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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Friday, November 26, 2010

A note to a client

I am cleaning out 19,000 emails (this is not an exaggeration. there are actually 19,000 emails, dating back to 2006 in my ancient AOL account) and I came across this note I wrote to a design client.. and I thought it was good advice then and now for anyone considering Major Furniture Purchases.

This guy found an expensive chair and ottoman he loved, but didn't move on it fast enough and it was lost forever. So this is what I told him:

"Keep this in mind: furniture, well made, classic and something you love, can be with you FOREVER. It's versatile, movable -- economizing is not necessarily the best option. Better to get something you love love love, and keep forever, than something you like and will toss out in a few years when you find the thing you really love.

"Be deliberate in your decorating, and decorate for the long term. You are old enough now (I presume) to be investing in longer-term pieces.

"I wouldn't recommend this approach to someone in his mid 20s. But 30s... now is the time to start building the life and look you want to have - from Craigslist or fancy stores; only buy things that scream out: MINE!

"I feel quite strongly about making your home a comfortable and accurate reflection of who you are. If your home is well decorated, with things that function well, are durable, classic and most of all loved by you for whatever reason - form, sentimentality _ your home will be not just a place between work and play, but a destination in itself. Like a turtle shell. :)

"ie, if you see a chair and ottoman you love again, buy it, then look for a companion. Patience in the furniture hunt is a virtue. Don't waste money on also-rans."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

UPDATED: The Secret to Making a Flaky Pie Crust

My mom was a home ec teacher and makes, hands down, the most awesome flaky pie crust. Here's the beauty part: it's less about the recipe than it is about the technique and last year she told me her secret. I think she thought she had long since told me, so was surprised when I was all "I CAN"T BELIEVE YOU JUST TOLD ME THIS AFTER 42 YEARS."

Here's the technique and home ec science behind it, as she explained it to me:

A flaky crust requires that small pockets of fat get trapped in the flour/water mixture, melt in the oven, create steam, and puff and leave empty pockets in their wake.

Whatever your recipe, it should include some solid fat -- butter or shortening, or if you are truly old school lard. Said fat should be cold cold cold -- throw it in the freezer before you use it. That will keep it from turning into a paste when you mix it with your flour, water and salt. And your flour should be in the freezer too -- it will help keep the butter cool once it's mixed in.

UPDATE: Having made for the 500th time a not very good crust AGAIN I remembered my mother's other advice: use half butter and half shortening. The shortening -- Crisco -- is absolutely necessary for a tender crust. The butter will make it taste good. Truthfully, my mom's crust is all shortening. So you should probably consider that too. My pie, described at the end \, was nevertheless delicious.

Here's the magic trick:

Divide the butter or shortening in your recipe in half. Put one half back in the freezer. Throw the other half into the food processor or bowl with the flour and salt and cut it or whir it until the butter and flour combine to make a sand-like consistency.

Now, get out the rest of the fat from the freezer, cut it into chunks and put it in the bowl or processor. Give it a QUICK whir - just one or two pulses -- until the new butter is the size of small peas. STOP RIGHT THEN. Add what cold water you need to (plop ice cubes right in the measuring cup) to make it clump. DON'T OVER MIX IT and don't add too much water. Your goal is to keep those peas of butter intact. If you can manage, mix the water in by hand so you keep it under control.

Upend the bowl or the food processor onto a cutting board, gather the dough together into a ball and press down into a disk. Wrap it in plastic wrap. When you look at the top you'll see little balls of butter speckling the dough. VICTORY! Throw it in the fridge for 30 minutes to give the butter a chance to firm up again. Then roll as you would normally and make your pie.

Don't overwork the dough -- too much rolling and rerolling will begin to develop the proteins in the flour (that's what makes bread so spongy and bouncy... kneading develops the protein strands) and give you a tough crust.

Happy Thanksgiving. I'm making this:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Meg's Marvelous Maison

My friend Meg is a preternaturally stylish 27-year-old who has somehow at her tender age mastered the art of being fabulously cluttered. It's English Country House meets American Blue Blood (she went to the University of the South and wore black gowns to class like Harry Potter and is in the Junior League where she takes her volunteer duties at a domestic violence shelter very seriously. She's also a frighteningly good shot).
At my insistence she took photos so I could show you what I mean. I went to her wonderful, richly layered 644-square foot apartment in a 1920's era building in DC for her birthday (Very Norma Desmond) -- homemade Bolognese for 30 on the roof overlooking National Cathedral and Georgetown -- and this is what I saw. I was humbled. Girl's. Got. It.

I actually gave her a pair of those antique Chinese lanterns for her birthday. She admired them at my house, and I am trying to de-Circus my place, so I was happy to gift them. It's nice to know they have a good home. Naturally she mailed me a perfect thank you note on embossed stationary within a day.

Isn't this perfect? Who can pull off plaid curtains? Meg, that's who. The map to the left of the window is an antique, with pushpins all the places her grandfather served in the foreign service. Please try not to gawk at the picture of him with the Queen of England. It's embarrassing.

Here are some close-ups of details.

I presume that desk is where she penned her thank you note to me, in correct blue/black ink.

A blue velvet couch from Craigslist, for something like $200. A cashmere throw she traded miles for.

"Oh hi, I bought this etagere long before they were trendy so I could stack my books perfectly. Are you jealous? Don't be. "

Notice how she unites different lamps with red silk shades.

Observe below: the correct use of a dresser in a living room.

Her kitchen is tiny, but still she managed to feed 30 people an amazing roof-top dinner.

Nothing but cream tapers in candelabra please.
Just so you don't forget she's an Amerrkin:

Oh this old elephant stool? Pish.

Let's use the loo, shall we?

If your antique priceless Persian rug is too big, simply fold it over. That's what all the chic girls do these days. Good gravy, I admire her style.

Carefully edited beauty products.

And come ON. Silver service on the john? Yes please.

A well-deployed garden stool. And a clock in case you're running late, splashing about in eau de parfum and toilet water and face powder and the like.

And now to sleep, if not to dream. But seriously, she made those awesome curtains.

Check the pops of color: yellow, turquoise, red. Gutsy!
This is how you decorate a small room: fearlessly. Let it be cozy and layered. Don't try to make it something it's not (ie, big and airy).

Those curtains again. She made em!

To my knowledge this is not her family's steed, but it may as well be. We'd believe it. She should tell people that.

Check out the confident mix of blues, below.

Chang Kai-shek did not give these to her grandfather, from what I heard.

Every bedroom needs a monkey lamp and ginger jar. Red silk shades again.
Thanks for the tour, Meg, and for making the rest of us feel inadequate.
If it's any consolation she's a TERRIBLE driver and is allergic to peaches.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What to think about when you are thinking about redecorating

Approaching a new decorating (surface glossing) or design (rejiggering the space) project can be intimidating. Here's how to get started.

Ask yourself the following 10 questions.More will follow, but this will begin narrowing down your needs and wants. (Needs are more important, as tempting as your wants are. A room must function for you well before you start putting on the jewelry, so to speak.)

1. What don't you like about the room as it is?

Too small? Too big? Bad acoustics? Awkward to move around in? Doesn't get used enough? Too many checkered floor couches and J-shaped pipe lamps?

2. What is your budget?

Be honest -- and remember that a constrained budget actually leads to the BEST designs. When you have a lot of money, you can be lazy and buy whatever strikes your fancy. When you have to keep things under control, money-wise, you'll come up with creative ways to reuse what you have, you'll find unique pieces in thrift stores -- you'll make a space REALLY your own, rather than some showroom designers idea of what you should have. WELCOME constraints, be they financial or space or time. Each will inspire you to do things you would never think of otherwise.

Like in this one, someone's all: "Nice stained leather chairs loser." And the designer is all "just wait till I pair them with a slick modern white table, then you'll see."
OK, maybe they are cowhide and not stained. But they look stained, and they give you ideas what you can do with that battered set of 70s chairs you saw at Goodwill.

3. How would you like to use the room differently than you do now?

For a dining room: throw formal dinner parties once a week? For a living room: read and play board games in addition to watching tv? For a kitchen: cook every night, or have it ready for a caterer, or entertain around an island like in the Magic Bullet commercials I love so much and can never turn off?

4. What are your favorite colors?

Look in your closet -- what colors do you mostly wear? What do you get the most compliments in?

5. What time of day will you be using the room, primarily? That will effect lighting choices and paint colors.
6. How would you like it to feel?

Airy? Warm? Cozy? Rustic? Comfortable? Elegant? Sophisticated? Modern? Traditional? Cottagey? Eclectic? Tropical? Breezy? Cool? Lived in? Organized? Perfect? Neat? Packed with memories? Minimalist -- just what you need?

7. Do you have pets? Children?

That will help dictate finishes -- Scotchguarded microsuede rather than Belgian linen, for instance.

8. If it's a public room, how do you like to entertain?

How often? Casually? Formally? How many people typically? What do you do? (Make and serve dinner? Order in? Play cards? Watch movies? Try to seduce your future son, as above?)

9. If it's a bedroom, are you sharing it (or would you like to?).
Do you need it as a multipurpose getaway from grubby children, or is it just for sleeping (and snogging)?

10. How much existing stuff are you willing to part with?
Do you want to start over or just tweak what you have?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This is for you, Blackbird: MERRY COUCHMAS!

The above was a serious miracle of physics (and a large tip for the Restoration Hardware delivery guys, who were awesome). This 10 foot X 4 foot couch somehow maneuvered through 5 doorways, into a backyard, up a flight of steps and then pirouetted in a 12-foot room to face the fireplace.
Now to paint the floors, paint the bench, paint the dining room, move the club chairs into the back room, bring in the 9 foot table, move the cable, hang a light...

Monday, November 15, 2010

How To Clean Out Your Purse

You remember my friend Allison -- she of the 21 Tips for Living an Organized Life.

also known as: How To Be Freakishly Organized

The one I've adopted is cleaning out my purse -- not every night, certainly, but at least once a week. Or every other week, really, if I need to be entirely honest.

My first go at it was an eye-opening and somewhat disgusting experience involving stray hair, weird crumbs and a lipstick covered nickel, and I've evolved an efficient method that I am sharing here today.

You need:
a well lit, clear space

a large piece of newspaper or a large dishrag

Q-Tips or similar

Rubbing alcohol and paper towels

1. Don't try to remove everything from your purse one by one. Spread out the newspaper or dishrag on your clear well lit space and upend your purse. This is vitally important. It's the equivalent of doing the dishes in rubber gloves -- it really lets you get in there and do it.

2. Shake the purse again over the newspaper. Peer inside. See the crumbs in the corner? Tug on the lining (if there is one) so it is inside out.

3. Wipe out the inside of the purse/lining with a paper towel dabbed with a bit of rubbing alcohol provided we're not dealing with silk here.

4. Poke into the hard to reach corners, like the zippered pockets, with Q-Tips. Keep poking till they come out clean.

5. Now sift through the disgusting mess on the newspaper. Throw out all the unnecessary paper -- surely you have some cash receipts you don't need. Wipe off your compact and lipstick with paper towels and alcohol, pick the hair out of the pen clips. Replace each cleaned bit into your fresh purse.

6. Wash or wipe down the loose change. Put the quarters back in your change purse and the rest in your change jar where you are saving for a new Birken (get on the waiting list now. By the time you have enough money, your name will be on top).

7. Put in your purse a small, nearly empty -- but still fragrant -- perfume bottle that used to hold a scent you love without its cap. Every time you open your purse you'll get a nice hit. You could do the same thing with a small sachet of lavender or rosemary (but make sure it's well sewn, otherwise you'll have lavender crumbs next time.)
8. Toss the newspaper, feel superior to your former self, and take anticipatory pleasure knowing that the next time you dig for change for a nice homeless person (I like Miss Ruth, who wears black shoe polish on her face, white sweats, stores her things in white grocery bags, and sings like a dream) it won't come out all gummed up.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

How Martha Stewart Can Help You Hide Porn

For reasons economic (a couple of months too late perhaps, given the $5,000 chesterfield couch slowly slowly wending its way toward me....)

I have decided to Make Do With Less.

(don't panic, I'm getting to the porn)

I have Much. I don't need Much (probably because I already have it).

As of Day 2, this new belt-tightening regime is remarkably refreshing. I normally blow $100 a day on the weekends at flea markets and farm stands but this weekend, I spent just $40 -- including 5 Honeycrisp apples, a bag of curly kale, an onion, 5 paperwhite bulbs and a desperately needed broom.

But I broke down and just bought the latest issue of House Beautiful (it's on Entertaining! I was helpless before it).


So while laying on the floor in my couchless living room (the couch is literally on a slow boat from China and has been since August) in front of a fire reading Said Magazine, my eye wandered over to my well-thumbed collection of design magazines (not to be confused with food magazines nor the design and food books that line my shelves). They are stored neatly in a clever open cabinet that has 28 cubbies.

And I wondered: exactly how much have I spent on these things?

So I removed them, cubby by cubby, dusted the open shelves, and started sorting and counting.

Most are in great shape, but two tripped me up: no covers, spines or back covers. What were these things? It quickly became clear they were Marthas, and I remembered what had happened.
A couple of years ago I went to visit a wounded Marine at Bethesda Naval Medical hospital. I brought with me the two things I knew any Marine would enjoy: homemade salty oatmeal and cranberry cookies and porn.

Don't get your knickers in a bunch: it was straight ahead naked ladies, nothing terribly twisted. Nevertheless, I had no idea where to get it. I happen to live near a Marine barracks on Capitol Hill so I wandered to the corner and waited. Within seconds, a tall handsome blonde man with the telltale high and tight haircut walked by.

I stopped him: "Excuse me, you're a Marine," I said, stating the obvious. "I am visiting a wounded Marine at Bethesda and I'd like to bring him some porn. Where do I get porn around here?" He pointed across the street at the videostore that is not Blockbuster, but is certainly innocent looking enough. "Walk straight to the back through the curtain, and don't look the right. It's on the back wall."

(The gay porn, it turns out, is to the right. I couldn't resist looking to the right. Like Lott's wife and Bluebeard's girlfriend with the bloody key, I'm doomed to do whatever it is you tell me not to do. I can't help it. This once happened while waiting in a two-hour line to get maple donuts in the Appalachian mountains while people walked by us with literally DOZENS. I wondered aloud: why don't they limit them a dozen per customer? Then the line would move. And my boyfriend, being of those mountains, said: I beg of you, don't ask them when we get to the window. And I promised but forgot when I got to the window and I asked and he was right. I shouldn't have asked. BECAUSE IT'S A FREE COUNTRY was the answer I got, followed by a very long diatribe possibly punctuated by things like "don't tread on me" and "the war of Northern Aggression" and it was a miracle that I walked away having been allowed to purchase any maple donuts at all. Truthfully they had too much nutmeg in them. I later made bread pudding with the ones we didn't eat right away, and the nutmeg didn't bother me anymore.)

(These are the actual donuts)

So back to the porn: I eventually found what I was looking for, paid for my magazines, explained to the non-English speaking clerk that I was fulfilling my patriotic duty by purchasing filth, and raced home with the brown paper bag tucked into my coat. I passed the same blond Marine on my way home and waggled the bag at him. He gave me a thumbs up and a big smile.

There I carefully (to make Martha proud) sliced off the covers and spines of two of her issues and carefully glued them around the Gentlemen Prefer Ds or whatever they were. I didn't know if porn would be confiscated at the hospital but I wasn't taking any chances; I once sat through a congressional hearing where the sale of porn on base was outlawed. The Marine was grateful for both cookies and porn.

Anyway, my collection includes: 30 Elle Decors, 38 Marthas*, 42 House Beautifuls, 14 Dominos, 28 House and Gardens, 7 Martha Stewart Weddings (I desperately want a wedding. Not to be married -- just the wedding part), 34 Metropolitan Homes, and 73 random ones -- Renovation Style, Garden & Gun, traditional Home etc. Oh, and 8 Dwells.

If my math is right, and its probably not, that's more than 250 magazines. At an average of $5 a piece... I have spent over $1250 on magazines (and this is not to mention the several dozen I just realized are in my bedroom and bathroom, and the many I read outside and forget about in the rain and then I have to throw them out. I think sometimes I do it on purpose so I can get rid of a few.)

They are all going back in the cabinet, mind you. But it's good to face facts now and again. That $1250 would come in awfully handy about now...

(* 2 didn't have covers)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Some design blogs I love

So when I am bored, and at a computer -- these things often go hand in hand -- I have a little tour I do of the Internets. It's kind of like a virtual paper route in reverse -- instead of dropping off newspapers, I'm going door to door, picking up other people's stuff.

Here's what I've learned: there are an AWFUL lot of design-mad people out there, and a lot of them are REALLY talented.
I just discovered this lass today, via Apartment Therapy (my first stop every morning). I may be a little late to the game, but this woman is talented and obsessive, and as cheap as I am. I LOVE it.

check it out. She found this stuff and gussied it up, with a great eye for shape and color.

She glued some bamboo skewers on the front of a small round mirror and voila:

And a little bit of fabric, paint and some ribbon turns this table into wonderfulness.

I like this girl.
I am also growing ever more devoted to A Perfect Grey (and not just because she says nice things about me from time to time, though that definitely helps). She has the eye of a design magazine editor. It's great, soothing, ordered eye candy every time I stop in, and is heavily influencing the design decisions I am making in the coming weeks.

check it. THIS IS HER BACKYARD. This is the backyard I DREAM of having and keep failing to have.

And she culled these lovely images...

So go check her out.

I also have a little crush on Lauren at who is a fellow Washingtonian and Buffy the Vampire Slayer devotee (I prefer the TV version myself), but everything I'm not -- blond, organized... young. There seems to be this whole super-race of gorgeous blond extremely talented designers with adoring husbands and amusing and inspiring blogs.... Rachel over at being the Queen Bee.

This is a picture of Lauren's master bedroom

and her perfect, sane office.

I on the other hand can't seem to stay away from Lucite and Cherub Lamps, busts of George Washington and any painting with scary eyes. Must. Rein. In. Crazy. Impulses.