28 December 2015

Tart Shells are Round; or, The Kind of Circular Thinking In Which Nothing Is New

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, we were invited out to dinner. I offered to make a dessert, and planned to make the lemon tart from Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking, because every time I have made it, it's been perfect. And I love a lemon dessert. That tart calls for a pâte sablée crust, which is kind of like a sugar cookie and a great foil for the quite tart lemon custard filling. Alas, that day, the crust failed, epically. It cracked all over the place, and wouldn't even come out of the pan. I switched gears and made something else, but I still don't know why that pâte sablée didn't work.

For Thanksgiving dinner, I decided to make the cranberry curd tart that had been in the Times food section in a Thanksgiving round up. That recipe uses a hazelnut crust - a loose mix of ground hazelnuts pressed into the tart pan like you would a graham cracker crust. It was okay - the hazelnut crust was nice by itself, but we thought it competed indecorously with the cranberry filling.

Not being able to leave behind the failed pâte sablée, I did a bunch of googling. Butter in visible chunks? Butter thoroughly amalgamated with the flour? Somehow, I stumbled on a tart shell recipe on David Lebovitz's blog that blew all of that away - it was a 2009 recipe that started with a lump of butter and a splash of water and a spoonful of sugar, all dumped in a bowl and put in a hot oven for 15 minutes. Boiled butter! Then you add the flour. Intrigued, I had to try it. We'd been invited to a Boxing Day party so I thought I'd re-engineer the cranberry curd tart by putting it in Lebovitz's shell.

The crust is fascinating. It comes together almost like a roux, a wet looking ball of flour & butter, which you smush into a tart shell, gingerly because it's fiercely hot. It gets baked, while you make the curd, then both cool to room temperature. Then, you spoon the curd in the tart shell and bake it together for another 10 minutes. [Naturally, I wonder why everything has to be cooled down before that final run through the oven, but that's an experiment for another day.]

The boiled butter crust was delightful with the cranberry curd. A keeper, if you will. I decided that David Lebovitz was onto something.

Last night, I climbed into bed with a Christmas present: a copy of Food52 Genius Recipes. I wasn't reading it straight through, but jumping around looking for things that I need to make right now. You read cookbooks in bed, right? It's a compilation cookbook - 100 recipes from 100 sources - all alleged to be "the best". The reason I wanted the book is because there were enough recipes that I knew already, and knew to be good - the bar nuts from the Union Square Cafe, Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread, Kim Boyce's Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies, that butter & onion tomato sauce from Marcella Hazan, Marion Cunningham's Raised Waffles. I figured with that kind of track record, there were probably other great recipes. I turned to page 236, curious about the "eggless lemon curd", because it sounds like a non-sequitur, eggs being pretty essential to curd, in my experience. [It uses agar, in case you're wondering.] But what to my wondering eyes turns up in the book, on page 235, as a vehicle for the lemon curd? "Brown Butter Tart Crust, from Paule Caillat" - in other words, the Lebovitz boiled butter crust. I confess to being both dumbfounded and even happier to have the cookbook in the first place.

There really is nothing new under the sun, is there?

25 December 2015

Merry Christmas!

Half way through its decoration, the tree fell down. We wept, and swept up the broken ornaments. But their beauty cried out, so we spread them on a sheet and took a picture of the shattered yet ineffably lovely shards - honoring them in our remembrance.

All best wishes for a happy 2016, and may you too stop to note a moment of unexpected grace.

11 December 2015

Perma Hedge, the cousin of fake Christmas trees

Do you know that there's a product out there called Perma Hedge? It's the green fuzzy plastic stuff that's supposed to make a chain link fence look like a perfect trimmed up evergreen hedge.

I don't know why I even know that, but whenever I drive by one, I need to sing out Perma Hedge.

I digress. I read a wonderful book recently, called My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry. It's comic, anarchic, tragic, fantastic, eccentric, and wildly imaginative with a truly compelling voice. And, circling back to Perma Hedge, there's a wonderful passage about Christmas trees:

Mum, of course, was very angry at Granny about the whole plastic tree thing, because she likes the smell of a real spruce tree and always said that the plastic tree was something Granny had duped Elsa about. Because it was Granny who had told Elsa about the Christmas tree dance in Miamas, and no one who's heard that story wants to have a spruce tree that someone has amputated and sold into slavery. In Miamas, spruce trees are living, thinking creatures with--considering that they're coniferous trees--an unaccountably strong interest in home design.

They don't live in the forest but in the southern districts of Miamas, which have become quite trendy in recent years, and they often work in the advertising industry and wear scarves indoors. And once every year, soon after the first snow has fallen, all the spruce trees gather in the big square below the castle and compete for the right to stay in someone's house over Christmas. The spruce trees choose the houses, not the other way round, and the choice is decided by a dance competition. In the olden days they used to have duels about it, but spruce trees are generally such bad shots that it used to take forever. So now they do spruce dancing, which looks a bit unusual, because spruce trees don't have feet. And if a non-spruce tree wants to imitate a dancing spruce tree, they just jump up and down. It's quite handy, particularly on a crowded dance floor.

Doesn't that make you wonder about the sentient quality of your Fraser fir, your blue spruce, your Scotch pine? Mine's been standing in the corner of the living room since Sunday, dark and naked, because I've not mustered the time or energy to drag the boxes of lights and ornaments out of the cellar. I imagine that the tree is feeling morose; it's contributing nothing to home design, and has been completely neglected since we winched it into its stand, not to mention the fact that it was brutally cut down and hauled miles away from its friends and neighbors.

If I keep this up, I'm going to be morose.

Here's to Christmas trees, decorated with abandon, redolent of pine, lit with love and little white lights.

01 December 2015

See The Forest For The Trees

Back in 1988, I had a job at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I was living in Manhattan, with my then boyfriend/now husband, and more often than not, I commuted back and forth to Brooklyn by car, because the BAM staff could park as cheaply as subway fare and my car lived on the street and was going to have to be moved for alternate side of the street parking anyway. And then there were those late nights when, in 1988, one did not want to take the subway home alone anyway, and cabs were expensive (but cheaper if you made the driver go over the Manhattan Bridge and up First Avenue, please, which they never wanted to do because the other way was both faster and longer and therefore more lucrative).

One of the productions in 1988 NEXT WAVE FESTIVAL was a Robert Wilson/David Byrne shebang called The Forest - which was apparently based on the Epic of Gilgamesh but I can't remember a thing about it, although somewhere at home I have a hard bound program complete with a synopsis and photos and essays and (I think) a CD of some of the music. It matters not that I can't remember the show. What I remember very clearly is that the opening night performance was followed by a party on the Opera House stage.

The decor for the opening night was butt simple. It was December and Christmas trees had sprouted on every street corner in the city. Someone bought 25 big, skinny, fat, little Christmas trees, a stagehand nailed two pieces of 2x4 to the bottoms, and lo, a forest grew on the stage. We danced, we drank, we gloried in the performance. And at 2 in the morning, intrepid souls shouldered trees and took them home, the ultimate centerpiece.

I drove a little white Ford Fiesta then, a tiny hatchback. Someone helped me get my tree into the car - into, not on top - and I drove home from Brooklyn to Manhattan, perhaps less sober than I should have been. Happily, I found a parking space right near my apartment, and I muscled the tree out of the car, into the building, up the elevator, and into my apartment. My then boyfriend/now husband was duly startled when he stumbled out of bed the next morning and found a Christmas tree in the kitchen.

Origami tree at the American Museum of Natural History

Nowadays, we drive to the tree sale at the church in the next town, and tip the kid who helps tie the tree to the roof of the car. But somehow, the tree that stood on the opera house stage holds a sweet spot in my heart.

29 November 2015

In Which I Clean Up My Desk, or, More Posts I Will Never Write

The one about Alastair Macauley and his obsession with the dearth of male/male or female/female duets in classical ballet.

The one about marriage, namely the case against. A part of my dark heart really really wonders what the point of marriage is. It just complicates things, what with inheritance laws, rights to visit loved ones in hospital, tax inequities.

The one about Newton Arvin. Mostly I want to know why my mother ripped out a 1998 piece from the New Yorker, entitled The Scarlet Professor. Was it just because he'd been a professor at Smith when she was there? Was it the Truman Capote connection? Had she read the Melville biography?

26 November 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

May your turkeys be wild and your cranberries be juicy!

(Isn't that a nice image? Thank the British Library, and remember, if the Pilgrims hadn't run away from England, we wouldn't have Thanksgiving.)

22 November 2015

Sunday Evening Core Dump

For our anniversary back in June, my sister-in-law gave us a pain de mie pan - loaf pan with a lid to make a soft-crusted sandwich bread that cuts up into perfectly square slices. I have been working on the bread ever since, with varying degrees of success. I didn't like the first recipe I tried. One day, the bread didn't quite rise into the corners, so the square slices weren't square. Once it was pretty close to perfect.

Today the bread failed spectacularly. The recipe calls for baking for 25 minutes with the lid on; you then remove the lid for another 5-10 minutes. The timer went off, I opened the oven, and discovered that the bread had forced the lid off the pan and knocked the whole thing on its side. Alas, I failed to get a picture of that carnage, being so stunned that I just closed the oven because I didn't have to take off the lid.

That bread was fierce! The only thing I can think that caused the break out is that I used bread flour instead of the specified all-purpose. You can be sure I will try it again; I am bound and determined to tame that recipe. And don't get me wrong - despite it being what my sister-in-law dubbed "a new and spectacular standard for ugly", a piece off the crusty end went nicely with my dinner soup.

There is something delightful about listening - on a chilly November day - to a song shot through with crickets.

In my spare moments I have been working on a unified theory of dessert. One of the people who is coming for Thanksgiving dinner said she would bring a French silk pie. Okay. Then another guest said she would bring a pumpkin pie. I sighed, not so much because I don't like pumpkin pie, but because it meant that we would have two desserts that were essentially the same - a pie crust filled with a brown custard. This is wrong, in the unified theory of dessert. One brown custard pie is fine. If there is a second dessert, it must be different. Gingerbread? Nantucket cranberry pie (which is really a cake)? Something other than a brown custard. But then the New York Times came out with a whole mess of ideas for Thanksgiving - including a cranberry curd tart.

Aha! In the unified theory of dessert, three open custard filled tarts, of different colors, is okay. So the hazelnut crust is in the freezer, and we will have pale brown French silk pie, a burnt sienna pumpkin pie, and a ruby red cranberry curd tart. And maybe I'll make a gingerbread, just for the hell of it.

30 October 2015


The problem with used book sales is the sieve of a brain that completely forgets that one already owns that book.

Case in point:

I, buying the book for the cover, picked up a pristine paperback copy of Margaret of the Imperfections not so long ago. When I got home, it went in the stack of books to be read. It was duly read. [It was okay - a couple of the stories were excellent, one needs to be turned into a play, and the rest were unmemorable.] I took it downstairs to shelve it, in alphabetical order with all* of the other fiction in the house, and discovered that I ALREADY OWNED A COPY. Clearly I am imperfect, or my memory is.

Figuring that, given a choice, one should always keep the hardcover in lieu of the paperback**, I plucked the hardcover off the shelf just to see if it rang any bells. I certainly hadn't remembered reading it ever before, but opening it up, I found an inscription on the flyleaf.


I bought the book for my mother, for Christmas, in 1991. When we packed out her house, I took it home and shelved it. I wonder if she ever read it. Probably, it would have been unlike her not to, but I can't know anymore. But our books tell the stories that we've forgotten.

* Well, most. There are books in other rooms.
** And now that I have the hardcover, who wants the paperback? Raise your hand. I'm mailing the paperback to a friend named Margaret.

27 October 2015

Matters of the Heart

Despite the fact that I have been known to rail about the lunacy of book logs for elementary school children, because they turn reading into a chore, into busy work, I have a deep and abiding love of keeping track of my own reading via GoodReads.

I mention this because I am 1) on a re-reading kick and 2) in a fallen-off-the-blog-wagon lull. In part, I make up for the lack of blog posts by micro posts on Facebook, and in tiny little "reviews" on GoodReads. Calling them reviews is a stretch of the imagination - it's more like a sentence or three to help me remember what I loved or liked or hated about a particular book.

Today, though, I finished a book and what I wanted to say was too weird and wide-ranging for GoodReads. And so, with that as preamble, let me tell you about the book I just re-read.

On Election Day in 2003, November 4th to be precise, an off year for elections, I moseyed over to the public school at which we voted. I know it was an off year, no presidents or senators to elect, but who was running and for what offices I have no idea. I can conjure up the horizontal beige tiles on the walls of the school stairway in my mind's eye, and I remember that the school's PTA was having their annual election day bake and book sale. Because I am incapable of walking past a pile of used books, I perused the stacks and came away with at least one book. Perhaps there were others; I can only remember the one. I am sure that I skipped the bake sale; as much as I like a cookie now and again, bake sales give me the heebie-jeebies: too many brownies made from box mixes.

On Election Day in 2003, I was almost 37 weeks pregnant.

On Election Day in 2003, the used book I bought at the election day sale was Walk On Water, by Michael Ruhlman. I bought it because I'd read other books by Ruhlman, about food and chefs, and I knew him to be a good writer. And the subtitle was intriguing: Inside an Elite Pediatric Surgical Unit. There I was, pregnant as all get out - sure, a book about pediatric surgeons was just the right thing to be reading.


It terrified me. It's about pediatric CARDIAC surgeons - the doctors who do repairs of congenital heart defects, open heart surgery on tiny little children who have been born with holes between the ventricles, or transposed vessels, or hypoplastic left heart syndrome. I read it compulsively, thinking about the little tiny baby still residing in my belly, hoping everything was fine with her, that her heart was perfectly intact.

She was born less than a week later, and yes, her heart was fine. Still is, as far as I know.

I pulled Walk on Water off my bookshelf the other day, though, because one of my blogging friends - someone I actually met a whole lot of years ago at a BlogHer conference - has a baby who was born with a ventricular septal defect, and her baby was having open heart surgery last week. [The baby is fine, the surgery was successful.]

Walk on Water holds up on re-reading. It's really good. A lot of it is technical, but it's written with a layman's flair, like when he describes sewing tiny arteries together as like sewing Kleenex, with needle holders, without the tissue moving. Really, though, it's about people - what parents think about, what drives the surgeons and the OR nurses. In part, it's about health care - pointing out that procedures like repairing a tetralogy of Fallot - which happens in 3.9 births out of 10,000 - are best done by surgeons who do many of them, in hospitals who do lots of pediatric cardiology, and therefore it would make more sense for Ohio to have one pediatric heart center instead of five. In short, it's an excellent read. But you might want to skip it if you're pregnant.

10 September 2015

A Short Story in Annoyance

I was going to write about ocean beaches and tides.

I was going to write about taking my daughter bra shopping.

Instead, I'm perplexed by something. Maybe I shouldn't be.

Even though some people might think I do, since I watch hardly any television and prefer the print edition of the New York Times, I don't actually live under a rock, and so recently I did see that the Pioneer Woman now has a line of housewares at Walmart. A picture flitted across my screen the other day and I was all like "what?". Because included in her pots and cups and lemonade dispensers and gaudy flowered plates were some glasses. Pretty embossed glass footed water goblets.

Pioneer Woman's glasses, at Walmart.

But the thing about these glasses? THEY AREN'T NEW! I've had a pair of exactly those water glasses for a few years - they're *my* wine glasses. Look here, I posted a picture of one of them on Instagram on July 10th:

A photo posted by @magpiemusing on

Is this what happens? Joe Schmo says "I want a line of housewares" for Walmart and they just go out and pick and choose already existing shite? Damn.

I tell you, I have nothing against Ree and Walmart making a buck, but man, I'm never looking at those glasses of mine the same way again.

17 August 2015

Four Score

When I turn 80, throw me a party. Invite my friends, invite my family. Invite the neighbors from down the street, invite the painter and the real estate agent. Invite my step-daughter, and convince her to fly in from California for the weekend. Invite my secretary and tell the theater director that it's fine to bring the playwright along.

Hire a square dance caller, get a band. Don't be surprised when the fiddle player knows some of the guests. Convince everyone that they really can do the Virginia reel, even if they don't know left from right.

Find a BBQ joint that caters, but make extra salads for the vegetarians and for the people who want something other than baked beans. Put up a tent in the field, and fly bandanna prayer flags all around.

And don't be shy about asking people to help: she loves to bake, and she loves to order people around, and she's a whiz with a tomato salad in the heat of August. And she'll deliver a box of pimiento cheese sandwiches the day before, which you'll need, because you'll have forgotten to eat lunch.

Order me a birthday cake, but don't try and put 80 candles on it. And have some grab and go brownies (for the people who like chocolate) and lemon cake squares (for the ones who prefer something a little lighter). And late at night, after most of the guests have gone home, you'll move all of the candles to one table, and you'll sit there eating the homemade chocolate chip cookies that one of the guests brought, while you kill all the open bottles of wine.

Remember to take some pictures, but if you forget, other people will.

It'll be a blast.

Lemon Cake Squares (from Moky's Black Book)

  • 6 T. butter (3/4 stick or 3 ounces)
  • 1 c. + 2/3 c. sugar (divided)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • grated rind of one lemon
  • juice of one lemon
  1. Preheat oven to 350F. 
  2. Cream butter and 1 c. sugar. Stir in eggs. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt, and stir into creamed mixture. Add milk and lemon rind and mix until well combined.
  3. Pour into a greased and floured 9" x 13" x 2" pan (or better yet, line the pan with a parchment sling). Bake at 350F for 25 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, combine lemon juice and remaining 2/3 c. sugar. Spoon over hot cake, and return to to the 350F oven for another 5 minutes. Cut into 1" or 2" squares while still warm.

15 August 2015

Pie, Pie!

What you're going to say is that you don't bake. Or you don't know how to make pie crust. But it's easy! It just needs force of will. You want it, you make it.

The plums and the raspberries cried out "Pie, pie" this weekend at the farmer's market. We bought a bunch of little yellow and little red plums and a half pint of raspberries, and I came home and made some pie crust. Instead of a pie pie, it seemed to me that a galette would be better. And, it's easier! And it doesn't need a pie pan.

Just do it. Use the recipe I posted on this day in 2008. Use 2 cups of flour; you'll have extra dough which you will roll out, cut in strips, douse with cinnamon sugar, and eat like cookies as soon as they're out of the oven and cool enough to handle.

For the galette, roll out a rough 12" disk on a sheet of parchment - there's no need to worry about the edges, but try to make it more or less round. Transfer it to a baking sheet and trim back the parchment. Whack up some fruit into a bowl and toss it with a little sugar and some pie filling enhancer (a fabulous product from King Arthur). Dump the fruit into the middle of of your sheet of pastry and spread it out, leaving 2" clear at the edge. Fold the edge over and pleat it as needed to fit neatly into a rough circle. Dot the exposed fruit with butter and slam that baby in the oven. 40 minutes or so at 400°.

How hard was that?

07 August 2015

The Travels of Boo Boo Bunny

The day we dropped the girl off at camp, I helped her unpack and made her bed and together we realized that she'd forgotten her stuffed bunny. She was noncommittal about it, I'll be okay, but the next day I brought the bunny into my office thinking I'd mail it. Then I had second thoughts and chose not to mail it, not wanting her to feel embarrassed at the receipt of a babyish object.

Camp was going swimmingly. We got chatty funny letters to Mom and Dad - one of which probably caused a postal employee to dig out the high intensity lamp because she wrote the address in orange ink on orange paper, but it arrived eventually.

She was signed up for two back-to-back sessions at the camp - and because there was to be a dog and pony show on the last day of the first session, Daddy and her grandparents were going to drive out for the day, visiting day, if you will. The night before that, I left my office, got to the subway stairs, thought about the bunny in my desk, and continued home.

At home, there was a letter. Note, please that it was addressed to Mommy and Daddy.

Mommy. I need booboobunny right now. I haven't needed him before now, but I really need him. I just miss him, you, and daddy. I miss my kitties too. And my hammies. Please send him now. Please. I need him.

Oh my heart.

I looked at my husband, and he looked at me, and so it came to pass that at 5:30 the next morning, we found ourselves driving into Manhattan to pick up Boo Boo Bunny so that Daddy could deliver him to camp.

03 August 2015

My Blue Plate Special

When I first heard about Blue Apron, I was intrigued - partly because back in the carefree days when we had no kid there was a company called Impromptu Gourmet that sold dinner kits, chef-designed do-it-yourself dinner kits, in the refrigerated case of upscale grocery stores. I'd bought one one day, and locked my husband out of the kitchen, and presented him with a really stellar meal a half hour later. A little internet sleuthing reveals that I served up Charlie Palmer's Crisp Duck Breast with Pomegranate Molasses Glaze, Duck Leg Confit, Cipollini Onions & Toasted Couscous.

That company doesn't seem to exist anymore, probably because their business model wasn't right - it was good for the customer who wanted to do something special on the spur of the moment, but I would think it was damn near impossible to coordinate perishable supply with unpredictable demand.

In the past couple of years, a few new companies have sprung up, providing the same kind of dinner kits, but on a subscription basis. That makes it a lot easier to predict demand, so they can tailor their supply chain and have everything come out even at the end.

Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Plated and their investors see ample opportunity to carve out their own place within the industry by offering recipe kits filled with healthy, sustainably farmed food for less than the cost of buying the ingredients on your own. And that's without factoring the savings in time, they say.

A friend of mine has been using Blue Apron for a while, and really likes it. One of Blue Apron's marketing schemes is that they reward existing customers with a meals to give to friends, and through her generosity, we got to try out the service. And then I forgot to cancel, so we paid for a second week of meals. That was last summer. A couple of weeks ago, they sent a "hey, try us again" email and I got sucked back into it.

It is distinctly amusing. A box shows up with - really - all the ingredients you need for three meals for two people. Well, all the ingredients except salt, pepper and olive oil - which you have, right? And you need pots and pans. And knives. But all of the grocery shopping is done for you, and lots of the ingredients are portioned out. A quarter cup of heavy cream, in a wee bottle. A couple of tablespoons of flour in a tiny plastic tub. A small plastic bag with just the right amount of panko. The vegetables are not prepped, but you are given just enough - one onion, a sprig of tarragon, a handful of fava beans, 2 ears of corn, 3 kinds of exotic mushrooms. No need to buy a whole bottle of balsamic vinegar, or a kilo of israeli couscous.

It's up to you to do the cooking. If you're reasonably skilled in the kitchen, it'll be easy - I got a dinner of breaded chicken breasts and a corn/cucumber/tomato/arugula salad on the table in 45 minutes.

Dinner, on the table in 45 minutes. #blueapron

A photo posted by @magpiemusing on

If you're a novice cook, the instructions are pretty good, and include color photos so you have an idea about what you're doing.

There is zero food waste - though there is a prodigious amount of packaging. Remember all those tiny tubs and wee bottles and small bags? And everything shows up in an insulated bag with two large ice packs inside a cardboard box.

The service seems fairly priced: three meals for two is $60 - which includes shipping - so it's $10 per meal. Yes, the pasta with tomatoes and mozzarella we made last night was less than $20 for two people, and because we cook a lot we have a pantry full of stuff that can be turned into cheap meals. Still, $10 per person is cheaper than going out to almost anywhere I'd care to eat, and the results are damned tasty. And it gets you out of the same old rut.

I did choose to do it while the child was away...she would have eaten the chicken but not much else. [There's a family plan which looks like the food is a little more kid-friendly.]

We did the three meals on consecutive nights, but the FAQs say the ingredients should be good for a week. I can imagine that a fridge full of very specific ingredients could be a bit onerous and guilt-inducing in the I have it, so I have to use it way that a CSA can be oppressive.

In short, I have really mixed feelings about Blue Apron. No time to cook? Skip it. Can't justify the $10/person and all of the packaging waste? Skip it. No sharp knives or desire to cook? Skip it. If you're adventurous, craving novelty, and bored with all of the things you usually eat, you might really enjoy it. I even ate mushrooms last week, and liked them.

30 July 2015

PSA: Scope Update

By Pulmonological (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsYou probably don't remember this, but back in 2009, I had two colonoscopies in one summer. And because the pricing was radically weird, because one of them happened in the hospital and the other in the doctor's office, I had to write about it. Go on, read about it. Come back when you're done.

A couple of years later, Elisabeth Rosenthal (a writer for the Times) started a series of investigative articles about medical care pricing, called Paying Till It Hurts. Her first piece was about ... colonoscopies, and my expensive hospital based scope made it into the second paragraph. It is probably the last time I will be on the front page of the New York Times.

Sometime last summer, I got a note from the gastroenterologist reminding me that my five years were up and it was time for another. Oh the joys!

I duly scheduled an office visit, and had the scope, only to be told - when the propofol wore off - that I needed to have another in six months. So, if you're keeping track, this is four colonoscopies in about five years.

Since 2009, the Affordable Care Act has come into play, and my office's insurance carrier has changed, and my co-pays and deductibles have skyrocketed. But at core there's this: the doctor's office charges some wackadoodle number, and gets paid a negotiated rate. So, as a public service, and to aid in transparency in health care costs, here are the prices for my four colonoscopies:

#1 - 2009 - in the hospital

Charges billed by doctors and hospital $9,143
Amount paid by insurance $5,743
Co-pay due from me $125

#2 - 2009 in the doctor’s office
Charges billed by doctors and lab $5,323
Amount paid by insurance $2,923
Co-pay due from me $30

#3 - 2014 - in the doctor’s office - diagnostic
Charges billed by doctors and lab $9,022
Amount paid by insurance $2,812
Co-pay (deductible) due from me $1,243

#4 - 2015 - in the doctor’s office - screening
Charges billed by doctors and lab $7,711
Amount paid by insurance $3,995
Co-pay due from me $75

So what have we learned? In five years, the contracted rate for a colonoscopy at the medical practice I visit has gone up by a third (from $3K to $4K). What else? Even though the Affordable Care Act and the insurance companies make a distinction between a diagnostic colonoscopy and a screening one, the doctor ends up getting paid the same amount. Screening scopes are supposed to be covered in full under any ACA compliant insurance; diagnostic ones are subject to deductibles and co-pays and what not, so the patient ends up paying more. [I'm not sure why both #3 and #4 weren't coded as diagnostic...that may have been a coding error. However, since I'd met my deductible by the time #4 rolled around, it may not have made much difference in my co-pay.]

The issue of medical billing, and the prices paid, is an interesting one, which is why I am putting this out there.

If you too are interested, the New York Times series spun off into a Paying Till it Hurts Facebook group - "a forum for conversation, analysis and insight into health care pricing and costs in the United States".

And, by the way, I'm fine. I just seem to have a propensity towards polyps.

24 July 2015

There Is No Horse But Polo

The girl is off in the woods with a bunch of other girls, and I am amusing myself by mailing things to her. It might be my favorite part of having her gone; as we all know, I love mailing oddments and notes.

So far, this is what's been sent. I wrote her a card, on Tuesday, the day before we dropped her off. I rambled on about the weirdness of writing to her during the day on Tuesday, when I was going to see her that night, and knowing that she wouldn't get the note until Thursday or Friday. Yesterday, I mailed a little game from the crazy Danish store near my office. Next week, I'll get Amazon to ship out a book called Nimona that got a wonderful review in the New York Times.

My favorite, though? We confiscated her cellphone before we left her in that other state, and I stole a photo off of it - she'd taken a picture of a horse, looking completely demented, and has had it as her screen background.

I transferred the picture to my phone, signed up for a postcard app, and for $1.99, mailed her the picture with a with a note from the horse.

I can’t believe you left me for another horse. Is his name Sheldon? Feh. There is no horse but Polo; there is no darkness but ignorance.  You’ll come back to me so grateful for my strength and elegance; so delighted by my feisty demeanor. See you soonest. Love, Polo

If she didn't think her mother was nuts before, this will seal the deal. Unless, of course, she thinks Polo is cleverer than he really is.

22 July 2015

What The Parents Do When The Kid Is Away

We dropped the child off at camp today. It took an hour and half to get there, because she was not interested in dawdling. It took us three and a half hours to get home because it was a beautiful day and we stopped for lunch in one little town and stopped for ice cream in another little town and detoured to Goshen, NY to bear witness to the impending dismantling and "renovation" of the Orange County Government Center.

I'd never seen it before. Yes, it's stark. But it's set back off the road, behind a scrim of carefully placed trees, in a lush lawn. It's got movement about it, in the articulation of volumes, varyingly stacked and shaped.

Curiously enough, one of the first places I lived - though I don't remember it - was a Paul Rudolph building: the Married Student Housing at Yale, also known as the Mansfield Apartments. I was a toddler there, it's where my little brother was born, and my mother used to talk about the fact that there was no place to leave a stroller when you came back with groceries and had to climb two flights of stairs to your third floor apartment. But that didn't stop her from appreciating the building and its big windows, and every time she visited New Haven, she liked to detour past it and marvel that she'd lived in a building by Paul Rudolph.

History is important. Public history is even more important. Telling stories, remember buildings, these are the things that make us human. I'm glad for the detour - I don't know what is really going to happen with that building, but I know that I've seen it and that kernel of witnessing is important to me.

16 July 2015

Nostalgia in the Target Shampoo Department, and a Digression about Toothpaste

I think I have turned into my mother. I took my daughter to Target the other day to buy some things that she needs for camp. Included on the list that she made (Uggs = NO, iPod = NO) were shampoo and conditioner (can't argue against cleanliness) but what she picked out off the shelf is called Not Your Mother's Shampoo.

[Truth be told, I think she'd seen an ad for it, because she was looking for it.]

I had to laugh. When I was a tween/teen, all I wanted was the toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner that my mother wouldn't buy. She was deep into Pathmark's No Frills brand. Price was definitely a factor, but so too was the relentlessly sterile, black and white packaging, so severe as to be - dare I say - stylish.

Okay, maybe stylish is going too far.

But oh how I longed for toothpaste that wasn't chalky indifferent mint. I wanted Close Up - not because I thought it would make me more attractive, but because that ruby red clear gel was so beautiful.

And it's cinnamon! I love cinnamon toothpaste.

I dreamed of brand name shampoo. Like Lemon Up - with its molded plastic lemon for a cap.

I made do with bottled lemon juice as a rinse.

Then again, maybe I haven't turned into my mother. After all, I acceded to the petty indulgence of Not Your Mother's Shampoo. But my daughter may be turning into me, in her rejection of my workaday, ordinary shower accouterments in favor of those she chooses. Ah, growing up.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In the meantime, I'm still looking for the perfect toothpaste. I was squarely in the Arm & Hammer baking soda toothpaste camp for a long time, until I got bored. I moved on to Tom's Cinnamon Clove, until they changed the formula and made it blander and more boring. I buy the Fennel, Propolis & Myrrh toothpaste at Trader Joe's sometimes, but I don't shop there terribly often. It is a weird flavor, which I like in a perverse kind of way - and I know that my husband will never ever borrow it. I've tried Toothy Tabs from Lush, which are okay but not perfect and I am confounded by the instructions, which tell you to "Crunch one tablet up between your front teeth". Why must it be crunched up front? Molars are better for crunching. Strangest of all is the Anise & Clove Tooth Soap that comes in a lovely little glass bottle, with an eyedropper. It - literally - is like washing your mouth out with soap and I have to say that it put me straight over the edge and back to Arm & Hammer. It is still in the medicine cabinet and once in a while I use it just to remind myself that it really is bizarre. Now that I know that Close Up is available on Amazon, where all of the reviews are nostalgia-tinged, I may have to give it a try. I'll be so sad if it isn't transformatively wonderful though.

13 July 2015

Horrified Fascination

On the one hand, this wasps' nest is about a yard away from the railing of our back deck.

On the other hand, it's endlessly enthralling. The nest gets incrementally larger and larger, day by day. If you fling a cherry pit towards it and rattle the branch, the wasps fly about, agitatedly. [No one, yet, has hit the nest itself - I don't want to be around when that happens.] The wasps have figured out that the hummingbird feeder - about 15 feet away - seeps just enough sugar water for them to use it as a food source. Sadly, they've been playing chicken with the resident hummingbird. She is bigger than they are, but there are more of them.

This is why we live in the woods.

10 July 2015

In Which We Publish Other People's Poetry

In March, my 11yo entered a townwide Young Writers Contest, sponsored by the library. She entered pieces in each of the three categories: Fiction, Non-Fiction and Poetry.

She didn't win, but she told me it was okay for me to publish her poem.


A child is afraid of the dark.
There are monsters and shadows lurking around every corner.
The child has no parents, only a limp bear to protect her.
The monsters under the bed make noises to make the child jump.
The monsters in the closet make noises to make the child run and hide.
The child has the parents’ comfort in the day,
Only their snores by night.
Was that just a shadow, or is someone there?
No child thinks this by day, most by night.
A child is afraid of the dark.

An adult is afraid of the light.
The cruelties and pains of life wait for them behind a metal desk.
They have only the night for solitude.
The monthly rent makes them jump.
The water bill is designed to make them scared.
What they do during the day makes them want to stay in the dark for longer.
Making them regret the decision to face the light.
The stack of papers not yet checked, makes them regret the choice to seize the job.
Wishing they were younger, with so much promise and choice.
An adult is afraid of the light.

07 July 2015

A Unified Theory on Reading, or maybe just a late night ramble

Last week, I finished reading a big, chewy, absorbing trilogy - the Magicians trilogy, by Lev Grossman.

[The trilogy is so good. I liked the first book, I thought the beginning of the second book was a bit tedious, but by the end of the second book, I HAD to get the ebook of the 3rd out of the library right that very minute and I simply couldn't put it down until I was done. It's rich and complicated, and it ends beautifully - so while I'm sad to be done, I also feel like it's all tied up pretty well.]

And then we went away for the weekend, and I packed four books - all of which I was in the middle of - into my bag. And I bought a fifth book at a terrific independent bookstore that I'd never been in - the kind of bookstore that's worth a detour through Saugerties if you happen to be in that general area.

The thing is, none of them were novels. I needed a palate cleanser after the Magicians. So I spent the weekend flitting between a graphic novel, a short story collection, and a gardening book of the short literary pieces ilk.

I found myself reading aloud to my forbearing husband from The Well-Tempered Garden; Lloyd writes with unwavering conviction and a delightful snarkiness. About some azaleas: "Their heavy, sweet, slightly putrid scent is a great attraction to those with a weak sense of smell, but overbearing to my way of thinking." On why you shouldn't edge your lawn: "But there is something profoundly depressing about a long, unbroken cliff of lawn edge." And reminding me that I need a cotinus coggygria: "Dew seen on this pink froth is such an experience that you'll wonder why you do not spend more time in the garden in the early morning."

Later, he talks of a combination of an orange lily and a pink alstroemeria: "They clashed well as a one-time gardener of ours used to say." I particularly liked that, given that the garden outside my bedroom was a riot of wild orange daylilies and screaming fuchsia roses.

Lydia Davis is something else. I'd never heard of her before I found her quoted in a piece in the New Yorker, by James Wood, called "Becoming Them" which is about becoming one's parents. It's a lovely essay, actually, but the reason I've been carrying around a grubby paper copy of it was because of the few lines of Davis, some of which follow:

Shall I keep a tidy house, like L.?
Shall I live alone in a large house, like B.?
Shall I give piano lessons, like M.?
Shall I leave the butter out all day to soften, like C.?

[I did a google search for that story, which is called How Shall I Mourn Them? and turned up a delightful reorganization of all of the lines of the story, by person - tidied up, if you will, like those Ursus Wehrli books where masterpieces of art get deconstructed back to their component lines and dots.]

Finally, I got around to buying the book - a thick and delicious brick of paper, oddly light for its many hundred pages. Her stories? I don't know where to begin. Many are short - a title and a sentence, or a paragraph. Most are peculiar in a particularly heartstabbing way. Every single one is savory, just so. As I read it, slowly over the past year, I thought time and again, I want to send this book to T. I want to send this story to C. I rather wish that Chronicle would take a mess of the shortest stories and publish them as a boxed set on postcards - so I could easily send a story to someone. Like this:


We are sitting here together, my digestion and I. I am reading a book and it is working away at the lunch I ate a little while ago.

Is that not odd and perfect?

Bechdel's Fun Home is a tour de force. I had, I confess, shied away from it because it's a graphic novel - it didn't seem like something I wanted to read. But I was incredibly lucky to be invited to see the musical at the Circle in the Square, and afterwards I rather wanted to experience the book. The book's broader, bigger, more detailed than the show - just like most books are more detailed than the movies they become. In retrospect, the book enhanced my experience of the show, and vice versa - both are singular experiences.

If you were keeping track, two books went away for the weekend and remained untouched. There's only so much reading one can do in three days. Margaret of the Imperfections (short stories) and Woodbrook (memoir) are waiting patiently for their turns at bat.

But what I'm thinking is that I need to start another big, chewy, absorbing novel.

24 June 2015

The Registry Conundrum, or, Should I Really Buy Them A Place Setting of Sterling Silver?

A couple of months ago, in a sidebar chat in Words With Friends, a friend I’ve known since graduate school mentioned that she’d just put a bunch of flowers in the vase I’d given her as a wedding gift. I remember her wedding well – it was lovely and it happened in New York during the 1986 National League playoffs, and because the Mets were playing there were people hunkered in the corners with little radios, checking on the game. And although I remember what I wore – a soft grey wool damask dress – I couldn’t have told you what I’d given them as a gift. But that she remembers? That’s the point.

A photo posted by @magpiemusing on

When I got married, 20 years ago today, we’d been living together for a long time. We didn’t really need anything, but we did do a wedding registry for dress-up table settings, the kind that you’d never buy yourself (or, I wouldn’t, anyway). It’s not fancy china – it’s Crate & Barrel, not Tiffany – and I love having it, all 12 place settings and extra dessert plates of it. But, for the life of me, I don’t know who gave me that plate, or that one, or any of the coffee cups. It’s all a big mush, it’s just the wedding china.

A photo posted by @magpiemusing on

The wedding gifts I remember are the unique ones, the ones that weren’t from the registry. There’s a handblown glass plate, cobalt blue, from a board member of an organization I once worked for. I put cheese on it and think of Bob. Marcia & Harvey gave us a vase from Simon Pearce; it lives on our mantelpiece with a string of tiny twinkle lights in it. Patti and Doug – she’d been my flute teacher in high school – gave us a pair of candlesticks and an oval Shaker box; the candlesticks are in regular rotation. Friends presented us with a gift certificate to a dear now-defunct restaurant, and on our 8th anniversary, we returned there for a meal, at which my husband opened a tiny sealed envelope and learned that I was pregnant with a girl. Sitting on the window sash in our bedroom is a glass teardrop that came from one of my husband’s relatives – it picks up the morning light so beautifully that it turns up in my Instagram feed on a regular basis.

A photo posted by @magpiemusing on

For a long time, when faced with a wedding and a need to find a gift, I thought a registry was a great idea – give the people what they want. In retrospect though, and with 20 years of wedded bliss under my belt, it’s the unique gifts that I’ve remembered well, and next time, I’ll carefully weigh a registry gift against something different, something inimitable, something forever.

22 May 2015

Observations, N.Y.C.

I followed him down the street for a half block. Tall, upright, striding, he wore a kilt, tone on tone charcoal black plaid. A black and white sweater peeped out beneath a black leather jacket, and iridescent black Doc Martens gleamed at the end of his slender naked legs. His head was buzz cut all around, but for a top patch of longer hair. Stylish, sure and lovely....but for the cheap white plastic bag swinging from his right hand, through which I could read WHEY. The gallon tub of supplement really spoiled the look.

Down Park he pedaled, on a white bike without a cross bar, hands crammed insouciantly in the pockets of his hip length brown leather jacket. I grinned, for despite the lack of a helmet and recklessness of his hands-free technique, he cut a fine figure.

My subway car was silent, unless you count the whoosh of the air conditioning and the leakage from someone's headphones. On the express track, we glided through the 28th Street station. On the platform, two tracks away, sat a cellist, playing, but not looking like a busker. It was as though, overcome by a need to play, he'd spontaneously unpacked his cello and began. But I couldn't hear him through the silence.

It's nearly 10 o'clock in the morning. She walked down the street, wearing a pleated silver lamé skirt billowing in the breeze. She strode along, in silver Keds. I think to myself they should meet until my mind wanders off on the tangent of nothing rhymes with silver, and nothing rhymes with orange, and silver oranges is five syllables, could it be the start of a haiku?

17 May 2015


What I have realized is that I really only like taking pictures of things.

Like this beautiful ruin, the Temple of Love:

I also really like pattern. Like this lovely decrepit tile work in a pergola:

And more decrepit tile work in a defunct reflecting pool:

And shape - like this detail of a staircase:

These winged creatures near an amphitheater are the closest to figures that I got:

The gardens were full of people, and yet, they aren't there

01 April 2015


It is Veronica's fault that I committed myself to writing 30 letters in 30 days, one for each day in April.

It is wholly my fault that I wrote all 30 letters/cards/postcards on Sunday. I will drop them in the mailbox one by one, and the recipients will receive them in a nicely attenuated fashion, but the point is probably to get in the habit of writing a note a day, and there is where I fell down.

Birthday cards were first. I figured out all of the April birthdays and located cards. Then, so they'd arrive on time, I stuck a post-it on each one with the mailing date. Then one thing led to another and I was rooting around in a box of random cards and odd envelopes, and pretty soon, I had a stack of 30. One is going overseas. Four are going to my sister's house (one for her, and one for each of her children). Several are going to old college friends, people I've not been in touch with for rather a long time. Interestingly, only one is going to an imaginary friend; I've met every single person who is getting a piece of mail - except for Veronica. And since she started it...

I have to say, though, it was a fabulous project even if I did it all wrong.

28 March 2015

The Suitcase and the Sink

Sometimes I don't know where to begin the tale. Is it with the book I just finished? Is it with the MoMA exhibit I saw in January, the catalog for which is the aforementioned last book I read? Or should I start on a spring day in 1998, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, where I first encountered Robert Gober?

I think I'll start there. I can't remember why we drove up to Ridgefield from NYC. The Aldrich isn't much of a destination, but maybe we decided to stop there on the way to visit my cousin? In any case, the Aldrich had a Robert Gober exhibit open, and it was gobsmacking and challenging and exhilarating - an exhibit that I remembered for a long time afterwards.

Gober's a sculptor, the kind of sculptor that likes to remake ordinary objects. He cast a paint can in crystal and painstakingly hand painted it ... to look like a paint can. He took a piece of styrofoam found washed up on the beach ... and cast it in bronze and painted it. He's made wax legs with real leg hair, which then get socks and shoes, and are carefully placed sticking out of the wall, at floor level, shades of the Wicked Witch of the East after someone dropped a house upon her. And the sinks - reproductions of old beat up farmhouse sinks, made of paint and plaster and chicken wire and lath. They're not going to hold any water, ever.

But the piece at the Aldrich that stayed with me was the suitcase. Sitting on the floor in a mostly empty room, from a distance it looked like an old suitcase, lid open, satin lining showing. When you got closer, you realized that set into the bottom of the suitcase was a cast iron sewer drain. Closer, and you could see down through the grate to a tide pool complete with moving water and rocks and swaying seaweed. As you leaned over to peer directly down into the suitcase, there appeared a pair of men's feet. And it wasn't until you were leaning over from the other side, looking over the lid of the suitcase, that you could see that the man was dangling a baby over the tide pool. It had a cinematic aspect to the reveal, the way the suitcase morphed from ordinary object to portal. And I never forgot it.

Last fall, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a big retrospective of Gober. Me, being disorganized, I procrastinated until the very last minute so that we saw the show on the day it closed. Happily for me, there was hardly anyone there - everyone was upstairs at the exhibit of the Matisse cutouts. Those are all well and good, and pretty to look at, but my idea of fun is not a museum show where there are eleventy hundred people between you and the wall so you can't get a good look at anything. The Gober exhibit show was everything I hoped it would be. Mind-bending and thrilling, it was chock full of interesting things to see - including, yes, the suitcase of my memories.

I bought the catalog. I read the catalog from cover to cover, delighting in bits like "Just give me that two-by-four". And you know what? It makes my heart sing that there are such dementedly creative people in this world of ours.

When we were in San Francisco in February, we went to Alcatraz. Alcatraz is, of course, a glorious ruin - and is home, right now, to an exhibit of work by contemporary artist Ai Weiwei.

I was struck there by a sink. Long, rust-tinged, porcelain, unplumbed, it could well be one of Gober's sinks. How perfect to find it at Alcatraz. Art meets life meets art.

27 March 2015

On Whales and Submarines

Sometimes it's the simple things.

I was seated on the subway this morning, gazing between the standees, and what to my wondering eyes did I spy but a whale?

And the little wheels in my head turned, and I thought "it reminds me of the Peter Sis whale that I have".

And it was! Well, it's Peter Sis, not a whale, it's a submarine, but it has a familial resonance.

The MTA has this program, Arts for Transit, where they do installations in subway stations, and commission posters that get slapped up in unsold ad spaces.

I don't know about you, but I'd far rather look at art and read poetry than have to stare into Dr. Zizmor's rainbow wrapped eyes.

And Peter Sis? In the case of the whale, which debuted in 2001, I liked the art so much that I bought the poster and had it framed - long before I'd heard of him as an author and illustrator.

Sometimes it's the little things that get the day off to a good start.

04 March 2015


After a period of quiescence, the 11 year old has rediscovered her American Girl dolls. She has been hell bent on building furniture for them, and making bedding, and slavishly following instructions found on YouTube for the creation of eerily realistic doll-sized chocolate chip cookies, and chattering incessantly about wanting a fourth doll.

I, thinking three of them was already too many, said no, absolutely not, I will not buy you a fourth doll.

She, drawing on some hardwired capitalistic tendencies, I know not from where, decided that she wanted to sell two of the dolls. We talked about eBay, and about a local Facebook "garage sale", and she decided to take her chances on eBay - even after I explained about Paypal fees and postage. She took all of the necessary pictures, and wrote most of the copy. I fluffed up her copy (smoke free household!) and posted the two dolls for sale. She watched the auctions like a hawk and was thrilled with the results. I, frankly, was dumbfounded that one doll went for twice what we had paid in 2011, and the other went for about the original price. [One was a "girl of the year", the other was a now retired historical doll.]

Armed, therefore, with a chunk of money in the bank of mom, we headed into NYC the other day, with a friend of hers, to get that new doll.

First, though, we took the subway downtown and went to Economy Candy. I told her and and the friend that they could have $20 and 20 minutes; they were done in 15.

Then we walked up to Katz's Deli, where we didn't send any salamis, but we did have selzer and pastrami and an indulgent waiter who didn't mind when the girls dumped all the candy out onto the table to fondle it.

After lunch, we walked back to the subway, past the end of Sara D. Roosevelt Park, where there was a big sculpture made out of rubber mats. Dryly, my child remarked If I did that, no one would call it art.

Riding uptown on the subway, the two girls worked hard on staying standing without holding on. This is a life skill, people, and children from the suburbs don't get enough practice.

Finally, we got to the American Girl Doll store, where the two girls perversely decided that they weren't buying anything for themselves, it was for their "cousins". Weirdos.

Of course, on the train home, all of the purchases came out of their packages.

The moral of the story? Capitalism is good, especially when it reduces the number of dolls in your house.