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Seven Hills

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

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cape Coddities

Last week I had the good fortune to be invited to join a friend at her mom's rental cottage in Wellfleet on outer Cape Cod, so I eagerly packed my overnight bag and headed out the door bright and early to catch the 8 a.m. high-speed ferry to Provincetown.

It felt strange and exciting to be down by Boston's World Trade Center and Fish Pier - a rather remote, industrial area - so early in the morning. A bagpiper was playing outside the entrance to one of the convention hotels nearby, the white outlines of jellyfish bobbed in the harbor, and funny little water taxis putted by.

I had really been looking forward to the hour-and-a-half-long ferry ride, and scoffed at the "Rough Seas" sign by the ticket window, but about halfway through the ride I wasn't laughing anymore, and neither were most of my fellow passengers. Let's just say I was green enough around the gills not to be even remotely tempted to crack open my fresh copy of "The Deathly Hallows," and all the children who were initially perched on the luggage racks by the ferry's front window, observing the voyage with enthusiasm, were soon stretched out solemnly on the long cabin benches. Seasickness: it's not for sissies.

I did, however, manage to keep my breakfast down for the duration of the journey, and was rewarded once docking with a fortifying brunch on the veranda of a wharf-side Provincetown hotel. Another hour or so reading Harry Potter back at my friend's mom's charmingly musty knotty pine abode and I was good as new.

Wellfleet is pretty far out on the Cape, so it feels a lot quieter - more deserted - than the more populated, villagey towns closer to mainland Massachusetts. Among other cultural attractions, it boasts the Cape's only drive-in movie theater. It has a scant 2,000-something year-round population, and something like 20,000 in summer.

The path from the cottage to the beach, a walk along a salt marsh and Wellfleet harbor, was strewn with the contents of a veritable nature's curiosity cabinet.

Everywhere we looked, it seemed, were prehistorically armored horseshoe crabs.

The marsh grass was flattened in an undulating pattern of ocean waves.

We came upon the decapitated carcass of some sort of fish or sea mammal - it was hard to know what. Just as we'd concluded from its size and bony flippers that it must be a seal, we stumbled upon another one, very similar in body shape, but very toothy and much more fish-like.

And then, yet another skeleton, this one with a creepily hominid domed skull, lovingly laid out on the grass like tomorrow's school clothes.

In the end, yet one more skeleton connecting domed skull with long beak, along with the presence near several of the carcasses of the distinctive narrow, pointy lower jaw, led us to believe that we might be looking at a number of small beached whales. One had a tagged flipper, so this seems to be a likely if sad possibility.

Leaving this scrimshaw graveyard behind, we walked on to Indian Neck beach, a jutting shore on the cusp of Wellfleet harbor looking out onto the narrow peninsula of Great Island.

I've seen plenty of Atlantic beach shells during my years in the Boston area, but here in Wellfleet I was stunned to encounter dozens of live oysters nestled in the sand.

I mean, I know they have to come from somewhere, but I didn't expect to see them just hanging out there by the shoreline. It was very "Walrus and the Carpenter." I am aware of the strict shellfishing regulations around such things, but all I can say is it's lucky I wasn't packing an oyster knife.

I have to admit, we'd already had our fill the previous day, first with some oysters and wine as an afternoon snack, and then with still more pre-dinner at the Bookstore & Restaurant. Wellfleet oysters: enough to make a lobster roll addict forget herself.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Owl Post Special Delivery

You might say I'm getting a little excited about the release of the final Harry Potter book. I decided to go with Amazon pre-order, to cut down on hassle. I don't remember the last time I so anticipated the arrival of a package.

What is slippery Severus Snape brewing up for our hero?

Hermione is so clever with books ...

That Fleur is such a show-off ... just like a veela.

Can you transfigure a kitten ...

... into a mousetrap?

"Wotcher, Harry!"

Ginny Weasley sure is fast on the Quidditch field.

One day left to wait ...

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

San Francisco Girl

Today's clothespin series is inspired by a certain curly-headed friend of mine, the consummate San Francisco girl (even if she lives in Oakland now), stylish and fun-loving. Here she is strolling up to North Beach for an espresso at Caffe Trieste and a bit of shopping on upper Grant.

Making friends in Chinatown as the Muni buses rumble below ...

And shopping at the Ferry Building farmers market. Did I mention she's a bit of a foodie?

How To: Curls

If you're a real person, you can only be born with curls as great as these (and trust me, they are stupendous). But if you are a clothespin, this is how you get them:

1) Starting with 3- or 4-ply yarn in your chosen color, unravel the end slightly to separate out the end of one of the strands.

2) Holding onto one strand, scrunch the remaining strands down the yarn, forming tightly bunched bundle of yarn.

3) You might want to make a couple of these, to have plenty of curly yarn to choose from. The bunches usually end up being two or three inches long, since the pulling strand often gets stretched out and breaks off at a certain point.

4) Now hold a hot, steamy iron just above the yarn bundles for about a minute. Don't press the iron against them, as that will flatten the curl.

5) Let the yarn cool down and dry out, then release the bunched fibers, either by pulling out the center strand, or gently loosening the bunched strands until they spring free.

Curls! Trim and glue into place as desired.

Sense of fun and San Francisco-style sold separately.

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Call the Grammar Police

According to an article in today's Boston Globe, Somerville has its own resident Grammar Vandal, a vigilante who takes it upon herself to correct public grammar errors.

This young lady gets particularly ruffled over missing punctuation in signage, not just apostrophes and hyphens, but commas and periods, too. While I also cringe over the ubiquitous "its" vs. "it's," and the even more horrifying apostrophe-"s" used as blanket remedy for puzzling pluralization scenarios (acronyms like "CDs" seem to cause particular confusion, as well as words ending in vowels), I pretty much tune out all other niceties of usage when it comes to advertising copy. But not the Grammar Vandal: she really means it.

You go (comma) girl!


Friday, July 13, 2007


Summertime often makes me homesick for Chicago, a condition that's only been heightened by my current project of sifting through old family photos from the '70s, rife with snapshots from summer vacations of yore.

This little tableau illustrates what I thought was THE place to be during the city summers of my childhood: the Buckingham Fountain. I'm not sure where I got this idea, but I often fervently wished my family would trek down to Grant Park, particularly at night, when the water and light show commenced, so we, too, could be part of the action, the place where everything was happening, where one could feel truly alive.

The fountain is indeed a grand old Chicago monument, its design inspired by the Latona Basin at Versailles. It's meant to symbolize Lake Michigan, which it overlooks, and the four states that touch the lake. It was dedicated on my birthday, August 26th, in 1927, which gave me a certain sense of kinship with it. Lord knows where I picked up this bit of trivia - my mom must have told me. (She was very good with dates, almost savant-like in that way.)

I did get to visit the fountain plenty of times during the day, usually when we were taking out-of-town visitors to one of the various museums that dot the perimeter of the park. We must have gone once at night when I was very little, and ever after that experience remained my gold standard of nighttime summer family fun. I think that was the only time though. We drove by the light show every now and then on the way back from weekends in Michigan, but even those glimpses were rare, as my dad liked to beat the Lake Shore Drive traffic by sticking to the west-side highways (forgive my generalizations - I never drove in Chicago, so my knowledge of the major roadways is incredibly vague).

The July 4th fireworks took place along the lake in Grant Park, too, but we were usually in Michigan then, and anyway my parents never would have wanted to deal with those crowds. I went one year in high school with some friends, and it was true, the crush of people down there was horrendous. The idea of fireworks over the lake alongside those awesome Midwest skyscrapers is pretty great though. The girl's outfit in this picture is inspired by a red-white-and-blue fireworks extravaganza.

Even if I did see that after-dark fountain show one time only, once may have been enough. It sure lives on in my memory as a thing of glowing wonder.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lobster Roll Diaries: Best Yet

I went with a friend for a late lunch at Neptune Oyster in the North End the other day, and all I can say is wow. What a great little place.

As you can guess from the marble tabletop and silver cutlery in the picture to the left, Neptune Oyster is no casual seafood shack, but in terms of upscale lobster rolls, this one was sublime. A generous helping of nice, big chunks of fresh, really lobstery-tasting lobster on a toasted brioche roll, which was also quite yummy in its own right. You can order the lobster served hot with butter or cold with mayo, a nice choice to have. We went with mayo, as that's how we both like our rolls in general, and it was a really muggy day so cold seemed best anyway. It wasn't cheap, but if you make a meal of it and start with a few briny Wellfleet oysters apiece (we did), I think you get your money's worth.

We practically had the place to ourselves, so it's hard to judge what the service would be like on a busier day at such a small, popular restaurant, but our waiter couldn't have been nicer, and happily spent lots of time describing his favorite oysters to us, and debating the merits of butter vs. mayonnaise. (Basically, for him it came down to this: "I like mine in butter ... because I like butter!" Well said.)

There's still no substitute for the charm of a ramshackle seafood place, but if I had an out-of-town guest who wanted to go somewhere nice but unpretentious for some fresh lobster and bivalves, I'd take them to Neptune Oyster in a heartbeat.

The North End is also always fun to stroll around, even on a hot, soupy day such as this one. We stopped into some of the little clothing boutiques that have sprung up in the area recently, and while we weren't exactly blown away by the merchandise, it's still nice that they're there. (It was too hot to be trying on clothes, anyway.)

Apparently the neighborhood's become kind of yuppified, and it's obviously very touristy, but I don't know, those old dudes leaning out their windows in undershirts looked pretty authentic to me. I don't think they let yuppies into places like this, either:

Also still going strong is Pizzeria Regina, much better known than our beloved Santarpio's, but still in the same league as the object of fiercely loyal local pizza allegiance. The parents of a friend of ours had their first date there many years ago, and it doesn't seem like it's changed much since.

Perhaps I'll get around to giving the full Regina rundown another day. It is surely deserving. But for now, I only have eyes for lobster. I might have to cook one for myself tonight, now that my seasonal mania has been ignited.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Swimming Lessons

We made our first swimming visit of the year to Walden Pond last week after a couple of 90 degree scorchers that begged for a watery cool-off. I tend to think it's not really possible to go swimming until July, that lakes and ocean waters will still be too cold before that, but I realize that's kind of an arbitrary start-date. The temperature of the pond was perfectly refreshing, a bit chilly going in but nowhere near the bone-cold I remember tolerating in Lake Michigan through much of the summer.

I learned to swim in a lake - not Lake Michigan, but a small one like Walden Pond. Previous to that I'd been fearful of the water, one of those side-clutching children you see at swimming pools, rigid with anxiety as I inched my way around the circumference, terrified that I would plummet instantly to the bottom if I dared let go of that concrete lip. (And, since I didn't yet know how to swim, I assume that's exactly what would have happened.) I spent a year or two taking after-school lessons in downtown Chicago at the stuffy/swanky old Women's Athletic Club, a.k.a "the WAC," quite the incongruent place to troop through as an unaccompanied uniformed schoolgirl, laden with grubby backpack. There were only a few other children in the class, and all I remember is splashing aimlessly with kickboards in the grand old swimming pool, pictured above. We didn't make much progress.

Perhaps there was some discussion of this between my parents and my aunt and uncle, because it was arranged that the next summer I would visit them in Michigan to attend swimming lessons along with my cousins. Every day for two weeks we would go to a place called Gourdneck Lake in the Kalamazoo area for our lessons, and afterwards, my cousins told me with great anticipation, we would stop at the Dairy King (not Queen) on the way home for a dip cone. Ice cream cones every single day. That clinched it: I was officially excited about learning how to swim.

It turned out those ice cream cones were not a treat, but necessity. The daily hour of hard swimming made us ravenous. Before they'd even have a chance to drip we'd have inhaled our cones (chocolate-vanilla twist dipped in chocolate was the favorite, though sometimes an adventurous soul would go for butterscotch dip), and at night we slept like the dead. It's a running joke now between me and my husband that if I so much as dip a toe into the water I'll collapse into sleep that night, but back then it was merited.

The lessons were run by a nice man named Mr. Marfia, perhaps in his 50s, with a sun-weathered face and always wearing, as I remember it, a sort of safari hat. The story was (I don't know if it's true) that he had a son who had drowned, and that's why he taught children to swim. His house was right on the lakeshore, with a wide lawn and a sandy beach out front, and a system of docks where the lessons were conducted. He would stride about the area with gusto, an expression of happy satisfaction on his face, keeping an eye on things and making sure all was running smoothly. Once, mid-lesson, a water snake appeared, gliding across the water from the middle of the lake towards the diving area, and before any of the kids even had time to get upset, Mr. Marfia had hopped in a little boat, zipped over to the snake, and whacked it smartly with a stick. That was the end of the snake. You got the feeling he was a remarkably competent person and constantly on the lookout for everyone's well-being.

Kids were allowed to go in the house to use the downstairs bathroom, which was also pretty nice, considering how many of us there were and that this was Mr. Marfia's private home. We would tiptoe across the linoleum, smelling the musty lake house smell and leaving a trail of wet footprints behind us. There was a player piano in the rec room, and we would pause in front of it to gaze in wonder at its mechanical workings and peer at the song canisters piled on a nearby shelf.

Mr. Marfia worked with the very youngest children, who started their education lying on their tummies in the sand and kicking in the shallows, so I never had him as a teacher. We older kids gathered waist- and shoulder-deep farther out in the water, "Intermediates" midway down the dock, "Swimmers" at the end near the diving area. The class would line up in the water at the edge of the dock, craning our necks up at the teacher standing above us, demonstrating the various strokes in the air before we all swam back and forth practicing them.

My first year, which I started in Intermediates on the strength of my WAC kickboard training, I got the dreaded Mrs. Cush as my teacher. She wasn't actually all that bad, but had a blunt manner and a way of putting kids on the spot, which apparently was enough to make her reputation. She was a large, portly woman, and we liked to speculate whether that would make her sink or float - we never saw our teachers actually get in the water, after all - and called her "Mrs. Cushion" when safely out of earshot. The big gossip of the summer was the rumor that her name was not "Mrs. Cush" at all, but rather "Mrs. Cusher," a name we decided was dangerously close to "cushion," and must be the reason she had shortened it, solely to avoid our inevitable mocking. (This reminds me of the terrible gossip at my summer camp one year that the art teacher, Roberta, was bald under her head scarf. In retrospect I'm sure it was true, whether from chemotherapy or some sort of disorder, but nobody ever spoke to us about it - we just whispered and stared, and Roberta acted uncomfortable and looked at us like she hated us. I wish someone in authority had somehow defused the situation.)

Outside of class, waiting for my older cousin to finish his Swimmers lesson, I trooped around with the two cousins closest to my age, who were in the same class as me. We played in the water off to the side of the rectangle of docks, or else hid underneath them, breathing in the shallow air space between the surface of the water and the wooden slats above, spying on the people walking over us. If we felt too waterlogged we'd run up to the parking lot to sit in the hot station wagon with all the windows rolled up, baking in our private sauna and eating soupy peanut butter on Saltine crackers.

During class we must have been lined up alphabetically, with me near the beginning of the alphabet and my cousins at the end, so my swimming lessons pal was a boy named Hans who was placed next to me in line. Hans was friendly and quiet, and used the strategy, when teased about his name by other boys - "Hands?" - of smiling and saying, "Yup, two!" and holding them up cheerfully. He must have been used to that one. We talked in undertones together, I don't remember what about, probably just swimming lesson things like strokes and diving, as we bobbed at the edge of the dock waiting for our turn at the next exercise. But it was frequent enough that one day one of the other boys (those taunting boys!) asked him loudly, "Is that your girlfriend?" Hans looked mortified and awkwardly dodged the accusation, but it didn't stop him from talking to me, for which I was grateful.

Many days of swimming lessons were spent learning survival techniques. If we fell overboard, we were told, the first order of business was to get our shoes and clothes off. This was conveyed with great urgency, as though those items were lead weights that would instantly drag us down to the bottom of the ocean. And I don't know, perhaps they would. I would picture myself tumbling off the side of some enormous, Titanic-like vessel, and wondered how taking off my shoes would help me if I were bobbing alone in the middle of the ocean. We spent much longer than seemed necessary learning the jellyfish float (huddling in a little ball face-down in the water), and were shown how to tie off the legs of our pants to make them into inflated floats (by far the coolest part of the lesson). Then, one exciting day, were told to bring in a full outfit of clothing which we would wear while jumping into the water and then remove while jellyfish-floating, all timed by a stopwatch. That night, my cousins and I worried a lot about forgetting to put our bathing suits on underneath our clothes the next day, and practiced the jellyfish float as best we could on the family room carpet.

The next day all went well at first. Nobody forgot their under-layer of swimsuit, and we all jumped off the side of the dock in our clothes, feeling them grow heavily waterlogged, indeed fairly lead-like. I floated in my jellyfish pose and successfully got my shoes off, knotting them together, but when it came time to remove my shirt I made a crucial error and flipped it back over my head, thus pinning my arms behind my body. Suddenly the whistle was blowing and Mrs. Cush was hauling me up onto the dock, an example to all of what not to do.

"This girl!" she bellowed, "this girl ..." and she went on, but I don't remember anything else she said, only that ringing "this girl" and that I had to stand up there on the dock in my dripping clothes, my arms still pinned behind my back while Mrs. Cush went on and on about my mistake, prodding at me and turning me around to show off my sodden shackles to best advantage. When I was finally allowed to slip back into the water, my cousins and my buddy Hans may have tried to throw me a consoling look, but it was my turn to be mortified, and I felt far too disgraced to meet anyone's eyes.

In spite of the "this girl" incident, I was promoted out of Intermediates in just one year, something of a coup since most kids spent two seasons at that level, but I ended up spending two summers in Swimmers, since that was when we focused on diving and I had trouble surrendering myself to the perils of the diving board. This meant I had to undertake the ultimate "Swimmers" test two years in a row: swimming across the lake and back. Compared to this, jumping into the lake in our clothes was nothing. No dock to hold onto if we got tired, no sandy bottom where we could put our feet down, everyone watching if we failed, and who knew what lurked in the depths in the middle of the lake. There might be snapping turtles, and that water snake had come from there, hadn't it?

The first year I found the challenge surprisingly easy. We all headed off across the lake in a pack, and it seemed we reached the opposite shore in no time, staggering up through the cattails on the muddy beach like shipwreck survivors and admiring the strange view of Mr. Marfia's place from so far away, then crashing back into the water for the return swim.

The next year, for whatever reason, was much harder for me. Maybe I just had a bad day. I got really tired, and though I made it across and didn't lag too much, I remember struggling to keep up with everyone else. My mom took a picture of me just after I'd climbed back onto the dock, and the expression on my face is priceless: completely shattered, an embarrassed smile at having my picture taken mixed with the look of someone about to break into exhausted tears. And then, stumbling back down the dock towards the beach and the parking lot, a final celebratory dip cone in my immediate future, I wove a little too far to the right and fell right off the dock into the water with a big splash.

I was too tired to bother feeling mortified this time, and anyway, I'd scraped my leg pretty badly on the way down. And apparently all that mattered was getting across the lake, not what happened afterwards. The Swimmers instructor still passed me - she was much nicer than Mrs. Cush, and even bothered to learn our names, I remember, though of course now I can only recall the mean teacher's name, not hers.

So, in addition to the breast stroke and the crawl and the jellyfish float, that's the main thing I learned from swimming lessons: try not to be too mortified when you embarrass yourself in front of everyone. Kicking off your shoes and turning your pants into water wings won't help anything, and there's not much else you can do about it but smile and make a joke ("Hands? Yup, two!"). If you're lucky you still might get a dip cone on the way home at the Dairy King.

Also that it's okay to swim in lakes: chances are there's nothing in there that's going to bite you. And if there is, jump in your boat, fast, and try to hit it with a stick.

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