04 May, 2006

klumpfenbildende katzenstreu

Isn't that a much more entertaining way to say "clumping cat litter"? It would be so wonderful sometimes to be German. I am actually completely mystified as to why my cat litter is German, but it really helps alleviate the boredom of taking care of these cats, to be able to read on the label of the bag that what I am about to dump into their box is not only "babypuderduft" but also "99.5 straubfrei." Now, being a lifelong connoisseur of cat litter, as well as having a handy grasp of basic German, I can easily see that the product is 99.5 percent dust-free, but "babypuderduft"? I haven't a clue, and I hate to look it up in my German dictionary and lose the romance. It could mean anything.

As you can see, the garden at Warburton House is in full bloom. Every morning when I pull up the shades in Avery's room, the tulips are tightly shut, but by the time we've finished breakfast they're wide awake. It's a beautiful spot.

Let's see, what have we been up to? In my continuing efforts to replace every single function in our old life with its exact replica here, I have found a shoe repair shop. I have been missing Boris, my Russian shoe guy on Greenwich Street in Tribeca, with his big belly and jolly laugh and tolerance of my bad Russian. Even more, however, John's shoes have been missing Boris. Oh, the times he scolded me, "You are the wife. He is the husband. This means that he will never know when it is time to come to me. Only you will know this. Please do not let them get so very bad. Someday, Kristen, there will be nothing that even I can do."

But he always could. So lately John has several times left his favorite loafers out, suggestively, invitingly by the front door, and I have kindly put them back on his shoe shelf. Finally he was forced to come clean. "They really need new soles. And heels. Please." In my mind's eye I could see a little shoemaker's shop near school, so yesterday I started off to pickup a bit early, and after assiduous questioning of the street cleaner (no idea), the homeless guy who always sells the fundraising magazine "The Big Issue" outside the grocery store (no idea) and the flower truck guy (pay dirt!) I was in Paddington Street at "James Taylor & Son, Bespoke Shoemakers Since 1857." Forget leather: I could just smell the money as I walked in. An ancient storefront with all mahogany and brass fittings, the requisite set of King Charles spaniels snoozing in the storeroom, and a spare little Englishman in a white coat, eager in his quiet English way to return John's shoes to their former pristine life. "Is there really an adequate market for your services, bespoke shoes that is?" I asked in amazement. "But yes, madam, I assure you," said the man, "we are quite busy. And of course we are proud members of the Honourable Cordwainers' Conference, and have been for many years."

The Honourable What? I had to come home and look it up. For some reason it struck me as anachronistic that such a group of people would have a website (was it the white coat perhaps?), but they do. Mind you, it is an " dot org", not a " dot com." Clearly this is all in the manner of public service, bespoke shoes. It turns out that "cordwainer" is the ancient term for "shoemaker," and the society has mission statement, and a coat of arms. And a patron saint! But that's not all. Their American counterparts (oh yes, it's an international conference) have lofty plans for a SHOE MUSEUM, can you hardly wait? It will contain all the historical artifacts and ephemera pertaining to the history of shoemaking in the United States. Plus plans for archaeological field work, and visiting exhibitions. But lest you feel you cannot wait until the museum opens to get your fill of the history of cordwainery, the website assures us that "On a more immediate basis, the guild shoe collection will be on exhibit at The Gustafson Gallery, Colorado State University in 1999 [a video catalogue of the collection was made at this year's AGM and will soon be available to members]."

Of course it will. A video! Of a shoe collection. What could be better.

Well, enough of that. We will have to choose between eating next week and paying for John's new soles and heels, but I didn't really expect anything less.

We're getting excited for our next horsey event, The Royal Windsor Horse Show! It will be Saturday the 13th of May (actually the event will last five days but I thought one day would be sufficient for us). There will be showjumping, and carriage-driving (a favourite of the Duke of Edinburgh), and more to my taste, a celebration of Prince Charles' interest in organic foodstuffs. Remember away back in January when I told you about the vinaigrette made from the Prince's personal recipe? Well, it's all part of his Duchy Originals food line, including quite the best pork sausages you've ever eaten. Sure, the Prince himself is a bit cracked, but I have to get behind him on the whole movement against genetically modified foods. Do you know that even at the rather lame Marks and Spencers Food Hall, each package of meat is labeled with the farmer's name who supplied it? Now for all I know some employee of M & S is sitting in a dark room pulling names out of a hat and laughing hysterically, but for some reason I believe the whole scenario. I really did get my pork mince from James Ludley of Herefordshire. Anyway, the horse day will be fun for Avery, who tonight gets to go to Wimbledon for her first Pony Club evening lesson. It will be such fun, after all these months, to see her make friends with fellow pony girls. It's going to be a late night, though. It takes a good hour to get there, for the 5:30 lesson, then an hour on the pony, then an hour to get back. I think I'll pack her a little picnic dinner.

I had my second acting class yesterday and we had a fine time. Three of us met opportunistically in the CityLit cafe for lunch before the class, and it turns out that both English Natasha and Brazilian Marcus are waiters in pubs. I guess that's where a very expensive degree in archaeology from Goldsmiths' College gets a nice English girl these days. They are so painfully young! They nearly patted me on the back of my hand when I told them I was a mother and didn't have a job. "But that must be so fulfilling, nurturing a new life," Natasha assured me, clearly unconvinced. In class we did a really intriguing exercise. Each of us was paired with another student, and we were each to tell an incident from our own life, a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Then we were put together with another pair of students, and two of us recounted our partner's story, to the whole group of three. Get it? The idea was threefold, I guess: one, to exercise our individual ability to tell a story. Two, to exercise two people's abilities to retell a story. Three, and most interesting to me, was to teach the teller of the story to let go of her narrative, and give ownership of it to the other person. There was no interrupting allowed when the partner retold the story, and he or she was under no obligation to be faithful to the original. Then, among the four of us we came to a consensus as to which story (between the two we had heard retold) would make the best play. Then we assigned parts to each of us and rehearsed it, and acted it out for the whole class.

I told a story about a trip on the New York subway to Avery's barn in the Bronx, and having a man sit across from me with a Starbucks coffee cup in his hand. Every once in awhile he would look into the cup, into the little sippy place in the lid. Then he would look around the subway car and try to catch someone's eye (not an easy thing to do with contact-shy New Yorkers on public transport). Then he'd look into the cup again, and once in awhile blow gently into it. Finally I couldn't take it anymore and walked over to him. "Would you like to see what is in my cup?" he inquired, recognizing a sucker. "I really would," I said, and he took off the lid. There, huddled inside the cup, was a hummingbird. Bright blue and green and yellow. Its wings were fluttering slightly, but it didn't look particularly disturbed. "I have an office that looks out onto the World Trade Center site," he said, "and today I was just feeling really down, about everything, and gazing out the window, when this little fellow flew into the pane and fell to the ground outside. So I ran down the stairs, not wanting to wait for the elevator, and there he was, on the sidewalk. I thought he was dead, but I couldn't just leave him there. Then I realized I was still carrying the coffee cup I'd been drinking out of at my desk. So I poured out the coffee and scooped him up in the cup. I set him on my desk and thought I'd bury him, when I got home after work. But then, the cup started to move on my desk! I looked in the top, and sure enough, he'd been only stunned."

"And here you are," I said. "Carrying a hummingbird in your latte cup on a #1 train to the Bronx." "Yes," he said, "and I just had to tell somebody." "Could I possibly have him?" I asked tentatively. "I'm meeting my little girl in Riverdale for her horseback-riding lesson, and she would just flip, to see him like that." "Well, another time I would say yes," the man answered, "but as it happens, I've told my own little girl about him and she's waiting at home. We'll release him there. But any other time, I would." The train stopped at his station and he got out, waving goodbye.

After I finished, my partner Julian (the crack-addicted ex-con, remember?) retold it to Susie and Marcus. What caught my attention was what he left out, unintentionally. Number one, he didn't mention that at first the man thought the hummingbird was dead. And he left out that the man's office overlooked the World Trade Center. So when Pip, the instructor, asked us how it had gone, I asked her if she thought that the parts that Julian left out were left out because they weren't important to the story, or because I hadn't told them well enough to show that they were important. "It could go either way," she said. "That's why I'm hesitant about writers who then go on to direct their own plays. There's no voice of reason, no objective ear, no one to say, hello, that isn't important, that doesn't belong. But it could be that you needed to edit your story, to make it clear to Julian why those details were important, if they were. But so often, writers leave in bits that are of importance only to THEM, not to the story. And for all of us, writers, directors and actors, our allegiance is to the STORY." Also she pointed out that while it is the prerogative of the director, and of the actor, to mess about with what the writer has done, we all have a moral obligation to that writer, the person who originally put the idea out there.

So interesting! Then we acted out our chosen story. We decided that Susie's story had more action and more characters, so it was a better choice. She and a friend had been on their way to New York for a visit, and were shopping in the Harrods' shop at Heathrow for presents to take along, and missed two announcements for their flight, nearly missing the flight itself and having to beg and plead to the steward. So I became the friend, and since Susie had to leave early, Marcus became her, and Julian was the irate British Airways steward who had to decide whether or not to let us on the flight. And, my fellow Americans, I am duty-bound to tell you that because of my nationality, the character of the friend took on a number of important qualities: I was to be bossy, insensitive, loud-voiced and ignorant. These are, it turns out, the salient characteristics of any American! At least my three fellow actors had the grace to apologize for making me act that way. Talk about type-casting.

My next venture toward self-improvement is going to be an all-day course later this month called "Autobiography into Fiction." I think it would be good to figure out a way to turn this blog into a novel. But the key will be learning how to make it interesting to regular people, not my long-suffering friends and family. Any suggestions welcome.

Since it would be sacriligious to end a post without a recipe, here's the chicken dish we had last night. Many of you have eaten this at my table, and many have asked for the recipe, so here goes:

Lillian Hellman's Chicken (to be served with Dashiell Hammett Spinach, but that's another story) Serves four

2 whole boneless chicken breasts, split and finely trimmed
1/2 cup Hellman's mayonnaise (get it?)
1/2 cup grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
juice of 1 lemon
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups homemade bread crumbs

Now before you object, there is simply no need for canned bread crumbs to exist. Have you ever wondered what sort of bread the Progresso company deems bad or old enough to be pulverized and put in a can? So march yourself over to your pantry, take out that blue can, and pitch it. Go on, you know I'm right. Then start saving your leftover hot dog buns, that third of a baguette you righteously didn't eat last night, the crusts of the bread you used in your picnic lunch. If you just have a bowl on your counter where you can throw these little leftovers as they appear (don't cover the bowl or the bread will get moldy), then when you are in the mood you can grind them up. Just throw them in your Cuisinart and whizz away. The sound of stale bread in a Cuisinart, for the first few seconds, is a very satisfying, violent rattling noise like a car crash where nobody gets hurt.

Mix together the mayo, cheese, lemon juice and pepper in a bowl big enough to accomodate a single chicken breast. Pour your bread crumbs on a wide plate. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil for easy cleanup. Preheat your oven to a nice high temperature. My New York oven used to operate at only one temperature, no matter where I set the dial, so all my recipes can survive at 425 degrees.

Smear each chicken breast generously with the gooey mixture and then roll equally generously in bread crumbs. Lay each on the foil with some space between them. Bake for 30 minutes, and voila. It's the perfect big-party dish because you can make it ahead of time and slice it cold when you need it. With a nice bowl of basmati rice and a green salad, you're all set. And excellent leftovers!