Chaos theory

There is chaos in this house. While to a degree it is organized chaos, it is chaos nonetheless.   

When we moved into our newly built, suitably downsized home nearly five years ago, I naively thought we were done with home improvement projects and the chaos they impose. Fat chance.

Here I sit, with the contents of two closets  piled, stacked, and hung throughout the house. Hubby, to whom I am deeply thankful, used the mercifully snowless snow day to do all the heavy lifting. I give his very ordered brain complete credit for giving some well thought out method to this madness. The coats were removed from the guest closet and layered neatly on the loveseat. My clothes were hung in the guest closet in perfect order, and most of his are upstairs. The sweaters and tees are on the bedroom chairs. The contents of the linen closet are lined up on a towel on the dining room floor, against a row of luggage. Impatient as I am, I freely admit that I would never have taken such pains.

This is largely a painting project: the closet, master bath, foyer, and a few other odds and ends. The closet had never been painted; we were in a rush to move in. Attempting to make both the bathroom and foyer brighter, I’d picked shades so subtle that they’re just about disappearing. So, five years hence, we are correcting my goofs. Temporary inconvenience, as the highway sign goes, permanent improvement.

The real killer, though, is that straight-as-an-arrow ceiling crack that appeared out of the blue several weeks ago. It crosses the great room from the fireplace to the kitchen. Over the furniture. Over the mantle and its assorted pretty stuff. Over the rugs and hardwood floors. Over the kitchen island and counter. There’s give in the sheetrock, which means there’s no joist above it. The repair is guaranteed to make an awful mess. I fully understand that this is a very small problem in a world fraught with real ones, but it shouldn’t have happened in a house this new.  They don’t build houses the way they used to, do they?

Once all the work is done, though, we’ll do a down-to-the-bones spring cleaning and put everything back in its proper place. Perhaps the threat of snow will have passed once and for all by then, too. That would be welcome indeed.


Remembering another Miss Austin

No, not Austen. And not Jane. But they have books and writing in common.

It was a verdant Central Pennsylvania summer, and I was in my last term, anxious for graduation. Summer terms were rapid-fire in those days, eight weeks as opposed to the usual ten. Classes met four times a week and, as I recall, were about half an hour longer than during the regular academic year. In retrospect, a truncated term probably wasn’t the best to take on the Victorian novel. None of the stars of the period could be considered an easy or quick read, and coupled with my other classes, I easily had about 300 pages of reading a night. I won’t swear that I read every single page for my other classes, but I didn’t miss a single word of the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, and—of course—Charles Dickens.

Deborah Austin was a Kathryn Hepburn type with a sturdy Yankee demeanor and sparkling eyes. She pulled her salt-and-pepper hair back in a twist, always with a few stray strands framing her face. She was born in Boston (like me!) and raised in  Maine, not  far from the tiny paper mill town where my father grew up. I suppose I loved her even more for that, and for that sweet whisper of Maine in her voice… not an accent, mind you, just a whisper. I could have listened to her all day long. My experience in her class shaped my reading habits forever. I learned to love, appreciate, prefer a believable, gimmick-free story masterfully told, with complicated characters, complex relationships, and revealing dialogue.

Miss Austin* was an accomplished poet whose work appeared in such worthy publications as The Atlantic Monthly and the collection The Paradise of the WorldOne of my great regrets is that I didn’t get to know her better. We had several spirited conversations about Dickens and our dogs when the term ended, but then, like hundreds of her other students, I graduated and went on to my grown-up life elsewhere. I wish I’d kept in touch.

Miss Austin loved Dickens and taught me to love him, too. Not necessarily more than Hardy, Eliot, or the others, but for his own sake and in his own right as a master storyteller. To this day I haven’t found any description to equal the aborted wedding celebration scene in Great Expectations, the heart-rending exchange between the dying Paul Dombey and his sister Floy  (which is reported to have set all of England weeping), or, of course, the lasting lessons of A Christmas Carol.

I don’t know what kids in college read today, but I do know that there are plenty of good lessons about right and wrong and managing the ebb and flow of life in the thousands of pages that Dickens turned out during the course of his writing career. If you’re casting about for something to read, I highly recommend almost anything in the Charles Dickens oeuvre.

*At my alma mater, it was considered gauche to refer to those along the “professor” continuum as anything but Mr., Mrs., or Miss, and Ms. hadn’t come along yet.

Cover photo:  Old Main lawn, Penn State iGEM 2008 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


I hit the ground running early this morning when inspiration struck. Move the love seat from the den back to the living room, and move the wingback to the den.

There is nothing unusual about this urge, as most women know. When the kids were itty bitty, I was always moving furniture around. In those days, though, upholstered furniture was big and heavy and hulking. Like that little engine that could, I would push and pull and edge until the room had yet another new look—not always, I fully admit, a better one.

Whenever those very same itty bitty ones would lock horns over nothing,  this only child, who had always longed for a sibling, would cry out in exasperation, “Why on earth would you fight over that? You should love each other. Why would you fight at all?” Once, in response, my daughter, who was seven or eight at the time, looked up at me and said simply, “Because it’s not boring.”

Which is precisely why we rearrange the furniture.

Today, I knew I had to break this news to Hubby, who, like every other husband on the planet, doesn’t get it. I did so gently, but this time I added, “Every woman likes to rearrange the furniture. It’s just what we do.” Remarkably, he agreed. I was stunned. Not one to push my luck, I decided to tell him about the new pillow plan–for color, of course—some other time.

A few hours later, he advised me to check the “to do” list on the counter. This is what I found:

Move TV room furniture. 
Move 2nd floor to 1st floor in June.
Move basement to 1st floor.

I’m not sure what happens to the first or second floor in this scenario. Oh well. Neither is he.

The books I keep

Whereas buying a book now and then requires minimal space—I can always accommodate another book on my nightstand or the coffee table if need be—the haul from the thrice yearly book sales is another matter.

To be sure that I have sufficient space for half a dozen or so treasures, I’ve adopted the ritual of deep-cleaning and “editing” the bookcase before each sale, in February, June, and October. It works out rather nicely. The books I’m ready to part with go into the donate bag, those I want to share go to family, friends, or neighbors, and those I keep are lovingly dusted and restored to their home on my shelves.

I know people who never hold on to books. I know people who only buy used books. I know people who don’t buy them at all. Either they’ve gone totally electronic, or they rely on the library. Which is fine. But I still buy “real” books, and I still keep them. Among them are a few childhood favorites, my Rockwell Kent-illustrated Shakespeare, and two of my mother’s treasures—a gilt-edged edition of Webster’s and a Metropolitan Opera Guide from many, many moons ago. The only college text I’ve held on to is the expansive English Romantic Writers. What can I say? Every now and then, I need a dose of Wordsworth.

There are several reasons why I continue to buy “real” books. One is the pure joy of browsing through a bookstore.  We don’t have any really good “indies” around here, but when we travel north or south, bookstores are always on the agenda. At home, I rely on Amazon and our local Barnes & Noble. Another is that a book you love becomes part of you in ways that only a committed reader can understand. A third is that I like to support the writers I love, the writers who consistently show up in my pre-release queue. They represent a mix of genres, for sure: Andrea Camelleri, Louise Penny, Richard RussoDonna Leon, Alan Furst, David McCulloughMonica Wood, Frances Mayes, Gail Godwin, MFK FisherDoris Kearns Goodwin, Pat Conroy, and, of course, the inimitable Adriana Trigiani.

If you’re a reader, chances are, like me, you check out the bookshelves when you visit a home for the first time.  “You love Paris, too! Who knew?” Our book choices, at least the ones we choose to display, are revealing in so many ways.  For instance, have a look at some of my  keepers:


I love reading about France and food.


Mysteries and Annie Lamott.


My daughter introduced me to this series, set in Sicily, that was also adapted for television. Commissario Montalbano is irresistible in either version.


Perennial favorites.

‘Drug store skin care’ revisited

Yesterday I found myself cleaning out what I referred to in one of my early posts as “the graveyard under the sink”—that Netherland in the vanity where all of the once-tried and subsequently rejected hair care products, body lotions, nail polish, and so forth find their home.

I purge the vanity every three months or so, when the impulse strikes, even if it happens to be midnight. If I don’t act then, the job won’t get done till the next wave of motivation hits. I pitch the expired product samples, wash and repack the bin that contains my travel-size stash, and drain any expired bottles of hair product that hadn’t lived up to my expectations.

Just as I had when I cleaned out the pantry after Christmas, I felt virtuous. Such “cleansing” chores that make sense when the sky is gray and the wind is howling. Who wants to clean out a cabinet  when the air is balmy, the sky is bright blue, and the daffodils are poking through the mulch? Which, now that it’s February, is not really that far away.

By the way, last year around this time, I wrote a post that I called “Drug Store Skin Care.” I’ve been with the L’Oréal products since then and have to say that I find them every bit as good as all of the significantly higher priced brands I’ve tried. I used the Revitalift line first, then switched to Age Perfect. I confess that I can’t see a huge difference in effectiveness between the two. My face feels soft and supple, and my daughter, who can always be counted on for directness in matters of hair, make-up, and apparel (“Don’t get too matchy-matchy!”), has said several times that my skin looks great. Perhaps the greatest advantage, though, is the economy of these products. I usually buy cosmetics at Ulta* and often find that both of these lines are full-price for the first item and 50% off the second. Since the line’s top price point is around $25, that’s a steal any way you look at it. Compare that to Philosophy or Lançome (which, incidentally, is owned by L’Oréal) or Clarins. I’ve also bought the products at the drug store and the grocery store—if I see a deep discount, I take advantage of it.

This sounds like a commercial endorsement, which it really isn’t. I’d heard so many friends complaining about the price of high-end skin care that I thought I’d experiment myself and share the results. So far, so good.

*One GREAT thing about Ulta… if you buy something, try it, and don’t like it, you can return it within 60 days—opened and used—without a fuss. I don’t do so often but always appreciate the fact that I can if I want to. The last thing I returned was a green (yes, green) tube of Lipstick Queen that was supposed to become that elusive perfect shade once applied. It was awful, but thanks to Ulta’s policy, it cost me nothing. Sephora has a similar policy.




Carolina blue

Continuing an earlier theme that amounts, basically, to “sunshine on a cloudy day,” on this snowy afternoon I invite you to enjoy a petit gout of Carolina blue… North Carolina’s signature blue sky.


We had a house in North Carolina for a very short time, in an almost too well planned community between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro—a study in contrasts if ever there was one. Chapel Hill, home of UNC, is cool and sophisticated and well-groomed. Pittsboro, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned Southern small town, complete with a Piggly Wiggly and friendly as all get-out.

We thought we would eventually retire there, but, in the end, it didn’t take. In defense of the area, we didn’t fully commit. We weren’t ready to retire, not by a long shot; and we were constantly running back and forth to Pennsylvania—which is one thing if the drive is two hours and entirely another if it’s eight.

While our decision to give up the idea had more to do with loved ones and work, there were some—shall we say—cultural issues that helped it along.  The de rigueur coffees with the neighbor ladies felt forced, and I was downright allergic to the subtle expectation that anyone who lived there would naturally have the same opinions about everything from restaurants to books to the quest for world peace. Kind of like seventh grade all over again.

At least for me—Hubby loves hot weather—the summer heat was almost as unbearable as this morning’s 17° wind chill. Plus—and this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back—there was no escarole in the grocery store.

But more important, there was the lingering feeling that if we did retire there, new acquaintances, no matter how friendly and welcoming, would be no substitute for the kids and grands and family we weren’t seeing enough of, or the friends of a lifetime we would have left behind.

And so, we sold the house. On many of our coldest days here in the Mid-Atlantic,  Hubby wistfully recalls the balmy North Carolina winter and those spindly southern pines swaying against a stunning blue sky.  I get it. It’s a beautiful place.





Au revoir, Monsieur Mayle

I teared up, almost as if I’d lost a friend, when I saw that Peter Mayle had passed.  After all, he had given me Provence—first on the printed pages of his charming, insightful trilogy—A Year in Provence, Encore Provence, Toujours Provence—and thereafter the engaging, lighthearted novels he set there, irresistible confections all. Hotel Pastis and A Good Year were my personal favorites.

When we traveled in Provence, I confess to looking for Peter Mayle on the cobbled streets of Menerbes and Lourmarin and Gordes. There were no sightings, but I have seen many online comments from folks who did run into him there, and found him ever gracious and engaging. I hoped they thanked him for all the pleasure his pen provided; I surely would have.

If you haven’t read A Year in Provence, please do, then watch the British TV adaptation with the great John Thaw, whom you might know as the original Inspector Morse, as Peter, and Lindsay Duncan as his wife.