Saturday, August 23, 2003

Whine and dine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Just eat it."

Monday, August 18, 2003

Reporting? What's that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2003

Revert to original

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2003

He's been to the mountain...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was joking. I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2003

More mysteries of yard sales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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