Friday, February 29, 2008



This is a perfect winter dish that smells up the house deliciously. It's one I've been evolving over several years and perfected only recently. It started as a compromise: I like cabbage in all its forms; Steve likes cabbage as saurkraut (and maybe coleslaw) but not much else. An old friend who was from New Orleans taught me about Choucroûte Garni many years ago, and I liked it, but found it was a tremendously tedious, not to mention expensive, concoction to pull off. The ideas from that experience form the basis for this. And I think it's better. A substantial addition of sweet flavors and long, low-temperature cooking are key. You'll think you're cooking a ton of food when you assemble this, but the vegetables cook down and become buttery.

You can use pork spareribs, but I've found the meaty, country-style ribs take up less room and are easier to eat. And some people like anise with saurkraut; we don't, but add it if you do. Serve with egg noodles if desired.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

4 country-style pork ribs
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

1 1/2 lbs fresh saurkraut (from the refrigerated section, not canned)
3 large carrots, cut into fat rounds
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, chopped into good-size chunks
1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 large sweet but firm apples, such as Fuji, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
3 Tbsp. frozen apple juice concentrate
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in large, oven-proof kettle or dutch oven over high heat. Place seasoned ribs in hot oil and sear until thoroughly crusted, 5-7 minutes per side. Remove ribs from kettle and set aside. Remove kettle from heat.

Place saurkraut in strainer in sink, drain and rinse thoroughly. Put drained saurkraut and all remaining ingredients in a large bowl and toss with hands to mix completely. Place half of mixed vegetables in bottom of kettle, layer seared ribs over vegetables (in single layer if you have room), then place remaining vegetables over ribs. Cover and heat over medium flame until simmering, then move covered kettle immediately to preheated oven. Bake 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until cabbage and other vegetables are thoroughly softened. After about 2 hours the aroma coming from your oven will start saying, "I'm done!" Give it at least another half hour after that.

Remove from oven, uncover, and let settle 15 minutes before serving.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Better late....

Well, all I can say is this smug retiree has suddenly got so much on his plate he can't fit everything in. To write here every day, I had already changed my routine a bit. I used to loll over the newspaper for an hour or so after eating breakfast. Now the coffee comes with me here to the computer and I get to work choosing music and deciding what to write about. The paper is shunted off to sometime towards the end of the day, and I just give it a quick skim now instead of the former nit comb. (By the time the news hits the morning paper it's at least 12 hours old, anyway. I've already been thoroughly depressed or disgusted by it on NPR by the time I get around to reading about it. So now I just skim the local section and Style, maybe the editorials and op-eds. The Wednesday recipes, of course, get a careful examination.)

These days, though, I am looking at a horse of a different shade altogether. I've got a couple of projects started that are taking precedence even over this. The projects are basically grunt work that just has to be got through--I should be back to normal next week.

An old Peace Corps friend has been kind enough to scan slides taken by another friend, put them on a DVD, and then share the DVD. A group of us is currently enthralled, looking at all those old pictures, emailing each other back and forth, reliving the old days. This gave me the idea of finding my own slides and seeing what among them might be salvageable and shareable. I've been going through that treasure trove all day, just came to a stopping place. I think there may be more shared pictures in the pipleline soon.

The other project is ongoing, and has gained impetus since I started Days of Transition. Back when audio file sharing was The Thing (and legal), I set myself the goal of collecting every number one hit from 1930 to the early 1960s, stopping where rock took over. I gathered hundreds of songs. The music from the 1930s make me think if of my parents as young people--this was their "rock," their party music. Those songs were sung in family singalongs, or I remember them on the radio from my very early childhood.

Nineteen-forties Big Band music has special meaning for me, too. Some songs send me off dreaming about a time just before my own, when boys in wide-lapel suit jackets and fedoras, and their girlfriends in square-shouldered, knee-length dresses, went out to dance. I think of cigarettes, highballs and tinkling laughter, all imagined from the movies. Fifties music is another world altogether, those "beautiful music" ballads of Eddie Fisher and Vic Damone (men with the kind of classically beautiful voices that are all but forgotten now), or songs by "Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs," in what passed for a sexy style--"sassy," it was called. I love it all, if not for the music itself, then for the memories it conjures. (Once the music project is done, I promise not too much from the ancient times, but there may be a few exceptional ones now and then!)

I have at least 20 self-made CDs that I am gradually transferring to my Itunes library. Luckily I made labels for the CDs, so I know who is doing what, and in which decade. But I have to type each song and artist into the Itunes template, then wait as the songs are transferred.

Like I said, grunt work, but it has to be done. And it really is a labor of love, as are all these little chores I'm telling you about. And that, my friends, is the difference between working for money and "working" because you want to. I'll take this kind of busy any time.

Oh. If you had to wait until you got home from work to read this...oops! Sorry!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fathers And Sons

I've received so many blessings from this daily writing exercise: I'm using and developing whatever talent I have for putting words together in a meaningful way, and thanks to the generosity of others and the limitless imagination of the human mind, I'm having new (to me) worlds of music opened to me. Best of all, I'm making new friends. A very rich correspondence I've begun with one of my regular visitors has led me to today's subject.

I like apple pie and July fireworks as much as the next red-blooded American, but there are some national orgies of celebration I sit out, or at least experience with something less than a level of enthusiasm that might be deemed patriotic. What we call "Christmas" is one. And Father's Day is another. The media wallow in father worship. It's a chance for "real men" to show their soft sides--as long as that softness is about father worship. Stiff, manly hugs and all that. Well, some of us have more complicated relationships with our fathers.

As I've been doing these daily essays, it's been driven home to me that writing is as much my second nature as some other great joys of mine, such as music, or food. The origin of the interest in the latter two is easy to guess: my mother. But the writing? It's dawned on me only recently that it comes from my father. At the age of 62 I can still be surprised at some new discovery about my own life. Miles to go yet, I guess. (I hope!)

It comes as a surprise because I spent several years coming to terms with the idea that my father and I did not live up to the ideals we had set for each other. There was a lot of mutual anger and disappointment earlier on, but I've always found comfort knowing that by the time my dad left the scene, we had both matured and were able to appreciate and enjoy whatever good we could find in each other. There really was no unfinished business between us at the time of his death; in fact, his mental capacities had departed to such an extent that we all felt we had lost him long before his failing heart failed its last. My mother, into her 80s, ended up his primary care giver in the last, worst years; his physical demise actually came as a relief. My mother and father had been married for 67 years by the time my father died. During his last months in the nursing home, my mother never even went to visit him. Instead, she lay back like a lady of leisure and read, relishing the solitude. This woman, who had never been alone for more than a couple of days, needed the rest. She was more aware than any of us that the man she had known as her husband was already farther away than a nursing home.

Writing has always been a part of my life because my father was a writer by trade. The word "trade" is chosen with consideration. He was a reporter, a newspaper man, a bylined columnist. Stringing words together to tell a just-the-facts story was what he did to keep a roof over our heads. On Fridays, the day it was published, he would bring a copy of his paper home, but he never called the family around proudly to show off his work. My father was an artist in many ways. He could draw. He was magical with wood, able to make me toys--string puppets, batons, painted bathtub boats. He played the banjo and could whistle, and he appreciated most music. (But he refused to let me buy "Jailhouse Rock" because it "glorified prisoners." I still chuckle at that.) But he did not consider what he did with words art. As far as that was concerned, he was a tradesman, like a plumber.

Still, fine points of art or craft aside, writing was in my life, a natural thing for me to do, and my parents encouraged me in it. My first toys had to do with words. I had a printing press with rubber letters that fit into a grooved block of wood. You pressed the letters onto an inkpad and then onto paper and there you had it: a newspaper! A mere toy typewriter I was given as a present was a disappointment. A highlight of any week was a visit to my father's office, where I headed straight for his typewriter and marveled at how the keys made the letters hit the paper. I wrote poems and little songs. My crowning achievement, at about 10, was a collection of childrens' stories featuring Eddie Elephant. They were patterned after the Uncle Wiggly bedtime stories my mother had read to my sister and then, later, to me. Eddie had friends in the jungle and they all had interesting things happen to them, which I told about. I stole most of the story ideas from the comic books I read, and my illustrations were cutouts from Golden Books. I bound it all up into a little booklet with green craft paper covers and shoestring. (It would be a priceless treasure if I still had it but alas, it was lost in a flood when a hurricane came through Falls Church, while I was in the Peace Corps.)

To steal a Dylan word picture, I pushed forth into my own games. I went to college, suffered, came home, went back, found music in a big way, came out, joined the Peace Corps, marked maps, foundered, floundered and fell in love deeply and foolishly. And I wrote. I never gave it a moment's thought, but I wrote. I've never been able to keep a journal, though--journaling for me is a useless exercise. Any communicative thing I do must have an audience, real or imagined. I write songs imagining I am on a stage singing them. I write these words now knowing someone is going to read them. My writing over the years has been in letters, now emails; a collection my correspondence would make for a very detailed biography. I simply love writing and know that my life would be nothing without it. But that knowledge has come to me very late. Until now, I've taken writing for granted, as just something I do, nothing special. Just like my father.

Our family always wished that my father would use his retirement years to set his memories down on paper, but he never did. He and my mother (as do all our parents) told very funny stories from their youth and their life together. They had known each other since they were teenagers, and we wanted that history set down. But I don't think writing was ever really enjoyable for him. It had just been a means to a life, and in retirement, he didn't have to do it anymore. As other men have learned from the mistakes their fathers made in important areas of life, such as being careless about their health, I have learned to cherish words precisely because my father did not. I have no children. My legacy will come from my mind and not my loins. I have no regrets about that, and I recognize and happily accept the job ahead of me. I need words to carry that work on.

Better late than never, now I know to say, "thanks, Dad, for the words."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


I've spent this entire morning in deep exploration. I've just learned about some incredible performers, Kate Bush and the Finn Brothers, both from a friend's blog. It turns out Kate Bush has been around for years and years, has performed with big American names (she's a Brit), and I've never heard of her. I must have been under a rock?

I have a slightly better excuse for being ignorant of the Finns. They are from New Zealand, and it appears they are taking the usual route to fame if the journey begins outside the US: start in your home country, then make it big in Europe. From what I've seen, "big in Europe" is the kiss of death for pop musicians if they want entrée here. Our loss. More than once, I've wished I lived in Europe. There are several reasons, but being around exciting, experimental pop music is a big one.

No particular life observations today nor any big stories. I seem to be hitting a dry patch. Maybe it's the dreary weather, or the immediate concerns of house and job....

Enjoy the music.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Beautiful Morning

How the worm has turned. When I was working, I used to dread Mondays--in fact, I could hardly even enjoy Sundays, tainted as they were with the knowledge that I'd soon be back in that necktie harness. Now, with all the work going on in the house during the weekend, my feeling about Monday mornings couldn't be more different. They've become times when I sit back and say, "aaaahhh....." The self-indulgence is delicious. I've spent the past hour or so reading and commenting on all my friends' blogs--there was Cuidado and her fantastic music, and a couple of trips: Zoey's to the vet and Nan's to New York. I identify with both trips--although New York would be anybody's choice over the vet, don't you think?

Our two cats, who never go outside, haven't seen a vet in years, I must confess. They're happy and healthy, and the big yellow one, Nicholas, is always so traumatized just by the sight of the carrier we fear if there ever is something really wrong, it will be made worse by the stress. That happened to us once before with a dear old friend named Napoleon. I've already decided that the next kitty we get will have some phsychology done on him: he'll be taught that the carrier is a fun thing. We'll put him in it outside to watch the birds. Then, just maybe, we won't have the high drama we do now whenever the cat carrier makes an appearance. For the bi-weekly summer trips to Delaware, we just give the cats the run of the car. No carrier. They're sullen some of the way, but they get used to it.

I recorded the Oscars last night to watch a bit of today, zapping through the interminable ads, of course. I already know via the newpaper who and what won. I'm more curious about my man Jon Stewart. He always seems so uncomfortable in the quintessentially showbiz establishment role of hosting that show. It must be the money and the exposure that attract him to the gig....well, who would turn it down? It's fun to see how big a bite he may take out of that generous hand.

And later I will do some "fun" work--get on my hands and knees and wipe dust residue off the hardwood floors with some cleaner. It's an easy job and the reward, shiny, clean floors, is instant. We have a color expert coming this afternoon to advise us on how to paint the rooms. Hope she likes the warmish tan we've put in the living room, because we've already decided it will be in lots of places. But we are open to suggestions for the dining room and the kitchen. I'll post a picture of the living room and den when they're done.

Happy Monday!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Artist And The Brute

Another progress report today, both on the walls and on the division of labor concerning them. Steve has painted the two contrasting colors on the walls (above the wainscoting and below) in the living room and may get to some of the trim. Note I say "Steve" and not "we." All pretense of my helping with this phase of the task is dropped. Steve is such a perfectionist with paint, and the results so professional, that my "help" turns out to be more of a hinderance. We've learned from previous experience that a) I end up with as much paint on myself as on the walls, and b) he usually has to come behind me and fix my mistakes. I have no talent for painting except on the grossest jobs where detail doesn't matter and there, it's not talent so much as sheer brute force. Maybe I could whitewash a fence à la Tom Sawyer, but forget about fine finishes. That takes Steve's fine eye and steady hand. My contribution will come later, during the week, when I'll wipe down the wood floors with a good cleaner as preparation for painting the shoe molding. Then Steve will take over again. Next stop: the den.

I fight the impulse to feel guilty about not being much help. Steve does seem to get fulfillment from his job well done. Still, I can't sit up here and muse away the hours while he's working. I find other jobs around the house to do, or sit and keep him company. And I do know that I'll be doing things that are just as important if not as glamorous, so that assuages my conscience. The bottom line is that we enhance for each other. What I can do, he can't nor has he much interest in, and vice versa. It makes for a very complete and satisfying end product, at least if we're working on the same thing!

And then there's the fundamental truth that without Steve in my life I'd have absolutely none of this. Remembering that makes any job I can do all right with me.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Men of action!

Today no navel-gazing luxury. Probably none tomorrow, either. It's men of action time again, applying a bit more spackle on the walls to hide some cracks, and painting the ceiling. But here's some excellent news: we (I) won't have the drywall dust to contend with this time because I discovered the drywall sponge! Turns out Steve knew about this miraculous tool all along, but as he likes sandpaper better (he feels he has "more control" over sandpaper), he neglected to mention it. But a damp sponge has control where sandpaper does not, over dust. I insisted and Steve adjusted. The result is we are getting baby-butt smooth walls without the pounds of dust that came with them last weekend. We actually ought to get a primer coat on tonight or tomorrow, then will come the color coat. It'll be just two rooms, but that's progress!

I shouldn't complain...this job has to be done, and soon, if we mean to start our Delaware retreats every other weekend at the end of March. Then there will be another reason for late weekend postings, or no postings at all. I'm trying to figure out how to deal with the Delaware weekends. We have a computer there and a good connection, but all my music and pictures are here. We shall see.........

Hope you enjoy today's musical trip down Memory Lane. Or that those of you born after the 50s enjoy a bit of ancient history!

Friday, February 22, 2008



The Africa Region of the Peace Corps, the office where I worked, was known for its pot-luck lunches. Groups of visitors were constantly cycling through, usually new staff headed overseas, and those lunch blow-outs helped to put a friendly face on the DC bureaucrats (yes, I was one of them) they'd be dealing with.

At times I may have wanted to contribute something else to the lunches, but I was never allowed to. This was always back by popular demand, and the recipe has been shared around the world (at least the Peace Corps Africa world) by now. It's the richest carrot cake you'll ever eat, and that's saying something. It's truly my own invention, a combination of the best features of several recipes. If raisins aren't your thing, leave 'em out. If carrot cake can't exist without nuts in it, put 'em in. About the icing: try to use real Grade B maple syrup for the most intense maple flavor. Unless you're in New England, that can be hard to find even in the best specialty stores. Lacking Grade B syrup, I've been known to add a drop or two of bottled maple flavoring.

Cake :
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup oil
4 large eggs
3 cups grated, peeled carrots
1/2 cup white raisins
1 small can crushed pineapple, drained completely
1 tablespoon minced peeled ginger

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup, preferably Grade B

For the cake: Preheat oven to 350F. Oil bottom and sides of a large (approximately 8” x 12") rectangular baking dish with cooking spray. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon to blend. In larger bowl, whisk sugars, oil and buttermilk to blend. Whisk eggs into sugar mixture 1 at a time. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and stir until just blended. Stir in carrots, raisins, pineapple and ginger. Pour batter into prepared baking dish.

Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, 45-50 minutes. Cool cake on rack completely.

For the icing: Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add powdered sugar and beat at low speed until creamy. Beat in maple syrup. Spread on cake.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The French Clock

Any telling of my favorite things would be incomplete without mention of this beautiful clock. I've had it since college, much longer than the chair, and I came upon it by pure chance, the way you come upon most extraordinary things.

My first taste of college life was disastrous. I was the first person in my family to really "go away" to college. My sister, nine years my senior, will say she deserves credit because she went for two years to what was then Mary Washington College, in Fredericksburg. Fifty miles away. OK, technically she did "go away." But she was in regular phone contact and came home many weekends. I, on the other hand, went to my first new planet, from relatively cushy Falls Church to Lexington, Kentucky. I mean no disrespect to Lexington, or to the state. I ended up loving it so much that if it had a coast, I'd be living there now. It was just very, very different for an 18-year-old too aware of differences and with no coping skills except to close up like a box turtle. It wasn't a "gay" thing per se, more just an "I'm totally different and can't fit in" thing. I found myself for the first time in the middle of normal 18-year-old males, and I wasn't like them. The "f" word still shocked me. These kids were let loose from church and family for the first time and only wanted to get drunk. I'd been there and done that, since DC allowed 18-year-olds to buy beer and wine, meaning you started using fake IDs at 16. They were girl crazy. I wasn't. (At that time I considered myself merely a "late bloomer.") For all that, I couldn't relate. Besides, in my experience, "real boys" had been very mean to me, and I'd learned to avoid them. Now here I was, surrounded by them. In a word, I was scared, both of this new company and, worse, scared of myself. One misstep that showed the "real" me would bring ridicule. So I clammed up.

(Why did I go to Kentucky in the first place? At the time, it was cheaper for me to be an out-of-state student in Kentucky than an in-state student in Virginia. That's all. Money.)

In spite of my self-imposed emotional prison, I did begin to make some friends in the dorm. One was Bob Owen, who was musical. He had a fancy ukulele and he and I would do duets with my guitar. And there was my next-door neighbor, Dick Kimmins, who eventually became a very important person in my life. But I was too intent on being miserable at the time to give any weight to these budding friendships. I complained loudly to my parents, much, I think, to their delight. I didn't like being away from home, so that meant I could come back and be with them. Part of the time they were no doubt enjoying their empty nest, but I think they were flattered I preferred home to being away.

So I decided to leave Kentucky after one semester. I was accepted to a new school in nearby Fairfax, George Mason College. My folks bought me a car, a little two-seater Nash Metropolitan, for the commute. But as soon as I got in the car at the dorm with my parents for the trip back home, I knew I was making a huge mistake. It all played out thus: I went home, got miserable, brought wrath upon myself by announcing I wanted to go back to Kentucky...and went back to Kentucky. The fall semester of 1965 found me in the lap of the Bluegrass once again.
This is but one demonstration of my parents' deserved sainthood.

I finally began finding my way. Dick became a good friend and I was no longer so afraid of myself. Eventually I joined the elite choir on campus, the Choristers, and that's when my Kentucky life really began. The Kentucky Choristers were often recruited to do professional work in conjunction with the city choir, the Lexington Singers. In my three years with them we did three such gigs, all with the Cincinnati Symphony. One of those was the world premier of a work by Wilfred Josephs, a requiem for the Jews of the Holocaust. It was presented in Carnegie Hall. Among the many things that meant to me was a long train trip to New York.

On any such occasion in those days, if you played the guitar you traveled with it. I of course had mine, and was as usual singing all over everybody. One person who heard me was a woman of the world (she was a year older) named Lou Spencer. She actually wanted to quit school and break into showbiz, and liked what she saw and heard in me. We ended up singing together all the way to New York, and making plans to get a set together and audition for the campus coffee house, The Nexus. That all came to pass and we were a big hit.

It turned out to be Lou who opened the most important doors for me of those Kentucky years. If a "bohemian" scene existed in the beautiful but backwater Bluegrass Region of the mid-1960s, Lou was the mistress of its salon. She was friends with the most interesting people you could hope to find in that milieu, all of them fitting Leonard Cohen's description in "Beautiful Losers," a book that had just come out and with which I totally identified. It was Lou who had the courage to bring up the gay issue with me and make me confront it. She even introduced me to my first boyfriend. (Well, he turned out to be more of an usher than a boyfriend. But I needed him and what he offered.)

One of the denizens of Lou's demi-monde was a woman named Lois Falconer. She was much older than us kids, in her 50s, and, not to put too fine a point on it, a prostitute. She was the black sheep of a locally illustrious family, and traded on the Falconer name. She would come to Lou's parties from "work," dressed in a huge, loose-knit pink shawl and nothing else. She had stringy blond hair and slurred the slur of those missing teeth since, for work, she took out her dentures. (I'll let you figure out why.) She regaled us with pictures and stories of her famous rodeo and Opry boyfriends from back in the better old days. And she never made a move on any of us--either because she knew most of Lou's male friends weren't after what she had to offer, or because we treated her with respect and she returned the favor. I prefer to believe the latter.

One morning I answered a knock on my door and there stood Lois, looking normal, in jeans and a sweater. (And teeth.) This was an occasion--she never visited Lou's crowd outside of the party venue. She wanted to know if I could do her a favor. She confided a part of her life I hadn't known before: in her time off she liked to find abandoned houses in the country and explore them. On one of these trips she had found this, and she unveiled the clock. It struck me as both monstrous and beautful, just like Lois. She had no place for it; would I keep it for her until she could find a way to do it justice? I took it and gladly decorated my apartment with it. And I never saw Lois again.

For years the clock was strictly a conversation piece, its works long gone. It traveled back home with me after college, and my sister and her husband kept it on their mantel while I was in the Peace Corps. I took it back and carried it with me as I moved around after Peace Corps, and finally, when Steve and I built the fireplace in this house we gave it its long-awaited place of honor on the mantel. But it still had no works.

Again, enter serendipity. In the early 80s an appraiser came to our house so we could refinance our mortgage. He noticed the clock and asked about it. When I told him it had no works, he referred us to an old man in DC, one Norman Langmaid, who worked on antique clocks as a hobby. In all the years the clock had been with me, this was my first chance to learn something about it. We jumped at it.

Mr. Langmaid seemed as old as the clocks he worked on. He led us to his basement, which was alive with ticking and bonging, every square foot of the place stuffed with working antique clocks. He told us the clock was around 100 years old, that the lower, housing half was fairly common, but that the cast-iron sculture on the top (an Amazonian queen named Penthesilea) added about $100 to its value. The workings in these old clocks are standard and easily replaced, and for $100, he put in replacement wind-up works. I had owned the clock for about 15 years by then and it had never told time. Who knew how long it had been silent before it came to me? Mr. Langmaid's services were worth every penny of his fee, and more.

So my French clock probably wouldn't get much on the Antiques Roadshow. No matter. I look at it and I see Lou Spencer and Lois Falconer, people from a time in my life like no other, and whose memory I treasure beyond money. The years of dust and smoke from the fireplace have taken their toll; the clock stopped a couple of years ago. Mr. Langmaid has passed on and we despair of finding another artisan like him. But we will. Soon, the clock will once again do the job it was meant to do.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

If Chairs Could Talk.....

Maybe the very most ascetic among us humans--buddhist monks?--can truthfully claim no attachment to any material object. No favorite saffron robe or sandal. No especially comfy sleeping pallet. I find that hard to believe, but I guess it's possible. But I never aspired to asceticism. Call me Maria von Trapp. I have more than a few favorite things. One of them is pictured above. My chair.

The chair came to me when I went to Boston, that time I meant to be a singer and ended up an inkstained schlub at the AAA. I left Boston in 1974, and the chair has traveled with me since.

When I first went to Boston, I was a complete stranger to the city. I knew one person there, Helen. She taught at the same school as I did in Ghana (she wasn't with the Peace Corps). She herself was a stranger to Boston, having been lured there by her friend, Dell. Between Dell and Helen, they came up with a guy named Richard who was willing to open his Beacon Hill apartment to me as a place to crash until I got on my feet. It was from Richard's apartment that I went to the AAA and got that job, and from which I found my first apartment, in Dorchester. Dorchester is full of turn-of-the-century red brick townhouses, some of which now have been restored to their original handsomeness. Parts of it are even today still "transitional," as they say. And it's also fair to say that none of Dorchester had yet transitioned in 1972, when I moved there. It was a rough place, but of course I didn't know that at the time.

I moved into the apartment and began a life, working for the AAA by day and writing music by night. My parents, God love them, were all help. I went back to Falls Church with the news that I had found a place, and my mother immediately took me to Zayre's, that era's precursor to WalMart. We trooped up and down every aisle of that store, completely loading two carts with household startup things. We loaded all of them, plus furniture and an old TV, into may parents' Rambler station wagon and set off for Boston to get me going in style. (The trip is memorable for how horrible it was. We arrived in Boston at night; I had never driven in the city and my father, who was at the wheel, had never been there in his life. We got hopelessly lost. For some reason my father set his sights on the Prudential Tower and suddenly all roads led to it. Dorchester is nowhere near The Pru, but there was no discussing that small detail with him. We stayed in a motel that night and somehow the next morning found our way to Dorchester. So much for my budding AAA-inspired directional expertise. And I still can't tell you how to drive from Boston to Dorchester!)

We started unloading the car and two angelic little urchins came and offered their help. We gladly accepted; the job was made that much quicker and easier. When we were done, my father magnanimously reached into his pocket and gave each of the kids a dollar. My parents settled me in and they left.

All was fine for about 3 months. Then, one day I came home from work and found my little pad totally ransacked. I felt like I had walked onto the set for a TV show. Drawers were half pulled out, pillows overturned, stuff all over the floor, and anything fence-able was gone. The TV, my clock radio, small appliances, all stolen. Those little angels obviously worked both sides of the street--they probably got another couple of bucks from their older brothers for their trouble.

I called my landlord and told him what had happened. Clearly embarrassed, he said he had a feeling a nice boy like me would run into trouble in Dorchester. When I told him I had to leave, he put up no argument about the lease. Instead, he apologized and wished me well, even offered me help with my move.

Where would I go? Helen and Dell had moved into a big apartment together and were looking for a third to help with the rent. They had approached me with idea of moving in with them several times, but I was resistant. I couldn't see how I could keep writing my music with all those people and their distractions around. But now that was the easiest alternative, so I and what was left of my belongings transferred ourselves to a grand old building on Quint Avenue in Allston.

So began my first experience with group living, and the first of many times to come when my life as a whole was just not going the way I wanted it to, but when the people in it made living not only bearable, but so much fun I could actually become complacent about its bigger, less-than-ideal aspects. Being with people got me out of myself and my worries. I had my first real experience with marijuana with Helen and Dell; never ever have I laughed so hard again. We had parties, we cooked great dinners, we pooled friends and became something of a tribe. And....oh yes, the chair. That came with Dell.

While Helen and I were in Ghana, Dell had been married for a very short time to a guy named James. By the time I entered the picture, James was one of many hangers-on, but he and Dell were no longer married. James had been in the Navy, and had taken a liking to a huge naugahyde easy chair in a waiting room he'd chanced through. In the spirit of "liberation" of those days, Dell and James decided the chair needed a more honorable life and somehow got it to their apartment. When they split, Dell got it.

As soon as that chair and I were in the same room, it turned into a Ralph magnet. In all its naugahyde glory, it was the most wonderful chair I'd ever eased myself into. "Commodioius" is the word invented for it. It was big enough to make my body feel welcome, so rare in a world of furniture built for normal-sized people. (When little Dell sat in it, she just about disappeared. She could curl her entire body into a cat-like ball and there would be room for more.) I drank gallons of wine in that chair, lost myself in the furrows and labyrinths of the first Santana album--both the music and the cover--and had the biggest laughs of my life.

When the time came for me to leave, I didn't even have to ask if I could have the chair. Dell offered it to me--as wonderful as she knew it was, it was a reminder of a sad time in her life, with James, and she was happy to give it a fresh start in a new home. As things turned out, it comforted me in several "homes" before it finally found its place of honor here. When we moved to this house in 1981, we spent $300 to have it completely re-stuffed and re-upholstered, and that work is what you see in the picture. The covering is getting old now and the cotton batting in its guts are becoming compressed from accommodating so many bodies, mine and those of friends who visit and are drawn to it, too. (I don't mind sharing it. I know it will never leave.) When we move from here we will have it re-worked one more time. I expect it will continue to embrace me into the days when I have trouble climbing in and out of it. One day, it will be an heirloom. I will choose the lucky new owner with all the care it deserves.

I'm sure the Navy never missed its brown naugahyde chair. Their loss is my eternal gain.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Blah, blah, blah"

What a great luxury it is to play in the world of the mind! I've spent the entire morning listening to music, deciding which of so many delicious selections to share today. While doing that I've had fun ranging mentally through all the stories there are to tell, and stories beget more stories...what better way to spend one's time? There must be something to be said for ambition and Joni Mitchell's "struggle for higher achievement," but I was never bitten by that bug. Call me un-American. ( Joni!)

In Ghana, I lived among the Ashanti, the dominant people in the southern tier of the country. Before the British mounted a serious attack on them (and the Brits were given long, brutal fights in a series of wars that lasted most of the 19th century), the Ashanti were on their way to colonizing the entire region surrounding their inland capital, Kumasi, all the way down to the coast. Had events been allowed to unfold without external interference, today we would most likely have a kingdom in West Africa called Ashantiland, and it would be a force to be reckoned with.

Ashanti culture dominates that part of West Africa, beyond national borders. Their language is Twi (pronounced "chwee") and virtually everyone in the country speaks it to one degree or another, even if managing only a few words. I never learned to speak it well. As much as I had, up to then, prided myself on a facility with languages, I found the mental processes behind the use of Twi truly foreign. You could learn vocabulary and proudly string a sentence together, only to be told, "Oh no, we say it this way." The proper way used words you'd never heard before and was usually based on parable. (Another reason I had trouble learning the language is that the Ashanti view their language, properly, as a product of the African motherland. No matter how many Europeans come through, live among them and try to learn the language, to hear those sounds emanating from thin, pink lips attached to a face any shade lighter than mocha just floors them. All they can do is laugh uproariously. That reaction doesn't do much to inspire confidence.)

The Ashanti govern their lives by adages and sayings, short-hand versions of which dot conversation and are plastered everywhere, especially on the local public conveyances. My favorite was a flatbed truck with "Remember your six feet" painted with great flourish on a wooden marquee attached above the windshield. It's a reminder of mortality, that great equalizer. Rich and poor alike have their own spot reserved for them, six feet underground. Another very telling adage goes,"I can sell my grandmother to get ahead and buy her back as a sign of my success." They are hard-headed realists when it comes to practical matters. Dorothy Adoo, an ambitious and very funny woman who was a teaching colleague at my school, reacted with disdain when I asked her once if her boyfriend gave her flowers. "What do I want with flowers?" she asked. "I can't eat flowers!"

Twi doesn't recognize the difference between the sounds that "r" and "l" make. Like the Japanese, who gave us "Jerro" and "photoglaph," the Ashanti have to learn to differentiate between the two if they learn a European language. In Twi, anything goes. The command for "come" is "bra." It's usually accompanied by a gesture with the arm extended horizontally in front, the fingers making a quick, repeated grabbing motion. A mother telling a wayward child to come back within her sight says, "Bra bra bra," with her fingers clutching at each repetition. But half the time it comes out "Blah, blah, blah," and then it's your turn to laugh at their use of language. "Is this a foreign language or what?" you think to yourself. "It's all just, 'blah, blah, blah' to me!"

Monday, February 18, 2008


A late post today. Thanks to everyone who stopped by earlier, and sorry your clicks were in vain. I worked my butt off from 7 in the morning until around 2 this afternoon, making sense of the sanding-and-spackle-induced chaos on the first floor. All the living room furniture is now in the den, all the drywall dust is removed from every conceivable surface (downstairs, anyway), and we're ready for the next coat of primer. There will be another mess after the weekend, but it'll never compare to the one I cleaned up today. Meanwhile, for the rest of the week, things should be as normal as they ever are around here.

I came here to the computer to do some visiting and it died. So did the phone. Comcast crashed on me. It just came back up, and now there's no time to tell any decent story.

It is simply amazing to me how completely dependent we have become on this machine I am sitting at. How did we ever manage without it? What was life like, anyway???

More tomorrow, I promise.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Since so many of you seem to be interested in the DIY project from hell we have taken upon ourselves, and even taken the time to send kind words of encouragement, I thought I'd indulge both you and me by giving you a progress report. We've just finished for the day so I can sit down and have some fun now.

The picture on the right is of what we call the "den." It actually used to be a separate room off the living room, a real den, but in 1999 we knocked down the wall between the two rooms and added hardwood flooring, thus exending the living room. So when I say "den," as opposed to "living room," that's what I'm talking about. The den is where we actually took all the wallpaper down. What that resulted in was innumerable gouges and brown spots where the covering on the drywall came off with the glue, thus necessitating extensive spackling. "Oh, no," we said, "this is a huge pain in the ass, let's try something else."

So on the wall nearest the camera, that's the living room wall going into the den, we decided we'd try just treating the wallpaper and then painting over it. The original directions for doing that said to remove the wallpaper at the seams only, where the moisture from the paint would be most likely to cause peeling. (You're supposed to just peel all of it off in those small areas, then spackle in those areas only, and then prime.) In the process of removing that paper at the seams, however, Steve noticed that the entire vinyl surface peeled off very easily. So with the thought of doing a more thorough job, he peeled the vinyl layer off the entire wall, not just at the seams, leaving the under-layer of paper that was glued to the wall. He painted primer over that. Looked great. Then we got up the next morning.

The paint had raised the nap in that porous paper. It felt like fur. What to do??? Spackle! Yes, that is spackle that entire wall you see there, closest to the camera. Not just little spots. The whole damn wall. (Do I make myself clear?) In the attempt to create less work by putting down less spackle, thus necessitatiing less sanding and, ultimately, less dust, we created more of everything we were trying to avoid. Much more.

What we did today was sand. We put a plastic tarp down over the living room furniture (picture on the left), a plastic barrier on the opening from the living room to the rest of the first floor, and sanded. See that light dusting on the tarp? That is what is now on every single surface, to one degree or another, in the entire house, including upstairs here, which we couldn't close off.

You remember what I said about my being the "maintenance man" a few days ago? Want to take a guess at who will be cleaning that dust while other people are sitting in their clean offices???? And after I do that, I'll move all that furniture in the living room into the den so we can start the process all over.

But at least now we're smarter about the whole thing than we were two days ago.

I hope.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Guess What?

Wallpaper again. Well, not really wallpaper. Drywall spackle. Gets even better tomorrow, when we sand it. Clouds of talcum-sized dust everywhere.

Into each life a little drywall mud must fall.

I have nothing with which to interest you today but music. Please enjoy.

Friday, February 15, 2008



This is an adaptation of the easy and fool-proof recipe from Cook's Illustrated. It's a great side for a big breakfast or for dinner. A couple of notes: The key to success for this dish is dry potato shreds. The step of wringing them dry through a cloth is essential. I hardly ever peel potatoes. I think the skin adds flavor, and there are nutrients in potato skin I prefer to give to myself rather than to algae blooms or compost. Yukon Gold potatoes seem to have the most flavor of what's generally available in grocery stores, and their starch content works for this dish. The butter adds a golden color but is not necessary if you are watching cholesterol.

Equipment to have ready: large bowl, clean, damp tea towel, 2 large round platters, nonstick skillet.

1 1/2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, coarsely shredded on a box grater
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. onion powder
3 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tbsp. unsalted butter (optional)

Over medium-high heat in 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat oil and butter.

Combine cornstarch, salt and onion powder in small bowl.

While oil and butter heat, shred potatoes into large bowl, add cold water to cover to keep potatoes from turning brown.

Pour potatoes into a strainer, dry bowl with paper towel, then keep bowl nearby. Remove potatoes from strainer a couple of handfuls at a time to a dampened tea towel. Wrap towel tightly around potatoes and wring excess water from potatoes. As potatoes are dried, return them to cleaned bowl. When all potatoes have been thoroughly wrung out, sprinkle cornstarch mixture evenly over them and toss lightly with fingers to mix.

Pour potaotes all at once into hot oil in skillet and cover. Keep heat at medium-high, and cook without touching for 6 minutes. Remove cover, push potatoes down firmly with spatula to make sure all surfaces are in touch with hot skillet, and cook uncovered an additional 6 minutes. Shake pan once or twice to make sure potatoes slide easily on nonstick surface.

Remove skillet from heat and slide potatoes cooked-side down onto a large, round platter. Take another platter, place concave side down over potatoes, and flip. Remove top platter to reveal potatoes cooked side up, slide uncooked side of potatoes onto skillet and return skillet to medium-high heat. Cook an additional 7 minutes, remove from heat, and serve.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


We're headed to New York today to see Rufus Wainwright in Radio City Music Hall.

May this day bring you, too, a joyful journey to the stars!

Ralph and Steve

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Peace Corps, part 2

Above: with my friend Dick Kimmins at his mother's house in Springfield, Tennessee, 1965.

I left you yesterday secure in the knowledge that at the age of 34 I had finally found myself a permanent job. I've made previous reference to a period of "floundering," making do with that state via TM, etc. Since I've come this far, it seems now I should tell you about some of the things that led up to this celebratory landing of mine, finally, on my feet.

I never had the slightest idea what I wanted to "be." Growing up, I "enjoyed" things: writing, music. Languages. But these were simply external activities, things that grew out of innate talents from which for some reason I never imagined making a living. I've given much thought over the years where this ambivalence about jobs came from. It could be from my father--he had a successful journalism career, but his essentially pessimistic nature never seemed to make him very excited about it, or proud of it. He seldom brought his work home; he communicated no enthusiasm to me about how he made his living. I grew up thinking a job was just a means to a life, a necessary thing everybody had to do in order to keep body and soul together. With that as a model, the question of what to "be" became redundant. I already "was" something. I was me! Somehow that seemed enough. Skills and interests seemed periferal, just extensions of Me. "Me" would get by somehow. That's how life was lived.

The permanent backdrop for all of this was the military draft. It was always there looming as I was growing up. It scared the heck out of me from my first awareness of it, and as Viet Nam first appeared on the horizon and then grew, it became less and less a desired option. So there was at least something I could point to and know I didn't want to be: a soldier.

The Peace Corps was begun in 1961, when I was 15, and all of a sudden I had something I really enjoyed imagining myself being: a Peace Corps volunteer. It was a relief finally to have a goal. The idea remained in the back of my mind through my high school years and into college. There, Joe Kimmins, the older brother of my dorm neighbor and best friend, Dick, took a big-brother interest in me and adopted me as an intellectual pen pal. It was the Kimminses in general and Joe in particular who taught me how to think and planted the seeds of adulthood in me. In the course of our correspondence, in 1965, Joe told me he was applying to the Peace Corps. If I ever needed confirmation that my own idea had been a good one, there it was. Joe went to Morroco in 1966 and I read his letters voraciously, identifying with every second of his two-year service. My own chance inevitably came and I took it as a matter or course, fighting Uncle Sam's other ideas all the way but in the end, succeeding.

And then it was over. In 1972 I was 26 years old and the one goal I had set for myself, being a Peace Corps volunteer, was behind me. There was no "next"; I was right back where I started before the Peace Corps had been invented, at zero. The obvious answer was to get a job with the Peace Corps, but that seemed like a copout at the time. I had a mantra: "there has to be life after the Peace Corps."

In college, I had changed majors literally every semester, finally landing on French in my junior year because I liked it and it was easy. (Not French education, mind you. Just French language and literature. I added no practical skill to the merely social one of making conversation in another language. The thought of teaching for a living was not appealing.) I gravitated to the music department to make friends and music and had a wonderful time there. But again. Me, a music teacher??? Please.

Everyone expected that I would be an entertainer because that's what I was best at. I like standing on a stage, I love an audience, and I had the requisite pretty singing voice to make standing there meaningful. So after the Peace Corps, I decided that's what I would do. I had begun writing music in preparation for a career. I went to Boston with that express purpose, and set about things. I auditioned at a Back Bay coffee house and was picked up for a weekly gig. It was at that point I made a pivotal discovery: I had no ambition. I still liked singing and the communion with the audience, but I realized much more than that was necessary. You needed boundless ego. You had to want to make yourself a product, like sliced cheese. Just digging down into myself to find the spiritual wherewithal to perform was a huge chore after being dead all day, marking maps for the AAA, and, worse, that deadening job was paying the bills, not the music.

With mix of guilt, disappointment and relief, I gave up the gigs. I sang at parties for friends and was still known as the Guitar Man, but I no longer tried to pretend I had it in me to pursue a show business career. I went back to that familiar old acquaintance, zero, and kept marking maps. Boston friends, meanwhile, knew how frustrated I was, sitting there with AAA green ink-stained fingers, fresh from that life-changing Peace Corps experience, and asked me the obvious question: "why aren't you recruiting for the Peace Corps???" The mantra just repeated itself: "there has to be life after the Peace Corps."

Out of nowhere one gray, cold, Boston April day, my old college friend, Dick Kimmins, gave me a call. By then he had left Lexington, where we had gone to school together, for Louisville. He told me that the local PBS station was auditioning entertainers for a childrens's show they were going to produce and I should come and try out. Hmmm...another stab at this game? But it made at least a little bit of sense, and it seemed somehow easier, being part of something bigger, than trying to carve something out all in my own. For sure, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I flew out to Louisville to audition. It was clear from the time I entered the studio, however, that I was not what the station was looking for. I sang my song (Buffy Saint-Marie's "The Piney Wood Hills") and left for a visit with Dick. I had been realistic about my chances and wasn't really all that disappointed.

Where Boston had been cold, gray and wet, April in Louisville was beautiful. Spring was burgeoning with its inimitable green, the breezes were warm and fragrant. I felt some life returning to my numbed soul. Dick and I went sightseeing to beautiful Churchill Downs. We chatted and strolled the grounds, making our way into the infield. There we lay down with our backs against that luxurious carpet of bluegrass and looked into the clear blue sky. I unburdened myself to my old best friend and told him about the trouble I was having getting started in life. As I spoke, the words came to me as if I'd never heard them before: "why aren't you recruiting for the Peace Corps???" The mantra, for once, was gone. With my best friend, in Churchill Downs on that beautiful day in 1974, I came back to life.

Well, that's what I thought at the time.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Peace Corps, part 1

Above: me as a skinny Peace Corps Volunteer, 1970. The other two guys are fellow teachers. Those shorts? More tomorrow!

My thoughts never really stray too far from the Peace Corps, for so many reasons. For one, I, like most of the other nearly 200,000 returned volunteers, will tell you that the volunteer experience was a pivotal, defining period of my life which set me on the course I am still on. (By the way, we refer to our status as "returned," rather than "former," because we still consider ourselves volunteers, nothing former about it. We've simply "returned" from our countries of service. The acronym used throughout the Peace Corps universe is RPCV.)

Another reason my thoughts are often with the Peace Corps is that I spent the bulk of my working life there. I am a creature of the institution; if there hadn't been a Peace Corps I'd have had to invent one. There was certainly nothing else at which I could have made a decent and honorable living. And therein lies a story. But first, a peek behind the bureaucratic curtain:

The Peace Corps is an independent executive agency of the federal government. It has a director and a layer or two of upper management appointed by the President, who is their direct boss. As such agencies go, the Peace Corps is barely a blip in the radar. Only about 600 people work at its headquarters in Washington. Another 200 or so US citizens work overseas in directorial and adminstrative positions, supervising operations and programming in the countries where the Peace Corps is invited to serve. The rest of Peace Corps staffing is filled by overseas nationals, people seeking to develop their own countries by working as programmers for the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps budget, $330.8 million for 2008, is infinitesimal--not even a blip in the radar. It is less than half the cost of one Stealth bomber.

Written into the legislation which originally created the Peace Corps is something unique in the federal government: a rule which states that no one can work there more than 5 years. Work time at the Peace Corps is divided into 2 1/2-year tours; most people get two such tours and that's it. A certain percentage of employees are extended for a third tour, thus making their time with the agency 7 1/2 years. If anyone wants to work there again (and most do), they cannot be considered until they have been out for as long as they were in. Those who come back are called "recyclers." Since, once bitten by the bug the addiction appears permanent, there are always lots of people recycling themselves through. This "five-year rule," as it's called, keeps the agency vital, with a constant turnover of new blood in the form of people fresh from volunteer assignments overseas, very dedicated to the agency's mission and eager to work hard to advance it. It also happens to keep the agency cheap, since hardly anybody stays long enough to make an extremely high salary, and virtually no one retires from it.

But as you know if you've been following me for a while, I had a full-fledged, 27-year career at the Peace Corps, and I did retire from it. How did I manage that? Lucky timing, nothing but.

The Peace Corps was a Kennedy invention, by far the highest-profile legacy of that administration. Richard Nixon did not like the Kennedys and so wasn't all that fond of the Peace Corps. His fondest wish was to get rid of the agency altogether, but it had too many friends among the general public, as well as on Capitol Hill, to do that, so he decided to "streamline." Nixon created an umbrella agency, ACTION, to administer all of the Kennedy-Johnson era volunteer programs. The Peace Corps, VISTA, Foster Grandparents, and all the others, were brought into ACTION. This move had the desired effect of drastically lowering the profile of all of these programs, to the point where many people during this period really believed that the Peace Corps was no more. It also happened to create two tracks of employees within the bureaucracy at ACTION headquarters: Overseas and Domestic Operations. Generally, Overseas Ops people were still hired under the five-year rule; folk in Domestic Ops were not.

After many temporary positions, my first permanent job with the Peace Corps was in its travel office. That was in 1980. Travel was considered part of Domestic Operations, so I was hired as a permanent career employee, a very low-level one, but permanent. When Jimmy Carter came into office, he did away with ACTION and freed up all those programs to regain their former individual identities. This was great news for the Peace Corps--unless you happened to have been hired during the Nixon years as a permanent career employee and had advanced to a level of some responsbility. Suddenly in 1984 a 5-year clock started ticking for those people, who became known as "the class of '89." But lucky me, since due to my utter lack of ambition I was still hard at work at my measely little travel office job in 1984, I was allowed to stay.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Maintenance Man

I trust you'll pardon my French if I say it's just cold as crap here today. Winter blustered back in to these parts last night with a vengeance; we woke to temps in the teens, too cold for my walk, and also too cold to do the next steps on the un-wallpapering chore....I mean, project. The photo above shows the progress we made yesterday. In six hours, we did one room. Come to find out, wallpaper has two layers, the decorative layer, which peels right off like sunburned skin, and the sticky layer, where the real work resides. If you don't know about these two layers, you think you've cut yourself a nice piece of cake when that first layer just comes right off. Oh. But then what's that brown layer underneath??? The sticky layer requires soaking with water and scraping, repeatedly, in that order. Dropcloths, rags, putty knives, paper scraps. I'm showing you the clean version up there.

To finish the job, I have to get a ladder, a bucket of water, and some rags to wipe off the residue of glue that stays behind. I also need somehow to smooth those brown spots down so Steve can come behind me and apply drywall mud, then paint. It's so cold in the house I can't entertain the thought of sticking my hands in water to do that job. It can wait, since Steve can't do his thing until the weekend.

No, Ravel, we will never do wallpaper again! The wallpaper was always Steve's idea, anyway, and I, able to see the charms of both solid paint and patterned paper, just went along with the paper and was happy with it. It was great fun to hear Steve say, again and again yesterday, "never more wallpaper!!!" And, just to drive the point home, I'll say one more time, ever so gently, it's the whole damn house!

This do-it-yourself, handyperson thing was never an activity I was attracted to for myself. I'm used to being around such people, though, because my father was a great do-it-yourselfer, having finished our basement into a beautiful rec room with knotty pine (including a little knotty-pine bar that fit under the stairway), tile and drywall. He went on to design the waterfront house he and my mother retired to. He hired a contractor do the main structure, but together my parents did all of the internal and external finish work. My mother was great with wallpaper and paint.

Steve is a handyman par excellence. He could have made a handsome living as a contractor had he chosen the profession. He has made my life immeasurably more beautiful with his skills. Together, we have literally re-created this house we live in, inside and out. The odd thing about living with someone like that is that he takes these skills for granted and assumes that everyone has them or has an interest in cultivating them. He thinks nothing of repairing electric switches, plumbing, carpentry--things that most normal people would pay good money to have done for them. His creativity is expressed through these projects, though, and my life is enhanced. Not a bad deal.

I once read one of those things that purport to divide personality types into categories, and this particular one had resonance with me: the "maintainer." The one in a group who smoothes the rough patches, the one who finds the humor in a situation, the one trying--not to please people for its own sake, but to make sure they are happy and comfortable. For better or worse, that's me. Somewhere along the line I became aware that we all complain, all the time, with the slightest opportunity. I know I'm a great kvetcher. It seems to be human nature to want to tear down things that don't meet with our approval. But the opposite rarely applies. If things are going well, or if we like something, we rarely voice those positives. "No news is good news." When I made that discovery, I consciously decided to balance my all-too-ready sarcastic criticisms with vocal support of what I think is good. In a competitive office setting especially, you see this happen all the time: a young person just starting out discouraged by general disappoval of the results of some sincere effort. The results may have been lacking in some way, but some very hard work went into them nonetheless. Not to congratulate the effort itself and encourage more of the same seemed short-sighted to me, and unfair. More than once I have even congratulated couples on finding the courage to divorce, knowing how easy it is to put up with the status quo in the face of a difficult but necessary step. I've been rewarded with surprise and gratitude for being, sometimes, the only supportive voice.

It wouldn't be life without disappointment. Sarcasm and the wiseguy putdown are so easy and fun, for some reason more so than a sincere recognition of the positive. It takes a little work at first, but after a while looking for something good becomes second nature. Praise is unexpected, so rare, in fact, that it usually comes as a surprise. The grateful smile that greets it is the best reward of all.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


I'm turning this page over to you today, dear reader, while we begin the dreaded task of Taking Down The Wallpaper. We'll see how it goes on whatever gets done today and then decide whether we will hire someone to finish the job. We have the whole damn house to do! Can't bear to think about it--just do it.

I would love some feedback. How am I doing? Writing too much? Is there any subject you want more of? Give me some ideas to play with. I love doing this but hearing back from you would make it even more fun. Please fill my inbox.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

At Liberty

Just to get it out of the way: I hate the word "blog." It sounds like somebody's struggling for a last breath before drowning. Victims of waterboarding probably make the sound. "Blog." AArrgghh. Yuck. Ugly.

Since I started this (excuse me) blogging thing I find that I've basically given myself a new job--but for the first time in my whole life it's a job that I love, no qualification. It answers every criterion I have for an occupation: I can do what I want, when I want, and decide to do not much if I feel like it. True, I'm not getting paid for this, but the satisfaction I get from simply putting some words and music out there, and knowing you even seem to like them, is proof that money ain't everything when it comes to work. You always hear artists who've made a big financial splash say, "I can't believe I'm being paid for this." I may not be an artist but I can say I know what they mean. The love for what they do is enough--the money is icing on the cake.

I'm taking a little a break from the vacation series. I'm working on Australia and New Zealand photos. (The photo above of Mt. Cook in New Zealand is a teaser.) As you can imagine, there are thousands of them. Once, they were all organized, even in web albums, at a now-defunct place called Photosite. When Photosite was pulled down, my albums went with it. I am loading the original discs into Picasa, and in the process discovering the quirks in this mostly great Google product. Hard to combine photos from different discs into one album, for starters. I got to a hurdle this morning and decided I didn't feel like jumping it. So cool....I can do that!

Sounds coming from my open window at the moment are very pleasant. This February morning we are blessed with temperatures in the 60s and are headed for record-breaking 70s. I'd say "global warming," but in these parts we often do get the odd February heat wave. (But oh, yes, there is global warming.) Winter will blow back in with thunderstorms this afternoon. It's overcast now and will remain so, but the birds are showing their thanks for the warmth with wonderful song, and it's very nice, a harbinger of the real thing just a couple of months away.

I have plenty of computer sitting to do today. I'll need to tackle those pictures. I'm also completing the process of loading CDs into my itunes software. I did most of that a long time ago, but there are about 20 CDs--a collection I made of all the number-one hits from the 1920s to the 1960s--yet to be done. It's a big job because itunes doesn't recognize the songs on self-made CDs--you have to put the titles in yourself.

I am very glad I didn't have to vote yesterday. (Hundreds of people in DC and the Virginia and Maryland suburbs called their local election boards complaining that their polling stations were closed--all that Super Tuesday hype had some people thinking every state was taking part. Hell, some of them probably think it's the presidential election...) Anyway, the "Potomac Primary," as it's being called, takes place next Tuesday, the 12th. It's nice to have another week to decide who I think can carry a race all the way to the White House. I'll be doing lots of watching and listening.
Have a wonderful Wednesday.

Friday, February 1, 2008



Since there is no longer a place that is called "Yugoslavia," I guess the name of this dish gives away its age. I collected it in 1974 from the now defunct American Weekly, the Sunday supplement magazine in one of the local Durham, North Carolina, newspapers. I based myself in Durham as I traveled my little pocket of the South recruiting for the Peace Corps. It's amazing the things you pick up along the way, even when you are in a place only occasionally and for a very short time. I've turned to this recipe on innumerable occasions over the years when I needed a delicious side dish for a crowd. It's simple but festive and showy, a great accompaniment for any meat, and it also makes a good one-dish vegetarian meal.

Even though the portions of the individual ingredients don't look like a lot, this dish takes up a lot of space. Use the very biggest high-sided baking dish you have.

2 cups potatoes, cubed
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 lb. eggplant, cubed (peel if you prefer but it's not necessary)
½ pound zucchini, diced
2 cups carrots, chopped
1 10-oz.package frozen green peas
3 tsps. salt
Black pepper to taste
Tabasco to taste
½ cup raw rice
½ cup water
1/3 cup plus 3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 lbs. tomatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 cup jack or Muenster cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a flat 3-quart casserole dish. Using a large bowl, combine all vegetables except tomatoes. Add 1/3 of the cup olive oil, salt, pepper and Tabasco and stir to coat vegetables with liquids. Cover bottom of casserole with half of the sliced tomatoes. Top tomatoes with half the vegetables. Sprinkle rice over evenly, then add remaining vegetables. Top with remaining sliced tomatoes. Drizzle remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, vinegar and water over all. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until rice has absorbed all moisture. Uncover, top with grated cheese. Place under broiler for 2 minutes or until cheese is lightly browned.