Thursday, November 27, 2014

Slicing Away at the Holidays

Midnight: Thanksgiving has begun

No matter how many times I remark upon it in October, Thanksgiving always slips up on me. On October 15, I'm sure I can get it all done, and then suddenly Thanksgiving is a week away, the menu is random notes on post-its, no shopping has been done, no cleaning, and I'm thinking, Wait a minute, how did this happen? Every single year.

I continue to believe that despite having a writing career and another career that, combined, make weeks go by in which tiles have come up in the bathroom floor and I haven't noticed, I should be able to display a gift of organization and time-conjuring for which I have hitherto shown absolutely no talent whatsoever. 

Which brings me to last week. 

My husband and I doubled down, and decided on a "bridge too far" menu. We had an excuse after all. Our friend Mariann is a vegetarian, and comes to stay the weekend with us every year. She's inspired us to eat much better, so we want to give her terrific dishes at Thanksgiving, not just the same old "sides" while we eat turkey. This year, we'd outdo ourselves with a half dozen new recipes. Yes, right, new. As in never tried before, and so are guaranteed to 1) fail; or 2) provoke locked-jaw remarks because somebody didn't read the part where it said the dish had to be marinated for 6 hours; or 3) both. 

However, David decided the way to avoid this was to test the new recipes last week. On Friday, it was the potatoes au gratin. Layers of thinly sliced potatoes and onions, drenched in a sauce of cream, rosemary, thyme, sage, and grated Gruyere. Topped with grated Parmesan and baked till bubbly and crispy brown on top. 

I was upstairs in my office that evening, working the other career -- financial editing -- slicing away on some unbaked prose: "Clearly, for the one-year period two years before the observation years, the HPA experiences vary for all three periods."  (In my line of work, when they start with "clearly", get the red pencil out.)

Then from the foot of the stairs, I hear, "Honey, where are the Band-aids?"

And so we ended up in the urgent care clinic where we were seen by a rather dishy-looking doctor in a garnet turban and a nurse who called us in by asking the waiting room chipperly, "So, who's bleeding?" 

The Suspect


What do you do when an important digit is out of commission for days? 

You ratchet back (we do not use the phrase "cut back" around here these days). 

We decided on far fewer dishes, and recipes we'd done before. Recipes that either take little time to prepare or can be made up to the point of baking/roasting or adding the dressing the day before.

Stuffing with wild mushrooms (finished product below; it will be reheated today); cauliflower roasted and dusted with cumin and paprika; a spinach salad with pomegranate seeds and blue cheese. 

I made cranberry sauce (shown here at 9am Wednesday morning, simmering for 10 mins with sugar, before cooling and being folded around orange slices and zest). It's so easy. Raises a person's confidence when there's still all that cleaning and table-setting to do. If you make cranberry sauce from scratch, just make sure the oranges are sweet. Save the bitterness for your relatives. 

Uh, yeah, we are doing the potatoes au gratin, too. Hey, it was creamy sauce with cheese. You understood that part, right?

And the assailant was released from custody yesterday as part of a work-release program due to extenuating circumstances (the finger guard had been ignored). 

So, I'm headed to bed.  With visions of store-bought pecan pie dancing in my head. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sheila York & David Nighbert
Copyright 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Iceland: Minimalist Lanscapes

I flew home last night from IcelandNoir, one of the best crime writing conferences that I have ever attended.  Everything about it was wonderful--the people, the setting, the level of discourse, and the food and drink.

My intention was to talk here more about it, but then last night, with protestors blocking up the streets of Manhattan (for good reason, I think), it took four hours to get home from the airport.  Arriving at 11:30 New York time (4:20 AM in Reykjavik!), I just couldn't do it.  Today was my annual pie baking day.  So now, the best I can offer you are some photos.

The view from the bus (on a crime writers' tour) and to and fro the airport, looked for all the world like a minimalist landscape.  Here is the evidence:


By Toni Grote, Jake Anderson, and Brice Marden


Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, November 24, 2014

Another Film Noir: Scarlet Street

Fritz Lang’s 1945 masterpiece SCARLET STREET, with Edward G Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, is disturbing to say the least. The film plays with appearance and reality almost in the same way that the characters do, conning each other into one thing or another, becoming one character or another as they all greedily, and without compunction go for the brass ring, the main chance, the big enchilada.

I wondered as the opening credits rolled if this was even going to be a noir movie. Maybe I had gotten mixed up when I was browsing Netflix and gotten hooked into some romance? The music over those credits seemed breezy and romantic, and I couldn’t see where we were going to get noir at all. The only detective in this piece turns out to be the deceased spouse of Robinson’s battle-axe of a wife Adele, and he was a dissolute bum who is more concerned with chasing down bribes than he is with chasing down criminals.

Robinson, playing the part of Christopher Cross, the same Edward G Robinson of the parts Rico in PUBLIC ENEMY and Rocco in KEY LARGO, plays an unassuming, diffident little wallflower who wouldn’t say sh*t if his mouth was full. He is too soft-boiled to be the protagonist of the typical crime drama.

In the opening scene, the guys from work are having a little party, and Robinson, a cashier who has performed faithfully for 25 years, is given the clich├ęd watch that you always get when you have been a wage slave for decades. He stands in the rain at the bus stop with a co-worker, both tipsy, and they seem like lonely guys, even though they are both married.

Robinson started out as a boarder in Adele’s place, and she acted sweetly at first, but she turned shrewish upon taking the wedding vows, just one of the people who gull Robinson throughout the story. She has insurance money from the sainted and dead husband (easier to be one when you are dead, as we will see later) but won’t spend any of it even for a radio, which she continually nags at Robinson to purchase for her.

Robinson dabbles at painting, turning mundane reality into beautiful fantasy even though he “could never master perspective.” Adele thinks his painting silly, and even accuses him of wanting to paint naked women. He protests that he has never seen a naked woman, and you feel sorry for him until you remember what Adele probably looks like in the buff (and how she behaves, clothed or not).

As Robinson walks through a depression era Greenwich Village, he sees a woman being accosted (Bennet being slapped around by Duryea), and rushes to the rescue, the sight of a woman in distress inspiring him to overcome his milquetoast nature for once. He whacks the fellow with his umbrella, and takes the poor girl home after going for a cop who goes after the fleeing attacker in vain.

This damsel in distress motif is extended into a sweet scene where Cross takes Kitty home and they have a soda in the basement establishment below her apartment, which she shares with a girlfriend. Kitty appears to be a sweet girl, and here we have the film trope of the “cute-meet” whereby the couple that will end up together first spark each other’s interests, before being blocked from being together in the second reel, and then finally united in the third.
But Kitty is far from what she seems to be. And Chris is not entirely honest either, telling her that he is a successful painter, or at least not disabusing her of that notion when she gets it into her head. He, who has seen his boss drive off with a young girl who is not his wife, and doesn’t consider that perhaps money has something to do with the pairing of a silver-haired oldster with a girl young enough to be his daughter, is playing the romantic role, and she, out of pity or for laughs, plays along.

Lang here is saying something important about human nature, I think. As human beings, we are self-conscious creatures, and we are aware of how we are supposed to act, and how we seem to others. So we create social personas, or masks, and use those masks to navigate our social world. And sometimes that mask is worn so long that we forget that it is a mask.

The movie merrily hums along in a romantic direction until the next scene, where we learn that the “attacker” was really Kitty’s boyfriend, who was just slapping her around because she wouldn’t give him any more money to gamble with. The two of them are as id-driven and libidinous as you could possibly be in a 1945 movie. Her apartment is filthy, and she lies around all day in her bedclothes, and throws cigarette butts into a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. “Johnny” practically lives there. He’s a hoodlum, a ne’er do well, and a grifter, but she doesn’t mind because, as she says to her girlfriend, she is in love. In a movie of the new millennium, I am sure there would have been violent sex, and it is intimated even here.

Neither Kitty nor Johnny is much for work, so they come up with a scheme for Kitty to induce Chris to get her an apartment she will “pay” for by modeling. Johnny gets hold of Chris’s paintings, which Chris has never been confident enough to sell, and Kitty starts to impersonate Chris, who doesn’t care, because now he imagines they will be together. The paintings begin to see like mad.

And then, of all things, Adele’s ex husband reappears. He supposedly drowned when he tried to save a woman suicide from doing so, but really he had been attempting suicide himself, because he had gotten caught taking bribes from speakeasies to allow them to stay open. He is mistaken for dead, and he doesn’t mind. He is a great big lout, a greasy, smelly, bear of a man, and a lush. He asks Chris to pay him off so he won’t tell Adele he is back.

And for the first time Chris really, and cleverly, is as duplicitous as those around him. He tells the ex that he can come by the house when Adele is out and get the insurance money she got from the insurance company upon his death, but of course she is home, she sees him, and now Chris, still deluded into thinking Kitty loves him, thinks he can finally be with Kitty. It is the ending of the perfect romantic comedy, lovers meet, lovers spark, lovers can’t be together, lovers can be together (when Chris’s marriage is dissolved).

But when Chris goes to see Kitty, he undergoes the same shocking reversal we did when we discovered Kitty’s attacker was really her lover (a not too complimentary view on what keeps men and women together, violence and sex, or violence followed by sex). She tells him he is old and ugly and she hates him. And when he finally must face that fact that perhaps he is, and that his romantic notion of love is ridiculous, he kills her.

Johnny gets blamed for the murder, but he is so obviously a hoodlum that no one believes him. It doesn’t help that he steals Kitty’s jewelry when he sees she is dead (“she didn’t need it anymore”). And no one believes that Chris was really the painter. Chris greatly enjoys Johnny’s death in the chair, until he thinks how Kitty and he will be lovers together in eternity, laughing at him. Chris is broke, fired for stealing from the boss to pay for Kitty’s apartment. He wanders the depressing Depression era streets, shattered, starving and crazed, and finally tries to hang himself, only to get saved by another boarder in the shanty of a rooming house he is living in. His mind gone, he tries over and over to confess, but no one will listen to him. He is in hell, but one of his own devising, not one for those who have sinned against other men, but for those who can’t come to terms with life without the social mask.

The twist in this particular noir film is that passion, combined with the inability to reconcile a romantic view of life with the harsh reality of life as really lived, is what destroys Cross. He never wanted to be a crook, a criminal; he never set himself against society. He just, as he says to his friend, wanted to know just once what it would be like to be loved by a beautiful young girl. It seems like a small crime to commit, his deluding of the self, but it leads to the killing of Kitty, and his inability to let go of the dream finally drives him mad.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, November 23, 2014

My Moment with Albert Campion

Some years ago Mystery! on PBS featured a series based on Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion mysteries. It starred Peter Davison. The episodes were wonderful and even my friends who told me time and again that they never read mysteries watched the show avidly.

I tuned into NJN, the broadcaster of Campion, one evening during a fundraiser. I always felt sorry for NJN because they were competing with WHYY in Philadelphia and WNET in New York City for viewer dollars. Imagine my delight when they announced that the special in-studio guest for the evening was Peter Davison.

“Yes, friends, for a pledge of $35.00 you can talk to Peter Davison, star of the PBS series, Mystery!”

I seized the phone and was greeted by a lady with a clarion New Jersey bray. (Hold your letters filled with outrage and umbrage. I mean this characterization as a compliment.)


“Yes. I pledge $35.00 and I want to speak to Peter Davison.”

I surrendered name, address and credit card information.

“Just a minute,” said the lady on the line. “Where’s the CELEBRITY?”

I hear a murmur of voices and then I hear the telephone lady say, “STEPHANIE.”

“Good evening, Stephanie. Lovely of you to ring.”

This was said in the most beguiling British accent. (Heaven, I’m in heaven)

We talked for a while about Campion (I assured him the series had many American fans), his impressions of America, and his wish to do a play on the West End. Mr. Davison was was a delight and seemed to have the entire evening to talk to me.

I dined out on this experience for some time. I not only told my friends about it, they put me in touch with friends of theirs so that I could recount the experience. I was excited to tell the story over and over and any number of people seemed enchanted by it.

Then came my friend Jane. Jane, the reader and watcher of science fiction. Jane who once accused me of thinking less of her because she read science fiction.

“What did he have to say about Doctor Who?”


“You didn’t ask him about Doctor Who?”

“Why would I ask him about Doctor Who?”

A great sigh that spoke of regret, resignation and not suffering fools gladly was released.

“He played Doctor Who and you didn’t ask him anything about it?”

“Do I get a reprieve from your scornful attitude if assure you my failure to ask questions about Doctor Who was the result of ignorance and not malice?”

I did feel awful about this oversight for a few minutes, but not much longer.

Over the years, I have given money to public television and radio and collected mugs, t-shirts, tote bags, books and God knows what else.

Those few minutes with Peter Davison, though I have nothing to show for it but the memory, remain my favorite thank you gift.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, November 21, 2014

Everything Comes in Pieces Nowadays

A lot of us have gotten out of the habit of going to the store to buy things like clothing and furniture. Buying clothing online is the simplest thing in the world. You don't even have to be decently dressed while you do it. It comes, it fits or it doesn't, if it doesn't you put it back in the box and take it across the street to the post office. No problem.

Furniture, not so much.

We've been living in this house for thirty years. We don't generally require more furniture. Sometimes we require less. There's a table with matching chairs in the kitchen, all solid maple, that my mother bought for her house in Massachusetts sometime in the sixties. I think it must be the last furniture she bought. But, the truth is, it doesn't fit in my little kitchen. I'm covered with bruises from bumping into the chairs. The table offers no storage underneath. There's stuff all over the tabletop that I can't fit in the cupboards. I've taken to storing potatoes and bags of flour on the chairs.

That's the kitchen problem. Then there's the trouble with my office. If you think the kitchen is cluttered, you should try wading into the office. You all know how long I've been complaining about this. It's been years, right? The desk is too big for my little office, there's stuff all over the floor, blah, blah.

If you can state a problem clearly, the solution will suggest itself. I have always believed this. So. Away with the too-big desk, get a smaller one with a file drawer. Out with the kitchen table and chairs, replace them with a modest kitchen island of a good height to work on and a stool for when I want to work sitting down. Simple matter. And yet I would never dream of going to a furniture store and selecting a kitchen island and a desk. Instead I did what I always do, go online and poke around until I find something that looks good.

This desk looked good! And the price was right. I sent away for it, along with two nice-sized bookcases, the day the shelves began to peel away from the wall. All of these things, the desk as well as the bookcases, came in pieces. I should have understood how it was when I read the reviews for some of the desks that were for sale on Amazon. "It only took my boyfriend three hours to put it together." "Remarkably good quality for the price. The fact that they included glue for the joints made this desk unusually sturdy." I read these words with a vague feeling that rabbits were walking over my grave. They make you put it together. Still. How hard could it be?

Harold, God bless him, put the bookcases together. They were real wood, solid wood. The desk was not. It came several days after the bookcases in a flat package with warning stickers for the delivery man to get help picking it up. I think he delivered it solo. I heard a thump on the front porch and went to the door in time to see him getting back in his truck. "I will drag this into the house myself," I thought, "and then I will unpack it and take it upstairs piece by piece and put it together. Harold will be so surprised." But I couldn't budge it. You know how heavy particle board can be, many times heavier than wood. Luckily the young fellow next door picked it up and carried it in for me. I opened it up on the living room rug and took the heavy pieces up the stairs to my office, rejoicing in the prospect of doing all the assembly myself without bothering Harold. I would have it finished, I thought, before he got home from work.

Well, it took the two of us, working alternately, a full week to put that sucker together. I finished it yesterday morning. The sticker that said Made in America was particularly piquant. Yes, the desk is made in America, if you live in America; you're the one who makes it. I noticed the rail supporting the file drawer was made in Taiwan, and a very sturdy piece of machinery it was. As for the rest of the desk, it's good-looking, and that's the best I can say for it. I hate particle board. The veneer on it is so thin that you only have to scratch it a little to reveal the pale crumbs of glued-together waste wood beneath. Which I did, through various accidents.

The new kitchen furniture promises to be much classier, having cost a lot more. The stool arrived weeks ago, a dear little retro stool with steps that fold underneath. It, too, had to be put together; Harold got busy and did the job in an hour and a half.

The kitchen island comes today sometime. It will be solid wood, with a butcher block top, no particle board, and I don't expect to have to do anything to it other than unwrap it and carry it into the kitchen. Maybe attach the legs. Maybe put the shelves underneath. But probably not anything, because the guys at the John Boos factory worked on it for a month before they shipped it. Surely they got it all finished. And they made it in America! Is this a great country, or what?

Note the rounded edges. I can't possibly bump into it and hurt myself. It will be just the right height and size for rolling out Thanksgiving pie crusts.

© 2014 Kate Gallison