Friday, December 30, 2011

Cool book: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

One of the coolest presents I received for Christmas is a book I had never heard of before, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures by Caroline Preston. As someone who is crazy about picture books, loves vintage ephemera, and is fascinated the type of romance stories found in pre-1970s girls' comic books, I am enamored of this book. I feel like it was written specifically for me!

Just like the title indicates, the book is designed in a scrapbook style of clippings, letters, portraits, and photos of ephemera and collectibles, with bits of courier text that tell of a young woman's emergence into adulthood in the '20s. College life, Greenwich Village, Paris, scandal, Russian princes -- it's all here. The story is clichéd and far-fetched, and there are annoying typos (especially egregious since Frankie, the person supposedly writing the text, is supposed to be a brilliant writer and even is employed as a copy editor at one point) but still, I love it. (Thank you, Sue!)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Voula's Offshore Cafe

Before the January 1 diet begins, it's time to eat at Voula's Offshore Cafe, a breakfast and lunch joint on the Lake Union waterfront. This place was featured on Guy Fieri's Food Network show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," and the restaurant now has the Food Network logo on its awning, a big photo of Guy in the dining room, and a box highlighting Guy's picks on the menu. Voula's is so proud of Guy's visit to the restaurant that you can even watch the episode on their website. Check it out!

You can get typical omelettes, pancakes, and sandwiches at Voula's, but Guy evidently preferred the more offbeat house specialties like the hobos, which are mixes of scrambled eggs, mushrooms, onions, hash browns and other ingredients. (I tried the naked hobo, which includes green peppers and is topped with feta or Cheddar and tomatoes, and it was delicious.) He also likes the Chinese pancake, which has minced ham and an egg inside a pancake. Weird.

The portions at Voula's are ginormous; one order of the naked hobo provided three meals for us last weekend. Today I ordered two eggs with toast and hash browns and it came with enough hash browns for the whole table of five. I ate the eggs and part of the toast and maybe 1/3 of the hash browns and I've been full all day. Oscar loved his French dip, but not the French fries (they're crispy). Chris's lunch is pictured below; he says it was delicious. He also says it ranks highly compared to other places he's seen on food shows that he's tried.

Also, Voula's supposedly has great pie, which I haven't tried yet. And since I'm going on a diet, I won't be eating it anytime soon. Please let me know how you like it if you go!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Santa party (and the best realtor ever)

Our fabulous realtor, Christina McDonald, had a Santa party earlier this month. (That's her on Santa's lap below!) She had Santa and a professional photographer at her townhouse, and later gave everyone beautiful prints and digital files as gifts. I thought it was such a great idea! She is very high-energy and organized -- really, the best realtor ever -- and has made us feel so welcome in Seattle. She also grew up in our neighborhood, Wallingford, so she has an encyclopedic knowledge of Seattle. She drove us around tirelessly, remembered to bring snacks and water, and was extremely patient with us. I love her, and can't recommend her highly enough.

Wishing you all a healthy and happy 2012! Happy holidays!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Collecting art on the cheap

If you like the idea of owning original art but think you can't afford it, a solution awaits you in Seattle. Venue in the Ballard district is home to an Art-o-Mat, a former cigarette machine that now dispenses original art for a mere $5.

There are more than 90 Art-o-Mats in the U.S. -- from Key West, Florida to Las Vegas, Nevada -- with art from more than 400 artists hailing from 10 different countries. So even if you don't live in Seattle, maybe there's an Art-o-Mat near you! Among the goodies in the Venue machine are postage stamp earrings by Brandi Crye from Eugene, Oregon; mini paintings by Jodi Reeb-Myers of Minneapolis; miniature designer paper bags by Cynthia Larkin of Thomaston, Connecticut; and fused glass bobby pins from Gerry Klein of Omaha, Nebraska. Oscar decided to buy the origami from a San Diego artist named Casey, and was happy with his beautifully packaged purchase. I love the idea of supporting artists -- and of reusing these retro cigarette machines. Buying art this inexpensive is a healthy habit!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Urban chickens

We live in a residential neighborhood, but it's pretty urban. It's very densely populated and though the houses have yards, most are tiny -- it's extremely common here to use the plots of grass between the sidewalk and the street for gardening. I was initially just surprised that people can tend front-yard gardens without getting all their produce stolen, but hey, I'm coming from a neighborhood where $3 basil plants repeatedly got dug up out of my yard. I was even more surprised that a lot of our neighbors also keep chickens. (The chicken in the photo is in an enclosure directly across the street from Oscar's middle school on the strip of land between the street and sidewalk.) In the summer the chickens from a nearby house frequently strutted down the sidewalk; a crudely printed sign on their fence noted that "It's okay if the chickens are out." (I notice that those chickens are now securely fenced in their yard, though, so maybe in the end it wasn't okay.)

Some quick research reveals that Seattle allows up to eight domestic fowl on any lot, but no roosters. You shouldn't keep just one chicken because they like to live in groups. Structures housing chickens have to be at least 10 feet away from the house.

Legality aside, it seems like a lot of effort to get eggs, and it must cost more to feed and house the chickens than eggs cost. I assume you have to heat the coop somehow; the temperature has been dropping to freezing levels at night. Also, the egg production rate lessens after a chicken's first couple of years, and some chickens lay eggs only in the spring. Do chickens make good pets? Personally, I find them intimidating -- ever since I learned that they're dinosaurs' closest living relatives I expect them to attack me like a velociraptor from Jurassic Park.

Still, the idea of a mini urban farm is sort of appealing to me, and I've heard that fresh eggs taste a million times better than store-bought ones. I am trying hard to be more of a locavore too. And we actually do have a chicken coop at the side of our house, though it's not 10 feet away. Is urban farming in my future?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas fondue

There's a saying in our house that comes from a '70s-era cookbook: "Your party's a success the moment you decide to serve fondue." It's because sitting around a pot of bubbling cheese with long double-pronged spears makes eating an intimate event. According to my favorite fondue cookbook, there's a Swiss tradition that ladies who drop their bread in the pot must kiss the nearest man, while the man who drops his bread must buy the wine. And of course, there's the fact that cheese + bread = deliciousness. It's obviously not super healthy, so we restrict this indulgence to Christmastime.

Ever since the time Chris and I consumed an entire pound of cheese fondue on our own one Christmas Eve night, we try to invite people to join us when we have fondue. And with apologies to the many well-meaning friends and relatives who have gifted fondue cookbooks over the years, we only use this one classic recipe from the 1968 Nitty Gritty Fondue Cookbook:

Cut up 1/2 lb. each of Emmenthaler and Gruyere into tiny cubes. Rub fondue pot with the cut side of a clove of garlic and discard. Put 2 cups dry white wine into pot and when it's hot add a tablespoon lemon juice. Toss cheese with 2 tablespoons flour and gradually add to the pot, stirring constantly. Add 3 tablespoons Kirsch, a dash of nutmeg and paprika, and you're ready to dip your bread cubes.

Last night we had chocolate fondue after the cheese to make it even more caloric, with strawberries, bananas, grapes, and marshmallows for dipping. For the kids, this was definitely the high point of the meal.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas past

To me the best Christmas ornaments are the old ones. When I was very young, my parents bought a little artificial Christmas tree for my bedroom. I still have it! The plastic base was destroyed many years ago, but my father made a sturdy circular wooden stand for it. I have many of the ornaments from the same time period.

My dog got loose one December and brought this rubber dog head home. We don't know where it came from, but we hung it on the tree that year -- and I still hang it up every year and think of Ginger.

I have two of these lion ornaments. I really liked them because my Zodiac sign is Leo. That sort of thing was important to me in elementary school. I'm not sure why.
And I thought this was one of the most beautiful ornaments we had. I loved the soft flecked texture.

This ornament was sent to me from a Norwegian pen pal. I was impressed that she found a lightweight, flat gift that was so cute. I don't remember what I sent to her, but I sincerely doubt it was anything worth keeping!

My sister sent me some ornaments of children's storybook characters many years ago: Madeline, Paddington Bear, Snoopy, and Babar.

I used to have more of the characters from the Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, but the Bumble still survives.

And here's the first ornament I purchased at an after-Christmas sale at my favorite boutique when I was in high school. I wonder how much I paid for it.

And this porcelain Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim ornament is very poignant. I'm not sure if he ever read it, but my father watched A Christmas Carol on TV without fail every year. I developed a love of Dickens and Victoriana in college, and my mom gave me this ornament as a gift when I lived in a brownstone building in Boston.

I love taking the ornaments out every year and having all these time periods and memories jumble together. And despite the ornaments' varying styles, they seem to go together for me because they tend to be whimsical and story-themed. At this point many of them are looking pretty shabby, but I can't help being sentimental about them. Christmastime seems a good time for it though, don't you think?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Eat, drink, and be merry

A few days ago NPR reported that 3/4 of the respondents to a recent poll said they'd rather not have a company party. Instead they want cash bonuses, gift cards, or paid time off. If corporate America is paying attention, the company holiday party may go the way of the rotary telephone by next December.

Luckily I got to enjoy a lavish party this weekend, courtesy of Microsoft. The party, held at EMP, was just for the Interactive Entertainment Business portion of the company (the other divisions have their own parties), but it was still huge. Attendees were provided with a map and a schedule. Besides the museum's regular exhibits, there was 5,900 square feet of additional tented space, and bars and food stations (catered by Wolfgang Puck) throughout all the areas. Entertainment included dancing mascots, go-go girls, a comedy show, a dance club, and performances by Blues Traveler and -- most exciting to me -- CeeLo Green (whom I watched while leaning on a case holding Michael Jackson's glove and jacket).

Because I worked in videogame journalism for a long time, I got to attend a lot of huge parties like this one for the E3 trade shows, and I love them (and miss them!). And the party really made me miss my former co-workers too! So...I'm hoping this won't be my last one. Even though I made the mistake of wearing giant high heels and could barely walk, I tried to enjoy every minute.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

New neighbor: Yogurtland

The big news in the neighborhood this morning is the opening celebration of a new Yogurtland, which from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. is giving away free frozen yogurt while supplies last. Judging from the steady stream of people snaking through the store, they may not last long! The store also gave away gift cards and T-shirts before we arrived, but the upbeat staff were still handing out free rulers to the kids. (Their slogan is "You rule.")

I had mango and cran raspberry tart, topped with fresh mango pieces, strawberries, and dark chocolate bits. Oscar had mango and vanilla topped with mini Junior Mints, sprinkle-covered chocolate chips, Fruity Pebbles breakfast cereal, and coconut shavings. I was impressed by the variety of both flavors (snowflake mint! taro! kona coffee blend!) and toppings.

Verdict? We both loved it. Thank you, Yogurtland! You rule!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Middle school music

My amazement continues at the vast chasm between Oscar's scrappy little elementary school and the mega infrastructure of his middle school. Last night's winter concert drove the point home. The beginning band, cadet band, concert band, and the symphonic band all performed in the enormous auditorium of the high school next to the middle school, and I sat in a comfortable theater-style seat instead of a folding chair. The students have a strict dress code: I had to purchase Oscar a winged-collar tuxedo shirt, a black bow tie, black dress pants, black dress shoes, black dress socks, and a new belt.

In Oscar's beginning band alone, there are 42 students listed on the program, including six other clarinet players. The cadet band has 80 students; the concert band has 66 students, the symphonic band (an elite group that requires an audition) has 57. And the school also has an after-school jazz band program. According the notes on the concert program, more than 500 students at his school are involved in the choir, orchestra, band, and jazz ensembles.

The music program is so big it has its own PTA-type support system called FOMAHI (Friends of Music at Hamilton International). It does its own fundraising, has its own website, and is in fact its own nonprofit corporation! The group seems to be exceptionally well organized -- maybe better than the school itself.

We had some problems with Oscar's schedule at the beginning of the year, initially because he was assigned to Japanese, band, and P.E. -- but had no science class. It slowly dawned on me that science was probably actually required (it is!) and we had Oscar's schedule changed to swap P.E. for science. In the first few days of school, Oscar mentioned that the kids in his band class didn't even know what middle C was, so I wrote to his band teacher who said he'd test Oscar on trumpet to see if he should be in the cadet group instead of with the beginners. He passed, but Oscar would again have to change every one of his classes to get in -- which he absolutely did not want to do -- so in the end he changed from trumpet to clarinet to alleviate boredom. I'm not sure that was the best decision, especially after learning that he picked clarinet because it was easy to carry, but whatever.

Anyway, the concert was lovely, and the symphonic band was extremely impressive. The director of all these bands, Dan Rowe, told us parents at back-to-school night that he does not believe that talent has anything to do with success in band. "It's all about face time," he said. These kids must have been putting in a lot of face time. And they are so earnest in their playing -- I just love watching them. Their performance was every bit as enjoyable to me as going to the symphony.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sock monsters at Sock Monster

I don't normally shop for novelty socks, but these Christmas stockings in the window of The Sock Monster caught my eye! Do you think they would scare Santa away?

Do you know anyone who might want to find these under the tree?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pear crisp

I don't ever make pie. I mostly just eat the middle of the pie anyway, and it just seems so much easier to make a crisp instead. And I have no proof, but it's probably healthier too. Last night I made a pear crisp -- it's pear season! (Thanks Len and Liz for the Harry & David pears!) It's super, super easy, and since it's homemade, it's fancy enough to serve guests.

Here's how:

Peel and thinly slice 4 medium ripe pears, and put in greased 8 x 8 baking dish.
Combine 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon allspice and 1/8 teaspoon ginger and sprinkle it over the pears.
Then combine 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats, 1/4 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/4 brown sugar, and cut in 1/4 cup cold butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over pears.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes and serve warm.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New favorite book: Speakeasy Dollhouse

My best friend from junior high and beyond, who I also lived with in college, is the renowned artist Countess Cynthia Von Buhler, who is the most talented and beautiful woman ever. You'd kinda want to hate her for it, except she's also exceedingly nice and funny -- and she works harder than anyone I know. (I know her as Cindy, but you should call her Cynthia.) She started out as an illustrator, but she's not one to rest on her laurels, so she just keeps doing more amazing, diverse work including performances and installations. She's illustrated many books (most recently the Evelyn Evelyn graphic novel published by Dark Horse Comics, and writes them herself as well (But Who Will Bell the Cat?, The Cat Who Wouldn't Come Inside).

Cindy's maternal grandparents lived in the Bronx and ran speakeasies during the Prohibition. Then her grandfather had an ice delivery business. One day her grandfather went out with one of his four children to collect a debt, leaving his pregnant wife at home. He was murdered. In August Cindy raised $16,811 via Kickstarter to publish a picture book for adults and produce an immersive play influenced by Sleep No More in New York City, all to explore this murder.

Everything Cindy produces is gorgeously detailed, and this project is no exception. For the book, she photographed dolls and sets to tell the story, which is similar to the technique she used for The Cat Who Wouldn't Come Inside.

I'm always excited to get a new book, but this one is especially exciting to me because for a lot of it, I was there. Even though the book is ostensibly about a murder that took place during the 1930s, the story is also about Cindy's own life. This project is also exciting to me as a writer and editor, because it represents a new wave of publishing, and I wanted to know all about how my friend put it all together. She's always got a million project brewing, but she took time to answer some questions I sent her. (Thanks, Cindy!!) Here they are:

Knowing you for such a long time, it seems like an idea that maybe was percolating your whole life; I remember hearing the story about your grandfather's death. How long did this project take?

I have been thinking about it my whole life, but I never envisioned it as a book until I realized that a graphic novel would be the perfect medium for such a thing. I officially started my research two years ago. As for the art, I started exactly one year ago.

This was your first Kickstarter project, right? Did you try to take it to a traditional publisher first?

I did not. I usually write and illustrate children's books. This is a picture book for adults. It is an unusual project and I felt that I needed to show a publisher what was in my mind rather than try to describe it using only words. I'm not interested in self-publishing. I see this book as a dummy book paid for by my beloved fans. I'm interested in finding a publisher for the series, but on my own terms. If that means that I need to create a few of the books before I sell the project, so be it. Thanks to Kickstarter and the play I now have a built-in audience hooked on the series.

The book is brief autobiography of you, tied in with your mother's story. What was your mother's reaction to it?

At first she was resistant to the idea, but now she loves it. She is intrigued by my findings, but constantly says that I have an overactive imagination and that I always tend toward far-fetched scenarios. My whole family was up in arms when they saw my grandma doll naked while giving birth in the test photos. They weren't upset about the nudity as much as the fact that a naked Mary Spano was not believable. They felt that such a pious woman would be covered while giving birth. I gave her a white nightgown in the finals, but the image is still rather graphic. My mother's response to the book birth scene was, "There is too much blood. It's a birth, not a murder." I disagree with her. I watched birth videos as reference and there was a great deal of blood. But overall she is thrilled, especially when the evidence points to the fact that Grandpa was a victim rather than a criminal. The verdict on that is still not out. My mother loved the play, but she said that watching her own birth acted out was "surreal."

Besides looking through old newspapers at the library, what other research methods did you use? Did your mother's tin box have any clues in it?

I ordered the court, police, and autopsy records from the NYC archives. These were incredibly helpful. is a fantastic research tool. It provides census reports from the 1920s and '30s, death records, birth records, cemetery records, and military records as well as the usual family tree listings. Identity-finding websites and the online white pages have also been useful. A journalist from The New York Daily News gave me the phone number of a reputed Gotti crime soldier's lawyer. When I hit a brick wall trying to find the murderer's children, a private investigator who was intrigued by my project offered his services for free. I'm also very good at stalking mobsters. I call them on the phone and drive to their houses to spy.

The most revealing item in the tin box was the burning-in-hell prayer card. The photos and paraphernalia also gave me insight into my grandparents' personalities. I wish that my grandmother had kept the police photos of her husband after he was shot. The back of the "we regret to inform you” death letter had a handwritten note by my grandmother indicating that police photos accompanied the letter.

Random question: I love the pattern swatches you use as design elements. The houndstooth ones on your Olan Mills spread remind me of those pants you used to have -- remember them? The others, too, totally remind me of you! Where did you get them?

Yes! They reminded me of those skinny-legged corduroy pants I used to wear too. I had one pair of the magenta pants and another blue, exactly like those patterns! I found all of the patterns in the book on a stock photo site. The big pink flowers reminded me of the wallpaper in my parent's kitchen, remember that? It was god-awful and amazing at the same time.

Also, I thought for a second that the photo in the upper left was my Olan Mills portrait. I was scared!

I'm so glad that you noticed that! I specifically remember calling your mother to sell her an Olan Mills portrait session. How could she resist her daughter's best friend? I chose that photo because it looked like you with your feathered blonde hair. I had a great deal of fun with the images on the walls. The therapist scene is a replica of my Connecticut therapist's office. She is an artist herself and the paintings on the walls are her own.

Did you make the dolls, or modify them? Did you make the clothes for the dolls?

I bought high-quality articulated plastic doll forms. They are bald and they all look the same, even the sexes. I added features and body shapes using flesh-colored clay and cooked them lightly in the oven. If you cook them too much the plastic will melt. Then I added hair (they also have pubic and chest hair) and painted their features with gouache paint. I did make a lot of the clothes, but I also found larger doll clothes and altered them to fit my smaller dolls. The scuba flippers on the last page were a find. I got them from a Spider Man action figure. You would think that Spider Man could swim without flippers, wouldn't you?

Anything you would do differently next time, or if you had to do it over again?

I would add the evidence collage materials to the book. I did not have all of my evidence ready for book one when I sent it to be printed. This is why I made a separate evidence booklet. Other than that, I really love everything about it: my family, the dolls, the actors, the speakeasy, New York City. I hope that my love for it is contagious.

I know the performance is a big part of this project, and since I couldn't be there (sob!), I'm wondering what you learned from it. The pictures I've seen are gorgeous.

My slogan is "The speakeasy is our dollhouse and the actors are our dolls." I see myself as the only audience member. I am "The Time Traveling Revealer of Truth." Even the ticketed guests are actors to me. They are all my dolls to play with! How cool is that? The difference between dolls and humans is that I cannot predict how humans would respond in a given situation. For example, Katelan Foisy, the actress who plays the wife of the murderer, asked me if she should be angry or scared when her husband kills my grandfather (her supposed lover). I asked her how she felt and she said that she was scared, so we went with that. This type of research will be invaluable as I write the rest of the graphic novel series.

If someone wants to buy this book, is there any way to get one now?

Good question. I made enough for my Kickstarter backers with 100 left over for my agent and promotion. At the shows we ended up selling most of those. I'm going to have to print up additional copies. Currently, the only way to get the book is to buy one at the show. I probably should have a web store to sell my books and art, but I'm too busy writing, creating, and directing to think about that.

What's next?!

We have a whole 2012 season of off-Broadway performances in NYC. Buy your tickets here!

Book Two is written, but I need to create and photograph the artwork. To do that I need funding. I'd also like to make a stop-motion book trailer. This also requires funding. It looks like there is another Kickstarter in the near future. I could stop and wait for a publisher or producer to swoop in and buy/option the book, but I feel that that would ruin my momentum. Either way, I plan to go forward full steam ahead.

Photo of Cynthia Von Buhler by Margee Challa ©2012
Artwork by Cynthia Von Buhler ©2012

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sweetish Swedish

I'm not gonna say there's nothing Chris likes more than a pancake breakfast, but he sure does enjoy a pancake breakfast. So yesterday we attended one at the Swedish Cultural Center. I'm not a big pancake fan in general, but Swedish pancakes are so much better than regular pancakes! They're light, like crepes, and the ones at the cultural center were served with a choice of lingonberries or strawberries, with whipped cream, plus a side of ham.

Apparently Swedish pancakes are also very popular! We spent about 20 minutes searching for parking, as the parking lot there is quite small, and then spent at least another 10 minutes or so standing in line. But it was worth it. The people at our table, all of Danish descent, were really nice and welcoming, and there was a folk band playing, with people dancing. There was also a selection of Scandinavian sweaters, crafts, and bread for sale. A woman handed out the words to some holiday carols -- in Swedish -- for a sing-along, but we didn't stick around for that, though it might have been amusing to try to pronounce those words.

I'm so intrigued by the cultural center -- which celebrates all Scandinavian heritage, not just Swedish. It has lots of cool artwork and bric-a-brac on display: dolls, Swedish horses, folk art, and of course, now, a big Christmas tree. I learned there are lots of interesting events there. Top on my list is the Swedish Kafé & Happy Hour, which is held every Friday and features Smörgås sandwiches, Swedish meatballs, and homemade Swedish pastries. There's also a Viking lecture every Friday at 5:30! Also every Friday, they show Scandinavian films with English subtitles at 2 p.m.

The center also offers various levels of language classes, genealogy services, a book group, and lots of parties and events. But if you want to start with the pancake breakfast, the next one is on Sunday, January 8, from 8 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., with music by Skolkis, Mäd Fiddlu, and Nyckelharpa. It costs $9 for adults and $5 for children 5-12; $7 for members. See you there?