Thursday, July 28, 2011

Gross Old Station Wagon Competition

I received a request from a commenter on Maxminimus to turn this into a larger post.

Where we spent our summers, the matriarchs had an overt and ongoing competition to see who could drive the nastiest station wagon.  Grandmothers and Grand Dames and matriarchs competed for the title of most wet-dog/cigarette/seaweed/mildew smell in the car.  Their cars were nearly always American, and were usually station wagons.  Occasionally a diesel Mercedes wagon would appear, and there was the rare Volvo wagon.  One wealthy old dame drove a 1970's Datsun pickup truck to better facilitate her love of buying fresh lobster and fish directly from fishermen.  In those days, children were allowed to ride in the bed of pick-ups, and we all called it the "sardine tin" because of the smell, shape, and construction.  She would drive us all to Four Seas for a few cones, and we would eat them on the drive back, the salty air and late summer sun, the wind from the truck's movement, and the ice cream all came together to become childhood bliss.

 The majority of the old gals had American wagons, though.  These cars would spend 9 months in a garage during the off-season, where the festering stench of wet dog, seaweed, vinyl seats, and general grime would ferment, and be barely tolerable the following year. One old gal, who was married to Mr. Largest US Chemical Company, drove a wooden-paneled wagon with a muffler that dragged for almost 8 years. She would replace the muffler when it would finally grind down to nothing, but the replacement would magically drag on the ground within a day or so.  Liquor stores all had accounts (still do, actually) as did grocers and hardware stores, which we all abused mercilessly as children with bags of  candies and cap-gun caps.  If you were lucky, an old grandmother would give you her wagon to drive into the village to pick up a large liquor order for one of her parties:

"Do you drive, Dear?" She would ask.

"No, I'm only fourteen, Mrs. Sutton."

"Well, go slowly and there won't be a problem." She would say.

My father says that this was to avoid having to tip the kid at the liquor store who loaded up the car.  He wasn't going to ask a 14 year old for a buck or two.  My grandmother was the opposite.  She saw generous tipping as investments, and was afforded the better selections from shops because of it... better bottles, unsanctioned discounts, and priority "dibbs" from affectionate business owners.

Grandmother had a white Ford wagon that smelled of all the previously-mentioned stinks, and after the summer of 1982, her grandsons added the smell of sour milk, cheap beer, and fire-works-melted seat cushions to the bouquet.  The old station wagons often had rotting pillows or sections of ruined rug in them.  If one were to lift the floor mats, the car would reveal nearly an inch of thick sand and garden soil.  Nearly all of the matriarchs smoked (the fun ones, at least), and their ashtrays were packed with butts and ash.  As well-off as most of them were, they were still Yankees, so finding a stray coin under the seats was extremely rare, but since they all were Depression-era ladies, children always looted the glove box for a tightly-packed coin purse that provided soda money.  During college, I rolled up a large sun-room rug of hers and took it to my off-campus apartment during the winter, and nobody ever said anything to me about the shameless theft.  Still have it.

One old gal drove a Peugeot wagon, which she felt complimented her proud Hugeunot lineage, and she donated some legacy silver to the local Episcopal church to be used during services.  Like the Jaguars, her Peugeot rarely ran properly, when it ran at all.  Luxury cars were rarely seen, and were viewed differently than expected.  Nobody had chauffeurs (unless health problems prevented them from driving), and the president of a large East Coast bank drove himself around in a Dodge sedan, with a State trooper following closely behind.  


Few had electric windows, and fewer had anything other than a radio.  Air conditioning?  No chance.  The engines were always impressive with imposingly large black air-filter covers over the carburetors, and  the oil was changed with regularity and on schedule.  Dog hair and ratty beach blankets were always in the back, but not in the charming and picturesque way.  All depression-era women it seemed, kept these items in their cars:

-Rubber raincoat
-Jug of coolant
-Bungee cords
-Nasty beach blanket
-Assortment of half-pencils (from the golf course) or pens
-Binoculars in the glovebox
-Trip mileage booklets and mini-logs
-Flattened cardboard liquor box as a liner for the seatless "way back"

One summer, before ATMs were used, Grandmother had to call around to all of her friends to collect a few hundred dollars in cash.  It was Sunday, and no bank was open.  The bank president was away.  She never used cash, preferring checks and store accounts for absolutely everything.  She sat at her phone table dialing a series of memorized numbers... four digits in the early 1980's.  

"Hello, Patty, it's XXXXX.  How much cash do you have on hand?... I see...  Yes... That would be fine... I need about $400, but I only have about $60 in the whole house.  Yes, I called Alice as well... she sent over about $90.  I'll send one of the boys over right away."

What the hell was going on?  As it turned out, the South Carolinian from whom she had arranged to purchase an impressive cache of illegal fireworks was waiting somewhere near Rt. 6, and did not, would not, could not accept a check.  Getting cash from a Yankee on a Sunday was nearly impossible once they had dropped their set-aside $1 or $2 into the collection plate.

Photo source

Grandmother went by herself to complete the black-market transaction.  In her knee-length khaki skirt, navy blue sweater, wavy brown/silver hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and yellow golf shirt, she returned about 30 minutes later with her cigarette that somehow miraculously failed to detonate the styrofoam coolers packed with explosives in the stern of her Ford wagon.  It was July 3rd, and she intended to have a "nice little party".

They were self-reliant in spirit, and thought that children should be responsible for themselves.  They protected but never coddled, they guided but never hovered, and they they were unimpressed with any sort of expensive or showy car.  The gross-but-mechanically-sound cars usually outlasted the old gals themselves and were occasionally given to grandchildren as first cars.  The last of the grandmothers from that childhood circle died last summer, and at least two of the cars are still in garages: cosmetically fine, low mileage, nearly fifty years old, and un-nostalgically resented by the Baby-Boomer parents who can't get rid of them fast enough.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Urban Practicality: Home Coffee Roasting

Popcorn Air-popper = Coffee bean Roaster

I hate coffee snobs.  I can't stand beer snobs.  Wine snobs are the best because deep-down, they know that they are full of crap, whereas coffee and beer snobs ACTUALLY tend to believe the the stuff they say.  Of all of the drinks-based festivals and tastings I've attended, the beer ones were far-and-away the most insufferable.  Tea and Whiskey/Whisky snobs are tolerable unless the conversation moves toward preparation, then you are better off just leaving.  Vodka snobs?  Get real.

People start laying into me all the time about where to get the best coffee, why their supplier is the best, and their supposed mastery and virtuosity of the incalculable variation in the preparation.  Spare me.  If you use a paper filter, you have no business talking nuance of flavor.  I got so sick of it all, that I decided to just do my own roasting and see how it turned out.  Spoiler alert: it turned out brilliantly.

Instead of a $350 grill-top device, I bought a $19 hot-air popcorn popper and some green ("raw") coffee beans from Polcari's in Boston.  As you can see, they have everything, including a selection of Assam-based tea (of which I am particularly fond).


I prefer the more sensible and lower caffeine content of Arabica beans to Supremo.

Once back home, I loaded the air popper with the raw beans and watched them roast.  I monitor the color and smoke in order to prevent burning or even the very dark "French Roast". You have to lean it back so keep the beans from flying out.  In the photo below, one can see how I roasted them to the Full/Full+ City Roast range (linked guide below).

Husks everywhere in the aftermath.

Let the beans cool for two hours in open air (this is very important) and grind them before each use within a week of roasting.  I use a standard electric grinder followed by a French Press, followed by no milk and no sugar.  Also, the popper can be cleaned with a paper towel afterwards with no flavoring to your popcorn.

Here is a crappy video I made of the process:

If you decide to give this a try, let me know how it goes.  Here is an excellent visual guide to when you should literally pull the plug on a roaster (based on your desired degree of roastedness).

Thursday, July 21, 2011


JMW lead the charge on this one, and I thank her for getting the ball rolling.

I have received tons of emails about the GQ article naming Boston as the worst dressed city in America.  As someone who spouts about men's clothing on a regular basis, I was excited to read the article, but was supremely disappointed by it.  The entire bit seemed to be composed by a group of deadline-desperate staffers as if they were in a car en route to pitch the draft to their editor, complete with anecdotes of go-to caricatures of each city (Seattle is NOT full of flannel or plaid as GQ claims).  The piece simply lists major cities with whatever grab-bag cliche the staffers could generate.  When misguided and patently false claims were structured in, the readers were subjected to a compilation of cheap and smug snark that was obviously being peddled as wit and "scathing analysis", though it contained none.  Well-dressed San Francisco, Manhattan, and Philadelphia were laughably listed in their "countdown" as well.

Thompson says about Boston:

"But Boston is the epicenter of prep style!," you say? That's true, but it's with a little extra that ends up ruining everything: Khakis!—with pleats. Boat shoes!—with socks. Knit ties!—actually, no one in Boston seems to have ever seen one of these.

Thompson lists Bostonians wearing "knit ties" as evidence of poor taste, then scolds Bostonians for never having seen a knit tie.

I like distasteful humor, I like mockery, and I also like mean spirited japes from time to time... God knows I truly adore sophomoric humor, but contributor John B. Thompson brought the already weak writing to an unforgivable level when he then took the cheapest shot at a soft target, riffing off of people with Down Syndrome (a sentence that was quietly removed online from  This was not bravery in the face of eye-rolling and annoying political correctness, and I disagree with those who deemed the language merely as "insensitive".  Certain insensitivity is important in our culture and a very real component to style and to markets in general, but cheap opportunism from a clearly leveraged position is literary profiteering, and that is what GQ is guilty of.

This article was the straw that broke the camelback for our office, and the subscription has now lapsed.

Luckily, they are barely credible at this point in general, but I ask you, Dear Reader, what the "G" in GQ now stands for?    It comes out monthly, so the "Q" is also no longer accurate.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

8 Things Normal Women Should Consider

At some point, a child gets lost in what they are told to believe and what they find they actually believe.  This goes for nearly everything, and taste is certainly included.  Magazines will have you believe all sorts of nonsense, and television will do the same.  While the family is always the primary socializing element, it is one's peers who often provide constant influence on people.  We are taught some things that are extensively harmful and socially destructive by those we like the most.

Women are taught that natural hair color is something that should never be allowed.  A beautiful woman with silver (either in abundance or in strands) is often subtly or overtly harassed by her peers, coworkers, family, and friends.  The perpetual obsession with blonding has bloated into a multi-billion dollar industry of insecurity.  The artificial tanning industry will tell you that the best place to locate a tanning "salon" is in a college town.  Horrifying.  Men are of course taught that only sissies and fairies wear pink shirts and that wearing an undershirt with writing on it is acceptable for dinner in someone's house.  Further, men and women are taught all sorts of wretched ways in which they should interact.  I have always felt that magazines purporting to assist women in their confidence, style, etc., do the exact opposite.  If you are the narrow demographic who reads this horsecrap that I write often, you may suspect that I feel that your society has failed you.  I spent the last several weeks asking around to like-minded men friends of mine... some single, some married, some involved, but all who have some good advice on this subject.

In an un-sciency survey, I compiled the anecdotes into my standard unsolicited and pompous advice for the normal and well/semi-adjusted women:

1. Don't color your hair.
Are you over 30?  Deal with it.  Once you start coloring, you can never stop, and life goes on.  Silver, natural brown, red, blond, black... whatever it is, do it proudly.  You will still be attractive. Also, stay away from trendy "hairstyles". A woman attending her son's college graduation should not have coal-black hair or some unnatural freaky two-tone that nature did not bestow upon her.  All agree that it looks terrible when men do it, but it also looks dumb for women... it's just that nobody is saying it.


2. Don't let your boyfriend/husband/partner/date dress two tiers below you when you go out.
I always get embarrassed when I see "date night" between couples... the woman is well put-together but her date is dressed like he's the teen-aged son being dragged along for the ride.  Tell him to shave, put on a jacket if you're going to a reputable restaurant (or at least long pants and a proper shirt), no jeans, and for God's sake, no running shoes. "Welcome to Artico... Sir, may I take your fleece and ball-cap?"


3. If you can't walk or dance easily in certain heels, don't wear them.
You may be up for a lengthy evening of dinner, drinks, and dancing, but if your feet are not, the whole effort is wasted.  A modest heel is still perfectly elegant, and you won't look like a new-born giraffe trying to walk.


4. Drink well, and hold your liquor.
Don't drink anything that doesn't taste like alcohol (fruit-juice based nonsense) because it will get you into trouble.  Granted, "trouble" as I use it here can mean anything from telling great-aunt Agnes that she "smells old" to being lifted down the stairs by the event staff because the clams casino you ate earlier made an unwelcomed re-appearance into the fountain at the MFA.  Most grown men these days drink like girls, so develop your taste for liquor.  You will be Queen Bee of the gala or party when you ask for "Oban 14 with a little ice".  The mama's boys and childish society bachelors will simply leave you alone.


5. Dress like an adult.
What sort of man do you want to attract anyway?  Worse yet, why are you dressing like your children?  Or like you are still 13?  The time to wear little or nothing will present itself easily enough, so in the vertical mean time, elegant and sexy can exist simultaneously.  Work-out/yoga clothing is fine if you are at that moment engaged in working out/yoga.  If you have been painting or gardening, it is fine to go to the store with your painting or gardening clothing on, but shuffling around town in sandals and sweatpants is too overplayed at this point.


6. Apply only a reasonable amount of make-up.
You want to be recognizable in the morning.  Occasionally, certain events call for more, which is perfectly acceptable, but on a day-to-day level, keep it within reason if worn at all.

Candice Bergen: Still has it.

7. Stay away from surgical or pseudo-surgical modifications.
Everybody is pierced like a voodoo doll it seems, and plastic surgery is now a lunch-hour procedure.  Elective vanity surgeries won't cure your self-esteem issues.  If you want to throw money at body modifications to feel better about yourself, do something actually worth while and provide orthodontia or reconstructive surgery for less-fortunate children anonymously.

No Gray area: From once partially lovable to irrelevant

8. Do not pass on your weird hang-ups to children.
Don't let your daughter bleach or highlight her hair until she's old enough to vote.  That gives you 18 years to teach her to be confident and to feel attractive with her natural beauty.  If you have a boy, don't treat things like nudity as if they are family or social sins.  

Natural and honest beauty is not as rare as people think, but it's often hidden deeply under external peer-pressure (especially among adults).  The sexiest characteristic a woman can have is confidence.  Blog after blog talks about "GTH" pants (one of my least favorite acronyms... few phrases are more gratifying to spell out than GO TO HELL, so stop abbreviating it).  Where I'm from, they're just called pants anyway.  That aside, why not apply the same doctrine to everything else?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Our Stupid Uniforms

Traveling, visiting galleries, dining out, exploring museums, sitting in church, sobbing at a cemetery, attending parties, hosting cookouts, and just about anything else... we afford ourselves and each other so little dignity.  We let our hosts know that we cannot be bothered by their preparation or printed invitations, and that our National Monuments and sacred spaces carry the same weight as a trip to a box store.  Damnit, we can do better.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Athletic Wear's Revenge

It was unintended to be sure.  The weekend was high barometric pressured, warm, gently breezed, and all around pleasant.  Shorts, loafers, and a button down shirt seemed right for a Saturday trip to the cafe and the activities that followed.  On the way, the Orvis class was practicing their fly casting on the Greenway, children were gearing up for fountain frolicking, and the sun was just getting ahold of everything for the day.

An hour later, I would run almost five miles in this outfit:

When teaching bicycle riding to young ones, there comes a moment when they go from shaky to instantly fast.  When that occurs, one can only run behind encouraging them.  If they are on a circular track or driveway, all the better, but when they are linear-urban, they have to keep going straight.  I ran behind for five miles (round-trip) along the Charles River in leather loafers, stiff khaki shorts, and a French-cuffed TM Lewin shirt as Jr. peddled chin-forward, both of us having the times of our lives.  I don't mean to imply that I did this effortlessly... after the third mile, I began to wonder (hope) that his little legs would tire out... but they didn't, and I did not have the heart to ask him to stop.

For all the griping I do about people wearing athletic clothing to social events, here I was doing the exact opposite.  I guess that makes me the jerk.

Later that evening, at a party near the harbor, my legs were feeling a bit wobbly, but those loafers (left at home) were as comfortable as could be, leaving my feet miraculously in tact, as my host refilled my Pimms repeatedly.

Friday, July 8, 2011


A newer area near the water gave itself this bizarre name.  Not "Oyster Cove" or "Oyster Banks" or "Sand Piper Hill" or anything else that might make sense.  Imagine a town elder regaling you with this story:

"We used to hike up high into the hills to search for oystahs.  They grew up on the ridge is those days."



In Philadelphia Airport, a sign stands as monument to questionable expenditures and procedures.

A camera guards a restricted area, and must be monitored.

Why not just build another fence five feet away?


(Main Line Sportsman: it was only a connection... I would have alerted you had I been staying).


In Dutchess County, NY, fifteen miles of the sunny Taconic were perfumed with honeysuckle, lavender, and countless other flowers and plants.  Windows down.

Strangely, their county seal tells you it's a seal.  Does their flag also say "FLAG" on it?



Finally... this was on the side of a truck (I added the circles):

By my amateurish calculations, that still leaves 14.4 billion.  I've said that lottery is a tax on people who don't understand math.  Apparently, marketing messages are also.



I recently found this (for cheap) in a vintage shop and couldn't resist picking it up.  Yes, it IS a woman's scarf, and yes it contains only a few natural fibers, but dig this thing... it will likely become a pocket square in a few weeks.


In those days, they were called "stewardess", which I still think is better than "flight attendant".  "Steward" and its feminine form are from maritime usage and there was nothing undignified about the term at all, and certainly nothing undignified about the position.  A close family friend became a university professor during the 60's because she didn't make the cut as a stewardess... a PhD was her distant second choice.  Aboard a ship, a good steward or stewardess can often be revered as near-holy.  These days, flight attendants are forced to put up with some of the worst humans alive, and begrudgingly serve as punching bags for their employers and their regulators.

Two ties... the green one was a gift from Giuseppe and the elephant one was from somewhere I can't remember.  Neither one meant as any sort of party identifier, I tend to wear the opposing mascot of the room at hand during functions, parties, or receptions, just to elicit negative reactions which often works very well.  If I can't annoy people that way, I belabor an anecdote until only the lobotomized and/or catatonic remain.


Back in New England....

For hot-weather days, coastal club-casual still requires a tie (blazer is off in the photo).

A Turnbull and Asser pocket square of silk features bow ties.  They make them with yellow, blue, and green backgrounds as well.  Attractive, lovable, and versatile... my opposite.

A dozen local oysters and some Prosecco at 10:45am, and only a single boat motors by.  I can hear my young son interfering with a croquet game on the other side of the hedge behind me to the protesting of his equally young cousins.  Their aunt demands that the mallets stay lowered, but within 30 seconds the sound of splintering wood (and no crying, thankfully) is heard and the game is forcibly ended by her sharpened voice.  Freshly washed bed linens are hung on lines or draped over shrubs to dry in the sea-side sun, which new-comers dislike even though the largest and oldest houses still do it.  Tubs of water stand at side doors as foot-baths, but the sand is still tracked in on young and old feet.  Later, we'll take the rusty three and ten-speeds into the village to buy more citronella candle pails and I'll wonder why the inside of all the dressers and cabinetry smell the same on the that part of the coast.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

To The Man Airborne: Toad Haul

As a very hot evening in Boston settled itself in, I was able to host a charming gent named Toad, who was fresh off a jet from Mayberry.  He was engaging in some particularly heroic father's duty and had a spare evening to trot around the city in full-steam indulgence.  Being that there are few thing which I enjoy more than exactly that, we made a fantastic evening of it.  I was especially honored when he appeared in a long tie (for the first time in a decade, he told me) for our evening of booze, restaurants, and cigars.  Giving up this trademark bow-tie for his visit, he charmed Bostonians throughout Back Bay as we hopped from one air-conditioned establishment to another.  I trotted out a pink jacket for the occasion, and he was handsomely tailored in a light summer linen.

He drinks like a man, talks like a friend, and treats you like family.  I was happy to help him kick off his tour of the Eastern Corridor before his trip home.  Safe travels, Toad.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Independence Day

A FAST train ride to New Haven... my GPS speedometer said that we nearly hit 150mph on the straight-away near Kingston.  Salt marshes, and the famous rivers of Connecticut where I often sailed as a boy all flew by.

Past New London and across the water, General Dynamics reveals only the bow of a nuclear submarine from the covered dry-dock.  On one outing, Father took me on a tour of one, and a young submariner gave us a very exacting tour, including descriptions of propulsion that were beyond my capacity.  

Every year we would visit elder relatives in Guilford Connecticut.  We would sneak up and down the various hidden stairways, and dare each other to eat the nasty black licorice or walnuts from little silver jars in the hallway.  The large house was ill-prepared for energetic children and included entire rooms and a piano which we were not allowed to even go near.  The highlight was always a visit to the beach or to the Little Folks Fair.  There were pony rides in a tight pen, fire engines, beanbag throws, and any manner of activity for children.  I think there was a stool that was ostensibly the property of Ms. Muffet, and if one were to sit upon it, a large home-made spider was lowered onto you.  One famous year, I stood in line to have my face painted by one of the volunteers... I specifically requested to be the Incredible Hulk. I think I was six or seven, and was likely under the influence of ice cream or taffy.  While the exact error will never be known, there was some problem with the formulation, and the paint lasted for almost five days, fading SLOWLY during that time.  When the green finally disappeared from my face, my blonde eyebrows still looked like Groucho's for nearly two weeks.

Later that summer, we watched fireworks from the deck of a relative's very large sailboat, having "struck the colors" at sundown, and because it was coastal Connecticut, the wind direction determined whether or not we need heavy wool sweaters.  A few shirtless drunks in a motorboat tried to light off some Roman candles, and ignited the two-stroke mixture from their outboard's fuel supply.  The boat burned but never sank and the boater was subjected to simultaneous ridicule and rescue while I watched from the beam.


Maybe coming from a seaborne family has tilted me towards some areas of tradition more than others.  Our houses have always had cared-for flags but have never wrapped them around our conduct in any weird or eye-rolling sort of country music way.  Flags are flown off of the transom of boats, and are still used to signal house goings-on like tea, drinks, dinner, or parties.  Neighbors and children keep an eye out for each signal, rushing home for the appropriate one.  Depending on the relative and the house, bells can also signal meals (the breakfast bell can be especially disturbing for first-time guests).

When the idiot Abbie Hoffman made a shirt from an American flag, he intended it as sacrilege, an offense towards the World War 2 generation.  Several decades later, people think nothing of literally wrapping themselves in a flag in the form of shirts, hats, pants, and any manner of clothing during rallies and while rousing the spirits of concert goers.  Flag sensibility is odd, because some people get towards near-superstitious idolatry, and many get towards well-meaning but horribly distasteful displays.

In America, we don't know how to mourn as a society, and we barely know how to celebrate, turning all memorializing days into cook-outs.  Independence from England came at extensive expense, and we remember it by sitting in traffic, grilling ground beef, and chatting idly while standing around in athletic shorts drinking cheap beer (personally, I like cheap beer in the summer).  What should we be doing?  I'm not sure that I know, but what we are doing currently might need some introspective examination.  Cookouts can be fun, but why must all of our non-winter holidays center around coolers and ketchup?  Fireworks are (and will always be) appropriate for the Fourth, but how can we improve all of our holidays?  I just feel like we can do better than we currently are.