24 October 2008

The Colour of Happy

Just before EBDI quitting time late last Friday afternoon, the west wall of our Ashland Avenue Victorian jewelbox, to which my office is attached, bounced the sun into the north-facing windows of my carriage house perch, transforming my ho-hum-hued office with sublime light the most exquisite shade? tint? colour? Of what? Light definitely has a colour - just go fluorescent or incandescent bulb shopping, at least while you still can. Notice the way a room colour changes throughout the day. Think about why painters prefer north-facing studios.

Perhaps what I observed best resembles the look of a simply celestial Rehoboth summer sunrise, the early-morning uber-rosy glow of the east-facing salmon-pink brick rowhouses meeting my gaze across the way, that same glow infused with unobstructed mid-summer high-octane first light pouring in from across the Fallsway and settling on everything near the corner of Calvert and Chase streets (stand there - you'll get it), and the late afternoon fire that ever so briefly blazes the cornices of Oliver’s ramshackle grand houses lining Preston Street.

But no words sufficiently capture what I mean and what I see. Maybe Anu Garg, founder of Wordsmith.org, which five days a week sends me A Word A Day (with which my chum Albert and I compose dueling haikus), might know a word that means TGIF, as I associate last Friday's type of light with almost every sunny Friday of my life, beginning with the flat-out happiest times of my childhood - late Friday afternoons, particularly in fall, often clad in plaid, venturing a few miles over to Grandma's house for the warmth and comfort and pleasure of Shabbos dinner the way it's never tasted since, for seemingly the briefest moment in time with my parents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and Grandma and step-grandfather all squished together 'round that precious mahogany inlaid table that became my most prized possession, along with the matching demilunes, Hepplewhite chairs, and Potthast breakfront. In June 1999, I marched into the crowded Bolton Hill Wednesday broker's open for my house, whipped out my tape measure to confirm my eyes had accurately assessed that the demilunes would neatly tuck into the recesses either side of the tiled, pier-mirrored fireplace, and proclaimed victorious my search for a house worthy of Grandma's furniture.

More than nine years and countless dollars later spent mostly on things not seen, rehab still hasn't reached the dining room, which still wears colors (spelled without the u on purpose) chosen by the clueless owner twice removed - idiotic imperceptibly pink walls plus crown moulding and a jaw-dropping Eastlake ceiling medallion polychromed in puke - but even with my hypersensitivity to colour, I love and revere that room.

My friends gather there and I serve them approximations of what Grandma made and when they ask for recipes, I repeat her oft-used line: "I'll make it for you." It wasn't about wanting to keep the recipe close, but keeping her family close by.

She was my champion, my biggest fan, and the most important person in my life. I dialed her every single day right after school (484-0098). If I could have five minutes more with anyone, it would hands-down be with her, though as I strongly feel her presence in my dining room, she's always with me. Every day I sit at the head of the table for a moment or two after work or when I need clarity and courage. If need be, I lay my head on the table like an ear to the ground and always hear which way to go.

I focus on the Bradbury and Bradbury Aesthetic Movement and Herter Brothers wallpapers tacked about and dream of the day twenty or more might, in Eastlake fashion authentic to this house, co-mingle on the walls and ceilings, restoring this room, and the rest of this spec-built 1883 house, to its original papered glory touted in an 1884 Baltimore Sun for-sale ad; and hope to see the mouldings and the shutters liberated of layers of haphazardly applied white paint obscuring poplar masquerading as walnut. I fantasize how food, simple or opulent, will look against a crazy quilt of colours and patterns and imagine I’ll savour, even more, my guests enjoying those beautiful meals. It’s endlessly amusing to remember that Grandma's walls were white, a room colour I neither understand nor tolerate, though of course it mattered not a whit then, as now. Friends and family are the real colour in a room.

But absent beating hearts, or on a cold grey dank day, my dining room is still filled with an ethereal light maybe only I can see. It is the colour of happy.

01 August 2008

My Blue Heaven

The value and importance - really the necessity - of home clearly cuts across class. Everyone seeks comfort and shelter and sanctuary in some way, even those with next to nothing. Two Baltimore Sun items yesterday morning speak eloquently to this point.

Stephen Elliott, a former heroin addict, was homeless until Deanne Callegary and L.R. Wagner, volunteers at a shelter he frequented, performed an audacious act of tikkun olam (Hebrew for repairing the world) and invited him to live in their barn and tend their goats. I often question the worthiness of human-interest, front-page Baltimore Sun picks, but not this one. Mr. Elliott understands and appreciates his great good fortune, channeling, in an admittedly unusual way, the words I wrote two months ago "If you're lucky, home is where you're comfortable, safe, and loved." I hope and pray this humble place of healing and blessings will compel Mr. Elliott to find his way all the way home, whenever and wherever he himself determines that to be.

The second article appeared, oddly, in the police blotter (are certain items included just to make sure we're paying attention - I mean, who doesn't remember last year's theft of the Woodlawn garden tomato with a street value of three dollars?). Too short to excerpt, here it is in its entirety: "Police were seeking an apparently homeless person who forcibly entered a storage locker in the basement of an apartment building in the 300 block of Pleasant Ridge Road on or about July 25 and lived there for a short period of time. While in the storage room, the person painted the walls blue and improvised a burglar alarm by placing a bucket full of water atop the door so that anyone who attempted to enter would be soaked."

Blue hues prompt feelings of relaxation, harmony, and holiness and in some cultures the colour blue is thought to chase away evil spirits. Our enterprising storage room resident made himself comfortable and safe and, my, he must really love blue. His temporary lodgings may have been his Taj Mahal to Mr. Elliott's barn to the place from where most of us are truly lucky enough to be reading this.

20 July 2008

Cross Hairs

While I prefer to think I'm found memorable for my mind, it seems I'm often unforgettable for my hair - or, for the past ten years, the lack thereof. My hair has been up, down, and all around. Its current length is no declaration of my politics, sexuality, or anything else. Quite simply, it makes me feel utterly and completely beautiful. I've stopped being astounded at the reactions I get, every day, often multiple times a day. Women constantly tell me how good it looks and how much they admire me for it - the caveat being that some of my female friends worry it's an impediment to happiness. Gay men generally love it and hetero men mostly hate it or have to work their way into acceptance. So silly - I'm still the same person (well, actually, better with the perspective age brings) who had a braid down to the tush, a perfect Louise Brooks bob, a short curly (constantly expensive) perm, and everything in between.

For the past few weeks, for reasons completely incomprehensible to me, negative comments on my hair have ramped up to a level difficult (even for me) to ignore - prompting even more navel-gazing in a summer already way too stuffed with it (as readers of my three blogs have no doubt observed). I never say never about anything, so, sure, I'd let it grow for the right reason, whatever and/or whenever that might be, but in the meantime - if this is one - please just leave me be.

And so from the "I Couldn't Make This Up If I Tried" department, walking through Mount Vernon last night en route to Iggies (OMG the funghi and Alice pizzas), deep in thought the entire way about my hair (what a thorough waste of time), I encountered a conventional-looking chap about my age, wearing an Orioles shirt, baseball cap, etc., who, as he was about to pass, said "Nice hair!" Of course, that stopped me in my tracks for all the obvious reasons and a brief conversation ensued, during which he asked if my 'do posed a problem at work (I'm still puzzled by this question), and as it was just cut (every two weeks - thanks Linda) and still looks and feels like lush silk velvet, he asked what a lot of people ask - could he touch it? - and I saw no reason not to oblige.

The universe, as usual, provided exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it, and today, this velvet head is busy thinking about things much more important.

26 June 2008

What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?

I wasn't a minute into my Rehoboth house when something told me to flip on the TV and there it was - mid-afternoon, wall-to-wall coverage of the sudden passing of Tim Russert, my secret Sunday crush. My usual blue May/June bad mood went black and I practically unprecedentedly took to my bed, pinned by emotional G-forces beyond my comprehension and control.

And then, thankfully, as the sun sank, my mood rose. I'm not sure how or why I was suddenly aware that on that day, the thirteenth of June - 6.13 - I was the exact age - 35 days short of 49 years - my mother was on the day that she died. If there was any comfort in that realization, it's that 613 is a very significant number in Judaism - the number of commandments in the Torah.

Today, on what would have been my Daddy's 79th birthday, I remember that in 2003 - though I didn't realize it until a few months later - I had visited Amish country, a close-by, but nonetheless, never-explored place about which I had always been curious, on the day I was the exact age - 48 days short of 44 years - my father was on the day that he died. I spent a fabulous day antiquing, eating, and buggy-watching with a treasured friend, capped by a return trip in a thunderstorm so torrential that it brought all highway traffic to a halt. I smile and think of that day every time I (try to) use the long-sought and procured that day, over-priced, 1930s green-handled cherry pitter that refuses to stay clamped to the table.

On 6.14, I embarked on my customary 5:00 AM sharp, four mile bike ride to the boardwalk, having outlived both parents - a little scared, but ultimately joyful and grateful to be launched into unexplored territory.

16 June 2008

Not For All The Tea In China

As owner of Baltimore's favourite tea room, I harbored a pretty fantastic secret - I was, and still am, a total coffee maven. Even the prized Old Waverly tea, a secret blend concocted by me and the late Tom Thompson of the Coffee Mill, failed to hold my interest. The only tea I truly enjoy, even sometimes crave, is oolong. Twining's oolong. In the bag, if you must know. Been drinking it for decades.

So imagine my surprise when a search of Giant, Super Fresh, Eddie's Saint Paul, Eddie's Roland Park, and Whole Foods yielded none - and it was not merely out of stock, but eliminated from their product lines. Instead, their shelves are crowded with a jumble of black and green and (the newly sexy) red and white teas in pretty boxes, all pretty much tasting the same.

Black tea is fermented, green tea is not, and oolong is right in the middle. It's not accurate, however, to say the taste is an average of black and green. I liken it more to tea as liqueur. All three types have essentially the same health benefits, though I am amused at endless on-line stories reporting oolong tea as a weight-loss tool. If that were true, I would have looked like a super-model in college and grad school.

I never buy in the county what can be obtained in Baltimore City and I never buy on-line what can be had somewhat locally. So it was with an air of exasperation and resignation that I clicked the amazon.com checkout button to order this staple of life.

04 February 2008

Good Night, My Sweet Pet(s)

It was one of those life-changing, door closing/door opening (though I didn't immediately know it) moments. I was at the Waverly Farmers Market in February 1993 when I saw a man with two of the most breathtaking dogs (that were not mine), spaniels of some sort. I could tell he was asked about them endlessly as he patiently told me they were English cocker spaniels and gave me the breeder's name.

I called Mary Ann Alston the same day and told her I would be interested in a puppy sometime in the future, as my Sascha, my first dog - a spaniel-sheltie mix and the greatest birthday present I have ever received - was thirteen and a half and I was just trying to be realistic. Little did I know I would call her again just two weeks later, as Sascha collapsed the night after my initial call and died two weeks later of cancer.

So afterwards, immediately needing to give my heart away again, I called Mary Ann and inquired about puppies. She told me she had a four month old puppy she still had not decided would be pet or show (usually determined by two months), but that the puppy was going to a new home in Japan. I was invited, nonetheless, to experience what English cocker puppyhood looked like.

Knowing I could not have her, I hoped the fence separating me from the puppy would also foster emotional distance. Fat chance. With her blue roan coat, she was a thousand times more exotic than the black and white-coated dogs I saw at the farmers market. Every description of English cockers includes the words "merry" and "melting eyes" and I knew at that moment that the puppy stage of all this would make every frustration of housebreaking and training worth it. I left Millersville dejected and heartbroken that the love of my life would soon be on the other side of the world.

Cut to the very next day and the miracle. Mary Ann decided the puppy just didn't quite measure up to show quality - or should I say measure down, declaring that the tail sat the tiniest smidgeon below the breed standard. With that, the Japanese buyer backed out. I still consider that Mary Ann performed a mission of mercy for the puppy, but even more so for me.

Sophie (named after Sascha, who was named after my daddy, Sam) came home and as soon as I set her down, my perfectly-behaved greyhound, Hannah, promptly clamped down on Sophie's entire face, as if this were the hors d'oeuvre of her dreams. With my scream, Hannah unclenched, but the very next time I let the two near each other, Sophie walked right up to Hannah and patiently waited for her to do it again. After six years of regarding Hannah's extreme interest in squirrels and bunnies, I realized she had no bloodlust in her eyes for Sophie and I came to understand it was all about dominance and not dinner. This particular manifestation of their lovefest continued for years, with Sophie usually initiating the game. Hannah would ever-so-tenderly clamp Sophie's snout in her mouth, and as soon as she released it, Sophie would bug her to do it again.

I often joked that I maintained an almost hairless head so as to finance Sophie's monthly grooming appointment and I was never ashamed to proclaim how vain I was about her beauty. She sometimes glared at me while being groomed and I told her being fabulous was hard work, but once off the table, you could almost hear her say "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." And it was her beauty, not to mention her quintessential English cocker merriment, that delighted all who encountered her.

Hannah dropped dead at thirteen and a half, probably from a stroke. Up to that day, she had been hale and hearty and looked years younger. I think she just didn't want any part of moving from Charles Village to Bolton Hill. It was obvious Sophie missed Hannah and once ensconced in Bolton Hill, would moan and wail endlessly whenever left alone (the kitty, Simcha, apparently not providing adequate company). I could hear Sophie howling up and down the block and my new neighbors were beside themselves. Sophie was pining away for her former habitat, and I imagined, a canine companion, so I called Mary Ann again.

Hennie, the exceptional blue roan offspring of Playboy and Peaches, arrived after a long wait for her conception, gestation, birth, and vetting, but this is not a completely happy story. After the first few years, an exceedingly rare condition emerged, ideopathic aggression, with no known cause or cure. Drugs can't completely control Ms. Jekyl/Hyde, and after winding up in the ER one Christmas night with a bite to my face, I should have said enough is enough. What stopped me, I suppose, was the sight of Sophie and Hennie mostly snuggled together like puzzle pieces and the intoxicating combination of pride and vanity I felt when accepting the constant compliments on my two stunning dogs.

Hennie attacked Sophie about a dozen times over the years, though never once drawing blood. But in the middle of the other night, she did. And although just last month, her vet, the amazingly intuitive and compassionate Dr. Bill Benson, marveled while treating her for high blood pressure at just how young she was for a fifteen year old English cocker, this episode proved too much for her - something about platelets and red blood cells and her age - and at 6:13 PM tonight, she was gone.

English cockers rarely make it past twelve, yet even recently I was asked if Sophie were the younger of the pair. Every day with my best friend was a blessing, especially those of the bonus years. In my last hours with her at Dr. Benson's, I told my still-stupendously gorgeous Sophie how much I loved her, asked her how she heard cucumbers being removed from the fridge (not carrots, not peppers, not cheese - only cucumbers), and thanked her for taking care of me in ways only a dog can.

Instead of cruising 695 and 795 earlier today to Dr. Benson's in Reisterstown, I snaked my way through Greenspring Valley, imagining all the while that it was the British countryside and I was in a pair of Wellies and Sophie and I were romping in the mist and headed towards tea by the old Aga stove after a day flushing out birds. That hazy fantasy, and the knowledge I could not have loved her more, plus the unwavering belief that she and Hannah have been reunited, is what holds me together at this moment. And I’m secure she's in a place where every day will be a great hair day - without ever again enduring the groomer.

But nothing will assuage very different feelings, of guilt and regret, as I prepare to put Hennie down. Mary Ann and Dr. Benson tell me there is no escaping the illness that sends her growling and snarling at me for no reason. Sometimes I am afraid of my own dog and worry she'll bite someone else. Of course, she must be gone before I can get another dog. Due to liability issues, English cocker rescue and the SPCA will not take her. For years, until I had to confront it, I pooh-poohed the notion that we know the exact right time to ease a pet to a painless end. This is different. She's sick in mind but not in body. I am bereft in a whole other uncharted way.

Almost instantaneously going from a two-dog household to a no-dog one is unfathomable and cruel beyond belief, and all because one dog hastened the other's death. I got Hennie because Sophie needed a companion, but this fairy tale ends in a nightmare.