Saturday, October 25, 2003

News from the cat wars

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

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

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

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

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

One percent magic

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

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Content for the thing contented

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 18, 2003

My closet obsession

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Grape news

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Get fresh with me

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

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

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