In which the author tells you how to run your life -- or at least how to make the most of the fun parts of it.

For instance, inside these pages you will learn how to weather a mortar attack in good spirits; how to avoid booking yourself on the Internet into a bed and breakfast full of twee quilts and dusty tchotkes; and how to plan a dinner party that will stun your guests with deliciousness and style and not destroy your will to live with the amount of work you have to do to pull it off.

These are things I know firsthand, and things people who know me often ask me about (though I usually just book them into bed and breakfasts myself -- identifying ruffled death traps is an acquired skill). I am almost always right about everything (food, style and travel-related, anyway, and often many other things) and if everyone would just do as I say, dinner would taste better, cupcakes would not be dry, your parties would be more fun (for you), and mortar attacks... well, they always suck. I can't do anything about them.

*except laundry. I can't manage my own laundry, much less yours.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Life Lesson Number Two:

How to Keep Your Job

Ever wonder how incompetent, transparent ass-kissers keep their jobs?

Life Lesson Number Two:
Your job is not what you think your job is. Your job is to make your boss happy every time they see you.

Listen up, Twentysomethings.* As good as you think you are at your job, as good as you in fact may be: if your boss is not happy to see you every morning -- because you make life more pleasant for them, because you are cheerful, focused on their needs, seem to enjoy the work and adapt to their personal management style (and weaknesses) -- you are not going to have your job for very long. Truth.
It takes a while to learn this for yourself. Take it from me, someone who has been fired multiple times from ridiculous jobs, despite extreme competency. (Truth!)

It doesn't matter how good you are if you're boss doesn't look forward to seeing you in the morning.

Let me repeat: Your job is to do your job, but more importantly it is to make your boss' work day more pleasant. Don't go to them with problems. Go to them with solutions to the problems you have. Be happy to see them. Laugh at their jokes. Drop whatever you are doing when they are talking to you, and make their priority -- that stupid 400-page report they want you to read and summarize that says nothing of value, or that article they saw 4 weeks ago in the Times or the Journal? -- your priority. Show polite interest in their life and well being. Be competent. Be punctual. But be liked. Be (fake) happy. Be (fake) jovial, if you must. Be (fake) interested in their stories about their children. Even when they are being unreasonable, nasty or insane.

Whatever you do, don't entertain that voice inside that says "I deserve to be respected by my boss!"

Maybe. But that's not their job. And they didn't hire you to respect you. They hired you to respect them.

In every power struggle, the more powerful person wins, every time. So get power on your side by being the person who makes their workplace a tolerable place to be.

That's why incompetent, transparent ass-kissers prosper. The boss only sees the ass-kissing in tiny -- but pleasant --doses.

The only thing working for you if you are not making your boss happy every day is the fact that the only thing worse than firing you is interviewing, hiring and training someone to replace you.

That's not to say every job is worth keeping. I've quit a few because I wasn't respected, because the version of me my boss was reflecting back had nothing to do with who I actually was. In each of those cases, however, I could still be in those soul-destroying jobs had I just heeded my own advice. (Glad I didn't. Some douchebags deserved every arched eyebrowed glare, every dismissive sigh I could muster. And I could muster plenty. )

*This advice diminishes in imperativeness in your 30s and 40s, but still applies. See above.

How To Identify People Who Are High, On Craigslist.

Click here.

ok, ok: here's the coffee table they are selling for $1,500, which they justify by saying they paid over $4,000 for it.. and yet they fail to justify that decision in the first place. But I will justify it for them by saying: they are clearly high.

Feast Your Eyes!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How to Decorate Your Living Room from Craigslist Today

Sometimes, when I have a free moment (and when I don't, to tell the truth) I peruse Craigslist and pick the things I would buy if I had to decorate a living and dining room (and sometimes a bedroom) THAT DAY for under $2000 including truck rental. The rules: I can only pick from the last 100 posts, from one city's Craigslist. I do this when someone isn't asking me to find something in particular for them. It keeps the hand in...

So here's what to buy off DC's Craigslist today. It all starts with this awesome couch for $450.

Put a rug under it. This one is 8X 10 and around $200. I can't remember.

And put this $15 floor pillow - 24"X 24" -- on the rug. Yes, they work together.

I'm going to assume you have a couple of suitable end tables. So now you need to buy some groovy lamps. This porcelain lamp is $15, I think, and just needs a new shade because this one is clearly hideous. It's got wonderful 3-D delicate flowers on the base. Get a black drum shade. The teak lamp is $50.

You need a dining set (I am presuming open-plan living here... a loft or a studio) -- a table that's a little rough around the edges offsets all the slickness of that awesome white couch. If you went for something new and shiny, you're in danger of looking like a showroom. This table is $150 -- oak, classic. Just wax the top.

Buy these chairs (table not for sale, which is fine because it's loathesome in both tone and shape): all four are $160. They scream out for the round table above. We're all about juxtoposition today. Most days, actually.

Sum total if my math is right: $1090. (not including the black drum shade, which you can get here for $45. You may have to jury rig the fittings since that one is for a pendant light.)
You're welcome.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Life Lesson Number One:

You never regret a swim.
So pack your bathing suit whereever you go. Cold water, warm water, chlorinated, salt, somewhat questionable water, quarry, stock tank, river, lake, pool, ocean (I draw the line at ponds, because I grew up in Florida and you’re pretty much asking for an alligator attack in a pond) – in whatever body of water you choose, it punctuates your day.

To wit:

check out for ideas. And if you are in the Baltimore area, go to Beaver Dam Swim Club before it's turned into condos. There's a trapeze/rope swing! And logs you can practice log rolling on like a logger! And, most spectacular of all, the hole in which you swim was emptied by men cutting giant slabs of marble for the Washington Monument. It's super creepy and wonderful to skim across the top of the murky water and think of the 55 feet of emptiness below you. And George Washington, whose Farewell Address established American foreign policy for, like, the next 150 years.

You're welcome.

How Not to Lose Your Keys

Sort of. I have a friend with a very forgetful and thunderous husband who is forever losing his car keys and then it's panic stations until they are located -- 30 seconds or 15 minutes later. Yes, they've tried having a designated spot for them. No, that doesn't work -- because if you could remember where to put your keys then you wouldn't lose them in the first place.

So this is what you do. Stop fighting it. Accept that keys will be misplaced. That is their nature. Misplacing them is not the problem. The problem is not having them... yes?

Make 10 copies of the keys in question. Salt them around the house. Keep 5 in one drawer as your go to, automatic replacement. Leave one or two outside, in those tricky little faux rocks -- but put them in your neighbor's yard for a little added security. Lost a key? Here you go. Lost your keys again babe? Here you go. Lost your keys? That's ok, hon, here you go. Repeat nine times, then go make more keys.
And now for a key story: Before I went to Afghanistan for the first time in 2002, I was rattling around my house and came across a skeleton key. I had obtained it from an antiques store, now shuttered, down the street, when I was trying to find a key to fit my slavaged back doors (I ultimately did, out of the whole coffee can of keys.). For whatever reason, I tied it on a bit of string and hung it around my neck, and there it stayed. I was at a cocktail party with a bunch of Pentagon types, when then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers sat down next to me and asked me what the key was all about. I explained that I found it in my house, and it just felt like a good thing to have.
Fast forward a couple of months. I'd spent 4 weeks in Afghanistan, some of it at Bagram where I had incredible adventures with a civil affairs team that drove me wherever I wanted to go (a major victory, since the Special Forces guys wouldn't take out a girl on a mission, and I kept getting passed over for one of the dozen male reporters. So those guys fought over going on a single mission every other day, and I was outside the wire for 8 - 12 hours every day -- at health clinics, tiny villages, orphanages, girls' schools, Alexander the Great's redoubt, boneyards of Soviet tanks... and once saw a warlord getting a v strange visit from a non-US helicopter that turned out to be a big deal but I never found out what it was).
Anyway: The first Loya Jirga was finished and Hamid Karzai was beginning his presidency so I was packing my bags for home. I planned to check out of the Shamshad guest house in Kabul and head to Peter Jouvenal's guest house for my last night, which was a far superior accommodation. The Shamshad smelled like rotting meat (because of the rotting meat hanging around) and had the barest trickle of water in the single shower in the whole hotel. But I woke up every morning to sit on the porch and watch the BBC radio crew do its live show broadcast back to England from the garden, which was cool and caught me up on world news. So Shamshad had its charms. But that meat smell. Ick.
Jouvenal's guest house was said to have belonged to one of Osama Bin Laden's wives before the invasion, and there was an apricot tree dropping fat apricots all over the yard, which the kitchen staff turned into the most wonderful cobbler, drowned in fresh cream. It tasted about as good as anything I'd ever had and was a fresh relief from my days of dirty flat bread and flies at Shamshad.
So I was eager to get there. I moved my bags into the Shamshad hallway and turned to lock the door. No key. I ripped through all my bags. No key. Through the room. No key. I called the house manager, a kid of about 17, and he got every key to every door in the guest house and tried to fit it in the lock. No love. I was at a loss -- these were ancient doors and ancient keys, and leaving without returniung the key was tantamount to rendering the room uninhabitable. No Westerner -- the only ones who were renting -- would stay in a room that couldn't be locked. I put my hand on my chest to show him how sorry I was and I felt the key around my neck. I fished it out of my collar and held it out to him. "Maybe this?" I asked. He disappeared into the kitchen, reappeared with a two-foot curling knife, slid it up between the key and my throat and slit the cord. The key slid into the door and turned the lock. Door swung open. True story. I left the key there, which I regret.
What if that key opens EVERY door?

Friday, August 20, 2010

How to Decorate a Small Room in 10 Very Easy, But Unwavering, Steps

These easy guidelines more or less guarantee success. You can certainly break all these rules – as I did recently in a 10’ X 10’ bedroom with moss green walls (that was their existing color. I didn’t feel like repainting. See: 80 percent solution), a white floor (which i did feel like painting), a cobalt-painted bed and a blue and white floral canopy -- and still come up with a great small room. But if you can pull that off you probably don’t need to be reading this.

Follow these rules you’ll have an an easy, restful room. How you trick it out – with one large edgy piece of art? – will give it life.

Assign the room a dedicated function. For sleeping (and snogging). Or working. Or painting. Or reading. Then the smallness makes sense. Don’t try to cram too much activity into the room. It will make you feel like you are bouncing off the walls: Should I writedrawpaintsewreadworksleepsnog? The answer should be apparent when you walk in. I sleep. I work. I read.

Use fewer, larger pieces of furniture – more functional and more calm. A big comfortable bed and a large dresser that serves as both storage and night stand in a small room are better than a twin bed and a night stand and a dresser and a bureau and a lamp and a rug and a coat rack and a book case. You want to give the eye a couple of places to rest in the room, but not too many – that’s overwhelming. So you walk in and see the bed or couch or desk, and then one other piece. And then it stops. If you’re so busy looking around at-all-the-little-pieces you’ll quickly feel crowded and then insane. Throw out the crap. This is my friend Dayana's bedroom (and my former bed!) recently featured on Apartment Therapy. It's all bed, but it's awesome.Pick a color and stick with it. The eye goes to contrast. So go monochromatic and your eyes will flow seamlessly around the room and make it feel spacious. Generally, in a small room, neutral is best. So paint the walls greige, get silk or linen drapes in a similar shade and hang them from or at the ceiling, drawing the eye up. They should skim the outer edges of the window frame (just obscuring the edges… it will give the impression that the window is much bigger). Dress the bed or upholstery in a lighter or darker shade of your chosen color. Or paint everything white, including the floor. Or paint it all a steely blue grey-blue. Or paint the walls black or deep chocolate brown, and paint all the wood in the room – floor, trim, furniture – white. (You can do strong color – not red, please not red, though I love it and it is my favorite color but it will make you feel like you live in the Amityville Horror house -- but it’s trickier and easy to overwhelm yourself).

Light it properly. That means lighting for task and ambiance, not flipping on an overhead bulb. Have a table lamp beside the bed that allows you to read, but leaves mysterious shadows that obscure the edges of the room. Have a task light on your desk. Light the closet. Wash the walls with light from spot beams. Just don’t light the whole room. Awful. (that’s not to say you have to remove the overhead light. But turn it on, then turn on the task lights, then turn off the overhead light. You’ll enjoy the space much more.)

If you must have additional color, bring it in with accessories – and not too many. Try to keep the room to one monochromatic shade with one or two pops of color. Like a couple of these, and maybe something green and growing to bring life and oxygen in.

Use a large mirror to bounce the light from the (I presume) limited windows around the room. Try to put it directly across from the window, if possible.

If your furniture isn’t special, don’t hesitate to unify it with a coat of white or black paint (or your chosen color, always in high gloss). They will become a single color block and design statement, and their complicating details will fade from view.

Minimize the tchotchkes. Don’t have anything in there that isn’t beautiful AND functional. (OK, you can have one purely decorative piece, like that horse in the room above).

Everything in the room must function well. Drawers have to slide open and have enough room. You should be able to get out of the bed and walk without obstruction to the door. The chair at the desk should slide in and out easily. You need a place to put your necessities. Minimize your necessities.

Above all, make the room -- its size, its decor -- feel intentional. "I DID THIS THIS WAY FOR A REASON." That’s what turns a space into a place – a place where, when people walk through the door, they know they have arrived; a place that is meant to contain and hold people and their business, warmly.

You’re welcome.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How To Be Ready to Entertain Drop-In Guests, Who Are Often the Best Kind and Deserve a Little Aforethought.

It’s a question of properly stocking one shelf of your pantry (and a teeny corner of the fridge) with things that require little to no preparation and have a long-shelf life. If you are a child of the Cold War, you might also be thinking: handy list in event of nuclear war! Yes, yes it is.
Here’s what to stock:
  • dates, dried apricots, dried cranberries
  • Marcona (or other roasted) almonds; raw walnuts
  • wasabi peas
  • Carrs wheat crackers, and another variety. The little Grille toasts are good and remind me of a very strange night with two drunken Dutchmen outside St. Cezaire Sur Siagne (with the greatest river ever at the bottom of an old Roman trail. I fell asleep on the trail and woke up with butterflies lighting on my chest). But Carrs Wheat Crackers are non–negotiable.
  • Cannellini beans in a can
  • Chickpeas in a can
  • High quality sardines (really!) – from Spain or Portugal, boned and skinless, packed in olive oil. Shouldn’t be any other ingredients than fish, oil, water, salt… An Italian grocery will have a good selection.
  • A jar of roasted sweet red peppers (Piquillo, if possible)
  • Stilton cheese
  • Real Parmesan cheese (or Parano, an addictive mixture of parm and gouda).
  • Olives, either a really good imported kind with pits! in a can, or the mixed kind from Whole Foods in a container that you keep in the fridge. If you get pitted olives they will be tasteless and terrible. Usually.
  • If it’s summer keep on hand some Vinho Verde – the lightly sparkling and usually cheap and almost always delicious wine from Portugal – or Prosecco. If it’s not summer, something red and a little fruity – a syrah or Pinot Noir.

So many snacks, so little time. Do one, some, or all, depending how much you like your guests how hungry they are and how long you want them to stay. Put these on an attractive wooden cutting board, or gorgeous plates, or large pieces of slate you picked up at Home Depot for a song and keep for just this purpose.

  1. Set up a plate with Stilton cheese and Carrs wheat crackers – unbelievably delicious together – the sharpness of the cheese and the sweetness of the cracker are perfect together. Put some dried fruit (cranberries and apricots) on the side, and Marcona almonds or walnut halves. You can also chunk up the Parmesan and eat that; it doesn’t get nearly enough straight up eating. It’s nutty and has tiny crystals in it that snap when you bite. Break out the red wine. If you’ve got a pear or an apple, slice it. This is best offered up when the weather is a little cool, so not the dead of summer.

  2. Cut open the dates, remove pits, and cut slivers of parmesan – large enough to fill the date’s sad empty carapace. Add a walnut half if you feel like it. Serve them as is, or pop them in the oven for a few minutes. You could also stuff it with the Stilton and a walnut instead, and maybe top with a drizzle of honey.

  3. Open up the Cannelini beans. Pour out the vile viscous liquid they come in. Rinse them in the can with water. Pour out the water. Maybe rinse it again. You want the beans as free of that hideous muck as possible. Meanwhile, gently heat one smashed garlic clove and a pinch of red pepper flakes in about 4 tables spoons good olive oil – cold pressed, extra virgin (all of these things you should already have in your kitchen. If you don’t you’re hopeless, stop reading.). If you have a sprig of rosemary from your herb garden or your terracotta pot on the windowsill (what?? no herb garden?!) let that stew in there with the garlic. We’re trying to infuse the oil with flavor. Don’t let the garlic brown. It can toast but if it turns something you would identify as brown, it's going to be bitter and you’ve gone too far. Start again. Now, pour the infused warm oil over the beans which you have placed in an attractive bowl. If you’re feeling fancy, use your microplane to zest a little lemon on top. Gently stir the beans. Serve alongside the other kind of crackers (not the Carrs wheat, which I think have the calories of an Oreo, but are much more delicious, if that is even possible). Try these:
  4. Rinse the olives in the same manner. Their brine is too salty so they need to be liberated. Douse them with a little olive oil – they should be glistening, not swimming – lemon zest and a pinch of red pepper flakes (I am enjoying Aleppo pepper from Turkey these days).

  5. Now the sardines. Bust these out when you want to confound and impress. Don’t tell people they are sardines; everyone thinks they hate them. Drain them as necessary. Put a piece on the Other Cracker (have I mentioned I like those little French toasts?), topped with a sliver of piquillo pepper. Eat. Or! Stuff a sardine inside a red pepper and heat in the oven. Totally delicious, or so my boyfriend insists, but he cooks them on the grill. Too much trouble for our purposes.

  6. Chickpeas! Drain them. Saute them in a hot pan in a tiny bit of olive oil – or roast them – with crunchy sea salt (not too much!). If you have smoked paprika (see: “you should”) shake some of that on them. Ditto for cumin. Roast/sauté until they have dried out a bit. Taste. Swoon. Serve warm or cold as finger food. Any leftovers – there will not be any – can be pureed and used as a hummus-like dip. These chickpeas, which I must say I stole more or less from Rachel Ray who is annoying but once in a blue moon offers up something good, remind me of a delicious chickpea soup in a cumin/saffron broth I ate in Mahmudiyah, Iraq (Triangle of Death!) in 2007. The town was celebrating the reopening of a market where unspeakable things had happened (at the hands of Iraqi thugs posing as “insurgents”) and I got separated from the soldiers who were supposed to be protecting me (they were alarmed; I was not. But considering that this market had been attacked, on various occasions, by: multiple simultaneous car bombs, motorcycle bombs, bike bombs, and finally monstrous men with grenades and AK-47s standing on the roof. Well. I guess they had reason). Anyway, during said separation, I was swept up in a crowd and an old man pressed a bowl of soup in my hands, which I ate and then gave back the bowl and he filled it again from a giant pot over an open fire and gave it to someone else, spoon and all. I like to think that the temperature of the soup killed the germs. In any case, it was delicious, and I slept well that night and happy about the market.

  7. Wasabi peas are just good to have around anytime.

  8. If you want to be completely ridiculous and over the top, and have 15 minutes to spare, get a half gallon of whole milk, and a lemon. Put the milk in a big pot. Squeeze in 3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice. Bring the pot to a light boil. In about 15 minutes, the milk will start to curdle and separate from the heat and the acid. You'll see small smooth chunks. Pour the whole mess out into a colander lined with a cloth dinner napkin (you do have cloth napkins, right? sigh) Let it drain for a moment and there you have it: fresh ricotta cheese that will taste better than anything you can imagine. Spoon it on crackers, top with whatever you've got -- the peppers, the Aleppo dried red pepper and olive oil, the sardines, the cannelini beans etc. Wonderful and eye-poppingly impressive but almost as easy as boiling water.

    You’re welcome, as always.

    Oh, by the way, here is the river below St. Cezaire, where you will get butterflies alighting on you as well if you attempt the hike down and take a nap off to the side.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How To Decorate Your Home from Craigslist... Today

Sometimes, when I have a free moment (and when I don't, to tell the truth) I peruse Craigslist and pick the things I would buy if I had to decorate a living and dining room (and sometimes a bedroom) THAT DAY for under $2000 including truck rental. The rules: I can only pick from the last 100 posts, from one area's Craigslist. I do this when someone isn't asking me to find something in particular for them. It keeps the hand in...

Et Voila! For August 18, the winners are...

this dining table and chairs for $200 (easy to refinish the top), and this leather chair and ottoman for $400

a 10-foot sofa for $250 and this rug for $550

and the above dresser for $60! And they'll deliver it for $20! Separate the mirror from the base, paint them both an awesome color, replace the hideous pulls with something cool, and use the base to put your TV on, with the drawers to hold your DVDs. remotes, etc. Hang the mirror separately.

You can even get all Roy McMakin on it with the paint job, for triple the cool factor. For your delectation:

That's a total of $1460... $1480 if you opt to have the dresser delivered. (do!)

I also enjoy identifiying people who are high, on Craigslist. Ugly furniture, insane price, and very demanding conditions of sale. For instance, the cabinet below lists at $1,500, cash only. Enjoy the sunflower inlay! The medium-tone wood stain! The hulking ungraceful lines! Not even a coat of black paint -- my go-to cure-all -- would save it:

So you can have this lovely piece, or all the furniture above. Pick!
"You have chosen wisely."

How to Run Your Life on a weekend in DC: Get out.

Here’s how to run your life this fall if you live in DC and like Shakespeare, great food, antiques and wine:
  • Call in sick to work on a Friday. Get yourself to Union Station and buy a ticket to Staunton, Va. (Pronounced Stanton, not Stawnton.) The train leaves at around 11 am. It's called the 51 Cardinal. The ride takes around three hours, and you’ll be spanning the lunch hour, so bring a picnic lunch to eat. (More on that in a future post). Pack it in a nice size cooler, maybe one with wheels, because you’ll be filling it up with produce and meat from the farmers market.
  • Bring this book to read on the train:
    It features Polyface Farm, which is not far from Staunton, and will rev you up for Saturday’s farmer’s market.
  • Before you get there, buy tickets to a play or plays at the American Shakespeare Center here: and make reservations to sleep either here: or here: (ask for a corner room).
  • Make reservations to eat dinner here on Friday night: and here on Saturday night, or vice versa: You might want to go back to Staunton Grocery for brunch on Sunday (it’s good).

This may or may not be your bacon.
  • On Saturday morning (early) since you are car free, find a way to get someone (Al’s Radio Cab out of Waynesboro? Ask your hotel…) to take you to Mrs. Rowes on I-81 outside of town for a real Southern breakfast.
  • There is a farmer’s market downtown every Saturday – go early to get the best stuff (including freshly killed but previously happy and fulfilled chickens who do not mind you eating them) and fill your now empty cooler to bring back on the train with you on Sunday around 1 pm.
  • If you feel you must do something educational, visit the Woodrow Wilson birthplace and presidential museum. Answer that nagging question: Why didn’t the League of Nations pan out?
    Or go here and check out the cool barn:
  • Keep your eyes out for (or make a beeline to) Kitch’n Cook’d Potato chips, which despite all the stupid apostrophes are “the most popular potato chips in the Shenandoah Valley.” You’ll find the store at 1703 West Beverley Street, a little bit outside of downtown. Buy some for the train ride back. You’ll be back in DC at around 5 pm. Remember that you called in sick so don’t brag about the weekend you just had.
You’re welcome.