both parties still wished. In this day and age disclosing a pre-existing wife at the altar indicates a lack of foresight and organization, a lamentable lack of problem-solving skills, but it’s not necessarily an insurmountable problem in and of itself. *

Miss Amazing wrote back, with admirable insight:

I suppose one could make the case that if the man you love neglects to mention a Wife, you may be dealing with a man with limited communication skills, at the very least. But we don't, typically, fall in love with a man's communication skills, so hopefully there was something else there. [This sentence makes me giggle every time I read it.]

I would say 'at the altar' is a bad place for first time disclosure of anything. One might question the wisdom of marrying a man who waits until just before the “I dos” to mention having herpes, for example. Though Jane might have paused before even getting to the altar if she took a moment to realize she was being dragged across the terrain in her wedding frock by a rather intense looking groom...

[For those who didn’t see it, this was indeed the sort of moment that any other person besides a frothy-headed bride might have considered a Reality Check: Rochester had grabbed Jane by the wrist and was hustling her up a rocky hill to the church. She was puffing along behind him in dress and veil, dreamy eyed, not at all put off by his scowling high-speed man-handling. Surely, in retrospect, she had to see that as A Sign.]

My sister’s response to my Jane Eyre question was this:

That would have done it for me. Revealing you already have a wife at the altar would have done it. That would have Damaged the Love.

Well, we all agree on that.

But as I said at the beginning, Bronte’s trick was to sever the marriage rites in an instant WITHOUT irrevocably Damaging the Love.

Thoughts? Ideas?

* All this talk of last-minute inconvenient-wife-revelations is purely from a story construction point of view. I’m not at all saying that the last-minute revelation that Your One True Love is actually still legally attached to his Previous True Love is something anyone could or should get over right quick. I think that would be quite devastating. Despite the legal solutions to such a problem, a quick return to the altar seems unlikely. As Kelsey said, such a surprise would Damage the Love, no matter how expediently the problem could be solved. This is merely an exercise in story architecture.

Ruby Slippers

My friend MKA gave me ruby slippers for Christmas. These shoes will go down in history as one of the shiniest, sparkliest, most thoroughly successful random-yet-thoughtful Christmas gifts in history.

Here they are, for your admiration. 100% red glitter!!!:

This photo, expertly taken by me, is of my own feet shod in ruby slippers at the end of a long festive evening, the wedding of two good friends of mine. The wedding was beautiful, the reception was fun, and I had a lovely time with lovely friends all while wearing lovely shoes. The reception was held in the New England Aquarium and I was very entertained to hear more than one male guest say something like, “I like this wedding reception – no dancing! And I’m learning about fish!”

I myself didn’t learn about fish so much as find myself slipping into a fish-induced hypnotic trance, watching them swim around, and around, and around the big central tank. They were in a big hurry to get somewhere, that’s for sure. A number of things occurred to me:

1 – Do they ever change direction? These fish were all swimming in a counter-clockwise direction at top speed. It would have been so great if one of the fish – the big sting ray perhaps – had just suddenly rebelled, and led a counter-revolution, so that they all started going clockwise instead.

2 – Babies like fish. The few infants at the reception were quite mesmerized. Quite like the guys who didn’t like dancing, actually.

3 – I don’t know what they feed the sharks in that tank, but those guys were some very fat, happy and slow sharks. Every other fish in the tank was at least 15 minutes late for something, but the sharks just dawdled along, looking almost drugged and blissed out. I suppose they have to keep them well fed so they don’t turn into fierce hunters of the deep during the middle of a school trip. That may be a little too ‘natural’ for most aquarium goers.

4 – What time do penguins go to bed? The penguins were fairly cranky with us party-goers, and I kept imagining the early-to-bed-early-to-rise crowd led by a couple of crusty old penguins named Conrad and Maude who would occasionally swear and cackle at the well-dressed crowd, things like, “Hey! Could you keep it down over there! I don’t come to YOUR bedroom and raise the roof, do I?” If they could have thrown shoes, they would have. Fortunately, these penguins were shoeless.

Unlike me. I was wearing the best shoes in town.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Actually, that's not exactly what that means...

My oldest nephew is 7 and has just recently become a devoted reader. This fills me with joy. As a devoted reader myself, I have been the book-pushing-aunty for years now, marking every nephew’s birthday and Christmas with yet another new and beloved (at least by me) book. I love that Ethan has so many good books to look forward to.

This year I gave him the Encyclopedia Brown omnibus and Soup by Richard Peck. I can’t wait to hear what he thinks of them.

One of the side-effects of Ethan’s new reader-ness is that he reads everything, not just books about boy detectives or pirates or tigers. He reads signs and food packaging material and brochures.

Reading is not always the only step required for perfect comprehension, however, despite a reader's enthusiasm.

Last week, while my mom was still in Texas visiting my sister, she called to tell me a story that demonstrates this principle very well.

Apparently my brother-in-law was showing off his cooking skills and had made a fancy dinner. My mother and sister were asking about the ingredients he had used and he brought out the packaging for the new, special product he had tried. As he’s dishing up the food and they’re all talking about it, how yummy it looks and smells, etc., Ethan is reading the packaging. And suddenly, in a voice of melodramatic yet completely authentic horror he reads aloud,


Everyone froze. Then my mom started laughing. My sister, however, was infected by Ethan’s horror and completely unable to shake it off, even knowing as she did that the phrase ‘seals in juices’ does not in fact refer to blubbery Arctic mammals with meltingly beautiful brown eyes, all bubbled up in yummy juices.

Sometimes things have other meanings. And sometimes, the illogical one is the most powerful.

A Moment of Silence for the Divine Toby Stephens

I hadn’t thought about that evening in years. But there it was, his name in old-fashioned script on the television screen. It all came back in a rush.

The summer of ’95 I lived in London with my friend Cat. We shared a truly hellish one-room apartment – called a ‘bedsit’ – in the transient, back-packers neighborhood known as West Ken (West Kensington). We called our bedsit Chez Wombat, after the solid rubber frog-shaped doorstop that came with the apartment. (Naturally the frog was named Wombat.)

That summer was the hottest summer on record in 200 years, and our bedsit was a condensed little nugget of heat in an otherwise already sweltering city. We had only one window and one door. We would prop open the door and the window as wide as they would go and swoon on the two twin beds in the skimpiest versions of ‘decent undress’ we could come up with – the decency level was important not just because we were both Southern girls, but also because our sleazy landlord Jean-Pierre had a habit of dropping by unannounced in an attempt to catch us in the indecent state.

In retrospect it seems like our two major pastimes that summer were sweating, and trying unsuccessfully to find a truly super-strength British deodorant stick. Boots the Chemist – while in all other respects one of my favorite chain stores – rather let us down on that score. We imported American deodorant and felt a little better. If only we could have imported it for all the people who sweated next to us on the Tube. The number of strange armpits I have been tucked into at nose-level as we all crammed into the trains and reached up to hold the straps or bars… shudder. Uncounted and unremembered is better.

Cat and I had made a vow that our months in London would be as filled with London-only treats as time and money would allow. Cat worked at an OshKosh boutique on the Kings Road, and I worked as a secretary for a head-hunting firm near Piccadilly Circus. We took day trips on our days off – we saw Oxford and Cambridge, Stratford-upon-Avon, Hampton Court and Bath. And we fit as much of London into our evenings and other days off as we could – the Tower of London, the RSC (this was before the new Globe was opened), the British Museum, shopping in Covent Garden, West End musicals. We did pretty well for working girls on a budget.

One of our biggest successes was theatre tickets. With our student IDs and mid-week days off we could score ridiculously cheap tickets to fabulous shows. One night we went to see ‘Coriolanus’ by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican. Neither of us had ever read the play, and all we knew about it was that it was supposed to be Shakespeare’s bloodiest play.

I’ll say.

I don’t actually remember the play at all. I remember there being literally buckets of fake blood sloshed all over the stage. I remember battle scenes and impassioned monologues accompanied by sprays and sprinkles of red fake-blood droplets. But mainly what I remember is the actor playing Coriolanus. Unusually for us, Cat and I did not speak during the play. We sat quietly and watched as Toby Stephens, young star of the RSC, stormed and raged all over the stage, at one point so liberally doused with buckets of blood that his once-white shirt had been turned into some sort of clingy tissue. The play ends badly, of course. And messily.

It was late when the show was out. Cat and I had to get back home – the next day was a work day. We caught the Circle Line and rode for 40 minutes before getting back to West Ken.

It was so late we had the train to ourselves. We still hadn’t spoken to each other. About 10 minutes into the trip Cat took a deep breath, almost like she’d been underwater all this time and was only just coming up for air, and said, “Let’s have a moment of silence for the Divine Toby Stephens.” And we did.

We had Moments of Silence for the Divine Toby Stephens all that summer, and on occasion for years after. It’s one of those phrases that has instant time-travel-power. It can send me right back to the summer of ’95, my first year out of college, like a magic spell.

I hadn’t thought about it in years until two weeks ago when I settled in to watch the BBC two-part ‘Jane Eyre’ on PBS. Toby Stephens played Mr. Rochester. He’s aged a little. And Mr. Rochester is not my favorite character. But he still has it. At least for someone smitten more than 12 years ago he does.

Let’s all have a moment of silence, please, for the divine Toby Stephens.

Living on the Edge

My sister bought me a Baker’s Edge pan for Christmas. Apparently bakers nation-wide were after this pan for the holiday season and they were back-ordered for weeks. Mine arrived last week from the Spoon Sisters. (A name I find very satisfying and hilarious.)

This was a *very* sweet thing for her to do because Kelsey is not an edge person. If she could have all-middle brownies all the time, she totally would. But she knows my penchant for edges and purchased accordingly. She's just as sweet as triple-chocolate brownie, don't you think?!

So. I have cooked 1 batch of brownies in my edge pan and this is what I think: for edge lovers, this is indeed the pan for you! Although, from a brownie-lover’s point of view, I will not be using their recipe again. It was okay, it’s just that I like mine better. It has been my trusty brownie recipe for years now, and is beloved by friends and family on at least 3 continents.

For those who are interested – and not at all faint-hearted:

LaLa’s World Famous Triple Chocolate Brownies

1 cup dark chocolate, chopped (or chocolate chips)

2 sticks of butter

1 cup flour

¼ cup baking cocoa

½ tsp salt

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

1 ½ tsp vanilla

1 cup chocolate chips

Heat oven to 375 and butter a 9x13 pan. (Or a Baker’s Edge pan!)

Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat. When half melted, add the first cup of chocolate. Stir until melted and smooth. Remove from heat.

Mix the flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

Add sugar to chocolate mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon. Add each egg, one at a time, stirring until glossy. Add vanilla.

Stir flour mixture into chocolate just until completely mixed. Fold in the last cup of chocolate chips, then spread in the pan. (You could also add chopped nuts at this stage if you’re interested.)

Cook for 30 minutes and then check every few minutes until the edges are done and the center yields a toothpick with moist crumbs.