I Spy

Groupon offers: my guilty time-waster. Normally I bite only for deeply-discounted massages or tapas, but recently they offered a novel accessory, a spy watch!

Yes! The copy says, "Film or take a picture of any event, while performing everyday activities like watching TV or drinking coffee".

Not since I was eleven, when I sent away for X-Ray Glasses (disappointing) did such a gadget grab my imagination. (I no longer have an iterest in seeing through people's clothes; must have been nascent puberty.)

Who isn't at least a little titillated by the notion of secretly filming? Never mind that I rarely see anything that would merit being covertly recorded, unless it's Le Duc maintaining that he "always remembers to put away the butter". Ha! I could prove differently.

I'd photograph the many fascinating people who pass by on the street without disturbing them or pleading for permission. (A photographer acquaintance reminds me that an iPhone works just as well, but is there not an added frisson doing it while ostensibly drinking coffee?)

But then of course I'd need more spy gear!

A private-eye trench, top of list. I'd choose the Thakoon Addition leather and fabric trench coat, full of drop-dead details, $750:

Ohh, look at the back!

And glasses–you can never be too disguised. The Row's cats' eyes ($400), please.

Skulking can be drafty work. Maybe a hat? I like this beanie's shearling pom-pom, which might also be used as a discreet lens-duster. Price, $195.

I see that it's quite costly to be a well-dressed spy, and never mind the "specialty dry cleaning" required for that coat. But our friend Natty (aka "Nancy Drew") just found a crisp black trench coat in a secondhand store for $9! 


Now that's sleuthing!

Blue Jasmine, Blanchett and bag lady fear

Lisa Schwarzbaum
Film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote an insightful article, "The Fear That Dare Not Speak Its Name" in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, about her dread of ending up on the streets, penniless, muttering– an invisible, unloved elder.

Is that your fear, too? You would not be alone. 

Schwarzbaum includes these stats:
"...In March, a 2013 survey on women, money and power, issued by the Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, made headlines with its findings that nearly half of all American women fear becoming bag ladies –yes, the survey actually used that phrase–including 27 percent with household earnings of more than $200,000 a year. And the worry is widespread: 56 percent among single women, 54 percent divorced, 47 percent widowed and 43 percent married."

Schwarzbaum discusses Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine", which I saw. I thought the film landed a few good jabs about status and culture, but lacked subtlety. I mean, when Alec Baldwin enters as the swindler/philanderer husband, his trademarked smirky charm reeking like Italian aftershave, what do you think is going to happen? 

And you can never quite forget that that's Cate Blanchett guzzling Stoly and Xanax; women who look like her–and are not even close to old age–generally get second acts.  

Allen's broadly-drawn Jasmine, unhinged in Hermès, is compelling but uncommon; most days, I pass women picking through discards in the market bins, scavenging recyclables, not a Kelly bag in sight.

Schwarzbaum's article segues into a discussion of who might make the definitive bag-lady film; the film critic in her overcomes the social critic.  

In real life, I'm a harpy with young women. I have a bias toward education that yields a way to make a living for yourself. The pursuit of edifying but non-remunerative subjects is, for me, either your minor, an area for self-study or a good way to spend a sizeable inheritance. "Get someting under yourself, girl" is my mantra.

With women in co-habition situations, I entreat them (this usually involves a glass or two of wine) to know the family law for their jurisdiction. Should they end, common-law unions distribute assets differently than marriage, even if my friend in love thinks "it's the same thing".

Single mature women face pointed questions if they float plans for major career change ("Way less money but so fulfilling!"), and I view cashing in registered retirement savings in order to fund a trip to Maui with the same level of horror as I'd accord a child abduction.
Photo: Aginginplace.com
The best way to destitution-proof one's life is for a woman to equip herself to earn a living and then apply the basics of financial management. 

Beyond that, she should work on social change projects (not only vote), in areas she cares about, for example, health care, social security and labour law. (The growing precarity of employment, with its "freelance gigs and short-term work" seems automatically accepted by Schwarzbaum as the new normal.) 

And despite the issues with charities, let's support the responsible agencies who help the indigent–put our arms around women struggling to survive. 

Maybe "Blue Jasmine" will nudge a few complacent persons, but I think most of us know the score: financial security is a much harder game as the years roll by.

What do you think women need to do to bag-proof ourselves?

Pendants: Wading into the world of pearls

Reader Wendy shared news that London's Victoria and Albert Musuem is hosting an exhibition of pearls from now September 21 through mid-January 2014. The photos in The Guardian show remarkable examples, many with historic provenance.

"La Peregrina": Elizaeth Taylor's Cartier necklace

One of The Guardian's articles concluded with a quote from jewelry historian Beatriz Chadour-Sampson, concerning one of the items on display, a bucketful of current Chinese freshwater pearls:
"Is it devaluation of the pearl or is it Mikimoto's dream come true?" asked Chadour-Sampson. "It is a matter of interpretation."

Let's pry open the oyster shell of value. In the precious gem world, as in other realms, scarcity is a prime factor of value, and these days, pearls are not scarce. (Neither are diamonds, whose price is kept artificially high.)

However, the cultured pearl world contains many levels of quality. I sometimes am bemused, and other times irritated by the way jewelers or salespersons emphasize the "genuineness" and skip over quality.

The Big Question is, What quality makes you happy?  You will only know this from handling a representative pearl.

Wading in

A simple suggestion: wade in by buying a pearl pendant, in the best quality you can afford. 

Whatever your personal style, aside from maybe your wash-the-dog sweatshirt, you will wear that piece with everything, layered or on its own. You can also use the pendant as a charm, attached to a bracelet or other piece.

If the pendant makes you purr, your eventual strand, bracelet or pair of earrings will match that quality. One day, return to that vendor for more, or use your pendant as a comparator if shopping elsewhere. 

This white South Sea 11-12mm pendant mixes well with other pieces; it's on special this month at Pearl Paradise for about $390, with a 14k bale. (Chain sold separately; the 18-inch 14k yellow gold option is $80.) 

And you could stop right there. A single big South Sea has glowy charisma; a necklace of big headlight pearls might be too much for your lifestyle.

At the prestige jeweler Gump's, a 9.5mm Tahitian, set in a hip silver bale, is only $150. (I had to check that price as Gump's pearls are usually on the high end.) A great way to see if Tahitians melt your heart, and I trust their pearl quality, but call first to ask if there is a selection of overtones. 

Kasumis are rare, flashing-hued freshwater Japanese pearls from the only remaining pearl-producing lake in Japan. (Chinese and Thai farmers are offering  "Kasumi-like" pearls, but the real thing is enchanting.) A full strand is a serious purchase, but a single 12.3 mm Kasumi pendant delivers estimable allure. (Price, $309 at Kojima Company.)

The bumply, sometimes rippled surface is characteristic; colours range from soft peach to deep rose and bronzy-green.

I like the boule or lariat-style pendant, as in this design from Winterston UK, made here with a 9mm white Akoya. It's pricier than a drop on a chain, but you can slide the boule to adjust the length, and the 18k chain, unlike the other pendants in this post, is included in the price, £385.  A Tahitian version (with green overtones) is £475.

Pearls are no longer a luxury purchase, but even the choice of a simple pendant can overwhelm. I've had a few notes from women who either bought or were given pearls of a colour, size or variety that did not thrill.

Sometimes I suggest restyling, but if you never suited the dark tones of Tahitians or find Akoyas just too white, you're better off gifting them to someone who makes them sing.

Since your hair and makeup colours may have changed in the last decade, so too may your preferred gems and metals.

Check reputable vendors like Pearl Paradise and Pearls of Joy to benchmark prices. With that info in hand, you won't make a rash decision–unless you wind up like Janet, who was supposed to be buying cat food and a pair of bedroom slippers when she met a friend for lunch one Saturday afternoon.

Janet had one too many margaritas (which in her case was only one) and bought a gorgeous but pricey pearl pendant with a ruby and diamond clasp.

Apparently when wading in, she hit a tsunami. Another reason why I like 30-day refund policies (offered by all vendors in this post)! But then I'm not Janet, who has happily kept the pendant and is wearing her old flip-flops for bedroom slippers.

500 dinner parties: How we roll

The boys with a grand aioli
Friends and family came to dinner over the summer; among many memorable, lively evenings was a summer tradition, a grand aioli party.

A dinner table alive with laughter and talk is a pleasure we've enjoyed for 28 years.

I read many excuses reasons why people don't host dinners: "too much work" is top of the list. They cite food restrictions among guests; others are concerned about cost, imagining the month's food budget blown before dessert.

We've hosted at least 500 dinner parties, no sign of stopping. We too had a family to raise, guests who didn't eat this or that, and intense workloads. But we wanted to do it. 

Only two were flops: one due to a disgruntled man's behaviour (and his wife's disgust), the other, when we ran out of propane for the grill and everyone was blotto by the time we finally served. (See "BBQ Myth".)

Here's how we resolve some issues, live with others, and have lots of fun.

Too much work

The fix is simple: make the meal (or most of it) ahead so you aren't scrambling when your guests, showered and ravenous, show up. Forget those food shows that have you sautéeing with one hand, whipping up gougères with the other, and bantering.

Countless web sites feature make-ahead menus; Kitch Kitchen posted, for example, an especially luscious meal by Food for Thought's Claire Thomas that is served entirely room-temperature, so you don't even have to heat it.

You can also do the Takeout Trick. Buy every other course: buy the appetizer, make the main course, buy the dessert, or vice versa. This is a more expensive option, though.

Thanks to cooking show one-upmanship, hosts set the bar too high

Skip a seated first course and serve a communal platter of, for example, salami, cheese, nuts, roasted or raw vegetables, good olives, little shrimp dressed in lemon juice and a dash of tabasco (or red pepper flakes), dips, cherry tomatoes...anything people can eat with fingers or a toothpick as they sit in your livingroom. We call this course  "enhanced appetizers". To serve, buy a stack of inexpensive small plates at a dollar store.

For this course, one friend buys rolled sushi, another grills  a flank steak well ahead of time, slices it thin and serves iroom temperature, and a third heats those mini-spanakopitas or spring rolls from the grocery store.

If you prefer a first course at the table, serve a soup. The idea here is to relieve you from tightly-timed cooking.

Once at the table, a bowl of pasta, some decent bread, a green salad and a couple of pints of ice cream, and Bob's your uncle. As far as the house goes, if the bathroom guests use is clean and the cat's box is out of sight, you're set. Turn down the lights and use candles.

Bar-b-ques: red hot myth 

Just because you're dining al fresco doesn't make it easy. Bar-b-qued main courses are prepared à la minute, often by a host who is distracted, slightly tipsy or both. You have to traipse in and out schlepping dishes and drinks. 

Instead, make one-pot meals like a gumbo or your pick of the million varieties of lasagne and serve them outside if you wish. Use a washtub or planter as a giant ice bucket for wine, beer and water.

There's work you can avoid, like fussy last-minute recipes (Beef Wellington, never again) and work you can't, like the cleanup. After everyone leaves, turn up the music, pour another glass of wine or make yourself coffee and get on with it. We've never let guests help; it takes the charm off an evening.

Food restrictions

Other than Deborah's date, who wouldn't touch anything but bread (I suspect a social disability) every guest has been at minimum a willing eater, though occasionally someone has skipped a dish.

We'll work with dietary requests but there's a difference between requirement and preference, right? If a person doesn't like braised meat, she can buck up for one evening.

I'm grateful when people will tell us ahead of time that they don't eat an ingredient I'd be likely to use (garlic, tomatoes, wheat flour). One prospective guest told us he only "ate right for his food type" and that time we said, Restaurant.

We have an Official Dinner #1 for every first-time carnivorous guest: roast chicken. There are summer/winter versions, maybe the soup changes, but having an Official Dinner makes planning easy. 

My friend Marion served Chicken Marbella at every one of her parties for at least 15 years– and she was a restaurant critic! 

When we have a carnivore/vegetarian table, we make sure that "platter first course" has lots of veg options served on separate platters. The main course is vegetarian, e.g., mushroom risotto.

Vegans are welcome and also welcome to bring their own main course to complement the appropriate salad and dessert we'll prepare. We have a limited repertoire when both dairy and eggs are off limits, so that's our compromise. 

One way to screen for finick is to say, "Would you like to come over Friday night for Susie's Texas Red chili?" 

If someone voices a concern, you can say, "We make two pots, veggie and beef", if you're flexible. 

You should feel equally free to say "Another time, then" if they go on about "How spicy is it?", "Beans give me, uh, you know..." or "I only like my Mom's chili". In other words, you don't have to accommodate every issue under the sun, just the throat-closing, gut-wrenching kind. 

Regarding religious dietary customs, we ask rather than make assumptions. Some guests don't observe them, others appreciate our accommodation. 

Too expensive

There's no way around the fact that exponentially increasing the number of diners rolls up the grocery bill. Our friends Mrs. and Mrs. A. are staunch advocates of potlucks for this reason; they even make quilted casserole-carriers for gifts.

Le Duc loathes potlucks. He has assented when someone wants to bring a dessert, but he's an expert, control-freak cook who guards his domain. We've occasionally hosted and attended themed dinners to which everyone brings a course. Fun, but not much less work than doing it all. 

If you tote up the cost of a few restaurant or take-out meals, forgo those, and then shop adroitly, you can entertain quite a few guests for the same cost. Look for specials and stock up. Make homemade soups from leftovers and freeze until your party. If someone at work gives you a big bag of zucchini from her garden, ratatouille's on the menu.

Lift the late James Barber's technique of stretching expensive ingredients by serving, say, a shrimp and vegetable couscous instead of shrimp brochettes. You can curry damn near anything and it's really good, same with pasta sauce.

A neighbour served a soup in a tureen made from a hollowed-out pumpkin. Made from turkey necks, marked-down vegetables and orzo, it cost pennies per serving but the presentation dazzled everyone.  

Ricky D. enjoyed it!
"Having a few people for dinner" is never without effort, which is returned times over by the joy. Like winter camping, it's not everyone's idea of fun–you have to like, if not love, to cook–but the more you do it, the easier it gets. 

I see the purpose of meeting friends in restaurants; we do that, too. But breaking bread together at home, with your music playing, your pacing, someone scratching the dog and no one presented with a bill?  

Even better.

Various enjoyments: A harvest of delights

Summer's pleasures were not just wild blueberries and sweet corn. You may already know about these particular delights that came my way, contributed by various friends and family.

Blog: BrainPickings 
My friend Ronni sent me the link and I'm hooked on Maria Popova's  "interestingness digest". Smart, eclectic and always something to learn. I especially enjoyed a compendium, "Five Timeless Books of Insight on Fear and the Creative Process".

Book (English): Hand-Drying in America, by Ben Katchor 
We are big Katchor fans, and this compilation of weekly stories first published in the weekly paper  Metropolis, delivers his incomparable quirk.

Book (French):  Carnet d'une femme de chambre, text by Jean-Paul Pigeat, drawings by Fabrice Moreau. Not to be confused with a racy ca, 1900 novel (or, go ahead if you prefer), Carnet is a partly-authentic, partly embellished reproduction of drawings made from a chambermaid's observation of life in a grand French chateau, circa 1900. A fascinating glimpse into another time, with sly humour as a bonus.

Film: 20 Feet from Stardom
The documentary recounts the grinding yet (mostly) fulfilling careers of actual backup singers, featuring those who came on the scene in the '60s and '70s: Merry Clayton, Darlene Love and Judith Hill, among others. Glorious voices, heartrending stories.

No suprises here about the machinations of the music industry.

 Accessories: Judy Geib
Even well into the fine-jewelry category, there are far too many unimaginative designs that show minimal technique, but command four-figure price tags. 

I bow instead before Judy Geib, whose work is fresh, uncontrived and beautifully crafted. Whether on your save-for list, or just to admire, she is special. 

One example: Striped opal double-drop earrings, price, $3,180:
Do enjoy more of her exquisite work here.

Style: How to Dress Wearing Black in Summer; 4-minute video with Imogen Fox, from The Guardian.

Summer's over, and the pants pricey, but the lessons apply for any dark neutral. For those who feel about six years old in pastels, don't like busy prints, or just like to wear black, here's how to keep it going year-round.

Any recent discoveries you'd like to share?

One day, it changes: Montréal, early fall

Sunday was in the low 60s F/17C. In sheltered corners you felt the sun's heat, but when le fond de l'air est frais as they say here, everyone wraps in scarves. I've probably seen more in just over two years here than in my previous lifetime.

A typical Montréalaise: lots of black, footless tights and a big shawl to traverse the warm-cool day:

Hers was one of the beauties; its soft palette mitigates bulk. He knew I was appreciative! 

A feminine floral tames strict black leather; notice he's in a scarf, too!

Pretty girl in pretty scarf: not so unusual; with fur earrings: look again!

Plaid worked into a pale ensemble:

And always, someone in black on black:

You've asked me to shoot some older women; I admired her soft blue scarf and raspberry glasses:

Seventy-five if a day. Would you have the verve to wear a newsboy cap sideways? Hope I do!

But oh, the young girls! I found this blonde échalotte striking; she was well over 6 feet...

...most of it legs, topped off with those sneakers:

What were they buying? Local mushrooms, bushels of tomatoes, bunches of leeks, big as brooms.

We stopped for coffee before walking home; I'm wearing a crinkled silk scarf from Ten Thousand Villages.

And now, time to make plum jam!

Shining the light on a new look

Quick, whose merch is this?

Very MaxMara- or Eric Bompard?

Lafayette148? Theory?

Ralph Lauren?

These shots were grabbed from the new Lands' End quarterly magazine, Apostrophe, in which they also explain that misplaced punctuation.

That apostophe may still grate but I dare you to not smile at these guys:

I've been buying LE slim-cut cords, including these mint green ones, but would never have thought to wear them with black and white checks:

The quarterly (unlike the web site) embodies the stylist's art and the eminence of a good steady stripe, chevron or check. (The dresses are less successful, as I'd expect at this price point.)

The doggies' tartan scarves are acrylic, and so, unless allergic to wool, I'd give them a miss, saving instead for a snuggly cashmere like the Autumn Buchanan version from Johnston Cashmere; price, $155.
Whether human or canine, a cute model won't substitute for quality. And if the quality isn't there, the slick LookBook will only alienate the customer once she finds the actual fabrics pill or the seams wobble. That's you, Talbot's.

In Apostrophe, LE's logo's lighthouse beacon swings wide, aiming for more snap without straying too far out to sea, away from their core classics.

Let's see how they do; I wish them well. There aren't a lot of options for women, including Womens' and Petites, who live far from shops, need basics of decent quality and hope for a soupçon of style. 

La rentrée: A Montréal summer in seven scenes

Montréal: an igloo in winter becomes a piñata in summer, with the party playlist provided by both the famous and those "playing real good for free" at festivals of African drumming, jazz, electronica, rock.

At the Jazz Festival, we caught The Lost Bayou Ramblers, whose zydeco tunes were on the soundtrack of the film "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and a jawdropping surf guitarist who is at least 75 years old. (Yes, at a 'jazz festival'.)

The city felt like revolving, impromptu cabaret: in a single day, a jazz trio performed on a terasse, a tango club danced in the park, a jug band thumped at the subway, and the musicians, at left, offered an impromptu serenade in a bar.

They obvioulsy aren't a bar band. We wondered, who stops by for a beer with his tuba?

 The Grace Kelly exhibit at the McCord Museum displayed her haute couture wardrobe (including a well-used Kelly bag), letters and portraits.

My friend Judy thought Her Serene Highness's dresses traced an arc from elation to depression. The real Grace remained hidden behind the perfection of her image, despite the show's title, "Beyond the Icon".

I took a painting course, in French. My first effort, this rose, was an exercise in form, colour and patience. When our friend Bernard heard about my efforts, he gave me the generous gift of art supplies he'd inherited, including a burled-wood palette so patinaed with paint and wear that I'll display it, in memory of his friend Michel.

I met a gifted "real" artist, Beth Adams, who shares her work on her blog, The Cassandra Pages. She shows her watercolours and sketches, among other marvels. For a time, she completed one drawing every day, and so exquisitely. 

Beth sings, gardens, sews, teaches meditation, owns a small press and graphic design business, and paints. She writes eloquently, bringing her eye and nuanced appreciation to The Cassandra Pages.

When Good & Company held a sale, it was time to choose a supple, airy chiffon scarf as my "Hello, 65" gift. Since we live in Little Italy, "Sicilian Specialities" is right at home.  Which photo below is the scarf and which an actual display in a store on my street?

The top one! Folded, the print is less evident, but the colours meld beautifully:

Jules and Etienne cut the communal cake
I wasn't the only summer birthday! Our twin sons turned 26. Friends and family joined them and Etienne's sweetie, Tash, whose birthday was the day before, to celebrate with a backyard party.

What's better than Montréal in summer? Montréal in fall, when every last drop of light, every turning leaf is precious.

"And the sun pours down like honey
On Our Lady of the Harbour..." 
sang Leonard Cohen in "Suzanne". 

He was writing about this place, and, I like to imagine, this time of year, when we hoard the handful of remaining golden days before the deepening shadows of fall.

I hope you, too, have sunny summer souvenirs. Thank you for returning!