Italian day at the Villa

We just got in a mood for Italian today.  Dawn wanted Italian ice and I had a hankering for Italian beef so we hied ourselves down to Johnnie’s in Elmwood Park, a place so justifiably famous that there are always lines down the block.  Fortunately, in spite of there being at least fifty people ahead of us, the line moved really fast, and it took at most fifteen minutes to get into the building to make our orders.  And once we did, we found out why the line moves so fast.  Cash only, barked orders and an absolute army of workers grinding out maybe half a dozen different food items with the sort of offhand efficiency that comes from years of doing the same things over and over again for ten or twelve hours a day.  We each got beef sandwiches, fries and Italian lemonade, and while no single item was the absolute best I’ve ever tasted, it was a damn good lunch, not even marred by the glare I got from the guy at the table where we decided to sit.  Yeah dude, you had to share.  Next time you might want to put up a sign that says that you and your unfriendly girlfriend own that table.  Oh wait… you don’t!  Sucks to be you, doesn’t it?

When we left there we went in search of some vaguely Italianate store that would provide us with fresh mozzarella, pastries for breakfast on Sunday and something to bring out our inner Italians.   Actually mine came out the other day when Charles struck up a conversation with a darkly thuggish, sweaty man outside my house.  They were talking cars, I watched from inside the house, overheating.  Turns out he’s a cop who lives in the neighborhood, and is kind of sexy in a Chris Keller sort of way, though he’s one of those guys who doesn’t actually talk to women except to observe the niceties.  So, nice from a distance in a humid Italian style.  But I digress.  The  the point was we wanted to shop Italian.  So we headed back up Harlem, and lo there was Palermo Bakery like a beacon, luring us with the promise of fresh pastry, fresh arancini and Italian roast coffee at little tables outside.  Never mind that the sun was beating down on the concrete as if it was the Sun’s Anvil (Shoutout to all you Lawrence of Arabia fans.) and sitting out there with a cup of hot coffee was tantamount to inviting the kind of heat stroke that would permanently fry bits of your brain right inside your skull.

Still, we were tempted in, and I’m glad we were.  The first thing to catch my eye was something called “Sfogliatelle,” a crisp-looking layered pastry.  I asked the counter girl what it was and she explained that it was pretty much just what you saw, layers of crispy pastry.  But I decided I had to try one anyway and into the bag it went along with a pound of cookies, a loaf of bread, a small chocolate bundt-style cake and two pastries called “Genovese,” which are a short-crust pastry filled with cannoli cream.

Well I have to tell you that this is some of the best pastry I’ve had in a long time.  The cookies are satisfying without being particularly sweet, the semolina bread is delicious, the genovese were predictably delicious because how could anything stuffed with cannoli cream not be good?  You could stuff a dirty sock with cannoli cream and still have people falling all over themselves at how delicious the socks are.  And the sfogliatelle?  Well the girl didn’t describe it too well.  It’s actually filled with ricotta and semolina, spices, vanilla and candied orange, and it’s just delicious.  Everything was super fresh, too.  (Okay, haven’t tried the cake yet, but I’m going to assume it’s as fresh as the rest of the pastries.)  The price for all this fresh, flaky goodness?  $18 and change.  Now I’m not gonna mention any names here but I regularly buy baked goods at a couple of yuppified places which I do like, and at one of them the pound of cookies alone would have come out close to $18.  There’s a reason why people shop at small, local and often ethnic stores.

We didn’t find anything else too exciting on the way up to the pet store so we decided to go back down Harlem to Caputo’s which is in a brand new home on Harlem and Grand.  Boy, was that the right choice!  The new store is miles bigger than the old one and it’s about 70% fresh market with the other 30% or so just overflowing with all sorts of amazing ethnic food; mostly Italian of course but there was a very nice little selection of Indian, Chinese and Japanese frozen food.  The guy who took care of us at the deli counter couldn’t have been nicer.  He answered all my questions, let me taste things I wasn’t sure about, and when one of the salads looked kind of ancient, he put the spoon down and went into the back to get some fresh.  I just found out that I can order from them online and get it delivered so even though we’re still carless (we got an iGo today) we can shop there.  Why is that super cool?  Because their prices are some of the best I’ve ever seen.  We got fresh mozzarella fresh ricotta, prosciutto di parma, a really nice dry salami, some Polish ham, a couple of salads, some San Pellegrino, two loaves of bread, blueberries and blackberries, fresh figs and a bunch of condiments (I am the Condiment Queen!) for around $50.  Again, pretty darn amazing.

Tonight we ended up barbecuing the rib eyes, which I didn’t like this time around, and eating them with the semolina bread and a caprese salad with the fresh mozzarella, some campari tomatoes and basil from our garden.  Later we made iced coffee and ate cookies while the sun went down.  Then we sat outside until almost eleven.  About ten-fifteen one of our neighbors brought his guitar outside and began to play.  It was what I would classify as “a moment.”  Very much the sort you like to read about or see in a movie.

Sometimes the day is just… Right.


Bright lights, big city, moths in top hats and tails…

We got most of the rest of the garden lights up today!  Woo hoo!!!  I was really afraid that it was going to be a washout with the promise of more storms tonight  (Is someone building an ark?) but we managed to cook out, and enjoy the garden for several hours before we had to come in and catch up with chores.

It was generally a nice day.  Charles came by  and we went to Target so I could pick up my scripts and do some shopping.  I’d hoped to get some more cheap white plastic chairs to spray paint, but all they had were plastic Adirondacks which are hellish to get into and impossible to get out of.  I also had an ulterior motive.  A few months ago, at the start of gardening season, Dawn and I spotted a metal peacock at Target.  It was $35 and much as we both liked it, we didn’t want to spend the money on it.  Well, every time we went there and saw the bird, Dawn got kind of wistful so I went online to see if I couldn’t find it for less money.  Not only was there no joy there, I discovered that everyone else wanted $70 for it!  WTF?  $70 for something I wasn’t prepared to pay $35 for ?  No way.  But it sure made me appreciate the Target price, and I promised myself that if I found one there today I’d buy it.   I did find three left, and they were on clearance for $17.50!  SCORE!!!  You can bet I snatched it up at that price, and everyone who saw me taking it through the store said “Hey, where’d you get that?  It’s really cute.”  So I said “Go back to gardening and grab one, there are only two left on clearance. ”  So now, Frederick (we name everything) is happily ensconced in front of the flat-top spruce, looking dapper and a whole lot more expensive than he really was.

After lunch at Baker’s Square where a very nice minion of the devil made me order far too much food, we headed over to a butcher shop recommended to us by our neighbors.  It’s a really nice place, and all their Italian sausage is homemade, so I picked up four links, which the butcher wrapped in packages of two because he said no nitrites means it’ll spoil really fast if you’re not going to use it right away.  I also got half a pound each of sopressata and muenster cheese, and a nice-size hunk of braunschweiger, also nitrite free, and a big loaf of really, really good bread, all for $12 and change.   And not only was it cheap, he came around from behind the counter to hand me my bag.  When was the last time you got service like that?

Dawn also went out and foraged for supper, bringing us three cupcakes from Flirty Cupcakes which we split.  They were amazing, too.  I think it’s fortunate that they’re a traveling concern rather than an actual brick-and-mortar presence, though honestly I can’t help but smile at the idea of adults running down the street waving cash and yelling “THE CUPCAKE TRUCK!  THE CUPCAKE TRUCK!”

We got home in time to give Abe all the lights (There are now nine strings in the magnolia and one on each of the cables he put up, about which more in a minute.)  He’d hung the peace flags and the little bits of art we found at Old Tyme Pottery in Indiana, and now that corner of the garden looks very cafe-like.  He also put up, per my instructions, two woven steel cables stretching from the house to the garage at about 8.5 feet up.  Not only are we using them for the globe lights, but if we have a party and need shelter, we’ll be hanging lengths of muslin across them to filter the sun and keep it a bit cooler.  Most of the time we won’t have the muslin up, but I would love to hang some sari material occasionally, just to prettify it a bit.

So tonight, after supper, we lit all the candles, turned on the strings of lights and just sat back and enjoyed the warm glow.  I really wanted to use solar lights, but so far the ones I’ve found have been lacking in some way.  Either they’re very small strings that can’t be clipped together, very dim or very expensive.  Frequently all three.  We’d be much better off getting a big solar panel for the top of the garage, and hooking the outdoor circuits into it.  The lights in the tree are all LEDs so they’re using very little juice.

There’s really nothing like being able to sit outside in your garden and enjoy a lovely summer night without worrying about what might be scurrying around under your feet where it’s too dark to see anything.  We can’t do it all the time, but once in a while?  That’s lovely.

New Review: It’s a Book, by Lane Smith

In the age of computers, literacy seems to be falling by the wayside, and Lane Smith’s “Its a Book” pokes not-so-gentle fun at this trend. The monkey is reading a book, the jackass is confused. What is it? Do you blog with it? How do you scroll down? Finally the monkey, presumably worn out by jackass’ ignorance, hands the book over, and the magic spell of literature is cast. It’s a lesson that most of us probably wish they could teach the young people who are so obsessed with communicating in 140 characters or less that their grasp of the language seems to be disintegrating: Put down your cell phone and read a book! Turn off the computer and read a book! Learn something about the world, about history, about literature.

It’s a point well taken, but in all honesty, I don’t see it happening, particularly at this price point. Seriously? $12.99 for a 32-page paperback? And is it a story likely to be taken to heart by children already so computer-focused that they can barely make themselves understood on paper? Perhaps it’s intended for their parents, though I’m cynic enough to believe that it’s unlikely that most will have a sudden epiphany and sit junior down with a book, saying “No computer or texting until you’ve read this and we’ve talked about it.” If you haven’t instilled a love of reading in your child by the time he or she enters school, it’s going to be a hard retrofit.

So while I applaud the message, I’m not at all sure that this book is much more than an expensive little gift book for adults.

Garden notes

So I woke up this morning to discover I had new tenants…
Walter and Eleanor McCoo

Consequently I’ve been reading up about mourning dove habits and apart from the fact that they mate for life, provoking me to name them Walter and Eleanor, after my parents, it appears that they’ll be with us for about a month.  I don’t mind that they’re nesting on my porch.  They’re delightful birds and not pests at all.  They frequently get pushed out of feeders, etc, by other birds like pigeons, and I’m glad to be able to give them a (relatively) safe place to build their nest.  Yes it’s going to mean some extra clean-up, but I’m not too sad about that.  I’ll just hose down the porch when I water the flowers in front.  Now I need to find a little bit of food that they’ll like, that I can put out in small enough amounts that it won’t attract anyone else.  Apparently squirrels are common predators and our squirrels are pretty bold.

So yesterday we went down to Indiana with Meester Jim.  We stopped at a Mexican place in Hammond for breakfast, and it was excellent.  They had the Nigeria/Argentina World Cup game on and we got to see the winning goal being scored.  They had this wonderful sun face on their wall, and I so wanted to steal it.

Then we headed over to Merrilville to the Old Tyme Pottery where we got all those wonderful (and cheap) Christmas decorations last autumn.  This time we were shopping for the garden, and there was a whole lot to choose from, though not always what we had thought to get.

We found a lot of pots at really good prices, which I hadn’t expected to find (I ended up putting three back, which made me sad.)  The pot above (sans flowers of course) cost me something like $17!  And yes, it’s substantial and heavy with walls at least half an inch thick.  It’s actually greener than the photo shows.

I’d originally wanted to get some metalwork to put  on the garage walls, but we have so much other stuff planned that the only thing I bought was a trellis for the rescued rose.  Looks nice, but I think I’m going to get Abe to mount it on the garage wall.

We also bought some “art” prints which look pretty weatherproof to me.  We’re going to put them under the candle sconces in a fairly protected area and hope for the best.  It’ll be kind of cafe-like in that corner which will be fun.

… Since I began this entry, I’ve spent the last five or so hours in the garden and have come back to find that the McCoos have left the building.  What I read about them suggested that they’re skittish and abandon nests if they don’t feel secure.  I think that’s what’s happened here.  I did sort of wonder if it wouldn’t happen earlier when Dawn came home and one of the neighbor dogs followed her right up the stairs and into the hallway.   Bernie is a funny, barky old dog and made enough of a fuss that the McCoos probably decided they could find a better nesting area.

I don’t know that there have been any eggs laid because at various times today they were both off the nest, so I’m going to go up on a ladder later and check (assuming they don’t come back later in the day) and if there’s nothing, I’ll just clean it all up and put something up there to discourage nesting in the future.  We’ve been planning to get a bat house for the building, and I thought perhaps a few nesting boxes along the side where there’s virtually no activity at all might be a good idea.    Frankly I’m just as happy not to have to clean up a lot of dove poo, but at the same time I feel sorry that we couldn’t give them a place they liked enough to stay and raise babies.

Rather than do housework, Dawn and I find excuses to stay outside.  “Gee, we should paint those chairs!” or “The peonies need to be dead-headed.”  We managed to postpone the inevitable for more than five hours today, beginning with coffee and biscuits, segueing through painting the cheap, white plastic lawn chairs that I inherited when I bought this place, another nice lunch of salami, olives, cheese and tomatoes and ending with painting the old bench that Charles got for me when I was at my old place.

Then Carlos Rain-Bringer came out and the sky opened up.

We did get all three chairs painted, though we ran out of paint before we’d managed to give them a good solid second coat.  Not that it matters; I like the slightly imperfect look, and anyway, we went over the paint job with a copper leafing pen and added all sorts of designs.  Each chair has a suggestion.  The purple one says: “Relax” the blue one says “Repose” and the Red one says “Rest!”

And the bench is just blue.  I mean, BLUE!!!

John, our neighbor to the west, gave us some cuttings of a plant he’s had terrific luck with.  He said just to tuck them into moist soil and they should root easily.  I hope he’s right; this is just a gorgeous plant, and I’d love to have one in the garden.

Our neighbors from two doors to the west also stopped by to say hello and see the garden.  Old John is in his mid-90s and is still reasonably active.  He was thrilled to see all the herbs and the nectarine, but what really made him happy was the grapevine.  He asked his daughter if they could plant one, too.  She said they have a perfect space for it, so that’s great.  He loves his garden so much.  We told them they were always welcome to stop by.

Now I’m blue-handed and itchy, and I found a bug on me which I ushered out.  While I was outside I checked the nest and it was pretty much in shambles, with no sign of eggs.  If they’ve abandoned the nest it’s best they’ve done it before the eggs came, though even a few days along wouldn’t have made me feel too badly.  I swept up the twigs, but I still need to put something up there to prevent more nesting.

Surprise car shopping and other oddities of my life

So today, Charles phoned me about 9:30 and said he was coming over to get all the equipment out of my garage (construction stuff, left over from all the work they were doing the last couple of weeks.) and was I up yet? I told him I would be in about half an hour and sure enough, he showed up about ten, and said “Let’s go.” I said “Uh… where?” He said “To look at your car.” He’d found a Volvo wagon on Saturday and wanted to take me to see it.

So here it is in it’s 10+ y.o. glory.  And I have to say that the CarFax report looks pretty good.  As soon as we can arrange it we’re going to take it for a test drive and a check-up, and then I’ll decide yea or nay.

We went to Cafe Selmarie for lunch, and while it was good, it wasn’t as great as usual.  They’ve changed their chili recipe, and now it’s more like soup than chili.  But I bought a box of cookies because both Dawn and I have been having dessert emergencies lately.  He never did get the equipment out of the garage, but said he’d be back tomorrow and wants to go up to Meinke’s to see what it’s like.  Apparently he’s gotten inspired by our garden and wants to do some work in his.  I expect his wife will be thrilled.

Last night I sat down and painted the little garden table, then glued down the tiles and piece of glass in the pattern I’d worked out over the weekend.  Yes, I know it looks simple, but sometimes those are the most difficult designs of all.  The photo above is the best one I’ve taken of the Van Gogh glass, and it actually does justice to the square tiles and the Susan Jablon tiles, which are twice the height of the others.  That’s why I edged the table with them.  Makes a nice rim to keep things from rolling off.  The tiles look so good against the pearly pink background that I don’t think I’m going to grout unless the surface gets really filthy.  It’s a delicate-looking table.  Tonight I’m going to paint the underside and give a second coat to the edges, and then it’s out to the garden it goes!  My next mosaic project will probably be the big, faux granite pot.  And then the board covering the window on the back of the house.  That’s going to be pique assiette mosaic because I love that technique.

I belong to a vintage photo community on Live Journal, and for the last couple of days someone has been posting photos of Grandma Moses there.  I have a great fondness for her, not so much for her art, but because when I was small, my father would tell me what he called “Grandma Moses stories.”  I don’t remember any of them, and I have no idea how he started telling them to me, but they were my bedtime stories for years.  I’d beg for a new Grandma Moses story, and he’d just make them up as he went along.  It’s not a quality I normally associate with my father, whose flights of fancy were rare, but it’s one of those memories that makes me smile.  I wish I could ask him what the inspiration was, or if he remembers any of the stories (I doubt he would have.)

I got my edit for the story I have in Torquere’s “Cherry on Top” anthology, so that’s done.  But I need to get back to the novel I’m working on.  I promised myself 2000 words a day, two days ago, and so far I’ve done about 1500 total.  Not the best track record so far.  But surprise car shopping and cookies have trumped writing for this afternoon at least.  Maybe tonight…

The post has arrived, and is as amusing and perplexing as ever.

The woman who is making me feel like a crone

I’m not sensitive about my age.  I’ll gladly tell you that I’m 58, it’s not a big deal to me.  But today I got the latest issue of AARP in the mail and there was Valerie Bertinelli on the cover, and I found myself thinking “Not possible, no way.”  But it’s true, Valerie is turning fifty this summer, and for some reason that makes me feel really old.  I think I need to dodder out to the kitchen to fetch a cup of tea.

Also in the mail, a reminder of why I use “Walters” (My father’s given name was Walter) instead of my real surname.  It isn’t just for security reasons, it’s because there are maybe a dozen people on the freakin’ planet who can spell or pronounce it correctly without a lot of practice.  But I have to tell you that today’s variant really took me aback.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m M. J. C_______”.  And honestly, I don’t really think it’s such a damn difficult name if you’re paying attention.  But today a piece of mail arrives with “V. J. Ciesielski” on it.  It was so totally off the mark that at first I didn’t realize that it really was meant for me.  How on earth do people come up with these variations?  Are they on drugs when they type my name?  Anyway, it wins the prize for the weirdest version of my name ever.

Also in the mail, the first disc of “Deadwood” which many of my friends hasten to assure me that I will love.  I’m not a big fan of the genre, but I’m willing to give it a chance, in part because of Ian McShane, who I really enjoy.  Let’s see if I can’t whip through this the way I did Rome.

Vegetarian times has tacos on the cover.  OMG, I could murder a good taco right now.  I need to poke around in the kitchen and find out what I’ve got that might work in that capacity.

Finally, in the WTF Dept.:  Grandinroad is advertising a 4′ bench cushion that is 18″x45″. In what universe does that work out to four feet in any direction?

The giant squid in my bath brings back memories of childhood.

I’ve been reading Kraken the last couple of nights, still at that getting-to-know-the-characters stage where a misstep could make the difference between a short, unhappy affair and a long relationship.  But last night I was really tired, so after about twenty pages, I found myself getting sleepy, and gave in to the desire to nap while floating in my pond of hot, patchouli-scented water.  And into that nap,  Kraken inserted the tentacles of unsettling dreams, the memory of which is simply visceral.  They were weird.  I mean freakin’ weird, though not scary at all.  I know this because I woke slowly, thinking, “Isn’t life odd?”

Later, when I thought about dreams and giant squids I was reminded of a dream I had when I was much younger.  I dreamed I was a giant squid, swimming in an alien ocean, and as I swam I was reciting to myself the history of my people.  When I gazed upwards, I saw the sunlight on the surface of the water, and it looked like a sky filled with stars.

It was a beautiful dream.  I wish I could remember more like it, but dreams like that are rare.

Isn’t life odd?

The swiftness of summer storms

Our neighbor is a god. He brings rain. We spent much of the day in the garden, but every time Carlos walked by, it started raining.  The second time, we’d just started to have lunch out on the terrace (We’ve decided to start calling it a terrace because it suits our pretensions.) when Carlos came by, said “Hi” and *wham!*  Pissing down rain.  And hail.  Imagine the two of us standing huddled under the umbrella, holding paper plates full of food and yelling because we’re getting hit with these little needles of hail.  Yeah, that was fun.  We ran inside and finished lunch.

We did get a lot done, though. We got the planters put together, plants in the ground, and gave a home to our gnome, who is seen here, hiding from the camera.  He assures us that he likes his home, though, and that he’s happy that he can go visit with Buddha and his cat whenever he chooses. 

Don't the planters improve the back of the house?

Sure enough, we were out talking to Grace and Monica, and Carlos walked by, and the sky opened up. Our neighbor is a god.

Cold, hot, cold, hot… it’s like freakin’ menopause out there.

The temperature dropped about 25 degrees between the onion rings and the cannoli.  I am mightily glad we decided to go out for supper with Mr & Mrs Karen rather than planning a cook-out.  Though the rain this afternoon would have put paid to the idea in any event.  We were at Lowe’s looking for plain old terra cotta pots when the sky opened up, and  everyone hovered around the checkout counter saying “Take your time,” to the checker.  Then it stopped.  Then we got back and it started again, and stopped, and… holy crap what a week for weather.

Anyway, we got a lot done today.  Charles stopped by early so I could pay him, and I took him upstairs to see Dawn’s dining room.  “Why do you ever doubt me?” I asked him.  He laughed and said he shouldn’t, and I agreed.  He thought the room looked terrific.  If it will just hold together now…

This is what the wall treatment looks like.  Unfortunately the colors are kind of washed out, but that’s because I had to use a flash or everything would go gold.  The blue is far more intense than it looks and darker, and the walls are generally darker, and more detailed than they seem here.

After he left, Dawn, Jim and I went to brunch and thence to Dick Blick out in Schaumberg and went all gooey over the art supplies.  I got a couple of bottles of interference violet to add to the paint for my bedroom, and a glass cutter because I’ve decided that I can’t leave the Van Gogh glass in one piece and make anything reasonable out of it.  Dawn got copper and gold paint to finish the dining room details, and we found some purple Krylon which we’re probably going to use on a bunch of things in the garden.

Then we hit Meinke’s, a garden center we found last fall, and really liked.  We picked up a load of perfectly beautiful plants for very little money, and brought them home only to discover that the pots don’t work in our pot holders.  So back out we went to pick up terra cotta pots which I knew would work.  Unfortunately they didn’t have them at Target, though we did end up buying some garden things including a small gnome which, in honor of le Front pour la Libération des Nains de Jardin, has a walking stick.  He is free to come and go as he pleases, but we want him to understand that he will always have a home with us, in a safe and secure environment, should he choose to accept it.  It’s better than sitting on a store shelf, trapped in plastic.  We’ve named him Frodo, pending any announcement by the gnome himself, as to his true name.  Then we dropped a bag of food off at Petco for their food drive.  Finally we found the pots at Lowe’s just before the deluge, and headed home.

And last of all, because I’m really tired now, here’s a photo of my new chair.  I think I mentioned that I’d taken it in trade for some dining room furniture I’d sold to Anna, and she did the work to raise it to dining chair height for free because I’d been nice about the debt.  Isn’t it gorgeous?  I can hardly wait to start putting the room together.  Of course I have to clear it first and then get a table, but I’m on my way.

And now I really need some sleep.  We’re going to work on the trim tomorrow, and get some plants in pots and in the ground.  I’m hoping to string some lights and paint a bit outside, but much depends on the weather.