Sunday, March 30, 2008

Winding Down

Sorry no music yet. Hipcast seems to be under the weather. I'll keep trying periodically.

It's still cold and windy today, much too cold for a boat ride--in fact, even too cold to fill the gas tank, which we do manually from individual 5-gallon containers. We just came in from spending more money, this time on a pair of jeans for Steve at one of the many discount outlet malls here. We took a walk down by the ocean, just long enough to have our breath taken away by the cold ocean breeze! From here on out it should be pretty quiet. We'll pack up tonight and hit the road very early tomorrow morning, to be home before noon and take up all the put-off weekend chores. I'm churning up ideas for some good, meaty posts, and look forward to the luxury of lengthy cogitation during the week.

Have you tried to buy bluejeans lately? A mainstay of the outlets here was Levi-Strauss, and they're gone! Have to put up with Gap or--oh, no--Guess!jeans. Oh, Boomers, how we have fallen! Has the uniform of protests and be-ins gone the way of the zoot suit, the raccoon coat? Unthinkable!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

It's Always Something

A hat tip to Gilda Radner for today's title.

If you see Steve and he has a little time on his hands, a "creative mess" can't be too far away. Yesterday I mentioned a few "minor repairs." I think I was blocking aot so minor repair, which is in process today.

The trailer we're in is a 1967 model. Yes, 1967. It was derelict when we first saw it--the land was being sold just as land; the trailer on it wasn't even mentioned. For years, to the dismay of our neighbors, it had been used by squatters, and when we first opened the door to look at it, when we bought in 2004, we felt like we were entering a time capsule. Whoever had lived here last left in a hurry. All of their belongings were here, as well as old stuff from the original owners, who hadn't been in here in years. Old bowling and fishing trophies, a collection of caps hung on a wall, and piles and piles of old newspapers. The electricity had never even been turned off.
At some point in the trailer's history, a stick-built addition had been put on one side, so it's more than just a trailer. We actually have more guest sleeping space here than we do at home.

We bought the place "as is," stipulating only that the former owners clear out the junk.

Whenever it rained, we noticed there was a leak at the place where the trailer and the addition joined. We put up with it for a couple of seasons; then Steve got the idea of putting an extra large tarp on the roof as a cheap way to close the leaks. (The place is going to be demolished within a couple of years to make room for a proper house, so we never really contemplate major repairs.) Putting the tarp on the roof, of course, required walking on the roof. We gave thought to the possible fragility of it, but once Steve finished the tarp job without actually falling through, we figured the roof was still fairly strong.

The ceilings in the trailer are pressed cardboard. Make that forty-year-old pressed cardboard. When we entered Thursday, we noticed that the ceiling over the kitchen was distended, as if it were pregnant. There were spots on furniture where you could see water had been, and the distensions in the ceiling were damp and discolored. In short, the joint between trailer and addition was dry as a bone, but a major part of the ceiling was grossly water-damaged. Uh-oh. It appears even though Steve didn't actually fall through the roof, the weight of his steps made enough hairline cracks up there to let water in.

So today, we took down the ceiling in the kitchen. The place is currently a mess, and I have the time to sit here and tell you about it, because Steve had to take a break from the ceiling job to go to the pier and deal with the boat's moorings while it's warm enough outside.

We discovered under the pressed cardboard is a layer of plastic, and that has little holes in it which were letting the water through. Beneath the plastic is wet insulation. The quick and dirty fix we're doing is to put up another layer of plastic, and then cover that with cheap white sheets. We just bought the sheets at WalMart. When Steve's done outside we'll put up the sheets, move things back where they belong, and get on with life. Without looking up too much.

Fun, fun, fun!

Friday, March 28, 2008



Greetings from the placid banks of Hopkins Prong, Sussex County, Delaware. Not to rub it in or anything but it's about noon, and 76 degrees. I'm in shorts. And barefoot. We are back from what we do best when we're here, spending money. Had to re-stock the fridge and get a few things at Lowe's so Steve can start on some small repair projects. Spending money here seems so painless because there's no sales tax on food or household items. The cash trickles like water through our fingers, but the resulting dent in the balance sheet is never that deep.

Tomorrow the boat will come and we'll take it out for a test run. It won't be nearly as pleasant as it would have been today, because winter is scheduled for a return tonight; tomorrow should be only in the 40s and blustery. But the boat couldn't be made ready in time for today, so somehow, we'll just have to manage (!)

This is my very first post from Delaware, and so far so good. The flash drive worked for the photo, so that means it should work for Hipcast, too. This computer is equipped for wi-fi, so it's pretty much like being hooked up at home. The next time I'm here it'll be with a different computer that will have an air card, but no w-fi. The air card is about as good as dial-up. So, to quote Mr. Dylan, a post under those conditions will depend on how I'm feelin'.

When I'm done here I'll go get dinner simmering: a pot of chili and Cuidado's Impossible Pie. I brought a few bananas here that are giving up the ghost, so I'll slice them on the finished product and we'll have us a banana-coconut cream pie.

And speaking of food: on to today's recipe. You're probably thinking, "who the hell needs another potato salad?" We all have our own recipes that have served us well over the years. Well. It's my blog! The recipe, which I've never written down, is one I've honed to perfection over many years. It has a good balance between sweet and savory, a bracing shot of fresh dill, (the dried stuff if you must, but it isn't the same) lots of celery crunch, and a creaminess enhanced with hard boiled eggs. Finally, sweet pickle relish gives it a depth of flavor without announcing its actual presence, sort of like anchovies when they're used in the right way.

Notes: contrary to what most publicly traded recipes using mayonnaise indicate, I add the potatoes to the dressing fresh off the heat; I do not let them cool off first. Supposedly this creates a health risk because heat is bad for mayonnaise, but I refrigerate the finished salad immediately. The dressing penetrates the warm potatoes much more than if they were cool, and the long wait for the finished product to reach "salad" temperature allows the flavors to intermingle properly. I've made this dish hundreds of times to no deleterious effect.

Peel your potatoes or not--I don't. If you don't peel them, scrub them well with soap and water before cutting.

At least 4 hours before serving:

2 1/2 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into salad-size chunks
2 eggs

Generous 1/3 cup mayonnaise, regular or low-fat
2 tsp. yellow mustard
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. cider vinegar
Generous tablespoon sweet pickle relish
2 tsp. table salt
2 tsp. sugar

2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped, bite-size
1 small onion, very finely chopped
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, (use both white and green parts)
1/2 medium green bell pepper, very finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

While potatoes and eggs are cooking, chop all salad ingredients and place in a large work bowl.

Mix dressing ingredients and set aside

Boil potatoes and eggs together in salted water. When potatoes are done, drain, and transfer both potatoes and eggs to the bowl containing the chopped vegetables. With a spoon, retrieve the eggs, drop them into the cooking pan to crack them, and immediately run cold water over them. Shell the eggs, chop them (rub them over the big holes on a box grater if you like) and add them to the potatoes and vegetables.

Pour prepared dressing over hot potatoes and vegetables and toss to combine thoroughly. Refrigerate, uncovered, and let cool for at least 4 hours, turning occasionally to help dissipiate heat. For faster cooling, place the bowl on a grated shelf in the fridge instead of on a solid surface.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ain't It Great To Be Crazy?

For some reason all seems right with the world today. Well, let me put it this way: all seems right in my world. The bigger world around us still has plenty to be improved on, and nothing in my situation has changed, but for some reason everything seems easier to think about today. I've spent the entire morning on youtube, following from video to video, being fascinated. It's addictive, absolutley. It all started with a post on Nan's blog, Jade Page Express, where she introduces us to one Fredo Viola performing a piece called "A Sad Song." Click on the link to the left and go see it. You won't be disappointed. There is hope for pop music yet.

And it went uphill from there on youtube. I had to drag myself away to get the day started.

For some reason I started thinking about the songs we used to sing on the school bus when I was in first grade. Much later I found out they were generically called "camp songs," but on my family's camping trips if we sang it was old love songs from the '20s led by my mother, with my father accompanying on the banjo. The school bus songs were a breed apart, just for the trip to school.

Ever hear of "Boom Boom Ain't It Great To Be Crazy"? Goes like this:

Boom boom ain't it great to be crazy?
Boom boom ain't it great to be crazy?
Silly and foolish all day long,
Boom boom ain't it great to be crazy?
Horsey and a flea and the three blind mice
Sittin' on a curbstone shootin' dice'
The horsey slipped and fell on the flea.
"Whoops," said the flea, "there's a horsey on me!"
Boom boom ain't it great to be crazy.

Ta da! May your Thursday be crazy--and look out for horseys!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Outdoors Is Calling!

It's hard to believe it's the end of March already in a year whose last digit I'm still getting used to. As much as I try to ignore it, the grass is swiftly approaching that shaggy stage where it will need to be cut if we want to maintain our proper, buttoned-down suburban look. And mulch must be spread, flowering annuals purchased and planted, the dead and dying given a fitting disposal. Not to mention all the new stuff that needs to be done out back--grassing over that old garden, putting in borders, and, and, and, and.....(tip of the hat to M.F.K. Fisher).

It's amazing, the chores you'll take on willingly when it's your name on the results. When I was a kid, yard work was up there on my list of favorite things along with walking on hot coals. I hated the heat, I hated the wet, smelly grass, the name it. If it was outside and it entailed the slightest amount of exertion, I hated it. In the days before electric string trimmers, you had to use those scissors-like lawn shears for borders, and that could take an entire day to do right. (I know, because I was often sent back out to "finish the job.") I hated it. Now, I find cutting the grass one of those satisfying jobs that give you immediate gratification, and trimming is rewarding because of the clean lines you get (thank God for string trimmers, however). The difference, of course, is that it's mine, all mine, and therefore it has to look good! The gardening industry reaps its fortune from my vanity.

We have a terraced garden bordering the street in the front. The top level is filled with azaleas that give a better and better show the older they become. The bottom level is always filled with colorful annuals. Each year I think I'll try something new, and each year I end up putting in hundreds of petunias anyway. They can't be beat for their cascading billows of color--they slow traffic along 12th Street. Putting in the petunias definitely does not qualify as work; it's a labor of love.

I have a truncated day today so I'm not able to spend much time here. Tomorrow's time will be even shorter, as I get things ready for Delaware. We'll probably leave mid-day. I still don't know if I'll be able to do posts there. I'm taking a flash drive with some music on it just in case.....

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What Time Is It?

We Americans are often berated, by ourselves and others, for being too tied to our timepieces, not stopping to smell the roses, too much on the go, go, go, and so on. So you'd really start wondering where the shackels were if you were ever to enter this house. You'd think we were slaves to this arbitrary construct of time. There are clocks everywhere in here. But really, don't worry about us. Half the things don't work.

In the kitchen alone there are six clocks. The oven and microwave, wall-mounted one above the other, each has its own clock; they seldom say the same thing. We have one of those faux antique wall clocks that runs on a battery. It works. The clock on the land-line phone works. The clock on the coffee maker gave up the ghost nearly as soon as we brought it home. And the clock on the electric can opener (yes, don't ask, it was a gift) was impossible to set back in the days when it did work. True to its nature as a gift, it stopped bothering us by....stopping.

We have a clock in the basement made by Steve's father from a slice of polished cypress. That's in addition to the clocks on the cable box, the DVD player, the caller ID, the phone and the computer.

Aside from the kitchen, on the main floor there are two antique French clocks, the one from Lois I told you about a while back (still not working) and another that runs, and a clock on the Bose radio. Up here on the second floor there are the standard alarm clocks, another phone clock, my computer clock, and my wristwatch, which was a part of my daily wardrobe when I was working but now must be shaken awake when I put it on.

There are no clocks in the bathrooms. What? You think we're obsessed?

The clock in the picture is one I inherited from my parents. It's an Emporer clock, one of those that come in a kit for the ultra handy to toss together over a weekend. It was my father's first retirement project in the early 1970s. As you can see, he did a beautiful job with it and I was overjoyed when my folks told me I could have it. It has run like--well, a clock, until recently. A few months ago as I was winding it my hand accidentally hit the pendulum with such force that it was knocked from its hook in the back. No problem, I thought, until I turned the clock around to hang the pendulum back on. Damn if I couldn't make sense of how it would hang. There was nothing back there that would accept a hanging object. Steve, who is a natural genius about these things, couldn't figure it out, either.

So the clock stood there, right only twice a day, while I gathered up the courage (and the money) to call in a clock repairman. We had had the clock cleaned once before, about 20 years ago, by a company that had an innocent enough name, something like "We Fix Clocks," but turned out to be owned and operated by a recent Korean immigrant who barely spoke English and seemed to have learned but one facial expression, a scowl, and spoke in accented, monosyllabic grunts. A hundred bucks later, we had a working, reconditioned clock, and I filed the experience away as one never to be repeated, at least not under the aegis of We Fix Clocks. Now here I was again, with a broken Emporer clock. I did a little research and called the most respected local clock company and explained my problem. All was fine until I mentioned that the clock in question was a 40-year-old Emporer. There was a silence at the other end before I was told that I was lucky the thing was running at all--the Emporer clocks from that era were made of cheap parts, never meant to be heirlooms. He convinced me that if the clock ran at all, it was simply on its own fumes and by all rights should be dead as a doornail anyway. So much for that sentimental gentleman.

But I didn't give up. I found another place nearby, where a very pleasant woman assured me over the phone that the clock could be repaired. I had originally thought of having it cleaned again while the pendulum was repaired, but given this new information about the quality of the basic works I decided to forgo that expense and just have the pendulum put back on.

There was a knock on the door at the appointed time and there was the repairman. An OLD Korean man this time, so fresh off the boat he brought slippers to put on his feet as he entered the house, and barely able to say hello. But at least he smiled. He fixed the clock--turns out I had hit the pendulum so hard that the piece it hangs on in the back had been bent out of shape--that's why it didn't seem possible to hang anything back there. He bent the piece back into position, hung the pendulum and got the clock running, made sure everything else was OK, and, as he was leaving, via a word or two and sign language, gave me a helpful hint: as I pulled the chain to wind the clock, it would keep extra tension off the chain, thereby prolonging its life, if I would give the attached weight a little push up while pulling. Made good sense to me. And he didn't even charge me any labor. We were smiling best friends by the time he left.

Last weekend I decided to use this new tip. I pulled on the chain and gave a gentle upward push to the weight as I did so. Well. Suddenly there wasn't enough tension on the chain, and it derailed. Deep in the guts of the works. Steve and I together, using a hooked coat hanger, got the chain back on its sprockets last night, but that didn't satisfy the old man in the clock. After nearly 40 years of faithful, graceful service, he is suddenly subject to such abuse that he's staged a work stoppage. It wasn't my fault, grandfather clock!!

I think I'll go find a rose to smell.

Monday, March 24, 2008


We start our bi-weekly treks to Delaware this coming Thursday. Can't wait! It's still a bit chilly, with night-time temps in the 30s and 40s, but it's very cozy in the little trailer in such weather, great for sleeping. It's fun to smell up the little place with stews or maybe a pot of chili. We'll set about cleaning up for the summer, we'll get the boat into the water and go for a freezing cold ride to see what people have been up do along the creek out to Rehoboth Bay. And we'll get back in touch with old friends and hit a restaurant or two. We may do a lot of work when we're there, but somehow every bit of it is fun. Whatever we do, it's just because we want to. No matter what we end up doing with it, buying that place was the best thing we ever did. It's a quick and regular getaway, and it represents a new beginning. Remember, the picture you see when you open this page is of sunset from our pier. A view like that every day can bring joy into your life, wouldn't you say? That's why I put it there, for you and for me.

We are still in limbo on Steve's job situation--we expect various shoes to drop any day. The bottom line is that he will be out of work before the end of the year, just a matter of months before we had been planning, and those months change everything. Alternatives we come up with--and the real estate market--will tell the rest of the tale. Some of the alternatives hinge on what things his company may or may not be willing to do for him. We're waiting to hear.

Today I will clean up from the weekend paint job in the dining and powder rooms, and get the house back in order once again.

A day in the life......

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

The picture above shows you what greeted me first thing this morning when I walked into the kitchen. Actually, a version of it greets me every Easter morning--there's always a basket filled with fancy, gourmet goodies and a beautiful card. This was the first time for the eggs--I guess because we now always have a supply of hard-boiled eggs on hand for Steve's so-easy-I-can-do-it-in-my-sleep breakfast. It was just a matter of getting some dye, and then doing the deed after I went to bed. It's one of those little rituals that I love.

Easter always sneaks up on me. Steve's Easter basket really was a surprise for me every year for many years--for the longest time, the arrival of the Spring holiday totally escaped me. For some reason, even though in my family we did the fun things when I was growing up, the baskets and the eggs and the candy, it never loomed large in the year's events. The Easter bunny was a fun cartoon idea but I was never encouraged to believe in him (her?) like I was Santa Claus. The egg-coloring was a family activity on Saturday night--I still remember the vinegar smell of that operation. I only remember one time when my parents hid the eggs. I don't think they did that too often because, depending on how much Canadian Club may have been consumed the night before, my folks may or may not remember where the eggs were hidden. If I didn't find them all, we'd only know where they were by following the smell.

The church part of it was, in my mind, strictly periferal, and only became an issue when I decided the sanctuary was so full on Easter Sunday mainly so the women could show off their finery, the meaning of that particular Sunday being long lost. The place was always too hot, too stuffy and too crowded, and the service was way too long. When I shared these heretical ideas with my parents, they actually agreed with me. The very first Easter morning my parents elected to stay in bed while still insisting that I go to church was when I stopped going, too. Haven't been since.

So. I wish you a happy Easter in whatever way the expression has meaning for you. Eat well!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Sweet Kentucky Dreaming Part 2

As much as Dick Kimmins and I had enjoyed each others’ company in our first taste of truly independent living, when we decided to strike out on our own, it took no time at all for me to realize that I really didn’t have much of a life, and that needed to change. Since my fallback was always music, I decided to try out for the premier choir on campus, the Kentucky Choristers. I got in, and so began a signal time in my life with the people in the university's music department, both students and hangers-on from the town.

It was with the Choristers that I had my first "professional" music experiences, when we teamed up with the city choir and the Cincinnati Symphony for concerts. Among many such occasions was a trip to New York and Carnegie Hall to perform, on which fateful train ride I met a funny, savvy and driven woman named Lou Spencer, my future singing partner and guide to Lexington's beat scene, such as it was. With Lou and her friends, matters sexual were of huge gossip interest--who was doing whom???--but such trivia were never a basis for judgment. They didn't care on what side of the fence you landed, as long as you weren't just sitting on it. That accepting atmosphere made me comfortable enough to approach, at last, my own “gay question,” and it didn't take long for me to decide on which side of the fence I needed to be. Lou introduced me to the man who helped me in that decision--a most important gift.

Another in Lou's cohort was a town girl named Beverly Bell. Beverly supported herself teaching piano, living in her mother's house on her own. It was a treat for me to escape my frugal student digs and visit Beverly's place, a real house with actual, upholstered furniture and rooms to explore. She even had a baby grand piano just like the one I had at home. Beverly was especially known for her big parties, and it was at one of those parties that I met another player who would be consequential to me forever: a guy named Ron.

Ron became my first serious, live-together relationship. We all have a spot in our memories where that one special person resides, and the lessons we learn from knowing them become part of our warp and woof, informing our lives in ways both known and unknown. Ron was 19 to my 21, a freshman piano major. He was from Eastern Kentucky, a part of that place Bobby Kennedy had recently introduced to the rest us as Appalachia. His parents owned the grocery store in the tiny town of Vicco; Ron's Steinway concert grand had its place in the parlor of that little house in the holler. Ron had learned to play the piano by osmosis, via his lifelong incubation in the Church of God, a "holy roller" denomination. He was steeped in church music, having performed in a kids' gospel quartet, traveling the revival circuit since he was a little boy. By the time he hit Lexington, he was a seasoned pro. When I first met him he showed me a piece he was working on, bone-rattlingly exciting music I had never heard before. It was the final movement from Prokofieff's 7th Sonata, one of the most difficult pieces in the whole piano repertory, I later found out. As a freshman in college, Ron was having professional lessons for the first time in his life and playing at that level. I was awestruck as you can be only at that age.

So Ron is in that special space in my memory, but that's just one reason for his importance. He and his family showed me a way of life that could have originated on another planet as far as my limited experience was concerned. They were simple people whose lives were severely circumscribed by the strictures of their church, but who showed me riches and ways of enjoying them I'd never imagined. In a direct way, visits with Ron's family in Vicco prepared me for the cultural dislocation I would experience a few years later in the Peace Corps. When I finally went to Ghana, I had already learned that people with prisms and experiences acutely different from my own had the same basic concerns, joys, and sorrows in life as I, and that if I wanted acceptance anywhere, I need only look for those common values. That's a lesson for a lifetime.

Ron's and my little ship hit the fair seas and squalls you'd expect with two such inexperienced skippers at the helm. At that early age, he thought he was ready to settle down and didn't understand that my mind was already leaving Kentucky, occupied as it was with the burgeoning Viet Nam war and my status with it, and with trying to get into the Peace Corps. Like it or not, a page turn was being forced upon me--I had a life to begin, and that was a scary prospect. I'm afraid we parted very badly, and for a long time I think we shared a feeling of "good riddance" towards each other. But the good will always out, if there is any, and eventually, after 40 years years, we reached out to each other. I found him first, but he told me he'd been searching for me for a long time. We shared what we had done in our lives and tried to heal the ancient wounds of our parting. We've talked for hours on the phone and exchanged long emails. We've shared up-to-date pictures, but as yet we haven't met. Ron is now an important man in the Nashville music scene, a composer, jazz artist, and vocal coach to some of the biggest names in the business. Whatever pain he had in the intervening years seems inevitable in hindsight, and it's enough to make you grateful that we can't see into the future. But he's riding high now, living a very busy life in music, teaching and creating every day. When I wax nostalgic about the music he showed me in college, he tells me that classical stuff wasn't really him, as good as he was at it. His roots are in the holy roller church, and the music he composes, like the voices he works with, are tinged with soul.

It gives me joy to know that this man, so important to me, has weathered his time well and is happy. Circles are simple yet fragile constructs. If they aren't closed, they're broken. I try to close the circles in my life so that the entire course will be satisfied at the end. Knowing that Ron has found contentment and that I played some part in it is a great reward, the sweetest of my Kentucky dreams.



Since my main cooking this week was all things I've recently shared, I don't have anything new to put up today. So here's another favorite from about a year ago that is worth the repeat.

This one is purely my own invention, mothered by my love of fennel and desire to use those cool, uniquely flavored pre-cooked chicken sausages in the meat case (usually by Adele's). The sweet of the sausage and fennel marries well with the savory of the rest of the ingredients. It's a quick, low-calorie, different and easy weekday dinner. And it tastes good.

Notes: Recipes using fennel never say to, but I chop what there is of the stalks thinly and incorporate them into the dish. They have a strong fennel flavor and add an interesting crunch. Up to you. Same goes for the feathery top fronds. A few make a nice garnish and add a bit of flavor. Choice of pasta: I just like wide, ribbony pasta so tend toward tagliatelle or at least fettucine. But use what you like.

12 oz. ribbon-type pasta of your choice

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 package (12 oz.) pre-cooked chicken sausage flavored with apple and maple, sliced thinly on the diagonal
1 medium fennel bulb with stalks and fronds
1 large red onion, cut into wedges pole-to-pole
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 small (15-oz.) can whole tomatoes, undrained, cut into chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Cut stalks and fronds off of fennel, cut fennel bulb in half pole-to-pole, and cut into thick slices. If desired, chop stalks into thin slices, and chop a few fronds into small pieces. Set aside, separating fronds for garnish.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in large non-stick skillet over high heat. Add sausage slices and toss until sugars in meat begin to sear to a deep brown. (It's OK if spots look almost burned.) Remove from skillet and set aside.

In same skillet, heat remaining tablespoon olive oil, add sliced fennel bulbs and stalks, if using, onions and garlic and toss until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and juice and salt and pepper, stir to mix, and simmer to meld flavors, 5-10 minutes. Stir in sautéed sausage slices and heat through.

Drain pasta and return to cooking pot. Add sauce to pasta, toss to mix. Serve with Parmesan cheese.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sweet Kentucky Dreaming

It's the first day of Spring and my thoughts wander back to a place where Springtime should be lived just once to taste its full glory: Kentucky. As I think about it, I'm amazed at the influence the place has had on me and at how serendipitous life is. One of my favorite epigrams is credited to John Lennon. I think of it often and it's relevant again now: "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." Or it's what happened to me, at age 18, when I had no plans at all beyond the foggy notion of "going to college." Kentucky was completely unknown territory to anyone in my family. We had no connections there. The only reason we chose the University of Kentucky for my higher education was because it was cheaper by thousands for me to be an out-of-state student in Kentucky than it was for me to go in-state to the University of Virginia. I intended to major in journalism and it had a reputable journalism school. That was all we needed to know. None of us Cherrys were much on research or pre-planning in those days. When the time came I and my belongings were packed into the Rambler station wagon and off we went.

The picture above is of Haggin Hall, the first dorm I lived in at the University of Kentucky. I've talked about what a disaster those first few months in this foreign land turned out to be. I was totally unprepared for the reality of living in a dorm with a bunch of late-teenage males who were experiencing their first, wild taste of freedom. If you're interested, you can find out all about that fiasco
here. Short version: I ended up coming back home, realizing even as I was climbing back into the old Rambler that I was making a really stupid mistake, and my sainted parents let me go back to Kentucky the next semester.

I dove into my version of college life when I got back. My former dorm neighbor Dick Kimmins and I had stayed in close touch during my absence, and he was the first person I looked up as soon as I returned. Dick was from the small town of Springfield, Tennessee, outside Nashville. He thought it was very cool to have a singing, guitar-playing friend from what was for him the navel of the universe, Washington DC. I had never thought of my home town in such exalted terms and ate up the attention. One weekend soon after I was back, Dick's family, consisting of his mother and his older brother, Joe, came to Lexington to visit Dick, and Dick invited me along to meet them. The big event of the weekend was seeing the recently released "Sound of Music." Through the sharing of the movie and then long, comfortable conversations over dinner and then at their hotel, the Kimminses and I bonded. Mrs. Kimmins became my surrogate mother; Joe, four years older and a man of the world who lived in Atlanta, took me under his wing and became my intellectual mentor, and Dick and I decided we'd be roommates as soon as we were allowed into off-campus housing. Dick and I remained very close for the next year, sharing a room in a house owned by a sweet, ancient widow lady, Mrs. Weddle. The name of our street was and still is beautiful: Linden Walk. Who wouldn't want to live on Linden Walk?

Dick and I began going our separate ways--he into a fraternity, me into the music crowd, but the Kimminses remained important people in my life. Mrs. Kimmins and I exhanged occasional letters until she died in the 1980s; Joe was and remains a figure of profound importance to me, even now, when communication is no longer possible because he has slipped tragically into dementia. Dick and I exchange occasional emails; to that extent we are still in each others' lives. Over time, the dynamics between the Kimminses and me more and more resembled those of a blood family, founded in unconditional love but often strained by individual personality quirks. To this day, in some ways I feel closer to them than I do to my biological family, or at least as close, and that can be both a blessing and a curse. I'm grateful for the blessing and gladly accommodate the curse.

Oh, there's much, much more! Saturday.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Day Of Mourning

Five years ago today, the leaders of this country chose to take us to war against a country that had done us no harm. There is a shameful list of attributes we as Americans are now saddled with as a result, beginning with hubris and going through arrogance, ignorance, bad decisions, and poor planning. It needs no more mention here.

The events of this day five years ago were the final push I needed to stop being a representative of the federal government as embodied by the administration in power. The time for me to leave was approaching anyway; the decision to go became easier once it became clear that the reality I then faced was not what I had signed up for. The Peace Corps was becoming an armed camp compared to the institution of which I had been so proud for the previous 30 years. "Safety and security of the volunteer," always the top priority of the agency even in the best of times, became a fetish. At the same time, the White House ordered the Peace Corps to examine how it could enter "more Muslim countries," in complete ignorance of the fact that we were already working successfully in dozens of them and had always been. The political appointees were interested mostly in keeping their reputations intact and being able to answer to their bosses on Capitol Hill. To anyone raised on the anti-establishment, anti-bureaucratic foundations of this unique federal entity, it was a heartbreaking spectacle. But at least the Peace Corps still exists, and its independent spirit has never died. There is much optimism about the near future.

On September 11, 2001, I remember thinking, "the world changed today." Little did I know what shameful changes were in store.

If this is a downer, sorry. I'm sure the blogosphere will be full of similar sentiments. But the meaning of this day cannot be ignored.

See a classic, moving comment

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Making Biscuits

This thing called the creative process is quite interesting. There are times when I sit here before the blank page, stumped. I look out the window. I remember the oven needs cleaning so go downstairs and get that going. I'm recording the HBO "John Adams" series to disc so we can watch it in Delaware. Get up again and deal with that. Get some coffee. Still can't think of anything to write. Put a message on the neighborhood list serv asking if anybody knows of a shop around here that fixes reel-to-reel tape players. One more little chore done, but I still don't know what to write about.

My Grandma Mac had an expression for this kind of procrastination, this indecision, and it passed through our mother to me and my sister and her kids. It's "making biscuits." I've been making biscuits all morning about what to put in this space.

I finally take the line of least resistance and decide to write about indecision itself. Then a job with a point to it begins. Find some music that talks about choice, decision. That involves making more biscuits, really, because I don't have to write anything yet, just listen to some interesting songs. I finally choose the songs and deal with them in Hipcast. And finally, here I am, filling the space with words about the process that went into filling the space.

Thank goodness I'm not usually afflicted with this blank-pageitis as I go through life generally. I'm actually not much of a researcher and don't appreciate having myriad choices to study, although there are times when a wise choice is important and I will bend and do the necessary inquiries. I prefer to do that at my own pace here at home, however, and the Internet is an invaluable tool for the process. I read reviews of products and services and narrow my choice to one or two. Then I check shopping services for product availability and price. Finally, armed with model numbers and a list of questions to ask, I'm ready to face the store itself. I do shopping malls as little as is humanly possible; the idea of walking into a department or appliance emporium faced with unknowable choices being a nightmare for me. This way, I can march in, with any luck find floor help who not only speaks English but has the mental capacity to engage me and my questions (I know, a very tall order!) and get the transaction done.

You've heard of "thinking outside the box"? We have a friend who lives outside the box. To me, his life seems totally unmanageable. He can juggle a dozen balls at once for indefinite periods of time. When he finally makes a decision, big or small, it is invariably creative to the point of genius. He has the ability to synthesize the good points of dozens of alternatives and come up with something new. He gets frustrated himself at the length of time it all takes, and doing things with him, regardless of the excellence of the probable outcome, is an exercise in diplomacy and patience. Talk about making biscuits--this guy could open a bakery! Once we took a trip with him and asked him him to be the tour director, since he knew the destination better than we did. He presented us with countless choices and gave us the pros and cons of each. He couldn't make up his own mind what was best, and he was the one who knew the place. After an hour we finally pushed ourselves off the fence and, even with all that information, did the equivalent of closing our eyes and pointing. The excursion was excellent, but oh, the trip it was to get to it! Somehow we all end up at the same place anyway, regardless of the means.

I think the oven is finished cleaning. I'll go put in the biscuits.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I confess that physical inertia is one of my greatest talents. When I was a kid, if I should get underfoot and my mother needed me out of the way, she'd say, "Go out and sit on the front porch!" I'd do just exactly that, sit and watch the world go by. No books, no pictures, nothing to occupy my thoughts except what I saw in front of me.

I wish I could remember the exact quote, and I can't find it anywhere. Many years ago, I read that Carol Burnett said something like, "I work in order for the work to be overwith." Bells sounded for me--I'd found a kindred spirit in her feelings about work! If I get started on a job and you catch me in the middle of it, you'll think I'm the hardest worker you ever saw. I give it my all. But don't be fooled. I'm working so hard only to have the job done. "I love work for its own sake," and "I just have to be busy!" are red-blooded American sentiments with which I have no affinity whatsoever. When I was part of the office brigade, I never had to worry about losing my vacation hours because I didn't use them by the end of the year. Those suckers were spent by December 31! Give me an easy chair, something to read, or better yet a stimulating partner in conversation, and I'm right where I want to be.

Sometimes I do find myself hoist on my own petard, though. As much as I'd rather not seek out work, I also like my personal surroundings to be decent. This means there are times when I have no choice but to get myself moving. Not wanting to look like Charles Schulz's Pigpen is a great motivator--I don't want to trail my own cloud of dust. So I will clean the house occasionally. And outside, I will pick up the occasional rake or trowel so the house can look nice there, too. These activities are technically "work," but I can almost see them as fun because I will feel so rewarded when I'm done.

My daily morning walks also come under the "work" category. The walks are a direct result of my certainty that if I didn't take them, there would be days on end when I'd get no signficant use of my body at all. I am strongly in the "use it or lose it" camp when it comes to basic health. My heart and my joints need the workout; they seem to thrive on it. I'm not nearly health-nut enough to be one of those "power walkers," though, with my arms swinging half raised in some regimented torso march. My goal is to establish a good stride and then maintain it for as long as possible on as many gradients as possible, the steeper the better. With my long legs and relatively quick step, I manage just under 4 miles per hour. Not bad!

Life is nothing but one tradeoff after another. I'm grateful for the things that force me to climb out of myself and my natural torpor. I live far more richly than I ever would if there were no external motivators. Buffy Saint Marie I have no problem quoting: "Life's for the living and death's for the dead." It's wonderful to feel alive. Guess I'll get to work!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cleaning Day

I spent this morning doing one of the things I hate the most, cleaning. Just the upstairs, but that was enough. It hadn't been touched up here since the spackle dust disaster of a couple of weeks ago and things were pretty well covered with that light, talcum-like layer, plus the usual ambient cat hair and whatever else goes into the making of a dust bunny. (Or make that dust rabbit in this case, or even hare. Nothing cute and bunny-ish about it.)

While I was working here in my room, which functions as a bedroom and office, I started on the major task of throwing things away or moving them someplace else, in preparation for painting day up here, which could be coming in the next month. I would show you a picture of this cluttered space, but it's not fit for public examination. Suffice to say there's too much stuff in here. One thing that will have to go is a lacquered Chinese black bookcase friends gave us when they were moving. It was too beautiful to think of being relegated to a junk store, so we took it. The only place for it was in here. It's become the resting place of things I never touch, much less look at--antique magazines and newspapers I've bought over the years because I think it's fun to read the old advertisements; various self-help and exercise books, and souvenirs from the trips we've taken.

Steve inherited the scrap book habit from his crafts-oriented family. They all love(d) making things, putting pieces together into a whole, from useful househ0ld objects to collections of miscellany. I guess Steve assumed everybody's like that; somehow I went along with the assumption and the trip stuff ended up in my room. Alas, I don't have the scrapbook gene. My parents were no slouches in the handy-person department, but they weren't collectors beyond the standard pictures and letters. So the scraps that should be in their book by now are just in piles, in varying states of entropy, mostly degrees of "advanced." They collect dust, their composite parts stick out every which way, randomly. Not to put too fine a point on it, they're a mess. My solution: put them in a plastic storage bag, put the bag in a box, pack the box away, and let my heirs discover them. Is that awful? Hmmm...upon consideration, yes, it is.

So I'll make the scrapbooks. Then, guess what? I'll put the books in a box, pack the box away, and let my heirs discover them.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


I'm finding lately that my Saturday mornings are running away with me. I suddenly have so much compelling mental stimulation that I get into the terrible position of having to "just say no," to quote a recent First Lady. (Or should that be "just say no, thank you"?)

Anyway, I get up early to get the paper read. Then Steve gets going and the recent dynamic begins to play itself out. He starts painting, and I come to the computer to see what's going on. This morning there was a post on Zooey and Me that sent me following link after fascinating link--I sat at the computer for a good half-hour as the paint fumes started filling the house. Came up with two great videos that I just had to share with Kat.

I tear myself away and go to the grocery store to get that out of the way before the Saturday crowds descend. I listen to Weekend Morning Edition in the car and get all caught up in that. I come back home and want to keep listening, so find some way to do something useful in the kitchen while the rest of the show is broadcast. Then come Click and Clack. I strap my portable radio to my arm and go outside and weed the back garden. Good, that took the whole hour of the show, didn't have to miss a single laugh. The Homer Simpson quotes were hilarious: "I wish I could be called 'sir" without 'you're causing a scene' being added to it." I wonder once again how The Simpsons' writers manage to stay so fresh after nearly 20 years.

Then comes "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." As if I didn't get enough news satire during the week from Jon Stewart, I'm addicted to this show. I sit down and eat some lunch while I listen (looking "busy" while Steve still paints). I'm done eating, but the show's still on. "Screw it," I think. I drop all pretense and just listen to the show.

I finally come back to the computer and think about writing something. By now it's noon. I see Nan has posted something. I go there. A wonderful piece about gradual, unnoticed change, rings a lot of bells, I want to write a comment. I scroll down and am reminded of the fantastic song she posted the other day, "How Will You Meet Your End?" by A.A. Bondy. I have no idea who Bondy is but I love that song. I listen twice, then buy it, then decide to post it myself. I search for my other song.

By now it's 1 pm. Steve needs rollers and a paint brush. I make a trip to Homo Depot (sic--our inside joke, now you're in on it, too!). This time in the car I get ensnared by "Studio 360" and their deconstruction of "cute." I tear myself away from it and come back here to the computer. Oh no! Another post from Zooey and Me! I reluctantly close that page (I'll go back!), and here I am. And I'm missing Spendid Table. All for you!

On weeds: When we first started our garden, as fertilizer we used the naturally composted, but otherwise untreated, manure from the horses my sister has out at her place. We loved the arrangement until it became clear that whatever the horses ate in their Fairfax County field would take up residence in our Arlington patch. Suddenly we had weeds we'd never seen before, and they return year after year. One of the most common early spring ones is this:

Any idea what it is? It's very tender and has purple bracts (not true flowers) and it's everywhere. I'd been calling in chickweed, but a google image search disabused me. Just curious.........

I've got to get back to my hyper Saturday. Bloglines just beeped. Another byway and then its detours await. And I've got to go see how Steve is doing and offer to be "busy."

As if!

Friday, March 14, 2008



A quick perusal of the ingredients here will show you this is not your mother's meat loaf. Anything that calls for cracker crumbs, marjoram and vermouth has got to be interesting, at least...that was my thought when I first tried this recipe 20 or so years ago. It's now a special treat for when I want to totally pig out. This is the best meatloaf I've ever tasted and we can hardly stop ourselves from finishing the whole thing in one sitting. It's adapted from my good old Doubleday Cookbook, 1975 edition.

Notes: use this three-meat mixture. The textures of each meld into a smooth, almost creamy finish. Just beef will be just another (your mother's? Mine, yes) meatloaf. I usually have trouble finding ground veal, so I buy whatever I can, usually what's been sliced for scallopine, and chop it in the food processor.

As usual when it comes to seasonings, take the recipe amounts with a grain of salt, as it were. I use a heavy hand with all of them, especially the garlic. I bet you will, too!

1 lb. pound ground beef'
1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. ground veal
1 cup finely chopped sweet onion
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 cup coarse soda cracker crumbs
3 eggs
1/4 cup dry white vermouth
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons minced fresh sage or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/4 teaspoon parsley flakes
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven to 350 F. Mix all ingredients thoroughly, using your hands, and form into loaf shape in rimmed baking pan. Bake, un­covered, 1 hour and 25 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 160 F. Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes. Pour off any drippings and serve.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Manly Arts

For some reason, the Eliot Spitzer drama sends my thoughts in this direction. I think I went from the idea of his pugnacity to my lack of it.

If you talk to any gay man long enough, the chances are very high that you will hear stories of torment at the hands of his peers in high school gym. Gay jocks, a seeming oxymoron, do exist, but they are so rare (or so closeted) that they make news when they come out or are outed. I'm no exception to the rule. Gym class was torture for me; the only good thing about it was that it lasted only three years (high school for me was grades 8 through 12). When I hit my junior year I was finally free of the daily agony. I could show off my good points with no fear of being dragged back to humiliation, and I hit the ground running. I burst out as a social animal and pursued excellence in music. My mental health was better exponentially, but the scars of the previous awfulness remained. The nagging idea that my good points were by definition second best, no matter how good, took years to leave. They were only second best, supposedly, because I couldn't do the things that I ought to have been able to do. And I was left with a lifelong distaste for and disinterest in sports, or any form of competition at all, for that matter. If I play a game of some kind now, it's strictly for the fun of it. If another player starts being cutthroat and takes winning too seriously, I quickly lose interest. I don't play to win. I play to have fun. If I do win, that's great. But if I don't, I've still had a lot of laughs along the way.

I've never been in a fight, as a kid I never "rassled." I haven't the faintest idea how to throw a punch, and if I actually hurt somebody doing it I'd be scared to death. If the torment of the day actually included hitting of some kind (at times it did), I never fought back because I didn't know how--my performance in trying would simply have brought more humiliation. So I learned how to keep a poker face, never to give my tormentors the satisfaction of any response at all. I just looked away, or if I could, calmly walked away. What about help? Go to a counselor, or to my parents? Never. That would simply have brought attention to my plight; more people than myself would have had to acknowledge it. I made a conscious decision to handle the problem in my own way.

The lucky among us gain useful insight and become better people as a result of hardships we've had to endure. The lessons are forced upon us, to be sure, and if we had any choice in the matter, we'd rather have sat them out, but like any unpleasant medicine, they do us good in the long run. Just being "different" in my pre-adolescent years (not even knowing what "gay" meant) gave me an outsider's vantage point that I treasure to this day. As you carry your secret around, you become very observant of "normal" behavior in all its nuance. You adapt as you are able and become expert at faking the rest. It's no coincidence that the Peace Corps is home to many, many gay people. We are great cultural adapters. We've been adapting as outsiders our entire lives--it's second nature to us.

The later torment in high school and my stoic reaction taught me the lesson of patience, and gave me a strong sense of integrity. I never bowed, I fought in my own way by being better than the bullies. I was always proud to have survived another day, and that was a very good feeling.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

12th Street

I'm looking out my window. I'm on the second story and have a roof-level view of a little square of 12th Street. The house directly across from me used to be the Slineys'. We didn't know the Slineys well, but one day, soon after we started the big renovations on our house, there was a knock on the door, and it was Mrs. Sliney. She had two photos with her that showed our house on the bed of a truck being moved here. The pictures are printed with "April 1959" on them, and she said she thought we'd enjoy having them. They were priceless, unexpected gifts that now form the frontispiece of the photo album we made to document the changes we made to the house over the years.

The house next to the Slineys, with the big dormer roof built across the top, was the Burtons'. "Burt" is a retired Marine, gentle and very quiet; Elizabeth was the neighborhood "historian" (less charitable tongues termed her a gossip). On summer evenings they would pull metal lawn chairs out to their driveway and watch the world go by. Sometimes they'd invite us over, and that was a treat, because Elizabeth would tell stories about the neighbors. You felt kind of funny, lapping up all this juicy dirt, and you definitely didn't want to let her get to know you well enough to become part of her repertoire. But you sure learned a lot.

On the other side of the Slineys, visible to me if I lean to my right a bit, lived divorcee Gerri Watson, and directly across from Gerri, next door to us, was widow Cici Barr, a tiny, sweet lady from Colombia who married a WW II vet and settled here. Gerri was the wild one. By day she was a buttoned-down accountant in A-line skirts and harlequin glasses. But by night she liked to par-tay!! In our first years here, we used to throw major Christmas bashes with some hundred or so people sardined into this place. We used the usual ploy of inviting all the neighbors, reasoning they couldn't complain about noise if they were invited to make some of it. Gerri and Cici always showed up, and always first. Gerri was a vision in the same dress every year, a floor-length taffeta number that looked like it had been stashed away since her 1950s prom. Her brown wig was teased so high she had to look out for our ceiling fans. And the look was always completed by those harlequin glasses. Cici, of course, was along for the ride but sort of faded into the woodwork next to Gerri. As they arrived at the first party and we led them to the bar, Gerri made no bones about informing us that they were "here to meet men!" Knowing the mostly lavender, or already-spoken-for, complexion of the crowd that was on its way, we just wished them happy hunting and moved on. As the party got going, who was after what ceased to matter. Gerri danced up a storm with any human on two legs, harlequin frames and towering wig more and more aslant, at opposing angles. (Sadly, Gerri and Cici had a falling out in a few years--we never knew about what--and they stopped speaking. Gerri also stopped speaking to us, too, we think because of the sometimes boistrous Friday happy hours we started having on our new front porch. She was never specifically invited, but nobody was. It was a happy hour--just show up if you want to. But Gerri chose to take a negative view. Her loss. She'd have been welcomed with open arms if she had just come over.)

We soon learned that Gerri didn't limit her prowling just to our parties. One summer on a late Saturday night as we were driving home from somewhere, we spied Gerri walking to her house, barefoot, in her yellow shortie pajamas, a satchel of beer under her arm. She was coming from the Burtons'. We never knew how long the flame had burned between her and Burt, but apparently it grew from pilot maintenance to sear after Elizabeth went to her reward.

All of those people, original settlers in our neighborhood, are gone now. Burt got too frail to keep up his meticulous landscaping and moved in with his son; his wife Elizabeth, the Slineys, Gerri and Cici have all passed on. The Burtons' house and Gerri's are now rentals housing crowds of young singles who have their own parties--they've never invited us. The neighborhood still looks the same, but the feeling is different. We were once the hot new blood on the street; now we're just settled fogies who worry about real estate values.

The current talk in the air about change is nothing to new to us. We've been talking about it for a few years now, and it has nothing to do with politics. We are ready to turn a new page in our own lives, ready to be the new guys on the street again, in the new house. And so help us, it'll happen.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Music According To Me

I discovered what most of us call "folk music" in my junior year of high school, twirling the radio dial. Singing was just entering my life in a big way at the time. I was in the "prestige" singing groups at school, and I had just done my first public solo, "O, Isis and Osiris," from "The Magic Flute." The second came soon after, at a talent show in my high school auditorium. I sang the Baez version of "The Cherry Tree Carol."

I so clearly remember my discovery of Joan Baez. It was my first experience of being thunderstruck by music. She had the most beautiful singing voice I had ever heard, and her persona was unique. She sang completely unadorned, both physically and musically. She was immediately known for appearing in concert in what critics called "gunny sacks," with her long hair unstyled, and no makeup. Her music was equally plain, just her voice and her guitar. She mostly sang ancient folk songs from England, and I was thrilled by how she could bring to life the long-dead people she was singing about. With nothing but vocal inflection and the control of volume she acted out the stories she sang and brought them vividly to life, and it was revelatory because the concerns of those people were exactly the same as mine.

Of course, I wasn't the only one who was so impressed. Baez gained a huge audience in a very short time. She and singers like her struck a nerve in the young public of the day, so tired of the slick product that was pop music at the time. In many ways, we were still listening to our parents' music, which had long been in a rut. "Our" music, rock, was in the pre-Beatles doldrums, vascillating between old-style pop and nascent (to the white audience) rhythm and blues. People were looking for something "authentic," and Baez and then the others who followed scratched that itch. Of course, Joan Baez was by no means the first in the line of folk performers who were active at the time. The real "movement" went back at least as far as the 50s with people like England's Richard Dyer-Bennet, and we Yanks had Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. But Baez was the first to reach a truly mass audience. For that reason she had her detractors. There was always the crowd who thought mass appeal ipso facto cheapened the music. That did nothing to stop the folk juggernaut.

My Baez discovery led me to the exploration of other artists on Vanguard, her label. The most memorable I found were Buffy Sainte Marie and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Buffy was another kettle of fish altogether, just as "authentic" as Baez (by my strict standards), but with a very different, more visceral sound. Judy Collins was not on Vanguard, but she was also an early discovery of mine. As good as she is, and as sophisticated her musical style, it took me a while to warm to her. Why? She used a bass as accompaniment in addition to her guitar. "Too commercial!" I thought. (Of course, Peter, Paul and Mary were completely beyond the pale with their mainstream sound, until I saw Mary Travers's intense involvement with her songs. After that, I thought they were at least OK, and then I completely forgave them when they came out with "Blowin' in the Wind." It was PP&M, not Baez, who introduced me to Bob Dylan.)

We all know what happened to those "purity" movements of the 60s. Drug pushers went to bed with the Hippies, whose innocent "peace and love" message was co-opted by the marketplace. Soon you had middle-aged hipsters wearing love beads and too-tight too-tight bottoms, and everything was "psychedelic." The "pure" folk music of Baez gave way to Dylan, who gave us the Byrds, and of course Dylan himself famously left pure folk behind at Newport. Folk-rock was born. At about the same time, the Beatles came along with their British music-hall infused tunes (thus allowing pure melody into rock) and the two styles eventually fused and created the great singer-songwriter phenomenon of the late 60s and early 70s. Joni Mitchell, where had you been all my life?

Today's music market is so segmented, and the means of discovery and delivery so numerous, that it's impossible to compare it with what I grew up with. When I started to get serious about listening to music, a single radio station was free to play all styles, from r&b to rock to Sinatra to country. It was easy to pick and choose among the genres and find the best of them all. Now, I feel like I'm in an overcrowded department store, or in a restaurant with too many choices on the menu. I still discover good music purely by chance, but the outlets are so numerous I just know I'm missing The Next Big Thing. Thank God for the TV show, "Queer As Folk." If I hadn't been watching one night, I'd have never discovered Rufus Wainwright. And where would I be without him!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Dancin' Fool

For several years, our across-the-street neighbor lady on Meadow Lane, Clara Miller, ran a dancing school. She taught mostly tap and ballet, but one year she branched out into ballroom dancing. I don't remember any conversation about it, but I found myself in that class, I guess some time in my pre-teens. I didn't really object to it--on Saturday nights, I'd get dressed up in my sport jacket and clip-on bow tie, my father would take me to some high school gym, and I'd box step, cha-cha and jitterbug with girls I'd never seen before, nor would I see again. The classes actually came in handy a few years later when I started watching the Milt Grant Show, DC's answer to American Bandstand (well, I watched both!). I knew what those kids on the screen were doing, anyway.

I held my own on the dance floor through early high school. I had fun at school dances and at the myriad basement record parties my friends and I threw for each other during those years. Then came The Twist. Suddenly, you had to stand there by yourself, a solo act, as it were, moving in ways I had no instinct for. And from The Twist, things rapidly degenerated even more into free-form, let-it-all-hang-out gyrating that was anathema to this gangly, waist-in-his-armpits, pre-gay adolescent. The jitterbug and the cha-cha were sent to the muscle-memory warehouse, never to be called on again, and the dance floor for me was terra incognita from the end of high school through college.

Then I went to Ghana. In Ghana, there are some things you just don't do halfway. One of them is drinking: if you sit down with a few beers, you mean business, because beer is sold only in litre bottles. And the other is dancing. Combine the two and An Occasion may just be in the offing.

The best dance floors in Ghana, indeed in all of West Africa, are truly spectacular. They are terrazzo, outdoor, under-the-stars affairs that invite true abandon. There is nothing, including a bottle of Star beer, more intoxicating than the sight of African bodies, dressed to the peacock nines, either moving sinuously to the traditional High-Life, or somehow combining innate grace with stomping and shaking to western imports. Still, aside from a single, notorious conga-line to Janis Joplin's "Half Moon" that snaked through Michele's school compound at one of her parties, my dancing muscles stayed dormant through most of my nearly three years in Ghana. Toward the very end of my time there, though, that changed.

I stayed in Ghana a few months longer than the rest of the people I went there with to serve with the Peace Corps until my 26th birthday (see Peace Corps entries in the archive). With all of my American friends gone and weekends free, I started making twice-monthly trips to the capital, Accra, just to have some fun. At a mere $16 for round-trip airfare, and with dirt cheap accommodations at the Peace Corps hostel, this extravagance was within the budget even of a Peace Corps volunteer. On these Accra trips, a new world opened to me, populated by traveling young ex-pats of all nationalities and stripes, and a community of urban Ghanaian ex-pat followers who all crawled the dance bars and hung out together. I attached myself to one of these groups and started seeing an Accra which up to then I had no idea existed. I'd go to the dance palaces and be awed by the experience, but still, I didn't dance. It was fun enough just to watch.

On one of these pub-crawl nights, a dance contest was announced. The crowd murmured excitedly and I looked forward to a great show. The band was fantastic, a full-sized Ghanaian cover band that sounded just like the real thing, whatever they played. Their speakers were huge, at least as tall as I was; the sound entered not just your ears, but your entire body. The contest started, and the music the band played, totally unknown to me, was the most compelling mix of African beat and rhythm and blues I had ever heard. You were propelled onto your feet, there was no choice in the matter, a corpse couldn't sit still. On that night all self-consciousness left me. There was one tiny English girl sitting at the table with me, and spontaneously we got up to dance, contest or no contest.

Ghanaian dance contests are elimination matches. Judges and the non-dancing crowd showed their favorites by sticking money, in this case 1-cedi notes, to the sweaty foreheads of the dancers. (A cedi was the equivalent of a dollar.) Suddenly, I, a gangling, 6"4" 160-pound white bag of bones and my pygmy-size female excuse to get out of my chair started collecting cash. It was too ridiculous for words, all we could do was laugh at it. But the music was still chugging away, we kept dancing, and we kept dodging the eliminations. Finally, it came down to two couples: midget girl and me, and a professional Ghanaian rocker named (I'm not making this up) Pee-Pee Dynamite and his date.

Guess who won? The grand prize was a case of Coca-Colas. Since the Ghanaians had graciously allowed the crazy white guy to win, and since we hadn't even intended to compete, were clearly a sympathy vote because we were no match for Pee-Pee's professional moves, and we had no use at all for the Cokes, we handed them over to Pee-Pee. Of all the fun times I've had in my entire life, that night in Accra is up in the top five, at least. And from that time to this, I've found the dance floor a welcoming space.

Postscript: I never forgot that incredible music, but I never thought I would hear it again. I assumed it was African-produced; I never knew the name of the band to look for their records, so I just packed the sound away as an indescribable memory. Then, a couple of years later, on the radio in Boston, there it was! Santana. The first cut on their first album. I ran to the record store that instant. When I put it on, I relived the entire Accra experience and was able to tell my dance contest story for the first time. And we danced!

I'd have posted that very music today, but this is Monday, after all. You need to be ushered gently into the week. If you want to hear it, pull out the old LP, or download it. You won't regret it, I promise.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


I have to admit that between the house being in a state of constant disarray and Steve's shaky job situation, it's felt like a perfect storm of crap around for the past week or so, and my mood as not been the best. I'm feeling much better today and here's why. The living room and den project is finally done! We're overjoyed with the results and can only look forward to how the rest of the house will eventually look. Here's the den:

In the den pics, note that the beloved Big Chair and French Clock are where once again where they belong. The clock still isn't working, but that will change very soon.

So. The job situation is still as ominous, but at least we have a more pleasant place to stew about it in!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I've already written quite a bit here. Next stop: the dining room!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Cursed technology of the old kind....

I'm stuck here at the computer again most of this weekend while painting proceeds downstairs. And while I've been here I've been trying to take a walk down my own musical Memory Lane.

First, since we're taking the den apart to be painted, I got the chance to bring my LP turntable up here and make a concerted effort transfer my LP tracks to MP3s and thence to my music library. I know they make turntables dedicated solely to this task, but I'm cheap. The internet is replete with instructions on how to do it yourself--connect this to that, download some freeware, and you're on your way. It appears 'tis not to be, alas. I could hook my turntable up to my computer, but I never got any sound to come out of my speakers. And all that "freeware" ends up costing plenty. I'd even consider buying it if I thought I could make any initial progress (see: hearing music through speakers, above) but since I couldn't, the DIY LP project is kaput. I don't want to spend a couple hundred bucks on a special turntable that I will use for a one-off project, because once that project was over, I'd be stuck with yet another consumer dust-catcher, and I've got them coming out of my ears already. Next stop: ebay. I figure there are others who've found themselves in the same predicament. Maybe there's a turntable out there that is making the rounds of boomer LP owners one by one, use and re-sell, use and re-sell.

The other interesting project had to do with ancient reel-to-reel tapes, of which I have many, dating all the way back to high school, and including a professional tape I made during my "singing career" in Boston. They have been mouldering away in a closet as technology has overtaken them, until now, when reel-to-reel tape machines are museum items for most normal people. Enter our friends Frank and Rick, collectors of all things old and interesting. We were with them last night and I mentioned my old tapes. "I have a reel-to-reel," says Frank. Off we go to their house. He pulls it out of the place it's been sitting for 30-odd years, dusts it off, and plugs it in. When we open it up, we discover that a tape has been sitting on it for as long as it's been hidden away. We set it to "play," and we discern, just barely, Stevie Wonder singing "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" at about a quarter speed. I'm encouraged--maybe it just needs to be run for a while to get up to speed--so I bring it home.

This morning I set it up and put on my Boston tape--and there I am! But I sound a bit tired, singing at about half speed (that's better than a quarter). I let it run, and run and run. But I never sound any better.

So on that project I'm about halfway there. I intend to price repairs for this old machine--it's a solid Sony, after all--and maybe something will come to fruition. If anything interesting happens, I'll let you know. The greatest thing would be if I could "MP3-ize" myself and post me! Now wouldn't that be something!

Friday, March 7, 2008


Neapolitan Pot Roast With Creamy Onion Gravy

The only word for this dish is luscious. The recipe is my adaptation from the one in a wonderful 1997 cookbook called In Nonna's Kitchen, by Carol Field. Field scoured rural Italy and collected recipes from the "grandmothers" (nonnas) and brought them together in this book. She says of this recipe: "This dish is real home cooking, something that you would never find in a restaurant. It was once the sauce used by poor people in Naples for Sundays and holidays before it was replaced by the now famous ragù." If that's progress, all I can say is, give me the old days.

Notes: you'll think there's no way you can eat all these onions, but trust me. What you're doing here is "sweating" them down to their component parts. The juice has no place to go but into the meat, which is tenderized and flavored by it. The solids are pulverized into a creamy consistency. The name of the dish is no accident. There's just no dairy in it. As for the cut of meat: I just use a standard boneless pot roast and it works fine.

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) diced pancetta
3 pounds finest pot roast in one piece, such as point of the rump, or bottom round
Salt and pepper to taste

8 large (about 4 pounds) sweet white onions, finely sliced
2 to 3 carrots, chopped
1 small celery rib, finely chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh marjoram
1 cup beef broth
1/3 cup dry white or red wine
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, or 1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 lb. wide pasta such as linguine or egg noodles, cooked al dente

Warm the olive oil and pancetta in a deep, heavy casserole or a 12-inch heavy sauté pan large enough to hold the meat and all the onions comfortably. Season meat and add to hot oil. Sear over high heat until it is well browned, 7 to 8 minutes per side. While meat is browning, combine broth, wine and tomatoes in a medium bowl and set aside. Once it is browned, remove the meat to a plate. Do not clean out pan. Lower heat and add the onions, carrots, celery, parsley, basil, and marjoram. Cover and cook over the lowest possible heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and limp but have taken on no color, at least 25 to 30 minutes. (The onions will cook down considerably.) Return browned meat to the pot, burying it completely in the onions. Add combined liquids, cover the pot and cook over the lowest possible heat another 2 ½ to 3 hours, until the onions are a thick mass and the meat is fork-tender. Remove from heat and allow to rest 10-15 minutes before serving.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Serve half of the sauce over the pasta and the rest over the meat.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Some expressions are just too useful to be discarded, never mind recent, transient degradations. And so I'll go ahead and use "last throes" to describe the current state of Old Man Winter in these parts. We're headed for a short spate of night time 20-degree temperatures over the next few days, but the living things around me seem to know it's OK to send out their tender youth, from the birds to the perennial bulbs to the trees. Our red maple out front is loaded with tiny leaves already, while its silver cousin in the back is dropping its red flower buds in profusion (as it drops everything else over the course of the year, from its helicopter-like seeds to its dead leaves). And the surest sign: my eyes are getting irritated and I'm stuffing up. There's pollen somewhere. Must be the silver maple.

The picture above is a view of part of our back yard. I took it and am posting it mainly as a stark reminder of the work ahead of us outside. Much as there is still plenty to do within these four walls, there is at least as much beyond them.

When we moved here in 1981, the back yard was an unbroken green expanse. We tilled the dirt and created that big garden you see on the left as soon as we got here. It proved to be sunny and prolific, producing tomatoes enough to put up for the winter, and, one extraordinary season, 15 pounds of raspberries. But living things grow, and nothing stays as it started. The tree on the other side of the fence, whose trunk you see just to the left of the utility pole, is a white oak, probably about 40 years old. When we arrived on the scene, it was a sapling, and we've enjoyed watching it mature over the years. But with its maturity has come an ever-encroaching blotting of the sunlight, to the point that now the garden is completely shaded. It gets no sun at all except at the extreme front edge, where the garden timbers are. We are bowing to the inevitable and plan to return that space to its previous green state. We'll keep the timbers there and the row of daylilies that grows behind them, and then create an outdoor "room" of lawn beyond, with a few chairs and a cocktail table. It will be a sitting space alternate to our deck, which is immediately out the back door and from which the picture was taken. No doubt it will look very nice and help the house "show" well. But we won't have that garden any more, and we'll miss it. I hope the narrow strip that begins to the right of the bird feeder and extends to the other property line will still work. That's where I've got my rhubarb and where I may move the raspberries.

Working with plants is something like having pets, at least to the extent that over time the plants get bigger and as they grow they must be either adapted to their environment or, worst case, "put down." We're facing that prospect with two lilacs we have in a side garden. Lilacs at their best are either tightly controlled in their growth, taking planned advantage of the suckers they produce, or are allowed to go rampant and become huge. We didn't know the former when we planted ours--all we were after were the pretty, fragrant flowers--and we haven't the space for the latter. So after this year's flowering season they will have to come out, having become just too ungainly. There are two arborvitae we intended as accent trees near our front porch that have not aged at all well. They've lost their shape. I tried pruning one and have now seen it will take several seasons for it to fill in again. So later in the spring I'll be going to a nursery for some advice on tall, compact, shade-tolerant evergreens (know of any?), and probably be dropping a pretty penny on two fully-grown trees.

But with all this work to anticipate, still, as I sit here and look out at the front yard, I'm pretty proud of the way the place looks, with its terraced beds of azaleas, and colorful flowers planted with their blooming time in mind so that something is almost always flowering. I've learned that some plants are not worth the work they require--hybrid roses, for example, are wholly engineered organisms that would not survive without constant human intervention--and that others repay you many times over for the care you give. In that category are peonies, a constant joy, with their big, puffy flowers and their wonderful scent.

Muck, here I come!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Clothes Make The Man?

To give you and idea of where my ideas are headed today, here's a picture of what I call my "shirt of many colors." It's not a print. Each of those squares is separate; they've all been sewn together into this incredible shirt. I saw it hanging in some store years ago and stopped dead in my tracks. I had to have it. It's very bulky and not actually suitable to wear as a regular shirt. I wear it as a light jacket.

I usually think of myself as a pretty plain person, without frills. Presentation is not my thing. For instance, we throw an occasional pull-out-all-the-stops dinner party, where I'll cook something really fancy and we'll use all the heirloom china and silverware. The table ends up looking as if set for a royal court, a work of art in itself. Since I'm the cook, guests assume I'm responsible for the decoration, too, and they must always be disabused. I'm not. The look is entirely Steve's doing. I have no eye nor original imagination for such a display. A recurring dream of mine is that I'm driving a car, on my way somewhere. The car, always and still, is an old VW Beetle, bouncing along the road cartoon-style. I'm the Beetle.

And yet you'll find me in getups like this shirt. In public. I guess clothes are different.

My parents had strict rules about clothes for me when I was in elementary school. Even then, a nice pair of bluejeans was acceptable and fairly common for boys, but not for me. No jeans allowed, only "hoods" wore jeans. And I longed to be able to kick my shoes off, sometimes pad around the classroom in my stocking feet like the cool kids did, but you could only do that in loafers. No loafers for me, either. My feet were "still forming" and needed the structure of shoes that tied. (Maybe that's why I can only wear such narrow, hard-to-find B-width shoes now.) One year my folks even had me wearing clip-on bow ties to school. Looking back, I can only shake my head in amazement that I suffered not a single black eye.

I love color. I don't really have a favorite; I like any color as long as it pops. Chinese red, cerulean blue, kelly green, any highly saturated member of the basic color wheel, or interesting mixture thereof. Again, when I was a kid, the combination of pink and black came into vogue for a while. This was something my mother and I could agree on. I got a snazzy short-sleeved pink dress shirt and a pair of black slacks. I loved that outfit.

West Africa is a wonderland for anyone who enjoys color. Skin tones there consort with gold, red, turquoise. In West African Muslim countries such as Senegal or Mali, women's hijab couldn't be more different from the imprisoning burkas worn in the Middle East. Heads are covered with high headdresses of brilliant color, sometimes accented with metallic gold thread, and bright skirts can billow in the breeze like designer parachutes. To stroll in some African cities is to be awash in a riot of color.

I, of course, delighted in all this when I lived in Africa and took it as a given that I could wear those colors, too. When I came home in 1972 I needed to replenish my wardrobe, so I loaded up on colors unusual even for that anything-goes era. Here's a memorable outfit: a pair of lime-green stretch bellbottoms, topped by a raspberry-colored shirt and a wide, brocade tie that combined the green and the red. On my feet were a pair of blond leather boots. I laugh out loud even as I write these words. I wore that outfit once. The boots stayed, as did the shirt. The pants went to the Salvation Army (from which they probably traveled to a used-clothing stall in Africa, where I'm sure they were snapped right up worn to great acclaim).

I may have had that brocade tie, but for many years I despised neckties and avoided them if I could. They are not only uncomfortable. To me they always represented the ultimate sellout to conformity, the suit-and-tie uniform all men were supposed to wear if they meant to be taken seriously in the corporate world. One of the many dispiriting things about the AAA was that a necktie was required for all men, whether they were meeting the public or not. One day I decided to break the rules. I put on a black turtleneck sweater, covered it with a blue flannel Pendleton shirt, and around my neck I put a small leather amulet from Ghana. (If anybody asked me, I'd say that was my "tie.") I wowed 'em, but my poor supervisor had no choice. She pulled me aside and, looking sheepish, said, "Ralph, you couldn't look sharper, but you have to wear a tie." My strike for men's liberation at the AAA went nowhere.

When I finally started working at Peace Corps headquarters, ties were at first an option, but when the corporate-minded Reaganites came in there was very distinct pressure on the men to start wearing ties every day. By then I had refined my strategy and was able to avoid the "uniform" look by wearing colored, non-dress shirts with ties that complemented the look of the shirt. This was something unique (for conservative DC, anyway) for a while, but soon it became common, to the point where dress shirts are now widely available in an array of bright colors. If we boomer men have done anything for the look of our gender, it's been to relax that old strict code of drabness and let some of the rainbow in.

Now, I guess I do wear a uniform of sorts. In the winter I wear jeans and T-shirts and in the summer it's shorts and T-shirts. I have a closet full of very cool clothes that I have virtually no more reason to wear. My stiff leather dress shoes accumulate dust. The occasional lunch with working friends in town gives me a chance to raid my closet and pull out some favorite shirt that hasn't seen the light of day in four years. I really should go through my closet and weed out the things that don't stand much chance of being worn again, and that day will come soon enough, when we start packing to move. But I know I'll be putting it off until the last possible minute. It'll be like tossing out beautiful old friends.