Splendor in the Grass

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‘When family photos were snapped “en plein air”‘

Part of the pleasurable pain of downsizing is sorting through zillions, even gazillions, of family photos. Deciding which to keep, which to “gift”, which to strip from their soon-to-be-donated frames and consigned to the manilla envelopes and file folders of history.

One of the things I’ve noticed while sifting is a years-ago trend to pose hapless members of one’s family (mostly helpless babies) smack-dab in the middle of a patch of grass. I’m not sure exactly why this isn’t done so much anymore, though I’m betting that chiggers and deer ticks might have something to do with it.

Me, smack-dab in the middle of a patch of grass. Before the invention of ticks and chiggers, I’m hoping

Another photo fashion I’ve encountered repeatedly while scanning and sipping a big ole cocktail (scanning being rendered much less tedious when accompanied by bourbon) is a propensity to pose subjects with cars in the background. (Even that last photo had a car in the background, albeit a toy one.)

Look at me. In the grass: check. Car in background: double-check

Here are some more for your viewing pleasure:

Yup, grass. Yup, car

Well. I am in the grass in this one. But that’s a cat, not a car

Here’s one with the requisite car(s), but with a stylistic variation: baby in gravel, not grass

The photographer’s shadow in that last one is a nice touch, n’est-ce pas? Speaking of French, that phrase found in the subhead, “en plein air”, means, in case you don’t know already, “out in the air” or just plain “outside”. Kind of like “al fresco”, only not Italian.

Sometimes a whole extended family was lined up in front of a car

My forbears were more Swedish than French and not Italian at all, but they sure did like to put us kids outside and snap away. Maybe the light was just better?

Hmmm. Nice shot, cute kids, but that flash glare is a tad distracting

Speaking of flash, indoor photography in those days required flashbulbs, which were actual bulbs that went off with a loud pop and a blue glare so bright it left an afterimage on your retina, prompting Infant Me to try to grab it while shouting “moon moon!”

Let’s go back outside. Here’s a dandy with not only cars–but a motorcycle. And a great-aunt for good measure

Anyway. I could go on and on. But I have more sorting to do, and it’s not of fun photographs. Hint: drawers full of receipts are involved — and it’s too early for bourbon. But before I go, I did happen to find a quasi-contemporary photo of cute kids on grass:

The Child and her Cousin, plopped 50s-style in the grass. Cute enough to compensate for the lack of a car — or even a cat

Oh, and I found at least one example featuring yet another years-ago photography trend:

Kids posed in a tub. Definitely no risk of ticks or chiggers. But blackmail entirely possible

New York City. December 2019

 

 

 

I’m gonna miss Van. Shaun Cassidy, not so much

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‘I hadn’t thought about record albums in years; now they’re stuck in my mind like a Monkees tune’

Once, when The Child was, oh, eleven or twelve, she happened to be standing in front of the bookshelf — probably looking for the chess pieces, bless her smarty-pants heart — when she pulled out one of the large square objects pictured below and asked, “What is this?”

When I told her it was a “record album” she looked totally and completely blank. So I said, “You use them to play music. With a turntable.” Seeing her still-baffled countenance, I added, “kind of like an earlier version of a CD.” “Aaaah,” she remarked. “I get it. And look: there’s much more room for liner notes!”

I’ve had record albums on my mind lately because, as you probably know by now (and maybe are tired of hearing about), The Dude and I are in mid-life downsizing mode. Going from a respectably-sized New York apartment to, basically, a Barbie-and-Ken playhouse. We’re talking telescoping down from 1600 sq. ft. to, oh, 350. Give or take a square foot — or toe.

Barbie’s playhouse kitchen. Yup, that’s a two-burner stovetop

Well. You basically cannot squoosh twenty-six years of stuff into a space that small. So something’s gotta give. Heck, forget “something”. Let’s be honest and say “everything”. Yup, kids. Everything’s gotta go.

So last weekend The Dude and I rolled up our sleeves and started in. I made some calls and found out that a place called (here comes a plug; I love this guy!) Innersleeve Records in Amagansett would take our albums. All of our albums. And we had tons. Not only our Beatles and Monkees and Stones but The Dude’s parents’ showtunes and classicals and, yes, Shaun Cassidys.

We carted about fifteen linear feet of record albums to good ole New Best Friend Chris at Innersleeve, who not only accepted our motley donation with good grace but actually helped us carry the darned things in from the car. And, let me tell you, record albums — good liner notes and all — are heavy.

Another album gem from our ex-collection

Oh, before I forget. Somewhere in this collection is the very first record album I ever had. Someone — I think it was my Middle Younger Brother Roger — gave it to me as a gift, not realizing that I did not own a turntable upon which to play it. I was a freshman in college at the time, and I used to say to my dorm buddies, “Why don’t you come on over to my room? We can hang out and look at my record.”

Just for fun, here’s an album by The Dude’s doppelganger

Well, I’d love to hang around here at my computer, sharing more stories from my storied past, but there are family photos to be put away. (“You absolutely must put away all photos!” saith the real estate agent, sending me into shock.)

Seasonal selection of family photos, never to be displayed again. At least not in this apartment

Oh. And there are the books. Did I mention that we own a lot of books? We scratched the surface (sort of) last week, when we disposed of about 20 linear feet of art books. God bless you, East Hampton Library. I promise to go to Authors’ Night every year until you run out of authors.

Got books? These are only the art books

But here’s the thing. At least record albums are back in vogue, at least in some decidedly hipster circles. You know, as long as you call them “vinyl”. 

Which brings me to this shelf. I’ll give you my coolest Springsteen if you can help me figure out how to turn this complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica into hipster bait.

I bet they don’t even have “hipster” under “H”

New York City. October 2019

 

My Main Squeeze

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‘He’s about to get squeezed a whole lot tighter.’

When folks from my former homeland, The Great American Midwest, visit me here in New York, they are apt to be amazed by how little space we New Yorkers inhabit.

“Where is the rest of it?” questioned one dearly-beloved sister-in-law, when visiting our apartment for the first time. “This is your kitchen?” exclaimed another equally-beloved SIL. (No, I am not being ironic; I do in fact love these two sis-in-laws, in spite of the fact that their homes are vastly more vast than mine.)

The Dude and I share a meal in the dining-room-living-room-office-music-room of our first apartment

I find this interesting because, on a New Yorker scale, this apartment — where I am sitting right now at my sunlit desk cum china cabinet — is considered rather comfortably large. It’s what they call, in Real-Estate-Agent-ese, a “classic six”. That means it has six rooms: living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and a “maid’s room”. Honest. These pre-war (that’s WWII, and yet another example of colorful NYC real estate lingo) apartment buildings were built when no home was complete without its maid.

That’s my desk in the background, ready for writing. That’s the table in the foreground, ready for Christmas. This is in, ahem, the big apartment we live in right now

Well, maid shmaid. What I really want to talk about today is the, well, going-backwards-ness of our personal space. As it pertains to living arrangements, that is.

The trajectory of our married living arrangements has gone from very small to medium to large and, now, with this latest pied a terre acquisition (which I first mentioned in my bake-some-brownies post, “And Then There Were None”), back to very small again. I feel rather like Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard”: “I am big; it’s the movies that got small.” Only, in our case, our apartment — or at least the one we’ll move into if all goes according to plan — just got very very small.

Me, reflected in the make-the-room-look-bigger (hah!) mirrored wall of the 13×11 living room of the if-all-goes-well new apartment. No, that’s not any of our stuff, thank the Lord of Moving

Very shortly, if all goes well (tons of paperwork to deal with for the closing!) we will be moving from an approximately 1600 sq. ft. apartment to one that is around 350, give or take a precious foot. Adjusting to such a small space will not be a small adjustment. And not only because we won’t have room to swing a cat, but because we won’t have room for our stuff. Any of our stuff.

We weren’t always so stuff-stuffed. In fact, we started out rather spare, with thrift-shop finds and hand-me-downs. Wayne found his couch at a garage sale. And I didn’t even have one. So we slipcovered his, thinking one day we’d replace it with a “real” couch that we picked out from a real store. Well, that was more than 35 years ago.

The Dude’s slipcovered garage-sale couches in action. Want ’em? Child and cat not included

Quick note: When we lived in the one-big-room-with-everything-in-it place and were thinking about having a baby, I asked “but where will we put this baby?” and The Dude, quite reasonably in Dude Reasonableness, answered, “We’ll put the baby where the TV is.” Which is, ultimately, what we did.

That first apartment, Child added. Yes, her bed is located right about where the TV was. And the dining table and the desk and so on and so forth

But time moves on. And so did we. To this apartment of twenty-six years. And twenty-six years of gradual acquisition. Surfaces have been populated, couches have been pillowed, bookcases have been booked. Let’s face it, if you think Nature abhors a vacuum, you haven’t met a New York City apartment.

We have art books piled on top of pianos, which are, in turn, topped with hand-turned pottery, accented by silver whatnots, side-by-side with souvenir statues. Don’t get me started on the candles and their attendant holders. And, if you read last week’s post, “Sitting Pretty”, you are familiar with my crack-cocaine obsession with chairs.

Honestly? It’ll feel good to, shall we say, “de-acquisition” some of this. If you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by for a scented candle. Or five.

New York City. October 2019

 

Sitting Pretty

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‘I have a seriously addictive Thing about chairs’

Right now, there are twenty-one chairs sitting (if it’s not too silly to think of a chair as “sitting”) in my apartment. Which, speaking of sitting, means a lot of places to rest one’s weary bones. The extremely cute bird-themed perch in the photo at the top of this post — the one with the extremely cute kitty enthroned thereupon — isn’t one of them, since it isn’t a chair, but a hassock.

Another shot of Wombat with that hassock. This was when Wom was a baby and the hassock had tassles. Three guesses why I removed the tassles

No, a chair has a back, and legs, and sometimes even sides — and it seats one person (or one pet). I also have a couple of benches in this apartment. Which don’t count either, since two people can (in theory, anyway) sit on a bench.

Nope. Not a chair. This is a bench with a lion sitting on it. Well, a lion on a pillow. That’s a chair in the left background

Oh. Before I forget. Those of you who expect a weekly story to be posted by me every Tuesday (bless your hearts) were no doubt wondering what the heck happened yesterday. Well. My lack-of-posting wasn’t entirely because of downsizing-related stress. (And I wasn’t even too busy making brownies to write a story. See downsizing story — and brownie recipe — here.) Nope, GoDaddy was having some WordPress-related technical difficulties. I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say I am glad to have Somebody Else To Blame. (Because I actually was too stressed to write coherently, much less amusingly.)

But back to this chair-chocked tale.

I use these to display my (ahem) needlepointing skills

The reason I happen to have so many chairs isn’t due to some fear-of-no-seating phobia. It’s just because, well, I really really like chairs. It seems that, there for awhile, every time I’d go to a thrift shop or an antiques fair or just about any place old chairs could be found — I’d fall for a new “find”. I say “new”, but I don’t really mean new. All my chairs — all twenty-one of them are old.

One of a set of extremely fragile Pennsylvania Dutch dining chairs. I use place cards at dinners so the few fat people I know won’t sit on these

And each and every one has a story. One I salvaged from Great-Gramma Whitmore’s barn. One is a leftover from my Starter Marriage. Another followed me all the way from Kansas City.

I toted this baby all the way from the Heartland. And then on to, hmm, three different apartments

But the chair that has the best story is the leather wing chair that came from the East Hampton Antiques Fair. See, East Hampton used to be not nearly as trendy and fancy as it is now. Why, there was a time when there wasn’t even one Ralph Lauren boutique there, much less four. (Yes, there are, in fact, four Ralph Lauren stores in EH. I kid you not. I guess Ralph wanted to make sure you could find an American-Flag sweater without panicking.)

So. This is the Time Of Which I Speak. When there was an antiques fair in East Hampton with actual beautiful antiques that Normal People could afford. (They still have these fairs, but I can’t even afford the admission, much less the antiques.)

My Very Good Friend Who Moved to New Jersey used to accompany me to these antiques fairs. We would have big fun together scoring Bakelite bangles and crocodile handbags and Fiestaware and such. And yes, for me anyway, chairs. (Green tufted leather ones for the library, blue painted stools for the kitchen, even child-sized ones to hold magazines in the bathrooms (try it!) and so on and so forth.

I found out the hard way that the red paint on this chair comes off on your butt. So I use it to hang things on

BFWMTNJ and I were strolling about — she encouraging me to buy John Boy Walton’s cowboy hat (it fit, and I did); me encouraging her to buy butterfly-wing jewelry from the 40s — when I happened upon this chair.

It was (and is) amazing. A wing chair of gently-worn (oh, okay, really worn) caramel-hued tufted leather. Very Downtown Abbey, even though Downton Abbey hadn’t been invented yet. I could picture myself curled up in it by the fire, book in one hand, wineglass in the other. I sat down. I enquired about the price. Hmmm, not bad. But I decided to abide by my “If God Wants Me To Have It, It Will Still Be Here After I Walk Once Around The Fair” Rule.

Friend and I go walkabout, only to find upon completion of our round another woman sitting in “my” chair — busily writing a check.

Well.

I chatted her up, got her name and number, and sweetly suggested that if the chair didn’t “work” in her apartment that she give me a call and I would take it off her hands for her.

A week later, sure enough. She calls. The chair indeed didn’t “work”. And it’s been mine ever since.

The lovely leather wing chair, “decorated” at a Christmas long ago by one of my favorite people

I have a sneaking suspicion that our new majorly-downsized digs (potential only! fingers crossed the deal goes through!) won’t be able to accommodate this chair — not to mention, I’m thinking, around twenty of the other twenty-one in this much larger apartment.

Maybe I should look for that woman’s card and see if she wants “her” chair back?

New York City. September 2019

 

 

And then there were none

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‘How to make the world’s best brownies, bar none.’

I’m seriously distracted today. The Wayner and I are considering “downsizing” from our Manhattan home of nigh-on twenty-five years to a place that just became available in a highly-desirable building nearby. It’s adorable, filled with light; all the clever original casement windows face a gorgeous private garden. And so on and so forth.

The issue? It’s so small (the kitchen is six feet by six; but at least it has a kitchen) that moving there would take a major attitude adjustment, not to mention a pruning of possessions so majorific it would make Marie Kondo‘s head explode.

Eeensy-weensy isn’t the half of it

So, what to do?

Let’s make a batch of brownies, by gum! Nothing is easier — or more soothing. I have a foolproof method (it’s so simple, I hesitate to call it a “recipe”) that I’ve used even longer than The Dude and I have lived in this (sniff) apartment. It’s sort of adapted from an old Maida Heatter cookbook I have lying around somewhere (and will soon be donating to some library or other).

Here’s the recipe written down for somebody-or-other. Don’t worry; I will “translate”

Oh. Before I forget. The picture at the top of this post is not of anyone making brownies. Believe it or not, no one has ever “captured” me working my brownie magic. (I guess because it all happens so fast.) No, that picture was taken in the “old” kitchen of the Amagansett house. That thing on the wall behind The Child’s head is a stereo/radio gizmo with a flip-down turntable. The veritable epitome of Seventies hi-tech! (That and the faux woodgrain cabinetry are no longer with us.)

Another shot of us crafting cookies. Because why not?

Anyway. Enough with the Habitation Talk. On to the brownies!

Now let me start by saying that if you are a fan of fat cakelike brownies, stop reading right now. Just run out and grab yourself a box of Betty Crocker Brownie Mix. I’m sure it’s “perfectly good”, as my Mom would say.

But if dense, dark, and delicious is your brownie thing, you’ve come to the right blog.

Let’s jump ahead to the finished product, shall we? You will never see your brownies pictured this way — they will be gone too fast

So here’s what you do. Plop 2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate into a bowl with a stick of butter. Put the bowl into a saucepan with some water in it. (The pan, not the bowl.)

Butter and chocolate happily merging in the saucepan of simmering water, eggs and vanilla at the ready

Note: 2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate used to be 4 squares. Then Baker’s got all cost-cutting and decided to reconfigure the bar. So now you need to use half the bar, however many squares that is. I always forget.

Easy to remember: “Bakers” chocolate. Cause you’re “baking”, get it?

While you’re melting the chocolate/butter stuff, prepare the pan. I use a square glass one, but really any similarly-sized pan will do. Turn said pan upside down, mold a square of foil over the back, then flip the pan over and place the molded foil inside. (You do this because it’s easier to get a good foil shape that way.) Then use the wrapper from the stick of butter to butter up the inside of the pan. (You probably will need to use a bit more butter; so have two suitably-softened sticks handy.)

The prepared pan. Not pretty, but pretty darned effective at keeping those brownies from sticking. Oh, those flowers in that teensy vase are intentionally dry, okay? And hey! That vase just might fit in the new apartment!

Once your mixture is melted and you’ve stirred it so it’s smooth (yum! I’m salivating all over my laptop!) you remove it from the pan of water and add one scant cup of sugar. (The original recipe calls for a full cup, but my peeps like them better not so sweet.) After that, stir in a teaspoon of vanilla.

By now the mixture should have cooled down enough that you can beat in two eggs, one at a time. (If you add the eggs too soon, they cook. And who wants chocolate scrambled eggs?)

After that, stir in half a cup of flour. Scoop this delicious smelling concoction into your prepared pan and pop into a 325 oven. Use the middle rack. The recipe says to bake for half an hour to 35 minutes, but I start checking at 25 minutes. How do you know when they’re done? Well, when they look like this:

The brownies are done when the middle is puffed up like this. Or, if for some reason, they don’t puff, they’re done when a toothpick inserted near the middle comes out clean

Now, Pro Tip. Here’s the other reason you line the pan with foil. As soon as you can after removing the pan from the oven, carefully slide the brownies, foil and all, out of the pan and onto something heat-proof like a trivet. It’s not essential to do this — trust me, those brownies are going to taste great — but this does stop the brownies from continuing to “cook” from the heat retained by the pan.

When you’re ready to serve them, take a long serrated knife and cut the pan’s worth of brownies in half, then half again, till you have a bunch of squares. You might need to wiggle a knife under each one to release them, because no matter how well you pre-butter that foil, they’re so chewy-gooey they often stick.

Serve with ice cream, or not. If you have any left over (hah!) they freeze pretty darned well. I hope you have as much fun making these brownies as I have; they’re guaranteed to please.

You give the brownies; you get the gifts!

Oh — one more thing. And it’s very very important. Do not wash that bowl. There is sure to be at least one person around who will want to “clean” it for you.

The best part. Or at least The Child seems to think so

Okay. That’s all she wrote. For today, anyway. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go off somewhere and obsess about maybe-moving. Note that no offer has been made on this particular apartment — much less accepted. But the downsizing cat has been definitely let out of the worry-wart bag. Or something. Gulp!

New York City. September 2019