Monday, January 31, 2011

Cabin Fever, Be Gone

"Landscapes are magically transformed by snow." While "It's a dark time, a cold time. It's also a time of warmth and family and love and tenderness." This is how the singer Sting describes winter.

I used to be one of those I don't like winter complainers. However, I reshaped my thinking, and now savor a chance for the body to slow down, spend lazy nights and weekends watching films or reading under a cozy blanket, savoring a pot of tea in my pajamas. Besides, who wants to spend a few months of their life being miserable and waiting for the next season?

That said, I am not immune to a good dose of cabin fever each winter (although truly imagine the pioneers and their mental health as they endured dark, lonely winters).

Here's how I've been beating the cabin fever blues.

Free: Flipping through magazines after a hectic day at work at my local library.

Co-hosting a winter clothes and post-holiday gift swap at work, where unwanted gifts such as Elizabeth Arden 5th Ave. perfume, orange scented lotion, a watch, a wallet, floral placemats, a calendar and more all found grateful new owners. I'll call this frugal instead of free since I purchase the refreshments, but I only spend around $15.

My finds: English breakfast tea (isn't the tin so pretty?), coffee (I can always use that), a lighthouse ornament with a serene nature scene, and from our book swap which a coworker started and is yearround, Tender is the Night, from American legend F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Also two cardigans, the navy and white one, Charter Club, the black one, Banana Republic. I suspect vanity sizing is the sole reason I fit into a small!

Fugal and free: Adding a dose of glamour to my wardrobe amid all these bulky sweaters, jeans and snowboots. While thrifting on my lunch hour at New York City's Housing Works, I acquired this vintage Judy Bond red blouse for just under $12. Aren't polka dots cheerful? I'll pair it with a white flower piece I got at a now shuttered vintage shop years ago (around $5 I vaguely recall). The vintage inspired watch (really from Avon), free: it was from my mom's jewelry box and was no longer wanted.

Flipping through the black and white photography book on New York City I found tucked away on a bookshelf at my parents' home, I pined for the glamour of an era gone by.

Frugal, splitting a vintage dessert: a banana split at Friendly's, $5.45.

We have a 23-year-old apprentice pharmacist, David Evans Strickler in Pennsylvania to thank for the banana split - he invented it in 1904.

Free: Walking. This is one of my favorite forms of exercise, but New Jersey has been hard hit with snow this winter. I relish any time I can spend in the park on weekends (as does Scotty the family dog).

At Van Saun County Park in Paramus, New Jersey, walking on water.

Viewing the photo of the geese, I reflect on how for wildlife winter is simply about survival (and this also sadly true for too many people, as I'm reminded of as I pass the homeless sleeping at New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal). I have a roof over my head, a comfortable bed, a hot shower and food in my refrigerator: all is good. Spring is coming.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The State of the Arts

Did you watch the State of the Union address? Regardless if the person who holds the office got my vote or not (I'll keep that to myself), I watch with an open-mind to the policies laid out before our Congress and our nation. I believe a certain respect for the office of the presidency has diminished. I can at least give one hour-plus of my life in January to hear what our Commander in Chief has to say if I wish to be an engaged citizen. Read the speech here.

"If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child -- become a teacher. Your country needs you," was President Barack Obama's call to the youth of our nation considering their career paths.

Long after leaving school, my thirst for knowledge hasn't diminished. With age, it seems to grow even stronger, and validates my long held belief education is lost and wasted on an ungrateful youth. What 18 year old can truly appreciate endless hours of studying?

Our teachers beyond the schoolroom may not be the traditional ones. They are the historical groups with non-paid volunteers, the authors of books toiling away for years on research, librarians, poets, singers, the bloggers typing away after a long day of homemaking duties or at work sharing their knowledge with the world. These are some of my teachers. Who are yours?

We can all serve as teachers, even in the non-traditional way. As Michael Stipe declares in R.E.M.'s Discoverer, "I have never felt so called."

I cheered silently from my home when President Obama stated rightfully,

"We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair."

I also thought of this New York Times piece, small in length but large in deflation of spirit, regarding a group of Republican lawmakers calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

"Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a lobbying group, said...that the arts provide 5.7 million jobs in the United States that generate about $30 billion in taxes, nearly $13 billion of which goes to the federal government. "If they're serious about jobs and they'e serious about income, they would invest more in the arts," Mr. Lynch said." Of course, according to our major news media, the only way to stimulate the economy is to go to the mall.

Arts never seem to be high on the national radar, but they are vital to our own continuing education as lifelong seekers of wisdom. With shrinking government budgets from townships all the way to the federal level, the private citizen will be called on to support the arts, even in some small way. Here's some of how I am supporting the arts.

Patronizing local plays. My sweetheart and I attended A.R. Gurney's humorous The Cocktail Hour put on by the Bergen County Players, which have been staging theatrical productions have been running since 1932. The matinee was a bargain at $16. We left wondering about our own families' hidden secrets.

Supporting public radio and television stations. One of my favorite radio programs is WFUV's The Big Broadcast, a 4-hour show of 1920s and 30s music Sunday evening that runs way past my bedtime. I enjoy the archives (two shows are listed) all week long, and they are largely available thanks to member-support. This year, I plan on become a long overdue member, and embarrassed to admit it took me this long.

Giving business to local book shops, and "voting" for the books themselves (no curling up this blustery winter with a gadget for me). I thrift and go to the library for most books since I'm budget minded and believe in communal sharing. But when I buy new (which I plan to do with As Always, Julia), I support my local, main street bookseller, Shaw's Book Shop in Westwood, New Jersey, where the owner knows me by name.

A lot of lip service is paid about small business among politicians of both parties in seemingly every State of the Union speech, and always draws loud applause, but chain stores and mall parking lots seem to be packed, while many small shops, main streets, and family farms struggle. All the applause in the world will do them no good unless we spend our dollar there.

Supporting upcoming, unsigned artists. I stumbled on Tuba Skinny busking at flea market in Woodstock, New York, and have fallen in love with their style of American 1920s and 30s music, an era I'm quite enamored with as of late. Their third cd, Garbage Man just arrived in the mail. See if Garbage Man won't have your toes tapping in no time.

You won't find them on MTV, which is too busy showing borderline child pornography programming with Skins in a destructive world of 17 going on 34, self-indulgent teenagers with million dollar sweet 16 parties, or that show which all descent New Jerseyans rue they ever heard of. Nor will they be on mainstream radio - much of what's on there wouldn't fit my standard for "artist." Although as my boyfriend likes to remind me, I'm no longer the "targeted demographic".

Donating to my Friends of the Library program. Libraries, such havens for knowledge seekers of all ages, have come under attack in the Great Recession.

For free (I've never had HBO through my cable package), my mind devoured the John Adams HBO miniseries (a definite recommend), in which he bemoaned his presidency would only be remembered for the Alien and Sedition Acts. Flash forward to 2011, and he's lucky to be remembered at all. I'm sure Snookie would have a higher name recognition.

Of course I'll be attending events with the Bergen County Historical Society. I'll bring you along too. Because I'd rather spend a Sunday with American royalty, not on my couch watching a bunch of miserable housewives, as numb to the world as their faces are after a session of Botox.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Endangered American Species: Language and Conversation

Dear readers,

I am writing this in a letter form. Remember those? I longingly do. And not e-mails - actual arrive in the mail, hand-written letters. Our second United States President, John Adams, and his wife Abigail exchanged 1,200, in what The New York Times remarked was "one of the most documented marriages in early American history" in its article on Joseph Ellis' "First Family, Abigail and John Adams." A more contemporary (although also no longer with the living) Julia Child has her letters featured in As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, which is on my long "to read" list. Will it rekindle a love affair with letters? I wish, but doubtful.

I am writing to you mildly alarmed by this New York Times article (which notably published the same day as the John Adams article). It started out this way,

"Signs you're an old fogey: You still watch movies on a VCR, listen to vinyl records and shoot photos on film. And you enjoy using e-mail."

The topic: how companies like Facebook, in an attempt to reach an increasingly impatient younger generation are "responding with message services that are focused on immediate gratification."

The problem I see with immediate gratification - one is going to be endlessly dissatisfied, always looking for the next big thing. Isn't that the driver of our American consumer culture and what marketers want? There's always a better TV, better eReader, better car, better "thing" that will complete your life. The invisible forces want you constantly bored. No profits in using what we have.

Beyond the consumerism (imagine the true price of all these gadgets and services over a lifetime, not in a monthly view), the cost to our language and communication skills is immeasurable.

"We're going down a road where we're losing our skills to communicate with the written word," bemoaned Judith Kallos, an e-mail etiquette blogger and author in the article. Added, rightly so, Californian Mary Bird, 65, "I don't want to be one of those elders who castigate young people's form of communication. But the art of language, the beauty of language, is being lost."

CBS Nightly News ran this story about the American ignorance of other languages (even our current Commander in Chief admitted he doesn't speak another language and was embarrassed to say so). They noted the small but slightly growing study of Chinese among American schoolchildren (50,000 American children are studying Chinese, 200 million Chinese school children are studying English). Aside from our nation's abysmal attention to the arts and culture in our education system, I couldn't help wonder how can we embrace another language, when we're rapidly losing sight of the importance of our own?

Channeling John Adams and Julia Child. We need a piece of you in the 21st century.

E-mail, for today's youth, was described by James E. Katz, the director for the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University, as "painful...It doesn't suit their social intensity."

The technology-induced ADD epidemic that seems to be sweeping many of both the youth and adults of our nation is one I refuse to be caught up in. The next time you go out to eat at a restaurant, look around and note the people compulsively typing away on their gadgets. After a recent date night at the movies with my sweetheart, some people were busy checking e-mail as soon as the credits were rolling. My biggest interest at that moment was finding out if True Grit was filmed domestically or abroad (it was filmed in Texas and New Mexico, which I would have missed had I been texting or a looking at e-mail). My social skills, it seems, are not so "intense."

The great trap of all this constant connectivity is that work and personal time boundaries are erased and many seem to be unable to live in the moment. No Smart Phone for me, thank you. The more intimate connections (a conversation, a phone call, a long overdue cup of coffee with a friend) are lost. I don't need to know the "status" of what everyone is doing at every second of the day (ahem, Facebook, which you won't find me on).

I do want to have personal encounters with people and their ideas. Face to face engaging conversations, thoughtful articles and blog posts, the arts (literature, film, music, visual, dramatic) - things that stimulate my mind instead of dulling it, that's what interests me. And filling my daily world by celebrating the word - its beauty, power and magnificence. I hereby add "Word" to my list of favorite four-letter words.

Sincerely Yours,
Catherine (a proud Old Fogey as facetiously defined by The New York Times)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Passport to England: Tea & Sympathy

Visions of cozy cottages with rose gardens, cream teas, castles, posh London, witty humor, rainy days leading to green pastures in scenic countrysides. This is some of what my mind conjures up when I think of England.

I had the great pleasure of traveling to London (with some side trips to Bath and to visit Stonehenge) in my late twenties. How I would love to go Cornwall and dig deeper into the country.

Alas, I'll take a trip there for now through my taste buds to my favorite British haunt in New York City, Tea & Sympathy. A biting cold, windy January evening was the perfect weather to go there for some comfort food. And comforted my friend and I were.

One of the night's specials: their piping hot vegetarian Bubble and Squeak Pie (called that because of the noise it makes while baking). Filled with brussels sprouts, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, yellow turnip and mashed potatoes in a shortcrust pastry, with roast potatoes in a leek gravy (this was more like a broth), $14.95. With a pot of fragrant apricot tea, $4.50. The pretty cup and saucer, Mrs. Bucket (pronounced "Bouquet")-approved!

Also off of the specials, my friend's (or should I say mate's!) curried cauliflower and potato samosas with a salad, and not pictured, mango chutney and cucumber raita, $13.95. Can you believe I didn't have Indian food in London? I know!

My friend's pot of chai tea, with the treacle pudding (a vanilla sponge cake with a golden syrup glaze topped with hot custard), $8, which we shared. All divine.

"Life wouldn't be worth living if one couldn't enjoy an occasional treat with one's best friends," Hyacinth Bucket wisely declared to Elizabeth and Emmet in my favorite Britcom, Keeping Up Appearances.

Above the shelf of kitschy knickknacks, the most campy of all - a tray of Charles and Diana.

Admire their assortment of tea pots, cups and tea cozies at Carry On Tea and Sympathy, their companion shop, where I always feel like Hermoine Granger when I enter. I don't know how people drink tea out of a paper cup. In addition to being kinder to the environment, a pretty cup is so much more homey.

A Salt & Battery next door sells fish and chips fare, but for me it would be a chip butty (I rarely eat fried food, so once in a blue moon I'd allow it), side of mushy peas and Magners Irish cider. Preferably with rain coming down.

Because when it rains or skies are simply grey, a little bit of England (and Ireland) fills my heart.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

My Favorite Four Letter Words


Fields, painted by nature in colors of the rainbow in summer, now take a long winter's slumber at Abram Demaree Homestead in Closter, New Jersey. Fortunately for the hungry soul comforted by their homemade mac and cheese, they are open year-round. Find a family farm near you through LocalHarvest.


No one lingering with the paper, holding hands with a sweetheart or enjoying a moment of solitude on this park bench at Pascack Brook Park in Westwood, New Jersey.

My parents adopted a seven-year-old dog, Scotty, about a year-and-a-half ago on, and he is the love of our lives. Before adopting him, we never were in the park so often and especially not in winter, but it is now one of my favorite places. It is also one of the few spots I've noticed that people are much more unplugged from their cell phones and gadgets. As Brooks mourned in The Shawshank Redemption, "The world went and got itself in a big, damn hurry." Here, people seem, for a moment, anything but.

Upon viewing nature's present of newly blanketed snow, I thought of the Tori Amos line in Carbon, "Where the world bleeds white." For a sonic road trip around America, check out her Scarlet's Walk album.


Gold Diggers of 1933, an American tale about those desperately seeking to kiss goodbye economic hardships and dance, sign, and celebrate life again. Sound timeless? The consoling fact, that now matter how bad times fall, more prosperous ones follow for our nation.

I already have Gold Diggers of 1935 at home waiting for me for an inviting night in my pajamas and bowl of popcorn. My friend uses the word "cocooning" for winter activities: staying indoors, making soups and stews, reading, and resting, as she says. Film watching is a cherished part of my winter cocooning.


No eReaders for me, as I spend enough hours looking at a computer screen at work. Even if that weren't the case, I'd still prefer an actual book. I like to peruse charity thrift shops, the library and our book swap at work (along with recommendations) for books, which I like to think find their way to me, and me to them.

My latest is taking me to turn of the century New York City in a captivating thriller, In the Shadow of Gotham. Just 25 cents at Our Thrift Shop in Hillsdale, New Jersey.


Of sweethearts, family, friends, animals. A few years ago, my heart's desire, Steve, and I took a trip to the city most associated with love - Paris.


Blueberry pancakes, $7.25, savored with hot chocolate on brisk January's Sunday morning at the Garden Café in New Milford, New Jersey.

Remember the scene in Little Miss Sunshine when young Olive orders waffles à la mode in the diner and misprouncing it, asks the waitress what "à la mode-y" meant? Her winning-obsessed perfectionist father tells her ice cream contains cream and cream has fat which can turn to fat in your body, and beauty queens (which Olive aspires to be) aren't fat. The concept of food guilt is introduced. Her grandfather charmingly declared he liked a little meat on his women, and he, her brother and mother all dug right into the chocolate ice cream when it arrived, as Olive did too. I often think of this scene anytime I might indulge in something and thoughts of calories or my waistline creep in. I am proud to be "à la mode-y" woman. I hope you are an à la mode-y woman or man, and don't care if we'll ever look like a beauty pageant winner.

Just look at our consolation prize:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Classic Obsessions

It's 2011. Can we go back? Decades in time? Am I the only one who pines for a time machine? I sometimes feel like I'm an 85-year-old at heart trapped in a 35-year-old's body in terms of the popular culture. It's time to turn to the classics.

I think American television may be at its lowest level of creativity, intelligence and just plain decency - ever. Why would I want to "keep up" with talentless social climbers trying to exploit fame to get every marketing deal they can? My time is too valuable for that.

This year, I'm tuning out more tv and turning on classic DVDs. No need for an additional monthly bill of a Netflix account. Libraries offer an abundance of films at a price everyone can afford - free (or a nominal fee at most).

I spent New Year's Day in the company of a star: Gene Kelly in "An American in Paris."

Classic music. The Forrest Gump soundtrack, $2, filled with American classics which will make for good road trip music, and French pop icon Serge Gainsbourg's Comic Strip cd, $1, from New York City's Housing Works thrift shop. Shop Housing Works online. If you're willing to mine through the cd collections at thrift stores, you can find some treasures. Or, peruse your library's collection.

Classic jewelry - pearls. A pricey gift from my sweetheart? No way. These are hand-me-downs from my mother's jewelry box. I prefer second-hand jewelry any day.

Pictured with my thrifted mint green vintage apron, $1 from C.A.T.S. Resale Shop, and my Hollywood Cocktails book. A favorite classic cocktail: kir royale.

Classic bathrooms?

Photo courtesy of

"Pink has come back into vogue, with more people...embracing their vintage pink bathrooms rather than taking a sledgehammer to them, The New York Times reported. So much of our view is psychological, and how often I've heard people complain about their "dated" home interiors. Reshaping your thought process - consider a room to be vintage, classic, Americana - and celebrate what we have instead (and save a fortune in the process).

I, for one, have stood many a time in people's pricey remodeled kitchen, bathroom or other thinking, I liked the "before" better. Although as a renter I have little incentive to make major changes, I still embrace my robin's egg blue bathroom from the 1960s.

Classic education. When asked in a 60 Minutes interview if he was concerned the younger generation wouldn't know who Duke Ellington is, Wynton Marsalis said he's disappointed some in his own generation doesn't know, and rightfully lamented over "the failure of our educational system to deal with cultural education."

"It saddens me for us as a nation because we have such a rich cultural heritage and...we would make such better decisions if we could understand what brings us together.

The arts are our collective human heritage. You're a better person if you know what Shakespeare was talking about. If you know what Beethoven struggled with, if you know about Matisse. If you know what Louis Armstrong actually sang through his horn, you're better. It's like you get to speak with the wisest people who ever lived."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Putting out the Welcome Mat

How do you define the American dream? Every person will answer that question differently. American Dream Finder is a series of love letters to my pursuit of it.

My dream include thriving main streets, independent businesses, thrift and consignment shops, clothing swaps, libraries, family farms, parks, aging gracefully, financial empowerment, expanding our minds, travel, reading, remembering our history, voting, charities, volunteering, eating a mostly plant-based diet, savoring and not wasting food, and respect for the animals, the environment and people, including future generations to come.

Welcome to my blog.