Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye to 2008

The changing of the year is a man-made construct. I know that. In Steve's and my life, if there is an annual sense of renewal, it comes not now, but in September, at the tag-end of summer after our Nags Head vacation. (That, in turn, is rooted in the universal experience of the school year: the end of vacation, the start of a "new year.") Still, the infrastructure around us that makes life possible--the banks, government--goes through a slow-down/start-up cycle at this time of year, and despite the fact we don't necessarily feel "renewed" when we add the annual digit, we are unavoidably carried along with the tide. So such a time is as good as any to formally say "goodbye" to something, to a time, to the past. My regular visitors know only too well what 2008 was like for me. It was dominated by hopes and fears about our house; indeed, the whole idea of this blog is to document those hopes and fears, and I'm grateful for the space in which to do it, and for your patience in reading about them. Next year promises more of the same. I've said enough about all that.

So here is a farewell song I wrote. It's from 1973, at the end of my time in Boston, where I'd lived a life of contradiction, full of great joy commingled with an equal amount of frustration. I was headed to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to begin a new life as a recruiter for the Peace Corps, and I sang this at my sendoff party.

I had arrived in Boston with the idea of taking the city by storm as a singer-songwriter. I left with new knowledge, hard-won: that I didn't have the ambition required for the stage, and that at the ripe old age of 28, I needed to start everything over, from the ground up, having prepared myself for absolutely no practical occupation in the workaday world. I arrived believing there should be a "life after Peace Corps;" I left returning to the Peace Corps' embrace. It took a period of just over a year for these realizations to sink in. During that time, day-to-day living was full of joy because of the people surrounding me, but the over-arching lessons in life were very, very hard.

I've hardly ever sung this song since that party because I never mastered the guitar part to my satisfaction. It has great vocal leaps that I also never mastered because I never practiced it enough--because of the guitar problem. But I love the sentiment in it and it stands for any goodbye time, including a goodbye to 2008. It's in three-quarter time, if that helps you imagine it.

The Music Goes On

One more walk down the road,
One more tear, one more load.
One more page to be turned,
New lives and loves, with new ways to be learned.
So let's all have one more toast to the past;
One more hand for the cast.
And then I'll be gone with the break of day;
When more has played out, we'll find the way back to each other.
The music goes on.

I'm not perfect, I know.
Now too fast, now too slow.
But love has filled all I've done,
And I know this time, I've lost much less than I've won.
I know they say, "Out of sight, out of mind."
But I hope you know that I was never that kind.
I'll take all that comes, I'm bound to explore,
I'll fly to the moon and maybe much more, and you'll still be with me.
The music goes on.

So bring out the bottles and empty the jars,
For I know right now, wherever we are, we'll still hear the laughter.
The music goes on.

See you in 2009. Have a good and safe time tonight.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Betwixt and between...

I seem to be maintaining something of a holiday mindset this week. Until New Years Day is past, I'll have one foot in the gentle present and the other in the mundane future, still grooving on the holiday but also thinking of things that are pending and need to be done. Between being sick and then a severe cold snap that made pavements too dangerous to navigate by foot, I hadn't done any walking until today. That was three whole weeks of relative inactivity, and the movement felt good this morning. There's still a load of leaves to be raked both front and back--our neighbor's oak is always the last to be heard from--and I will be tackling that this week.

Christmas was exactly as we wanted it, very low-key. We had no tree, and with everything else going on in the house at the moment we didn't miss one. We piled our presents on the coffee table and had a wonderful time surprising each other on Christmas morning. The cats, as usual, had a field day chasing balled-up wrappings--great presents as far as they were concerned. The rest of the day was quiet; we went late to my sister's house for a delicious turkey dinner. My presents to her and her daughters were cuttings from my beautiful yellow Christmas cactus.

New Year's Eve is still tentative. We may do nothing at all, or we may have a couple of friends in for a game of cards and dinner, depending on how they're feeling. They are getting over a major illness, and simultaneously mourning the Christmas Eve passing of their dog, who had been a part of their family for 15 years. We'd love to see them but will certainly understand if they'd rather be at home.

Through all, house painting continues. Steve has almost finished working his magic on the bedrooms upstairs, then will come the hall and stairway, the basement, and, finally, the kitchen. It's looking gorgeous as he makes his progress and we re-arrange furniture. Housing issues are unavoidable and hang above everything, as always. I should have something substantive to report in a couple of weeks.

Have a wonderful day.

Friday, December 19, 2008



Here's one that's quick and delicious for a weekday, full of good things for you like lowfat chicken breast and plenty of veggies. It's a jump-off from a Washington Post recipe which, as usual, needed a lot of work. The original recipe called for a chunked, seeded cucumber as one of the vegetables, and it's great that way, too, but, as with most Chinese dishes, this is infinitely adaptable to whatever you may have in the fridge, or may appeal to you in the produce aisle on any given day. Those of you who must watch your sodium can feel free to use "lite" soy sauce; I've tried it and find the full-flavor of regular soy more satisfying. I just make sure I take my blood pressure meds that night--so far, so good!

As usual, once you start cooking this, the train leaves the station and dinner is ready in a flash. The most time-consuming part of this type of cooking is the prep.

1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Chinese cooking wine, or dry sherry
1 tsp sugar
1 lb. skinned and boned chicken breast, cut into bite-size chunks

6 cloves garlic, minced
a knob of fresh ginger, 1 to 1 1/2 inches long, peeled and minced
1 cup sugar snap peas, tough strings removed
1 medium onion, peeled, top removed but root end retained
1 large stalk celery, chopped on the bias into bite-size chunks
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into thick strips, then strips halved
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 cup cashews

2 teaspoons cornstarch

Fresh black pepper

Combine chicken and 3 tablespoons of the soy-sherry-sugar mixture in a plastic bag. Marinate chicken while preparing other ingredients, reserving remaining marinade for sauce.

Cut onions into wedges. They will remain intact because they are attached at the root end. Put in a bowl with the chopped celery.

Combine chopped ginger and garlic in a bowl

Heat 2 tablespoons oil (peanut or vegetable) over highest possible heat in the bottom of a wok or large skillet until the oil is shimmering and just starting to smoke. Remove chicken from marinade and add in a single layer to hot oil. Discard marinade. Let chicken sit for one minute, until some carmelization takes place. Toss to cook other side. When chicken is cooked through, remove to a bowl and set aside. Leave as much oil in the wok as possible.

Still over high heat, add sugar snap peas, allow to sit undisturbed for 30 seconds, then toss another 30 seconds.

Add chopped onion and celery with ginger and garlic. Toss for 1 minute.

Add chopped pepper and scallions, toss for 1 minute.

Add cashews and return chicken and any accumulated juices. Toss for a minute to heat through.

Stir cornstarch into remaining marinade and pour over ingredients in wok. Stir until thickened. If too thick, add more sherry or water.

Add several good turns of the pepper grinder to finished dish. Serve immediately over rice.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On the upswing....

I do believe things are looking up, health-wise! Through all this bitching and moaning I never mentioned that Steve was away on another one his marathon trips, sick as I was. He's back now, and taking the day off work to regain his strength, which he had no chance to do while he was on the road. It's good that one of us can convalesce and take care of the other. My head feels just about normal-sized at the moment and I have no sore anything--throat, ears, etc. (a cold always seems worse at night, however, so we'll see how that goes), and Steve is relatively better today than he was last night when he rolled in. Little by little....

This is just about the darkest December I can remember. It's been more like February with its extreme cold and stuff falling out of the sky. It's still cloudy today and yet more rain is predicted for tonight and then on into the weekend. Sounds like comfort food time to me! One thing I know I'll be doing is rummaging through some favorite recipes. (Look out, you may be eating it yourself in the not too distant future!)

Just checking in. You may now return to your own devices....

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Crawling back

I'm like the turtle taking a guarded peek out of its shell this morning, and confirming that there is life yet to be lived. If I'm a turtle, then my shell today consists of heavy jeans, and an overshirt over a sweater over a t-shirt. My engorged sinuses make my head feel like it's bigger than it's supposed to be, but I've already proven to myself that it's no heavier than usual. I can hold it up and move it around, and I have actually moved my entire body gingerly from room to room, even from floor to floor.

I had a flu shot this fall, so I know this thing is only a cold. But what a cold. I was totally sapped yesterday and barely moved. I've been getting 10 hours' sleep at night and still feel exhausted during the day. It's at times like these that the pleasant memory of actual life serves as the main impetus to return to it. You're not exactly living it at the moment, but the desire to get back puts some fight in you. Actually feeling better is like re-birth and I can't wait for it to come.

Being sick when I was little meant extra attention, being fussed over. It meant not having to change out of my pajamas. If I had a fever, my mother gave me half an aspirin in a spoon mixed with sugar and water, a real treat. I loved the bitter-salty-sweet taste. It meant I was being cared for. I could lie back down with my comics on the living room couch and have no care beyond how Bugs Bunny would outwit Elmer Fudd. "Sick" was fun. The memory of that is the next best thing to feeling better itself.

Monday, December 15, 2008


The temperature is headed to the balmy 60s today, and already it feels like a spring morning outside. But the skies are a bleak gray, and rain is supposed to start again, and stay with us the entire week, again. I have an outdoor job to do and I want to get it out of the way before the rain starts. I'm helping Steve get a head start on painting the front porch by scraping off all the old paint that's starting to peel. He won't actually be getting to the porch for a couple of months (it has to be warm enough for the paint to dry), but at least this initial grunt work will be done.

I actually started the scraping job yesterday. Not a minute into it, a tiny chip of paint blew into my left eye. We had no Visine in the house and I suffered with the irritation until late last night, when I remembered we had some Simply Saline nasal spray in the medicine cabinet. It worked! (Why didn't I go out and just buy some Visine? Oh, you and your questions!)

So, between the continued minor irritation in my eye, the tooth thing that has not really gone away but is not acute, and a cold that I just can't shake, with its coughing and stuffiness, I feel these days like a collection of parts that are only somewhat inter-operative. Add the constantly gloomy skies and you get blah. A new refrigerator is due for delivery today, so that'll be fun to set up and admire. How grateful we can be for life's tiny diversions!

I'll now shuffle off to the day's adventures. At least my music is bright.

Friday, December 12, 2008



Here's a new word for you: pulpitis. As in the pulp inside a tooth. It appears I have it. Infected pulp, beneath a crown, no less. When was the last time you heard somebody say they had a toothache? Between flossing and brushing twice a day with my Sonicare, I was convinced my teeth would outlast the rest of my body by at least a century. But I've been having this toothache for the past week or so, and my dentist told me I had pulpitis under one of the crowns in my mouth and I needed a root canal to have it fixed. And it gets better. My Cadillac Aetna Dental PPO, part of an overall policy for which I will be paying a group rate of over $200 a month next year, doesn't pay for it! All that sucker pays for is prophylactic care, the six-month cleanings and checkups. If one of those checkups should uncover a problem, you're on your own.

Well, not entirely on your own. For an additional mere $30 a month, you can by a supplemental policy that will cover everything else a dentist can do to--I mean for--you. Aarrgghh!!! After spending a couple of hours in the rat's maze of federal health benefits web pages yesterday, I finally figured out how to add the supplemental to my policy, but it won't go into effect until January 1.

Meanwhile, the tooth feels better today. I spoke with my dentist again this morning and he said this is something that can come and go, that if there was an infection it may have cleared up spontaneously, but that if the tooth is still sensitive to pressure and temperature, there is probably a crack in the nub of tooth left beneath the crown. The root canal would have cost $800, so I cancelled it. It'll be the old "watch and wait" until my new policy kicks in next year. I'll just chew my beef stew carefully.

How's that for a segue? Tyler Florence is our favorite "personality chef" on the Food Network. He's always bright and cheery (but he doesn't overdo it like Rachel Ray), and his cooking style, full of big chunks of food and bold, rich flavors, is the same thing I strive for in my own cooking, so I use a lot of his ideas. This recipe is pretty much as he does it, except that I decided that the rich sauce deserves a bed to accompany it, so instead of just putting potato chunks in the stew as is traditional, I decided to mash the potatoes and serve the stew over them. It's really good that way, but do what you want.

Just two tips: make sure the initial browning of the meat is thorough. It's that carmelization that adds depth of flavor to the finished product. Also, there is a lot of liquid here, a whole bottle of wine and then two cups of beef stock on top of that. I suggest that you simmer the "partially covered," but really, it'll be OK if you just leave the cover off for the entire 2 1/2 hours of simmering. That liquid does need to cook down considerably.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 to 3 pounds boneless beef chuck roast, cut into 2-inch pieces
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bottle good quality dry red wine (recommended: Burgundy)
8 fresh thyme sprigs
6 garlic cloves, smashed
3 1-inch strips orange zest
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 bay leaves
2 1/2 cups beef stock
1/2 pound carrots, peeled and sliced
2 cups frozen pearl onions, a large handful
1 pound white mushrooms, cut in 1/2
1/2 pound garden peas frozen or fresh

9 small new potatoes, scrubbed clean and cut in 1/2

Preheat a large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat with the oil and butter.

While the pan is heating, arrange the flour on a large dish. Season the cubed beef with some salt and freshly ground black pepper and then toss in the flour to coat. Shake off the excess flour and add the beef chunks in a single layer to the hot pan, being careful not to overcrowd the pan (you might have to work in batches). Thoroughly brown all of the cubes on all sides. Once all the meat has been browned remove it to a plate and reserve.

Add the wine to the pan and bring up to a simmer. Deglaze the rich browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. After de-glazing, return the meat and accumulate juices to the pan along with the thyme, smashed garlic, orange zest strips, ground cloves, freshly ground black pepper and salt, to taste, bay leaves and beef stock. Bring the mixture up to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered until the liquids start to thicken, about 15 to 20 minutes. Partially cover and continue to cook on low heat for 2 1/2 hours. (There is a lot of liquid here and you will want it to cook down.)

After 2 hours add the sliced carrots, pearl onions and mushrooms, along with a pinch of sugar to balance out the acid from the wine. Leave uncovered and simmer for 30 minutes more, until the vegetables and meat are tender. Add the frozen peas during the last minute of cooking. Season with salt and pepper and remove the thyme sprigs.

While stew is on its last simmer, boil potatoes in salted water until done, and mash, using your favorite recipe. Serve stew over mashed potatoes.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


It's a day that invites me to do not very much, though I will get the Thursday chores done, plus all of the very little actual Christmas shopping I'm doing this year. (The rest of it's been done online.) The temperature outside is so warm and the air is so wet with rain that it's actually close in the house and I feel damp. I turned on the overhead fan just to create a breeze and evaporate the humidity gathered on my skin. This won't last long. The dreaded Wintry Mix sets in tomorrow.

I've imagined trying to describe blogging to people who not only don't do it but have never even entered this sphere except by accident, and only peripherally, such as when a friend sends a link to something inflammatory written by some hot-headed brother blogger. Those people probably believe that all blogs are political because that's all they've seen. That's what I used to think before I discovered there is a vast variety of communities out here. None of the blogs I read are political except in a very sideways fashion (pointing me to links elsewhere that usually have an interesting or amusing take on some issue, but never inflammatory). And the only time I get "political" is if some example of egregious injustice pushes my buttons, which is not so often.

So now that I do it, what is it? I started out by mentally characterizing blogging as something retired people do, but then I immediately pulled back from that thought, realizing that most of you reading this now are busy contributing to (what's left of) the economy in your respective work places, and maintaining your own really interesting and fun sites at the same time. It's true I'm retired and had not given blogging a thought until I entered this blessed state, but I don't really think of it as a retirement activity. As I was leaving the ranks of the actively employed, the most common question from friends was, "what are you going to do now?" (And it was always asked in that disbelieving "you're really retiring????" way, as if it was just unthinkable.) I always answered, "I don't know. This is a time when I can truly allow something to bubble up." I know it's terribly un-American not to have a production plan, but that's me.

Blogging is what bubbled up. It was purely organic, just as I had hoped. I like to write and always wanted the time to do it. I thank Kat for opening my eyes and disabusing me of the notion that blogging must be political. All I do is string words together in some coherent way, and I love doing it. You read it and for some reason you seem to like it. That's icing on the cake, but then again, it's what writing is all about. It's words. Words communicate. And at bottom, that's really why I do it.

When I was a young man and it was still appropriate to ask me, "what do you want to do with your life?" my otherwise incoherent response always included communication. In the "motivation statement" part of my Peace Corps application, I said, "I want to communicate." That's all I've ever hoped to do all my life. Teaching, singing, explaining, writing, talking, and any other thing you can think of that requires words. This blogging thing wasn't just plucked out of thin air, it turns out. It's just an extension of what I've been doing all along.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A quiet day

It's a regular tropical heat wave today, with highs predicted in the 60s, and steady rain. This is quite a difference from the bright, teen-temperature days we've been having lately, days when no matter what I did nor how high I turned up the thermostat, I couldn't get warm. As I write, I'm still in my heavy winter uniform. But I'm comfortable, not feeling constantly chilled. Conditions will change soon enough tomorrow, when this rain could turn to snow. (Or that wonderful mid-Atlantic invention, the "wintry mix.")

I've spent this morning composing a friendly email to the person at the Peace Corps who would know of temporary assignments that might fit my background with the agency, if there are any. I admit to being of two minds about all this, when I get down to brass tacks. Even though I know we need the extra money to pay down debts, and getting out from under constant concern about The Move will do me good, still, I do enjoy this life I'm living now. Even as exciting a place as the Peace Corps must be at the moment with the change in administrations, and as much fun as it would be to see old friends, the idea of having to be in a place every day, doing someone else's bidding, is less than attractive.

Who knows? Maybe nothing will come of this little foray I'm making. But I still really should get a job, for the extra money. I could always cashier at the local supermarket, I guess, but that's even less attractive than office work. At least at the Peace Corps I'd be using my mind on something interesting.....

Just thinking out loud on a gray day....

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


One of the hazards of my line of work (for today's purposes, being gay) is being discussed in the third person while you're right there in the room. These days, thanks to the recent California referendum, the topic of whether or not Steve and I should be allowed to get married is on everybody's lips. As usual, nobody's asked us what we think, I guess because the assumption that we want to marry is automatic. Well-meaning straight friends wish us well out of straight guilt, while the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the big gay lobbying group, assumes that of course we want to get married and then presumes to speak for us to Congress and the rest of the civilized world.

So just to remind you I'm here and do have an opinion, here it is, unsolicited though it may be:

The HRC was wrong-headed beyond belief when it insisted on "marriage rights," tossing that red-meat "M" word into the ring to be ravished by the religious right. The right was in the ascendancy from the White House on down, they owned the pulpit (word choice well-considered), and they had and continue to have a field day rousing the bible-toting rabble with our attack on the holy sacrament of marriage. Like that other completely private matter, abortion, how I choose to conduct my life with the person I love has become one of those polarizing public topics that just won't go away. It didn't have to be that way. Civil unions could have been quietly recognized, state by state, until, before you knew it, you had a defacto national consensus. The federal government would have been forced to follow suit. "Marriage" as co-opted by the HRC would have had nothing to do with it.

First: most gay couples are already able to cobble together legal protections equivalent to those automatically conveyed by what's conventionally called marriage. Steve and I own everything together, from our house (right of survivorship) to our joint bank account. We have given each other legal and medical powers of attorney. Our end-of-life documents make it clear that we consider everything in our life equally and jointly owned. In short, in a legal sense, we are already "married."

(Here is an illustrative sidebar to the matter of health care. I discovered a few years ago during a medical emergency in Delaware that despite the scary bugaboo about hospitals having the option to ignore medical powers of attorney on moral grounds if they disagree with our living arrangement, HIPAA and standard medical practice make the nature of our relationship irrelevant. First, HIPAA forms simply ask, "whom should be contacted in the event of an emergency?" "Relationship" is not part of the question. And second, in order for treatment and follow-up care to continue after hospitalization, doctors need to know who will be the primary caregiver. I was accepted in that role with gratitude and the utmost respect, no questions asked. If the hospital had insisted on Steve's unavailable blood next-of-kin, it was clear that I could have sued for malpractice and won.)

So we are as well-protected as we can be within the present legal framework. But there is a behemoth in the room: no federal acknowledgement of our relationship. Steve can't legally name me as a survivor for his Social Security payments, nor can he receive any share of my federal reitrement pension after my death. When Steve's job ends in June, 2009, he will lose his medical insurance, and I can't put him on my federal policy. Remember that thing the great friend of gays Bill Clinton signed into law, the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA)? I had thought that until that was repealed, we would have no recourse and just have to deal with harsh reality, as we always have.

But lo and behold, there is a glimmer of light. A move is afoot in Congress to work around DOMA. Last September, there was actually a committee hearing, chaired by Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Susan Collins of Maine (that is: the Homeland Security Committee!), to explore ways to implement equal benefits for same-sex couples in the federal work force. The issue is being cast in terms of civil rights and homeland security, the rationale for the latter being that the government has to be at least as competitive as the private-sector institutions that already have these equality protections on their books. The Feds face a serious brain drain as Boomers retire, and the best minds are needed to protect the country. Many of those good minds happen to be in love with people of the same sex.

DOMA will remain as a fig leaf. Essentially, Lieberman and Collins are saying, "we don't care what you call it. Keep your 'marriage.' For the security of the nation, these people need equal protection and we're working to see to it that they get it."

So call it marriage, call it civil union, call it whatever you want. It's all the same to me, and as far as the government is concerned, the "civil" part is the essence of marriage, anyway. In a church wedding, the clergy pronounces the happy couple husband and wife "by the powers vested" in him/her by the state. The pronouncement may be part of a fancy ceremony with religious trappings, but as far as the government is concerned, God has nothing to do with it. Go ask any Justice of the Peace: marriage is a legal contract. And that's all we want.

Friday, December 5, 2008



OK, I grant you a proper New Orleanian would blanch at this concoction, saying it doesn't deserve to be called anything like gumbo. I bow to them and put the name in quotes. It's something I've been tossing together for many years, since before I knew what a roux was. I admit I was aiming for something with the same rich and complex flavor as the real thing, but since it's the roux and it's nutty browned flour that gives authentic Gumbo its distinctive flavor, and since I was ignorant of the technique at the time, what I ended up with was a very tasty shrimp, sausage and okra stew that stands alone. It takes no time to prepare and makes a good weekday meal.

I know there's a whole community of people who can't stand okra because of its "slimy" texture. If your okra gets that way, you've overcooked it. When it simmers gently from the frozen state for only about 20 minutes, as it does here, you get all of its warm flavor and none of that stringy mess. I had always liked okra the few times my mother served it, but I got to know it very well in Ghana, where it is a staple vegetable and forms the basis of some indescribably delicious seafood stews. (The most memorable meal of my life was a seafood-okra-palm oil stew with fermented corn cakes I gorged on one day at the beach in Accra. The seafood, which included the usual shrimp and fish but also included whole crabs, scallops, mussels, snails and squid, had been swimming in the ocean not 30 minutes before I consumed it. This was at no fancy restaurant, either, but with the family of a Ghanaian who simply befriended me on the beach. We ate it right there on the sand. I can never hope to replicate that meal; this dish is a vaporous but honorable copy. At that moment I did learn, though, where gumbo comes from.)

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. pre-cooked andouille sausage (can use plain smoked sausage if andouille isn't available)
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped into bite-size pieces
3 cloves garlic (or to taste) minced
1 15-oz. can whole tomatoes with juice, crushed into large pieces
1 12-oz bag frozen cut okra
2 bay leaves
2 tsp. dried oregano
1 lb. (30-count) shrimp, peeled and de-veined

Slice sausage on the diagonal into 1/4-inch coins, and combine with chopped onion, pepper and garlic in a large saucepan. Cook until sausage is slightly browned and vegetables have softened. Add tomatoes, okra, bay leaves and oregano, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 10-15 mintues, just until okra is thawed and slightly softened. With stew continuing on a slow simmer, add shrimp and cook about 5 mintues more, or until shrimp is just opaque. Adjust salt and pepper, cover and let sit about 15 mintues.

Serve over white rice.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

'Tis the season....

One of the great things about having a blog is that you can say whatever you please. This will be one of those days, cathartic for me. Since I started writing here in January, I never had reason to go into this subject. I will now, just to get it out of the way: it's not that I dislike Christmas. I do like the idea of it. I just make it my business to get through December with as little of it as possible.

In this space you'll find a few Christmas songs maybe sometime during the week before Christmas Day. But not before. I just can't get into the frenzied merrymaking. Life is pretty much the same during the month of December as it is at any other time of the year; Christmas is merely a day in the month. The lead-up to that day is typically filled with activities I can't stand, mainly shopping at malls and an endless round of crowded standup parties where I can't hear what's being said by all the short people around me, and everybody eats and drinks too much. In this consumerist society of ours, where we were exhorted, "Be patriotic! Go shopping!" after 9/11, the winter holidays represent the pinnacle of that lucre-larded way of life.

This jaded attitude comes, of course, from Christmases past in my own life. The season seemed to bring out the most unpleasant traits in my family, and it only progressed from bad to worse. First, it was just seeing my parents drink too much at parties I was too young to be at but were too far away for me to be left at home alone. Then my brother-in-law (my sister's ex-husband) entered the family. He is Eastern European, a refugee from the bad old Iron Curtain days, who bought the American way of conspicuous consumption hook, line and sinker. Along the way, he enabled the worst qualities in my parents, entering their lives when they were transiting from their 40s to their 50s and only too happy to resume the party-hearty life they had enjoyed in their own youth. He lived mortgaged to the hilt, a true believer in "using other peoples' money." My sister and her family always traveled to our Falls Church house for Christmas, no matter where they were living, so the holiday became, for me, an inescapable orgy of toys, cardboard and wrapping paper that only grew along with the family. By the time all four of the kids were born, you literally could not see the Christmas tree. It was buried beneath presents not just under it, but climbing up it, leaning against it.

Of course, that was once we even got a tree. My father, ever thrifty, never bought one until close to midnight on Christmas Eve, the better a bargain to find. So the fabled "Night Before Christmas" in our house had anything but the sense of peace and awe described in the poem. It was an alcohol-fueled late-night frenzy of putting up and trimming some poor, picked-over tree, and the last-minute wrapping of those hundreds of presents. Add to that the record player blaring and voices yelling over it, and you have a perfect storm of insanity. (The question does occur to me: why was I constitutionally unable sit back and just enjoy it all? It probably had something to do with being a repressed, closet-case gay teenager. But all I knew at the time was that I hated everything about Christmas in my parents' house.)

My natural reaction to all this is to make Christmas as low-key as possible in my own life. Steve is from a family tradition the complete opposite of mine: they lived so much to themselves that they never entertained at all; his mother wasn't much of a cook, so their idea of a festive meal was something different, to say the least, than what I may imagine. She was a master craftswoman, though. Their tree may have been aluminum, but it was hung with ornaments she made herself. And her house was always neat and beautifully decorated. There was that sense of order that was so lacking in my own experience.

As far as the observation of Christmas is concerned, then, Steve and I complement each other perfectly. I bring a bit of festivity and good food, and Steve brings his quiet and that inherited sense of decorative beauty. In our earlier years we were known for the big Christmas party we threw. We catered all the food ourselves, with patés, a turkey, a Virginia ham, hundreds of hors d'oeuvres we served from silver salvers as we circulated in the crowd, cheeses, fruits, cookies, nuts, home-made egg nog--a true groaning board. We stopped that blowout after about a dozen years because we got tired of the cleanup, but we still try to have a festive dinner with our good friends. Once that dinner is over, so, for us, is Christmas, for all intents and purposes. On Christmas day we quietly exchange presents, and then we gird ourselves for the onslaught at my sister's house, where the tradition of insanity reigns, driven by her, her kids, her kids' kids and their various husbands/partners. There are more of 'em than there ever were in Falls Church.

God love 'em. If that's Christmas, great. As long as you can leave it at somebody else's house.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

ODETTA 1930 - 2008

It seems I'm doing this too often, writing these memorials to people whose voices and music informed me and my generation. It's not an exaggeration to say they helped make many of us who we are, and I, for one, feel their passing as much as I would those of close family members, if not more. I was not aware of Odetta's health problems, so was shocked to hear of her death this morning at the too-young age of 78.

I just missed seeing her perform in early 1965 when she toured to the University of Kentucky. I had left the University for one semester, and missing her was one of the many reasons I regretted the decision to leave. Friends who saw her described a towering vision in a sweeping white gown and a headdress, illuminated by single spotlight. I've kept that imagined vision in my mind all these years.

Odetta's public posture and stentorian voice gave her a burden of "Great Personhood" for her entire career. These two selections catch her just having fun. This one, "Baby, I'm In The Mood For You," is from my favorite of her albums, Odetta Sings Dylan, 1965.

MP3 File

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Getting back....

Well, it's about time, right? The weekend that started with Thanksgiving (the day itself seems ages ago) was so varied and so busy that yesterday I had trouble wrapping my brain around sitting here for a couple of hours just listening to music and cobbling words together. I felt like I should be "doing something."

We made a one-day trip to the Delaware property on Friday for a couple of errands and to see what the place looks like now with most of its ancient trees cut down. Since we're taking the whole project one day at a time these days we really didn't want anything done to the trees yet--if, God forbid, the whole scheme falls apart we still want to be able to enjoy the lot and the trailer. We told the demolition contractor to hold off on any work, but he didn't get word to his subcontractors until they had done what you see above. It was a shock, and I can only imagine what that barren landscape would be like in the depths of summer with only the trailer to escape from the constant sun. There was one huge loblolly pine, must have been 90 feet tall, that was cut. We counted 128 rings in the stump. All of the oaks were over 100 years old, too. They all did have to come down, but we're sorry it had to happen now. At least word is out that all further work will be on hold until we sell the house.

When we got back here we set to clearing out my room and re-creating it. Steve has now become expert at removing wallpaper. In an amazing three days he had all of it down, chinks in the ceiling and walls spackled and smoothed, and half the room painted. If we continue at this pace we may actually finish this work by March.

I am starting phone calls to some friends in town to see if there are any contractor positions I may be able to avail myself of after the first of the year. We'll use the extra money to pay down debt, preparing for the lean times we're expecting after June. And frankly, getting out and using my mind for something besides fretting over uncertainties wouldn't be a bad thing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

MP3 File

Thanksgiving truly is the most American of holidays. This is just a stock photo. It's not my table and not yours, but it's a safe bet that each and every one of us will be sitting down to a table loaded with pretty much the same things you see here. There are individual variations, for sure (wouldn't be America without them!), but the menu for all of us is pretty much the same.

The menu also includes family and its dynamics. There are usually reasons we don't see some of these people more a good friend of mine says, "you can choose your friends, but you're stuck with your family." I know we'll all enjoy ourselves, if not entirely during the get-together, then by all means telling stories about it afterwards. I love the grand messiness of these human encounters.

Today's music is a personal favorite, and I'm grateful for this seasonal opportunity to share it. It's the traditional Christian benediction, "The Lord Bless You And Keep You," put to music by Peter Lutkin. I've known it since high school, when it was a favorite of my singing group. Our repertoire was mostly madrigals, but during any get together we were sure to sing this because it's so pretty, and those soaring "amens" at the end are so much fun.

I'll probably be silent for the next few days, which means there should be plenty to talk about on Monday. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Back in re-mo mode

Greetings from the basement. Well, as you can see from the photo above, it's more than just a basement. It's the den/office/TV room where we do most of our living. My little operation (a slice of which is just visible in the right foreground) was moved down here so that my room can get The Treatment. Wallpaper is coming down, chinks and dinks in the ceiling and walls are being filled, and soon inviting, buyer-friendly colors will be up. Furniture will be switched around to create an illusion of more space. I'll have a new room to enjoy until it becomes someone else's. Sorry I have no "before" picture to show. Completely slipped my mind as we started moving things Saturday. I'll show the "after" when it's done.

Our goal is to have the house on the market by February, March at the latest. We want to be among the first that cabin-feverish house shoppers will see as they break outdoors, the holiday crush behind them. The inside work should be do-able in that time frame. Outside, a few slats of siding need to be replaced, and the old siding really needs a powerwash. I guess we'll have to hope for a freakish warm day to get that accomplished. Also, to show the house that early, we'll have to find a place to park the plants, which are now stuffed next to any window that provides some light. (Very few in this north-facing house.) We'll figure that out. If we have to, can even use my sister's east-Jesus house if we can renew our passports to get that far out into Vuh-gin-yuh.

It'll be a truncated week, with all of T-day being spent at my niece's house. (She lives even further out than my sister.) It'll be the first time she's hosted Thanksgiving for the family, and we'll be rooting for her. She wants to do all the courses herself, so I was doubly flattered that she asked me to bring my Pumpkin Custard and Green Tomato Mincemeat pies. (I know all anybody needs is another pumpkin pie recipe, but I'll share it anyway 'cause it's good. I don't think mincemeat is popular enough for anyone to be interested in....)

Friday we head to Delaware for just the day to get a few things left in the trailer.

And off we go. I'm headed out for some paint. Benjamin Moore's "Fresh Air."

Friday, November 21, 2008

Food Friday....not!

Sorry, folks, no recipe today. Since I haven't been doing much cooking in the past couple of weeks, and I don't have anything in the wings waiting to be featured, there's nothing to feed the foodie in us today. I promise to get back on track next week.

It appears that I now have a new venue for my writing jones to express itself: I've been invited to write a monthly column for a new online publication called Peace Corps World. The first issue is scheduled to go out in January, and, depending on if the thing takes off, I might even get paid for it. It's all very informal so far, no contracts or legal agreements are involved. The publisher is an old Peace Corps colleague with deep roots in the New York publishing scene (and a published novelist himself) with whom I've maintained occasional contact. His idea is to cover topics of interest to the entire Peace Corps community, current and former volunteers and staff alike. He wants me to talk about gay stuff, but I think I'll be able to branch out a bit from that rather limited track. (How would you like to have to write about just "straight stuff"?) We'll see. Anyway, that's where I was yesterday. He asked for two submissions by December 1, and I was working on the first.

On the house front: there is some good news to add to the otherwise still-troublesome mix. The Realtor told us that if we continue with the cosmetic work on the house, we should be able to ask for even more than we were hoping. In the process, he made it clear that this property is too special, and the market too crazy, to show it in anything less than perfect condition. So our work is cut out for us. We could save time by marketing the house "as-is," but we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot if we did. Which leads to the "troublesome mix" part: the clock is ticking. Between the time limits on the bank's commitment and Steve's job, we have a fairly small window in which to get this house sold. The Realtor recommended putting it up for sale in February, to catch the first people with post-holiday cabin fever out looking. Given all we have to do, February is just too fast, but we will bust butt to make it in March. Then it'll be up to the market place.

We were very impressed with the Realtor. He knows this area like the back of his hand. Before he gave us any numbers, he put our sale in context with the entire market in Arlington to show us the conditions we are working in. (One astounding fact: while Arlington as a whole has fared better than most of the rest of the country through the real estate downturn, 50% of the sales in our Zip code in the past 12 months have been foreclosures. Half!! Those distressed prices bring all the rest down, and that's just a reality we must contend with.)

I know this blog is called "Days of Transition" and it's meant to document what we go through as we try to move. But I didn't know how hard it would be, and how boring and depressing (to me, anyway) this "woe is us!" trope would become. I had decided not to go into the Realtor story and just let it lie, but people actually emailed me wanting to know what happened, so here we are. I appreciate your interest and your good wishes. But I hope you'll understand if sometimes it just feels like too much and I need a rest from it. It takes time to put these words together and that means time thinking about the situation, analyzing, prognosticting, guessing, worrying. For my own mental health I'll lay off house stuff until some major milestone is reached. (Or at least I'll try!)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The prodigal returns

Our little family is complete once again. Steve dragged himself home last night from the business trip from hell in Florida. After getting off the plane he still had to go to the office for some end-of-day rituals that must be observed, so he showed up here at 6, ate some dinner, then took a pill and went to bed. Slept for 12 hours straight. He's still tired and is feeling congested--not surprising he should come down with something. If he can get through this week he can just veg this weekend and gradually regain his equilibrium.

As glamorous as "career at the Peace Corps" may sound, I confess that whatever travel was part of my responsibilities was something I endured rather than relished. I'm a creature of routine and find long periods living out of a suitcase and a different hotel room every night enervating. And my Peace Corps trips were more like forced marches than merry jaunts through the countryside. Yes, I saw things and places most people never do, but the cost in discomfort and strain was high. One of my "trips" was actually a 4-week stay in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, where I served as interim director while the Peace Corps hired a permanent replacement. That was actually somewhat enjoyable. At least I could stay in one spot for a bit and explore at my own pace. But four weeks away was a long time and I was anxious to get back home.

Having said that, another two-year stint in the Peace Corps is not an idea I dismiss out-of-hand--although it'll never happen because the Peace Corps, subject to Uncle Sam's outdated policies, doesn't accept "unmarried couples" who want to serve together (how's that for a catch-22 for gay people?). But if I could join, and I knew I'd have something productive to do and could be in a place long enough to call it home, then I know I'd find the experience as exciting as it was the first time around; perhaps even better because I'm a lot smarter now and less of a hormone-driven brute. It's just the idea of being on the move constantly and at the whim of whomever your host is for the day that I don't find appealing. I empathize completely with how Steve is feeling now. If it had been me, I might fare even worse!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Big Week

We've made an appointment with a real estate agent this week (I believe Realtor ® is the preferred designation--great excuse to make that "®" sign!) to come and tell us our bottom line: what is the top dollar amount we can expect for this house if we put it on the market now, as-is, still needing some cosmetic repairs and paint? And how much more will we get if we wait until those repairs are done? We'll be talking to a guy who lives in our Zip code and has been doing business in it for nearly 20 years. His name is on virutally every For Sale sign around here. If he can't give us the real 4-1-1, nobody can.

You may wonder why we hadn't taken this step earlier. Honestly, we didn't think we had to yet. The shock we had a week ago today, to which I've only alluded because I was still absorbing it, was that the bank doing the construction loan suddenly pulled the plug. Unbeknownst to us, our mortgage broker wasn't being straight with them, or with us. As settlement day approached and we were learning more details about the documentation the bank required to process the loan, we realized we were coming up short. We had no signed builder's contract, for one thing, and no "draw schedule"--an agreement between the bank and the builder as to how and when funds would be used. Our plans were nebulous because we knew we had to wait until this house sold before we could start building the new one, and the broker had led us to believe that the bank would roll with that ambiguity. Well, no.

An unrelated phone call I made to the bank, which led to a few questions from them I found odd, thinking the bank should already have those answers from the broker, made it clear that the broker was treading a fine line just this side of fraud. When the broker started telling us, "Don't worry!" but was foggy on details, that's when we should have started worrying. She was building a house of cards that was bound to collapse, and the one thing we're grateful for is that the inevitable happened before we were all seated at the settlement table and thousands of dollars had been committed.....

Anyway, this setback has forced us to re-group and take some logical steps we now see we should have taken earlier. The commitment letter we have from the bank is good for six months, or until the first week in May. We know what our window looks like now and have our marching orders. Ergo, the question: will we get enough for the house now, showing it "as-is," or do we wait and do the repairs? Given the time frame, the quicker we can sell, the better. But given our needs, the more we can get for the house, the better. This week, we hope to learn in which direction those marching orders will be sending us.

Living on the edge. I thought I'd left that behind when I turned 26 and could no longer be drafted. Well, at least it's a familiar feeling!

Saturday, November 15, 2008


It's a schizophrenic mid-November day. The temperature is 72, and the warmth has driven me into a pair of shorts instead of the usual heavy denim uniform. I've opened the windows of the house to release the energy-efficient closeness and allow in some fresh air. In the midst of all this unaccustomed warmth, my Thanksgiving cacti are doing their thing more-or-less on schedule. I love this unusual golden one and have been waiting for a chance to show it to you. The enormous fuschia-colored one will come next, a true Christmas cactus. (I also have cacti that flower in the Spring. I've named them after Easter. All I need is one for the Fourth of July!)

The Kate Clinton gig was just what the doctor ordered last night: shamelessly politically partisan, hilarious, brainy fun, the gleeful irreverence Jon Stewart brings to his nightly observations, but on steroids, if you can imagine such a thing. I can only remember one of the fast-and-furious gags: "The economy is so bad! I went out to buy a toaster and they offered me a bank!" but we were all rolling in the aisles. And it was a wonderful time out, seeing old and treasured friends and catching up. The only thing missing was Steve.

Today it's deathly quiet around here. This is one of extremely few weekends, no more than 10, in nearly 29 years that Steve and I have not been within shouting distance of each other. He's supposed to be here, restless to start some project (and there are plenty) and goading me on in the same direction. Instead, I'm dawdling at my own contemplative pace. I read two newspapers this morning, and then caught up with all the blogs I'd missed during the two days I was buried in my mp3s. (You guys are a prolific, thought-provoking bunch, each fascinating in your own way. It was fun to dive into one big dose.)

Steve will be home, completely worn out from this business trip from hell, on Tuesday. We thought we would be going to Delaware Thursday to sign the contract with the builder (that's a major milestone, folks!) but now Dale tells us the contract won't be ready for another couple of weeks. We'll still have to go, but perhaps for a shorter stay, to close the trailer down, empty the fridge, and get things ready for winter. (And of all goes as we hope and we can finally finish business with the bank, we'll go back to finish emptying the trailer completely to prepare it for demolition. But we'll cross that bridge when it comes, after we find out for sure what we can get for this house. We have an appointment with a Realtor next week that should shed some light in that corner.)

There I go again, talking about houses, trailers, demolitions, builders, money real estate! Aarrgghh.... THERE IS MORE TO LIFE!!!!!

I'll now return to my mental vacation....

Friday, November 14, 2008



It's good to be back among the living and reading. I spent the entire day yesterday and all of this morning, until now, submerged in the most minute of minutiae, my 7000+ mp3 files. It is a long and really boring story, the kernel of which is that one of the Elbow albums I purchased from Itunes Wednesday plays just fine on my computer (thus I was able to share from it), but will not play on my ipod. I went to the local Apple Store and got some advice and followed it. One of the things they suggested I do was "restore" my ipod. That involves dumping and then re-installing all of its files. Sounds simple enough, except I had those mp3s stored in several different folders, some on my hard drive, most on my external drive. There were copies of copies of copies. Where is what? Search, download, overload hard drive and nearly crash in the process, find and eliminate duplicates, and repeat. Over and over and over. The hell of it is, I'm good at that kind of mindless activity! I don't really like it, but when something tedious like that has to be done, I'll bend to the task just to get it overwith.

So it's done now. My mp3s are all in in one place and cleaned up. And that Elbow album? Still doesn't play! I've now resorted to purchasing an actual CD (at a discount price), which I will load onto my computer. If that doesn't work, I give up.


Here's a dish inspired by the lovely Cuidado, who mentioned something like it at her place not too long ago. I think she called it "pork with peanuts and peppers." I went googling and found a recipe, which I fooled around with and came up with this result. It's really delicious and about as easy as it gets since it uses a slow cooker. (There are a few last-minute preparations but 'tis nothing.) The mix of flavors is delicious!

(I don't know why the typeface changes below. Blogger's in a mood.)

2 to 2 1/2 pounds pork loin roast, cut in 4 or 5 pieces

¼ cup teriyaki sauce

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 garlic cloves (or to taste) minced

1 cup red bell pepper strips

1 cup fresh green beans, cut into uniform 2-inch lengths

1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

1 medium red bell pepper, cut into strips

1 pound fresh green beans, cut into uniform 2-inch lengths

6 cups hot cooked basmati rice

1/2 cup chopped green onions

3 tablespoons chopped, dry-roasted peanuts

Trim fat from pork loin. Place pork, teriyaki sauce, vinegar, red pepper, and garlic in slow cooker. Cover and cook on LOW for 8 hours. Remove pork and chop.

Add the peanut butter to liquid in slow cooker; stir until well blended. Stir in the chopped pork. Set aside.

Place green beans in microwave-safe dish, Add 1 tablespoon water, cover, and steam on at high power until beans are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from microwave and uncover.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in wok or large non-stick skillet. Add pepper strips and stir-fry until crisp-tender.

Add beans and peppers to meat in slow cooker, then transfer all to large serving dish

Serve over rice, garnished with green onions and peanuts

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


"Elbow" is the name of a group I've just discovered and in whose music I have been completely immersed all morning. I'm devoting today's post to them. I'm blown away. (And no, they're not gay.)

I'm one of those who used to say with pride, "I never watch TV." But that was before the miracle of the DVR and the explosion of choice that cable affords. The Sundance movie festival has a channel called, appropriately enough, the Sundance Channel. In addition to showing their indy films, they also feature shows they produce for the channel, among them one called Live From Abbey Road. If you like learning about good new music, this show is, in a word, spectacular. It brings the cream of the crop of contemporary musicians into the legendary recording studio and gives them a showcase for their best music, all the while filming their performances, documentary style. They generally feature three artisits/groups per episode, each doing two or three songs. There are interviews with all of the performers that dig deep into what their visions are and what they are trying to say. You see great musicians working at the top of their form in the best possible surroundings. I've watched, among too many others to list, Joan Armatrading, Teddy Thompson, and Martha Wainwright. I'm suddenly a fan of Mary J. Blige, convinced she's the real deal, having seen the passion she puts into her performances. And I've learned about people I've never heard of before, like this group, Elbow.

These guys from Manchester, England, named their group after a line in the BBC show "The Singing Detective." A character says that "elbow" is the most sensuous word to speak in the English language, not for its meaning, but for how it feels to say it. And that's their starting point. Since I'm not a great connoiseur of all new music, I have no extensive context within which to place the group, except to lump them loosely with Coldplay and The Trash Can Sinatras. I found the Sinatras much more interesting musically than Coldplay (though not consistent), and now I find Elbow consistently better and more compelling than either of them.

They're young men who have been performing together for 18 years; their cohesion and understanding of each other is evident. I'm a sucker for big (not to say triumphant) music that is melodically sophisticated and creatively orchestrated, and Elbow fills all those bills. What this band can do with the usual instruments of a rock ensemble is something to behold.

One appeal is lead singer Guy Garvey's voice. It echos Gary Brooker of Procol Harum but is more in tune and a bit more refined, though not much. The music itself is as interesting as the Harum's, too, but the production is much more polished, less scruffy. You may or may not like that....

I hope you enjoy as much as I do!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


MP3 File

Bali Ha'i, Rodgers and Hammerstein

The less said about yesterday the better. I'll leave it here: the construction loan deal fell through because of misinformation from the mortgage company we were dealing with. We are back to Square One. It was a black day.

For sanity's sake I'm putting all of the house crap we've been dealing with out of my mind and just playing with beautiful fantasy. What is more beautiful or fanciful than Bali Ha'i? This too-short version is the one that has always transported me to another world. It's the reprise, sung by the Island Women, and is meant to intoxicate with sound. That's what it does to me.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Miriam Makeba


MP3 File

The blogs will be full of Miriam Makeba's music today in commemoration of this wonderful woman, whose life suddenly ended early this morning after a concert. She was 76.

Miriam Makeba was an African Piaf, the voice by which the country of South Africa became known to the rest of the world. It was she, more than anyone else, who raised the world's awareness of the ugly reality of apartheid. She did it with her voice, sometimes overtly political, but just as often merely celebrating her culture and the people from whom she sprang.

I'm playing two traditional songs plus one in English with more of a maistream pop feel. I love the traditional songs because I love Africa, and even though I've only been to West Africa, there are some sounds from the continent that are universal. I can imagine my Ghanaian friends singing this joyous music just as well as South Africans.

The first two songs are from Sangoma, which was released to the rest of the world in 1988 but didn't make an appearance on these insulated shores until 2004. The word "sangoma" refers to South African shamans: herbal faith healers who call on ancestors for advice and healing for the living. Makeba's mother was a sangoma in the country of Swaziland.

A Little Change In Plans

Well. All those nice words I wrote about saying farewell to the trailer? Hold that thought. As the weekend got going we realized that we can't avoid one more trip there, to go to settlement on the construction loan. There was no point in putting everything away, uninstalling all the appliances, and forcing ourselves to pay for lodging for that momentous occasion. When we were making plans for this Delaware season, seemingly years ago and before house plans solidified to the stage they've now reached, we had contemplated making the last weekend November 20-24 anyway. So that's what it'll be. It's a good thing we were there, because the guy who will be doing the clearing and demolition came knocking to see if we were still dismantling as scheduled. We were there, thank God, to inform him of the delay. We may have driven up to a barren lot come November 20.

But one important decision did come of the weekend. We had our final meeting with Dale, the designer. We arrived still with every intention of showing the plans to a couple of other companies to see if we could get a better price. But when we left and had some time to think about it, we realized that Dale, with his intimate knowledge of the place and of our desires, not to mention his total investment in the process, was too good an asset to let go. He has been a true partner through all of this and it was impossible to imagine the same kind of relationship with somebody else. On top of that, the price his company offered turned out to be a bargain impossible to pass up. The fact that prices will probably change by the time we get around to building is unavoidable and would be true regardless of the company we ended up with. Given all these considerations, we decided we couldn't do better anywhere else and still be assured of the service Dale will provide. So we removed one cumbersome step from the process. One load gone. It feels like an accomplishment!

I'm a bachelor yet again this entire week, until Friday. This closeout of Steve's project, of which he is hands-on director, is more complicated than anybody thought it would be. (I guess that's par for the course.) I hate rattling around here alone, and he returns from these marathon away jobs like a rag doll. But it'll soon be over and it's helping to pay for this huge project we've taken on. Hate living with it, can't live without it. What else is new?

Friday, November 7, 2008



This final dispatch from the Delaware trailer is a simple but snappy concoction I served to Chuck and Sandy with the Peruvian Shrimp Soup a week ago tonight. It's inspired by flavors from south of the border and is a perfect foil to the richness of the soup. I could have sworn I'd collected it somewhere, but when I went looking for the recipe last week I couldn't find it, so I winged it from memory. It's different, and it's good!

2 medium sweet navel oranges, peeled, sections separated and cut into bite-size chunks

1 small red onion

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons chile powder

1/2 cup seeded kalamata olives

1/4 cup lime juice

3/4 cup olive oil

1 bag torn soft lettuces (hearts of romaine will also do)

Peel onion and halve from pole to pole. Slice halves into very thin half-moons.

An hour before serving, place orange chunks and onion slices in salad bowl. Toss with salt and set aside about an hour, allowing juices to extract.

Add remaining ingredients in order listed, toss to combine well, serve.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The home stretch

I write from the Delaware trailer. My eyes fall on the reassuringly familiar sights they expect. To my left is the view out the big window to the water. Just in front of that is the TV on its stand, and the comfortable thrift store furniture arranged near it. The green curtains we hung so excitedly four summers ago are still on their rods. If I walk into the dining room and the adjoining kitchen, everything is in place, except that the dining room is full of boxes in various stages of fullness. All the dishes are still in their cabinets and the little wheeled work island Steve made is where it's supposed to be.

All of this will change over the next two days. Today I'll pack the entire kitchen except for what we'll need to eat until Saturday night. Always remembering that when we finally move here we'll be consolidating two houses, I'll decide on what should be stored and what can be given to the thrift store.

Tomorrow we will spend several hours with the builder, who will present his final proposal. It will include a detailed price list of every choice we have made: exterior treatments, wall paints, carpets, tiles, appliances, light fixtures, deck railings, the bamboo floors and stairs, the stone fireplace facing. It will list the cost of paving the driveway and landscaping whatever grounds we end up with; in short, we'll have his grand total for key-ready construction of our new house. After that, we will shop this package (except the final cost) to other builders to see if they offer a lower price. We've enjoyed working with Dale, the designer, and his construction company very much. He's taken a personal interest in the house because it's been a stretch for him, a challenge. He's proud of the ideas he's come up with to create a very nice but unobtrusive house on a tiny lot. We'd love to go full circle with him and let his company do the construction, but we owe it to ourselves to see what the marketplace has to say. If we get a lower bid from elsewhere, we'll ask Dale if his company is willing to match it, and if they are, we'll still go with them. If not, we'll shake hands with Dale and invite him to the housewarming.

Saturday, most of what I'm looking at now will go. All the furniture will return to the thrift store from whence it came. The stove, refrigerator and hot water heater will be uninstalled and taken to the storage shed, to be sold, along with the window air conditioner (we hope), on Craigs List when we're here for good. (We'll keep the fridge, though, which is new and will work well in the garage for overflow from the kitchen.) The TV and its stand, along with a couple of fold-up rocking chairs, will spend the last night here with us so we can watch The Wire DVDs while we eat a pig-out pizza from Vinny's off paper plates. Our last supper.

Saturday night will be last one this little trailer will enclose anyone in its ancient arms. Sunday morning we'll deflate the airbeds, pack the bedding, the TV, its stand, and the rocking chairs, and we'll be off, first for one last visit to the storage shed, and then back to Virginia. One day in December, we know not yet which, this cozy little place, so full of happiness and plans, will cease to exist but for a photo album and our memories.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A good night!

I'm was by myself last night and exhausted. I watched the returns and saw my man miraculously take Ohio and Pennsylvania. As exciting as the moment was, I was tired of pundit logorrhea and fighting sleep, so I went to bed, missing the modern-day fall of Virginia, my home state, but certain of this morning's headlines. The phone rang at 11 o'clock and it was our friends Jim and Kemp, also watching by themselves, calling just to share the joy. They were beside themselves, laughing and crying at the same time. What a way to be awakened! I went back to the TV to watch the victory speech before the throng in Chicago, wishing for a moment I could be there. But TV showed me things I'd never have seen in person: panoramic views of that enormous, happy crowd, and shots of Oprah Winfrey and Jesse Jackson, two powerful people by any measure, weeping with joy as that beautiful, diverse group of new first families, possible only in America, greeted the crowd from the stage. Barack could not have chosen a better allegory than the 109-year-old woman, daughter of slaves, who with her vote helped this victory happen and lived to see its fruition.

So many others have said it, but I share the feeling: for the first time, I felt unvarnished pride at being American. At last, we are living up to our promise. No matter what happens from here on out, that can never be taken away from us.

It's now up to all of us to make sure the joy of this moment is not wasted, and that our better angels usher in the changes this country so badly needs.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Duty Done

I'm here, after a disjointed morning. We made the big mistake of trying to vote as soon as the polls opened, only to find a line of a couple hundred compatriots waiting to do the same thing. Steve had a plane to catch at 10 AM, so we were afraid if we stood in line he'd miss his flight. We took another trip to the polling place an hour later: same story. It got too late to wait around any longer, so I took Steve to the airport and went by the polling place once again on my way back. There was hardly anybody there! By 8:30 the early crowds had come and gone, and I breezed my way inside, only to wait about 20 minutes to exercise my franchise. I called Steve, by now waiting to board at the airport, just to gloat. He was p.o.'ed, of course. He had been looking forward to today as much as I had. This is the first vote he'll have missed, ever; he has a good excuse, so he can be forgiven. Next time, in Delaware.....

It's somewhat embarrassing to remember that I was 30 years old before I voted the first time, for Jimmy Carter in 1976. In my defense, my life had been pretty peripatetic until then; that was the first year I'd actually lived in one place long enough to know that if I registered to vote, I'd still be living there on voting day. I can also say that I haven't missed an election since, so I've made up for my previous lost chances. I remember the feeling I had after casting that first vote. It was a sunny, warm day for November in DC and I felt very happy and proud to be strolling along the bright streets of the Nation's Capital, showing off my "I voted!" sticker. No matter how many times I've done it since, I still feel the same way. I'm not usually much of a flag waver, but the vote is the most basic duty and privilege we have as citizens of the United States. The simple act of doing it makes all the lessons we learned in civics class resonate deeply in me, and I'm grateful I still feel that way.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Home-town tourists!

We put Chuck and Sandy on the plane back to North Carolina yesterday, and now real life has resumed where we left it Thursday, but with a difference. We're feeling refreshed, and as I predicted, healthfully distant from concerns that had been just too much with us for too long. It's amazing how a little vacation, even if it's just being a tourist in your own home town, can give a some perspective to things.

The Pompeii exhibit was all one could hope for, crammed with paintings and sculptures, true antiquities--not reproductions--that have never been brought together in one place before, much less left Italy. It's a transporting experience to be able to reach out and literally touch some carved piece of marble that you've seen pictured in countless history books. (No, I didn't really touch anything. But I ciuld have!) And, at least here in DC, it's free! (Well, not really. We've all paid for it with our federal income taxes. But about the free exhibits in the Smithsonian museums in DC I've always said: if this is socialism, I'll take it!)

On Saturday we did what we jaded locals consider one of the most trite things you can do: visited Mount Vernon, George Washington's grand plantation house south of town on the Potomac. It's one of those historical treasures we take completely for granted because of its proximity (a mere 15 miles from our front door) and the ubiquitous references to it in the local landscape, with roads, neighborhoods, and every sort of commercial enterprise named after it. The last time Steve had been there was in 1976, on the occasion of a family visit. I couldn't even remember the last time I was there. Well, things have changed.

We were there literally all day and enjoyed every minute of it. For a mere $13 you get a guided tour of most of the rooms in the mansion, which have been restored with period furniture and paint to the comfortable opulence George and Martha experienced daily (except for the times when George wasn't off fighting wars or running the country). Additionally, you are free to sit on the grand veranda on the back of the house, which looks out on the beautiful river panorama, and roam the grounds at will. You see how the place was run, the wash-house, the smoke-house, the horse barn and paddock, and the little house next to the main one where the house slaves lived. Since George was the 4th generation Washington to live at the house, there was already a family crypt, which was decrepit even in his day. When he died in 1799, he was buried there, but he stipulated in his will that a new family burial ground should be prepared and that he should be moved there when it was completed. You see both burial grounds. We happened to be there to catch the chanving of the Marine guards at his grave.

And then there is the pièce de résistance: a George Washington museum, completed only 2 years ago. It represents state-of-the-art curatorship, giving a viewer-friendly overview of the conditions leading up to the Revolution, including the battle in the French and Indian War in which Washington distinguished himself for the first time as a field commander. There are three short films about various aspects of his life in small theaters that give you a welcome chance to rest your bones after all the walking you've been doing, and there are eerily life-like reproductions of Washington himself at various ages. You even see his famous false teeth (no, they weren't made of wood) and a video showing how they were made.

We parked the car at 11 AM and didn't pull out until 4:30. The day was beautiful and warm; the hours flew by, and we settled in for the ride back home grateful for a day well spent. If you plan on a trip to DC, there are worse things you could do than visiting Mount Vernon. It is admittedly off the beaten track if you're only planning on seeing the sights on The Mall, but if you have a bit of extra time, the day's excursion is well worth the effort.

And now we forge ahead.....

Friday, October 31, 2008



This recipe is the offspring of a TV show and a hankering for some seafood. We're big fans of Tyler Florence on the Food Network and his show Tyler's Ultimate. He's always upbeat, and his style of cooking fits mine: big, bold, and kind of sloppy (but he calls it "rustic"). He made something recently with a very simple tomato sauce. I didn't want that dish, but the sauce looked great, and it had been a long time since we'd had the two seafoods that both of us like, shrimp and scallops. I decided to experiment, and I got a winner. It's very rich, delicious, easy, and fast. There's so much tomato that it really comes out rather stew-ey (thus my name for it), and I like it that way. If you want to make it less wet, try using just one can of tomatoes. Either way, you'll like it. Plain spaghetti would work as a bed for it to lie on, but I lucked out and found some hand-made sun-dried tomato and basil flat pasta at a Pennsylvania Dutch market in Delaware. Given the cost of seafood, good pasta is appropriate for this dish. It's definitely company-worthy.

On the artichokes: if you can't get the frozen ones, don't bother with the marinated or canned. Their flavor will overpower the rest of the dish.

1 lb. sun-dried tomato-flavored ribbon pasta

2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 medium red onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic (or to taste) peeled and minced
2 28-oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes, broken into large chunks, with juice
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1 package (10 oz.) frozen artichoke hearts
1/2 lb. large shrimp
1/2 lb. small bay scallops. (If you can only get the larger sea scallops, cut them in half.)
1 cup whole, seeded kalamata olives
3 tablespoons heavy cream

Good Parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan deep enough to eventually hold the entire dish, including pasta. Add onion, garlic and pepper flakes and sauté until onion softens and garlic is fragrant. Add tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 30 minutes. Add basil and artichokes and simmer about 10 minutes more, until artichokes are cooked through. Stir in shrimp and scallops and simmer about 5 minutes, just until seafood is firm and opaque. Stir in cream to combine.
Taste for salt and add if necessary. Add cooked pasta to sauce and toss to combine.

Serve with grated Parmesan.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good Times

Just a quick hello before I run to complete Thursday chores and then head out to Dulles to pick up our visiting friends, who are arriving at 11:30. I need to give myself a bit of wiggle room because it's been literally years since I've picked anybody up out there and I'll want to make sure I can figure out on-ramps, parking, and all the other ins and outs of what is now to me, essentially an unknown destination. (When I was in high school and that iconic building had just been completed and was still sitting in its isolated splendor, an ideal summer night excursion was to take a ride out to Dulles. You could park your car anywhere you liked and just go into the terminal and walk around like a tourist. I did that many, many times. Imagine! Those days are long gone and Dulles is now an overcrowded small town in the no-longer-so-far DC suburbs.)

We always look forward to Chuck and Sandy's company. Theirs is a great love story. They nearly married in their 20s, then life got in the way and they traveled in different directions, raising families with different people. Then, life being full of surprises and sometimes even accommodating of our deepest desires, they reconnected in their 50s and took up where they'd left off thirty years before. They had a beautiful wedding in 2001 on the Cornell campus, where they met, and are living happily ever after. Chuck and I were in the Peace Corps together, and we were in close enough proximity that we visited often and formed a bond as only such unique shared experiences can foster. I had met Sandy once, when I first returned from the Peace Corps, and was happy the two of them were together and that they'd both be in my life for a long time. When things between them turned out as they did, there was major disappointment among their friends. We welcomed Chuck's new spouse into the fold, but she never seemed to feel at home there, and there ensued some years of awkward estrangement. Then one day Chuck called me out of the blue and told me that he and Sandy had found each other again. I was overjoyed, as was everyone who cared about them. Being with Chuck and Sandy is a constant reminder that sometimes life really can turn out as you hope it will.

Food for the occasion will be a crockpot pork stew made with Thai spices inspired by a dish Cuidado mentioned a few days ago in her blog. (Don't worry. If it works out, I'll post it.) Friday I'm wowing them with Peruvian Shrimp Soup. When we're not eating we'll be seeing the sights in DC. They should go home well toured and well filled. As a bonus, the weather is cooperating with its cold temperature, so we can build a fire, have some wine, listen to music, and gab.

See you tomorrow morning with Food Friday.