Kate Holds Court

Accept No Substitutes.

Dear Guy Kay

Dear Guy Gavriel Kay,

I’m about a third of the way into Children of Earth and Sky, your new novel, and…oh, by the beard of the beardless Jad, I so wanted to love this book. It’s set in the same general universe as the Sarantine Mosaic, which I consider one of your more underrated works, but later in time; the real-world analogue would be Renaissance Europe. It’s full of interesting and colorful characters, and although we haven’t quite gotten around to an actual plot yet (a bunch of people are being sent off to spy on various sovereign states, but little spycraft has been shown to date) the plot is one place where Kay rarely lets me down. What’s not to love?

children earth and sky

Plenty, as it turns out. Guy, my friend, I know you can be an utterly peerless writer when you want to be. The last couple of pages of Under Heaven, a book that failed to impress me on just about any other level, can still move me to tears with its sheer power, and the race sequences in Lord of Emperors are full of thrilling heart-pounding incident. Even The Last Light of the Sun, which I thought was terrible, was terrible in an interesting way.

But this book? SLOPPY.

Guy. Sweetie. You HAVE to stop describing women as “scented.” First of all, it tells me nothing (what scent are we talking about here? Strawberries? Sweat? Whiskey?). Also, it’s just plain stupid.

Also, dearest Guy, stop telling me how “subtle” and “amusing” things are, especially when nothing particularly subtle or amusing is actually happening on the page.

Sweet Guy, your teacher in Writing 101 undoubtedly told you not to begin a sentence with “There is” or “There are,” and yet here I see you doing exactly that six times in a ten-sentence paragraph. (N.B. This really happens. He’s not doing it for effect. He’s just doing it.)

And finally, your curious habit of switching tenses in the same chapter, the same passage, the same paragraph, SOMETIMES THE SAME SENTENCE — well, did you happen write this book between shifts as chief sommelier at a trendy wine bar?

Ye gods, Guy. If I had one piece of advice – and yes, I, a mere blogger, am daring to give this great and award-winning author advice – it would be to fire your editor. And think seriously about firing your publisher, while you’re at it. You wrote this thing, but a lot of other people enabled it, and in particular whoever it was who encouraged you to write the character of Marin exclusively in the present tense needs to be marched through the city surrounded by clerics ringing cowbells and intoning “SHAME.”


Guy, a writer of your caliber should settle for nothing less than greatness, and in your case greatness does not lie in wordy, florid passages about how there are scented women subtly amusing the men in their lives (or vice versa). I continue to hold out hope – the Amazon.com reviewers, to a one, praise your ending, and I know that if there’s one thing you know how to do right it’s endings. (I will charitably pretend that the last couple of pages of Lord of Emperors didn’t actually happen, because everything leading up to the part where the subtly scented woman walks into the chapel is golden.) So I will press on, rolling my eyes and cursing your editor with every breath.

But, Guy?

You can do better.

Respectfully yours,

Kate, a Well-Wisher


House Full of Zebras, Part the Second: The Toilet Chronicles

When last we visited the Money Pit, my family had just made the wrenching decision to ask an emergency plumber, Dr. Manning, to decommission our upstairs toilet, which was leaking into our downstairs bathroom, leaving us with but two functional toilets in the house.

— Well, actually, make that one-and-a-half functional toilets. You see, some time ago, the handle of the toilet #2 — the one in the Blue Bathroom — disengaged itself from the flapper and valve assembly inside the tank. In anybody else’s toilet, that would have meant a replacement handle and chain — a five-minute job, probably. But not in ours. Oh, no. The pot in the Blue Bathroom wasn’t as old as the (retired) Truman-era job upstairs in bathroom #3, but it wasn’t exactly new, and the tank contained an apparatus I can’t even begin to describe. I inspected it closely and decided that even if I were able to remove all the old guts and rebuild the inside of the tank with more modern machinery (far from a given), I would need to drain and remove the tank first, and, well, I know my limitations. (Insert laugh track here.)

The upshot was that in order to flush the toilet in the Blue Bathroom, we needed to remove the lid of the tank, plunge our arms into the icy water, and lift a plastic gadget that would lift the flapper that would clear the bowl. Certain individuals in our household regarded this step as optional, meaning that the Blue Bathroom not infrequently smelled like a Port-a-Jon at the National Mall on the Fourth of July.

Purple John

And not one of these attractive clean ones, either.

Not that it would have mattered if those individuals did try to flush. The toilet also seemed to be having certain issues moving — ahem — solids. Long story short: The Handsome Husband and I determined that we would contact an actual licensed professional and have the toilet in the Blue Bathroom replaced with a newer model.

We decided we would save the services of our friend Dr. Manning for a rainy day, and we got in touch with our usual plumber, Mark. Now, we’ve been through a lot together, Mark and I. I’m fairly certain that our family has funded at least one high-end cruise for him and his wife, what with one thing and another over the years. Anyway, he was very happy to hear from us, and on the appointed day he presented himself and a new toilet at our front door.

He got to work; I cooled my heels in the kitchen. Twenty minutes later he appeared in the doorway wearing an expression you never, ever want to see on your plumber’s face.

A torrent of profanity blew through my mind, but I contained my remarks to a weary “What.” (Because I’m classy that way, see.)

“There’s something you need to take a look at,” he told me soberly.

He led me to the Blue Bathroom and showed me the problem: Leakage around the base of the toilet. Lots and lots of leakage. Soft rotten wood. Unsafe at any speed.

“You’ll need to replace that section of floor before the new toilet goes in,” he informed me. “It’s completely rotted through.”

“How much is that going to set me back?” I wondered aloud.

Mark shrugged. “I don’t do that part,” he said. “It might not be that bad. I don’t think the whole floor needs to be replaced. You could just get some plywood and pop it in there.”

Meanwhile, Hoot and Mini-Me would have nowhere to go but our toilet to sit and play video games. (God forbid they should sit in, like, an actual chair or anything.) Not acceptable.

“Change of plans!” I exclaimed. Remember the toilet that we were going to renovate so it looked like this?

Toilet Full of Flowers

An asset to any well-appointed home.

“We have a toilet that’s older than you are!” I informed him. “And today, you’re going to send it to its eternal reward.”

So Mark dutifully soldiered on upstairs to our Spare Bathroom, removed the semi-antique pot, and replaced it. Two fully functional toilets, at last!

Of course, neither Hoot nor Mini-Me was in a hurry to walk ALL THE WAY UP AN ENTIRE FLIGHT OF STAIRS just to pee — not when their parents had a perfectly good bathroom on the first floor. And there was still the small matter of the gaping hole in the Blue Bathroom floor — Mark had helpfully stuffed the toilet pipe with plastic grocery bags so “sewer gasses” would not “escape” into our house, while remarking “You have cast-iron pipes. They should be good for another thirty years or so.” THANKS, MARK. NOT LOVING THAT “SHOULD.”

In any case, I decided: “Any idiot can cut plywood. Right? I will fix the bathroom floor myself!”

So I spent a couple of hours on the Internet, Which Is Never Wrong, and researched “fixing a urine-softened floor around an invisible toilet” or some such. Turns out that our particular issue wasn’t so uncommon. I felt a little better. A trip to Home Depot for a large square of 3/4 inch plywood and I was all set to tackle our bathroom floor with my handy circular saw.

Had I ever used a circular saw before? Well, no. But how hard could it be?

circular saw

‘Cause I’m a badass that way.

And really — the circular saw we own (it came free with the power drill) is pretty much idiot-proof. You need to push two separate buttons at the same time to even turn it on, and there’s a fairly sturdy guard around the blade. I wasn’t in serious danger of losing any digits, in other words. So I spent a couple of hours carefully chipping away the ceramic tile around the soft wood. Then I told the kids to keep the cats out of the way and proudly deployed my circular saw with as much flourish and bad-assery as I could muster.

Sawdust flew. (And yes, kids, I was wearing safety glasses and a mask.) And a veritable fountain of very beautiful sparks popped up whenever the blade struck the ceramic tile around the edge, which was relatively often. “What could possibly go wrong here?” I wondered aloud.

Unfortunately, however, I was barely making a dent in the rotten wood. If ever I needed the services of this guy….

Jordan Clarke

Expert handyman by day. Soap star by night. Ladies and gentlemen…the magnificent Jordan Clarke, late of Guiding Light.

Sadly, the erstwhile Billy Lewis is not active in the greater FC, so I put my saw away and called in a local handyman.

He was very nice. “You’ve saved a lot of money by buying your own plywood,” he told me. “And really, you can’t use a circular saw on a job like this. What you need is a –” I actually don’t know what he said I would have needed. All I know is that I nearly set the very air on fire in my bathroom FOR NOTHING. My efforts were FUTILE. Isn’t that always the way.

Anyway, the handyman laid in the new floor with his specialized saw and in the fullness of time Mark returned and installed yet another new toilet. At long, long last: Now our family had three. Three. THREE! functional toilets in our house.

God was in His Heaven, and all was right with the world.

Then the mysterious wet spots started popping up on our bedroom carpet.

To be continued…

Springfield Je T’Aime

To be honest, I was going to write about something else this week — the family’s recent adventures in the Great West, most probably. But then I found something that made my eyeballs pop and sent me on a long jaunt down memory lane, and I knew I had to write about it. What did I find? Only this gem.

In short, it’s an article about one Jordan Clarke, who spent nearly three decades portraying wealthy galoot Billy Lewis on the long-running soap opera Guiding Light. Today, it seems, Mr. Clarke moonlights as a handyman in New York.

“But Kate,” I hear you cry. “Soap operas? Srsly?”

Yes. Soap operas. Srsly.

You must understand, soaps were absolutely forbidden to me until I was around 16. They were, my parents opined, inappropriate for children. Interestingly, this prohibition did not extend to my younger sisters; I have a vivid memory of Youngest Sister, aged approximately eight, piping up at dinner one night: “Mom, what’s a ‘vasectomy’? Because Victor had one, but it didn’t take.” Of course, as Oldest Sister, I was blamed for Youngest Sister’s stunningly harsh and abrupt exposure to the world of Adult Matters. The plight of the oldest child…but I digress. The point is, when I finally discovered daytime dramas, I fell hard and I fell fast, and the soap for which I fell was Guiding Light.

Jordan Clarke

Jordan Clarke, a.k.a. Billy Lewis

This would have been 1984-ish, and Billy Lewis was the son of an Oklahoma oil man, H.B. (Harlan something, as portrayed by Larry Gates). His deceased mother was Miss Lily or Lillian (one of those…it’s been, let us say, a couple of years). Billy may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer — he tended to wander around with his mouth hanging open, when he wasn’t busy charming the ladies — but he was true-blue, and devoted to his family, about whom more anon. He was partnered (engaged, then married) with blue-blooded Vanessa Chamberlain (Maeve Kinkead), whose ice-blue eyes and aristocratic bearing presented an interesting study in opposites with respect to the louder, more emotional, earthier Billy.

Billy’s ex-wife was salt-of-the-earth Reva Shayne (Kim Zimmer). The Lewis family’s maid’s daughter, Reva had grown up with Billy, his sister Trish, and his brother Josh, and she was wildly in love with Josh (Robert Newman). Due to complex set of circumstances, Josh and Reva were unable to wed, so she married elderly patriarch H.B. instead. Yeah, that ended up being a FABULOUS idea. Josh also ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair for some reason during that era, and took his angst out on his stepmother. This culminated in one of the most iconic scenes in soap history, in which the frustrated, outraged Reva stripped down, leaped into a nearby fountain, and baptized herself “the Slut of Springfield.” Here’s the Slut in all her glory:

Josh and Reva would go on to marry (twice, at least!) and have a couple of kids. Today they’re remembered as one of the great Super Couples of the 80s. But wait…there’s more.

Billy also had a daughter, whose mother’s identity escapes me for the moment. Her name was Mindy (Krista Tesreau), and she was basically every perfect wealthy blonde mean-girl cheerleader you ever met. At sixteen, I loathed Mindy.

Krista Tesreau as Mindy


Ms. Thang up there had a thang for wealthy, preppy Phillip Spaulding (Grant Aleksander). Too bad he was in love with sweet and virginal Beth Raines (Judi Evans), who hailed from the Wrong Side of the Tracks. Although I objectively despised Phillip, because he despised pretty much everybody (seriously, no one in the world ever did hauteur quite like Grant Aleksander) except Beth, Beth wanted him and I loved Beth so I wanted him for her. He even stood up for her when she was violently assaulted by her evil stepfather, Bradley (James Rebhorn [!!!]).

Beth: Don't worry, we're cool. Phillip: Screw you and the Ferrari you rode in on. Jankhole.

Beth: Don’t worry, you and I are cool. Phillip: Screw you and the Ferrari you rode in on. Jankhole.

Then in a moment of weakness, Phillip and Mindy slept together in a stable, which first of all, ouch, and second of all resulted in her pregnancy, and at that point I pretty much hated the two of them with a fervor that would have terrified anyone unfamiliar with the whims and passions of a shy and lonely sixteen-year-old girl. Fortunately, Lujack (Vincent Irizarry, and I know), warlord of local gang the Galahads (I know, all right?), was on hand to pick up the pieces, and he was way more appealing than f*cking Phillip:

Beth and Lujack

That’s what I’m talking about.

Another memory: I went out of town with the debate team (shut up) for a meet, and we got to the hotel and I immediately clicked on the television to catch the end of my soap (which I hardly ever got to watch because my family did not yet own a VCR and, hey, school). Beth and Lujack were MAKING OUT!!! AND THEN PHILLIP STORMED IN!!!!! “Be sure to join us next week for Guiding Light.” Cue music…It was all I could think about, all weekend long.

But my truest, deepest affection was reserved for the hero of my heart, Tony Reardon (Gregory Beecroft). Blue-collar Tony was fierce yet vulnerable, loud yet soft-hearted, a fair-to-middling actor yet so, so hawt:

Tony and Annabelle

Those cheekbones. She’s pretty, too.

Tony’s love interest was Annabelle (Harley Kozak), who was his equal in every respect — intellect, ferocity, and even volume. They had adventures involving crazy fathers, ghosts, exploding music boxes, and even Tony’s near-fatal illness (he was saved when his brother, a doctor, returned in the nick of time to perform a delicate, life-saving operation). When they left the show to “travel around the world,” I was heartbroken.

Eventually I drifted away from the show; I kept up with it, but didn’t watch as obsessively as I had at sixteen. Old/new characters came in and/or returned; I came to the show late enough that I didn’t know to be excited at the return of Alan, or Roger and Holly — although I always thought, and still think, that Maureen Garrett (Holly) was the most beautiful woman on television.

Maureen Garrett

Suck on this: Maureen Garrett was over 60 years old when this photo was taken.

I ‘shipped, as the kids say, Harley and Mallett in the early 90s, and watched in kind of a desultory fashion until around the early aughts. But I left my heart behind me in the 80s.

What’s interesting, looking back, is how in-the-moment the soaps were (and, I assume, still are). Tony and Annabelle, who met, fell in love, married, and left town together — presumably still living happily, in that imaginary sphere where they exist — were the exception. Beth and Lujack captured the hearts of many a teenage girl and were a solid couple, until they weren’t. (Beth ultimately married Phillip at least once.) Josh and Reva had a passionate following until one of the actors left and they were pulled apart. Other couples — whose fan bases cheered for them, read about them obsessively, laughed and cried with and for them, and videotaped, in those pre-DVR-days, key moments, including that magical moment when they became “At long last….lovers!!!” (cf. Soap Opera Digest), and weddings — were cruelly separated when an actor got burned out and left, or got a better offer from another soap or a movie, or when a new executive producer and/or a fresh stable of writers came in and decided to change the direction of the show.

Live in the now, the soaps seemed to say, because you never know when a new head writer is going to arbitrarily put you with the guy who was your family’s worst enemy, or make you do something so completely out of character your head will explode, or even kill you off.

Nothing is guaranteed, in soaps or in life. That’s the lesson Guiding Light tried to teach me in 1984, when I was still too young to understand. I railed at the disappearance of Tony and Annabelle, which had precisely as much effect as my yelling at the sky on a rainy day, or raging at the death of a loved one. Nothing is permanent, and nothing is promised. All you can do is enjoy today, when Reva is embracing Josh and calling him “Bud,” and hope for — in the words of Phillip, Beth, et al. — blue skies and palomino ponies tomorrow.

Robert Newman and Kim ZImmer (Josh and Reva) continue to act, and at this writing are appearing together in a revival of Gypsy in Pittsburgh. Larry Gates (H.B.) died at a distinguished age in 1986. Maeve Kinkead (Vanessa) is married to Meryl Streep’s brother and undoubtedly continues to kick ass, wherever she is. Krista Tesreau (that bitch Mindy) does infomercials. Judi Evans (now Luciano, a.k.a. Beth) continues to act and is probably as well known for her role as Adrienne Kiriakis in Days of Our Lives as she is for Beth. Grant Aleksander (Phillip) is, if gossips on the Interwebz are to be believed (and why not??), semi-retired and living happily with his wife, an attorney, in New Jersey. Vincent Irizarry (Lujack) is still acting, mostly on the few remaining daytime soaps. Maureen Garrett (Holly) divides her energy between acting, agroforestry, and spending time with her wife and children. Harley Jane Kozak (Annabelle) has retired from the screen and turned to the pen; I’m not familiar with her work, but you can check it out here. Gregory Beecroft is — last anyone knew — running some sort of home construction company in Texas.

And, of course, there’s Jordan Clarke. If you’re reading this, Mr. Clarke, I have a bathroom that needs retiling. (Regular readers will grok that this is not a euphemism. Our Blue Bathroom in particular has seen better days.)

And they all lived happily ever after…for now, anyway.

One in Five

So by now you’ve probably heard about the thoroughly depressing results of a survey that was recently conducted by the Washington Post. If you haven’t, I link so you can browse at your leisure, but the short version: One in five women who attended college in the last four years reported being sexually assaulted, either by force or when they were incapacitated and unable to consent.

One in five. Meditate on that. Twenty percent. One. In. Five.

Now, I know that most men will find that statistic as sickening and horrifying as I did. Most men are not rapists. #NotAllMen and all that. (But then again, why does anyone non-ironically tweet #NotAllMen and assume that this is in any way good enough? Why aren’t all these super-menschy #NotAllMen tweeters vocally and visibly agitating for the day when they can tweet, in all sincerity, #NotANYMen? But I digress.)

The point is, the Handsome Husband and I are parents of a daughter and a son, and they’re both at an age where we’re starting to talk to them about…stuff. We’re telling them that their bodies belong to them alone, and that they get to call the shots. We’re telling them — importantly — that other people’s bodies belong to other people and should be respected without question. As they get a little older, we will teach them that their dates don’t “owe” them anything, no matter how many drinks they’ve poured down the other party, and even if they and the other person have gotten together before. We’re telling them they can come to us with anything, ask us anything, and they will be heard and answered.

Nevertheless, poll results like One In Five make me want to lock Mini-Me in particular away from the world, forever. I mean, look how well that worked for the family of this asshole:



(That’s Josh Duggar, by the by. If you don’t know his story, go Google him, because I can’t even.)

So instead of locking her up forever in a room guarded by Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Imperator Furiosa, and a pack of ravenous pit bulls, I decided to arm Mini-Me with information. She’ll be off to college soon enough, and while her dream man currently looks like this:

Aaron Rodgers

He looks like a decent sort of chap.

…it’s only a matter of time before she discovers wild parties, spiked punch, and cute boys who exist in the real world and not just on her teevee on Sunday afternoon. (I mean, I know Aaron Rodgers exists in the physical world, but the odds of an encounter between him and Mini-Me seem remote.) Accordingly, I waited for a quiet moment, and then mentioned the results of the survey. I assured her that most men were going to be…more Aaron Rodgers than Josh Duggar, but there are enough Joshes in the world that she’s going to want to be careful, and in particular she’s going to want to avoid getting blackout drunk, for a number of very good reasons of which this is only one.

I also joked that we were going to get her a pistol for her high-school graduation present. Mini-Me gave me the side-eye as only she can and said, “Wouldn’t that be illegal?”

“You’re worried that it would be illegal to use a gun to protect yourself from a physical assault? Aren’t you adorable,” I said. Well, okay, I didn’t actually say that. I may have thought it. But then she said, “Could I get a big knife instead?”

“Well, okay,” I replied.

“No, I know!” she said enthusiastically, warming to her subject. “I want a dagger. Like the Dark One has in Once Upon a Time.


Maybe we’ll just send this guy to college with her.

And I think that’s a fabulous idea. She can wear it in a little sheath around her ankle. We’ll have her name engraved on one side of the handle; on the other, we will engrave the weapon’s name. — That’s right, her dagger will have a name, just like Arya Stark’s Needle and Brienne of Tarth’s Oathkeeper.

Brienne with Oathkeeper

Mini-Me, meet your college roommate.

I’ve decided that Mini-Me’s dagger will be called Castrator. College men of the future, pay heed: Mini-Me will only unsheathe Castrator if she absolutely needs to. But if she absolutely needs to, she will not hesitate.

Of course, I’d prefer that she never needs to. I’d prefer that the world will change, and I’ll be able to send her off to college in a few years securely believing #NotAnyMen. I hate having to warn her not to let her drink out of her sight, and advising her to always stick with her friends for her own safety. I hate having to tell her that most men she meets at college will be perfectly lovely, but then turning around and telling her that there are a few who…are not at all lovely. I hate that one in five young women have had to learn these lessons the hard way.

It’s just sick-making, and apart from making cynical jokes about arming my daughter when she leaves the house, I really don’t know what to do about it.

Perfect Pairings

There are some roles that just about any talented actor should, in theory, be able to carry off, assuming they’re the right age and reasonably articulate. I mean, sure, you probably wouldn’t want Shia LaBeouf playing Dumbledore or Robert Duvall appearing as Huck Finn, unless he were Old Huck reminiscing about his life on the Mighty Mississippi. But you know what I mean. How many actors have successfully portrayed James Bond, for example? Or Jane Eyre? I loved Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as Benedick and Beatrice in the 1991 version of Much Ado About Nothing; but I also loved Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in the 2012 version and anyone who didn’t can TALK TO THE HAND because they were MAGIC.

Fred + Wesley 4EVA

Just Because.

Then there are cases where a part seems to have been tailor-made for a particular actor (and indeed, many parts are written with a particular actor in mind). In these situations, the marriage of actor and role is so perfect that you can’t envision anyone else in the role, and in some cases you don’t want to imagine the actor in any other role. This happens less often than you might think. I mean, any rugged male actor over age 30 or so could have played Aragorn. Johnny Depp was certainly effective as Captain Jack Sparrow, but I can think of half a dozen other guys who would have been just as effective, or nearly so. I used to think that Colin Firth was the ONE and ONLY Mr. Darcy; then I saw Matthew Macfadyen’s interpretation of the role and realized the error of my ways. Likewise for Jennifer Ehle and Keira Knightley. And so forth.

Here, then, I pay tribute to six instances of the casting director’s art — six (well, actually seven) roles that not only can I not imagine anyone else playing; also, I don’t want to.

1. Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, The Hunger Games


Heads up! Smiles on!

Elizabeth Banks usually bugs me — I tend to find her a bit shrill and over the top. But Effie Trinket more or less defines “shrill” and “over the top,” and besides, Banks has somehow — somehow — manages to inject just the slightest bit of self-awareness and even, dare I say it, sadness into the ridiculous, clueless creature. My opinion of Banks as an actress is revised upward every time I see one of those movies. Plus, I’m not sure that anyone else could carry off Effie’s unique…look with the same aplomb.

Any reasonably talented young actress could have made a creditable Katniss. But there is only one Effie Trinket.

Quote: THAT is MAHOGANY! (in just as outraged a tone as you can possibly imagine)

2. Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold, Once Upon a Time


I was Richard the Third! I had five curtain calls! I was an ACTOR, damn it!

Look, Once Upon a Time went from being an entertaining diversion to being a hot mess somewhere around the time Neil/Baelfire appeared on the scene, and even at its best it was somewhat ridiculous. A hidden Maine town where fairy tales are real…but the characters don’t realize it? Magic and spells and curses are everyday occurrences…but most of the characters are totally unaware? Somebody hired Jennifer Morrison…and in a lead role, no less? I swear, they should bottle that woman and market her for insomnia. But I digress, because there’s been one consistently bright spot in the whole affair, and that’s been the ridiculously talented Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin (in the Fairy Tale universe) and sinister Mr. Gold (in this one).

Carlyle, bless his heart, takes the role seriously. He throws his back into it. He never, for one second, gives the impression that he believes he’s above the material. The result is somewhat akin to watching Pavarotti sing a Katy Perry Medley backed by the Spongecake Elementary School Kindergarten Choir. But who wouldn’t want to watch Pavarotti tear it up in any context?

Quote: Just remember: Love is free, but all magic comes with a price.

3. Jon Hamm and January Jones as Don and Betty Draper, Mad Men

Don and Betty

The happy couple, with Bonus Baby

Much like Mad Men — the show — itself, Jon Hamm and January Jones came roaring out of obscurity to take the world by storm. As brilliant ad man/serial womanizer/all-around jerk Don Draper, Hamm brought the old-school glamor and unrepentant alpha-maleness that mesmerized audiences. And as Draper’s unfortunate first (well, second, technically) wife Betty, Jones embodied a certain Ice-Queen WASPY brittleness and suppressed rage that burned through the screen. (It doesn’t hurt that she was born to wear those expensive vintage styles the show’s costumier kept putting her in.)

The thing is, I’ve seen both of them in other things, and they were…fine? They were okay? Entirely forgettable, but adequate to the demands of the role? I guess? Frankly, I’ll be astonished if January Jones is as good in anything again. And as for Hamm…he could always pursue a second career as an underwear model. But as Don and Betty, they were brilliant. Iconic, even.


Don: I can explain.

Betty: Oh, I know you can. You’re a very, very gifted storyteller.

4. Ben Mendelsohn as Danny Rayburn, Bloodline

Ben Mendelsohn

He can Get It, but the person who gives it to him will probably want to enter Witness Protection the next morning.

I had never heard of this guy before I watched Bloodline on Netflix this spring, but as the troubled black sheep of a close-knit family in the Florida Keys, he absolutely blew me away. His Danny Rayburn is charming, tragic, manipulative, lost, redeemable, irredeemable, angry, sad, determined, and cunning — all at the same time. You start out feeling curious about him, then you feel sorry for him, and then you hate him and want him to DIE. And you hate his family, too, because after all they created him. And then you’re back to feeling sorry for him. Then he pulls his next stunt and you wish he would just go away. And the whole time, you can’t take your eyes off of him.

Seriously, I have no idea what the Australian Mendelsohn is like in anything else (although I’ve read that he absolutely wrecks it in a movie called Animal Kingdom, which has moved to the top of my must-watch list). But he’s stunning in Bloodline. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should.

Quote: Your life’s not always going to be this perfect. Things happen to people. And then you’ll need me. Then you’ll know.

5. Aubrey Plaza as Darius Britt, Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed

When the heat gets hot, she’ll have your back.

Let me just get this out of the way: This woman usually annoys the crap out of me. Her dead-eyed, deadpan version of affectless cool would have played just fine in high school, but I’m not in high school and more to the point neither is she. I don’t find her particularly funny and I mostly just wish she would grow up already.

And yet, in Safety Not Guaranteed, a sweet little indie about, of all things, time travel, her thousand-yard zombie-eyed stare actually works. She wears the role of listless and depressed Darius like a comfortable robe, and she sells her romance with the very-possibly-but-not-definitely-crazy Kenneth (Mark Duplass) in a way that is effortless, compelling, and even touching. A peppier actress would have tanked in this role. Aubrey Plaza soars.

Quote: I have no funk. I’m totally funkless.

6. Owen Wilson as Hansel, Zoolander


That Hansel. He’s so hot right now.

Pity Ben Stiller. He keeps headlining these comedies, only to have the second lead quite neatly steal the movie out from under him. In Tropic Thunder, it was eventual Oscar Nominee Robert Downey, Jr. In those Focker abominations, it was Robert DeNiro. (He gambles rashly who pits himself against the great DeNiro onscreen.) And in Zoolander, in which Stiller played the titular role, no less, it was second banana Owen Wilson.

Hansel is easily the funniest thing about the movie, whether he’s philosophizing, affably reminiscing about plunging off the edge of Mount Vesuvius (kind of), swaggering down an urban alleyway in the company of his multicultural posse of Beautiful People, or giving advice (“This has been an emotional day for all of us. I think we should get naked.”)  And Wilson plays him as a tousle-haired, perpetually stoned surfer dude who isn’t nearly as deep as he’d like to think he is. We’ve probably all known a Hansel or two, come to think of it.

Quote: I hear words like “beauty” and “handsomness” and “incredibly chiseled features” and for me that’s like a vanity of self absorption that I try to steer clear of.

Who are your “perfect pairings?” Let me know in the comments!

House Full of Zebras

Victorian House

I’ll bet it even comes with its own ghost.

My dream house kind of looks like that beauty up there. Look at those balconies. There’s a turret. The big windows, the wide front porch…and even solar panels! (The owner is green!) I can’t see the inside, but I can guarantee that there’s a back staircase, wood floors, a fireplace in every bedroom, weird little closets and nooks and crannies, and claw-foot bathtubs. And if we lived there, one day Mini-Me would be fiddling around with her bedroom fireplace and a brick would become dislodged, and she would remove it and find the secret compartment where a young woman of the North had concealed her tragic Civil War diary, along with a locket given to her by her lover, a soldier for the Confederate cause. Pardon me while I take a minute to swoon.

Anyway. We don’t actually live in a 150-year-old house. In fact, our house is about 65 years old, one of a series of tract houses thrown up in the late 1940s to accommodate soldiers returning from World War II. A previous owner was a do-it-yourself sort who single-handedly put up an extensive addition, including a master bedroom and bath and an enormous kitchen. In theory, I am in awe of his undeniable skill. In practice, it means that if the house is 65 years old, then the addition is maybe 35 years old, and things are wearing out and breaking down, one at a time. Basically, our house has all of the Issues but none of the charm of a Dream House.

So stuff is falling apart in our house on a fairly regular basis, but here’s the thing — it is always something weird. You know how you go in for medical tests and you’re always worried that you have Von Schnitzelhauffer’s Disease or some other rare, fatal thing you read about on the Internet, and the doctor piously intones “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras,” and sure enough it turns out that rather than some rare fatal malady, you actually have pinkeye? Out here, the horses left the barn 20 years ago. It is always a zebra.

Illustrative Examples:

Some years back, the sink faucet in the master bathroom was dripping. Nothing big — just a nice, steady drip. Day and night. Drip, drip, drip. Now, we could have called a plumber, but the Reader’s Digest New Fix-It-Yourself Manual assured me that I could save the money and fix it myself! The problem was almost certainly, according to the RDNF-I-YM, a seat washer.

A what?

I’m so glad you asked. The scoop: A faucet has a whole apparatus that you don’t usually see — it’s all beneath the surface, as it were. It consists of a stem that has a bunch of hardware on it, including a little object called a valve seat. Sitting atop the valve seat is a seat washer, which can wear out over time, causing leakage and, yes, dripping. The RDNF-I-YM made replacing a defective seat washer sound like a lark, a piece of cake, a walk in the park, so armed with my copy of the RDNF-I-YM and a smile, I trekked over to the local Home Depot and came out half an hour later with a 50-cent seat washer in my purse. Boy, did I feel smug.

Faucet mechanism

Where else but this very blog  can you find Irish music, romance novels, and plumbing, too?

And you know, fixing it wasn’t that hard at all. I was feeling pretty darn good about myself until I turned the water back on and found that the faucet was now dripping approximately twice as hard and twice as fast as it had been before.

“Hmm,” I mused. I turned the water back off and went back to the Home Depot and picked up a slightly larger seat washer. There was maybe a little less swagger in my step as I went back home and tried again. This time, the drip had turned into a steady trickle of water.

“How odd,” I remarked. I took the thing out, adjusted it, tried again. No joy. In desperation, I replaced the original seat washer on the stem. The trickle became a veritable gush.

At that point, I decided it was time to call in the cavalry in the form of a licensed professional. A plumber was summoned. He took one look at the various parts and pieces spread around the bathroom — like Frankenstein anesthetized upon a table, to paraphrase one of the greats — and picked up a small object. It was the valve seat itself, and it had a nice fat crack in it.

“Oh,” I said. Basically, I could have spent all afternoon, and in fact did spend all afternoon, switching out seat washers, and it wouldn’t have made a blessed bit of difference. Live and learn.

After that rather painful initiation to the art and science of plumbing, I went on to become, if not an expert, at least minimally competent at small-scale stuff like flapper replacement and so forth. In a moment of great triumph, I even successfully replaced the fill valve (the doodad that regulates water flow in the tank) in the Master Bath. So of course, when our upstairs toilet began to run, I knew exactly what to do.

By way of clarification, I should mention that we have three bathrooms in our house. Bathroom #1 is original to the house; we call it the Blue Bathroom. The Master Bath was added by Owner #2; that’s where I learned all about seat washers vs. valve seats. And then there’s the Upstairs Bathroom, also added by the previous owner; it’s a dark, nasty little cave, reeking of cat pee. Still, it’s a functional toilet.

Or, I should say, it was a functional toilet.

Anyway, it was running, so I did what any reasonable person would do and replaced the flapper. That didn’t fix the problem, so I decided it was time for a new fill valve.

Fluidmaster Universal Toilet Fill Valve

This is really a very easy fix. Really.

No problem! A toilet fill valve, for those of you who have sailed through life blissfully unknowing, is the “#1 Solution To Fix Noisy Toilets.” It says so right there on the box! EASY INSTALL! — it screams in big white letters. “Install with confidence. Installs in 15 minutes.”

I installed with confidence. It took about 15 minutes. Awesome! I gave the restored toilet a few experimental flushes and was about to strut downstairs and brag when I realized the floor was wet. Also, the toilet was still running, but at this point that was the least of my worries.

“Goodness gracious,” I said. I fiddled with the valve, I fiddled with the line, and then I noticed that water was leaking out of the spot where the water line went into the wall. “Well, that won’t do,” I observed.

I went downstairs to share my observations with the Handsome Husband and suggest that we might want to bring in the experts soon rather than late. While I was explaining what had happened, Mini-Me’s voice floated out from the Blue Bathroom: “Why is the ceiling dripping?”

“Heavens!” I exclaimed, and ran to shut off water to the house and call the plumber. But our regular plumber was not answering their business or emergency lines — did I mention that all this went down over a holiday weekend? — so I frantically googled “Plumbers open on Sunday” and ended up calling an outfit called The Plumbing Doctor.

I liked The Plumbing Doctor. All their experts are addressed as Dr. So-and-So, which, on one hand, that’s how you know we’re in the DC area — even the plumbers are “Doctor;” but on the other hand, I like it, because they’re certainly more expert than I am and it’s always a little weird when the plumber comes in all “Good afternoon, ma’am! I’m Mike,” and in any case I would have happily addressed our guy — Dr. Manning — as Your Most Awful and Serene Imperial Highness if it meant that I was going to be able to take a shower that night.

Dr. Manning fiddled with the toilet for a few minutes and then informed me that a new fill valve was never going to stop that toilet from running. Apparently: a) It’s an old toilet (Fun fact: If you remove the lid from the tank, you can usually see the toilet’s date of manufacture stamped inside. Ours said 1948.) b) It’s an American “Standard,” which, name notwithstanding, uses unique parts that are hard to get. c) The underlying problem was neither the flapper nor the fill valve. (Thanks, Fluidmaster!) It was the “gasket.” It might be possible to replace the “gasket,” but “gaskets” for Truman-era toilets are increasingly difficult to come by. Dr. Manning finished by “strongly recommending” that we replace the thing altogether.

I was like, “Mon ostie de saint-sacrament de câlice de crisse! VAS T’ENCULER, OLD TOILET!!!”

No, what I actually said was, “That’s very interesting. Since it is now 9 o’clock on Sunday night, is there a temporary fix that will stop the drip into our downstairs bathroom?”

There was. Dr. Manning capped off the water line, and now we have a pee-reeking storage closet with a sculpture in the shape of a 1940s American Standard toilet where our Upstairs Bathroom used to be. I should paint the thing and fill it with flowers:

Toilet Full of Flowers

And why not?

And why not? I used to think I wanted to live in an old house, but it wasn’t until we bought our Money Pit that I realized what I really wanted was a beautiful house, an interesting house, and a house with character. Oh, and working toilets would be nice. And character doesn’t just happen — it’s built gradually, one eccentric decision at a time.

And if the house looks like this — well, all the better.

Another Victorian

That round window tho

Get out your tools, Handsome Husband! We have a new planter to decorate!


“So, Kate, what are you listening to lately?” is something that…well, actually, it’s something that no one has said to me ever. Alzo is the undisputed Expert in Interesting Music in the family, and maybe someday I’ll write a blog about what he’s listening to these days. But for now, since I’ve already posted pretty pictures for you to look at, I should probably post some lovely musical accompaniment to go with them. (Not all your senses will be engaged on this blog. I draw the line at cooking all of my readers a delicious meal. Sorry.) So here goes:

Skara Brae

 Skara BraeSkara Brae

I’m 40+ years late to the party with this, but I’ve recently discovered the one and only album recorded by an Irish band called Skara Brae. Skara Brae consisted of three siblings — Micheál Ó Domhnaill, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill — along with one of Micheál’s college friends, one Dáithí Sproule. The eponymous “Skara Brae” (1971) was the first album to feature Irish-language vocal harmonies, and as such it was enormously influential. (I mean, sure, you had the Clancy Brothers and the Chieftans and the like running around in the ’60s singing “Danny Boy” and whatnot — but they largely performed in English.) The various members went on to either establish or participate in many of the most popular and groundbreaking acts of the 1970s and 1980s, including the Bothy Band, Nightnoise, Relativity, and Altan. Indeed, the case could be made with some justification that without Skara Brae, this never would have happened:

I saw an excerpt from this once on PBS. It was a song called “Acushla” in which Michael Flatley and his female co-lead circled each other and eyed one another suspiciously. That was it. It was really weird.


Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a question I will leave you to ponder within your own heart, but the point is, Skara Brae’s influence continues to be felt even today, as three of the four members are still out there making music. The fourth, Micheál Ó Domnaill, died tragically young in 2006, and what a shame it is that I was just a preschooler in 1971, because he totally had it going on:

Double sigh.


The remarkable thing about Skara Brae is that the oldest of them was, like, 20 years old when they recorded this album. Maighread, the youngest, was still in high school. What were you doing when you were in high school? Probably not this:

Also, if anyone ever says “Cad É Sin Don Té Sin” to you, it’s not the worst thing they can say, but it’s not exactly…polite. Just saying.

Panda Bear

I heard this song on satellite radio on the way home from one of Hoot’s basketball games and was immediately taken with it. It’s catchy and hypnotic. Enjoy “Boys Latin”:


Gettin Mah Dork On

Yeah, I like Taylor Swift’s new album, and believe me, no one is more surprised about that than I am. I mean, just look at her. She’s clearly a snippy little blonde prom queen with a magnificent case of Resting Bitch Face:

Bitca Taylor

She doesn’t actually care what I think.

She also writes — as she herself would put it — hella entertaining songs, and I rather suspect that she’s totally In On The Joke. Ladies and Gentlemen…Blank Space.

So that’s what’s on my iPod these days. What about you? What are you listening to? Recommend some new music for me!

Here’s Skara Brae to play us out:


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