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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Thursday, August 31, 2006


Hey, my clothespin dolls got featured today on the Craft blog! Big thanks to Natalie Zee, a good friend and talented crafter who also happens to be the associate editor of Craft, a new magazine on modern crafting that's launching this fall (brought to you by the publishers of Make magazine).

Two other takes on clothespin dolls are also featured in the article, including the hard-to-define, weird and wonderful Little Small Clothespin People. Nice!


Friday, August 25, 2006

Not Amelie

This is Lulu, the alter-ego of a Bay Area friend of ours. She is even cuter in real life and thus makes an excellent model for a clothespin character.

Those white cats are meant to be friendly strays she meets while crossing the Seine, but they look a little sinister here, n'est-ce pas?

I hope Lulu makes it across the river okay ...

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Random Acts of Zinnia

Today I took the bus over to our preferred garden center in Brighton (which also has the advantage of being near a pet supply store, for cat food emergencies) and bought two zinnia plants in a last-ditch attempt to wring the remaining drops out of this waning summer.

I also needed a few new containers to re-pot some herbs that have been getting attacked by our resident porch squirrel, so by the time I checked out I had quite an armload, including the bag of cat food I'd picked up on the way.

I waited quite awhile for a bus to take me home. When one finally arrived and the doors opened, the sullen expression on the driver's face made me worry he was going to resist letting me and my bulky load on his bus.

As I stepped up to the fare box, zinnias wedged in an oversized container balanced on my hip, he grumbled something that I couldn't make out, other than the word "flowers." I hesitantly asked if he'd repeat what he'd said, certain it held some kind of censure, and he said, louder and clearer, "If you dry the flowers and save the seeds, you never have to buy them again. They'll come back year after year!" He looked quite pleased with this piece of advice.

I thanked him for the tip, paid my fare and moved along. Who says Bostonians aren't friendly? Particularly, it seems, when they have an opinion to share.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Library Book Sale

Each August for the last three years running we've been lucky enough to hit the annual library book sale at the Brewster Ladies' Library in Cape Cod. (Men are allowed here, too, incidentally; the institution retains its name from 1852 when a group of local women founded it.) The sale is held in the building's basement, and if you visit closer to the end of the month some books can be had for as little as 50 cents.

I try not to buy books, as a rule. Maybe a paperback guide for a trip, a new hardback by an author I know I really, really like, or a copy of something I've read so many times I want to have it on hand. But otherwise I've tried to pare down my personal library. As beguiling as it is to surround yourself with record of all the books you've known through life, a few horrendous moves with too many heavy boxes will cure you. But our first visit to the Brewster library book sale seduced me, and now I put my book-buying embargo on hold at least this one time per year.

The price is right, of course. The amount I spend ends up totalling less than several months of late fees at my local library. But more than that, the special alchemy of the library book sale has a way of throwing unexpected titles in one's path, the kinds of books you might not normally seek out in your local library (or bookstore) stacks.

First there's the inventory itself. Most of the books are donated, which makes the selection heavy on summer reading: multiple tables of mysteries and romances, and, this year, an entire section devoted solely to the works of Danielle Steele. We avoid these, mostly, though I do like to scan for an appealing mystery now and then. There are also some library discards, which tend to yield books of a higher quality or with an out-of-date novelty appeal.

Then there's the wild, catch-as-catch-can classification system. Fiction is divided into sections for "Men Writers" and "Women Writers." I stumbled across the young adult novel "Nightbirds on Nantucket" on a local-interest "Cape Cod and New England" shelf. Some books turn up in multiple sections: I think I spotted "South Beach Diet" on tables for health, nutrition, and self-help. While this laid-back cataloguing makes a targeted search more difficult, you also never know what exciting, mis-shelved title might lie waiting among incongruous fellows.

Some books we're sure we've seen in previous years. That coffee table book on Tuscany; surely it was here last August as well? Do they just hang around waiting for another chance at adoption, or are they actually purchased and re-donated the following summer, in an endless recycling of library book sale books? There's a strong case to be made there.

In some cases you can tell someone's been cleaning out the back closet, as with this peculiar gem, a 1954 book club edition, slightly water-stained, of something called "Forty Plus and Fancy Free." Written by Emily Kimbrough, it is subtitled, "The gay excursion of youthful grandmothers romping through Paris and Italy and 'doing' the Coronation." I don't know just what they "do" there, but I was certainly intrigued.

A paperback of Alice Munro's most recent short-story collection, "Runaway," was selling at a premium of $2, but I snatched it up anyway. Once home, I was dismayed to discover its previous owner had gone through the entire book with an acid-yellow highlighter, that kind of totally random highlighting that people do just to have something to do with their hands when they're bored by what they're reading. Words and phrases like "you're" and "she said," emblazoned in neon. I may have to throw that one back - I don't think I can read it this way.

Some of my favorite purchases have been guilty indulgences, things I probably wouldn't seek out at bookstore or library, but somehow, here in this dusty netherworld, we are allowed to meet. What happens at the library booksale stays at the library booksale.

A 2003 edition of Rick Steves United Kingdom, for example. Although I find Rick Steves painfully dorky, I happily settle in to watch whenever I come across his show on PBS, and some of the best tips I learned on traveling in Paris came from his guidebook, despite my 12 years of classes on French language and culture. Rick Steves went in the pile.

Another book that caught my eye was "A Life's Work." I'd read about its author, a young British writer named Rachel Cusk, and was curious about her work. But this book was a semi-humorous account of the trials and tribulations of new motherhood, and hence officially Not For Me, as I was neither pregnant nor making any immediate plans to become so. And yet I found myself very much wanting to read it, and furtively added it to my armload, hoping no one would make any comments about the soft-focus baby shoe on the cover.

If I was indulging a little, some people around me were indulging a lot. We overheard one young woman insisting to her father that she needed the audiotape of a particular book. "We already have an audio book of that one on CD," he protested. "But I might want to listen to it sometime in a car that only has a tape deck!" she retorted. The library book sale madness had her in its grip.

A slight preteen girl appeared to be browsing through every single book in the basement. Over in the "Contemporary Fiction" section (new this year) she lovingly took one book down from the shelf, turned its pages respectfully, put it back, then moved on to the next, and the next. Her progress was slow.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the books were fighting back. There was a sudden, horrifying sound of tumbling heavy objects, accompanied by a strangled, "Argggh!" Everyone froze. Silence, and then a moment later the voice called out brightly, "I'm all right! All these boxes just fell on me." And the patrons returned to their browsing.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Lobster Roll Diary: Cobie's

If it's August, it must be time for another trip to Cape Cod. We headed down for a few off-weekend days in an attempt to miss the worst of the summer crowds (though there were still plenty of people around). While we intended to branch out this time, we ended up staying in Orleans where we've stayed a few times before. Obviously there are many nice towns on Cape Cod, but we found we were once again in the mood for this one's particular style - quaint but not overly cutesy, not too snooty with historic pedigrees, and convenient without being a mess of strip malls and chintzy motels.

This time we revisited a seafood place in Brewster that has to be one of the most picturesque roadside establishments ever: Cobie's, ideally located next to the Cape Cod rail trail and bursting with picket-fence charm. We had a vague memory of not liking it for some reason, but as it's so darn cute and was close to the lake where we went swimming that morning, we decided to give it another chance.

The covered picnic tables where we grabbed a seat.

Naturally, my recent adventures in lobster-consumption hadn't tided me over for long; in spite of other menu options, I was helpless before the possibility of getting a lobster roll. My companion discovered he could order a veggie burger, a big point in Cobie's favor, considering one memorable occasion at Ipswich's Clam Box where the only vegetarian item on the menu was a grilled cheese sandwich jury-rigged from a hamburger bun.

When the lobster roll arrived, I remembered what I hadn't liked so much about Cobie's: the roll consisted of chunks of lobster and only the barest trace of mayonnaise, if that. It also included an offending leaf of lettuce. Now, I realize lack of mayonnaise is considered a point of pride at some seafood shacks, where they prefer their lobster unsullied by such crude fillers, but I do feel lobster+mayonnaise results in a magic alchemy.

However, this time around, being less of a novice in both the Cape and lobster roll departments, I went in search of a side of mayonnaise, plucked off the lettuce leaf, and enjoyed my lobster roll mightily. I mean, look at the size of that claw. Much larger than my home-cooked one (which leads me to believe I purchased a soft-shell lobster, known for their shrunken claw meat). The bun was toasted, too. Simple as it sounds, that can make the meal.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Cooking Your Own

It's no secret that I'm a bit of a lobster addict. Just last week two friends emailed me the same New York Times article within hours of each other. The subject? The best lobster rolls in Maine, of course.

Since we've moved to New England, the knowledge that lobster is so readily available, especially during the summer months, has driven me a little crazy. I find myself constantly scheming how to get my next serving. But despite its ubiquity in Boston, this is not so easy to arrange. For one thing, my No. 1 dinner companion does not eat lobster, nor any other creature of land or sea, and the types of places that serve it tend to specialize in seafood, or, if anything else, perhaps offer a little turf to go with the surf. So that's a problem.

Also, lobster is of course very expensive. Not only do I feel guilty about overindulging in it myself, I'm hesitant to suggest such a pricey meal to friends who might not be as lobster-crazy as myself.

After a week of particularly keen cravings, I decided it was time to take control of the situation. Time both to save a little money and to earn my dinner by doing the dirty work of preparing it myself. In short, time to step up and cook my own lobster.

I suppose the best thing would be to go to some fish market, but I figured this is Boston and none of them come from too far away, so for several days I scoped out our local supermarket's lobster tanks. As of Wednesday there were just a few small ones huddled at the bottom, not moving much and therefore possibly what's known in the trade as "sleepers" (basically, half-dead specimens, and not what you want to be putting in your mouth). But yesterday evening, once I had gathered up the courage to begin the project, the tank was newly filled with several dozen strapping critters madly scrambling over each other's backs.

I marched up to the seafood case and, trying to pretend I do this all the time, told the young man behind the counter, "I'd like to get a lobster." He looked alarmed. "Okay ... just one?" (I knew I might be outing myself as a solo lobster eater by only buying one, and actually had considered cooking two and using the second one for lobster salad, but once I saw these beasts I knew I could only handle one for the first try.) He trawled around in the tank with a three-pronged rake, freaking out a little each time he snagged one and dropping it. Clearly I was not the only one intimidated by the whole live lobster concept. But finally he got one securely under the claws and held it high up in the air, where it flexed and curled its tail, waving its legs around.

"Ooh, that's an ugly one!" he exclaimed. "He is not happy."

A woman walking to the deli cases stopped to admire the lobster flipping on the scale. "That's a big one!" she commented. "He's pretty angry."

"Can we not talk about the lobster's feelings?" I pleaded.

I then confessed I had never cooked a lobster before. "Really???" The woman was amazed, as was the seafood counter guy, despite his trepidation when actually handling the creature. As the woman walked on down the aisle, she tossed out a parting word of advice. "Just remember: Head first!"

The flailing creature was bundled into a plastic bag with a little sticker on it marked "Chicken and Lobster," with its poundage, 1.4 lb. A woman behind the counter pulled out a large knife, and I thought they might have a policy about humanely slaying all seafood rather than allowing customers to plunge them barbarically into pots of boiling water, but instead she used it to carefully punch holes in the plastic bag. Then I popped it in my shopping basket and headed up to the registers.

I chose the most Boston-looking cashier I could find, figuring she would be the least ruffled by my purchase. One of the regular cashiers on duty was a recent immigrant from Kenya, and I didn't know if she was familiar with the custom of consuming angry crustaceans. I picked the line one over from hers.

First I put the inanimate items on the conveyer belt: a vine-ripened tomato, a cardboard tube of Poppin' Fresh crescent rolls. And then, the clear plastic bag containing the brown, writhing thing. I waited until the last minute to put it down, but my cashier still flinched when her eye was caught by the novelty of something on the belt moving on its own volition.

Again I felt the need to confess. "I've never cooked one before." Like the others, she expressed surprise at this, even while she reacted to the lobster in front of her with gleeful horror. I guess this is part of the whole ritual of it? She gave me a wicked look and informed me, "When you put them in the water, they scream!" The elderly Portuguese woman packing the groceries swung the lobster bag gently above her head and called to the Kenyan cashier, who looked stricken and softly shrieked. This was the most fun any of them had had all day. I assume they must sell these things all the time, but you wouldn't guess it.

I'd read you're supposed to store live lobsters in the refrigerator, ideally on "a bed of wet seaweed," but I didn't want to engineer this so I just hurried home and got the pot boiling. My "Joy of Cooking," on the subject of boiling vs. steaming, says, "There is no good reason not to steam the lobster." Well, how about the comfort of believing the lobster will die faster if plunged head-first into a deep pot of boiling water? Nevertheless, I followed instructions and prepared a hot steam bath for my victim.

I then got him out of his bag, already kicking less vigorously than when he first emerged from his tank, grasped him at the base of the foreclaws, and snipped the rubberbands off his claws. This was to give him one last flex, and more practically to avoid the unsavory flavor of rubber in the lobster stock. Then into the pot he went, where he (eek!) clattered around for a few long seconds (I tried to rationalize it as steam making the lid rattle, but then the sound completely stopped). There was, at least, no audible "screaming." I turned the radio off to listen for it - I wanted to fully expose myself to the realities of the process.

Fifteen minutes later (10 minutes per pound), the timer went off and I peeked under the lid. There it sat, bright red and motionless (phew).

I drained off the excess water, let it cool a little, and cracked into a claw. What can I say, it was excellent, as good as any lobster I've had outside the home. Plus there were the added amenities of as much drawn butter as I wanted, and being able to get up every few minutes to wash my hands. I made sure to eat plenty of "sides" (the crescent rolls plus a caprese salad) in between bites so as to finish this lobster dinner, for once, fully satisfied, rather than already plotting my next lobster conquest.

And it worked. By the end of the night I was completely stuffed and worn out from the ordeal, not wanting to think about eating lobster again ... at least for a little while. I'm sure the lobster would be glad to hear it.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Big Shoulders

This weekend I climbed Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. I don't think it's known as a particularly difficult climb in general, but the trail we chose was much more challenging than any of us expected.

On some of the steepest sheer rock I felt as though nothing stood between me and a cracked skull but the non-skid soles of my boots. Those boots were the ones climbing the mountain - I was just standing in them. I don't know what people did before Vibram.

Two days later I'm still finding it painful to go up and down stairs. (And stand up. And sit down.) I don't go hiking much.

It was great though, a beautiful day and gorgeous views at the summit. As we climbed I kept thinking of Chicago's Monadnock Building and wondering if it were named after this particular peak. I've since learned it's also a general geological term. From the New Hampshire State Park web site: "Monadnock, which comes originally from the Abnacki Native American word for mountain that stands alone, is now a standard geological term for any singular mountain that rises above the surrounding plain." The Monadnock Building, a pre-1900 brick "skyscraper" (it's only 16 stories tall), is massive and rather squat, much like the mountain. The name is perfect for it.

We came across some wild blueberries on the way up. I remembered a friend telling me about a man she knew in Seattle who liked to go camping in the mountains and make himself pancakes with the wild blueberries he picked. ("Pitter-patter!" she said in commentary.) I'd always assumed wild mountain blueberries were a Northwest phenomenon, but here they were, waiting to be made into crush-inducing blueberry pancakes by any enterprising Northeasterner at hand. I tasted a few but they must not have been quite ripe: a little too tart.

We did our share of bitching and moaning on the way up - and even moreso on the way down - but the unobstructed view from the summit sure was sublime.

At the mountain's bare peak, puddles of water had collected in various stone grooves, and acting on a tip from one of the many children jumping around up there (I swear, kids as young as three were running up those trails. Sheer rock face? So what!), I peered into one of the stagnant pools and glimpsed this tadpole, mid-morph. It is in for a rude awakening when it finally crawls from its watery nursery.

3,000 feet down is a lot of hops.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Camp Bide-a-While

I never went to sleep-away camp, and to be honest I probably would have said no if my parents had offered to send me when I was the appropriate age. But in recent years I've harbored a kind of nostalgia for something I never actually experienced. (Is there a word for that?) Living in a cabin in the woods all summer, learning the finer points of short-sheeting a bed, paddling my own canoe - that's what I want to do.

Wouldn't summer camp for grown-ups be a huge success? I'm sure something like this must exist. Just as I'm sure the reality of camp would have included such perils as homesickness, bad food, too many rules, and being stuck in the woods with a bunch of capricious fellow preteenagers. The formula is really better suited to adults. All the same activities and opportunities for goofing off without the early-morning rising and forced participation in competitive sports.

I felt this way back when I was of camper age, too. I didn't want to take the risk of actually attending camp, but the summer that the T.V. movie "Poison Ivy" aired, I taped it and watched it again and again. I wasn't so interested in the stilted love story between camp counselor Michael J. Fox and camp nurse Nancy McKeon - it was the adventures of the campers themselves that transfixed me.

My own experience of camp was a Chicago city-run day camp, at which my best friend and myself would sit in the grass of the public park making daisy chains all day long while the more active children played baseball. Truly, this was the extent of the planned activities. If the game of the day were Red Rover, we might participate. (Less athletically demanding.) On the really hot days, the counselors would lead us all in long, wavering lines along the sidewalks of Lincoln Park to Chicago's North Avenue beach where we'd splash in the murky waters of Lake Michigan. Occasionally they'd bring the gang of us over to the movie theater at the nearby Chicago Historical Society to see odd, out-of-date movies like the original "Freaky Friday" and "The Thief of Baghdad."

To be honest, this lack of structure suited me just fine. I had previously attended a more rigorous day camp run by a local school - archery, lanyard-weaving, forced competitive sports - and I HATED it. (In fact, I ended up being a counselor at that same program years later and offered endless solace to the girl campers in my group who hated all the same sports and activities I'd suffered through at their age.) I may have enjoyed it more if there'd been a lake and canoes, but it's probably just as well I wasn't sent off to the great north woods with a sack lunch and a bag of clothes stitched with nametape. Nevertheless my summer camp memories lack the allure of Color Wars and midnight canoe trips to the boys camp across the lake.

These days, when summer rolls around, I find myself seeking out lakes fringed in evergreen and looking up places to go canoeing, and rental cabins with knotty-pine walls. We visited friends in Maine this weekend and swam in a pretty near perfect summer-camp-style lake, with cute yellow canoes going by every few minutes. We played a few games of Yahtzee, and cooled off with margaritas instead of bug juice. Summer camp for grown-ups. If a moose had wandered over to our picnic table, it would have been pretty near perfect.