Saturday, June 30, 2007

the art of plumbing

It was never our intention to spend our spring holiday driving the bucolic American midlands counting cows, drinking beer and sampling local cheeses.

Our original plan was to be sailing the Greek Isles, counting Olympic deities, drinking ouzo and dancing in happy circles while smashing plates on the floor. Unfortunately, events conspired against us on the home front forcing an abrupt change of direction, and thus it was that we found ourselves standing, not before the throne room of the Palace at Knossos but here, in Wisconsin, contemplating the throne room of the Design Center of Kohler.

And quite a sight it was.

Turk had wanted to visit the Design Center in anticipation of remodeling the guest bath which, like it's owner, is sorely in need of a face lift. I went along with the idea, expecting it to be about as interesting as a trip to Home Depot. I could not have been more wrong.

It was 36,000 square feet of pure enchantment, and I found myself falling in love with plumbing fixtures in a way that bordered on the indecent. I wanted to have an intimate relationship with these bathrooms; to whisper sweet nothings to these kitchens whose glamour and beauty surpassed anything I'd witnessed before. I wanted to marry these appliances and whisk them and their magical environments home, where they would transform my world. I was smitten.

Weather it was the baroque beauty of the Marie Antoinette Versailles-inspired apartment, the clever insouciance of a beachy bathroom loft or the cheeky allure of a bejeweled little bedazzler all tarted up for a night on the town, I was lost in a dream of how life was meant to be lived. In full color. With hand painted sinks, fancy fixtures and excellent water pressure.

A group of about six of us stood in awed wonder before a shower, each taking turns to press the button that would cause a waterfall to come thundering down, adding to the eleven jets already shooting forcefully away. Like a small group of Aborigines seeing an airplane for the first time, we laughed and pointed in amazement, fairly clapping with glee. A shower like that could make a grown man cry, cause a woman leave her husband. A child would almost certainly need to take swimming lessons.

A little over $7 grand and it could be ours. Nothing would have made me happier.

"Want to put it in the guest bath?" I asked my husband.

"Only if we promise never, ever to have any guests," he whispered.

I have to admit, I have been in art galleries I haven't enjoyed half so much. And there was traditional art here too, of the porcelain variety, which I quite liked, as well as early magazine ads diplayed alongside the original oil paintings.

Unabashadly kitsch, I found them nonetheless charming for it, the colors as clear and cheerful as the day they were painted.

In the end I chose my two favorites: what I call the Breakfast at Tiffany's Manhattan kitchen, and the ultimate Absolute Zen bath.

And that is what paradise looks like to me.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

the bitter end

I just got back last night from San Diego, where we spent the weekend attempting to celebrate the tragedy of my continued decline.

We enjoyed ourselves immensely, of course, because that is what one does when there is no other recourse. One dons a clever outfit, checks into a hotel of fading but determined elegance and, martini in hand, remarks gaily on the metaphor.

One then goes on to dine regally on lamb and baby carrots and an excellent Cabernet, and hits the Gas Lamp District of an historic port town. There, one toasts the passing of youth in the company of passing youth with all the dignity an aging good time girl can muster. Oddly enough, this is considerable, as I have decided to be uncharacteristically philosophical in my dotage. Because that's what we old broads do ~ we turn wise. Overnight, in elegant hotels. It happens.

At the irresistibly named Bitter End, a cheerful Turk was making himself quite popular with the local singles, and at one point seemed on the verge of establishing himself as resident matchmaker. I smile benignly, at peace with my role as resident dowager. We will go, he and I, a pair of Elderly Superheroes, travelling from town to town, spreading love and joy and dollar bills coast to coast, uniting young people with appropriate partners and/or soul mates, listening to their tales of woe and dispensing our hard earned wisdom with bon mots and sympathetic ears. I order a Guinness and enjoy the warm glow that comes from selflessly doing good solely for the benefit of others. And also from drinking Guinness.

At our favorite romantic spot in Laguna Beach, we dine on the terrace and are disappointed that everyone is already paired up and our presence here is not required. We stay anyway, and reflect on our reflections. It's a Superheroe's Holiday, and we linger past sunset. I stare into the ocean, drinking deeply of breeze and brine. I want to stride out and dive in, spinning and twirling beneath air and sunlight in the cool black blue of unlimited time and space. Just as I always have. I do not feel old. I look old. But I feel timeless.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

sketchbook diaries

Playing around with my new Adobe Elements 5.0 ~ an old sketch with new text addition imposed, thanks to the Miracle that is Photoshop. Several hours and many FCC-banned words later (I swear I still do not get the whole layer issue ~ just do what I tell you to do when I tell you to do it, OK? I'll let you know if I want to change my mind. When I say SAVE, you say HOW MANY? And when I say EDIT, you best let me at the whole text...) I do understand that I could actually just have written on the actual page. With an actual pen. Just as we all do, everyday. Woulda taken' one, two minutes tops. Silly girl, with your silly time-saving devices. When will you ever learn?

Still. What fun would it be if it didn't involve much saving and tossing about of psds, jpgs, bss' and gds?

None, of course. It is what it is. A pleasantly indolent way to recover from yesterday's barbecue. I love my parties.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

in from the cold

"Go down three lights and make a left across the bridge," the bartender was saying. "About two blocks in you'll come to an alley. It's just an alley but don't worry; you go down that alley. Halfway down you'll see a door. It says 'import/export' or something; never mind ~ go in. Inside you won't see a door, but there is one behind the bookcase. Pull the lever, and you're in."

I looked at my husband, eyes wide.

"Oh, we have so got to go there," I whispered. The couple left ~ they did look a little shady, now that I thought about it. I raised an eyebrow and cocked my head. The bartender came over.

"I couldn't help but overhear," I lied, sotto voce, trying to look like someone who could be trusted with a secret. "What is this place you were telling them about?"

"You'll love it," he said. He repeated his instructions.

"Can we walk from here?"


Leaving, I tried to buy a postcard with a picture of Buck Bradley's beautiful bar. With a wink and a nod, the barman insisted instead on giving me a few.

"I love Milwaukee," I told my husband.

"I know, dear," he replied.

Safe house: "A seemingly innocent house or premise established by an intelligence organization for conducting clandestine or covert activities in relative security."
~ CIA intelligence Officer Glossary

We came to the door marked "International Exports Ltd" and entered. Inside we found ourselves in a narrow entryway about the size of an 19th century elevator, surrounded by dusty bookshelves and the assorted paraphernalia of several decades ago; an old phone, an ancient cash register. I think there was a leather chair. I looked at Turk.

"I have no idea," he said. Gazing upward, we looked for a lever hidden somewhere amid the books.

Just then the door opened behind us and a man in a blue baseball cap with a boy of about 6 years of age in tow entered. Walking immediately over to the cash register, he pulled the handle and one of the bookcases swung open, revealing a narrow, winding staircase.

I clapped my hands delightedly. "I used to work here," he said a little sheepishly. Ascending, we entered a parallel universe; one as envisioned by Ian Fleming with a little help from the imagineers at Disney. And maybe a cocktail or two.

Rife with jokes and heavy on visual puns, The Safe House* is a fully realized tribute to the fun and frolic that was the James Bondian version of the Cold War. You either love this sort of thing or you don't. It should come as no surprise to anybody that we are firmly entrenched in the former category.

As we slid onto bar stools, entranced by the map of the world circa 1962, with it's blinking lights and bank of international clocks, the pretty blond bartender tossed a cocktail napkin before us and asked, "What can I get you?"

Looking down, I found myself staring into the smoldering dark eyes of a youthful Sean Connery. "Well, I guess I have to have a vodka martini! Shaken, not stirred," I chirped happily. And immediately regretted it. The chirping, I mean, not the martini. Spies do not chirp. Mata Hari did not chirp.

The pretty blond laughed just as heartily as if she'd never heard it before. That's what I love about the people here. Everyone is just so nice.

We wandered around enjoying the vintage memorabilia ~ heavy black phones, telegraph machines, original art and photographs.

"I want my house to look like this," I told my husband.

He eyed the somehow cheerful clutter. "I think it already does," he replied.

I climbed another narrow stairway, passing a couple of other bars on separate landings to find the Ladies' room.

One should never be discovered laughing all alone in the ladies', so it's probably a good thing that I wasn't. Discovered, I mean.

Behind a red door labeled "Mata Hari's changing room" or some such thing, I stepped through to find myself standing on a tiny enclosed balcony. Pressing a button marked '2 way mirror', I had a clear view of all the goings on in the Magic Bar below ~ a marvelous way to keep an eye on the action. Or your date.

Did I mention that I love this place?

Back in the darkened bar, we realized that the black and white televisions in the corner were projecting images from a surveillance camera trained on that enigmatic little foyer. We watched as, time and time again people entered and stood, mystified, until a light went on in the bar, the bartender would press a button and the bookcase would swing open to the surprised delight of the newcomers. A minute later their heads would appear at the top of the stairs, laughing like kids at Disneyland. I could have stayed there all day.

"I want to live here," I said to my husband.

"I know, dear," he replied. He nodded to the smiling barmaid. "I believe we'll have another round."

Thank you, spy who loved me. I believe we will.
Best Spy Pub ever.

*OK, I love it, but seriously ~ how wrong is it that a safe house has a web site? I'm just sayin'.

Friday, June 08, 2007

pub crawl: Milwaukee

I raised the cold glass to my parched lips and drank deeply of the misty auburn fluid. Holding an orange slice aloft, I turned to my husband.

"You see, it's made from wheat and comes with citrus," I instructed him. "So it's not only tasty, it's actually good for you too."

"Wonderful" he said, hoisting his Miller Lite. "But I like my beer to just sit and be beer."

I bent back the peel and bit into the fruit. Mmm. Liquid sunshine.

We were sitting at the bar of a small collegiate pub in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Last year at about this time we were in the Napa Valley touring wineries, nibbling walnut brie and sipping Pinot Noir; today we thought it would be fun to round out our gastronomic education by noshing kielbasa and quaffing some local Hefeweizen; maybe a lager or two. You know, as long as we were in the neighborhood.

Having left home sans maps or guidebook ("It's Milwaukee, for crissakes; not outer Mongolia! How lost can we get?") we blithely drove past the Tourist Information Centers, which are inconveniently located along all major highways at the border of every single state in the union and are marked with flags and everything but neon lights, but which you will miss every time and your husband will not turn around and go back because "there'll be another just down the road," but of course there won't be, and how is a city girl supposed to even know what to look for in the wilds of Wisconsin, anyway...

I'm sorry. Where was I?

Right. Lost.

Driving down the empty streets of a Saturday-deserted downtown, we decided to point the car in the direction of any large brick building we saw in hopes of scoring a brewery. As it turns out, while these had indeed been breweries at one time, in the spirit of the day they had all been converted to luxury condos and office buildings.

Et tu, Milwaukee?

At one point, a couple of cops in a patrol car watched as I executed a complete circle in the middle of a one-way street and didn't even pull me over.

"They probably heard about me forgetting to pack the maps," Turk observed dryly. Well, perhaps I did rather go on about it. But still. I give him one lousy job to do...

We amused ourselves by singing jingles from old beer commercials.

When we say Schlitz

we really mean beer

'Cos when you're out of Schlitz

you're out of beer!

You don't see them writing 'em like that about a dry Riesling, my friend.

Surprisingly enough, all of this made us thirsty. Now we were watching as a hulking young man of about 6'4'' and 220 banged on the bar and swore.

"Barkeep! Beer me!" he roared. Egged on by his buddies, he was trying to drink his way through the establishment's selection of 100-and-something draft beers, three tasting pours at a time. The challenge was taking it's toll. He stood, legs wide apart, hands splayed flatly on the bar for support. One of his mates took a picture; they laughing, he grinning lopsidedly.

A cute couple came in and sat down corner to us. She had spiked hair and a broad smile; he was sunburned and husky. They were from Minnesota, and they'd driven all the way in for the Twins v Brewers game that afternoon. Turns out, they did this all the time.

"We love your stadium!" she enthused to me.

I demurred. "Oh, it isn't really mine," I said modestly. "We're just visiting. From California."

For a moment they looked sad. Then he nodded and said, "The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim."

It was our turn to look sad. And a little ashamed. I hung my head. Turk shook his.

"Arte Moreno," he all but whispered.

Changing the subject, I asked the bartender where we might find a tour.

"There's a good one just around the corner," he said, gesturing. "Just go out here, make a right and follow the lake. You can't miss it." People are always telling us this. And we usually do. Miss it, I mean.

The giant Beer Guy completed his challenge to great public acclaim, and won a tee shirt for his efforts. We waved goodbye to our new friends and headed out just behind him. Although two of his pals were attempting to support him on each side as he wove his way home, his size proved too much for them and he lurched sideways into the wall, laughing. Whoa! they cried, lurching after him. The ballpark was going to be three seats short of a full house for the big game.

Five minutes later, we pulled up to a massive brick edifice, outside of which a long line of people waited to get in. A woman held up a large sign; Tour Sold Out. I asked when the next one started.

"We're closing early today," she replied. "We have a wedding!" She seemed as surprised as I was.

"Wow! That would not have occurred to me," I said in wonderment. I gazed upward. "That must be some brewery." She nodded.

Disappointed, we headed back to town for a late lunch.

We wandered into Buck Bradley's Saloon and Eatery, home of the "longest bar east of the Mississippi".

"Now this is what I call a handsome bar," said Turk, a connoisseur, as he ran his hand lovingly across the polished surface.

We took a seat and ordered. It was there, over a platter of assorted local cheese and sausages that we overheard the bartender telling another couple about a certain 'safe house'.

Interesting, I thought. I leaned in.

Friday, June 01, 2007

postcards from chicago

Come on, baby don't you want to go
Come on, baby don't you want to go
To the same old place
Sweet home, Chicago

I fell in love the first time my husband brought me back to visit this, his hometown. Dining in the Pump Room of the Ambassador East Hotel, they'd made poor Turk don an implausibly over-sized navy blue polyester jacket for the privilege of sitting in storied Booth One, once occupied by the likes of such luminaries as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. Now it was occupied by the likes of us, a chronically under-dressed Turk and his new wife, the camera-toting Kid.

Dreamy eyed and smitten, I gazed at the comically attired man sitting across from me and asked him to buy me the brownstone across the street. Earlier, we'd been strolling along in this quietly upscale neighborhood, past galleries and cafes, bistros and brownstones and had seen one or two of the latter for sale. This should be our home, I told him; this was the place I was meant to be.

He reminded me that he had left this place for a reason, and that reason was the bitter winter cold. I was married to a man, he told me who, for better or for worse no longer owned a coat, nor wished to. I cheerfully informed him that I was completely open to compromise and did not have a problem with his visiting me during the summer, or even perhaps the warmer spring months if that was to be his preference.

I did not get my brownstone.

But I never stopped loving Chicago. I love everything about it. I love the art and the architecture; the food, the drink and the shopping.

I love the look and the rhythm; the sounds and smell of it. I love that everywhere you glance is something to catch and hold the eye. I like that the prevailing sense of civic pride seems unaccompanied by irony or arrogance. I love that all the waiters laugh and tease. I like that when you smile at people here, they smile back. Sometimes for no reason at all.

In fact, to my mind Chicago has everything a big city needs ~ world class art institutions and museums; a booming economy to support great restaurants and retail, and a solid infrastructure with effective mass transit.

All in an arresting package that indicates an appreciation of both it's history and it's future, as embodied in it's preservation of the old amid the construction of the new. With just a touch of oddly Midwestern whimsy thrown in.

Maybe it's just the wind whipping in off of Lake Michigan that blows away the angst and sweeps the air clean, but it seems to me that Chicago has as much to offer as it's big sister to the east, New York, and without the proverbial chip on it's shoulder. And I say this with all the smug confidence of a native New Yorker, born with a proverbial chip on my shoulder. (And which, as a now devout Californian, I'm seeking to have removed by a prominent cosmetic surgeon).
Well, some things never change.

We stayed at the small but gracious Talbott Hotel, which I found on my latest web/travel obsession, Trip Advisor, and cannot recommend it highly enough. I don't believe we'll be staying anywhere else when we're in town ~ unless of course I get that brownstone, which I have never stopped lobbying for, by the way (I think I'm wearing him down). The hotel staff are friendly and welcoming, the ample accommodations more than comfortable. And of course, they have that cow climbing up the side of the building. You don't get that at the Four Seasons.

See what I mean? Whimsy. Perfect.