Saturday, May 31, 2008

Picture Perfect

Today is a day of images. The one at top is so cool I just had to share it, and it looks a flower. I decided that more flowers, real ones we have growing on our deck and elsewhere in the back yard, would be fun to share and in keeping with the theme. (It'll also give me practice in posting photos and manipulation the html code to get them placed properly. A fun way to learn, I hope for you as well as for me.)

That first image is what the title of this blog "looks like" when it's run through the treatment to be found here. I have no idea how it works, or even what the process is, but you can plug any URL into it and come up with these graceful patterns. They grow and build before your eyes like some kind of speeded up, morphed snowflake. The colors vary depending on the ones in the web page you are using. For this I must once again thank The Eclectic Pundit, who never fails to amaze and amuse me with his one-off finds from around the net.

This first real flower I want to show you is called a purple oxalis. I first saw it growing in an office where I once worked and decided I wanted one of my own. It grows like a weed, winter (inside) and summer, and loves it in a shady spot on the deck, where it's only requirement is plenty of water and occasional light fertilizer. This plant is about 10 years old. It grows so prolifically that I can divide it every year and give pieces of it away, so by now it is gracing living rooms and decks in various places around the country. There is a green version, too, with pure white flowers, but I think this one, with its dramatic purple leaves, is prettier.

Next on the tour of the deck is this strawberry pot filled with impatiens and petunias. It's an idea that Steve brought with him, so we've had a variation
of it every year since we've lived together, since 1980. As the season progresses the blooms get thicker and thicker, until it's a virtual chia pet of impatiens by the end of summer. Again, the care is simple, just plenty of water and a little fertilizer. (The petunias in the top are new this year. I didn't buy enough impatiens, and when I went back to the nursery, those colors were sold out. The petunias were a close match in color, and they have the bonus of the heady fragrance of the blue ones. If it all fills in well, I'll do it again next year.)

At the foot of the deck where the sun shines most is this year's single tomato plant, in a tub. That was Steve's idea, too. This was the only way his dad grew tomatoes and I thought I'd try it. I grew tired of tomatoes succumbing to whatever blights attacked it from my garden soil; plus, there is too little sunlight left in the garden for tomatoes, anyway. I didn't want to face a summer with no home-grown tomatoes at all, so this looked like a good solution. I know container gardening for tomatoes is not really news-making, but it's an experiment for me. I hope it works the way it's supposed to.

Towards the back now, to this gorgeous specimen that's been gracing the yard from its pot for three years now. As you sit on the deck, your eye rests immediately on its lacy branches. It overwinters in place, with no attention whatsoever; the only thing it needs to get started in the sapring is a shot of liquid fertilizer. The delicate flowers fade in the extreme heeat of our summers, but they will give a smaller second crop in the fall.(I saved the tag from the nursery, but of course it's gone now. If you know the name I'd love it if you could tell me.)

We come finally to this pair of clematis intertwining at the back of the yard. They, too, are three years old and so still coming into their own; I'm very pleased with the effect of mixing the two blooms. Clematis is so impressive with its huge, showy flowers covering anything its vine can attach itself to. It was a favorite of my mother's--she had one of the classic purple varieties--and I planted one of them as soon as I had a place for it. It's still going strong, twined on a lamp post in the front, where it was planted in 1979.
I started this post at 10 this morning and now, at 2:30, it's fiinally going up. There were a few interruptions: chores and unexpected errands, of course, and then an enormous thunderstorm that took down all out power. I'm going to get this out now while the getting is good! Hope your Saturday is unfolding beautfiully.

Friday, May 30, 2008



It seems I was away for so long. I started this routine up again just yesterday. Is it really Friday? The calendar says it is. So here's something to eat.

This is a dish I invented from scratch many years ago and have been evolving and refining ever since, and it's so free-form it will probably keep changing. There are a couple of undiluted cans of soup in it that I'm sure the purists among you will reject right away, and I admit sometimes even I can't believe I'm dumping them in when I make this, but the end result is so satisfying and cozy that it's OK. Call it a quick and easy guilty pleasure and a sure-fire weeknight family pleaser. The smoothness of the sauce is counterbalanced by the crunch of the vegetables, and a culinary secret, slightly carmelizing a little tomato paste before adding anything else, adds depth to the flavor. Another secret: the cabbage disappears into the sauce but its sweetness remains, adding more depth.

If you're watching your cholesterol or have other issues with beef, use ground turkey. I never tried it with textured vegetable protein, but it would probably work. Serve over rice or your pasta of choice.

1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 generous tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium ribs celery, coarsley chopped
1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 large carrot, grated (1 to 1 1/2 cups)
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced cabbage
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
finely chopped garlic cloves, to taste
1 can undiluted cream of mushroom soup
1 can undiluted cheddar cheese soup
1 large can sliced mushrooms, undrained
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dried basil

In a skillet deep enough to hold all ingredients, brown beef until it is no longer pink. Season beef with salt and pepper to taste while browning. Remove beef to bowl and set aside, pour fat from skillet.

In same skillet, heat olive oil to shimmering, then add tomato paste. Over medium-high heat, stir tomato paste into oil and cook until it darkens slightly, but doesn't burn, about 5 minutes. Immediately add all chopped vegetables, including garlic. Stir to coat everything with tomato-infused oil, and then stir-fry until vegetables begin to soften, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in soups, mushrooms, Worcestershire and basil, then add reserved beef. Combine well. (At this point the pasty look of those soups will cause you to say, "what have I done?!" but go with it. The liquid from the veggies will dilute the soups to the desired consistency.) Lower heat, partially cover, and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If at the end of 20 minutes the sauce looks too thin, simmer uncovered 5 minutes more, or until desired thickness is reached. Check seasoning, serve immediately.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Two Worlds

So here I am with a couple of hours all to myself, back in the Arlington routine for a week or so, with the luxury of time to explore the ether. It's becoming clear the deeper I get into my writing and friendships here that I inhabit two entirely separate worlds: this one and the flesh-and-blood one. You readers are familiar with both, because I'm able to talk about the flesh-and-blood world here in my writing, but you only know me in my "literary" voice, the one that comes out soundlessly via my keyboard. The people in my flesh-and-blood world by and large do not know about the virtual world I inhabit with you. They either don't understand blogging, or they are too busy with their flesh-and-blood lives to have the time to mosey around in the ethernet, or they are not great readers....the reasons are many, and depending on the person each one is valid. But they know a "me" that you don't: in that other world I tend to ask questions and then sit back and listen instead of dominating the conversation as I do here.

I, of course, have the best of both, but wish I could mix the two better. I know many of us here in the virtual neighborhood would have a splendid time together in the flesh, even if it were only to wow each other with our music and food! (Well, what else is there?!) And I wish more of my flesh-and-blood neighborhood knew about the writing me, but changing peoples' habits is not my job. If they drift by here and enjoy, that's fine. But I guess I'll need to talk about it. You know--with my flesh-and-blood voice.

Today my flesh-and-blood doctor beckons to talk about the results of the hip MRI I had a couple of weeks ago. I doubt there is much to worry about, especially since the pain pill I got from the rheumatologist is working so nicely. But I'll find out soon enough.

Monday, May 26, 2008

This holiday weekend started out with great promise. The sun made itself a permanent resident, and a slow warming trend began. Our friend Gloria arrived on Friday. She loves good food and I put a ton of stuff together--pulled pork sandwiches, coleslaw, corn on the cob, a berry pie. We finally got around to eating around 8 pm, and that was the last solid food I had for the next 36 hours. Gloria, it turned out, didn't arrive alone. She was just finding her way clear of a bad bout with some stomach bug that had had her in bed the entire day before. Fever, cramps, the works. I know how she felt because I got it Friday night. Just as she was feeling better (but still a bit wobbly), I was knocked flat. The three of us were the walking wounded all day Saturday, with both Steve and me getting over this nasty cold, and Gloria and me at various stages of sick to our stomachs, me feverish, unable to warm up, and as energetic as a wet dishrag. All I could do Saturday was lay on the bed in a sweater, with the heat on, and sleep. Thank goodness there was enough in the way of leftovers to keep Steve and Gloria happy. Food in the form of a can of soup finally passed my lips again Saturday night, so the bug didn't last long, but it was lethal. Happy holiday!

Yesterday was a good day. We traveled about a half-hour south to Berlin, Maryland, a little town with a locally famous turn-of-the-century hotel, The Atlantic, which serves lunch on its verandah, overlooking the town's main street. They have a great "soft-shelled crab BLT" sandwich that I love, and I put that baby away like nothing had ever been amiss in the alimentary department. There are two good and cheap antique/junque stores in Berlin that we visit when we are there and always find something to put on a shelf, or a wall, or to eat off of, in this place. This entire area is great for antiques, and we don't really have to go that far to find a good browsing, but lunch at The Atlantic makes it a day.

Gloria left this morning and now we are the two pops at home, doing our usual things. Steve's in his regular relaxation mode, which means building something--this time putting together finishing trim pieces for the bulkhead. There's a nice shelf along the front now, calling out for potted flowers to perch on it, so there's another enjoyable project in store. Meanwhile while I'm in here, catching up with emails and seeing what the blog family has been up to. Looks like everybody did it up right.

This small, scenic body of water is inviting for daytrippers in all their varying styles of boat, and this very warm day (91 F in the sun at the end of our pier) is bringing them out in number. Just about everybody observes the "slow, no wake" rule except the jet-skiers, who seem to believe that since they have no propellers they leave no wake, so they can do as they please. Whether they live here on the Priong or are just whizzing by, they make endless noisy and wave-inducing figure-eights, to the point where we sometimes have to shout over them to have a conversation, and tie our boat a bit tighter so it won't crash into the pier on the never-ending waves. We call them a word my fingers do not normally form in this space (but stick around for the audible version.....) The good thing is that the high-traffic scene doesn't last long; soon enough we're back to the accustomed peace and quiet. That's what we've got now, after a spurt of activity.

It looks like you're all enjoying yourselves this weekend. Good! I'll try to check back tomorrow, but if not, I'll be back in the regular routine no later than Wednesday.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

No post today

Sick as a dog, can barely stay awake. Great for our company! We'll talk next week.

Friday, May 23, 2008



The day has dawned, the sun is blindingly golden upon the water, and there is the promise (if not yet the actual fact) of May warmth in the air. "Basaa" is gone, the world is wonderful, and I'm ready to go out and greet it. Here in the States, this is a special Friday, the start of the summer. Be safe and have fun this holiday weekend.

This is a recipe I collected from the Washington Post several years ago. It's a delicious and easy side, perfect for the barbecue you're planning for the weekend. I think it's clever because it combines two cultural influences, Middle-Eastern and French, which in actual life have deep and continuing ties. I have no idea from where the Post got the recipe, but I like to think it's the invention of some enterprising French cook stationed in one of the country's North African colonies, homesick for ratatouille but enjoying the odd local pasta, couscous.

Notes: To add a little extra interest, I use the multi-colored couscous made from different vegetable-flavored pastas. If you don't have that in your parts, just use the plain. But do use chicken stock for the couscous if you are not a vegetarian. It adds a depth if flavor that plain water cannot.

1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound), cut into 1- inch cubes
1 pound zucchini, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into ¾-inch squares
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups uncooked couscous
Chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Lightly coat one large rimmed baking sheet (or two medium sheets) with nonstick spray oil. (Alternatively, this is a perfect use for the releasable aluminum foil now available. If you have that, line the baking sheets with it, dull side up. The sheets will stay clean, and the veggies won't stick.)

In a large bowl, combine the egg­plant, zucchini, bell pepper, onions and tomatoes. Add 1/3 cup of the oil and salt and pepper to taste and toss the vegetables to coat evenly. Trans­fer to the prepared baking sheet, keeping the vegetables in one layer. Roast until tender and just begin­ning to brown, ab out an hour, stirring every 15 minutes and turn­ing the pan(s) midway through to en­sure even cooking. Transfer roasted vegetables to a large serving bowl and set aside.

Prepare the couscous according to package directions, using chicken stock instead of water. Add the cooked couscous and the remain­ing 2 tablespoons oil to the roasted vegetatbles and stir to combine. Ad­just the seasoning to taste. Serve

Thursday, May 22, 2008


A favorite expression that I learned in Ghana is "meye basaa." When Twi speakers feel out of sorts for some reason, that's what they say. "Basaa" means "mess." So if you say, "Meye basaa," you're saying "I'm a mess." It conveys your meaning so perfectly.

So today, meye basaa, and this'll be short. I'm tired of this stupid little cold that wakes me up in the middle of the night with a cough and then makes it hard to get back to sleep. I'm tired of the damp, penetrating chill in the air and want to remind The Powers That Be that this is late in the month of May in the Northern Hemisphere, and plus we even have global warming, for crap's sake, so it's supposed to be WARM!!!

I haven't been able to take the boat out for the cold, and the crabs don't like the temperature, either, so that bit of fun goes un-had.

And I'd take some over-the-counter cold remedy if I weren't afraid of possible interactions between OTCs and the blood pressure and anti-inflammatory drugs I have to take.

Poor me. I'm not good company today. If the weather gurus are to be believed, we're headed for a warming trend, so that part of the equation should be improving. I hope so, because we have company coming.

I'll be posting a recipe tomorrow but then it's a tossup if I'll be able to write anything for the rest of the weekend, with the company here that will keep us busy and out of the house quite a bit. I promise to be my chipper self when we meet again.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My (19)60s

The thinkers of the day are starting to look upon the year 1968 as the one that encapsulates all of what is commonly known as "the sixties." My dear e-friend the Eclectic Pundit sent me to a series of mini-memoirs in the City Journal by writers who were There At The Revolution during that year. After slogging through all those memories and considered conclusions, I came away thinking what I thought in 1968: we occupied the same time and space but our reactions couldn't be more different.

Here are the things that define the American sixties for me: the black civil rights movement, the student war protests, a true pop music revolution (a burst of intense creativity we haven't seen since that roughly followed this timeline: urban folk, Dylan's intelligent lyrics, the British invasion, concept albums, singer-songwriters) and a loosening of cultural strictures surrounding drugs and sex. These separate strands came together to form a throbbingly exciting backdrop against which to play out one's late-adolescent gropings toward maturity, and overall, I loved the times. But while some manned the ramparts and trashed their universities, in the backwater of Lexington, Kentucky, I watched, and felt differently about each separate phenomenon.

I was never so proud to be a son of this soil as when African-Americans started their protests for equal treatment. Having had Jim Crow racial attitudes forced upon me by the prevalent southern culture of Washington, D.C., and from the time I could think being aware that those attitudes were wrong, watching America struggling to live up to the promise in its founding document filled me with profound feelings of relief and hope. I didn't march, though, because doing so was inopportune. In Kentucky nobody was doing it, and when I was at home, participating in a protest march would have brought the roof of my parents' house, which still sheltered me at their expense, down upon my head. For me, discretion has always been the better part of valor, so my protests are discreet. I was overjoyed to be able to reach out quietly to black people whom I'd always wanted as friends. It hadn't been possible before because there was no social mixing of the races. Now, to the extent there was, I happily indulged. That was my "protest."

As for the anti-war protests, I thought their foundations were bogus, not much more than intellectual cover for guys like me who were afraid for their own skins. I didn't march then because I didn't believe in the movement. In my eyes, the validity of the protests grew in proportion with the realization by the nation at large that we were losing American lives in Viet Nam for not much more reason than macho posturing on the part of our leaders, who couldn't admit they'd made a mistake. In the end, my anger matched that of the rest of the country, but by then I was participating in my own protest in the Peace Corps. To this day, my Peace Corps service is my proudest achievement, a time when I truly did some good for the country.

I've already said so much about the music of the times that I hesitate to repeat myself. It's enough to let you imagine, if you didn't experience it, what it was like to live in anticipation of the next incredible release by (in no particular order) : Joan Baez, The Beatles, Judy Collins, Buffy Saint Marie, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan....need I go on? The music which young artists now consider their pop heritage, a part of our cultural warp and woof, was new then. Take the word "exciting" and multiply its meaning by a factor of ten, at least. That's how delicious the anticipation was.

Drugs: never did 'em then--unless you count alcohol, which I did plenty of. I was in Kentucky after all! That was the drug of choice, at least in my cohort. In the Peace Corps, drug use was (and remains) grounds for immediate termination, so for me the idea was a non-starter, though it certainly wasn't for many others I was with. I didn't experience marijuana until the 70s, and that's as far as I got with non-alcoholic drugs.

Sex: I experienced the unspeakable relief of coming out as gay. Thank you for that, sixties. 'Nuf said about that.

And there you have the Ralph Cherry tour of the sixties.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

It's been pouring rain all morning, putting a crimp in my plans to make the three hour drive to Delaware today. I just checked the short term forecast, though, and current thinking is that the heaviest rain will end by 10 o'clock this morning, so maybe things will work out after all. I've got stuff piled next to the back door waiting to be packed in the car, and the cats won't know what hit them when I whisk them up from their peaceful naps. With any luck they'll stay in that state.

I feel a cold coming on, and if it is, this will be the first one I've had in ages. Back when I was obligated to be somewhere whether I wanted to be or not (you know--work and school) I used to welcome the occasional cold. When things got rough, I'd say, only half-jokingly, "what I need is a good cold to lay me low for a while." I could hole up in my cozy house, a little dopey from the antihistamines, eat soup and watch TV. When I was little and had a fever or sore throat, my mother would give me half an aspirin dissolved in a spoon with water and sugar--that pleasant sour-sweet flavor is a memory I can conjure up any time. Being a little bit sick meant being taken care of, even if only by yourself. Once, I got more than I bargained for, when a pleasant little cold turned into a full-blown case of flu, and that taught me to be careful of what I wished for. From that experience I know the difference between being a little off and being Sick. A cold makes you a bit tired. With the flu, you think perhaps you could die and not regret it. Every breath feels like razor blades entering your lungs and every movement is painful. I never want to feel that way again and am religious now about getting a flu shot every year.

I had German measles--the dreaded rubella--when I was in the first grade, and that's as sick as I've ever been. At that age, of course, you have no idea how bad off you are; I just knew I couldn't go to school. I ended up being out for two weeks and having some trouble catching up when I got back. My mother wanted me in her sight all the time, so she made me a bed on the living room couch and that's where I stayed. I had to wear dark glasses, something having to do with my fever. (I've never really figured that one out.) And Dr. Davis, my pediatrician, came to the house--even then, a house call by your doctor was a rarity. One day, Mary Martin as Peter Pan came on TV and I just had to get up from the couch and dance along with the music. That was a very rare thing for me to do as a kid and it still is--I must have really been getting antsy, a welcome clue to my mother, I guess, that I was getting better.

When you're little, if you're lucky you can take your health for granted. It's only when you're older, when you've seen diseases of one kind or another strike loved ones or yourself, that you learn the importance of maintaining your body. We all face the same inevitable outcome, of course, but we do have some control, as well. I mean to make my time as pleasant as possible. That means pain-free comfort, and not having to be conscious of every heartbeat and every breath. I just knocked my wooden desk. With a little work and a little luck--not to mention drugs--I can still make believe that the horizon is endless.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Music, music, music

An inside factoid that may be of interest to you: this is the day that I must retire "Theme From A Summer Place" from the blog. It's of note because it is the record-holder as the most downloaded song I've ever posted: 70 times. In one short week! (That's downloaded, not just listened to on the blog.) A really popular choice will get up into the mid-twenties; the next runner-up is the Moody Blues' "Your Wildest Dreams," with 30 downloads. (That's going tomorrow, so get it while you can.) Seventy downloads is really extraordinary. I knew that piece was popular, but this was beyond my expectations. Nice to know I'm pleasing so many people!

As it turns out, today's post is all about music. I have much to do if I intend to head out of here for Delaware tomorrow; too little time to zone into writing mode, as much as I'd love to. Leaving tomorrow is not definite because some rain is predicted and I'm not sure I'll want to drive for three hours in it, but chores must be done just in case. The weatherman isn't always right, you know!

So I leave you to your Monday, hoping you are well (for a Monday).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Just an average guy....

I couldn't resist one more flower picture, this time of the luscious stand-alone white iris next to the driveway, taken in this morning's early light.

I've been awake since 4:30 this morning, seeing Steve off to the airport for a 6 AM flight to Sacramento. That's an ungodly hour even for me, especially on a weekend, but I didn't go back to sleep. Instead I went out and got a little something for breakfast and read the Sunday paper. Now, here it is not yet 10 AM and I'm finished with that. The day stretches before me, completely empty. I'll vegetate. There are shows that have been stored on the DVR for weeks that I've never got around to watching--now's my chance. And that's about it for a plan. The weather is shaping a day that calls for not much, anyway. The sky is gray; the wind is calm and there's a definite chill to be felt. Rain will be coming in the afternoon. I wish I could nap; this would be a perfect day for it, but daytime snoozing is something I've never been able to do.

My mother used my nap time to teach me to read. When she saw I wasn't sleeping, she bought me Golden Books and funny Loony Toons and Walt Disney comic books. She started off by reading them to me, but soon I wanted to read them for myself, so she showed me the basics and I was off and running. I guess she figured as long as I was quiet with my nose between pages I was getting whatever little-boy rest I needed. Since I was born in November, my elementary school decided that the September I was 5-going-on-6 I was too young to start first grade; I had to wait a year, until I was 6-going-on-7, and it was during that year that I began reading. Having to wait that year created various odd adjustments for me to make when I finally did start school. For one thing, I was always several months older than everybody else in my class. On top of that, I've also always been tall--taller than most 6-year-olds when I was 6 and taller than most adults of any age now.

As a result of my mother's reading lessons, I was a completely fluent reader by the time Dick and Jane entered my life. So I was head and shoulders above my peers, literally, and also in some figurative ways, such as in skills of expression. I didn't realize what was happening at the time, of course, but in retrospect I can see it made my life easier in some ways--I was always called on to read and answer questions, and harder in others--some of the other kids got jealous of all the attention I got and I had enemies for reasons I couldn't understand.

One never-changing condition of my life--and one that affects me in ways I'm still discovering--is my height. I'm 6' 4". In the fourth grade, I was already 5' 6" and weighed 120 lbs. There are times in everyone's life when you'd just as soon not be noticed and fade into the woodwork--well, I can't do that. Being tall brings attention all by itself. I usually forget my height--I never think of myself as tall. But life reminds me often enough, for example when I'm feeling cramped in spaces others find reasonably comfortable (such as airline coach seats), or at cocktail parties when all of the conversation is going on "down there" and I either have to develop a hunchback to hear what's going on or sit down to have a face-to-face conversation. Once I was even on TV just because I'm tall. We went to a Gay Pride festival in town a few years ago and lo and behold, there I was on the TV news that night in a feature about the event, being followed as I ambled around the various exhibits. I had no idea I was even being filmed--I certainly didn't ask for the attention. But I stand out. You survey a crowd, and there's my face, sticking up over the top of everybody else's heads. Good thing I wasn't trying to keep any secrets when I went to that festival. Oops! You saw moi?!

So that's me. Tall and, once you get me going, talky. I'm much more comfortable thinking of myself as gliding through life unnoticed, but I've made peace with the reality that that's usually not the case. Like it or not, I'm noticed. Today it'll be nice just to hole up and give everybody else a chance. Wish I still had those Bugs Bunny comic books!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Beautiful Day!

It's just about impossible to describe how beautiful this morning is. If I tell you the temperature is crisp (high-50s F), the sky is a brilliant blue and the sun makes everything sparkle, that will have to do, and I'll just hope your imagination and your own memory of gorgeous mornings can fill in the rest. The day is full of promise and I can't wait to get out into it. I'll spend as much of it as I can outdoors; dinner will be grilled steak in an Asian marinade that should smell up the neighborhood very nicely for a finish fitting to the day. The picture is of the huge peony bush at the end of the driveway, its blooms bobbing cheerily in the breeze. Today, outside is a happy place.

I'll be a bachelor starting tomorrow until Thursday. Steve has a trip to company HQ in Sacramento--probably the last one he'll have to take. He hates these trips and HQ in equal measure, so that's a good thing. The latest: the government has admitted to his company that they (government) are very behind on awarding a new contract, so any changeover has been put back for at least six months. That's good news for the immediate future: the guillotine blade stays suspended a bit longer. If we can get all the way to retirement time early next year, that'll be even better. In any case, a bit of the pressure is off. (Retirement income is still a huge problem, given the company's refusal to cooperate with Steve in administratively adding time in--they could, but they just won't, as a "matter of policy"--but we'll deal with that when the time comes.)

Enough of that. I'm headed outdoors to see what I can scare up in the way of some useful activity. Steve's resurfacing the driveway with tar. That's really not as bad as it sounds, but still. I'll have to look busy!

Friday, May 16, 2008



First, thank you to everyone who has wished me luck on my various medical adventures. I'm late today because I was out getting an MRI on my hip (results next week--they're looking for a better view of a chip of bone the x-ray saw floating in there.) The rheumatologist yesterday said he thinks the elbow pain is "poor man's tennis elbow," simply tendonitis that comes with wear and tear. He based his judgement on the fact that the rheumatic factor blood test was only "borderline positive," and that I'm in fine shape otherwise. I was surprised, since I'm surrounded by people on both sides of my family with RA and figured it was only a matter of time before it showed up in me. But he gave me a non-steroidal pain pill and it seems to be working. If I don't have RA, that's fine with me!

While I'm on the subject: today's was my third MRI, and I find them quite a trip. It's like a half-hour symphonic work of experimental electronic music, complete with insistent, pulsating rhythms à la Phillip Glass. It's awfully loud, but I find myself getting into the sounds and feeling left high and dry when the technician suddenly has to change frequencies, like abruptly beginning a new "movement." I wanted to tell him it would be better if he could maybe fade out gradually. Simple pleasures, found in weird places....

Now, about this incredible pie. I owe it to a lifelong friend, Frankie, who goes with me all the way back to high school. She got married in the 60s and became a true domestic goddess, learning French cooking techniques from the very first Julia Child book (for example), while I went on into the Peace Corps and remained in a very different kind of life for years. We reunited in the 70s and have been like brother and sister ever since. She blew me away with the domestic skills she'd picked up while I was bumming around the world being kewl, and I continue to learn from her to this day.

This pie takes its inspiration from the glazed strawberry pies we've all enjoyed, those shiny, neon-red concoctions that are the essence of strawberry. This is the utter essence of blueberry, to me, a much more interesting flavor. It will work with virtually any fruit--I've made a knockout bing cherry pie using the same technique (the only thing I didn't like was pitting the damn cherries, but it's easy to bribe a helper with the promise of a pie), and I've made a mixed pie using blue-, rasp-, and blackberries. I've also done the pie using rhubarb in the syrup. All variations are delicious--once you have this basic pie down you can send your friends and family into summertime fruit pie ecstasy in a matter of a few minutes.

Using your favorite pie crust recipe, make a shell and blind bake it.

4 cups blueberries
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

In a food processor or using a fork, mash 1 cup of the blueberries. Measure the sugar, cinnamon, cornstarch, and water into a saucepan and whisk until smooth. Stir in the mashed fruit and cook over medium-low heat for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the syrup is thick and clear. Stir in the lemon juice.

Taste the cooked syrup and correct the balance of sugar and lemon if necessary. Stir in the butter and heat until it melts, then pour in all the remaining berries and toss to coat them completely with the syrup. Remove from heat and allow to thicken slightly, then spoon into the cooked pastry shell and chill for at least 3 hours to set. Serve with ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Simple Lessons

No flowers mean happiness to me more than peonies. I love the way they bob on their stalks and how their huge, lacy-round blossoms fill a room with an almost overpowering sweetness. We have several bushes all over the yard that bloom at different times depending on their sun exposure, so we have plenty to cut over the period of a few weeks. These are this season's first.

We have a lovely spring day ahead before more rain arrives tonight. (I read yesterday that the mid-Atlantic region is now officially no longer in drought.) My job for the day will be to plant two new evergreens, accent trees at either end of the front porch, to replace arborvitae which have become blowzy and ragged with age. The new trees are called Himalayan cedars. They're gray, with a graceful "weeping" habit, and are not supposed to grow taller than 25 feet. They'll add a beautiful accent to the front. Then I go to a rheumatologist, who most likely will send me for more blood tests to tell us exactly which rheumatic autoimmune thingy I'm dealing with. That'll be fine with me as long as he gives me something non-steroidal to deaden the pain in my elbows.

I do prattle on about my so-important projects and the aches and pains I'm dealing with. And as I do so, my thoughts, unbidden, compare my own situation with that of literally millions elsewhere. We mourn the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in China because of an earthquake, and of millions--millions-- of Burmese as a result of a typhoon whose effects are multiplied by endemic poverty and the petty political jealousy of their government. The people of Baghdad, also in their staggering millions, have not known a day without devasation for more than five years; they are grateful for a single day when they can simply take their children to a park, or eat some ice cream, without being murderously accosted or bombed. And these are just the things we hear about on a daily basis. We forget about the starving, terrorized Darfurians, and the East Congolese who live in a land of astonishing beauty populated by random armies of homicidal thugs. The more we reflect, the longer the list becomes.

Despite, or actually because of, my Peace Corps bona fides, I'm no bleeding heart and I understand my powerlessness to do anything directly to improve the lot of my fellow earth-travelers. But the least I can do is stay humble about my own charmed life, and if I think about the random luck that put me where I am rather than where the majority of my fellows find themselves, that's easy to do.

Majoring in French never gave me any practical tools for making a living, but what it does give me, daily, are gifts that inform my life and enrich it immeasurably. One of those gifts is Voltaire, who in his story Candide invented one unthinkable calamity after another to test the sweet optimism of his hero. After seeing the ugliness of the world and the people who cause it, Candide learns life's great lesson: you can find peace if you simply cultivate your own garden. I will now do just that.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Today's stops and starts.....

I was all set to get started early this morning because I wanted to fit a lot of stuff into the day: seed that back garden and continue cleaning up the pollen that is still falling on everything inside. Plus, I had the regular daily errands to run....since it takes me about two hours to do a post, including choosing music, my first activity was to come up here and start to work. About a half-hour into it, about 7:30 this morning, the computer went dead, and all of Comcast stayed that way until now, 4 PM. No phone, no TV, and no computer. Turns out a cable was cut "accidentally" somewhere and most of south Arlington was put out of commission, including federal government offices in the Crystal City section of the county. How dependent we are on these light-transmitting fibers! All I wanted to do was put up a post on my blog. But somewhere, some real business was disrupted..... so, some accident.

So I ran my outdoor errands early, then came home to do the seeding. That involved plenty of preparation: I picked all the weeds that had germinated in the dirt back there, then raked up the sticks, birdseed husks, and other detritus that had collected, then took another rake and roughed up the surface to welcome the grass seed in its nooks and crannies. That took an hour. I measured grass seed into our little Scotts seed spreader and..........IT DIDN'T WORK!! Thing was stuck in the locked position and no amount of prying, banging or cursing on my part did any good. It was totally useless. There was nothing for it but to put on clean clothes and take myself to the Home Depot to buy a new one. That mission accomplished, the seeding job was finally done, having taken about an hour more than it needed to.

Then it was lunch time, and after that, I didn't feel like doing anything else. I read the paper, picking up the phone periodically to check for a dial tone and see if we were connected in any way. Finally we were, and after rebooting the modem, here I am.

If John Lennon was right that life what happens when you're making other plans, then I guess I lived quite a life today. Somehow I'm left thinking that just today, others' lives may have been more interesting, but still, it was life, and that's better than the alternative.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Morning of Adventure

What a difference a good night's sleep makes. You may have read about a recent poll that shows most Americans think sleeping is a waste of time and that if there was a safe way they could be fully functional with less sleep they would use it. I've never counted the number of ways I am out of the mainstream with my fellow Yanks, but this would have to be close to the top of the list. I love sleeping, I think a night of delicious sleep is one of life's great pleasures, and would never think of doing without it willingly. I think my attitude comes from the many nights I've spent sleepless unwillingly: I am a picky and light sleeper--I need familiar surroundings and utter darkness for sleep to come, and the faintest noise will wake me up. If I am overly stimulated mentally by great conversation or a riveting TV performance just before going to bed, I'll be hours getting to sleep. A good, talky phone call at 10 pm is the worst--I'm a goner. I'll be mentally re-hashing that conversation for hours. Long plane rides? Hotels? Forget it.

(I've always had this thing about being a particular sleeper. When I was a little kid I can remember hearing my parents come upstairs to bed, hours after I had supposedlly been "asleep." My mother would come in and check on me, and I'd secretly move a finger or something and get a naughty little chuckle out of it. "She thinks I'll go to sleep just because I have to go to bed, huh? I'll show her!" When I finally did fall asleep, I'd often sleepwalk. My mother told me that more than once she woke up to find me standing by her bedside, just staring at her. I scared her to death, of course, but I had no idea I was doing it. She said she'd just tell me to go to the bathroom and then go back to bed. I guess that's what I did.)

So, having had a good night's sleep after the upheaval of that Springtime hurricane we experienced the night before in Delaware, I'm bright and fresh, just in the right mood for some musical exploration, the opportunity for which was provided by Nan in her David Ford posting yesterday. I'm sharing one by him myself today, after spending hours in happy investigation. More music and another musician to be excited about. Such simple pleasures, made possible by this complicated invention, the computer and all that comes with it. These tiny gifts make me grateful to be alive. And well rested!

I have a full menu of things to choose from for this week's activities. Get the gunky pollen off all the surfaces in this house, or continue with major gardening chores. It's still very muddy from the weekend's paroxysms, and the temperature has still to catch up with the season, so I'll choose indoors today.


Monday, May 12, 2008

A Wet Weekend!

The photo above is what our waterfront looked like when we left the trailer this morning. It was still raining, as it did, violently, all night, and as it still is now. If things weren't tied down, gale-force winds, blowing all night, moved them to places they'd never been and weren't supposed to be. We have never seen the pier completely under water, and this was taken a couple of hours after high tide. You remember that story I told a few weeks ago about replacing the ceiling with plastic and a pretty white sheet? That worked just fine until these torrential rains. The leaks in the roof let so much water in, the sheets were swollen with the weight of the water behind them. We poked small holes through the sheets and the protective plastic to release the water, which was constantly replenished by the never-ending deluge. The two tall plastic kitchen trash cans we placed under the holes as catch basins filled up overnight. I just hope they don't overflow while we're away for two weeks, otherwise there will be a nice wet mess to clean up inside. There's enough blown debris outside to keep us plenty busy as it is.

Here in Arlington the only word to describe the goings-on outside is miserable. Damp cold permeates everything; in the middle of May the heat in the house is on and I'm in my winter uniform of jeans and a sweatshirt. We left a few "safe" windows open a crack while we were away because the weather at the time was so pleasant. They let in the pollen still swirling in the air, so that every surface is covered with a gross, greasy dust. Guess my work is cut out for me this week. Forecasts show a return to more pleasant and drier normalcy starting tomorrow, so I 'll have my choice of things to do, both inside and out. Lucky me!

All that storming outside kept me awake most of the night, so let's just say I'm not exacty chipper today and leave it at that. I'll rumble and grumble off to finish today's chores and leave you to your own day, which I hope is more pleasant than mine.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day 2008

My mother was born April 6, 1911, so if she were still with us she'd be 97 years old. If we'd remained true to form, today would have been an occasion for the family to get together, probably at my sister's house--although it's fun to imagine they'd be here in Delaware with us. Every one of them loves boats, the water, and the edible things that come out of it, and even with the iffy weather we're having today we'd have found a way to have a good time. Since Mother's Day and our mother's birthday are so close together and we'd all have gotten together on both occasions, my sister and I would probably have made a deal: you host one, I'll do the other.

All these arrangements are purely imaginary, of course, because both of our parents are gone, (our dad would have been 100 years old this coming October) and, as so often happens, with them went the adhesive that kept all the rest us together. My sister's and my lives were spinning increasingly into their own orbits even before Mother and Dad died, and now the separation is more complete than ever. There is certainly no animus there, far from it: we enjoy each others' company when we talk on the phone or get thgether, but her life is incredibly busy and complicated and she is next to impossible to pin down for a visit. She and her partner Mike keep promising to make a space to come here for a weekend, but in all the time since 2004, when we bought this place, that visit still hasn't happened. I continue to hope. If I sound a bit wistful about it, I am. (Sometimes wistfulness slips into actual irritation, but I do my best to control that.)

We had our Sunday pig-out breakfast at Bev's this morning and then came home and checked the crabs. The water was glassy smooth and the sun was shining for a change, so it was a nice boat ride. Forty-eight hours worth of a crab catch was a bit bigger this time than it was two weeks ago, so there may be hope yet for a decent season. There were still not enough to keep, though, so once again I let them go, to return, I hope, another time when they are even bigger. The water temperature clearly has an effect on where the crabs hang out. As we warm up here, they will probably come in greater numbers. Our next visit here will be the Memorial Day weekend. Traps and their owners will be out in huge numbers, and we will have company with us. I plan to come early in the week to get a head start.

The rest of today stretches out with no plan--nice. Maybe a movie, maybe check out a new antique place that's opened up in the little town where our post office is. And maybe not.

To all you mothers out there, have a good one! And to everyone else: you, too!

Saturday, May 10, 2008


The music you're hearing today is from my dear little 4GB flash drive. Steve found it last night when he was doing one of his endless handyman projects--this time replacing an old electrical wire. He had to move the piece of pressboard we have sitting under the chair here at the desk, and there it was, under the pressboard, several feet away from where it originally fell, in a place nobody would ever have thought to look. How it got there is a mystery. But it's back, and I won't be dropping it again!

It is downwright cold here next to the water. Yesterday it poured rain all day; today it's overcast but the precipitation has been minimal. We've spent the entire day, it seems, in the car, running from store to store looking for various things we need either here or at the house in Arlington. We do a lot of shopping for big items here in Delaware because of the lack of a sales tax on most items. That can run to respectable savings on more expensive things. Among other things, I got all the things I'll need to re-grass that garden at home.

So far this season the crabs aren't running well. We put the traps out yesterday morning and just took a chilly boat ride out to check on them a few minutes ago. Not even a dozen in 36 hours, and half of them are too small to keep. This may well be a crabless year for us.

Sorry no recipe yesterday. I didn't have a decent picture to put up, plus we had company for dinner last night and I was busy cooking most of the day, so there was little time to zone out and do any decent writing. I'll be posting some of what we had last night, so stay tuned.

Hope your Saturday is going well, and that your weather this May 10, 2008, is better than ours is!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bowling, anyone?

There is a very gentle rain falling this comfortable, warm morning. They say that in spite of all the rain we've had over the past few weeks, we're still officially in drought conditions, so this light rain won't help that, but it's giving all the flowers and potted plants a little instant gratification without asking me for any exertion, so I'm all for it. Soon we and the kitties will be piling into the car for the trip to Delaware, and I must do my Thursday chores in preparation. This short spell of quiet is welcome.

I was never much of a sportsman. I took bowling in college and flunked it. The year I entered the University of Kentucky, one semester of phys ed was a requirement for any degree. The choice of classes was huge; I remember being relieved I wouldn't have to subject myself to the rigors of football or track or, at UK, that school's signature game of basketball. In short, the requirement was nothing to fret over and I simply put at the back of my mind, and then totally forgot about until I was reminded towards the end of my time there that I still had one more class to take.

I chose bowling, which I had always enjoyed. There was a thrice-weekly 8 AM class, so I signed up for that. (I like getting some things of the way early in the morning.) Somehow, I guess I never learned where the class was held, but it didn't seem hard to figure out--I think you'd agree that the university's bowling alleys were not an unreasonable assumption? At the appointed hour, that's where I showed up. The place was empty, and after waiting 15 minutes or so for other class members, or a teacher, I just tore off a scoring sheet, bowled a game, and left the completed sheet, with my name on it, at the alley. I did this faithfully three times a week for as many "class" meetings as were scheduled, and went on my merry way, satisfied that I had completed my phys ed requirement. It was only when I received my final transcript that I learned that I'd failed the class, for "never showing up." No explanation from me would repair the misunderstanding. I never did learn where the class met, and to this day my official record shows that I failed college bowling. At least I didn't have to stay an extra semester make it up, thank God for small favors. Since I got an "F" in class instead of an incomplete, I guess the university did finally take my word for it that I had "gone to class" in good faith. They just wouldn't say I passed it. I'm sure somebody got a few chuckles out of the whole thing. I know I do now.

When I was in my pre-teens, there was a sudden push in this area to build bowling emporiums (I hesitate to call these palaces mere "alleys") seemingly on every vacant city lot. Two went up within walking distance of my house. Groups of us would go there and bowl a few games in all sorts of weather--I can remember walking to the lanes in sweltering heat as well as when there was snow on the ground. Our favorite place was huge, with both duck- and tenpins, 20 lanes each. And it had the most delicious hot dogs with mustard and onion relish. I loved the place, loved having fun with my friends, and even loved the bowling. I never really cared how well I did--in fact if I could be the butt of jokes by having the most ridiculously low score once or twice I didn't mind. It just added to the fun. The extremely rare strikes and spares I did manage were icing on the cake.

I had a friend once, extremely competitive by nature, who disovered bowling in a big way in his 30s. He became obsessed, watching all the championship matches on TV and traveling to some. He even got videos of masters demonstrating their techniques and would watch them repeatedly until he fell asleep, testing the theory that the subconscious processes new knowledge even while you sleep. It seemed to work. He became an expert bowler and a fierce competitor, taking his game ultra seriously.

He was also no longer any fun to play with. The game itself had taken precedence over the enjoyment of the group getting together to play it, and suddenly we all had to take our own efforts as seriously as he did or there was no group cohesion. Oh, we all wanted to do as well we could, but none of the rest of us lived or died by our scores the way he did. Soon the fun little bowling group drifted apart, and that's the last significant time I spent at the lanes. Maybe we'll start up again sometime.

We don't see that friend any more, either.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Meander Through Ghana

Recent talk of houses sent me in this direction.

When Peace Corps training got to the stage at which we were asked where in the country we would like to be posted, my unhesitating choice was Kumasi. Kumasi is Ghana's second largest city, about 150 road miles inland. Accra, on the coast, is the political and administrative capital, the city the British colonizers developed because of its convenience to shipping lanes and harbors. Kumasi is the cultural capital of the southern part of the country, the seat of the Ashanti kingdom. At the time of the British arrival, the Ashanti were on their way to conquering most of the land surrounding Kumasi and were working their way to the coast. Without the British intervention that part of what is now Ghana may well have been called Ashantiland today. For all practical purposes, that's what it is, and the term is used loosely, with much the same cultural meaning as northern Illinois' "Chicagoland."

When I visited Kumasi, I felt proud to be there. I saw Africans living in a vibrant, entirely African city and wanted to be a part of that crowd of people; I felt as if I were in the beating heart of an important culture and wanted to learn as much as I could about it. I was a city boy and didn't really relish the thought of an isolated life in the bush (although I'd certainly have gone wherever I was needed and made the best of it). Other people really did prefer more rural placements, thinking "rural" means "authentic," and that's a valid point, if you want an authentic rural life. I wanted an authentic city life. Kumasi was a no-brainer for me.

I got my wish, but, I later found out, not without my request causing some controversy among the training staff. Somehow--I can only imagine on the basis of one 15-minute conversation I'd had with a Ghanaian psychologist during training (in those days shrinks were attached to Peace Corps training groups)--staff got the idea that I was "wild." They thought placing me in a city with all its temptations was risky. So they gave me Kumasi, but they also gave me a housemate. He was a responsible-looking older man who they thought would keep me on the right path. (He turned out to be a pothead who tried to turn me on in my first week with him.) And the topper: to be extra safe they put me at an all-boys school! (Oh, my aching 24-year-old gay hormones! Somehow I survived being in the constant company of hordes of randy male adolescents. The experience produced one of the most profound emotional experiences of my life--not an altogether good one--but I learned volumes about myself and I did survive.)

Nobody I knew in the Peace Corps lived the sort of mud hut existence agency propaganda would lead you to expect. Teachers were well taken care of, with indoor plumbing, kerosene refrigerators where electricity was unreliable, and nice houses, usually on the grounds of their schools. My school, Kumasi High, was in temporary quarters while I was there and had no teacher housing, so I lived some distance away and was bussed to work along with the other teachers. (Here's the handsome Benz bus waiting for me in my driveway.)
I actually lived in two places in Kumasi. For most of my first year, home was here, on the top floor of an apartment building that sat directlyacross the street from the huge grounds of the Asantehene's palace, the seat of power of the hereditary Ashanti kings. I was at the heart of the heart, as it were. (The "grounds" were no great shakes, no manicured lawns with topiary or anything like that. Just a big farm, really, with the palace framed by royal palms at the crest of a hill in the distance. But still, I was there!) The apartment was a beautiful place with four bedrooms, terrazzo floors, the full complement of bath, kitchen, dining area, etc. I shared the place with that old pothead until he left; then I was sent another roommate, a guy named Leon, who was a young pothead! (Pretty much evertybody was a pothead in the 1960s, you may recall, except me. Drug use was grounds for immediate termination of Peace Corps service, and I refused to go near the stuff for that reason.) Leon left, soon enough, too, and I was blissfully on my own.

The school didn't like me living in that apartment--it was too far away and too expensive, and they gave me fair warning that it would not be my permament residence. Finally they did find me another place, a house about a half-mile from school. It was brand new, and owned by a man named Fred Bampo, a soil scientist who worked at the nearby Agricultural Research Center. He had studied in the States, loved Americans, and became a fast friend. Here's Fred, dressed up for Sunday church. The house had a big living room, four bedrooms, a kitchen and a bath. To save money, the school had Fred construct a wall across the middle of the living room, thus creating two "apartments" with two bedrooms each (the kitchen and bath becoming communal), and I ended up sharing that house with a fellow expat teacher, a man from Nigeria, one U. U. Akpaide. He was called "U U" (pronounced "You-you.") UU and I basically stayed out of each others' way and got on fine. He had a houseboy whose name I can't remember, but he became a good friend. UU treated him like a slave, while I treated him like a regular human being, and he was grateful for that. Also, he was from the north of the country, so Twi, the Ashanti language, was foreign to him, as it was to me. He and I communicated exclusively in "baby Twi" (as he called it). I taught him about the concept of countries and maps, showed him a picture of the world, then of Africa, then Ghana, then where he was from and where he was in Kumasi. We had philosophical talks about the meaning of life, I and this uneducated young man from National Geographic Africa. Why was he black? Why was I white? Why was he poor? I still get tears in my eyes thinking back on these priceless exchanges. We listened to American pop tunes together and I translanted the words. Here he is, all dressed up in a fancy fugu I bought for him. That's me, standing behind him. I still have that checkered fugu.
It was in Fred's house that I lived most of my time in Ghana, where I had my happiest and most wrenching moments, and I guess it's there that I will leave us for the time being. There is really no point to this post except to reminisce and show you a little bit of the two most consequential years of my life. My fellow Ghana volunteer Tim Henson made the sharing of these pictures possible by recently cleaning up and then scanning and digitizing my old slides. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude which I know I will never be able to repay properly. If you enjoyed this little journey, it's because of him.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

If You Don't Watch Closely, You'll Miss It...

Today's job will be digging that trench in the back--I gave myself a sort of day off yesterday to make room for other pursuits (and to save myself some joint pain, truth to tell). It's warming up quickly outside and I'll have to get started soon or I'll be sweating like a pig. Hate that.

My current state of being so very house-focused has made me realize how big the changes have been in my life over the past nearly 30 years, how my priorities have changed. I suppose it's a function of getting older and the responsibilities that come along with that....

I live within a stone's throw of one of the most interesting cities in the world. Cynicism about politics aside, the physical manifestation of "official Washington," in all its marble, neo-classic splendor, is beautiful. So are the Potomac River and The Tidal Basin, and the walks along them. Entry into any part of enormous Smithsonian complex on The Mall is free and a mere subway ride away. The city is replete with performance venues from the Kennedy Center to Arena Stage to the National and Warner Theaters, plus good local companies too numerous to mention. There are world class restaurants. People from all over the world pay thousands of dollars to visit.

And we participate in none of it.

Before Steve and I met, we both went through our young singles stage of living in "The District," as downtown DC is called locally. Steve had an apartment on Capitol Hill; I lived in the Dupont Circle area. Actually for me, having grown up in the suburbs and then leaving, only to follow jobs back, DC was not completely unknown territory, but living in the city itself as a young adult was a totally new experience and I fell right in with all the other newcomers. DC is a social paradise for young, well-educated professionals: they tend to be of a feather, motivated and idealistic about work in some federal agency or other, and ambitious. Watering holes catering to them are abundant, and I took my share. I've had the fun of walking half-looped along the storied sidewalks of Washington, D.C., with my friends, skewering the pomposity of some presidentially-appointed boss, and in general feeling priveleged to be enjoying myself so thoroughly in such a vaunted place.

Soon enough, though, I found my way back to my "roots," the Virginia suburbs. (Some people go back to the farm; others to the ghetto--people like me went back to tree-shaded suburbia. A purely American phenomenon, I'd wager.) I settled into a new life in this house and work became the daily means to that life, and no longer the definition of it. I still enjoyed the Peace Corps and always counted myself lucky to have a career there, playing a role in such a worthwhile institution and knowing such splendid people. But at some point the nest became more important, and a trip downtown only meant going to work. As a couple, we were house-poor at first and could no longer afford the cultural amenities across the river. We became accustomed to entertaining guests at home, in our own style, all of our friends did the same thing, and that way of living became the default. By now, I don't miss that old DC life at all. I'm grateful beyond words that I lived it, but I'm perfectly happy to let others have their go at it now.

If the move to Delaware ever becomes a reality, one of the things I'm looking forward to is the relative smallness of the place. Sometimes in Washington there can be too much choice; you can feel simply overwhelmed by what's available. In Delaware we'll have three small places to enjoy: the towns of Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and (if we feel like a short drive) Bethany Beach. There are great one-off restaurants, there's a local choir I may join--there's even a yearly movie festival--and we know where to find the best local, small purveyors of everything from plants to pizzas, unique to that tiny corner of that tiny state. I think no matter what, we will end up there. I just hope it'll be relatively easy, and soon.

Meanwhile, life carries us along gently, thank God. Changes are imperceptible to the point of invisibility. We must stop and think even to be aware of them.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Does It Ever End???

Since my mind is occupied with nothing but the most mundane of house projects these days I guess that's what will flow from my fingers this morning. We got a huge amount of work done this weekend. Steve's drywall and painting project continues, and the biggest and worst part of that job was started Saturday. When we extended our bathroom upstairs in 1990, we installed six skylights. The skylights were purchased toward the end of that project, when we were low on money, so we scrimped and bought acrylic ones. Over the years, they broke down (oh, just say rotted) in the sun, causing, in turn, half of the roof to rot. We had the roof replaced and decided, at $350 a pop, to forgo replacing the skylights. That left six recessed holes in the ceiling where the skylights used to be. Steve finished the process of framing the holes and putting a piece of drywall in each one this weekend. Next will come spackling that drywall, and then the painting can begin, but that will be a slow process. This "bathroom" is acutally two rooms, the original space, with the vanity and toilet, and then a new space which contains a jacuzzi and walk-in glass block shower. Both of the rooms have wallpaper and that paper is deeply textured; there is no way it can be painted over. So that wallpaper will have to come off, and then what's left on the walls will have to be spackled before it can be painted. Since we're gone every other weekend, this will probably take the better part of the summer.

Are you tired yet? I haven't even told you what I'm doing. I'll spare you the details except for the photo above, which is part of what used to be a garden, now completely shaded, and which we will seed with grass. Today, I will level that area, shaving off a hump in the middle of the space and using the dirt I remove to fill a depression that has formed along the wooden fence, where the raspberries used to be. Then I'll dig a trench and install that plastic border I have laying out in the sun to straighten. The bird feeder will be moved to the right, out of frame.

All of this is in preparation for a house sale that may or may not take place a year from now. But at least the work will be behind us whenever the house does go on the market. And just to save us all from unrelieved drudgery, here's a picture of the front, which proves it's all worth it. I need to look at that just to remind myself there is a purpose to all this!

(The woodwork on the porch--each one of those balustrades--will have to be painted, but that's a winter project for Steve, and actually fairly easy. He sets up a lathe-like jig in the basement and just holds a paint brush on the wood as it turns. He can do that while he's watching his CSI on TV.)

Soon I'll have another picture of irises--the next crop is just about to pop. And that peony bush there at the end of the driveway will be worth a look, too. Always something to look forward to!

Friday, May 2, 2008



Today promises to be a tank top and shorts day, and I will be spending most of it outside tending the garden. First there will be some fun, running to the garden center to buy some flowers and herbs and planting them, then some necessary maintenance work, dealing with the maple helicopters in the back garden and in a few rain gutters. It's all in the balmy and fragrant spring breezes, though, so whatever I end up doing it will be a treat.

I call today's dish "Cape Verde Chicken" because the islands is where I first had it. I've since learned, though, that the marinade is actually Brazilian--makes sense, given the constant interflow between the two countries. There is a proper Brazilian name for it which for the life of me I cannot find now, but maybe somebody out there can supply it and give credit where it's due. By any name or nationality, it's a treat and goes down easy.

This particular recipe is entirely my own invention, using the technique of simultaneously brining and marinating I learned from Cooks Illustrated. I've become a huge fan of brining--it deepens the flavor of any meat and helps it retain moisture, for a more tender end product. Notes: Since you're brining, and the salt opens the meat both to its own flavor and to that of the marinade quickly, don't leave the chicken in the marinade for more than 2 hours, or the outcome will be too salty. Also, don't salt the chicken when you grill it. The salt is already there. As for the sugar: it also lends depth of flavor, and it encourages carmelization on the grill. The grilling itself: you'll notice in the picture there is very little browning on the chicken. That's because I grill using the "indirect method," with the coals banked on one side of the grill and the meat placed opposite. You'll get a better char if you spread the coals all over the bottom of the grill and place the meat directly over them, but you'll also have less control over the amount of char you end up with. I go for the easier, but less browned technique, but it's up to you.

1 cup lime juice
minced zest of one lime
2 tbsp. table salt
2 tbsp. sugar
5 or 6 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil

1 chicken, 3 or 4 lbs., cut up

In a small container with a tight cover, shake salt and sugar and garlic in lime juice until the salt and sugar are dissolved and the garlic is well infused. Add olive oil and shake again, forming an emulsion.

Reserve 1/4 cup of the marinade for later use. Place chicken in a zip-lock plastic storage bag and pour remaining marinade over it. Close the bag and marinate the chicken no longer than 2 hours. Remove chicken from marinade. Place chicken on rack to dry at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

Coat grill with cooking spray and lay over coals. Place chicken on grill, skin side down, cover, and cook 20 minutes. Turn chicken skin side up, baste with reserved marinade, and cook an additional 20 minutes. Remove chicken from grill to serving platter and baste again, while still very hot, with marinade. Let chicken rest 10 minutes, baste again, and serve.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Doctors and modern headaches

I've just come in from dealing with Big Medicine, and I can say I'm glad I'm not really sick. It's bad enough just getting a few x-rays. If I had something seriously wrong and had to make numerous clinic/practice visits I would really have to start TM again in a serious way just to maintain my cool. Running around from place to place, crowds of people in enormous waiting rooms, and utter impersonality are the order of the day. It seems like ancient history when I think of how a doctor's visit used to be.

I remember all of the doctors I ever went to when I was growing up because there were only three of them, and they handled everything. The first one I remember is my pediatrician, Dr. Davis. When he retired I graduated to the doctor my mother and father saw, Dr. Nicholson. He also soon retired; his practice was taken over by another doctor, just down the road, who happend to be the one other people in our extended family saw, so that was an easy switch. Dr. Beatty was my doctor from my pre-teens until I went away with the Peace Corps in my 20s. No appointment was necessary; when you needed to see him you just walked into his waiting room, checked in with Mrs. Beatty, who served as her husband's office administrator and receptionist, and had a seat. She greeted you like the old friend you were and chatted with you while you waited. Soon enough, you were called in, and you sat and had another "family" visit with Dr. Beatty. He knew my parents and aunts and uncles and all their medical issues, therefore what to look out for in me. He did x-rays, lab work, and simple things like wart removal (I had a lot of warts when I was a kid) right there in his office; it was truly one-stop shopping for routine medical issues. In retrospect, he could have been from Central Casting as the wise, avuncular gentleman who gave gentle advice and took the scariness out of a doctor visit. I'm not talking about small-town America here, either, where you'd expect everybody to know everybody else. This was Northern Virginia, essentially the same sprawling, sophisticated, resource-rich urban area it is today, but with fewer people. In the 1950s and '60s, that kind of medical care was still available, even in a big place like this.

Those of us who remember and lament the loss of those days have been complaining about it for decades, and we know they are gone forever. Still, our memories of what used to be inform the choices we make now and certainly our reactions to the cold, corporate atmosphere we all must deal with today. I'm lucky that the doctor I see now is as friendly and trustworthy as Dr. Beatty was, but I pay for that luxury. I'm in an HMO, but it's "open access." I can choose whatever private physician I want, as long s/he is approved by my plan. Being able to choose is a privilege worth the extra premium, and I'm under no illusions about how lucky I am to be able to afford it. I once tried a traditional HMO, where the doctor was not in private practice but was an employee of the institution. I didn't like the impersonality of that arrangement; the memory of my long relationship with Dr. Beatty sent me elsewhere fast.

I don't think this "ordeal," such as it is, will last too long. I should have the results of the x-rays and blood tests next week and my doc and I will take it from there. Whatever is causing these aches and pains, I doubt if it's serious; I'll either be treated directly by my main doctor or by a specialist, whom I'll also be able to choose. Knock wood, things will stay this simple for a long time.